Writing Your Novel Like Sampling Wine

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Brick red wine, on the maturing side. If my novel could last in the top 10 as long as this wine did in the bottle, I’d be a happy man. Or, it may be oxidized, which means “ruined” in somme-talk.

This might be a short post.

I like wine. I’m terrible at finding the expensive or the cheap, but I’ve practiced enough that I can figure out what I like, what I don’t, and why. I had a rudimentary lesson in wine tasting a while back, and I found some parallels to writing a book.

Average Joe wine drinker takes a sip of something and says he either likes it or doesn’t, with an emphasis on perhaps drinkability or smoothness. Developed Joe wine drinker takes his time when selecting a wine, first by observing, smelling, then drinking, collecting data as he goes. Any number of things go into this process, depending on your interest or focus.

The Ideal Book Selector does the same.

This is the same for reading a novel. As a writer, I must decide whether I want to focus on a smooth, drinkable book or a many-faceted, developed book. I can have both. There are many ways for me to do this, but, I prefer to write like I’m making wine (kind of). Come join me in the discussion!So. Wine.

I’ll parallel wine tasting while I discuss a book’s construction. While it’s a delicate balance to get all the right attributes in a wine, writing (and marketing) a book is much easier to see clearly. Hence, the example.

So the first thing you look at in a wine, before you ever taste it, is its appearance. When making a wine selection, you sample to look for cloudiness in the wine, coloration, oxidation, sugar content. You drink with your eyes before you drink with your lips. You appraise the quality before anything else. Sediment isn’t necessarily bad, especially the older the wine gets, although decanting is usually the preferred way to remove the particulate.

Book-selection is no different. Unless the artist is well established and you’re in love with her work (and probably even then), your appraisal of the book’s cover will have a strong impact on whether you’ll read it, whether you’ll drink it. Much like wine, the Ideal Book Selector looks for aspects of the book that brings harmony: font size, title, picture coherence, back cover blurb/praise, and the balance of word-to-white-space. Among other things, of course.

This is the visual layer of your work, and often the last thing you focus on after the text is finished, and the first thing your reader will see. The advent of digital titles has marginalized this layer somewhat, and diluted the overall experience of the book reading process (my opinion).

The second thing you look at in a wine is its aroma. You take a quick sniff to collect information on its cleanliness, whether it’s been poorly preserved by storage, whether it’s fresh or vinegary and unpalatable. If it is of a clean quality, you breathe in deeper to ascertain the character of the wine. This part of the process can be highly developed: you can smell a wide range of scents, depending on location, soil composition, seasonal intensity, storage, additives, etc. It creates a bouquet. Like many flowers in one bunch, this bouquet can have many influences, or few predominant ones.

While at the bookstore, after the Ideal Book Selector has decided the cover is of interest, he might open to the first page to see how the writer’s voice sounds. He could glance at any number of things, including content, dialogue, word choice and use of chapter headings. His focus is to see whether the book, while in his preferred genre, is of the character type he wants: Fantasy, for example, could be High Fantasy and Tolkien-esque, or Modern Fantasy and Magicians-esque, or Urban Fantasy and Dresden-esque. With the abundance of people publishing, this can be extremely important for the reader. He doesn’t want to read a back cover about a war against the Spriggan Elves in a fey kingdom, and then spend most of his reading experience on some family-thwarted relationship between two high school humans in Prague.

He seeks quality, whether the words are stored properly, whether they hold true to their promise, whether they absorb him as much as the cover did. Publishers do similar: they look for a synopsis, the first 20 pages or first chapter, to get a sense of the style. A sampling of what is to come. This can be as far-ranging as anything else, and most often allows the reader to get the best idea of the book before diving in.

The third and final thing you look at in wine is the palate. The weight of the wine, the dryness vs sweetness, the alcohol content, tart tannins, acidity, flavor, and finish. You weigh the levels of wine to figure their overall taste, overall strength in your mouth. Once more, your personal preference goes a long way in this area: some people like dry or semi-dry, full-bodied or medium-bodied, a high tannin content could mean local midwest grapes were used properly (or not), and don’t get me started on the flavors. Don’t get me started on wine pairing, either.

This is where your Ideal Book Selector sits down and reads the thing, following character development, plot, environment, chapter structure, tension, focus, individual arcs, pace. Where you get the most enjoyment or ultimately realize it’s not a good purchase. This is the area where you get repeat customers, good word-of-mouth advertisement, and start creating a strong fan/customer base.

This is where I lose a lot of friends (or at least where I realize I can’t talk about books with them), because most people read books for a singular purpose. There’s nothing wrong with the Barefoot Bubbly and Kendall Jackson of books. There’s a reason they appeal to the masses. I have made my reading, and my writing, into a study. I believe the best writers don’t just write for others to “drink,” but also for others to develop and have an experience. The greats, who stand the test of time, wrote depth, developed the appearance, aroma, palate to what they wanted.

While I have very little education in the wine-tasting and -making departments, I find a common thread between the two. I’m sure you can apply similar ideas with a whole slew of  purchasing processes: beer, whiskey, a new car, house, cookie batter, or Netflix documentary.

This focus also benefits a writer when it comes to getting a novel published: publishers look at all of these details (although cover art and the visual nature of the novel usually comes from the publishing company), in minutiae, so why aren’t we?

So when you’re wondering if your book can be improved, changed, updated, manipulated, perhaps you should open a bottle of your favorite wine, absorb it in a slow and appraising way, and perhaps apply that appraisal to your book.

Or, maybe I like wine too much.

(Wine examples taken from Taste Wine like a Pro)

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