Write Like an Onion

No, I do not mean your writing should smell bad.  Rather, writing a book is like growing an onion–it happens layer by layer.  One doesn’t typically bust out a perfect best-seller in the first draft.  (And if you do, well then kudos, but most of us aren’t gods.)

Writers are told the most important thing in writing is to just get something on paper (or Word, since most of us are computer trained by now).  A messed up paragraph is easier to fix than a blank page.  I, for one, enjoy watching my novel transform from superficial first draft to detailed final product.  There are so many aspects that make up a good book–plot, description, characterization, emotional investment, grammar.  (It’s amazing how much that last one comes up in book reviews.)

I don’t know about most of you, but I’m guessing that like me, you can’t keep all those aspects at the forefront of your brain at the same time.  Maybe you’ve got one down really well, but it takes a few rounds to nail another.  That’s okay because it’s all part of the process of writing/growing a novel.

Everyone’s process is different too.  My first drafts are all about plot and pacing.  That comes easiest to me.  Then I have to go back and work on adding subtle characterization to make my characters really pop.  Grammar is not an issue, but there are some technical aspects that I need to focus on one at a time, like passive voice (“was”) clusters.  In the revision process, I go over each chapter again and again, each time with a different focus, adding another layer.

When it’s over, I’m exhausted.  But seeing how my novel changed and grew makes all that work worthwhile.

What’s your growing process like?  Do you know which layers you tend to apply first?  Last?  Do you struggle with this concept, pushing yourself to write down the first words perfectly? 

Take a look at this video of flowers.  Notice how the first petals push out, and then later how more petals emerge and fill in the center.  Like a fully bloomed flower, a great novel is full of rich complexities–and they didn’t come together all at once!


Phoenix Feather is on SALE now on Amazon for $.99!  A sweet romance with a slight supernatural flair.

26 comments on “Write Like an Onion

  1. showard76 says:

    I don’t know where I’m going to end up with my writing, I have recently discovered I’m a pantser and just let it flow! Weird considering how organised I am in every other aspect of my life!

  2. What a GREAT post. My first draft is also about plot and story, then I go back and work on fine tuning the model. I think once the basic skeleton is down, the hard work starts.

    • I agree with you, Tiffany. The subsequent drafts, focusing on other areas, are hard work. I love working with crit partners because then I can focus on one section at a time and get good direction on how to approach filling in those missing layers.

  3. I LOVE LOVE LOVE reading about people’s different process since I am trying to discover my own. Yours sounds very…appealing!! 🙂

    • Thanks Natalie! I hope you find it helpful. In truth, it’s only been in the last year that I’ve come to understand my own process. Sometimes I’ll test it too, by trying something different. Like just recently I worked off a sketchy outline instead of a detailed summary version of each chapter, and part way in I realized I needed to go back to the beginning and write out that detailed outline before I wrote myself into a major hole. Next time, I’ll know to start there. 😉

  4. I’m all about character and plot when I start. My plots are very basic at first and I usually only start with a few characters. In subsequent drafts, the setting becomes a part of the story, I have more characters and the plots starts to braid together on a deeper level. My biggest problem is description, I tend to skip over it (well, I guess i keep in my head and don’t put it on the page, lol) and I find I need to go back and anchor my reader more or clue them in to the clothing of my characters etc. Good post Angela!

    • I’m with you on description, Kate! I gloss over so many things in my first draft. Then when I hit my second, I look at those places and go, “oh yeah, I should describe that house, or that person, or even the type of car.” In fact, just talking about it made me realize I haven’t given any physical descriptions of secondary characters in my current WIP. 😉

  5. Susan A. says:

    I have to agree with everything you said here, Angela. I’m not much of one for getting it all in one go, so revisions are absolutely necessary. From the sounds of it, a lot of people leave out description on the first draft so we are not alone!

    • After seeing that quote by best-selling author Patricia Briggs that you shared with me, Susan, it’s nice to see that even the successful authors don’t get it all in one go! 🙂

  6. Nice analogy, Angela, and a good thing to remember when you’re not in love with what’s on the page at the moment. I’m like you. I come from screenwriting, so plot and pacing are easier than characterization. P.S. How’d you get a picture of my cat in your header? 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Debra! Yup, our writing can go from ugly to works of art. 🙂 I wish I could say that header represents my cat as well. The sleeping part, maybe, but I don’t think she likes books so much. I suspect she’s jealous when they take up my lap instead of her. 😉

  7. Cassia says:

    I think I’m with Sharon. I just start writing the scenes that pop into my head, then I have to go back and try to organize them and fill in the gaps. yWriter5 has been helping me to get the organization from my scenes and allows me to move them around when it seems like the scenes flow better when placed at different points in the novel. Sometimes I feel like the characters and plot reveal themselves to me as I am writing (like that pesky bag guy’s motives and plotting). I really get into the flow when my characters have major emotional issues to deal with and I just have to write until they are better again. LOL!

    • Hey Cassia! I find that having a clear idea of my characters’ emotional issues in the story helps me focus the plot, because then the end game isn’t so much about the events, but about how I’m going to help my characters overcome those issues.

  8. T.F.Walsh says:

    I’m very similar to you – and I’m at stage 2 right now with my novel – fleshing out the characters, taking out unnecessary wordiness and making sure each chapter pushes the plot along… it is SO exhausting but totally worth it in the end

  9. Tharcion says:

    I usually go with three stages on a book. Stage one is to bang in the words. I know this version will not be perfect, there will be mistakes (word errors, factual inconsitencies which need fixing, etc), but I need to get everything down. I do actually try to balance all that plot, characterisation, etc and so on, in the first draft, but I know I won’t quite get it right. Still, I try to because I know I won’t be able to make major changes later; my brain hates doing them. (I have once, so far, stopped in the middle of draft 1, scrapped half of it, and restarted. I’ve never written a whole book and then rewritten it in the second draft.)

    Then I put the book away and start writing the next one (or at least I start doing something else, reading, gaming, anything that isn’t this book). A month or so after draft 1 is done, I go over it and create draft 2. Draft 2 sees stuff reworded, mistakes are corrected, and if I’ve had any sudden revelations about Book N+1, I’ll possibly add some foreshadowing. (One advantage of having 3 books of a series in production at once is that I can accurately foreshadow well ahead of time while not having a huge over-arching plot to try to follow. So someone tell me why I’md eveloping a huge, over-arching plot…)

    Draft 3 comes 3-4 weeks after draft 2. Draft 3 is basically a grammar check and typo catcher. I rarely make large changes in draft 3, and if I do there will be a draft 4. So far this has worked since relatively few mistakes make it through to published versions (I’ve seen many more mistakes in things I’ve paid for).

    • Hey Tharcion. Taking a break, or at least working on more than one project at a time sounds good. I just started to try that–write the first draft of a new story while editing the previous one. So far, I find it to be a nice balance and pace. Working on one thing over and over again can get tedious, and then we might get sloppy. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Elena Aitken says:

    Great post! Writing is SO much like an onion.
    I write many, many drafts. Usually after I write something, I’ll re-read it the next day before I continue writing, and even in that re-read I’ll add some more details.
    I’ve never really thought about what I add each time, but yes, every revision more layers are added.
    I love that there are as many methods as there are writers!

  11. Lena Corazon says:

    Wonderful post, Angela. This is actually how I approach my writing. The first draft is just about figuring out what happens, and getting the characters positioned in the right spots, if you will. In subsequent layers, I dig into character arcs/relationships and subplots in greater depth, followed by the more technical aspects of grammar, imagery, etc. It sometimes feels like I’m trying to untangle a knot that’s all furled around itself a million times over: I know that somewhere beneath it all, there’s a glowing gem of a story, but I have to smooth out that knot before I can get everything to lay just right.

  12. Alina Sayre says:

    Now all I can think about is Shrek. Thanks, Angela 🙂

    No, for real, my process is definitely like an onion. My drafts take so long that I’m probably assembling the layers one cell at a time, but each time I finish a layer, I’m a little closer to what I REALLY wanted to write about in the first place. So maybe it’s like working from the outside in?

    Thanks for the analogy!

  13. I love the analogy. Writing is multi-layered and everyone approaches it differently, which I find fascinating. Thanks for sharing your process with us, Angela! I’m a little like you, I throw everything down on the page and then go through and methodically extract what needs cutting, add in what needs to be filled out, it’s a long and arduous process, but it’s what works for me.

    I do like to think of my writing more like a parfait, though. Parfaits have layers. ; )

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