I’ve been hearing writers talk about writing a manuscript in layers. Lady Glamis at the Innocent Flower did some great posts on this, and Jacqui Robbins just put the skeleton of her novel together.
My most recent WIP, a middle grade that I started seven years ago, is putting itself together in a similar way. Except mine is more like baking and decorating a cake.
When you set out to bake a cake, first you need to make sure you have the right ingredients: eggs, flour, sugar, butter, etc. Without the right ingredients, the cake won’t turn out right. Once you have your ingredients, you mix and bake them until you have fluffy, golden layers of yummy.
The same thing is true with a story. When you set out to write one, you need the right ingredients: characters, plot, conflict, tension, voice, etc. It has taken me seven years to find the right ingredients and bake them in my head until everything solidified into something that made sense. Now, I’m working on the next step: assembly.
When baking a layer cake, once it’s baked you have to let it cool. If you put frosting on a hot cake, the cake will be too fragile and the frosting will pull it apart. If you wait until it’s warm (not hot), then the cake won’t fall apart. However, the frosting might melt and ooze off the cake. Then you have to go back and fix it, and the result isn’t always pretty. : ) So, you need to wait until the cake is completely cool, and then both the cake and frosting will mesh well.
My current WIP has been exactly like this. I had to let this story bake in my head for seven years, and then cool off completely before I could start putting it together on paper. I’m not sure why this story took so long to solidify in my head, but it did. And now, I’m working on gluing the layers together with frosting.
To put cake layers together, it requires a liberal amount of frosting on the bottom layer, then lining up the top layer so it’s even with the bottom. It’s not too difficult, nor has it been difficult to put my story together on paper. I think that’s because it’s been baking and cooling for so long. : ) But when it comes to the decorating, that’s a different story.
Decorating a cake requires yet another layer of frosting on top, but this is harder than the layer you put between the cakes. The outside layer must look smooth, and if you’re not careful then cake crumbs can get swept up into the frosting. That looks terrible, especially with chocolate cake. It requires care, precision, and concentration. Frosting can lump too high in places, or it can be too thin. To get it right, you have to take a step back and look at it objectively.
My story is the same. Once I finish putting it all together, then I have to go back over it and add the pieces that I know are missing, look for the thin areas I didn’t see the first time around, and trim the areas that are too lumpy.
This creates a solid base for the next step: decoration, or, in my story, word choice. This is probably the hardest step.
For cake decoration, I’m going to be hunched over this cake for an hour or two, squeezing drops of frosting in just the right places to create the greatest visual effect. When I’m done, my eyes are crossed and my back aches, but I’m thrilled with the end result. Which makes it worth all that effort.
It’s no different with my story. When I reach this point, I agonize over every single word I’ve used. If I let myself get caught up in word choice earlier, then I might have wiped out all that work as I finished putting the different layers of foundation in place, so I wait until the end to do this. And then, I tackle my story by hunching over it for days or weeks on end. I look at every sentence placement, word usage, and paragraph location. By the time I’m done, I’m cross-eyed and my hand is cramping like the dickens. But I’m thrilled with the end result, so all that work is worth the effort.
But I'm not there yet. In fact, I'm still putting my manuscript together, but I should be putting on the outside layer of frosting soon. Perhaps by the end of the month...we'll see. :)
I hope this hasn’t sounded silly. I just equate writing to things I understand, and cakes are one of those things. :)