The Layered Writing Method

I recently shared the “It’s harder than it looks” post where I tactfully informed emerging authors that there is more to writing than slapping ink on paper, having Uncle Harry draw a picture for the cover, and attaching a price tag. Badabing! You’ve got yourself a book.

Computers are the major culprit behind the badabing syndrome. If everyone had to write their novels out longhand, there would be hundreds of thousands fewer authors among us. But, as it is, one can go from an idea to finished book/ebook without ever leaving their desk or changing out of their pajamas.

So, on one had, writing/creating is harder than it looks.

But…

It doesn’t have to be as hard as some people make it out to be. I believe it was Jodi Picoult who said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” That quote is simply put and one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been happy to pass along.

Once a proponent for pantsing, I now admit, I have come around to the idea of outlining. I find it keeps me grounded to the story I want to tell. That doesn’t mean I don’t make changes as I go, but I find that there are fewer “where was I going with this” moments since converting.

Outline aside, once you actually sit down and begin the process of putting your idea onto paper by whatever method you use, it doesn’t have to be equivalent to pulling teeth or pushing boulders uphill. You don’t have to have all the answers before you’re able to sit and write. You can always make changes. Do you really believe that da Vinci created the Mona Lisa without ever having to retouch a previously painted section? I didn’t have to be there to know he revised AFTER he had the basic image down.

But so many writers struggle with the original layout. They think they have to have it all perfect BEFORE they can write. If it were perfect before revisions, there would be no need for them, right? Simple and logical, but so many don’t get it. Instead, they are (still) working on books they started in 1993.

The hardest part for me is getting the original idea from head to paper. I have the entire story worked out in my head, minus the finer details. But when I sit to write it down, what goes onto the paper is not what came out of my head. It’s almost like that childhood game where person one whispers a sentence into person two’s ear and person two whispers it into person three’s ear and so on. By the time it gets to person 10, the sentence doesn’t remotely resemble the original. I suppose that means there is the equivalent of ten people between my head and the tips of my fingers. Hmmm.

There are more “methods” and “approaches” to writing than there are best-selling authors. We have the 7-Point Story Structure, the Snowflake Method, the Index Card Method, the Headlight Method, just to name a few. My advice to any new writer feeling the burn of blockage is to check out some of the many methods available and choose just one to learn inside out.

I am going to talk a bit about the method I have recently begun using with success. Again, this might not work for everyone as we all think, process, create differently, and I am by no means insinuating this method, or any method, reigns supreme. It’s all about finding that perfect fit. What I call “Layered Writing” is probably in use by others, possibly under a different name, although if so I haven’t seen it. So, for the purpose of this post, I will refer to it as “my” method, but am not intentionally taking credit from someone who may have used it first. 🙂

For this exercise, I’ve chosen to use a short excerpt from Jonathan Odell’s wonderful novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League.

Single Layer Cake
Single Layer Cake

Step 1 – Write your bare bones story. One layer. Don’t worry that it’s boring or that it doesn’t read well. At this point, it’s not supposed to.

*Like any Saturday, the downtown was full of people talking with one another. When the car passed through, everyone watched. Hazel ignored the townspeople so she didn’t have to see them shaking their heads at her.*

Boring. Doesn’t read well. Has no flow. Very little description. All of the above. But, it does give us bare bones information, which is all we need for our first layer. Once this is written, you continue to move forward. The main object here is to write just enough that when you go back to add layers, the passage contains enough information and will remind you of what you were trying to say, where you were going with your idea.

Step 2 – Break each paragraph down into individual sentences. When you think of how many sentences are in a novel, this task might seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that it is easier to walk from one end of the block to the other end in individual steps rather than one, giant hop. Same principle applies. So let’s break down the paragraph.

First sentence – Like any Saturday, the downtown was full of people talking with one another.

Although that sentence tells the reader what is going on, it’s blah, right? Now we’re going to breathe life into it. As Jonathan wrote it:

“Like any Saturday in Delphi, the downtown was awash with people. They were talking in friendly huddles on the sidewalks and calling to each other from across the street.”

Jonathan’s version draws the reader in, he creates action and interaction – life.

Second sentence – When the car passed through, everyone watched.

Okay, we know the car drew attention, but why? Written this way, it reminds me of the old Dick and Jane books we read in grade school. Simplistic. Those books weren’t designed to tell a vivid story, they were designed to teach first and second graders how to read using characters whose “story” didn’t distract from the lesson at hand. As Jonathan wrote it:

“People stopped what they were doing to watch the Lincoln make its way through town. White and colored, everybody waved and nodded as Floyd drove past.”

Now we’re getting a clearer image of the town, its people, and what is happening. That sentence tells us so much. First, it dates the work. Although the period of the work is made known long before this excerpt, everything in the book should correlate with that period. You can’t begin your book talking about poodle skirts and The Shirelles on the radio at the beginning of a scene and then have Betty pull a cell phone from her purse at the end of it. In this sentence, Jonathan remains consistent in his time period with “White and colored, everybody waved and nodded as Floyd drove past.” Back then, white and colored were referred to as two separate entities in just about everything from bathroom use, to housing, to standing in society. Non-ignorant society has grown and moved past such beliefs and sees no need to distinguish between races when speaking of a common action everyone takes part in. In modern fiction one wouldn’t write, “White and colored, everybody watched the Superbowl.” Second, he creates imagery by adding the word “Lincoln”. Although the reason why everyone is excited to see the Lincoln isn’t made known in this excerpt, we do know that people are excited to see Floyd drive through. They could have been shooting at him, or throwing stones.

Third sentence – Hazel ignored the townspeople so she didn’t have to see them shaking their heads at her.

As is, it could be that she didn’t want to see their disapproval of the car, or possibly their disapproval of her. As Jonathan wrote it:

“Hazel ignored them, staring straight ahead through her butterfly sunglasses, holding her chin up high as if she had a big insect balanced on her nose and was disinclined to disturb it. That way she didn’t have to see people shaking their heads and blessing her heart as she passed.”

I love that sentence! It pulls the whole scene together and gives us insight into Hazel. Granted, it isn’t until the following paragraph that the reader learns why she is disgusted with her situation, but can’t you just picture her and her butterfly sunglasses attempting to remove herself from her surroundings? Also, some might not catch this, but having lived both in the north and in the south, I recognize the reference to the south sprinkled into the passage. “Shaking their heads and blessing her heart…” The expression “Bless your heart” is as southern as sweet tea and grits. Again, he stays true to the story he’s telling with subliminal layering.

If he were to write the same story, but remove her butterfly glasses, no one would miss them and it certainly wouldn’t take anything away from the overall book. But do that too often, take too much away and you’re down to a glorified Dick and Jane book.

*The excerpt in its entirety, as Jonathan wrote it:

Like any Saturday in Delphi, the downtown was awash with people. They were talking in friendly huddles on the sidewalks and calling to each other from across the street. People stopped what they were doing to watch the Lincoln make its way through town. White and colored, everybody waved and nodded as Floyd drove past. Hazel ignored them, staring straight ahead through her butterfly sunglasses, holding her chin up high as if she had a big insect balanced on her nose and was disinclined to disturb it. That way she didn’t have to see people shaking their heads and blessing her heart as she passed.

Step three – Now that you’ve broken your original version into individual sentences, start applying your layers. For the sake of clarity, I am going to use a very basic example.

Your first (bare bones) layer – A brick house with green shutters.

Add a layer – A brick house with drab, green shutters.

Add a layer – A brick house with drab, olive-green shutters.

Add a layer – A brick house with drab, olive-green, hurricane shutters.

Add a layer – A brick house in desperate need of re-pointing with drab, olive-green, hurricane shutters.

You’ll notice that at first, layered writing might seem like a fancy term for adding adjectives. But by the end, (in desperate need of re-pointing) you’ll see that adjectives are only a small part of it. You can add as many or as few layers as needed to create the exact visual you are trying to project. And my example doesn’t have to be done in that many steps. I’m sure most of you can easily jump from layer one to layer three or four, but the idea is adding to the base you put down in step one. In Jonathan’s example above, rather than to have Hazel simple sit in the car and ignore the people who are waving, he adds a layer consisting of balancing an insect on her nose and being disinclined to disturb it. He didn’t simply plop a couple of adjectives in where he thought they’d fit.

B and W Layer 2
B&W Multi-Layer Cake

Layered Writing is a second cousin to revision. Revision is all encompassing, often times to include eliminating blocks of text, rearranging scenes, and such. Layered Writing comes once you are happy with your bare bones story from character arcs, to plot points, to flow and pacing, but does not address grammar and punctuation. The Layered Writing Method is not a substitute for an editor. It’s basically adding the “color” to your black & white story. The description, imagery, and senses.

Edited Layer 2
Same Multi-Layer Cake w/ Color

I would also recommend not spending excessive time on the snags all writers inevitably run across. You know the type: don’t know the name of a restaurant in that town, what do they call those silly little hats some men wear, what is she doing with her hands while she waits for him to tell her his news. Rather than to stare at your computer screen as if the answer will  magically appear as a hologram, use the asterisk method and move on. “Stewart shifted his ** hat slightly, and turned his back to her.” This works well because once you’ve completed your bare bones story and the grunt work of creating it is behind you, go back and type ** into the search/find box and it will highlight every single ** you inserted. And now that the story is down, you can give deeper thought to and/or research “what type of hat” he was wearing without taking yourself out of the act of creating. And let’s face it, for many of us, when we’re in the zone it’s spot on. Take us out of the zone for even a couple of minutes and it’s game over.

I never, ever, never, ever, claim to be an expert, but I have learned a thing or two along the way. We are all at different places in our writing craft and I feel there is always room to grow. I have a folder on my bookmarks bar called “Blogs” that is a country mile long and filled with advice from other writers, some more accomplished than I am, and others who aren’t- and I refer to them periodically. Although my methods aren’t intended to replace whatever method you are using now, I offer it as an alternative for those of you who aren’t having much luck with your current method. Try it. If it doesn’t work or you don’t like the feel of it, what have you lost?

If you haven’t read Jonathan’s novel, I highly recommend it. You can check out my review HERE. If you’ve read it and loved it, as I believe most would, also check out The Healing, another wonderful read by Jonathan Odell.

Now, I’m going to end this as I’m suddenly jonesing cake?!?

Write to the ends of your imagination  ~k.e. garvey
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12 thoughts on “The Layered Writing Method

  1. Thank-you, K.E. What great advice! And I’m flattered you chose Miss Hazel to demonstrate. Mainly, because I needed reminding of this myself. I look at what I wrote and often forget that it took dozens and dozens of rewrites to get a piece that “sings.” I call it combing, continually returning to a passage and pulling the comb thru one more time, to bring out the luster. I have to keep reminding myself, that I may not be a great writer, but I am a pretty good rewriter. That’s what counts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome. Miss Hazel and The Healing have given me a number of hours of enjoyment and the anticipation of your next book….

      I like the term ‘combing’ – sometimes that’s all it takes is simply a new way of looking at something. Thanks for sharing with us….

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  2. ”Layered Writing is a second cousin to revision.”
    I love how you phrased it. I do it, I just never thought of wording the process this way. I pictured layered writing as adding meat to bones. And what a difference it makes, from blend to vibrant…just like that.

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  3. Since my first book, I’ve shifted from pantster to a version of your layered method. One thing of yours that I will definitely do is breaking down the paragraph to each sentence and then layer. I will also adopt your ** method. Thank you for these ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was helpful for me. I like your ** method to allow the flow of writing to continue. I also use ++++ at points in my story where I need to pick up and continue writing. Little tricks like these can be very useful.

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    1. The little tricks really can make the difference between closing in on the end and being stuck mid-point. I’m glad you found the post useful. You’ll have to let me know how Layered Writing works for you if you try it.

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      1. I already have 80% of my second novel written in about 30K words. This will be expanded to about 40K and then doubled with the final layer. I started with an outline of all three novels in the trilogy. When writing the first, I just kept writing not knowing I had passed the break point between novels, so I got a great head start on the second. I never thought of what I did as layering, but the concept agrees with me.

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        1. It’s always nice when you realize you’re further along than you first thought! Good luck with the trilogy…. and it agrees with me, too. Many say they don’t like the revision/layering part and for me, that’s the best part.

          Liked by 1 person

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