Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Having Cake and Eating It, Too.

My mom makes the best chocolate chiffon cake. It's one of those hundred-egg-white-spongy cakes, like angel food, except chocolate. Why it isn’t wildly popular is beyond me. You can eat a piece the size of Maine for hardly any calories--and did I mention it’s chocolate?

My mom’s spaghetti, on the other hand, is an overcooked glob of congealing starch. It’s like homemade Boyardee.

So, she cooks some things better than others. Does it make her a bad cook? I defy anyone who tries a piece of that cake to call her a bad cook. You will swear off spaghetti and only eat cake for the rest of your days (which might not be long, given your diet, but they will be immensely happy days).

Now, presto-change-o, watch me pull a writing lesson out of my hat. Cake? How did that get in there? Lord, I’m a mess of crumbs and metaphors. Oh, here it is....

Writing is like cooking. There was only one Julia Childs and she’s dead now. The rest of us are brilliant at some things, not so brilliant at others. Some of us make great, sweet-tooth satisfying desserts; other whip up curries with addictive heat.

The same goes with writing.

But do we glory in our abilities? No. As my mother, who worked in a San Francisco longshoreman’s bar, would say, we “piss and moan” about the things we don’t do as well. Dialog sucks. Plot is wobbly. Can’t find a simile if it was a pair of glasses on my head.

Women are the biggest faultfinders on the planet, especially in regard to themselves. The classic example: how many men ask if their butts look big in dress pants? Speaking of dress pants butts, if you’re not reading our online group novel, Aspen Expose, you should be. Jack Davenport, our CEO hero, has some scrumptious assets and mysterious credentials in his dress pants.

Seriously, I bet you can tick off all the “bad” things about your writing, but you’d hem haw around if I asked you what you’re good at. Personally, when I’m doing my novelist gig, similes and metaphors are as elusive as Big Foot. Never mind that I just pulled off a big, beastly one just now. They don’t come easy to my characters. But, you know what? After I started looking at what I love to read, I discovered I’m not fond of metaphor/simile-laden novels. I slobber over a few paragraphs of it, almost have to get my jaw wired shut because it has dropped to the floor in awe of how the writer could compose such lyrical prose. But then it turns into Turkish delight. Intriguing at first, but so dang sticky that I spit it out. Wasn’t it ever going to dissolve? After drooling through a third of the novel, tops, I’m brushing my teeth of it. I wanted to read a novel, not 300 pages poetry infested prose.

I’m not saying to completely ignore writing weaknesses. I do labor to find occasional metaphors and similes that match my characters’ ways of seeing the world. I like to think that when I do use them, they really sparkle, are my characters’ north stars. If you’re not great at dashing dialog, make sure yours moves the story forward. That way, when the reader hits quotation marks, she’ll know to pay close attention. If you’re not good at plot pretzels, have big build-ups to a few powerful turning points.

So, everything has to work, but not on the same level. That’s okay--unless you’re truly untalented and nothing works. You should stick to heating leftovers in the microwave. Those folks, however, would never be reading a blog about writing. They are nuking freezer-burned hotdog buns and sending out their Great American Novels in single-spaced AND encrypted type so agents can’t steal their masterpieces. @=a, &=b... Lord, the scary thing is that someone would probably land a three-book deal for that. You know, 8.36% of the population has a code-breaking fetish.

Be confident about the abilities you have. Stop lusting after the one’s you don’t have. Someone will love you for what you do--and maybe for what you don’t do.

What do you do well?

And for my P.S. -- Do you think Marcus Allen's butt looks big in those pants? Stop daydreaming and answer.


Carol Burnside said...

Geez, Anna, will your mom share the recipe? I'd love to have that one. I could exchange with her and send my German Chocolate Pound Cake. :)

There's great advice for us in your post. We all have strengths and weaknesses. While we're lusting after one ability, someone is probably lusting after one we do have. Ah, the futility!

What do I do well?
I think I write a pretty clean first draft. Not that it doesn't need some layering, but I write kinda slow and have a tendency to edit what I wrote yesterday before I can go on.

Marilyn Baron said...

Your post was well written, funny and thought provoking.

Although your mom's cake sounds wonderful, I'm not a big chocolate cake fan, but I love spaghetti, so I was rooting for her spaghetti. I could survive on a diet of spaghetti alone, but then my butt really would look too big in a dress.

Celebrating your strengths and not lamenting your weaknesses is good advice. I give it to my own daughters. Not everyone can excel in every area. But I don't think that stops them, or me, from trying.

In the kitchen, I make great spaghetti. But I couldn't bake a cake if my life depended on it. And I don't care. I would just as soon buy a cake from the bakery.

When I'm concocting a story, dialogue is one of my strengths. But when I start a novel, I just start it and continue, without a plan in sight.

Lately, I've come to realize that planning and consciously plotting would improve my end product so I'm working on that.

Your advice to be confident in your abilities is important. But I still marvel at other people's abilities to do things well and I will always try to improve my writing (without beating myself up over it).

Marilyn Baron

Anna Steffl said...

Hi Carol and Marilyn! Thanks for reading. Yeah, my point, which you guys said so much more clearly, is to not beat yourself up so much over your perceived weakness that you stop writing.

I could just die re-reading my post and seeing a misused possessive apostrophe. Fifty lashes...then dwell on it all day! See, I really have an issue with perfectionism.

J Perry Stone said...

I'm hooting. And lusting (you said "curry with addictive heat."), and also getting a great lesson.

Man, do I need to hear this today! So mush so, I might turn your suggestion into a daily writing exercise.

Task 1) Make a mental list of all things I write well.

What a terrific way to start the writing day.

I think I write fun. And I also think I write good sex scenes. My intentions for my readers is that they don't have to work too hard to get into my books. I want to take them away. I want to be diet coke--light but flavorful. I also want to make them laugh and squeeze their hearts a little. Not sure if I'm accomplishing that.

Of course, what I don't do well is a longer list, but we're not going there.

I don't know why women are the biggest self-faultfinders. Add to that a woman who writes and you've got a giant mess of hell.

Are male writers this nutball?

Maxine Davis said...

You've done it again - hit the nail on the head. When I'm getting dressed, I look in the mirror critiquing everything from every angle. My husband glances to be sure his zipper is up. Go figure.

When writing, it's right after the opening that I get stuck. I'm doing my synopsis now to hopefully get past that.

J Perry Stone said...

Carol, I'd kill for a clean first draft. Alas, I'm pretty dirty ... in more ways than one ;O)

EC Spurlock said...

OMG Anna, what a wonderful post! SO funny, but so true!

I grew up in a very critical household, so it's hard for me to overcome being critical of myself and others. But I've learned to bite my tongue before criticizing my kids, or at the very least phrasing comments as suggestions or questions to soften them ("Have you maybe thought about trying this instead?") Would that I could be kinder to myself!

I write good openings and endings; I've always had a knack for killer last lines. And people have remarked on how much they like my heroes because they are so off-the-wall unconventional but still lovable. So why can't I seem to give the same sparkle to my heroines? I also wish I was better at writing sex scenes, but my critique partners are helping me with that. I guess that's the real trick -- if there's something you don't like about your writing, don't just complain about it, work on changing it!

CiCi Barnes said...

Great post, Anna. And I'm with Marilyn. I'd take the spaghetti over the cake, if it was my own cooking. Now someone who is lights out on baking, I wouldn't refuse the chocolate cake.

As for my writing, I've been told in critiques, they like my dialogue and humor. I've also been told my synopses leave a lot to be desired. I'll agree on both those assessments. Dialogue seems to come easy for me and synopses are as hard as keeping a snowball in tact in July -- in the Sahara Desert -- at noon.

So I'll let my characters talk up a storm and hope they'll tell the tale better than my synopsis.

By the way, why do you think I go to all those football games at Georgia. Men in tight pants. Woo hoo.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Hi Anna:
I think dialogue is one of my strong suits, that and metaphor.
Now can I have the cake recipe. I'll swap for my cookie recipe :)

Tami Brothers said...

Hey Anna,

This is too funny and I'm starving now!!! Thanks!!!

Hmmm. This is hard. I think I have a pretty good grasp on dialogue (although that was definitely one of the things I thought I needed to work on the most in the very beginning). Now I know I need to work on showing and not telling.

I should point out here that I'm not the best of cooks either (grin) although I'm pretty good with math....

Wow, you were right on the money with that ticking off the bad and not being able to see the good. I need to think about this!!!

Have a good one.

Tami Brothers

Anna Steffl said...

Whew, I've been gone all day serving a luncheon at my daughter's middle school. I smell like a big plate of nachos.

It is so fun to read the comments. JPS - your writing is champagne. It feels so good and tingly to read.

Hey Maxine, will you write my opening? Your comment about a man just checking his fly cracked me up. That would be so cute in a scene--watching a women curling her eyelashes and the guy just checking his fly.

EC-off the wall heroes! They are the ones I find most memorable. Maybe your heroines play the "straight man."

Anna Steffl said...

Cici, I need to go to a football game with you!

Debbie makes the best cookies ever. Period. I will trade recipes with you any day.

Tami, definitely make your "I'm good at" list. I had a woman sell me her book just because she was so enthusiastic about the "reality" of the characters.

Cyrano said...

Okay, not only did I love your post Anna, but I also got a kick out of everyone's comments today. I especially liked Maxine's "fly" comment. Anna's right, you should definately use that in one of your books Maxine.
Ohh how I love my PFAHT sisters.
Anyhoo, I digress...
Now let's see, what am I good at? Hmmm...I suppose coordinating a set of towering heels with a cute little dress...oh wait, we're talking about writing.
Hmmm, what aspect of writing am I good at?
That's a good question. Is there anything I'm good at when it comes to the act of story telling?
I suppose I'm good a starting a novel, but I suck bad when it comes to finishing one...or two..or nine. Jeesh I have a lot of work to do.
I'm also good at sex scenes. At least I've been told I'm good at sex scenes. And I believe I'm good at dialogue, getting characters to speak realistically.
The other thing I know about myself as a writer is that when I'm on fire, I can scorch the page, typing a very, very clean scene (or more depending on the teperature of that fire) But on the flip side, when I'm cold, I'm downright icy, below zero. Unfortunately I've been miles below zero for the last month.
Hopefully I'll have an upswing soon.
I liked what you said about not beating yourself up so much over your percieved weaknesses that you stop writing. I've been doing that alot lately and I need to cut it out. I also like JPS's idea, to make a mental list of all the things I write well every single day. A daily reminder might do me a world of good.
Excellent post Anna and great comments everyone!
Have a brilliant, productive afternoon, Tamara

Nicki Salcedo said...

What do I do well? Describe nothingness. It doesn't seem like much of a talent, but I'm great at it. I think I'm one of those queens of metaphor/simile-laden novels. Sorry!

Marcus Allen's butt looks a little big. But I like big butts and I cannot lie. And I did note the description of Jack Davenport's posterior in chapter one of Aspen Expose!

Thanks for the great post.

Anna Steffl said...

Tamara, you are always hot!I want to read one of your sexy scenes.

And Nicki, nothingness is all there really is. You make it the grand thing it is. Anyone who understands nothingness knows this is not a contradiction.

Anonymous said...

Fun post, Anna! You made some fantastic points. I even forgive you for the fact that I'm now craving cake...

Linsey Lanier said...


This a funny, beautiful, uplifting post that I really needed to read today. I do tend to think only of the negative and need constant reminding to think of my strengths.

Thanks for that. Oh, and I'll take spaghetti and chocolate cake. Yum!

Big butts, Nicki? Isn't that a new Burger King commercial. ;)


Anna Steffl said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tanya. Maybe I should bring cake next year to the GRW potluck.

I appreciate the kind words, Lindsey. I'm the queen of bad thoughts and your nice sentiments whip them into place. I so want to read everyone's work, now! Hurry up everybody, let's get published.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Anna--blogger ate my comment! I came back to read your witty response only to discover that my comment was gone with the wind!

Either way, it was a great post and something that I needed to hear since I was agonizing over some contest scores I'd just gotten back.

And, yes, Marcus Allen's butt looks a little big, but I wouldn't be the one to tell him that! (Blame it on the pads? Silver lycra would get him thrown off What Not to Wear?)


Mary Marvella said...

Yep, Tamara writes a great sex scene! She's great with words and descriptions, too.

I've been told I write hot, sensual, erotic. I wonder. I think I'm good with emotions and making flawed guys forgivable.