Mmm… I love the smell of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven.
I’m not talking about the store bought kind from a can. I’m talking about the from scratch, ‘takes four hours to make’ variety. Homemade cinnamon rolls are a sweet labor of love.
I feel the same way about the writing process.
When starting a story, all I’ve got is an idea, a premise, or a character sketch. This hook is the leaven of the project. If inspiration strikes, I write the concept down (usually on the back of a receipt or in the notes on my iPhone). I mull over these ideas and let them percolate for a while.
Just as the water temperature and the quality of the yeast has to be just right to leaven my cinnamon rolls, the mood and concept for a story has to be just right before I can move forward. Once I have the leaven of a story, the idea starts to bubble up in my mind.
When a cohesive plot grows from a concept, I’m ready to develop a story skeleton. The most basic ingredients–the plot structure, conflict, character traits, subplots, themes–are combined and sketched out.
Usually, my story skeleton grows a little at a time. Over the course of a few days or weeks, I add elements until I have a rough and rambling word document. The story is just a lump of goo goo ga’ joob gibberish, waiting to be shaped.
After my skeleton is ready, I start writing a first draft. I roll out the plot and type away. The basic structure is layered with a thick smattering of description (classic overwriter, that’s me). At this stage, I don’t worry about editing; I write, write, write, knowing I’ll reshape the text in later drafts.
After plowing through the first effort, I divide the novel into manageable scenes and chapters. Any scenes or dialogue that don’t move the story forward are cut. Then it’s time to step away from the laptop for awhile. I let the manuscript rest in peace for at least two weeks.
In the meantime, I work on other projects. I can always prewrite the next idea while a current manuscript is resting.
This is also a great time to catch up on reading. For me, a steady diet of good fiction is the best fuel for writing. I’m always inspired by the craft of other writers. Good books keep me going.
When it’s finally to revisit my first draft drivel, I roll up my sleeves and turn up the heat. Anything half-baked gets edited out or rewritten. In this revision, I weed superfluous descriptors, unnecessary dialogue, redundant action, bad dialogue tags, inappropriate passive voice, distracting POV shifts and irrelevent plot points. My mantra is “when in doubt, throw it out.”
After this edit, I pass the manuscript along to a critique partner. Some of the very best advice I’ve ever gotten has come from reading at DFW Writers’ Workshop and posting at Agent Query Connect. Other more experienced writers have valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t. These frank (and sometimes brutal) criticisms are essential and appreciated. I incorporate suggestion into revisions wherever appropriate.
After another round of editing for clarity, I let the manuscript cool off again. Another two weeks. Or even six. No rest for the wicked. I work on other projects and soak up good stories from favorite authors. (Thank you, Neil Gaiman. Please keep writing. I can’t get enough.)
After reading and resting, I’m ready to make one (final? who knows?) more revision. By this point I’ve cut thousands of unnecessary words. It’s time to pore over the pages and look for places to polish. I highlight my favorite scenes and markup up my least favorite paragraphs. I look for places to strengthen word choice and voice.
Mm, sweetness! I’m ready to begin the query process. Will I taste success? Let the rejections begin…
Gotta run…time to enjoy the fruit of my labor. While my writing advice is far from foolproof, my recipe for Sinful Cinnamon Rolls will satisfy your sweet tooth. (Hey, it’s not bragging if its true, right?.)
Sinful Cinnamon Rolls
4 packages rapid rise yeast
1 cup hot water (not boiling, not lukewarm, just hot tap water)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks real butter
1 1/2 cups warm (not hot!) milk (heat on stovetop or in microwave)
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
8-9 cups of flour
Dark brown sugar
Good Quality Cinnamon (don’t cheap out on this one, ok?)
Even more butter
Dissolve yeast in a medium bowl with 1 cup of hot water and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. You will not the yeast mixture is active if the yeast bubbles up (mixture should get very foamy, if not, you goofed with bad yeast or too hot or too cold water).
Melt one cup butter and combine with 1 1/2 cups of milk. Mix the milk/butter mixture with the yeast mixture. Add 1 cup sugar and then the eggs. Mix in salt and four cups of the flour. Mix until smooth. Add in the remaining cups of flour, a little at a time, just until the mixture is cohesive enough to handle. Save some of the flour to knead with. I usually save the last cup or so for this purpose.
Slap dough onto the counter and knead it a bit. Knead it just enough so it no longer so gooey and sticky in your hands.
Spray a large bowl with cooking spray. Put the dough into the bowl. Cover the dough with a thin cloth and let it sit. Let dough rise for an hour to an hour and a half. Dough should double in size.
Spray a counter top surface with cooking spray. Spray your rolling pin, too. Divide the dough into two lumps. Roll one out one lump into a large rectangle (see picture). Soften a stick and a half of butter and smear on the dough. Sprinkle a lot of cinnamon (to taste, I like a LOT) over the dough. Smear a bunch (a heaping cup) of dark brown sugar. Roll up the dough from the widest side to make a log. Use a length of dental floss (unused, please!) to cut and section individual cinnamon rolls (1 1/2 inch width sections).
After placing the rolls in a greased 9 by 13 pan (you should have approximately a dozen), roll out the second lump and do the same. You’ll end up with two pans of cinnamon rolls. Cover pans with a thin cloth and let rise for another hour to an hour and a half. I put my rolls on my stove top and turn on the oven to preheat. The warm airflow near the oven helps the rolls rise.
When the rolls are nice and puffy (see picture), bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. I have a large oven, so I can bake both pans at the same time on the same rack. If your oven is not big enough, bake one pan at a time. Don’t use different racks.
After rolls have cooled a bit, ice with homemade frosting. For frosting, I use one stick of melted butter, one tablespoon of vanilla, some powdered sugar (just add until the mixture is the right thickness), and a tiny bit of milk. Add powdered sugar and whisk until icing is the right consistency.