A Guest Post by Judith Fertig
Writing a food-based novel was a great way to refresh my career when I’d written about food in many other ways. For me, it has been a logical as well as a re-energizing next step, long in the making.
Although I still write cookbooks and freelance articles, I carve out time for fiction because it revives and refuels me in a way that nonfiction doesn’t. When I’m writing non-fiction, the meter is running. I pay attention to how much time I spend on each piece versus what I get paid. There is the grocery shopping, the recipe testing, the restaurant reviewing, the cooking class teaching, and the inevitable kitchen cleaning. I’m in business, after all.
But with fiction, that meter goes away. An hour here or there is not enough. I want to lose myself in the imaginary world I create. I need deep time to get into the characters and story. Writing fiction takes as long as it takes.
I launched into the cookbook world in 1990 and I’ve written about 20 books. I’m still going. But a food-based novel simmered on a backburner. I knew I had to wait until I had both time to work on it and money to keep my life going in the process.
I started thinking in fictional what ifs. Flavor has always been transporting to me. What if flavor could be a link to my main character’s inner life? I wrote the first chapter and shared it with a Kansas City writers group. It was beautifully written, they said, so descriptive and appealing to the senses.
But nothing much happened.
I knew I needed help, so I enrolled in a summer course at the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, and hammered out the plot. Then I wrote the first draft at The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, joined a novel writers’ group and work-shopped each chapter.
Then I had to find a fiction agent. I looked at food-based novels that were similar to mine and noted the agents thanked in the authors’ acknowledgements. I wrote a pitch letter—with a great visual of a wedding cake—and sent The Cake Therapist off to several agents until it found a home and a publisher.
I’m giving away a copy of The Cake Therapist to a lucky someone who leaves a comment, so please make sure to do so! It’s the story about a pastry chef who opens a bakery in her hometown, and triggers a long-ago event she thought she left behind.
And if you have a not-so-secret yen to add a food-based novel to your non-fiction writing, here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Writing fiction is different from writing non-fiction.
Even if you are an avid reader, an English major, and a polished writer, you still have to learn dialogue, plot and a story arc, fleshing out characters. From which character’s point of view will you write each scene? How will each chapter flow into the next?
2. You get to pick your genre.
I thought mine was mystery, but someone has to die in the first chapters and nobody did in my novel. My genre turned out to be contemporary women’s fiction with a mystery thread.
3. Change the story as much as you like.
With non-fiction, you must be factual and truthful; recipes have to work as written. With fiction, you can change whatever you need to change—even at the last minute with no re-testing—as long as the story is believable.
4. Write the whole book first.
With a cookbook, you can create a proposal with recipes and get a book deal. With a novel, you must complete the manuscript before you can submit to an agent.
Having a local writer’s group in which you offer your work for critique helps tremendously. Food people might love every tiny detail of whipping up a luscious buttercream, but the general reader will simply skip over much of it. Your writers group can tell you how much is too much.
Since most of the editing goes on with your agent and your agent’s hired readers before your manuscript ever reaches an editor’s eye, there is a lot more heavy lifting on the front end.
5. A cookbook author has an advantage.
With an established platform and a publishing track record, a food writer has an advantage over a newbie. I knew how to promote The Cake Therapist, which is more important than ever.
If you have followers on social media and are accustomed to promoting your books, those are also pluses. If you already teach cooking classes, it’s easier to give a book talk, because you’re used to it. And if you promote your cookbook as a guest author at a restaurant event, you can do the same with a novel.
6. You get to visit book clubs.
Although culinary book clubs are starting to be popular (I belong to one), it’s not often that you hear about a cookbook author visiting a book club. Visiting a book club, whether in person, at a library, or via Facetime, Facebook Live, or Skype puts you in touch with your readers in a very real way. It forges a reader/author bond and makes readers feel they know you.
And with all the current dietary restrictions that can make food writing fraught with peril, food in fiction offers comfort reading. In the pages of a novel, your readers can enjoy that fabulous gluten-rich dessert with no calories, no sugar, no guilt; and no shopping, prepping, or cleanup. As a fiction writer, you’re offering pleasure with a virtual flavor, not an actual one. It can be just as delicious.
* * *
Judith Fertig’s work bridges non-fiction and fiction. Fertig specializes in baking, barbecue, and the regional cuisine of the Heartland. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Better Homes & Gardens, Saveur, Country Living, Fine Cooking, and Cooking Light. The Back in the Swing Cookbook won an IACP Award. Prairie Home Cooking was nominated for both the James Beard and IACP Awards. The Memory of Lemon, Fertig’s second novel, won the Kansas Notable Book Award in 2017. Her debut novel, The Cake Therapist came out in 2015. For more about Judith, go to judithfertig.com.
(Disclosure: This post containes affiliate links.)
* * *
To win a copy of The Cake Therapist, leave a comment below by September 30, 2018. I will pick a winner at random from Random.org. This offer is available to residents of the USA only.