I had breakfast at my local cafe this morning. It’s a habit I’m cultivating this year, on Write Club days, after realising that breakfast at my local cafe makes me extraordinarily happy and it becomes affordable within my budget if I stop buying Coke Zero.
Giving up Coke Zero for something that makes me extraordinary happy is an easy trade, and so, twice a week, I trot down to the Low Road Cafe and order their avocado on toast for breakfast.
There are two things I love about the Low Road’s avocado breakfast.
The first is that it’s a production. It’s thick slices of doorstop toast, avocado, three different types of nuts, little slices of radish and radish flowers. Lemon juice. Freshly chopped herbs laid over the whole thing like a winter blanket. The kind of food put together by a chef who isn’t regarding their vegetarian menu as an afterthought, and enjoys the process of making tasty things.
Avocado on toast is usually one of those meals that cafes do well, ’cause it’s easy, but Low Road elevates it to the point of elegance. They catch you by surprise by defying your expectations.
The second thing that I love: it’s always different and it’s always delicious. The 20th century worked towards a theory of homogeneity, in some respects. Fast-food chains proliferated by offering the same experience, wherever you were, and the same expectation. The food may not be good, but it offered the comfort of the familiar and that eliminated the risk of trying something new.
If you were travelling and didn’t know there area – where to get a good meal or cup of coffee – you could head into your local McDonalds and get something you knew.
At Low Road, the avocado on toast is always subtly different. There’s nothing uniform about the toast that they’re using – it’s always different bread, different flavours. The same goes for the nuts, and the herbs scattered over the top. Today’s breakfast leant into the flavours of the lemon juice and the the peppery taste of the radish slices, whereas my last breakfast there was nuttier and had a slightly stronger avocado presence.
They’re not afraid of sending out something that looks different to the last time you ordered it. It’s always familiar enough for you to recognise it and tastes phenomenal, but they’re certainly not afraid to give you something that tastes different, either.
Those slight differences – that expectation of quality with a consistent expectation about flavour – is what keeps me ordering this breakfast again and again when I head to the cafe. It’s the perfect blend of the familiar and the unexpected.
Naturally, all this makes me think of writing. Because everything makes me think of writing.
Often, when I’m talking to new writers who want to get their first book published, I will ask a simple question: what’s your genre? The answer will generally offer a good indication of how much help people will need.
Folks who have thought about their genre will have a good answer. Fantasy. Crime. General Fiction. Romance. Those who have put a lot of thought in their genre will go for specific – Steampunk! Hardboiled! Regency! – or will at least be able to offer touchstones in the form of similar authors.
The folks who stumble over that question – or worse, break out I don’t know; I don’t think there’s anything else out there like this – are frequently much, much harder to help out. Often their expectations are much higher, and their work needs more development, because they’ve bought into a whole bunch of rhetoric about muses and creative inspiration.
They believe that their idea, rather than the execution of it, is what will get them published.
But the number of people who pick up a book thinking I seriously hope this is like nothing I’ve ever read before is extraordinarily small. Most of us enjoy stories that are linked by a number of traits, whether it’s a particular voice, or set of genre tropes, or familiar character archetypes.
And within that familiarity you have to do two things.
First, make the familiar great and surprise your new reader. Taking something familiar and breathing new life into it by adding unexpected elements, or turning it into something new, is a tried-and-true way of engaging readers.
Second, keep delivering something that’s familiar, but subtly different and always bloody tasty. The familiar and the unexpected coming together, to create surprise and delight.