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?