Monday, September 7, 2009

Literary Ptomaine and Overcooked Words

This is a bit long and rambly, so bear with me...

As you might know, I love cooking competition shows like Top Chef and Chopped and even The Next Food Network Star (which is more about shaping a TV personality than cooking, IMO). I love to see the contestants create a wonderful dish within the constraints of the challenge. I mean, who would ever think anything as ugly as a monkfish would be served to kids, or that junkfood could be turned into a gourmet delight, or that you could buy enough to make a delectable dish from a gas station convenience store?

In these shows, though, I keep hearing a familiar refrain from the chefs on or near the bottom. Instead of owning up to a crappy dish or a mistake in execution, they say: "But that's the way I like to make that." Maybe they really do think their dish was good, based on their own tastes, but the attitude comes out like: So what if my lentils are so underdone they're inedible, that's the way I like to eat them. (The attitude from a Chopped I watched yesterday.) Who cares if my pasta is mushy, that's how I cook it and everyone seems to love it. (From a Top Chef a couple years ago.)

Hell, I even heard a similar sentiment on Project Runway, when this weird chick was supposed to make a runway dress, and what she made was neither a dress nor runway style. She liked the way she did things, and to hell with everyone else.

Now, I don't really mind that idea. I'm all for it within the confines of my own home and inside my own head. The problem comes when a person enters a competition with that attitude in mind. In a competition, you are no longer just doing things to make you happy. You have to think about what's going to make the judges happy - and typically what makes them happy is what's going to make a wide segment of the populous happy. In general, people don't like undercooked lentils and mushy pasta, so those chefs should've put their personal tastes aside, not because there was anything wrong with their opinions, but because they were in A COMPETITION.

What's this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, think about it. What we do is basically enter into a competition where numerous judges (i.e. agents, publishers and readers) taste our work and decide whether we get to pass on to the next round or get chopped. If we want to win, we have to think about what the judges want, and how to make them happy.


Surely I'm not suggesting we suck up our own tastes and write what we think the judges want to read! Of course I'm not. I would never suggest such a thing... except...

When I'm not talking about tastes, I'm talking about execution. Just like you wouldn't dream of setting a plate of underdone fowl in front of your family, you should shudder at the thought of sending out work that's not thoroughly finished.

Of course, no one's running the risk of throwing up after consuming your manuscript (unless it's really that bad), but the idea is the same. If the execution is off, no one is going to want it, no matter how good you think it is.

Chances are you've already heard tales of writers with the same attitude as the chefs above. They send work out that isn't quite done or that's overdone, and wonder why they're getting rejections. After all, they love their work. They may even insist they don't use commas properly because that's the way they like to write. Or you've heard about the writers who don't want to follow the rules of submitting. Dudes, no matter what you think, you still have to know how to execute or your pink chicken is getting sent back to the kitchen. (And all your hard work's ending up in the circular file.)

Oh, sure, I was as guilty of this as the next newbie. I thought I knew what I was doing five years ago. The dishes I sent out were so undercooked, I'm surprised I didn't give 75% of the agenting world a nasty case of literary ptomaine. Then I took all the advice I could find and overcooked the hell out of my second novel. Talk about dry and flavorless. Yuck.

The idea here is to make sure your execution is the best it can be - in both your story and your submission materials. Sometimes you'll make mistakes, but if you learn from them you'll do better next time. Until eventually you'll win - no matter how strange your ingredients may seem.