Recently Maggie Stiefvater posted an absolutely wonderful blog post where she dissected the hell out a first draft chapter and a final draft chapter. It is a long post, but worth the read. Even thought I am a multi-published novelist myself I really get something out of these. It never hurts to be reminded how a good story is crafted, how many little details go into it.
And when I read it, I had two wishes. One wish was that I had the time to do a similar post. The second wish was that a bunch of other authors would do them too so I could print them all up and stash them with my favorite writing books.
So then, Maggie emailed me and a bunch of other authors and asked if we would indeed like to do posts like this. At that point, I was like, OKAY I WILL FIND THE TIME. When opportunity and desire collide, what else do you say, even if your house is a disaster area of half-packed boxes with no end in sight.
But then came a problem. What selection of first draft and last draft could I offer you that would be helpful?
I don't actually have the final draft of Magic Under Stone right now, because I did line edits and copyedits together, on paper, and mailed them off, without getting finished copies yet. So that's out.
Between the Sea and Sky was kind of odd, because I wrote one first draft, which I barely revised before sending to my editor because I polish as I go and I don't save all the polishings, (although still warning her that it was kinda rough and suffering from second book-itis), which I then almost complete rewrote in revisions, cutting out entire characters and plot points and replacing with new ones, and then did more light polishing on. So there are very few chapters I can really compare in a helpful way.
So that brings me back to Magic Under Glass. It was my first novel and I did a truck-load of major surgery-type editing passes on it before it was published.
I thought, then, perhaps, instead of comparing line edits for one chapter like Maggie did, I would show you how the first two pages of Magic Under Glass changed and changed and changed again, so you will get a sense of both global edits and line edits an author might make and what the reasoning is.
Apologies that this post is very long and not formatted in a cute way but I tried to make it so you didn't have to click around too much. My comments on the pages will be in bold.
FIRST DRAFT EVER
Scarlet and green are the colors of my homeland; the colors out the window of the little house where I spent my first birthday and my fifteenth, and every birthday in-between. From the room I shared with my sisters, I could see the piercing red of Joy-Flowers blooming, and the rounded shapes of the Shai Mountains in the distance. I wanted to begin with a sense of what Nimira had left behind, and give the reader a visual of a place that was peaceful, and very different from the setting she's in now...with the serenity, perhaps, of a Chinese brush painting.
My sixteenth birthday was the first where I awoke to any other sight. Now you know how old she is and how long she's been away from home! Convenient!
No one even knew it was my birthday. I woke before the other girls and crossed the chill room to stare out the murky glass panes "chill room", "murky glass panes", ways of showing she is in somewhat distressed circumstances now. at the street below. The streets of Colsom Lake were already bustling with activity. Street urchins stood on the corner, urging passerby into impulse purchases of flowers and sticks of candy. A milkman was bringing his horse cart up one side of the lane, while a rag seller wandered door to door on the other. A faint, misty drizzle cast everything in shades of grey; mud puddled on the streets. Ah, the classic setting of the Victorian novel, you got your urchins, your rag sellers, your drizzle...I wanted to indicate to readers as quickly as possible what kind of place they're in, since Nimira herself is foreign. But perhaps it is a bit TOO commonplace.
I stepped away from the window with a sigh.
“You awake, Nim?” Saraki whispered from her tangle of sheets. Assara sprawled beside her, uncovered, still sound asleep.
“I’m walking around, aren’t I?” Nimira is snapped from her reverie, and...rather snappish for it.
Saraki sat up and yawned. “Is it time to get up yet? Has Tantan been in here? Wow, but I’m tired!” But Saraki is totally unfazed by Nimira's moods. She's an easygoing girl in every draft, although her appearance is always brief.
“Tantan hasn’t been in yet, but any moment now, I’m sure. It’s definitely morning.”
Saraki nudged Assara. “Get up, get up. It’s morning.”
I shook Feiji’s shoulder, and within moments all four of us were out of bed, sorting out clothes that we’d strewn across furniture the night before, exhausted from our last show. Now you're getting to know the nature of these girls' work, conveyed not with an infodump but with a sense of movement and setting--they're getting out of bed, their clothes are everywhere. We had no more engagements in Colsom Lake; today was a traveling day. We pulled on wide trousers of grey cotton and knee-length homespun tunics grown tattered over our months of travel, and drew our waists in with wide red sashes. When Tantan came in, we were braiding one another’s hair.
Tantan, we called her. Auntie. But she was not our real Aunt, nor could she ever be mistaken for it, with her round, red face and long, thin mouth. When she was displeased, which was most of the time, her eyes twitched, first one, and then the other. She walked like a particularly graceless fat person, although she wasn’t fat at all: slow and waddling. Her eyes twitched now, as she waddled into the room, and looked at all of us trying to tame long strands of black hair into braids.Tantan enters with this unlikable description. She was later cut, as you will see.
“Hurry up, girls,” Tantan said. “There’s been a change of plans. We won’t be stopping in Hammarue. We’re going straight to New Sweeling.”
“New Sweeling!” Saraki clapped her hands together and whirled her excited gaze around to encompass all of us, but I wondered why Tantan looked so grim. The end of page two is where we know something bad is afoot. But was that fast enough, I wondered?
There are few things worse than being shaken awake when you expect the privilege of sleeping in, but that is exactly how my sixteenth birthday began.This time the reverie of the Shai Mountains and Joy-Flowers has been discarded as being too slow and dreamy for the first page.
“Wake up, Nimira.” Tantan’s voice sliced through my dreams. “Get dressed.”
I opened my eyes. Next to me, Saraki stirred with a long, irritated groan. As usual, she had hogged all the blankets.
“What’s going on?” she murmured, without opening her eyes. Saraki still begins with an air of languid selfishness, hogging the blankets and not even bothering to open her eyes when she's ordered to get dressed.
I sat up, and now I saw Tantan waking Feiji and Assara in the other bed. None of us expected this; everyone began complaining at once.
“There’s been a change of plans,” Tantan said, throwing open the dingy curtains of our hotel room. “We’re leaving for New Sweeling.”
“This morning?” Feiji asked, squinting at the sunlight. “What about our show tonight?”
“Cancelled,” Tantan said. “I’ll be back in five minutes to see that you’re all dressed.” She left the room, slamming the door shut behind her. The description of Tantan has also been moved back a few pages. Now she's just a blur of opening curtains and orders. This draft is much more in-the-moment. Almost too much so. I was struggling at this point to strike the balance between action and description, information and info-dump.
We dragged ourselves out of bed, reaching for clothes that we’d strewn across furniture the night before, exhausted from our last show. My muscles ached, my head felt dull, and I shivered as my bare feet crossed the uneven wooden floorboards, even though it was summer.Description thrown in with Nimira's movement.
Feiji yawned. “Why do you suppose we’re in such a hurry?”
“Who cares?” Saraki replied. She thrust her arms through the sleeves of her tunic, then picked up her sash with a flourish. “New Sweeling!” she said, hugging the sash around her like a blanket. “Girls, don’t you know what this means?”
I already knew perfectly well what it meant to Saraki: the same thing she and Feiji hadn’t shut up about since the first day of our acquaintance. Men. To be specific, husbands. Nimira is telling you about Saraki, but in the process, she's also telling you about herself.
Sure enough. “Businessmen and sorcerers I made sure to throw in sorcerers to establish this was a fantasy before it became too late! and handsome, dashing actors!” Saraki said. “Just waiting to meet lovely foreign dancers like us. They say you can find anything in New Sweeling, and that includes the love of our lives, I’m sure of it.”
Feiji sighed, and then Saraki sighed, This version is also a bit more light-hearted than the last. and Assara, the youngest of our troupe, stared at them with eyes like saucers. I ignored them as I hunted for my slippers. I had more important matters to consider than the marriage prospects in New Sweeling.
Tantan tried to hide it, but I knew the audience for our shows was dwindling. Six months ago, we had packed the halls with ladies in plumed hats and gentlemen in tail-coats. Now we played shabbier venues for smaller crowds, and even then we often couldn’t fill them. Tantan had paid good money for each one of us. What would she do if we ceased to be profitable? This time at the end of page two, we not only know something has probably gone wrong by Tantan's behavior, but we also know what it might concern--their dance troupe is out of money, and these girls are basically slaves that need to make a profit...or what?
If I had been home, it would have been my wedding day. The day my village would welcome me into womanhood, with feasting and firecrackers. My sixteenth birthday. This was the first version I actually queried agents with. I combined a little of the first two beginnings...now the flippancy of the second draft is gone, but so is the dreaminess of the first. There is a brief indication of where Nimira came from, and now the new detail that she would have been married off at this age if she'd been home. Perhaps subtly implying a sense that romance will be in her future and it won't be at all what her old life would have given her. The day everything would have changed.Of course, today will also be the day everything will change. That's why I'm writing this book. =P
Instead, I woke to Tantan throwing open the curtains of our dingy hotel room. Tantan, we called her, Auntie. But she wasn’t our aunt at all. In draft two, Tantan gets no introduction, but I decided the reader needed a little more orientation from the start. There is also a touch of description sooner.
“Wake up, girls.” She shook my foot and then Saraki’s. “Get dressed, and quickly.”
Next to me, Saraki stirred with a groan. Lots of trimming has occurred. We don't really NEED a "long, irritated" groan. Most sleepy groans are not quick and chipper, after all. “What’s going on?” she murmured.
I sat up and saw Tantan jostling the shoulders of Feiji and Assara in the other bed.
Saraki swept her long hair back from her face. “What about our show tonight?”
“Cancelled,” Tantan said. “I’ll be back in five minutes to see that you’re all dressed.” She left the room, slamming the door behind her.
We dragged ourselves out of bed, reaching for clothes that we’d strewn across furniture the night before, exhausted from our last show. My muscles ached, my head felt dull, and I shivered despite the summer heat as my bare feet crossed the uneven wooden floorboards. More trimming--"even though it was summer" becomes "despite the summer heat".
Feiji yawned. “Why do you suppose we’re in such a hurry?”
“Who cares?” Saraki replied, thrusting her arms through the sleeves of her tunic, then picking up her sash with an excited Why I decided the flourish now had to become "excited", I don't know. flourish. “New Sweeling!” She hugged the sash around her like a blanket. “Girls, don’t you know what this means?”
I already knew perfectly well what it meant to Saraki: the same thing she and Feiji hadn’t shut up about since the first day of our acquaintance. Men. To be specific, husbands.
Sure enough. “Businessmen and sorcerers and handsome, dashing actors!” Saraki said. “Just waiting to meet lovely foreign dancers like us. They say you can find anything in New Sweeling, and that includes the love of our lives, I’m sure of it.”
Feiji sighed dreamily, and then Saraki echoed her. Assara, the youngest of our troupe, stared at them with eyes like saucers. I ignored them as I hunted for my slippers. I had more important matters to consider than the marriage prospects in New Sweeling.
Tantan tried to hide it, but I knew the audience for our shows was dwindling. A year or two ago, we had packed the halls with ladies in plumed hats and gentlemen in tailcoats. Now we played shabbier venues for smaller crowds, and even then we often couldn’t fill them. Tantan had paid good money for each one of us. What would she do if we ceased to be profitable?
If I had been home, this would be my wedding day. My sixteenth birthday. The day my village would welcome me into womanhood, with feasting and firecrackers. Instead, for the second time, I saw the value of my life in a handful of coins.After some feedback from agents and crit partners, I reworked the novel. I decided that the initial opening was still a little too slow, not enough of a hook. In the first-through-third drafts, Nimira is ultimately sold to be a maid in a rich woman's house. I decided that rather than bothering with the other girls in the troupe, who barely have a personality anyway, I'd just get her right to the turning point.
Tantan slipped the money in her purse and would not meet my eyes.This time, we get almost nothing of Tantan, except this heartless act of selling Nimira--although we know, since she won't meet her eyes, that she does feel guilty about it.
“Come along now, girl.” My new mistress’s voice was unyielding, with a highbred accent. She walked to the door without a backward glance, as if she had no doubt I would follow.
The day my father sold me to Tantan’s dance troupe had been bad enough, but to be thrust into serving some pampered lady of Lorinar— Look at me, Tantan!Our protagonist's hard-knock life in a nutshell.
Tantan kept her head bowed.
My new mistress said nothing, but the look she passed over her shoulder, a smooth mask with a hint of irritation, said it all. I trailed after her into a corridor, leaving Tantan behind, and with her, everything I knew.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked, leading me down a hall into the depths of the house. Distantly, I heard the kitchen door shut. Tantan was gone.I don't know if we really needed the final detail about Tantan, but I guess I was thinking that Nim would definitely be attuned to the final shutting of that door.
“Nimira,” I said.
“Nimira. Very good. Easy to pronounce. "Easy to pronounce"--a hint that she is a rich woman who has hired a foreign maid and mostly cares that her foreignness will not get in the way with difficult names or anything like that. I am Elsba Swanney, but that is Mistress Swanney to you. Now, I must acquaint you with some ground rules. All my staff awakens at five o’ clock, sharp. I expect you to keep your dress clean, and your face and hands. Never speak to guests, unless spoken to, or unless offering food or drink. Do not even think of stealing anything, for I am good friends with the Mighty Hollin Perris, the Ambassador of Magic, "Hollin Perris" was a considerably more comical and older villain than the young, troubled Hollin Parry in the final version. I threw a mention of him in early, again, to establish the fantasy aspect. and he has ways of finding things out. Do you understand me, girl?”
I nodded. Nim's emotions won't come out until Mrs. Swanney's instructions are all done. Her personality is still rather underdeveloped in this draft.
“Excellent. Now, this is the servants’ common room. If you’ll have a seat, I’ll call Ronna.” She pushed open the door of a small, poorly lit room with a handful of wooden chairs, a pile of mending in the corner, and a small framed print of a perfectly groomed maid mopping the floors with a smile on her face. More touches of almost-humor that were more common in this draft. I was trying for a "Howl's Moving Castle" sort of air. I didn’t sit down, but Mrs. Swanney was already leaving.
I paced on restless feet as a flurry of suppressed emotions came rushing back. In five years, I had almost convinced myself that coming to Lorinar with the dance troupe had been my choice, not my father’s. Dancing had always been my dream, so I had clung to some small delusion that I had control over my own life. Working as a rich woman’s slave had not fit into my childhood dreams anywhere. Now we get a brief look into Nimira's thoughts before Ronna shows up.
After sending out version 4 and collecting another slew of full requests that led to rejections, I realized I needed to write the book entirely again. Make it less comical, less of a Victorian farce, and give Nimira, and all the characters, considerably more personality and motivation. This misstep was my first attempt at this.
“Suck in your breath!” Saraki yanked on the corset strings. Saraki is back, but the personality-less Feiji and Assara never return.I gripped the banister of the stairs. The whalebone stays tightened about my already slender waist, pressing my breasts up like a shelf for the cheap jewelry around my neck.This opening is definitely the seediest. Corset strings and breasts right from the get-go.
How far my dignity had fallen these days. I hoped to make Nim sympathetic by letting the reader know how much she disliked the situation. But it was still too light-hearted and too cliche. Both the "new maid in a house" of the previous draft and the "girls tightening each others corsets" have a rather familiar ring, frankly.
Saraki tied the corset strings and handed me my dress. While the fabric might have been straight from home, the puffed sleeves and plunging neckline were in the Lorinar fashion. Only my sash was truly my own, and Saraki formed the traditional bow at my back.
I checked my reflection in the mirror, smoothing the rigid bodice, tugging at the knee-length skirt. I would never stop thinking how ridiculous I looked in these clothes, my legs encased in bright red stockings, my feet in toe-pinching slippers, my thick black hair in a pompadour instead of braids. Would Father still say I looked like Mother? The girl blinking back at me, with the circles under her dark eyes, cheeks drawn and sallow, didn’t look like any member of the Safei family to me. One of the biggest changes of this draft was that Nimira was no longer a slave who had been sold by her father and then Tantan, but the daughter of a dancer who comes to Lorinar of her own accord. Her mother, although dead, becomes a character in this draft, just like the final--Nimira's mother looms large in her memories as an influence, and she is always comparing her circumstances to her mother's life, which now seems far away.
I was only Nimira, lost and alone, where my family name meant nothing.Now we know Nimira's name and family is a matter of pride to her, suggesting she has come from something better than this.
Mr. Granden popped in the room. “Nimira? Are you quite ready? You’re almost up.” He eyed Saraki, who was polishing her tei-tan, a small stringed-instrument, with a cloth I never actually say, here, that Nimira is from another country, but I tried to slip in these details, like the tei-tan, to show it.. “And how is my little Saki tonight?”
She gave him a coy smile and rose without a word to go to the stage. Saki had no shame—I knew Granden gave her special favors as long as she pleased him. I would rather die than sell myself. Again--the seedy version!
Of course, every day I lived and breathed, I was vulnerable. Men could take what I wouldn’t give. Granden could. The fear of it had been with me so long that it had turned into something rock-hard inside me. I was always prepared to fight, and always aware that I might lose, any day now. The snappishness of Nim, way back in the early drafts, now has a reason. Nimira's deep desperate loneliness and desire for more meaningful relationships becomes a theme of the book, whereas in early versions she just sort of muddled through bad circumstances without having a deep yearning in her own heart. But this was too blatant.
I went rigid as Granden slipped his hands around my waist. “Tiny Nim,” he said, his waxed moustache tickling my ear. “My fingers almost meet about your waist.” His breath smelled of brandy.
“Because you spent more money on these costumes than you do on food.”
“You’re welcome to spend your wages on food.”
He knew very well I squirreled away every spare penny for a ticket home. He had promised me food and lodgings. He provided only bare sustenance.
“Kindly take your hands off me,” I said, staring at myself in the mirror. My mirror-self reassured me. Tiny but strong, she seemed to say.
His hands slid away, reluctantly. “If you please.” He chuckled. “Do you have a heart at all, Miss Nim?”
“No.” I turned from the mirror. “I have a show to do.”
Although Nim is more proactive here, I discarded it all as just being a little too heavy-handed, with Granden closer and grosser than he needed to be, and Nim both too composed and too hard-edged.
The audience didn’t understand a word I sang. They came for our legs. As the posters said, “Trouser Girls from the Exotic Land of Tassim!” We were billed just under the acrobats and the trained dogs.If you've read Magic Under Glass, this will finally start to sound familiar. This opening worked--it's snappy but it also establishes the situation well--Nim, the foreign dancing girl with a grim acceptance, and a slight touch of wit, about the whole thing.
While Saraki plucked the tei-tan, I paced about the stage, my slippers whispering the words "slippers whispering" actually sound rather like the sound of slippers swishing about a wooden floor! on the wooden floor. My hands curved and wove and paused, each gesture as familiar to me as the words I’d heard my mother sing in the cradle. “Gathering Flowers on My Sister’s Wedding Day” was one of the first dances I had ever learned, a reflection on family and what it means to say goodbye. I felt it was better to establish that Nim had an artistic soul, and cared about these dances, before I showed her getting all snappy with Granden and the other girls.
Before I even finished the last plaintive note, a few men began to whistle, and one shouted something I chose to ignore.More subtle seediness, now paired against Nimira's real feelings for her art. Boys on the balcony shelled chestnuts. Clusters of boarding house girls in tatty straw hats giggled to one another.Details: chestnuts, tatty straw hats. One of my favorite writing rules is to never be general when you can be specific.
My eyes leapt to a tall hat in the crowd. A gentleman. I locked upon a pair of dark eyes.This is one of those cases where writing is almost like being a director. The camera goes from the stage, to pan over the crowds, and then to focus on this single man.
He stood in the back, like he had just slipped in the door and wouldn’t stay long. Among all the dim faces that watched me, I kept my focus on him alone.
“The Dragon Maiden’s Revenge” was a favorite of mine, based on a myth of home, where I pantomimed a girl taking up her father’s sword to avenge his death. I hoped I looked very noble. Was he watching?I felt Nimira was a little too disdainful of love and romance in older drafts. This time we know she's not immune to noticing a man.
Yes. Looking right at me, in fact.
Fifteen years ago a railroad baron had married the most famous of trouser girls, Little Sadi, back when our song and dance had been the fashion, before they even called us “trouser girls”. Another thing about this later draft was, I'd begun to learn the importance of knowing where your characters and your world have been, and not just where they go. Nimira's mother, Hollin's father and uncle, the history of Trouser Girls...they pop up easily now because I'd taken the time to think about them, and give the story a sense of reality. Saraki was always dreaming of following in her footsteps. I scoffed when she spoke of it, but late at night I dreamed of things I scoffed at by the light of day.Still one of my favorite lines in the book...I do dream of things at night I scoff at by the light of day!
When I finished my song, the gentleman still lingered. The raucous crowd around him whooped, but he kept still, his eyes roving over our crude set: a painted village house on a piece of wood shorter than Saraki, and some dried flowers in mismatched vases.There is an unspoken hope quivering here--the dude is still here, ohmigod, he's looking at our craptacular set, I hope he doesn't walk out now, I'd better really pull this off...
Our last number, “The Fairest Blossom in a Maiden’s Heart”, had been my mother’s signature song. She had performed it at the King’s coronation, as a new bride of seventeen, just my age now. The song was an ode to a lover who had died, never to be forgotten, but I could never help but think of Mother. Her performance had always left the audience in tears, but no one would cry here, no matter how I poured out my heart. If her spirit still watched over me, I knew it must have been ashamed.
As I took my bow, with Saraki’s hand in mine, I sought one last glimpse at the gentleman stranger, but he had gone.And here is almost a touch of resignation--no one ever cares about the artistry of her dances, and this guy is like all the rest, isn't he...?
FINAL DRAFT (18 months and at least twenty documents after the first...)
The audience didn’t understand a word we sang. They came to see our legs. As the posters said, “Trouser Girls from the Exotic Land of Tassim!” We were billed just under the acrobats and the trained dogs.
Our voices joined in harmony My editor pointed out that Nimira is supposed to be a singer, and...she wasn't singing. while Saraki plucked the tei-tan and I pranced around the stage, my slippers whispering on the wooden floor. My hands curved and wove and paused, each gesture as familiar to me as the words I’d heard my mother sing while I was still in the cradle. I’d done six shows a week in this dank music hall since I’d stepped off the ship that carried me away from home three years ago. Much trimming of detail about the dances themselves--they are less important than the emotions involved.
Even before I finished the last plaintive note, a few men began to whistle, and one shouted something I chose to ignore. Boys on the balcony shelled chestnuts, occasionally tossing one onto the people below. Clusters of boarding house girls in tatty straw hats giggled.
Through it all, my gaze was drawn to a tall hat in the crowd, and the pair of dark eyes beneath it. A gentleman.
He stood in the back, his face still turned halfway to the door, like he had just slipped in for a glimpse and wouldn’t stay long. Among all the dim faces that watched me, I kept my focus on him alone.
Saraki let the applause wane, and then she began to shake her pick across the tei-tan’s strings, bringing forth a tense melody.
The program held no surprises. “The Dragon Maiden’s Revenge” had followed “Gathering Flowers for My Sister’s Wedding” in every show we’d done this year. Still, I hoped I looked very noble as I pantomimed taking up the sword of the fallen king of dragons. Was the gentleman—my gentleman—watching? When Nimira claims him as "her" gentleman, the stakes become ever so slightly higher--he's not just an intriguing guy in the audience. He's keeping her going, raising her hopes, even if it's all a fantasy for now.
Yes. Looking right at me, in fact.
Fifteen years ago a railroad baron had married the most famous of trouser girls, Little Sadi, back when our song and dance had been the fashion, before they even called us “trouser girls”. Saraki dreamed of following in her footsteps, charming some rich man into whisking her away. I scoffed when she spoke of it, but late at night I dreamed of things I scoffed at by the light of day.
When I finished my song, my gentleman still lingered. The raucous crowd around him whooped, but he kept still, his eyes roving over our crude set: a painted village house on a piece of wood shorter than Saraki, and some dried flowers in mismatched vases.
Our last number, “The Fairest Blossom in a Maiden’s Heart”, had been my mother’s signature song. She had performed it at the King’s coronation, as a new bride of seventeen, just my age now. The song was an ode to a lover who had died, never to be forgotten. I could never help but remember Mother, her haunting voice pitched high, her delicate gestures transforming her into the very embodiment of sorrow. Her performance had always left the audience in tears, but this audience was far from the one she had known, both in temperament and location. Toned down from "no one would cry here". If her spirit still watched over me, I knew it must be ashamed.
As I took my bow, with Saraki’s hand in mine, I sought one last glimpse of my gentleman, but he had gone.
As you can see, once I nailed it, it didn't change too much. This is often the case with me. Sometimes I can flail about with six entirely different versions of the same story, other times it just comes out right the first time and is merely tweaked. I hope this has been helpful as far as showing the thought process of why I felt each version might work as I wrote it, and then why it changed.