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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

The Editing Agenda: Adding Layers

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Once you’ve finished your first draft and you’re ready to delve into the editing process, one of the first things you should tackle is adding layers. Layers make every great story come to life. They make a well-rounded character realistic, a plot and its details that much juicier, and they have a way of making the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place. And while there is definitely a time and a place for punctuation, grammar, and all things syntax, without layers, your story will always fall flat. So where should you start?

Plot

While there’s really no right or wrong answer to that question, the place I tend to start is overall plot. Take a look at your outline, timeline, storyboard, or whatever you have in the way of notes for your story, and review the major plot points. Don’t have an outline? I strongly suggest making one at this point. It will help you weed out any inconsistencies in your plot, and it will become increasingly crucial in tightening your story. Once you have a rough outline in place, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the plot make sense?
  2. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  3. Does the first two-thirds of the book build tension and conflict?
  4. Do the subplots make sense? Do they make sense on a timeline?
  5. Are there any inconsistencies, particularly with placement and foreshadowing?

Those may seem like rudimentary questions, but if the answer to any one of these is no, you have some corrections to make before you begin adding in layers to the plot. As anyone who has ever attempted to write a book can tell you, a solid foundation is immensely important to a writing a successful book. Without it, your work will break down and eventually cave in on itself like a house of cards, leaving you both frustrated and discouraged.

After you’ve made any necessary revisions and can answer yes to all of those questions, it’s time to add more layers. For plots, this means adding additional subplots, minor conflicts that will build more tension along the way. But don’t add conflict in haphazardly. Each subplot that you add MUST contribute to the overall plot or character development. If it doesn’t, it’s fluff, and it doesn’t belong in your masterpiece-in-the-making.

Characters

When you’re done tackling the plot, it’s time to move on to characters. Again, it’s always a good idea to keep a catalog of all your characters and their bios. There are a lot of writing programs out there that can help you with this if, like me, you like to keep things organized electronically, but plain old index cards work just fine too. Whatever your method, keep your character notes handy. You’ll need this during the editing process both for fact-checking and for layering. If you need help with writing character bios, I highly recommend using scribbledwriting’s (Kayla Detton's) character analysis worksheet. It’s got just about every question you could ever imagine on it.

After you’ve gathered all your character notes, use your outline to go through your book piece by piece and find your weakest characters, the ones who should stand out but don’t, or the ones who just don’t seem realistic enough. Those are the ones you’ll want to focus on. Pull their character charts, and pick a handful of dominant traits that you know you want to use in the story or that should be focused on in the plot. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does this character want and why?
  2. What sacrifices are they willing to make to get what they want?
  3. What obstacles does this character have to overcome along the way?
  4. Is this character successful, or do they fail?
  5. How does this character change along the way?

By understanding what drives your characters and using their traits to affect their actions, you’ll be able to layer in scenes that reflect that and further develop them, making them more realistic to the reader. Dialogue is a great way to do this, and occasionally so are thoughts or backstory. But again, when you add in scenes, it’s important to keep only those that propel the plot or the character. Anything else would likely be seen an as info dump.

Environment and World-Building

Next is environment and world-building. This is my favorite part of the layering process, mostly because it gives the author a chance to really shine and bring to life the world they’ve created. Even if your story takes place in a real location, you still have to make the events of that location believable, and that’s where environment and world-building come in.

The first step is to, yet again, dig up any notes you have about the world you’re dealing with. If it’s a real location, pull actual blueprints if you can find them, dig up articles about the kind of plants and trees that grow there, the weather, and the general atmosphere of that area and the surrounding ones. If your location is made-up, create a list of guidelines, rules, and/or any laws of physics that may come into play. Now it’s time for the questions:

  1. Do the rules of this world make sense?
  2. Are the rules consistent with each other and with the plot?
  3. If a character breaks a rule, can it be justified in the plot?
  4. Is the world easy to picture? Are there enough descriptions?
  5. Does each location serve a purpose?

If you answered no to any of these, it’s time to go back and rework the environment, or perhaps the rules involving it. Consistency is by far the most important thing since it’s the thing readers will probably call you out on first. If you make a rule, stick to it. If you have a character that breaks it, it should be justified. And each location you mention in your story should absolutely serve some purpose in the overall plot. After all, you want to relay the events in your book that matter the most. Most readers don’t like consuming empty calories.

Once your answer is yes to all the questions, you get to my favorite part—the incredibly artistic part—of writing fiction. You can add layers by bringing in new vivid descriptions and extra details to areas that were previously lacking them. One of the best ways to do this is through the eyes of the characters, describing the environment and objects when they first come across them, slowly adding more detail bit by bit as the scene unfolds. This part of the layering process is a lot like painting a picture—probably another reason why it’s easily a favorite of mine. Just remember, there is a line with adding description that you don’t want to cross. Too much detail or wordiness will leave your world looking more like a toddler’s finger painting than a Picasso masterpiece.

Backstory and Final Touches

After you’ve made it through all the other stages of layering, you’re ready for the final step: finishing touches. This including weaving in a bit more backstory and any other last minute details that help put the final pieces of the puzzle together. The best way to do this is to examine the story scene by scene (a storyboard comes in handy for this one), breaking it down into chunks. You can then add in any remaining details that you wish, but please do so sparingly, or you’ll be left with—yep, you guessed it—fluff. Too much frosting on a cake, and you can no longer taste the cake.