Monday, March 20, 2006

The Trouble with Frosting

Frosting as I’m going to use it here doesn’t refer to anything involving confectioner’s sugar, however it’s just as important to an author interested in presentation and consumption as it is to a baker. Frosting isn’t anything central to your story; it will never appear in an outline. Frosting refers to things like chapter titles, poignant lines, funny quips, clever innuendo, even the arrangement of scenes in some cases. With this analogy, the cake itself is your core story—the plot, the characters, the voice.

If you’re like most people, you like frosting—as an eater and a reader—but as a writer we must be careful of it. Writing a draft that’s too pretty, too perfected with its minutiae, can make it painfully difficult later to edit. You may be at risk for this problem if you often find yourself charmed with details of your own writing, because when it’s time to make necessary edits, you may unconsciously (or even consciously) warp your scenes in order to keep those sculpted sugar-flower words and colorful arrangements. “But they’re sooo sweet, sooo pretty,” you may whine to yourself, struggling to have your cake and frosting too.

Truth is, you should never make a decision about a scene based on frosting; story details cannot hold sway over the story itself when it’s time to edit. Sometimes it works out and you may find a way to keep your favorite bits in a way that doesn’t seem forced, but other times you will have to pick up your editorial knife and scrape your artistic work away completely.

Your best bet? Know when to frost a scene to prevent the painful “unfrosting” process. Here’s how:

Bake your cake. When you’re in draft mode, resist thinking about finishing touches, including anything that has you reaching for the thesaurus. As one of my critique buddies advises, write a quick-and-dirty first draft to be sure the story itself is working before you worry about prettying it up. Just bake your cake.
Bake it all the way. Don’t give in to the urge to over-edit scenes until the entire first draft of the entire manuscript is complete. Oh, this can be so hard, I know, but would you ever start frosting the cooked edges of a cake before the whole is baked? It just doesn’t make sense to start perfecting a part before the whole is before you.
Cool your cake. Give your cake time to “cool” after the first draft of your WIP is completed, and don't sit and watch it cool either. Time away from your story is critical, because fresh eyes may see where improvements should be made to the structure before you continue. Sometimes the unthinkable happens and a cake collapses after it’s removed from the oven; never frost a collapsed cake.
Brush off loose crumbs. Take one more nit-picking look at your work, with a sharp eye on pacing, setting and scene arrangement, before thinking about the little extras.
Frost evenly and with care. Make sure the bulk of what your reader will “taste” when they consume your story is your story. Don’t put undue emphasis on the clever additions.
Be creative. Almost anyone can frost a cake. What can you do to make your extras distinctive and interesting?

Even with your best efforts, you may occasionally have to sacrifice favorite scenes, lines, etc… for the good of your story. In his book James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook, Michener said,
I love the rich embellishment of a statement, the marshaling of arcane data, the retelling of illustrative incident, and the hammering down of the point I seek to make.
He describes a notation from his editor about a piece of writing, something I think Michener would admit was frosting: a clever insertion into one of his manuscripts about Gene Lockhart and his daughter June. The fact that his editor asked Michener to cut it was described as
...the most difficult annotation of all.
No one, not even the most successful authors, wants to scrape frosting, but Michener gets it, acknowledging both the reasoning behind the passage and his editor’s valid point.
In this instance I wanted to refer to that delightful actor Gene Lockhart because I had recently acted on an informal stage in Belgium with his daughter, June. The passage could be cut. Sorry, June.
When it happens, take a moment to soliloquize if you need to, then pick up your editorial knife. Sugar happens. Sugar carnage must also happen.

Gee, I wonder why my oatmeal breakfast sounds so unappealing now?


Blogger Elena Greene said...

Great post, Teri. Very good advice for most of us.

I'll be devil's advocate a bit though. I know of a few very fine authors who edit and polish as they go. Maybe it works for them because they have a good handle on their characters from the start. If they get each scene right in terms of character motivations, actions and reactions, they continue to build on a sound foundation.

My characters often hide from me during the first draft, so the bake-first-frost-last process is best for me.


8:49 AM  
Blogger Therese Walsh said...

I've had some tedious unfrosting experiences, so if I can save anyone from it, I'll happily do it. For those who can frost as they go, more power to you! I, however, continue as a wary baker...

5:25 PM  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Okay, beautiful pic, but I couldn't even read the article. I just wanted CAKE. And for someone on Weight Watcher's, wanting cake is not such a great plan. :) But it looks fun!

8:44 PM  

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