How Writing a Novel is Like a Baking a Cake

How Writing a Novel is Like Baking a Cake

Recently, I was asked to teach some young writers a workshop about novel-writing, and how it puts different demands on us than short story-writing. Right away I knew I would begin my talk with a discussion of cakes.

I enjoy watching the TLC show "Cake Boss." One thing I learned about baking artisanal cakes from this show is that the big cakes, such as the many-tiered wedding cakes or the elaborate novelty cakes, can't just be pieces of cake stacked on top of each other. Cake is a delicate medium to work with, and if the cake gets too big, it will be crushed by its own weight. So pretty much every cake you see that is over a certain size is actually supported by an internal structure of plastic piping or metal wire. That soft fluffy cake texture just isn't sustainable on a larger scale.

You can see where I'm going with this, right? The same holds for short story writing. Short stories have to be precise and exquisite; they have to quickly ratchet up the tension, and quickly suggest character; they have to hastily reach a conclusion. Novels, on the other hand, have room to breathe. They are more relaxed, and are able to immerse a reader in a world. But all that room for meandering or describing means that the innards can rapidly get soggy. To keep a novel moving, you must have some sort of internal structure, some wires holding everything up.

Build in some scaffolding

Writer Zadie Smith has an excellent essay on the topic of the novel-writing process in her book "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays". The jist of her discussion is that we need to build in structures while we're writing so that the novel will have a movement and suspense throughout, instead of sagging in on itself. Later, we can often remove a great deal of this structure; but it's very important during the construction process.

Have a destination in mind.

A teacher at my MFA program had a great metaphor for writing a novel; he said it was liking driving through the desert at night. All is dark around you; who knows what you may encounter. But you can see the lights of the city where you're headed.