MIND MELD: Reading, Writing and Revisions
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This week we asked about Revisions. I’ve come across a couple of examples lately of authors reissuing books with significant changes from the initial publication, or changing it relatively late in the initial publication process. With the rise of ebooks, the potential for rolling revisions to books is a very real possibility.
We asked this week’s panelists the following:
This is what they had to say…
I’m a measure-twice, cut-once kind of writer; I do a lot of note-taking and thinking before I start a project. I try to have a plot destination in mind, although sometimes that will change — if the story wants to go someplace other than what I planned I’m happy to take that detour. But the upshot is I seldom start a story with no clue where I’m going, and consequently I only rarely have to make major changes to a story or novel. I do my very best to turn in clean, ready-to-publish drafts to my editors. But typos and continuity errors happen, so fixing them is part of the editorial process.
I’m fine with the notion of revising a book after it’s gone to the ARC stage, provided there’s a genuinely compelling reason for the changes in question. I don’t think I’ve ever requested a last-minute change, and I wouldn’t do so unless it was to correct a critical error I had only just discovered. Something that might get me or the publisher sued, for instance. I think everyone involved would be happy to fix that! And as a reader I’d certainly rather buy a book that was professionally edited and free of errors.
I’m also fine with authors releasing new editions of books to re-instate chapters and subplots that may have been cut from the original releases due to marketing concerns. In these cases, the authors may have been forced to make changes that ultimately weakened the books. As a reader, I’d certainly like to be able to see an author’s preferred version of a novel, and as a writer I’d like to have the option of being able to release a book that feels most complete.
When Gary A. Braunbeck submitted his novel Keepers to his editor at Leisure, the editor ordered him to remove the plot-relevant love story in the novel on the grounds that horror readers didn’t care for all that mushy stuff. So Gary revised the book under pressure, diminished the love story, the book was published … and was promptly met by critical complaints about the stunted relationship between the characters. Getting negative reviews because of changes demanded by your publisher is a bitter pill indeed. He’s currently talking to a couple of specialty presses about releasing his preferred original version of the novel.
I experienced the reverse situation with my first novel, Spellbent. The original version had some horriffic elements that my editor asked me to remove on the grounds that they would be too extreme for an urban fantasy audience. And while I’m happy with the revisions I made, the rest of the books in the trilogy continued in a darker vein under a different editor who was not bothered by the horror elements. This has unfortunately led some readers to be surprised by the darker elements in Shotgun Sorceress and Switchblade Goddess. If I have the opportunity to publish my original version in a special edition down the road, I’ll certainly take advantage of it.
Having said all that, I can certainly see the risk of authors abusing the ability to make changes to published books. No reader wants to tricked into purchasing seemingly endless re-releases of books on the grounds that they’re new and improved, when in fact they really aren’t. And perfectionist writers might easily fall into the trap of spending time focused on old work instead of forging ahead with new creations.
After publication is tricky. I’d wonder what the need was. Bad copy-editing and minor tweaks are one thing, taking and completely changing a classic, like Stephen King did with The Stand (adding contemporary pop culture references etc.) seems questionable to me. Because was it needed? Does it make the story better or do you just want more money? Marketing is a part of this business for sure, but unless the book is grossly out of date, which I can’t imagine it was in this case, I think it’s extreme to do that.
On the other hand, with Print On Demand rising in popularity, sometimes authors get a chance to make some tweaks after ARCs just before press. I did this. I saw some flaws I needed to address and did so with a few key changes that then went into the final print version. I didn’t do it to make reviewers look bad but because they had a point and I felt it was to the betterment of the book, since I had the chance, to make some improvements (I hope that’s what I did). The book was still ready on time (delays were caused by printer and copywriter issues, not writer issues) and I think it’s better for it.
As for my writing process, my drafts get cleaner all the time. In the beginning, as I learned, I’d do whole drafts for various craft issues that I now address together with the rest in the first draft. Revisions are now more about bigger issues and polish. That’s my process anyway. I definitely beef up description and some of the emotional and physical reactions of characters as well as adding touches like more clothing description and such. I also look for motifs I need to go back and bring out, plot holes, character motivation issues, etc. But all of that is big picture stuff for me, rather than a lot of little picture stuff I spent hours on in the beginning. Of course, then editors find all kinds of things you missed but that’s just part of the process.
Let me answer first as a reader: I don’t like it. Once a book is published, let it go. Every hour spent re-revising a published work is an hour not devoted to writing new material. I’m never going to buy the re-released version anyway.
As a writer, it’s pretty much the same answer. Would I try to fix something after the ARC was released but before the final product was published? Only if it was something major that all the other rounds of editing, beta reading, and copy-editing had missed. Even so it would probably piss me off because by then I would (hopefully) be neck-deep in the next manuscript and going back would force me to change gears. So, short answer is not likely, and not ever after actual publication. (Fixing typos doesn’t count.)
About how much revision I do, I’d guess I’m probably in the middle of the pack. My first drafts are relatively clean. The biggest things I am tackling in revision are theme, consistency, and pacing. Theme because it rarely occurs to me until after the first draft is done and I start reading through it again. I try not to shoehorn themes into my writing. Instead, I prefer to let them occur naturally, but they still need to be polished and refined once they are identified.
Consistency covers things such as making sure the level of prose is steady throughout the book from start to finish. I tend to start strong and end strong but struggle a bit in the middle. Also, ensuring that the characters are consistent in their voice and personality, and that they are consistently different from each other.
Pacing is important to me because I view writing as very much like creating music. I try to hit certain notes at certain times, and sometimes my timing is off when writing that first draft. I play around with the order of words, sentences, and sometimes even entire chapters.
I generally edit as I write, going back and revising all through the process, so by the time I’m done with my “first draft,” it’s more like a third draft. I’ll usually do another couple of passes before it goes to the editor, and then there’s the traditional editorial revision pass, during which I sometimes make changes beyond the editor’s requests.
All of that said, as much as I prefer the originally published version of Stephen King’s The Stand, I support an author’s right to continue to tinker with their work forever. Readers will discover the book in one incarnation and can always enjoy that incarnation if later tinkering displeases them. King obviously prefers the longer version of his magnum opus, but I like it in the form that I originally read it, and so when I reread it, I go back to that original edition.
Revisions are a necessary evil in the writing process. I’ve been fortunate to have (to date) written pretty clean copy once my work is sold to publishers. At that point my revisions are mostly cosmetic, not structural. Though, especially with the last Redheads book, getting to the submission process has required major work. However, if — up to the ARC stage — something comes up as “not working” that’s the time to fix it. Before it gets to the widespread hands stage.
As for ebooks and re-releases–or even revisiting old projects, that’s a bit different. I see the temptation to rework “old” stuff. Hopefully we’ve all learned new skills over time and have honed our craft. Reading some of our early work can be painful. HOWEVER, I am of two schools of thought here. If it’s a previously unpublished project, by all means…update it to current time and skill level. Make it the best project you can. However, if it’s a previously published piece? I think except for blatant typos and such, the content needs to be left alone. P.N. Elrod told Carole Nelson Douglas, who is considering converting her old SF and Fantasy to ebook to call the releases “Blasts from the Past” and leave them alone. Updating would take too long and too much effort.
Besides, as a reader, if I’m buying a book that I loved “back then”, then I want the book I read back then, not necessarily a “new and improved” version of said book. If I’m buying older books, it’s because I loved those books the way they were/are then, and that’s the experience I want to have again.
For a printed novel, it is extremely rare for authors to get the opportunity to make substantial changes once the book has gone to print. But in the world of e-books, it’s now possible, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. As we grow as writers, it’s inevitable that we’ll look back at our work and decide that we could do better. I’ll pick up a copy of Devlin’s Luck today, and see places where I could fix an awkward phrase, or condense a long paragraph. It’s tempting to keep tinkering, but when do you stop? At some point in my quest to sand away all the rough edges, I may have destroyed everything that made the book unique.
Change isn’t always for the better. Taking an analogy from the world of movies, the director’s cut is seldom an improvement over the original. (True STAR WARS fans know that Han shot first.)
No book is ever perfect. Inevitably when you hold the final printed copy in your hands, you will find at least one error. It may be just a typo, but there will always be something that you wish you could change. I do my best to produce clean manuscripts at every stage of the process, but as the novel goes from manuscript through revisions, copy-edits and then to typesetting, new errors can creep in. Problems found at the ARC stage have ranged from minor annoyances such as misspelled character names, up to the omission of several paragraphs of text which destroyed the impact of a key scene. I was grateful to be able to fix these errors before the book went to press, but at the same time I was wincing, knowing the early reviewers were judging a flawed novel.
But once a book is released into the wild, revisions should stop. Readers don’t have the patience to sift through multiple releases of the same book. You can’t say “No, wait, I know everyone hated the plot twist in MY NOVEL VERSION 1.0, but I’ve rewritten that, so VERSION 1.5 will make you happy.” I’m not going to invest the time to figure out if the good reviews of your book are from the January release or the March release. Even worse, if I know that you usually revise your books after publication date, I won’t bother buying your book when it comes out. I’ll wait to buy the final version–assuming I’m still paying attention when you stop your revisions.
When I recommend your book to my friends, I should have the reasonable expectation that the version they buy and read is the same version that I’ve enjoyed, not some mutated Frankenbook that has been revised six times and had three subplots added.
In the 1990s there was a trend for romance novelists to take their previously published Regency novels (generally less than 70K words) and turn these into Regency historicals (over 100K words). While many readers enjoyed these new versions, I remember feeling cheated when I realized that the author had taken a book I’d loved and transformed it into an entirely different reading experience. I didn’t want to reread the same story in a different form, I wanted to read something new.
As a writer, I need to focus on creating new works for my readers to enjoy. Yes, when I pick up a copy of Devlin’s Luck today, I can see the flaws. But I also see the strengths, and I’m still proud to have written it. And I hope to be equally proud of the next story I create.
Nobody wants to be the one caught with their pants down. It’s every author’s nightmare to find that their book was the one published with all the periods missing. It’s a great world we’re in when something like that can be fixed in a flash. Typos, embarrassing errors, and imperfect prose: Don’t worry, you can fix it. Buuuuuuuuuuttttt… Should you?
Let’s get one thing straight up front: If a book’s missing all its periods, I would hope someone’s doing something about that. But what about more subjective things? A research error that makes the whole second half of your historical novel completely impossible. A character name you learn means “douchebag” in one of the world’s top languages. A consistent grammar error.
As an author, I cringe to think of any of those happening to me. I go through rounds and rounds of revisions, both my own and with my editor, and I know it’s still possible to miss even something big. I would want that removed from public view as fast as humanly possible.
As a reader, I’m offended by the whole concept.
Just as I wouldn’t want a designer coming into my closet and changing the clothes I’ve purchased, or an artist coming over to make changes to the painting I bought, an author doesn’t get to touch my book after I buy it. Even an ebook.
Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
A book is a shared experience, something we talk about and say “Oh! Remember that scene where…” It sets down combinations of words and lays out events and characters that can shape our lives. Can you imagine an author walking into your house and ripping a couple of pages out of a book you bought? “Sorry, I didn’t like that scene anymore.” Once it’s out there, it’s not the author’s to screw around with anymore.
I’ve seen authors doing it with their ebooks, especially the indies, who can simply make changes as they choose and upload a new version. Not Good. What if the book I told a friend they simply must read has been changed by the time they get it? What if the scene I recommended it for is now gone? What if there’s a new scene with a traumatizing trigger for my friend that I never would have pointed them toward?
Do. Not. Do. This. Leave it alone.
Did you upload something you considered only your most recent draft not the absolute final? Shame on you. Are you just indecisive and want to tweak it after the fact? Get over it.
Now, a new release of a revised and updated version long after the original has come out, or an ARC version of a new release are different. A clearly labeled revised, updated version of an established book is a new book to be enjoyed and/or judged on its own merits. With ARCs of upcoming releases, people who get them do so with the understanding that this isn’t the final retail copy. They’re fair game up until the day the book is published to the public. After that, no many how many times you’re going to wince when someone brings up the fact that you named your character, Samelle Feete, and you never saw what that looked like to someone else, well, buddy, hate it for you. You’ll live through it.
Whether post-publication revision is an act of vandalism, or just the ministrations of a loving parent trying to get her child to stand up straight—I think it really depends on the situation and the book. On the surface, it seems wrong for an author to re-write a well-known classic to, for example, make it more modern–
Hey, wait . . . is that a bad thing? If you’ve got a decades-old book that seems dated in characters or science, but the core story is awesome—would it be a bad thing to take Awesome Book and spend just a few weeks creating Awesome Book 2.0? Especially when there are millions of potential readers out there who were not even born when Awesome Book came out, and who might be totally into the story if only it were a little more relevant to their lives? I suspect this sort of thing would drive purists and book collectors to despair, but it could be an interesting experiment. Still, it’s a choice for an author to make—and most will have moved on in their interests, and be intent on new work.
But getting the child to stand up straight—I’ve done that. When I was getting ready to re-publish my first four novels, I went through the manuscripts and “cleaned things up” a little. Nothing extravagant. Mostly getting rid of new-writer issues that are like fingernails-on-a-blackboard to older writers. In The Bohr Maker I think it was the use of “seems like” and various “saids”; in Tech-Heaven I axed a short section that had always annoyed me. This is just minor polishing of course, but I still noted on the copyright page “The text of this edition contains minor changes or additions determined by its author.” I think it’s only fair to the reader—and to collectors—to say so.
The other literary child that had to put up with some tweaking was my 2011 novel, The Dread Hammer. On the advice of several people, I changed the original cover, dropped the pen name I had first published it under, and changed a name or two within the story. All of these were marketing decisions, made easier because very few people had read the first edition of the book—and of course I had the ability to make these changes only because the book is indie published.
I tend to revise as I write, and by the time I hand off the manuscript to a reader, it’s usually pretty clean and consistent. Eventually, it will reach the magical “it’s all coming together now” phase, and after that it simply feels finished. Then it’s time to move onto something new.
Still—it takes a huge amount of effort to write a novel. Ideally, when that book hits the ARC stage, it will be the best it can reasonably be expected to be, but I wouldn’t criticize an author who saw a need for last-second corrections. While this practice might not please reviewers, who are then left discussing a book that no longer exists, from the writer’s perspective, if the addition of a little more effort can save the work of an entire year and make a so-so book shine, why not do it? With very few exceptions, in traditional publishing you will not have another chance.
On the other hand, I keep hearing that in indie publishing, beginning writers are revising their books to satisfy critical reader reviews. This brings up the question: whose book is it anyway? And probably more critically, was it ready for release? But these days we live in the wild west of publication, and the old rules don’t matter much anymore.
As a reader, would I be okay with rolling revisions? Well, I read very few books more than once, so I doubt I would even notice. Realistically, writers have one shot to engage a reader with any given book. Best to get it right the first time around.
I’ve seen a number of instances of revising books after publication recently, and I sometimes suspect the phenomenon is akin to the endless rewrites that some beginning writers inflict on their maiden projects. It’s easy in today’s self-publishing climate to push a book to market before it’s ready (or too flawed to reach the professional-publication threshold). Even if the original version went through the traditional editorial process, it may fail to meet the author’s expectations and vision. Some years later, it’s tempting to want to go back, armed with whatever improvement in skills and critical ability that have taken place in the interim.
Obviously, each case has its own circumstances, but most of the time, I think this is a mistake. One exception is when an author has begun a long-running series early in her career and inconsistencies have crept in as that world and characters have developed, so she decides to make the first novels congruent with the later ones. Revising these works is not necessarily wrong, but it does place the author in a backward-facing position instead of moving forward to his or her cutting edge.
Creating a novel is more than putting text on a page, fleshing out characters, and polishing dialog. It involves the scope and soundness of the original conception. The process of turning an idea into a book is like carving wood. You take a block of lumber and you assess its density and strength, the fineness of its grain, its ability to withstand torsional stresses. If you’re starting out with a soft wood like balsa or pine, it won’t support a lot of elaborate ornamentation — you’d be better off with a short story or a “fun and fluffy” longer piece. For a novel that involves complex world-building and multiple point of view characters, nuance and interwoven themes, teak or mahogany or even oak is required to “bear the weight.”
Most of us begin with pine-weight story concepts. If we keep reworking those stories, we hold ourselves back from going forward with what we have learned, and developing bigger, weightier stories. It takes an act of will, not to mention considerable intellectual courage, to just leave a story alone, to let it be what it is, and to begin again. Occasionally, we’ll get cherrywood in those early years, but we’re not skillful enough yet to execute a story that achieves its potential. In this case, when looking back and wincing and being unable to abandon the unrealized heart of the story, I think it’s better to do a complete rewrite. Chuck the old manuscript or rip out everything that fails to measure up to the best you can do right now. Begin again, with a true re-visioning.
I find it quite liberating that the words I’ve put down are not immutable. A story is a living, organic thing. There’s no single way that’s right for every writer and every story. I’m a writer who loves to revise, so I push myself to draft quickly and I don’t demand that it be perfect. In fact, my first drafts are still pretty awful, but it’s okay because the only version that counts is the one that ends up on my editor’s desk.
I start with a concept — a character, a conceit, an image, a mystery, a sequence of events, an emotional tone. As I draft, I labor under the delusion that this is what the story “is about.” More often than not, I’m wrong. I’m wrong because I’m going for the glitz, the superficial attraction. I’m like a jackdaw in a costume jewelry store. Oooh, a shiny! Another shiny! No, I like this other shiny better! At some point, I need to discern The Shiny Of All Shinies for this particular story, to seek out what’s underneath the glitz. That’s where the emotional juice is, the deeper resonances, the Deborah-vision.
Throw away the chaff; be ruthless; seek the nuggets of treasure; give the underneath-wisdom of the story time to emerge.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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