Saturday, September 29, 2012

let it ferment

It came to me as I was making bread the other day that the beginning stages of writing a novel is a lot like the beginning stages of making a sourdough.

I know, I know. You're thinking that's the strangest thing you've ever heard. But this is what I mean:
Sourdough Beginnings

I start by measuring out my flour and my water, mix it all together in a jar, then set it aside and wait.* During the waiting period (days and days) I feed it roughly every twelve hours. (See how committed I am?) Mostly, though, there’s a lot of waiting.

I check on it multiple times a day, but not much happens. And then I... WAIT! Are those bubbles??!! They are bubbles! The starter is alive - only it’s not strong enough to actually make bread with yet. So I keep feeding it. Then I wait some more. Feed it some more. Wait, feed, wait, feed, wait...

This is what I’m waiting for: My starter needs to smell and taste right. It needs to be hearty, and have tang, and the yeast also needs to be strong enough so that the bread won’t collapse when it’s baked (that's what the bubbles are for).

Novel Beginnings

In the beginning, I sit at the computer with a blank word document open. Sometimes it has a title. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I start writing various ideas down: character names, scenes that I think might be in the story, the cool thing that made me want to write the story to begin with. Sometimes I delete all these things and start over. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and I open a new document and start writing things there. And then I open another and another, and soon all of my novel planning spans five or seven documents.

And none of it is cohesive at all.

I do this for weeks. Months, even. Sometimes I open all the documents and just stare at their contents, overwhelmed, until I close them all again and walk away shaking my head. Needless to say, for the first stretch of my novel planning, a whole lot of nothing happens.

The important thing is that I keep bringing myself to it. If I keep feeding the story with ideas, if I stir things up, then - even if nothing happens for a while - inevitably a day will come when…


In bread terms, this means:

The starter is ready. It’s bubbly and strong and tastes just the right amount of sour. When I make bread with it, the bread comes out flavourful, and a bit chewy, and the colour is beautiful.

In novel terms, this means:

A major idea has hit, usually out of nowhere, and as soon as that happens, others follow. Because I’ve laid a foundation of ideas (strung across half a dozen word documents), things begin to fall into place. They aren’t just stand-alone ideas anymore, but ideas that connect, that hold the big parts of the story together. Once I have a more cohesive sense of things - of the characters and conflicts, of how the novel will end and start - then the novel really begins to take shape.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, for me, ideas need to ferment before they’re strong enough and tasty enough to make a whole novel. Just like a starter needs to ferment before it’s strong and tasty enough to make a good sourdough bread.

*I wrote about this process in more detail here.

No comments:

Post a Comment