It recently occurred to me that I wrote a book.
Yes, almost a year ago my book, “The Amateur Gourmet: How To Shop, Chop and Tablehop Like A Pro (Almost)” was released by Bantam/Dell. The book, which will come out in paperback in the fall, has served me very well in its brief life. It led to readings at the Park Slope and Boca Raton Barnes & Nobles featuring giant posters that said “Meet Adam Roberts” which my mom has preserved like the Dead Sea Scrolls in my old bedroom; it led to meetings at the Food Network which, in turn, led to my job hosting “The FN Dish”; it garnered praise from Frank Bruni on his blog as well as positive reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and The Boston Globe; and, most importantly, it led to loving, thankful e-mails from readers just like yourselves who discovered my book buried beneath William Wegman calendars in the discount bin of your local bookstores and instead of tossing it aside, brought it home, read it, and were inspired to become passionate cooks and eaters. It’s this last bit that makes writing a food book such a rewarding and noble endeavor: with a few flicks of your fingers, you can change lives. So how do you do it?
I’m not here to tell you how to get a book published. You all know everything there is to know about my launch into the publishing world: you’re looking at it. I started a blog, the blog got attention, an agent e-mailed me, a book proposal was drafted, sold and then I got into the nitty gritty of writing a book. And that’s what this essay is about: how to write a book about food.
Part One: Where Do You Start?
I just opened “The Amateur Gourmet Book” folder on my desktop to see which file was the oldest. The file is: “Chapter One” and it was written May 18, 2005 (more than three years ago).
The next oldest file is: “Tomato Sauce, Take Three” written June 2, 2005.
And the third oldest file is: “Introduction” written June 6, 2005.
So, in that order, I began with the first chapter, I revised it two times and then wrote the introduction. This sequence was mostly informed by the interactions I had with my agent: a book proposal requires a title (at the time, it was “Eat Like A Grown-Up”), an outline (also written June 6th), an introduction and the first chapter.
Crafting these elements not only provides the publisher with a clear sense of what it is you’re setting out to do, but it provides you, the author, with a roadmap. “Ok,” you can say, once you’ve assembled your proposal, “this book is setting out to do this and I have to get the reader from point A to point B.”
Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, used to tell our graduate class: “When you tell the audience you’re taking them to Detroit, you have to take them to Detroit.” Meaning: once you set up expectations for the reader, you have to make good on your promise. And that’s, ultimately, what you need to decide at the beginning of your writing process: What promise am I making to my future reader? How will I deliver on that promise?
David Kamp, when he set out to write “The United States of Arugula,” made a promise to cover the evolution of American food culture from James Beard to Rachael Ray. He made good on that promise by doing endless research, by interviewing hundreds of subjects and packaging it all in an entertaining, fast-paced narrative.
Michael Ruhlman always makes a promise to his readers at the start of his books—whether exploring what makes a chef a chef (“The Soul of a Chef”) or covering all the terms necessary to cook effectively (“The Elements of Cooking”); a pact is made and then he delivers. How does he deliver? I e-mailed him about his process and he had this to say:
“I do all the reporting first, and write down all notes in a kind of journal format every day. Then, when I don’t have any questions that I don’t already know the answers to in advance, I go back and read and cut and paste those journal entries into their various subjects and themes. And as I’m doing that, a structure begins to form, just a general narrative arc. Then I close my eyes and plug my nose and jump off the cliff.”
Part Two: Structure
Writing school may as well be called structure school. You can’t teach inspiration, you can’t teach someone to have a unique voice, but you can teach them how to tell a story well. That’s the conclusion I reached after two years of Tisch’s Dramatic Writing program; I had a deep reverence for and, admittedly, fear of structure as I made my way out into the writing world.
Have you ever watched a movie where you kept waiting and waiting for it to end, where it felt like there was no rhyme or reason to what was happening, where each incident was inconsequential and irrelevant to the story being told (assuming there even was a story being told)? That’s due to poor structure. Inversely, when you think of a nailbiter, a movie that makes you lean forward in your seat, eyes popping out of your head, your heart beating fast, that’s happening because the sequence of events that are unfurling before have been arranged (structured) for maximum impact. They pull you in with a dramatic question—how are we going to kill this shark? Is she pregnant with the devil’s baby? Dude, where’s their car?—and keep you hooked as scene-by-scene, moment-to-moment, more and more information is revealed.
This may not seem to have much relevance when writing a food book, but think of the CIA Master Chef sequence in “Soul of a Chef.” I was biting my nails, I was flipping the pages.
Even in MFK Fisher, there’s drama in the stories she tells. I remember quite vividly the last sequence in “The Gastronomical Me” where, in Mexico, a young mariachi singer falls in love with her brother. I turned those pages eager to see how it would conclude and that, have no doubt, is not accidental. That’s structure at work.
Structure is important on both a micro and macro level. On a micro level, the stories you tell in your food book need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. On a macro level, the book as a whole needs to take the reader on a journey: the chapters should get progressively more involved, leading, hopefully, to an inevitable, surprising place.
That’s what I set out to do when structuring my book. I wanted to take the reader from a place of total inexperience (me at the start of my food career) to a place of accomplishment (an epic, multi-course feast). Did I achieve that? Perhaps. I don’t claim superior status as a food writer—my book certainly didn’t set the world on fire (though there’s still a chance in paperback!) but, I can say, that when I turned my book into my agent and editor after months and months of scrambling and scribbling on my own, they didn’t frantically tear their hair out and say I’d written an impenetrable mess. In fact, my agent called me and said: “You did it. This is a book.”
I give all the credit to structure.
Part Three: The Nitty Gritty
Every writer has a different process. I asked Amanda Hesser, author of “Cooking For Mr. Latte” about her process and she says, “I recommend just sitting down and writing. It’s the only way to find out if you genuinely have a good story to tell. Outlining is one way to at least map out the story and know where you’re heading, but at a certain point you just have to start writing.”
It’s good advice and advice that’s easier said than done. When you’re sitting there in front of that dreaded blank screen, how do you make the words come?
I found, in writing my book, that it was always best to be active. To make each chapter compelling, I wanted there to be a story; for there to be a story, I needed to make a story. So I’d go out and do things: for Chapter One, I taught my friend Lauren to make tomato sauce over the phone; for Chapter Three, I forced my friend Lisa to consume food she hates—coffee, olives and cheese. Cruel as that may have been, I knew it would generate material and, sure enough, when I sat down to write Chapter Three I had a whole arsenal of images, sound bites and details to share. It made the writing easy.
I reached out to established food writers like Amanda Hesser and Ruth Reichl to participate in the book. There was something in those gestures that fueled my writing. Why did I feel entitled to contact these writers who I’d admired from afar for so long? For all intents and purposes, I was an unproven first time author—a blogger (ick!)—who did I think I was? Reaching out, though, legitimized my mission and, on a more psychological level, empowered me to write the book I wanted to write. The trick is simple: act like you don’t deserve it, you won’t get it; act like you belong, and you’re at Esca with Ruth Reichl eating lunch.
I gathered more material than I needed. I made bacon from scratch; I taught my friend Mark Blankenship to roast a chicken; I ate on $40 for a whole week; I made an Ace of Cakes worthy Squirrel Cake. None of that made it into the book, but what it did was provide a table full of options when I was working on structuring and shaping the book. “If I put this here,” I thought, “then it makes this chapter less powerful, but if I take it away and replace it with this then the flow will improve immeasurably.”
I told stories. I made it personal. I tried to amuse myself.
And still, there were desperate moments. I’m a big fan of the musical “[title of show]” (which is headed to Broadway next month) and on the CD is a song called “Die Vampire Die!” about the various psychological vampires that plague you when you’re writing something (download the song on iTunes here). The mother of all vampires, according to the song, is the vampire of despair: “It’ll wake you up at 4 AM to say things like: ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’ ‘You look like a fool.’ ‘No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough.’”
Believe me, I spent sleepless nights wondering how Jane & Michael Stern would rip me apart in the pages of the New York Times. Little did I know, my book would never be reviewed in The New York Times; but at the time, it seemed like the whole world would be picking me apart. And that filled me with terror and dread.
But you pick yourself up and you put in a favorite movie (“Annie Hall,” for example); you open the pages of a favorite book (“Lolita”; “Bleak House”; “The World According To Garp”); you listen to a cherished CD (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”) and you re-inspire yourself. You vent your frustration to friends who remind you of everything you’ve accomplished (“remember the breast cupcake!”); you watch videos of yourself as a high schooler playing the piano at a pep rally; you read the plays and short stories you wrote in college and you realize this is the culmination of everything you’ve ever done. Then you take a deep breath, forget that fact, and dig into Chapter Five.
Before you know it, a few months have passed, and you have a 300 page manuscript. You’ve written a first draft of your first book.
Part Four: And Then You Revise
If only it ended there. Now comes the most important part: revision.
There’s an adage: “Books aren’t written; they’re rewritten.”
Let me open that folder again, The Amateur Gourmet Book. Every chapter in my book began life in a completely different way. For example, the chapter where Lisa suffers coffee, olives and cheese originally began life as a letter: “Dearest Lisa,
I am writing to you in regards to the day we spent together this past Saturday, May 20th, in a quest to conquer your food fears—namely your fears (or dislikes) of the following: olives, cheese and coffee.”
Only after several revisions did it become: “Lisa lifts the iced vanilla latte to her lips and, for a moment, I believe with great conviction that after she takes a sip she’ll throw her head back in ecstasy, moan erotically and yell, with frightening force: ‘Oh Adam, my darling, my dear friend, you’ve done it. You’ve changed me—I’m a new woman—I love coffee!’”
How to explain the change? Well, the first was a high-concept approach: I was going to write that whole chapter as a letter. But as the chapter went on, it felt forced. And that sentence, however informative, was a bit lifeless. I closed my eyes, put my fingers on the keys, and tried something different. Then I tried again. And again. And, after much trial and error, I hit upon the version that made it into the book.
Same with the dating chapter, which initially began “The exchange of food is an intimate act” and only later became “Mission successful, man”—words that my friend Kirk left for me on my machine after cooking for his date. The cooking for my family chapter started, “In 1999, on a cruise ship somewhere in the Mediterranean, a waiter went missing” (he quit, I posture, because my family was so difficult) and only later became the much more simple and direct: “This is a chapter about cooking for your family.”
Revising is refining, it is taking the lump of clay you’ve haphazardly shaped into a person and making that person come alive. It takes a long time. It’s wise to do it in spurts; to work a little here, a little there. And then to put it away and come back a few weeks later. Even then, it may be too soon to see your work in a fresh way.
And just when you think it’s all over, when that glorious day comes where you turn your work over to your editor to read and comment on, it all starts again a few weeks later: you go with your editor to lunch and you start chatting about what’s working and what’s not. In the case of my book, the family chapter had too much information about my mother and grandmother, it wasn’t focused enough on the food; the last chapter, the feast chapter, had a September 11th story that had no place in the book, according to my editor. After much contemplation I realized he was right.
And then it all begins again.
I couldn’t leave until someone picked up the book.
At the very end of the journey, the day the book was published and shipped and finally in book stores, I stood at the Cooking table at the Union Square Barnes & Noble and watched my book like a hawk. I was playing a game in my head: I wasn’t allowed to leave the store until someone, anyone, lifted up the book and examined it.
It took 45 minutes. Eager young women studied Rachael Ray’s latest; eager young men cradled Padma in their arms; but it was a professorial type who saw my book, lifted it up, read the back cover and placed it back down. I could’ve hugged him I was so happy. (If the game was I couldn’t leave until someone bought it, I’d still be there.)
Seeing your book on the table at a bookstore is like seeing your daughter at prom; at first you’re delirious with excitement—your little girl’s all grown up!—and then you realize she’s sitting all alone, flies buzzing around her head, no one deigning to dance with her. Your heart breaks.
That’s what having a book is like. And then you come home and you get an e-mail from your daughter’s teacher saying she’s the best student in the class, maybe even the whole grade. Your heart bursts with pride. Then you find out she got a 300 cumulative score on her SATs. It shatters again.
It never ends. That’s book publishing, in a nutshell. But please don’t let any of this discourage you; if anything, I hope this provides the spark you may need to get your own food book started. Or, for that matter, any book: it all applies. Just have a good concept, keep it simple and direct (unless you’re writing a novel and you’re James Joyce) and stick with it. One tidbit I learned from playwright Rinne Groff in grad school is to embrace the deadline. “The deadline is your friend,” she’d say and she was absolutely right: when you know something is due, you get it done.
Give yourself a deadline, even an arbitrary one. Make someone enforce it. Tell your significant other that if you complete a first draft of your book by the end of the summer, you’ll take them on a week-long trip to Mexico. If those are the stakes, you best believe your significant other will push you—and let them!
The reward? An e-mail like this that I just pulled randomly from my inbox by typing “your book” in the search (because people write me e-mails with “your book” in the subject line): “I recently finished your book and, I have to say, once I started, I could not put it down. This book is truly an inspiration for those of us who are trying, and sometimes failing, to learn new things and broaden our horizons.”
Is it the same feeling as winning a Pulitzer or making The New York Times Top 10 Books of the Year? Of course not. But it’s a reward, nonetheless, and the kind of reward that’s in store for you—yes you!—if you finally plunk down and start tapping those keys.
So open a new document in Microsoft Word, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and begin. Don’t look over your shoulder; don’t listen to the vampire in your head. Just write. Keep writing. Save, go to sleep, and tomorrow write again.
Pretty soon, if you stick with it, you’ll have a book. I promise.