An Excerpt Re-Written

I took on board the advice I received when I posted the excerpt from my book in May and am in the process of rewriting the whole lot. In particular I am trying to, as commenters dearieme and Andrew suggested, build the descriptions as the action occurs, not alongside it. More importantly, I realised it is overwritten and my efficiency of words was poor (which is probably not surprising for a first draft), and I was spoon-feeding the reader with too much information.

I don’t find this rewriting particularly difficult as such – I understand what I have to do – but it does take concentration, more than writing the first draft did. If you have to check every word for suitability and necessity, it only takes a few paragraphs before you’re skimming and not doing the job properly. I have found myself having to read and re-read the same passages a dozen times or more. Of course, there may be other things I need to do with it which I’m not yet aware of and may prove more difficult again, and I am sure at least one more rewrite will be required before it goes in front of an editor.

The word count is tumbling: the first draft was about 98k words and it’s already down to 87k and I’m only halfway through the rewrite. Anyway, yesterday I re-wrote the passage which I posted as an excerpt back in May, taking it from 4,014 words to 2,671 (a reduction of a third). Not quite the 50% which commenter James Hoskins implied, but close enough.

Anyway, the re-written passage is below. Feedback, no matter how brutal, is welcome: I found the last lot to be of tremendous help.

***

The next weekend we went to a birthday party thrown by a Russian artist called Ruslan. Katya knew him only vaguely, but well enough to secure an invitation for both of us. We arrived at what he called his gallery, stepping right off the pavement into an empty retail unit. A heavily-built man with a black beard who’d been setting out food on a collapsible table saw us and strode over, his footsteps echoing off the bare concrete floor.

He greeted Katya in Russian, they kissed, and he shook my hand. ‘I’m Ruslan,’ he said.

I replied to him in Russian which surprised him.

‘You speak Russian?’ he asked me.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Where do you know it from?’

‘I lived there for a while.’

‘Very good!’ he said, grinning through his beard. He looked slightly Arabic and I guessed he was from the Caucasus somewhere, possibly Dagestan.

‘Thanks,’ I said. Katya simpered a little beside me.

A young woman who had been helping Ruslan at the table joined us. ‘You remember Natasha, don’t you?’ said Katya, addressing me.

‘Of course,’ I said, and shook her by the hand. ‘We met at the Tate Modern.’

‘Right!’ said Natasha smiling, adding a hint of beauty to an otherwise plain face. She was dressed like a student in a denim skirt with green tights and trainers, but I guessed she was around twenty-seven.

The three Russians talked in their language for a few minutes, too fast for me to follow. Wooden frames hung on the walls covered in bubble wrap, protecting the masterpieces underneath. I wandered over to the table, my shadow dancing under the glare of nasty strip-lighting suspended from the ceiling. Sliced vegetables, dips, and a whole load of Mediterranean stuff people from Wigan don’t eat was being laid out, a task our entrance had disturbed. A makeshift bar stood nearby and Ruslan called across for me to help myself.

‘What do you want?’ I asked Katya.

‘Red wine, if there is any.’

‘There is,’ I said, and poured some from an opened bottle into a small glass. I took a bottle of beer for myself and returned to the group. More people arrived and Ruslan went to meet them, leaving Natasha to finish preparing the food. Katya lent a hand and the two gossiped in Russian.

Within half an hour a good thirty people were there and everyone was enjoying themselves, Ruslan included. I wondered if he was going to unveil his artwork, and when I thought nobody was looking I snuck a peek under the bubble wrap by tearing at a loose corner. Underneath there was nothing but the wooden frame. I walked over to another one, peering into a small hole in the wrapping. Same thing. Ruslan was about as productive as the local council.

I sought out Katya, who was talking to Natasha and a tall, scruffy-looking man wearing baseball shoes which looked as though they’d been left outside to rot. I introduced myself and he said, ‘I’m Ken.’

‘Where are you from?’ I asked him.

‘London,’ he said, giving me a friendly grin. ‘How about you?’

‘Wigan originally, but I live in London now.’

‘Cool,’ he said, nodding. ‘How do you know Ruslan?’

‘I don’t, I only met him tonight. I came with Katya,’ I said, lifting my chin towards her.

Ken hesitated for a fraction of a second. ‘Oh, are you her boyfriend?’

‘Yes,’ I said tentatively. A tingling sensation ran across my scalp and it wasn’t nice.

‘Okay, cool. I heard she’d started seeing somebody.’

Something in my stomach shifted. ‘You know her?’

‘Yes, we’ve met a few times. I’m Natasha’s boyfriend.’

‘Right!’ I said, blurting it out which caused Ken to give me a funny look. I was worried he’d tell me they’d met in the dungeon of an S&M club. I suddenly needed a stronger drink but beer was all they had except for wine, which I don’t like. For a Russian party there was a distinct lack of vodka.

Ken and I chatted about sport for a while, then Katya and Natasha joined us. Katya looked excited about something.

‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Natasha has just told me there’s a Burning Man festival in Holland at the end of July.’

‘Cool!’ said Ken, then asked Katya, ‘Are you gonna go?’

‘I’d like to,’ said Katya, looking at me. ‘We should all go!’

I smirked but said nothing.

‘What?’ said Katya, disappointed. ‘You don’t want to go?’

I shook my head. ‘Nah. It’s not my thing, you know that.’

‘But you don’t know what it’ll be like,’ she protested. ‘I think you’d really like it.’

I kept my tone pleasant. ‘Katya, I’m not going to Burning Man. I know what festivals are like, I’m not completely thick. I’m just not into them.’

‘It’s a shame,’ she said, giving me another disappointed look. ‘I think it would be good to go together.’

Anyone who knew me as well as Katya would have to be pretty dim to think I would enjoy Burning Man. She could be a bit dense at times, unable to grasp things I thought were obvious, and this was one of those times. But I appreciated she was trying to find things for us to do together. Burning Man meant a lot to her, and it would have been a bit churlish to get grumpy over her making an effort to involve me in her life. I tried to let her down gently.

We had turned slightly away from the others so the conversation was just between the two of us.

‘Okay, I’m assuming there is going to be a shitload of drugs there,’ I said.

‘Maybe,’ she said with a shrug, smiling.

‘Uh-huh,’ I said sarcastically. ‘Maybe. And you know I don’t do drugs. So what am I supposed to do while you’re off your head being chased around the fields by six-foot toothbrush men?’

She laughed. ‘It’s not like that. You can – well, you can do whatever you want! That’s the whole point, it’s really open and – ’

‘Katya,’ I said gently, cutting her off. ‘I’m not gonna go. I’m quite happy for you to go with your friends, and do whatever you want, really I’m okay with it. In fact, I’m glad that have your own interests. But we’ll have to find something else to do together.’

I thought she’d given up but she gave it one last shot.

‘You know, my Israeli ex-boyfriend was just like you. He said he wasn’t interested in Burning Man but I persuaded him to go and he ended up loving it.’ I kept quiet, and she went on. ‘And when we split up he went back the next year by himself.’

‘Katya,’ I said softly. ‘I’m not him. Sorry, but I’m a different person.’

‘I know,’ she said, and smiled. She stood on tiptoes and kissed me on the lips. We looked at each other in silence for a few seconds.

‘What happened with you guys? The Israeli, I mean. Why did you split up?’

‘Oh, we started having problems,’ she said. ‘He was working really hard, training to be a lawyer and studying for the bar exam. He wasn’t interested in going out at all, whereas I wanted to party and meet people.’

‘He was a bit older, right?’

‘A few years, yeah.’

‘I guess you were at different stages of your life.’

‘I suppose so. We had some issues, anyway.’ Katya didn’t seem to mind talking about this but she wasn’t surrendering many details.

‘But you stayed friends afterwards?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, for a while anyway.’

‘You’re not any more? Is he still in New York?’

‘No. He lost his job during the financial crisis and got really depressed, so moved back to Israel. We somehow lost touch, but I heard he got married.’

‘So how did you get into Burning Man?’

‘I read about it when I was in Russia and really wanted to go. Then when I moved to New York I persuaded my boyfriend, the Israeli, to come as well. Like I said, he didn’t want to but he ended up really liking it.’

‘So who did you go back there with after you guys separated?’

‘Oh, the first time we went I met all these really cool people from New York, so afterwards I started hanging out with them. I’m still friends with them now.’

I nodded as another piece of Katya’s past slid into place.

I chatted with Ruslan and another guy for a while, then went over to the food where a stick-thin, flat-chested girl in a brown wollen dress loitered.

‘Would you like anything?’ she asked. Her voice was tiny with a pronounced Russian accent.

I switched to Russian just to show off. ‘Yes please. What do you have?’

She giggled nervously and waved her hands over the spread. ‘What you see,’ she said, replying in Russian. She looked about twelve, from which I deduced she was around twenty. She handed me a paper plate and I started helping myself.

‘What do you do in London?’ I asked.

‘I’m in school.’

I stopped grabbing food and looked at her. She was wearing a wedding ring on a tiny, bony finger of the left hand, where most Europeans wear it. If her husband was Russian it would have been on the right. ‘You’re in school?’

‘Art school.’

‘Oh, you’re an artist?’

She giggled again. ‘Yes.’

‘You like it here, in London?’ I put what I hoped was a pork pie on my plate, knowing full well it wasn’t.

‘Yes.’

‘Where are you from in Russia?’

‘Saint Petersburg.’ She spoke so quietly I could hardly hear her over the background chatter.

‘Okay. Nice.’

‘Do you know it?’

‘Yes, I’ve been twice.’

She put her hands together in front of her as if she were shy and gave me a come-hither look. I half-expected her to ask me to spank her. Instead she asked, ‘Did you go during summer?’

‘Yes, during the White Nights.’ She giggled again. ‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.

She looked down at her shoes, then back up at me. ‘I like your accent. Your Russian is so nice.’

Now it was my turn to blush. ‘Oh, thanks,’ I said awkwardly. I decided I’d gathered enough food to live on for a while, and I had no intention of eating it around childlike sirens from Saint Petersburg.

‘It was nice to meet you,’ I said.

‘It was nice to meet you too,’ she said, and half waved at me.

I munched my way through things I couldn’t name and didn’t like then threw most of it in a bin, feeling a little bad about the wastage. I helped myself to another beer and stood on my own until Katya came up to me.

‘I’m going outside for a cigarette,’ she said. ‘Do you want to join me?’

‘Sure,’ I replied.

It was warm enough to stand outside without a coat for short periods, but Katya, who was hopeless in the cold, was shivering already. I put my arm around her and held her close, the cigarette smoke rising in my face whenever she put it to her lips. Katya noticed and fanned the fumes away.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Is it bothering you?’

‘Not at all. Are you having fun in there?’

‘I am, yes. You?’

‘It’s not bad. There are some interesting people here,’ I said, really meaning they were weird. ‘Did you look at the pictures on the wall?’

‘No,’ said Katya slowly, looking at me suspiciously as if I was about to let her in on a prank.

‘I did. There’s nothing there. It’s just frames covered with bubble-wrap.’

‘Oh! Well maybe he’ll put something up later?’

‘Uh-huh,’ I replied cynically. ‘It would be most unlike an artist to have produced fuck-all, wouldn’t it?’ I immediately felt bad: I was at Ruslan’s birthday party, drinking his beer and chucking his food in the bin. ‘Okay,’ I said, apparently arguing with myself. ‘I’ll stop.’

‘Yes,’ said Katya humourously. ‘Please do.’

A portly man in his fifties wearing a black turtleneck and thick plastic glasses stepped outside and hovered with a cigarette between his fingers before asking Katya for a light.

‘Are you French?’ asked Katya, picking up on his accent.

‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘Where are you from?’

‘New York,’ she said. ‘Are you an artist?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I am a film producer.’ I believed him. If anyone were to design a French film producer using only stereotypes, they’d come up with this guy. ‘And you?’ he asked Katya.

‘Yes, I’m an artist,’ she said, nodding slightly.

‘Yes?’ said the Frenchman, raising an eyebrow.

‘Yes, a photographer.’

He pulled a dismissive face; I guessed he met a lot of photographers in his line of work. He looked at me, as if noticing me for the first time. ‘What about you? Are you an artist?’

‘I’m a biscuit designer,’ I said evenly. Katya’s face swivelled upwards to glare at me.

‘A what?’ he asked, furrowing his brow and turning his head as if he wanted to hear better.

‘A biscuit designer,’ I repeated. ‘I design biscuits.’

The man’s face turned from confusion to mild annoyance.

Katya had heard enough and intervened. ‘He’s joking. He’s a chemist, aren’t you?’ she said in a tone that implied I was expected to tell the truth from now on.

‘Yes,’ I conceded. ‘I’m really an industrial chemist.’

The Frenchman glowered at me, dropped his cigarette on the floor where it stayed smoking, and marched back inside the gallery without another word. I can’t say I blamed him.

‘He seemed fun,’ I said.

Katya unwound my arm from around her and stepped back. At least she was laughing too. ‘Why did you say that? Where did that come from?’

‘I dunno, I was just taking the piss. Anyway, you told him you were an artist.’

‘I am!’

‘You are?’

‘Yes! Photography is an art!’

‘Yeah, but you’re not a photographer, you’re a translator.’

‘Now I am, yes. But I was a photographer, and I still do photography.’

‘So you consider yourself an artist on the basis of that?’ I asked.

‘Yes, why not?’

‘I dunno. Did you ever do it professionally?’

‘I have done, yes. I worked freelance for a while.’

‘Okay,’ I said. I wasn’t convinced but I had no interest in arguing. ‘Are any of your professional photos online? I might have seen some of them.’

‘Yeah, there are some I took at a book launch that I did for a friend in New York. And the ones from my Caribbean trip.’

‘Oh, that wasn’t a holiday?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It was a tour being organised by some Russians and they needed a translator and photographer, and so I went along.’

‘I see. That must have been fun. Was that where the photo of you holding a monkey was taken?’

‘What photo of me holding a monkey?’

‘There’s a photo of you holding a monkey. At least, I think it’s you. I’m pretty sure it’s a monkey. Or maybe it’s an ex-boyfriend?’

Katya slapped me playfully on the arm. ‘Are you sure? I don’t remember any photo with a monkey.’

‘I’ll dig it out when we get home,’ I said. ‘You’ll see.’

Katya finished her cigarette, dropped it on the pavement, and we went inside.

After an hour we were back on the street, saying goodbye to Ruslan and thanking him for his hospitality. I looked over his shoulder and saw the waif in the woollen dress with her arm around the Frenchman. He was engaged in conversation with two men, seemingly oblivious to his young wife next to him. I snorted a laugh.

‘What?’ said Katya, looking at me puzzled.

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, still smiling.

I shook Ruslan’s hand, thanked him again, and said goodbye. Katya put her arm through mine and we walked towards the Underground.

***

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13 thoughts on “An Excerpt Re-Written

  1. Other than the word, simpered (weak)I thought rather good and I liked the monkey joke, enough for me to want to read more anyway

  2. I wrote a book once, at the request of OUP. I did a whole first draft: I enjoyed it and the result was pretty good. Then I cast it aside: I realised I’d had practically all the fun, and the rest would just be slog. ‘Diminishing Returns’ it’s called. I wonder that anyone bothers to finish a book.

  3. Other than the word, simpered (weak)I thought rather good and I liked the monkey joke, enough for me to want to read more anyway

    Thanks, Thud. Yeah, I considered leaving that sentence out altogether.

  4. I wonder that anyone bothers to finish a book.

    For my part, I want a finished product. The whole process is the fun for me, even if bits of it are a slog. But without finishing it, there’d be no point whatsoever.

  5. This is very good. All of the characters are ‘real people’, and well-described. The ratio of description to dialogue is good.

    This may be too nitpicky at this point of the editorial process, but here are some suggested corrections:

    From: ‘Right!’ said Natasha smiling, adding a hint of beauty to an otherwise plain face.
    To: ‘Right!’ Natasha smiled, adding a hint of beauty to an otherwise plain face.

    F: I’m glad that have your own interests.
    T:I’m glad that you have your own interests.

    There are unnecessary ‘she said’, ‘I replied’, etc. These break up the flow of the dialogue and distract the reader.

  6. Thanks, ZT.

    Yes, the “he said”, “she said” is always a tricky one, and should be minimised. I’ve got it as close as I can for now, and will look again on the third draft. Hopefully this is stuff a decent editor will pick up, and can be easily fixed.

  7. Very nice. I only have a piddling small suggestion to make, but what the hey:

    I suddenly needed a stronger drink[,] but beer was all they had except for wine, which I don’t like [f]or a Russian party there was a distinct lack of vodka.

    Unless it’s important that your narrator doesn’t like wine.

  8. Thanks, Matthew.

    Unless it’s important that your narrator doesn’t like wine.

    Not really, I just didn’t want anyone thinking “then why doesn’t he drink wine”. Is wine a stronger drink than beer? Probably not. Yes, I should reword it. 🙂

  9. Not “I replied to him in Russian which surprised him” but (fewer syllables and more direct construction)

    “I surprised him by replying in Russian.” Then, tightening up (we already know he has a beard):

    ‘You speak Russian? Where do you know it from?’
    ‘I lived there for a while.’
    ‘Good!’ he grinned .

    “He looked slightly Arabic” I’d prefer “swarthy”: one syllable fewer and probably more accurate.

    “said Katya, addressing me.” Nope. ‘Katya said to me’

    “shook her by the hand”: how sweetly 18th century. I think “shook her hand” would do.

    I think you should aim to tighten up where you can i.e. try to make dialogue and descriptions shorter and more direct, for example

    “She was dressed like a student in a denim skirt with green tights and trainers, but I guessed she was around twenty-seven” could become

    “She was dressed like a student – denim skirt, green tights, trainers – but looked in her late twenties.”

    Even the opening sentence “The next weekend we went to a birthday party thrown by a Russian artist called Ruslan” would be tighter as
    “The next weekend we went to the birthday party of Ruslan, a Russian artist.”

    But the whole thing is a marked improvement: congratulations.

    I particularly liked ‘I’m a biscuit designer’ because in similar situations I used to reply “Assyrian ceramics”. 🙂

  10. dearieme,

    Thanks a lot. Yes indeed, it could undoubtedly get tighter still. But as I implied in my post, it’s something I find I can’t do in one go. It seems to be an iterative process where on each reading I find something else I could shorten, and I notice more if I’ve left the piece alone for a few weeks and then come back to it.

    Counting the words and syllables is an interesting approach, I’d not thought of that. I might try it.

    Much appreciated!

  11. Is LegIron publishing it for you?

    No, I’m probably going to self-publish.

  12. My two cents on top of the millions of dollars’ worth of free advice you’ve received in the two comment threads.

    Don’t lose sight of where and how this chapter fits into the big story. As a rule, one has to be changing gears in a long enough text, alternating terse passages with more laid-back ones, and giving the reader breathing space at times.

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