Writing is Like Baking a Cake

This may seem like a weird analogy, but hear me out because I think it has a lot of merit. Writing is like baking a cake, in many ways, with books being the end result. Books are cake. We have all eaten some cake well before trying to bake one and therefore are exposed to what cake is and how delicious it can be before we even think of making our own. Many people enjoy cake without ever having the desire to make one. This is why I am comparing the consumption of cake to reading.

Eating Cake

We learn to read before we learn to write and all writers fall in love with storytelling through reading before they ever desire to create their own stories. Reading is kind of like research, just like eating cake can be research. You can of course simply enjoy the cake without making note of anything, but bakers will look for what makes the cake good or bad or figure out why they or others like it. The same goes for writers. We read extensively and often will break a book down to figure out how it works. We read a lot of different authors, genres, etc. to better know how to craft a good story. Bakers try different cakes to experience the different flavor combinations, density, icing styles, etc.

Through eating cake, bakers can study and learn all there is to know about cakes and what makes them great. They will know why some cakes are more popular than others but they also have their own taste. They may think a chocolate cake combined with chocolate icing is too sweet. They may prefer a white cake with fruit filling. There are cakes for different occasions or moods and, though we do have favorites, it is very hard to eat the same thing over and over without mixing things up every once in a while.

Exploring the possibilities of cake through eating is essential and can be done without ever having learned what a recipe is.

Finding the Best Recipe

Recipes are great. They are structure and, if followed correctly, will produce what they promise. It is best to follow a recipe when first learning how to bake a cake because you learn the basics. After several attempts, there will likely be a few mistakes such as adding too much flower or forgetting the butter or accidentally using baking soda versus baking powder. You learn what each ingredient adds to the cake and how to tweak recipes to get the kind of cake you are wanting. After many attempts, you’ll have the basics down and may start experimenting. You’ll also know exactly how long to bake the cake to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

This is where many essential lessons are learned. First, not all cakes will come out exactly as you plan. You may picture a perfect three-tier cake with a cool icing pattern but may end up with some distorted Leaning Tower of Pisa. Secondly, baking cakes is a lot of work. Because you realize the hard work that goes into baking cakes, you now better appreciate the great cakes you get to eat. You are also able to determine why you don’t like some cakes. Not just the easy reason, such as the icing and cake combo or ratio doesn’t seem right, but specific reasons like they didn’t use enough eggs. You realize that a lot of the early work in learning to bake ends up with a lot of cakes in the trash. Many aspiring bakers may give up at this point. They realize the work needed to become a master of this craft, and they either are too impatient or too lazy to perfect their practice. Those who stick with it will eventually be able to make the cake they always dreamed of, and you are still baking.

This is when you move to the fun stuff. You have learned recipes and know exactly what is needed to bake the cakes you want to make. You are free to deviate from the recipes or make your own. After all, following a recipe is simply baking a cake someone else created. You can start experimenting and bake some really good cakes. Sometimes you will try things that don’t work and need to start over. You may try making cupcakes and venture into a few baking items outside of just cakes. You will explore and continue to learn. The important thing is that you are still baking. You are still creating and are learning how to make great cakes.

You are now a baker in your own right. You love baking and you want to make cakes forever. But that isn’t enough. Baking takes a lot of time and effort and you want others to eat and enjoy your cake.

(I could go into choices of ingredients and cake pans and styles and icing and prolong this analogy forever, but I’ll wrap things up soon.)

Serving Cake

Some bakers are okay making cakes out of a box instead of really getting into it and learning how to bake from scratch. Some bakers perfect their recipe and make the same cake over and over. Both of these bakers do well and many people eat their cakes. But you want to make many different cakes and you want people to eat them. Letting others eat the cake can be hard at first because you put a lot of work into it and want people to enjoy it.

You may try a local bake sale. You may send some cakes out to shops to see if they are interested in selling your cakes in their stores. you may get responses like “this cake is good, but it just isn’t right for our store” or “we are interested in your cakes, can you send us another sample”. You may get a few irrational responses like “this is the worst cake I’ve ever eaten” and even though you know your cake is good, and everyone’s taste buds are different, that response will dig in a bit and try to convince you that you are not a good baker. This fear of rejection may prevent you from getting into the kitchen, but you will later realize that you actually make great cakes and, yeah, some didn’t turn out perfect, but you know your efforts aren’t wasted and that one prick is an outlier. Your cakes have value and you will persist, because you know that you will eventually bake a cake that will change someone’s life.

You keep baking and make several cakes that you know are phenomenal, but for some reason no one wants to buy them. You keep baking and keep trying to find the people who will like these awesome cakes you made. You start to wonder if your cakes will ever get the appreciation they deserve. You know a lot of people will love them if they only give them a try. But also, in the end, even though you have tasted your own cake thousands of times, you will be happy knowing that you made that cake. It was the cake you needed and no one else will make that exact cake.

Then the dream happens. Someone has tried your cake and they like it. They commission you to bake a cake. Not just any cake either, but a wedding cake. You accept because it is something you always wanted. You bust your ass and make the perfect cake. It gets served and a majority of the guests like it, some don’t, and a few rave about it which lands you with a new request. You are ecstatic and accept. Then you realize you have to repeat all of that hard work to make that great cake. But it can’t be the same cake because this is for a different wedding. They want some of the same flavors, but they want some new ones. They want a unique cake. So you begin again.

Every so often, while working hard in the kitchen, you realize that you are now baking cakes for a living and fully appreciate this. Other times, you see other cakes or eat a cake that is so good that you realize you are an amateur who will never become a master cake-maker. You still compare your cakes to those made by people who have been baking for decades, and you need to remember all the trashed cakes and mistakes you made in the beginning in order to realize how far you have come.

You continue baking because you love to bake cakes. Even if you don’t sell many or even any, you will keep baking because you love it even when you curse your passion while standing over a ruined cake or dropping an egg on the floor. You keep baking and you keep eating cake.

My Cake

Now I bring the analogy home and use it against myself. I have been eating cake for years. I first enjoyed cake when I was a wee lad and have devoured hundreds of cakes since. Large cakes, small cakes, trays of cupcakes, you name it. I’m still trying different cakes. I started looking at recipes at a fairly young age, but I never really started baking cakes until I was older. Even now, I have not made a full cake. I have part of a batter made. I need to determine what else it needs before I put it in the oven. I’ve started a new cake and hope to finish it in a reasonable time. I hope it turns out well and that a few people will try it. I have made one cupcake that I am proud of which did get sold to a store.

I spend a lot more time eating cake than I do in the kitchen, but I will one day make a great cake that others will enjoy. Hopefully, I will get to make many. I only need to ignore my doubt and just start baking.

MasterClass

I love learning. I love learning about anything and everything, but (like everyone else) I love learning about the things I’m most interested in. I was fortunate to have been gifted an all-access pass to MasterClass for my birthday last year by my incredible wife. I originally wanted to take the class offered by Neil Gaiman, which I did, but then I began taking classes by other authors then by other professionals in different fields. I have had nothing but great experiences with every class I have taken, so I thought I’d share them here.

What prompted me to write about MasterClass is the class I am taking right now: Space Exploration by Chris Hadfield. This class has proved extremely beneficial and I seem to have started it at the perfect time. With all the weirdness happening now on Earth, escaping into space (or learning how humanity has been able to do it) has been a huge help in maintaining my flickering flame of hope in humanity. The class has been a reminder of how humanity continues to dream and is trying to better understand our place in the universe. This, I think, is easily forgotten when we are squabbling among ourselves or worrying about the day-to-day. It’s always great to be reminded that we are striving for greater things. I just hate that I have to need the reminding. 

Space has always interested me. In fact, I began my university years studying physics and engineering. I ended up with a degree in English Literature and proceeded to get an advanced degree in Writing, but I’ve maintained my interests in the sciences and other fields which is why I like to read and write science fiction.

MasterClass offers a plethora of subjects including film-making, cooking, music, writing, and business to name just a few. I have completed all classes related to writing. These were taught by Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Judy Blume, David Mamet, R. L. Stine, Joyce Carol Oates, Aaron Sorkin (screenplay writing), Billy Collins (poetry), and the latest to be added being David Sedaris. 

I’m ashamed to admit that I discovered two of these authors specifically because of their courses. These two being Malcolm Gladwell and Margaret Atwood. I was aware of Atwood’s work, slightly, without knowing about her or being able to associate her name with that work. This work being the television adaptation of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale which I have not seen but I have since read the book. I find Margaret a delight as a person. In the past six months or so, I have listened to all of Gladwell’s books (he reads the books himself which made the audiobook more appealing). David Sedaris’s class was only recently added and I was hesitant to try it. I had read a short essay of his in a college course and liked it. I tried a book of his last year in audio format, also read by the author, and I was dismayed to come away from the book simply thinking of him as an asshole. But I took his class and my perspective changed. I learned more about the craft and about how David comes to it in a way that attracts so many people. He is, like most authors, an observer of human behavior, and he puts his own unique spin on things. I’m happy to say I “understand” how he operates and can therefore better appreciate his work.

There are several authors whose classes I have completed but still have not read any their work, but I plan to read something by them soon(ish). The most surprising one may be Dan Brown. I initially took his class just to learn about writing in general and not specifically about thrillers since I don’t read or write thrillers. I believe you can learn important things from areas you would otherwise not consider even if it falls in the same field. I was thoroughly surprised and elated to find his MasterClass to be one of my favorites. Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting class is another of my favorites. I’ve dabbled a little into writing for the screen and I learned a lot from him.

I’ve only taken a few classes outside of the ones focused on writing. The first was by Hans Zimmer simply because I am a fan of his work and it is related to film. I will never be a music composer, but it was fun learning more about that field. I have started Itzhak Perlman’s class since I’ve always been interested in learning to play the violin and I hope to at least learn the basics some day.

I plan on taking Neil Degrasse Tyson’s class soon and then delve into other areas. Perhaps I’ll try Penn & Tellers simply because magic is fun. I’ll likely try some classes from actors and directors to learn more about film. Ron Howard, Samuel L. Jackson, and Helen Mirren are ones I am currently wanting to see. Perhaps I’ll try Gordon Ramsey’s cooking classes. I could definitely expand my knowledge to become a better cook.

But for now, I am continuing to learn about space from Chris Hadfield. I’m loving every second of it and am learning a lot about how we are actually doing things outside the atmosphere. I’d never thought of orbiting the earth as being a continuous free-fall over the horizon. I’ve had several little changes to thinking like that so far and I look forward to the upcoming classes on spacewalking. 

If you find yourself interested in MasterClass, I highly recommend it. Perhaps it is the very thing you have been looking for during these uncertain times.

5 Books About Writing

I am a writer and therefore will every so often pick up a book about the craft. Below is a list of books about writing that I have read over the past several years that I found informative, inspiring, and insightful. I could give entire lectures about writing and all the different things I’ve learned through a formal education and my own individual studies, but I’ll save that for the classroom. For now, I hope you consider these books if you are a writer, if you like interesting things, or if you simply like any of these authors in particular as most of the books listed include biographical content. This is not surprising because writing is a very personal thing and everyone has their own approach and methods, which is why I picked up bits and pieces from most of these books to build upon my own habits.

About WritingThe newest book on the list is About Writing: A Field Guide For Aspiring Authors by Gareth L. Powell. This little pocket book is filled with insights about everything from beginning the writing process to how to build a following and market your published book. It has a bunch of useful tips about social media, outlining a novel, tips for attending conferences or conventions, and overall how to be a present-day author. Gareth is a powerhouse of positive energy and I highly suggest you follow him on Twitter for daily inspiration. I also recommend keeping this book on hand to pick up from time to time and review whatever part of the writing journey you are currently on. One thing I’ve taken into my own practice is Gareth’s suggestion about how to outline a novel. I may end up tweaking it a bit to better suit my needs, but it is proving immensely useful so far.

On WritingThe second book is the first book on the craft of writing I ever read and the first book I had read by this author. The book in question is one of the most popular: On Writing by Stephen King. I picked this one up shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree and felt the need to keep educating myself on the craft. Admittedly, it has been a minute since I’ve read this book, but I do remember a lot from it. First, this book is split basically into two parts. One half is focused on King himself giving some background to his journey as a writer and the other half is about the craft. Both are incredibly interesting and worth your time. One thing I have always kept with me from this book is King’s habit of always having a book on hand no matter where you are. I’m not sure why this particular thought stuck with me, but he was right that you should always keep a book on hand because you can get reading in with all the “in between” time we have in life. Waiting in line for coffee? Read a few pages. At the doctor? Read some more. Nowadays you can do this with your pocket computer if you prefer an ebook and have the willpower to stay off social media. Physical books don’t have distracting apps. I think I may need to give it another read soon since I have grown a lot as a writer and a person since I last read it.

Elements of StyleNext is another “classic” on the craft and another small, pocket-sized book. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This is a craft book specific to the actual grammar and syntax and overall use of language and it is useful for writing in general and not just creative writing. It is a great book that can help you bolster your writing and form good habits, but like all the others, it isn’t a rule book. It may be the closest thing to one, but writing is again personal and you have your own style. This is simply one of the better resources to help you stay away from rookie mistakes and improve your prose. I think King mentions this book in his own and had some comments about Strunk and White’s thoughts about adverbs.

Zen and the Art of WritingThis next book I happened to discover while perusing the shelves of my local library. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This book was such a fun find. I was surprised to find so many great essays about writing that were simply inspirational. I plan to get a copy of my own to have on hand because you can pick this book up and read any essay and get that spark to start a story or continue whatever you are working on. He has such a great way of reminding you what a joy and privilege it is to write. Any self-doubt will disappear as you read. He definitely puts the zest and gusto into his thoughts about the craft. Bradbury wrote one thousand words every day since he was a kid. I’m hoping I can build a habit like his, to write every day so I am always progressing toward my goal of finishing a novel or short story. I’m still working on this though. I don’t need a thousand words. For now, any amount will do. I just need to build the good habit.

ReflectionsReflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is another collection of essays. This collection contains a large amount of biographical content about Diana and several essays repeat the same small tidbits about her life as they were written over the course of her career. She led a very interesting life and had some strange things happen to her. You’d almost think she were truly a witch. A good-natured one though. Did you know she had C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as professors? It does contain a lot of practical advice about writing, the market, agents, editors, and publishers. However, a lot of what she is describing is from a few decades ago and much has changed since then. I’ve no doubt some of the changes were due to her influence. Many things haven’t changed much at all unfortunately. The literary landscape may have changed since the writing of the essays, but she has plenty of relevant information in this book, especially about writing for younger audiences.

I have many more books on the craft I still want to read and many more I’m sure I will discover in the future. The next on my list I already have lined up and plan to start soon. Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I also want to read Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood. If you have a book about the craft of writing that you like, let me know with a comment. I’d love to find more. Perhaps I’ll write another list about another set of books on writing. For now, I’m going to get back to work by sticking with Rule #1 from Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules for writing which is simply: Write.

8 Rules of Writing_Neil Gaiman

On Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le GuinUrsula K. Le Guin was an influential writer and advocate for the progression of science fiction and fantasy into the realms of mainstream literature. She was also a strong advocate for female writers and did what she could to promote equity in publishing. Needless to say, she was a strong-minded and socially aware individual and she has been praised and criticized for these very reasons. To me, she is an inspiration and encourages me to improve myself.

I hate to say I have only recently discovered Le Guin, but what I have read so far has already impacted my own views of writing and the field of writing. I can’t recall when I first discovered who she was (I believe I discovered her from Neil Gaiman), but I do remember when I read her work for the first time. It was The Left Hand of Darkness and I finished it roughly two years ago. She died three weeks later on January 22nd, 2018. I have since read a collection of non-fiction The Language of the Night and watched a documentary titled The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.* The documentary was well-one and worth the watch.

Within The Language of the Night, Le Guin discusses much of what the world of science fiction looked like from a writer’s perspective during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was at this time when the publication of science fiction and fantasy was changing. These two genres, which are often paired together, were looked down upon as a secondary form of writing or considered childish stories. There were a lot of terrible stories written during the first half the 20th century (and the second half as well), but something happened during the second half which changed societies views about these topics. I believe J.R.R. Tolkien was a big influence (mainly on the view of fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling) primarily with his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” These areas of entertainment still face some resistance today but it is hard to deny that stories written within the classification of either genre are influential and have merit. This is not just because they are extremely popular across the globe, but because they are lasting.

Yes, we are lucky because most of the not-so-great science fiction and fantasy stories written in the 1900’s have been culled by time thus leaving us with the better stories still standing, but there are some hidden gems still out there and I hope they do not fall into obscurity or disappear altogether. I don’t believe Le Guin’s works are at any risk of disappearing. I still need to read many of her books, but the one’s I hear most about are her Earthsea series and the Hainish Cycle (this later series consists of standalone novels and includes The Left Hand of Darkness). My lovely wife bought me the illustrated Earthsea series for our one-year anniversary. I hope to read it this year.

Le Guin is known as one of many essential science fiction authors. She was advocating for the field around the time that these types of books were first being taught in schools. Many people today, myself included, grew up reading fantasy and science fiction in school alongside the other “classic” books. I read The Hobbit in middle school and again in high school (though I had already read it before it was “required”). I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and loved it. Science fiction and fantasy have become part of the norm. They remain popular and are growing fields. At the time Le Guin was becoming a popular writer of these genres, it was a somewhat niche field. She wanted it to grow and grow it did. In the 1970’s, Le Guin stated that only 1 in 30 writers of science fiction were female. She was a rarity. She worked to encourage women writers and urged them to resist the use of male pseudonyms which was still common at that time. I’m glad that the times have changed and the world of writing is more inclusive than the past, but we still have a ways to go. I, like Le Guin, will advocate however I can to promote diversity and inclusion in all areas of life.

Though many readers believe her work can be a little too political, primarily her non-fiction, I find it mostly reassuring and encouraging. Her writing was her form of learning her social environment and saying what she wanted to say. She wrote stories of worlds where certain aspects of our society were dismissed or exaggerated in order to explore what those fictional societies would look like. This is what I believe makes them so interesting to read. Many of the aspects she writes about are still very much relevant today, nearly fifty years later, and will likely remain for a long time. I think her writing will endure because most of her stories are simply other worlds we can enjoy. Oftentimes they are, but they still hold a gem which we can either discover or ignore depending on what we want from the book. That gem is much like a flag to be raised toward a cause we may wish to stand behind.

Le Guin has influenced many writers who are popular today. I hope she continues to influence writers and others, much like she has influenced me. I may not love all of her works, but I will respect her for who she was and what she believed. Her words survive her and will continue to influence the world to persevere and improve itself. That is the best that any writer can hope for.

 


*Link was available at the time of writing. If the link is unavailable, I recommend searching the web or checking your local library for a copy of this film.

The View from the Cheap Seats

neil-gaiman-the-view-from-the-cheap-seatsThe View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman is a book of selected nonfiction that is, simply, a delight. I picked this book up when it was first published. I’d come across one of Neil’s tweets that listed all the independent bookstores in America that would have signed copies of the book upon release. I scoured the list and found there was one bookshop in my state, the state of Missouri, that would have them, and to my outstanding luck it was just down the road from where I worked. The bookstore, Main Street Books located in St. Charles, would receive 10 copies. The day it came out, I took my lunch hour a bit earlier than usual, and went down to see if I could grab a copy. My luck held out and I nabbed one of the few. I was uncertain how many other fans may have been privy to the information of first edition signed copies of Neil’s new book. I wasn’t sure if many people in the area were Neil Gaiman fans. After purchasing my copy I remember wondering these things and, if my memory serves correctly, I spread the word so people knew. I brought the book home with me after work and subsequently read the first handful of pages, about 50, and for some reason did not pick it up again.

Until two weeks ago when I was about to catch a flight home from a vacation in the Dominican Republic. I had a paperback book I’d been reading on the vacation and on the first flight back, but the second flight would be dark and my eyes wanted a rest from the dry, circulated air of the airplane, so I downloaded the audiobook of The View from the Cheap Seats from my library back home through a convenient app. The audio-book version is read by Neil himself. This was my first audio-book experience and I’m glad to say it may have been the perfect introduction for me to this format. I listened to the book for the entirety of the flight home. I began listening to it on my commute and sometimes while at my desk working. I recently finished it, while doing yard work, which is why I am writing this recommendation. Or rather, I am recommending this book to you now not simply because I finished it, but because I think it is a great book and it is filled with fun and is extremely informative.

This book is filled with material that spans decades and talks about a great many things. It talks about writing, writers, music, books, people, the importance of art, and the importance of genres and different types of storytelling including comic books and film. This book is filled with Neil’s experiences and his experience. There is a lot to be learned. A section of this book contains a plethora of introductions. Introductions that were written by Neil for other books. Introductions that will inevitably provide you with a decent amount of books to add to your list to read, as I have added to mine.

Neil talks about a great many people in this book. Well, he had talked about them a long time ago originally and the pieces of writing were chosen to be included in this volume. If I had read this book back when it was first published, I would have known about Gene Wolfe long before I first discovered him. I have not read any of Gene Wolfe but his books are now on my list, and I am looking forward to reading them. I hate to say I first discovered Gene Wolfe when news of his passing was released a handful of weeks ago. Reading about who he was and what he wrote made me fond of this man I never knew and, now, will never know. I read an article that Neil retweeted claiming it was a good article about Gene. I wish I would have known about him earlier. He lived only a few hours drive from where I live now and I’ve already daydreamed my way into a world where I read his books long ago and fell in love with them and actually made a trip to meet him. Something I’ve never done. I’d be hesitant about doing so even in the dream, but he would be nice as so many have said he was.

One of the things I think I’ve learned from this book is to go out and make more connections with people. Neil tells stories of how he first met many authors who would become lifelong friends, and I am inspired to get out and make some friends of my own. I lack friends who write and I want to have more discussions about writing and I want to have even more discussions about life from the ever-observant type of person who is often a writer. Neil’s story of meeting Diana Wynne Jones seems to be mere happenstance, but what an incredible chance it was and even more incredible how quickly they became friends. I first discovered Diana Wynne Jones after finding out the Hayao Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle was based on her book of the same name. I quickly read the book and loved it and added many more of Diana’s books to my list of books to eventually read. Even so, Neil gave me another book of hers to add to my list. One I’d never heard about until he talked about it in this volume.

He talks about many people he has met throughout his life and he talks about books that inspired him and he really talks about the books that influenced him as a boy. He talks about his journey becoming a writer of fiction that began in journalism. He talks about how he wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett by mailing each other floppy discs and calling each other over the phone. Much of what he talks about is nostalgic. Things he discusses have changed since he first wrote about them. The world is much different now that it had been back then. He talks about changes occurring in the comic industry well before comic-book movies became a worldwide phenomenon. The book is not outdated by any means. It is filled with life and love and stories.

There is much to learn from this selected nonfiction. There is much fun to be had. It is inspiring whether you read it in print or listen as Neil’s melodious voice reads it to you. It doesn’t matter if you yourself are a writer or not. I dare say it is interesting even if you aren’t even interested in books. This volume is filled with experiences. Yes, many of which mention books and are related to story-telling, but he talks about music and people and things he believes in. These writings are themselves stories, and collected in a way to become something even more.

Happy Reading.