The Perfect Recipe for Writing
by Ali Harris
As an avid maker and devourer of both books and cakes (often at the same time) I’ve long believed that the arts of baking and writing go hand in hand.
Because when the writing process is going well, there is honestly nothing more satisfying than feeling like you’re whipping up a delectable treat for people to feast upon. But – and I’m not going to lie – there are often times when I’m tempted to throw my cake – I mean manuscript in the bin and start all over again. In fact, I have done this. Because as much as I’d like to pretend that everything is Paul Hollywood perfect all the time and that Mary Berry would never, ever find a soggy bottom – or as I call it during my book writing – a flabby middle in my books – the truth is that I have been known to have enormous, emotional Great British Bake Off style meltdowns where I spill ingredients all over the place, make a massive mess that I have no idea how to clear up, I weep, I wail, I cry ‘I’m never going to get it done in time’. But I persevere and when my mixture is finally as good as I can make it I put it through the editing process and hope it comes out better than I expected. The next stage is to nervously present it to my judges: namely my agent and editor who are both as discerning and critical as Mary and Paul (but much less scary) They will usually suggest some additional ingredients and make decorating tips which I will duly undertake before my cake – I mean book – goes into the shops for the public to buy. And then I keep my fingers crossed that they like what they taste. I mean, read.
So if any of you are reading this and think you’ve got all the ingredients to write a book, follow this recipe and hopefully you’ll make the perfect one!
DO Decide what kind of cake you’re going to make
So you want to write a book? Brilliant! But before you start it is imperative that you know the kind that you will make best. If you’ve never read a thriller in your life don’t think ‘Ooh I know, everyone’s talking about Gone Girl at the moment I’ll write something like that! It’s bound to get me a publishing deal.’ It won’t. trust me, cynical writing decisions like these rarely work. And you can be sure that a gazillion other unpublished authors will have had the exact same revelation. Cue a slush pile on every editor’s desk full of titles called ‘Disappeared Dude’ and similar.
DON’T think, oh I’ll just wing it. How hard can it be?
The answer is hard: see weeping and wailing above. The worst thing you can do when starting to write a book is not know what you want it to be. A sponge requires a different type of method to a fruit cake or a madeira and so it is the same for genres of books. And don’t be fooled that just because it is supposedly a simple recipe that people make ‘all the time’ that it will be easy to make! Every chick lit author will tell you that it takes an incredible amount of hard work to produce what many people describe as ‘easy reads’!
DO Choose your ingredients
By this I mean your characters and plot. Have you ever started making a cake before realising you haven’t got any baking powder and your eggs are out of date? Well, just as you need to have everything ready before you start baking, don’t fool yourself that you can write a book without doing the prep first. You’ll get in a terrible mess, end up having to go out and get your ingredients, at which point you’ll then probably discover that they’re not so easy to find and you’ll feel your confidence waning and your whole manuscript will get chucked in the bin.
DON’T spend so long over this stage that you lose the will to write the story itself!
We’ve all spent hours lining and weighing up ingredients only to find that our favourite programme is about to start and we can’t be bothered to make the actual cake any more. Plan a set amount time to do your research, character profiles and plot breakdown but then start writing!
DO Combine each ingredient gradually and mix until smooth
Making the perfect cake is hard work that requires knowledge, understanding, skill, precision, passion and creativity. All these things take time and practice. Yes, there’s a reason most authors take at least a year to produce another one! And I don’t think anyone ever wrote the perfect book first time. Each book has its own recipe and requires lots of concentration, love, thought and care. And I’m sure most authors have thrown away mixtures that don’t work (I threw away 40,000 words of my third book last Christmas!) before trying to make the same cake again just using slightly different ingredients or measurements. With writing and baking, often it doesn’t always work first time. But you just have to clean your utensils, line up your ingredients and start again. Pour your heart and soul in with all those other ingredients and your book will bound to turn out to be the great bake you want it to be.
DON’T be tempted to overmix
Oh the days and nights I have wasted kidding myself I was getting on with my book only to realise that I was turning the same chapter or paragraphs over and over again until it didn’t in any way resemble what it was meant to. I call this overmixing and I’ve always believed that my best writing happens when I’m relaxed, happy and not trying too hard. When it feels laboured to you, it will feel that way to your readers too.
DO Bake at the right temperature
Give yourself realistic daily deadlines that work for you, whether it’s 50 words, 500, 1000 words or more, you need to keep your manuscript cooking gently and at the right heat to get a good finished result.
DON’T leave it in too long
Before I was published the book I was working on took about four years to write because I didn’t take my own advice above. I treated it like an indulgence, not a job I had to take seriously. Everyone works better with deadlines. Give yourself one!
DO be proud of your creation
If you’ve gone all of the steps above, hopefully you are finally ready to take your cake out of the oven/print your book off on a printer and show it off to friends, family, an agent or publisher. Can we just pause here for a moment and look at it? I mean, really look at it. You’ve written a book for goodness sake! An actual book that people can read from beginning to end! So take the time to stand back and appreciate it. Sniff it, stroke it, love it because you made it all by yourself! Then remind yourself that no matter what happens, to never ever forget the feeling of pride and delight you felt when you looked at it. It is without doubt the best bit of the book writing process and it will carry you through all the weeping and wailing bits during the making process (see above) and then the anxiety when you’re waiting to hear what people think.
DON’T worry if it’s not to everyone’s taste.
The hardest lesson I’ve learnt both as a wannabe author sending out my manuscript to agent and publishers (and getting many MANY rejections) and then, as a published author is that you can’t please everyone. For every agent/publisher/reader who thinks your book is a perfect treat and have devoured in one sitting, another reader may spit it out and class it inedible. I’ve learned that perfect bake is very, very rare – but it’s what we’re all aiming for. Prepare for the criticism not the praise – but believe in what you’ve written regardless of both.
Ali Harris is the author of two novels; Miracle on Regent Street and The First Last Kiss. She was deputy features editor at Glamour before leaving to write books and have babies. As a journalist has also written for publications such as Red, ELLE, Stylist, Easy Living, Cosmopolitan and Company. Ali can be found on facebook.com/aliharriswriter and on Twitter @aliharriswriter.