Revision is Development

In continuing the recent trend of this blog actually living up to its moniker, I offer an insight into the everyday world of a living, breathing, unsuccessful writer.  Below is a first draft from my latest novel, and the revision that I worked on this weekend — a revision that will be followed by two or three more before I have the novel where I want it.

The road was black and green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  You could not stop the grass from growing here in Kentucky, and the weeds.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago.  I liked driving through the hills because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I tried the radio but knew that unless I was passing by a tower at the time, I could never get any signal.  Static, with faint mists of voices like they were dead and trying to communicate with me across the great divide.  It didn’t bother me too much, but I worried about tomorrow afternoon.  That’s exactly what I worried about.  After a night and a morning in the car, when the sun hung in the sky at four o’clock, that would be terrible to have no other voices.  Late afternoon was always the worst time of the day.  The day was dying and you knew you didn’t have too much light left, but it wasn’t yet night or even sunset.  It was just day stretched out like a desert, with nothing to do but wait for night to come and its peaceful or terrifying darkness.  The darkness doesn’t matter, only that it is a change.  I imagine the same thing happens in the morning, during the dullness of night an hour or two before the sun rises, but I’m never awake at that time.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tonight.

And, the edits from Sunday:

The road was black, but green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago, and everything grew without limit: the Bermuda grass and foxtail grass and thistle, all mixed together and going to seed and awaiting the judgment of winter.  Trees, though, clutched the rolling hills, their roots deep and intertwined in the limestone, and grass only grew at the edges of these forests.  I liked driving the hills with the trees, because there was a majesty to them and they would survive the winter, because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I turned the radio on, briefly, but only heard fragments of voices against the white static; voices like ghosts.  Or, voices like God trying to say something, but there was too much static and I was driving away.

I needed to reach Memphis tomorrow afternoon.  My radio could find some voice then, among the voices of the city, because late afternoon was the cruelest time: the sun beats and day stops like evening will never come, and we sit with our memory of the morning and desire for the evening, like we are neither living nor dead.  So for that time, I wanted a radio.

You can see some of the development that has come from my revision.  First, the sentences (I believe) are clearer, and I found the detail of the Bermuda grass by going back and working harder to envision the roadside.

Moreover, the first excerpt became too rambling for me — it felt like I was trying to channel Holden Caulfield, with a little more poetry.  By revising and focusing a bit longer on the grass, the radio, even though the thoughts of the narrator move similarly, the second version rambles less.

In focusing on the time of day, I tied the revised version to his overall journey, and then threw in some T.S. Eliot to help portray his thoughts/feelings.  Of course, just at that moment of gravitas, he isn’t someone overly deep, so he backs off and asserts his need for the radio.

I’m also playing with some themes — death (which ties in with Eliot’s “Wasteland”), and a strained conception of God, which made its way into the second (actually, third or fourth) draft.

So, a small window into the inner workings of a subsequent draft.  One of the most important messages I remember from grad school is that: revision IS development.  We cannot help but add a fuller conception of characters and landscape and theme as we revise.

I’d love to hear thoughts (anyone like the first one better?), questions, musings…

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