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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
why revision is a good idea 
21st-Sep-2005 11:03 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
The Virtu, Chapter 4: 55 ms pgs., 12,940 wds
Running total: 189 ms pgs., 43,358 wds

As I have said before, I have been working on the story now comprised in the novels Mélusine and The Virtu for about eleven years. Because I am a pack-rat and because I have the instincts of an archivist manqué, I've kept the two major drafts of the original novel (what I tend to call the ur-manuscript), and it occurred to me that it might be interesting, or entertaining, or instructive, to make a post about the evolution of a particular scene.

So. This is how Mildmay the Fox met Ginevra Thomson. (It's the second scene in Chapter One of Mélusine, so you don't particularly need to worry about spoilers.)

[ETA: if you want to do litcrit on these, I say go for it. I'm not doing that myself, because it seems more than a little narcissistic, but that doesn't mean it's not fair game.]

The first version is from 1999.

          We met in the Orange-Tree, a tavern in Ramecrow that catered to the demimonde. I didn't know how she had gotten my name, but it was no difficult task if you knew the right people to pump. My livelihood depended to a certain extent on it being possible for determined people to find me. And Ginevra was nothing if not determined.
          I arrived early, more out of habit than any belief she was the bait for a trap. Even at that time, scarcely an hour after sunset, the Orange-Tree was over-crowded and painfully loud, like a colony of bees preparing to swarm. Lots of people in Ramecrow found their nights' work easier after a drink or two.
          I elbowed my way through to the bar--the men who thought about starting a fight looked again and decided against it--and attracted and held the barkeep's attention long enough to get a glass of what the Orange-Tree claimed as their house white. I elbowed my way back to a just-vacated table along the wall, arranged myself and my glass, and settled back to wait.
          She was late--no surprise there--late enough that I had time to remember more than the first three reasons I disliked the Orange-Tree. Their wine had a nasty, harsh aftertaste to it; tables and chairs alike were flimsy and cramped, making me feel too big, too conspicuous. Moreover, the constant, unrelenting din of the slumming flashies, and the predators and scavengers who made their living off them, was enough to drive you mad.
          I also disliked the atmosphere--no stink yet of vomit, not this early in the evening, but a heavy, oppressive miasma of alcohol and perfume and a variety of smokable substances, most of which the Dogs were trying to eliminate from the city's economy. I wondered irritably why my potential client had wanted to meet here, amid the mock-gentility of nap-worn velvet and dim fly-specked mirrors that reflected you uneasily from surfaces you didn't necessarily want to see your face in.
          I had almost finished the wine, despite its horrid taste, when I pegged my client--a tall girl in green taffeta, overdressed for a meet with a cat burglar, but I'd seen that uncertain, frowning, looking-for-a-stranger expression too often not to recognize it. I raised a hand in the same moment she spotted me.
          "You call yourself Mildmay the Fox?" she asked when she'd reached the table, giving me a once over.
          "I do," I said.
          "My name is Ginevra Harbinger. I believe we have business together."
          "We'll see," I said. "Sit down and tell me what you're after."
          She spilled her story readily; it was not an uncommon one.

He sounds exactly like Felix, doesn't he?

Here's the second version, from about a year and a half later.

          I met Ginevra Hardesty in the Orange-Tree in Ramecrow. She'd left a message with the bartender at the Hornet's Nest that she was looking for a cat burglar. If I was interested, Doris said, go to the Orange-Tree at the second hour of the night on 10 Pluviôse--only Doris was an awful snob and called it seven o'clock. At that end of winter, let me tell you, I was interested in just about anything.
          I got there early out of habit. It was barely an hour after sunset, and the Orange-Tree was already like a colony of bees with swarming on its mind. I dodged my way through to the bar and flagged down the bartender. He didn't like my looks, but the feeling was mutual, and my money was good. He got me my wine without any lip. A table opened up along the wall, and I wormed my way back through the crowd to claim it, just ahead of a slumming flashie who didn't have the sense to wash off his decagorgon-a-flask perfume before he came down the city. He thought he was going to argue about it, but the two young ladies at the next table recognized a sheep for fleecing when they saw one, and they got him to sit down with them instead. The taller one winked at me when the flashie wasn't looking.
          I sat there on a threadbare velvet chair at a spindly sham-genteel table and waited for my client. I hoped she had something good for me, something worth me wasting my time in the Orange-Tree to hear about. I'd drunk about half my wine when I spotted her--a tall girl in green taffeta. She was way overdressed for a meet with a cat burglar, but she had the look on her face, the one that said she was meeting somebody she didn't want anybody she knew to see her with. I gave her a wave. Her face went blank for a second, and then she made her way over.
          "You're Mildmay the Fox?" she said when she'd reached the table, and gave me a once over. She got hung up for a second on the scar--most people do--but she dragged her eyes past it. Good manners.
          "Yeah," I said.
          "My name is Ginevra Hardesty. I believe we have business together."
          "Maybe," I said. She talked awful flash for a girl who thought the Orange-Tree was a good place to meet a cat burglar. "Sit down and tell me what you're after."
          Trusting girl--she spilled her story without a thought.

I would call this better, but you can see where I'm still trying to be polite, decorous, to abide by the rules that apply to thieves in secondary world fantasy.*

And finally, the published version, after the white-page rewrite.**

          I met Ginevra Thomson in the ordinary way of business. She was looking for a cat burglar. I was looking for a client. Meet at the Glorious Deed in Ramecrow, second hour of the night, 10 Pluviôse. Ain't where I'd choose, but I said okay. The Glorious is tacky, but it is a real bar, not like in Dragonteeth, where you feel like you're stuck in the theater scenery for all the slumming flashies and the demimondaine. And I ain't good scenery for that kind of play.
          I got there early. It's a habit, like always knowing how to find the back door of anywhere you walk into. It don't mean nothing in particular, just, you know, she could be fronting for the Dogs, even though I didn't think she was. No, since you ask, it ain't a nice way to live, but it sure beats the fuck out of dying.
          The Glorious is about the most fashionable bar in Ramecrow. It opens its doors at sundown, and halfway through the first hour of the night it was already too loud and too smoky, and it seemed like everybody in there had about five elbows a piece. The bouncer gave me the hairy eyeball with mustard, but he let me by.
          After an ugly quarter hour, a table opened up along the wall. I got there just before a slumming flashie who didn't have the sense to wash off his decagorgon-a-flask perfume before he came down the city. He thought he was going to argue about it--looked at my face and thought again--and by then the two gals at the next table had agreed they wanted to move in on this one, and they got him to sit down with them instead. When he wasn't looking, the taller one winked at me.
          I sat down with my back to the wall and waitedc. Watched the crowd, looking for the gal who thought she needed a cat burglar. I was hoping she had something good for me, because this was starting off to be one shitty night.
          She was a tall girl in green taffeta, and she recognized me by the scar on my face. Good as a fucking carny barker. I watched her come through the crowd like she was dancing. She wasn't coy. Came straight up to me and said, "You're Dennis?"
          I ain't, of course, but I don't go around using my real name all the time neither. Too many people it would make too fucking happy if they knew where Mildmay the Fox was hanging out. "Yeah," I said.
          She sat down. "My name's Ginevra Thomson. I believe we have business together."
          "You want to talk about it here?"
          She looked around, puzzled, and I thought, Oh, powers, a flat. She said, "But I thought ... I don't know anyone in Ramecrow."
          "Don't mean they won't listen in, sweetheart. Come on."

And that's the real deal. Not saying it's not flawed, but it's a lot closer to lightning than a lightning bug.

*In case you didn't grow up reading Dragonlance, David Eddings, and other such bastions of conventionality, Diana Wynne Jones's entry for THIEVES' GUILD in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland will at least give you a rough idea of what those rules are:

Thieves' Guild. The best organized body of people in the continent. Thieves' Guilds exist in all CITIES and can usually pass messages reliably between branches, although each City appears to have its own independent hierarchy. The Thieves' Guild exists to transfer wealth but not to distribute it. Its members are pickpockets, burglars, robbers, fences, and housebreakers, but never muggers. The Guild claims to be a body of artists. All its members profess horror at violence (but are quite proficient fighters all the same) and pride themselves on bringing off robberies in apparently impregnable TREASURE stores, on picking locks, and on climbing smooth walls. The Guild is organized into masters, journeymen, and APPRENTICES, with an anonymous Hidden Head, or Guildmaster, who rejoices in such NAMES as The Faceless Man or The Gentleman. You will be blindfolded and led along strange-smelling passages to an upstairs venue evidently concealed between two or more houses. The man's face will be veiled by MAGIC or masked. But meanwhile you will have made the acquaintance of a very young Apprentice thief. In return for the Guild's helping the Tour, the Hidden Guildmaster will ask you to look after this Child because he shows promise, and you will take him with you when you leave on the rest of the Tour. He will become an excellent and useful Tour COMPANION, and even make JOKES. There is always an unspoken suggestion that this young thief is the son of the Hidden Guildmaster.
--Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. New York: DAW Books, 1998. pp. 260-61.

**Also, I have found my first typo. Argh. Mélusine, p. 9, 3rd line of the 3rd full paragraph. It should be "came down the city" not "came down to the city." Please feel free to emend your text accordingly.
21st-Sep-2005 05:22 pm (UTC)
Pratchett's latest had at least 5 typos that I noticed, which made me feel like less of a professional failure, so you are in goof good company.
21st-Sep-2005 05:31 pm (UTC)
You mean _Thud_? Way the hell more than five. It was a walking proofreading
and copyediting disaster.
8th-Jul-2010 03:13 am (UTC)
Luck In The Shadows had a lot of typos as well. Mostly on quotes, where the quotation marks would either be randomly inserted in the middle or forgotten at the beginning. There were a few others, though, that were just the wrong words obviously trying to be something else.
21st-Sep-2005 06:13 pm (UTC)
That's fascinating. Thank you for posting.
21st-Sep-2005 06:29 pm (UTC)
That's quite illuminating. And encouraging, as I have great hopes for the revision process as applied to a current project of my own. Very generous of you to take the trouble to post it.

Would you mind discussing the "white-page rewrite" a bit? Is that exactly what it sounds like...blank page, blinking cursor?
21st-Sep-2005 07:39 pm (UTC)
Would you mind discussing the "white-page rewrite" a bit? Is that exactly what it sounds like...blank page, blinking cursor?

Pretty much. I did the white-page rewrite after I'd written the sequel, and writing the sequel taught me a lot about voice and narrative pacing, so I had some new insight into what it was I was trying to do.

The plot stayed roughly the same (which was a necessity imposed by the existence of the sequel, but which I think turned out to be a virtue, because otherwise who knows where we would have ended up). Especially in the beginning, it was a matter of looking at a given scene, figuring out what it was doing that was necessary (as opposed to things it was doing that were self-indulgent or dead-ends or simply ineffective), and then rewriting from scratch. The rewriting uniformly involved including more details, both in world-building and in character development, and more and more frequently as the process went on, entire new scenes. The ur-manuscript (I call it that because I really hate the title I came up with) is roughly the same length as Mélusine, although it covers the events of both Mélusine and The Virtu.

The principal and most critical thing that happened in the rewrite was that I learned to think things through. For example, in the passage I used in this post, it's only in the third version that Mildmay refuses to talk to Ginevra in a crowded bar. Which is an obvious and sensible precaution, but one that didn't occur to me until I sat down and really thought about what I was writing, instead of thinking with my genre conventions. And it was the process of white-page rewriting that made me do that thinking.

I should probably also mention that I began the rewrite in September '01. The first half of it, Mélusine, was finished (by which I mean I delivered the ms to my editor) in February '04. The second half ... *ahem* The second half will be done at the end of this month, or my editor will be very cross with me. This kind of rewriting is not an efficient process, and if you hurry it, you lose the value, because hurrying will make you default right back to the version you're trying to escape. It's also hellishly draining--but I have to say, in my case it was worth it.
21st-Sep-2005 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow, thank you for writing this explanation.

(Also: He really does sound like Felix in the first version! Hee. What a fantastic look behind the scenes.)
21st-Sep-2005 08:55 pm (UTC)
It certainly did seem to do the trick. Very impressive. Thanks for the detailed response!
22nd-Sep-2005 12:50 pm (UTC) - Rewrites
::blinking, as scales fall from my eyes::

Oh, my god. I feel so much less alone in fighting my way through this miserable freaking rewrite. I won't complain again about how long it's taking me to think my way through the scenes I'm rewriting from all but scratch. Thank you.
21st-Sep-2005 06:38 pm (UTC)
This was really cool to read. Thanks!
26th-Sep-2007 03:31 am (UTC)
I am almost determined to read everything you've written on writing (although not today).
White-page rewrites are wonderful things, I've found. Scary and tiring and kind of crushing, too.

No, since you ask, it ain't a nice way to live, but it sure beats the fuck out of dying.
This is one of my favourite lines in the whole book.
22nd-Aug-2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
The first draft and to a lesser extent the second sound very 'film noir'-y. It was sort of odd to imagine mildmay in a white trench coat with his mob hat pulled low over his face and a spot light following him through the bar. Its not very mildmay at all really. Very cool to read though XD
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