We love to write. Editing, not so much. Revising what came before is, at best, a pain. For some of us who cycle – who start the writing session by going back 500 or 1000 words and reading ourselves back into the story, doing light touches of smoothing word flow as we go, it’s not that much of a pain… until we finish the book.
For all of us, when we’re going back through and making sure character’s names, hair colour, car, what have you didn’t change, that everybody was where they needed to be without being in two places at once, that the foreshadowing is in there at least three times so the reader won’t be blindsided, that the plot actually makes sense and the worldbuilding detail made it out of our heads and onto the paper… much les the ever-frustrating typoo-hunt… is a pain.
And since we only practice it once per story, it’s hard to get much better at the infrequently used skill, so it takes longer to level up than our writing.
But then there’s a second form of revision afforded us indies… the ability to go back and edit a book already published.
A few days ago, a friend who has entertained many, many people with his stories was talking about going over an old collection of shorts as part of getting ready to republish it. He burst out, in sheer frustration, “I was a terrible writer!” (okay, he used a different word than terrible, but it meant the same)
I blinked at him in confusion. “Dude. You’re way more popular than me. People love your stuff.”
“But I’m going back over, and these sentences are awkward, and the delivery is terrible, and…”
“Oh! No, dude, you’re awesome. You’ve just gotten a lot more awesome and skilled since your early work. You were awesome even back then, and people loved you for it.”
…and this brings us to the crux of the problem: just because you can edit your early work better… does that mean you should do it?
I personally used to side with Heinlein’s rules on this side, and feel that in general, focusing on the next book is far, far better than bringing your early game up to current standards. In part because you can be more productive and lucrative by putting new work out there for your audience instead of changing what you already wrote. Also, in part, because focusing on the past is a losing game where it doesn’t mean you’re not growing in the present…
And on the gripping hand, because ideally we’ll all keep getting better, book by book, so editing past work to your current standard is always going to be a rearguard, losing action. After all, if you get everything as good as you are now, when you get better, none of it’s going to be as good as your new level. How many manhours are you going to throw away by constantly trying to drag all your backlist up to current skills, over and over?
But there is a very good argument for it: in the world where things went out of print and were hard to find, readers understood that if they put all the effort in to hunt down your early works, they were early. In an ebook environment, it’s much harder for readers to differentiate your earliest from your latest. Therefore, if you have 25 books out and they pick up your first, they may go “Ugh, this is terrible” and not stick around to see how much you’ve grown.
I know of romance authors who’ve unpublished early work, and sometimes entire series, because it detracts from their current branding either by being too rough or by being in a subgenre they’ve determined was a failed experiment.
I know they’re doing better than me, so they have a point, but I couldn’t go that far myself.
However, there is a case for, at the same point at which you’re looking at doing a cover and blurb update to bring things up to current marketing standards, doing a quick editing pass to tweak things better.
Not a rewrite, because it’ll update on everyone’s ebook readers, and L-rd knows, if you change or cut a character, you have a chance of cutting someone’s favourite thing (and woe betide you if you do that). But smoothing wording, tweaking scenes and sliding in a little more foreshadowing, filling in that plot hole that is mentioned in 15 reviews as really annoying that was caused by not getting this bit of relevant info out of your head the first time… that’s not a bad thing.
AS for me personally, I started off strong on the “don’t touch it” side. Due to circumstances, I let Shattered Under Midnight alone a few years and a few books. When I finally came back to get the print edition out, I did an edit pass because I always felt I released that one too quickly, without the final edit it needed. It turned out it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought; Once the rough edges were filed smooth and the plothole filled in, a bit more foreshadowing braided in and a bit more worldbuilding grafted onto existing scenes… it wasn’t bad, just rough.
And once I released the edited version, the ratings improved, and a lot of the reviews were happier. Since we write for whatever reason we write, but we publish to entertain the readers, this was definitely a success.
But revision still sucks time and energy out of my brain. How about you? Where do you fall on going back and touching published things?
I have a hard line on this… If I find a typo or a literal mistake (like a single word or missing word), I fix it silently (no edition change, etc.) and republish it.
Of course, eventually there aren’t any more of those… The infelicities of phrasing, word choice, scene flow, world-building, etc. — those I will not touch. If I ever felt I had to (for continuity reasons), I would definitely identify it as a new edition.
Non-book-text, however, is fair game: Blurbs (online and in the book), Covers, Marketing material — that’s all allowed. Keep in mind — if you change the page count, that is officially a new (physical or ebook) product, and the ISBN is a product identifier — a new ISBN would be required. That’s why it’s a good idea when you publish a book the first time to allow a couple of blank pages at the end, in case you flow over with a typo correction or internal blurb change.
I would love to put out a new edition of my first four novels, but I don’t think I could give them the work required by myself. Ideally I would get a small press to republish them after an in-depth revision, but so far I haven’t found anyone interested in the project.
Just please don’t retcon.
From a reader standpoint, I’m ok with seeing a scene done from a clearer perspective, or with more vivid descriptions or better language. But what happened needs to be what happened, because I don’t want to have to go back and re-read a series to find out what happened today, especially if it may change tomorrow. It robs a story of its weight when the actions and consequences can change at the author’s whim. I think that’s part of the whole Han Shot First problem.
Tolkien only got away with it because the first account of the ring is presented as what Bilbo published in universe, and is still referenced even after the new version was published. It did not not happen; the reader just didn’t see what did happen.
Yeah, no, not gonna retcon. My version of revision sticks to: readers didn’t realize this was several days later, so they felt the following chapter happened way too quickly. I only mentioned once that the time had passed. I shall also mention the time passing at least twice more, in subtle ways slipped into the text that don’t distract from the story.
Or: in reviews, readers grumbled “I can’t believe that she got over X and everything was okay!” As the author, I know that she hadn’t gotten over X, and that is *why* she did Q, later. So I shall slip in some introspection here, in the long dark tea-time of the soul, where she is quite annoyed at X and yet practical enough to know that throwing a fit about it at this point would be suicidal. And reference the long dark tea-time of the soul offhand when she does Q, so the readers who weren’t reading that closely can follow X to grumble to Q and it makes sense now.
Not everything that readers complained about could be fixed, though. A number of reviewers feel the romance was too rushed, and completely unrealistic. They also thought that her leaving the planet with him signaled a happy ever after that must be all sunshine and roses at that moment. I have no way to explain to them that both of those are wrong. This sort of relationship is, in fact, extremely well known in real life: see “war brides.” But that’s not a literary trope, and people who’ve never met the mingling of cold practicality, hot lust, and stuttering small start of true love that is a war bride are probably not aware it has been a thing for about as long as there have been humans.
Which of your books has/have the war bride thing?
Shattered Under Midnight. They’re going to have a long and interesting marriage, but it’s not “I love you unconditionally and we’re completely happy ever after.” Nah, it’s “I’m safe, You’re my safety, we’re out of there, let’s make this work.”
A story I’m working on has aspects of this.
Yes. NO retcons.
Let sleeping dogs lay.
Nothing good comes from poking at them.
Agree with Luke… I DO correct tyops and stuff like that, but no edition change.
Correct typos, fix minor wording problems (used “silver” as an adjective eight times in two back-to-back paragraphs. Ah, nope.) But big changes don’t get made, no matter how much I cringe when I think about some of them. I was learning. The books are very early in my career, and they are what they are.
The first thing I wrote for “publication” was a list that Hedgeschool Press printed about 20 years ago and I revised it, or the editor there did, every time it was reprinted which was every year or two. Over time I got rid of typos and added to the list. But that was for a homeschool crowd, for a very specific teaching point, and it’s a different buying atmosphere.
Since Dorothy Grant books are comfort reads for me and I’m not picky I did notice some changes (Kandros/Kandrieu?) but I ended up thinking they weren’t big enough to worry about. I would be very upset if there were a huge change.
Years ago I bought my mother a very old missal. She told me she had lost hers so I went looking. But what I found wasn’t quite old enough. She finally found her old *tattered!* missal and showed me constant small changes that had been made in translation from Latin. They disturbed her recollections as she read along.
And there’s a very (relatively) famous change in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. When the American edition came out he changed a scene to make it better, as he saw it. When he was dead, Harper Collins went back to the way he wrote the scene first. To me the change backwards was so striking (and I didn’t know why it had happened in the more modern versions) that I had all sorts of conspiracy ideas about it.
I’d say, my 2 cents but this looks more like a wooden nickel…
I’ve been endlessly rewriting and editing my work for the past 13 years and I really feel the first versions were absolutely unpublishable. I mean, I don’t even enjoy reading them anymore, but once I put them out there this year that will be it. Canonized. It does take a lot of energy to go back and rewrite something, but if it hasn’t been published yet it’s worth it. The other thing I’ve found is that when I run out of creative gas I can spend a week or two editing old stuff to give myself some time to refuel. But once it’s published? Unless there’s something really egregious (plot holes everyone notices, for example) I don’t think I’ll ever go back to it except to enjoy it myself once more, and also to remind myself what I wrote since I’m a gardener/pantser and only have a plan by accident.