Layering Your Draft, Part Four: The Toothpick Test

If you’re just seeing this for the first time, you might want to start the blog series here! It’s all about how to build your novel like a layer cake, with lots of delicious flavors and character frosting.

Now that we’ve talked about what layering your draft means, and how to do it, I’m going to take on another important question. Why bother with layering? It can seem a little fussy, or unnecessary, or just like a lot of work. We’ve talked about how layering gives you the opportunity to tackle the story one thing at a time, so each aspect gets your full writerly attention and becomes much stronger than it could if you were trying to spread your attention out to too many places at once. (Ex: It’s much easier to draft with the arc of one character in mind than it is to draft with the trajectories of seven other characters, plus setting, plot, theme, and language.)

But there’s another sort of magic that layering brings to your finished draft. It gives it the depth and complexity of life. When I write an everythingallatonce draft, I might hit a few high points, but the truth is that the overall draft itself is going to feel flat when I compare it to real life–even on the most mundane day. That’s because when we walk through our days, we’re experiencing all of the layers at once, decoding them seamlessly and, for the most part, instantaneously. In a story, we have to build up a similar experience for our readers. We have to put in the time to construct the reality.

Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

Don’t fear the layers! They look like hard work, but they’re delicious. And so worth it.

So, going back to our cake metaphors, what are we looking for in a finished product?

Texture: Does it have a light, springy feeling? Or is it dense and dark and delicious? I think of the story texture as a combination of the voice and the content. Is that texture what you want it to be? Have you given the manuscript to beta readers or tried reading out loud to make sure that it’s working?

Consistency of the bake: Is it the same all the way through? This might seem like an odd question, since of course the plot is going to progress and the characters will change and grow. But often, when a draft isn’t working, it’s because it’s changed or gotten away from us. Maybe a subplot or a character has dragged the story out of shape. Maybe the structure is off-kilter. Maybe the reader expectations that were set up in the beginning of the book have been abandoned. Maybe the themes haven’t come together yet. Make sure that you’re telling the same story from beginning to end.

Are the flavors coming through? This is an important one. Writers can talk all day about what they intended to write, or how they wanted it to come across, but in the end, the reader only has the manuscript. So if you take a look at the finished product, and an important element of the plot has gotten pushed to the side, or the characters’ emotions or motivations aren’t clear on the page, it’s time to go back and do another layer.

So with all of these layers to create, how do we know when we are done?

Writers use lots of different methods. Some go straight to beta readers. Others put the manuscript in a drawer and wait for a certain amount of time (a week, a month, or more) to give fresh perspective.

I recommend also trying The Toothpick Test. When we test a cake for doneness, we stick a toothpick right in the middle and see if it “comes out clean”–no uncooked goop, or sticky crumbs. When we apply the same idea to a manuscript draft, it’s a matter of opening the book to a random page (I do suggest the middle, since it’s where many manuscripts have the most undercooked bits,) and check to for doneness. When you read this page out of context, what impression do you get? Does the manuscript need a little more bake time, a few more layers, or are the flavors and texture exactly what you hoped for?

If it seems to be in good shape, stick a few more toothpicks into random places–just to be sure! (One toothpick is usually enough to be sure with a cake, but a novel requires a little more thoroughness.)

So, have you tried layering your drafts? How do you know when you are done? Sound off in the comments!

And happy novel baking!

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