I gradually discovered my writing process over the course of writing eleven novels. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how and why I outline before I begin. But the step after that – transforming my outline into a first draft – I actually do in several stages. A process I think of as ‘writing in layers’.
Some aspects of writing come easier for me than others. Dialogue, for example, is what I find easiest. Description on the other hand takes me longer, as does internal monologue and scene transitions. And brilliant metaphors – don’t hold your breath!
So in creating my first draft, rather than focus on all these elements all at once, I do each one individually. I write the story through several times, each time focusing on a different element, starting with the one I find easiest and adding the harder ones in subsequent layers.
Sometimes I do this a chapter at a time, but usually in larger blocks. So I might write a hundred pages of mostly dialogue and then go back and flesh them out before moving on to the next hundred pages.
Why dialogue first.
We all mentally process and recall information via our senses. When you think about a lover, you might see their face as well as hear their laugh; you might even recall the scent of their perfume and the feel of their skin.
But everyone has a dominant sense in this regard. For the majority of people, that sense is vision, but for the second largest group, it’s hearing. (When you remember a phone number do you see it or hear it in your head?)
I fall into the second category. I don’t know if I was born that way or my training in music pushed me in that direction but this has affected the way I write.
Because I can hear what my characters are saying easier than I can see what they’re doing, my first layer is mainly dialogue (with a bit of action narrative thrown in.) Whenever I get stuck, I just sit back, close my eyes, silence my thoughts, and after a moment, almost without fail, I start hearing my characters speaking.
I think of this initial dialogue layer as my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My outline only tells me so much – the basics about my characters’ backgrounds, conflicts and goals. Hearing what they say to each other – the words they choose, the attitudes they adopt when conveying them – tells me a lot about who they are. I also get a clearer sense of how they interact and challenge each other.
In my second layer of writing a first draft I focus on what my characters are thinking. I guess because thinking is only one step removed from speaking, I find this the next easiest element to add.
This is a fascinating layer to write. It’s amazing how the impact of dialogue can change when you add what the characters are thinking as they speak. If a character says one thing while thinking the opposite, it completely changes the effect for the reader. And if a character thinks something but holds themselves back from actually voicing it, it adds depth and conflict to the scene.
In the final layer of writing my draft, I add the parts I find hardest to write – description of the setting, the action, the people; transitions from one scene to the next; the odd snappy comeback, a compelling metaphor here and there. Because I’m not trying to do everything at once, I can relax and enjoy adding these details.
With this layer done, my draft is complete. But it’s still only my first draft. At this point I find it helpful to set the manuscript aside for a while, or give it to my critiquing partners for their thoughts and comments.
In the meantime, I read a few books on craft to remind myself what I’ll soon be editing for. Then I come back, read my manuscript all the way through, marking the things I want to change or add in the revision stage.
You would think this approach would take much longer. Hard enough writing a novel once, let alone four times! But actually the opposite is true for me. Because I’m not constantly stopping to fuss with the things I’m not as good at, I can get my dialogue layer down really quickly. Then, with the bones of the story on the page, I can have fun playing around with them and fleshing them out.
Every novelist needs to discover their own process. And this probably won’t happen from writing one book. Most of us experiment with different approaches, especially in the beginning. Chances are you’ll have to get a few books under your belt before you know what works best for you.