Friday, November 23, 2012

"Easy as Pie"? How easy is pie? (a writing post about mental hurdles)

Yesterday's Thanksgiving cooking got me to thinking about something. A lot of people these days, who aren't accustomed to cooking, think cooking is difficult. I think I've roasted a turkey all of twice, possibly three times in my life, counting yesterday. I got out my cookbook, found a recipe and followed it. But I confess that before I got the recipe out, I was in a panic, going, "I don't know how to roast a turkey!"

It made me think of the expression "easy as pie," which remains in the English language even though a great many of us wouldn't find pie particularly easy.

There are several different elements that go into perceiving some form of cooking as easy or difficult.
  • How often you cook.
  • How easy the ingredients are to procure. 
  • Whether you like to use cookbooks.
  • Whether you find following directions easy.
 If you've only ever tried to cook a cake out of a box, then it might seem really tricky to bake one from scratch. It isn't, really, though it might take more time. If you're an expert cook, you only have to have one or two tiny hints about how to vary a recipe before you are able to do something amazing.

What we're really looking at here are mental hurdles. What seems normal and easy to some people seems inconceivable to other people, just based on their culture and their personal experiences. This strikes me as something we should all be trying to fit into stories about aliens or stories about people from different cultures. After all, we can have extreme differences in skill and comfort in the kitchen, even compared to our own neighbors - surely there would be more such contrasts between people with greater differences.

I am continually amazed at how stories reduce friction between the people they portray, in service of a single main conflict. If there's cultural contrast and misunderstanding, often it's done in a peripheral or token manner. But this kind of thing is everywhere. Think about how different people are and what they are comfortable or uncomfortable with, what they find normal, what they find easy. Let that weave into the main conflict, serve it and drive it forward.

It's something to think about.


  1. One of the things I tried to do in Firestar was to show different people pursuing the same goal for entirely different reasons, some noble, some venal, some dreamy, some practical; such that they sometimes worked against each other. I also tried to show people opposing and supporting the goal for similar reasons.

    1. Yes, that's exactly it. I think this is one of the things that can make an ensemble quest or task work well and stay interesting. When the goal is the same, diversify the motivations. Thanks so much for commenting, OFloinn!

  2. Two people cooking the same thing, from the same recipe, at the same time - my daughter and I made cinnamon/pecan rolls from scratch today - and the results can still be different.

    She watched me take my half of the dough, fill it with sugar and nuts, butter and cinnamon, and roll it into a long log, which I cut into pieces for individual buns. I told her to put lots of filling in, because when the dough rises, the ratio bread/filling tends to go up.

    She rolled her half wider, loaded it with even more goodies than I had put in mine - and hers were distinctly better! A tiny difference in rising time, more filling, and dough rolled a bit thinner, was all it took to improve the product.

    Writing can be that way. I read a lot of stories that feel as if they needed to be rolled a little wider, and have more filling. That they are good - but could be far better. Several people whose blogs I admire write fiction that feels raw.

    They would probably say that instead of spending time improving this story, that in the same amount of time a second story could be written (which is probably true - editing takes a lot of time), and they would have two stories for sale.

    The problem is that I won't read them any more. Maybe it is my loss, but I've come to expect raw dough and too little filling, so I've crossed them off my list. Not happily, because I still enjoy their blogs (and remember to donate to the blogs I read and appreciate), but out of a sense that life is too short to eat things that aren't worth the calories.

    Hope your Thanksgiving was fulfilling in many ways.


    1. ABE, thanks so much for writing in. I too am a snob when it comes to desserts (as that helps me keep my consumption level reasonable)! I agree that we need to make sure to spend the amount of time that a story requires to take it to the next level. I have sometimes tried to write quickly, but I've never actually felt satisfied unless I put quite a bit of time and effort into my stories.

  3. I think I will address the reducing of friction bit you have just mentioned in the post. The central conflict is what the story is about and too much friction on different levels can cause confusion and steal away attention from the story's idea and purpose. A story can be about many things, but it also can't reflect the reality of life in its entirety in the same way that written dialogue has little to do with the way actual people talk.

    1. Yes, Harry, you're absolutely right that stories need to be streamlined. Too much friction can be distracting. That's one of the reasons why I tend to make social frictions part of the main conflict - so I *can* put emphasis on them. There's a way of doing it that is simply distracting, and another way of doing it that can really improve the whole by making it more realistic and contributing to the main conflict at the same time.

  4. Nice allegory :) If someone unfamiliar with writing and the process thereof were to stumble across this post they might think "why the hell is she talking about cooking?" They may completely miss the point that reading, research, and practice make perfect. For instance, I make a mean lasagna. Meat, veggie, cheese, whatever, it's delicious - everyone tells me so. But how did I ever learn to make such deliciousness? Simple. It wasn't. I started with a recipe and without a clue. Over the years I learned what works and what doesn't. Now I just do it by memory. I don't even have to think about it.
    It's the same with writing, the EXACT same! Learn what flavors you like, shop for ingredients, read a lot of cookbooks/recipes, and try it out. If it doesn't work...try it again. If it tastes horrid...try adding nutmeg ;) What I'm saying without saying is research, practice, and don't give up. Oh, and watch out for those with peanut or gluten allergies.

    1. Realmwright, I'm very glad you liked the post. Thanks for linking to me and writing about me today, too. :) The kind of practice and artistic sense that goes into cooking can also go into writing - you're absolutely on target there.