Friday, May 11, 2012

Guest blogger Lacy Williams: "Layering: a technique to get your manuscript to a publishable final draft"

Lacy Williams
Working on my third contracted book (to be published in December), I suddenly realized “I have a method!”
Since I first got serious about writing for publication, I’ve spent years working on craft and listening to authors describe how they write books.
For some, it is doing a lot of pre-work and outlining and then they can write a 100k book in 30 days (I can’t even imagine it!). For others, it is editing as they go along, so they have a finished product when they get to “the end.”
Well, I discovered I do have a method that works for me. And it only took five years and three books for me to find it! I call my technique layering, and I’m sure it’s not original. I think of the book like a layer-cake.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you probably have many of the raw ingredients it takes to write a book (a plot, characters, conflict, setting, etc.). But how do you put them together in a way that it ends up in a salable, completed manuscript?
Here’s what I do:

I think of the cake pan as the FRAMEWORK for the novel. What is the target audience? Is the novel a romance? Women’s fiction? A story of the character finding themselves? A suspense? Who is the targeted publisher? What is the goal word-count?
I also do extensive character work before I officially start writing the novel. I love and continue to use Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK for his character exercises. I recently also discovered Noah Lukeman’s THE PLOT THICKENS, which also has good questions to answer about your characters.
I tend to plot by the classic 3-act structure and so before I start the first draft, I write down where my characters are in the Beginning, the three Disasters, and the Ending. This is all subject to change as I get into writing the novel, but I start with an idea of what these major plot points are.

This is my FIRST DRAFT. I write as fast as I can, as much as I can in each sitting, so that I stay “in character.” This helps me keep the character voices consistent and the book flows better for me. This draft tends toward the “bare bones.” It is usually shorter than the final word count will be (usually about 10k words short). I don’t have all of the characters’ physical movements in at this point, nor do I have all of the setting details in. I focus on dialogue and internal monologue.
And here’s a key thing that helped me turn off my internal editor during this draft. I use brackets.
If I’m writing something and I can’t find the [right][perfect] word (or I can’t choose between two), I bracket it and move on. When I go back through the novel in the second or third draft, I will take time to focus on word choice. I also use brackets for duplicate words (when I know I used the same word one sentence or one paragraph above or below), so I can go back and eliminate or change one of the usages later.

At this point, I do two things. 1) I send it to my critique partners, who will look at the large picture and find any plot holes, and they will also look at the characters and tell me if they are working or not. 2) I print out the manuscript in landscape layout with two columns of text (to look more like an open book). I also shrink the text and print front/back to save paper. Then I really start on my edits.
For this layer, I take a long, hard look at CONFLICT. Check out this post from last year on how I do this.
I make notations directly on the paper manuscript for things I want to change. 

I will go back through the paper manuscript again, using a different color pen this time. During this layer, I look at my CHARACTERS. Are they acting in character throughout the book? Does their dialogue fit? Is it sharp and interesting? 

During this layer I go back through the paper manuscript yet again, this time examining PHYSICAL MOVEMENTS and SETTING. Use a different color pen again.
Usually, by this time my crit partners have given me lots to think about. I’ll mark some of their comments in the manuscript too, for things I want to change.
I then sit down at the computer with my multicolored, marked-up, dog-eared paper manuscript and make the changes I’ve noted on my Word document. It takes awhile. This is what I call my official SECOND DRAFT, but it may be significantly different from the FIRST DRAFT, because I have (hopefully) upped the conflict, smoothed out any plot holes, and perfected my characters.

This is the last part, the finesse part.
First, I use a program called NoteTab Light (a free program). This program takes the text of my manuscript and counts the instances of each word used. This is an easy way to pick out my “weasel words” for the manuscript (they change for each new manuscript I write!). Then I go into Microsoft Word and highlight all the instances of those weasel words so I can cut some of them out.
I also highlight all the –ly words (although I end up leaving a lot of them in, I want to make sure not to overuse!), as well as “was,” one of my personal favorite passive verbs.
Then when my on-screen manuscript is all colorful, I will do a careful read-through and line-edit away all the brackets and highlights. This is as close to perfect as I will get the manuscript without help from my editor, who always manages to catch more instances of duplicate words or awkward phrasings.
From start to finish, my process takes a couple months for a 75k-word novel. It might not work for everyone, but it does work for me. Hope I’ve given you something to think about when you’re in editing-mode!

By day, Lacy Williams is a stay-at-home mom battling dirty diapers and dog-hair dust-bunnies. By night, she is a novelist whose debut book has been nominated for an RT Book Reviews 2011 Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her current projects include a screenplay and potty-training her little girl. 

To celebrate her birthday this month, Lacy is doing a special gift giveaway for her readers. Visit for details.
Lacy has also offered to give away two copies (one paperback, one PDF) of her latest release, The Homesteader's Sweetheart. Watch for the winners' announcement in the next Weekend Edition!


  1. For awhile there, I thought you and I wrote the same way, but it changed in layer #3. :)

    And I'm still tweaking. I'm in the middle of Book #5 and I think I may be done tweaking with my process. My tweaking is solely focused on how can I write the book from the beginning as good as possible so I can avoid HUGE rewrites. I hate huge rewrites.

    So this book I did massive MASSIVE prewriting charts, and I feel much more comfy. Though, my crit partner has only seen to ch 2 so, you know, I'm expecting her to say "I want to throw the book against the wall" somewhere in there like she always does. Whenever I get to the point I can avoid her saying that--I think I will have arrived!

  2. Thank you, Lacy.

    This is exactly where I am in my current project. I've printed articles on this topic and will be adding yours to it. I need all the help I can get. :)

    Coffee's ready. Come and get it!!


  3. I don't have a consistant writing schedule yet, let alone a process, but I like yours, Lacy.

    I'd love to win a print copy of your book.

    andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

  4. I'm on manuscript 7 [well... 7, 8, 9 and 10 depending... ;)]. I do something similar but without much pre-writing stuff if any. I usually go through 2-3 hard copies - one for major edits, one for fine tuning edits and sometimes one after that depending on just how rough it was at the beginning. My first drafts tend to be on the short side too - 10 or 15K short.

    My BFF just read through a /gasp/ first draft of my Speedbo novel and she didn't find ANY major plot holes! That's HUGE for me :D.

    Of course, I've not got any pubbed or even very big nibbles yet but one of these days I'll figure it out ;).

    I'd love to be in the drawing for a book :D.


  5. This is fantastic Lacy. I am still looking for a way to work on my MS. I am printing this one out.
    Thanks so much,

  6. I am just getting started in fiction writing so this is a great addition. Copied and saved!

    No need to put me in the drawing since I have your book! Now if I can tear myself away from my writing to actually read!

    Peace and thanks, Julie

  7. Thanks Lacy for such a helpful post.

    At the moment I'm still in the process of trying to give myself permission to write an awful first draft! I'll write a para, decide I don't like it, go back and try again and before I know it my writing time has all disappeared trying to untangle a difficult sentence!

  8. Hi Lacy. What a fantastic look inside your writing style.

    I love how you describe your layering process and will be printing it out as well.

    I'm in the same boat as Kara...I write a little, then go back and read it, then decide it is horrible, rewrite it...and the process continues.

    I have got to get it through this thick curly-headed head of mine that I can write badly...I just need to get it all down.

    Phew...wish me luck.

  9. Hi Lacy great to see you here. Love the cake analogy.

    It reminded me of when I had to write reports for my studies. I would start with a rough draft of what was needed then flesh it out more. Read, reread and even have a friend check it. I had to recheck after the friend checked it too cos sometimes what they saw as an error was actually correct cos of the subject. Then submit.

    My huge dilemma right now is what to read next. I have 11 LI books here and cant choose.

    Don't enter me I have read this book and LOVED it.

  10. Lacy, you're not alone. This sounds a lot like how I write too.

    One layer at a time.

  11. Melissa, I was listening to a workshop the other day where the author said she didn't know where she was going from one paragraph, one scene, to the next.

    While I admire that and know that it can result in some awesome books, the few times I've tried it, it paralyzes me.

    Instead of awesome, my results look like her 2 yo got into Lacy's cake ingredients and tried to make a cake on the kitchen floor.

  12. Andrea, same here.

    Working full time, my writing has always been sporadic, but I'm excited to be part-time at the day job as of last week. This has been a LONG time coming, and I'm really excited.

    I can have my cake and eat it too! (Obvious pun intended! lol)

  13. Thanks for sharing your process in Seekerville, Lacy. Your process not only works for you, but you work fast! Very impressive!

    The Homesteader's Sweetheart's cover is gorgeous! LIH does a great job with our covers.

    Congrats on the RT Book Reviews 2011 Readers Choice Award!!


  14. Carol!!! High five!!!! Glad your Speedbo mss passed muster with your crit partner. That's wonderful!

    Deb Raney taught an online workshop on layering and I've used it before to layer in, or build, the cake, aka the manuscript.

    I remember one of her tips was to go through the ms once for the five senses. I think this would fall under Lacy's icing layer.

    I need to find my "cheatsheet" on the next round of edits, and add Lacy's tips to it!

    Speaking of cake, what's your absolute favorite cake?

    Lord, I love them all, but right this minute, I'm thinking red velvet with cream cheese icing. Yum!

  15. Lacy, I loved your post and reading about your process. When I first started writing, I'd write a scene, tweak it to make it the very best I could, taking a few days to do this. Then, I'd go back and write the next scene, and repeat the process. I got nowhere and fast! When I did NaNo last November, I discovered I could write, fast, if I had a road map of the story. No fixes along the way. So, now that's a part of my process.

    I'm in the process of fast-drafting my book, and I've been trying to figure out the best way to proceed once I'm done. I'm definitely going to try out your way. LOVED this post!

    PAM, I'm with you! If I tried to write without a plan, my cake would be runny dough on the floor. I admire people who are pantsters, but I am soooo not one. :)

  16. Lacy! It's so good to 'see' you again. Thanks for sharing your writing technique. Layering is so important.

    The cover of your new book looks great, I'm looking forward to reading it.

  17. Pam - yay for working part time!!!!!

    I'm sometimes one of those who doesn't know from one paragraph to the next but usually I have a better roadmap than that. Not much but some ;).

    My BFF does her best as a CP and she's really pretty good for a non-writer, but not sure what an actual CP would say about lots of it - but at least there's no major plot holes ;).

    Here's to lots of words today - anyone else writing?

  18. LACY -- What a GREAT and FUN analogy!!! And, gosh, that NoteTab Light tip is worth the price of admission, girl, so THANK YOU!!

    Those weasel words trip me up every single time, and you're right -- they're different with every book!!


  19. DEFINITELY heading over to get Note Tab Light. And THANKS for sharing your method. Might give it a try.

  20. Lacy, how long does it take you to write your rough draft?

    You do write fast.

    I like that you print out a hard copy to work with. The first ms I wrote was on a typewriter so everything was in print. I had an easier time seeing my mistakes. I think I need to go back to this.


  21. Wow, Lacy, you DO have a process!!! I don't actually think I have a process. I have written six books now and started on seven and eight, but I don't think I write any two books the same way. But you really have a process! I am impressed, and I can't imagine me being that methodical.

    I have used the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, but it's almost like, after I've used a certain method or tool once, I don't want to use it again. It doesn't seem to work if I try it with the next book. My mind works in weird ways, I guess. But one thing I really can't stand is writing out an outline or synopsis or even notes before I start writing. I barely have the names of the hero and heroine when I start on a book, but I like to have a fairly good idea of where the plot is going and how it will end. In my head. Not on paper. See? I have no process.

    I'm so happy for your success, Lacy! I can remember when both of us were unpublished and on the ACFW Course loop together. Life was simpler then ... LOL!!!

  22. I meant to say, if you can do all that and finish a 75K novel in two months, that is really amazing! I've never written a novel that fast. Maybe I need to get me one of those process thingys. ;-)

  23. I'm like Lacy and Carol--I tend to write on the short side. But it's not hard adding 10K words. Sometimes it seems harder to delete all those 'perfect' words.

    If I don't have a good idea where I'm going I get stuck easily. Paralyzed. Pam, I can relate!

    Lacy, thanks for giving us your method. Mine is similar, but not as organized. This post is a keeper for me.

  24. Welcome Lacy. Thanks for sharing your version of layering and the word weeding software.

    I write in layers but the scenes are never in consecutive order.

    Would love to win your book. Please enter me.

  25. Jeanne, I was also amazed I could write fast (or at least much faster) if I didn't edit a lot as I went along. I could easily spend days on a paragraph. All that thought just made it stilted. But it took a deadline to make me change. I wish I'd learned this earlier!

  26. Kara, I hear you! I think the worst for me is getting those first 3-4 chapters down without working on them over and over.

    Maybe all those contest submissions of the first 25-30 pages over the years warped my creative gene somehow.

    Oh, I set 3 daily goals for the day I'd finally be part-time. If I meet those three goals, I have had a BEW-tiful day!!!

    B - Read my Bible. Done for the day.
    E - Exercise. Going cycling this morning while it's still cool, and hoping I see better results with morning exercise.
    W - Write. After I get back, I'll write.

    Ah, the life of a writer! Yay!

  27. Going to get on the torture rack ... uh .... bicycle. Send the paramedics if y'all don't hear from me in about an hour...

    Let's see...I'll pass the time dreaming about my friend Pat's 20 layer lemon icebox cake.

    Honestly, I don't know how many layers it is, but they're really thin, and oh, my goodness, it's SO good.

  28. Just a quick note to welcome my very special guest and former ACFW chapter mate, Lacy! Busy running errands this morning but will stop in later!

  29. Lacy! Welcome back.

    Is this totally helpful OR WHAT?

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

  30. Oh, now I want CAKE!

    This is really interesting. Especially for someone who tries to get it all done in one draft (which is impossible). It's like you just told me it's okay to take several passes.

    A printer, fo' sho'!

  31. Lacy, thanks so much for sharing this. I'm definitely printing it out. I'm unpublished and try a little different method on every story. Sunday at church I got the seed of a new idea of a story.
    After reading this, I started organizing my thoughts by your plan.
    Thanks for the great idea!
    BTW, I love your name. Before I knew of you, I named one of my characters Lacy Williams. I know I need to change it, but haven't been able to make myself do it yet.
    I hope everybody has a great weekend!
    Jackie L.

  32. Hi Lacy, love the looks of that tall cake you have there but I am just a reader more interested in the finished product just like I would rather eat the cake then bake it.
    so interesting to read about your layers and how you actually write all the wonderfull words that I like to read.
    Now I am ready for a snack with some coffee and cake too. thanks for sharing today.
    Paula O(

  33. Fantastic way to look at it - of course, with icing on top! ha!

    Thanks Lacy. This is a keeper.

    I'm not sure WHAT my method is yet. But I turned in the manuscript yesterday, so this part is done. YIPPEE!

    My dog hair dust bunnies will race ya!

    Have a great weekend. Thanks for being here in Seekerville!

  34. Congratulations, KC, for turning in your manuscript! That's a real accomplishment!

    Since I'm working on the first chapter of a new book, I'm trying not to revise. But I can't seem to stop myself. Once I'm into a book and know my characters better, I can just write. I usually know what I want to write in the beginning, but I can't seem to get to the middle easily.

  35. Thank you so much Lacy! Totally a huge help as now I'm entering the 'editing phase.' I love your ideas of finding problem areas with different coloured pens..and of course I'm going to try the NoteTab Light. I'm sure it'll really help:)
    Thanks so much for sharing your proven's a big help!

    BTW ...would love to win a copy of your the cover!

    lornafaith at gmail dot com

  36. Oh yes, this sounds strangely familiar. Layer, layer, layer...and love the idea of a cake. Mine must be a torte.

    Thanks Lacy!

  37. Sorry I'm late, everyone. Busy morning with the kiddos. Now to go back through the comments...

  38. Melissa,
    My process actually changed a little on this last book, thanks to a deadline. I sandwiched part of the editing into the same "layer" because I was strapped for time. I think as writers, we are continually updating our process to do what works for us.

    Thanks for the coffee, Helen!

    Andrea and Carol, keep working at it. You will get there.

    Kara, that's exactly why I use the brackets system. I was able to give myself permission to "come back later" and fix what I didn't like the first time through--and it's funny but a lot of times when I go back through the MS I like what I wrote the first time just fine. I think we just have to find a way to "turn off" that stinky internal editor.

  39. Thanks, Janet. I loved the cover for this book, they captured the heroine perfectly.

    Pam, I'm definitely a chocolate cake girl all the way.

    Julie, I'm glad to pass on a tip--I actually got it from Janet Lee Barton, one of my local writers.

    Connie, I consider part of my first draft "written" in my brain, without actually being on paper. Because I've thought so much about the characters and the "high points" in the plot, it helps me to put it to paper when I get to that point. For my last book (December release), the first draft took me approximately three weeks. That was too fast for me but I wasn't able to help it because I got elected to the ACFW board and had meetings to attend in January. I was lucky to have my sister come and stay with us and be a nanny for about a week of that time where I wasn't away from the computer much at all!

    Melanie, thanks for stopping by. Life was definitely simpler but I wouldn't go back and change it. :) And the deadline was what really pushed me--I hope to stretch it out more in the future but this was my first book that had sold on contract so that process with the publisher pushed me harder than I ever have been pushed before.

    Jackie, you don't have to change your character's name--how fun to be immortalized. Anybody read Janice Thompson's book that has Lenora Worth as a character?

  40. I'm glad a lot of you all have found this post helpful. I'm teaching on this subject twice in the next couple of weeks and I'm going to add some of your questions to my material. We're helping each other. :)

  41. Hi Lacy:

    It seems like every week I ‘discover’ another writer who is in our ACFW chapter! What a chapter!

    I have one question: Do you know how your story is going to end before you start writing the first draft?


    P.S. If I win a copy of your book, you won’t have to mail it. You could just hand it to me. : ) And since our group is called WIN, what other outcome could there be? So, I better disqualify myself from the drawing. I want to read it on my Kindle. : )

  42. HI Lacy,
    Love reading your process! I also get locked into reusing words and it drives me crazy. And they change every day! It especially stands out when they are unusual words. A couple of days ago, everyone in my WIP was rambling...rambling walking, rambling talking, rambling on and on...Even had the lazy dog rambling after a rabbit.

    Years ago my DH helped me write real estate feature sheets for my listings (I devised a template and all he had to do was type in my notes) and I could always pick out what he wrote because he'd include the word 'stylish.' Still makes me laugh, because if you knew my dh, he's about the last stylish guy alive. I'm constantly updating him!

    I have your book on my TBR stack sitting on my credenza, so don't include me in the drawing. Hope to get to it very soon.

  43. Hi Lacy! Congratulations on your third book.

    Love reading about writer's writing processes. Mine has been evolving and although I'm still on how to get to a completed first draft in a sane manner, it's starting to look a lot like yours.

  44. Lacy, how nice to have you here again and I DID NOT SKIM....


    (Joke from yesterday...)

    This is a clearcut method and I can see how nicely it would work. Layer by layer, crust to frosting...

    And sprinkles of kisses!


    Thank you so much for sharing this today. These strong facts and ideas are a huge help to us Villagers!!!

    (Should we remake a recording of The Village People???? That might be fun, right? Do I get to wear a hard hat???? And grow a beard? Naw, that's Vince and Walt... And Mary.)

  45. Lacy, I loved your helpful post! I wrote down notes and pointers to reference back to! Cake must be on everyone's menu...I was talking about chocolate or strawberry yesterday.

    Love the {} method!! That internal editor can get pretty annoying--LOL!

    Dustbunnies in your home, Lacy? I know my home has her hand thrust upon her hip? Still looking for my maid...

    I'm learning so much here with all you wonderful Seekerville peeps. Thank you!

    *waving to Carol M (Yay, Girl, I'm so happy!)

    Ruthy, I read your comment back to Vince. Thank you for caring for those horses. I've seen that look many times, too. Many moons ago, I worked for vets. James Herriot, most definitely a keeper :)

  46. Whew!! Crazy-busy day! Taking a break to check in at Seekerville and glad to see the conversation flowing. Isn't this "layer cake" analogy a great visual for writing a novel?

    And I like what you said, Lacy, about the first draft being mostly written in your head. I usually have a B---I---G picture in my head, but I can't see the details until I'm in the middle of writing the story.

  47. Gosh I am loving that Note Tab Light. Thanks for introducing us to it!!!

  48. Lacy, I am totally taken with the idea of printing two columns on landscape mode. Terrific idea! I haven't heard of Note Tab Light, but it sounds like a great tool. Thank you.

    Do you use a different color for each of the senses or one color to show use of the senses?

    Pam, I don't eat much cake but if I'm going to have a slice my absolute favorite is Dr. Pepper cake from a local small restaurant. Worth every calorie :-) I had a slice of Dr. Pepper cake at another place one time but they put marshmallows in it. Uh ... no.

    KC, congratulations on turning in the manuscript!

    Ruthy, Mary is so going to get you back ... the suspense is unbearable.

    Now to get back to writing ... and test drive Note Tab Light.

    Nancy C

  49. Vince asked
    ::I have one question: Do you know how your story is going to end before you start writing the first draft? ::

    Yes. I almost always know the ending before I even know much of the story--I love writing the endings so I usually have it in mind first. I also read endings first... :)

    I'm looking forward to seeing you in June. I was a lot more active in Tulsa before kids, but try to get up there when I can. :)

    Thanks again for all the comments.

    I have a big James Herriot hardcover on my forever keeper shelf. A gift from my grandma years ago and I still read it. Wanted to be a vet but can't stand blood, so... I write. :)

    And happy to share about NoteTab. It's one of the few writers programs I use, but it saves a lot of time and can find my weasel words much easier. :)

  50. Lacy, love your cake model! And your method. Great.

    You write a 75K book in two months start to finish? Very impressive.

    Congrats on all your success!

    Love your cover!

  51. Thank you Ms. Williams for sharing your writing game plan with us. I found it wonderfully intriguing. I saw some steps that were very close to the steps I take as well :) I would love to read The Homesteader's Sweetheart :)

  52. Hi Lacy! What a great post. I think I'm somewhere on layer 3 at the moment, although everyone's layering is different. I'd love the chance to read your book!

    I feel like I haven't been on here in a long time and I miss it! I started a new job on Monday, so I've been feeling it out all week. Also, my husband's father is having his pacemaker replaced, so we've been rather busy watching after his mom. Please be praying for him, if you can. Thanks friends!

  53. Hi Lacy:

    I loved your answer about working on the ending first! I always do that. I believe it’s a great motivator to always have a ‘stand-up- and-cheer-I-can’t-wait-to-buy-your-next-book’ ending to work towards.

    I just downloaded your “The Homesteader's Sweetheart” for my Kindle (it’s just 2.99 today!) Also your “Heart of Gold” is available for free!

    I want to reverse engineer these books layer by layer to see how you did it. It’s a kind of archeology of the methodology. I’m reading five different deep POV novels right now to try an fix in my mind how the narrator operates at this level. Do you think you’ll ever write an entire novel in deep POV?


  54. Hi, Stephanie! I hope the new job turns out to be everything you were hoping for. A change like that is always challenging. Praying for your in-laws and a successful new pacemaker!

  55. Thanks for sharing with us, Lacy--and I'm very eager to try your layering method. Anything compared to a cake HAS to be good, right?! LOVE the cover of your LIH (those are my favorites of the LI line) and blessings on your writing. ~ Patti Jo

  56. Hi Lacy. I thought I stopped in and said hi earlier. I'm sorry not to have hung around more today.
    Love the blog post. I'm going to try that word searching program. I've heard of those but never tried to set it up.

    For some reason, the last few books, I find myself using the word 'clearly'. all the time.
    I clearly am trying to make my reader know exactly what is going on.

  57. Thanks for the post. I'm currently in the process of revising and revising, and revising some more. I might take a crack at your method. Love the cake analogy.

  58. Aw, Miriam, thank you!

    I'm not really nice, though. Shh....
    Don't spread it around.

    Bad for my image.

    I love the name "Note Tab Lite"... It sounds like a REALLY LOW CALORIE soda!!!! ;)

    What a fun group today, and I don't think Mary's going to get even with me at all because she SLUNK in and EDGED out....

    Busy, I guess.

    AS IF.

  59. Thanks for sharing your special method. It's a good technique!I edit as I go along, that is after every chapter or two I send it off to my grammar editor and then to my crit partners so they can look at it while I'm working on the next chapter(s).

  60. Thanks so much for hosting me and for all your great conversation today! I've got my fingers crossed for the winner--make sure you let me know if you enjoy the book!

  61. It's interesting to see your process.

    I'd love to read "The Homesteader's Sweetheart" thank you.


  62. Love to win this book