What We Can Learn from Ur 2.0
In On Writing, Stephen King presents his theories and philosophies about the art and craft of writing. The book is especially popular among writers, including those who don’t, in general, read his novels.
In one section, he demonstrates his revision process. As a case study, he chose the opening pages of “The Hotel Story,” later retitled “1408.” The book reproduces manuscript pages, complete with editorial marks and his annotations, explaining why he chose to make certain changes to the original text.
We don’t often get the chance to see inside the creative mind at that level. I was pleased to be able to include some first draft manuscript pages of King’s work in the Stephen King Illustrated Companion because they demonstrate more of this phenomenon: pages from The Shining, for example, that show how King originally conceived the scene in which Danny has a strange encounter with a fire hose.
King has published revised versions of books and stories before. The Stand is the most notable of these, but the changes to that novel are so drastic that it is difficult to analyze them in any detail. Also, the motivation for the original changes was not editorial: text was trimmed to reduce the size of the book.
The revised and updated version of The Gunslinger is a better example of how King revises. The original was published without any external editorial feedback, and it was released long before King knew how the story was going to turn out. That prevented him from making some of the changes that he would have done as part of the normal writing/revising process had he waited until the series was finished to go back and bring the early parts into line with things that only occurred to him later on.
In The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, King includes a two-page introduction to “Ur”, 21,000-word novella originally released as an e-Book six years ago. He discusses how the story came about, but he only mentions in passing that the story—the earliest in the collection—has been “considerably revised.”
For anyone who cares to compare the two versions, the experience is illuminating. As with The Gunslinger, there are changes on almost every page. A number of them, especially early in the story, reflect the fact that, while Kindles are relatively new to the characters in the story and to readers in 2009, they won’t be to readers of this collection. So, a sentence that originally read:
He bought the gadget, which was called a Kindle, out of spite.
He bought the gadget purely out of spite.
Thus, he removes the unnecessary explanation and uses “Kindle” in other places in the text, assuming everyone will know what the word means. But will readers a hundred years from now? The change recognizes contemporary knowledge but assumes that such knowledge will persist. There are other simplifications concerning e-reader technology throughout the text.
Note that King also defies one of his main edicts from On Writing. He adds an adverb, which he says “are not your friend.” This one is a little different: he admonishes against adverbs used as crutches to prop up timid nouns. Here, “purely” emphasizes the character’s motivations. King could have written “He bought the gadget out of pure spite” and the net result would have been the same.
There are more deletions than additions. A few needless asides are trimmed. In other cases, King replaces sentences or phrases with ones that are clearer or more descriptive. Here’s one amusing example. The protagonist’s friend makes a sarcastic statement. In the original:
“Right,” said Don Allmann. “And I’m the new Poet Laureate.”
In the revised version:
“Right,” said Don Allmann. “And I’m Robert Frost, stopping by the woods on a snowy fucking evening.”
It’s longer, but it’s punchier. Funnier, even. Not a necessary change, perhaps, but one that adds a bit to Don’s character.
There are some intriguing changes. Susan Montanari in the original becomes Susan Montanaro. She’s not a major character, so one wonders why that was done. In the revised version King specifies the name of Hemingway’s dog, Negrita, which was omitted in the original. He also changed the name of section VIII, which was “Ellen” in the original.
Is “Jesse Quinn was a member of the team” better than saying “Jesse Quinn was on the team”? It’s not a huge change, but I’m sure King was satisfied by the work he did in revising the story. Because that’s the way writers are. Never quite satisfied. Always looking for the best way to say something.
The biggest change happens mid-way through the story, where King lops out about 500 words. Snip. Gone. Not replaced by anything.
Because that section dealt with the JFK assassination and alternate timelines. The three main characters, Wes, Don and Robbie, discussed at length the implications of the assassination and what would happen if Kennedy did different things in different versions of reality. This is ground that King explored at greater length in 11/22/63, so he probably decided there was little point in retreading it in abbreviated form here.
Is the story different after these cumulative changes? Does it take place in a different Ur? Not at all. Everything happens in exactly the same order. The same people do the same things and the outcome is as it was before. So there will be no surprises if you were one of those who read “Ur” at any point during the past six years.