Fresh Garlic, Fresh Writing and a Winner

While working on a major project for our church, I had the wonderful opportunity to strike up conversations with dozens upon dozens of people I had never conversed with before.  One of the hot topics became cooking.

Hands down, my favorite ingredient is fresh garlic.  A clove or three, minced and sauteed in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, can push  a tasty dish to the next level. 

One of the ladies (who is an amazing  cook with over 50 years experience in the kitchen) claimed she had NEVER used fresh garlic to cook with.  EVER.

That confession  was akin to blasphemy in my book. 

But it got me thinking.  Writing is like cooking.  We get stuck in a rut.  We cook the same dishes over and over again because we know our families will eat them.  We use the same ingredients and cook them in the same ways, never venturing too far out of the box for fear that our kids will turn their noses up and our spouses will no longer declare us Top Chef.

When we write, we tend to fall into the same patterns.  Our MC’s are of similar ages with the same fundamental personality traits.  We strike up boy/girl relationships, throw in a conflict or two and add a bully for good measure.

In essence, we cook up a story using the same ingredients.

Our job is to keep our writing fresh.  We need to strip our manuscripts of the canned phrases and salted story lines.  We need to give up on processed plots and go with the freshest ingredients available to us.

Instead of changing our fifteen year-old, female’s hair color from blonde to auburn and making her two inches taller, we need to infuse our MC with a flavor all her own.  She may pick her cuticles until they bleed when she’s nervous.  She might have a habit stepping over every crack in the sidewalk because she truly believes the old childhood ditty–even though she doesn’t believe in anything else.  She might have a touch of OCD.

Whatever the case, we need to write outside the box. 

What happens when the requisite love triange includes a same-sex friendship instead of two hot hunks?  What if the bully is the scrawny, smart kid instead of the lumbering idiot?  What happens when it’s the spouse who has committment issues instead of the detective?

These are small changes–a bit like adding fresh garlic instead of garlic powder–yet they can have a big impact on how our characters act and react.  In essence tiny details can change the entire flavor of a story. 

They can also make the difference between another formulaic storyline or the fresh manuscript that agents and editors are clammering to bite into. 

What do you have cookin’?  What are the most commonly used “ingredients” in your writing?  Can you tweak them in a fresh way to enhance your story as a whole? 

After writing this, I realized my bullies are so yesterday: the petite, cute cheerleader and the blundering idiot.  It is not until my NaNo YA that the bully is a braniac hottie with a penchant for misusing those around him. 

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?!?!?

And so, I shall heed the words of wisdom written by successful authors before me, including Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman. 

I hope Lisa finds something useful too.  Lisa Gibson posted the winning comment for my Slumber Party Bash contest.  For her awesome entry and great party idea she will receive a copy of Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents.

If you have never visited Lisa’s blog, you should do so today.  Her blog is one of peace and inspiration.  Thanks, Lisa!


24 responses to “Fresh Garlic, Fresh Writing and a Winner

  1. Aww Cate, thanks a million! You’re the bestest. I’m doing my own little end-zone dance.
    Your post did have me thinking. I just finished reading ‘Breathless’ by Jessica Warman. It’s fully of quirky (a bit too quirky sometimes) characters. I’ve also been toying with an idea for my 2nd YA novel. It definitely goes a little further out there with my characters and storyline. So yes, what you say definitely resonates with me. Also, what a terrific analogy with cooking and writing. I always get something for your posts and this one is no different (I mean besides the book). 😉 You always impart wisdom!

    • Aww shucks. I did have five wisdom teeth, so maybe I just got lucky there….

      Anyway, I appreciate your warm and fuzzy compliments. I hope your next YA novel has as many wonderful characters as your first one.

  2. I guess my characters are pretty different from book to book because I keep genre-hopping. I know, all the experts say I shouldn’t do that, so don’t anyone, okay?

    • It’s okay with me to genre hop. I’ll let you lead the way!

      Doing so, however, ensures that your characters are not shadows of each other with slightly different traits. And whatever you’re doing, keep it up!

  3. I try to turn situations on their ear whenever possible, but then sometimes I wonder if the ear-turn is becoming old hat. The woman is the sheriff who shoots from the hip, has an extreme sense of justice and a short fuse, and her husband is the mild-mannered, pure-hearted school teacher. It’s when everyone does it that way that I have to switch back….well, that or make them both the same sex. ^_^

    • LOL! Yes, the eveyone-else-is-doing argument doesn’t work with my kids and it doesn’t work in writing either. We have to keep ahead of everyone else’s quirks or we just end up mimicking them!

      Your sharp shooting sherrif sounds like a hoot…

  4. Haven’t said hi in a while. I’m still here. I’ll try to pop over to Lisa’s blog too. I don’t believe I’ve ever been.

    • Hey, Void. Been missing you. I’ve been out for a while and just made my way over from your blog. I was surprised to see you are an outliner. You seem so free, I though for sure you would be a panster!

      Just goes to show how first appearances can be deceiving. Which, by the way, I love your green gremlin avatar on your comments. He rocks my socks off.

  5. Good point. We all have our own ‘formulae’ and need to shake them up from time to time!

  6. The question for me isn’t staying fresh. All my recent WIPs are completely different.
    The problem is keeping my *current* WIP fresh. Month after month of working on the same thing can take its toll.

    But crazy things still happen.
    In my first draft, my heroine found that her nemesis was actually her half-sister.
    Then in my first revision, they are still half sisters but look alike.
    Now I’m changing them to be identical twins.
    How the heck do I work that into a story where they are raised on opposite sides of the tracks so to speak?

    To return it to your metaphor, it’s like I decided after cooking the whole meal that I want to go back and redo the main course with lamb instead of beef.

    • Andrew, that would be quite a feat. You’ll have to keep me posted on how that goes!

      However, a great chef can make anything happen and I have faith you will do so!

  7. You need to come to dinner at my place – my husband loves to cook but hates cooking the same thing, so he’s always trying out new things!

    I don’t tend to have the same personalities or storylines in my writing, but I’m like Patricia – I do a lot of genre hopping.

    • Belle,

      I’ve seen some of your and your DH’s recipes. I would love to take a quick jaunt over to join you, but fear it would be a longer vacation than I can take right now!

      Even though all my current works are for juvenile lit, I tend to hop a bit within: male and female protags, different ages, different settings, new conflicts. Stereotypical bullies… : ) I can’t always do things right!

  8. Thanks for the linkey.

    I love garlic too. And this time of year it’s the first thing to come up in the garden, which is very rewarding.

    Garlic is like a well-developed vocabulary. It enhances everything it comes in contact with.

    • Yvonne, I love the quote. I might put it on my refrigerator. I’m all kinds of green thinking of your garlic. I need plant some of my own, but last year was my first year with my new yard and I only got to sneak in a few herbs and veggies in my flower beds. My chives are ready to bloom, though!

  9. Congrats, Lisa!

    Cat, in response to this, I intellectually know you’re right. It’s doing it that’s been the problem. I’m trying to launch into my next story, but I wanted to add in a twisted, ruined romance and I’m not sure if I’m scared to get started, if I just don’t know enough yet to say where my starting point IS. If I’m still recovering from completing the last book or WHAT. But all I’ve done for months now is a little editing here and there, a lot of blogging/marketing and book reviewing and research that’s getting me nowhere. I know I should just let it go and let it take form. I think I’m scared I don’t have another book in me….

    • Victoria,


      You have another book in you. The first one is sometimes easy. The subsequent ones are terrifying. It’s hard to imagine being able to capture that magic again, but it does happen. All you have to do is let it go!

  10. Great post, and love your blog (I found your blog through Roz/dirtywhitecandy)! I’ve definitely created characters that were exactly the same as the ones in my last book, so it’s something I have to watch. I also try not to rely on the cliched characters or plot scenarios. Easier said than done 😉

    Usually after my first draft is done, I’ll go back and spice up the characters, making them more original and interesting. It’s always fun to give them unusual habits or a weird fear of something.

    • Mia,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Roz is a sweetie, isn’t she?

      I agree that everything in writing is easier said than done. My problem is that when I write my first draft, I’m on total auto pilot and am not really making conscious decisions. That comes in with the editing. There is a lot of debate about writing only the necessary words versus writing stuff just to get it down and then going back to add or subtract as needed. I say write however it works for you, and it seems as if adding the spice afterwards does.

      Best luck as you continue in your writing endeavors and I hope to see you around!

  11. Uh oh. If the first one was easy, I am so screwed. It took fifteen years to write. Granted, I’ve learned a lot including how NOT to edit. (The topic of an upcoming blog post.) But I don’t think I can honestly lay claim to a career if each production takes even five to seven years….

    • I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ll find the groove and be fine. Not to mention you are a wonderful blogger. All those posts add up to ideas and experience.

      : )

  12. Oh, may you be right, Blogging Sensei! ;D

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