Nine Bean Rows by Jan Needle

There's been a fair amount of silence on this site recently about the ethics of e-book publication. I haven't heard the word sock-puppet mentioned for ages, although the perennial problem of Amazon reviews and which of them to take any notice of at all clearly hasn't gone away. Why would it? We all believe, possibly with very little evidence indeed, that lots of five-star reviews lead to lots of sales. Look up Fifty Shades of Grey, or the latest Dan Brown, and I bet you'll find a million reviews, or possibly a squillion, but they won’t have shifted any extra copies. One of the most fascinating byproducts of the social media has been a mass outbreak of critical diarrhoea. Everybody has an opinion – that hasn't changed – but now everyone can not only express it, but get it up in lights. And the critical kind, like most forms of diarrhoea, is almost always shite.

Look at the beating poor old Harper Lee's been getting over Go Set a Watchman. I happen to think that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, and I have absolutely no intention of spoiling it for myself by reading Watchman. I suspect that a fair amount of kicking should have been done to all the round-eyed innocents who tore it reluctantly into the world. Like Joseph Heller's sequel to Catch-22, it shouldn’t have been written. It’s not as if either of them needed the money, or indeed any more acclaim. On a lighter note, try reading the Daily Mail online comment thread every time there's a story about immigrants. Literature it ain’t. I'd go so far as to say that literature and the social doodah are mutually incompatible. And I can't even finish off with LOL these days, I'm told. So ha ha bleeding ha.

One point about books that some writers think involves ethics is republishing older works, and changing them in the process. I must say I fell on the possibility of revisiting, reworking, and (hopefully) improving, like a dog on a very scrumptious bone. There are many books from my past that I still reckon are quite good, and I have been slipping them out on Amazon assiduously. I’ve also been assiduously kicking seven kinds of (that word again!) out of them where I’ve thought they needed it – and some people disapprove, which I find incomprehensible. I’ve always felt that a book that goes before the public needs to be as good as the writer can make it at the time of publication. If the writer decides to republish, surely it is an incumbent upon the writer to make it as good as possible this time round?

It’s not just a question of quality of prose, either. As I’ve got older my ideas of mine and other people’s prose-quality  has altered drastically. I can remember thinking that Catcher in the Rye was transcendentally beautiful, for God’s sake. It’s like anachronisms. Many writers are terrified of them, while many realize that they’re impossible to avoid, so does it really matter? I remember before the age of Google deciding to drop the word sledgehammer from a novel because it sounded much too modern to have been around in the time the book was set. In the end, I rang up my friend Francis Wheen, whose  level of education is stratospheric. I can’t remember exactly when the first reference he found to sledgehammer was, but let’s say the eleventh century or thereabouts. I was in the clear!

Recently, I discovered incontrovertible evidence that the mobile phone has been around for far, far longer than writers will allow. Mobile phones are a funny one, incidentally, because they make many of the nuts and bolts for thriller writing practically impossible. On television, of course, it is even worse. And there’s the sidebar problem that on TV there is always, ALWAYS, a perfect signal when it’s needed. Real criminals, I hope, have experiences more like the rest of us. Anyone who thinks a life of crime is easy has never tried a heist on the Yorkshire moors when good communications are absolutely vital. Strangely enough, there must have been a good signal in the wilds of Connemara at least 120 years ago, as my picture proves. Think how much easier the Riddle of the Sands would have been to write if Erskine Childers had only known. And why didn’t he, indeed? He was Irish, after all.

Stray anachronisms are something I deal a lot with in my William Bentley historical naval novels, which I am bringing out at the moment with Endeavour Press. For instance, when was the lateen mizzen replaced with a gaff-rigged sail? How many horses did an officer need to ride from London to Portsmouth, and what did he do with the ones he’d finished with? (Cowboys, for instance, each had a ramada of six or seven. While you rode one the others ran free, and when each ridden pony tired, you switched to a fresh one. Good eh?) Sadly, in the age of t’internet, there’s always some pillock to send you a rude message – or even a one-star review – if you say a main course was made of cotton instead or flax (but only up to a certain year, naturally.)  Life’s sometimes hardly Live Worthing, any more (and make sure you put Worthing in the correct bit of Sussex.)

The more interesting 'problem' I’ve been grappling with (an interesting word, incidentally, in an 18th-century sea context) is my own prose. The first book in the series, A Fine Boy for Killing, stood up very well to the passage of time, I thought. In fact, at risk of sounding just a teeny-weeny bit boastful, I thought it was bloody marvellous, although I did do a bit of tinkering and cutting with the lumpy bits. But then I threw myself into number two, The Wicked Trade. The first thing I noticed, was that I have a nervous tic, for want of a better word, which involves far too many subordinate clauses crammed into far too many sentences. Also the use of dashes to isolate some of these clauses and render them parenthetical, until I found it genuinely irritating. If I found it irritating, God knows what the poor reader thought. And over the years, this book has sold very many copies. There were other things as well, and removing or refining them took a pretty large amount of time. When I finished, the book had dwindled by several thousand words, and moved a damn sight faster. Luckily the third one, The Spithead Nymph, wasn't beset by the same disease, and is proceeding apace. Interestingly, it was shorter to start with. Maybe I was suffering from verbal diarrhoea myself when I first wrote (bad joke alert) Number Two.

Right then, let's get back to ethics. If somebody paid quite a lot of money for The Wicked Trade in hardback or paperback, do they have any right to feel aggrieved that the e-book version is shorter, faster, and better? Quite honestly, I don't know, and even more honestly I don't care. Writing is surely a living process, and if it ain't, wouldn't we be better off dead?

I'm assuming the man on the donkey cart with the mobile phone was saying 'Forget it, Seamus. An anachronism isn't worth a row of beans.'

Or if you want to be literary about it, nine rows of beans. And a hive for the honey bee.


Think you'll find that there were no round eyed innocents involved in publishing Go Set A Watchman. Just hard eyed publishers. Or were you being satirical? Many of my US friends seem to think that it wasn't a sequel at all - but an earlier version. There's a big bookstore somewhere in the States that is offering customers refunds. They have come out in public and said that it should have been honestly marketed as an early version, and then people would have been able to make an honest decision about whether to read it or not. I can't be sure about any of this, mind you, because I haven't bought it and probably won't read it. But somebody is making a killing.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes it's supposed to be the original novel she took to publishers who told her to change focus and rewrite. She's old and not in good health and pretty clearly has not been in control of all this - however some people prefer the early version. Re mobile phones, even when you can find online that inventions were around earlier than you thought, they may have been so rare as to not be part of normal life and therefore can still be ignored. The early mobiles were like bricks and needed charging all the time. In crime fiction it's easily dealt with by bad signals, phone theft or destruction, etc, and the use of 'burner phones' and the like has added possibilities. When I was a bairn, hardly anyone had a telephone - people in our street used to bring two pennies to use ours when they had to make an official or important call, and we only had one because my father worked for Post Office Telephones and had to be called out at dead of night to flooded cables etc.I see no reason not to edit or rewrite your books, Jan.
Bill Kirton said…
How refreshing to have a recent decision of my own vindicated in such an enjoyable blog. In a few weeks, I'll start relaunching my Jack Carston series, with new covers and revised texts. Like you, I wondered about the advisability of rewrites but, in the end, acknowledged that some judicious pruning and reshaping would improve the 'product'. I didn't go the whole hog and have them using their mobile phones to perform brain surgery (or whatever phones do nowadays), but passages such as the one where my sergeant enthuses about some new software he's set up on his computer were so dated they had to go. The world is moving so quickly. Good luck with the republishing.
Ann Turnbull said…
I made a few small changes when I republished Deep Water (1996), mainly tightening up (though this story is pretty tight anyway) and reducing the number of commas as we seem to use fewer these days. The plot would have been impossible if the children had had mobile phones. A phone features prominently in the plot, but it's a landline sitting ominously on the hall table. And there it must stay. The story is popular with teachers and no one has complained that it's out of date. As far as I'm concerned it's a story set in 1995.
Lydia Bennet said…
I didn't quite get that we were on the subject of updating the time-sensitive content, just improving the quality of prose if the writer feels they've improved over time. I am happy to read books set in any period, I don't see any need to start updating technology - that's the way to end up with anachronisms, as there may be the content equivalent of 'widows and orphans' which will jar. If we choose to do this, we have to be very careful - the entire plot may become obsolete, and a bit of tweaking might just show the strain.
Jan Needle said…
Yes, Catherine, I was being satirical. And I'm also pretty sure that the lad on the pony cart isn't really on a mobile, but the sun's shining and even a writer can dream, n'est-pas? As to rewrites, my opinion stands. If I read something I wrote twenty years ago and it stands out and cries 'change me' - then I change it. Really can't see the problem. It costs nobody anything, and in hundreds of years time - well, think of all the Phd students I'll keep employed!
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, I cheered every word of this. I too am a compulsive tinkerer with old books, but not a re-writer unless I realise there's a real plot disaster neither I or or my editor noticed. And the invention of the mobile phone means that all my books now happen in places where people can either complain about no signal (like our flat, strangely enough, even though it's in the middle of a big city and once outside, it's magically full styyrength even just in the car park. It's notr right to have to lean out of the window to text somebody),find themselves in a magical place where phone signals are supernaturally excluded or many years ago, before the blasted things were invented.. Actually, when reviewing an old book for resuscitation, I'm usually struck dumb by the brilliance of my style, so who am I to tamper with it? Saves time too. It also means that when I change something, it really needs changing. What a privilege it is to be able to do things like this to works which would otherwise be dead years ago. Anyway, if people can't understand subordinate clauses, then God help them. I can't - unless they pay me.

Valerie, your father and mine had the same job, which is why we too had a free phone which the rest of the road queued up to use. Winslow 87, if you feel like giving my dad a call. Though he might be outside in the rain and dark half way up a telegraph pole.
glitter noir said…
Well done, Jan. In the 25th Anny editions of my published horror novels, I'm doing more than tinkering because the past quarter-century has taught me a lot. Books 2-4 in particular suffered from deadline pressure. Also, like you, I found tics that annoyed me: over-use of ellipses...and convoluted sentences.

I'd add one more thing: I'm developing a stronger grasp of ebook realities. Shorter paragraphs and chapters, imo, are easier on most readers' nerves. Within a longer chapter, breaks may be better signified by ***** than by mere double spacing. Bold type, overused, can be off-putting. Etc.

So much to learn!
cally phillips said…
Late to this party Jan - and with a specific 'angle' (as usual) I've just published 7 'childrens' books from late 19th/early 20th century as THE RAINBOW CROCKETT. My editions sadly don't have the original illustrations - too expensive to put into paperback, but nor have I 'updated' the political incorrectness. I know that some folks will get their knickers in a twist about potential racism, and could even hit out for child abuse (lots of whacking of children) and mysogyny if they squint hard enough, but the whole point is that this is a picture of what 'ordinary' folk were reading and writing pre First World War. Not something that you'd give to children these days but for any of us who were children more than 40 years ago and who liked the likes of E Nesbit -this gives a Scottish twist to that sort of children's adventure story (even one where they go out in boats!) So it may be of interest to some of you AE'ers. Not on Amazon yet, but you can find them in the Galloway Raiders online bookstore.

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