Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Revising Books In Print

Over on SF Signal's Mind Meld, various authors (including me!) hold forth on the subject of revising books that are already in print, and revision in general. Here's my response.

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.

The painting is Max Reger by Franz Nölken, 1913, public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for participating in your first Mind Meld. I snagged David some time ago, and now I've gotten you. :)