Friday, February 06, 2009

Carne Asada vs. Filet Mignon

Maybe I've been watching too much Top Chef lately, but I've come to see how books are a lot like restaurant dining. There's the greasy, no frills Mexican joint that has abuela cooking in the kitchen, and while the food tastes incredible, there isn't much art to it. Then there's the five-star restaurants with the 12-course tasting menus, where every single bite is carefully crafted and thought out and every flavor complements the others perfectly. I'm a huge fan of the Mexican place. I never tire of good food no matter what the presentation is like. But if I want to be impressed, if I want to be wowed, I'm going to the five-star restaurant.

Like Mexican restaurants, there are plenty of "good tasting" books out there. These are the books you enjoy reading, they're suspenseful and intriguing, but there's nothing really new or impressive about them. The five-star restaurant books aren't as common. These are the books in which each sentence is intended, each chapter is carefully crafted, each plot point leads somewhere and each character serves a distinct purpose. You don't remember the name of the taqueria with the great tortas, but you never forget the name of the restaurant where you had a 4-hour dining experience. Same goes for books.

Good news is, unlike owning a five-star restaurant, I believe any writer can produce a beautifully crafted, well written, memorable novel. Like any good chef, it's about honing your craft. Here are a couple of tips:
  • Read. Learn from the masters. Which books do you remember reading that are incredibly written and well crafted? Go back to those books, and this time, read them for the writing.
  • Practice. Write every day, no matter what. You don't become a good writer by sitting around and thinking about writing. If you're still in the brainstorming phases of a book, write out character sketches, scenes from a character's childhood, a description of the setting. Words are free and paper is cheap.
  • Craft. Everyone's writing process is different. Some have to think about a scene before writing it, other's write their way into it. Whatever your style, it's important to craft your prose. You may do it as you write or revise afterwards. Every chapter, ever scene, every paragraph, in your book should serve a purpose. Every character and every object should do the same. Every scene should push the story forward. Go through your manuscript and eliminate the ones that don't.
  • See The Big Picture. This is something that many writers find difficult. It's easy to look at a scene or look at a chapter and see what's lacking. It's harder to look at the book as a whole. But it's necessary. If you plot beforehand, this will be easier, as you already know where the story is going. If you plot as you go, you may have to wait until your manuscript is finished to really see the big picture. Once you see the overall structure of the book, it will be easier to strengthen the scenes within.

As a reader and reviewer, I'm looking for the five-star restaurants. While the taquerias taste great, when you eat at a lot of them, they all begin to blur. I read a lot, and memories of the books that were simply enjoyable start to face. It's the well-crafted, five-star books that are burned in my memory. Those are the ones I'm looking for.

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