Layers–they’re not just for bean dip.

Posted by

[Have you seen the Hungarian cover for My Soul To Take? It has nothing to do with this post, but it’s pretty, so I’ve posted it above.]

I’ve talked about layering on my blog before, but it’s been a while, because this is the first time in a couple of years that I’ve written the first book in a new series, and those are the books that—for me, anyway—require the most layering.

First, an explanation. In this sense, when I talk about layering, I’m talking about the process of writing a book/scene/character in several successive layers, or passes through the manuscript. When I write sequels, I rarely need much layering, because I already know the world and the characters when I get started. But with a new world or characters (or both, in this case) there’s a lot still to figure out, even quite a way into the first draft.

For a frame of reference, in the Soul Screamers books, I mostly layered dialogue and scene-setting details. For instance, in the rough draft, most of Tod’s funny lines were missing. I had to layer them in during subsequent drafts, after everything else was already in place and I could concentrate on the finer details.

Likewise, in the first drafts of the Soul Screamers books (and just about every other book I’ve written) there were entire scenes that contained nothing but dialogue and dialogue tags (“he said,” “she said,” etc…). This is because often, especially during arguments, the dialogue flows so fast that I need to get it all down on the screen before it disappears, which leaves time for nothing else. Then, in the second draft, I go back and re-envision the scene* so that I know what the characters are doing while they’re talking, which lets me exchange the dialogue tags with descriptions of actions, movements, and expressions.

All of that is routine for me, after having written nineteen novels. But even now, writing the first book in a new series/world is…well, that’s a horse of another color. (Or so they say in Oz.)

Normally when I write a new book, my CP, Rinda Elliott, sees the second or third draft, then my editor sees the third or fourth draft, then you, dear readers, see the fifth or sixth. (For comparison, Stray, my first novel, required six full rewrites before it ever went out on submission, and it’s still far from perfect.) With this new book, I’m breaking my own rule (Never send a rough draft out for critique!) because, frankly, I’m afraid I’ll never finish this book if I don’t send some of it out for feedback before finishing the rest.

I’ve been working on this new YA for more than two years now, between my other deadlines. It’s in its fourth completely re-imagined incarnation. In fact, not one single element from the first imagining of this book has remained, except for the teen ensemble cast. And of that cast, not one character has made it through all four incarnations. The setting has changed. The names have changed. The relationships have changed. The paranormal elements have changed. The themes have definitely changed. And the title’s changed about six times.

Now that I’ve hit the right concept and the right tone, I am desperate to finish this book and send it to my agent. And I don’t have much time left in which to do that—I’m expecting revisions for both With All My Soul and Oath Bound any day now, and after that, I have to write my new, already-contracted adult book.

But back to my point. Part of the reason this one is taking so long is the layering. As I write this book, I am constantly tweaking the concepts, characters, and relationships. And each tweak means I have to go back over what’s already written and…well, tweak. I adjust dialogue to reflect a re-imagined personality strength or weakness. I tweak world-building to reflect a refined concept. I tweak inner monologue, and motivation, and speech patterns, all of which combine to establish a complete character. And all of which must be different, to reflect the individualities of each character.

What this means is that though I’m only two-thirds of the way through the official first draft, the first few chapters have already seen nearly a dozen revisions. The middle section has received about half that. And even the chapter I wrote yesterday has been read and revised three times, as of right now. Each time I read through it, I added details to the setting, not just as background, but to establish the world these characters live in. I made changes to emphasize emotions, building them to a mini-climax. I built pathos, depending not just on the horror the characters are witnessing, but on their personal connection to that horror.

The characters gain a little more depth every time I go over this manuscript. The language gains more precision. The world comes more clearly into focus.

This is not my fastest work. But when I’m finished, I hope it will be among my best.

I’ve often heard that a good sculptor simply carves away the bits of stone that don’t belong, revealing the figure trapped within. I think a writer’s job is a little more complicated than that.** A writer must first create that block of stone (the manuscript), then carve away what doesn’t need to be there, revealing the story inside (a tight, and hopefully cohesive and engaging final product).

And let me tell you, today my chiseling hand is sore.


* In a scene where the action is pivotal and plot-dependent, this kind of layering is not possible.

**Not to short-change sculptors. I could never do what they do.


  1. Lady Jaye

    August 9, 2012

    What I love most about your books are the worlds you create. No matter how I feel about characters, I am always left breathless by just how beautiful, unique and breathtaking your worlds are. The amount of work that goes into them and their awesomess is always evident. So i am excited. I can’t wait to see the settings you’ve come up with.

  2. Taylor

    August 9, 2012

    I just want you to know that all of the hard work you put in is deeply appreciated. I absolutely love your books because all of the characters, setting, and little plot nuances are so complex. It makes things seem so much more interesting and definitely more believable.

    Thank you for everything!

  3. Jess

    August 9, 2012

    I agree with Jaye and Tayor. Your writing has developed so much over the years and all the hard work you have put in has shown through in the worlds you create that take you away and make you feel a part of them rather than someone on the outside. I know all of us who love your books appreciate all the effort you have gone to create your masterpieces!

  4. Jo

    August 9, 2012

    Wow. So much work. But you are an awesome author and a super speedy writer. I’m sure you’ll get there in time! I look forward to hearing more about it! :)

  5. Stella (Ex Libris)

    August 9, 2012

    Just in case you’d like to know the Hungarian title is Soul Stealers (and I guess the series is called Screamers), and it is indeed lovely :-D

  6. Amy @ Book Loving Mom

    August 9, 2012

    What a gorgeous cover!!!! I have loved all of your books and I think that you do fantastic with making each one grow. It’s rare that in a series I like each book more and more, but with yours I do.

  7. Anonymous Reader

    August 18, 2012

    Thank you for sharing another one of your writing techniques!! I can’t wait to try out layering soon. I have a rough draft that defiantly needs some layering!

Add a comment

Rachel Vincent
I am a writer and a fantasy/ horror fan. I am married to my No 1. fan, mother to two brilliant teens/tweens (code names: Melody & Maestro), and slave to two spoiled cats (Nyx & Cleo). Welcome to my blog!Rachel Vincent



Subscription Options:

Subscribe via RSS

Follow Rachel

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on Twitter

Have a question?