When my husband and I decided to make paella this weekend, we went in search of the definitive recipe.
Well. It turns out there isn’t a definitive recipe for paella–so far as we could tell. Some use artichoke hearts, others use green beans; some say steam the mussels before the end, others say wait; some use white wine, others don’t.
This isn’t surprising. Much like gumbo, there are as many different recipes as there are people making it. That’s part of what makes the dish so much fun. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way. Except for one: it tastes good or it doesn’t. The only true test of what is right and wrong is the end result.
Which got me thinking about how we all plot our stories. We’ve all heard the cry of the storytelling cynic who insists there are only a handful of plots in the world and that every story is essentially a version of one of those few templates. For some reason, this theory instills despair in lots of writers, but I don’t think it should.
Look at fashion. Clothing can be divided into essentially four main pieces: pants, dresses, shirts and skirts. Yet as far as I can tell, we never feel limited in those selections, simply because within those few basic components are an endless array of choices to make them unique. Fabric choices (cotton, wool, silk…), styles (bootleg, short-sleeve, turtleneck, pencil…), colors (red, emerald, black…) You get the picture.
So what if you happen to glance through the weekend book reviews or PM deals and you read about “the book you are already writing!” Well, here’s the thing: At this very minute, lots and lots of people are writing stories, and chances are someone is writing one very close to the one you’re writing.
I say, so what.
Just as there are many ways to make a good paella or a good gumbo, there are many ways to write the same story as Joan is writing, or Peter, or Frank. What matters isn’t that you invent the entrée, but that you make it so tasty your diner wants a second bowl. It will be your ingredients and your cooking that will make it your own dish.
In other words, don’t worry if someone else writes your story before you get to it. As our mothers used to say: Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.
Write your story and write it well.
And second helpings will follow.