Writing without madness: how to layer up

Layers & structure

Layered and highly structured. This is a Bridget Riley painting but novels are kind of like this. Massively complex, but requiring a perfect architectural balance. And Riley just works on a canvas you can view at a glance. We’re grappling with 100,000 words that you need a day or more just to read.

One of the challenges in writing a half-decent novel is that the damn thing is so complicated. For most of us, I guess, it’s the plot which produces the most brain-ache. Just think of the number of little parts that need to be machined just right, and sequenced just right so that we can achieve the required series of emotional detonations meshed perfectly with a proper crescendo in terms of pace and action. That’s never easy and I don’t think it gets much easier. (I’m on my 9th novel now and I’m still waiting.)

But it’s not just plot that we writers have to cope with. Depending on the kind of book you’re writing, you may also be worried about:

  • scene setting / building your world / achieving a sense of place
  • looking forward or backward to other novels in the series
  • looking after the emotional development of your protagonist
  • ditto, when it comes to major secondary characters
  • if your novel has a mystery component, then there’s a whole process of burying clues, teasing the reader, and making revelations
  • alluding to your major themes
  • ensuring any technical aspects of the book are right – in a detective novel, for example, making sure that your main points of law/pathology/procedure are OK
  • keeping the emotional balance of the book just right (so, it never gets too dark, or too light – or at any rate that those things are kept under constant review.
  • check that there’s humour present, assuming that there ought to be some

And that’s only the most basic of lists. If you’re a newer novelist, then there’ll be a host of worries that first-timers inevitably have to deal with. (Are my chapters the right length? An I handling points of view OK? How’s my prose style? and so on.)

I’m currently working on a series of detective novels (like this, this and this) and although that simplifies some choices – I know what voice I’m writing in, for example, and my character’s main lines are also very clear now – it creates numerous others: a multi-novel mystery story, a multi-novel romantic story, themes that run from book to book and so on.

Plus, I do also think that mystery crime thrillers are about as hard to plot as anything there is, because there’s a forward-driving thriller element which has to combine with the backward-looking figuring-out-the-mystery element. Not just that, but crime readers are pretty sophisticated at crime scene analysis and all that stuff these days, which means we crime writers have to run to keep up. (Which means I’m unbelievably grateful for sites like this and this, which gives me instant access to real experts in forensics and pathology.)

So: how to control this flood of requirements? It’s like you are trying to build a building brick by brick, but instead of being left alone to build a wall, you are also having to think about the electrics, the plumbing, the roofing, the drainage simultaneously.

The answer I think is that you just accept you will be working in layers. Tell yourself that your first draft of the novel is there to lay the main tracks for the story. That’s all. If you draft a book which has a decent story – a climax that climaxes, a plot that’s logically robust, number of points of real emotional engagement with the reader – then you’ve done well. Actually, you’ve done very well. You’ve over-achieved.

Your next draft can then handle the next layer you want to build in. Perhaps that’s where you build in the feel for place and time. That’s where you make sure your rain is wet, that the reader feels breeze on their face.

Then go to the next layer, whatever that is for you. Perhaps that’s where you work on the protagonist’s relationship with their significant other. That’s where you make sure that their relationship moves through the right dance steps in the right answer.

Then the next layer. Check those annoying little plot points. What, fingerprints can’t be detected in the way that you’ve detected them? OK, so burrow into the research and figure out a way that works.

And so on. A friend of mine likes pointing at his head and saying, ‘This is a processing device, not a storage device. You have to make lists.’ (Indeed, there’s a website more or less devoted to this insight.)

So make lists. When you sense a discomfort with the draft now spilling from your pen, ignore that discomfort. Don’t try to fix it! Just make a note for your to do list for some future draft.

I have to say that I’m not always good at taking my own advice. I do usually try to tinker with different layers at the same time. But at least I know what I’m doing. I don’t make the mistake of confusing the thought that ‘My novel isn’t yet doing X’ with the thought that ‘My novel isn’t doing X, and my head will blow up if I try to deal with that thing now, which means I’m a total failure as a writer, and I’m going to sell all my goods, leave my family and restart my life as a chicken farmer in Patagonia.’

Someone, I can’t remember who, said that a first draft is just your way of telling yourself a story. That’s a good remark to keep in mind. Write that draft, because it makes the rest of it easier. But don’t think you have to write a good book first time out. It won’t happen, and doesn’t need to. We’re novelists: we write in layers.

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