What Kind Of Writer Are You?
Wild Cook Or Precise Baker?

By PJ Parrish

I love to cook. I love the whole process of finding a new recipe or riffing on an old one. I love shopping for ingredients or adlibbing and using say dill for chives. I love making a hot mess in the kitchen, knowing that a detour can sometimes lead to delicious surprises, like the time I subbed dry vermouth for wine in a chicken recipe and it made for the best meal we’ve had in years.

I hate to bake. I hate the precision of it. I hate the math required to make a souffle rise. I hate having to follow exact directions with no room for error or surprise. The last time I tried to bake a cake I almost burned down the kitchen because I didn’t have any parchment paper and thought — “Wax paper! Why not?”

Cooking is an art. You’re not bound by limitations. If a recipe calls for “a little wine” you don’t sweat it; you just make sure you have enough for the glass you drink while you cook. If a dish calls for shallots, you know you can use scallions in pinch. And if it tastes a little flat, add more garlic! Your errors can become triumphs.

Baking is a science. You are bound by its laws. And deviations usually mean disasters. Like the time I brain-farted and used baking soda instead of baking powder then wondered why my biscuits came out like hockey pucks.

Good cooks often make lousy bakers, and vice versa.

Part of this is basic human psychology. I hate being told what to do. I’m not good at following “you-must” directions. I also hate that if something is not coming together as it should, it’s because I didn’t understand the chemistry.

Does this have implications for writers? I think so. The cook vs baker paradigm applies to how we approach our way of doing business, as pointed out by Damon Brown, who writes a blog on start-ups:

  • Certainty vs. agility: “Bakers” aim for certainty, repeating a process until it is virtually guaranteed to produce the same result, while “cooks” focus on agility, adapting and maximizing to new circumstances as quickly as possible
  • Routine vs. schedule: “Bakers” get energy from routine, knowing what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. “Cooks” thrive under a to-do list that provides guidance but is flexible enough for improvisation.
  • Precise measurements vs. slight variations: “Bakers” love precise measurements, thriving in the beautiful details. “Cooks” prefer room for last-minute insights once they are deep in the process.

You can probably guess that I am devoted pantser. I never outline. I plan oh, maybe four chapters ahead and often deviate from that as the plot moves me. I don’t keep any records of word counts and have no set goals for daily or weekly output. As a newspaper reporter, I was a captive to hard deadlines and I seldom missed one. But as a fiction writer, I find I have to roll at my own odd pace — sometimes I can turn out 5K words in a torrid heat. Other days I can barely manage a tepid page.

Being a cook-writer does have its problems. Recently, I had to toss out two chapters because I had fallen in love with a secondary character who had led my story off the rails. But a baker-writer friend of mine recently had to start his book over because, ten chapters in, he realized that he had dutifully followed his outline into a plot cul de sac.

I sort of envy those of you who keep to a set schedule or word count. I get that it imposes discipline and engenders the deep satisfaction of accomplishment. I’ve tried to do this, but I just can’t.  When forced to a schedule or word count, I get resentful and crabby. Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy? No, and don’t make her or she’ll bite your head off.

Perhaps there is something to be gained from both the “baker” and “cook” models. We cook-writers might benefit from trying to outline, if for nothing else than getting the bad ideas out of our cluttered heads and into the cruel light of day. We cook-writers can also be lazy or procrastinators in absence of any deadline. But you baker-writers out there might benefit from being more open to the unknown path even if it feels like it’s going to lead you off a cliff. Maybe you need to build in room for agility over certainty.

Maybe it’s just a matter of recognizing your own personal style and making your writing model more aligned with it. Neither cook or baker is right or wrong. What’s wrong is thinking you have to be what you aren’t.

I will leave you with one more thing to chew on. Here is my favorite chicken recipe. I think I got it from France magazine years ago. It’s super easy but very impressive. I guarantee you will have clean plates. Rock on, bakers!

Creamy Chicken Thighs 

Serves 4-6 but you won’t have anything left over.

1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, sliced into small pieces. Don’t use gawd-awful turkey bacon. Plain old Oscar Meyer will do but any quality unflavored (ie no “applewood smoked” or such) is best.

8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on

2 onions cut up into thin slices.

3 large cloves garlic. Can’t ever have too much garlic.

1 cup of dry white white. Yes, you can use something cheap.

1 cup chicken stock. Whatever you have handy, even from a can. I keep Better Than Bouillon my pantry.

1/2 cup heavy cream. No, don’t sub milk or worse 2% milk. We’re going for creamy here not healthy.

2 tbsp Dijon mustard. That grainy stuff works best. 

1 large tomato diced up.

4 cups of baby spinach. But adult spinach will work.

1 tbsp thyme. Don’t leave this out..it gives it a nice kick. You can use dried bottled herbs.

2 tbsp lemon juice. I just squeeze one lemon in when the time comes.

In large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown but not too crisp. Use a slotted spoon to take it out and set it on a plate so you have some bacon grease still in the pot.

Season the chicken on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and brown it on both sides, about 15 mins. Don’t worry if it’s not cooked thru cuz it gets cooked more in the sauce. Take the chicken out and put it with the bacon.

Cook the onions in the remaining fat until brown and soft, about 10 mins. Add the garlic for 2 more mins. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. This just means you scrape any bits off the bottom. Add the stock, whisk in the cream (yeah, a whisk works best but use a spoon if you must). Add the tomatoes. 

Bring the sauce to a soft boil then turn down the heat to med-low. Return the bacon and chicken thighs and simmer, no lid, until chicken is cooked through and sauce gets a little thicker. This should take about 25-30 mins.

Try the sauce and add salt and pepper if you think it needs it. It’s up to your taste buds!

Last minute before you get ready to serve: Stir in the spinach and cook until it’s just wilted, about 3 mins. Stir in the thyme and lemon juice. 

I like to serve this in a deep dish plate over any kind of noodles, like pappardelle or good old Muellers egg noodles. But you can serve with rice or taters if you like.

Bon appetit!

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

23 thoughts on “What Kind Of Writer Are You?
Wild Cook Or Precise Baker?

  1. I was wondering what to make tonight. Thank you.

    I’m a baker not a cook but I tweak. The kids and I were baking chocolate chip cookies for a bake sale once and realized we were out of vanilla. It was storming and I was not about to swim to the store so we substituted 1/2 teaspoon of coconut extract and 1/2 teaspoon of rum extract, called them Island Cookies and sold out in five minutes.

    • Ha! Well, it sounds like you have the soul of a cook. My best friend is an excellent baker and makes the most amazing cookies. Like you, she sticks to a basic dough formula but is clever enough to play around with the ingredients. She’s the Lee Child of cookies.

      • I got in cooking mode and forgot we were writing!

        I always know my beginning and end so I write those first. Then I write scenes as I see them and put them where they go. Then I look to see what I still need (I like Blake Snyder’s beat sheet and also Jack Bickham’s scene and sequel). When I run out of ideas or time (usually time) I ask my imaginary secretary to please have the next scene ready for me when I sit down again.

  2. When we moved to 9100 feet, baking went out the window. There’s TOO much chemistry and physics involved. But I’ve always leaned toward cooking. At this altitude, I love my Instant Pot, but I don’t like not being able to tweak as I go.
    As far as my writing goes, I’m 90% cook. I do like a word count goal so I don’t slack off. Right now, my vague plan for “this will happen” is being revised because it won’t work within reasonable ‘real life’ parameters, and there’s only so far I’m willing to ditch the rules. I’ll have to find a substitute ingredient, something that’s the norm when it’s not worth a 30 mile round trip to the grocery store because you don’t have fresh basil. (Or worse, you make the trip and they don’t have it, either.)
    Thanks for the recipe. That one should work just fine at altitude.

    • Yeah, that’s another thing about baking — I have to factor in ALTITUDE? Oh, and you have to account for basic humidity in some recipes. 🙂

      • Which is why it’s wiser to weigh ingredients, especially in baking. I did buy a high-altitude cookbook for baking, and if I HAVE to bake something, it comes out of that book.

    • I’ve had to cc it for several friends who’ve tried it. Hope you like it.

  3. Good post – made me do some thinking. I gave one of my favorite recipes to a friend, and after trying it, she said her family didn’t like it. I asked what they didn’t like, and she said she substituted this for that, another thing for something else, and added a new ingredient. The recipe had only six ingredients to start with, so basically, she didn’t make the recipe at all.

    Whenever I try a new recipe I make it exactly as written. If I make it again, I have a basic foundation, and I experiment in both baking and cooking. So it is, I realize, with writing. We have to know the basics, what works and what doesn’t. I am most definitely not a plotter. But as JSB writes (and I don’t quote because I don’t have that book in front of me) if you want your books to sell, you need the correct foundation. Just as you can’t substitute baking soda for baking powder, you can’t leave out the climax and substitute a swim in a placid lake.

    So, I made a form with JSB’s 14 plot points and am using that as a guide. The man did a lot of work and research on it, after all. Whether it helps my particular writing style remains to be seen, but it’s a basic recipe, proven to work, which makes it a good place to start. Once I taste it, I can experiment.

    Whether this particular “recipe “ sounds good to you, or another’s is more appealing, it makes sense to have a map so you don’t get lost.

    • Thanks, Becky. Both baker and cook depend upon formula (structure). What, after all, is a recipe, but a series of steps and ingredients that follow a certain order, lest you end up with a lumpy mess or watery horror?

      • Exactly, Jim. I’m with Becky. I stick to a recipe when I do it the first time cuz I figure that’s how the person who first thought it up wanted it. Then, as you get more confidence, you can veer from the formula. So it is with fiction. Know the rules before you try to break them.

      • I could not agree more, Becky and Jim. We at least need the basic recipe to build from, in cooking, baking, or writing.

        As for baking vs. cooking, I love both. When my grandson came down with an egg allergy (and several other allergies), I experimented to bake him a birthday cake that he could actually eat. No child should feel left out of his own birthday. I do the same with my cooking…pinch of this, splash of that. BUT I always start with a basic foundation from which to build. 😀

  4. Great analogy, Kris. And timely given the discussions we’ve been having.

    I’m not a cook or a baker, but I play with woodworking, and I love to experiment with construction and finishing. I can’t stand to start off with a precise plan and exact instructions, I like to have an idea of where I want to end up and experiment (?improve on) the methods along the way.

    And, comparing that to writing, I like to work on a careful outline and plan, knowing where I want to end up, but let the characters and the creative juices flow along the way, nudging them – chapter by chapter – to keep from straying too far off the road.

    Thanks for the recipe. My wife is the baker and cook at our house. I’ll pass it on to her and stay out of the kitchen.

    Merci beaucoup!

  5. I’m always smack in the middle of any sliding scale. So, I love both baking and cooking. Depends on my mood. Nothing’s stopping me from replacing all the raisins in my cookies with chocolate chips, but I never hear someone say anything about messing with the heat settings when cooking a piece of meat. There are precise rules in cooking, we just take it for granted.

    As a writer, I make an outline, but, as I mentioned before in this space, it’s because my ideas come way faster than I can write. And set quotas? As Stephen King wrote in his book: fuhgeddaboudid. Can’t stick to a daily word count if my life depended upon it. Instead I opted for having a weekly scene/chapter count. If I can finish said number of chapters a week (the number depends on whether it’s summer break or not) I’m happy.

    • We sound like we’re cut from the same cloth AZ. I DO set a deadline to finish a first draft. If you’re too opened ended, you never finish and you waste time re-polishing the same stuff you wrote two months ago. As for heat settings on meat etc…don’t get me started. This morning, we are taking possession of a new gas stove. I can’t cook well with electric stoves. Gas is more…precise. So there goes my theory! Tomorrow night…grilled cheese sammies!

  6. Love this comparison, Kris! I think it’s very apt. The irony for me is that when it comes to cooking vs baking, I’m like you–I enjoy cooking but tend to avoid baking for the reasons you mentioned. I baked my first cookies this past year, using a simple Alton Brown recipe for peanut butter ones, but in general, I prefer to cook.

    I began as a fiction writer as a pure pantser, and then, after beginning my journey on the path of fiction craft study, became an outliner. My current novel, number thirteen, is my first mystery, and is the apex of my outlining approach. I’ve spent a lot of time on different arcs etc. I think that’s really the learning process.

    Hopefully, once I’ve internalized the mystery story arc, I’ll be able to move more to the middle as a writer and cook rather than bake, discovery writing from a high-level story structure view, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for an enjoyable and enlightening post!

  7. I love your analogy between cooking and writing, Kris. It doesn’t exactly apply to me since I approach the kitchen and the office in different ways.

    I’m not much of a cook or a baker, so if I try something new or fancy, I stick to the recipe. Sometimes literally.

    But when I’m writing, a new ingredient in the form of a character or scene may pop into my mind while I’m stirring the plot, and I add it. Even though I’m relatively new at all this, I’m finding my stride. I develop a general outline of the story based on the three-act structure and start writing. How convenient that my office has a closet with three sliding doors where I attach post-it notes for scenes within each act!

    As I go along, I keep the plot structure JSB has written about and update the outline (and my closet doors) to be sure I haven’t gone too far afield. Then write some more. Magnifique repas!

  8. For me, the cooking metaphor fits book genres more than my style of writing. Most genres have a general recipe. You need to get the important ingredients right. Don’t forget the chicken and the specific herbs for a chicken noodle soup, but if the proportions are a bit off, and you’d like a few vegetables to flavor the chicken, that’s okay. Romances are cakes. All the ingredients have to be in exact proportions and put in correctly, or you end up with a hard, nasty mess.

    • Marilynn:
      So true re romance. When I first got in it, I was submitting to Harlequin and the specs they sent me were really off-putting to the cook in me. I ended up writing what I wanted and just sent it in to various publishers. Got picked from the Ballantine slush pile and so it began.

  9. Thanks for the very entertaining post, Kris, and for the recipe. I am definitely a cook in the kitchen and the keyboard.

  10. One question about the recipe.
    You say 1 T thyme, and say you can used dried. However, you’d use 3 times as much fresh as dried, so does your recipe call for fresh thyme, in which case you’d use 1 t of dried? Or 1 T of dried, which would mean 3 T of fresh?
    🙂

    • You’re right, Terry. If you use fresh herbs, you can use more. But bottled herbs are more intense so yeah, less if you use dried. I forgot to address that cuz I have an herb garden. So the recipe as I printed it is for fresh thyme. A little thyme goes a long ways.

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