The layers of the writer, not the writing

[This blog post also appeared on the International Christian Fiction Writers blog.]

In pursuit of improving my craft, I have been diving into the thoughts from a range of different authors to find out how they produce better stories.

One thing I found common to many of them is an idea that our writing should have different layers, and the deeper we go into them, the more engaging our stories will be.

I’ve read about going to deeper layers within characters. Readers will care about a character with depth, who has quirks and foibles not unlike their own. As the story progresses, they reveal more of themselves that the reader can embrace.

I’ve also read about the deep layers of plot. There is an intricate art to weaving subplots in, through and under the main storyline so there is something there for the reader to sink their teeth into.

There are layers of research, whereby authors don’t just check the spelling of the place name or breed of horse. They know what their story setting sounds like, smells like and feels like. They go deeper into finding out where their stories are set.

Lastly, I’ve read about the layering of scenes, so it’s not just a mad scramble from the opening line to the final phrase. Instead, the scene itself takes the reader deeper into the character’s dilemma.

I’ve embraced this advice and all of them have deepened my writing.

But I’ve been challenged beyond this. There is another level of layering that really makes a story deeper and more engaging.

It’s going deeper into the author.

I’ve been challenged by God to respond to this. To not just provide a story that has deeper layers in and of itself, but to look at the layers of myself so my story will go deeper for my reader.

These are the layers I’ve been looking at:

  1. My mind. I’m a pretty cerebral, rational guy and I live in my head most of the time.  I’m comfortable at this level. So when I write stories that are only at this layer, they might be observational but it’s still surface. It’s like reporting on a news channel.  Stories should go deeper than that.
  2. My experience. I’ve found that writing from my experience takes the story another level deeper again, when I convey through my characters that I know the wrenching grief of what it’s like to lose a grandfather, or the heart-pounding sprint to catch a flight. It’s another layer again and drives the reader deeper into the story. But I’ve been challenged to take my stories deeper than that.
  3. My heart. I could take the already-signposted route and claim that as an Aussie bloke this is the I’ll probably struggle with the most. But I’m surprised by how many other authors struggle with this; bloke or not, Aussie or not.  Peeling away the onion-like layers of mind and experience, and connecting with what you feel – in a tangible, real way for readers and putting it on the page – is scary and confronting. Writing from the heart draws readers even deeper into the story we’ve created. I’ve noticed with my own reading, this is where I connect with characters because I can see the passion bleeding through the words on the page. The author has gone beyond that they think or know, and has dared to put on the page what they feel. But there is another layer deeper than that.
  4. My soul. This deepest layer is where I want to be.  I don’t mean by this that all Christian authors instantly turn into writers who produce sermons dressed up as fiction, but to me, writing from the soul is not just writing what you think, know or feel – it’s writing from who you are. It’s the essence of you.  I’ve read stories recently where there is almost something primal about connecting with someone on that level. I love a good plot twist and clever turn-of-phrase more than the next person, but when I read James L Rubart’s The Five Times I met Myself, I was drawn in by the fact that this wasn’t just Jim’s words on the page, it was Jim himself.

So I’ve been challenged not just to go deeper into the layers of the writing, but more into the layers of the writer.

In my reading, I can see how this writing is the best and it’s a challenge that I’m working towards.  If you’re a writer, how about you?

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