Amongst those many people I have lived with, my cooking habits approach the notorious. Alarmingly, these habits have changed very little; Poppy, my best friend through my early teens, once fell victim to my favourite culinary past-time of throwing everything to hand in a blender, a habit I still carry out to this day, the only difference being that I now control what’s in the cupboard and because I dislike shopping even more than I dislike cooking, there are less things to hand to poison oneself and ones friends with.
It’s a method of cooking I blame my father for. He never followed a recipe if didn’t have to, or even when he did, he considered it a loose guide, like a series of suggestions just waiting to be improved upon. Why make the same boring thing as everyone else when you could make something UNIQUE?!
Consequently my attitude towards the kitchen tends to turn out things accurately described as ‘slop’, of which I make and freeze a weekly batch because the idea of preparing food every day literally reduces me to tears. Consequently, the kinds of slop I produce involve a lot of the right ingredients, but combined with no art, no care, no regard for valid rules of culinary practice and so are palatable to myself (with my extremely low standards) only.
Now thanks to last week’s re-education by Kristen Lamb I spent yesterday under the tuition of Messieurs Gladwin, Snyder and Vogel, taking their respective story beats and laying them down in the context of my book. What I was relieved to discover what that I had most of the right ingredients, just not in the right order and often in flagrant disregard to the valid rules of dramatic practice.
What I was embarrassed entertained to later realise, determinedly pushing pedals up the royal road with knackered legs that protested every revolution, was that I wrote the first draft of The Sinless Sword with exactly the same technique I approach cooking: taking all the ingredients to hand, throwing them together, and hoping for the best. This yielded the same result as my infamous slop: something made of all the right ingredients, yet palatable only to myself. And right now, that is so freaking obvious.
Laying out the beats of the book is like running a MOT on the story: checking all the elements are present, accounted for and doing the right thing at the right time, which is where I’ve been failing before. Previous versions of chapters thrust upon helpful friends have come back with comments generally praising the writing, but absolutely baffled about the story itself. This week, I’ve had two readers actually ‘get’ the book.
Structure is now officially my bitch. Not my prison, not a generic cookie-cutter that’s going to give me an unoriginal book you’ve read a thousand times before, but a framework that’s going to strengthen my story and allow it to fulfil its promise. If you think I’m slavishly converted here, read this from Kristen about why you are wrong. There are exceptions to all rules, but know the rules first.
And please don’t think I’ve never looked at it before now with my scripts – I’ve long been a convert to the basic elements. But between the work of Phil Gladwin, Blake Snyder and Christopher Vogler’s translation of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, I now have 10 pages of outline beaten out with logic, pace and most importantly (at least, I sincerely hope…) resonance. My idea for the end of the book wasn’t translating through my first draft; like the magical taste that makes a dish, it was lost in clumsy, unbalanced chaos of the other ingredients. I have so much work to do from this point, but I am unbelievably excited about doing it because now I’m pretty damn sure the book will work. There are still numerous ways I can screw it up, but it’s now shaping up an awful lot closer to something people will want to read than it was last week.
[however for my nearest and dearest who might hope this means a transformation in my culinary arts, I’ll just point out that writing to structure is hugely time consuming and I am still the laziest person on the planet when it comes to meals, therefore I fully intend to devote all available time to the book and allow shortcuts to remain in the kitchen…!]
Kristen Lamb’s Warrior Writers Blog
Phil Gladwin’s Screenwriting Goldmine (available hard copy or electronically incl audio)
Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers