Monday, January 28, 2013

The Taste

I'm a sucker for a good cooking competition show. I watch Chopped and Iron Chef (the original and the American version) religiously and I watch Master Chef and Top Chef when I can. Last week I watched the pilot episode of The Taste (Tuesday Nights on ABC). In the show, both professional chefs and home cooks competed side by side. Each were given the task of preparing the perfect bite of a dish of their choice. The judges (Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre, and Brian Malarkey) had to make a decision based on that bite, and that bite alone, on whether or not they wanted the cook to compete on their team. The best part is that the tasting is done blind. The judges don't know what the dish is or who cooked it.

I was pleasantly surprised (which seems to be a growing trend for me) but not by the food. Don't get me wrong, many of the dishes were things that I'd love to taste myself. However, as good as that was and for as many times I said "oh my gosh someone needs to invent-smell-o-vision," the stand out aspect of the show was the judges reactions. Some of the more sophisticated, gastro pub-ish dishes that I was sure would be loved by all, were panned across the board as being un-original or lacking a bit of _____. There were also several bites where the judges couldn't identify the components. These are all well travelled individuals with experienced and perhaps even refined palates. Heck, after nine seasons of No Reservations, there isn't much that Anthony Bourdain hasn't put in his mouth. If anyone could identify an obscure ingredient, it should be him. So when he and the other judges couldn't identify Chilean sea bass, I was taken aback. This isn't a rare ingredient. How could they not know?

Well apparently, it's a lot harder than anyone could have predicted. After much consideration, I concluded that their befuddlement wasn't due to any fault on the judges' part but the unexpected result of the blind tasting. Because so many foods have equally tasty cousins, unless you've got the taste buds of a sommelier, it can be really hard to tell the difference between Atlantic cod and Chilean sea bass, for instance. While the mystery aspect was one of the show's biggest draws, and certainly its most interesting twist, it meant that in many cases, the judges couldn't give the dishes the merit that it deserved. How could they judge if an ingredient was cooked properly if they didn't know what that ingredient was? There were several instances where as soon as they were told what the dish was, they understood it and therefore wanted its creator on their team. Unfortunately, by then they'd already logged in their vote and it was too late to change their minds.

Another interesting development was that more home cooks were chosen than professionals. The dishes prepared by the professional chefs stood out from the others because their mastery of certain cooking techniques or their knife skills gave them away. As soon as the judges picked up on it, they instantly held the chefs to a higher standard. Any flaw, whether it was a lack of acidity or not enough salt, was enough to send them home. But if those flaws were in a dish made by someone who was obviously a home cook, most of the time they let it slide.

It occurred to me that because of these two elements, the show has something in common with publishing. Like the show's contestants, we spend a great deal of time and put an equal amount of thought into our creations. Because of that we have a lot of faith in our work and have a lot of hopes riding on it as well. There's nothing wrong with that. It's human nature. What I do find to be wrong is reacting negatively to rejection. Some of the contestants cursed and stormed off while others graciously accepted the criticism and vowed to do better in the future. Again, both reactions are normal for the situation, but where I feel that the former erred was that they either forgot or didn't realize that their reaction was our final and most lasting impression. Lets theorize for a moment that a restaurant owner looking for a new executive chef watched the show. I think it's pretty clear which contestant would have a better shot at that position. No one wants to work with a jerk.

It's the same with agents, editors, colleagues, readers, and everyone else involved in the publishing industry. If you're nice, professional, and a likable person in general, you'll get a lot farther. It may not necessarily get you published, but it will get you farther. I've lost count of the number of books I've bought just because the author was really nice. Also in the example I mentioned earlier, we also saw this effectiveness of this on The Taste when the judges liked a dish after they met and spoke with its creator.

I realize that none of these revelations are earth shattering, but I always think it's interesting how many parallels can be drawn between creative pursuits of any kind.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Project WtFS

I thought today I'd give an update on how my new "write the fucking sentence" approach is going. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go back and read Sage Wisdom.

When I first approached the idea it was with the expectation that it would take a few weeks to see results. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I've written at the same sluggish pace for over a decade. (I won't say how far past a decade. A girl has to have some secrets.) A habit that long standing should be a difficult one to break. However, I wasn't going to let that deter me because even if I failed, I wouldn't be writing any slower than before.

Guess what? I saw immediate results. On my first try I wrote an additional hundred words per hour. PER HOUR!

So, how did I do it? If I noticed that I had spent more than a minute mulling over how to word a sentence, I replayed Lee's wise words in my mind, and wrote the sentence. I know. It was all so simple I wanted to bang my head against the wall. If the nearest wall wasn't rough stucco, I would have. (Seriously, have you ever banged your head against stucco? It freaking hurts!) When I looked at the numbers after that first session I felt like such an idiot for crippling myself with indecision for so long. Yet at the same time, I was so happy to be past the block that it didn't matter.

Some of you might be saying that it was just one experience and that it might not last. Well, I've followed this philosophy during every writing session for the last two weeks and I've seen the same results. Heck, last Friday I wrote 1K in a little over three hours! It used to take me all day to get that kind of word count. This new pace has opened up all sorts of possibilities for me. I can write more in a year, I can actually do some housework (a weird thing to be excited for, but there you have it), and I can take time off for a con or two and not feel guilty. But this new freedom isn't the best part. What astounded me the most was that the words I threw on the page, weren't that bad. They were actually better than I had expected to see when I first considered this. Who knew?

So with absolutely no regret, I can say that from now on, that sound bite of Lee will be echoing in my mind while I write from here on out.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Upping the ante

Earlier this month I volunteered to lead a weekly group discussion on Brandon Sanderson's writing class lectures. The plan was to watch and discuss one lecture a week. It wasn't going to be a big time commitment and I could easily squeeze it in to my schedule. However, it occurred to me that since we were discussing the class lectures we could go one step further and really make it as authentic as possible. How? By re-creating his class.

Write About Dragons not only has video of all of Brandon's lectures, it outlines the course format. The key items that I proposed we re-create are the writing groups and the 50,000 word novel (or short story collection) over four months. Again, doing this wasn't going to be a big stretch since I needed to write that much on my WIP in order to finish it by my deadline. I also didn't expect anyone to jump for it since whenever I try to plan something I hear the Oregon symphonic cricket chorus sing their greatest hits. (It's more depressing than country western muzak. Trust me.)

It was at this time that life hit the fan and I had to drop half of my obligations so I could help with family stuff. No one died, it was just one of those things where it was all hands on deck crisis management and I just happened to have the most flexible schedule. Oh yeah, and I love my family. But since no ever comes to a party I organize I had no worries.

Well, this time I was happy to discover that I was wrong. Honestly, I shouldn't have doubted the group. We are writers and this is after all, what we do. But I was so astounded by the response...and the responsibility because oh-holy-fudge-monkeys, I have to run this thing. I tell you, I almost had kittens. For two days all I could think about was how in the world I was going to pull this off on top of everything else. That's when the most wonderful thing happened.

Someone volunteered to help.

The glorious song that filled the air at that moment killed the cricket chorus and made me the happiest non-thug on the West side. (Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. However, no one can prove that I used a flamethrower on the crickets during my "Yay! I have help!" celebratory dance.) The joy didn't stop there. Others followed suit by answering questions for me while I was away being Super-Auntie. It was fantastic! If the tank on the flamethrower wasn't empty I would have performed another celebratory dance.

Now, any other person would say thank you and move on, but I just can't do that. You see, I'm accustomed to being the Lone Ranger. I rarely ask for help when I'm overwhelmed because when I have, that damned cricket chorus would rear their ugly heads and I'd end up doing it all myself anyway. Besides, my problems usually aren't as grave as others. I don't have Jay Lake's problems so my lot isn't really that bad and since it isn't that bad, I don't need assistance.

However, to have not just one but many people pinch hit for me last week -- without being asked -- is wondrous! It made me proud to be a writer and proud to be a member of the Superstars alumni because they're the ones who stepped up. I've written in the past about how we, as writers, need to stand together and support one another so we can whether the professional and personal storms that come our way. I never expected to be the recipient of such support so early in my career. The acts may have been small, but they were exactly what I needed in this tempest and, at least for me, proved the importance of  community. While this may be new to me, I can't wait until I can pay it forward. I'm going to have to wait because I'm still a bit overwhelmed and will be for a couple months. But when the storm has passed I will eagerly await an opportunity to pinch hit for someone else.

In the meantime, keep sharing the love and wisdom. (And the flamethrower fuel.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sage wisdom

Last month I had one of those "I hate this story it sucks" moment. It's not the first and I doubt it'll be the last. This one was particularly significant because of what happened a couple days later.

I was chatting with Lee Moyer after an event and as usual I received some unexpected advice. If you haven't met Lee, I should explain that not only is he an amazing artist, he's one of the sweetest men on the planet. He also has a habit of giving out unexpected advice and the occasional psycho-analysis to those he cares about. No really, he does and it's not annoying at all. He's says it so sweetly that it's impossible to be offended (which is good because what he says would be hard to hear under other circumstances). On this particular night his advice concerned the real reason as to why I hated my story.

I was being stupid.

That's not what he said per se, but that was his point. Lee explained to me that many artists, regardless of medium, reach a point about halfway to three-quarters through a project where they hate everything about it. They hate the flaws, they hate how much time it's taking to complete, they hate the concept...and when that happens, you have two choices.

1) You can give up.
2) You can press on and finish the project.

Obviously, option two is the right choice because no one wants to buy an unfinished project. So how does a frustrated writer get out of this mess? This was Lee's answer:

"Write the fucking sentence."

I have to admit, this made me laugh. He was so sweet when he said it, it was hard not to. (Did I mention that he's a sweetie?) I was also a little sad that I'm not a romance writer. If I was than I could take his advice literally.

But all levity aside, he's right (as usual). I needed to get over myself and "write the fucking sentence". I was wasting too much time and energy grousing about what the story wasn't when I could have been using that time and energy to make it what I wanted. The "if you polish a turd, it's still a turd" mentality wasn't going to get me anywhere and (as Lee also pointed out) may be crippling me. During the course of our conversation I mentioned that I felt pressured to write as perfect a first draft as possible. I know, that's a ridiculous expectation, but I only have a few hours a day in which to write and I've never been able to compose faster than 250 words an hour. Seriously. That has been my pace since high school. However, wonderful Lee pointed out that if I just wrote the fucking sentence, my pace may increase considerably.

So, with an optimistic mindset, I'm going to do my best to implement this from here on out. I've got nothing to lose but some old bad habits. There's no reason why I should continue to hamstring myself with an "artistic temperament". Besides, if I don't knuckly down and "write the fucking sentence" Lee will scowl at me and we can't have that.