How to Bake a Novel

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I have a confession to make.

I love my day job.

I’m a baker.

And everything* I know about writing a novel I learned in the kitchen.

Here are some of the lessons.

Always pre-heat the oven

This is the dreaming time, where your novel is a spark, a collection of disjointed images and voices, and the bulk of the story is still to be discovered. For me this means daydreaming. As I wrote in an earlier post, THE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING was born from an image of a group of bakers watching a pie judging contest and a longing to be in the country. When my main character popped into my head fully formed, holding a flaming baked Alaska, I knew the oven was ready and it was time to get to work.

Make sure you have your mise en place

This is a French cooking term that means to put everything in its place. It is the practice of measuring out all of the ingredients before you begin a large project. You don’t want to have your butter and sugar perfectly creamed, only to find you are out of eggs. The same is true for writing. There are necessary tools–a functioning computer, so you don’t run the risk of losing your draft when it crashes, or piles of notebooks and good pens. Gather your research materials so you don’t have an excuse to put off writing a scene because you need to first find out what invasive vines grow in northern Vermont. Make an outline of your story if that is how you like to work. This is all solid preparation that will serve as the foundation, so your creative mind can have the freedom to play.

Things will get sticky

There will be a moment (or two, or two hundred) when you are in the middle of writing your novel, and it will feel too hard, and you will want to give up. It’s just like the time you decided to make homemade jelly donuts, and you insisted the jelly also had to be made from scratch. Then the dough wouldn’t rise, and everything including your golden retriever got covered in jelly and flour, and you scorched your grandmother’s Le Creuset pot, and you started to think about how wonderful the donut shop down the street was, and you had the urge to pitch everything including the dog into the trash. When your revision leads to two more revisions, or when you realize your seven person POV needs to be whittled down to two, your book will feel too messy, too big, too much work, and you will want to pitch it in the trash. But you don’t want to waste all of those ingredients, do you? It will get better. It’s going to be delicious! Keep going.

You will be tempted to under-bake your book…

By giving it to readers before you are ready for feedback, by avoiding revision, by putting life jackets on your darlings, self-publishing without even running spellcheck…. If you don’t give your book the time and attention it deserves, you will find its center is a gooey mess.

….Or over-bake it           

Just one more revision! What if I change this Elizabethan period novel into a futuristic dystopian YA? I need to do a little more research on beard length and maintenance before my writing group can read this draft…If you tinker indefinitely, you will bake the life out of your book. Listen to your novel. Press your fingertips into the top gently and see if it springs back. It will tell you when it’s done. Don’t second-guess yourself.

You need taste-testers

Bakers have to taste everything they make before serving it to others. But brownie after macaroon after tuile, my palate gets tired. That’s when I turn to the other chefs in the kitchen for feedback. Their fresh taste buds are essential to the process. This is even truer for writers. An outside reader or two will be able to tell you if your love story needs sweetening or if your sex scenes need more ghost pepper.

No matter how tasty you think it is, not everyone will like it.

I hate honey. It’s true. I find it cloying. It’s sticky, and its flavor dominates whatever it’s in. So even if you have baked the world’s most incredible baklava, baklava that took you hours of delicately brushing butter onto layer after layer of phyllo, I’m not going to like it. It’s going to taste like honey! This is an important thing to keep in mind throughout the whole novel-baking process–from choosing readers for your work in progress to putting together your agents-to-query list. You want to find the people who love honey as much as you do.

When it’s done

…And your book is hot off the presses, and your whole house is filled with that new book smell, and your friends are excited to try it, you will forget the hard parts of writing a novel the same way you forgot about the sticky dog prints all over your carpet. And nothing will ever taste so sweet.

IMG_8166*This, of course, is not true. Everything I know about novel writing came from reading, taking classes, being in workshop, reading, receiving feedback, going to conferences, revision, reading, being edited…

A previous version of this essay was published on DeadDarlings.com.

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Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at louisemillerauthor.tumblr.com.

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