Just a little essay I whipped up while trying to resist the urge to light everything on fire. I am almost thirty and I think I’m failing at adulthood. Also I am afraid- of everything. I get more time to write and suddenly the “publish” button becomes a creature of nightmares. Here is an analogy about writing, looked at through the lens of baking- two things I usually love but on occasion make me want to die. Or at least get melodramatic. Or get tequila even though I don’t drink, but sometimes I feel like iiiiit. More on that later.
Writing your first novel is sort of like baking a cake from scratch.
And you’ve never even set foot in the kitchen. You’ve seen it from a distance, possible touched things within, but the inner workings are as complicated as your friends home- brewed D&D/Dune crossover campaign that’s lasted five years.
So, you start with the idea- you know you want cake, but you aren’t even one hundred percent sure what sort of cake you want. This leads to research, books read, blogs scrutinized, Chuck Windig cornered, kidnapped, questioned, then Neuralized by Agent J and released, and three weeks of making a Pinterest board; slowly, you narrow it down. You eliminate the sort of cakes you don’t like, which, if you’re like me, is not many, and you are left a with a bunch you do. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that funfetti box mix and frosting combo though- that stuff’s legit.
But we’re here to do it from scratch, and so we shall, in spite of the gods of Betty and Crocker and the Cult of Pillsbury. Rail against the darkening light! Do not yet allow fear to consume you! Call it all sorts of bad names that you would never let your grandma hear you say because you have to narrow all those options down as well. Choose one, possibly two if you want to combine them, but really- this is your first cake, there’s no need to go wild, you may want to stick to the basics and to things you are at least familiar with. Nothing’s wrong with baking a chocolate cake before you go for the Baumkuchen. Luke didn’t just run off to fight Vadar, it took years for Frodo to leave the Shire, Dracula had to get on a boat to get to London, Deadpool doesn’t just bake one pancake for victory, Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one… wait, what? Where am I?
Then you’re making it, and because this is your first cake you’re wandering like a blind prophet into the foreign land that is your kitchen, full of wisdom that isn’t at all applicable. You know you need to preheat the oven, so you turn that on first thing. You’ll realize there are ingredients you don’t have, things you didn’t even know were missing, things you didn’t even know existed. You turn the oven back off. There are frequent pauses, trips to the store, the three hours you spend on the internet to let the butter reach room temperate. You mix it, probably eat too much of it, if you’re normal. Things look OK, as far as bowls of lumpy liquid that shine in various tones of wet skin. You are filled with doubt, but you pour the batter in those pans regardless, and you get that bad boy in the oven, but then you open the door and realize you never turned it back on. So you wait for it to heat and you hope while licking the bowl (I think I’m losing track of this metaphor) and forgetting to set a timer.
Forty minutes (months) later you have a lopsided, half burnt, disaster on your hands. No, no- we’re still talking about the cake, hopefully not your oven or entire house or neighborhood or life. But, OK, maybe you don’t, maybe it’s fine. Though I would be surprised if you forgot to poke the center with a toothpick and I wouldn’t be surprised either if that first cake looks great, but then you cut into it and it’s a half-baked mess inside, sort of like our psyches, but it smells nicer.
So you try again. This time you’re familiar with the recipe, you have all the ingredients, and the oven’s already warm. The end result is a little lopsided again, but that’s OK, you can trim that off. It’s like the rest of us- not symmetrical. You let it cool, step away and come back later, feeling refreshed after a night (six weeks) of not baking your cake. Now you are going to frost the cake.
And you have no frosting.
You stare at the cake forever, making mental bargains, “Naked cakes are in right now, and besides, does mine really need all the extra frills? Maybe people will appreciate it more if it’s just the bare minimum.”
Hey- look at me, no shifty eye contact- Nooo, this cake is not done. Do not bow before the gods of Laziness and Good Enough who’s temple is just down the road from the Pantheon of the Box Mix. Set that butter out and get to the store, because we’re getting some cocoa powder. And some sprinkles, and possibly some candles even though this isn’t a birthday cake- everything is improved with fire. And while you’re there pick up a bottle of high-end tequila. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with this analogy, just don’t ask questions, OK? And I’m not saying if you get Patron you’re going back, I’m saying I expect Clase Azul.
First things first, don’t just slap some canned stuff on there and hope no one will notice. You need something from scratch, something that has your touch, your tears, blood, and sweat metaphorically mixed in. Or literally, if you’re into exotic flavors. They’ll taste it, and they’ll like it, they will probably even ask you for more. This is your opportunity to make the cake your own, because while a million billion cakes have been made, and a million billion will be made again, this is the first made by you, and you can incorporate things you love into it; candy, sparkles, anime figurines, shiny rocks, the House theme song, and Liam O’Brien shouting “You are not prepared!”. It’ll probably take practice to get the technique down, time to find your hand, you vision, but once you know, it’s only a matter of time before you own it. And you’re standing at the pinnacle of the Black Temple looking down at Illidan Stormrage and asking him who he thinks were the unprepared ones now.
So you put down a crumb layer, something that will hold the base together, then things get crazy. You lay the frosting down thick and heavy, scraping, pushing, pulling. Suddenly you’re seven years old again and your mother isn’t around to tell you that you don’t have to use all the frosting, she only bought the second jar in case of emergencies. It’s mounded everywhere, you realize in the back of your mind you’ve created a pile of diabetes. You open the other can and eat it because this is absolutely one of those emergencies your mother warned you about.
Once out of the coma it is time to trim the excess, smooth the transitional lines. Rotate it, look at it from every possible angle, under the brightest of lights. Maybe it’s good, maybe you like the smooth, clean look, but there are cakes (stories) that will require more, flourishes, blots, rosettes and ribbons. Those little touches that say, “This is my story, and I made it for these kinds of people.” Maybe you go organic, earthy. Maybe you turn to electricity, make it a thing of wire and light. Maybe your aim is lighthearted, or dark, or scary, here is where you can add all those little twists and turns that bring the story up higher, to a place of pure magic, or excitement, or joy. Maybe you chased that frosting with the Clase Azul and now you’re sick. Lesson learned, there.
And then (in theory) you have a cake. It’s been a labor of love and pure madness, you’ve slaved for hours (months, years) over this thing. You look up at a world that you realize has no idea the amount of time and energy and mental fatigue you have endured. They don’t even know you have a cake, let alone that you would like to share it. So you dust off the flour, and step timidly forward, into the unknown world of selling cakes. And you realize you have a lot more reading and work ahead of you. And frosting in your hair. It’s OK, I’ll eat that. What? Don’t judge me. And leave the tequila here.
And there we have it. I’m going to press publish just as soon as I work up the nerve.