Recipe For A Novel

I love instructions. NOT directions, but instructions.

Instructions SHOW. Directions TELL. I am a visual learner, so instructions reign supreme, whether they be in image form or list form doesn’t matter. I see the process in my head so it’s easier.

Instructions INSTRUCT, therefore they teach you how to do something.

Take cooking for instance. Recipes are instructions. (I swear this relates to writing…bear with me).

I started cooking 17 years ago. My first set of biscuits were so hard they could be mistaken for big, white stones. My mother gave me directions over the phone.

“You just put a little flour, milk and oil in a bowl and mix it,” she said, like this was a known fact.


“What kind of flour?”


“Well, self-rising is best but all-purpose will do but you have to add other stuff to make it rise right.”


“Ok,” I replied as I jotted down self-rising. ‘Other stuff’ sounded too complicated. “Milk or buttermilk?”


“Buttermilk is best.”


“How much?”


“Enough to make it into a ball you can work with.” A ball I could work with? I had no idea what she meant, but I moved on anyway.


“What kind of oil? Like vegetable oil?”


“Shortening is best but sometimes I use butter. Just use whatever you have.”

I sighed and decided to buy a cookbook. But not until after I attempted to make a good Southern, soft, hot-rise biscuit, which was an Epic Fail.

My mother had done it so many times that instructions were no longer necessary. Precision didn’t matter to her anymore because she knew how to improvise.

I did not. Thus the resulting lumps of concrete my husband and I ended up playing with.

Needless to say, cookbooks were my friend for a while.

I think being new to the writing process is like being new to cooking.

When I first started attacking this novel, I searched high and low for a book that said: Do this, then this, then this, then this, and voila, you will have a finished a novel.

I wanted the writing process to be like following a recipe….just follow the steps and add the right ingredients to get the finished product. I WANTED INSTRUCTIONS.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Granted, I found great books on writing, amazing worksheets and blogs with info galore, but none of them came with the Check-Off List To Successfully Finishing A Novel That Will Work For Everyone that I was looking for.

I finally realized that, like learning to cook, writing a novel takes trial and error.

 I mean, do you have any idea how many tries it took for me to learn to make biscuits that make your mouth water?

Even with the recipe it took a while for me to figure out how to knead the dough just right, and that adding butter to the tops makes them golden. Now I just throw them together. No measuring cups, no recipe. I have a secret ingredient that makes them so fluffy they could float. They are my own and people can tell my biscuits apart from others.

It took trial and error and practice. Just like writing.

There is no One Size Fits All process. We all compile our own How-To Write A Novel list as we work and learn every day. Yes…seeking advice from other writers, books, websites and blogs helps compile this list, but so does experience. My advice is to not get too caught up in following everyone else’s methods, but to figure out your own, figure out what works best for you.

One person might tell you that it’s necessary to plot prior to writing a single word. Another might tell you that it is most important to just write, regardless of direction.

Another might tell you the ins and outs of scene and structure while another might tell you to write in scenes first, then instruct you to add everything else during revisions.

Sure…following someone else’s recipe might get us close, but it’s our own little touches that place our stamp on our work.

So…if figuring out the process is wearing you out, just remember that you are not alone and that the end result will be worth it.

It is YOUR process and yours alone, so master it.

Best of Luck!

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10 Comments

  1. I'm learning this too. While basic instructions may be useful to follow, it's the little details specific to each individual writer that make the piece so special.

  2. I collect recipes. For sure, writing isn't like following a recipe. I agree, we might follow someone else's general recipe – flour and sugar – but you put your own stamp on it. I do that with Toll House cookies. I have a secret that I put into the batter…my own stamp on an old recipe. They always turn out awesome!

    The general writing recipe is the same – flour and sugar – we just have to figure out our own take on it. That's the challenge. That's what makes our stories unique.

    Great post.

  3. So true. When you're starting off and people tell you to write whichever way works for you, it's frustrating. We don't know what works for us at the start. But it's only through trial and error that we come to our own individual method.

    Great post!

  4. Love it, Charissa.
    Sounds like a similar experience I had with my mom.
    As for writing, you're so right. I too look for instruction manuals even though I know there just aren't any. But it helps to know that we're not alone in this.
    Great post.
    Elena