Lesson 1

It's Cooking Not Baking

  

Some people think of writing like baking – where you need to have the exact proportions of ingredients added in the proper order in order to make it good. 


I think great written works show us that writing is more like cooking. You use different methods, like braising and roasting, and different ingredients, like vegetables and meat, to create a terrific new dish. There is an infinite combination of dishes that can be made, and so too there are an infinite number of written works that can be created. 


In addition to mixing up methods and ingredients, a skillful chef also understands that the participation of the diner is an integral part of the success of the dish. It is the diner’s experience of how the dish looks, smells, and tastes that determines whether a dish is enjoyable or not. With writing, it is the reader who determines the significance of the work.


In this first lesson I’m going to focus on the importance of the reader as co-creator, give an overview of methods and elements of writing, and share some examples of each. Coming lessons will cover the methods and elements in more detail. 


For now, let’s begin at the beginning, and…


Understand The Reader as Active Participant and Co-creator

You are not writing to an institution or a group. You are writing to a person. Connecting with another soul through your words. Speaking to their body, their mind, their heart, and their imagination. Creating ideas, thoughts, images, feelings, and possibilities for them to experience as they read your words. An important intention in writing anything compelling is to have an unrelenting desire to connect with the person on the other side of your book.


Reading is not just an intellectual experience, but also a holistic one. The senses need to be activated so the reader sees what you want them to see, feels what you want them to feel, smells, tastes, hears, and touches what you want them to touch. From this, thoughts are created, emotions are experienced, and understanding is achieved. The reader is brought into the experience you are creating through the words on the page. They become an active participant in the story you are telling as they activate their imagination in visualizing, experiencing, and thinking about what you are telling them. 


In actuality, the reader is more than a participant. They are really a co-creator. You are leading them with your ideas and visions, but they are the ones transforming that vision into a coherent picture within their mind. Think about yourself as a reader. You, the reader, are the one visualizing the scene in the story. You picture the character, hear their voice, and feel their feelings. You see the mountains, the sky, the dark stormy night. And for each reader, the scene, character, impressions, feelings, is going to be slightly different. It becomes a merging of what the writer is showing and the reader is interpreting.


Understanding this is very important for a number of reasons. As writers we are always choosing what goes in and what get’s left out. Too much detail overwhelms. Not enough creates confusion. With too much detail, the reader is left to discard what is excess, or in the case of too little information, make assumptions that may or may not be accurate.


This is also why you can give ten people your work to read and get ten different impressions. There will always be agreement in some areas, but at the same time, each reader will focus on what resonates the most based on how they view the subject matter.


So how do you control the co-creator/reader? Well, in reality, you don’t. What you do have control of, and can focus on, is making sure you are doing your best to write as clearly and coherently as you can so you control the amount of white space the reader has to fill in her part of the reading experience.


Writers have many tools to use to convey their messages so they are clear, coherent, inspiring, and memorable. 


To do this you need to…


Understand What Method You Are Using

There are various methods of writing that can be used, and which method or combination of methods you use depends on the type of writing (Fiction, Nonfiction, Article, Essay). 

They are:


Show/Tell

Scene/Summary

Dialogue/Paraphrase

Details/Generalities

Concrete/Abstract

Story/Information


When you are writing you want to be thoughtful about what are the best methods for you to convey what you are trying to say. 


Let’s talk about Show versus Tell. With Show, you are depicting a scene for the reader to see, feel, hear, touch, taste, smell and experience. The “showing” may not include all the senses, but it should include a number of them. In Tell, you are informing the reader about something or someone. To illustrate this point I’m going to use lyrics. Well-written lyrics can be a shorter version of a good story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and contain some of the same methods and elements you would find in any good piece of writing.


Take a look at the lyrics to “Somebody’s Daughter.” If you can, also listen to it on ITunes or other music app as you read them.


Somebody's Daughter

Tenille

First Verse

I drive home the same way
Two left turns off the interstate
And she's always standing
At the stoplight on 18th Street
She could be a Sarah
She could be an Emily
An Olivia, maybe Cassidy
With the shaky hands
On the cardboard sign
And she's lookin' at me

Chorus

Bet she was somebody's best friend laughing
Back when she was somebody's sister
Countin' change at the lemonade stand
Probably somebody's high school first kiss
Dancin' in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans
Now this light'll turn green and I'll hand her a couple dollars
And I'll wonder if she got lost or they forgot her
She's somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter

Second Verse

Did she give up wondering where the cars all go?
And can she even tell that I don't know what to say?
So I just nod my head and wave
Well, no one's gonna ask what she wants to be
Or why we're both stuck here at the mercy of geography
And whether it shines or rains

Chorus

Bet she was somebody's best friend laughing
Back when she was somebody's sister
Countin' change at the lemonade stand
Probably somebody's high school first kiss
Dancin' in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans
Now this light'll turn green and I'll hand her a couple dollars
Oh, and I'll wonder how she felt when no one caught her
She's somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter

Bridge

Oh, I don't know the reasons why
I'm the one who's driving by
And she's the one on the corner of 18th Street

Chorus

Bet she was somebody's best friend
Back when she was somebody's sister
Bet she was somebody's first kiss
Oh, Dancing in a gym where the kids all talk about someday, someday
Now this light'll turn green and I'll hand her a couple dollars
Oh, and I'll wonder if she got lost or they forgot her
She's somebody's daughter
She's somebody's daughter


Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Barry Dean / Luke Laird / Tenille Towns

Somebody's Daughter lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Downtown Music Publishing


When you read the lyrics, you will notice the songwriters are alternating Show and Tell. 


The First Verse is Show. You are with the narrator, the driver of the car, looking at this woman on the street corner.

First Verse

I drive home the same way
Two left turns off the interstate
And she's always standing
At the stoplight on 18th Street
She could be a Sarah
She could be an Emily
An Olivia, maybe Cassidy
With the shaky hands
On the cardboard sign
And she's lookin' at me


The Chorus is Tell. The narrator is telling you more information about whom she thinks this person is. The narrator is also telling you why she thinks this person is not an anonymous nobody standing on the corner, but that she is Somebody’s Daughter. This is where the narrator is telling you why this person is important.

Chorus

Bet she was somebody's best friend laughing
Back when she was somebody's sister
Countin' change at the lemonade stand
Probably somebody's high school first kiss
Dancin' in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans
Now this light'll turn green and I'll hand her a couple dollars
And I'll wonder if she got lost or they forgot her
She's somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter
Somebody's daughter


As writers we need to determine when to show and when to tell. Showing is always more powerful than telling, but telling is also important and is best used to clarify or solidify the message or meaning that is being shown.  To see another example of a work that is all Show, look at the lyrics for “Even Though I’m Leaving” by Luke Combs.


So now that you have some insight into the methods you can use, we need to talk about… 


Utilizing Various Written Elements

In addition to the numerous methods used, there are also many elements in a written work. The following is a list of some of these elements. Most writing forms will contain a number, but not necessarily all of them.


  • Narrative Tension
  • Content (Is it appropriate and complete?)
  • Structure, Pace, Time
  • Language (Lyrical, straight forward)
  • Specific Technique (Word choice, detail, metaphor, dialogue, humor, etc.)
  • Tone, Voice, Style
  • Literary Value (Themes beyond the subject matter)
  • Point of View
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Opinion and Emotion
  • Key Moments (Techniques for Opening and Closing)
  • Writer’s Identity
  • Timeliness
  • Target Reader


From this list we’ll take a look at Specific Technique. Look at word choice, dialogue, and humor in the following lyrics written by poet Shel Siverstein and sung by Johnny Cash.


A Boy Named Sue

First Verse

My daddy left home when I was three

And he didn't leave much to ma and me

Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze

Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid

But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."

Second Verse

Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.

Some gal would giggle and I'd get red

And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head

I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."

Third Verse

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean
My fist got hard and my wits got keen

I'd roam from town to town to hide my shame

But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I'd search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name

Fourth Verse

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July

And I just hit town and my throat was dry

I thought I'd stop and have myself a brew

At an old saloon on a street of mud

There at a table, dealing stud

Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me "Sue."

Fifth Verse

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad

From a worn-out picture that my mother'd had

And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye

He was big and bent and gray and old

And I looked at him and my blood ran cold

And I said: "My name is 'Sue!' How do you do!
Now you're going to die!!"

Sixth Verse

Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear
But I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street

Kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

Seventh Verse

I tell you, I've fought tougher men
But I really can't remember when

He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile

I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss
He went for his gun and I pulled mine first
He stood there lookin' at me and I saw him smile

Eighth Verse

And he said: "Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong

Ninth Verse

He said: "Now you just fought one hell of a fight

And I know you hate me, and you got the right

To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do

But ya ought to thank me, before I die
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Because I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue

Tenth Verse

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son
And I came away with a different point of view

And I think about him, now and then

Every time I try and every time I win

And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!


In reading the lyrics you will notice that the song is building to the conclusion through use of monologue. Switching to dialogue when the son confronts his father further enhances the climax. 


There are so many examples of creative and meaningful use of word choice. Some are:


“Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid”

The writer uses “run and hid” to describe the actions of the father. It’s usually children that run and hide, not adults.  So the father’s behavior is depicted as childish.


“He was big and bent and gray and old

Using short words with strong consonant sounds (big, bent, gray, old) conveys hardness in both the sound of the words and the emotions experienced. It adds emotional depth to the visual impression.


mangy dog, snake, mule, crocodile” 

Using animals to let us know that he sees his father as less than human, with these animal qualities and characteristics.


Use of humor is woven throughout the song and climaxes in the final verse.

And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name! “


You can go through the list of elements and pick out many that are used in this song.


Which brings me to my next point…


The Importance of Reading Like A Writer

If you listen to interviews with successful writers a commonality they share is that they are voracious readers. They read to learn from other writers as much as they do for enjoyment. I would encourage you to start reading like a writer. 


When you’re reading a book, look for how the author uses different methods and elements. Reading like a writer strengthens your ability to use these tools yourself. While you can pick books in the genre that you are writing in, I would also suggest you read books, articles, or other works in different categories. Doing this will keep you from simply mimicking someone else or becoming programmatic in your style, and instead, broadens your understanding of how to successfully mix these methods and elements for your own work. 


History shows the mixing of methods and elements has evolved over time. There wasn’t any narrative nonfiction until Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood” in 1966. Now, telling true stories has become more popular than fiction. Some great examples of narrative nonfiction that you may know include: “Isaac’s Storm,” Moneyball,” and “Unbroken.” Memoir has also morphed into story as in Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Wild.”


So…


Experiment and Write With Joy

I encourage you to approach your writing like an excited and curious chef approaches creating a new dish. First, do your shitty first draft to get your initial thoughts down on paper. Then step away and give it a rest. When you go back to it, appreciate those first ideas, then play. See how you can make it better by adjusting the methods and elements, just as a chef adds more of this and takes out some of that. You’ll know when it’s right.


There are two other ingredients that are essential in cooking and writing. That is love and joy. Even the most serious of topics can contain the love of sharing, and the joy of connection. Being able to take what is a thought, feeling, image, or idea from your mind and share it with another person is an incredible act. I invite you to embrace the miracle it is with joy and gratitude, and then share it with love.