The Layer Cake Method
How I've altered my writing process for mystery
I am a writer, hence I derive great comfort from the right metaphor. Those who have worked with me as students or clients know such hits as the Nail Polish Approach to revision, and what I have named the Orpheus Technique for First Drafts (never look back until you’ve brought the story up from the depths of your unconscious. Write all the way through before beginning revision. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.)
These are methods that have stood the test of time for me, as well as many of those I’ve taught and supported. However, at about 20,000 words into this mystery, I realized that “Don’t Look Back,” despite having the perfect anthem already written by Boston, was not the way through.
Here’s what was tripping me up: I had a core set of scenes I knew were going into the story, and I wrote those, or approximations of them, which helped me get to know the characters better, thus understanding their potential motives and the impact murder would have on them.
With a literary novel, or really any story that doesn’t require clues and a complex web of motivation to be lurking, hidden, under the story, it’s fine to make these discoveries as you write, and tweak in the next round with that new insight. By contrast, my mystery sputtered to a halt at the 20,000 word mark since there were two many questions I needed to address before having more scenes to write.
And so, I needed a new approach, which birthed a new metaphorical method: the layer cake. For mystery, I’d write as far as I could go, including all the scenes I could see, then when I ran out of gas, I’d stop and do something heretofore forbidden:
I reread the manuscript before finishing the draft.
I can hear the gasps and thumps as long-time students of mine have possibly fainted as a result of this declaration. Yes, I’ve told you that I don’t recommend reading what you’ve written until you get to the end of the story. But there is a way to do it that won’t create disaster. Promise. What you need, is the Layer Cake Method
The three things you need to pull this off are the following:
Commitment to the book no matter how shitty it feels on this read-through (yucky-looking batter can yield a gorgeous cake)
Awareness that this is only the first of many layers of this story cake (you can bake as many layers as you like and if one doesn’t make the cut, the cake is still good)
A plan in place to get you right back into drafting the book. (batter runs all over the floor without a pan to hold it)
If you have these ready, then I grudgingly condone a read of your work mid-draft, but I am unsure I’d do this if I were writing something other than mystery.
Here’s the plan I used, step by step:
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