Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Writing and cooking (or, good writer, bad book?)

I’m a confident, experienced cook. I make up some things and learn others from cuisines I like (right now I’m out in the sticks and teaching myself how to make Thai food – and these dishes will eventually influence mine, probably). But this blog isn’t about food -- the point is that when I cook, I’m not at all afraid to make things completely unlike anything I’ve ever tried, and I’m not judgmental, either. If a dish or a meal isn’t as good as I hoped it would be, I either think of ways I could make it better another time or decide it isn’t worth making again. I don’t think “I’m a bad cook” (though I do sometimes think the idea was bad!) – I just think: that’s how I learn, that’s how I get better.

But when I write something bad (as I did last week: a truly terrible story, for an age group I don’t usually write for), I think I’m a terrible writer, I’ll never write anything good again, why do I think anyone will ever want to read my work blah blah blah.

A few days ago when I was riding my bicycle I reminded myself that good writers sometimes produce bad work. I recently got The Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett (reissued for its 100th anniversary), which I made the mistake of buying online sight unseen – and HER bad book didn’t make me think SHE was a bad writer. I just remembered The Secret Garden and the fact that she was a widow with 5 or 6 children to support!

I also remembered one of the BRGs reading some comments I’d written on an old story and saying, “You’re so mean to yourself!” And I decided to just start writing the way I cook. Even if I never manage to create stories as fast, or as easily, as I can make dinners, I can still try new things and decide about the ones that aren’t good the same way.

So far it’s working, and I’m not asking for advice on this story – but I AM curious about how you agents and editors (and librarians, if the story makes it to publication!) out there respond when a trusted writer turns in something out of the box – and awful. And what do people think about writers and illustrators switching genres?


alvinaling said...

Ah, I love this analogy, so true.

Interesting question...if an author I loved submitted something to me that I didn't love, I would just chalk that up as an exception to the rule--would never think the writer was a bad writer because of one thing! Depending on how much I liked or disliked it, I would work with the author to make it better. Otherwise, I'd say "this isn't for us, but what else do you have?"

I think the same way as a reader. Oftentimes authors I love write books I don't, and I just return to their previous books and wait for the next one.

In terms of switching genres, I think it can be great, but it's hard to be able to do well. Just as it takes a long time to hone and polish your writing in one genre, it may take just as long to learn to write something new. The markets for different genres are completely different, too.

Because of the dismal picture book market lately, I've seen many picture book authors try their hand at writing novels, to varying degrees of success. I'm always open to it, but you can't force it. But when it works, it's wonderful. Like YEAR OF THE DOG!

Anna Alter said...

This is a great analogy, its so funny how sometimes we judge ourselves in the most unproductive ways. Its the pressure we put on ourselves that makes it hard to work sometimes, but also the pressure that pushes us to work harder other times, so its a double edged sword and a careful balancing act.