And I thought, Hell yes.
There are so many ways you can express any given idea or action in words. So many factors to take into account: the character's voice, the implications you want readers to pick up between the lines, how well this sentence will flow into the next, whether you've already used that word--which dammit is exactly the perfect word here--already in the paragraph before, where it is also the perfect word.
I have sat and rewritten sentences over and over and left them and thought about them while I did chores or ate dinner and come back and tweaked them some more. And repeated the process over again in the next draft. And the next. The really sad thing is that sometimes I end up changing them back to exactly what they were when I started. But at least by then I am absolutely convinced that is the best way of saying what I want to say!
With that on my mind, I thought it might be interesting to look at the ways just a few sentences can change over the course of revisions and getting outside feedback.
I'm using the opening to The Way We Fall, because it's been so long since I wrote the first drafts of Give Up the Ghost (about five years now) I couldn't accurately tell you why I made the various changes I did. Also keep in mind that these are not all the versions that exist of this opening. I have three or four others that I've omitted for the sake of length, and that doesn't count all the tweaks that got made in the midst of drafting the books.
The very first draft
It’s about three hours since the ferry carried you across the strait to the mainland. I didn’t come to see you off, but you probably didn’t notice.
I still feel kind of guilty. Remembering the way you waved and waved from the dock when I left six years ago. That was different, though. I was going to be gone from the island maybe forever, and you’ll be back for a visit by Christmas, if not Thanksgiving. Even though your mom lights up like dawn whenever she gets to tell someone for the seven hundredth time how you got an early acceptance into the Most Prestigious Dance School In The Universe (or at least the continent), there’s this sadness in her eyes you can see if you watch carefully. She’s going to miss you a hell of a lot, and your dad, too. So you, being you, are going to come back as much as you can.
This is the draft that my in-person critique group saw the first 30 or so pages of. Based on their comments and my own concerns, I went back and rewrote those pages before continuing on with the story, resulting in...
The second draft
It’s about three hours since the ferry carried you over to the mainland.1 I’m sorry for not coming to see you off. You probably didn’t expect me to,2 but I remember the way you waved and waved from the dock when I left six years ago.
I guess it’s different. Back then I was gone maybe forever and you’ll be back to visit no later than Christmas. But I still feel kind of guilty.3
1Phrasing adjusted to tighten the sentence.
2 Members of my crit group commented that the first version made it sound as if Kaelyn had purposely shunned her friend, so I knew I needed to make it more clear that they hadn't been close for a while.
3 I realized I was dumping way too much backstory in the opening, so cut most of it. The info about the dance school comes up a little later now. Also tweaked the phrasing so that she sounds more sorry about not being there, as per the concern in 2.
I got further critiques on the second draft from my in-person crit group and my online crit partners, which resulted in a third draft, followed by further sentence-level polishing, bringing us to...
The agent submission draft
It’s about five hours1 since you left the island.2 I wish I’d been at the harbor to see you off.3 The way things have been,4 I know you wouldn’t have expected me to come, but I still remember the way you waved and waved from the dock six years ago, when I was going away.5
I’ll make it up to you. All of it—as much as I can.6
1 I decided I wanted her to have had more time to think before writing this.
2 Tweaking for further tightening; felt it was most important to establish the island right away. The ferry and the mainland are already mentioned a couple paragraphs later.
3 Changed this so it was more about how she wanted their friendship to still be, rather than apologizing (feeding into 6).
4 Trying to make it even more clear that there's a reason she didn't come and that things haven't been great between them lately.
5 Rearranged clauses so the ending emphasis is on the fact that she had previously moved away, rather than on how long ago that was.
6 Ended up cutting the last couple bits of info dumped in this section (when she expects he'll be back is now brought up later) and focusing more on her wanting to actively change things rather than simply feeling guilty.
This is also the draft my agent sent to editors when the book went on sub, and the draft that sold. After two rounds of revisions with my editor, we end up with...
Post-editorial revisions draft
It’s about six hours1 since you left the island. 2 The way things have been, I know you wouldn’t have expected me to come to see you off, but I keep thinking about how you waved and waved from the dock five years ago3, when I was leaving for Toronto.4
1 Changed the number again because now I'm using five later in the paragraph.
2 Sentence cut to tighten paragraph; sense of regret already hinted at in next sentence and expressed further in paragraphs that follow.
3 Changed from six years to five because we tweaked the timeline for the entire backstory a bit.
4 Added location detail to make her comment about "going away" less vague.
5 Finally cut this second paragraph completely. I was front-loading too much without explaining; thoughts about how she wants to change things now come a couple pages later.
Of course, even this is not absolutely final. There were little tweaks in copyedits and there may be more in page proofs. But it gives you some idea how much thought can go into even a handful of sentences.