Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mise en place

There's a concept in cooking that you'll run across if you watch any of the cooking reality shows: mise en place. It translates to "put in place," and basically means getting all the ingredients ready before you start to cook.

When I was younger, I ignored all the cookbook admonitions to gather my ingredients before diving into the recipe. I was too impatient and wanted to get to the good stuff, the mixing and cooking and eating. I raced all over the kitchen, grabbing ingredients as I needed them. 

It worked fine when I had boundless energy. As I get older, though, I don't race anywhere, and cooking has become a chore, rather than a hobby. Now, I find mise en place to be a lifesaver. Except, I do it sort of in slow-motion, or stop-motion. If I'm going to have chicken and rice pilaf for dinner, I'll measure out the rice while my breakfast oatmeal is cooking. Then, whenever I go into the kitchen during the day, I'll chop up a vegetable to go into the rice, or I'll measure out the seasonings. By the time I'm ready to make dinner, I've got all the prep work done, and I can throw everything together in just a few minutes. 

My writing process has evolved similarly. I used to be too impatient to outline or do other pre-writing. As soon as I had the idea, I wanted to get right to the good part, the writing itself. Of course, that usually led to me stalling out at about the 50-page mark, when I'd have to stop and do the outlining, etc. (Some people can keep going without the outline, and I tried, but it never worked for me.) 

Nowadays, I do a lot of pre-writing, which is a lot like mise en place for cooking. I put all the story ingredients in place over the course of a week or two, in small chunks of work, well before I start writing the actual manuscript. I gather together all the basics: the rough plot, the motifs, the recurring characters, the suspects, the setting and the motifs. (It's perhaps no coincidence that I call my process the "pizza method" of plotting.) And then when it comes time to "cook" the ingredients, to write the story, ... well, I won't say it's easy (writing is hard), but it's easier for me than when I had to race around my brain to find all the ingredients, as I was trying to write the story.

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