Thursday, 2 October 2014

When Well Enough is Best Left Well Alone; or, Confessions of a Serial Rewriter - Mari Biella

One of my major problems in life is that I’m rarely satisfied. Nothing is ever really big enough, exciting enough, or good enough for my liking. Far from being the motivating factor that some might think, this is in fact something of a curse. Whoever said that the key to a happy life was having low expectations was absolutely right.

This perfectionism is never more pronounced than in my writing. Frankly, the things I write are never good enough. There’s a sense, of course, in which this is an advantage; I’d never hit that “Publish” button unless I was absolutely satisfied that the work in question represented my best effort. There is, however, a downside.

If you hold to the principle that perfection is unattainable in this life, then revision and rewriting are, theoretically, infinite tasks. It could always be better in some way. There is, therefore, a danger that you might spend years – decades, perhaps – going over the same ground, trying desperately to get it just right. And while your dedication to your craft might be laudable, too much rewriting can sometimes be as dangerous as too little. Endlessly reworking the same book can suck the life out of it, besides keeping you, as a writer, dangerously stagnant and limited, condemned to run like a hamster in the endlessly-turning wheel of revision.



In these days of digital publishing, there is another danger. It’s very easy to upload a revised version of your book – altogether too easy, in fact, for those of us who are never satisfied. That’s fine, of course, when all you want to do is fix a typo or a formatting error. But sooner or later a dangerous little thought might worm its way into your head: couldn’t you maybe tweak that book just one last time? Tone that obnoxious character down a bit, make the ending a little less predictable, cut out the bits that drag . . .? Couldn’t you? Just this once?

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. We’re always growing and developing, and viewing past accomplishments through the prism of the present can be both informative and troubling. With the penetrating vision granted by hindsight, it’s easy to see where you went wrong, and exactly how you could have done better. Just think how much better that book might be if you could write it again now!

I was recently talking to an author friend who found herself tempted to do just that. Reviews of her first book had, generally, been positive, but some reviewers were of the opinion that the opening third of the novel was a bit slow for their liking. My friend, having read these reviews and taken them to heart, was toying with the idea of one final post-publication rewrite – of upping the pace, trimming the fat, and generally making the book just that little bit better.

The danger of this, as I told her, was that that “one final rewrite” could potentially become many. If she thinks her book could be improved now, she’ll probably think so again in the future, albeit for different reasons. Will she keep on rewriting? Will she produce a slightly different version of the book every few years? Besides, in producing a rewrite on the basis of some lukewarm reviews, might she not in fact strip the book of the things that those who enjoyed it liked about it? Couldn’t a rewrite, however well-intentioned, conceivably make her book worse, not better?

Jackie Collins' The Bitch, rewritten and self-published in 2012
It’s up to her what she does, of course; it’s her book. But the idea of a book being substantially rewritten after it has been published worries me. Sometimes, of course, there might be very good reasons for revising a novel – no less a person than Jackie Collins did so, after all, when she completely rewrote and updated her novel The Bitch for self-publication, twenty-five years or so after it first hit the shelves. But to do so on the basis of one or two tepid reviews, or because you think a rewrite might just make it slightly better, worries me. When you click on “Publish”, aren’t you in effect saying, “Take it or leave it, but this is the best I can do”? If you rewrite it later, aren’t you treating the readers of the earlier version as unwitting beta readers, rather than paying customers?


But then again, being a serial rewriter, I can certainly see the appeal of republishing a book a few years down the line. I resist the urge, of course, in view of my above-stated convictions. Or am I just being unduly stiff-necked and puritanical? Is there something to be said for going back to a book and making it that little bit better? Any opinions?

16 comments:

Jan Needle said...

i've always held the opinion that if you rewrite something three times, the fourth version will be worse than the first. Since the ebook revolution, i've decided that if you can improve an existing book later, then do it. The idea that you're doing down previous purchasers has two responses - one, when (say) Toyota discovers a fault, shouldn't they recall and improve immediately? And two, tough, it's my brainchild, not yours. Let's add a third: most novels get read only once. We are not world shatterers, we're just writing a story, for God's sake. Who cares if we rewrite it a bit? And while Nahum Tate's version of King Lear is probably not as good as Shakespeare's, it was a damn sight more popular!

JO said...

Most of what I publish is travel writing, so I can't change the facts, only the way things are structured. If someone spots a glaring typo or tells me that something is incomprehensible, then I'll go back to that.

But fiction I play with forever, going over plot, structure, point of view - the whole gammut of writing choices. Sometimes I can see it makes it better, and sometimes I've no idea but just enjoy playing with it!

Chris Longmuir said...

I know what you mean because I'm addicted to rewriting and revising as well, however, once it's up there, it's up and that's that, unless of course a typo needs fixed. As for changing it after publication surely that makes it a new revised edition and should be sold as such?

Jan Needle said...

Yes, Chris. When I change my books on Amazon I flag them as a new edition. Don't imagine many people will buy them again, though! And if they did they might be extraordinarily brassed off to discover a few sentences had been given a bit of authorial magic dust!

julia jones said...

love the hamster image - don't revise that one!

Bill Kirton said...

Yes Mari, I blogged about this a while back. I rewrote a scene from the first Carston but in the end decided not to use it. There were various reasons for the decision but the most interesting one was that, in the 20ish years since the original was published, both I and my lead character have changed so, even though it might not be noticeable to a reader, there would be a sort of temporal flaw in the new version.

Nick Green said...

Keats went back to 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' and changed, 'Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms', to 'Oh what can ail thee, wretched wight'.

What was he thinking?!

Jan Needle said...

And didn't ts elliot change "February is the coolest month" into something more poetical?

Lee said...

Wordsworth reworked The Prelude over much of his lifetime. Since I'm no Wordsworth, I'm not likely to follow his example -- but it is tempting (and I daresay my new novel is in many ways a reoworking of earlier obsessions.)

I've never quite understood the emphasis on producing a novel which is always a radical departure from the last. Some writers do, some don't. Both can work.

Lydia Bennet said...

Didn't Wordsworth write of 'The Pool' 'I've measured it from side to side, it's three feet long and two feet wide' which possibly inspired the invention of the computer, microchip, Word, and the delete button. I've met people who claim to be perfectionists and keep on tweaking at their novels but it's often just fear of stopping the writing and starting the getting it out there process, so when you meet them ten years later they are still rewriting the first paragraph.

Mari Biella said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone. I can see your point, Jan, and above all your reminder that we are, after all, just writing stories! I wish I were in a position to do a little more revision of my own - I'm currently moving house, and have almost no time for any writing-related activities!

Reb MacRath said...

Fine post and sound responses. That said, I still believe in doing 49 drafts. Somehow the number 50 seems a bit excessive while 48 seems like fleeing a really good fight.

Niteesh Yarra said...

Good lines

Lee said...

Lydia, I reckon we all start for different reasons, and stop for them as well. In my case, there's no deeply psychological motive - and not necessarily an artistic either. Sometimes I just get sick of the damn thing.

Lee said...

'We are not world shatterers, we're just writing a story, for God's sake.'

Jan, thanks for that! We all need reminding from time to time.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm a serial rewriter. Mostly because I love it. When you are working on a new play you only stop rewriting at the point where the actors say that they can't possibly learn any new lines. Usually about two days before the dress rehearsal! I'm still not entirely sure whether it's a good thing or not, but it has worked well for me so far with plays - probably because that's a truly collaborative experience in the way that a novel isn't. I think with a novel you run the risk of the whole thing imploding on you. I'm no big fan of critique groups either. The version of The Physic Garden that Saraband published had an extra 1000 words added after I first published it as an eBook. Not all added in the same place, but in two or three places, on the advice of the excellent editor who instantly put her finger on a bit in the middle that I had always wondered about - as you do - but couldn't quite see what was wrong. But I don't think I would ever make significant changes on the advice of readers and reviewers. I've had the experience of being advised to lose a third of a novel by two different 'experts' - but one suggested the first third and one the last third. I did neither!