I guess I’m what you would call a pretty serious home cook. It is the rare dish that requires me to follow a recipe and I’ve become more adept over the years with complicated vegetarian dishes in order for child #1, an avowed non-meat eater, to get the nutrients she needs. Baking is not really my forte, but only because I don’t like to measure and child #1 works at a bakery. Problem solved. There is one thing, however, that I’ve never mastered and that is gravy. Can’t do it. Have tried and failed repeatedly. And there’s nothing worse at a Thanksgiving meal than putting out an entire meal and then standing over the stove attempting to get the proper amount of roux to make a thick, but not gelatinous, gravy. There’s something about the preparation of gravy that makes me anxious, and I think that’s because gravy is a staple of many meals, Thanksgiving being the most important. My entire culinary reputation is riding on it and that’s just not a chance I’m willing to take.
I tried for years to make the right gravy, standing beside my mother and mother-in-law, watching what they did and trying to replicate it. It just doesn’t work. So, for the past few years—and with full disclosure to my holiday guests—I buy gravy at the local gourmet store where it is made fresh from the turkeys that they roast and which I serve it in my china gravy boat. It’s delicious and the right consistency every time and all I’m required to do is heat it up. Voila! Perfect gravy.
Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s just that my usual perfectionism just doesn’t translate to pan drippings, but I’ve decided that I’m going to make things easier on myself in order to enjoy the holiday. I’ve also decided the same will be true for writing because no matter how many times I decide I’m going to write the perfect first draft, trying to follow some self-created recipe for writing, it doesn’t happen. (I bet you didn’t think I could connect gravy and writing but YOU’D BE WRONG!) You’d think after six books, I’d be smarter and know that the perfect first draft is an urban legend, kind of like the multi-city author tour or the alligator that lives in the New York City sewer system. Or that everyone can cook gravy.
Starting a book without a roux—which is basically an outline or some kind of detailed plot diagram—is pretty scary but it is something I do every time I write a book. (I’ve only written one outline in the past decade and it’s for a book I’ve yet to write. We’ll see how that goes.) It usually works out ok, though, with me figuring out halfway in whodunit and why. The problem I have is that I hate every word I’ve written before I sit down to write again and I want to revise everything, every day, before I start again, kind of like how I always mess with the home-cooked gravy until it is the aforementioned gelatinous mess. I can’t leave well enough alone. This kind of self-critique, I’ve found, is detrimental to the process and just slows things down. So with this latest book—the seventh in the Murder 101 series—I’ve just taken off the breaks, or to continue with the metaphor, bought the store-bought gravy, and am just dumping everything from my head into the gravy boat and figuring out how to make it work later. (I know…the metaphor is getting a little thing, but stick with me.)
So far, so good. I have about 40,000 words to write to finish this book—piece of cake! But lowering my expectations about what constitutes perfection has been a great lesson for me. Interesting that after writing for all these many years, I’m still learning new things with every book. I don't have to make perfect gravy and I don't have to write perfect first drafts. That's what the delete key is for. What about you? Anything to share on the topic of the perfect first draft? Gravy? Thanksgiving? Let it fly!
Oh, and in honor of the release of PHYSICAL EDUCATION next Tuesday, one lucky commenter will be chosen at random (my cat will do the picking) to win a signed copy.