Planning a story to relish

Years ago I had a career change from commerce to cooking.

Fresh colorful fruits in a melon

Mark Sweet keeps the story fresh and simple.

My first job was in a restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow. Quite quickly I determined their menu was too big, too many choices, and too many ingredients piled onto the plate, smothering and confusing the flavour of the primary fare, be it salmon, duck, or venison. I thought, too often they killed the golden goose, so to speak.

So I opened my own restaurant, and with the help of a fine chef, constructed menus that were short and fresh, and we pared down the ingredients so they enhanced, and never overwhelmed the primary flavour.

Now I’ve discovered that writing is a bit like cooking. Too many ingredients can spoil the plot.

With the help of my mentor, Alia Bloom, I’m now identifying the essential ingredients of Zhu Mao for the process of enhancing those that taste good, and discarding what detracts from the essential flavour of the book.

One of the most difficult aspects of running a restaurant is consistency. If you set a high standard at the outset your customers expect it to be maintained. If not, they may go elsewhere, and never return. So too with writing.

Alia has shown me that Zhu Mao starts out well, but doesn’t deliver on the promise. The reader may put the book down by page 50 and never return. I’ve done it myself with many a book. The challenge before us is to carry the momentum from start to finish. Over-cooked descriptions, under-done characters, or cold dialogue, and readers may never return.

Matching wine with food is a requisite of fine dining. It’s the waiter’s job to advise the customer which variety suits what dish. Merlot and fish don’t match, and Riesling doesn’t compliment the taste of venison. A writer being matched with a mentor is as important, and I’m confident Alia and I are complimentary, like Bluff oysters and Fino Sherry, I think.

Seasoned publishing professional Alia Bloom is currently mentoring Mark Sweet in Te Papa Tupu.

2 comments

  • At this time it sounds like Expression Engine is the top blogging platform out there right now.

    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  • Writing tips are like mini skirts. Sometimes they fit perfectly, sometimes they make you cry, and sometimes you can reuse the material and sew yourself a pillow or something. Maybe a few of these will work for you. I hope so. Personally I think you’d look very nice in a mini-skirt.

    1. You won’t make a living writing until you learn to write when you don’t want to. A lot of writers wait for the muse to seize them. These writers don’t get much done. Here’s a secret: writing is not always fun. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. I love to write just about more than anything, but there are times I have to force myself to sit down and work. I want to play with my daughter, or watch a movie with my husband, or go outside on the nicest day of the year. But if writing is going to be your job, you have to treat it like a job. And that means that you don’t get to take the day off just because you’re “not feeling it.” This is what separates the writers who make it from the writers who don’t. Get your butt in your chair, and make yourself write. Do it every day.

    2. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid of clichés. Write the book you want to write. If you want to write about an alcoholic cop with an ex-wife and an insubordination problem, do it. If you want to write about a haunted hotel, or a woman who finds herself through a journey, or a teenage amateur sleuth – well, awesome. Your book will be different because you’re the one writing it.

    3. Always remember that you are the boss. Don’t let your characters tell you what to do. They can be pushy. Some writers say that they create characters and then just sort of follow them around through the narrative. I think that these writers are out of their minds. I tried this for years. I would create characters based loosely on people that I knew, and before long that character would be talking back to me. “I’m not sure Stacey would do that,” Stacey would say, when I tried to convince her to go into the scary basement alone. And she’d be right. Stacey wouldn’t do that. No one would, really. I didn’t bloom as a fiction writer until I figured out how to make up characters out of whole cloth (not based on anyone), and I stopped worrying about what they’d do in real life. My characters have to do what I tell them. And if I need Stacey to go into that scary basement, then that’s what she’s going to do.

    4. Write the stuff that makes you feel nervous. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you will get to a scene that makes you feel profoundly uncomfortable. You will think you’ve gone too far. You will imagine your relatives reading this scene and your face will get hot and you will clear your throat a few times and you will be very, very tempted to delete that scene. Don’t do it. Finish writing it. Leave it in. Tell yourself that you can always cut it out later. Because I promise you – that scene — it will be the best scene in the book. When writing feels dangerous, that’s when you know that you’re doing something right.

    5. Details are not created equally. Writing teachers go on and on about the importance of using details to flesh out a scene. But not all details are created equally. When you write thrillers like I do, and suddenly your main character is running for his life from a serial killer who is chasing him through the woods, slowing down the action with a bunch of descriptions seems counterintuitive. Why would the main character be noticing the pine needles on the ground when he has a killer on his heels? But I’ll tell you a secret, the more detail that I unpack about that woods, the night air, the sky, the sounds of his footsteps, the more tense that scene becomes. I read a study recently. Some professor wanted to look into the experience that time slows in life or death situations and he tied some graduate students to Bungee cords and pushed them off a ledge, and studied the results. His conclusion? In normal circumstances our brain culls details. In tense situations our mind stops culling – it notices everything – because you don’t know what detail is going to save your life. This is what creates the experience of time slowing—lots of details. The next time you’re writing a tension filled scene – maybe there’s a serial killer in it, maybe your character is asking someone out to prom – remember to stop culling. Notice everything. The acne on her forehead. The buttons on her shirt. It all becomes important. It’s the ordinary moments that fly by. With those, the brain does cull details, so the details that your character does notice become all the more important and revealing. An object accrues more significance every time it’s mentioned. Notice the vase on the table once in a scene, and it’s a detail in the room. Notice the vase on the table three times and it means something to your character. It becomes a prop you can use. It starts to tell a story.

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