Writing in layers

(work in progress, like real writing)

So far, every book or blog that I’ve read discussing writing and editing talks about a process that is rather the opposite of the way I write. Especially when it comes to the much talked about step of removing unnecessary words during the first major edit.
With the realisation of how my writing process works and no one talking about this alternative method I decided to write my own guide in case it could benefit others. After all, what better way to learn the tricks of writing than from a no-bestselling author?

So here’s my how to write, writing for dummies, or what else you want to call this building a story step by step guide.

The way I write anything is like building a house. First I set up the framework, then build walls, a roof, place doors and windows for basic functionality, and then I complete and enhance it by setting up the garden, interior, maybe a garage or a large shed, or even add a swimming pool if it’s interesting enough to do so.

I have a block.
I have a block of wood.
I have a block of wood, large enough to make the wooden floor creak.
I have a block of wood, the colour reminding me of dark autumn days and large enough to make the wooden floor creak.

1 – The basic story

When I get a story idea I always write it down in a few short sentences because I’m usually already working on something and will have to start on it later.

For example, the well known plot of boy meets girl:
Boy sees girl often walking dog and wants to get to know her.
But the dog doesn’t like him.
He treats dog to make friends with her.

When I start writing it I just write the basic story with few details, just to get it out of my system.

First draft:
The young woman walked her dog again through the park at the same time like she did for several weeks now. Frank had noticed her because the window of his study looked out over the park and his desk stood right under it.
He thought she was very pretty and he had heard from the neighbours her name was Jane and that she ran a small beauty salon at home. She was single and Frank wanted to get to know her.
The weather was good and because he could use the exercise he decided to take a walk through the park while she was there.
Soon enough he saw her coming along a path from the other side, but when she was close enough he became nervous and gave her nothing but a quick nod and a smile as they passed each other. Scolding his cowardliness he continued his walk before ending up going home again.

He kept going for a walk every day anyway but couldn’t get further than the short, silent greeting when passing her. Until one day fate lent a hand.
The day had been overcast all morning, and just as Frank saw Jane a sudden heavy rain poured down. They both ran for cover under the same low tree.
Frank wiped his hair and before he realised it he said ‘Wow. That wasn’t in the plans today.’.
Jane chuckled. ‘Yeah, it wasn’t in mine either.’
‘Guess we’ll just have to blame the weatherman again.’
She chuckled again. ‘Guess so.’
Frank looked up. ‘I’ll just add it to experience then.’
‘Experience?’ Jane asked.
He nodded. ‘Writing experience. I’m a writer.’
‘Ahh.’ she said. ‘Is that why you take a walk here every day?’
He looked away for a moment. ‘Ah, yes.’ he said. ‘Instead of a dog I let my mind roam free for a while.’
She smiled and looked down at her dog. ‘Too bad you don’t have one, Kathy might like a friend.’ She looked up again. ‘I’m Jane, by the way.’
‘Frank.’ he said, held out a hand and stepped closer to her but froze when Kathy growled and barked at him.
‘Ah! Kathy! No!’ said Jane as she looked down at Kathy standing behind her. She turned to Frank again. ‘I’m sorry, but her previous owner abused her and men frighten her.’
Frank watched the growling Kathy for a moment, then gave Jane a nod. ‘I understand. It takes time to process trauma.’
She nodded back at him and noticed the rain had stopped. ‘It does.’ she said. ‘If only it could go away as quick as the rain now.’
Frank looked up.
‘We’ll be going now.’ she said. ‘I have an appointment.’
He nodded. ‘See you at the next walk then.’
She smiled at him. ‘Sure. Next time.’ she said and left with Kathy.
Frank watched her and saw her look back quickly before she disappeared behind a bend in the path. He smiled softly to himself and headed home imagining their next meeting. He also realised he had to think of a way to make friends with the dog to be able to get closer to Jane.

The next day Frank met Jane and Kathy again at the park. ‘Good afternoon, ladies.’ he said.
Jane smiled at him and stopped, but kept Kathy close and at a distance from Frank. ‘Good afternoon, good sir.’ she said while Kathy growled softly at him. ‘I’m sorry-‘ Jane said but he silenced her by holding up his hand.
‘No need to apologise. I can only imagine what she’s been through and I don’t blame her.’ he said and pulled a small package out of his coat pocket. ‘In fact, I’d like to show her not all men are evil, if I may.’
Jane nodded and he went down on one knee. ‘I figured it’s not just men who’s stomach is the quickest way to their heart.’ he said and opened the package to reveal a short sausage. ‘I buy these from the local butcher and they’re pretty much a favourite of mine. So, I thought maybe I could bribe her with these.’
He held out the sausage on his open hand to Kathy. She still growled, but less, and her nose caught the scent. She sniffed the air and took a careful step forward. Frank didn’t move and smiled softly as Kathy came closer. With a few more sniffs she examined the sausage, then took it carefully from his hand and ate it.
‘Ohh, she never accepted food from another.’ Jane said.
Frank grinned a little. ‘These sausages are really good. I love to cook and know where to get the good stuff.’
Kathy sniffed his empty hand again and gave it a gentle lick.
‘So, if I keep treating you with these, think you can trust me from now on?’ Frank asked of Kathy.
She sat down and allowed him to pet her head.
Jane chuckled. ‘Looks like the bribe with food worked.’ she said and heard her stomach growl. ‘And that thought made me hungry.’ She looked at Frank. ‘I’ll just head back home for some cheese sandwiches. I’m not much of a cook.’
Frank stood up just as she was about to turn away. ‘Well, if you have the time, can I bribe you with a pasta salad for lunch?’
Jane smiled at him and blushed a little. ‘I think you can.’
Frank smiled and gestured at the park exit. ‘If you care to follow me then.’
She chuckled and walked with Frank to the first of many meals they’d share.

2 – Descriptions

The story as it is is complete but it lacks enough detail to give it some atmosphere and tell a little more about the characters.
Personally, I find description difficult to add to a story. None leaves readers guessing and often leads to criticism, too much and it reads like a police report and kicks you out of the flow of the story.
The trick is to integrate it without drawing attention to itself.

For instance:
He thought she was very pretty and he had heard from the neighbours her name was Jane and that she ran a small beauty salon at home. She was 171 centimetres tall, had blond hair down to below her shoulders, blue eyes, and wore a white sweater with a white and light blue horizontal striped short skirt and simple flat sneakers.

I always think ‘Call the number of your local law enforcement agency if you’ve seen her.’ when I come across such a cold description.
I try to add the description at logical moments and make it part of the story.

He thought she was very pretty with her blonde hair dancing around her shoulders in the breeze and her bright blue eyes watching everything around her with a child like innocence. He had heard from the neighbours her name was Jane and that she ran a small beauty salon at home. He guessed her clientele was mostly younger generation with her youthful outfit of white sweater, white and light blue horizontal striped short skirt and simple, flat sneakers. With her height reaching up only to his eyebrows she would be mistaken for a senior at high school or a college student for some years.

Don’t overdo descriptions, too much detail detracts from the story and has no use in it.

The weather is always a good source of atmosphere building:
A blanket of grey had covered the sky all morning, bathing everything in a light shade of gloom. That same blanket also bombarded Frank and Jane suddenly with thick drops the moment he saw her. They both ran for cover while a sea of noise and fine, low mist rose around them, and ended up under the same tree whose wide and low foliage protected them like a large umbrella.

And of course behaviour:
‘Ah! Kathy! No!’ Jane said to her dog as she pulled a little on the leash and looked down at Kathy standing behind her, her tail tucked between her legs and looking from Jane to Frank and back again. Jane looked up worried at Frank and tucked stray hair behind her ear. ‘I’m sorry, but her previous owner abused her and men frighten her.’
Frank raised his eyebrows as he watched the growling Kathy for a moment, then gave Jane a nod and frowned a little. ‘I understand. It takes time to process trauma.’

3 – Passive voice

Something that’s mentioned often is the active and passive way to write things. Passive is treating the character like a doll and tell the reader what’s happening to the character instead of letting the character act and show the reader what’s going on. That makes a character come alive. Instead of telling the reader what emotion a character experiences, show how the character reacts like in the previous example.

Another example:
Soon enough he saw her coming along a path from the other side, but when she was close enough he became nervous and gave her nothing but a quick nod and a smile as they passed each other. Scolding his cowardliness he continued his walk before ending up going home again.

Now by leaving out explicit words and treating it as a game of Charades:
Soon enough he saw her coming along a path from the other side, but when she was close enough a lump grew in his throat while his heart beat faster and his hands started to sweat. All he could do was give her a quick nod and a smile as they passed each other.
He frowned and mentally smacked himself in the head as he continued his walk at a stiffer pace home.

4 – Point of view

Talking about voice, it doesn’t matter if you write in first point of view, “I, we”, or third, “he, she, it, they”. The process is the same, the only difference is that in first view all other characters can only be written by showing what they do and say in front of the main character. Or at least as much as possible because anything done outside the main character’s sight and hearing is practically unknown.
Imagine the scene you’re writing as a scene in a movie. Unless a narrator is used you won’t know what the characters are thinking and you’ll either have to let them say it out loud or show by their actions.

And don’t forget about the other human senses like smell, touch, taste.
Now go ahead and finish the first draft I wrote here.

5 – Plot

There’s not much to say about plot since there are only a few basic ones, some say more than others, but whatever you think of, it has in essence been done before.
The thing you can do though is twist the elements of the story. Use different characters than expected, have the bad guy win for a change, put a twist in the story at the end. There’s always some part of a story that can be original or done so well it seems original. ‘What if?’ is a good start.

And after finishing the first draft, any plot holes can be rewritten. Nothing is set in stone.

6 – Characters

One way to get believable characters is to write a profile for each one. Think of what they look like, and write down their history in a few words. Where were they born and grew up, what were the parents like, family, school and work history, friends, personal and world events that shaped them.
It’ll also provide a source on how they would react in situations.

7 – Bad habits

Here are some of the bad habits I had in my early work. I should have realised then, but circumstances led me to be blind to most writing faults.

1) She/he felt;
Probably one of the first things that started to irritate me. It’s the whole passive/active writing thing. It’s telling something happened with yet another layer in between.

She felt his fingertips carefully tracing her delicate curves.

Just say it directly:
His fingertips traced her delicate curves carefully.


Another thing I was guilty of:
She felt a shudder rushing through her exposed body.

Do this:
A shudder rushed through her exposed body.

There’s no need to say she felt anything. Of course she felt it. Unless we’re talking about an android who just recently upgraded to a new skin equipped with sensors.

2) she/he started;
As with the felt thing, started is a passive method of telling things.

She started to take off her tight dress.

Let it happen, don’t just tell it’s about to happen:
She took off her tight dress.

One more:
He started to kiss softly along the back of her thighs.

He kissed softly along the back of her thighs.

3) being, became
Again, this is passive voice and it has something happen to a character instead of making it more active.

She became angry and slapped him.

Don’t just say something is going to happen, make it so, Number One.

In anger she slapped him.
Angry, she slapped him.

8 – Dialog quoting

There is no rule about using single or double quotes for dialog. There’s only preference.
The USA uses double quotes mostly, but single quotes is used all over the world.
I grew up with single quote usage in books, and it’s also more efficient while typing, especially on mobile and tablet.
The only double quotes I use are for actual quotes, and thoughts from characters.


About scifurz

Science fiction, fantasy, furry, horror stories, drawings and ideas, tech ramblings
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1 Response to Writing in layers

  1. This is excellent. I enjoyed the writing lesson. A few more and I become a great writer.

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