“There are no rules” and eggless souffles

With the technology we have today, you can make an eggless souffle. It would take a massive amount of work and effort and thickening agents and a process that couldn’t be replicated in most home kitchens, but it could be done. If you own a three star restaurant and devoted your life to studying molecular gastronomy, you might be able to produce a souffle that might actually even taste better than an actual with egg finished product.

If you don’t have that background or expertise, but you really wanted to, you might even be able to whip out something resembling that from your home kitchen. It might be a success, it might not be edible, but you probably could do it.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a souffle with eggs is a walk in the park. It has many fail points in it as well. But at least if all the ingredients are right in the egg souffle and you’ve cooked it enough that it is edible, at worst you have some pretty tasty cheesy scrambled egg or chocolate pudding even if your own mother wouldn’t call the mess a souffle per se.

This is “there are no rules” in an eggshell. Not thinking of the rules as recipes but as ingredients that you trust. If you start with good quality egg, cheese or chocolate, butter, a little bit of flour, it is the exact same thing as starting with an empathetic character (egg) the problem (the cheese or chocolate) and the flour (in interesting world) under most circumstances you’re going to get out of the process something that you can use. You can still ruin a story in dozens of different ways just like you can ruin good ingredients with bad techniques, but even if the mess on the page looks absolutely nothing like the concept you started with, you’ve produced something that has value. You may not want to serve it to someone, but learning what not to do is as, if not more valuable than learning what you should do. No one is forcing you to eat chocolate scrambled eggs. The next time you might not have your main character burn down an orphanage full of children while still claiming to be a nice guy or  make the conflict appears earlier than chapter twenty seven.

If your eggless “there are no rules” souffle story goes belly up, do you even know what went wrong? Was the concept flawed or your execution to blame? Was there not enough calcium in the liquid that didn’t have enough thickening agent or had it been sitting in the chemical bath too long? An unsympathetic character in a grey box of a world without a problem to resolve before the words stop on the page doesn’t give you much clue how to get better. It could have been brilliant…but it isn’t. What part do you try to fix the next time or are you just going to try to not follow any guidelines again and just hope for the best a second (ninth, hundredth, thousandth) time? There are no rules doesn’t mean don’t follow any rules, and yet people follow that rule off a cliff.

If your eggless souffle worked, then any of the rules that talk about making a roux, mixing in the egg yoke and flavoring agent while you’re whipping the egg white and then folding the two in gently and then baking it off for the right amount of time and at the right temperature clearly did not apply to your end result, so no, there are no rules if what your end result is good. But if what’s on your plate or story didn’t work, then what you created isn’t something that someone else would ever want to pay for.

If you are good enough to whip out something that breaks all the conventional guidelines out there to help you create, then keep doing that thing. Obviously, it’s working for you. I remember how stupid I felt when I realized that the guidelines I had been taught and could regurgitate on command while critiquing other people’s work were not a check list in rules that you had to break in order to write a good story. It was a life-changing moment in my life and my career. And it all comes down to what are your goals that you want writing to achieve. Are you trying to tell a story that you think other people will enjoy reading? Are you trying to tell a story that other people may not necessarily enjoy, but will come out of its telling maybe thinking about a human problem with a new understanding? Are you only interested in your single opus and then you’re done with writing or do you want to make a career out of it? Or are you just trying to tell other people just how smart you are as the author and leave your audience in the dust of your brilliance?

I think the worst thing a writer can possibly do if their goal is to have a career in writing is to write a book and workshop it and polish it to the point where it can be sold. If it took five years to write the book and had to go through nine different workshops to bang it into the shape it is, succeeding at that point is just going to mean that your next book is going to be rushed, unsure and flop. I’ve met so many people at the Calgary con who sold their first book to a major publication in 2009 and never made another peep in the writing world. I have friends who paid three times more to get their books doctored than they ever made back. I’ve had friends not have the third book of their trilogy come out because the sales just didn’t support its publication. My heart breaks for them. Before your published, all you can ever think of is that book with your name on it, but once that happens you realize it’s just the very tip of the iceberg of publication. It’s not the end goal, it’s the start of the real race.

And you may be good enough that everything you write is at least at some level of “good” and for you, of course there are no rules. But there has to be some kind of disconnect in your brain if you honestly think that most people start out in the same place? Writing is like any other art created. Tennessee Williams wrote Death of a Salesman at seventeen years old. Most people couldn’t possibly comprehend as a teenager what the significance of stealing a pen from your boss as your last final act, petty of defiance. Some wouldn’t if you gave them their whole life to figure that out. I do not understand how writing became this magic talent means your first stab at it is your best stab.

Most people will have to learn how to write. Telling them “there are no rules” is exactly the same thing as telling them “if you don’t know what’s wrong, I’m not going to tell you.” Did your character do something unlikeable to early in the story for most people the empathize with him when bad stuff starts to happen or did you not use enough xanthan gum before you charged the non-egg substance through the creamer? There are no rules, but there are a heck of a lot of guidelines that could have helped. Unlike cooking, a story can always be fixed, unless you honestly believe that rewriting is “wasted”. And in which case…nope. Not going to go there. No writing is ever wasted, except for maybe publishing the first draft of something without ever really examining it to see how much better you could have made it. Most people write their first book in an environment where having written any book is more of an achievement than most of the people around them. But when they go among other writers, simply having written a book isn’t an indication of quality, it’s price of admission to the table. And telling people “there are no rules” is telling people what they have been doing is good enough. For a very small percentage of the people sitting down, it is just a matter of them being at the right place at the right time. But for the rest of us, myself absolutely included in this, being at the right place at the right time with the wrong book is almost as bad as not being at the place and at the time at all.

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