Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cooking the Books

If publishers were restaurants, then readers would be the patrons, booksellers the waiters, writers the chefs, genre the cuisine, and novels the meals. Every day something new comes out on the menu to join the current favorites while something old that nobody ordered much is removed.

In the fine dining business, everything rides on the ability of the chef to prepare a great meal. The chef must choose the right ingredients, prepare them properly, add them together in the right amounts and combinations, all to create something new and delicious that will please the people waiting for it.

Oddly enough, the profit margins in publishing and fine dining about the same, too -- and want to guess how much the average chef makes these days? Full-time, based on national averages, about $15-20K per year (which is about twice what the average pro writer makes. Maybe we're in the wrong business.)

As with gourmet meals, people will put up with a lot of things for a great read: terrible atmosphere, lousy ambience, neglectful service, obnoxious patrons at the next table, etc. Devoted novel lovers will put in pre-orders for their favorites and wait for weeks or even months for that one particular writer to deliver their specialty of the moment. If the novel sucks, however, just as in restaurants with lousy food, those people won't be back.

Writers have to compete with each other at the burners, and then shut up and step out of the way when a better-seller chooses to waltz in and take over the menu. Across the street there is always some Red Lobster or Olive Garden publisher, churning out yet another all-you-can-eat trendfest. They work off the theory that quantity outsells quality, and maybe they're right, because they're always busy. If your books don't sell, your publisher will be letting you go, because there is a line of writers a mile long standing outside the delivery door, just waiting for their one shot at the chopping block.

Not everyone is going to like what you offer them. If you've got someone in the dining room who has been stuffing themselves at other restaurants with nothing but vanilla sponge cake with pink frosting for dessert, and you dare send out a slice of dark chocolate ganache, they're going to complain. It's dark, it's bitter, whatever. Their palette is so dulled by the crap they scarf that they can't appreciate what you're offering. If you combine ingredients in a way that's never been done before, and present your patrons with something entirely new, no matter how delicious it is, they're going to view it with suspicion. They may not even taste it because -- as my kids often say -- it looks weird.

Then there are those regular patrons who send back their plates to show the chef who's really the boss. The "shut up and cook" ax-grinders who can't imagine why they lower themselves to eat at our lousy restaurant but still show up, every single time we're on. Love to cook for people like that. I do wonder if they realize how often they gobble up something without noticing the little additions we made especially for them, like the crumbled cockroach and the saliva glaze.

The one thing we have to do when we're in the great kitchen of publishing is focus on preparing the dish at hand. When we're cooking up our books, the only way to create a great story is to give it our full attention. Choosing the novel's ingredients, preparing them, combining them and making them work together as a story is the job, and that's all it is. You get distracted by other things -- how the meal is listed on the menu, how quickly it's served, how much comes back and what the fatass food critic who got his meal comped said about it -- and what you've got simmering on the back of the stove is going to start burning or go cold.

Now that I've depressed you or wrecked your diet, I've got to go stir-fry a dark fantasy. If your writing was a cuisine or a particular dish, what would it be?


  1. Anonymous1:40 AM

    This analogy is quite apt, now that I think about it. My ex was a chef, and I recall him mentioning that there were two things that will lose an audience for a chef: one, no variation whatsoever in the menu's range (even the Olive Gardens and Outback Steakhouses of the world do introduce new dishes and retire old ones, if at a slower pace).

    The other isn't obvious, intuitively, but makes sense when you think about it: if there's too much variation. There are restaurants I've visited where the same dish goes from fabulous to completely horrendous to back again, between three visits. Or the menu is completely different every time, which rather defeats the purpose (for some of us) of sometimes just having a taste for that really great dish we had last time.

    A chef with no consistency is, in fact, as much the kiss of death as the chef with too much. It's the same, now that I think about it, as writers: those who write the same characters and plotlines bore me by the second book (as I figure out what's up). And writers who are radically different from book to book don't bore me, just leave me cold; the point of having read an author is to get a sense of a known entity, to some degree. Otherwise I must treat every book as brand-new stranger all over again, and that gets tiresome when I want something with the same verve as that great dish I had the last time I stopped by.

    It doesn't have to be the exact same -- some variation is needed -- but a completely new menu, entirely, upon every visit just wears the customers out.

  2. I wanted to become a pastry chef for awhile.

    Then it occurred to me that I don't really want to divide myself between two passions, starving writer plus starving chef still equals starving person, and hey, if I write, I can still go to school and find a job that pays much better than doing pastry. Plus I can bake, afford to go to pastry school and buy all those professional books/toys once I become a millionaire writer. *g*

    The point of all this was to say that I love the analogy.

  3. just waiting for their one shot at the chopping block

    Just like chickens, in fact ...

    My books are like raw steak - all irony.

  4. What an interesting and apt analogy, S.!

    At the moment, I see writing NaNo as a university student with not much in the 'fridge. So the books are a little of this, and a little of that, all in one pot. The result is usually something with an array of flavours; a bit of action, a good helping of dialogue and sex with some minced plot, a dash of 'what the...?', a sprinkling of 'now, where was I?', overly spiced by a sudden villain with a dubious motive, all mixed together with a rabid hand.

    When cooked, it tastes... different, half done, parts overcooked and with a lot of stuff that really shouldn't be there. Of course, with a bit of refinement and care, it may well turn out to be a marvellous new dish, but who shows them off in top-notch restaurants without a lot of practice?

    Other times, they're middle list, I think, with interesting twists. And I like that: so I guess I'm nouvelle (hah!) cuisine, but with more on your plate so you don't starve.

  5. At the moment, a bowl of alphabet soup, with too much broth and not enough noodles to form anything that makes sense!

  6. You're asking us to be OBJECTIVE?
    I hope it's high tea...

  7. Anonymous7:56 AM

    Honestly, it would most closely resemble a stew: the ingredients are pulled out only when I need them, and then some surprises are tossed in when I find them in the back of the fridge, and it takes some time for the entire thing to mellow, congeal, and then hit the table, after a liberal addition of spice.

    On a side note, if I could cook as well as I write, there might be less macaroni and cheese in my cabinet. ^-*

  8. *Off to find some chocolate and lock herself in a closet somewhere.*

  9. I got my book! I love my book! Thank you! I have been in a Poor Little Me mood and this broke it because it felt like getting a present. THANK YOU!

  10. A cake maybe and I've just realized I don't have everythign I need to make it but I already broke the eggs and creamed them with the sugar and added vanilla. An expensive mess to throw out.

  11. oh and my writing would be hash. Leftovers and cheap starches mixed together. Hence the mood.

    Thank you again!

  12. Anonymous9:46 AM

    Hand shaped hamburgers, grilled to juicy perfection on an outdoor charcoal grill, macaroni salad, rippled potato chips, melon, and ice cold Coke (or Pepsi) out of a battered cooler. All served on a picnic table covered with a red-checkered tablecloth in a grove of blooming fruit trees.

    Put your feet up on the mouldering corpse hidden by the table cloth, and enjoy!

    Thank you for the essay. I needed it today.

  13. Monday Mystery Dish

    I never know what I'm doing til it's done.

  14. My historical romances = a warm chocolate brownie. Rich, lush, and just a little nauseating if you eat the whole thing at once.

  15. Anonymous12:04 PM

    This is completely off topic, but did you know Cherijo has a MySpace page? She just friended me. I can send you the link, if you like....

  16. Anonymous12:50 PM

    Love the analogy, lol.

    My dish?
    A gumbo, I think. A little bit of dis, a little bit of dat. The ingredients are from all over the place, but the tangy sauce helps them come together--that, and a very dry wine.

    And it hasn't earned a place on the menu yet.

  17. Anonymous1:08 PM

    What a fabulous analogy.

    Years ago, my family would go to a little living history event in Tennessee, held in the end of June. Hotter than blazes. Out of gratitude and sheer Southern manners, the locals always fed the volunteers a free meal on Saturday night. Barbecued goat, with all the appropriate fixings. (There was also the more conventional barbecued pork for the faint of heart.) The most convenient location to serve the food was set up next to a little cemetery, on top of a hill.

    We still talk about eating barbecued goat in the cemetery at Parker’s Cross Roads.

    That’s what I want to be. A little quirky, a little macabre, specific to a particular time and place, well-seasoned. The kind of offering that provokes a specific reaction – either ‘yum’ or ‘yuck’ – with not much in between.

  18. My writing is the two guys arguing in the back.

    One's saying, "look, if you left out some of the cornstarch, the sauce would flow better," while the other's saying, "never mind the sauce, throw in some meat!"

  19. I say with all certainty that I'm making gumbo. (wg) The goal is to feed the people simple food with LOTS of flavor. :)

  20. My stuff is assorted cheese and crackers. Sharp and edgy at times, rich and tangy others, but usually pretty easy to eat :) No fuss, no muss.

  21. Original Roman receipes carefully adapted to modern taste. This can be pretty awful or and absolutely delicious like the menu I got in Trier - it was then I understood why the Roman upper class made such a fuss about food. :)

  22. Anonymous10:11 PM

    Mine would be some kind of dessert with healthy ingredients snuck in. Fruit and nuts, for instance. : D

  23. Anonymous12:24 AM

    Um,concerning average Chef salary - are you trying to be funny or spreading false info?
    Prep cooks or line cooks might make that little, but chefs or head cooks make more like 35K - plus on average!
    Good writers can match that no problem!


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