One of the things writers get asked about a lot is how we do it, either specifically (“How do you plan an action scene?”) or in general (“Where do you get your ideas?”). A lot of the time, it’s fairly evident that the person asking the question thinks there’s a clear-cut answer. They’re looking for a series of steps to follow, a recipe for writing romances or mysteries or literary fiction or just plain old stories. And there are plenty of books and classes and blogs and software out there that try to provide just that.
Which leads me to the rather obvious conclusion that most people aren’t great cooks.
Because following recipes will get you a decent meal if you’re not trying anything too complicated, but it won’t get you a great meal except by pure luck. Fancy or complicated recipes, in my experience, often take several tries to get right even when you think you’re following the directions perfectly (my first try at puff pastry came out as quarter-inch-high hockey pucks).
Furthermore, you won’t get the best possible results by following a recipe exactly, because there are too many variables: how fresh the ingredients are, for instance, or how dry or humid the day is, or whether your oven temperature is accurate. A great cook has to adjust everything on the fly, from cooking time and temperature to whether to add an extra pinch of spice (or an extra tablespoon).
Old recipes assume the cook knows this (and really old recipes assumed that nobody had standardized measuring tools anyway), so they call for “butter the size of an egg” and “a pinch of salt.” These days, though, a lot of us have learned to follow modern recipes that specify everything from three cups of flour down to an eighth of a teaspoon of ginger, and we’re not comfortable unless we have something exact to follow.
Which is fine if all one wants to do is have a decent meal, but not the best idea if one wants a great one. All the really good cooks I know use recipes – if they use them at all – as a sort of starting guideline, adding and subtracting ingredients according to their own taste, experience, and inspiration.
Writing is like that.
There are certainly formulas for different sorts of fiction, and if one has a reasonably good grasp of grammar and syntax, one can produce a fairly readable story by following them. If that is all one does, though, it shows. (Although these days “fairly readable” is really not enough, if publication is your goal.) Great writers – if they bother with a formula at all – adjust it on the fly, adding and subtracting things until the end result is something beyond formulaic. Hamlet is more than a revenge tragedy; Henry V is more than a docudrama.
How you get to that point…well, different people use different routes. You can learn to cook by starting with recipes and trying a lot of similar ones, paying close attention to the similarities and differences and how they affect the outcome, or you can take a class, or you can hunt up some of the historical cookbooks and try out the recipes that aren’t so exact, or you can just throw different things in a pot every night and see what happens. You can learn to write by closely imitating your favorite writers, or by trying out several different plotting and development systems, or by taking a class, or by just sitting down and trying different things until they begin to come together.
Both cooks and writers need certain basic skills – chopping and dicing and mixing and so on for cooks, plotting and dialog and characterization and so on for writers – but again, how and when one learns them is up to the individual cook or writer. You may want to practice one specific thing for a couple of hours and then file the pages of dialog or freeze the chopped carrots; or you may do your practicing on the pay copy.
The one thing that isn’t optional in either case, though, is practice. You can learn a lot about cooking and ingredients and so on by reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows, but if that’s all you do, you aren’t a cook…and you won’t ever become one until you put on the apron and get in the kitchen and spend some time chopping and dicing and sautéing and baking. And there will be disasters (see hockey puck reference above).
You can learn a lot about writing by reading how-to books and blogs and analyzing other people’s work, but if that’s all you do, you’re not a writer. You need actual, on-the-ground experience to get good at it, and getting that experience takes time and effort, and there will be disasters. Some of the things you try won’t work the first time, or the second, or the eighth. Some of the things you are quite sure will never work turn out to be brilliant. You will hardly ever be able to tell in advance which is going to be which.
Cooks have to actually cook; writers have to actually write. Thinking, reading, or talking about it isn’t enough.