Last night I was talking to my cousin. She mentioned she had made quiche several times since her visit here in early February. During her visit I made quiche for breakfast and she loved it. I did not give her the recipe, she did not ask for the recipe. Yet, she knew the most important part of the recipe: the egg to milk/cream ratio. Equipped with the basics, she added the ingredients she likes. We are similar in our cooking philosophy: start with a basic recipe and then have fun with it.
I know others like me.
I also know many who, despite their passion for cooking, would sooner never cook again if they were denied a recipe. They follow the rules each and every time.
The more I thought about this notion of recipe following, the more I saw the parallel to writing. Specifically, how closely do writers follow the rules, or the recipe, for writing a good story? We all have countless books that tell us: adverbs can lead to indigestion; adjectives lead to a watery dish; information dumping is spice overload; long sentences are too difficult to chew. The list of No-No’s goes on and on. Yet, every time I read a book, I see the No-No’s. How can this be when we’re supposed to be following the rules, the recipe? Simple. At the end of the day, every writer is standing in a kitchen full of recipe books and it’s bursting with ingredients. Each writer has to decide which recipe to follow AND how much to follow the recipe.
Let's look at the basic ingredients. For quiche it’s the egg to milk ratio. For baking it’s the flour to baking soda/powder ratio. For ethnic foods it’s the spices and ingredients that root it in a culture. In writing it’s basic grammar rules such as (but not a complete list): the difference between noun and a verb; subject verb agreement; punctuation (even those pesky and sometimes confusing comma rules). It also includes the rules that govern the genre you prefer.
For the cook, everything else listed in the recipe gives the dish flavor. For the writer, this is where you have to decide what to do with those No-No's.
Some cooks will follow a recipe to the letter every time. Substitutions and deviations are frowned upon. Everything is timed to perfection. Everything is measured with precision. Upon completion they sample the creation. Sometimes they celebrate success. However, I have observed that they are often mystified when something seems off. How can this be? They followed all the rules. In writing this means the story reads well, but sometimes lacks passion, depth.
Other cooks go by the recipe the first time, scrutinizing the ingredients. They understand the basics and they also understand some subtle changes are warranted. Maybe they prefer
The final group enters the kitchen, reaches in the refrigerator, and grabs things they believe will fit together based on experience and comfort. In order to produce a great dish, the cook has to possess an excellent understanding of the basics. Aimless grabbing without knowledge can lead to a disaster. This writer may produce a great story or they may produce a story I refuse to read past page five.
Me? What do I do? If it’s my first time with a recipe, I will scrutinize and follow it. I want to understand why the ingredients are needed and how they compliment each other. The next time I make the recipe, I experiment. I like to combine ingredients that seem at odds with each other. I like spicy and decadent foods. And that preference shows up in my writing . . . sometimes I go a bit overboard with adjectives or similes. J I know, however, that with continued tweaking and care, my recipe emerges. I have an original. It becomes my style.
I think the level of experimentation separates the cooks from the chefs. I think it separates the writer and the great writer. Please note I’m not saying I’m a chef or a great writer. Also, I believe that each cook has its place, serves a role and holds the potential to produce something great. I believe with practice great writers learn when to follow the rules and when to throw caution to the wind.