The Art of Revision

Writing a story is a pleasant diversion.  But the serious work doesn’t start until the revision process begins.  Most anybody can write.  Re-writing is what separates the dilettante from the artist.

This is an example from my own work in progress, a novel called Alexandrik, in the series Elder Light, to give you an idea of the value of revision, and how to go about it.

1st Draft – Brain Dump: I want to tell the reader about the growing hostility between the human Freefolk of the Valley and the Elder race which lives in the Subcity, and I want to do it from the point of view of a simple chicken farmer from a neutral village where Elders and humans live together more or less in harmony. Here’s the excerpt:

Yan had lost his wife and oldest daughter to the Plague. They’d been up picking mushrooms and must have been downwind of a party of refugees from the City. They were showing symptoms before anyone suspected they’d been exposed. Nurses from the Subcity were inoculating everybody in the village by that time, but it was already too late for them.

It had been a sore blow to him. Jem had only been a toddler. Her sister Bes was barely old enough to help keep the farm going. Lots of folks had lost family during those dark times. But they’d all pulled together as always. It had been far worse up north in the Freefolk Valley. Some folks up there were bitter, claiming the Elders didn’t do enough to protect them. Two of the Valley folk had been down just recently, looking to buy some button-comb chickens he’d bred. Good birds for that climate. Not so prone to frost bite on the combs. He’d heard the talk while they were there, ungrateful muttering. He’d have no part of it. He’d seen how hard the Elders had worked, trying to save folks. He’d seen the grief and anxiety in them when folk began getting sick. Hell, every single one of them had opened up their homes and taken in sick humans, trying to keep them quarantined, trying to keep the damn thing from spreading the best they could, looking after the sick and dying right through to the end. Arabellica had nursed his wife and daughter like they were her own kin. Mistress Saravastaya had made camps in the Garden to help keep those who weren’t infected safe until they could be vaccinated. Nope, he had no complaint against the Elders. And he spoke right up about it. Didn’t win him any friends among the Freefolk.

The Freefolk had some bitter things to say about Galamandria and Alexandrik, too. Where were they? they asked. Why weren’t they here to help? Yan couldn’t say, but it wasn’t his business to say. It was Elder business, and you couldn’t always understand that. You just had to have faith, that’s all. What they were doing was important in its own way.

1st draft gets across the information, but it reads back kind of flat. All narrative, no action. So it needs revision

2nd Draft – Major overhaul: I kept the beginning more or less as it is, but when I got to Yan visiting with the Valley people, I began completely rewriting.

  • Instead of telling about what he heard and what he thought, I bring the reader to the actual scene, so they can hear all the details for themselves.
  • I eliminated the details about the buttoncomb hens because I remembered I’d already talked about why the Valley folk valued them in a previous chapter, and I didn’t need to say it again, just mention that they were much in demand.
  • In some cases I lifted whole chunks out of the narrative and turned it into dialog. The part where Yan talks about Arabellica, one of the Elder race, taking care of his sick wife and child, pretty much all I did was change from third person to first person.

Here’s the rewritten version:

Just last week two of the Mavewill outfit had been down from the Valley to talk to him about buying a few of his buttoncomb hens. Quite in demand up there. They sat around his kitchen table, sipping brew and working up the deal. Took awhile, as Yan wasn’t inclined to part with as many birds as they wanted for what they were offering, but in the end they figured something out.

Then Jak Mavewill leaned back and said, “So, I heard you lost some kin in the Plague.”

“True enough,” Yan said. “It was a bad business. Elder doctors did all they could.”

“Mighty slow they were in doing it,” Jack said sourly.

“Now, Jak, I know you folks got hit pretty bad up there,” Yan said, leaning over to refill his mug from the pitcher. “Subcity doctors could only make the serum so fast.”

“Subcity Elders don’t like humans much,” Dut said. “Some folks wonder if maybe they didn’t work as hard to make that serum as they could have. After all, it was one of them that loosed that Plague in the first place.”

“Subcity Elders aren’t any different from anybody else,” Yan said. “There’s good ones and bad ones. I guess the bad ones are trying to take control now, but it’s not my business. It’s Elder business, and I stay out of it. All I know is that Dr. Apollodoria was in charge of making the Plague serum, and she’s as good as they get. They shipped it out as fast as they made it, and made it as fast as they could. That’s a fact.”

“Maybe so,” Jak said, “but it still seems mighty puzzling that Alexandrik disappears right then. Just when we could have used an extra doctor.

“Puzzling,” Dut agreed, nodding his head.

“And Galamandria, too,” Jack said.

“That’s right, both of them,” Dut said.

Yan snorted and turned away from the table, waving his hand dismissively.

“You explain it!” Jak shouted, leaning over the table, his elbow thudding onto it and a finger stabbed at Yan for emphasis. “Galamandria, who was supposed to care so much about the Freefolk, brought up in the Valley and all, and she just up and disappears! Didn’t see her working in the camps! Didn’t see her bringing the serum!”

“It’s Elder business, and I don’t pretend to know it!” Yan snapped, turning sharply back at them. “Mirramarduk got murdered, and there was some sordid business around it, including what got the Plague loosed, and you can be sure it shook up Alexandrik and Galamandria but good. We don’t know the half of it, and it’s not our place to! Just got to have faith they did what they had to and that’s the end to it!”

“Might be the end of it for you,” Jak said, “But other folks wonder.”

“That’s right,” Dut said, “They wonder.”

“Well, I don’t wonder,” Yan snapped. “When the Plague hit, Arabellica nursed my wife and daughter like they were her own kin, right up until the end, so I could keep the farm running. Mistress Saravastaya made camps in the Garden to help keep those who weren’t infected safe until they could be vaccinated. Silvanius and the other Elders worked with the refugees, tending to the sick ones, getting the ones who could maybe be saved to the Medical Center. Neighbor helping neighbor, just like it ought to be.”

“Just folks, just like you, right?” Jak glanced at Dut, the two of them exchanging a knowing nod.

“As a matter of fact, yes!” Yan’s determination to remain civil was being sorely tested.

Jak said, “Doesn’t make any difference that one of them could fry you with a single touch, or break you in two with one hand, eh?”

Dut tossed in, “Wouldn’t want to get in a fight with one!”

“Nope, not me neither,” Jak said. “Couldn’t be a fair fight at all.”

“We don’t settle things by fighting,” Yan said icily. “We talk things out.”

“Sure, you do. And you make nice to ‘em, if you know what’s good for you.”

Yan shot to his feet, the chair skidding back and nearly falling over. He shouted, “You want those birds or don’t you? Because it’s suddenly occurring to me that maybe I can’t spare them after all!”

2nd draft has action, gives the reader more details and a better picture of what Yan is like and what the two Valley people are like. I’m pleased with this, and will keep most of it, but it could still be better. I need to go over it again.

3rd Draft – Taking off the Rough Edges: I reread it, paying attention to how it flows. I try reading it aloud, to see how the dialog sounds. Is it natural? Could a person sound this way? Is it how I want the person to sound?

  • I try to distinguish the voices. Jak is more assertive, Dut often repeats what Jak says. I can almost hear the sneer in Jak’s voice, a kind of dullness in Dut. So I change who says what a bit to bring that out more.
  • Too many ‘he said’s so I eliminate a few by pairing up quotes with actions, and by seeing when it can be inferred who’s talking from the quotes around it, or by how the speaker talks.
  • I add some descriptions, which also help to eliminate some of the repetitive ‘he said’s. I try to picture what one of them might do (I’ve imagined these people chew something called “chicle” which is a sort of cross between gum and tobacco) and use that to make the scene clearer to the reader.
  • I got rid of ‘Jak shouted’ in the last speech from the excerpt that follows; the exclamation point makes it clear, and I tightened up the description of his action to give it more chop.

Here’s a sample of the revisions I made to smooth it out:

Jak picked up his mug and moved it with deliberation, making small wet circles on the table like links in a chain. “Subcity Elders don’t like humans much. Some folks wonder if maybe they didn’t work as hard to make that serum as they could have. After all, it was one of them that loosed that Plague in the first place.”

“That’s right, it was.” Dut grinned as if they’d caught Yan with some brilliant point of logic.

“Subcity Elders aren’t any different from anybody else,” Yan said. “There’s good ones and bad ones. I guess the bad ones are trying to take control now, but it’s not my business. It’s Elder business, and I stay out of it. All I know is that Dr. Apollodoria was in charge of making the Plague serum, and she’s as good as they get. They shipped it out as fast as they made it, and made it as fast as they could. That’s a fact.”

Jak reached into the pocket of his browncloth shirt and took out a small chicle tin. He opened, it, pinched off a piece of chicle and commenced to chew it. Tea chicle, Yan noticed with disgust. No wonder his teeth were brown.

Yan shook his head when Jak offered him some. “Don’t touch anything but spruce chicle.”

“No kick to that.” Jak slipped the tin back in his pocket. “All the same, it still seems mighty puzzling that Alexandrik disappears right then. Just when we could have used an extra doctor.

“Puzzling,” Dut agreed, nodding his head.

“And Galamandria, too.”

“That’s right, both of them.”

Yan snorted and turned away from the table, waving his hand dismissively.

“Then, you explain it!” Jak’s elbow thudded onto the table, his finger stabbed at Yan for emphasis. “Galamandria, who’s supposed to care so much about the Freefolk, brought up in the Valley and all, and she just up and disappears! Didn’t see her working in the camps! Didn’t see her bringing the serum!”

Final draft Polishing and Refining: Once I get it just the way I want it, I read it over again very carefully to catch any errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. I see if I’ve repeated a word too often and should substitute a synonym, or if there’s an adverb that doesn’t need to be there (for example, ‘waving his hand dismissively.’ becomes ‘waving his hand, dismissing the whole crock.’).

The piece isn’t truly finished until it’s published. Every time I read a manuscript, I almost always find something, maybe just a single word, that I could fix to make it better. Rewriting is the search for the perfect way to express what you want to say. It’s the difference between merely a good idea, and a splendid piece of writing.

[The actual excerpt as it will appear in the book is further enhanced with more references to other plot points, enriched by the complexity of everything else that is going on.  It was edited down and simplified for the purposes of this exercise.  To read it in its full context, click here.]

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