J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of the fantasy genre, wrote a short story called “Leaf by Niggle” (look for it in The Tolkien Reader). When I was a teen, just beginning to write my own stories, this story struck me as “true,” and it resonates even more strongly now. The first half of the story is about an artist named Niggle whose only work is a massive painting of a tree. The painting is never finished, and he continues to scrape away parts of it and paint them anew, because they never quite reflect his vision. Niggle’s neighbor sneers at Niggle’s lack of industry (as he spends his time painting a plant and neglects the real ones in his garden) and plagues him with requests for help running errands and doing home-maintenance projects. Niggle grudgingly takes time away from his art to fulfill these everyday tasks.
Niggle dies mid-story and goes to something like Purgatory, where he slowly learns how to perfect his art. After he makes peace with the annoying neighbor, who has joined him in Purgatory, he moves on—we presume to Heaven. Meanwhile, the painting of the tree is torn up and recycled as roofing material, except for a single, perfect leaf, which ends up in a museum with the placard “Leaf by Niggle.”
Anyone who creates art can appreciate Niggle’s grouchiness in response to his neighbor’s lack of understanding. Friends and family members often think artists and writers spend their time lazing around daydreaming—they don’t see our work as work. They barge in, claiming our time and attention. The child wants a snack (or lunch, or dinner). The spouse wants help with a household chore (or lunch, or dinner). The boss wants a progress report on the project that’s due next Tuesday. Each request more irksome, we want nothing more than to slam the door of our workshop and perfect that damn leaf.
I’ve been working on the same leaf—and tree—since my teens, which is another reason “Leaf by Niggle” means so much to me. The Woern Chronicles began as a teen’s fantasy about being kidnapped by aliens (fortunately, that manuscript is buried in a landfill somewhere). In my twenties I began rewriting it, and the first half became the revenge and empowerment story Blade of Amber. In my thirties (and yes, it took my entire thirties), I wrote A Wizard’s Lot, which bears no resemblance at all to the second half of the original teenage fantasy featuring characters with the same names. In my late forties, I wrote Scion of Sovereigns (a branch I’m still painting). Given that I’m turning 49 this spring, I expect Legacy of the Sacrifice, the final chapter of The Woern Chronicles, will be written in my fifties.
Yet not only have I slowly added new branches to my tree, I’ve also scraped away twigs and leaves and replaced them. The version of Blade of Amber currently available for sale is the third version of that book, and I’m not done with it yet.
You read that right: I’m scraping that limb off the canvas and repainting it anew. A revised edition—leaner, meaner, and a better realization of my vision for that story—is in the works. I’m dropping some scenes and adding new ones, and I’m tightening and tuning the prose. A lot of writers (and perhaps some readers) might ask, why would you do this?
First, I received some very good suggestions from a friend who gave the book the clear-eyed beta-read it should have gotten before I released it. She said to me, “there’s a really good story in there, but it’s buried in a lot of unnecessary detail.” Second, and more importantly, Blade never was as good as I wanted it to be. Too often, the prose fell flat where I wanted it to soar. This branch of the tree was overgrown and burdened with dead wood, and my friend helped me see where it should be pruned. The rewrite is also letting me fix some inconsistencies with the later books, and strengthen the foundation for the entire series.
Previously on this site, I wrote about big word counts, making the point that every word should count. The new edition of Blade will be about 25% shorter than the currently available edition. I hope that in the new version, at least one of the leaves will be perfect.
A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. For more information about her work, follow @amjusticewrites on Twitter, like her Facebook page, or drop by her website and register as a Citizen of Knownearth. She also blogs at A.M. Justice Journeys Through Time and One Year of Letters.