Fellow writer Dorian Cirrone, author of The First Last Day, recently shared a blog post documenting the editorial evolution of her first page. It was quite interesting to see how the introduction of her novel progressed. So interesting, in fact, that I decided to steal the idea for my own blog.
When I visit schools and talk to young readers and writers, teachers often ask me to reiterate the importance of revision and editing. “Make sure they understand all the hard work that goes into it,” they say. What better way to illustrate the power of revision than to provide the revision itself?
Below are four first pages from Blackbird Fly, starting with its first rendition to its last.
In this very early draft, Apple was mestiza—half-Filipino. Her father was American, hence her last name of “Watson.” After this draft, I decided to make Apple an immigrant from the Philippines. Her American father was dropped. (Sorry, Mr. Watson!) I brought this draft to a writer’s workshop and the feedback was largely positive, although some felt that Apple was too cheeky and not very likable. At this point, the novel was in its infancy and I still hadn’t found the heart of the story.
Right before you steal something, you feel it in your fingertips. Your heart pounds, your mouth dries, your feet move from side to side, you get real jumpy and your fingertips tingle. I’m serious; they do. Not just your brain knows you’re doing something wrong. Your whole body knows, including your fingertips.
Maybe it gets easier over time, I’m not sure. I’ve only stolen once, and once is enough, especially if you get caught like I did, and really especially if you get caught by Buzz Gossen, the burly principal of Chapel Spring Middle School, where I’m in the seventh grade.
Before you get any ideas about me – like that I’m a career criminal or a juvenile delinquent – I should tell you that I stole for a good cause. Unfortunately Mr. Gossen didn’t see it that way. As soon as he had me confined to the chair across from his desk, he pulled my information card from the squeaky filing cabinet in the corner, which held all the information a school administrator needed to know about students who committed misdeeds. After he had my information tucked between his two beefy fingers, he sat down, picked up the receiver and scanned my card. He squinted at the information and put the phone back down.
“How do you pronounce your mother’s name?” he asked.
He studied the card closely and glared at me.
“Glo?” he said, suspiciously raising an eyebrow.
The reason he was suspicious was because the name on the card was “Amihan Rizalia Watson.” My mother is from the Philippines and if you know anything about Filipinos, they love nicknames. I’m not talking about normal American nicknames like Jack, Bob, or Beth. I’m talking about nicknames that have absolutely nothing to do with your real name.
I revised the scene to create more immediacy and make Apple more relatable. This was the draft that got me an agent. But I still hadn’t found the book’s spirit. Not yet. A version of this scene still takes place in the novel, but not until much later. And the characters’ names are different.
Right before you steal something, you feel it in your fingertips. Your heart pounds, your mouth dries, your feet move from side to side, you get real jumpy and your fingertips tingle. Not just your brain knows you’re doing something wrong. Your whole body knows, including your fingertips.
That’s exactly what happened to me right before I took the twenty dollars from Mr. Petroski’s wallet. It happened as soon as I started thinking about it, actually. My friends Alexis Tate and Megan Knox were in the band room with about fifteen other seventh-graders trying out for the swing choir and since I wasn’t auditioning – thanks to my mother – Mr. Petroski told me to hang out in his office until auditions were over. He left his wallet on the desk with the edge of a twenty dollar bill sticking out of it. It was the exact amount I needed, and there it was.
The more I thought about it, the jumpier I got. When I finally leaned over and grabbed the corner of the twenty bucks my heart was beating so loudly that I almost couldn’t hear Abigail Johnson singing “Oklahoma” on the other side of the door.
It was hard to pull the money out without opening the wallet, but I was too nervous to pick it up and I didn’t want to leave any fingerprints, so I tugged and tugged until it came free, then quickly stuck it into the pocket of my jeans and sat down.
This is much closer to the version that was ultimately published. I finally discovered what my book was truly about: Apple’s cultural struggle as a Filipino-American and all the ways it influences her daily life, for better or worse.
My mother says that on the day we moved to America, it snowed in Chapel Spring, Louisiana, for the first time in twenty years. She said it was a sign that the seasons of our lives were changing. Even though I was only six years old, I can still remember how she hugged me close and said we had something wonderful to look forward to: A life as real Americans.
That’s the story she’s telling right now, as she stirs a pot of sizzling garlic rice and adjusts her apron. It’s the white one with Mabuhay Philippines! written in fat red letters. I always thought it was funny how she couldn’t wait to become American, but once we lived in America, she surrounded herself with things from back home. We have a Santo Nino in our curio cabinet, Filipino music in the CD player, pancit and chicken adobo in our refrigerator, and that apron.
That stupid apron.
When there’s nothing to say, she tells the story of how we came here after my father died. It hadn’t even snowed a full inch that day, but the ice crunched under our feet as my mother’s best friend Lula led us to our yellow two-bedroom house on Lemongrass Road. Since it was cold and there was snow on the ground, I had asked if that meant Santa was nearby.
“Remember that, Apple? Remember?” said my mother now. She smiled into her pot of rice. The smell of garlic filled the whole house.
I moved lettuce around in my bowl, but didn’t say anything. Instead I looked at the seven baby carrots in my salad. My mother knows I don’t eat them anymore, but she keeps feeding them to me.
This is the final version. I was still getting to know Apple, even to the final draft. It wasn’t enough for her to love music. She needed to be passionate about a specific song, musician, or genre. So I asked her: Who do you love? And she answered loud and clear. George Harrison and the Beatles, of course!
On the day we moved to America, it snowed in Chapel Spring, Louisiana, for the first time in twenty years. My mother said it was a sign that the seasons of our lives were changing. Even though I was only four years old, I can still remember how she hugged me close and said we had something wonderful to look forward to: A life as real Americans.
When you start a new life you’re supposed to get rid of everything from your old one—according to my mom, at least—so on the day that it snowed, my mom had nothing from the Philippines except her Catholic Bible and a picture of her grandmother. I had an old postcard and a Beatles cassette tape. Abbey Road, to be exact. My father had written his name on it in black marker a long, long time ago. H. Yengko, it said. Some of the letters had rubbed off, but it was clear as ever to me. I grabbed it quickly before we left our barangay because it was the only thing that would fit in my pocket.
For a long time I couldn’t listen to the tape because I didn’t have a tape player, but last year I found one for ten cents at a garage sale and then I heard it for the first time. I could tell my dad listened to it a lot because the tape was cracked and the names of the songs were faded, but I understood right away why he wore it down. Once you listen to the Beatles, you can’t go back. They’re the best rock band that’s ever lived, in my opinion. George Harrison is my favorite Beatle. He mostly played lead guitar, but he also sang and wrote songs.
If I could ask my dad any question, I would ask him who his favorite Beatle was. I wish I could ask my mom if she knew, but she doesn’t like when I mention my father and she especially doesn’t like when I talk about music. I think my mom is the only person in the world who doesn’t have a favorite song. My all-time favorite song is “Blackbird”—by the Beatles, of course—but my second-favorite song for now is “Sunshine Life for Me,” written by George and performed by my third-favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr.