My middle grade debut, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books, June 11, 2019) is an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking. The story is about 11-year-old Mimi, the youngest of four, who dreams of finally proving she’s not the least talented member of her family by winning a local baking contest judged by her celebrity chef idol. But when her dad, a renowned food writer, returns from a business trip mysteriously unable to tell the difference between delicious and disgusting, Mimi doubts she’ll ever be able to bake something good enough to propel her to gastronomic fame. She follows strangely familiar music into the woods behind her house, and meets an unusual boy, Vik, who brings her to parts of the forest she’s never seen before. Together, they bake up enchanting treats for family and friends using ingredients they find in the woods. But as her father acts stranger every day and her siblings’ romantic entanglements start causing mayhem in her town, Mimi begins to wonder whether the ingredients she and Vik found are somehow behind it all. She needs to use her skills, deductive and epicurean, to try to uncover the truth. In the process, she learns that in life, as in baking, not everything is sweet.
1. Choose the Best Ingredients
In baking, the better the ingredients, the better the outcome. You want to use fresh butter and eggs, real fruit, and aromatic spices to create the best product. In writing, I’ve discovered that stories with a core of something true (a place, a situation, an emotion) tend to be most interesting and resonant. I use fiction to tell the truth.
In MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, I channeled a mix of childhood memories, my fascination with Shakespeare and baking, and the feeling of wanting something so badly but not knowing if you can ever achieve it.
Some people study to be pastry chefs, but you don’t need to go to culinary school to bake up delicious treats. Similarly, some people have MFAs, but you don’t need a degree to write well. You do, however, need to study the craft of writing—because as much as we can all recognize a great story when we read it, we can’t write a compelling story by just pulling it out of the ether. I learned about plot, characterization, setting, and theme by taking classes (online and in person) and reading books on craft. Here’s a short list of some favorites:
Grub Street (in person and online at grubstreet.org/)
The Writing Barn (in person and online at www.thewritingbarn.com/)
The Highlights Foundation (incredible retreats and workshops with world-class faculty; some workshops have an online component. See https://www.highlightsfoundation.org/)
Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland
Wired For Story and Story Genius by Lisa Cron
The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
When you are developing new recipes, it’s essential to keep tasting as you go; or, in baking, to make a small batch, taste, adjust, and try again.
How do you do this as a writer? Join a critique group! My critique partners and beta readers were instrumental in helping me figure out whether a scene, a chapter, or a whole manuscript were working. Their feedback and suggestions gave me fresh perspectives on my writing. MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM and my other books wouldn’t be the same without their invaluable input.
You can also seek out input from industry professionals like agents and editors. Ultimately, though, you are the chef, and you should run with the suggestions that resonate with you while staying true to the story you want to tell.
When you bake a cake for someone, you try to include their favorite ingredients: chocolate! Pineapple! Sprinkles!
You need to think about your intended audience as a writer, too—not to preach or teach them a lesson, but to harken back to what it felt like to be that age, and remember what worried you, what made you happy, what made you laugh, and what you wanted most in the world. The more truly you can channel the feelings of your inner child, the more genuine your story will feel to the kids who will someday read it.
That’s my take on the art and science of baking up a book. Choose the best ingredients for your story; study the method or craft of writing; taste your story, get input, write more, and taste again; and know your audience. As Mimi learns in MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, I hope this helps you to create with your heart, to write the story that only you in all the world can tell.