Three Moonrises, by Betsy James

Molecules and Metaphor:

Betsy James
On Writing and Teaching Speculative Fiction

On Revising

The morning slog through a max of 300 words of a first draft. Ploughing a rocky field with a Neolithic ploughshare, stopping every foot or so to pry up a boulder and roll it over to the growing drystone field wall.

Stop. Start. Write a sentence, kill half of it, back up and kill two paragraphs, grub ahead a bit, maybe a good short run and then again shoulder to the plough. Next day, back up four pages and plough those bits a third or fourth time, cutting and shaping, getting smoother until KLUNK!: yesterday’s raw page. But what it needs is clearer now. Cut it by half, rearrange, work up momentum for another run and KLUNK! as existing material runs out. Shoulder to plough, drill onward, pry up rocks for another 250 words, 300 on a lucky day… I wish my students could inhabit my head for a two-hour session. They would mind my comments less.

It feels gorgeous to cut what now exists, not to have to ram the plough through earth that hasn’t been broken since the last Ice Age. It’s like magic to make something clearer even to myself: to start feeling it say what it is in words even a reader can follow, engaged, breathless, wanting to know what happens.

Your learning lies in how to cut and clarify your drafts. As you get more and more skilled at that, you’ll find you have a host of older stories to work over. You know what to do with them now. You’re rich.

Bloody hell, the first draft is slow. But revision is delicious. It’s like watching murky water slowly clear. Novelist Molly Gloss says, “Relish cutting.” That’s the right word. I do.

Betsy James is the author of 17 books. Her latest novel, Roadsouls, was finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. She lives in Albuquerque, NM, where she teaches, paints, and hikes in the wilderness. Find out more at