What Writers Can Learn From Soaping

This article is by A.L.S. Vossler.

dreamstime_xs_40257559Recently, I took up the hobby of soaping, which, as you might guess, is making soap. There are three ways of making soap: hand-milled, cold process, and hot process.

Hand-milled, which is also known as melt-and-pour, basically involves taking a soap base which someone else has already prepared, and modifying it by melting it, putting in your own additives such as colors and fragrances, and molding it. This process does not require working with lye. I’ve never actually tried this, because I prefer the idea of building my soap from the ground up, so to speak. If soaping were writing, melt-and-pour soap would be fan fiction.

Cold process and hot process soaping are where you will find the real action—with these methods, you control every aspect of the soap-making process. Thus far, I have only tried my hand at cold process soaping, since working with lye is already terrifying enough without heating the stuff. By and large, however, the two processes are rather similar. Cold process means that you mix the ingredients at room temperature, whereas hot process involves cooking the mixture. If soaping were writing, cold and hot process soaping would be original or ‘real’ writing. In fact, some people in the soaping community refer to cold and hot process as ‘real’ soaping. You can imagine how much the melt-and-pour enthusiasts enjoy hearing that.

At first blush, soaping and writing have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There is little to no risk of being exposed to extremely caustic chemicals while writing—if there is, you are probably doing something drastically wrong. Soaping has many rigid rules, whereas writing has very few by comparison. With writing, you can bend the rules and wind up with something awesome; bend the rules in soaping, and the best-case scenario is disappointment. Worst case is severe lye burns. As often is the case, however, one discipline can lend insight to another, and it is no different with soaping and writing. To be a successful soaper, you must choose your ingredients carefully, be attentive to ratios, use a recipe, be patient, and most importantly, have fun. All of these things have far more to do with writing than one might realize.

Ingredient choices matter

The first thing successful soapers must do is choose their ingredients carefully. While all one really needs to make soap is fat and lye, there are still hundreds of ingredients to choose from. The type of fat you use matters. Tallow and palm oil both result in a very hard bar; castor oil results in high lather. Coconut oil is the only soap which will lather in salt water. Cocoa butter and olive oil have a moisturizing effect, whereas palm kernel oil and coconut oil have a far more cleansing quality. Every kind of oil creates a slightly different color in the finished product. The type of lye you use matters. If you want bar soap, you need to use sodium hydroxide, but if you want liquid soap, you will need to use potassium hydroxide. The additives you include matter. Adding milk to soap makes it moisturizing, but it makes the soap batter become very hot, thus changing the way you store it during the curing process. Adding salt to potassium hydroxide soap will make hard soap instead of liquid soap. Adding titanium dioxide makes the soap bright white. With so many ingredients to choose from, it is easy to see how even the smallest decision can change your finished product—sometimes, quite drastically.

Ingredients & Equipment

Successful writers must also choose their ingredients carefully. Every word the writer includes is one more ingredient in a massive recipe. More important than the individual words themselves, however, are the major components—plot, theme, characterization, point of view, tone and mood, conflict—all those things we learned in high school as the elements of literature. Without a strong inciting incident, a story falls flat. A weak conflict makes for a weak story. For fantasy writers, the ingredients are even more varied. Magic systems, cultures, and mythical races are all available. ‘Hard’ magic systems give your story an edge of calculated reality, while ‘soft’ magic systems impart a sense of childlike wonder. Familiar cultures and mythical races are instantly relatable, but foreign ones open readers’ eyes to new horizons. Many times, the fantasy writer has to invent some or all of these from scratch. At least soapers do not have to invent their own oils!

The importance of ratios

The second thing a successful soaper must do is be attentive to ratios. Soaping is all about ratios. The fat to lye ratio is one of the most important; too much lye will make the soap caustic, whereas too little lye will allow the excess fats to go rancid during the curing process. The water to lye ratio and overall water to soap ratio are two of the other really important ones, but when you start mixing types of oils, the ratio of one type of oil to another is just as significant. Soap with too much castor oil will be sticky. Some oils result in extremely soft soap, so if you have too much of them compared to say, tallow or palm oil, your soap won’t be hard enough. Too high a percentage of fragrance or essential oil additives will result in an irritating soap which might cause a rash or hives. Ratios are so important to soaping that you can find charts and calculators all over the internet, or you can purchase books full of them. Only one thing needs to be out of balance for your soap to become a disappointment.

Successful writing also has its necessary ratios. We tend not to think about them, but they are there. One of the most obvious examples is what Orson Scott Card calls the ‘MICE’ quotient. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he states that there are “four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis […] milieu, idea, character, and event” (emphasis original). In fantasy writing, this ratio is especially important to take into consideration. Too much emphasis on the milieu leaves the reader feeling less like they have read a story and more like they have listened to someone build a world for Dungeons and Dragons.

On that note, another ratio that is essential for fantasy writer to consider is the exposition to action ratio. Too much action without sufficient exposition leaves the reader confused; too much exposition and too little action leaves the reader bored. Then there is the amount of adjectives or adverbs in your work. In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin says, “Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening”. It’s an interesting concept to think of modifiers as ‘fat.’ With writing, as in cooking, too little fat results in a dry or bland product. At the same time, Le Guin points out that “the main thing is not to overindulge”. She advocates what she calls ‘chastity’ in the use of adjective and adverbs:

I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

If too much fat can make soap go rancid, think of what it can do to writing.

Follow a recipe

The third and perhaps most crucial thing a successful soaper must do is use a recipe. There is no way around this. This is not like cooking, where one can get away with total improvisation. Certainly, it may be a recipe which you yourself have prepared, but you need to have all of the quantities figured out in advance, as well as the order in which you combine your ingredients. You must always add lye to water; if you pour the water on the lye, you get an explosion of lye-water rocketing up from the container. Certain things such as colorants, milks, nut butters, and the like must be added after “trace,” which is when the oil and lye finally start producing soap. Fragrance or essential oils in particular must be added after trace, or the fragrance will be lost in the saponification process. Since ratios and ingredients are so important, without a recipe, your soap will most likely end up in the trash can when all is said and done. There are times when you can re-melt the soap and incorporate it into another recipe, but sometimes there is no salvaging it. This is especially tragic when your destroyed batch has fifteen dollars worth of essential oils in it. Yes, I speak from experience on this.

Successful writers also need a recipe, though this is not as crucial for the writer as it is for the soaper. The writer’s recipe is far more subject to change than the soaper’s recipe, but without a plan, stories wander. The quality suffers. I am not necessarily talking about an outline here, and I am certainly not condemning the practice of ‘pansting’ in creative writing, but novels and stories must be written with a clear goal in mind. When a person participates in NaNoWriMo, they likely have drawn up an outline, or at the very least, have a clear idea in their head of how the novel is going to be written. No one that I know of, except for perhaps, Jack Kerouac, can simply sit down and write a novel with little or no preparation—and even he made for the provision of having enough amphetamines and paper to get through his manuscript in a two-week writing fit. (Note: I am not recommending that amphetamines be a part of your writing recipe.) Doubtless, there is much disagreement on this issue, since writing is so fluid, but in my experience, every story I ever started writing without some kind of clear plan fizzled out and failed. They are in my writer’s trash can—basically, a folder on my computer titled “abandoned stories.” Like badly failed soap, there is not much you can do with them except cannibalize anything useful, if you are lucky.

Patience is a virtue

The fourth thing a soaper must do is perhaps the most annoying; a soaper must be patient. Calculating a recipe with lye ratios takes time—a lot of it when you are new to the process. Depending on the type of soap one is making—such as an elaborate color striped soap, the preparation alone can take hours. Once the process begins, things start to move very quickly, but you must be patient and deliberate in your movements, lest you make a mistake. Even so, a complicated soap will probably not take up more than a full afternoon, though I might be ignorant on this point. While the initial process of soaping takes little more than a few hours, however, you must wait 24 hours before you can unmold the soap. Then, the soap must cure for at least four weeks prior to use. From start to finish, it takes about a month to make soap. Castile soaps, which are made from pure olive oil, require six months of curing before they will lather properly. That requires patience when you know it takes fifteen minutes to run to the drugstore and buy a bar of your favorite brand.

Soap Curing

If there is anything a successful writer needs, it is patience. Some people spend weeks on preparation and write very slowly. Anytime real life interferes, stories can go untouched for months. Even writers who write quickly need a healthy dose of patience when they go back for editing and rewriting. Just as soap needs 24 hours before it can be unmolded, it is always best to let a story ‘rest’ before going back to edit it. I have seen some people recommend waiting a full week or more before starting the editing process. Then there is the submission and—if you make it that far—publication process. I have heard that books can take up to two years to get from manuscript to print once they are accepted.

Patience with writing is one of those things that is very personal for me. I started writing years ago and still haven’t truly completed a novel—I do not count a half-edited first draft as completed. I submitted the first few chapters which I had edited to a publisher, figuring that I could edit the rest of it while I waited for the standard publisher response time of 6 months. Seven months later, the novel was rejected. I wasn’t honestly expecting anything different, but after looking over what I sent them, I realized that I hadn’t given it time to properly ‘cure.’ An improperly cured soap bar will not lather, and it is the same for writing—stretching ‘lather’ into a metaphor for a successful writing, if you will. Even more importantly than all of that, however, is what I have learned about being patient with myself. It is so easy to berate myself for the fact that I do not have anything ‘officially’ done. Yelling at soap while it is curing does not make the soap cure any faster, and neither does upbraiding oneself over the writing process cause the story to be completed any faster.

It’s all about having fun

Finally, a soaper must have fun. It seems a little silly to make ‘fun’ something mandatory, especially when certain parts of soaping are not even remotely fun. Initial calculations, such as figuring out the amount of oils you need based on the size of your mold, might be a blast for some soapers, but not for me. As a rookie, I still do not have total faith in these formulas, so I am always nervous about the numbers my calculations produce. Plus, there can be any number of unpleasant surprises; certain oils can accelerate trace, which can make it difficult to do elaborate color swirl soaps. You might splatter raw soap batter on yourself, and if you are not wearing proper protection, the free lye in the batter will burn you. (Always keep white vinegar on hand while soaping in case this happens; washing the affected skin with it will neutralize the lye.)

In the end, though, soaping is lots of fun. I felt a bit like a mad scientist when I prepared my first lye solution—adding lye to water makes it extremely hot, so you get to use fancy words like ‘exothermic’ to describe the process. Watching the oils turn into soap seems like magic the first time you do it. Using that first bar after the soap is finally cured is way more exciting that using soap should ever be. Even after the first go-round, there is a sense of pride in seeing that large pile of beautiful bars that you yourself made.   If it was not fun, why would you even bother doing it when soap is available at any store? If you are not having fun, it simply is not worth it.

Finished Product
Finished Product

Likewise, writers need to have fun. There are parts of writing which can be incredibly frustrating. I find outlining to be incredibly frustrating. I also find it incredibly frustrating when I realize that halfway through my story I need to change something altogether, and 200 pages need to be reworked because of it. Without the fun, there is not any reason to keep going. Maybe ‘fun’ is not even the right word; writers write because they love to, whether it is fun or not. Writing is an obsession, a compulsion, a passion which simply cannot be ignored. Why else would we write? That is where writing and soaping are different. Soaping is fun and rewarding, but writing goes well beyond fun and rewarding. At the risk of sounding like I am channeling Samuel Taylor Coleridge, there is something about writing which is almost spiritual. Whether fun motivates the writing spirit or something deeper compels it, a writer needs that driving factor. Otherwise, it simply is not worth it.

Soaping has become a terrifically fun hobby for me, but writing will always be my first love. I suppose you can categorize writing as a hobby, though I have found the word ‘compulsion’ to be more accurate. Thoughts of writing tend to permeate everything I do, which is how I came to the realization that my two hobbies have a lot in common. While soaping and writing are not even close to being the same thing, careful choices, well-balanced ratios, planning, patience, and drive are required for either one to be a success. It is also a reminder of how creating something original is far more rewarding than using a base that someone else created—and that’s no lye.

For Further Thought

Do you find that any of these proposed similarities ring true in your writing experience?

Most particularly, do you find that planning ahead is a crucial step for writing a story, or can you produce something easily without preparation or clear goals in mind?

About the Author:

A.L.S. Vossler is a writer, homemaker, and volunteer worker. Her new blog, The Lonely Young Writer, offers moral support and writing advice to young writers or anyone who needs a little support in their writing life. Her published works include poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction, and newspaper articles.

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Donna Day
5 years ago

Love your article. I act as well as write and think there are similarities there as well, building up a story (granted someone else’s) through showing your audience rather than telling them. When writing I tend to outline my basic plot, but if something changes during the writing process, which it does more often than not, I do just flow with it and make changes where they need to be made.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
7 years ago

Loved your article! I agree that writing is something we just must do. I have so many books inside me. I am definitely a ‘pantsing’ type – more fun that way to find out along the way what is going to happen. As far as discovering something about the plot that changes everything, being there, doing that, with the fantasy I am writing but fortunately way before 200 pages. Now I think the way I had it originally is going to work after all. Lucky to keep all the different versions as separate files, so I can just copy and paste and go on my merry way! Yes, patience is definitely a virtue with writing. I have to remember that.

God bless, Your fellow scribe, Anne Marie 🙂

Ryan Crown
7 years ago

Great article. And I have to agree with all your points. I think planning, patience, and passion are all necessary, especially when writing a novel — I’ve never really had any success with the whole ‘pantsing’ style of writing (but that’s just me). I’ve had it work well for short stories, but of course they don’t have nearly the complex structure of a full novel.

Soaping makes me think a lot of baking (one of my hobbies); except baking seems like a much safer hobby (since all of your ingredients are edible!). And both I think do compare well to writing — especially, like you said, how rewarding it is when you’re done to have something unique and original that you created.

A.L.S. Vossler
Reply to  Ryan Crown
7 years ago

Yes, it’s certainly true that the novel and the short story are different beasts altogether. I find that ‘pantsing’ with absolutely no preparation or even a single idea in mind lends itself well to flash fiction. I have heard the argument that short stories require more planning because you have to communicate so much in such a small space. I’m drawing a blank as to who it was that said that. Maybe Hemingway?

Baking does compare well to writing too. You wouldn’t want to have a half-baked loaf of bread or a half-baked novel!

All right, that was a very cheap pun.

And fun trivia fact – lye is actually used in the preparation of two common baked goods: bagels and soft pretzels. I have had success making bagels without it, but most commercially prepared bagels are dipped in a boiling, very diluted lye-water bath prior to being baked. This is what gives the bagel its signature chewy coating.

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