Writing is Rewriting
Behind the scenes of a major revision.
This is technically a writing craft essay, but it’s more aimed at those of you who aren’t writers but may be curious about what’s happening when an author says they’re working on revisions. I think to a lot of people it seems the most difficult part of getting a book written and published must be the first draft when the entire story has to be invented and written out for the first time. In some cases that’s true, but often it’s the revisions that are the most grueling aspect of the process. Every author is different. Some authors find the initial creative process a slog and delight in the meticulous combing through of a hundred thousand words (or more) of fiction looking for ways to transform it from a rough sketch into a highly-polished story where ever word and piece of punctuation pulls its weight in creating something cohesive and beautiful. Some people also think going to a 5:00 a.m. crossfit class is a good use of their time, and I try not to judge them either. In my experience, most writers prefer drafting because it’s loose and fun. We don’t have to worry too much about how well everything works in those early stages, we can just explore and be playful with words even if they don’t necessarily convey the plot details meant to nudge the story forward.
But revisions are a fact of life for those of us who’ve chosen to publish, and so we do our best to refine the rough ore of our first drafts into magical golden rings designed to gain dominion over the free peoples of Middle-earth. Or something. I don’t know, I’m not a metalsmith.
Rather than take a high-level approach to revisions as a general concept, let’s dive into actual examples from my current work on The Traveling Librarian in which even the name is currently under revision.
Does it make sense?
The first job in a revision is to assess the entire manuscript as a whole and decide if the story even makes sense. I’m going to have to stay vague here so I don’t just explain away the whole plot of the book, but I think it’s safe to share the detail that our traveling librarian, Rowan, is going off on an adventure in search of a valuable book. Along the way, Rowan has a series of adventures, but he should generally be stumbling toward some kind of final resolution that makes sense in the context of how the story began. Part of my revision work is looking at the overall plot arc, the character’s personal arc, and any subplot arcs that are woven through the central narrative. So how do we know if all of this stuff works when we’re talking about 450 pages of material? It has to be read through cover to cover, paying special attention to the various plot threads without getting bogged down in sentence-level changes we want to make. I read about a page a minute, so that’s roughly 7.5 hours of reading alone before I can start tackling the big structural changes that might be necessary. In the case of The Traveling Librarian, I was pretty lucky in that the loose travel adventure structure allowed me to fix a few minor issues without having to majorly overhaul entire chapters or eject entire subplots.
This has been a bit of a rough spot in this book. When I wrote the first draft of Librarian, I had a vague notion of what kind of world Tellen would be, but I hadn’t fleshed out many of the details. As with revision, some people adore world building to the point they’ll design hundreds of pages of world and character details before ever writing a word of prose. I’m very much the opposite in that I prefer to start with character and story, doing the bulk of my world building on the fly as I work through my first draft. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of loose ends and placeholder details that have to be addressed during revisions. Earlier this year, it took me 24 hours of revision to get through a single chapter of the book. Not because the chapter was so broken or poorly written (though there were sections that made me want to murder my past self for leaving utter dreck for me to try to make sense of) but that a lot of world building details became important in said chapter and every time I moved forward a few paragraphs, I encountered another detail that absolutely had to be worked out properly before I could move on.
Let’s look at money as an example. I don’t particularly care about creating my own currencies and typically prefer to let money fade as far into the background as possible so I can keep things vague. A reader doesn’t need to know that a decent pint of ale costs 4p whereas a mug of the cheap stuff is only 2p. Characters can easily pay for things and worry about money without getting into details. But for various reasons, the value of things becomes important in this book, and it only made sense for me to establish how much things actually cost so I was being consistent across books. Given the predilection for spreadsheets I developed in my distant past as an inventory analyst for a major outdoor retailer here in Canada, it only seemed natural for me to knock up a quick spreadsheet to keep track of it all. And once you have things in a spreadsheet, why not write a couple of quick formulas to convert things over to foreign currencies with allowances for cost differences to geography?
If you’re not a habitual spreadsheet enjoyer, you might reasonably believe that was the time-consuming aspect of this particular piece of world building. Let me assure you it was not. What ate up the better part of a day and subsequent evening after the hobbit was tucked into bed was poring over historical costs of goods from a half dozen resources and deciding which to use as my baseline rather than considering the economic forces at play to make everything cost what it does in relation to everything else. Now that I’ve established this baseline, it’s relatively easy for me to add new things, but that initial research took a decent amount of time.
And that’s only one aspect of world building. What of geography? What of religion? And curses? What of languages? J.R.R. Tolkien I am not, so when I had need of a foreign language in my first draft, I plugged what I wanted to say into an online translation tool set to the language of a loosely analogous country upon which my fantasy version was based. Revision has meant taking those phrases and constructing my own language, which also has to be recorded into a dictionary of sorts.
Prí lengri vogil flégur, prí muri hem kíru
Sturalfuran saying: the further the bird flies, the more it chirps.
This brings me to my next point…
The World Bible
My professional goal is to someday have attained enough superfans that someone decides to create a comprehensive wiki of my story and world details so I don’t have to. Until then, I have to keep a record of every bit of fictional detail I invent for the story so that it stays consistent throughout the book and in future version. My world bible contains pages listing every character, location, fictional book and author referenced in the story, fictional quotes, flora, fauna, religion, magic systems, languages, food, climate, etc, etc, etc. Part of revision is making sure that all the little world details are copied over to the world bible so later I remember that satine wood is not something I made up, nor is the common name bloodwood, but that in my world it comes from a place called Porsau and not tropical South America. It reminds me that a speckleback selpie is a cross between a rainbow and a brown trout, and that it was Vaddim Kirrochenka who wrote Meditations on the Pursuit of Knowledge, later translated to Aerdish by a scholar named Prudholm, and again by another scholar named Beauregard.
The world bible may not be necessary for standalones or shorter contemporary work, but in my experience, it’s crucial to maintaining continuity of detail and character through books in a series, so it’s worth the effort of stopping to update it frequently while working through the book chapter by chapter.
We’re starting to get deeper into this thing now. Finalizing world-building details is important, but the main goal of this part of revision is going through each chapter and looking at how it works as a whole, how well each paragraph works in relation to the next, and how well each sentence works within that. This can be very slow work and there are so many different things to address, I’m not even going to try to list them all here. Instead, I’m going to share an example of the kind of thing that gets tweaked during this first revision. Bear in mind that what you’re reading here is only a first pass at making this work better.
Here’s a bit of first-draft writing that awkwardly explains the rarity of coffee in a way that’s not very natural:
Rowan donned his clean clothing, rolled up his sleeves—a habit developed after staining one too many shirt cuffs with ink—and set off for the dining hall. Never one to skip meals, Rowan was determined to get something into his stomach before going to see the Master Archivist. At the very least, a mug of rich, dark coffee to perk himself up a little. Though he’d never been more than a few miles from the Library himself, Rowan had been around enough visitors and new novices to have learned that coffee was relatively unheard of in Aerdun or any of the surrounding realms. Only the richest of merchants and nobility could afford to import it from lands far to the south, though few had acquired the taste. He couldn’t imagine living without coffee. He still remembered his first taste of the stuff from his mother’s cup. He’d thought it vile at the time, and had spit it onto the floor. Now he believed it distilled magic. And besides, if he didn’t drink any for a day or two his head ached like someone had squeezed it in a binder’s vice.
It’s not terrible, but when you read the first chapter in which this paragraph appears, you’ll realize that Rowan’s mind should be on anything but how rare coffee is outside the Library. When something like this has been readily available to you your entire life, how often do you stop and think about how lucky you are to have it when you haven’t really been away from it before? This paragraph is me clumsily explaining a world building detail to you, the reader. It could be better.
Rowan donned his clean, if tight, clothing, rolled up his sleeves—a habit developed after staining one too many shirt cuffs with ink—and set off for the dining hall. Never one to skip meals, Rowan was determined to get something into his stomach before going to see the Master Archivist. At the very least, a mug of rich, dark coffee to perk himself up a little. Unfortunately, a gaggle of University students beginning their summer practicums at the Library were clogging the entrance of the dining hall.
“Can you believe it?” asked a student with a squeaky voice tinged with awe. “Professor Chilton once told me only the richest of merchants and gentry can even afford to import the stuff from Surawasi or Lovok. And here is a giant urn of the stuff, free for the taking whenever we please!”
“I’ve had coffee before,” one of the others boasted proudly from the center of the knot of students clustered around the object of Rowan’s keenest desire. “My father brought it back from Inverburie last year. It’s nothing near as special as you’re making it out to be.”
“Probably wasn’t real coffee,” another retorted. “I’d bet my next six month’s allowance it was naught but white beans burnt to a blackened char.”
“Oh, come off it, Quincy,” said another student. “There’s no way of proving such a thing. Fill your cup and make way for the rest of us!”
Rowan shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. Though he could well appreciate the students’ excitement over the ready supply of coffee—he himself couldn’t imagine living without the stuff—he had half a mind to push them aside and claim a cup of his own before they emptied the urn. Another batch would be made in due time, but Rowan was not inclined to wait. Burning with impatience, he could bring himself to do no more than stand idly by, fuming as the boys jostled and teased one another while taking their sweet time filling their cups before moving on to collect their morning meals. Time was wearing thin, and Rowan almost considered skipping his morning cup altogether, but his stomach was too twisted with worry over the Master Archivist’s summons for him to be keen on solid food, and so he waited his turn. With a sigh of relief, he filled his cup to the brim. The nutty aroma wafting from his cup and the curious excitement of the students brought forward the memory of his first taste of the stuff from his mother’s cup. He’d thought it vile at the time, and had spit it onto the floor. Now he considered coffee akin to distilled magic. And besides, if he didn’t drink any for a day or two his head ached like someone had squeezed it in a binder’s vice.
Obviously this has become a much longer scene, but it conveys the same information in a more natural way. It also pulls a bit more world-building weight and does some character work in ways that may not be entirely evident until later in the novel. As far as infodumping goes, the first example is a very mild infraction, but since writing a first draft is often when the author uses the text of the story to explain things to themselves, there are often sections of any given chapter that are better off rewritten.
Again, this is just one example of the kind of thing I’m tweaking during a revision. From adding descriptive and sensory details to smoothing out dialogue, to making sure important plot details are coming through, to looking for ways to subtly seed in foreshadowing and character detail, there are countless ways in which any given sentence or paragraph can be altered in service to a more engaging and readable story.
This little excerpt will likely be further tweaked, as I recently shared it with my critique group who made suggestions on how to better structure the encompassing scene.
Prose is a tricky thing. It should be clear enough to convey necessary information that keeps the story moving forward, but also crafted in such a way as to evoke more than what’s simply written on the page. Some authors are known for their straightforward prose, while others favor dense jungles of sentences like vines that cling to your limbs and threaten to drag you down and entomb you in the mulch of poetic embellishment. I try my best to live somewhere in the middle of those extremes, and so once the structural work is done, I’m able to go through the book on a sentence level, looking at my word choices, considering the cadence of each sentence in relation to the next, mapping the shape of my paragraphs to get a sense of their weight on the page compared to their neighbors.
Here’s a snippet from the opening paragraph of my first draft of chapter 8:
It took until midday for Rowan’s clothes to dry. They were no cleaner for their soaking in the rain. Rowan’s riding clothes had slipped from the side of the cart and into a puddle that nearly swallowed them up whole. The clothes he’d been wearing had fared better, but the splattering raindrops had splashed the legs of his trousers with mud. At least his boots were clean. He hadn’t bothered wearing them since that first day of riding horseback. He wanted to look halfway presentable for the auction.
It’s basically just a series of statements with no color. It does little to evoke mood or setting. Here it is after a first pass where I focused on the prose:
A dewy sheen clung to the horse’s flanks, gauzy puffs of breath preceding every plodding step through wispy strands of fog that detached themselves from the surrounding forest to reach across the road like spectral fingers. Yesterday was a distant memory. Rowan’s cloak did nothing to ward off the dampness since fine droplets of mist saturated everything such that it took until mid-morning for his rain-drenched clothing to dry when the sun finally burned through the last tendrils of morning haze. And Rowan was no cleaner for his misty shower and the previous night’s merciless soaking. The shirt and pants he’d scrubbed and hung on the side of the cart to dry overnight had been pulled down by the storm, falling right into a puddle that had so wholly swallowed them up Rowan almost hadn’t seen them as they’d prepared to set out. The clothes he’d been wearing had fared a little better, but his blind scrambling around camp had left him splattered with mud. At least his boots were clean. He hadn’t bothered wearing them since that first day of riding horseback, and so they’d stayed tucked away in the back of the cart throughout the worst of the downpour.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather read that second paragraph than the first.
Writing is Rewriting
If I’m being completely honest, this work is quite difficult for me. The Traveling Librarian is both the longest novel I’ve written and the first complete draft I’ve written without any sort of outline or plan. In the past, I’ve written things that required far less world building and didn’t need to endure nearly as much revision because they’d been more tightly plotted with extensive outlines before I began writing any prose. This book is also a departure from my previous style, and I’m trying very hard to make it as good as it can possibly be. Truth be told, I wildly underestimated how challenging this revision would be. I honestly thought I’d have this book published by September of last year, and here we are half a year later still discussing revision progress.
I’ve done my best to get some short stories out in the meantime, and I know some of you are enjoying Whisper of the Wilding Woods week to week, but I want to thank all of you for your patience while I continue to hammer away at this book. I could probably have rushed it out last fall, but it wouldn’t have been half as good as it is already. I still have a bit more work to do before it’s ready to go on to beta readers and then final proofing and formatting, but I’m doing everything I can to keep the revision moving forward.
If I don’t see you among the stacks, it’s because I’m hiding in the back of the library trying to make this book as good as it can possibly be. Next update I’m going to talk about getting the details right in fiction and how we do our best as authors to our best to research as much as we can, but still manage to flub a few things here and there. Until then, happy reading!
I C U
This! I wish more writers talked about this. It's so easy to believe that books just spring, fully-formed, out of their creator's minds like Athena breaking out of Zeus' skull. And for new writers, it's hard to understand how much work happens after the first draft - until they face it, too. Thanks for sharing! It's not as discouraging when you realize it happens to everyone.