The Story of a Revision
a feature by Darrell Schweitzer
In his 1973 graduation lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy, which is available on tape, Robert Heinlein expresses nostalgia for his own naval days, tells a few jokes, and then gets down to business advising the would-be writers in his audience, reiterating his famous Five Rules, which he originally stated in his 1947 essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction":
All of this would seem to make excellent sense, particularly when coming from the most successful science-fiction writer America has yet produced, but surely most writers, and particularly those of us who also teach writing, find ourselves hemming and hawing a bit on that third rule.
Don't rewrite? Ever?
Heinlein is emphatic. He goes on to add:
Dare I suggest that a lot of professionals find that hard to believe too? Let me go a bit further. Here the Dean of Science Fiction is speaking appalling rubbish. It is hard to imagine worse advice to beginning writers, unless one is to tell them to type everything single-spaced in all capitals on pink paper and take no arguments about it. Hey, that worked for Jacqueline Susann.
The fifth rule is a bit dodgy too. Twenty or thirty rejection slips all of which say the same thing perhaps should be heeded. You and I can produce an unpublishable abortion every once in a while, and should be willing to admit it. Maybe Heinlein should have too.
But Heinlein also quipped, in his 1947 essay: "you will somewhere find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, I, or anybody else can throw at him."
I doubt many slush-pile readers would agree.
In any case, a cautionary tale: During the decline of Galaxy, I fobbed off on one of the later editors a dumb short-short I'd written as a joke at Clarion. Years later I met a reader who asked, "Did you ever write anything other than that stupid story in Galaxy?"
Remember that everything you publish will be, for some reader, the first thing of yours that reader has seen. Try to make sure it's not the last. Maybe some of your "old dogs" should be retired to the kennel, or else put out of their misery.
I want to tell you about a particularly complicated revision I did once. Maybe there does exist that ideal writer of Mozartian genius, to whom everything comes perfectly formed (Lord Dunsany seems to have been one such), but you and I might have to do it the hard way. So did Robert Heinlein, by the way, who despite his bluster seems to have written long, sloppy first drafts and then revised them into shape. And he was not above a substantial rewrite of Methuselah's Children between serial and book versions, because it needed it.
Do not try to sell your first drafts. Writers are not furniture makers. Our chairs may lack a few legs the first time out, or they might evolve into a chest of drawers if we let them.
I usually write two drafts, a first and a final, then touch up the final, but I will do more if I'm not getting it right and know it.
Case in point is my novelet, "A
Servant of Satan," about which I think I can write with some authority.
It was published in Interzone for October 1998 and got an honorable
mention in the current
In the writing it proved, if you will pardon the expression, a slippery little devil....
It all began with Richard Dalby's The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1995) which I read to review for The New York Review of Science Fiction. After 573 pages of graveyard mold and (often) prose to match, I thought that, just for a lark, I could write one of these stories.
Okay, then. I began fishing about for a premise, and thinking about all that alleged decadence of the early Romantic era -- not inapproppriate since Victorian ghost stories were often set before their own period -- I came up with the idea of a schoolboy necromancer who is really quite innocent, but wants desperately to be wicked, so that he may draw Satan to himself, even as a moth is drawn to a bright light. I started with the quote from Shakespeare's Henry IV about summoning spirits from the vasty deep. ("And so can I, and so can any man, but will they come when you do call them?")
I chose the structure of what I call the Old School Chum story, which I've written several times. The narrator tells of some remarkable person he met in his youth, who led him on an improbable, frightening adventure...
The narrator, the well-to-do son of a merchant, goes off with his friend Titus, the penniless son of a disolute lord, to France to complete their education. The time is about 1820, the age of Byron and the Gothic novelists.
The two join a circle of exquisites, decadents, and all-around party types, and are completely entraptured by the amazingly beautiful Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux, and are drawn to her like the proverbial moths. She "tests" them by sending them to steal the skull of a sainted bishop from his tomb. A frightful number of orgies, conjurations, and wannabe wickednesses follow, despite which Titus is still basically a child. He's in over his head. So is the narrator. Then, just as suddenly as she appeared, the alleged Countess vanishes.
The two young men are devastated. They realize that they have utterly compromised themselves for nothing. They part. The narrator tries to exocise his demons writing trashy Gothic novels which cannot even hint at what he has really been through.
Twenty years go by. (That's the key to the Old School Chum Story.) The second part happens when the narrator, now comfortable and respectable and able to pretend that none of it ever happened, suddenly gets a note from his old friend Titus, now a Lord, albeit as penniless as ever. Titus has continued all this time with his occult activities, convinced that the "Countess" was in fact a demon, sent to damn the two of them. "She is here!" the note breathlessly concludes ... And the narrator, for all he doesn't want this intruding into his life just now, can't resist going out to his friend's crumbling country estate...
And at this point the story starts to jump the rails. The first thing I found that I had to do was revise it stylistically, resisting the temptation toward sequipedalian prose, which is not a characteristic of good Victorian writing. So, prune, edit, prune some more. My stylistic models were Sheridan Le Fanu (for narrative) and Conan Doyle (for dialogue, and for the sparseness of his style).
But there was a problem of tone. The story started to get funny. Titus, who had aged rather badly, has a hulking henchman in a turban and a French assistant, Monsieur Delacroix, who seems to exist as an excuse for one line of dialogue: "Monsieur Of-the-Cross, an odd name for a diabolist, don't you think?"
Out with him. Snip, delete.
But still I had to ask myself: what is this story actually about? It seems like a supernatural Gothic, written in a Gothic style, but is there any supernatural element in this at all?
At the climax, Titus lures his friend to a ruined abbey, which has been converted to unspeakable purposes. Titus tries to sacrifice the narrator to Satan, convinced this will bring the ageless and aluring Countess back to him. The narrator shoots the henchman. But he cannot bring himself to harm his friend. The night passes. With the dawn, nothing happens. Is this because the ceremony failed and the demoness didn't materialize, for all she'd been lurking about of late? Was Titus mad, and serving a "Satan" of his own imagination? The narrator is, again, devastated.
I tried this out on various readers. They liked the exciting grave-robbing sequence, but were cold to much of the rest. George Scithers said, "You've certainly done better than this."
Okay, so I tried to spruce up the ending. Suppose the Countess really did show up, but in half-human, half-bestial form, offering the pair a dubious immortality, at the end of which, irresistably, "the flames await"? The ending becomes touching. Titus, never as wicked as he tried to be, cannot bring himself to murder his friend, so they heave the dead henchman (he of the turban, remember?) onto the altar and hope he'll prove acceptable...
Then there's the problem of the metaphorical skeleton of this opus, its core motif if you will. The Henry IV quote expresses skepticism, saying that anyone can summon devils, but there's some question if they'll actually come.
It was no longer a question. The storyline began to resemble a Faustian bargain. Out went the Henry IV quote and in came one from Marlowe. The title became "Stand Still, You Ever-Moving Spheres of Heaven," which is the plaintive cry of Dr. Faustus on the last night of his life, as the hour of midnight inexorably nears.
In this form, I sent the story to David Pringle. He wasn't greatly impressed either, though I was flattered that he thought I'd pulled off the 19th century British narrative voice convincingly. What I had not pulled off was what I had set out to do: write a supernatural Gothic story in the Victorian mode, within the Judeo-Christian mythos. Obviously the first ending, where it all proves to be a delusion, suggested I was having trouble with that.
David suggested that the ending, which built up to a big climax and then nothing happened, was somehow lacking. If I could somehow improve it, he'd have another look.
At this point, Heinlein to the contrary, I had been coming back to the story off and on for about a year. I wasn't done yet. And I was getting far from the original notion of "I can write one of these Victorian ghost stories as a lark."
I started to think in Lovecraftian terms, of a mechanistic and uncaring universe, in which there are vast forces, but no genuine supernatural, only things human beings don't understand.
The Countess Sophie-Marie Devereaux continued to evolve. One of the problems in the earlier version (and a problem of stories about ethereally beautiful seductresses in general) was making her ethereal seductiveness actually convincing. But what if she were more like a Lovecraftian Old One, a member of an immortal race of super-beings who descended from the stars aeons ago, and who have haunted all of human history, working miracles and playing frivolous games with the primitives? What if "Satan" were indeed a myth, as is "God," both made up by the aliens as their private little joke.
The title changed back to "A Servant of Satan," but now the meaning of that title was entirely different. I went back, reworking the Countess's dialogue, particularly in the scene where Titus and the narrator return to her chateau with the filched skull.
The climax now moved forward in time, with about an extra thousand words added. The Countess appears at the conjuration half-bestial, as a sphinx. She takes Titus and the narrator into a Wellsian or Hodgsonesque future, in which I got to use some neat imagery leftover from another far future epic I'd failed to bring off back about 1980: the last remnants of mankind, dying in mindless, sensual ecstacy, within a black pyramid which drifts across about the barren earth on lightning bolts, after the sun has gone out.
Then, back in the 19th century, our heroes are offered:
In the end, they cannot resist. The imagery (and the metaphorical skeleton of the story) is again Faustian. It has nothing to do with people deluding themselves about the vasty deep. This is all too real.
Now the quote at the front of the story (from The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus) is: "Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!"
It flies, indeed, to the depths of Hell and the ends of time.
Looking into the folder on this story, I find five different versions. The word-counts vary: 6300, 6700, 7300, 7600, and the final one, which is 8700. That's a total of 27,900 words, of which I sold a mere 8700. Only one of these revisions was made to editorial "order." Robert Heinlein would doubtless have said I was wasting my time on the rest, that I should have kept on trying with the first version, no matter how unsatisfactory it might have been, no matter what damage it might have done to my reputation, on the cynical assumption that somebody somewhere is desperate enough to publish anything.
If they are, I'm not sure I want to find them.
The Grand Master was absolutely, dead wrong. What I got at the end was one good story. It had been a difficult birth, because I'd started on the equivalent of a dare to myself, and along the way my subsconscious had further thoughts about the real meaning of what I was writing. I was perhaps writing before I was actually ready to write, and discovering the story only in stages.
But that's why we revise, not because we're any smarter later on, but because we've had more time to think about what we're doing, and maybe because we can look back on what we've done and realize what we've done wrong the first time.
None of us are so perfect that we can get it all right the first time. Except maybe Mozart. Or Lord Dunsany. But certainly not you, me, or Robert Heinlein.
Incidentally, I had to revise this article more than once, first because I forgot to say a few things, and then because, on reflection, some of the things I had said didn't seem quite as apt when I read them again a week later.
The French have a phrase which translates as "the spirit of the back stairs," meaning what you realise you should have said, now that it's too late and you've gone out of the room and down the back stairs.
We writers are allowed to turn around and go back up those stairs as many times as we need to.
© Darrell Schweitzer 2000, 2001
This essay was first
published in SFWA Bulletin, Summer 2000.
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