Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.34: Novels Are Layer Cakes

Your Hosts: DongWon Song, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

Novels deliver a lot of information, and it’s helpful to consider that delivery in terms of layers. Novels are layer cakes, and we’re not talking about a three-layer birthday cake. We’re talking about a dobosh torte, or a mille crepe cake. And if we’ve made you hungry for stratified pastry, that’s okay, because we made ourselves hungry, too.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Remove your entire 1st scene from your draft. Rewrite it from scratch, using the tools we’ve covered in the last eight episodes. Once you’ve done that, revise it by highlighting the elements readers really need to know, and then put all of those ideas into a single paragraph.

Thing of the week: Legend, by Marie Lu.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: A novel is like a layer cake? Well, layers of information. Revision helps!  Also pre-work can help. Spontaneity is not creativity. Structure also helps. Make sure you are starting the story in the right place, but also make sure we have context. Use tiny flashbacks. Manipulate the POV. Use free indirect speech. Mostly, think about how you want to layer the information, what’s important, what order to present it in, and how to slide it in there.

[Season 16, Episode 34]

[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Novels Are Layer Cakes.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dongwon] Okay. So, we’re talking about novels as layer cakes. Which may initially sound a little confusing. But, this is one of the central metaphors I think about when I think about what makes a novel a novel that’s distinct from a short story or a novella or a novelette. The thing about a novel is it requires more complexity, because you’re sustaining a narrative over so long, there need to be so many more different aspects going. So you want layers to be present at almost every point. Especially in an opening scene. I’m not just talking about like two layers of a birthday cake. Ideally, you want like a Mille-Feuille, one of those crêpe cakes that’s like layer after layer after layer…


[Dongwon] That gives you that kind of information density in that kind of character and world building and all those elements. We’ve talked about individual pieces of how to do that so far. But this is really how do you weave all of that into one coherent whole, while still maintaining the distinction of that lamination. We’re turning into the great British Bake-Off here. I’m sorry.


[Howard] I’ve gotta tell y’a, when I think of layer cakes, I… Sandra makes cakes from time to time. You take the cake pan and you make a bunch of different layers. You saw the tops off of them to make them stack flat. Then I think of the episode of British baking show where they were trying to make dobos tortes with bazillions of little layers. I look at that and think, “No, I’m sorry. That has to be done by a machine and a computer. That is not possible for a human being to make that cake.” I know there are many people who look at the way novels are constructed and to step back and see all of that layering and all of that construction and have that same reaction. “I’m sorry. That had to be done by a computer and a machine. No human being can hold all that in their head.”

[Dongwon] Yeah. With… We were talking about tell don’t show, we kind of touched on this a little bit, but I think this is a case where thinking about movies and TV and visual media is really useful to think about how to layer all this different kinds of information. You’re absorbing worldbuilding, you’re absorbing character, you’re absorbing some of the thematic elements, right? If it… If a scene is lit in a menacing way, it’s like, okay, we’re in a thriller. If they’re wearing Regency dresses, we know the time period and we know the class of the person we are looking at. If the background behind them is an office, then we know what kind of story we’re in. So there’s automatically many, many more layers in a single shot of film than there is in a book by… As a default. So what you need to think about is how do I start working all that other information that I would get if this were a movie into the text. You have a laser like control over the focus of the reader, so you can show us bit by bit. The downside is you have to do that deliberately. You can’t just rely on us passively absorbing that information.

[Mary Robinette] A lot of this will come down to word choice, specificity, I mean, all of the different things that we’ve been talking about for the past several weeks. You’re trying to manipulate all of those at the same time. It’s what is the character noticing, what order do you feed that information to the reader, which pieces are you telling versus which pieces are you showing. Is this sentence a long sentence or a short sentence? What is my word choice here? Am I going to say, “Pulled out of a chair,” or “jerked out of a chair”? Because those are two different things. This is… This is complicated. I will disagree slightly with Dongwon because this is also something that you do with short stories, and in many cases, it is more vital because you have less space. But I understand… But the layers of plot that you have to deal with in a short story are not as many as you have to deal with in a novel. This is, for me, one of the biggest differences and the thing to think about regardless in some ways if you are writing a short story or novel. That first page is framing the thing that you’re getting into. In a short story, you’re framing a small thing, and it’s like, this is the emotional punch that you’re going to get. But in a novel, you’re framing something that has multiple different emotional punches that you’re going to get. You’re going to have multiple plot threads. How do you tell the reader, kind of, which of these is the thing that… Like, which one do you introduce as, “Here. This is the thing I’m drawing a line under. This is the story that you’re going to be in on.” Because you have to make that choice. Is this a coming-of-age? Yes. Is this also an epic adventure? Yes. Where do you start?

[Dongwon] Yeah. I’m going to say, actually, I’m in complete agreement with Mary Robinette. When I say that a short story has fewer layers, I purely mean in terms of character arcs and plot lines. When that information density, I don’t care what you’re writing, you’re going to need to make sure each word, each sentence, is doing as much work as it can, while maintaining crystal clarity for the reader.

[Dan] Yeah. I want to emphasize the importance of revision.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Dan] For this. Because, like Howard was talking about, if you’re making a layer cake, most of the time you’re making several different cakes in several different batches and then you’re combining them together later on. I’m… I don’t think that you have to do that with writing. I’m not going to say that you can’t, because I’m sure that there are people who do. But what I do do is I will write out… The first draft is often just focused entirely on plot or on character. Then I have to go back through multiple revisions and say now I’m going to add in the other parts.


[Dan] Now I’m going to emphasize more of the description… Now I’m going to do another revision pass to really drill into internal monologue and emotion. It does take… You’re going to have to get a lot of cake pans dirty by the end of this revision process.

[Dongwon] Your first draft is going to look more like Nailed It! than British Bake-Off, and that’s okay.


[Mary Robinette] Well, so… Continuing our cake metaphor. So, first of all, I do the same thing that Dan does. I do multiple passes. The second thing is, right now I am reading… And this is not our book of the week. I’m reading Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage, which is about making. In the entire time I’m reading it, I’m like, “Oh, dear Lord, this is about writing a novel… Or this is about writing.” In the midst of it, he talks about making a cake, and that one of the things that, in general, you want to do while making is to set yourself up for success with your pre-work, and that chefs go in and they lay out all of… Here’s the bowls that I’m going to need. Here are the ingredients that I’m going to need. They measure things. It feels like it’s so much more work, but it in many ways will go faster. It can often feel like, “Oh! But my creativity!”


[Mary Robinette] But what we’re talking about here is, with this idea of a layer cake, and especially when you’re learning the tools, it’s okay to learn, like, one tool at a time. When you… When we’re talking about pre-work, that doesn’t necessarily have to mean, oh, you’re going to outline everything. Oh, you’re going to do all your world building ahead of time. What we’re talking about is the number of iterations it takes you to get to a product that you’re happy with. So sometimes you have fewer drafts, because you’ve done a lot of pre-work. Sometimes you have multiple drafts, because that is the process that you particularly enjoy going through in order to get to that layer cake. You may only have one bowl in your kitchen. So you have to mix that bowl and then clean it, and then mix the next bowl and then clean it. You may have a ton of bowls, so you can lay it all out. Everybody’s kitchen is different, everybody’s brain is different. Every cake that you bake, every book that you write, every short story… All of these are different. But the point of it is to remember that there are layers, that there are multiple ingredients that you have to be managing.

[Howard] If there’s one thing that has stuck with me after 20 years of Schlock Mercenary, from beginning to finally ending the whole thing, it’s that I cannot afford to conflate spontaneity with creativity. Those are not the same thing. Spontaneity is fine, and it has its place. But creativity is never being throttled by me imposing a structure. It’s being funneled, it’s being channeled, it’s being directed. It’s… I love having a structure, and so the layering of things in a novel is incredibly helpful. The current work in progress… I had about a 4000 word scene which I couldn’t make work all at once because the voice had to be consistent, but the voice is kind of tiring. It’s that noir detective sort of lots of humorous metaphors, lots of weird extensions. Can’t be maintained well by the reader. I realized that, “Oh, wait. This is… I wanted to use this to frame some of the other characters. What happens if I carve it into chunks?” What happens if I make separate cake pans and saw the tops off of it and then use… I call it a common tone modulation, where the theme of one scene kind of introduces the theme of the next one, even though something has changed. As I began assembling that, yeah, there’s no spontaneity anymore, but the creative fire is raging, because now I can see how it needs to be built.

[Mary Robinette] Let’s pause for our book of the week. When we come back, what I’d love for us to do is… We’ve talked now about the importance, and I’d love for us when we come back to talk about some of the hows, of how to do that. So, Dan, I think you have the book of the week this time.

[Dan] Yes. So, our book of the week is Legend by Marie Lu. Marie Lu is an absolutely incredible science fiction writer. This book is a kind of a YA dystopia. It’s about 10-ish years old from back when YA dystopias were all the rage. This one has stood the time better than most, I think. It’s called Legend, like I said. I wish I had the time to read you like the entire first page. But I’m just going to read you the first two sentences.

My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously, I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.


[Dan] That says… Tells you so much. It is asking you compelling questions. It’s introducing elements of the character. It goes on in the next paragraph, if I had time to read that, just lays out incredible detail about the world that this takes place in. There is so much density of information, while also being incredibly compelling and readable. It’s a wonderful book. It’s called Legend by Marie Lu.

[Dongwon] So, as Mary Robinette mentioned, I do want to talk about some of the mechanics, about how you make this work. I think when I’m in writing workshops the thing that I see most commonly, like the feedback I’m giving like 60 or 70% of the time is I think you’re starting the story in the wrong place. This kind of goes back to what we were saying about the earlier mistakes is often… Or the common mistakes is I often see that the story’s starting too early. It’s starting before interesting things are happening. Now the problem is if you jump into when interesting things are happening, we don’t have context. Which leads to the common mistake of the gunfight problem where then you’re like, “What’s going on? Why do I care about all this?” The solution, for me, is that layer cake. Right? So you can start when things are kicking off, you can start in the heart of the inciting incident, and then you manipulate the timeline. You don’t have to go straight A, B, C, D. You can start at C, and then tell us about A, right? You can layer in those tiny flashbacks. They don’t have to be big scenes. They can be a sentence. It’s like, “Oh. Yeah. When I woke up today, I wasn’t expecting this.” Right? You can layer those things in to give us the context of where this character comes from, what do they care about, and then introduce stakes that may not be immediate to this scene. Like, the stakes of the scene is I need to get out of this gunfight because my sister needs to go to school today. Right? I don’t know what book I’ve just written here…


[Dongwon] But it’s something, right?

[Mary Robinette] I mean, that sounds like Jade City, actually.

[Dongwon] Kind of. Actually. Right? Like, if the character cares about something, then suddenly I, the reader, care about this gunfight. I think when you think about how do I change the timeline, I think you can get a lot more of that density in and start layering those elements in from sentence to sentence, from clause to clause, and really get all of that information into my brain much faster than if you did it sequentially.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The other piece of that when you’re dealing with that kind of thing, one of your best tools for stacking that information is the manipulation of POV. So, we have talked a lot about all of the things that make… In previous episodes, about all of the things that make a point of view. If you go back to the very first episode that I appear on, which is episode… What was it?

[Howard] Three, 14.

[Mary Robinette] Three, 14. Right. Because it’s pi. In which I talk about puppetry and focus and breath and internal motivation and all of those things. All of those pieces are the things that make up POV. But the other piece of POV that you have to manipulate is the showing versus telling, the describing versus demonstrating. It’s basically are you… You can pull back and go a little omniscient for a moment. You can go deep in. Those moments, those choices that you make, allow you to layer information in. Within that, one of my favorite tools is free indirect speech. Where you can have the narrator basically just say something to the reader, even if it’s in third person. So, this example is from Wikipedia, which actually has a great explanation of what free indirect speech is. So, quoted or direct speech would be: 

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And what pleasure have I found since I came into this world,” he asked.

Whereas free indirect speech is something more like:

“He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found since he came into this world?

So, that thought just goes straight into the text. You can do so much with that to layer in information. She picked up the knife. Her grandfather had given it to her. That’s just like, “Ah, I picked up the knife. Ah, my grandfather gave this to me.” That slows us down. It’s popping in and out. So, these are the kinds of things that you can be thinking about and manipulating when you’re playing with that opening.

[Dongwon] I’m going to give another very highfalutin literary example here, but if you ever have the chance, go take a look at Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. There’s a very famous scene of Clarissa walking down a street. There’s like somebody’s doing sky writing and she uses that to slide from POV to POV to POV in this scene as you move through the crowd. You really jump… Like, someone will make eye contact, and then suddenly you’ll be in that character’s head. It’s a master class in how you can use POV to build out a complete scene, and the balance between telling and showing. Of telling us a piece of information about another person, dropping into their mind to see how they see the world, and then sliding back out into someone else’s POV. If you want to think about how powerful shifting that perspective can be in building out a narrative, both in terms of using free indirect speech in terms of subjective experience and seeing things from different angles in that Rashomon style, even that one scene, if you don’t read the whole book, I think is an enormously instructive thing to take a look at.

[Mary Robinette] So, we are now at the point where we are at our final homework. Dongwon has this for us. But I’m actually going to tag on at the end of it with a trick. So this is going to be a tagteam homework, and he has no idea that I’m doing this. This is information that I probably should have layered in earlier.

[Dongwon] Well, I’m also calling an audible and I’m going to shift what the homework is. So we’re going to see if our two plans line up right here.

[Mary Robinette] Okay, then.

[Dan] [Oooo]

[Dongwon] So, I think the thing I want you to do is actually to delete your entire first scene from your draft. I mean, save it somewhere else. Put it under a different name, don’t throw out your draft. But I want you to start from word one for that first scene and rewrite it using all of the tools that we’ve talked about here. I want you to think about the exercises you’ve done up to this point rewriting that scene using all those different tools, characters’ interiority, that sort of narrative description, describing the world building and setting. Then redo it and try and think about how am I go to layer all these techniques into a single whole? How do you make that cake feel more complete using these tools?

[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. I am going to tag onto that, that once you’ve done that, but I want you to do is I want you to revise it. I want you to tighten it. The way I want you to do that is I want you to go through and highlight which things you really need the reader to know and make sure that they are in the right order. Then I’m going to see if you can fit them into a single paragraph. So what you’re going to do is… This is an editing technique that I call one phrase per concept or one sentence per concept. So each concept, you’re like, “Okay. They absolutely have to know that there are dragons and the dragons can talk. They absolutely have to know that this is 1950s. They absolutely have to know that I’m at a girls’ boarding school.” Okay, so that gives me four sentences. Then you get one more sentence for tone. Because tone is incredibly important. That is also a piece of information that the reader has. This is just an editing exercise. Then your final thing is probably going to be somewhere in between those two. But that is a way to start really, really thinking about which layer is important to you as you start your novel.

[Dongwon] I think these two homeworks dovetail beautifully. I think, by the time you’re done with it, you’ll have a killer first page that’s going to work great for you.

[Mary Robinette] So, now you are really and truly out of excuses. Now go write.