Write It Again, Sam: A Few Thoughts on Revision

Last week, I finished the rough draft of a novel and after taking a couple of days to play, I have begun a second draft and am thinking about the process.

This second go-round has several important functions. One is to prune the most obvious infelicities, the repetitions, loose ends and things-that-don’t-make-sense. Of course, it would be better if I were thoughtful and accurate to begin with, but I’ve finally accepted that the first splurt of words on paper is always going to have dross with the gold. This will take me more than one go-round, so I need to get started.

The second is to get re-acquainted with the story. This particular book has been well over a year in the writing, partly because I was interrupted by editorial revisions and then proofing pages for a different project. When I resumed work, I did a pass through an earlier section to get back up to speed. The middle and final sections, however, have not, as it were, seen the light of critical day. This is an essential step before “re-vision.” That is, in order to see where the overall manuscript needs re-shaping, re-writing, re-arrangement, I need to know what I have, to see the work as a whole. Otherwise, I’ll just be cutting and shoving without knowing where I want to achieve.

I’ve given up envying writers who are done with a work in a draft or two. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t do it. My first drafts were and still are drek. (I’m not being modest — I mean really awful.) Over time and with practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate that my own writing process isn’t less than, it’s just different. Fortunately, I like revisions. I give myself permission to do lots of them. That way, it doesn’t matter how terrible that first draft is; what matters is what I do with it. Hence, mapping out the territory.

Along the way, as I have also learned, I will find gems of detail and nuance or moments of grace that I had no idea were there. Part of my job in revision is to make sure they don’t get lost, by giving them the space they need, even if it’s just tweaking the paragraphs. Small moments need quietness, even in the midst of frenzied action. So I’m on a treasure hunt as well.

It’s not only permissible but important to savor what I’ve written. The gems make that easier, but even when faced with a chapter best expunged and rewritten from scratch, I try to feel a sense of accomplishment. If a long time has gone by since I wrote these pages, I allow myself to feel surprised, even delighted. The next step — the execution of the massive slash and burn — is going to be brutal enough. I find it best to start with my confidence batteries fully charged.

Here’s a snippet, a nomad woman and her four-year-old son:

Shannivar thought, My son is a true clansman. She went to him, took his hand, and led him to the horses.
Silent and solemn, he waited beside her as night blurred the shapes of the grazing animals.
“See that one with the white blaze? She will be yours.”
“What is her name?”
“You must discover that for yourself.”
“Does she have a mami?”
“Yes, little man. It was Radu. Don’t you remember her?”
A nod in the silence. The earth smelled of dust and rising dew and the tired bodies of the horses. “And a papi?”
“My own Eriu.”
“A papi like mine?”
Mother of Horses . . .
“No. Not like yours.”

From The Heir of Khored, the last book of The Seven-Petaled Shield.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online.

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Write It Again, Sam: A Few Thoughts on Revision — 2 Comments