Writing in Layers


When I only had the dim beginnings of a novel, not even an entire first draft, I went to a conference with my husband and we ran onto a man he’d known, an author. He told his friend I was writing a novel and asked him to give me advice. That man looked at me and spoke only one word, after which he melted away in the crowd. He said “layering.”

At that moment I could guess what he meant, but layer what, exactly? Since I was still writing my first draft, I left that advice for a later date. Although I didn’t write down that word, it stuck in my mind as a question.

Now several drafts later, I am prepared to make a few observations about layering “from the field” and what it turned out to be in my writing.

My first draft told the story, but when I’d finished writing and read it, I could see it would benefit from a stronger story structure and addressed that. Upon completion of the second draft, I could tell the story begged for more, but what? Instead of going straight to the idea of a revision or rewrite, I remembered that word: layering. This single word stirred my imagination more than those others – which seemed arduous and sluggish. I thought of layering as elaboration, adding more flavor, more detail, more insight into the relationships of among the characters.

Thinking of the third draft in terms of adding in layers made it seem more like the part of writing that appeals to me, the inventive and creative aspect. As I undertook that draft I  considered undercurrents, complexity, subplots, and character nuance. I became engaged with the story and characters at a level deeper than I’d imagined possible.

Each draft required something else from me: additional research, elaborating certain scenes, recognizing a place to show a character in a different light. These efforts, and how I imagined them, became my definition of layering. A multi-faceted activity, I engaged with each draft as a work of art considering ways to enhance the texture, mood, and language. They say you know when you are finished with a novel. I’d said I was a few times, but it came from my head. Now I am closer to the completed manuscript I’d imagined and it is a felt thing that comes from the beauty the layers provide.

About Margaret Graw

At the intersection of writing and yoga
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