Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Making dessert from disaster

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I make lots of mistakes. LOTS of them. I have the tendency to trip over my own feet when wearing high heels, save documents in places on my computer that guys at MIT would never be able to find and occasionally, I have been known to bake oatmeal cookies with no flour.

Funny about the oatmeal cookie thing. On a good day, I’m a decent cook. However, this time the cookies lost all shape and melted all over the cookie sheet into a big mess. After one look, my inclination was to pitch the whole mess into the garbage can and start over. Only, I am a touch crazy and I took a taste. Yum. I then shoveled the crumbly mess into a bowl and used it to top ice cream. Double yum.

Baking is not the only area in which I’ve found a mistake can turn into an unlikely opportunity. A few years ago, I set aside a manuscript I’d been editing and started writing a totally different kind of book for kicks. It was the most fun I’d ever had writing. Any goofy or strange idea that popped into my head went onto the page. And to top it off, I was writing in a genre I hadn’t studied much.

Everyone always says you should study the genre before you start writing. I used to believe that. Scratch that. I still do. Only, I made a mistake. I didn’t really know the subgenre I was writing in when I started. Heck, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term for the subgenre. Belonging to RWA, I knew all the romance subgenres, but I wasn’t writing a romance. (To tell the truth, I was bad at writing romances….and I tried. Honest. I did. Another mistake, but one I learned from.) So instead of knowing what I was writing and making sure that I created a story that fit the expectations of the editors and readers of the genre, I just wrote.

Once I was done writing, I realized I had no idea what I had written. Yes, Skating Around The Law was a mystery, but what kind of mystery? Turns out I wrote a book that follows the cozy mystery guidelines but isn’t really a cozy. Well crap. I’d made a HUGE mistake. Everyone knows that it is easier to get a book published if it falls squarely in one genre. Yes, people blend genres all the time, but editors have a harder time selling those books to their editorial board because they are riskier. Double crap.

And yet, like the flattened oatmeal cookies, I couldn’t bring myself to throw that manuscript into the trash. It didn’t taste so good on ice cream, but I loved it. Turns out my agent and editor did, too. Thankfully, they also liked the soon-to-be-released SKATING OVER THE LINE, too!

The one thing I’ve learned from the experience is that sometimes mistakes are more than good lessons. Sometimes they are opportunities. You just have to take a step back from the mistake and decide which one it is. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find your mistake is both. I bet if you think about it, you have a few tasty mistakes out there of your own that I’d love to hear about.


  1. Yes! I have at least 3 tasty mistakes in a desk drawer. Thanks for sharing.

  2. That's a wonderful lesson to have learned, Joelle! I love that you made crumbly oatmeal ice cream topping out of flour-less cookie dough! That sounds way better than making lemonade out of lemons! ;-)

  3. Susan - trust me when I say the flourless version of oatmeal cookies is awesome on ice cream. I now make it on purpose:) I can't wait for Little Black Dress!!!

  4. Thanks Joelle for an important reminder. The collective Evelyn David is working on one of those mistakes right now -- hope it turns out to be a good "dessert" :-)


  5. What a fun post! I think we all have both kitchen and writing disaster in our history.