with guest Shannon Taylor Vannatter.
I snapped this cloud shot during our annual road trip to Texas. See how they’re like bricks, stacked on top of each other in layers above the tree line? I thought of this post when I saw them.
For years, I didn’t know what to call my condition. I had the luxury of perfecting my chapters before I sent them to my critique partners, until I signed a contract. Suddenly with deadlines looming, I sent them page upon page of dialogue and character thought with this disclaimer: Sorry guys, this is sooooo first draft. I always add the description, body language, and emotion later. Just let me know if you like the characters and story.
That’s when one of my critters diagnosed me in a life-changing e-mail: You write in layers.
Wow, is that what it’s called? Once I knew, I fully embraced my label. My first drafts are heavy on dialogue with a touch of character thought, light on everything else. Talking heads with no sense of where they are, movement, or emotional reactions. I’ll show you what I mean. Here’s my first draft of an early partial scene from my first Love Inspired title, Reuniting with the Cowboy. True to form, it’s all dialogue with a bit of character thought.
Here’s the setup: the heroine has a veterinarian clinic and animal shelter at her home. With a new neighbor next door, she’s anxious to win them over and hopefully avoid any complaints about her noisy critters. At the end of the first scene, she shows up bearing a dessert, recognizes her new neighbor, and almost drops the dish. This is the beginning of scene two:
Cody grabbed the dish, his hands closing over hers. Ally. On his porch. Skittish as a newborn colt. Who would have thought one kiss would put the wariness in her eyes and cause Ally to spend all that time since avoiding him?
“Cody? You’re my new neighbor?”
“I thought you’d be back on the circuit by now.”
“I…um…I decided not to go back to the rodeo.” More like his doctor decided for him.
“Aubrey is home and I needed a place of my own.”
“You bought the place next to me?”
“This was the only land available with enough acreage to start a ranch.” Technically leasing, with an option to buy.
“What happened to Aubrey not being big enough for you?”
“Things change. Does your mom still live with you?”
“She does. Okay, yeah, I still live at home. But it’s the perfect place for my vet practice-slash-shelter and Mom’s my office manager at the clinic.”
“Come on in. And tell me this is a four-layer delight.”
“It is. Mom made it, but I didn’t come to stay.”
This draft has 180 words. Other than Cody grabbing the dish, there’s no movement. Through the entire scene, they stand like statues, both holding the dish. We know they’re on his porch only because of his thoughts. Except for that one movement, everything above is mostly dialogue with a splash of character thought and that’s how my first drafts always look.
Here’s the version that went into print:
Cody grabbed the dish, his hands closing over hers. His breath caught.
Ally. On his porch.
Same old Ally. Long waves the color of a dark bay horse’s coat, usually twined in a thick braid but loose today and spilling over her slender shoulders. Cautious coffee-colored eyes as skittish as a newborn colt.
He’d succumbed to her charms once. It had rearranged his insides and altered everything. Who would have thought one kiss would put the wariness in her eyes, build an uncomfortable wall between them and cause Ally to spend all that time since avoiding him?
All because of his disobedient lips.
“Cody?” Her voice went up an octave. “You’re my new neighbor?”
“Looks like.” And now he’d gone and moved in next door to her. Maybe not the best way to keep his distance. “Let me take this.” He scooped the dish out of her hands.
“I thought you’d be back on the circuit by now.” Her gaze dropped to his shirt collar.
“I…um…I decided not to go back to the rodeo.” More like his doctor decided for him. And that little bubble in his brain had something to say about it, too. “Aubrey is home and I needed a place of my own.”
“You bought the place next to me?”
“This was the only land available with enough acreage to start a ranch.” Technically leasing, with an option to buy. If he decided to have surgery. And lived.
She hugged herself. “What happened to Aubrey not being big enough for you?”
“Things change.” A brain aneurysm changed lots of things. “Does your mom still live with you?”
“She does.” She bit her lip. “Okay, yeah, I still live at home. But it’s the perfect place for my vet practice-slash-shelter and Mom’s my office manager at the clinic.”
“Come on in.” He stepped aside, striving for casual, despite the drumming of his heart. “And tell me this is a pecan chocolate four-layer delight.”
“It is. Mom made it, but I didn’t come to stay.” She glanced toward her place.
I’m not saying this is the second draft, just the final one. Sometimes, I pour over scenes, adding and deleting four or five times.
Now at 341 words, emotional reactions give you a sense of how both characters feel about seeing each other again. We see what Ally looks like from Cody’s perspective. They still stand there holding the dish for a bit as they’re both in shock, but there’s movement as he takes it from her. More detail into his medical condition explains why he’s back, why he’s only leasing, and it ups the stakes. He steps aside to let her in and you find out more about the dessert in case readers aren’t familiar with it. And instead of only saying she doesn’t want to come inside, she shows her reluctance. There’s still not a lot of movement here, but once she gives in and goes inside, they move around more in the rest of the scene.
I’ve met so many writers over the years who haven’t finished a book because they keep going back and trying to perfect the first paragraph, scene, or chapter before they can move on.
Unless my critique partners are going through my work as I write, I complete the entire book before I go back into layer what’s missing. Sometimes my first drafts include clichés, mostly telling instead of showing, and scenes in the wrong point of view. Giving myself permission to write badly propels me forward. I’ve never, ever, ever had any problem with finishing a book.
Every writer is different. Certain techniques work for some and don’t for others. If you struggle with perfection or with finishing your book, try giving yourself permission to write badly, finish that first draft, and layer in the good stuff later.
Question: What writing technique have you discovered that works for you?
Today Shannon is generously giving away 2 copies of Reuniting with the Cowboy. International included. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
Can’t wait for the drawing? On sale August 23: Reuniting with the Cowboy
The Cowboy Next Door
A charming cowboy moving in next door shouldn't be bad news. But veterinarian Ally Curtis knows Cody Warren—she'd never forget the boy who left her when she needed him most. Cody is doing everything he can to show his beautiful neighbor he's not the wild bull rider he once was, from helping her find homes for her beloved strays, to protecting her when her business is threatened. But Cody has a secret that keeps him from fully reaching out. Yet as they continue to work together to promote her shelter, he can't keep himself from hoping that Ally might have a home for him…in her heart.
Award winning, central Arkansas author, Shannon Taylor Vannatter is a stay-at-home mom/pastor’s wife. She once climbed a mountain wearing gold wedge-heeled sandals which became known as her hiking boots. Vannatter has twelve published titles and is contracted for three more.
It took Vannatter nine years to get published in the traditional market. She hopes to entertain Christian women and plant seeds in the non-believer’s heart as her characters struggle with real-life issues. Their journeys, from ordinary lives to extraordinary romance through Christ-centered relationships, demonstrate that love doesn’t conquer all, Jesus does.
Learn more about Shannon and her books at Shannon’s Website and check Shannon’s Blog full of real life romance and weekly book giveaways.
Connect with her: Shannon’s Facebook, Shannon’s Goodreads, Shannon’s Pinterest, Shannon’s Twitter, and Shannon’s Amazon Author Page.