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The Art of Story Fermentation

December 21, 2012 by Kiersi

The moldiest thing I've ever eaten by Jer Thorp

"The moldiest thing I've ever eaten" by Jer Thorp - flickr

The Art of Story Fermentation,
or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Set an Idea Aside

I’m back from my quest and coming to terms with an uncomfortable realization: the manuscript I had intended to query agents with is just not the one. Now I am slowly accepting the fact that the first manuscript isn’t ready yet. And that’s OK.

So. Story fermentation. What the heck does that mean, and why am I writing a whole blog post about it?

I use story fermentation to refer to the process of letting a concept, plot, idea or story just… sit. When you push it to the back of your mind, let it gather some mold and dust, let it age and change and grow as you work on other, more prescient things.

Another term I’ve come to use a lot lately is the idea pipeline. Let’s say you have a great idea. You wake up, having just had the most incredible dream, and you know it has to become a story. A short story, a manuscript, whatever. You start to work out the characters, the premise, the point A and point B (A referring to where a story begins, and B referring to where you want it to end). Once the idea has fully formed, like some kind of chicken fetus, it breaks from the shell and you give it life on the keyboard.

Now, there are often many ideas in the pipeline at a time, each at different stages of development. I don’t know a writer who has one and only one idea; if you are one of those writers, I would love to hear your story, and how you do it, because a day doesn’t go by for me that I’m not mulling over two, three, four or five possible concepts at a time.

A Public Domain Photo

At one end of the pipeline are new concepts, new ideas, that are still malleable and unformed. Unfermented. At the other end are more fully-grown ideas, ideas that have become stories, stories that are ready to be written.

Of course, not every idea moves in the same linear fashion. That’s okay. Some ideas rubberband, reaching a point of near-completion and then slingshotting back to an earlier stage because all or part of the idea was flawed.

Letting a story ferment

Sometimes one idea needs to sit and age and mold longer than another. Some gain speed and momentum so quickly they propel themselves from one end of the pipeline to another, right past others that have been changing and growing for years. Some ideas need to be, quite literally, set aside and simply forgotten about for a while.

I think this is usually referred to as “putting it on the back burner,” but I don’t think that really captures it for me. We’re not just cooking the idea longer, letting it burn to the bottom of the pan.

Some ideas do not follow a straight-forward trajectory. Anyone who has significantly revised a novel knows this; the story you set out to tell sometimes isn’t coherent or cohesive enough, and has to be brought back to the drawing board. Sometimes, even after starting (or finishing) a novel, you sit back and realize you still aren’t sure what story you’re trying to tell.

"Airlock Fermentation" by Jennifer Morrow - flickr

There is always a lot of discussion in writer circles of “writer’s block,” and ways to deal with it. I think writer’s block is simply a form of unreadiness. Whatever idea or story you’re trying to tell is not fully formed, has not yet spent its required incarceration in the idea pipeline yet. And, like in the fermentation process, sometimes the best way to develop an idea is to ignore it. To turn your attention to another project, or to other pursuits in life. For me, the best way to manage “writer’s block” is to realize that the concept or idea I’m pushing doesn’t need to be pushed. It needs to be ignored, and the lives and stories that unfold around me will worm their way deep, down into the idea, and turn that piece of salty curd into a delicious Roquefort.

For a long time, I thought my flagship manuscript after my Fire & Brimstone series would be The Aeronauts. But, sometimes, pushing our desires, pushing what we think is the right story isn’t right. Forcing an idea rarely helps. It was hard to realize that, in fact, the manuscript I should be using to court agents is not The Aeronauts (a portal fantasy, a mixed bag as far as likelihood to sell to an editor is concerned), but my middle-grade book.

Why?

Because it was born. Because it raced through the pipeline to the end, it burst forward, it was so fully-formed in my mind that it quickly and easily became a finished manuscript. And trying to force another manuscript and another story that was not yet ready, not yet fermented to tasty ripeness, was not the way to make my dreams come true.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten in writing is: write what you love. And if the writing comes slow, if you’re “blocked,” maybe that story just isn’t ready yet.

And that’s okay.

Oh, and happy holidays!


10 Comments »

  1. kellyhashway says:

    I hear you! I was working on one story and struggling. I realized I needed to let it sit and work on something else. I know I’ll go back to it with clear head later and be able to tackle it.

    Happy holidays!

  2. Ruth says:

    Kiersi,

    Have you read _The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself_ by Susan Bell? Interspersed with thoughts on critiquing one’s writing (or others’) is a narrative of F.S. Fitzgerald’s process of revising _The Great Gatsby_. I don’t know that you would learn a lot from it, but I think you would enjoy it. (The book also has mini-essays by other authors.)

    Ruth

  3. Jim Snell says:

    Maybe the best, and smartest, take I’ve heard on “writer’s block.”

  4. Great insight and I love the phrase “story fermentation”. Stepping away from a project allows you to come back to it with a fresh perspective to figure out what’s wrong with it.

    • Kiersi says:

      So true! For me–usually much-needed perspective. We writers get a little attached to our baby manuscripts, don’t we?

  5. […] “I use story fermentation to refer to the process of letting a concept, plot, idea or story just… sit… And, like in the fermentation process, sometimes the best way to develop an idea is to ignore it. To turn your attention to another project, or to other pursuits in life. For me, the best way to manage “writer’s block” is to realize that the concept or idea I’m pushing doesn’t need to be pushed. It needs to be ignored, and the lives and stories that unfold around me will worm their way deep, down into the idea, and turn that piece of salty curd into a delicious Roquefort” ― Kiersi Burkhart […]

  6. TuiSnider says:

    I liked this post so much that I quoted you at length over on the StoryDam dot com blog! (I’d include the link, but don’t want to end up in your spam folder.) Anyway, love the whole writing as fermentation thing. Glad I’m not the only one who likes to let their words steep a while! 😀

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