Layering in Paradise: Cruising through another writers’ retreat

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESYes, less than two months after doing a writers’ retreat on an Alaskan cruise, I joined two writers (and one non-writer) for an Eastern Caribbean writing cruise. I planned to write one short story (The Polygamist’s Wife) and complete another revision of OLIVE TOMORROW to send to beta readers. I did write six pages for the former and scrubbed & layered through a hundred pages of the latter.

Layered, you ask? One of our cruising writers, a NY Times bestselling author, coined the term. Our non-writer asked us what layering meant. While the writers intuitively understood the concept, none of us could explicitly define it.

As I trudge through revising the mystery novel OLIVE TOMORROW, most of what I do is layering. Writing a discovery draft is conquering blank page after blank page. For me, the first draft is all about dialog and action racing through a plot. Revising the discovery draft, requires editing and proofing. It may require additional scenes, backstory, and adding / deleting / modifying character arcs. For some writers, it may actually require creating a plot.  (I don’t understand this. The idea of plotting after the book is written freezes my blood, but I do know writers who write this way.)

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESBeyond the editing and proofing, I layer. I add gestures and interior thought to scenes thin with dialog. I insert setting descriptions where the story has lost its visuals. I knit in emotional responses where needed. To resolve beta reader comments, I sprinkle explanations, backstory, and clarifications where the story has gone obscure. I follow story threads. To ensure each thread continues and completes, I weave them in scenes needing their color, texture, and finish.

For me, layering is all about the adding, inserting, knitting, sprinkling, and weaving. I’d love to hear your own take on “layering.” In the meantime, enjoy the waning days of September wherever you cruise.


About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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4 Responses to Layering in Paradise: Cruising through another writers’ retreat

  1. dayya says:

    Lovely piece. Layering is a part of how I write–rewriting/revising as I write (despite the many warnings against doing that) threading into scenes and sequences what’s not there, what should be there. Another writer friend described it as “a process of accretion”–adding detail upon detail until the scene or sequence has reached its full potential. Really, it’s the only way I write. d:)

    • mlknowlden says:

      Yep, you’ll probably get there faster if you do a complete discovery draft first and then layer. I tend to toss much if I do otherwise. Books surprise us no end with how a “plot thickens” as it finishes. Whatever works for you is the best process. I like that phrase “a process of accretion” although the thought of it it makes this Type A Personality go mad.

  2. Rebecca Lang says:

    I can intuitively grasp the concept of layering. My personal version usually involves re-writing the draft from scratch with some aspect (ie, structure, imagery) of the novel in mind. Do you ever do that or do you just insert the different pieces?

    • mlknowlden says:

      Re-writing from scratch? I know several authors I respect who do this but the idea breaks my spirit. Both as an engineer and a writer, I’m impatient with do-overs, preferring any method that will quickly reach a satisfying and well-crafted end. I love the front end of writing (brainstorming and first draft) but am learning to embrace revising. All that said, my short story WHERE OLD KINGS GATHER (pub in More Amazing Stories, 1998) and my current novel OLIVE TOMORROW required wholesale reconstruction and overly-involved ‘layering’ for two reasons. One: The plot structures were ambitious. Two: I needed to create complicated math models to track the timelines, subplots, and suspect threads. Telling OLIVE TOMORROW from four POVs didn’t help matters. WHERE OLD KINGS GATHER took ten years to write, and I’m in my fourth year of re-writing OLIVE TOMORROW. When I start a discovery draft now, I focus on ways to simplify. That doesn’t mean skimping on plot, description, or story. It means writing near the bone and keeping my eye on the prize.

      Thanks for the question, Rebecca! I love talking about process.

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