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.


Hello Friends!  It’s November, so we all must be writing…

To help you figure out what to do with your NaNo draft, a bunch of Book Coach friends and I put together a giveaway of revising resources, just in time for the end of the month.  The Giveaway page includes introductions to each of our superpowers, links to our websites, and free resources related to revising your manuscript.  You can check it out at 

Writing is not always a solo activity and support can make the difference between starting and finishing.  Please reach out to me readerlybooks[at], if I can be a resource to you.  

That time I ran the Tallinn Half Marathon without finishing my training schedule…

In September, I had been on a training plan to complete a half marathon in October.  I signed up for a 10k here in Tallinn as part of that training.  However, I also made a date with a friend to go to the symphony on the same day.  I didn’t think it mattered, since races all start in the morning, right?  Wrong!  

The 10k was supposed to start at 5 PM and the symphony started at 7 PM.  I am a slow runner, so the only way I would make both is to go to the symphony in my sweaty running clothes, which was a nonstarter.  The half marathon started at 9 AM, though, which was totally doable.  The only problem?  The longest run I had done so far in my training was about 6 miles.  I figured I could finish, but I would probably have to walk a lot of the second half.

Here’s the thing, though.  Once you start, there is a lot of positive pressure to keep going.  Even if you are near the end of the group of runners, the first aid people and all the volunteers at the water stations are cheering, so you don’t want to let them down.  The result?  I finished the race, I ran most of it, and my time was only a little off my usual time for a half marathon.  Full disclosure:  I walk and ride my bike almost everywhere here, so running isn’t all the training I had been doing. My bet is that you’ve been doing some writing training like character sketches and outlines, too.

What does this have to do with writing?  Well, sometimes we start a program, like NaNo or a writing group or something and the momentum helps, even if we haven’t put all the work into the preparation that we would like to have.  That can be a good thing!  Having a draft is the first step to having a book.  I wasn’t ready to set a personal record at this half marathon, but I enjoyed the run—it was a beautiful day, the course was lined with lovely people and views and I did finish.

Maybe you don’t have a completed outline for your NaNo manuscript.  Maybe, like me, you are going to need to walk a little, which means you won’t get 50,000 words in one month.  That’s okay!  Set a goal to finish and use the motivation you gain from the positive pressure to power your drafting.  You may not actually finish the draft until a few months later.  By the time I finished the race, the awards were all given out and the crowds at the finish were pretty thin, but I still got a medal and the chance to keep working on my running. If you finish the manuscript in January, you will still have a draft to revise.

Just in case you need help figuring out what a realistic writing goal is, I made something for you.  It is a Choose Your Own Writing Adventure Goal Calculator.  Figure out how many words or scenes you need to produce for each writing session to hit a finished draft in a specified amount of time.

Guest Post from Debra Borchert, author of Her Own Legacy

I am honored to have Debra Borchert as a guest writer this month!  She and I have worked together on the third book in her series, which is still in revision.  Her books are sweeping sagas of the French Revolution.  Debra’s love and knowledge of French culture and history are evident all the way through. She made the choice to self-publish and it is going well.  Authors interested in self publishing may enjoy her insights about how to make it work.  Like anything in publishing, it is not easy, but it is possible.  

The first book in the series, Her Own Legacy  is out, and you can find it at links later on in this post, and at Readerly’s page in the footer.  🙂

When do you think you will be teeing up the next books in the series?  

I plan to launch Her Own Revolution, Book 2 of the Château de Verzat series, on Bastille Day, July 14, 2023. I hope to launch Her Own Honor, Book 3, on December 2, 2023 which was the date in 1802 when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

As soups play a big part in the series and I include recipes in the books, I’m also planning to launch the Château de Verzat cookbook in January, 2024, national soup month.

Would you tell us a little about your publication journey?  What decisions did you make about the route you chose and why did you choose that path?

I worked on Her Own Legacy for ten years during which time I traveled four times to France to conduct research for all three books. I received many rejections on the first book, but kept writing, workshopping, and editing. I began to query the second book, and despite agent requests, I received three rejections. At that point, I decided to let readers decide if they wanted to read my books and stop querying all together.

I received a few offers from small publishers to print Her Own Legacy, but because I have an advertising and acting background, I thought I might enjoy the self-publication journey and having control over all aspects, including quality, working with professionals I chose, and marketing. I established my own publishing company, Le Vin Press.

I am thrilled with the three women I worked with: Lynn Andreozzi created the cover, Colleen Sheehan designed the interior, and Elena Saygo created my website. I learned to trust these women and each one of them patiently explained things I could not have known without their valuable insights. I was honored to work with them. And I am thrilled with the results of their skills and talents.

I have been overwhelmed by the positive publication reviews and readers’ reviews.

What would you most like readers to know about your book?

Her Own Legacy explores the moral conundrum of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, a paradox we all face at some point in our lives.

What advice would you give to writers that you wish you had gotten earlier?

I wish I had not been so persistent in querying. At a writers’ conference, an agent advised not giving up until you had queried four-hundred agents. I laughed at that. I had queried ninety-four. I wish I had stopped at fifty. I am grateful those rejections didn’t stop me or undermine my confidence. Now I use my persistence in marketing my book, something all writers need to do even if they have agents and publishers. I’ve been reading a newsletter about France, written by British author Janine March, since before I began researching and writing. I inquired about a book review, which now appears on the site. Janine also asked me to write an article about researching in France for The Good Life France, her online publication with more than 280,000 Francophile subscribers. That article is available here: :

What is some advice that writers should ignore?

If someone offers a critique that does not resound within you, do a reality check with other writers and teachers you trust. A beta reader once told me my grammar needed work but provided no specific examples. This puzzled me, and so I asked two editors I had worked with.  They immediately disagreed with the beta reader’s critique. The editors worked with hundreds of authors, and so I trusted their opinions and ignored the beta reader’s advice.

Where can readers find out about you and your next project?

Readers can learn about the Château de Verzat series on my website: 

I also face a problem for which I need some insights. Readers have been raving about how much they love the characters in Her Own Legacy. My second book, Her Own Revolution, is told from a different point of view. I wonder if readers will be disappointed about that, even though they will still learn about Joliette and Henri through Henri’s letters sent to the protagonist in the second book. So, I invite readers to let me know their thoughts on the Contact Debra form on the website.

More About Debra:

Debra’s debut novel, Her Own Legacy, is the first in a series that follows headstrong and independent women and the four-hundred loyal families who protect a Loire Valley château and vineyard, and its legacy of producing the finest wines in France during the French Revolution.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The ChristianScience Monitor, and The Writer, among others. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and independently.  A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, she incorporates her knowledge of textiles and clothing design in writing historical French fiction. She brings her passions for France, wine, and cooking to all her work. The proud owner of ten crockpots, she is renowned for her annual Soup Parties at which she serves soups from different cultures. She includes recipes in her books, on her website and in her newsletters.

Planning for your Draft and maybe Nano…

I know many of us are planning for NaNoWriMo.  I encourage you to set realistic goals and use NaNo to accomplish something meaningful for your book.  If it’s 50,000 words, great!  But maybe it’s a complete outline, or a Blueprint with a few scenes, or a specific number of scenes, or something else…

I would like to offer you a fun way to figure out how to set writing goals for your draft or revision. I have created a Writing Goal Calculator that allows you to enter the length of time you want to take to write your (average) length novel and get a formula to use for your writing goals.  It is based on scheduling yourself for at least three blocks of time per week for your novel.  One is for planning and preparation, one is for writing, and one is for editing/adjusting.  If you schedule more than three blocks of time, each additional block is more writing.  The word/scene count for your goal is how much you have to get done for EACH writing block (it excludes the planning and editing blocks) in order to meet your drafting goal.  
I like to think of this as a concrete way to figure out how to get your draft finished.  Choose Your Own Writing Adventure!

Book Review: BrontĂ«’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Brontë’s Mistress is an exploration of what happens when women are socialized to be decorative and seem to have no other purpose.  Our anti-heroine, Lydia Robinson, is the woman who became Branwell Brontë’s mistress during the 1840s.  Some readers may find her unlikable, spoiled, whiny, even extremely self-centered.  As an anti-heroine, these qualities are not a problem.  To help make Lydia sympathetic, Austin lets the reader see how life has disappointed her.  In her forties and past child bearing, with an uninterested and uninteresting spouse, she is adrift.  Socialized to be a pretty coquette, she doesn’t know how to shift roles.  Her one outlet, music, is mostly cut off to her, since her husband complains about her playing too much.  All of which makes her vulnerable to a younger, handsome, attentive man who not only relieves her boredom, but seems to adore her, something she needs.

Austin has managed to walk the line of writing a book based on a real historical person and delivering an engaging story.  She did exacting research, including visiting places, and reading letters, even though she has a Master’s degree in Nineteenth Century LIterature from Oxford.  She also generously included a back section with historical notes, what she made up, and further reading.  The version I read included Book Club questions, too.  All in all this is a great Book Club pick. 

Sometimes as feminists, we like all female characters to have agency, but the truth is that sometimes in history, their agency was limited.  What if your choices were as proscribed as Lydia’s?  Can you honestly say you would have chosen differently?  This is the stuff of a deep conversation.

Top Five Takeaways from the Historical Novel Society Conference

I recently went to an in person conference, and wanted to share some of the wealth with you, dear reader. It was so much fun to rub elbows with writers and other industry professionals. Plus, who doesn’t love to visit a real castle… Below are my top five lessons. I have pages of notes, but these are the sound bytes, if you will.

  1. In Person Conferences are so WORTH it!  You get to meet people and have conversations and it is just so much fun to go places and talk to people and not worry about being on camera.  You get to focus on the moment, rather than the backgrounds, the chat box, and whether or not you are talking while muted…
  2. The History isn’t the story…the plot is the story and it centers on your characters.  This came from a presentation by Liz Harris.  Find out more about her here:  
  3. Historical Fiction is a conversation between the present and the past.  I LOVE this idea.  The present is always informed by the past, and historical fiction allows us to interrogate some of our assumptions and beliefs about it.  This is from a presentation by Laura Tisdall, professor and writer, find out more here:  
  4. Also from Professor Tisdall:  “The more history you read, the more you find out that what you thought could never happen, did happen.”
  5. When you choose to tell a story in a particular time period, you must know WHY.  Why it must be then and cannot be at another time. 

Finally, a couple of resources for those of you writing Hist Fic.

Food can be tricky, let this resource make it easier (and yummier)  From the Folger Shakespeare Library, Early Modern Foodways:  

Ever wonder when a word began to be used?  Need to know for your dialogue?  I use this all the time, but it was in a presentation at HNS and I realized maybe everyone didn’t know, so here it is, Etymology for you: