A Few Points from a Food Writer

I have to admit, I am a little bit exhausted of late. Not quite burned out, but I am certainly sensing a forthcoming Maillard reaction upon my person.

You see, I just finished the manuscript to the second book, and yesterday I sent it off to St. Martin’s Press, where, in a years time or so, this tome will be released into the wild.

Here’s the thing – I’m still not sure that I know what I’m completely doing. This may be an odd thing for a writer to state, and an even more odd for a reader to read. Even so, I can’t deny how I feel.

Don’t get me wrong. I know more now about the publishing business than I did seven-plus years ago, when I started this here blog. These lessons may help others looking to do what I do. The biggest lesson I learned over the course of writing and releasing 99 Drams of Whiskey is that, at least in my experience, it is a sink-or-swim proposition. After the contract is signed, there is no hand-holding. You are supposed to write “x” amount of words, delivered by such-and-such date, and, if you’re lucky, a check or two is involved. Any help provided beyond that is nothing but pure graciousness on the part of your agent or publisher or editor.

What this means is, if I am unable to accomplish the requirements as stipulated in the contract, the fault is my own. A deadline is a marvelous motivator at times. From my perspective, the deadline date is the key aspect of the book contract (at least for those of us who can’t command six-figure book deals), and it needs to be carefully vetted.

Now after having gone through the book writing process twice, all I have learned is the process of writing the book. Or, more specifically, I have learned the process I need, in order for me to write a book. This is something that agents, editors, and publishers, cannot teach you. These processes revolve around personal research styles, how to develop a narrative, and even which locations around provide the best environment for one to write. For the record, I have learned that I write best in coffee-shops in the morning (if no children are present) and pubs in the late afternoon/early evening. I prefer to not write at home, due to distractions, and that libraries, while great for research, are horrible places for me to put words on the screen. My point is – writing a book for national publication is a unique experience, one that is different from person to person. It has taken me two books to get to the point where I can say “I write better by myself than sitting next to someone” or “Caffeine produces interesting results”. It has taken me two books to get to the point where I am comfortable writing books. After two books, it is no longer a novel activity.

Here’s the another thing I am certain of after completing “book two”: I have to write what I like, meaning that I have to have more than a passing curiosity of the subject at hand. Anything less than me being intrigued in the topic means that the book becomes less like me writing, and more like me completing a homework assignment. The former makes me feel like a movie star. The latter makes me feel as if I’m back in a two-year long English 101 class.

The other side of this coin is that you have to find a subject that the publisher finds both appealing and marketable. Oftentimes what you want to write about and what the publisher things can work are two opposite things. A good publisher will work with you to find a common topic in which both parties can be satisfied.

You’ll note that I haven’t spoken to quality of writing. There’s a reason for this. From a publishing point of view, not everyone needs to be a Dave Eggers or John Updike. For many outlets, the ability to sell books is far more important that finding a writer who has command of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. This is an unfortunate, yet very definitive aspect of the publishing world. Self-proclaimed expert writers from around the world can voice their displeasure at this, but it is not going to change this fact.

But from my perspective, I have to improve my writing technique. I have to leverage what I do well (which is “Voice”, and research skills) against what I feel needs improvement (language structure, grammar), while at the same maintaining the schedule I need to hit that deadline. In the end, I want to be a better writer, but I also want to meet my professional obligations. Somewhere between those two points is where the reality of “professional development” sits. And if I want to write book three, book seven, and book twenty, it is in my interest to get better.

Another thing that I have learned: Writing, in the end, is a profession. As such, carrying a professional attitude gets you much further in this business than one might expect. Being on time, respecting other people, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and being able know that there are aspects of the book world where other people will know far more than you, will get you noticed. Being a difficult person will make others want to work with you less, not more.

Which brings me to the last thing that I have learned: Publishing is not a solitary endeavor. You will work with somebody else on your book at some time. For 99 Drams, from research on to writing, from the initial book contract to the last person who interviewed me during publicity, I directly interacted with close to sixty people. From a sheer pragmatic point of view, I could not afford to be an ass. And I know, if I want a third book to be published, it is in my best interest to make those who work with me to feel, at the minimum, respected. It helps me out immensely that many of those who I have worked with in the past five years, deserve that respect.

You’ll note I haven’t actually discussed food writing yet. Expect a post on this aspect in the near future.