Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Books are Like Ogres: Using Layers to Write Your Novel
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?