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Posts Tagged ‘setting’

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.

Here goes:

  • 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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When you’re skimming through a book to see whether you’d want to invest your time in reading it, what are the things that you look for?

Imagery and sense of humor are the two things that catch my attention – in addition to overarching elements like genre, setting, pace and plot, of course – when I’m trying to decide whether a book is worth reading or not.

(If given a choice, I would never reject any book, because every one of them has a lesson to teach a writer, be it: “how to do things right” or “what mistakes not to make as a writer”. However, because of the fact that the time at our disposal is not unlimited, sometimes, regrettably, I put down a book just after judging it by its cover and/or the content of its jacket flap.)

Sometimes, even if the plotline of a book doesn’t appeal to me, I go ahead and finish reading it just because I love the author’s voice and style of expression.

So, what is this Style or Voice of a writer?

William Strunk Jr. and E.B.White say this in The Elements of Style:

With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints.

I couldn’t agree more with what Strunk Jr. and White claim and have a personal experience along the exact lines of what they opine.

I happen to adore an English author called “Miss Read” (it was a pseudonym for Dora Saint) and have read almost all the books she has ever written — some even multiple times.

Once, I came across a book called “A Light in the Window” by American author Jan Karon (it was a few months after the first book in her ‘Mitford’ series was released – this series went on to become quite popular soon).

I chose to read that book because it sounded like I would enjoy the rural setting and the sedate pace of the book (which are trademarks of Miss Read’s books).

I brought it home from the library and as I began to read it, my heart began to beat faster. (Hey, I already admitted to being an incurable bookworm, didn’t I?)

Reason? The setting of the book and the voice of the author reminded me very much of Miss Read’s books. I quickly flipped to the back cover of the book and skimmed through the snippet of information included there about the author.

And sure enough, Jan Karon had acknowledged that she’d written that book inspired by none other than Miss Read.

You cannot imagine the elation I felt at having recognized the voice of Miss Read not in one of the books she had written, but in a book inspired by her.

You sit down at a desk, relax and let the words flow naturally – this is how your voice as a writer is born.

A writer’s voice is what sets her apart from any other writer. Even if two writers are given the same story line and asked to write a book each, based upon their choice of words, i.e., their style and voice, chances are the two outcomes end up looking completely different.

A novice writer’s voice may be the result of a lot of things, among which some possibilities are:

  • The influence of the voice of authors that she likes
  • His personality traits
  • Her linguistic ability
  • The way he expresses himself when he speaks
  • Elements of those books that make them enjoyable for her
  • His training and past experiences etc.

The same voice may not work for all genres and age groups. For instance:

  • A younger children’s book needs a faster pace, lesser description and more humorous sequences, while a young adult book can invest more pages in imagery and narration of the setting. 

 

  • A historical YA romance begs for a voice completely different from a contemporary, realistic coming-of-age MG book.

Having said that, an author’s voice may change some based on the genre or the age group, and emerge and evolve as the person grows as a writer, but the underlying distinguishable elements  of her voice will remain the same (unless the writer in question works consciously in adapting a completely new voice and style for reasons for her own).

Here are a few things I discovered since I began to write myself:

  • The main characters in my books have – at least aspire for – a sarcastic bent of voice (the sarcasm being of the self-deprecatory type rather than the variety which puts others down).

 

  • I like to take my time to describe a setting — I subconsciously personify inanimate things and interpret images through their purported actions/characteristics.

Lo and behold – these are the exact two things that I enjoy in the books that I read! It doesn’t mean that I sat down one day and decided that this is what my Style would be as a writer. Quite the contrary – it just happened naturally.

  • What makes you tick as a reader?

 

  • If you happen to write also, then what are the major attributes in your Voice? And does your writer’s voice have elements in common with those features in the books that you cherish as a reader?

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