I think I’m a pretty good cook. I know how to follow a recipe, and once I’m comfortable with it I experiment with changes and additions, and usually they work out fine.

But I’m not a professional chef. And that can create some taste disasters when I veer too far away from my established practices.

Here’s an example: I opened up the steamed mixed beans I bought at Trader Joe’s on Sunday, thinking that the idea of beans was great, but that they were probably really bland. I saw on the package that you could saute them with garlic and olive oil and use them as a pasta topping. That sounded good.

Now, I happened to have some leftover brown Basmati rice that I wanted to use up, so I thought, “Let’s saute that in with the beans, like an Italian fried rice or a dry risotto.” And I added some sliced up mini-heirloom tomatoes, a few leaves of fresh basil, and some salt and pepper. So far so good.

Then things started to go south. I also had some leftover microwaved Brussels sprouts that weren’t so great to begin with, but I didn’t want to just throw them away. And then I thought “Italian,” and reached for the Balsamic vinegar and the ground romano cheese that was in the drawer of my fridge. I mixed it all together until the sprouts were tender.

My concoction tasted HORRIBLE.

If I’d been a chef trying something new, I’d have thrown the whole thing out and started over. I’d made the mistake of adding bad ingredients, and also not tasting as I went.

But being rather cash-strapped at the moment I wasn’t willing to give up on my concoction, since there was a hefty amount of it left over. So I refrigerated it, postponing a decision for a day or two.

Today, when I saw that container staring at me, my conscience pricked me. Either I would have to throw it away and put it out of its misery, or try to salvage it. I opted for one last-ditch effort to make it edible and started nosing around my refrigerator.

I spotted a bag of pepper jack cubes right next to the container of bean muck. I don’t use cheese cubes much, and rarely eat pepper jack (a sale purchase), so I thought, what they hey? I dotted six cubes around the top of my failed recipe and popped it in the microwave for 2 minutes until the cheese melted becomingly.

And guess what? As long as I worked around the unfortunate tasting Brussels sprouts, it was pretty good!

So what’s the analogy?

If you’ve never written a novel before, first start with good ingredients: an interesting premise, a location you love, characters that get you excited.

Chances are, you’ll make a mess of it somewhere along the way and want to just trash it and start over. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do.

But sometimes, putting a little time and distance between you and your failed experiment will lead you to a solution that not only salvages it, but takes it to a whole new level.

Oh, and don’t be afraid to be merciless about editing out the Brussels sprouts.

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