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I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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Miss Read: it’s the name of one of my all-time favorite authors. Dora Saint was her real name, but she was better known by her pseudonym, Miss Read.

Dora Saint worked as a school teacher before she began to write full time. She admittedly gleaned many of the subjects and topics for her numerous novels and short stories from her real life experiences while living and teaching in rural England.

She wrote three popular series of novels — among other fiction and non-fiction volumes — set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green, Fairacre and Caxley in the English countryside. (As far as I know she wrote only two books set in Caxley as opposed to at least a dozen in each of the other two.)

When my sister first introduced Miss Read to me close to two decades ago, it was a perfect opportunity for me to transition my childhood love for Enid Blyton’s rural England to a more mature appreciation for the lifestyle via Miss Read’s books. The settings and happenings in Miss Read’s novels couldn’t be farther from the hustle and bustle of my own life; I couldn’t devour the books fast enough. Luckily for me, and scores of others who adored her books, she has had a prolific writing career.

On the surface, the stories follow the laidback routines of pastoral England with its thatched cottages and primly laid out gardens. If you care to delve deeper into the pages, however, you will have gained a firmer understanding of the basic human emotions such as: love, curiosity, competition, eccentricities and companionship.

Dora Saint, the author, does not sit on a pedestal and pass judgment on her characters. Rather, her writing is a testimony to her incisive, but compassionate, study of the human psyche and its usual (or not so usual, at times) foibles. And that’s what makes the books so precious in their quality.

Each of the books set in Thrush Green chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of that lush and charming Cotswold village. Who can forget the unparalleled eccentricities of Dotty Harmer; the righteous laziness of Albert Piggott; the cheroot-smoking boisterousness of Ella Bembridge; the nonchalant promiscuousness of Nelly Tilling; the epic miserliness of the Misses Lovestock? You can’t help but fall in love with each of these utterly disarming characters.

Fairacre books feature the school teacher Miss. Read and her supposedly uncomplicated life as it becomes entwined with those of the others in the village and thus adds another full year to her life in each volume. Each character helps make Miss Read’s spinsterly life (which she means to keep that way despite the constant wooing of one or two beaus and the innumerable attempts of the villagers to get her hooked up) read delectably rich and engaging.

Among many others, Dora Saint has inspired Jan Karon, the American author who wrote Mitford Series. Irish musician Enya named two tracks in two of her albums after Miss Read’s novels.

Dora Saint passed away on 12th April of this year. However, she lives on through the numerous characters she brought to life with the gentle strokes of her pen.

I can never tire of Miss Read’s works; they only get dearer to me each time I re-read them.

In fact, Miss Read’s books to me are what “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” are for Maria in The Sound of Music.

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