A guest post by Cameron Stauch
When I started writing my first cookbook, Vegetarian Việt Nam, and friends asked what’s involved, I gave them a blank stare. If they had asked me to prepare a meal for a couple hundred people, I’d say, “Easy. When and where?” I’m a professional chef, and this is what I know.
But eventually, with the help of fellow authors, family, friends, and my editorial team I persevered and am deeply proud of the results.
It wasn’t easy. I made rookie mistakes, encountered challenges and setbacks, and had to acquire many new skills. So now that I’ve made it through to the other side, I wish I would have known a few things in advance.
Here are nine lessons I learned while writing my first cookbook:
1. Write a solid book proposal.
I had a rough idea of how to get my ideas on paper, but I was not a professional writer and certainly not a published cookbook author. At an annual conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) I attended a proposal writing workshop led by Dianne. Soon I learned where I had previously faulted, and applied those lessons to my current proposal. It was better but I still felt it needed some fine-tuning.
Dianne’s experienced eye immediately saw its shortcomings. Together, we edited it into a much stronger proposal, which received interest from multiple agents and publishers.
A strong proposal put me in the position where I could choose whom I wanted to partner with for my career and for my first cookbook.
2. Bone up on the book publishing process.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions of your agent and editor, even if they seem minor. You’ve never done this before so how do you know what’s involved? The best thing I did was reach out to other authors who had worked with my editor to get an idea of their experience. Most authors readily shared insightful and unique advice. One of them offered an open line of communication. She was there to answer any questions and periodically checked in on how things were going.
My editor’s assistant was also an important resource – someone with whom I could ask to decipher publishing lingo. He also gave me updates and guidance about where we were in each stage.
3. Aquire more than just writing skills.
Creating a book involves a lot more than just writing. You’ll manage recipe testers, choose the book designer, and scrutinize design elements (such as font, layout, and cover images) and several manuscript edits. You’ll decide whom you want as your photographer or accept the added responsibility of taking photographs yourself. You may need to draw up a recipe shot list for an intense photo shoot. And then there’s juggernaut of marketing the book on social media and in person. To get through it all, I sought advice from friends with expertise in each area and referred to the work of authors I admire for inspiration.
4. Persevere no matter what.
Halfway through writing my manuscript I heard actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey say in a radio interview: “I think for me the writing is the hard part.” What a relief to learn it wasn’t just me, and that even a best-selling author still finds writing difficult after many years.
At least three times I told my wife I was a few days from finishing. And when my completion day came and my wife was ready to pop a congratulatory bottle of champagne, I’d sheepishly tell her I wasn’t done. I had to add more to one chapter or improve some headnotes.
When my editor accepted my completed manuscript I thanked her for her guidance in getting me to the finish line. She responded, “Good writing takes time. And it’s hard. Especially if you’ve never written a book before. I’ve had many authors simply give up. But you persevered.”
5. Expect lots of revisions.
I definitely experienced the old adage that writing is rewriting. Relax and try your best. Your first draft will require several attempts to polish and revise it. Like many authors, when I received the copy editor’s severely marked up manuscript I felt dismayed, as I thought much of my work was done. I quickly learned how much the edit improved my manuscript.
From the outset I tried to take all feedback as constructive and not personal. I reminded myself the goal is to make the best possible book.
6. Repurpose copy that gets cut.
You might cram as much information and recipes as you can into your manuscript. Your editor may think otherwise but will help you sift through it to create a leaner, more balanced book. All of your hard work is not lost. It’s just ready to be repurposed for future articles, blog posts, or another cookbook.
7. Expect to be lonely.
Aside from my wife, the kids, and the cashier at the grocery store, there were days when I didn’t speak to anyone. My only form of social interaction was when I listened to podcasts or radio shows as I washed dishes after making recipes.
When I caught myself talking to the show’s guest or host, I knew it was time to catch up with a friend.
To combat loneliness, I scheduled activities: regular coffee meet-ups with friends, local events, and group activities. Occasionally, I wrote at a co-working space.
For my next book I intend to join a writer’s group. I’ve learned that fellow freelancers and writers can provide camaraderie, objective feedback, and support during the long process of writing a book.
8. Get into a routine.
In the period of writing my book my family moved twice within one year, between Asia and North America. This caused a lot of disruptions to my writing process.
Like many of you I work from home and try to be productive when the kids are at school or asleep. I learned my writing excels when I have a balanced routine with short, intense, disruptive-free work sessions; regular exercise; and time for family and fun. When I try to sit at my desk the entire day I’m often grumpy and unproductive, as I’ve sacrificed exercise or family time.
9. Use quiet time wisely.
Each time I handed in my manuscript, I expected an immediate response from my editor. But she had other writers to work with, so I had to be patient.
I used these quiet periods to plan the marketing and promotion plan for my book. I also decided not to revisit the manuscript while it was with my editor. When it came time to revise I was ready to approach them with a fresh perspective and vigor.
In conclusion, each writer, editor, and publisher has different ways to work, but the process and many of the skills are essentially the same.
Did you have similar experiences when writing your cookbook? What other advice would you give to a writer ready to embark on his or her first book?
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Cameron Stauch is a chef and former member of the cooking staff for the Governor General of Canada. He has cooked and lived in Vietnam, India, and China (Hong Kong) and has travelled extensively in other parts of Asia and now lives in Bangkok, Thailand. Vegetarian Việt Nam is his first cookbook. Cameron will lead a culinary journey through Vietnam in early November 2018. He started his blog, A Global Kitchen, in 2013.