This week for the Writer In Motion challenge, I explore killing my darlings and the dangerous game of throwing out an “okay” first scene. Will it kick the story up a notch, or result in a incoherent mess with a tone issue? Read on to find out…
(Notes on the editing process will be found after the draft)
The Witch of Blue Ridge – Draft 2 (Self-Edit)
The witch of Blue Ridge didn’t come down the mountain anymore.
At least, she didn’t go the regular way, by the overgrown trail with its dizzy switchbacks, its woven wicker wards, and its mossy branches strung with bones and bells to warn off anyone who thought of coming up. She went down by the secret ways instead, through the labyrinthine networks of root and water, while Lupe guarded her empty body in the cabin above. Down to the edge of the woods she went, where she stood and looked at the world she’d left behind.
She’d traded family for the forest, bonds of blood for branch and bone, human company for her constructs and the coywolf. They couldn’t even see her anymore. And what would they see, if they could? An apparition in the shadows under the trees, ragged and haggard with yearning in her eyes?
But today, when she came to the forest’s edge, a skinny kid looked back at her.
“Who’s that?” The kid had a husky voice and long hair tied back in a ponytail.
Reverend Barnes put a hand on the back of the kid’s neck and steered them away toward the cabins. “No one, Riley.” He glanced over his shoulder, but the witch had faded back into the forest’s shade. “It’s no one.”
He chose not to see her. He’d prayed about it while she perched in the boughs of the ancient oak that overhung the house, just outside the window. His shoulders had hunched, as if he sensed her eyes on him, but he never turned around.
The witch flowed back into her body. A massive furry head pushed under her hand and Lupe’s weight leaned against her legs. She scratched the coywolf’s ears and sighed.
Nothing she could do about the new kid. Best not to get involved.
In the night, she woke from a sound sleep to the rattle of bells and bones, followed by the tearing sensation of a ward breach.
Someone had come up the mountain. She lay still, breathing in silence until the crickets struck up their rhythmic song again.
A soft whimper answered her. In the moonlight seeping through the cabin’s single window, the coywolf stood with ears aquiver, nose pointed toward the door.
“Damn it.” She closed her eyes and sent her fetch racing along the rootways toward the ward’s boundary, where the woven branches and cobwebs had entangled a slender form.
She’d caught a child in the wards like a fly in a web.
“Well, fuck me,” said the witch of Blue Ridge, and climbed out of bed.
It took a while to convince the wards to let go. The trees passed the captive up the hill, cocooned in spider silk, and placed them at the meadow’s edge where the witch waited.
She took her knife from her coat pocket and cut the webbing away. The silk cocoon split open, and the kid who’d greeted her in town lay insensate in her meadow. Mascara and tears streaked the rawboned cheeks. A new bruise purpled over the right eye, and they had a split lip.
The witch sat back on her heels. Her curse had no power behind it. “Devil take you, Reverend. Not again.”
Lupe whined again and dropped her shaggy head to lick the teenager’s face. The kid sputtered awake, then froze at the sight of the coywolf looming above them.
“It’s all right,” the witch said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Eyes wide, the kid took in the meadow, the moon, and the witch standing there with a knife in her hand. “You’re her. The one I saw.”
She slipped the knife into her pocket. “You got lost in the woods. I think you were running.”
“The fucking camp.” The kid sighed. “Reverend Barnes says I have to be a boy. I’m not a boy, you know.”
“He said my pronouns are just bad grammar.”
“He doesn’t rule the world,” the witch said, irascible with fury. “What’s your name?”
“Riley’s fine.” The kid flashed a tremulous half-smile.
“Where were you planning on going, Riley?”
“There’s a bus to the city,” Riley said. “It stops on the main road first thing in the morning. I thought if I could hide in the woods all night…”
The witch offered a hand, hauled Riley to their feet. “Come on. I’ll get you something warm to drink.”
Riley’s brow furrowed. “I probably shouldn’t. But if you’re going to eat me, you’re being really nice about it.”
“I eat venison and mushrooms. Not runaways from conversion therapy.” The witch gave a dour laugh. “Besides, you’re skin and bones, kid. Not even a meal’s worth.”
The witch drowsed in a chair by the door until dawn, when the wards snapped again. She jerked her head up. The baying of hounds floated up the mountainside.
She shook Riley awake. “Time to go, kid.”
“Shit. They’re coming for me, aren’t they?”
Another ward snapped. The witch staggered. “Not if you hurry. Lupe will show you the way.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” Fire ran along her veins. She shuddered. Down the slope, they’d started burning the wards. “I’ll hold them off.”
Face gray in the predawn light, Riley shouldered their backpack with its ripped rainbow patch. “Funny. I didn’t think they cared enough to come after me.”
“It’s not…caring.” She closed her fist. Deep in the forest, her constructs rose, knit themselves from scattered bones and branches. “It’s…control. Go.”
“Thank you,” Riley whispered, and took off running across the mist-veiled meadow, long limbs flying like a yearling deer’s.
Alone in the cabin, the witch fell to her knees. She screamed. The forest had caught fire now. Downslope, a bone stag reared, bugling, aflame, as the constructs bore down upon the searchers.
The forest might burn. She might burn. But the camp would burn too.
“Father,” she rasped. “I’m coming home.”
This time, when she cursed, she cursed with all her strength.
Notes on the Editing Process
I’ve been mulling over the story in my journal a lot since I posted the first draft. I was disappointed that the draft didn’t have the spooky weirdness I’d envisioned when I started kicking around the idea. It was a little too grounded in mundane reality, starting from the first line, which establishes a “rain or shine” routine–not what I was going for. I had initially thought of the witch character as someone supernatural and even frightening to the outside world. I wanted to bring that energy back into the opening, so that our witch is not just a social outcast, but not quite human anymore.
As I did in my last post, I’m going to share an excerpt from my writing journal, which is where most of the sausage gets made:
My character is connected to the natural world but disconnected from other humans….She’s chosen that isolation. She and the forest are spiritually linked. Maybe use more of this in the opening. How does she live??? if she does not interact with humanity? What if when she astral projects down the mountain, people can see her apparition? What if her spiritual connection with the forest gives her everything she needs to live?–August 5, 2020
I then spent half a page again exploring what this character eats and wears, which was really important to me for REASONS, but became three whole words in the second draft. (I have problems.) I then sat on the whole thing for a few days, having no idea how to proceed. The problem was, I really liked that first line. I wasn’t ready to let go.
The red text below was lifted nearly wholesale for the eventual rewrite:
I have been thinking of completely redoing the first scene to make it more creepy and supernatural. I think that makes it more interesting. I wish I had space to get more into why the witch is self-isolated. Is she…a victim of Salem? What is her backstory? Or is she a hereditary backwoods witch with familial roots in the town? What if she is part of the pastor’s family? Sister, aunt, child? Ooh. I like that. Murdered? Driven away? She traded her family for the forest, the bonds of blood for the bonds of root and bone, the company of humans for the coywolf and her constructs. But sometimes she goes down in astral form and looks at the world she left, stands at its edges. And on this day, Riley looks back and sees her. An apparition in the shadows of the trees, ragged and haggard with life on the mountain, with yearning in her eyes, or anger, or grief…She hadn’t meant to be seen. Most people couldn’t see her. Her brother/father couldn’t see her. Or can he? He chooses not to. He prays about it. Theme: the parts of us we drive into the darkness/into the forest. Sister would make them equals, daughter would make it more of a meditation on power. Angry girl ghosts, only this is not a ghost, she’s a person who has abandoned the world to which she was born and become one with the natural world. I think this will turn out powerful, no matter how much the first draft opening line sounded good. And I can give her an ironic name if the Pastor named her.–August 10, 2020
Yeah, that last didn’t happen. The witch of Blue Ridge stubbornly refuses to be named. Also, you’ll note that I sometimes use my journal to try to hype myself up. Positive self talk! It’s important!
That night, I pulled up my word document, deleted the original first scene, saved it as Draft 2, and then this happened:
And so it remained until this afternoon, when I finally buckled down to the task. I was able to pull some beats back in from the first draft, and the middle parts didn’t change much (except for word pruning–by my count I’m at 999.) But the change in the first scene makes it a very different story in my opinion.
I’m not actually convinced that it’s better than the first try.
And that’s the trouble with rewrites, at least for me. It feels like taking apart a complex piece of machinery and putting it back together with different pieces…in that it may not work at all anymore. I like this version better in some ways–it’s closer to my original vision and the personal connection between the witch and the minister does add an extra punch, especially with the reveal at the end. But I suspect there is now an issue of inconsistent tone/voice between the first scene and the rest, and I’m not sure how to fix it.
What do you think?