Monday, January 23, 2012

Why A Novel Is Like Corn Bread

We're going to bake some cornbread, folks!

What do we need? Well, cornmeal, of course. Duh. Probably flour too, because without some kind of flour your bread may end up kind of strange. And nobody wants that. You'll need some sugar, unless you prefer to use something like honey or you're going with a sugar free recipe. Baking powder to help it rise. Salt, but only a pinch. Butter or vegetable oil, depending on your taste. Eggs will hold the cornbread together and give it a softer texture. And you'll need some water or milk.

Now - all of these ingredients are  good. Yes? All of these ingredients are necessary. Yes?

So... we're good to go, right?

Ehh... not quite. There is a little more. There is a science to all of this. Baking is just chemistry, and the laws of chemistry must be obeyed. There are recipes to be followed: certain ways of combining these key ingredients to make that which we desire, a certain temperature to get the proper baking time and done-ness. We want delicious, just right, crumbly cornbread. Maybe our cornbread will have our own spices in it, or maybe it'll be a little sweeter or a little more Southern in style, but the basic rules have to be followed.

"Well, I can make my cornbread however I WANT!" the new cornbread maker says, defiant. "I don't have to do it YOUR way. If you watch Food Network, those guys don't even MEASURE and THEY'RE AWESOME. So just, back off with your stupid recipes, all right?"

Um... okay.

What happens if you put seven eggs in instead of two like the recipe asked for?

How about if you triple the salt?

Or the flour?

Or even something fairly benign, like sugar?

What if, instead of twenty minutes at 350 degrees, you bake it for five minutes at 350 degrees?

What if you DO bake it for twenty minutes, but the temperature is at 140 degrees?

Yep. You're right. You can make your cornbread any dang way you want to. It's your cornbread. But there are no guarantees that anybody will want to eat it. And is that not the purpose of cornbread?

I am ALL for individuality. I am ALL for creativity. But there is a very fine line between creativity and disaster. The chefs who break the rules and tweak their cornbread to make it amazing? They're the ones who began with the very basics. They began by learning the laws of food and necessary combinations of proportions to achieve a desired result... by recipes, most of them.

Now, let's say that eggs are... oh... we'll say that eggs are your characters. (You need some 'good eggs.') Flour is your sentence style and structure. Your oil will be your dialogue (it must flow!) and your cornmeal is the overall structure of your novel. We shall say that baking powder is your foreshadowing, building up to a climax, and the sugar is humor in your book. (I'm making this up as I go, but you understand what I mean.) Time in the oven will be the timing and pacing of your novel. And temperature we shall call 'tension'.


Are the rules any different?

Not really.

Is our creativity hampered by following rules? Well... how many different kinds of cornbread can we bake?

Google 'cornbread recipe'. I got 9,070,000 results. I'm sure that a lot of those results are going to involve different recipes that hundreds of thousands of different chefs have come up with.

Creativity is NOT hampered by rules. Rather... learning the rules gives us freedom to transcend the luck of the draw and the potential disaster of a nasty mixture. When we have learned them, we can then decide, consciously, which ones we want to 'break' - for example, in our family we bake eggless, wheatless, milk-free cornbread, because of certain allergies. And (for what it is) it's good, because we use other things to balance out the missing ingredients.  Because we know the rules.

Those great writers we all love who break rules and get away with it? Same kind of story.

Don't be afraid of the rules. Don't be afraid of formulas. When you learn them, you then have the freedom to break them, or use them, to your advantage. And then you can do something genius.

What do you think? Yea or nay?

And this is somewhat tangential, but... what's your favorite thing to put on cornbread? :)


  1. Great analogy, Jospeph! And such a fun post. :)

  2. Hey Joseph, I just discovered your blog (thanks to Emily's plug on her blog). I am loving it, especially the book reviews and humorous posts. Keep them coming. :)

  3. Thanks, Lynette! It's been a while since last we spoke! It's good to hear from you.

  4. I love this! (I love your whole blog, actually... I finally settled in here in Nevada and got back to it, and I'm REALLY glad I did.) Reminds me of awesome writer/blogger Kristen Lamb's writing-is-like-pizza explanation... Read it a while ago and it stuck with me because it's such a good illustration. (It's here: )

    1. That's a good post. I love her blog. I haven't had time to read all of her posts yet, but she's an amazing blogger and I hope to be more like her when I grow up.

      Good to hear from you, Kjerstin! :) Hope Nevada's treating you well.