Monday, April 9, 2012

Lists and Layers

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

file3731303823442Recently I was at an event where I spoke with aspiring authors after my talk.

They asked about the number of books I’d written, then they looked both amazed and discouraged at the same time. “How do you get through a book? There’s just so much to think about when you’re writing.”

I told them that I try not to think about the big picture (plowing through 275 pages, editing it, submitting it to my editor, and worried waiting for reviews) as much as possible. It just makes me feel overwhelmed. If I approach the book as simply advancing the story a day at a time (with an idea of where I’m heading and keeping in mind what readers might enjoy most), then it seems like a much smaller project.

Another trick is that I’m not trying to keep everything in mind as I’m writing a book (except reader enjoyment.) I love reading books about writing, magazine articles on writing, and blog posts on writing, but I can’t focus on character arc, story structure, engaging descriptions, and all the other elements that these resources recommend for a good story.

I use layering and lists as tools to make sure I round out my story later. I write my books straight through (without pausing for chapter breaks) and end up with about 55,000 words. This is the bare-bones story. Then I start layering in other elements. This is what I'm doing right now to put the finishing touches on a book I'm turning in at the end of this month.


Parts of the book that I add in layers for 2nd and 3rd drafts:

  • Setting descriptions
  • Character descriptions
  • Character last names and place names (I’ll mark as *** on the draft so I can find my spots later.)
  • Any scenes I was stuck on. I just make a couple of notes about what I wanted to accomplish with the scene and move on to the next scene.
  • Subplots can be included perfectly as a separate layer. In fact, it’s almost easier that way because you can just gradually weave them in to the story that’s already on the page.

I do the same thing with revising. If you think to yourself that you’re editing a whole book, the thought of it can be just as overwhelming as writing the book was.

These are issues that I address in layers for the revision (and for a longer list of things I look for during revision, click this post)

  • Typos/grammar
  • Crutch words that I use too frequently
  • Conflict—I make a pass through to make sure each scene either forwards the plot or adds to the conflict
  • Continuity (is the character wearing the same outfit on page 20 that she’s wearing on page 21?)
  • Subplots—did they resolve? Did they tie into the main plot?
  • Loose ends—is everything resolved at the end of the book?


Somehow, it’s easier for me to come up with lots of different ideas if I make them into bullet points and put them in list form. These lists could include: My protagonist’s catch-phrases. My protagonist’s features. Different physical traits of my protagonist. My protagonist’s facial expressions. *5 possible endings for this book. *5 twists. *5 possible subplots. *5 ways the subplots could tie into the main plot. Or you could do it for character growth: *5 ways the character could grow. *5 surprising things that we could learn about a character. *Top 10 list of things that bother the protagonist (then 10 things that would drive the character crazy that I could write into the book.) *10 things this character loves more than anything. You could find other uses for lists, too: *5 ways to add some unexpected elements to the book (humor, suspense, sadness, fear.) *5 ways to describe the setting.

The best results are woven into the story or used to inspire dialogue that develops my characters more.

These are the tools I use for every book to make sure that I keep things fresh and keep from feeling overwhelmed. How do you keep focused and keep moving ahead with your story?