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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!


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