Unlikely Influences: What Beth Cato learned about writing from baking cookies

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by Beth Cato.

Maple Pecan Pepitas Cookies9_smWhat I Learned About Writing From Baking Cookies

By Beth Cato

If acquaintances know anything about me, it’s that I write and I bake cookies. Heck, I even have a food blog called Bready or Not where I feature a new recipe every Wednesday. These two interests were there from my earliest memories, but they only truly developed through a conscious effort over the past decade.

Perfectionism Sucks

I carry a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, along with a whole Pokémon Gotta-Catch-Them-All assortment of neuroses. This was evident in my teens when I first tried baking Snickerdoodle cookies on my own. I believed that all recipes must be followed exactly. The cook time was the cook time. The measurements must be precise. This meant that, for years, I overbaked my Snickerdoodles. They hardened into little cinnamon and sugar-coated pucks. I compensated for this by moistening a paper towel and tucking it into the sealed container, which invariably caused the nearest cookies to go soggy while the far ones remained hard.

It took me about TEN YEARS to realize that I had overbaked batch after batch.


Procrastination and Pause

I approached my writing with the same mindset, though the result was underbaked. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and a whole preset list of things writers were SUPPOSED to do: write daily, please everyone with what was written, create some Great American Novel (albeit mine would be fantasy).

I sabotaged myself before I could start. I did maps and character sketches for the novel I had in mind, but I always needed to do more “research.” I was terrified to share my shorter works, and when I did I couldn’t take criticism or rejection.

I had two major incidents that made me stop writing and reading fantasy in my late teens. I was under heavy family pressure that magic was bad and I was condemning myself to hell by writing on the subject. I also had a college teacher I immensely respected who saw me reading a fantasy book and sneered, “That’s not a real book.”

I didn’t know what to write anymore if I couldn’t write what I loved. I was stuck. Meanwhile, I kept overbaking my Snickerdoodles.

Cardamom Cookies2_sm

Making a Conscious Choice to Improve

Sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom. For me, that time came at age 25. I was home with my infant son. My husband was in the Navy and either deployed or barely present. I was isolated and miserable, and I knew that if I wanted to live–really live–I had to make a change.

NaNoWriMo had encouraged me to write in November for several years, but at that point I decided I needed to write, period.

It’s no accident that I started to expand my recipe repertoire at this same time. I began to experiment. I gave myself permission to diverge from the recipe. If a recipe was a failure, I eased myself from the thinking of, “I will never learn how to cook.” Instead, I said, “That one recipe sucked. What went wrong? Can it be salvaged?”

I discovered the wonders of Pampered Chef stoneware and how drastically that improved my cookies and other goodies. I understood, finally, that I had been overbaking those blasted Snickerdoodles for years.

Chewy Raisin Oatmeal Cookies2_sm

Leveling Up

My husband left the Navy and we settled in Arizona in 2007. Since he was actually home every day, it became necessary to cook a greater variety of recipes. At the same time, I was actively working on my writing. I set goals, and in hindsight, I can see how things progressed over the next five years.

  • get anything accepted at all
  • learn to send something out after rejection
  • get a story accepted at a for-the-love magazine
  • get accepted at a semi-pro zine
  • get a pro acceptance and join SFWA as an affiliate
  • write a novel, and rewrite, and write again
  • get a literary agent
  • make two more pro story sales to get full SFWA membership
  • recover from the blow of agent not being able to sell book
  • write another book

Candy Corn Cookies6_sm

Likewise, my baking skills leveled up as my confidence grew.

  • make quick bread using a mix
  • make yeast bread using a mix, fail, try again
  • buy a bread machine
  • master homemade pizza dough
  • experiment with from-scratch quick breads
  • wear out bread machine, buy a Zojirushi
  • stop buying store bread, make all sandwich bread at home
  • start a food blog
  • create my own quick bread recipes
  • create my own bread recipes

With both my writing and baking, my skills have increased but there’s no such thing as staying on the pinnacle. Yes, I have a two-book deal with Harper Voyager, but then there’s the terror of writing and selling a new series. There are always new stories that start out as wretched, improve through critiques, and endure the full rejection cycle. I still have recipes fail, too. Some, I trash and know I’ll never try them again. Others I make time and again, tweaking ingredients and cook times.

It’s a constant learning process, one with happy results: published books and absolutely perfect Snickerdoodles.

ClockworkCrown_331x500Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. The newest book, THE CLOCKWORK CROWN, comes out on June 9th.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.