Editing: From First to Second Draft

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Nothing, right now. Enjoying some silence.)

Hey everyone,

Sorry I’ve not been on in the past few days; I was attending my grandmother’s funeral. If you haven’t read the eulogy I wrote her, I’d appreciate it if you could.

Anyway, I promised this a while ago, so let’s dive right in. A month or so back, I wrote a short story called The Oasis. You can read the original version of it here. I started out with about 8500 words and a 3500-word limit for my submission to UCLA’s literary journal, Westwind. After some intense edits, I had a version that I thought was workable (the one I’ve linked to).

I met with my editor last Wednesday, and received some great news. I was allowed to extend my story past the 3500-word limit and add back in some of the content that I’d had to remove. To me, this was extremely helpful, as I had left some things out which disrupted readers’ clarity in the narrative and thematic content.

[Spoiler alert: read the story first before this.]

At its core, I wanted The Oasis to be about racism. More specifically, I wanted to point out the subtle pressures through which the white majority encourages tensions in minority communities and then channels that anger towards inter-minority clashes instead of righteous indignation towards the racist system. (Think Do the Right Thing, if you’ve seen that film.)

Readers’ feedback suggested that the theme of racial isolation and oppression came across fairly clearly in the original version; however, the theme of minority-on-minority war did not come across to literally everyone who read it. My editor, upon hearing my concerns, suggested that I do more to make the Contessa Aurevieu, who represents the manipulative white majority, seem more… well, manipulative.

My draft 1.5 is 5000 words, with a lot of stuff added back in and some new scenes and dialogues written. Eventually I may have to remove some of it in order to bring the word count back down, but honestly right now it feels like it’s at a good place.

So let’s take a look at some of the things I added to make the Contessa’s motivations a little more obvious:

 

From the original version:

The Contessa padded over and served herself. “What news of Helzevejn?”

Terjjen shrugged. “Didn’t move too much over the night. We got lucky.”

(Seems pretty tame, right? There’s a way to inject more of a power dynamic into that dialogue.)

 

From the new version:

“And what of Helzevejn?” the Contessa said, collapsing to the ground and massaging her saddle-sore legs.

“Heading northward, not quickly. I think we should reach it in an eighth’s time at most.”

“Check again for me, if you would.”

“There’s no need to – ”

Check again.

Terjjen glowered at the Contessa; she held his stare without flinching.

He sighed and closed his eyes, letting the locations come back to him. “Yeah, just like I said. Moving north.”

(Only 53 more words added, and a whole new tone develops.)

 

Another bit of dialogue that makes it a bit more evident that the Contessa is striving for political gain at the expense of her fellow travellers:

 

From the original version:

“When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”

Before Olienna could respond, he stood. “Come on – let’s get moving.”

(This comes at the end of the ‘torture is better than neglect’ monologue, but it doesn’t do a lot to characterize Olienna or the Contessa – just Terjjen. So I added in some more dialogue.)

 

From the new version:

“When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”

He stood and moved to Celtoer, unpacking his sleeping roll.

“But you got out,” Olienna called.

He turned. “Sorry?”

“You got out, didn’t you? You’re  in Trastor now, under the protection of the Empire. The Contessa told me you lived in a mansion! You have a future to look forward to.”

He tried to grimace, but eventually settled on a rueful smile. “You really aren’t a Waymaker, are you?”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“If you were one of our kind….” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t be talking about futures.”

“Oh, ignore him, dear,” the Contessa called from her perch on the blanket. “It is always a good thing to mind one’s future; that is how one rises to greatness, despite one’s birthright.”

“And you would know about birthrights, wouldn’t you?” Terjjen muttered. Celtoer nickered.

“For your information, Waymaker,” the Contessa said, “I have dealt with and risen above more than my share of adversity and issue.”

“What, the silver spoon made your food taste strange?”

“The only difference between you and I,” she continued, “is that I face my problems, and learn to turn them to my advantage. Did you know I was not born a Contessa? I only ascended to this office on the wings of my own cunning and vision. And should I continue to move upward, I believe it will be for much the same reason.”

Terjjen barked with laughter, to push the tears back. “Right. Well, while you move upward, I’ll be getting some sleep for the night. Olienna, I suggest you do the same.”

(Okay, this was a lot more dialogue added in – 252 more words. But look at all the things it does: it characterizes Terjjen even more, as well as revealing Olienna to be a hopeless optimist and the Contessa as a driven power-seeking opportunist. It also explains some backstory – that Kval and Vetyn are not the norm, that within this ‘Empire’ they seem to treat their Waymakers well. And yet despite all that, Terjjen is still hung up on the past and believes no one could have suffered as much as he has. We all know good writing is when one sentence does the same work as ten – so even though I was adding to the dreaded word count, this had to happen, if only because readers need the early understanding of the characters and the setting.)

 

I’ll hold off on adding more examples – the post will get too long and I’m never sure if anyone reads this far down anyway. What I’m trying to explain is that the second draft is for major moves and edits. If there’s something that doesn’t need to be in there – say, the Baron’s character – remove it. Poof! He never existed in the first place.

On the other hand, if you need to add things back in for clarity, then you have to do that. Don’t worry about the word count for the time being – worry about your reader not understanding what the hell’s going on.

Determine why you’re writing this project, what you’re trying to say to the reader. And then ask, what is in here that doesn’t serve that purpose? If it’s more than just a few words of petty self-indulgence cut it. Then ask, what needs to be in here to serve that purpose? Add that stuff back in. When you finish up, you should have something that looks substantially different from the first draft.

I will repost The Oasis on here once it’s reached its final published version. That way we can examine what happened later in the editing process and how it culminated in the final project. Until then, get your red pencils out and go crazy!

Yours, hoping someone read all the way to the sign-off,

-R.R. Buck

 

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