Thursday, January 24, 2013

10 Ways The Taste Is Like the Publication World

This week I watched the new cooking competition show The Taste, which is a lot like The Voice, but with a bite of food instead of a song.

A quick description if you're not familiar with it: contestants, who are either professional chefs or really good home cooks, have one chance--literally one bite--to impress the panel of superstar food people. If one or more of the judges falls in love with that one bite, they'll offer the chef a spot on their team. (From there I guess they'll compete against one another and have elimination rounds until there's one chef left standing who'll be crowned The Bite or something like that).

On the surface it probably seems to have nothing to do with writing, but it so much of what was happening reminded me of the struggle to become a published author.

Here are some things I noticed, and a few quotes, that especially hit home: (no quotes from Ludo, since I can't understand the guy. Seriously, I'd be in trouble if I were on the show and ended up on his team).

- Almost everyone made seafood. I found this surprising, since seafood is easy to screw up. Maybe if you're a good cook it makes for an impressive dish. But if everyone's serving up seafood, yours had better really stand out if you want to get attention.
And if you're trying to get published, write that vampire novel if you must, but it has to be especially awesome and offer something your reader hasn't seen before in all the other vampire novels out there.
Only one contestant made a dessert--a home chef, and she did get selected. The panelists were impressed, and Nigella is confident that she has the talent to make all kinds of dishes, not just desserts. Part of what made her stand out might have been that she gave them something different.

- "I liked it, but it's not for me." If you've been submitting to editors or agents for any amount of time, you've likely heard something like this. And it's not a bad thing at all. It means you're a good writer, but your manuscript hasn't landed on the right desk yet. You're giving scallops to someone who doesn't care for scallops.
Several of the contestants impressed the judges with their cooking skills, but the dish just wasn't the kind of food they love, or maybe it was too fancy-chefy when they're more of a comfort food fan.

- On the other hand, "I hate butterscotch. I have no idea where you pulled these ingredients from, but it strangely worked for me." This was Anthony Bourdain's response to the Chilean sea bass with butterscotch and cilantro dressing. Not usually his thing, but it was so good he had to take it on.
This reminded me of agent Faye Bender taking on Kristen Cashore's Graceling, even though she doesn't usually represent fantasy. Or the "rules" like "No rhyming picture books." You still see rhyming picture books getting published, right? So publishers do accept them, but they have to be stellar. It's hard to do well and not many people have the talent to do it, but when it does come together, it's beautiful.
Of course, do your research and submit to agents who you think will like your work, but if your book is amazing, they'll want to see more, even if it's something they don't generally gravitate to.

- "Were you stoned at 3:00 in the morning when you did this?" Another Anthony quote, one you don't want to hear about yourself. Agents get a lot of crazypants submissions. Don't be one of those people.

- Feel the fear and do it anyway. The contestants stood in a kind of elevator-thing, where they could hear the panelists' comments about their dishes. Sometimes the comments were great, sometimes they were terrible. It's a necessary step in moving on, but I can't imagine how intimidating that must have been. At least when we writers get rejected it's not in front of a national audience.
It's scary to send your work out there, but you won't get anywhere if you don't.

- But don't quit your day job. A few of the people mentioned they'd quit their jobs in order to try out for the show. A risky move, but a necessary one if they wanted to seize this opportunity and didn't have bosses willing to hold their jobs for them. Hopefully the ones who didn't make it will find new jobs soon.
I'm thrilled for authors who earn enough from their books to become full-time writers. But they're the exceptions to the rule; most of us won't be able to live the pantless life of a stay-at-home writer. It takes years to get published, and even after you sell a book, it might be a few months before you see the money. And most of the time, the money is a nice supplement to your income, but you'll need to continue doing something that brings in a regular paycheck.

- "There's too much going on here." This was a sentiment expressed several times, in one way or another, like with "This was a mishmash of flavor" or "My taste buds are still trying to figure out what happened."
Yes, you want to be original, but in a good way. Does your novel really need vampires, unicorns, wizards, ninjas, zombies, and mermaids? That's the literary version of pineapple maitake ground turkey sun-dried tomato mac-and-cheese stir-fry. (I did not make that up).

- Your kids love your cooking, but maybe no one else will. Like I mentioned in this post about query letters, of course your children like it when you write a story and read it to them, but mentioning that isn't going to impress an editor or agent. Every contestant on the show has family members, friends, even restaurant patrons who love their food. But like editors and agents, the panel of food experts had to be super-picky. They had room on their teams not just the great chefs, but the exceptional ones.

- Don't be a jerk. A good rule for life, really, not just for writing. Some of the chefs who weren't selected made comments like, "The people I've seen make it through are hacks" and "Nigella picked a woman who made mashed potatoes. I think my dish was a bit more complex than that." Well, you know what? Everyone likes mashed potatoes. "Complex" doesn't automatically mean "fabulous."
And are we sorry these people didn't succeed? Maybe it's shallow, but no. We cheer for nice people. People have long memories, and the Internet is forever. If you enjoy insulting reviewers and putting down other writers, expect to travel the road to publication alone.

- Not everyone chosen was a pro. Many of the contestants who made it through weren't professional chefs; they're just people who love to cook, and if we have a passion for something, we often do it well.
If you're unpublished so far, don't make any apologies for it when you submit your manuscript. You're a writer, and debut novels get published every month. If you love the work, keep doing it till someone takes a bite.

And am I the only one who wants to see more of Jeanette Friedman? Somebody give this woman her own show!


  1. I thought the same thing when I saw a preview for this show--just like books! I missed the premiere, though. I'll have to catch it. Love Anthony Bourdain so much!


    1. Yes, Anthony cracked me up! You can catch the first episode if you click on the link to the show's page that's in the beginning of the post.

  2. I think *one bite* is still easier than *one line*, especially if there aren't hundreds of bites competing for one spot...
    But I like your analogy. Think Chocolate Mousse.

    1. That's true, it was tough competition for just four spots on each team, but they weren't trying out with a buttload of people. It seemed like they were all great cooks or had had some success, so there had to have been some screening process before the show to just let through the best contenders. So we could compare that to an intern going though a mountainous slush pile and picking out a few good manuscripts to pass along to the agent.

      There's another way it was like The Voice-- everyone who makes it onto the blind auditions is good. (Unlike on American Idol, where we see all kinds.)

  3. Love this post! There is definitely a stringent screening process. American Idol, purposely picks people that suck or are train wrecks for the sake of good TV (which became increasingly obvious to me over the years). I had a friend that actually made it all the way to LA and she confirmed. Anywhoo, I think researching who will be potentially giving you a pass is a brilliant idea. Send/make your stuff where it's more likely to get love first. Then try the rest, just to see. I'm for exploring all options, BUT being smart about it.

    1. Yes, I used to plan my evenings around Idol, but grew tired of it, especially now that it seems to be more about the judges than the contestants. I'll probably tune in near the end to hear the finalists and see who wins. But I do love The Voice! Everyone who makes it to even the first day is a great singer, then they have to narrow it down to the best.

      Thanks for stopping by, Shea!