Cooking the Books: Elephant Stew with Steven Gould

Author Steven Gould, styling a favored kimono

You’ve probably seen an article or two dedicated to “eating an elephant” – in other words, taking on a huge task.  But what about serving one up?  Writing a novel, for instance, that’s more like cooking an elephant, right?

About a month ago, author Steven Gould and I were talking about offbeat, sometimes fictional, recipes.  Gould is the author of eight novels, including 7th Sigma (2011), Jumper (1992), Reflex (2004), and Jumper: Griffin’s Story (2007), as well as numerous short stories. He has recently finished his next novel, Impulse.  He is also an instructor at the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop.  When I mentioned the infamous Elephant Stew recipe, Steven pointed out that it sounded like instructions for a novel.  He then kindly agreed (read: was pestered) into being interviewed on why the two are similar.
Although, we’re nowhere near the first to draw the parallel between cooking and writing*, I kept thinking about the monumental task of writing a novel, and the equally monumental task of cooking an elephant, and decided the best way to address both was by taking on a third gargantuan task (the author interview) in order to press the point.
So. Just in time for the conclusion of NaNoWriMo, we bring you: Elephant Stew.
(No elephants have been stewed for the purposes of this blog.  This recipe was listed as ‘humorous’ in an antique cookbook.)  

: Steven, thanks for subjecting yourself to this.  How is writing a novel like cooking an elephant?
First, Cut Elephant into Bite-Sized Pieces:
Steven: Well, you can move a pyramid’s worth of sand one bucket at a time.  You can write War and Peace a paragraph at a time.
Novels, compared to other types of fiction, are definitely works of great length. They’re not necessarily something that you sit down and write in a day or a week, though there are people who do that.  Cory Doctorow wrote Little Brother in something like six weeks.  But even he points out when he lectures about writing that it’s hard to run a marathon every day.  The sort of people who write continuously for a month often have to spend three months recovering from that effort.  They might get the same result writing a page a day for a year.  Either way, it’s just one piece at a time – whatever size piece works.
For me, on good days, I write two, three, sometimes four pages.  Other days I don’t write anything.  But hopefully I’m at least doing a page a day.  The book I just finished took two years.  It’s 415 pages, which works out to less than a page a day.  Ideally, I’d like to do four pages a day.  That’s achievable, and reasonable.
Next, Add 100 Gallons of Hearty Broth
Steven: I recently had a discussion with my new agent about what it takes to become a self-sufficient writer in this field.  In his opinion, it doesn’t have as much to do with writing lots of books as it does with having repeating characters in series books.  That seems to build an audience far better, and you can see examples of that.
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is a good example. After 5 or 6 books, he was consistently on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar books are also examples.  She is really good at telling a multi-novel story arc without having to give up on satisfying tales in the individual novels.
Cook Over Fire for Several Weeks
Steven: Every book has a rhythm.  For me, the beginning tends to be fairly fast.  The first couple of chapters move pretty quickly. Then things slow down.  It’s in the solid body of the book that the characters become fixed and what the book is about becomes more apparent. The last quarter of the novel, the downhill slope, moves faster.   There are aspects of the book I won’t know about until the book is finished – and sometimes I’ll discover things years after the book is published.
When I wrote the tie-in for Jumper: Griffin’s Story, the publisher needed the story out in hardback six months before the movie came out.  So that was kind of a dash for me.  It wasn’t one-month dash. It was a nine-month dash, which I consider fast-paced.
Afterwards, there was recovery time.  I didn’t write for a bit.  One of my strategies for surviving as a writer is trying to not make my self-esteem be strictly dependent on my role and identity as a writer. There are so many things that are out of my control as a writer.  A book could tank, it could get bad reviews, or encounter a disaster at the publisher. All these things that can happen and I have no control over them.
So practicing Aikido is something that I can do regularly and consistently.  That may be where more of my self-esteem is tied up.  And I work on my family life, what I do for and with my wife and kids.
As far as how my books are doing — I’m not sure how true this is, this may be a lie I tell myself — but I try very hard not to spend a lot of time ego surfing.  Laura pays more attention to my Amazon rankings when my books come out than I do.  I just go on to the other stuff I can control  That’s what I did after writing Griffin’s Story.
Cook’s Tooltip: Use a Big Pot
Steven: I use iBooks on the iPad for annotating during drafts. I started that because of Viable Paradise. For a long time, Laura and I were the writers who traveled the longest distance to Martha’s Vineyard.  For much of that time, workshop submissions were xeroxed, and we hauled these marked-up manuscripts to Martha’s Vineyard in our luggage.  I hated that with a passion.  I was usually carrying this vast amount of paper.  I got my iPad after Viable Paradise started taking electronic submissions as well as paper submissions.  I started annotating student manuscripts then. (Before that I did it on a little netbook.)
The last two books I’ve written, I didn’t see a paper manuscript until one was returned to me after production – after the book was already out.
Griffin’s Story and 7th Sigma were strictly electronic documents.  7th Sigma was written entirely in scrivener and emailed to my editor.
I started annotating my work by making PDF files and using iAnnotate to mark them up.  You could circle things, highlight text, and add notes. Then Goodreader, my preferred PDF-reader, added annotations.  I shifted to that.  Then, finally, iBooks enabled notes for PDFs and books, and Scrivener made it possible to output drafts in epub format.
Editing in iBooks is simple. You just tap on the word, highlight and add a note.  Then, when I come back to my desk, I go to the table of contents in the iBook manuscript and switch over to bookmarks view.  Every change I’ve made is there, so I don’t have to scan through the manuscript.  I still input the changes on the desktop, but it’s easier because I’m just popping through the bookmarks.
Serves a Large Crowd
Fran: What’s the next story we’ll see from you?
Steven: Impulse -the book I just finished.  I just learned it’s going to be coming out in March 2013.
Thanks very much to Steven Gould for taking the time to talk Elephant Stew.   Steven’s website is An Unconvincing Narrative, and if you want to learn more about 7th Sigma, he’s got fantastic interviews up at The Mad Hatter’s, and Clarkesworld.


  1. Coincidentally, I decided to launch my first Google+ post, and it turned into a piece about cookery (ingredients of a writer, not unlike your 10 rules). Went to actually post, and realized that … um … Google+ is not really the place for page long posts. Oops. 🙂

    Thanks for the interview. I’ve enjoyed Gould’s writing since Jumper. I admit that I skipped Griffin’s Story (the movie was so bad!), but everything else has been consistently good.

  2. Thanks EO – 7th Sigma is a great read too, if you haven’t picked that one up yet. Glad you enjoyed the interview. I’ll look forward to seeing your writer-ingredients somewhere else on the interwebs soon, I hope!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s