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Cooking up a Storey

by Donna George Storey

Disorderly Departures: Discovery Drafts,
Summertime Salad, and the Wisdom of “The Voice”


Cooking up a Storey by Donna George Storey It’s time to start writing. 

It began about a month ago, this urgent whispering in my head.  The Voice.  I’d be embarrassed to talk about such things in front of just anyone, but you’re a writer, too, so I know you’ll understand.

Part of me certainly wanted to get on with the actual writing of my new novel, but I was nowhere near officially ready.  I had my revised outline, yes, but the character profiles were woefully incomplete.  The protagonist’s husband was merely a list of real people I planned to turn into a composite.  None of the minor characters had any more flesh than a name.  Another voice, the Voice of Sanity (a.k.a. “The Inner Editor”) cautioned me that I’d waste precious time by actually writing with such a shaky foundation. If writing a novel is a long journey, I’d done little more than drag my suitcase out of the closet and leave it on my bed, open and empty.  I needed at least a toothbrush, a change of underwear, pajamas, maybe even a nice outfit and lingerie, just in case I met someone interesting along the way?

It all made perfect sense.  And so I’d start each writing session by opening a character’s file and staring at the mostly blank page as if that would bring the husband or sister or mother to life.  Then I’d yawn.

Forget this crap.  Just write!

Persistent little Voice, wasn’t she?  Before long, she wasn’t even little.  She was so loud and demanding, she had me squirming in my chair.

Write, write, write!

With my first novel, Amorous Woman, I started with the first chapter, worked my way painstakingly to chapter four, then abandoned the project for four years before starting up again.  This time, the impish Voice allowed no such leisurely decorum.  Instead she urged me to jump straight into one of the most intense and decisive encounters in the book:  the scene where the protagonist finally decides to break away from her old life, so, of course, she can have lots of sex with new people (this is an erotic novel after all!)  Although it represented a disorderly departure of the highest order, this particular scene kept clamoring to be put on the page.

I don’t care about her husband’s childhood traumas or his first marriage, I want to watch them fight dirty!

The Inner Editor was a bit taken aback by this approach.  Shouldn’t I get to know my characters first when they were on their best behavior, as usually happens in “real life”?  Wouldn’t a thorough exploration of the husband’s first marriage give me crucial hints as to how he would respond when his second was threatened?  All very reasonable arguments.  Thus I vowed to work on the profile with renewed dedication.

But The Voice was crafty.  Conceding defeat on the rhetorical battlefield, she tried another approach by flashing vivid snippets of this scene against that drive-in screen in my head—beseeching eyes, angry stares, voices softening with nostalgia then turning steely and cruel.  Once she had me hooked on images, she started in with the dialogue.  Accusations followed by clever comebacks.  Wily prevarications punctuated by pregnant silences.


In the end, I had to give in just to shut her up.

However, as I actually began to let my characters rip into each other on the page, I realized The Voice was giving good counsel.  I could think and plan and devise all I liked—compile lengthy physical descriptions and a shrink’s notes of neuroses—but only action can truly bring a character to life.  With all that baiting and shouting, come alive they did.  I’ve learned more about them in the past few weeks than in months of planning.  Not that the planning wasn’t necessary, but it had served its purpose.  Somehow The Voice knew I was ready to move on before I did.  So now, instead of talking about writing my new novel as I have been for three years, I’m actually doing it.  As my son’s first grade teacher so wisely said, “We learn to do what we do by doing it.”

If you were worried I’d end a column of “Cooking Up a Storey” without mention of a “how-to-write-a-novel” recipe book, you can relax!  Last month I mentioned the character development exercises from an old favorite on the writing shelf, The Weekend Novelist: A Dynamic, 52-Week Program to Help You Produce a Novel One Weekend at a Time by Robert J. Ray. (Incidentally, a recent Amazon review pans the new revised edition and advises you consult the 1994 edition, which is the one I picked up in a used bookstore).  However, the most valuable advice I’ve taken from Ray’s book is his division of the writing process into three phases: Discovery Draft, Meditation Draft, and Final Draft.  It’s good common sense—and echoes Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts” and probably every other writing guide as well—but I appreciate his clear reminder that we don’t have to get it right in the first draft or even the second.

The point of the Discovery Draft is to write quickly and impulsively, get to know your characters in action, and finally to arrive at the end of the story even with blanks and undeveloped subplots so that you have something to revise in the more thoughtful Meditation phase.  That’s when you can invite your Inner Editor back to the party with her fussy demands to develop balance, symbolism, resonance, and depth. 

So far, it’s working.  I am indeed discovering quite a lot about my characters and the dynamics of their story from the inside.  I know I’ll have to fight my habitual urge to polish at every step of the way, and in a nod to self-knowledge, I allow myself a day or two to “meditate” in a provisional way, leaving copious notes at the front of each scene for later consideration.  Then I move on to another scene.  Thus far none I’ve been jumping around in the story to points of greatest tension rather than working chronologically, although we’ll see how long that lasts.  Another telling difference between my more traditional approach to Amorous Woman and my current project is that I now I label files by scene rather than chapter.  Perhaps each scene will become a chapter in the end, but for now it’s as if each little drama deserves its own stage.  I’m sensing this will give me more freedom when it’s time to integrate the sections later on.

So thank you, Ms. Voice and Mr. Robert J. Ray, for your support in taking that scariest step in the novel writing process: the writing itself.  And thank you as always, Dear Reader, for embarrassing me into having some progress to report.  Seeing as it’s high summer, perhaps the best way for us all to celebrate is a barbecue featuring one of my favorite summer dishes: Grilled Ratatouille Salad.  This smoky, succulent selection of vegetables works as a hearty vegetarian main course or a flavorful side dish for a meat-lover’s wienie roast.  In keeping with the topic of this month’s column, it’s a flexible recipe that doesn’t require strict adherence to any rules.  Just follow your culinary Inner Voice and the result is sure to please!

Ratatouille Salad

“Inner Voice” Ratatouille Salad
Adapted from Vegetarian Celebrations by Nava Atlas

(6 to 8 servings)

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
2 medium onions
1 medium or 2 small zucchini (1/2 pound total)
1 large red pepper
Olive Oil-Lemon Marinade (see below)
1 large ripe tomato, diced
1/4 cup chopped black olives
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
About 2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 lb. crumbly goat cheese such as Bucheron

Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch slices.  Salt the slices and place in a colander for 30 minutes, then rinse and drain.  Peel the onions and cut in half; pierce with a skewer or toothpicks if they’re falling apart.  Steam or microwave until just tender.  Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise.

Prepare grill.  Brush the vegetables lightly with Olive Oil-Lemon Marinade.  Grill the eggplant on both sides until nicely browned and quite tender, about 15 minutes total.  Grill the onions and zucchini on both sides until marked with brown and tender, about 10 to 15 minutes total.  Place the bell pepper directly on the grill and turn frequently, allowing all sides to get charred.  Remove and place in a paper bag to steam.

When all the vegetables are cool enough to handle, chop into fairly large chunks and combine in a serving bowl.  Slip the skin off the pepper, then remove the core and seeds.  Cut into small squares.

Stir in the tomato, olives, and herbs.  Add just enough olive oil to make the salad glisten.  Add the vinegar and toss well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  If desired, sprinkle the top with crumbled goat cheese.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Olive Oil-Lemon Marinade

1/3 cup of olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon dried lemon thyme or regular thyme or better still some chopped fresh
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine the ingredients in a small container.  When brushing on the vegetables, swirl the mixture around with the brush often to keep the oil and lemon combined.

Donna George Storey
July 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please drop by Donna's blog or send an email to

Donna is Cooking up a Storey in ERWA 2010 Archive.

"Cooking up a Storey" © 2010 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Author:  Donna George Storey taught English in Japan and Japanese in the United States and has finally found the work of her dreams writing erotica. If you're really nice, she'll bake you a batch of her Venetian cookies, with layers of marzipan, jam and chocolate, that take a ridiculous amount of time to make and are (almost) better than sex. Her work has been published in dozens of journals and anthologies including Clean Sheets, Fishnet, Best American Erotica, Best Women's Erotica and Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica.
Her first novel, Amorous Woman-a semi-autobiographical tale of an American woman's love affair with Japan, Japanese food and lots of sexy men and women along the way-was published by Neon/Orion. It's currently available at Amazon and Amazon UK, and from her web site,
For more of her musings on sensual pleasure and creativity stop by her blog:  Sex, Food and Writing. You can also take a quick trip to Japan with Donna's provocative Amorous Woman book trailer at:

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