Anatomy of a re-write

spring

I usually re-write my chapters once or twice immediately after I first draft them. It doesn’t make for a final draft, but it cleans things up. The last five chapters of my current project are still fairly rough and need quite a bit of work. Right now, I’m focused on chapter 17, it kicks off the final action, and introduces a new character. I’ve rewritten this chapter dozens of times, a few times it’s changed a lot. In the most recent versions, the action and setting of that chapter have started to settle and now I’m chipping away at issues of character, dialogue, and phrasing. I often see folks enumerating their re-writes, you know -I had to re-write my book eighteen times before I published it. This is something I could never quantify because I usually go back and revise as I’m working along. Even now, with a full draft, have yet to attempt revising the entire work. That will happen, but not just now.

What I don’t often see is a synopsis of what happens in these re-writes. How does one approach it? Is there a strategy? What the hell exactly are you re-writing? A new writer might even ask: After two or three revisions, what are you even doing? By that point you can’t be doing more than just shuffling around words.

Nope.

There are a lot of things that happen in each iteration. I’ve got a thousand or two words of rewrites here to illustrate the evolution of the story. This is the first couple of pages of chapter 17.

Earylish draft

Neoth awoke just as the sun broke over the buildings of the city, sending a shaft of light into the narrow window of his room. Some sort of noise had awoken him, but now he couldn’t tell if it was real or just part of his dream. He had been dreaming about standing on the top of the cliff with Althea again. This time, she had not attacked him. Instead, something in the distance taunted him. It was too far to be seen, but he felt as though he had to get there. A few birds twittered somewhere outside, and he thought he heard the faint crowing of a rooster. Again the noise came, it was a soft rapping at the door.
Neoth sat up, focusing on what was outside of the door. He could feel his brother, Erthrec out there.
“Come in.” Neoth said, getting to his feet.
“Good morning brother.” Erthrec said, slipping quietly into the room, and giving Neoth a big hug. “I am so glad to see you, I had thought Lord Feorun had gotten you.”
Neoth stepped back to look at his brother. Erthrec was dressed well, his shoulder-length hair tied back smartly, and his mustache and goatee neatly trimmed. Except for the single golden ring on his arm, he fully looked like any other merchant. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes. There were, dark rings under his eyes and worry lines etched on his forehead. Neoth could feel the genuine sentiment of relief in his brother. He really had been worried.
“I didn’t think you would be able to get here for another day.” Neoth said.
“The news of your arrival reached me early enough to make the trip.” Erthrec said, taking a seat on a chair next to the window. “Though, we will need to leave very soon after breakfast, I must return to the estate by mid-afternoon.” Then, changing to a much more somber tone continued, “I expect you’ve heard father and Aldredh are missing?”


 

Aside from the fact that I don’t really care for how this is written. There are lot of things that need fixing in this early draft. The MC (Neoth) was dropped out at a little farm by his family, who are a part of the nobility. The brothers immediately greet each other as old friends without the tension and resentment the MC would almost certainly feel. There is a good piece of foreshadowing here, but I can put that elsewhere. When I’d written this chapter, it was originally chapter 8, not 17, and so the circumstances were quite different with respect to rising action and plot. I think in its first iterations, this chapter may have even been 5.

A middle draft:

The soft knock at the door, set Neoth’s heart hammering in his chest. He sat up in bed, disoriented, and groping around for a weapon. The door creaked open slowly. A shaft of weak light broke into the room. Neoth moved so close to the edge of the bed, he nearly fell off. He cursed himself for having left his sword so near the door. As the light grew slowly, he groped around for something, anything to use as a weapon. A face peeked through the crack.
“Erthrec?” Neoth asked.
Erthrec slipped into the room. “It is.”
Even in the weak lamp light Neoth could see that Erthrec was well dressed, his shoulder-length hair tied back smartly, mustache and goatee neatly trimmed. He had always presented himself impeccably. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until sometime tomorrow.”
“I came as soon as I heard you were here,” he said as he turned to set his lantern on a side table.
The door swung fully opened to reveal the cook, carrying a tray with a pair of cups and teapots. She bustled into the room around Erthrec, and set it down on a side table.
“An’ there’s pot ‘o coffee for you ‘ere then,” She said to Neoth, before hurrying off, shutting the door as quietly as possible.
Neoth watched Erthrec pour from one of the pots into a cup. He handed it to Neoth. “I seem to recall that you don’t take cream in this,” He said.
Neoth took the cup. The smell of it was a powerful. Coffee was a soldier’s drink. He’d taken a liking to it when he was with the king’s guard. Erthrec returned to the tray and poured himself a cup from the other pot. When he was done, he took a seat on a chair near the window.
“I’m surprised you remember such a little thing,” Neoth said holding up his coffee. “Or would care to after I was kicked out of the family.”
Erthrec sighed. It was a shuddering gesture full of sadness. “It wasn’t quite like that you know.”
Noeth took a sip of his coffee. It was powerful stuff. “What do you mean?”


This draft was initially drafted about a year ago, just after introducing a major sub-plot and expanding a few early chapters that were just too thin for plausibility. It covers roughly the same scene as the early draft, but takes into account some of the things missing. I also tried to get at some of those things I didn’t like early on. That said, the language and dialogue are still clunky and don’t quite get me where I want to be with respect to tension – or at least it doesn’t set it up as I’d like it to. In this draft, the topic of the MC’s exile comes up fairly quickly, but still feels weak to me, not only that the brother doesn’t really respond to the MCs dialogue as he ought to.

Current draft:
A soft knock at the door set Neoth’s heart hammering in his chest. He sat up in bed, disoriented, and groping around for a weapon. The door creaked and shaft of light broke into the room. As the light grew, Neoth struggled with his tangled blanket, nearly falling off the bed. He cursed himself for having left his sword so near the door. A face with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee peeked through the crack.
“Erthrec?” Neoth asked.
Erthrec slipped into the room. “It is.”
“You could have announced yourself,” Neoth said, trying to catch his breath.
“I did knock. Don’t you think an assassin would have just slit your throat and been done with it?”
Even in the weak lamp light Neoth could easily make out Erthrec’s fine clothes and smartly tied back shoulder length hair. He had always presented himself impeccably. Though he was inches shorter than Neoth, Erthrec bore a strong resemblance, with the same shade of hair, and gray eyes.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until sometime tomorrow,” Neoth said.
Erthrec turned to set his lantern on a side table. “I came as soon as I heard you were here.”
“After years without a single word, you rushed here?” Neoth asked before he could stop himself.
“It wasn’t by choice,” Erthrec said.
“Someone forced you here then?”
“No, of course not,” Erthrec said in exasperation, “It wasn’t my choice not to visit.”
The door swung fully opened, and the cook bustled into the room carrying a tray with a pair of cups and teapots. She set it down on the side table next to Erthrec’s lantern.
“An’ there’s pot ‘o coffee for ya then,” She said to Neoth, before shuffling out and making a production of quietly shutting the door.
Erthrec poured a cup from one of the pots and handed it to Neoth.
Neoth took the cup. It was coffee, a soldier’s drink. He’d taken a liking to it when he was with the king’s guard. Erthrec returned to the tray and poured himself a cup of tea from the other pot. When he was done, he took a seat on a chair near the window.
“I’m surprised you remember such a little thing,” Neoth said holding up his coffee. “Or would care to after I was kicked out of the family.”
Erthrec rubbed his eyes in exhaustion. “It wasn’t quite like that you know.”
Noeth took a sip of his coffee. “Why didn’t you visit then?”
“I did try, but I couldn’t find you.”
“It wasn’t like I was very far off, and anyone in the village could have told you Neoth the Rogue lived there.”
“Had I known what village to look in, yes, I would have expected as much,” Erthrec said.


 

The current draft reads a bit better, but still needs some polishing. The brother is a much stronger character here. I’d say that this bit of text is fine for the moment. What this revision doesn’t do is address some of the character issues. I may need to play up certain reactions or sections of dialogue in order to really paint a clear picture of both characters, additionally, I may need to mess with tone a bit. This chapter starts out the final action of the book, and I can’t tell from this granular level whether or not the characters are taking a breath, digging a latrine, or should actually be subject to a slightly more intense situation. The important thing here is that the amount of work required to address any of those issues is fairly small now. In any case, once I finish revising this chapter, I probably won’t do much to it aside from a little grammatical clean-up before sending off to friends for review and commentary. Once I have a broader perspective on the story, I can once again launch into polishing, because I’ll have a better idea of what didn’t work for a reader. This will also help me work out mechanical things like confusing sentences and descriptions that don’t resonate.

There is a progression of my revisions. The general process that I follow looks like this:
1.) Revise for plot, hitting the high points and making sure there is adequate set up for other story elements. (tweak setting as needed). I typically remain stuck here for a long time, and repeat until the plot starts to settle.
2.) Revise for scene/plausibility – if a scene isn’t working I shift it around until I find a place it does feel good. Plausibility also comes in here. The scene can lend credibility to certain events in the plot. Early on I write things as I’d like them to happen, but to the reader, it may not feel authentic, or seem at odds with character or action to that point.
3.) Revise for character – this focuses on dialogue and body language (tweak setting as needed)
4.) Revise for ‘feel’ – tension, sadness, intensity. For example if this needs to be more intense, I’ll need to drop that into the dialogue somehow and consider shorter, punchier sentences.
5.) Revise for theme – is there a point I might be able to work in that addresses some of the themes I’m weaving it. I should be following this all along, but this is the opportunity to highlight it.
6.) Copy editing – I’m trying to catch obvious problems throughout, but I don’t spend a lot of time referring to grammar books, only the first few chapters have gotten this treatment, and still need another repeat or two of 1-5. Not only that, they’ll still need to have a legit editor roll over it.

So, there it is, the revision process of one writer. How do you approach revision?

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One thought on “Anatomy of a re-write

  1. Mine goes pretty similar. The only real difference is that I check grammar first. I tend to make either ridiculous mistakes or none at all. There is no in-between for me.
    Then I see if I have done some unnecessary rambling. Rambling is fun, but only if it is helpful to my plot in some way or the reader understanding something. Most of the time, it is not.
    After that, I try to get my mind back into the character’s head. How does he/she think? I make sure that all I write is true to character.
    Afterward, I check to see if my metaphor is being used properly. I love metaphor so much. For my current book, the entire plot is basically a metaphor.
    Finally, I read it out loud. If I can’t feel the scene around me as I read, I did it wrong and go through the list again. That’s similar to your ‘feel’ revision, I guess.
    That’s about it. I think I do most of what you’re saying, consciously or subconsciously. But I’m still in college and haven’t really gotten my wings yet, as the saying goes. So, I still have a lot to learn.

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