Tuesday, September 20, 2016

4 Layering Your Way Through Your Book: The Secret to Making Writing a Novel Less Daunting to Write

A book is like baking a cake. It doesn't
come out frosted straight out of the oven.

Most aspiring writers will never start writing the book they've been dreaming of writing. Even fewer will finish writing the book they begin to write. Fewer still will do the hard work of thinking about the book they've finished in the sort of analytical way that will allow them to make the work publishable.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I suspect that most of us get trapped in our own heads and let doubts, impatience, and expectation get in the way of doing the work. What do I mean by that? There is so much to writing a book that the process gets overwhelming. Speaking for myself, I tend to believe that the story on the page will never be as good as the story in my head, so if I'm not satisfied, I'm not surprised. I have a really hard time reading my own writing, so I plow ahead feeling discouraged, and I fight the urge to give-up.

Here's the secret though. Writing a book is like baking a cake. You build it in layers, not all at once. That's the beauty of it. Every time I do a revision, I find connections between different subplots, between different plot points, themes, character motivations, backstories, aspects of world building, etc. With every revision, I layer in something new and interesting. The book keeps getting better. The cake goes from plain, dull vanilla to something that only I could put together.

I think I've said before that every book is a new lesson in how to write, but I think that I'm finally getting a handle on a process that works for me. And basically, this is how it goes. Hopefully, it may help you, too.

In some order vaguely resembling the following, I need to:
  • Have an idea.
  • Consider the idea from multiple sides: viability, saleability, breadth of audience appeal, etc.
  • See how I can make the 
  • Write a few chapters to explore it. Don't worry about them too much--they're 99% guaranteed to get thrown away.
  • Decide what I think I want the book to say. This is what the book's about, not what happens in the book.
  • Develop a short pitch and a two-page synopsis to see if I have a concept. 
  • Maybe do a plot outline. Maybe. Depends on whether I plan to do a proposal or write the book, but honestly, I need to be really careful (as I've recently affirmed) not to make the mistake of thinking that writing the outline means I'm ready to write the book.
  • Do some preliminary character work, either via worksheets or just free writing key scenes in my character's background.
  • Write the first draft. It will suck. JSS--just survive somehow, as they say in The Walking Dead, which incidentally is what I pretty much become during this phase of writing.
  • Check the plot and make sure it holds together.
  • Think about my themes. Is what I thought I wanted to say what I actually said? How do the themes come together? Can I tighten the connection between meaning and plot? Meaning and character?
  • Do a series of revisions concentrating on each of the following, primarily one at a time. For me, this is the key step. If I concentrate on too many layers at once, I lose track and let myself get overwhelmed. And each book tends to vary in terms of the order in which I approach these revisions. Sometimes plot comes first, sometimes character, sometimes world building, etc. Also, often, I don't have to go all the way through the book working on just one pass. The first act seems to be my own personal cut off. Beyond that, I seem to be able to interconnect everything more easily, but that could just be me.
    • Make the plot bigger and more tense and integrate it with all subplots.
    • Get deeper into the characters, making them more unique, more real, making sure each one is living their own life and their own purpose on the pages.
    • Check for consistency of character voice.
    • Make sure every aspect of the world and setting is covered, all the questions are answered. Make every scene vivid and 3 dimensional according to the rules, sights, smells, sensory information of the world.
    • Check pacing and tension.
    • Check themes.
    • Check words.
    Again, each of these layers will impact the other layers, so it's important to consider the best order for the story according to the type of story you're trying to tell.
As with everything in writing, there's no right or wrong to the process. Really, the bottom line that I want to communicate today is that a book doesn't get done in one draft or even two or three. Not for most of us. It takes time to develop and grow and strengthen. To integrate. To connect.

A book is like needlepoint. The plain cloth is woven, then the outlines are laid down, and then the thread goes on in intricate, small, and painstaking stitches, one color, one aspect at a time.

If you're struggling, know that you aren't alone. We all struggle. We all need encouragement and patience and constant reminders that we love the process. Focus on small victories en route and keep going. Eventually, you will reach the end.

I believe this. I have it pinned to my laptop.

What About You?

Are you struggling to write? Don't worry. Be systematic. Be patient. Be kind to yourself.

Eventually, you will reach the end.

About the Author

Martina Boone is the acclaimed author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016.

She was born in Prague in the shadow of a magical castle and grew up hearing stories about alchemists and hopeless dreamers, which may be  loves to write about romantic, magical worlds the lost characters who live in them.

She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. Thank you, Martina, great post! I always think of writing as sculpting where little by little the story takes shape. But I love your layered cake analogy. It's true that there are so many layers to a writing a novel. So rich and delicious, but overwhelming at times!

    1. Thanks, Nancy! I use the sculpting analogy, too. There are posts here somewhere where I break down the writing and revision process that way, but too often even though I know there are a lot of different passes through the novel and the tools get finer and finer as I work, I forget that all the different aspects of the characters, plot, themes, and story elements don't all have (or will) come to me at once. I need to give myself time and permission to write a partial story each time until the whole cake is baked and frosted and balanced. : )

  2. Love this post, Martina. So true.

  3. This is great! I guess that's the main thing to remember really — that like a cake a book comes out of the oven only ready for three next stage she of revision/icing and prettifying :)


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