Girls Write Out
Monday, October 03, 2011

I just got back from our fabulous American Christian Fiction Writers conference where I got to see my peeps. Ami McConnell (on the right) taught an AMAZING class on loving your reader. It was a terrific reminder to respect and think about my reader and how she/he is affected by my books.

Erin Healy (on the left) along with my agent, Karen Solem, have taught me so much about building layers in a story. I know in a few weeks I'm going to get some great direction from both of them on Tidewater Inn. I can't wait! You all know how I love the editing process!

Good layers are often the key to making an editor sit up and take notice. So much of the time, stories that hit the editor’s desk are so similar. Romance especially can be tough to make fresh. But it’s all in the layers.

Here are the layers I work on with every story:

1. Setting is huge for me. A character who lives in Boston is very different from one who lives in the Outer Banks. The culture that shaped him/her is different too. Think about where your characters are. Read newspapers from that area and see if you can find a plot layer in what is going on currently there. Is there a culture group that’s strong there? In my Rock Harbor books, the Finnish culture had a huge role and was fun to layer in. The Lonestar series is set on a ranch in Texas that rescues abused horses and matches them with abused children. That idea gripped me by the throat, and that’s what you want your idea to do.

2. Character types. Take a look at character types and pit different types against one another to play off weaknesses and pet peeves. This can add a really great layer of conflict that’s ongoing. Maybe your female lead loves the wilderness and the hero’s idea of a great vacation is a cruise where everything is served to him. Maybe your heroine makes gourmet chocolates and the hero breaks out in hives from the aroma on her clothing. You get the picture!

3. Can you give your protagonist an obsession? That can really springboard you to plot ideas as she pursues it. This is often where to layer in your theme. In Lonestar Angel, due out in a few weeks, Eden and Clay are driven to find out if one of the five little girls at Bluebird Ranch is the daughter they thought drowned in a kidnapping gone wrong.

4. Interesting occupation. This leads me to story ideas all the time. I’ve written about a SAR dog team, a dolphin researcher, a smokejumper, an antique quilt expert, and an old time telephone operator at the turn of the century.

5. Think of plot layers that are problems for your main characters. Try to come up with at least three. For example, in Lonestar Angel, Eden is fighting off whoever lured them to the ranch, she's trying to figure out which child is Brianna, and she's dealing with her mother coming back into her life. Keep piling on the problems! Torture your poor character. The problem with many manuscripts I see is that there isn’t enough conflict and it isn’t varied enough. It’s not enough to have just ONE conflict.

Layers will life your book out of the rejected pile. They will add depth and interest to your characters and your plot. If you’ve already written the book, it’s still not too late to tear into it and make it something special. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch and add the things that need to be there.

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Colleen Coble  
posted at 8:58 PM  
  Comments (5)
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At 9:58 AM, Blogger Timothy Fish said...

For the most part I agree with you, but when it comes to #5 I sometimes wonder if people aren't going a little too far. Maybe it's just me and the kind of story I like to read, but these days it seems like every book you open has a main character with someone who may want to kill her, who is in danger of losing her job, and if that isn't enough, her family is either unsupportive or is causing problems. These days, authors aren't just cruel to their characters, they're taking a sledghammer and beating them over the head. I'm all for a character facing one obvious problem, it wouldn't be much of a book without it, but in the interest of layers, I think the reader should have to dig to find the rest. I'm also not much for disconnected conflict. I see the initial conflict as giving the character a reason to try to overcome it, but the rest of the conflict should be revealed by his efforts to solve his problem.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Colleen Coble said...

I'd soon be bored as a reader if there are no real layers in a story, Timothy. Layers reveal character. How does my character react when faced with those problems? That reveals character. That's the reason to have layers. It creates a multi-dimensional character and makes for a richer reading experience. :)

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Timothy Fish said...


I agree that how a character reacts to conflict reveals who the character is. But some problems are better at revealing a character than others. Unusual reactions to small problems are more revealing than even the strangest of reactions to big problems. Hidden problems are more revealing than obvious problems. To me, the most interesting problems are those that the character never talks about.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Anne Love said...

Thanks Colleen, #5 is my problem. I need to push that out a LOT more. Time to pull out Maas' book. I remember he said in the early bird, think of the worst things that can happen to your characters, push the stakes further.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Colleen Coble said...

That's exactly right, Anne! I reread Maass' book before starting any new novel. :)


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The Authors
Kristin Billerbeck
Kristin Billerbeck is a proud Californian, wife, mother of four, and connoisseur of the irrelevant. She writes Christian Chick Lit; where she finds need for most of the useless facts lulling about in her head.

Colleen Coble

Colleen Coble writes romantic suspense with a strong atmospheric element. A lovable animal of some kind--usually a dog--always populates her novels. She can be bribed with DeBrand mocha truffles.

Denise Hunter

Denise Hunter writes women's fiction and love stories with a strong emotional element. Her husband says he provides her with all her romantic material, but Denise insists a good imagination helps too.

Diann Hunt

Diann Hunt writes romantic comedy and humorous women's fiction. She has been happily married forever, loves her family, chocolate, her friends, chocolate, her dog, and well, chocolate.

Hannah Alexander

Cheryl Hodde writes romantic medical suspense under the pen name of Hannah Alexander, using all the input she can get from her husband, Mel, for the medical expertise. For fun she hikes and reads. Out of guilt, she rescues discarded cats. She and Mel are presently taking orders from four pampered strays.

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