Why writing novels is like baking sourdough

I spent a significant part of 2020 learning to bake sourdough. Like most people in the UK, when lockdown was first announced once way to relive stress was baking. Now, I normally bake cakes weekly, but bread? That was something new.

I’ve written far longer than I’ve baked bread, but in doing something new, I’ve learnt a number of valuable lessons. And this is why, in my opinion, writing a novel is like baking sourdough:

1)      Treat your starter kindly, or your loaf will not rise.

Your initial plot idea? Has to be solid.  A clear plot idea allows you to build the rest of the story outwards, filling in gaps and making lots of juicy sub-plots for your readers to enjoy.

Like a sourdough starter, you have to tend to your ideas carefully. Let them grow in the right environment, feed them on occasion, and after a while, you start nailing each idea for each project you want to do.

(You can name your sourdough starter. Mine is called Joseph, thanks to the tea-cloth cover that looks like a five year old’s hat in a nativity play).

2)      Follow the Recipe, but then don’t

Anyone who bakes anything will tell you that you have to take some liberties with your recipe. How long you bake, your room environment, the type of ingredients you have to hand all can impact your final outcome.

Like baking, a novel needs a coherent structure. You can follow writing advice, try out new formulas or ideas, but at the end of the day only you know the true environment of your story. Only you can say what your writing should or should not sound like.

3)      You will likely fail the first time, maybe the second time, perhaps even a third time.

One thing I’ve learnt baking sourdough is that no matter what you do, there will be failures. There will be times the bread gets stuck in the pan and has to be hacked up to remove it, other times when it’s overproved and could be used as an alternative building material. Even more times than I care to count involving failed slashes on the top to let the steam out.

However, each attempt, each try, I get closer to the goal of a sourdough loaf that looks like the one in the book. Each attempt teaches me something about the process that means I can correct and adjust on the next go.

Novel writing is the same. Each time you try a chapter, a sequence, a plot-point, you’re learning something about your story and the process of creating a long-form novel. Even if it takes longer to finish, to perfect, you’re still growing as a writer.

Analogy stretching? Probably.

I do like a good analogy, and the more ridiculous the better. Of course, creating a novel is also very different to trying to prove yet another batch of sourdough, but I like the idea of drawing comparisons. A new perspective on the creative process can be nothing but helpful.


Alex.J.Cobalt is a fantasy writer from the UK. When she’s not working away at her fantasy novel series, she posts free flash fictions on her website, along with regular blogs about writing.


Photo Credit: Photo by Debbie Widjaja on Unsplash


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