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Fancy is Not Always Better

What I Learned About Life & Writing From . . . Birthday Cakes

This year, for the first time, I bought a birthday cake for one of my children. (I know, gasp!) In the past, I’ve always asked my children what kind of cake they’d like on their special day. I’ve made cakes that were supposed to resemble dogs, horses, fish, teddy bears, hamsters, pizzas, and even snakes.

Most of the time, surprisingly, the cakes turned out fairly well—except for once when I couldn’t get the frosting red enough and the fire truck ended up pink. Oh, and the time our dog jumped on the counter and ate a leg off the frog cake. Or when I didn’t get the dress big enough to fit the Barbie in the center . . . Okay, so maybe my homemade cakes weren’t ever perfect. But the great thing about kids is that they don’t care.

After years and years of making such unique, creative cakes for each of my children, when my seven year old asked for a Batman cake this year, I scratched my head. How in the world would I ever make a Batman-shaped cake? I considered steering him toward something else—like a tiger or football field cake. Those I could do (thanks to FamilyFun.com).

But then I had a brilliant idea. What if I bought a Batman cake instead of making one? Since I was particularly busy with rewrites on Book 2 and marketing The Preacher’s Bride, maybe I could make an exception just this once.

So first, I checked with my little guy and made sure he wouldn’t be devastated if we had a store-bought cake instead of one lovingly and painstakingly created by his very own dear mother. And to my surprise he jumped up and down with excitement. All that mattered was the Batman.

Second, I made sure my husband was okay with me spending $18.99 on a measly 9 by 13 cake. He assured me that he didn’t mind, so I placed the order. When my son saw it for the first time, he adored it—mostly because it had Batman on a motorcycle coming out of the Bat Cave.

In fact, everyone loved the generic cake as much as they’d always loved the special cakes I’d created. And it got me thinking that sometimes it’s okay to use the simple, even generic things in both writing and life, that fancy is not always better.

In life, I’m learning I don’t need to strive so hard to be “the perfect mom” as if such a thing even exists. It’s okay at this busy stage in my life to use boxed brownies and canned soup. It’s fine to wash light clothes with darks. It won’t hurt to use paper plates and make pizza a staple meal.

Sometimes in life we have to give ourselves permission to make things easy and less complicated for ourselves, to know what works for us, and to stop chasing after someone else’s ideal for who we should be.

And in writing, I’m learning I don’t have need to chase after lavish prose either. I hesitate to even bring up the issue, because I think most of us struggle with using too many stereotypes and clich├ęs in our writing. But, I think it’s also possible for us to fall into the trap of thinking all generic writing is wrong.

The fact is, most readers are like my son. In all his seven years, he never noticed the flaws in my creative cakes, and most readers don’t pay too much attention to our flaws either (unless they’re glaring!). They don’t need our stories packaged in fancy prose, astounding similes, and beautiful images. Sometimes when we’re trying to decorate our writing too much, we risk the possibility of overwhelming or confusing our readers and pulling them out of the story.

In other words, it’s okay not to strive SO hard for each and every word. We don’t necessarily need to get rid of every “was,” every adverb, or every repetitive word. Sometimes we get caught up in trying to make the words of our story so perfect, we forget the reader really cares most about the story itself. (That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to have our stories polished, because we should.)

Robert McKee in his book Story says this: “If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on.”

The point is that cake is cake—even when it’s store-bought. And a good story is a good story—even if it’s not a creative masterpiece. So focus on the story. When we give our readers something delicious, they won’t care how it’s packaged or where it comes from.

What do you think? Do you sometimes use simple, generic things in life? What about in your writing? Do you add too much prose and worry too much about your words at the expense of the story?

P.S. The winner of this week's book giveaway is:  Jeanette Levellie. Congratulations! Thanks to everyone who played along and left a comment! Come back next week for another chance to win The Preacher's Bride!

43 comments:

  1. Striving for protection can be a killer :) And we don't want to lose the spirit simply for the form.

    http://damselinadirtydress.blogspot.com

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  2. Some of my favorite books were very simply written. And it is a huge trap to fall into. But when we hear advice like you should be bleeding over every sentence - that's when it happens!

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  3. purple prose, yep. I am known to do it. But I am getting better at weeding it out faster.

    And the cake, um, I have only ever made my kids one cake. I usually buy an ice-cream cake every year. They love it. But I would love to pay what you did. I pay $40 for an ice-cream cake. And that is the cheapest option. It can cost as much as $70 for a store bough cake in Australia. And if anyone can tell me how they justify that I would love to know!

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  4. AS I'm reading this, I'm thinking how I can use canned soup to make many delicious, unique, home-cooked meals, in a flash.

    I have a recipe for pot pie like that, which uses cream of chicken soup.

    We can use a convention, but make it uniquely our own, and no one will notice the ingredient, or care. They will just enjoy the finished product.

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  5. Congratulations to Jeanette!

    You know, we can learn so many good lessons from cake, can't we? :) I think sometimes while writing I try to add the 'fancy' only to return to the basic stuff with better results.

    Your book came - started reading it yesterday. It's wonderful!

    Hope you are having a great time at the ACFW conference.
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  6. I laughted when I read this post. In my experience, it doesn't matter how it tastes, young kids always prefer the store bought cakes. I make my duaghter's cake from scratch now, but still, it's in imitation of a store bought cake she loved when she was little.

    You bring up an important point. There's a fine line between writing well and over-writing...one I need to watch myself from crossing.

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  7. Apparently I need to watch myself in regard to proofreading too!

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  8. I love this post, Jody, because it has such wisdom. There is no such thing as perfection. Someone said it's the thought that counts. The fact that you want to please your kids is what matters, not whether you make the cake or the bakery makes it. And I so agree about story versus eloquent prose. I frequently skip descriptive paragraphs when I'm reading anyone to get at what happens next.
    karen

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  9. Great post, Jody! It reminds of this quote by Anne Lamott from her book Bird by Bird:

    "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life... I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."

    In other words, if you want to enjoy the process, whether it's writing or your kid's birthday, do your best and then let it go and have fun!

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  10. Great post, Jody!! I think making every word count is important, not in a flashy way but rather like you say, in a "focus on the story way." Maybe your analogy is brilliant but doesn't develop character or move the story forward, or you have a killer scene that doesn't quite fit but you're in love with it. For me, sometimes it takes several drafts to see these things, or someone else pointing them out.

    Have a great weekend!!

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  11. Jody..I agree with you on this. Sometimes we strive too hard to reach perfectionism : both in life and writing. This can sap us of enthusiasm and kill our passion.

    We should initially concentrate on telling a good story, the rest will fall in place. Its like we first bake a cake (write a story, then we decorate it(embellish the story with descriptions and beautiful prose.)

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  12. Excellent point, Jody! And I'm glad Laura shared that Anne Lamott quotation above. Of course we always want to do our best, both in writing and in life, but it pays to remember that in our striving for perfectionism there's a difference between excellence and fanaticism. Sometimes simplicity is a good thing!

    A friend recently read one of my mss and pointed out that the protagonist occasionally said things that were inconsistent with his background. They were my words, not the character's, and I had to go back and re-write, dropping the fancy, educated words and letting the character's voice come through. It was a good lesson.

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  13. Well said. It took me a while before I learn perfect is really not perfect it's stressful on everyone. I use lots of shortcuts in my everyday life so I can have a life. Something everyone forgets about every now and then.

    It's a nice play on writing too. I've been analyzing the book that have drawn me in and those I put down over and over again. And it's just like you said the story, the flow keeps me reading and often the overdone scenes stop me from continuing.

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  14. Jody, our lives parallel one another's so often, but in this case, I started buying cakes several years back. :) And I think I have bought several that look an awful lot like that Batman cake in the photo. I have not regretted that "extravagance." It's good to let go of perfect -- a much better way to live! I'd love to win a book so I will be making a conscious effort to stop by next week!

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  15. Thanks, Jody, for such sensible insights. I agree that the story "rules". I read a quote by one editor who said he really would rather receive a great story poorly written than a poor story beautifully written. I've had the same experience as a reader: Reading a story with my writer mind picking at the writing, but unable to put the book down until I know how it all turns out. It's reassuring to remember that -- even while trying to write one's best.

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  16. I tend to be a perfectionist, which isn't always good. Yes, we should always try our best but we must remember were only human.

    Lovely post! The next time you bake a cake you should post a picture or two :)

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  17. Excellent advice, Jody. I get put off by too-fancy verbiage, actually, when all I really want are fascinating characters and a well-developed plot.

    This post reminded me of the volcano cake my sister made for my nephew. She found the recipe online and the cake actually "erupted". It was way cool! Since beginning to write and market my novel, I have zero time for baking or other such activities so I think it was a good solution for his birthday cake.

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  18. Well said, Jody. This is why I read each manuscript out loud. I want the words to flow easily so the reader will be involved in what I'm saying, as opposed to how I'm saying it. I think the reason we have to slave over each sentence is not so much to make every word gorgeous but to weed out the words people will trip over.

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  19. Jody,
    Thank you so much for this post. It does my heart good to have this reinforced.
    Patti Struble

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  20. Great words. I'm a perfectionist and it's very hard to relax about anything.

    Thanks,
    Teresa

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  21. Your novel just arrived by UPS! I can't wait to get started reading it.
    M.J. Macie

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  22. We've had pink fire trucks around here, too. ;)

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  23. Nice post!

    http://youcanfacetodaybecausehelives.blogspot.com

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  24. I am all for simple in cooking and in what I read. Once someone gets too fancy with the prose I lose the story. If I lose the story, I put the book away without finishing it.

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  25. I love this analogy! And as a long-time homemade birthday cake maker I, too, purchased a store bought cake a few years ago and have happily done so ever since--and my kids are happy. BTW...for really red frosting, use coloring gel...I did Elmo one year. :-)

    "A good story is a good story." Thanks for the refreshing breath!

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  26. Hi Jody,

    This is such a great post--thank you for sharing.

    I do most things from scratch right now, simply because I'm not working outside the home. But, when I'm teaching, I just don't have time for it all. You're right, though--our kids probably don't even notice as long as the food tastes good! (Oh, and I never separate lights and darks...)

    I find that my degree in English lit really made it difficult for me to embrace simple writing. It's been a struggle to realize that I don't need to write as elegantly as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens--I just have to write a well-told, great story.

    Simple language is sometimes the most powerful, anyway. Thanks :)

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  27. Thanks for the reminder, Jody, that sometimes "good enough" is perfect for us.

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  28. I've made mot of my kids cakes too! Only recently I've resorted to store bought and for the same reason My daughter still insists I make hers.

    Guess what I just got in the mail???????? AAAHHHH!!

    You know what I'll be reading tonight. =)

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  29. Hi Jody! This is soooo good... and my son has asked for a Star Wars cake so I'm probably going to be buying him one--which I have also never done before!! As far as my writing, I'm not a novelist or a "writer"-- by book is very conversational and, well, simple. Not a metaphor in sight.

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  30. Hi Jody -

    I'm reading a book right now by a multi-published author. One thing I noticed: He must have used the word, "was," 20 times on the same page, and it worked!

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  31. Thank you for this post. I'm in the middle of revising and noticed that I'm fretting over words. I am too stark? Is there enough of this or that? This helps.

    Also - My copy of The Preacher's Bride arrived! Thank you so much. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  32. I totally agree that story is the most important thing, but I do spend a LOT of time searching for just the right word or phrasing, looking for the right nuance and the right rhythm. But there's a fine line, I think, between a carefully crafted story and writing that draws attention to itself. As soon as I notice the writing - an unusual word choice, a nifty metaphor - I'm pulled out of the story. And that's never a good thing!

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  33. I once got a request for a Cat in the Hat cake. I went to the store and found out that Dr. Seuss didn't license Cat in the Hat for things like this.

    So I bought a plain white sheet cake and decorated it with a Cat in the Hat icing drawing.

    Never thought it would come out as well as it did.

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  34. I think if a story is really good then the prose doesn't have to be can be matter of fact. I have read too many stories that were, well, boring or predictable and no amount of intelligent grammar and syntax could save the story.

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  35. The beauty of simplicity, right? Staying focused on what's truly important. Another wonderful illustration, Jody. Thank you.

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  36. Lovely cake :)

    I was encouraged to remove a few 'frilly' sentences. I did so with reluctance. Boy, was I surprised at how what I was trying to portray, popped out at me. Simple words can be so strong sometimes.

    Lovely post, thanks.

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  37. Yes, I worry too much. Poetry is my first love, so I always feel my writing ought to be poetic. But if it were constantly poetic, my books would either be really bad, or literary, depending on how well I pulled it off. Anyway, I think it's perfectly fine to buy a store-bought cake, but then I don't like cake (and I'm allergic to it), so I have no real feelings about it. I met a cake artist once, though, and oh my! What marvelous buttery creations she made! I doubt she writes books, though. That's the point. You're a writer, not a professional baker. And simplifying life should be a priority for a busy mom. :)

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  38. Great post. I even had my wife come read it. It's so hard to do everything and be everything to everyone. I'm all about simple.

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  39. Jody, this was such a great post! It is hard trying to do everything perfectly, but at the same time it's hard to resist :) I'm sure your boy loved his Batman cake!

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  40. For me, this is a great post. I read other writer's words and think, "How can I ever compete with that fancy stuff?"

    Truth is, I can't. I'm not fancy, never will be. I just try my best to write a good story!

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  41. Wonderful post! I'm learning to make things simple and enjoy life more with all the extra time I have:)

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  42. Wonderful post! I'm learning to make things simple and enjoy life more with all the extra time I have:)

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  43. Wonderful post! I'm learning to make things simple and enjoy life more with all the extra time I have:)

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