How to Paint Layers into Your Writing

After watching my wife work on a couple of her oil paintings, I’ve  come to realize that producing a work of fiction is very similar to creating a painting. Too many new writers have unrealistically low expectations about how good a first draft can be due to an overabundance of writerly advice that suggests fixing everything in editing. They finish their “always bad” first draft, and surprise, it’s actually bad. Looking to doing everything in the latter stages of editing instead of the entire process allows mistakes to compound. Final editing is then grueling and perhaps, impossible. As a result, writers sometimes either quit before they’ve actually done the required work to make it great, or they put out unpolished stories thinking that they’ve finished them.  Editors may not tell you (or understand) what you need to add to bring your work to its completion. Agents almost certainly won’t bother.

Writing a long work of fiction, such as a novel, requires multiple things to happen. You must create compelling characters. You must build an evocative work that is detailed enough to stimulate the brain’s memory of all senses, and you have to balance that with not providing so much detail the reader gets bored. You must understand the plot, focus on the story, and fill in gaps in logic. You must keep the reader attuned to your story without adding superfluous details that lose them.  You need to add sufficient emotional content that your reader wants to finish the book because they are invested in what happens. And, you have to do all of this while eliminating errors that take them out of the story.

Think you can do all of these things at one stroke? Perhaps on your best days you can, for a time. But just as even jugglers have limits, writers can only concentrate on a few aspects of writing at a time. Some days, I am very lyrical and alliterative. Some days I’m creative and imaginative, even making up words that fit the piece better than the ones my thesaurus suggests. On most days, during a first draft, I’m so focused on getting the story written down before it leaves my head like last night’s dreams, that I don’t have time for any of the other bollocks. Unless you are a magical genius, you aren’t going to write like Shakespeare one moment and Faulkner the next, with Asimov’s emotionless narrative churning out your story, all at the same time.

So what’s the solution? Layering.

Before we talk about layers, wherein you add steps to your first draft, let’s discuss what a first draft means. I want to pull out someone’s hair (just not mine) every time I see someone talking about a first draft as though you’re supposed to write in one direction every day without backtracking. That’s not writing a draft; that’s making a mess. If you write one-half of chapter six on Saturday, do you really think it’s a good idea to write the second half on Sunday without reading to see what you said and how you said it? Spoiler alert: NO! Yes, people will say, “Don’t read it. It’ll just discourage you and first drafts are supposed to suck.”

Well, no they aren’t. First drafts aren’t supposed to be polished. If they honestly and truly suck, you’re doing something wrong. I agree that you shouldn’t let clunky writing bother you. That’s what the layers are for. Focus instead on, “Did I tell the story? Are my characters developing?” If you’re telling the story smoothly, your first draft will be good and the rest of the process will be a joy. Editing should be the fun part, not the painful part.

That said, let’s talk about layering your writing.

First Draft:

Planning the Piece – This is the step that many writers want to skip. In my opinion, it’s also where there’s the strongest parallel with painting. Painters who start painting without sketching first fall into two broad categories: those who produce intuitive, abstract pieces or those who are skilled and experienced and can, frankly, produce a good piece based solely on their having a strong enough process to do so. These are very, very rare artists. Similarly, if you jump straight to writing, deciding to figure out where you’re going later, your work will be more abstract than if it doesn’t. You don’t have to plan and sketch every detail of your work in advance–I do sometimes; sometimes I don’t–but you should have a rough outline of what happens in your word painting and which pieces go where. Sure, you can clean up stuff in editing, and it’ll be just as easy as changing Mona Lisa’s frown to a smile or substituting sunflowers for poppies in that master work you meant to paint. I’d advise not making unnecessary messes. You don’t have to adhere to your plot, but it will help if you have one.

Preparing the Canvas –  If you jump into a painting without correctly prepping the canvas, what you’ll end up with is crap. The paint won’t adhere properly and you won’t get out of it what you set out to do. Prepping, in writing, means doing the research you need to do before starting. There may not be much, or any, but if there is, get it out the way. If you’re writing a historical piece, you’ll need to have researched the basics of history in that period. If it’s sci-fi or a police drama, there are things you should decide before you start in order to make it believable. Don’t overdo it or get in your own way, however. This is meant to give you a confident edge when you set out. I’m not including here things like having your writing environment (computer, music, quiet place, etc.) because that’s your studio and I’m assuming you have one or you wouldn’t be writing.

Blocking In – This is the primary function of a first draft. In painting, the objective of blocking in is to decide on dominant colors and tones and to roughly paint these areas on the canvas. Then, you can gradually refine the shapes and colors and add more detail as needed. Even modifying tones can be done in the blocking-in phase. In writing, your first draft fills in the rough details of your story. Your characters are these people, with this background who do these things in this order. The plot is blocked in and you decide what the proper sequence is. You color the story with the intended emotional tone–funny, tragic, suspenseful–and try to ensure your draft reads the way you intended. Like blocking in painting, you need not and should not try to do this all at once.

Block in a chapter or a segment of a chapter, and before you block in the next, go back and read it. Write only as a reader here, and see if you said everything you intended. If not, add it. If things don’t belong, you can set them aside someplace and see if they should be added somewhere else. Your overall “tones” blend together when you do this, because you will have your last section’s style in mind as you write the next section. Not only will you remember what you said, but how you said it. This is a simple way of ensuring  that you don’t make one-half of chapter six poetic and lyrically funny, while the second half is dry and serious. Don’t be your own worst critic; be your own best ally.

Details and Background – Here’s the tricky part and the part where you can make the process fit your personality. In painting, some advocate doing details first and then the background. This requires bringing  the detailed parts of the painting up to a workable state (nearly finished, in some cases) and filling in the background around it. In subsequent steps, you can go in and fix any mistakes you’ve added. The writing equivalent, in my opinion, is focusing on your writing style during the draft, making sure it all sounds right. You would then add missing plot details later. This sounds sketchy to me.

The alternative is to block in the background first–just tell the story, and do the detailed stuff after. I advocate a version of this. Write a chapter, focusing on advancing your plot and framing your characters. Here is where the old “action-reaction” plotting goes. When that’s done, re-read the chapter and add-in details you’ve missed, including fixing clunky language. Don’t nit-pick. We aren’t doing proofreading here. This is simply to ensure it sounds coherent and reads the way you generally want the book to read.

Now, there are other things here in painting, like whether you sketch everything first or if you should try alla prima, wherein you paint it all at once while the paint is wet. But sketching belongs under prep work, in my opinion, and alla prima works pretty damned well for stories under 15,000 words, but for a full novel it’s unlikely. Your mind’s chapter-one paint will dry before you get to chapter fifteen.


Adding Darkness – Full disclosure: here, I’m following the technique of painters like Michael James Smith. Others may disagree on the order or terminology. So, you have your painting blocked in, and you’ve added detail. Hell, this thing is starting to look like a painting. You’re psyched. However, something’s bugging you. The painting is good, but the tones are flat. There’s no depth. To fix it, you go back to your sketch or the model. Look at the dark tones, where they are and what colors they are, and add them in. When you’re done, there’s depth. It’s three-dimensional now. It’s starting to look real.

The same works in writing. Here, the “dark areas” are your emotional content. I’m not writing about darkness in terms of gloominess. Rather, I’m discussing depth–emotional depth. The second draft of my book is where I’m reading for emotional content. Does it resonate? Was it funny where intended and tragic where it must be? Do the characters respond to events in a way that actual humans react? Is my descriptive language evocative? Do I add suspense when I describe the protagonist walking through the alley toward the bad guy? Will the reader care? If they won’t, either it needs editing, or it doesn’t belong in your book.

Fixing Detailed Work – This is self-obvious because of the name, but touching up the details should be done at some point, usually towards the end. In writing, I put it here because I think making sure your language flows is the most important step, and so, should be last. Don’t add detail just to do it. Add it only if needed. In fact, if there’s too much detail, consider painting over some of it. Sometimes, less truly is more. (Just because it’s cliché doesn’t make it wrong.)

Adding Highlights – The flip side of adding darkness in painting is adding highlights. The dark areas create depth and the light areas draw attention, making it seem real and alive. In writing, highlights, in my opinion, are language. You’ve added details that create emotional connections with the reader, now you use your actual show-off-writer’s skill to do the same thing with words. Are you saying “whisper” fifty times when susurrate will make the sound you want them to hear? Do your words dance in their head? Do you even want them to? Are they distracting and make you sound like a douche? Fix the language before you send it to proofreading.

Final Edits / Proofreading

Fix Mistakes / Fix Your Paint – In painting, the last step before you sign it is fixing any minor thing you may have missed or that needs touching up. After you’ve let it sit for a few months, you then go over it and add oil and varnish to fix it. Same thing applies in writing. Go through your piece one last time, only fixing mistakes. Be very circumspect about changing anything else. Often, at this stage, you’ll only make it different, not better. Then, and this is important, get someone not named you to proofread it. They are your fixer. You won’t sell the piece if you don’t. And even if you do, reviews will make you wish you had. Think it’s fun having a reviewer tell others they found your typos? No, it is not fun. Eff typos.

There are probably other steps I missed, but my eyes are blurry and I have to get back to my day job of not blogging. Psyche, I don’t have a day job, I’m retired. But I’m also sick of working on this, so …

The End. May you write happily ever after.

2 thoughts on “How to Paint Layers into Your Writing

  1. Maria a.k.a. Bess/Ishaiya says:

    Great job on this post, B. I like the comparison you draw between painting and writing. I think the creative process is pretty much the same no matter the medium. You have to do your research first before you can even do a preliminary design, in that you have to know what it is you want to design in the first place. Like you say though, a lot of artists (and I use that in the general sense) get stuck at the first draft thinking that they have to finish the job in one sitting. But you have to understand your medium first and know how far you can push it before you overwork a piece – with both oil painting and writing you can go a long way with that. Sometimes you will need to produce many drafts before you reach your design objective, with each one being edited and refined as you go. Layer one should never be your end product. That’s just lazy.

Comments are closed.