If you start with substandard ingredients your broth will be clear and your soup unflavorful and disgusting. You wouldn’t serve cold french fries and stale bread to your in-laws would you? (OK, don’t answer that!)
Every stew begins with individual ingredients: stock, veggies, meat, herbs and seasonings, flour for thickening. These ingredients are similar to preparing your story: characters, location, conflict. It is the type of ingredients we choose and how they are combined that determines the quality of final product.
Unfortunately, I had to admit: I was a terrible cook.
Choosing the Right Menu
Is your meal for children or adults? This makes a big difference in the ingredients chosen and how it is prepared. Broccoli. Adults yes, Kids not so much. (I could have said Turnips, but then no one would eat.)
Evaluating my previous writing and interests I discovered I love stories where kids are the heroes. Of the three novels I am currently writing it was the Adult novel that had me stumped. Bully of Burke, stems from a dream I had over 14 years ago. Although I could vividly see the story in my head I struggled putting it down on paper.
I began to wonder if the problem was my choice of target audience? Switching “Bully” to a YA novel made perfect sense. It wasn’t working as an Adult book, so the problem must be the audience, right? I scrapped my writing and started again.
The story moved quickly, 1000, 2500, 7000 words! I was thrilled. I was on the right track, then…. I hit a wall again. What was going on? I had a good story, I knew it was good, so why was I having so much difficultly getting it down?
Starting from Scratch
Frustrated, I put all my work aside to clear my mind. I worked on my blog, posted on facebook and twitter – I did anything unrelated to fiction writing. Relaxing. Relaxing. While reading a book on photographer TN Banard, I noticed a photograph of an unknown prostitute (circa 1880). I looked at this not very attractive woman, smiling back at me — her hair, eyes, they held a story. A story that she wanted to tell me.
Though the photo listed the woman as “unknown”, I called her Nellie. She started revealing her life to me. It was so hauntingly sad yet inspiringly beautiful. A woman so shattered by life, yet still holding onto hope – knowing that someday, somehow, she’ll have the strength to rise above the ashes to victory and love. I needed to tell her story.
As I flipped through the book another photo caught my eye, and two more characters talked to me (in some instances at the same time). One on the side of the law, the other not so much. The conflicts and anger radiated from the image, and again I was entranced by their stories.
Prime Rib and Cold French Fries
I took my new “meaty” characters and added them to my original Bully of Burke stock. I read through the entire manuscript and found myself hating everything until the new characters. The original story was weak, and lifeless compared to Nellie. They just didn’t go together.
I even hated my protagonist. He was watery, mushy and with no flavor. A cold, limp french fry. So I extracted the little bugger before he could spoil my stew. Turning my focus on the antagonist I wondered if he, too, would meet the same fate?
I envisioned his scarred face, miss-shaped nose, deep-set eyes under a heavy brow. The eyes held pain and hurt, but something more. He was a quality ingredient — a prime rib marbled with complexities and flavor.
This was exciting. My antagonist had potential – a quality ingredient in a plot that would allow him to improve the stock. So far so good. I pulled another character from the pages and ran him thorough the same, forensic analysis.
Anything that was sub-standard was tossed into the recycle bin. Friend or foe, all went under the scrutiny of the master chef. No low-quality veggies for my stew.
The Plot Thickens
My first draft was weak, with watery stock and low-quality characters. By starting over, I used only the best — stirring, adding spices and new ingredients when needed.
Then I turned up the heat. Would my choices stand the test? So far, the ingredients are reacting perfectly filling the air with an intoxicating and enticing aroma. As the stock beg1ns to boil and thicken, I remove any ingredient that doesn’t improve the flavor. My story is becoming a flavorful and enticing bowl of home-made stew.
At some time in our lives we have all eaten a “meal to die for” — the one that melts on your tongue, explodes flavor and delight in your mouth — the one that you audibly state “YUM!”
I want that kind of story. I took a hard look at the quality of my ingredients and made choices. It is difficult to cut out characters before they evolve, but if they aren’t right for they story, they need to be reshelved. Now, I have a strong plot held together with strong characters.
I can’t wait to eat!