Frankly, writers are nuts. Who else would spend an hour revising a page? But, that’s what my measurement was last week in revising this story I’ve tinkered with over the years. I’ve certainly drastically decreased the amount of revision page time I spend by taking classes and workshops from the likes of people like Pam Houston, Gretel Ehrlich Lee Gutkind and now Susan Pohlman.
Here’s a sample of last week’s revision where I focused on making a tighter scene that enters early with movement and moves forward with “beats,” physical movement or markers that push readers forward. Can you feel the difference between the first and second version of this passage? Which one do you like better? Which one held your attention more?
From my kitchen window, he could often be seen returning from hunting in early fall: photo-ray glasses still grey from a day in the intense Alaska summer sun, red bandana contrasting with his shoulder length blue black hair, and his son’s 9 year old frame, trailing behind in the same gait, gun over the same shoulder as his dad, proudly toting the game sack with the day’s catch.
The first time I saw Willie, he made an impression. I was near the place where the dogs were kept, the pungent mix of dog muck, rotting fish and washed-up refuse wafting up from the willows below where I stood on the south bank of the Yukon.
A dull chopping sound stopped and a man cursed, “Damnit J.D. I tolt-chew to always start with the bitch on the ent.” Parting the willows, I peered down in time to see J.D. carrying the gut pail down the beach, and there was Willie: dirty red bandana around his native dark forehead, a thick raggedy, once white, t-shirt, hung loosely over high, pinched shoulders, sleeves cut out, exposing a torso made of ribs.
Gnarled, sun-browned hands, worked deftly on the upturned end of a stump, a chopping block, where Willie rhythmically cut silvery-scaled chum for the dogs. Between chops, his hand still holding the knife, would push his glasses back with a swollen knuckle, adding more fishy smears to glasses already darkened by sunlight.
From where I stood, he was all sinew and silhouette. Magnified by the river, the sun glare behind him made it hard to tell face from shadow. The same river light illuminated my white face between the branches, making it easy for a hunter to spot me.
Backing slowly out of the willows, I felt I had trespassed on a moment between a father and son, not so unlike another working moment between my father and me when I was nine.
Knowing how quick Alaskan winters hit, those first weeks I spent a lot of time outside getting to know Ruby. On one of those breezy, well-lit evenings, I met Ruby’s dog-sled builder, Willie George. Sort of.
On the south bank of the Yukon, I walked along the river scrub parallel to where the dogs were kept. The pungent mix of dog muck, rotting fish and washed-up refuse wafted up from the willows. Thinking I’d heard something, I stopped.
A slippery crunching sound pulsed and stopped and pulsed again. Moving closer to the willows, I crouched trying to place the noise. A man, in front of me–closer than I though–yelled, “Damnit J.D., I tolt you always start with the bitch on the ent.”
Peeking through the willows, I saw my student J.D. lugging a gut pail down the beach, his head held down. About ten feet in front of me, his father Willie stood over a greasy, fly-infested stump with a butcher knife. A dirty blue bandana encircled his dark forehead, a thin raggedy, once-white, t-shirt, hung loosely over high, pinched shoulders, sleeves cut out, exposing a torso cut thin with ribs.
Raising the knife, Willie stepped back. I breathed in, stumbling forward into the cover of underbrush. Willie’s gnarled hands, rhythmically plunged into a silver-scaled chum. Between slices, his hand still holding the knife, he pushed his glasses back with a swollen knuckle, adding fishy smears to the scratched lenses.
Slit, slice and scrape, the silhouette made quick work of filling the dog buckets. Magnified by the river, the back glare melded his face to shadow. Always fascinated by the work men did, I couldn’t pry myself away. Willie slit, I inhaled. Willie scraped I exhaled.
Raising back with the knife, Willie called out, “Damn-it JD, I told you…”
Shit! Don’t! Holding my breath against a building cough, I felt like a kid who might suddenly get caught. Yet riveted by the hope of gaining some shred of understanding of father and son, I stayed put. My chest beat, compassion for my student welling. My father had been much the same as Willie. If you didn’t do something his way or right, he was all cuss and bluster.