Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When Re-writes Pay Off

By the way - I did not model Smidgen off of Gavroche.
The picture just fit him. 
Rewriting is a thing I only do when I absolutely have to. I used to fear it. Now I just dislike it. I'm not talking about editing so much as I am talking about those moments when you open up one Word document file, sigh, and open a new one, needing to create something entirely different. There are several reasons why I usually wait to rewrite until the entire novel has been finished. If you're too picky on a first draft you'll find yourself bogged down in fixing problems that might straighten out by the end of the novel. But sometimes you just know that you'll go from bad to worse if you don't rewrite a scene right now. I came across this dilemma in The Baby a few chapters back; the chapter was finished and well-written and had done its duty of introducing a plot twist and a new character or two, but it just wasn't right.

Then I realized the problem: this scene intended for a children's book had no children in it--in fact, it dealt with a dilemma that most adults would find intimidating, let alone the 12-14 year olds who will be reading this book. Once I determined what the problem was, there was nothing left to do but fix it. I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and set to work. Below I have excerpts from the former version of Chapter Six, and the new version. Former is written in red, latter in blue:

     At Whiskin's Abbey in quite another corner of the valley, a young man waited in the shadow of an apple-tree.
     "Morning, John Brady," an old man said, tugging his cap in passing.

     Smidgen pushed his spine against the curve of the apple-tree outside Whiskin's Abbey and waited for John Brady. A hum like a hive of drones poured over the wall of the Abbey-school, but Smidgen knew it was no honey those boys worked for--it was lessons and more lessons. 

Not only is the second passage more interesting, it's also more intimate. In the former passage you are told there is an apple tree near  a place called Whiskin's Abbey. In the second it is spoken of as "the apple-tree outside Whiskin's Abbey..." A slight difference, but one that sets the tone and brings the reader in.

     Leona sat on a boulder--soft and white against the dark firs--and slid off as he noticed her. She came up smelling like sunlight and heather and wrapped him in her arms.

     Smidgen swung himself to the ground and led the way across a field ripe with cockleburs and over a ridge into the fir-filled copse. Leona was perched on the boulder where he'd left her, only now that she saw John Brady, that strange, worried look left her face and she smiled as she usually did.

Here, the second example is less intimate, but much more what a young reader will identify with. Smidgen is concerned for his sister, Leona, and he doesn't notice her beauty--he notices that she no longer looks worried. That, to Smidgen, is the thing that gladdens him, while John Brady would be more inclined to notice her physical appearance.

     She glowed brighter than ever and pushed a sweep of red hair from her eyes. "We are fine." As she said the words she raised her eyes, and John felt himself swayed by the intensity.
     "You and I? Yes. We are very fine." He touched the very tip of her pixie-like nose and smiled.
     Leona shook her head. "I meant something quite different."

     "We are fine."
     Something in her voice struck Smidgen as unusual, and he looked up from thrashing the grass to see a funny look on her face.
     John jerked his head with a laugh and touched her nose. "You and I? Yes. We are very fine."
      "And me," Smidgen said. He thought it advisable to remind them he existed. "I'm fine."

You can tell the difference here. Smidgen's appraisal of this conversation is much more casual and indignant. He feels the tension and he plants himself in the middle of it, which adds interest to what could be no more than a lovers' conversation which--as any third wheel knows--is not terribly interesting.

     John threw out his arms, exasperated. "Within a Community?--yes. Promises there are binding. You know this as well as I."
     Leona's head was bowed and her shoulders shook. John rolled his eyes. Oh God, no crying. Why do women--? "Leona, be a reasonable creature. What could possibly make our lives more difficult than they are now?"

     "Don't start acting like a woman, Leona," John said. Smidgen watched his obvious impatience at the first signs of Leona's tears, and wondered if John knew how rarely Leona cried. How could he? He'd never lived with her.
     Smidgen took her hands in his. "Tell me. I don't mind if you cry." 
     John rolled his eyes and elbowed between them. "Oh come now. Neither do I. Just don't...overreact. What could possibly make our lives harder than they are now?"

This is one of my favorite bits in the whole chapter, since I can imagine my young brother being just as protective of me. Smidgen likes John Brady, but he still considers himself the first man in Leona's life. Thus, when he sees John making Leona cry, he's ready to wedge himself in that little crack and be the one to comfort the lady. There are two dynamics here that weren't there in the first version of the chapter, since Smidgen never comes to the valley: a brother-sister, long-standing relationship that John and Leona can't possibly have, and a sense of triumph; Smidgen has scored a point over John. Something he's probably been waiting to do for some time.


Can you see how rewriting pays off? Smidgen is now a much larger character and that has sprung me into new plot depths I hadn't expected. All because I took a morning to restructure a chapter that wouldn't have fit in a children's novel. It's definitely worth a thought. You never quite know what might happen if you take out your scalpel and start probing!


Jack said...

Even though it isn't something you enjoy, I like the re-writes better. They do seem to flow nicer and bring the story to life, which is always a good thing with writing 8-D So keep it up! I think it is working already from what you've posted alone

Carmel Elizabeth said...

I really like the idea of comparing "before and afters" of snippets! Your rewriting certainly paid off, Rachel. :) Now I'm thinking of doing the same with some of my writing (for encouragement's sake, I suppose ;D) seeing as I'm editing Psithurism at the moment.

Much love,

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This story sounds more intriguing with each new bit that you share! Smidgen sounds like such a cute character. Did you invent him for the purposes of this chapter, or did you just give him some more to do? I've had that happen lots of times—giving a minor character more to do, I mean—and it almost always opens up the plot further. I'm speaking in terms of outlines, of course, since I haven't made it all the way to the end of a successful novel draft yet. Well, I've finished one, technically, but it needs a major rewrite. Which will naturally involve enlarging the roles of several minor characters. :)

Rachel Heffington said...

Elisabeth, I invented him originally for this chapter--or rather, he came swaggering up--but now he holds a much larger piece to play, for which I'm grateful. I love secondary characters! They are my strength and my one weakness. :D