When most readers think about what writers do, they might tend to think that our time is spent something like this:
In actuality, it may tend to look something more like this:*
*These pie charts are illustrative and do not reflect any real data
Of course, these percentages vary greatly across authors – some writers spend far more time outlining and far less time revising, others spend even less time writing a first draft compared to everything else they do, and so forth. But one common thing that all good writers do, which hardly ever gets seen by readers, is spend a great deal of time editing and rewriting.
As readers, we usually only get to see the final as-good-as-it’s-gonna-get draft of a project, without seeing the in-between phases, the crossed-out ideas, and the clunky sentence structure that good authors catch in the second and third drafts (or that their editors and beta readers point out in the ninth and tenth!). There’s a good reason for this – authors, like anyone else, are understandably reluctant to share things with a public audience that are not their best work. We want to be judged on things we are proud of, not our works in progress. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult for young authors to learn how to edit and rewrite their own works. Many young authors err in one of two ways: thinking that they’ll “never be as good” as an author whose published works are excellent and so not trying, or in a spirit of over-confidence, thinking that “just like” successful authors, their first draft is worthy of publication. Both views can be tempered by a good hard look at what actually happens when an author rewrites their work.
Since we are in the midst of NaNoWriMo (a month long period of first draft binge-writing for novelists), I thought it might be useful to give a real life example of this process, focusing on my published novel The Quest of the Unaligned. This book went through three major drafts (plus a very detailed scene-by-scene outline) before it was finally published, and each draft worked to improve the manuscript in significant ways.
For instance, here is the first page of my novel as it stands in the final published version:
Of the thousand noises, movements, and smells that fought for Alaric’s notice in Peet’s crowded bar, only one thing captured his attention: the man who had just materialized on one side of the room. Alaric slammed down his tankard of beer in shock, squinting through the garish colored lights that blinked on every wall. If it had been later in the evening, he would have assumed that what he was seeing was merely a beer-induced figment of his imagination. As it was, he had just raised his first tankard to lips. That meant that, impossible as it seemed, a long-haired and equally long-bearded man – wearing a robe of all outlandish things – had just appeared out of thin air. That was news on two fronts. While Alaric would have watched the man carefully in any circumstances, as per his responsibilities as a security chief of Tonzimmel’s First Security Force, the newcomer’s technology made him particularly of interest. Alaric mentally skimmed back through the past year’s SecuriTech Bulletins even as he watched the stranger turn in bemused circles on the side of the room. No, he thought, there hadn’t been even a single article hinting that researchers were developing personal transportation devices. That meant that the technology was supposed to be a secret. A slow smile grew on Alaric’s face. He could almost see the commendation letter being put into his file right now for being the first officer to identify a new, potentially dangerous technology in use. But then he stared harder at the stranger, at the way the robed man kept turning as if he didn’t know where he was, at how he cocked his head almost to his shoulder so that his beard stuck out at a forty-five degree angle to his body, and Alaric began rethinking his conclusion. The stranger wasn’t acting like either a member of a covert government operation or a thief. But if he wasn’t either of those, where had he gotten his transportation device? From outside of Tonzimmel? Alaric snorted into his beer. That thought was even more unlikely than his last: the only realm beyond the city-state of Tonzimmel was Cadaeren, whose population consisted solely of superstitious farmers and lunatic noblemen. But it didn’t really matter, in the end, where the technology had come from. Whatever its origin, Alaric told himself, his supervisor in the TFSF would want a full report. With that in mind, Alaric continued to watch the robed man, hiding his interest behind his tankard. The stranger slowly zig-zagged out from the wall where he had first appeared, still turning in circles every once in a while, his head cocked at that odd angle over his shoulder. Eventually, a white strobe-light flashed across the bar’s flickering anti-grav tables, lighting up the bar’s crowded interior for a few seconds. It lasted only long enough to give Alaric a glimpse of the man’s clothing, but that was enough to make his eyes snap open even wider. The stranger’s white robe was trimmed in silver that nearly blinded Alaric as it flashed in the strobe light, and he wore a belt of the same color inlaid with colored stones that sparkled with inner fire. Alaric let out a silent whistle at the man’s nerve. Even the wealthiest families he guarded all wore the sensible shirt and pants uniforms of Tonzimmel. If the stranger’s jewels were real, he was openly flaunting more wealth than anyone in the crowded room could make in a lifetime. And if they were fake, then the stranger was just crazy. Given everything he’d seen thus far, though, that might not be a bad guess. Maybe the man did come from Cadaeren. Alaric allowed himself a brief smile, but didn’t take his eyes off the robed man. He still held his head cocked at an angle, so that his hair – ash-blond, Alaric now saw – all fell to one shoulder. Every second or two, he twitched to peer off in a different direction, and each time, he took a few steps towards the bar where Alaric sat. Was the man looking for someone? Just as the thought crossed Alaric’s mind, the stranger pivoted directly towards him. His gray eyes went wide in his deeply wrinkled face. “Prince Alaric! It’s you! Finally!” Alaric had been in the middle of sipping his beer; he inhaled it instead, and coughed violently. “Excuse me?”
My original idea in my outline began a little differently. Take a look! (Note that this isn’t in complete sentences: when I’m outlining for myself I tend to shorten things for my own sake.)
We meet Alaric in a bar in the city of Tonzimmel. He's had a boring day as a security guard for a rich family's home, has watched them come and go with their machines, hasn't had a chance to use his training. Considers what to do that night - doesn't have friends, maybe he'll go train with weapons more. That's good efficient use of time; maybe he'll be able to take a test and be promoted once his programming gets as good as his skill with basic weapons. (Scene of the bar is hectic and loud and with lots of bright lights & colors, but he's tuned it out. He's used to it.) Ruahkini "pops" into the bar, Alaric's mildly surprised. Never seen that trick before. He doesn't believe it's magic, though. Ruahkini tries to tell him that he's the crown prince of the neighboring kingdom of Cadaeren, Alaric doesn't believe him. Ruahkini tells Alaric he has to go on a quest, Alaric rolls his eyes. Ruahkini offers to bet - if he wins, Alaric will go on a quest for him. If Alaric wins, Ruahkini will pay all his bar bills for the upcoming month.
The first major difference between these scenes, of course, is that the final version begins “in media res” – or in the middle of the action – whereas my outline set up the scene more before anything actually happened. This is a useful tip for writers: start your story when things are interesting, then flash back or use dialogue to explain what’s going on. If you start with someone doing something boring, your audience will be bored too.
My initial draft of this scene, after deciding to start with Ruahkini popping into the bar, was considerably shorter than the final version. You can see for yourself here:
If Alaric had not just sat down with his first tankard of the evening, he would have assumed that the man who had materialized by his side was a mead-induced figment of his imagination. As it was, he was still entirely sober, which meant that an old man wearing a robe had indeed just appeared out of thin air. That would make for an interesting entry in his daily security report: personal transportation devices were finally on the market. Alaric hadn’t expected them to be invented within his lifetime, but then again, who could keep up with technology? He took another drink from his tankard, exaggerating his movements to mask his examination of the newcomer. If someone was selling personal transportation devices, after all, his boss would want to know. And it definitely wouldn’t hurt his own résumé if he were the first security chief in Tonzimmel to identify a potentially dangerous new technology and its owner. With that in mind, Alaric put his trained senses to work. First, the other man was clearly a foreigner, as evidenced by his strange clothing. His robe was a brilliant white, trimmed in sky-blue with a matching belt, and inlaid with large sapphires. Alaric let out a silent whistle at the man’s nerve. Even the wealthiest families he guarded all wore the sensible shirt and pants uniforms of Tonzimmel. If the stranger’s jewels were real, he was openly flaunting more wealth than anyone in the crowded bar would likely make in their lifetime. And if they were fake, then the stranger was just crazy. Though that might not be a bad guess, Alaric told himself, noting the way the man held his head cocked at an angle, so that his ash-blond hair all fell to one shoulder, and how he constantly jerked his thin torso from side to side as if looking for something. And then the stranger pivoted and looked him in the eye. “Alaric! It’s you! Finally!” Alaric choked on his mead. “Excuse me?”
While there are many lines from this version that made it into the final draft, it’s definitely rough. In this version, Alaric is far more detached from the situation – he seems to be observing with mild interest and out of a sense of duty rather than with the keen attention and personal drive that powers him to observe Ruahkini in the final draft. The sense of place is also far more developed in the final draft, through concrete descriptions of Peet’s Bar and also a setting up of the existence of Tonzimmel, Cadaeren, and the basic relationship between the two. We also have a better feeling of who Alaric actually is in the final draft: this was accomplished by getting inside his head and going through his thought processes more carefully, showing his prejudices, his attention to detail, his occupation, and his deep sense of responsibility all within the first page. Of course, there were also tiny factual changes that took place such as exchanging mead for beer, having Ruahkini call Alaric by his royal honorific, and a far more violent reaction by Alaric to the mage’s appearance, all of which were done to make the story more believable and interesting.
A second draft between the first and final gives another interesting perspective – progress isn’t always linear! This draft is closer to the final one, but as you can see, some things were added that got taken out again before the manuscript went to press, and many of the descriptions from the final version are either in a different place in this draft, or hadn’t been added yet at all…
Of the thousand noises, movements, and smells that fought for Alaric’s notice in Peet’s crowded bar, only one thing captured his attention: the man who had just materialized on one side of the room. If it had been later in the evening, Alaric would have assumed that the old man in the strange robe was a beer-induced figment of his imagination. As it was, however, he had just sat down with his first tankard of the evening, which meant that the newcomer had indeed appeared out of thin air. That was news. Nothing in the SecuriTech Bulletin had ever hinted that researchers were developing personal transportation devices. That meant, then, that either the technology was supposed to be a secret, or that it had been developed outside of Tonzimmel. Not that the second option was likely: the only realm beyond the city-state of Tonzimmel was Cadaeren, whose population consisted solely of superstitious farmers and lunatic noblemen. Alaric snorted into his beer at the thought, but kept his eyes fixed on the strange man in front of him. Wherever the transporter had come from, Alaric’s supervisor in the Tonzimmelian First Security Force would want a full report. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt Alaric’s own file with the TFSF if he were the first security chief in Tonzimmel to identify a new, potentially dangerous, technology in use. Alaric squinted at the man across the room, mentally cursing the garish colored lights that blinked on every wall at Peet’s. Finally, a white strobe light flashed through the room, showing the newcomer’s robe to be a brilliant white, trimmed in silver, with a belt of the same color inlaid with colored stones that sparkled in the light. Alaric let out a silent whistle at the man’s nerve. Even the wealthiest families he guarded all wore the sensible shirt and pants uniforms of Tonzimmel. If the stranger’s jewels were real, he was openly flaunting more wealth than anyone in the crowded room could make in a lifetime. And if they were fake, then the stranger was just crazy. Though that might not be a bad guess – maybe the newcomer did come from Cadaeren. The man held his head cocked at an angle, so that his ash-blond hair all fell to one shoulder, and he constantly peered from side to side as if looking for something. And then he pivoted and looked Alaric in the eye. “Prince Alaric! It’s you! Finally!” Alaric coughed on his beer. “Excuse me?”
So how did I progress from my first draft to my final one? Some of these changes were based on suggestions from my writing group peers – things like, give us more information about where we are and why we care about Alaric right off the bat. Other changes were made by reading through the draft and getting stuck on wording or sentences or pacing or tone aspects that I didn’t like. These are the changes that take the most practice as a writer, and the most time. Between my second draft and my draft that I submitted for consideration to my publisher, I let the entire manuscript sit for months. When I came back to it with fresh eyes, I saw new ways of saying things that were (in my opinion), tighter, cleaner, and more interesting. I hope you feel the same way!
Now go write – and then when you think you’re done, go rewrite! You’ll be glad you did, and so will your readers.