Before I posted A3: The King of Dust (which you should read before this) I edited it. I cut out some unnecessary paragraphs, rearranged some dialogue, clarified the action, and kept it punchy. Let’s look at excerpts from the shitty first draft (pardon my french) and compare them to the second draft.
First, instead of these cool worms in the current draft:
Worms fled sand and sought moisture, eating into the deep. Larger worms left tunnels in their wakes. The largest worm carved caverns with twenty arms and twenty legs. When it exhaled it filled its labyrinths with frost.
I had this angst-filled teenage poetry:
The cold earth invaded every aspect of the dark silence. Icy pangs leaked into crevices and corners. The bite of chilled sand fell in every opening and scraped every inch. The heat from each limb and fingertip evaporated into the cruel depths.
The creature moved. It forced two hundred fingertips through hard-packed sands, undulating its long torso to shift tons of cool earth. Forty feet kicked against the dark.
After eons and eternities, the movements carved subterranean tunnels and burrows. Empty rooms filled with frozen air, and when the creature exhaled, he filled his network with impenetrable white fog.
When you write a lot you can cut out as much as you want—you know you’ll be able to fill the space back up if you need to. That’s why I didn’t flinch when I deleted these paragraphs (and occasionally tens of pages, if I don’t like where a story has ended up). The new intro focuses on some wormy imagery which builds up to Anihilato, a giant worm guy. As I wrote Section J2 (which should be posted on this website in a few months I guess) I noticed that worms were appearing more and more often, so I decided to edit them into the early sections for a sense of cohesiveness. Motifs are only motifs if you remember to use them!
Next, let’s take a look at how I described Anihilato in my first draft:
The creature ambled to a dark corner of its cavern, forty legs shifting and undulating like roused millipedes. It carefully placed each egg into holes in the wall, whispering quiet gibberish to each one.
“Anihilato, my name is Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The egg holes leaked clear, protective jelly.
The creature turned to face them.
“I am. The King of Dust.”
For a minute it stared. He was twenty feet long, pairs of legs attached to twenty consecutive pelvises, his forty pairs of arms cramped on a human torso eight feet long, but ordinary thickness. Six eyes blinked, each bright like the watery reflection of stars in a deep well. Its face was dry and cracked.
“Anihilato, right?” said Dan. “We were looking for you.”
Compare this to the second draft, posted today:
It crawled on twenty legs to a dark corner of its cave. It whispered gibberish as it stuck each egg in the wall.
“Anihilato, I’m Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The worm blinked its six eyes. “I am the King of Dust.” Its face was cracked and dry. It had ten pelvises connected in series, Dan noticed, and ten stacked human torsos. It was held upright with snake-like musculature.
The egg holes leaked jelly.
“Anihilato, right?” Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter?”
I have to be careful with phrases like “for a minute,” or “for a second.” I use them too often and when I edit they slip by me. In the second draft I don’t have to say that Anihilato stared for a minute because the description fills the space, and gives the impression that time is passing. The imagery is less flowery in this draft, because Anihilato is a complicated creature. The worms took care of the cool imagery; Anihilato’s description must be clear and concise.
Adding “Dan noticed” lets this description pull double-duty: it’s not just a description of Anihilato, but of Dan. He’s the kind of person who counts how many legs the monster has. You and Dan also might notice that Anihilato used to have forty arms and forty legs and I reduced it to twenty of each.
Next, let’s look at the first draft again (when the Mountain was called Mala):
“Everything in that box belongs to me.” Anihilato smiled. The teeth had no gums. “From formless dust, the Great Lord Mala created you. As the King of Dust, ruler of Nihilism, you belong to me.”
Dan flipped the paper over. There was no writing on the back. Only a few complicated symbols cluttered the front. “Well, I’m afraid that as a celestial, I’m supposed to merge with Mala as a Zephyr. So I’ll be taking my Eternity Card, if you don’t mind.”
Anihilato paused, then smiled. “I don’t think you quite understand. When you attained earthly enlightenment, you understood your place at the godhead–you became a living celestial. But your soul belongs to me until Mala claims your Eternity Card and declares you as a Zephyr. And having fallen into my domain, you remain in the realm of death and dust.”
“Mala hasn’t claimed my Eternity Card?” Dan delivered the question with a tilt of his head, as if in disbelief.
“Mala declares Zephyrs by claiming their Cards,” said Anihilato, driving the point home with ten jabbing fingers. “If the Great Lord Mala has not claimed your card, perhaps you are less enlightened than you anticipated.”
“There’s something wrong here,” said Dan, tapping the paper with two fingers. “You don’t have my Eternity Card in your box of soul receipts.”
Blah blah blah. Readers are smarter than this; cut it down, make the details into a joke so they’ll remember it.
“The Eternity Cards are my deed to creation.” Anihilato smiled. Its teeth had no gums. “The Mountain made you from dust. I’m the Master of Nihilism, King of Dust. I own you. I tire of bureaucratic nonsense. I have the right to obliterate you.”
“You sure would.” Dan folded the paper. “If you had my Eternity Card.”
Anihilato’s jaw hung open. “…I do.”
“Then what am I holding?”
The King of Dust shook its head. “You saw me take that from my box moments ago.”
“I sure did.”
Last but not least improved, let’s look at Faith being sucked into Anihilato’s mouth. Here’s the old version:
“Do not make small talk. You are still mine, wisp,” said Anihilato. “If you are not a Zephyr, then your soul belongs to me now.”
Anihilato inhaled. From every corner of the endless caverns, the winds blew towards him.
There was a crack in the air like shattering glass.
Dan grabbed the arctic fox in both hands, snow falling through his fingers. The humble happiness fell from his face, leaving sheer panic. “Anihilato, stop now.”
As the King of Dust inhaled, Faith’s fog drifted towards him. “What the hell? Help!” She turned to Dan. “What’s he doing?”
He had ceased inhaling. Instead, the caverns themselves seemed to produce the wind, horrible howls pulling at Faith from deep within the network of catacombs. Anihilato spoke over the irresistible forces. “Whether ordered here by Mala or not, your soul is in my box, and now it is mine.”
“I’m so sorry, Faith, just–” Dan watched her eyes fill with terror as each limb vanished into thin air.
“Do something, please!”
“I’m sorry, I’m panicking, I’m–”
She was gone.
Dan spoke with seriousness in every muscle of his face. “She’s a friend. Let her go.”
Even just comparing the white space in the two drafts tells you how much verbiage could be compacted:
“Don’t speak like you’re leaving, wisp,” said Anihilato. “Your soul still belongs to me.” The worm’s next breath sucked wind from every corner of the endless caverns.
Faith yelped as her airy tail drifted towards the King of Dust. “Help! Dainty! What’s it doing?” She tried to run but slipped backward each step.
Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, stop! Now!”
Faith fought the wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Help, help!”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Dan watched her body vanish until finally her terrified eyes flew into Anihilato’s lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”
This draft makes it clearer who’s talking when, and I think Faith’s reaction is a little more genuine. Also, why could Anihilato speak while inhaling like that? That’s just confusing.
Someday, when the bones of this story are all out of the ground, I’ll come back and edit these early sections again. Maybe I’ll rewrite them entirely, making these edits pointless. That’s just the nature of the beast; we can’t let it discourage us. Until next time, enjoy your worms!