Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Books are Like Ogres: Using Layers to Write Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm a sparse first drafter. I like to bang out a rough chapter and get the basic events down first so I know how the scene plays out. Then, I go back and layer in the other components to flesh out the chapter and bring it to life. This works for me because once I know what happens, it's that much easy to know how to tweak everything to get the most out of my scene.

I do this by using layers.

Layer One: Plot elements and first thoughts 

It's rough, and usually ugly, but I follow my outline from start to finish and get a general idea of the chapter. Most of the time this is just dramatizing the plot points, and if it happens to veer off from my outline, I let it wander. I don't worry about much at this stage but seeing how the scene unfolds.

Layer Two: Goals and motivation 

Since layer one deals with plot elements, my second pass makes sure the character goals and motivations are true (this is especially important if I've gone off outline). Plot may say Bob needs to break into the science lab, but I need to make sure Bob is doing that for solid reasons of his own that are clear in the story. I also make sure my other characters are acting true. A lot of internalization gets added here, since the point is to get inside the POV's head so we know what they're doing and why.

Layer Three: Stage direction 

This pass is all about clarity. I'll fix anything that reads as told, not shown, or ambiguous pronouns, or things that see murky. Often this will involve tweaking the internalization, because sometimes we can show the why in how a character acts out the what. If I can get the motivation clear through the action, I get a tighter scene.

Layer Four: Description 

I'm not fond of a lot of description, so my early drafts have very little in them. But it's easier to add after the basics are on paper, because I know exactly what's in my scene and why. I also know the emotional state of my characters, so I know what they'd notice. I can describe things that help advance the scene and increase tension so readers get a sense of setting without it bogging down the story

Layer Five: Dialog and tags

I make sure that everyone sounds like themselves, and that it's clear who is speaking. It's also a good time to mix tags and stage direction, so I get to clean up some lines and make the text read more smoothly.

Layer Six: A quick polish

I read through it once more and just tweak the stuff that jumps out at me. Sometimes this is editing awkward sentences, other times it's trimming words that feels boggy, or adding some description to something that isn't quite clear yet. It's not the heavy polish I'll do at later drafts, but it's enough that I feel the chapter is solid before moving on.

All chapters get the first three passes, but sometimes I'll save the more detailed layers for later when I have a bigger chunk of the book to work with. I typically work with three chapter chunks at a time, so once I'm done with a set, I'll go back and flesh out that set of chapters. Three chapters is enough for many arcs to play out, and often that covers a plot point from beginning to end.

I've found this is not only an effective writing technique, but a good way to handle revisions as well. It's hard to keep everything a story needs in mind at the same time, and breaking it down into pieces makes it a lot easier to handle.

How do you write a first draft? Do you break it down or do you work on everything at once? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I like your idea of using layers. This makes total sense to me and I think I'm going to start doing this myself.

    You've just opened up a new way to write for me - without trying to jam everything in on the first pass. Thanks!

  2. Or like parfaits. Everybody loves parfaits.

    Getting ready to jump into my own revisions, the idea of breaking into chunks is very welcome! Thanks :)

  3. I like the breakdown. I use a lot of the same techniques, but my ordering is different. I struggle with description, and tend to leave it until the last possible moment. I love dialogue, so I do that early on. It makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere.

  4. Great idea to use layers. It's like a checklist. I'm not the best with description either. Guess I should have listened to my English teacher more.

  5. I love Shrek and his onion! LOL

  6. Loved learning about your process!

  7. Great post. This can definitely be a very effective way for some people to write. I wish I could do it like that. I'm pretty sparse on the first drafts as well.

    But I can't stay in one mode like, I jump all around. It's actually kind of annoying.

  8. I have problems when it comes to layer 3. Half the time I don't recognize the telling. The rest of the time, I stare at a sentence that tells and have no idea how to fix it.

  9. I love your layering technique! It makes so much sense.

  10. I think I do this but with slightly less layers. But I like how you show each step. Great post, thank you!

  11. This is how I operate, too, but it's nice to see it written out.

    Thanks for writing such an informative blog. I've learned a lot about craft by reading it.

  12. Thank you! I am struggling with writing my first draft and my head is spinning (and my fingers are frozen) with everything I want to accomplish. I will definitely try this approach.

  13. Glad it helped! Best of luck on the draft :)

  14. I've tried something very much like this for scenes with a log of dialog. I start with that, just writing the dialog for the whole scene, then adding the rest layer by layer. I haven't applied the technique to other types of scenes though but I think I'll give it a go.

  15. I've found it really helps me focus on one thing and I don't get caught up in trying to do too much. And then miss stuff.

  16. I've had to do it because details are so difficult for me. I write out the story, then I go revisit it at least three times to get details in the story. The techniques are all new to me, so I suspect I will do a more broad details pass on the first draft and note things that need to be researched, then work on them more during the revision.

  17. Linda, sounds like a good plan. Hopefully it'll get easier as you become more familiar with the techniques, and have to do fewer passes each time. But if it turns out that's your natural process, go with what works for you :)

  18. Or cake! Everybody loves cake...

    Brilliant post. I'm on Layer one at the moment, and I can't wait to move on to layers 2+. This is a great, manageable approach to that beast they call a rewrite. :)

  19. Lemedlock, or parfait! You'll get there :) Revisions can be such a pain, so "the one step at a time" approach helps a lot.

  20. I like this method. Makes things easier rather than having no focus at all
    Do you do this while you are writing your first draft or do you finish your first draft before you use this technique?