If you take many of my classes, especially if you take Yellow Highlighter Classes (the hands on markup classes that I teach), deep point of view, or classes on writing emotion or sexual tension, you’ll find I talk a lot about layers.

When I think about writing I think of it as being a lot like juggling. When we are constructing a story we have many elements to juggle. There are the bits that form who our characters are…there are character goals some of which change throughout the story and some of which stay the same…there are the ways that the characters themselves change and grow and the ways that they stay the same…there are all the plot points that define the relationship journey…there is romantic tension, emotional tension and sexual tension which all have to be balanced. There are several kinds of conflict that need to be understood, linked, and used to fuel the conflict and the romantic, emotional, and sexual tension.

It is enough to make your head spin…which brings me back to juggling!

If we had to get all of these things in place with one writing pass it’d be pretty difficult…maybe even impossible. But with writing we don’t have to do that.

Any time I think of juggling I think of my niece Lauraya who when she was five or six came to see me all excited because she was learning how to juggle. She asked if she could show me her juggling, and of course I said yes. She proceeded to pick up five or six cat toys, toss them in the air, and duck.

I laughed, of course, but her juggling skill and my writing juggling skill have a lot in common…but with writing that is okay.

With writing we can throw all our balls into the air, park them there, and then shift them around, move them, add layers, take away layers, and smoothly navigate to the point where we need to catch the next ball. We can park that ball…put all the others in place and then move back to the first, toss it and catch the next, all without losing any of them. This is the magic of writing. If by chance we find that it doesn’t work as smoothly as we thought we can backtrack to where it was working and pick up our juggling again…all without getting hit in the head by any flying objects.

I create in layers. And in general I teach other people to create in layers too because I think that is most natural to us. Most of us don’t sit down at our keyboards and hammer out perfect prose which connect perfectly the first time through. Rather, most of us sit down, we hammer out disconnected bits which sound jerky and choppy and which shift in viewpoint. Sometimes our dialogue sounds robotic. Sometimes the characters move stiffly from place to place. Sometimes we could even imagine them constructed out of wood dancing to the tune of a behind the scenes puppet master. This is all perfectly okay, and is even expected, as long as we go back and move things around, connect them, adjust the viewpoints, and in general clean things up.

I just finished teaching a class on creating sexual and emotional tension in romance novels for OIRW in May. What we covered in the last class was essentially the foundation for creating sexual and emotional tension. Creating the foundation is an early layer. It is something that we sketch out when we write the early draft. The language/vocabulary which is the focus of the Developing a Vocabulary for Writing Love Scenes Class I’m teaching now is a later layer.

The Developing a Vocabulary for Writing Love Scenes Class is about things like creating a sensual flow…describing the sexual experiences of the characters…and that sort of thing. But if the initial layer with all the elements that create underlying tension aren’t there then the vocabulary for writing the love scene will only help  marginally.

In July and August I will be teaching another two part class for OIRW. These two classes focus on creating and describing the emotional experiences of our characters. The first class is a really in depth look at emotion as an experience. We talk about how real people experience emotion and we use this knowledge to propel our work with our fictional people. We discuss things like base emotional states, the role of empathy between characters, and the importance of your character showing empathy if you want the reader to like him/her.

I find the whole study of base emotional states to be really interesting and kind of the basic step in defining characters so that we can see who they are emotionally. If we know such things as whether they are introverts or extroverts (which may have a different definition than the one you’ve heard before), whether they are fast or slow to react emotionally, whether they react in big ways or small ways, and how much energy it takes them to maintain an emotional even keel, then we know a great deal about how they will react in emotional situations. We also know how being dropped into an unexpected emotional experience will make them feel. This provides a foundation…a ground layer for building the emotional experience. The Intensifying Emotion class helps students understand how to lay this foundation for writing emotion.

The second workshop on Emotion, Developing a Vocabulary For Writing Emotion is a higher layer class. It focuses on how to put into words all those emotional moments that happen between characters. Because emotion is something that we feel physically but ascribe mental and emotional meaning to emotion is different than other experiences. It is much more abstract in  nature. In the Developing a Vocabulary for Writing Emotion class we dig deep into the abstract emotional connections that our characters make. This makes the description of the emotional experience of each character unique and individual to the character, his or her background, experiences, and abstract emotional connotations.

Writing is complex. I find it easiest to write in layers. To expect that a story is going to come together and gain strength as I work on each subsequent layer. I generally structure my workshops in the same way. I tend to lay a foundation for understanding how the pieces of a given topic work together, then I work my way toward the surface where we’re working with the magic of words…which I think of as being like a bit of magic fairy dust that we sprinkle on and polish up as we work toward the end of the process.

What about you? Do you write in layers? Do you create the physical layer first, then come back and weave in thoughts and feelings or do you start with thoughts and feelings and then weave in actions? Do you wordsmith as you go or save that for the end of your process?