Seven drafts toward a story

So I was going through some old files, and I found an account I’d posted of the revision process for “Song for Two Voices.” Since “Song for Two Voices” is also September’s story on my web site, I thought I’d go ahead and repost it, in case anyone finds it interesting to see the revision process and the resulting story side by side.

Reading through old drafts, I’m struck yet again by just how much, for me, my stories change over multiple drafts. My first drafts really are awful (this is why I never have, and probably never will, submit a first draft to anyone), and yet from there I somehow find my way to stories I’m happy with.

I wanted to take a look at how those changes happen, and so maybe understand my own process a little better. I thought about posting subsequent versions of Secret of the Three Treasures–but as it turns out, all the big changes I made there were to the ending, rather than to the opening. The ending really wouldn’t make sense here out of context–and besides, I really don’t want to post spoilers to my own book. 🙂

So instead, I’m going to look at the opening paragraphs of “Song for Two Voices,” my Valdemar story, which did change quite a bit.

Draft 1

Jeth was but 19 when raiders killed his father, but still he knew his duty. He married his father’s wives as the God decreed and the Goddess assented—all save for the firstwife, Halla, who was also Jeth’s mother, and so took up her rightful place as Father’s Mother, instead. But the other three underwives, Evra, Gert, and Lea, had no sons with steadings of their own, and so it was left to Jeth to take them as his underwives, and thus assure they would have steading to shelter them and men to protect them.

This strikes me, in retrospect, as … not horrid, but dry. Something of an infodump, lots of names and background, nothing to make me want to keep reading. I know Jeth is dutiful, but little else about him–and little else about where the story is going. In this draft, it took another three pages for the story to really begin. Those pages contained background that may have been useful for me to know, but that would have gotten in the way of the story for the reader.

Draft 2

“She’s an obedient girl,” Jeth’s cousin assured him as they walked from the stable to hall. Around them, snow dusted the brown earth; from the walls ringing Garensteading, a lone sparrow trilled a few notes. Foolish bird, Jeth thought. Like as not the God has another winter storm yet waiting, and then where will you be? Still, he was secretly glad of the song. It had been a long winter, and a hard one.

My thoughts: Better. We have some sense of story direction–Jeth’s cousin is introducing a girl (a woman, actually, but his society has some biases) to him for some reason, and presumably the story in some way be about the two of them.

Yet the language here, while clean, makes me wince–it’s not quite dripping in cliche, but it is deeply seeped in it. And if anything, I have less sense of Jeth than in the previous version–and so less reason to care about him and keep reading.

Draft 3

“She’s an obedient girl,” Jeth’s cousin assured him as they walked from the stable to hall. Around them, snow dusted the brown earth; from the walls ringing Garensteading, a lone sparrow trilled a few notes. Foolish bird, Jeth thought. Like as not the God has another winter storm yet waiting, and then where will you be?

My thoughts: Almost the exact same text as version 2, save for a dropped line. Most of the work on this draft was in later paragraphs and later scenes, trying to get more sense of Jeth’s character there. But I still wasn’t content–with this opening or with the larger story–and I decided it was time to take a step back, and revisit Jeth’s voice.

Draft 4

Garen had thought he was happy.

He had his Steading. He had three wives, all of them dutiful; and a half dozen littles, who weren’t always dutiful but were working on it; and two brothers and an older son to share the work of field and stable with him.

He had the work the God had set before him, since his father was killed by raiders a decade before—rocky land to sow and harvest, horses to raise and break and sell. He enjoyed his work, beneath the sky and sun, and his Steading prospered from it. No one in is his care went hungry. He was content.

Then one clear winter day he went to visit his cousin, Jeth, to negotiate trading one of those horses for a supply of Jeth’s good wool.

Yes, I did flop the names. As I got to know my character, I realized Jeth no longer felt like his name. So he became Garen, and his cousin Garen became Jeth.

I also did something else that doesn’t show here–I added a second viewpoint, that of Nara, the woman Garen’s cousin is about to introduce him to, and alternated POVs throughout the story. I was making poor Garen eavesdrop, just so the readers could see scenes only Nara was witness too, which was really kind of silly. Besides, the Holderkin are a highly patriarchial society, and showing that society through both male and female eyes made the story feel more interesting–and more complete.

My thoughts on the actual text: This one has more voice. I know something more of who Garen is now. I get both the sense of duty from version 1, and the sense of where the story’s going from versions 2 and 3. Yet when I look at this, I feel uneasy. As I recall, I felt uneasy even when I wrote it. It was closer, but something was still missing.

By now I was getting the feeling that I was trying to put a band-aid on a deeper problem: making changes to the story in hand, but fighting the fact that the story in hand needed to undergo a deeper change. I needed to set all my previous drafts aside, take a much larger step back, and start over without looking at what came before. I’d been resisting this, but it was time to take a deep breath and just do it.

Draft 5

I love this land, and so was always content.

I love the rocky soil from which I force wheat and hay; I love the stocky horses I raise and break to saddle; I love the stormy skies, even when they bring snows that force me from the fields.

I’ve seen the scowls on the faces of the Heralds, come through on their yearly rounds. You do not think Holderkin can be happy, or that Holderkin men can be kind.

But I believe I was both, even before Nara came. I had my Steading, inherited when my father was killed by raiders ten years before. I had three wives, all of them dutiful to me—and I to them. I also had two brothers, and an older son, with whom to share the work of the Steading.

For many years, it was enough.

My thoughts: This is the version where I finally felt like, yes, I really had a story. (I always worry, when I start a new project, that the actual story might fail to appear. It’s magic, every time.)

This also has everything the older versions have: Garen’s sense of duty, and the fact that Nara is about to become part of his life and that somehow changes will result.

I went to first person in part simply to distance myself from previous drafts–to truly start over. It turned out that for this story, going into first person helped free up Garen’s voice. I feel like I really know him in this version, like I can hear him speaking. This is the first opening that makes me want to read on.

One interesting change is that suddenly, with his voice freed up, I realized Garen was actually telling his story to someone. The Herald he’s speaking to was actually present in every single draft of the story. But now she was a listener–and that changed much more than the opening paragraph. It changed the balance of tensions, the scope of the story, and ultimately the plot. The plot changed dramatically, in this version.

Nara’s opening line in this draft, incidentally, is, ” I love this land, and so was never content.” And while Garen gets the first word here, for the first time, the final word is hers.

Draft 6

Understand, I do not have to tell you this. Holderkin owe nothing to heralds. But Holderkin also pay their debts, and you say this is the only payment you will accept.

Very well, then. Accept this. I was content, even before she came.

I care for this land. I care for the rocky soil from which I coax wheat and hay. I care for the sturdy horses I break to saddle. I care for the stormy skies above, even when they bring snows that force me from the fields.

I’ve seen the scowls on the faces of other heralds, when they come through on their yearly rounds. You do not think Holderkin men care for anything, save themselves.

You do not understand our ways. Even the God, to you, is just another story.

My thoughts: In some ways this is rockier than version 5–I miss the lyricism of that version. But now that I knew who Garen was talking to, I needed for that to be reflected in his tone. And the way Valdemar is set up, Holderkin men have no reason to like Heralds. At all.

This version also establishes up front why Garen is telling a Herald his story–not something his character would normally do.

Final Draft

This is not some herald’s ballad. We Holderkin are practical folk, and we know what matters: sun and land, wheat and hay, breaking horses to saddle, protecting those in our care. These are the things you should ask about, if you wish to know our ways.

The story you ask for instead ought to be none of your concern. Yet Holderkin pay their debts, and you say this is the only payment you’ll accept.

Know this then. I was content, even before Nara came. I care for my Steading, which was my father’s before raiders sent him to the God, ten years past. I care for my first three wives, and my two brothers, and my oldest son, who works beside me in the fields. I care for my littles, even those too small to work.

I’ve seen you heralds scowl. You think Holderkin men care only for themselves. Yet I know well enough the gifts the God has granted me, and I give thanks for them.

My thoughts: Now that I finally have the right text, here I polish the language and pull things together. The cleanness of version 5, with the attitude of version 6.

Much as I liked version 5, I like this one better–because Garen’s voice is the right voice for the story. It’s a voice that makes me want to keep reading–with just enough incidental information tossed in to convince me I’ll find a real story if I do, and not just some graceful prose.

Yet what fascinates me about rewriting, no matter how often I do, is that I couldn’t have gotten there without all the drafts that came before.

(The final version of “Song for Two Voices” will be up on my web site until the end of September. It first appeared in Crossroads and Other Tales of Valdemar.)

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