Only Good Re-Writing

There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.

I don’t think it’s entirely true. But if there is such a thing as good writing, there’s better re-writing. And great writing becomes fantastic re-writing. So basically I don’t care how well you string together sentences. There will never be a time it can’t improve.

I’ve always found myself to be an adequate sentence writer. I’m good at grammar and have a handle on sentence rhythm. But it turns out I’m a far better re-writer. Take, for example, these three very different versions of the first 250 words of my novel.

Version 1:

Gray clouds like pillows pattern the sky as I climb up the steps to St. Mary’s Universal Academy. It’s April, and their presence isn’t at all surprising for Portland, but I still find myself disappointed. It’s been more than a week since it rained. I lean back against the railing and look up at the school, waiting for Jaycee to arrive. She’s never there earlier than five minutes before school starts. On the facade of the school is a rectangular gray box that stands out against the brick. There is a person-shaped darker piece in the middle, like some kind of relief structure used to be there. I wonder if it was of the Mary our school was named for, but no one I’ve asked seems to know.

Sure enough, Jaycee comes running up the steps a few minutes after me, herding three of her younger siblings in front of her. “Shoo, now!” she says in a voice that’s more amused than annoyed. “Get on to class.”

“What about you?”

“Senior assembly today,” she says, with all the enthusiasm I feel for it. I straighten my shirt, the buttons already running uneven down my front. The other Brennan children run off inside, leaving Jaycee leaning against the railing beside me. “We probably should go, too,” she says, and I get up, though a part of me was looking for Abel Morales. He was probably already inside. He had the annoyingly bad habit of always being on time for everything.

Version 2:

On the way to school, a helicopter flies below the low, gray clouds and I duck instinctively.

Every car that passes seems like a patrol car and I brace myself for the flashing lights. It’s routine, I tell myself, but the unease persists even as I climb the steps of St. Mary’s. Between my dark secret and last night’s gunshots, I’m a mess of nerves. I think I see Abel Morales opening the school doors ahead of me, but I’m scared to shout out and call attention to myself.

“Shoo, now!” My heart catches in my throat, but it’s only Jaycee Brennan, who herds three of her younger siblings toward their classes. When she turns to me, her expression narrows. “Everything okay?”

I shrug.

“The shooting’s got you on edge? Not me. There are so many recently it’s hard to be surprised.”

I straighten my shirt, trying to think of something to say. The police are never quiet about their raids, and I was optimistic to think no one would want to talk about it. “I don’t like being woken up in the middle of the night,” I finally say. “Routine or not, I’d rather be sleeping.”

“True enough. But I wonder who they caught – maybe we know them!” Her whisper is scandalous.

“I hope not,” I say, and really mean it. About a month ago, it was the mother of a friend from kindergarten – shot, and killed, of course. I couldn’t sleep for days.

Version 3:

I am a criminal. It’s been ten years and I’ve never been caught, but every shooting reminds me the inevitable is just a bullet away. There was another one at midnight. The noise blasted through our television and, hours later, I’m still shaken. Thirteen, my favorite Blue, slips into my bedroom to clean. I don’t acknowledge her.

“Nadari?” My father, Aba, calls once Thirteen leaves. “Are you ready yet?” He intrudes when I don’t answer. “Not even dressed?”

I glance at my closet. The Blues organize my clothes onto wooden hangers, shirts ironed, jeans folded evenly. To one side are dresses I never wear. They block the entrance to a room only my father and I know about. Inside is my violin. That’s all. It could be the death of me, like a flute was for the woman last night.

“The police don’t go digging around Lair Hill,” he says. Lair Hill is the upper-class neighborhood. Our home. “They don’t think we commit those kinds of crimes.”

He’s kept me safe for ten years. I should trust him.

I don’t.

I get ready and manage to leave for school on time. It’s only a week before the standardized test we have to pass to get our internships. I should focus on the exam as I walk to school. Instead, I scrutinize the passing police officers to see if they might be scrutinizing me.

Jaycee Brennan approaches the moment I’m inside the heavy cement doors of St Mary’s. “You hear the shooting?”

It’s funny the way the scene changed without the scene actually changing. I moved earlier and earlier in the day, until she reaches school only at the end of the first 250 instead of at the beginning of it. Part of it was that my ending changed, and so did the focus of the beginning.

In the first one, I was still figuring out my world. I needed to know everything about it. The senior assembly from version 1 disappeared pretty quickly. It was something I needed to write, but it isn’t something that needed to be in the opening chapters. In fact, it didn’t need to be there at all. As much as I like the sound of “Gray clouds like pillows pattern the sky,” it doesn’t tell you anything. Books aren’t allowed to open with the weather anymore. The phrase is gone from the book altogether. I miss it, but there’s another writing maxim: Kill your darlings.

The second one includes suggestions from well-meaning people on the awesome Query Tracker board. Their suggestions were an improvement over what I showed them, but in it I lost Nadari’s voice. And I spent too much time on Jaycee, who is only a main character for the first three chapters, and not nearly enough time on what was happening to Nadari. The dialogue feels stilted to me, and even felt that way as I wrote it. The part about the mother of a friend from kindergarten is still in the manuscript as it stands, but it’s a few paragraphs later.

The last one also includes QT suggestions, but filtered through my own voice. The most important difference, though, is that I know my ending. I know where the book is going in a way that I didn’t with the first two revisions. It was only when I saw where I wrote “the end” that I could truly choose a beginning that fit.

What are some darlings you’ve had to kill that resulted in re-writes you liked better?


  1. I love the fact that you draw a distinction between things you need to write and things that need to be in the book. Not every part of the world the writer needs to build has to be shared with the reader, but those can still be things the writer absolutely has to build.

    Nice post.

  2. I love that ‘pillows like grey clouds’ line too. Alas that all our pretties don’t always get to stay! =( Oh, and I meant to tell you that I love the name for her neighborhood. Lair Hill is so neat sounding.

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