Life From Scratch: A New Novel From Contributing Editor Melissa Ford
When I found out last spring that Contributing Editor Melissa Ford was publishing a novel, I maybe squealed a little. A few months ago I got an advanced copy of Life From Scratch from her publisher, and I maybe squealed again when I saw it in my mailbox. Holding a book someone you know wrote in your hands is a true joy in a reader's life.
Life From Scratch introduces us to Rachel Goldman. She's in her thirties, lives in New York City, is going through a divorce and has no idea how to cook for herself. So she did what so many of us would have done in those circumstances -- she starts a blog and learns how to cook. To her surprise, people start reading her blog and she starts to let more people into her life, such as a certain sexy Spaniard. But is Rachel really ready move on to the next course in her life?
One of the advantages of knowing someone who writes a book is that once you finish it and are bursting to talk about it it with someone, you demand politely ask them to sit down with you and talk about it. Melissa kindly agreed to not only answer my questions about her book but to share her answers with you.
This is your second book but your first novel. You also blog. How different was it for you to write fiction?
Writing fiction was very different. Non-fiction -- for me -- is like a fixed-form poem. The parameters of non-fiction provide a cozy little space where what needs to be done is very much a black-and-white situation with the creativity being the way in which the material is presented. Fiction is like a free-form poem. Some people think the lack of set rules would make it easier, but often times it's harder. Especially if you can't really picture how a scene unfolds or how to get the character from Point A to Point B.
The book, and each chapter, in your novel starts off with a blog post. Why did you decide to make blogging such an integral part of the novel?
I finally took one of those mainstay pieces of advice from MFA departments -- write what you know. Blogging is a huge part of my life, therefore, it made sense to make it a big part of the novel. I didn't want to write another non-fiction book -- certainly not one about blogging -- but I wanted to explore how it feels to put your inner-most thoughts out there. The good part that anyone can read your blog; but also the bad part -- anyone can read your blog!
You were not only writing Rachel's story, but her blog as well. As for many of us, her voice wasn't quite the same on her blog as it was in her real life. You essentially had to create two voices for her. Was that an extra challenge?
When I originally wrote the manuscript, it didn't have the blog entries, but my agent said, "we need to hear Rachel's blog voice!" So those entries were added. The funny part was that I had to write them in Blogger and then cut-and-paste them into the manuscript. So the rest of the book was written as a Word Doc, but those blog entries had to be written on a blog platform. It was very strange, but it was the way I got over the mental block I had of not really knowing Rachel's voice despite having described her blog in the main text.
Rachel, like many of us in the early days of our blogs, had no idea how many people were really reading. After a friend introduces her to a stats tracking program, she's astonished. I'm very lackadaisical when it comes to paying attention to my stats, even though I find the information I get from them rather fascinating. Are you a stats person?
Yes and no. I love numbers, love to see how things unfold, so I check my stats from time to time. But I've also learned after 4+ years of blogging that there is no magical formula to increasing your readership, nor is there any way to predict what will resonate with people. There are posts I've written that have gone semi-viral that I thought would barely get a glance, and others that I took days to construct that got 5 comments. I also think that people get too hung up on the number and don't think about the quality of that readership. A blogger with a huge readership asked her readers to do her a favour and few did it. And she wrote an excellent post afterward about why have a lot of readers if those readers aren't attached enough to you or your ideas to do a small favour that costs them a second or two of time. It made me really thankful that I have a great readership that flows two ways -- where they read me and I read them and we all engage with one another. Because it is true -- I'd rather have 100 people that support me completely than 100,000 people who are there in number only but could care less what I have to say. It's the Twitter phenomenon -- you can have a lot of followers, but have no one really read your Tweets.
Rachel was a food blogger but she was also a life blogger who was telling her life with food as a background. What blogs do you think Rachel would read?
Oh, she'd probably have a mix of large blogs and small blogs in her Reader. She'd love Alice Q. Foodie, and Macheesmo because his recipes always look so good. And she'd totally be friends with the boys from The Bitten Word. She'd look at the baking recipes from Leite's Culinaria, but she'd never try them because she's too scared. Of course, she'd read Orangette and Chez Pim. She'd rely heavily on advice from Simply Recipes. And she'd have a lot of non-food bloggers in there as well.
People often say that a great first line is key to any book. I'm sure we can think of first lines that we remember "it was the best of times, it was the the worst of time..." "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Your first line was great. "June Cleaver beat the crap out of me with her rolling pin.” How hard was it coming up with that line?
Ha! Thank you very much. I don't even remember the process of writing that -- I know I wrote it in Blogger and then cut-and-paste that in. I think it was something much more aligned with what I'd say on my own blog, therefore it made it into Rachel's blog.
It was interesting for me to read your novel because I know you. I could see bits of Melissa in Rachel, like her fear of mayonnaise. There are also obvious differences, like the fact that Rachel is going through a divorce. I know that sometimes when I read a book I carry the characters around with me. Was it hard sometimes to leave Rachel on the page?
Rachel became a really good friend as I wrote the book, and I deeply cared about her. I obviously pulled in aspects from my life -- such as my fear of mayonnaise -- but the divorce, her family, her desire to reinvent herself, her approach to Judaism (and I've never had a Spanish lover, drats) were entirely owned by Rachel, and I came to love her for those aspects of her life because they are so different from my own. I invented a woman that I knew I would want to be friends with myself -- even if I didn't exactly want to be her. And I love her enough to carry her through three more books in the future which I've started writing or have outlined.
NaNoWriMo just ended and something I've heard from a number of agents that I follow on social media sites is that on December 1 they get hit with a wave of first drafts of novels. They beg people to read their work and edit and rewrite and edit and edit and edit before they send it off to them. How many drafts of your novel did you go through before you tried to sell it?
I edit as I write -- sometimes erasing whole sections and chapters and starting over the next day. Then, after editing as I go along, I self-edit the entire manuscript one more time before I show it to my husband or brother for another edit. Finally, I'll send it to my agent, who also has suggestions before she starts to shop it. I agree with those agents -- you're asking a person for their time, and the least you can do is give them the best manuscript you can possibly give them. I know that it's hard to wait when you're itching to race ahead. But take your time with a manuscript, get a few people to read it before sending it along to an agent, and make sure you can say you gave it your best shot.
Melissa, congratulations on your new novel and thanks for answering my questions. You can find out more about Melissa's book and read an excerpt on the Life From Scratch website.
Photo Credit: Mary Gardella of Love Life Images.