Monday, January 20, 2020

Following Directions: Editing First Draft Feedback on The Shifter

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Ever wonder what the original draft of a published novel looked like? Here's a peek behind the curtain and a look into the critiquing process.

Every Saturday I critique someone's work and post it for all to see, but I've also done the same to my own opening page. Fair's fair.

I came across this early post from 2010 where I showed excerpts from the very first draft of The Shifter (back when it was still The Pain Merchants), and the feedback I'd received from my critique group. Not only did I share what they said, I shared what I did, and explained why I found the comment helpful.

I've always been interested in the thought process and decision-making behind writing, so hopefully this will help other writers apply the feedback from their own critiques. It might even give them some insight into why they might have gotten a particular comment.

The critique group feedback is in red. My comments are in purple.

First Draft Version:

Post-editor draft
I froze. The chicken **[spooked. Her scaly...] didn’t. Now spooked, her scaly feet flailed above the eggs that should have been my breakfast. This one is a pretty easy change to make. Cutting "now spooked" eliminates a bit of telling, since I'm explaining the chicken's motivation for flailing. It also tightens up the line as a whole.

A **[adjective? otherwise I have him older] watchguard smiled, his rapier aimed at my chest. This was a helpful comment for me because I'm terrible about description. It's also a great example of how a reader will assume something you didn't intend. The watchguard is younger, Nya's age, but I don't say that until after I've given the reader time to make an assumption based on a few facts. "Watchguard" implies training, which implies someone older, so it's no wonder my reader had this impression. [Most times I enjoyed handsome boys smiling at me in the moonlight,] This makes it seem like she has this experience a lot but his wasn’t a friendly smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing. This second piece is good observation, as "most times" does imply that this isn't the first time this has happened to her. It makes Nya seem more worldly than she is, like she often meets boys in the moonlight. As that isn't the case, I've already suggested things that will lead the reader in the wrong direction.

“So Heclar,” he said over his shoulder, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”

Rancher Heclar strutted into view, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the chicken trying to peck me. Ruffled, sharp beaked and beady-eyed. He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips. “I told you foxes weren’t getting them.”

Final Version:

Same book, a year later

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. I looked up at a cute night guard not much older than me, perhaps sixteen. Here's how I added his age so right away you know Nya is looking at someone younger than your average guard. I also added "cute" which shows judgment on Nya's part, further enhancing her point of view. Plus, I get to show her rough age without telling. Amazing how adding one detail does so much, right?  The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out. Here I was able to not only describe the boy (important since he turned out to be a major character by the time I hit chapter four), but I get to do some world building on top of it. "More humid than usual" implies a hot, humid climate. "A soldier's cut" implies that Nya is familiar with soldiers, so they must be common where she lives--and that she finds it important to notice them. You'll also see watchguard changed to night guard to suggest that this was a temp job (just at night) versus someone trained.

Stay calm, stay alert
. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though. Totally new information here, because I decided Nya needed a reaction to show how she deals with getting caught. We need to see her thought process to get a better feel for her as a character, otherwise readers might not connect or sympathize with her. It also let me introduce Grannyma and her sayings right away, something that didn't come up until later in the story but became central to Nya's character.

“Join me for breakfast when your shift ends?” I asked. Sunrise was two hours away. Same here. Nya needed to interact with the night guard, as she has a tendency to try and talk her way out of situations. This gets that trait right up front, so no one will be surprised when she does it later in more dangerous situations. It also adds the time, "sunrise was..." to help further ground the reader in the setting and orient them to the time of day.

He smiled, but aimed his rapier at my chest anyway. Was nice to have a handsome boy smile at me in the moonlight, but his was a sad, sorry-only-doing-my-job smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing. I got rid of the "most times" so we know this isn't common for her. "Was nice to" even implies that this doesn't happen to her often. I put the smile reference here, because I gave Nya something to say that triggers the smile (she was cute, and he smiles at her joke and invitation, suggesting he might kinda like her), and lets the characters interact so they aren't just spouting dialogue. I also gave her a better perception of the kinds of smiles there were, further showing that she picks up on subtle details and moods she needs to survive. The smile thing will also play into further character interactions, so establishing it here will make her figuring out people later feel natural. It also establishes her as being perceptive and being able to use that to her advantage, another skill she'll use later.

“So, Heclar,” he said over his shoulder, “you do have a thief. Guess I was wrong.”

Rancher Heclar strutted into view, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the chicken trying to peck me—ruffled, sharp beaked, and beady eyed. He harrumphed and set his fists against his hips. “I told you crocodiles weren’t getting them.” I changed foxes to crocodiles here. This was a deliberate attempt to counteract the natural "default fantasy setting" that this was a medieval England type world (it's not). Foxes could still be very European. Crocodiles aren't, and they tie in with the humid air, further reinforcing that tropical climate and setting. 

Little changes really, but each one added depth to the scene and did a lot more to characterize Nya and give the reader a better sense of the world. Hopefully it shows how you can add a lot of information without adding a lot of text.

(Here's more on The Power of Word Choice in Fiction)

Let's try a few more smaller edits. This snippet comes a few pages later when Nya makes a run for it.

First Draft Version:

“Oooommf!” I sucked back the breath I’d just lost and inhaled a lungful of dust and feathers. The watchguard crashed over the crates a choking gasp later and hit the ground beside me. Dried corn flew out and speckled the ground **[like cheap gems.] not sure this simile works for me. Has she ever seen cheap gems? Maybe a metaphor instead, suggesting that the corn has value to her?] This was a good observation. Just a few pages in, and already my reader can tell Nya isn't the kind of girl who would have been exposed to a lot of jewels. However, when I wrote this, I knew her backstory and knew that she was a girl who had seen riches, so it made sense to me. But a reader wouldn't know that, so the words jumped out as wrong. My attempt to "show" that Nya knew gems fell flat. This was clearly not the right place to get that information to the reader.

I took a step forward but the breezeway was no longer empty. Something large, gray and moving fast **[at my head blocked my escape]. two of these is too much for me. Plus – is Heclar himself moving fast at her head? More likely he's blocking her escape...] Heclar! A little goes a long way, and I did too much here. Exactly what was moving fast at her head? And how did it block her escape? A great example of trying to do too much in the same sentence and mucking up the clarity.


White pain blinded Literally? With no context and knowing this book has magic, readers have no way of knowing if I really did blind Nya or if this is just a metaphor. me and I thudded back to the ground. Heclar floated in the spinning silver flecks dancing **[spinning/dancing too much; can you pick one?] around my eyes, a blue-black cone in his hand. I do too much again here. This is a scene that's supposed to be quick, but here I am bogging it down with extra words that do nothing but confuse the reader.

Final Version:

I took a step forward but something large blocked my escape. Heclar! He swung at my head and I ducked, but not fast enough. So much better. The extra words are gone and what's happening is  clear. It also picks up the pace, which raises the tension.

bit into my temple and I thudded back to the ground. Heclar floated in the silver flecks dancing around my eyes, a blue-black pynvium club in his hand. This is clearer as well. I also got rid of the thwack, as it didn't add anything to the scene at all. The cone became a club, because clubs are easier to hit people with. A cone is a weird shape for a weapon, and that was tripping readers up. I also changed "blinded" to "bit" so it was clean the magic didn't actually blind her.

(Here's more on Conquering the Fear of Revision)

And there you have it. First draft to final draft, and the comments that got me there. Some comments and edits are just a matter of deleting a word, such as in the "now spooked" line, but other comments require a little thought. 

I hope this peek into what I think about when I revise will help you with your own revisions--and even your critiques.

*Originally published May 2010. Last updated January 2020.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Thanks for sharing. Learning to use feedback is an important writer's tool.

  2. Really useful post. And how brave of you to dig out your early version and share what you did.

  3. Great insight, Janice! Thanks for sharing and showing your process, very effective. And it looks like you have some astute critique group members :)

  4. This was great! It's so helpful to see the reasoning behind certain suggestions. And I agree about your crit partners. They really know their stuff!

  5. This was a great thing to see, how you go from first draft to a better version, through your crit groups help. It's interesting to see the process. I think crit groups are key to turning out a better draft becuase things like these are SO hard to catch ourselves, just because we're so close to everything so it all makes perfect sense to us.

  6. I love my crit groups. They're just amazing writers and critiquers. I just got back the crits for Shifter 3, so I'll be diving into those this week.

  7. This was very helpful...much easier to see the "show vs tell" thing with some live examples :D

  8. So cool! Very fun to read. Finding critters just so invaluable!
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. I commend you for even saving this! I don't save my critiques once the piece has been published. But I'm glad you did. This is very helpful. :)

  10. This is a great post. Question: how do you find a good crit group hem... Know what they are talking about?

  11. Janice,

    I also give you thanks for saving your old drafts and the feedback you got from your group.

    You're a brave soul to do this, and I think it will give me the courage needed to go back to the best critiques I ever got for my last novel, especially the ones that sent me in a rage of frustration and tears at the time.

    Because even if I knew then, on some level, they're right, even if it hurts my confidence the way it's proposed to me, my past attempts to fix the clunky bits either just made things worse.

    Either annoyingly vague, and/or people lectured to me that I'm not simplistic enough.

    However, knowing that alone usually doesn't doesn't often give me an in as to WHY I'm not doing it, even if I get it logistically, but it's better than not knowing to avoid looking sloppy down the road.

    Thanks for giving all these resources and tips, even though some things don't always work for me, I sincerely applaud you for acknowledging things I'm struggling to learn that others think I make up to be lazy or in some crazed denial, just because they don't have the same problems with something as you, or know no one in their circle of writers who share similar problems.

    Take Care,

    P.S. You said that people didn't get why certain things about Nya mattered and wanted them gone because they saw filler when you knew it was going to matter, just perhaps not where you first put it.

    After the first draft, what helped you figure out where to put the "filler" info, that will need to be shown, if you've realized you put it in the the wrong place the first time?

    P.P.S. I've been MIA on T.A.A. for sometime, but I hope to have some stuff I've been working on up soon.

  12. This was really helpful, Janice! It's great to learn why you took things out (giving the wrong impression of a character or hinting at backstory at the wrong time) beyond making the prose read tighter. I'd also be interested in hearing your answer to Rebecca Kiel's question about how you found your crit group.
    - Sophia.

  13. Just have to say, I love this. It's a great look at the process and a helpful aid.

  14. Escape Artist: Most welcome. My crit groups are worth their weight in gold :)

    Lydia: It's my pack rat nature. Things get tucked away in files and I forget they're there, hehe. Good things it's just electronic files or I'd be hip deep in paper.

    Rebecca: It's hit or miss. Unless you know the people or know people who know them, you won't know what you get until you get back a crit or two. You can try local or state writer's groups, or chapters of the genre organizations (like RWA, MWA, SFWA) to find groups, though. Also online sites like Absolute Write or Backspace. They often have folks looking for crit groups.

    Taurean: I like to check back and re-read a crit after I've revised. It's like a reminder to make sure I've taken care of everything.

    As for the filler, usually it was info I knew had to go in there, and then I looked for a place where it would fit more naturally. Like, if I needed to talk about how her parents died in the war, I found a place where thoughts of war/parents/losing family was already part of the scene. So it made it a natural progression for her to think about that stuff. Basically just organizing how information is conveyed better.

    Sophia: Thanks! Posted up the how to for you guys.

    Sadie: Thanks!

  15. Interesting, thanks for sharing. Showing vs telling is my Achilles heel!

    1. Most welcome. It was mine, too, in the beginning. That's why I studied it like crazy, and now I teach it :) You'll get it!

  16. Really enjoyed checking that through and seeing the reasons for the changes. Amazing how a simple tweak here and there can improve the writing a hundredfold. I do think that the more one writes and revises, the more likely it is that these analyses become automatic. Anyone agree?

    1. Thanks! I agree. Critiquing also helps build those skills, too. It's far easier to spot things in other work and then think, "Hmmm, do I do this?"