Writing is a lot like cooking. You, the chef, have ingredients – ideas, creativity, fantasies – and your pans and butter knives – vocabulary, syntax, structure – and use both these to create the dish, the story. As in the kitchen, there are good chefs and bad, and, like cooking, writing can be done mechanically or by inspiration. Unlike the recipe-sworn amateur chef, however, who can bake a decent ciabatta without any originality of her own, a writer needs that individual nugget of creativity.
Good writing may have guidelines or advice, but good writing has no recipe.
But let me use this metaphor of cooking a little further.
In the kitchen, to gratinate is to let a dish cook in the oven (sometimes with grated cheese on top) in a savoury juice until the juice is absorbed and a crisp crust is formed, or so the online dictionaries say at least. It is a definition as good as any.
Apply this image on a finished manuscript. You’ve written the full draft, perhaps it’s even a second one. Now follows what I call ‘the Gratinate Period’. The manuscript needs rest, or your eyes needs rest from the manuscript, rather. Depending on your memory skills and the time spent on the text, it’s likely you know some parts by heart. The text is too familiar. You become blind.
So you let it, like the gratin, cook in the solitude of a closed drawer or an unopened folder on your laptop, until all the meaning and between-the-lines content have been absorbed into the words, become part of them, and a cohesive surface has formed – the physical surface presented to the readers, underneath which all the savoury, gooey stuff resides. You let it gratinate, in a sense.
The Gratinate Period is full of effort, never doubt it. Though it is a time for rest, for both mind and body, the writer will have to steer his thoughts so as not to dive right back into the manuscript before the time is ripe. Only with a clean palate can the chef accurately assess the taste, just like the writer needs a new and fresh outlook to fairly and usefully judge his own writing.
Frustrating as it is, the Gratinate Period is of vital importance. The devil is in the details – but his summer house lies in editing. In editing we cut out the overpowering saltiness, subdue spicy dominance, and remove the lemon seeds that accidentally fell in, despite our best efforts.
So wait. Be patient. Let your story gratinate. It will be all the better for it.