I spoke to a writers’ group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the publication at age twenty-six of my first book, a nonfiction guide to backpacking and camping in developing countries. I described the vagaries of finding an agent and publisher, and revealed to the audience my real dream as a writer. I told the group that while I was proud of my nonfiction debut, what I really wanted was to write and publish fiction.
I made clear in a know-it-all way—as twenty-somethings are wont to do—that while nonfiction was all well and good, I saw fiction as the only true form of writing.
An elderly woman in the crowd was kind enough to not put me on the spot during the Q&A se
ssion that followed my remarks. Instead, she confronted me afterward, face to face.
She told me she was writing a memoir about her family’s roots, and that she’d found her nonfiction work to be extremely challenging and wholly satisfying, even as she was aware that her manuscript—nearly complete after several years’ work—had little chance at publication. Why, she asked me in conclusion, was I disparaging the very type of writing I’d been so fortunate to have published?
I backpedaled clumsily and offered the woman my apologies.
In the years that followed, I poured myself into writing and publishing several more nonfiction books, one of which won the National Outdoor Book Award. I wrote each book with pride and enthusiasm, and always with the woman’s comments in mind.
But I always kept alive, in the back of my mind, the desire to write fiction.
Four years ago—twenty-five years after the publication of my first nonfiction book—Torrey House Press published my debut work of fiction, Canyon Sacrifice, book one in my National Park Mystery Series. I’ve written three more installments in the series since then, with book four, Yosemite Fall, scheduled for release by Torrey House in June 2018.
I have thoroughly enjoyed writing fiction these last five years—so much so, in fact, that I had assumed writing nonfiction was forever in my past. But when I ran across a fascinating, true-life historical tale while researching Yosemite Fall, I surprised myself by leaping at the chance to develop the story as a work of narrative nonfiction.
In returning to nonfiction after my mystery-writing stint, I’ve found tha
t the woman who confronted me thirty years ago knew what she was talking about. I’m relishing the challenge and satisfaction of writing nonfiction again.
Moreover, I’m leaning hard on everything I learned while writing my mysteries to make my new book as compelling and fully realized and many-layered as anything I’ve ever written.
After three decades as an author, it took my move from nonfiction to fiction and back again to recognize what the woman in Albuquerque tried to impress upon me at the very start of my career: it’s the writing itself that matters. When the question is fiction or nonfiction, the answer, I’ve finally learned, is both.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The fourth book in the series, Yosemite Fall, will be released in June 2018. Graham lives in Durango, Colorado. Visit him at scottfranklingraham.com.
Heroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.
A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.
Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.
I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.
What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.
Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.
In my four-part blog series on the Thriller genre, I'm going to discuss the core nature of the thriller and what sets it apart from other forms of fiction. In three future segments, I plan to discuss the hero(es), the villain(s) and plotting and pacing. My intent is to offer some insights to fellow thriller-writers and perhaps learn something myself along the way.
The primary thing that sets the thriller apart from its cousin, the mystery, is that most often there is no whodunit. For the most part, the bad guy (or guys...assume hereafter I mean both singular and plural, masculine and feminine) is revealed fairly early on in the plot, if not the very first page.
This leads to a temptation for many aspiring thriller writers to open their book with a prologue, in which the villain incites the story through some nefarious act that sets his plans in motion. Please resist the urge. Most editors do not like prologues and neither do I. There are justifications for prologues, but they should be the exception, not the rule. Prologues are a whole other blog article.
While the primary question in a mystery is 'who?" the big question in a thriller is 'how?' How is the villain planning to accomplish his goal? This is critical for the hero to know how to stop the villain. In a mystery, on the road to finding out who committed the crime (usually murder), finding the 'why?' or motive goes a long way toward helping the protagonist sleuth to finding the culprit. In a thriller, similar but different is the 'what?" Finding out what the villain plans to do helps our hero know how to thwart him.
Which brings us to another difference. In a mystery, finding the perp is usually the end of the story, sometimes after a brief pursuit and/or capture scene. In a thriller, finding the answer to 'how' only kicks the thriller into high gear. Our daring protag still needs to execute a spectacular plan to dismantle the villain's plans. And of course when has a plan ever come off exactly as laid out? Therein lies more fun.
Your audience for a mystery is those who like the process of uncovering secrets and following obscure evidence trails to uncover even more. In many cases, the more shocking the secrets revealed the better they love it. I know that's part of what makes me love a good mystery. Your audience for a thriller are those who like action, adventure and daring do. The pitching of two enemies against each other until one comes out on top. Where a mystery is like the old card game Concentration - uncovering clues and remembering them, matching connections when they appear - a thriller is like chess - opponents making moves in attempts to misdirect and outwit each other and win the day.
Of course, like all attempts to define something complex, these definitions (mystery vs. thriller) are not all-encompassing or true in all cases. For example, I haven't mentioned how many mysteries and most thrillers include elements of romance, or how either can take place within the realm of historical fiction or SciFi, etc. As with all forms of fiction, there is overlap. I've only attempted here to lay out the broad strokes of what makes a thriller. Your results may vary.
When she finished writing her novel “Transference,” Kate Jonuska came to a fork in a road and, as Yogi Berra once said, she took it.
The question was how to publish? Traditional? Or independent?
Kate was surprised that her views on the choice had changed and it was a choice she said was informed by her time in RMFW.
A Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers member since 2014, Kate Jonuska is a writer and author based in Boulder, Colorado.
Kate has a decade of experience writing features for top-notch regional publications, including the Denver Post, the Boulder Daily Camera, the (Colorado Springs) Gazette and Boulder Magazine. Kate's short fiction was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.
Transference is Kate’s first published novel. It features a professionally ruined and morally bankrupt psychiatrist named Derek Verbenk and a superpowered new patient who turns his life upside down—and his soul inside out.
Romping through Denver, breaking through barriers of privacy, social isolation and even politics, Transference, is an odd-couple quest toward redemption full of wicked humor and radical honesty.
One of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.
Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.
In another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.
Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:
"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."
And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.
Douglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:
"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”
Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.
I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?
I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.
Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.
An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?
"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."
This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)
Now consider this physical scene:
"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."
Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.
One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.
What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.
I recently read a women’s fiction novel by an author I’ve enjoyed before, Lisa Jewell. It had the usual things she does well: interesting characters, complex relationships, an appealing and well-developed setting. But it had something else, a suspense plot. This “something extra” made it an even more compelling book. The book worked as women’s fiction already. The suspense plot took it to another level.
I’ve noticed this kind of “genre crossbreeding” is happening more and more. It started in romance years ago when authors began adding suspense to create the romantic suspense sub-genre, and paranormal elements to create paranormal romance. Then historical mysteries took off, followed by mysteries with fantasy or sci-fi elements. And what is urban fantasy, other than an action/adventure novel set in a fantasy world?
Even literary fiction has gotten in on the trend, with authors adding strong genre elements to books written in a literary style. An example is one of my favorite mystery authors: Benjamin Black, which is the pseudonym of John Banville, an acclaimed literary writer. There's a mystery at the core of his Quirk series, but the writing is also beautiful and evocative, providing a thrilling and enriched reading experience.
In the very crowded publishing world of today, there are so many well-written genre books that you have to find some way to set your novel apart. Adding elements from another genre is a good way to do this. A friend of mine, Amanda Cabot, writes inspirational romance. In her most recent novel, she added a mystery subplot. From the reviews she’s gotten, readers loved it. The mystery was “something extra” that made the book even more satisfying.
In some ways, the trend can be a disheartening. You’ve reached the place where you’re very good at writing books in your genre. Now you realize you have to up your game and work even harder. But another way to think of it is an exciting opportunity to stretch and expand your skills.
Without my really planning it, there ended up being a mystery subplot in the historical romance I recently finished. In addition to the love story and the other usual plot elements, someone attempts to murder a secondary character. I’m not a plotter, so after I finished the first draft, I had a lot more revision to do than usual. I had to make sure the timeline made sense, the clues were there and the mystery—in addition to everything else—got wrapped up satisfactorily.
The book was more work than any I’ve written in years. But it was also challenging and gratifying. Knowing that I’d enriched the story by adding a mystery made me more hopeful my publisher might be interested in the book, despite the fact that medieval romances aren’t exactly a hot commodity these days.
I don’t know if the mystery subplot is why my publisher offered me a contract. (Yay!) But I don’t think it hurt. What about you? Are there cross-genre elements you could add to your next project?
We check back in with Laurence MacNaughton, whose new urban fantasy A Kiss Before Doomsday is set to launch in a few short weeks, just about a year after he debuted his new series with It Happened One Doomsday.
We are back with Dru Jasper and her crystal shop and her magical powers and sorcerers and major problems trying to stop, yes, another impending apocalypse.
Laurence Macnaughton grew up in Connecticut and sold his first magazine story at age 19. Over the years, he’s been a bookseller, typesetter, printer, copywriter and a prototype vehicle test driver.
Following the Q & A, Laurence reads the opening scene from A Kiss Before Doomsday.
RMFW writer friends of mine – and anyone writing fiction out there – I ask this: how many writers do you know who put together 25 novels (most of them in near-perfect shape) without ever receiving a word of encouragement for an agent or publishing house? In fact, Gary was discouraged many times. He would query now and then, get rejected, and keep writing.
Twenty-five! And most only need a light dusting, editing wise, to get them shipshape today.
Quality? Three Colorado Book Award finalist nominations so far. Booklist has raved about Gary's series. National Public Radio has twice talked about Gary's works in a positive light. And Gary's Vietnam fiction has drawn praise from Ron Carlson, Stewart O'Nan, Gregory Hill, Tim Bazzett, John Mort and David Willson, who reviews books for The Vietnam Veterans of America. The single story Gary had published during his lifetime was accepted by The Iowa Review and later included in the fourth volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology, the best fiction from small presses.
For many of his works, Gary Reilly did what writers are taught to do. He drew stories from his life. And livelihoods. For many other stories, he conjured from his quite active storytelling imagination.
So Gary wrote about going to war. He wrote about driving a taxi. And he weaved into his books many of the frustrations about being an unpublished novelist.
Gary, who died in 2011, left behind a mountain of fiction.
Here at the worldwide headquarters of Running Meter Press, we are closing in on the half-way mark of publishing Gary’s works.
Later this month, on Friday, June 23, we will launch The Discharge, the third book in Gary’s trilogy about his experiences during The Vietnam War.
The series started with The Enlisted Men’s Club, set in The Presidio and around San Francisco as Private Palmer (Gary’s alter ego) faced the grim prospect of going to war. Private Palmer drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, and tries hard, during the occasional training run, to imagine what lies ahead.
Palmer touches his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then drops his hand. The smoking lamp isn’t lit. Do real grunts smoke on patrol? The point-man has an incomprehensible look of panic on his face. Lt. Norbert turns him around by the shoulders and shoves him back toward his position. Can patrols in Vietnam be as half-assed as this? Palmer knows he could very well end up in the Infantry and that he is not guaranteed to remain an MP once he arrives in a combat zone, though maybe that’s just Army Apocrypha. He will never be able to separate his illusions from his ignorance. When he was inducted he had expected everyone to end up with nicknames, like Bookworm, Lefty, or Ace. His nickname would be Colorado, as in, “Colorado bought the farm last night, Ace.” Everyone would look like Bart Maverick, Bret’s less-interesting brother. When they got into arguments, they would raise their chins and say things like, “Back off, buddy boy.”
In The Detachment, Private Palmer is “in country,” but he’s an MP and his combat is internal. The Detachment is 154,000 words. It’s a one-year arc and its three parts are beautifully distinct. The war is nearby and Palmer and witnesses its toll, but he’s not fighting out in the jungles of Vietnam.
The sounds of the choppers fade as they fly toward the PX, cross over it, then separate and begin spreading out in a combat formation, their fantails easing back and forth, the Hueys now like tiny fish idling against a river’s current. A circle of light suddenly appears on the mountainside, a white disk that must cover twenty square acres, and at first Palmer thinks it has come from a helicopter. The circle probes the hillsides, slithers along its rills and gullies in search of VC, moves as rapidly as if Palmer himself were twitching the beam of a hand-held flashlight across the far ranges, thousands of meters swept in less than a second….
Tracer bullets streak toward the side of the mountain, the Hueys now like angry spiders spinning endless red threads, raking the gullies, the rills, the folds as the circle of white light stops, creating a bull’s-eye target for the bullets tearing up the earth…
The battle sounds cease, the faint pulse of the earth no longer throbbing at irregular intervals through Palmer’s soles. The massive spotlight begins to drift slowly north along the hillsides, its shape changing as it traces every mound and crevice like a flattened liquid cat in a cartoon sliding off a chair.
And in The Discharge, Private Palmer returns home to Denver and, quite frankly, here’s where I get chills.
I think about all the soldiers who have returned home, alive. I think about how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated.
I think about how anyone would find meaning in life after seeing so much killing or being the cause of your enemy’s death. The suicide rates among veterans is a harrowing issue to this day and it's no accident that suicides play a major role in both The Enlisted Men’s Club and The Detachment.
Gary’s fiction captured the reality of the mental state of his fellow soldiers—and, of course, his own.
Coming home in The Discharge, Palmer (no longer Private Palmer) faces heavy bouts of ennui and a lack of purpose. The first section is bleak. Hopelessness is right around the corner. What to do? How hard to work? And what will hold meaning?
In the first section of this third novel, Palmer is looking for an anchor and ponders going to California so he drives up Berthoud Pass in a raging snowstorm and gets stuck, dreaming of San Francisco.
The whitened top of Geary, electric trolley cars every five minutes, the sweet odor of saltwater and green leaves and sandy Sunset Beach. At the beginning of this journey he thought he would somehow find himself at that place in the morning. He put a wine bottle to his lips, but there was no wine left. He set the bottle on the floor and it tipped and rolled and stopped.
He held his beer can until it was empty and he tried to think about the things other than the things which can never be escaped, and all the time he kept promising himself that the one thing he would not do alone in the dark mountains was cry about it. It seemed to him finally the only thing he had any control over, and when it began, he found he could not stop it.
He wept until the morning light turned the road and the forest to red and then to gold as the sun lifted above the far plains and shrank, and the road and the snow between the trees grew white as burning phosphorous.
In the second section of The Discharge, Gary switches to first-person as Palmer goes to Hollywood. In real life, Gary came very close to being hired to write for stand-up comedian Louie Anderson and this middle section gives an idea of how high Gary’s hopes were—and how he managed to deal with the disappointment. Or did he?
And in the third section, back in third-person again and back in Denver, Palmer decides to start driving a cab, just as Gary did. Still, Palmer is looking for routine and a sense of place in the world of work (without doing too much). And we see fictional Palmer "meet" the future fictional Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.
Murph is Gary’s greatest creation, the asphalt philosopher Brendan Murphy, star of eight novels to date. (Booklist has called Murph "a truly original fictional creation and National Public Radio has raved about the series as "huge fun.")
Murph, as fans of the series know, is an unpublished novelist as well as being a cab driver. As a cab driver, Murph wants to earn as little money as possible—just enough to keep his bohemian life afloat. And Murph is bound and determined to never get involved in the lives of his fares, a personal mantra that he violates on a regular basis (for our comic benefit).
But in The Discharge, as Palmer finds stability and comfort in the cab driving business (despite some harrowing moments), Palmer saves himself.
He’s still looking for escape, a way out of the now and the ordinary and a way to deal with what he experienced in Vietnam, an experience to which he “refuses to attach any nostalgia.”
How does Palmer escape? How does he heal himself?
By becoming an artist.
Against the darkness, he turns on the kitchen light. He sits at the table.
He’s got a mountain of fiction to produce and it offers him hope, a way forward. We can feel it.
We've published 11 novels so far. Ahead, a couple of 'noir' mysteries in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, at least one more Murph, some science fiction, some fantasy, and some big, old-fashioned multi-generational literary fiction.
Despite the occasional ray of hope from an agent here or a publisher there, Gary Reilly never stopped writing (right up to the end). He was a writer, through and through.
Gary Reilly knew his place in the world, as a storyteller. And an artist, the greatest writer I ever knew.
Join us at The Tattered Cover for the launch of The Discharge: Friday, June 23 | 7 PM 2526 E. Colfax Ave.
When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?
Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.
Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.
Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.
Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:
Mood and atmosphere
Body language and facial expression
Metaphors and similes
Chapter breaks and cliffhangers
I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.
Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.
Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.
So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.