So here’s a thing. My buddy Paul and I are doing a project where we illustrate the mechanics of modern fiction by editing the classic (101 year old) The Night Land by treating the original as a first draft that needs polishing.
The Last Redoubt
I have suffered such as no words can ever tell.
Yet at night I have dreamed. I have felt once again the gladness of life, and visited in my dreams a place in the womb of Time where Mirdath and I will come together again, and part, and again come together; after strange ages reuniting in a glad and mighty wonder. I feel as though I awake, there in the dark, into the Future of this world.
The Sun had died. When I first opened my eyes upon the everlasting night that lapped against the world, I did not wake in ignorance, but in full knowledge of those things which lit the Night Land, even as a man wakes from sleep each morning remembering the names and knowledge of his own time.
I was a youth of seventeen, and my new memory told me that I was in one of the embrasures of the Last Redoubt – that great pyramid of grey metal that will one day protect the last millions of this world from the powers of darkness. In that earliest memory I stood high up in the side of the Pyramid and looked outward through a strange spy-glass to the north-west. I was full of youth then, and with an adventurous, half-fearful heart. I knew I had poured over this landscape all the years of my life, and I knew all the names of its features and their distance from the center point of the Pyramid in the Room of Mathematics, where I daily went to my studies.
Far to the North there stood the House of Silence upon a low hill. Always those steady lights in the House, yet no whisper of sound, even such as could be detected by our distance-microphones of an eternity of years.
Around the House wound the Road Where the Silent Ones Walk. It passed out of the Unknown Lands, near to the mist-shrouded Place of the Ab-humans. The Road alone, of all the works surrounding the Last Redoubt, was in ages past built by the labor of human hands. A thousand books on this point alone reposed in our libraries, and a million more had no doubt moldered into the forgotten dust of an earlier world.
As I stood there listening, while the whole of the Great Redoubt slept, I heard from the lightless East a strange, horrible laughter, deep as low thunder among the mountains. Though I had heard it many times, it was always with a thrilling of my heart, a sense of my own littleness, and a terror at what had beset the last millions of the world.
When in a while the Laughter died away, I turned my spy-glass upon the Giants’ Pit, which lay to the south of the Giants’ Kilns. These threw off a red and fitful light, showing through wavering shadows the forms of giants crawling up out of the pit.
By the Red Pit lay the long, sinuous glare of Vale of Red Fire, and beyond that for many dreary miles the blackness of the Night Land, cold in the light from the Plain of Blue Fire. And on the very borders of the Unknown Lands lay a range of low volcanoes, the Black Hills, where shone the Seven Lights, neither twinkling nor moving nor faltering. No adventurer from the Pyramid had ever come back to tell us of them, and the Great Library of the Redoubt was full of the histories of those who risked not only life, but the spirit of life out there in the Night Land.
The bright glare of the fire from the Red Pit shone against the underside of the vast chin of the Watching Thing. “That which has watched from the beginning, and until the opening of the gateway of eternity” came into my thoughts, the words of the ancient poet Aesworpth, ancient to that time though still in the distant future of our own.
But my dream-memories revealed to me Aesworpth’s ignorance, and those thoughts drew my mind back to the sunshine and splendor of my waking life, and I felt a keen longing for Mirdath, my wife, who had been mine in those faery days of light.
I turned from the hazy pain of my memory to the hideous, unfathomable mystery of the Night Land, that black monstrosity that held at bay the last refuge of humanity.
The Next Installment
You would be surprised how many beta-readers and editors respond to authors with the comment: “Cut the first chapter.” That’s not a bad thing. It wasn’t in this project.
If we got back such a drastically pruned text from one of my beta-readers, we might take that as a sign that in fact the beta-reader hated the whole passage and we ought to re-write everything from scratch. Here, however, we don’t recommend scrapping this scene (the beginning of chapter 2 of the original), because it does such a good job of establishing conflict, mystery, and atmosphere. It has plenty of hooks to pull the reader forward: suffering, lost love (Mirdath? Who’s that?), an interesting world and future history to discover (the Watching Thing? Awesome!), and an ominous existential threat to humanity and possibly the whole universe.
Most of our changes revolved around bringing these hooks into the forefront, usually by rearranging and trimming sentences so that the kernel of the hook is at the beginning or the end of the sentence or paragraph (that is, in a Position of Emphasis). There’s also the issue of logical progression and rising tension to consider. Plugging the paragraphs describing the Night Land before we get to the Watching Thing adds tension because it establishes (1) the Night Land is weird (2) it’s dangerous and (3) we have constructed defenses against it. Defenses that might fail? Oh, read on!
We also wielded the blade of Omit Needless Words. There is no need, for example, for the author to tell us that he is writing, or that we are reading. We know that. Likewise phrases such as “I saw”, “I felt”, “it seemed to me,” are needless, except when the author wants to evoke a sense of separation between observer and observed. See how we left in a few of those references to memory? Then of course you don’t need repetitive language. Derivations of “wake” appear 11 God-damned times in the original passage. Often the gist of entire sentences is repeated, which is what happens when you write flow-of-consciousness and then don’t go back and edit, Hodgson!
There are still some problems. Aside from Omit Needless Words and Control Readers’ Emotions, the third axiom we write by is Show Don’t Tell. That’s because what matters in a story is what the characters do, not what they look at, not how they feel, and not what they are. So we’ve been with the main character for a page so far and what has he done? He’s lost his wife and looked out a spyglass. Yes, we need scene description, world-building, and emotional context, but all of that should come at service to the story, and the story is about action. The next thing after the word “humanity” MUST be a conversation or a fight.
And will it be? Hodgson sure didn’t think so. To find out how we solved that problem, tune in next time for Paul and Dan’s The Night Land Second Draft.