“Mise En Place”

Yesterday I said, hey, I’m writing a new book.

And I said, hey, I’m-a take you through all the steps as I stumble through them.

Before I get into that, before I talk about what I’ve already done, I need to make clear that for a while, those steps are not going to include… well, the actual writing of the actual book. I have, during my stumbling, fumbling, and mumbling, come to what is for me a most certain truth: the actual writing itself is perhaps the leastmost part of the process. I don’t mean least or lesser in terms of importance, but in terms of the actual effort, that’s not where the hardest work lies for me. Not anymore.

I used to work that way. I used to just say, “Fuck it!” and jump in.

And, five or six utterly shit-sucking novels later, we see how that worked out.

My two most recent “big ticket” projects — the novel, Blackbirds, and the film, HiM — were the two projects that really turned my thinking around on the writing process. Each project started with minimal planning and maximum writing. The writing was maybe good enough in each. The dialogue was potentially good enough. The characters were… interesting, I guess? But the end result failed to bring it all together. The plot didn’t hang together, the characters didn’t all fit together, the dialogue didn’t work together with the rest of the elements. In terms of the novel, I actually couldn’t even get through it. I had to write and rewrite and rewrite from the ground up to even conceive of where I wanted to go.

Part of this stems, I think, from impatience. Me… well, we all know I’m impatient. I can barely get to the end of a long sentence before I’m gnashing my teeth and screaming aloud, “Is it done? Are we there yet? Nuhtuhgrubblebuh!” And then I punch a mirror.

So, with any creative project, my initial goal was just to write, write, write. Write my way through it. Get it on paper. Make it happen. Write, write, write. Churn and burn. Kick the tires. Light the fires.

For some people, this works out very well. Look over at Dan O’Shea’s blog, where he talks about the Winchester Mansion School of Design, and “flash fictioning” his way to a completed novel. He’s writing, and posting as he goes, and so far, it’s great stuff. He’s got this whole Zen thing going on, and I suspect that’s going to suit him very well. One day, it may suit me very well. For now, though, I’ve tried that. Didn’t work. Oh, it felt like it was working. It felt good until I got to the end of each novel or project (er, if I could make it to the end) and each work felt like a work of pieces rather than a whole product. A lack of planning left it feeling like… well, the Winchester Mansion. Just rooms smashed onto other rooms (and dead-ends aplenty) stuffed into the shape of a house but it wasn’t actually a functional, proper house.

So, for Dan, he’s probably good.

Me, I just end up creating nonsense.

And so I bring it to back to the tried-and-true cooking metaphor.

Hey! Go to hell. I love cooking metaphors. I would marry cooking metaphors. But, since I’m already married, the only thing I can do is make sweet sweet love to the cooking metaphor. I can kiss its ear. I can run my fingers around the small of its back. I can truss it up like an animal and rub duck fat in its hair and keep it in a box and put on the matador’s costume and –

Uhhh. Nothing to see here. Nothing to see here.

So. Cooking metaphor.

You ever cook dinner under pressure? Like, you have nothing ready, and the Prime Minister of, say, Namibia is coming over, and so you race to get dinner made? You’re chopping as something is boiling, you’re seasoning as something is going into the oven, you’re juggling spice containers and trying to remember where you put the shallots and suddenly the Prime Minster is there and you look like some dude who just got Tasered in the face?  And something smells like charred donkey’s asshole?

Yeah, for me, that sucks. I always forget something. I always dick something up. I always feel frustrated and stressed out and the meal might be edible but fails to really come together.

Chefs know how to avoid this problem.

They know about the mise-en-place.

Mise-en-place, or, “The Meez,” is the act of getting “everything in place.”

You’re doing up a big dinner or even a single meal, you want things in place. And when those things are in place, for me the cooking goes easily. Dish of cut onions, carrots, celery. Cutting board with meat upon it. Proper spices at-hand. Oven on, pre-set. The squirrel, gutted and skinned. The pineal gland of a velociraptor marinating in the blood of the optimistic.

Not to say you don’t have room for creativity during the cooking — you still have to season to taste, you still might get an idea (“Sweet motherless goatfuckers! Worcestershire sauce!”) during the process.

This, to me, is just like writing.

If I don’t have all my shit together, the writing process is just a mess. It’s a fun mess, admittedly. I can make each piece work as each piece. But to make it all hang together? To not forget things? To not write myself into corners and dead-ends and have to backtrack and rewrite 10,000 words? To make sure the piece is layered and each element is working overtime in double- or triple-duty?

I need to have everything in place.

As a writer, I need my mise-en-place.

That’s what these initial steps are going to be about. When we went back on the script and kicked down the walls and rewrote from the ground up, we outlined the hell out of everything first. We got all the characters together, and we spent a lot — a lot — of time going over all the fiddly bits. When time came to actually write, I’d normally write 3-5 script pages a day, but I more than doubled that this go-around. And I know why. I doubled my output because I was prepared. Writing it was the easiest thing in the world; it was almost effortless because I knew the story and the characters so well. I always knew which way to jump. Even in those bits you can’t plan for — dialogue, the little moments, the interactions, the descriptions — I had it all puzzled out because we had already conceived of the elements. We’d already put everything in its place. The ingredients were prepared.

Oh, and the feedback on the revised script was… well, I’m still happy. A complete turnaround. Major improvements. What were once disparate elements are now the piece of the whole, and that’s ultimately what this is about: I don’t want to serve a dish of ingredients. The act of cooking is bringing those ingredients together, and the act of writing is about the same damn thing.

From spare parts to a unified whole.

In cooking, the preparation is often the hardest part.

The cooking is often the simplest, or at least the most forthright.

At present — and one day, this may change again — I think this is exactly like writing. The effort is in the prep. The effort is in the “meez.” And if you put your effort there, then the writing — the creation! — becomes effortless.

What Anthony Bourdain says about the mise-en-place could be said for my mindset as a writer these days:

“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’ — meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system… The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

You need to find your own meez. You need to arrange the elements and do it your way, not somebody else’s way, and that’s what I’m going to fumble through live and in-public. Bourdain goes on to say:

“What exactly is this mystical mise-en-place I keep going on about? Why are some line cooks driven to apoplexy at the pinching of even a few grains of salt, a pinch of parsley? Because it’s ours. Because we set it up the way we want it. Because it’s like our knives, about which you hear the comment: ‘Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife.’” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

So. Tomorrow, for real, I tell you why in my mise-en-place I’m starting with characters, and what I’m doing with those characters to prepare.

25 comments

  • I wish I could draw on my wall. I’ve got this huge open space directly to my right, as my desk is shoved into a corner in my living room. I can turn my chair, and there’s this expanse of white — okay, you got me, the kids got to it with purple marker first — this expanse of mostly white (with purple highlights) that I could make my bitch. My novel’s bitch. You know. I can plot out all twenty-something chapters on that thing. I can draw every single Venn diagram I need. I can draw out my heroine’s family freaking tree on it.

    Except I can’t. Because it’s a rented wall, and it costs about a million dollars to repaint. Okay, maybe not a million, but it’ll take a nice chunk out of my damage deposit if I go all da Vinci in indelible ink.

    When I’m prepping something — a game, a book, plans for taking over Greenland — I like to be physical. Scribble that shit down in a notebook. Have a printout of my first draft so I can mark that fucker up with multicolors of pens. Work out on a slab of prehistoric granite the calculations of ice floe ratio versus how much my moose-mounted elite strike force weighs.

    Yesterday, I attempted to print out the 28 (double-spaced) pages of my short story to go through and red-pen, to get my second draft done. Our printer busted. Or, at least, it refuses to allow printing from any word processing program we have. And I went through WordPad, TextPad, Notepad, Office 2010 and Open Office. After fucking around with it for about an hour, Rick asked “Can you just edit it on the screen?” Well, yes… but it’ll screw with my process if I do. I want to have a hard copy of that shit in my hand, with all my corrections and self-recommendations in place. I need to be able to flip the pages, to mark as I’m going, to fill those margins up like a Boston cream donut.

    And I need my coffee. But that goes without saying. Coffee is brain juice.

    • @Maggie:

      Heck yeah. Gotta have your meez.

      That said, and I should’ve noted this in my post (but will mark it periodically as a reminder to myself) — you can’t fetishize the process, either. You can easily distract yourself with process monkeying, you can outline for two years, you can procrastinate in the procedural.

      – c.

  • So, here’s the deal.

    I have worked as a cook for a long, long time. I did fry at a fish fry, I was the sous-chef at a $100 a plate seafood restaurant, where I was the saute and sauce guy beforehand. I’ve done super-fast Mexican (but not fast food – somehow there is a difference) and I’ve examined what it means to have an “original” menu at a trendy (but entirely awesome) joint. However, for almost two years, I worked at one place that forged me into a powerhouse cook.

    Denny’s.

    Don’t fucking laugh! If you haven’t been in the trenches at Denny’s you don’t know. Here’s a bit of insight: a busy shift in most kitchens set up for 100-tables is generally around 4-5000 in sales. That is usually with two line and one fry cook. My usual shift at Denny’s? 3.5k in sales by myself, and 80% or more of it came between 11pm and 2:30 am. To put that in perspective, imagine a chihuahua on crack doing mariachi while speed-fucking a poodle. That was slow compared to me. I am 6’8″ and well over 300 pounds. I was not made to move that fast. I wasn’t.

    That is where I was introduced to the mezz. Not in the kick-ass seafood place. Not battering catfish, or making fucked up chile designs. One of my co-workers, this kick-ass dude named Tom, told me about it. On Friday and Saturday, he’d work with me until 2am. Those were the 8k nights. I always had everything stocked and set up exactly where it needed to go: 2 iced tubs of eggs, check. One oil, one butter on low grill, check. Cold bar stocked, bread trays stocked, meat racks hit, back-up steaks thawing, extra prep done – every little bit of my kitchen was exactly where I needed to be for maximum efficiency, right down to where I stored my radio and my orange juice (seriously, iced OJ is the best thing to drink in a hot kitchen).

    The cook before me on swing was a slob. Aside from the fact he left me an unstocked mess every night, I would come on and her would complain about his 6k dinners and how tired he was. How tired he was, when his shit was totally disorganized and he had two freaking helpers. And he expected me to feel sorry for him! Worse, he expected me to clean up after him!

    The same shit completely applies to writing. Get your shit set-up, and go for maximum efficiency with total power. And extremely importantly, make sure you are stocked up for the next go around. All those research materials, tangents that didn’t go anywhere, new concepts on characterization – save all that shit and put in a “morgue” file of things you can go over next time you’re writing. Pay it forward.

    Dude, cooking metaphors. Cooking fucking metaphors. My brother.

  • You hit the nail on the head!

    Like you, pounding out the words is the least of my problems. If I know what I am to write about when I sit down, time flies. I’m a laughing and crying and tickling myself, just having a gay old time. Before I know it a couple hours and a couple thousand words have been killed off and soon a “chapter” or whatever is done.

    Voila! Easy peasy, God I am good at this I crow, hopping around the room with glee.

    But….do they all fit together? Do any of my characters even make eye contact across a crowded room, let alone hit the road together? Why would they…besides living in the same world, they don’t seem to have much else in common. I mean they are all on the same flight to, lets say Winnipeg, but they are not going spend any time together once they get there!

    So for now, I have put the actual writing aside. This is killing me because I feel as if I am not doing what I put hours into teaching myself to do; which was to sit down and write every day. But at this point, without some serious planning and structure, what the hell is the point? This is really, really hard for me to do because the act of writing makes or breaks a day for me.

    p.s. Why the hell would anyone go to Winnipeg anyways…?

    • So for now, I have put the actual writing aside. This is killing me because I feel as if I am not doing what I put hours into teaching myself to do; which was to sit down and write every day. But at this point, without some serious planning and structure, what the hell is the point? This is really, really hard for me to do because the act of writing makes or breaks a day for me.

      This is definitely one of the struggles — sometimes it feels like the “wrong” work if the work doesn’t mean “writing.”

      Except, more and more, the term “writer” is really a meaningless one. Writing is actually only one part of the process.

      Storyteller. Author. Creator. Wordmonkey. Linguistic Line Cook.

      Maybe those are better.

      – c.

  • @Maggie – Go check out your local office supply store for those poster-sized pads of paper. They aren’t expensive, and you can hang them right on the wall.

    I think my basic problem with incorporating a “mise en place” plan (and the metaphor has done for my headspace to drive home the importance of the outlining process than just about anything else) is that I’m still just learning to cook. Actually, it’s kind of funny, because I am also just learning how to cook. I don’t know enough about what I’m doing to know what I need to have at hand. No matter how many times I read the recipe, I inevitably find something halfway through that I totally didn’t think of. And, yes, it screws up my flow and rattles my confidence.

    I’m the same way with writing, currently. I look at a story, and I have a general idea of what goes in the mix. I can sketch out an A plot and a B plot. I can identify the characters. I still can’t identify and call out themes, in the same way that I still can’t get the hang of a good roux, so most of my sauces don’t come together.

    But when I sit down to write the story, it never goes according to plan. It twists and turns all over the place, and refuses to be tied to the framework. And I can look back at it and see that huge chunks of the problem is that I still don’t understand how to make the story work.

    So, I’m going to stick to my current process of crapping out my thousand bad pages. I’m just writing and writing. After some time, maybe I’ll have enough done that I can understand how to set up my shit so it works.

  • This is absolutely how it has to work for me if I’m writing anything longer than a short story. Even then, there’s a certain amount of spice-rack fiddling.

    My process used to be to say “Fuck it” and do the Butch and Sundance thing as well, but just jumping off the cliff into the writing would eventually find me gibbering on a street corner with a Tandoori-stained ream of Klingon limericks and no pants. Oddly enough, or not so odd if you know me, it was GameMastering that set my process down into something that actually worked.

    Rules of the game (tone and theme) understood? Check.
    Setting grasped firmly in my sticky synapses? Check
    Important NPCS (Characters and supporting cast) ready? Check.
    Plot (ummm…plot) laid out with the key beats? Check.
    Ready to improvise? Check.

    You get the idea. In fact, the curve-balls that the flock of shaved-monkeys I call players tend to throw when I’m running a game are a lot easier on me than my own actual writing. I can at least predict which way they’re going to jump most of the time. My own brainmeat is rarely so kind.

    The process is even somewhat archaic for someone so entranced with technology. I suppose I could tappity-tap up a few separate docs with characters, plot-beats, and the like and Alt-Tab between them when I’m writing, but to be honest having the corkboard with character sketches to my right and the spiral notebook with scrawled scene notes just feels right.

    Thus far, I have managed to avoid whipping out the dice when I’m stuck on a particular exchange when I’m writing, but it’s probably a matter of time before I give it a try.

  • Oh, and what the hell is that dent on the knife? Seriously, it looks like someone bit it. If you did bite your knife hard enough to leave tooth prints, then I have to wonder why. And I have to worship your manliness.

  • I began this latest project the way I’ll probably begin all my long-term projects from here on: a story bible. An ‘old testament’ if you will. In it I laid out the main events of the story from start to finish, and it’s been a huge help in keeping my writing focused.

    My character bible, or ‘new testament’, reminds me of what makes my characters do what they do, what they ultimately want and how their desires inform their actions. Keeping my characters, well, in-character will go a long way in making the story work, in my opinion.

    Considering this is not the first time I’ve taken a stab at this, I have a lot of notes and dribbles laying around my drives about the world’s history and various races. These are my ‘apocrypha.’ Some day I’ll compile them into a coherent document. Maybe.

    Anyway, this is good stuff. Looking forward to hearing more of this process of yours.

  • Just popped over to Dan’s blog and read his flash piece. This was pretty much what I had been doing.

    Now, I am an outliner, after all this story has been kicking around for about 10 years now and this method has produced some awesome chapters. Around the 60,000 word count the outline went out the window however. I had given these guys so much freedom that the outline became almost useless, but, I need an outline. So I started another one and another one, and on and on and….you get my drift.

    It’s all in the mire, I think because I was too impatient and making sure I wrote each day gave me no time to plan.

    So, success to him, I on the other hand got completely messed up.

  • @Chuck:

    Hmmm…been pondering re-booting the ol’ personal blog. Damn your eyes, Herr Sphincter-Twiddle! Now I have another distraction.

    I’ll likely attack this in the next couple of days. Time to go muck with WordPress again… Heh.

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