Friday, 6 January 2012

LESSONS FROM A CLUB SANDWICH

Hello, my Lovely Readers! Somehow it's Friday again, and I hope you've all had a great week.

Today's post is just a little glimmer of inspiration about writing that I thought I would share before it slipped away. And yes, as the title suggests, this inspiration comes to you courtesy of a club sandwich.

Yesterday was my dad's birthday and, as is my tradition, I dragged him out for a birthday lunch. He's a tiny bit of a hermit, my father (probably where I get it from) and so getting him to eat out is challenging. But he usually enjoys it when I manage it, and that ensures I keep up the effort. He's a simple guy at heart, though. Even when I do shoehorn him from the house he never wants to eat anything fancy or indulge himself, not even on his birthday. Despite my taking him to a posh bistro with all kinds of interesting things on the menu and offering him free rein, the man ordered a simple chicken and bacon club sandwich.

However, because it WAS a very nice bistro, I was pleasantly surprised when my dad's lunch arrived. It looked pretty spectacular - there must have been half a roast chicken in there, along with about five slices of bacon, and he also had an amazing salad garnish and curly fries. They'd stuffed so much into the sandwich that they'd been forced to put those little wooden cocktail sticks through it just to keep the toasted bread together. I was sort of wishing I'd ordered the same thing when I realised that my dad was not making pleased sounds. He was sighing.

Restraining my instinct to interrogate him (no one likes being interrogated by me, least of all on their birthday) by way of eating my own lunch, I watched as my dad tried to pick up half the sandwich in three or four different ways without causing it to disintegrate. When he finally managed to get the thing off the plate he had just as much of a struggle taking a bite out of it, as it was twice as wide as his mouth. Eventually he ended up just using a knife and fork to dismantle the thing. He ate about two thirds of it, and most of the curly fries, and then sat back and poured himself a cup of tea.

My good intentions evaporated. "Is something wrong with it?" I asked him anxiously. "I mean, it looked nice, but if it wasn't..."

"It was fine," he assured me. "It was all really good. There was just...too much of it."

"Too much? But it's all your favourite things! How can there be too much?"

He shrugged. "I don't know, flower. I mean, I like chicken and I like bacon, and I like both in sandwiches. But the amount of filling stuffed into this was overwhelming. It felt less like eating a sandwich and more like trying to eat a two course meal slapped between slices of toast. After the third bit of bacon or whathaveyou, you're just struggling on. But it was still good!" he added hastily, seeing my crestfallen expression.

Now, this may not seem to have anything to do with writing. In fact, it doesn't. But my brain, as we all know, is hardwired to try and turn pretty much anything that happens in life into a writing related metaphor. So later on, I found myself thinking about this, and deciding that there's a lesson about plotting to be learned from these lunchtime shenanigans.

When you first come up with an idea for a story, it can often be vague. You know, to bring the metaphor into it, that it's a club sandwich, but what KIND of club sandwich is another thing entirely. You've got a beginning or an ending or both in mind if you're lucky (like slices of toast on either side of the plot, holding it together). Maybe some blurry ideas for one or two developments in the middle, or some characters you really want to get to know better (that's the chicken and the bacon). You might have an idea for the feel of the thing (mayonnaise or ketchup or barbecue sauce? White bread or granary? Extra salad in the sandwich?).

What you don't have is an actual club sandwich. All you've got is scattered pieces.

And so the temptation, like the temptation given into by the chef at the bistro, is to quickly throw all the ingredients together in the traditional way (quick, quick - no time to consider trying different things or experimenting) and if it looks a bit thin, just grab some extra bits of bacon or chicken (plot twists you've seen in other books or half-developed echoes of characters that you have in the back of your head) and stuff those in. In fact, the more the merrier! Chicken and bacon are good, right? So if you add more, it can only make the sandwich better. When you finish the whole thing seems a bit shaky and like it might fall apart, but no big deal. Get out your cocktail sticks (maybe a stock romance that you've seen a hundred times before, or some other plot element that always seems to work for other writers) and pin it all together that way. Then add some garnishes (some pasted on descriptions that leap to the top of your head) to pretty things up, and off it goes, looking amazing! Job well done!

The problem is that this sandwich hasn't been put together with any thought of the person who is going to be eating it on the other end. How is this person supposed to pick up such a towering confection, or even take a bite out of it? This thing isn't even a sandwich anymore! For the reader, this book may be stuffed to bursting with cool and interesting things, but it's hard for them to appreciate any of it because the writer's not taking due care with what they present. It's a jumble. It's all too much. It's not a story; it's a mishmash.

Have you ever read a book like that? Where brilliant ideas were almost falling out of the sky, where there were dozens of interesting characters, and yet the whole thing just didn't work? It felt less like a story and more like an endless series of events and people, with nothing was properly explored? I come across these all the time and it exasperates me, because I know that if the writer had just waited a bit, considered a bit more calmly and carefully, they could have selected one or two of those plot elements and characters - the ones they truly loved and were interested in - and made them amazing. They could have allowed the fineness of the ingredients to shine through, like a lovely sandwich with just the right amount of filling. Instead of which, you're forced to slog through seemingly endless amounts of filler until it all begins to taste the same.

I think the lesson to be learned is that less can quite often be more. Sometimes a few morsels of delicious, succulent chicken and a couple of pieces of crispy bacon, beautifully cooked and carefully arranged between the toast is enough. Concentrate on making what you've got to hand the best it can possibly be and putting it together with love and care. Don't fill your story with dozens of extraneous elements. Take the time to construct something the reader can pick up easily and sink their teeth into, instead of trying to wow them with a gigantic plate that looks exciting at first glance.

(And BTW - I'm making this up to my dad by taking him out for a fish and chip supper over the weekend. He likes the fish and chip place better than fancy bistros anyway. *Shrugs*)

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

You've made me hungry. Or at least - you've made me realise I'm hungry. Lunch is an hour away, now what will I do?!
Lovely post anyway, happy birthday to your dad!
-Hobbit

borky_qk said...

Ha! I believed without thinking! But I do not feel betrayed. :D Really good post. And congratulations on the nomination of "Shadows on the moon". I wish you luck!

Vivienne said...

What a fabulous post! I am amazed you could find words of writing wisdom amidst the layers of a club sandwich. You are just so clever. I hope your dad enjoys his fish supper more.

Zoë Marriott said...

Hob: I've made myself hungry, actually! Mmmm, bacon...

Borky: thank you :)

Viv: No, I just think my brain is a bit odd, really. Even as I was putting this together I was thinking 'Man, people are going to think you're strange...' But I'm sure he'll enjoy fish and chips more. He's a simple guy at heart.

A.J. Mullarky said...

I know exactly what you mean. Your father is a wise man. *bows down*

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: Oh, good! I was a bit worried I was just rambling on because I was craving bacon :) And yes, he is, bless him.

Anonymous said...

Great analogy, lol

I remember you saying in one of your previous posts that you go through a few drafts before calling it your "first draft," but when you do your actual first draft, how do you keep your spirits up? There are some parts that I write that I really love, but other parts don't seem as good. I know you always improve what you write after your very first draft, but how do you keep your spirits up in the meantime? I love my idea and my characters and I'm not going to desert them, but every now and again I do get insecurities about whether my writing is, or will be, as good as some of favourite books. I feel like I'm on a rollercoster.

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Great post, I really like this analogy.

Zoë Marriott said...

Anon: I think that's a very good question, and if you don't mind I'll make a post answering it sometime next week. If you'd rather I didn't do that, just email me through my website and I'll answer that way instead.

Jenni: Thanks. I was a little bit anxious about whether it would work or not, but no one's told me off yet, so I'm relieved!

Elissa Sussman said...

I love any analogy that combines food and writing. Well done!

And yes, I've found many a book with that exact problem...though sometimes the awesome stuff is so awesome that I don't even realize there was nothing holding it together until I re-read it or begin to recommend it to someone.

Isabel said...

I can totally understand what you mean by this, and I agree! Nice post. (And happy late birthday to your dad, too!)

Zoë Marriott said...

Erica: I can probably combine food and writing with pretty much anything else, too. They're my main obsessions. Which is a bit sad when I come to think about it. But yes, you're right - sometimes the ideas are just SO brilliant that they fool you into thinking you're getting a complete story. But just think how awesome a book like that could be if the author had combined the brilliant ideas with a decent plot? That's what makes me sad.

Isabel: I'm glad :) I come up with this on only one cup of coffee this morning, so I'm quite surprised it made sense to anyone, even me. I'll pass your birthday wishes on, thanks!

Isabel said...

Ha, you and your coffee! I have tea every day at Winsor with my best friend - I don't know what I'd do without it. :) Never had coffee, though, surprisingly!

Voss Foster said...

Woohoo! Food and writing--if you'd thrown music in, it would have been a trifecta of a post =D

Happy writing--I always enjoy reading your posts.

Voss

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: I never really bothered about coffee either until about four or five years ago. I was a tea-drinker too, when I bothered with hot drinks at all. And then I was taken off my interesting office job and made to do the most boring job ever. So boring that I literally started nodding off mid-sentence. Coffee was all that kept me going and I'm afraid I got a bit addicted. Now if I try to do without I get headaches and can't concentrate. *Sigh*

Voss: Thanks. Maybe I can try to work music in next time...

Isabel said...

Zoe: I was looking at the page for Shadows on the Moon on Goodreads, and it seems as if there's already a US hardcover edition! Is this the final cover? It looks the same as the other one you showed me that I think was for the audio edition...

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Yes, there is - I'm just not allowed to post it to my website until closer to the release date! But it's there on the internet, so someone put it on GR. *Shrugs*

Isabel said...

Well, it's very pretty! Kind of an optical illusion of sorts, too. :) But I personally prefer the UK edition.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous comment number 2.
Yes please. I wouldn't mind seeing it in a post next week :)

Megha said...

Checked out the new cover! It's pretty, but I prefer the UK one too :)

Megha said...

Also, your metaphors are ingenious :D

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Most people do seem to prefer the UK covers... I wonder if it's just that they're more familiar? Or if it's because the UK ones tend to be more feminine looking? Hmmm...

Thanks for the compliment, too. I try my best!

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