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!

Want to work with Amy Rose? She loves editing all kinds of fiction! Just click on the Contact tab and fill out the easy form to get started.

Layering Your Draft Part Two: Let’s Bake A Novel

Aprons are highly recommended.

Aprons are highly recommended.

Want to start at the beginning of the series? Click here!

Before I go much farther into writing-as-baking, I feel like I have to put my money where my metaphor is. I can’t tell you to run out and buy an apron until I show you how this works in a stripped-down, practical way.

If you’ll remember from the previous post, I don’t really love the idea of separating rough draft and revision. Pretty much all writing includes some of each—most writers do some revision in early drafts, and pretty much all revisions include new writing.

Instead of starting with the idea of a rough draft to bash through, let’s start with this: whatever writing gets you into the story. For some writers, this might be a first full pass that they write quickly and then use as a jumping off point, but for others it will be extensive pre-writing. Maybe a few chapters or important scenes. For others it will be writing their way into the story for as long as it takes to figure the basics out, and then starting back at the beginning. This process might stay the same, or vary from novel to novel.

I’m going to call this searching for your ingredients. You’re gathering up what you need to tell the story. When you go looking in the kitchen, you might find some things easily, while others take significantly more cupboard rummaging. You might discover that you have the ingredients to make something slightly different, which is even MORE exciting than your original idea. Or you might realize you are missing something important (no baking soda = no conflict to raise the stakes)—and you have to decide if you want to put in the time to get that missing ingredient, or if you want to adjust your plans.

Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Then you start baking.

The layers will involve different amounts of work—some full passes, some fast passes, some where you only look at the scenes affected if you’re talking about a secondary character or a subplot.

Here is a (simplified) list of layers that I’ve done on a novel:


  1. Voice and setting
  2. Main character
  3. Plot and structure
  4. Removing a story element that isn’t working
  5. Missing plot details
  6. Narrative tightness and pacing
  7. Main character’s arc driving the story
  8. Emotional climaxes got wonky–work on these
  9. Smoothing out the language and narrative pace
  10. Secondary character dangerously underdeveloped!
  11. Working in suggestions from an edit letter
  12. Timeline issues
  13. Working in feedback about another secondary character
  14. Yet more editorial feedback
  15. Copyedits!

(If you’re feeling really ambitious you can assign a flavor to each of your layers. I definitely have a dark chocolate setting in my new novel.)

One of the best things about this method is that it responds to the needs of the manuscript and the editing process. It’s infinitely flexible. Some novels require multiple passes to work on character; others have tricky plots. Some have lots of research layers that need to be incoporated. This also allows a writer to focus on their story elements, taking time to craft them without the pressure of fixing everythingatonce.

Which, to me, sounds delicious.

-Amy Rose

PS Next time, I’ll talk about the magic of character layers.

Want to work with Amy Rose on your novel? She critiques, content edits, and provides writing coaching for all sorts of fiction. Just click on the contact tab & fill out the easy form to get started!

Congrats to our Query Letter raffle winner!

We had a blast this year at the annual Writers’ League of Texas Agents Conference, where the Yellow Bird table had a ton of traffic. It was incredibly inspiring to meet so many talented (and, more importantly, dedicated) writers who are committed to their craft and community. Thanks to all who dropped by the table to say hello!

And now, without further ado, we’ll announce the winner of the Yellow Bird Query Letter raffle. A hearty congratulations to Brenda Mann of Houston, TX! We’ll be reaching out to Brenda this week to write her a top-notch query letter to send off to the wonderful agents she met at the conference.

Happy writing, everyone!