The Layer Cake Method of Revising a Novel

You have a draft and it is exciting!  Put it away for at least a couple of weeks or a month (even 2) while you plan another project or do something else.  Now, take it out again and let’s start thinking about revision in layers.

You may have seen my earlier post about the Layer Cake Method for Drafting.  I would like to continue using the layer cake metaphor for revising.  There are a ton of methods for revising, so I will not pretend that this is the only one, or that it will absolutely work the best for you , or make you any other false promises of easy revising.  Revising, like drafting or assembling a beautiful layer cake, is no easy task.  And as noted in the previous post about drafting, it cannot be all about looks, there has to be flavor;  in other words, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your sentences are or how perfect your word choice is, if there is not a compelling story in your novel.

Lots of revision advice centers around a specific number of drafts.  I prefer not to do that.  You may need two drafts to work out all the structural changes, or you may need three, or you may need one.  I prefer to work in layers, with writers taking all the drafts they want or need to get through the requirements of the layer.  Think of it as making sure your flavors are just right and the position of each layer is perfect, and that you’ve gotten the shape and structure to hold the next layer, so that your cake, er novel, will stand on its own and be a wonder to behold.

These are the layers I would recommend going through to get your novel in shape, no matter how many drafts you use to work your way through each layer:

  1. Structure:  It is easy to get bogged down in copy editing your work and not notice the larger structural changes and character development that will make it shine. Kind of like when Paul Hollywood says it looks great, but your flavors are all wrong… This layer requires writers to put on their editor hats and analyze the structure they are using, including things like POV and make decisions about which structures and POV choices will serve their story best.  
  2. Intention:  Sometimes during the initial drafting phase, we like to make things happen in the novel.  We like to pop in with a lot of surprises, reveals, and gotchas, which are not really logical.  You may have used coincidences to help your MC out of trouble.  During revision is the time to take a look at the Cause: Effect chain in your novel and make sure it works.  Does each scene in the novel need to be there and logically lead to the next one?  If you are writing a dual timeline/POV, you will have to do this analysis on both timelines/POVs.  Make the Intention of each scene clear to the reader, and make sure that there is story logic. This is when you try to be too clever and combine too many different flavors that don’t go well together. Simplify for a classic cake and novel.
  3. Character:  Are your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts clear?  So the stakes rise as the story builds? Are there [real] consequences when your characters make choices? Are characters revealed through actions?  Do characters, the main ones, have an arc of change? Do your characters have differentiated voices in dialogue sections? Have you made good choices in the types of cake, fillings, and frostings you are using?  If you’ve decided on a soft cake, then don’t try to make it a tower.  If you are using ganache, remember to temper the chocolate. Your characters will have goals, motivations, and conflicts that determine the decisions they make, which in turn leads to paths not taken, just like when you choose ganache over fondant or buttercream over mirror glaze.  Each choice your characters make in some part determines the other choices they will make.
  4. Seed Planting:  Now that you have the story structure, POV, Cause and effect, and characters sorted, it is time to go back through the narrative and look for places to make readers curious.  What is revealed and when?  Can you plant the seeds of what is to come so that the reader will anticipate and be curious?  The goal for this layer is that the reader will say when they get to the end both, “Well, of course that is what happened” AND “What a surprise!”  Think of this layer as the hidden flavor in the cake.  It is the subtle one that delights you when you realize it is there, just beneath the hero flavor…
  5. Details:  Now and only now is it time to attend to line and copy editing.  Polishing it before you reach layer five is like trying to pipe roses on a cake that is falling apart or too hot to hold the buttercream. Sure, you can, but it won’t hide the steaming mess underneath. Now you work on making it beautiful.

Revision is a treacherous business with many twists and turns, kind of  like creating a layer cake that is both flavorful and lovely to look at. Just as you have to build the cake from the bottom up, you must revise your novel starting with big picture items and moving through the layers until you get to the buttercream details which make it sparkle and shine.

Want to know more?  Contact me or attend the History Quill Virtual Conference, where I will be presenting on revision.  Attendees will get a copy of the Readerly Revision Checklist.  

A Virtual Conference just for Historical Fiction Writers coming in February! You can attend one day or all the days.

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.