Writing a Novel in Layers

For me, layer one is dialogue/characters.  My first draft is almost entirely just a series of conversations.  This helps me get to know my characters, what they want, what they believe, how they feel about each other and the world.

After that, I’ll need to go through and make sure that the plot works, that all events naturally flow into one another and are connected the right way.  I’ll have some beta-readers take a look and they’ll point out big plot holes, inconsistencies, gaps in action, times when what my characters do seems highly unlikely.  I’ll re-write again and get the series of events in order.

Next, I need to work on the setting.  I am very negligent in the description department, so I have to take a pass at the novel focusing entirely on this area.  With my last book, I wrote “SEE TASTE HEAR TOUCH SMELL” at the top of a page and went through the story scene by scene, writing down what I would “SEE TASTE HEAR TOUCH SMELL” in each one.  Then I went back through the novel and grafted those descriptions in– seamlessly, I hope!

Finally, language.  I take a fine-tooth comb and crawl through the manuscript looking for opportunities to use better words (note: better— that doesn’t mean longer, stranger, fancier) and images.

layers math

Other writers do it differently– and that’s perfectly fine.  In order to not overwhelm myself, I essentially need to focus on one specific item at each “pass.”  That said, if I do find other things to change, I change them as I go.  So, really, more is happening than just the one concentration, but that one thing is at the forefront of my mind.

I’d love to hear from other writers!  What’s your crafting process look like?  Do you focus on one area at a time or do you revise in another way?  

21 thoughts on “Writing a Novel in Layers

  1. Thank you so much for posting this, Jackie! I just started writing fiction this semester, and it’s been really hard for me to use enough details in my writing. I also revise in “layers,” so this post was really encouraging to me. I especially loved your “see taste hear touch smell” idea.

  2. Jackie! We are on the same wave! I just made a chart today of my different writing steps because I was feeling overwhelmed by all the layers. Here’s my step 1: Get something down–be in the fictional dream and let the words flow. Don’t worry about names or specific details that aren’t coming to you. Don’t worry about voice or POV. Just get down what happened as if you’re watching a movie in your head. I’m still working through the other steps, but when I get my chart finished, I’ll post it on my blog. How do you choose what setting details to write about?

  3. I tend to plot out my chapters first and the first few characters. Then in my first draft I focus on completing it….haha.. Second draft then involves taking a closer look at the plot flow and consistency. Then after giving a few pair of eyes, I embark on the third read aloud draft to work on the dialogue of ny characters, which is the hardest for me cuz I write books set in the US and I’m baaed in UK for now. Well, that’s my process in short….what do u tink?

  4. I think I’d save myself time if I wrote in layers! Instead, I tend to have an idea with a few characters and a voice, and I run with it. I get stuck if I can’t feel the setting right away. Setting is one of my favorite things to write, which is probably why I like fantasy so much.

    Anyway, I usually pants-write the first third of the book, then stop and plot a little and write the rest. I’m unfortunately discovering I’m one of those writers who when they revise, they end up rewriting either the entire thing or huge chunks of it.

  5. This is such a great way to think of novel-writing so you don’t get overwhelmed. I usually revise/edit in layers–focusing on one main topic at a time. But I’ve never thought of writing that way before. I feel like if I were to try this, it would be in a different order since dialogue isn’t my strong suit. I’m bookmarking this for the next time I find characters roaming around my head!

    • I used to feel bad that my first drafts were so sparse on details and just a series of different conversations. But I’ve learned that I have to be REALLY intentional with description, so it’s best for me to just save it for later and throw my whole self into it. No one but my writing group needs to know that those details were ever missing!

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