Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned about the process of writing fiction is to learn how to paint. No, I’m not talking about painting with oils or acrylics–I’m referring to painting with lyrical brushstrokes.
Getting the story down is much like laying the foundation layers of a painting. It doesn’t matter if you do a detailed sketch or simply start by washing in the background with broad brush strokes. What matters is that in the initial layer, you get the main idea across. In writing, it means painting the story. If you are anything like me, conveying a story intelligently and simply is hard enough. Even with an outline, taking the story in your head and bringing it to life is hard. Refining the work into a piece akin to literature takes editing.
Now, I know writers and teachers advocate not editing until you’ve finished writing. Not only do I disagree, I think that’s the dumbest damned advice I could give you. Of course you should edit, every time you read it, until it’s done. It’s never done. I read the previous day’s work and edit as I go, ensuring the new work has the feel of the previous, and keeping the right smooth and even. Once the story’s skeleton is written, I can replace the stolid writing of my initial layer with something more like the jazz I hear in my head. Layers, layers, layers.
Here’s a piece I published before I recognized there were layers left to paint. I’ve started “finishing” the work today. Hopefully when I finish, the book will feel like a work of art instead of just … a book.
Here’s what I started with:
Charlie Patterson was dreaming with his best friend, Robin. Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie. His dreams were vivid, tactile, powerful, and emotional. In a word, they were real. Better than that, when Charlie dreamed of Robin, it was usually because she was right there, with him, in the dream.
They stumbled across the Stream, the limitless world of dreams and fantasy, during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they had found each other, and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would restore the balance of good and evil, of light and darkness in the Stream. One day. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to light.
It was twilight in the part of the Stream in which they found themselves. Charlie was seated in a long, narrow boat on a still lagoon. The landscape was serene, comprising forested lands that bordered the wide lake, with mountains that rose behind them. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. Low clouds hung in the air, close enough that the tops of the mountains were obscured. The sun had descended behind the mountain toward which they drifted, and its light painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake.
Away from the westward sky, the landscape had turned violet, with the thick fog drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the landscape bright and cheery, and half dark and ominous.
Fine, but a little dry, no? Okay, it kind of sucks.
Here’s how it reads now (so far):
Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie Patterson. His dreams were vivid, tactile, and emotional. More importantly, these forays into the chimeric world of reimagined pasts and dragon presents were as tangible as his morning rides to school. One wrong move, a bad twist, an unconquered fear and Charlie knew he wouldn’t be waking up again. It was glorious. Better still, in most of his dreams, he was accompanied by his best friend, Robin, the literal girl of his dreams.
They’d stumbled across the Stream—the limitless world of dreams and fantasy—during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they found each other and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would one day restore the balance of light and darkness in the Stream. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to pass.
Charlie was seated in a long boat on a still lagoon, wishing Robin would sit still for once. The long shadows of trees stretched across the broad lake interspersed by bright stars of sunlight that danced through the wind-blown leaves. Beyond the lake in a long arc, snow-capped mountains scraped the underbellies of low-hanging clouds until the clouds surrendered, fell as fog, and began to obscure the mountains’ peaks. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with the bright lavender of new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. It was nearing dusk and the waning sunlight painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake. Away from the westward sky, the landscape had already changed to midnight purple with thick fog roiling down the mountains and drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the countryside bright and cheery and half dark and ominous.
Still needs work, but at least I don’t need a glass of water to wash it down. Layer, layer, layer. Even better, with layering comes clarity. The first two paragraphs will almost certainly just be deleted. Start in the middle and make it sing; that’s the goal.
14 thoughts on “Writing in Layers”
Great post. I love reading about writers’ processes, and this really shows how prose can be built up and reshaped in the flow.
Chris, thank you. I think with all art, people feel like they’re supposed to get it right the first time. It never really works that way.
You just made me believe in editing as I go! And trust me that is a miracle…I’m awful about editing. The second one packs a much more powerful punch! It made me want to read more!!
Thanks for the feedback, Kirsten. I find that editing as I go actually helps me write, rather than inhibiting me.
Editing as you go is the way I have always done it too, I always put it down to my sense of perfectionism. But as you rightly said, and as a friend of mine also said in almost exactly the same words, writing is like painting a picture, and you do it in layers. As an artist of the 2D visual kind, I get that, and it’s a skill that is equally transferable no matter the medium. Great post love. You provide a very valuable source of insight into the process of being an artist.
Thanks, sweetie. The key to perfection is knowing it can’t be achieved. All we can do is follow our process toward continual improvement.
As you say, a work is never finished, so you also have to learn when to say stop and let it rest. You often reach a point in any project where adding or tweaking a piece only changes it, but doesn’t necessarily improve it. Art still has to have room to breathe in order to be vital and fresh, and timeless.
Very nice. I can see now how your process works now. I had begun to think that fantastic, poetic prose came straight out of your head like that. Those metaphors and similes that give your writing that characteristic feel all seem to come later. And thanks for telling me it’s okay to edit on the fly. I do that and it irks me if someone says I shouldn’t. If I think something isn’t right at that moment, I can’t feel comfortable continuing until it’s fixed to my, current, satisfaction.
The real key is that different parts of writing come out at different times, depending on mood. On days I’m not feeling lyrical, I’m not going to be poetic no matter what. But if you view the writing like painting, you can smooth it out over time and create a uniform voice.
I dunno, the first one seemed okay to me. But then, I am a Neanderthal! 😉
I like the simple outline. It allows the reader to ”fill in the bits”.
Clouds in the air?
As opposed to clouds in my brain, which are usually thicker. I think my taste in books is changing, even with those I’ve written.
Just read this, but the comments are closed
One of the best pieces about writing you have written. Brilliant.
Thanks for the kind words. 🙂
I Had comments open on the old posts, but then I started getting internet trolls who’d stumbled by via Google searches, so I just decided to shut them off.
The read was enjoyable and I found myself smiling.
I am busy with a few of your grammar ones as well.
They are always interesting.
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