Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Baking Up a Great Story

The other day I was baking a sour cream pound cake. Definitely my family’s all time favorite cake. I started thinking about the similarities between baking up a scrumptious cake and producing a delectable children’s story.

First I thumbed through my handy-dandy recipe file boxes. I’ve been baking for 40 years now, so I have lots of “favorite” recipes on file. But I wanted to find the exact, right card. I have four dramatically different pound cake recipes from which to choose, so this is an important step.

It reminded me of my “ideas” file in the drawer next to my computer desk. I get wild ideas while driving or, sometimes, in the middle of the night. So, I keep a notebook and pen nearby. I’ve learned that those ideas do NOT hang around until the next stop light or the next morning. So, I scribble them down while they are hot off the old imagination. I tuck these papers away in a file folder and periodically use them as story prompts. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Like recipes. Sometimes a new one is a flop, and sometimes it turns out to be a family favorite. I’ll never know until I try it.

Back to the kitchen. Next, I assembled my ingredients and tools. (My high school Home Ec teacher would be so proud of me.) I took inventory to be sure I had everything I needed before I began. There’s nothing like dumping a lot of ingredients into a mixing bowl only to find out I’m out of eggs, or milk, or some other indispensible ingredient.

It’s the same way with writing. I need to take inventory before I begin putting words to paper. Who is my audience? Pre-schoolers or high schoolers? Do I have a sympathetic, winsome main character in mind? Have I created a description of him physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually? Does he have a gripping problem to solve or a universal need to meet? Have I thought of some hair-raising, mind-boggling obstacles for my hero to overcome?

Better yet, have I thought through the theme of my story? I need one or two words that will sum up the idea or thing that my story is going to be about. Love? Family? Fear? Courage? War?

Have I thought through a premise for my story? Do I know what changes will take place in my character as she works her way through her problems to accomplish her goal? What will she learn about love? How will her idea of family change? Will she overcome her fears, find new courage? Will war make her bitter, or better?

There’s nothing like writing stacks of pages then suddenly having no place for the story to go because I didn’t figure out where it was headed before I began.

For my melt-in-your-mouth sour cream pound cake it’s crucial that I cream the butter and sugar, then add the 6 eggs one at a time, beating lightly between eggs. Then, little by little I add the dry ingredients that have been pre-sifted, alternating with dollops of sour cream. Lastly I add the flavoring.

If I take short cuts like dumping all the eggs or flour in at once, or failing to sift the dry ingredients, the cake will fall. Or, if I get carried away and overbeat those eggs, I’ll get the same tragic results-a gummy, chewy cake instead of a moist, firm one. The finished product won’t be nearly as knock-me-flat-on-the-floor delicious as it could be. The texture will be all wrong, and the cake won’t be a big hit with my family and friends.

The same thing is true with writing a successful story. I must take the time to do each step correctly. Write the first draft quickly. Let it get cold. Edit. Let it get really cold. Revise. Let it get cold again. Re-vision it. Tear it apart. Make some major changes or try something off the wall. AS myself, "What if..." Let it get cold again. Edit again. Get a critique. Rework it some more. Step by step until it’s exactly right.

If I get carried away on a certain point, or stubb my toe and dump too many modifiers, or take way too many pages to slide into the main story, my manuscript can turn into a gooey glob.

If I take short cuts, if I try to avoid the hard work of writing well, the end product will fall flat just like my pound cake.

To make a perfect pound cake I scoop the batter into a well greased tube pan and ease it into the pre-heated oven. Then I wait. If I mess up here the cake, and all my hard work and expensive ingredients, will wind up in the trash can or down the garbage disposal.

The oven must be at the right temperature. The door must stay closed. No-absolutely no-peeking. I must wait for the timer to ding. No matter how delicious the aroma of that cake is I have to wait. No matter how yummy the leftover batter looks dribbling down the side of the mixing bowl I must wait. And wait.

So, I busy myself cleaning up my mess, starting dinner, checking my email, doing laundry…whatever will keep me from pacing the floor in front of the oven and peeking at the source of that irresistible aroma filling every nook and cranny of my house.

My manuscripts are the same way. When they are ready to go into the oven-ready to be sent off to those publishers anxiously awaiting my next stroke of genius, I slide them into the mail box and wait. And wait.

No-absolutely no-pestering the editors.

So, I busy myself with a new idea from my folder, a new story, a new manuscript until…

DING! The timer announces the big moment. I transfer the pan swollen with melt-in-your-mouth, buttery goodness to my kitchen island. I wait until the cake is totally cool to my touch, then I turn that crackly, crisp-topped pound cake out onto a rack and pat myself on the back. Another successful venture in the kitchen.

When my cake knife glides through that perfectly textured cake, when I pinch off just a smidge of that crisp top crust, when I bite into that rich, buttery slice of heaven on a plate, I’m so glad I took the time to do it right.

It’s something like opening an email that says, “Hey, we like your story and we’d like to publish it!” Or, hearing a voice on the phone say, “This is Ms. X with Your Favorite Publisher. I’d like to discuss that proposal you sent us.”

Absolutely delicious! I’m so glad I took the time to do it right.


Here's that recipe. This baby is so delicious you can forget the berries & whipped cream. And it is unbelievably good a few days later sliced, toasted, and buttered up! Whew! My mouth is watering thinking about it.

Please let me know if you try it. I'd like to know how yours turns out.

Old Fashioned Sour Cream Pound Cake

1 c. butter or margarine (not “spread”)
1 T. vegetable shortening (not oil)
3 c. granulated sugar
6 eggs
3 c. sifted all-purpose flour
¼ t. baking powder
¼ t. salt
¼ t. baking soda
1 carton (8 oz.) sour cream
1 t. vanilla (or other flavoring of your choice)

Cream butter and shortening until smooth. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating slightly after each egg.

Combine sifted flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternately with sour cream. Begin with flour and end with flour. Add flavoring and mix well.

Pour batter into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan. (or a large loaf pan)

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 ½ hours or until a pick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Cool in the pan until the cake is cool to touch. Remove from the pan and cool completely on a rack.


Amy Tate said...

Yum Yum! Thanks for the recipe, I'll try it.
I like writing my ideas down in fufu journals. Every now and then Barnes & Noble will run a sale on writing journals. Some folks say that they don't like to journal in a fancy book because they don't want to mess it up, but not me! The more fufu, the better! Besides, I get to keep the pretty book for a long time since it holds all my ideas.

Jean said...

Great idea, Amy. I know a LOT of writers who have rows and rows of journals.

I'm a computer girl, myself so I keep my journals on my hard drive. When I die someday my kids will just have to hit the DELETE key!

Grace & Peace,

Thankful Paul said...

Hello! :)

Tee Brown said...

I copied your recipe. I'm going to give it a try sometime this month (gotta load up on the salads first).