Writing in Layers

 It's really pathetic. 
I am a very slow writer, and I know why, too.

It's because I write in layers and it takes time. Does anyone else do that? 

I get very embarrassed come November when all my writing buddies are involved in something called Nanowrimo. If you don't know what that means, you are definitely not a writer, at least not a novelist (or trying to be one, like me:) November is National Novel Writing Month. It's where writers spend virtually the entire month writing fast, burning the midnight oil, etc, etc, trying to reach 50,000 to 100,000 words. Many of them are very good at it, pumping out those novels, but I just sit at my computer watching their progress and sigh. Of course, there is much more to the process to get that book published, but that's another blog post. I just can't write that fast, darn-it-all!

My son was recently in a production of Oklahoma! at the local high school. It was very good, by the way, most folks telling the director (and writing in the newspaper) that it was perhaps the BEST production of Oklahoma! they'd ever seen. I agree. This school has a very strong performing arts program, but I'll give kudos to Hugh Jackman's Curly. He was pretty amazing in that role. Anyway, we had a terrific set designer. I didn't build any of it, but I had promised to spend a lot of my time painting it. 

(Don't worry, this really does relate to writing:)

See what I mean about the weathering?
The first day the drama mamas showed up to paint, the set designer told us just to paint everything brown: Aunt Eller's house, the fences, the windmill, the smokehouse. Okay, we thought, taking our brushes and getting to work. This is dull and ugly and BROWN, but whatever. For the next step, he told us to use darker colors to start creating light and shadow. For example, we painted black lines on Aunt Eller's house, to which we would later add a vibrant yellow inside the black lines to portray wood siding. We used grey to set off the bed, shelves and rock walls in the smokehouse, but we painted black in all the corners and under the ledges to portray soot. After we'd gotten most of that done, the set looked really good and I really thought we were pretty much done. But, no!

It looked good all right, but now we needed to make it look old. This was Oklahoma! after all, and things in the early 1900's on the plains in the American midwest did not look new. So, we grabbed the set designers special brushes and started the "weathering" process. We used a variety of silvers and greens to age wood posts, the porch and the corners of the house. We even learned how to make it look like rain had gathered under an eave had run down the side of a building and took the pigment of the paint with it. It was arduous, but fun, and when we were done, it really did look a lot more realistic.

(Wait for it . . . it's coming . . . relating this to writing:)

I  never thought I'd be so proud of fence posts:)

There was one more thing that still needed to be done. The set designer called it the "sugar coat" and he said he would be responsible for that, so we washed our brushes, dried our hands and went our merry way thinking that the painting was done. And it was done in my mind. I kept thinking, "Come on, sugar disappears when you sprinkle it on top, right? How much more to it could there be?" When the curtain swung open on opening night, I was amazed. It was still the same set, but soooo much better, so much more beautiful. The colors more vibrant, the lights and shadows more defined. It was as if he'd added a layer of magic. That set was breathtaking. It literally sparkled (and not because of the lighting. I knew what we had done as painters and what the set designer had achieved with his final coat).

So, here's what I learned about writing from this experience: 

The ugly brown base coat? That's the structure of a story, the bare bones of it, where as writers we have an idea of how to get from point A to point B, but it's flat and has no dimension.

The light and shadow phase? That's where we add dimension, where we start making our characters come to life, what they look like, what they say, and how they say it. We start adding antagonists, sidekicks, romantic interests, comedy and tragedy, and all of the elements that make stories fun and interesting.

The weathering phase? That's where we enhance the book's overall style via word choice and voice, to make it look and feel real by adding description, sensory perception, internal dialog, and even a little back story so readers can understand what motivates our characters.

The sugar coat? That's the editing process. I know, right. Ugh! This is hard work for an author. Although, I gotta say, the action of it as a writer is not nearly as romantic as imagining that set designer swirling fairy dust with his paint brush as magic wand on the set of Oklahoma! I know he didn't do that:) It was hard work for him, but that was the effect that his effort had on me. The editing process is when we fine-tune the writing, polishing it and brightening it to make it magical. I think we all want to have that final, wonderful, magical effect on our readers.

See why I don't write fast? I can't write a full rough draft and come back to it. I have to enhance as I go along. I try to do this all at once and it's maddening! (And I haven't quite figured out how to be a full-time writer). However, as I've realized how much needs to go into my writing to make it as good as I'd like it to be, I have become a better writer. If I can still be riveted by a story that I'm telling, I think that's a good sign.

What do you think? Am I missing anything? What works for you as a writer? 


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