How does writing evolve in various drafts?

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“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them – words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”
- Stephen King
 

For years, I’ve been wanting to do a piece like this! I’ve always wanted to take an example of my writing and show how it evolves over time. Save multiple drafts of a chapter or a paragraph and use it to illustrate my own creative process of reworking and editing something. Now, I’ve finally done it. So, this is a little story about the evolutionary process of my writing. This shows how you write something that’s pretty good, but you know it can be better. When you struggle to tweak your writing and get it just right, so the punch is a little stronger.

Sometimes, writing flows so easily. You just get on a roll and you fly through scenes and dialog and it’s beautiful. You don’t even feel like you’re doing anything. You’re just along for the ride! You’re like the conductor of a great symphony. Like the director of an epic motion picture. All you’re doing is keeping things organized, all the characters in front of you are the ones doing all the work.

Other times, discovering the overall arc and tone is a grind. It’s a struggle. That’s when you start to question if you’re listening properly. Are you on the right path? Are you paying attention to what your characters are telling you? Maybe you’re not following what the story is trying to say. Or, worse yet, maybe you’re not the one meant to tell it. Writing is always joyous, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy; even the greatest of passionate love affairs demand a diligent effort.

Finally, after all the symphonic themes of the overall masterpiece have been composed, you also have the smallest of notes in the form of single paragraphs. Lone sentences that you just need to get perfect.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about my novel The Gothic Rainbow and I wanted to have a very powerful ending to a paragraph describing the book. I just couldn’t seem to find the last sentence. But I finally remembered what I’ve always wanted to do, about showing the evolution of the writing process, so I saved every draft. Each version I wrote, no matter how small the change, I kept them all. Here is what that last paragraph said:

Fans of The Vampire Noctuaries are not most people. The Vampire Noctuaries fans appreciate the story because it speaks to them; the weirdos, the freaks, the outcasts, the loners. They are the readers with whom it resonates the most. The heart and soul of The Vampire Noctuaries is a story about the kind of pain you felt the night of your first heartbreak. This isn’t for the kids who get bullied, it’s for the ones who are invisible. This isn’t for the kids who cut themselves, it’s for the ones who know what the barrel tastes like. This isn’t for the kids who want someone to talk to, it’s for the ones who have never spoken of what happened that night. This is for the kids who punch holes in the wall while Ministry is blaring “Stigmata” at a volume that risks shattering the fishtank. Teen angst is for sissies. This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black, and a rage turning it into ash.

That was good, but I felt it could be better. I liked the whole thing. Except the last sentence. It had a great build up. But the last sentence was merely an awkward smack to the face. I wanted it to be a confident kick in the chest.

I rewrote the last sentence nearly 20 times.

The first version wasn’t very good. I knew it could be improved:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, and a rage turning it into ash.

I liked that. The visual of “black sludge” was better than “black”. Still needed work though:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, and a firestorm of rage turning molten sludge into ash.

I liked the addition of “firestorm” – that was a good word. I liked “molten sludge” too, but using “sludge” twice in a single sentence wasn’t working:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so blazing turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot turning molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns the molten sludge into ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns the molten sludge to ash.

Those subtle changes are important – “into” becomes “to” while “and” becomes “with” and I played with “hot” and “blazing” but none of that was quite right either:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it turns your flesh to ash.

Ah, yes. We’re getting closer. “Scorches” is a good word. Let’s try using that in place of “turns”:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your flesh to ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to black sludge, with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

Wait. Wait. Wait. The visual isn’t “black sludge” it’s supposed to be more precise; “sewage”. Now we’re really close:
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so hot it scorches your very flesh to ash.

That sounds great, but “firestorm” and “hot” and “scorches” all in a single sentence feel redundant. What else could I do with one of those words? How about mixing up the meaning of the words? The words “hot” and “scorches” both cover the sense of touch. What if I use some poetic license and replace “hot” with a auditory adjective to modify the tactile visual?
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to ash.

That’s it! Logically, “so deafening, it scorches your very flesh” doesn’t make sense. But as poetry it is easily understood. Finally, the word “ash” isn’t correct. Not working for me. That word has been in every iteration, but it just feels wrong. What should it be?
This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to cinders.

Yes!

That is it.

Perfect.

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it poisons your very marrow to sewage; with a firestorm of rage so deafening, it scorches your very flesh to cinders.

That’s beautiful. Compare that to the original:

This is for those sick with a depression so thick, it turns your very marrow to black, and a rage turning it into ash.

That sentence was passable, but now it sounds pretty weak.

Finally! Closer and closer, one word at a time, until I found each word that happened to be wrong. The evolution was slow going, but in the end, the sentence became far more clear and sensible.

Obviously, you don’t always need to write flowery poetic prose.

His face was graven and the shadows made it seem as if deep bags were dusted beneath his eyes, when he said, “You need to sit down for this.”

Do you really need that all the time?

He said, “You need to sit down for this.”

Sometimes, that’s all you need. Keep it simple.

Writing is very much like music. Things do not ride at a crescendo the whole time. Sometimes, you need to bring it down. Make it quiet. Keep it soft. Gentle.

Imagine if a movie score was epic and sweeping and loud for an entire film. That wouldn’t make any sense, would it? What if the adventurous theme of James Bond or Indiana Jones was playing during every second of the movie? That would have been terrible! In movies, the music must fit with the emotional tone of the story. In novels, the words must fit with the emotional tone of the story.

I wanted the tone of my paragraph to rise and rise, but at the end, it couldn’t burst into a crescendo. It had to drop back down, then burst. That’s why I made the final sentence so long. You notice preceding sentences had been far shorter. Punchy. Brisk. Crisp. You think the pace is going to quicken. Instead, it resets with a nice roundhouse to your ribs. That sticks.

And you know what? Maybe you disagree. While I’m waxing philosophical in my approach, you might come up with your own pretentious analysis to contradict me. Hey, that’s fine. Whatever. I’m just pointing out there’s a method to my madness. I do what I do for a carefully calculated reason. It’s not just random. It’s not done without thought. This is carefully constructed. Orchestrated. While you may disagree with my methods, you can recognize a method is evident.

Obviously, I don’t do this all the time. I don’t spend the effort to rewrite every single sentence in a story or an essay a dozen times. However, there are moments when it’s important to tweak something and get it just right. As I said at the beginning, this is a small example of something I have always wanted to illustrate. So, I hope you found it entertaining and it gives you a little insight into what the writing process is like for me. I can’t speak for other authors. Maybe I’m the only one who rewrites a sentence with that kind of obsessive compulsive fervor. Maybe all writers do that. I don’t know. But regardless if I’m alone in my idiosyncrasies, or if this is an idiocy from which all authors suffer, at least you now have a better understanding of why we sometimes spend a week trying to finish one page.

The exact words we use are of vital importance. As Mark Twain so famously said, “The difference between the ‘right word’ and the ‘almost-right word’ is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

“Be proud of your mistakes. Well, proud may not be exactly the right word, but respect them, treasure them, be kind to them, learn from them. And, more than that, and more important than that, make them. Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong.”
- Neil Gaiman