Last month, my Aunty Eve and cousin Andrea came to visit. Andrea and her family live in Spain and I hadn't seen her and her kids - or my aunt - for a long time. I wanted to make it feel special so I decided to bake banana bread.
Now I'm not great for baking, all the sugar puts me off, and if it doesn't work out I feel demotivated. I also find it quite scientific. The recipe tells me exactly what I should put in and which order to do it and I prefer to cook with a handful-of- this and a sprinkling-of-that so I get impatient and want to do it my own way instead...
Which is a bit ridiculous when it comes to baking, because the order of the recipe is like that for a reason: it works!
So I followed the steps. And once I started, I still did it my way by swapping out chocolate for cocoa nibs, adding more pecans and sticking in a whole banana cut lengthways. I think my tin was the wrong size so I adjusted the baking time as well. And when I stuck in the knife and it came out clean, I turned it out onto a rack to cool...
Which was about an hour before my relatives arrived.
And then I panicked.
I hadn't used all the right ingredients, and the timing was wrong.
What if it was disgusting?
Tea would be a disaster!
So I did what any sane person would do. I rushed out to Supervalu and bought a lemon drizzle cake, just in case...
As things turned out, it was delicious and Eve said it was the nicest banana bread she'd ever tasted. That was a compliment coming from her because she knows good food and I knew she wasn't trying to make me feel better because the kids came back for more...
But here's the thing. The recipe was tried and proven and I'd followed the steps, so the results were never really in doubt. It was just me who felt unsure. It was my lack of confidence that meant it could all go wrong. It was perfectly fine to change up the ingredients within the limits of banana bread. I mean, throwing in carrots would have made - well - a specific kinda cake instead! So as long as I followed the specific steps, I was always going to bake a lovely banana bread.
The same principle applied to building my house.
The architects drew up plans which were based on my requirements and the boundaries of the land, and then they made a model. And the builder built it by following the design precisely.
When it was finished we were somehow surprised that the house looked the same as the model and the design, and then we laughed about it...because of COURSE it did! That was the logical thing!
Once the structure of the building was in place, I could decide on the finishes: which carpets and paint colours I liked, what kind of kitchen and bathrooms I wanted, and I could create the look I love which makes the house unique to me. But I needed the structure first, before I could creatively get to work on the inside.
And it's exactly the same when it comes to writing a book.
If you use a tried and tested recipe for writing it, it can't really go wrong. Like recipes, books need certain types of ingredients which have to be added at particular times. And like building a house, it's going to work if you create the design and the model first and then follow that design precisely.
This is simply what structure is and how it works, and part of the creative work a writer has to do is to get this structure in place at the start.
Nobody thinks of it this way - least of all me when I'm getting myself worked up in the kitchen - but structure is creative. It's the beginning of the writing process. It's the model, the design, the tried and tested formula you follow for writing your book, and once you follow that you can pour in the rest of the ingredients and mix to your heart's desire. And because you have the recipe, you know exactly which ingredients you need to put in to get the result you want.
This is key.
Because now you know what to put in, you also know what to leave out. And when it comes to writing a book, where you commonly find yourself wanting to include everything as you go along, this is a huge relief and an important factor in your success as well.
So successfully writing a book starts with structure. And when you follow a proven method or formula, logic dictates that it simply has to work.
Um. And the next time I bake banana bread, I'll remind myself not to get annoyed about following a recipe, and eat my own words instead.
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