Yeah, there’s no list. If you have read any of my other posts, you probably knew that. For the other three of you, sorry to mislead. I don’t like web lists. Especially ones that tell you that YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
Every good writer has a distinctive style. Maybe it’s the viewpoint. Or the syntax. Repeated bacon references. You could be a master of the metaphor. Or maybe you just know how to mold cold wet words into beautiful shiny vases.
This post is for the rest of us
If you bake, you know that your cake is ready to take our of the oven when the toothpick emerges from the batter sans wet batter. (I don’t mind a dampish crumb, but I am more of a pie person anyway.) That doesn’t mean the cake is finished, but it has completed the Hansel and Gretel phase of the process.
That’s how I feel about my own writing. I have a pretty good idea that I am on my way to something yummy when my story comes out of the oven. (Somewhere in here is a joke about half-baked ideas and stale metaphors.)
I usually have good feelings about what I write twice. If I am lucky, three times. The first is at the conception of the idea. This is the point at which you say, “I have a great idea for a cake.”
The second is when I take it out of the oven and See That It Is Good. The third only occurs when the thing is completely finished and it looks, smells, and tastes as good as I initially thought it would. Often, though, things happens between the smelling of the freshly baked cake and the tasting of the that’s-not-quite-what-I-had-hoped-for slice.
Taking the cake out of the oven is like recognizing your writer’s voice in a story. It looks good. It smells great. It’s the thing you intended to make. It’s yours.
I am not suggesting that everyone write like a bad Hemingway—or even a good one. Simplicity is not the goal. Clarity is.
Then what happens? You let it cool. You come back and add the ganache or the frosting. A filling. A topping. The decoration. I do not like cooking competition TV shows. If I cared more, I would say I hate them—but that would imply passion. That said, I am reminded of one I did watch. (How could I know I don’t like them if I haven’t seen any? Hmm?) It was a cake contest. The final step of the competition was to transport the intricately decorated but hideously ginormous cakes to the judging table. In this episode, one of the fondant-clad confections collapsed into itself and crashed to the floor. Don’t ask me the name of the show or the theme of the cake. I have no idea.
Either the initial concept was flawed, or the bakers tried to do too much once they got the cakes out of the oven. Writing a story holds the same perils, though the only thing you may spill are words. And tears. And sweat. And blood.
Flawed stories happen. What seemed like a good idea at the outset doesn’t work. And sometimes, you have to just walk away. Other times, though, the cake is fine. It’s the decoration that’s the problem.
Yes, I am talking about over-writing. You want to craft the perfect sentence and that online thesaurus is just a click away. You just finished a Henry James novel and you want your writing to be something....more. Your fingers type “Thoughtfully assessing the situation in which he found himself, Dax Swimsley carefully made an examination of the baked confection covered in an ivory topping that he thought was frosting—though it might have been icing” when all you needed to write was “Dax Swimsley examined the cake.”
I am here to encourage you not to give in to the dark side. I am not suggesting that everyone write like a bad Hemingway—or even a good one. Simplicity is not the goal. Clarity is. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of your own story. Some guy once wrote, “It is easier...to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.”
Okay, the guy was George Orwell, and the passage is from “Politics and the English Language” (1946). (You knew that, right?)
If your batter is good, your final story will taste right. Don’t goop it up with so much frosting and decoration that you sog the crumb and turn the cake into pudding.
That means write with clarity, in case I wasn’t clear.