I think it’s time to repost this blog I wrote for Chistopher Loke, the executive editor of my publishing company, last summer. (He assigned the topic, admittedly, as a bit of a joke, but I didn’t know that at the time.) I can’t stop thinking about Malibu Chicken, and it seems maybe it’s a sign. Enjoy!
First, I have to say that when Chris asked me to blog, he gave me the following topic: “Juxtaposing Dramatic Sequences with Comedic Narrative Appropriately through Effective Pacing and Character Mapping.”
No, really. You’re scared of this, right?
It scared me too, and at first I thought it was a joke, like someone assumed I had somehow morphed into a different person and was being given an assignment in the graduate level courses in the English Department.
But he wasn’t kidding.
BEYOND THE SALAD BAR
So, I’ve been trying to pick away at this for about a month, break it down in my mind.
Unfortunately, my mind keeps wandering to its lowest common denominator, the place it always seems to go when things get too complex: food.
As it floats through my mind, this topic seems to always trigger … The Sizzler. Of all things! You know, that steak restaurant with the salad bar bigger than my living room by a factor of five. And you’d think I might be making some kind of analogy here between making a great plot just like piling on the fixings for a perfect salad. But that would be for someone who eats healthy food.
I’m all about the Malibu Chicken. If you haven’t tried it, turn on your Smartie Phone and locate the Sizzler nearest you and get your hungry gut down there and order it. It’s a breaded chicken patty with a slice of ham and a slice of Swiss cheese melted on top. And as delicious as it is on its own, hot and juicy with the saltiness of the ham and the melting tang of the aged Swiss, the thing that makes it the ultimate delicious treat is the dipping sauce, some kind of mustardy creamy frothy heaven that comes in a 2-Tablespoon cup on the side and makes me wish it came in a one-cup bowl, and keep that cheesy Texas toast coming. (Because it serves as a great dip for the toast too.)
The great thing about this meal is the alternating flavors in the mouth. There’s the crisp chicken, the meat of the meal, with great other meat added atop it.
Ready for the analogy? That’s the PLOT and the strong SUBPLOTS that give the reader the satisfaction only a protein-strong meal can give.
The next flavor is the tangy cheese. That’d be the CONFLICTS. They give depth to the plot, a contrast and bring out the best of the PLOT.
Then there’s that frothy, cool sauce on the side. It’s the joy of the meal. That’d be the humor that keeps the whole thing delightful.
MALIBU CHICKEN IN A BOOK
In my new release, Big in Japan, I tried to make the perfect Malibu Chicken. (Although in Japanese it might be pronounced mah-ree-boo chik-ken.)
THE MEAT OF THE STORY
The big chicken patty is Buck Cooper, a 400+ -pound Texan good-guy with a lame job and a lame life and no girl, who goes to Japan and accidentally falls into a new life in the sumo arena. The changes he undergoes, from the beginning where he’s floundering and totally invisible in his cocoon of fat to the end of the story [this is the character-mapping part, btw], are the crispy, filling chicken in the Malibu Chicken.
THE HAMMY SUBPLOTS
The slice of ham would be the subplot—Buck’s inexorable attraction to a girl who is waaaaaay out of his league. Romance isn’t the main bulk of the menu, but it adds such good flavor. (Ham is a close cousin to bacon, and bacon makes everything better.) I tried to craft the romantic elements so they coincide with Buck’s character growth, and bring the strengths of the heroine out little by little.
Now, for the cheese. That’s the conflict in the story. It goes together with the chicken and forms “dramatic sequences.” For Buck, it’s his size at first. Being the elephant in the room that nobody notices has always been his handicap. But in Japan, everything changes. He’s got conflicts like he never faced before—and they pile up—higher than his 6’6” sumo topknot on the crown of his head. It’s the tanginess and the bite that gives it the flavor of something beyond a Chicken McNugget. Sumo has a darker side (most pro sports do, I’d imagine), and Buck must battle his way through—for his very life depends on it.
Now, for my favorite thing: the frothy sauce of happiness on the side. I have the sauce on every single bite of the Malibu. And on the toast. And sometimes I ask for an extra container because it’s just so fabulous.
The sauce is the funny stuff, the light and cool part of the book, the thing that makes the story joyful, a delight to read. Of course, as an author I plunked in stories I thought were funny for Buck’s experience in Japan—like going up to the vending machines and not finding candy bars, but all manner of other things. Not everyone is going to find the same things super funny, but I figured if I threw them in really often (as though I tried to put them on every bite), eventually it would entertain some reader somewhere.
For me, it was important to liberally lace the story with “funny,” since my own experience in Japan had so many humorous things I wanted to fictionalize and share with readers someday—er, now, I guess, since Big in Japan is now, at LONG LAST!!!, in print, thanks to the incredible support and enthusiasm of the good folks over at Jolly Fish Press (bless their hearts!)
A SATISFYING MEAL THAT’S MORE THAN CHEESY CHICKEN
I have to say, it’s been great getting feedback on the story since it’s been in my head and my computer for so long. Reaction has been so fun to see—some readers saying it’s an action story, others resonating with the romance, others with the characters, others with the culture or the exotic sport, and still others with the humor. Now that I’ve broken down Chris’s assignment SO academically (thanks to those gourmet chefs at the local Sizzler!), I can see he’s right—that there’s got to be a juxtaposition of the dramatic sequences and funny stuff. And don’t forget the romance! Otherwise you’ve just got cheesy chicken.