Baking a Cake, or, Why I Don’t Draft my Stories in Order

With tonight being the exception that proves the rule, I don’t burn our dinners. I have a good 20-some meals in my arsenal that I can pull out and make, many of them from memory. And they’re usually tasty enough to get by. At least, they’re tasty enough that my husband cooks less than once a month (feminists, don’t worry: he does all the dishes).

But while my cooking is passable, it’s baking that I excel at. I need numbers, measurements, precision. It’s how I think. It’s also why I get panic attacks at the idea of playing an RPG, but that’s another blog post. (Want to hear that story? Let me know in the comments and I’ll write it up. It’s probably not as good as what you are imagining.)

Tasty chocolate cake batter.

Cakes are full of things that are either 1) completely and utterly flavorless and kind of gross alone, or 2) completely and utterly unhealthy when consumed in large amounts. For category 1, see flour and baking soda/powder. For category 2, see butter, sugar, vanilla… But when they’re combined, they make something tasty like the batter above (and you’re not supposed to eat it, because eggs, but whatever). It’s then baking the batter that makes a cake.

When I’m writing, I like to work like I like to bake. First I combine the utterly flavorless bits: the flour, salt, and baking soda for a cake. This is the boring part: deciding on points of view, structure, character motivation, theme, what dramatic arc to follow, etc. I personally need all of that in place as a foundation before I can think about the creative things.

Then I mix the butter and sugar together. I have to admit, when I’m baking, I’ll sometimes sneak a taste after this part. It’s ridiculously unhealthy, but I love the taste of buttery sugar in small quantities. For writing, this is when I write the good bits, the scenes that were oozing out of my head that I just had to get down. They’re the reason I started writing the story in the first place. Those scenes are few and won’t hold the story together on the whole, but getting them written down gives me a taste of what to come.

Since my outlines, no matter how detailed, aren’t usually enough to get me through a first draft, I have to add in mechanical scenes, scenes that just get me from here to there. These are my eggs: in the batter, they’re completely inedible and at this point they’re not really adding anything. At this point in baking, eggs are both necessary for cohesion and the reason I can’t chow down on the batter without baking it.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar and eggs, and the story starts to take shape. Scenes are arranged in order, tension is reworked, and the whole thing is beginning to look very tasty. But cake batter is not a cake.

Not cake.

It’s in the oven where the magic happens. The chemistry from the boring bits mixes with the inedible eggs and allows the sugary scenes to rise. The whole thing becomes a cohesive unit: you can’t spoon it out anymore; it needs sliced in order to separate it. You have a story. For me, it can’t happen without this level of revision.

Unfrosted cake.

We’re left with something edible, like the unfrosted cake above. The eggs are cooked, the cake is cohesive, and it is now definitely called cake. But I’m picky. My cakes need frosting. This is the polishing phase of drafting a manuscript. Every word is questioned, rephrased, made perfect. Like I mentioned, phrases need accessories. They need dressed up and edited down before they can become something truly presentable.

Something like this:

wedding cake

Do you write linearly or do you combine ingredients?

Don’t forget to check out my line edit giveaway!

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