Friday, June 5, 2009

Making Bread

Sara Rosett, author of four mysteries featuring a military spouse, recently likened her synopsis to bread dough, saying that it needed to rest before getting one last read. I’ve been thinking about the similarities between bread making and writing ever since.

I’ve just finished a manuscript and am setting it aside for a month. Back in the day, before artisan breads were available at every grocery store, I made a lot of bread. Rye, whole wheat, raisin, cinnamon, challah. I never got bored making bread. Because it’s all about what you add to it.

The thing about bread is that it only has four or five major ingredients. You need flour, you need yeast. The yeast needs sugar to help it along. Oil is added. A pinch of salt. Whether or not you add caraway seeds, or walnuts or swirl in chocolate, it’s up to you.

All books are made up of the same ingredients. Characters. Plot. The leavening agent is the author’s voice. That’s the thing that can make a book rise above the rest. Raisins added might be in the form of crazy subplots, or a flight into another era. Seeds of quirky characters and fun facts pique our interest.

It’s all about what you add to it.

Bread dough is tough. The more you pull it and push it and knead it with your knuckles, the better. Up to a point. If you stop too early, you risk having dough that is not light and chewy. Too late and you’ve got a hard rock on your hands. You learn from experience what that point is. You’ve ground it under the palm of your hand just enough. The bread feels pliable, compliant, elastic. The only way to know is to make lots of bread.

A manuscript is like that too. There are a lot of holes in my manuscript right now. It’s unreadable in fact. But this is my sixth book. I know when to stop pushing and to just let things rest.

Bread needs to rest. It helps if it has an oiled top, is covered with a cotton dish towel and put in a warm place to rise. I’ve done that to my latest manuscript.

Before too long, I’ll pull it out, slap it on the floured board and give it another round of kneading. It’ll be ready to shape into its final form at that point.


Sheila Connolly said...

Great analogy! Which reminds me of my first effort to make bread: it was a brick. It never rose. And it was entirely inedible.

In the years since I've learned to make bread, and come to understand the "feel" of it--that wonderful moment when it all comes together and becomes elastic and springy and you know it's working. Just like a book, right?

Now I'm hungry.

Camille Minichino said...

Yes, great analogy, Terri.

The same goes for any creative endeavor -- quilting, making minis, knitting ... The project benefits from sitting a while. I leave my minis out and "live with them" for a while before deciding on the final arrangement, colors, and so on.

I still don't think I'm going to tackle bread, though!

Linda O. Johnston said...

I like the analogy too, Terri, although I've never attempted to make bread. But I certainly identify with the concept of letting a manuscript sit for a while before finalizing it.

Julie said...

That's really interesting, because I'm in the middle of letting a trilogy of outlines sit and percolate in my head. I have a rough idea of how each book will go, but they need to age a bit while new ideas occur to me. Then I'll tie them all together, bat out the synopses, and shoot them off.
And I, too, have made bad bread. A whole-wheat doorstop, to be precise. I'm a lot better at it now, but it definitely took practice.

Betty Hechtman said...

I do understand about letting things sit. I had a huge pile of notes for a synopsis that have been sitting around for weeks. I just couldn't quite get it together. Last night I finally did.

I used to make bread all the time. Once I came up with a trick for making sure the yeast worked, I loved making it. Years later when bread machines first came out, I got one and made bread everyday. Hmm msounds like a good idea. I'll have to see if it still works.

Terri Thayer said...

It's true. All projects seem to need a resting period.And getting good at anything takes practice. I often forget that.

I also like the physicality of kneading bread. I sometimes feel I have to pound my manuscript into shape.

Have some bread, Sheila!