Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Undercooking a Novel

There was a moment on last week's Top Chef that really resonated with me.

Cheftestant Kevin was in the bottom four for a dish that was influenced by his Puerto Rican in-laws. As the Top Chef hosts ripped his dish to the proverbial underseasoned threads, he protested that the dish reflects how his in-laws cook.

Judge Gail Simmons jabbed back, "Are they professional chefs?"

He sheepishly said no, and she reminded him that he is a professional chef and can't just imitate how people cook, he needs to elevate the food.

This exchange reminded me of so many conversations I've had over the years with aspiring writers. Occasionally I'll point out dialogue or events that aren't working, and someone will protest, "But this is how people actually talk," or "This actually happened."

Writing isn't about capturing real life as it actually happens. We have, well, real life for that.

Instead, writers have to elevate life and add spices and all the rest. Writers interpret real life, elevate it, reorder events, and serve up something perfectly balanced and ready for public consumption.

Serving up raw life on the page without cooking it is like putting a beet on a plate and saying dinner is served. It might be a good beet, but that ain't a meal.






82 comments:

Arlene said...

So true. Thanks for pointing it out. (I don't watch "Top Chef.")

Bob Mayer said...

In Warrior Writer I love the way Chef Ramsay goes into a floundering restaurant in Kitchen Nightmares. It's exactly the way I look at struggling writers:
1. What's on the menu? Don't send the Chinese menu query to an agent with five different projects. Pick one thing that's your money-maker and focus on that.
2. Is the food good? Yes, the writing actually has to support the item on the menu.
3. Who is in charge? An agent can help you, but an agent can't plan your career. It's YOUR career. There's only one person in charge of a writer's career and that's the writer. The buck stops here.
4. Are you willing to change? These are restaurants that are failing, who have asked for his help, yet it is amazing how the owner will fight Ramsay's suggestions to the point of bankruptcy.

Moni said...

Love the "undercooking a novel" term!

William White said...

I disagree. Writing, like all art is about expression. How the CHARACTERS talk is what's important.

T. Anne said...

Yummy post. The best writing advice I've received is write to the smartest person you know. In other words, don't serve up a dry dish, put some effort into it.

cheekychook said...

As someone who loves cooking, writing, and eating (not necessarily in that order)this makes perfect sense to me; I totally see what you're saying. One question, though. Perfectly seasoned, well-prepared, elaborate meals are wonderful, but I still sometimes crave a potato chip...or a strawberry...something simple and pure. If every meal, or even every bite of a meal, was complex and a challenge to my palate I think I would crave something bland, just for balance. I'm not suggesting serving up raw beets on a plate, but do you think, as part of the pacing of a novel, the dialogue can occasionally be familiar/safe/comforting, like a pretzel, or should it always be a garlic bread stick, spread evenly with herbed cream cheese and wrapped in prosciutto? I need a snack....

John Smith said...

This is so true.

jtb said...

true dat, though there r some writers that can handle 'raw' eg Mr R Price etc

bridgetcarle said...

A great analogy. Yours, too, Bob Mayer. I love hearing a fresh way to examine an old problem.

Have to ask... Did you set up the shot of beets? Because that somehow made my day. :)

Red Boot Pearl said...

Great post--I think 'undercooking a novel' is why so many people don't get published...

J. A. Platt said...

I've been tempted to write dialog that was more 'natural' but it always looks wrong on the page.

Is it because it lacks polish or because we've been trained, as readers, to interpret written words differently than spoken ones? Would the same dialog work if it was in a script instead?

Ryan Morris said...

This is really great advice. Thanks Nathan!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I don't even like beets.

Kristin Laughtin said...

That's a pretty good analogy, whether you like beets or not.

I think the key to writing good dialogue is making it seem authentic, but taking out all the things that happen in spoken dialogue that weigh it down on the page. The "umms", the "ahhs", the sentences that start off on one topic but lapse into another, often being imperfect grammatically if written out and parsed. Perhaps this would be like trimming meat, cutting off the excess fat so you get the nice, lean steak.

You want to capture the essence of life, but you have to recognize that speech and the written word are different mediums, and a direct translation isn't always going to work well.

Theresa Milstein said...

I love Top Chef. Perfect example.

If we wrote teenagers as the actually spoke, it would be unbearable to read. "Like I've watched Top Chef, but, you know, it's kinda boring."

Shawn Kamesch said...

Bravo. Good advice.

Jaimie said...

I've learned so much from writing by watching reality TV (America's Next Top Model, Work of Art)...

I guess they have a lot in common. Being vulnerable, working under pressure, keeping focus, being yourself, working to your strengths. Even competition.

I'm always applying stuff to writing.

Glad I'm not the only one!

J. T. Shea said...

And the beet goes on...Sorry, I couldn't resist it.

Seriously, art is indeed life with the boring bits left out. Even the seemingly raw reality of slice-of-life stories and reality TV hides a lot of artifice.

Elevate the food? Eat standing up!

Livia said...

Do they really call them cheftestants?

Kelly Wittmann said...

Excellent post, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

Unless you're the Schrute-meister, in which case a raw beet is definitely a meal!

Anonymous said...

I love reality show analogies. My biggest fear is being the clueless auditioner on American Idol where I feel like I've master a skill but everyone else is laughing at me behind their oversized Coke cups.


AA

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I like to think of it as pumping up the elements.

You have a cool event, an awesome character trait, it's fun to make it outrageous.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post. I've thought a lot about this, since writing dialogue is a challenge for me and it's kind of hard to write a marketable novel without it. It either feels too "real" and therefore unreadable, or too manufactured and therefore unrealistic. It's a knife edge.

There's also a balance between realistic actions and behaviour, and real actions and behaviour. Again, it's a knife edge.

I think it boils down, in large part, to knowing your character really, really well. Outlining, backstory (even if it isn't in the novel), hobbies, everything. If we write to the truth of who our characters are, won't everything they say and do be realistic, without necessarily being yawn-worthy and bland?

D.G. Hudson said...

Point taken, Nathan. Season well and cook til done.

Sounds like you're encouraging us to use our creativity to improve on what actually happened. To make it more dramatic than the real incident while keeping it believable.

Kick it up a notch as Emeril says?

The Editor Devil said...

I LOVE you for posting this message. I'm teaching a dialogue class next month specifically to deal with this issue: boring dialogue.

Talking on the page should not duplicate colloquial speech in person. Listening to folks talking is really boring. Put it down on a page and it's worse. ARRRGH! Drives me nuts to see boring dialogue when it's such a waste of space. If you've ever read a transcript from a trial, you know that much prattle must be waded through to get to the meaty nuggets of information. As authors, our job is to aim straight for the meat.

Thanks, Nathan, for wise advice. Please, authors, listen to this man! We both want you to get published :)
The Editor Devil

MaddyAnne said...

Ick! Beets.

And thank you again for the great advice.

Anonymous said...

Novels are abstractions of life.

Anonymous said...

That said, are you an editor or an agent? If you want to give advice to writers, then shouldn't you become an editor instead?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Agents edit, pal!

William White said...

Julia Child once said there's no better cooking than a roasted chicken. And anyone can do it!

Anonymous said...

But don't over cook.

Rowenna said...

Nice analogy! And good points...I guess I think of a novel as life in concentrate form. You're not going to fit an entire life in there, so you reduce it down to the essentials, the most vital parts (like those tasty balsamic or red wine reductions I always see them making on Top Chef...yummy).

As an aside, the only time I've used the "but this really happened" defense was in regards to the authenticity of a scene--I write historicals and someone argued that X or Y would never have happened...except that it did. So I could toss my "it happened" citation on the table like a poker player with a winning hand :) But as defense of strong or intriguing writing? No way...a lot of really, really boring things have happened in this world! Doesn't make them novel-worthy.

Marilyn Peake said...

Agreed. To be really good, writing must distill real life into some kind of meaningful essence.

ryan field said...

I agree for the most part. But you also have to know when to season and when to leave something alone. An expensive piece of filet is usually at its best with just a little salt and pepper and a glass of wine :)

Waterfall said...

"Instead, writers have to elevate life and add spices and all the rest. Writers interpret real life, elevate it, reorder events, and serve up something perfectly balanced and ready for public consumption."

I see your point but I can’t agree with it totally. Yes, there is a need for the author to, to use your words, ‘spice it up’ a little and create a world that engages and captures our imagination, thus we have for instance the fantasy and science fiction genres. However, there is also the realist genre which sets out to represent life as lived and engages the reader to reconsider life from the author's perspective.

Vis-a-vis the chef and his in-law meal, if I remember from the movie Ratatouille, Remy won the incredibly critical food critic Ego over with a dish that reminds him of his childhood specifically his mom’s cooking. Go figure!

abc said...

I'm currently trying to elevate my bland and undercooked novel. Cinnamon?

So this is a most excellent and necessary post.

Does Bravo rule your life, as well?

bettielee said...

This is true. I just read a really irritating novel that was written with dialog how people actually speak. Constantly saying nothing, interrupting each other, and lots of ellipses. Drove me nuts.

Ben Campbell said...

Ha, hahaha. That's like putting the horse before the cart...overly used cliche from the past. Or, viewing the old TV commercial, "Where's the Beef.

abc said...

Ink: Beets are the devil's food! Who are these people that like beets?

Whitney Turland said...

When I was a photographer we had a saying "The more uncomfortable it is, the better it looks on film". This applied both to the model and the photographer. We also understood the unspoken rule that for each image you sought, you should probably shoot at least 12 frames. Often we would see "undercooked" images from people who owned a camera, snapped off a single shot, and thought that made photographs.

After leaving the field to make my images in the minds of readers rather than in the body of a camera, I applied that thought to writing. I make my characters uncomfortable, and I make myself uncomfortable in my approach to my characters -- on purpose. Then I make multiple "exposures" of my characters and story during the process by writing short stories about them on the side.

In my opinion, "undercooking" is something that happens to every profession. With the technology that is readily available today, scores of people have access to film making, photography, computer programming, animation, and host of other fields. The distinction between those who try and those who succeed lies with who is prepared to wait for the oven timer to wend its way to zero.

Marla Warren said...

This post sums up my feelings about "Reality" TV. If any TV show attempted to accurately depict reality, it wouldn't last three weeks, as reality is for most part dead boring. (That's why we read books and watch movies and TV.)

With "Reality" TV, what is not contrived by scripting is contrived by editing.

Magdalena Munro said...

GREAT post! No need to say any more!

CFD Trade said...

What about overcooking it? While you want to serve the best, you end up overdoing things and not serving anything at all.

Remilda Graystone said...

This is so true.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

I knew when I read this blog that the comments section would end up being rife with cooking similes and metaphors.

Hey, Bransford, why don't you put together a reality show in which a dozen contestants vie to get their novel published - you seem to like this reality nonsense... a lot.

Every field in the entertainment biz, it seems, has been tapped into by reality television - but we haven't seen anything to do with publishing yet. God damn, where do I get these ideas from? I'm a genius!

Nancy said...

Nathan - Best explanation for what I've been trying to express to new writers for years. Two unadorned raw beets on a plate... nice analogy!

And to William White... maybe sometimes it isn't so much about the characters' speech patterns and personality but how engaging are their contributions to the plot and story line. Sometimes a character runs off at the mouth with his or her true-to-life mumbles only to leave the reader bored and wondering what all that over-the-top jargon has to do with the story. Only a little bit of a very strong character expressed through dialog/speech patterns should be necessary. If it sticks out and takes over the story line, then it's too much. How a character talks can be distracting, boring and ultimately take over an otherwise great story. Didn't Nathan post on this before?

Caleb said...

Nathan makes sense. In writing, like in cooking, I taste as I go along. I review the rhythm and logic and pacing of what I've just written every half-page or so.

Dan said...

I don't know if I entirely agree with the undercooking metaphor, but the underlying point here is close to absolutely true for just about all writers.

Life is a bunch of stuff that happens; most of it is confusing and some of it is arbitrary. Narrative is a series of events that occur through a perceivable chain of cause and effect. Important things must be introduced, and extraneous things must be omitted. Narrative is, to some extent, an artificial construct, whether it's employed to recount true events or fictional ones. But it's ironclad and non-negotiable.

If you are morally or aesthetically opposed to the idea of a story, I sympathize with you. I kind of feel that way myself. But, if you want to write fiction for publication, I think you have to reconcile yourself to the conventions of Western storytelling.

If your theme or subject matter is the arbitrary and unexplainable, and your novel is therefore a frontal attack on the central conceit of the story, you've got your work cut out for you. Literary agents who enjoy eating food and acquiring editors who enjoy having jobs may admire your devotion to your ideals and your experimental aspirations. But they'll probably admire you from a safe distance.

TERI REES WANG said...

Cheers!...to turning up the volume.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Excellent post. Transcripts are boring. Novels are fiction. The beauty about writing fiction is, you get to make things up. You get to lie. You want to write "what really happened," "how it really happened," write non-fiction.

But don't make that boring, either...

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Oh, and to "anon": everyone edits. My 8-year-old son edits stories he's reading for school, when he reads them outloud.

"That's not what it says on the page," I tell him.

"Well, that's what it should say..."

Reminds me of the Amadeus quote from the movie upon hearing something by Silieri: "there's just too many notes..."

I prefer paintings to photographs. One captures something "exactly." The other is more intended to capture something's "essence."

jjhoutman said...

There is no such thing as a good beet, no matter what you do to it.

Mira said...

Good post, deceptively simple.

This is a good one for me. I tend to imitate real life dialogue, and I'm still learning how to fit things with the rhythm and pace of writing.

I also appreciate the comments - a bunch of them were helpful.

angeliqueP said...

Acting Teacher Sanford Meisner used to say, "Don't give me real life...real life is boring!"

Stacey Nelson said...

So totally guilty of undercooking...will work on this! Thanks again for the awesome post! :)

helensayers said...

"Serving up raw life on the page without cooking it is like putting a beet on a plate and saying dinner is served. . ." is hands-down the best writerly advice I've heard in a long time. I'm going back now to stir my soup.

Ted Cross said...

I didn't like this analogy, though. So often these professional chefs make food that I can't stand.

Megan Grimit said...

That last part was pretty funny. Kudos for sense of humor.

Also, the advice was well done. ;-) (Get it?)

swampfox said...

This bodes not so well for those folks who like their steaks rare.

Andrea Dale said...

As a nonfiction business writer, your post reminds me that it's my job to add insights, tips and points of view not available to casual learning. Thanks! BTW, now I want to make beet soup...Must find farm fresh beets with greens!

Carol Newman Cronin said...

My videographer husband and I just finished a short called "Where Books Meet Olympic Spirit," in which a Paralympic gold medalist and I (2004 Olympian) chat about teaching life skills through sailing. The short accompanied my recent launch of "Cape Cod Surprise," and it was very well received at the launch party.

Editing the footage was an excellent visual example of what we writers try to do on the page: Get rid of the ums, ahs, repeated words, and stutters that in "real life" the listener takes for granted. In video and writing, such tics are a huge distraction.

lotusgirl said...

Love this.

Anonymous said...

Overcooked is much worse.

Understatement liberates the reader. I love economy in writing, and I find the novel padded with 100 extra pages to make it the "correct length" for the market an insult to the reader.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

Anonymous said...

I Love JT Shea!!!!
and the beet goes on!

As for undercooked, also goes for overcooked too. No boiled novels please.

Michelle Massaro said...

Love this!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Well served and with just the right amount of spice.

Loree H said...

I make an awesome beet salad! ;)

Elaine AM Smith said...

Merry Christmas.

Sorry the wish is a day late. (I have a car story so bizarre it couldn't be used as for fiction.)

jjdebenedictis said...

No such thing as a good beet. Blech.

Oh--we talking about writing?

Andrea said...

But...sushi is good!

John Overman said...

You're right. No doubt. I just get so excited when I finish a story that I'm compelled to share it. And when I put my work away for a while to see what it looks like after the adrenaline rush, I often send myself back to the kitchen!

Robert Michael said...

Like many of the comments here, I understand the metaphor and the advice, but like many "rules" of writing, it is situational.

A story that is being held back by dry, boring, everyday, pedestrian dialogue can stop a story in its tracks. It needs dialogue that provides tone, moves the plot forward, develops or demonstrates character or point of view. This sort of spicing is what I think you mean.

But, to say that using colloquialisms, turns of phrase, mispronunciations, poor grammatical structure and such, I think I would err on the side of the common folk. Art is to immitate life. We are to help a reader WILLFULLY suspend disbelief. If a character would not speak with flowery words or alliterations, then it devalues the work, it interrupts the flow of willful disbelief.

Readers will more often think to themselves: "I doubt that girl would talk like that," than think: "Gosh, this sounds too much like real life." I fully believe in seasoning our work. In our descriptions of life, in the realism and grittiness of the dialogue, in the increasing of conflict, I feel it is important to bring our professional chops to the table. People expect more. But, in the end, salt and pepper to taste.

Anonymous said...

The trick is in recognizing while doing your own cooking how to prepare a dish, what method to use to cook it, when it is cooked to perfection and what specific spices complement the flavour of beets. Not easy. And most of us will never cook anywhere close to a professional level.

Marsha Sigman said...

What a great analogy and so true!

You can capture the essence of how someone speaks or a place but you need to add your own voice(spice) to make it work.

Whirlochre said...

Wouldn't mind trying out a suit made of raw beef, just for half an hour.

Steph said...

Love this! I am afraid every time I see the words "This screenplay is based on true events from my life" in a query. So often, it means that there will be little to no story and the main character will have no flaws. But how do you tell someone the most important event in their life is just plain boring?

Levonne said...

I like the analogy. I wonder how blogging journals might fit into this? I want an agent to give me an assignment! I want to write for a living! HELP!

J.J. Bennett said...

Well I don't want to "beat" this to death, but real life can spice up a novel. I think it's just understanding what ingredients to use. Too much of anything doesn't give a book depth.

A family friend of ours told how he loved beat salad. He could eat it every meal, and did once, for a two days solid. But, that was the only time he did. Why, you might ask? It's because he urinated purple for nearly a week afterwards. It's one thing to leave your mark, just make it one you are proud of!

J.J. Bennett said...

Beet salad.. sorry.

J.J. Bennett said...

I am one hell of a cook. I hope it rubs off on the writing!

crazy old woman said...

I love beets - I love them pickled and I love them grated raw! I don't know about the peeing purple but it is a good way to see how regular your bowels are : )

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