A GLIMPSE OF REVISION
One Specific Writer's Thoughts On One Specific Day
Before I start this, let me start by saying that I believe this: there’s no right way to write. That said, I do have a way I write... because over the years, this process has become what feels most comfortable for me. My first drafts tend to be sparse. Generally, as I revise the manuscript, I’m striking phrases and lines that don’t work for me, but I’m also adding details -- which means my word count is tending to go up rather than down. I’m generally writing “two steps forward, one step back” -- in other words, I re-read and revise what I wrote the day before as a tactic to get me “moving downhill” when I hit the blank part of the page.
So... this example of ‘process’ is from the middle of A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT. And a warning to everyone reading this: there are spoilers (probably minor ones) in the following, so if you haven’t yet read A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, you are hereby warned. (And if you haven’t read it, why not?)
Now, I don't generally keep track of the changes I make, honestly. In this case, though, I wanted to put together a lesson for my Creative Writing students on the revision process; at the same time I was drafting at this point in A MAGIC OF TWILIGHT, the current work-in-progress. I thought it might be interesting to them to give a personal example. So I copied a few original paragraphs from the day before, and then went over the passage as I usually do, this time paying attention to what I was thinking as I made the changes -- again, not something I generally do consciously. Yep, actually paying attention to my thought processes may have changed the editing a bit, but that's just something we'll have to accept.
The brief scene fragment that follows uses two main characters from the book. One is Karl ci’Vliomani, who belongs to a sect that the ruling state religion considers heretical. Karl has been (falsely) accused of a vile deed, and brought to the Bastida -- an ancient prison in the city of Nessantico. The other is Commandant Sergei cu’Rudka, the person in charge of security for the city. You'll need another important note for this scene to make sense: in this world, magic usage requires two components: a specific chant combined with specific motions of the hands.
So: here’s the original ‘first draft,’ as written in the first pass-through:
Morning light spilled golden on the walls of the Bastida, but seemed not to touch the dark, grimy stones. The tiny ledge on which Karl stood was high in the tower, and from his vantage point looking east, he could see the Archigos’ Temple. Between the rooftops of the intervening buildings, he could see the crowds milling around the Temple. The Avi just beyond the walls of the Bastida complex was nearly deserted at the moment. For the moment, it seemed everyone in the city was at the Temple.
“I hope you weren’t considering jumping. That would be a shame -- though now and then one of this room’s inhabitants have been desperate enough to do just that.”
Karl glanced back into the small, dark room, furnished with a rude chair and desk, and the tiny bed of straw ticking. The Commandant was half-seated on the desk, one leg up and the other on the floor, looking at him. Karl said nothing -- he could say nothing, not with the cloth-covered metal band that held down his tongue, bound with straps and locked around his head. The chains that bound his hands tightly together rattled as he turned.
That’s what I had when I quit writing that night. The next day, as usual, I went over the material from the day before, and made changes. What follows are sentence-by-sentence revisions, with the changes marked in blue...
Morning light spilled golden toward the walls of the Bastida, but recoiled from actually touching the dark, grimy stones.
So... here’s what I was thinking as I made the changes:
“...seemed not to touch...” in the first draft sounded really awkward to me.
I wanted the (anthropomorphic) sense of the sun not wanting to light the Bastida, thus “... recoiled from actually touching the dark, grimy stones.”
Not “spilled golden on...” but “spilled golden toward...” because the light doesn’t illuminate the stones well
Let’s go on...
The ledge on which Karl stood was high in the tower and protected only by a flimsy strip of open wooden rail. From his vantage point looking east, the gilded domes of the Archigos' Temple were visible.
“...tiny” seemed superfluous, so I deleted it. “... he could see...” will be repeated in the next sentence, so that had to go, too. The railing was intended to add a sense of precariousness and more detail. And lastly, I broke the sentence into two to give the additional visual details to the reader (the “gilded domes”) without the sentence getting too lengthy and cumbersome.
Between the rooftops of the intervening buildings, he could glimpse the massive crowd around the Temple as the city waited for the Kraljica to begin her slow, final procession around the ring of the Avi a'Parete.
“..see” was too generic; “glimpse” just felt better and more precise. The crowd is now “massive” (that almost seems redundant in retrospect, but hey, it's the change I made...) I gave a reason for the crowd also (one that a reader of the previous chapter of the novel would understand immediately).
The next two sentences of draft now seemed superfluous, unimportant, and redundant, so I deleted them -- see, I actually sometimes cut things, too...
"I hope you weren't considering jumping, Vajiki. Now that would be a shame -- though a few of this room's inhabitants have have been, ah, disappointed enough in our hospitality to prefer death to confinement."
I believe dialog is one of the most iportant tools in characterization, and if the character doesn't speak as the character should speak, you lose that. So... Here, I changed the phrasing to give more a sense of Sergei's character. “Vajiki” is the proper respectful title in this world; he'd use that, if only for the irony. The original “now and then” sounded too modern to my ears -- therefore, I got rid of it. Most importantly for the dialog, Cu’Rudka is more sarcastic and droll, and his comments needed to reflect that. He’d absolutely make that deliberate understatement about ‘hospitality’ because he’d find it amusing.
I really like Sergei as a character, but then if you've read the previous essay, you already know that....
Karl glanced back over his shoulder into the small, gloomy cell in which he'd been placed, furnished with a rude chair and desk and a tiny bed of straw ticking. The metal door hung open.
Again, I’m trading something generic for something more specific -- in this case “gloomy” for “dark.” The bed is no longer “the” tiny bed, but “a” tiny bed -- a tiny change, but the “the” made the bed more important than it was -- yeah, that one’s splitting semantic hair, but hey, it’s my hair.
I added the metal door for visual help, and the fact that it was open to have admitted cu’Rudka.
He saw the Commandant half-seated on the desk, one leg up and the other on the floor. Behind him, in the corridor past the bars, two guards leaned against the stone walls. A torch guttered in its holder between them. "Though that wasn't the case with Vajiki ca'Gafeldi, as I recall," cu'Rudka said to Karl. "His mind became addled after a few months here and he insisted that he was able turn into a dove and fly away. He looked rather silly, flapping his arms all the way down..."
I added the most detail here in this sentence. The guards are added because, well, they’d be there...
“He saw...” is intended to make Karl more active and emphasize that this is his point of view. From the dialog standpoint, I had cu’Rudka expand a bit on his previous comment, because I thought a prisoner who’d gone mad and ‘flew’ to his death was a nice, horrific anecdote, one that Sergei would appreciate and relate.
The guards in the corridor chuckled. Karl said nothing -- he could say nothing, not with the cloth-covered metal band that held down his tongue, bound with straps and locked around his head. The chains pressing his hands tightly together rattled as he turned fully.
I had the guards chuckle to remind the reader they were there, and to heighten the effect of Karl being silenced (remember: magic requires a chant and hand motions, therefore, they would ‘silence’ a prisoner who can do magic and bind the hands.) I also broke this off into its own paragraph in the revision, rather than being part of the previous paragraph. There were two incidents of the word “bound” in the draft; one had to go, thus the change in the last sentence.
That was my thinking during the polishing pass, for good or ill.
I liked these changes, which is all that mattered at the time. Another writer -- I can guarantee -- would have done it differently. I can even guarantee that a few writers out there will read this and think "What the hell was he thinking?"
The revisions added about 100 words to the total count, and changed about 25% of the original words. Now... What we just went over still wasn’t the final revision. No, no, no. I did the revision you just witnessed in the initial pass through the scene the day after I first wrote it. But that's not the end of the process.
After I finished the entire draft, the whole manuscript went through a more serious ‘polishing & revision’ phase for the version I submitted to my editor. More (small) changes were made to this scene at that point. Then Sheila (my editor) read that draft and gave me her revision notes (nothing specifically regarding that scene, though), and so I revised the novel yet again based on our discussion of the book. In that process, I passed through this scene once more and made more small changes... Then was also the copy-editing and galleys, though I can't say that I remember anything changing there. It might have, but...
I’m not going to inflict the whole thing on you again, but -- for comparison -- here’s the first paragraph of the “revised” text followed by the first paragraph of the published book’s text. The additional changes are highlighted in blue once more.
Morning light spilled golden toward the walls of the Bastida, but recoiled from actually touching the dark, grimy stones. The ledge on which Karl stood was high in the tower and protected only by a flimsy strip of open wooden rail. From his vantage point looking east, the gilded domes of Archigos’ Temple were visible. Between the rooftops of the intervening buildings, he could glimpse the massive crowd around the Temple as the city waited for the Kraljica to begin her slow, final procession around the ring of the Avi a’Parete.
Morning light spilled golden toward the walls of the Bastida, but seemed to avoid actually touching the dark, grimy stones. Karl stood on a ledge high in the tower, protected only by a flimsy strip of open wooden rail. From his vantage point looking east, he could see the gilded domes of Archigos’ Temple. Between the rooftops of the intervening buildings, he glimpsed the massive crowd around the Temple as the city waited for the Kraljica to begin her slow, final procession around the ring of the Avi a’Perate: at dusk as the lamps of Nessantico were lit.
The truth is that most writers could revise their text endlessly. We could all be in a constant condition of revision, eternally tweaking the words and never, ever reaching “THE END” as a result. But somewhere in the process, the writer has to say “this is the best I can do right now” and... quit.
We’re not really done then, mind you. We’re just... tired. Heck, give me the opportunity, and I’d fiddle with that paragraph yet again. For one, I’d replace that “seemed to avoid” in the first line with “recoiled from” (as it was in the revised text -- I’m not sure why I changed that back again.) I really like the change from “The ledge on which Karl stood...” to the more active-voiced “Karl stood on a ledge...” but maybe it should have stayed a “tiny” ledge?
And then there’s.…
You see? A book’s never really done. Ever. At least not in this writer's head.
In fact, maybe I should go back and revise this essay...
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