Monday, May 3, 2010

Renee Ryan-Layering Part 1

Thanks to The Seekers for inviting me back to their blog. I’m just so amazed at all the success these writers have had over the last few years. What an inspiration to us all!

When Mary Connealy asked me to blog we both agreed the topic would require two days, so I’ll be here today and tomorrow. Of course, I’ll also be giving away a few prizes. Leave a comment today and you will get a chance to win a copy of my current release LOVING BELLA, the third book in my Charity House series for Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired Historical line. Leave a comment tomorrow and you will put in a separate drawing for a copy of the book as well. Leave a comment either day and you will be eligible to win the grand prize: a copy of all three books in the Charity House series.
What I’m going to discuss is one of my favorite writing topics. The Art of Layering, From First Draft to Finished Manuscript.

The first draft is what many authors consider the hardest part of writing a novel. The common saying goes something like this: Nothing’s worse than a blank page. Consequently, getting that first draft onto that blank page is nothing more than getting words on paper. After all, words can be fixed. Sentences can be rearranged and/or deleted. That’s what the second draft is for and where layering comes in as well.

Although many believe the first draft is where all the creativity takes place, some of the most creative aspects of putting a novel together can also come in the later stages. The third, fourth or even tenth draft. This process is called layering.

Layering is both an art form and a skill. It is a process that can be learned and honed. What we layer, when we layer, and why we layer all matter.

So let’s begin.


This step is obvious. You can’t begin the layering process unless you have a first draft. But please note, I am not telling you one way is better than the other. This first draft can either be a draft of a scene, chapter, section, or the complete novel. Do what works for you.


This step is what I call: NO TALKING HEADS. Your characters must be moving around at all times. They must be doing something. Stationary people do not exist in the real world, nor should they exist in a scene. Try watching a scene of a favorite movie without the sound. Notice how the actors convey emotion with their body language. Here are some written examples.

“Miss Jane, all is not lost.”
She gave him a ragged, quivering sigh.
“You may still survive if you turn from this life forever,” he offered. “We could leave for Colorado Springs this afternoon.”
“No.” A slow, harsh breath wheezed out of her. “It’s too late.”

He lifted a skinny, limp hand into his, closed his fingers over the pale, graying skin. “Miss Jane, all is not lost.”
She gave him a ragged, quivering sigh.
With his own answering sigh, he released her hand and brought a glass of water to her cracked lips. He lifted her shoulders with one hand and helped her navigate the glass with the other. “You may still survive if you turn from this life forever. We could leave for Colorado Springs this afternoon.”
Jane took a slow, choking sip, and then leaned back. “No.” A harsh breath wheezed out of her. “It’s too late.”


Although most of us tend to be visual by nature, we live life in a three-dimensional world. We experience the world around us with all five senses. Smells have a powerful pull over our memory. As do songs. How many times have you heard a song from your childhood and was instantly transported to another time and place. Here are some examples of how to layer in the senses (other than sight)
A burst of wind whipped the doorknob from Rebecca Gundersen’s fingers. The storm was coming in too fast. The town wasn’t prepared. She wasn’t prepared.
Forcing back her panic, Rebecca sprinted down the boarding house steps. She shoved her hair out of her face and cast a quick glance to her left. Dark clouds were moving in, foretelling of a bad storm.
She was not alone on the street, though the thought gave her no comfort. Caught in their own terror, people of all ages and sizes rushed past her, scrambling for cover. Three horses galloped by.
Navigating the labyrinth of activity, Rebecca dashed around the mercantile. She cast another glance to the sky. Time was running out.

A burst of wind whipped the doorknob from Rebecca Gundersen’s fingers. Hail pelted her face, leaving behind a nasty sting. The storm was coming in too fast.
Forcing back her panic, Rebecca sprinted down the boarding house steps and ran straight into the growling wind. There was an oppressive stench of rotting earth and grass, an unmistakable warning that a deadly tornado loomed in the distance.
Rebecca shoved her hair out of her face and cast a quick glance to her left. A shelf of ominous looking clouds cut a sharp line of black against the pale blue sky.
She was not alone on the street, though the thought gave her no comfort. Caught in their own terror, people of all ages and sizes rushed past her, scrambling for cover. Three horses galloped by, their high-pitched whinnies echoing the panic they held in their eyes.
Navigating the labyrinth of activity, Rebecca dashed around the mercantile. She cast another glance to the sky. The rapidly approaching clouds had taken on a sickly, greenish tint.

Setting is very important in commercial fiction. After all, our books aren’t just competing with one another they’re competing with the television and movies. Think of this step as an opportunity to transport your character into your story world. An example:

The pink structure was a typical Victorian house, or what some called a Painted Lady.

If houses had gender, this one was surely female. Elegant, whimsical, the two-story building was made of rose-colored stone. The bold lines of the roof were softened by rounded windows and sweeping vines. On closer inspection the house looked a bit neglected, the twisting wisteria covered a few sags and wrinkles that made the building look like a woman refusing to accept her age.

And that’s all we’re going to talk about today. Tune in tomorrow. I’ll present the final four steps in the process.


  1. Loved this post, Renee! Editing, layering, revision... all of that fascinates me, and I'm always ready to learn more about it :) I'm currently in the 'write the first draft' stage in my WIP, but I'll definitely keep your tips in mind when I start the editing process.

    Oh, and leave me out of the giveaways, please.

  2. Thanks so much for being here at Seekerville again, Renee! Great post--I love how you break down the layer this way! The five senses are always the LAST thing I think about when I'm writing and I end up needing to put in more sensory detail in the revision stage. Things like, oh ... where the characters are ... :)


  3. Thanks Renee - I think layering is a fun part of the revision process. You give great advice!

  4. Thanks for sharing, Renee. I definitely needed to be reminded of layering in my story. Something to keep in mind as I revise.

  5. Great post about layering. This is the way I write, so I found this very helpful.

  6. Fantastic examples, Renee! They really illustrate the whole layering concept. Interesting how I felt more connected and invested in the story when I read the 'better' examples. I love your idea of watching a favourite movie without the sound to observe the movement. Brilliant!!!!

    Oh -- and I just noticed that the buffet table is rather bare this morning. Dare I venture a vegetarian alternative? Lovely, thin, melt-in-your-mouth crepes with steaming hot toppings -- strawberry or blueberry (with a zest of lemon) or peach and blackberries. Top them off with your choice of Canadian maple syrup, whipped cream,a dusting of icing sugar, grated chocolate...or all of the above. Freshly squeezed orange juice is in the pitcher and tea is steeping. Sorry, somebody cracked the coffee pot so you'll have to make a run to Tim Horton's.

  7. I cannot tell you how much I have been looking forward to these postings. Thanks so much for sharing and for being our guest.

    Kav, love that you stepped right in with breakfast.

    Coffee has ARRIVED.

  8. Wow Renee,
    Thanks for this 'part one' of layering. What a great post. You've just given me some valuable tools for going back to my wip and layering it with the 5 senses and movement.
    Loved this post.

  9. Renee,

    Thanks for providing examples with your explanation of the layers.

    I'm printing this one off. Can't wait for tomorrows.


    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  10. Hey Renee! wow I loved your post today it really helped me to see and understand the deminsions of a story! Thank you! And Please add me in the contest! Your books look amazing and I would love the chance to win one!

  11. Hi all,

    WOW, you ladies are early birds. Of course, I'm still recovering from Prom and Post Prom this weekend. How do kids stay up all night???

    Mia, I love the first draft phase. No editing! ENJOY.


  12. Thanks for returning to Seekerville, Renee. I've been looking forward to these posts.

    I completely agree--nothing worse than looking at a blank screen. The hardest part of writing is the first draft. But if you don't just blurt it out, you don't have anything to fix.

    Looking forward to part II tomorrow!

    Since I woke up to a bright, sunny day, I've brought a bright, sunny citrus salad to the buffet. Forget the juice this morning and dig into a bowl of sweet, juicy oranges, grapefruits, pummelos and cuties. Coconut and pecans sprinkled on top. Yumbola!

  13. I'm so glad this post is resonating with everyone. I think it's easy to talk about layering, but hard to conceive. That's why examples are so valuable.

    Camy, I agree with the five senses. I always have to remind myself to add that layer.

    Christy, I'm with you. Layering is fun...AFTER it all comes together. The getting there is the tough stuff.

    Dianna, good luck with revising. ;-)


  14. Tamera,

    Yay, I like-minded writer. I like you already. ;-)

    Kav, so glad you were more interested in the layered examples. I think the difference between all of the "okay" examples and "better" examples is deeper POV, hence the deeper connection. I
    m in need of some crepes now!

  15. Tina,

    Thanks for the welcome and the coffee!

    Pepper, hope you enjoy the process as you return to your manuscript.

    Rose, can you tell I taught high school? I learned early on to give concrete examples. It's the best teaching tool I have in my arsenal!

    Lindsey, welcome! You are included in the drawing. ;-)

  16. Hi Audra!

    Love your citrus salad idea. YUM! Blank pages must be filled. The heroine in my current WIP is an amateur artist. She LOVES a blank page and the unlimited possibilites ahead of her. I'm starting to dislike her optimism. ;-)


  17. Welcome back to Seekerville, Renee! Thanks for your informative post. Your examples are wonderful! I'm in the layering process with a book now. Layering adds depth and emotion to our stories. Well worth all the effort it takes. Looking forward to reading tomorrow's post.

    I love your new cover! Can't wait to read Loving Bella.


  18. Welcome to Seekerville, Renee! Wonderful post. I can certainly use all this information. Layering doesn't come naturally to me, so this helps.

  19. Great tips, Renee! Thanks for sharing.

    I know I'll refer to it often!

    Deb Raney taught an online class for ACFW several years ago titled THE REWRITING PROCESS, and she talks about some of these same techniques.

    I keep a copy of her lesson plan in my synonym finder so I know just where to look when I'm ready to rewrite.

  20. Thanks for the post on layering, Renee. I tend to be really sparse on layering in details like this. A good reminder to include movement, the five senses, and setting in each scene.

  21. Mornin', Renee, and welcome back to Seekerville!

    WOW ... talk about good timing!! I JUST finished my fifth book last night, and I am ready to layer!!! You've given some really great tips here, and like Kav, I think the tip to watch a favorite movie without the sound is brilliant!

    The thing I've noticed that I always do last is layer in the setting, which I think is weird, because you would think one would have the setting firmly in mind from the start, but I tend to focus on emotional drama between the characters first since that's what drives me, then layer in setting last. That way, too, I can fashion the setting around the mood/drama of the interplay between the characters, actually employing some setting characteristics that will enhance the drama.

    Can't wait till tomorrow, Renee!


  22. I've found my 6am comment is missing, so just assume it was witty and full of praise for this post, Renee.

    It made me feel I'm not so far 'off the mark' with the way I write.

    Please enter me in the drawing --
    debraemarvin (at) yahooooooo

  23. Good morning, Renee.
    I was at a writer's group meeting, Renee belongs to my local RWA chapter, and she gave this lesson and it was such solid advice, laid out in such aclear useful way, I asked her to come and give the lesson again on Seekerville.

    But it was toooooo much for one day. So Renee will be on again tomorrow and we're giving away some books so make SURE and leave a comment to get your name in the drawing today AND tomorrow.

  24. Hi Janet, waving to my fellow LIH writer. Thanks for the cheers on my cover. I call it the one with "the dress". Wonder why???

    Hi Cara, a little secret...none of this writing thing comes easy for me, so we're in the same boat. I keep thinking I'm going to find that magic formula, but alas it all boils down to hard work. Chug, chug, chug...

    Pam, Deb Raney's workshop sounds fabulous! Like I said, I'm always happy to find those kernals. ;-)


  25. Hi Melanie,

    Glad the post resonated. ;-)

    Julie, I love hearing everyone's process. I'm really fascinated with your approach to setting. Great reminder. It should reflect the mood and tone of the scene.

    Debra, I'm sure your post was brilliant and full of insight. Thank you so much!!!


  26. Mary,

    THANK YOU so much for inviting me back to Seekerville. It's always a pleasure. ;-)


  27. Very interesting! I love to see how writers improve their rough drafts.


  28. Great post - very helpful!!


  29. Excellent post, Renee. I actually love writing the first draft. It's all so new and exciting. I never know what's going to happen next within the context of the plot.

    And then I slave over the rewrites. I'll find a sentence I know I could write better so I change it until it's perfect... then discover the next sentence uses words or a phrase I've just added. So then I have to change that one, too.

    Absolutely love your books, Renee. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.


    PS - my captcha word for today here is... mates... ta da. LOL

  30. Hi Renee:

    As a lifelong fan of historical novels, I’d like to lobby for writers adding a layer of ‘history’.

    I just read a book in which I was on page 5 or 6 before I realized it was a WWII era story and not a contemporary.

    I’d like to see every page of a historical novel have at least one reference or trace which tags the story as a historical. This could be a smell, a saying, the way people would tell time, a fabric, a type of food, a rule of thumb for doing something they did back then, and of course occasional facts would be nice. (like who is president).

    As a test, I suggest that a reader observe how many pages in a row she can read in which the text could pass as being in a contemporary novel. This is just a layering idea.

    What do you think of the idea that a writer should work on making the first draft as clean as possible?

    I was a photographer for a number of years and we had a saying, “We’ll just fix it in the darkroom". This turned out to be a very bad idea because it lead to sloppy shots and hours of extra work smelling bad chemicals in the darkroom.

    So now I think: “Try to get as good a first draft as possible”.


    vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

  31. Oooh Vince,
    Great idea. That reminds me to go back and check for the 'historical feel' of my novel from page one.
    Nice extra layer to add to Renee's.

  32. Thanks for the post, Renee! Like others posting I am in the process of writing my first draft, and need all the help I can get. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I look forward to tomorrow's lesson.

  33. Great post! Thank you so much for the tips. Someone who just read one of my fulls said I did great with layering but I had no clue what she meant. This is helpful for me so I can keep on trying to do that. LOL

    Loved how you changed that last example. Just awesome!

  34. Renee, I truly appreciate your post today. As I am just beginning my WIP you clearly and concisely showed exactly what I need to do to add color and layering. I impatiently await your next installment.

  35. Oh my stars, KAV!!!!!

    The minute I saw vegetarian I CRINGED!!!!

    And then....

    AND THEN.....

    You came through amazingly well. Well done, my friend!!!! Applause!!!!! And thank you for stepping to the plate with such gentility and great food...

    Renee'.... First, please tell me that picture is:

    1. At least a decade old.

    2. Photo-shopped and you're really
    pock-marked and worm-riddled.

    3. A supermodel you use to disguise yourself like Anna Schmidt uses various Hollywood Stars on the LI website.

    Because if that's you, then, hot dang. I'm just going to run upstairs right now and throw soapy sponges at the mirror.


    I loved this. Start to finish. What a wonderful way of precision-posting a breakdown. Very well done and I'm loving the line "If houses had gender, this one was purely female..."

    Do not think I'm a copycat, but I used a similar line in a new book (I'll make sure it's not TOO similar) to describe a house that actually exists... And yes, it's a girl.

    Wonderful. Just those turns of phrase had me eating out of your hand.

    Except you had no food. ;)


  36. Chug Chug Chug - that's me!

    Thank you Renee. Timely information and helpful! Am going to print out and savor. Thank you too for giving us examples. That is such a help!!

    Our pastor is teaching the Tabernacle, making the point that only the wealthy had clothing with color. What must the vision of the curtains surrounding it have been like with the spectacular use of color and decoration.

    He remembered traveling to Belarus just after things opened there. After 3 weeks he returned through Amsterdam and was amazed at all the color. Seems about everything in Belarus at that time was a shade of gray so it seemed he went from b/w film to color.

    And here you are discussing a similar topic. I'll do my best to take the hint. Looking forward to tomorrow! Thank you!

    ksf895 at citlink dot net

    PS - they say there have been 20 deaths associated with the storms that moved through TN. We're ok here though a section of county road near our home completely washed out and had to be rebuilt. Wshew... We've lived here almost 9 years and that's never happened.

  37. Renee, I'm a big fan of yours. I was able to attend D.C. last year and tried to attend one of your workships. I even sat down, but a friend was in need of coaching and I had to leave. Thankfully, I was able to purchase the workshops. And I've listened to your Art of Layering several times. Now whenever I read one of your books I hear you voice. :)

  38. Enjoyed the post. Great to see you here in Seekerville. I had the pleasure of meeting you at M&M in 2008. (At least, I think I did. I have your name written down in my notebook alongside a suggestion you made about a nonfiction project I was working on.)

    I have tried doing stuff like this in my books. I always remind myslef to go back and add smells because that's the sense I ignore the most.


  39. Wow! What great advice and I loved the examples - really drives home the point. Can't wait for tomorrow's blog! Thanks!

  40. Very informative. I would love to read your books.

  41. Welcome, Renee! Very insightful post! It really helps to remember we can always go back and layer in the elements you mentioned and not stress about getting it all into the first draft.

    In fact, there are many things I don't even know about my story until I get deeper into it. In my case, layering can be an ongoing process.

  42. Renee, the cover model is tall. That's all. Still love the cover!

    Janet not budging Dean

  43. KC, glad you're fine!

    Hugs, Janet

  44. Hi Courtney and Edwina! Thanks for joining me today. Anita Mae!!! I haven't seen you in a while. My fault, of course. I'm trying to get my baby graduated from high school. She is so much harder than my son. Of course, he's already through college so I'm thinking I might have a case of selective memory. I feel your pain on the editing process. I do the exact same thing.


  45. Hi Susan, so glad my explanation made sense. With high school kids "frequency of the message" is the key. LOL

    Hi Vince! YES, I agree. Historical facts, atmosphere and slang should be layered in as well, assuming the book is a historical. Tee hee! Seriously, nothing's worse than reading a historical and not being able to pinpoint the time period from the get-go. I have a WWII coming out in September. Now I'm heading over to check to make sure it has a WWII feel. Not like I can fix it now, but still...

  46. Yes, Vince, you make an excellent point about the first draft. I think it is important to get it as clean as possible, but I also think that perfection can become our enemy. Often I find I must move on or I'll never get past the "glitch". I usually discover on the second or third pass that that particular difficult section is something that needs to go. Or needs a complete refocus. Often knowing how a book ends helps fix the middle. You know???


  47. OH, Karnold! Good luck on that first draft. Don't let anything you read today slow you down. Just keep motoring forward. You can always fix words later. ;-)

    So, uh, Jessica, are you saying you layer naturally??? I might have to reconsider our friendship. No, just teasing. Fabulous that it comes instinctually.

    Welcome, Jenna. Tomorrow will be here before you know it. LOL


  48. Hi Ruthy,

    You are officially my new best friend. The picture is three years old, but it was taken on an old digital camera -- no high def. for me! Makeup and high tech hair dye are the key!!! I think we share the same fabulous editor, Melissa Endlich! She loves you, by the way.

    No, you are not a copycat. It's just a matter of brilliant minds thinking alike!


  49. Hi KC. WOW, your pastor sounds wonderful. Have you ever tried the Beth Moore Bible Study about the Tabernacle. It is FABULOUS, especially how she proves through the Scripture how everything in the Tabernacle points to Christ.

    Waving to Renee. Aren't audio tapes the bomb! I've taken many workshops that way. Are you going to Nashville (assuming any of us are going to Nashville). We must meet up, have a cup of tea and talk writing. Everyone here is invited, too. I'm the Asst. Workshop Chair this year and we have a fantastic lineup for our members.


  50. Yes, Walt, we did meet. It's easier for me to remember you since you were one of the few men in attendance. What a burden that must have been. HA! So, whatever happened to that proposal?


  51. Myra, you make another excellent point. Sometimes we don't know very important plot points or nuances until we start digging. Thanks for the reminder!


  52. Hi Renee,
    So glad you could be with us for TWO days. I always forget how difficult writing the first draft can be. With each new book, it's a "oh my gosh, I'll never get this written" type of feeling.

    The real fun for me is in the rewriting process. Once I get words on the page -- as you mentioned -- I'm on a roll!

  53. The proposal floundered for lack of a platform. (My favorite comment upon being declined. "It's funny, but no one knows who you are.") I'm trying to serialize it with women's magazines. So far, no luck.

    And, yes, it is rough being one of the few men there. Begged my wife to go to the M&M dance with me the last two years, but she wouldn't go.

  54. Hi Renee:

    Thanks for your comments. I really want to read your WWII novel and see how you layered the text.

    I found a very good book for anyone writing about WWII is “Letter from Home”, by Carolyn Hart. It’s a World War II era novel set on the home front, in Oklahoma where I live. It won the Agatha Award for Best Mystery Novel of 2003. This book is so layered with history you’ll think you were back in 1942. It’s not a book for romance ideas but rather to get a taste of living during WWII.

    Is your WWII book a Love Inspired? I don’t think I’ve seen a LI set in that late a period but I would sure like to see LI do WWII. I’m looking forward to your post tomorrow.


  55. Interesting topic. Looking forward to the next four steps.

    I recall reading a blog post a few years back--maybe here at Seekerville, maybe not--that every writer has certain layers that come more naturally than others. For example, I might automatically write in setting but the five senses may require more conscious effort. Do you find this to be true?

  56. Hi Ruth:

    I’m with you. The first thing I noticed was how much I liked Renee’s photo. I believe the key to a really good (and believable) PR photo is looking beautiful when it is obvious you are not trying to look beautiful and the photo has a snap shot quality to it.

    Your photo and Melanie’s new photo both have the same quality. I noticed them the day you first used them. I think with Glamour shots everyone looks beautiful in the same way. But with the right ‘snap shot’ everyone’s beauty radiates individually from within. Oh, I better stop: I’m beginning to sound like Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. (You know what I mean. :))


  57. Hi Renee, Great post. I'm just starting a wip so this process wil come in handy. I usually try to do all of it at once and of course don't. It makes sense to do it in stages. Or layers.

    Thanks for joining us in Seekerville. Looking forward to tomorrow.

  58. Stopped back by to read your post in a more leisurely fashion, Renee. (I'm printing it to refer back to it as needed.)And, realized I forgot to leave email earlier so here it is...

    Thanks for taking the time to post this topic.

  59. Hey, Renee!! I'm so glad to have you back on the blog!

    Great post. So helpful. I'm going to make a file and keep your list!

  60. I'm new to Seekerville. I ran across it when I was learning more about an author. Thank you for the practical advice. I have never written a book (yet), but it's a dream. Can't wait to start and utilize all I'm learning. :)

  61. I'm not a writer, but that sounds like great information. I would love to read your books.

    seriousreader at live dot com

  62. Well Sherri. Welcome to SEEEKRVILLE!!!!

    Check out the Weekend Edition (Saturday's post-to see the line up for the week) Renee will be back tomorrow to finish this great workshop.

  63. Great post Renee! I love the covers of your books they are awesome! This is some wonderful tips on writing!


  64. Awesome post. I just love coming to Seekerville.

    May you have a very blessed day.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  65. i enjoyed reading this post renee...

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  66. This is really, really good advice, Renee. I think of layering a draft as painting. The painter starting with a blank canvals, background colors, sketching in the picture, and that's when the fun really starts. Adding rich colors that add depth and light to the picture--that's how I think of writing.

  67. Layering movement...talking heads... I hadn't thought of it that way before. It's fascinating to see a work come alive. Thanks for helpful hints!
    hendrickson_emily (at) hotmail (dot) com

  68. I found this post so helpful, Renee!! I'm an aspiring author and I think this is one of the most helpful posts I've read so far! Thank you, thank you! I have stories in me, but have been too scared of not being perfect the first time I think. Just getting it out there and then layering sounds like it's going to suit me so well! God Bless you!

  69. Renee, thank you for sharing this stuff with us.

    Love your books!


  70. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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