Masterchef - Putting The Novel In The Mix
A show which is religiously series linked on my Sky TY planner, is BBC's Masterchef. Ever since Gregg Wallace and John Torode took over from Lloyd Grossman, I've been addicted to this fabulous culinary show which enables amateur cooks to demonstrate their best recipes and ingenuity. While watching the nervous contestants slice duck, knead bread and stir sauces, the sweat lashing off them as they dart around in the kitchen attempting to create that sumptuous masterpiece, I realised, laptop on knee, that their finished product is not unlike the author's novel. And the process too which results in the completed dish is similar to the procedure the writer follows as he or she attempts to create that novel.
The author needs to have the right ingredients, the book has to be enjoyable for the palate and it has to be free from mistakes - oops I've burnt the pancakes, messed up the POV, and the cream has curdled - help me! While it's often too late to salvage a Masterchef dish that has gone wrong under exam-like conditions, the novelist has the advantage of time to perfect the book.
Here are some thoughts on creating a lovely dish - or a novel, if you are a writer...
1. Use the right ingredients. Don't put black bean sauce in pasta and give it to John and Gregg to taste, and don't throw Bisto all over a Dauphinoise potato dish. Don't salt and pepper it to hell and back. The author can quite easily overdo the adjectives and get a little heavy-handed with the herbs and spices, making it go all flowery needlessly. Furthermore, make sure that the POV is right. Don't confuse the reader who is digesting your book. Don't have too many flavours going on - don't have the action taking place with a hundred characters. After all, you wouldn't heap thyme, garlic, ginger, sage, nutmeg, corriander, tarragon and curry powder into your starter.
2. The novel is a finely tuned dish which the chef has mastered over time. I (being a rubbish cook) wouldn't expect to make a perfectly cooked béarnaise sauce overnight (or in my case, a veggie Quorn roast with all the trimmings). Instead, and I'm sure all Masterchef participants will agree, that they have honed and practised their craft for many years. Likewise the novelist can't expect to start writing his or her first book and suddenly be the next JK Rowling with a New York Times number one seller. It all takes practice and rejections, screaming, tearing hair out and sobbing for hours in the bath with chocolate.
3. Present the food in the correct manner. If you shovel the pasta into the bowl and have it falling over the side like trailing ivy cascading down a dilapidated house, then you're not going to win your customer over. And John and Gregg will be pointing that out. But, you probably wouldn't have presented this car crash to them in the first place, would you? The novelist should never send a badly written covering letter penned in red ink, along with his or her sloppy submission, stapled together and covered in stickies and Tippex. No. The novelist should present it in a professional manner.
4. Have the right amount of food on the plate - there's no point in piling on potatoes, chips, waffles and mash and loading it with baked beans, salt, pepper and vinegar. For the writer, there's the urge to send in more than the first three chapters - perhaps chapters four, five and nine, because 'that's when the story really gets going.' Don't! Stop right now before you get to the post box!
And when Gregg and John say: 'Mmm, yes, I can taste all the flavour here' or 'I'd love to dive right in there', you're hoping they might ask for a full and give your book the Masterchef seal of approval. And once that novel is on the shelf, you have to believe in it and not constantly worry over whether your reader will have a bitter aftertaste. Remember, it won't be to everyone's liking, and there will be newspaper critics who will pick holes in your book. But it's on the shelf and it's selling.