Layers–they’re not just for bean dip
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.