Give Yourself and Your Story Time to Rise

Photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

On Monday it was about 90 degrees here in California. Today, Saturday, it was in the 50s and it hailed! I let my chihuahuas out and all of a sudden, pellets of hail began to plummet out of the sky. The dogs came running inside with their tails between their legs, their ears back, flat against their skull, shivering and looking at me like I’d just tried to kill them. Crazy weather to go along with every other crazy thing that has happened this year.

But we took advantage of the cold weather to cook warm and healthy food. I spent the afternoon in the kitchen where I made a beef barley and vegetable stew and my husband baked homemade bread.

The stew didn’t take very long to make, but the bread took hours. If you’ve ever made homemade bread, you know that you add all the ingredients, the flour and salt and water and yeast, and you use either a bread machine or you do it manually, but you mix everything together in the right order. You knead the dough, you let it sit and rise, then you knead it some more, and it sits again. Finally, after about three or four hours, depending on the type of bread you’re making, it’s ready to bake.

When everything works perfectly, you get delicious bread to eat.

The odd thing to me, is that everything does have to go perfectly and so many things can go wrong. Depending on the temperature or the humidity of the room, or the age of the yeast, or a bunch of other things, you could end up with bread that isn’t as perfect as it could be. The bread may not even rise, and you end up with a brick. But why does that happen? One day you make the bread, seemingly the same way you always have, and find that it didn’t rise correctly.

When that has happened to me in the past, I check the instruction book to see what might have caused the problem. Here is what it says: maybe the water was too cold or too hot, maybe you added too much sugar or too much salt, maybe you added too much flour, maybe the yeast is old. Seriously? So, ANYTHING can affect the quality of the dough and change the result — perfect bread. It’s crazy.

Well, the process of making bread made me think of us as writers and our products. Writing a book is also a process that takes a long time to complete. And like making bread, there are many ingredients that affect the quality of the product. There are countless opportunities to do something “wrong” and create a mess. We might have too much description or not enough. We might have a plot that doesn’t develop as it should, and we have to figure out why. Is it the pacing? Is it a turning point that we didn’t add, or do we have too many twists and turns that confuse the reader?

Like with the bread, it can be disheartening to know that perhaps something minor could throw off an otherwise brilliant book. But unlike the bread, we don’t have to throw out our story and start over. And that’s encouraging!

The way to fix our story is to go back and figure out which of the ingredients are off. Just like with the bread, we start with one thing at a time. With the bread, I might check the yeast to make sure it’s not too old. Then, if that’s good, I would do the same with the other ingredients, and so on, so that when I make the next loaf, it will be better. With our stories, we don’t have to toss out the whole story and start a new one. We can see where the problem is and fix it if we are patient and thorough at looking at each step and each ingredient. I might begin with looking at the plot as a whole and the pacing to see where it slows or where it rushes through important scenes. Then I might narrow that down to specific scenes and see if they are needed and if they move the plot forward. I might look at my characters and see if they are behaving consistently, if they are likable, if they are needed or can I combine a couple of them (does the character really need two best friends?). Step by step, I would go through each element to attempt to find the problem.

Sometimes, our story isn’t rising at all, it’s just not coming together. We have to give our stories time to develop. It could be that a story is not rising because it hasn’t fully formed in our mind. We have an idea and a character in mind. We know what we need to write, but the story as a whole is still being formed. This has happened to me a few times, it feels like the story is shrouded by fog. I can feel it; I can almost see it, but it’s not ready to be created yet. The story has all the right ingredients, but it’s still rising.

This goes for us as writers also. Not only does our product need time to develop, but we do too. Writers will season over time and grow and rise to become stronger and more skilled. We shouldn’t expect to be overnight successes. Over time, we will learn new skills, change and adapt our style, become more confident, and this will lead to us being stronger writers.

Today, I wanted to share this corny analogy to encourage you to be patient with yourself and your story. Don’t expect perfection immediately. It takes time to consistently produce a quality product, whether it’s bread or a book. But also, don’t sit back and do nothing to improve. Look at those key parts of your story — look at the story structure, look at development of your characters, look at the theme of your story, look at your pacing and descriptions. Look at all the ingredients and try to figure out which one needs your attention. Then work to improve that element.

By the way, this time around, my husband’s loaf of bread had all the right ingredients, in the right amounts, and he was rewarded with a perfect loaf of bread.



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Julia Amante

Women’s Fiction author of That Was Then, Say You’ll Be Mine, and Evenings at the Argentine Club. Speaker and and teacher.