Six impossible things

Making soup

It’s been a little over a year since my mother died, and one of the things I inherited from her was her collection of cookbooks.

It’s quite a collection, too. When Mom ran out of space on the kitchen cookbook shelf, she just started putting them elsewhere. I’ve taken three large boxes and two paper bags full of cookbooks out of the house already, and I haven’t touched the ones in the bedroom, the office, or the bookcase in the spare room. I’m afraid to even look in the attic.

My mother loved reading cookbooks and clipping recipes out of magazines. She had a real eye for good ones, and when she took soup to work for lunch, she always took extra to share. And someone would always ask for the recipe. So she’d photocopy the recipe and hand it to them, along with a few tips: “I didn’t have any navy beans, so I used pinto beans instead. And I had some extra tomato juice left from a different recipe, so I used it up in this; I’m not sure how much. And some vegetables that were starting to look a little wilted – spinach and cauliflower. Oh, and since it used ginger, I added a little nutmeg, too, because it goes well with cauliflower and ginger…”

Needless to say, nobody could make one of Mom’s soups by following the recipe she gave them.

A lot of people who want to write, especially when they’re just getting started, want a recipe to follow. “Take three characters, one Evil Overlord, and eighteen pages of backstory. Stir twelve times counter-clockwise. Add two mysterious magical artifacts; mix until blended. Pour into large computer; bring to a slow boil. Add six cups of action, two cups of character development, and a dash of narrative transition. Reduce heat and simmer for six months. Strain to remove adjectives and adverbs.”

But writing doesn’t work like that, any more than making Mom’s soups did. Both things are arts, as well as crafts. Oh, you can turn out a passable soup by following the recipe exactly, but a good cook tastes and adjusts as she goes, and a great chef doesn’t even have to start from a recipe. You do need the skills — chopping and mincing, simmering and sauteing, etc. — but the skills alone aren’t enough (else it would not be possible for me to produce something that is adequately nutritious but not at all tasty from the same recipe that was one of Mom’s “no leftovers, ever” specialties).

I don’t have Mom’s gift for messing with recipes, though I can produce a decently edible meal at need. But I use the same tricks she did all the time…in my writing. “Three characters…hmm, I only have two; well, how about if I throw in a dragon? And I haven’t used the Wicked Uncle in a while; better substitute him for the Evil Overlord before he goes stale. Mysterious magical artifacts, check…oh, and I have an Ancient Spell and a couple of Standard Plot Twists sitting around; let’s just throw those in and see what happens. Eighteen pages of backstory? Way too much — let’s give it two pages, I can add more later if I need to. Bring to a boil…hmm, computer overheats easily, let’s just simmer it for a good long while and see if that will do.

“Yes, this looks promising. Now, to add the action and character development — darn, I’m low on action. I can manage four cups; maybe I can fill in the other two with a bit more character development and some cool new extra background-and-setting. Right, this is working — a bit thicker than the original recipe would have come out, but that’s all to the good. Now, simmer and…strain? Why would I want to do that?”

The recipe never comes out the same way twice, but it’s always good enough for me, so I’m not complaining.

9 Comments
  1. That “recipe for writing” sooo reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland. It alphabetically organizes all the stereotyped characters, plots, situations, and even the food of a fantasy novel. *giggle*. I think this is the best explanation I’ve heard of why the Enchanted Forest chronicles are so much fun!

  2. It appears I write like I cook.

    Tonight I made a dish I learnt backpacking in Australia: walk into a supermarket, buy whatever vegetables you fancy, stirfry, season to taste.

    Anyone can follow that receipe 😉

  3. If I wrote how I cooked, I’d occasionally spend huge blocks of time trying to get one thing really right, interspersed with many shorter and less savoury episodes of slapping together the fastest comfort crap that comes to hand and washing it down liberally with my Beverage of Choice.

    Which does not in any way resemble any working habits with which I am familiar. Nay, sirrah Robert!

  4. I’ve discovered if it takes more time to put together than a PB&J sammitch, I’m generally not interested. However, the payoff of a cooking splurge is so yummy, but I generally view recipes with disdain. (What do you mean I have to follow directions?!)

    …perhaps this isn’t relegated solely to cooking …

  5. That’s a lovely entry! My other favourite writing analogy is the fashion designer fitting a dress, though I think it better describes the revising process than writing itself. Snip some places, expand others, add a ruffle or a bow–but don’t compromise your vision for the person who wears it, or else it won’t be yours anymore.

  6. Mmmm soup…. I make soup the same way as your mother did. Actually I make everything that way. Since I was about 12 I’ve never followed a recipe very well. Part of it is a lack of attention to the details, but a lot of it is just not agreeing with the author, or not having the same ingredients.

    I’ve created real disasters but I do that rarely now and when I do I know exactly what I did that created the disaster.

    Hopefully that recognition in my fiction disasters will come soon! 😉

    • Jennifer – Diana is a good friend, and I love the Tough Guide!

      green_knight – It’s not so much about following the recipe, but about following it and having it turn out well. I can follow recipes, and my baking is pretty decent if I do say so myself; it’s those flashes of brilliance that I miss when cooking.

      Gray and accio_aqualung – It’s funny how one’s habits in one area cross over into others, isn’t it?

      Faye – Love the fashion designer analogy, but it does seem to fit the revising process better. Or maybe fitting for alterations works better for that?

      Alex – Recognition comes with practice. What gets really frustrating is when you KNOW there is a problem somewhere, but neither you nor anyone else can put a finger on what it is. It’s crazy-making!

  7. Your post is an incredible recipe for inspiration! I thing the deviations from the recipe are these comments, and I would like to add one of my own…
    I am very meticulous for my writing (I have even erased and recopied some parts because my handwriting is not neat enough! 🙂 ), and I am also very perfection-istic about other things. The way I write really does sometimes reflect my personality! 🙂

    • Mary – Most of the professional writers I know deviate from “recipes” for fiction, if they bother to use them at all. It’s people who haven’t figured that out yet – the ones who want to write and who try to follow the recipe exactly, without allowing the story to grow, who often run into problems.

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