Friday, December 29, 2023

Ransom and the Open Window Reprinted

My short story, "Ransom and the Open Window" has been reprinted in Neo-Opsis Magazine #35. It is the third story in my Ransom and Friends urban fantasy series, but was the first to be published, back in 2019, in First Line Literary Journal.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

On Going Back to Rewrite a Previously Published BooK

An author I follow has recently posted they’re going back to rewrite their first novel. They explain that as they’ve become a more experienced—and therefore a more accomplished—author with many more books since, they now recognize the many mistakes they made in that first book. Those errors are haunting them and they have decided 2024 is the year to go back and rewrite that first novel, and perhaps parts of the rest of that initial series.

Hmmm. I have a few reservations about this announcement.

First, I liked that first novel. A lot. It’s possible some long-time fans might feel it being rewritten a tiny bit insulting. We bloody well discovered you with that novel, so don’t go saying we were wrong about it.

For example, the author now sees that the tone of the series was ‘inconsistent’, ending up a lot darker at the end than the tone of the original book; that it went from YA to a series for older readers. Um, yeah. That’s one of the things I identified that I liked about that series—that issues that seem straight-forward at first can get, not just worse, but more threatening existentially. A whole generation readers grew up following that series from YA to WTF and matured right along with the writing. We followed the hero(ine) ever deeper into grimdark, damn it, and now you’re telling us that was all a mistake?

Second, and more seriously—history tells us, authors going back to rewrite their earlier novels hasn’t always worked out well.

Let us take two relatively well known examples.

Case Study #1: Blake’s Progress by Ray Faraday Nelson first came out from Laser Books, edited by Roger Elwood, in 1975. It was a pretty good book. But as many critics noted, myself included, it just missed being a great book. And . . . we all blamed Roger Elwood for not pushing Nelson to that next level.

We expect editors to coach writers to produce the best book they can, otherwise, what’s the point of having editors? Any idiot can choose good books for a press, but the reason publishers get the lion’s share of royalties is supposed to be because they’re adding value—by editing good books into great ones.

No one had such expectations of Roger Elwood. Laser books was an imprint of Harlequin, which in those days was pumping out Harlequin Romances to a strict formula like so much processed cheese. Elwood convinced Harlequin that SF, then the second ranked marketing category just behind Romance, could be packaged in exactly the same way: 3 titles a month, 50-60,000 words, a brand-recognizable cover, and a reliable product that readers would loyally consume without even bothering to read the cover blurb. In effect, consumption based on genre rather than particular themes or authors or a unique cover.

Since we assumed Elwood was delivering processed cheese, many dismissed him and his imprint out of hand. SF readers, particularly faanish fans, were horrified by the Harliquin connection because fans had invested a lot of energy in those days distancing themselves from the genre’s pulp origins and particularly any association with formulaic Romance. (Romance has matured into a significant literary movement beyond the original limited formulaic Harlequins, and SF has become mainstream, so such attitudes have largely died out, but it was still definitely a thing in the mid-1970s).

More significantly for Harlequin’s marketing model, SF readers attended to authors and themes far more than Romance readers. Instead of all three releases selling a predictable, fixed number of copies, sales varied wildly between titles, leaving Harlequin with unsold inventory for some titles and unmet demand for others. Since that wasn’t how their model worked, they dropped the SF imprint within 2 years.

So . . . we all assumed that Nelson’s book must have suffered from bad editing.

Nelson, perhaps because he was reading those reviews, rewrote Blakes Progress ten years later as Timequest, published by Tor. No one could complain that Tor was some sort of second rate publisher, or their editors suspect.

Yet, speaking for myself, I found the new version unreadable. It was bloated, pretentious, overwritten and took itself far too seriously. Blake’s Progress was a good book, a nifty idea from which readers could extrapolate to what could have been a great book. But instead of fulfilling the promise of Blake’s Progress, Timequest was actively painful to read. I was unable to get through it.

Case Study #2 The Carpet People was originally published by Terry Pratchett in 1971, when he was 17. I was 19 that year and found The Carpet People on display in the “new books” section of the Strathcona Branch of the Edmonton Public Library. (Considering how few copies that initial version sold, I feel divine intervention was required to put a copy into my hands more than a decade before anyone had heard of Pratchett or the Disc World.) To this day, I have a visceral memory of lying on my stomach, tracing out the action of the book on the deep pile and intricate pattern of the Turkish carpet in my Mom’s front room.

To say that the original made a strong impression on me does not really cover the sense of wonder that it evoked, or that I never stopped thinking about it. It’s one of maybe five books that made me want to be a writer. Fifty plus years on, I still have the carpet I first read it on . . . and I can’t look at the pattern without seeing the roads and village of carpet people it traces out.

But here’s the thing. I knew that novel had issues. I remember clearly my having enthused to my family—and anyone else who would listen—how great that book was . . . but always with the cravat that it had flaws. “You just have to ignore this loophole” or “Yeah, this other scene doesn’t quite work” I would say, in case they actually were persuaded to read it and wondered how I could miss such obvious weaknesses.

They must have been obvious weaknesses to Pratchett, too, when he undertook to rewrite the book twenty years later.

You can bet I devoured that rewrite the moment it hit the market. And it was . . . not the book I had read.

I’m not saying it was bad. On the contrary, the new edition was essentially flawless, the mature Pratchett writing at his peak. All the weaknesses of the original were now erased, the dialogue was pure Disc-World gold, the structural issues and under-development of the original all addressed.

But, um.

As Pratchett himself famously put it, "This book had two authors, and they were both the same person." He was clear about wanting to retain the strengths of the original, of it being a collaboration with his younger self, but I would argue that revising out all of the original’s flaws necessarily erased the 17 year old. I maintain that the rough edges were a crucial part of the original’s charm. The lack of sophistication was part of what lent the book much of its vitality, its ability to massively evoke my sense of wonder.

It is not just that the elder Pratchett was tampering with a treasured memory. I get that must be a factor. Nevertheless, I think it’s more a question that each of those two authors had their own strengths and weaknesses. The original version’s strengths lay partly in its very flaws—as they say in computer software circles, “that’s not a bug, that’s a feature”.

The original version was more interactive. As a reader, I had to fill in the cracks and plaster over the rough bits myself. I took the 17 year old’s vision and ran with it. It triggered the writer in me by making me extrapolate from what was there to the bits that were missing. In contrast, by smoothing out all the edges, the elder Pratchett changed the book from a collaboration between writer and reader to one where the reader is passively watching the perfectly rendered movie that is any mature Pratchett novel.

I am not saying that mature Pratchett ruined the book’s experience or even that he eroded my own fond memories of it. For the 99.9% of his readership who hadn’t read the original in 1971, the 1992 version is perfectly wonderful. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with it. 
No, what I’m arguing is that the original had its own strengths and didn’t really need to be rewritten. It was never a failure. It served a different purpose, is all.

I completely understand Pratchett’s decision to rewrite. His Disc-World and YA fans would be expecting any Pratchett title to be the work of the mature Pratchett, and might well have been disappointed if they purchased a less polished volume. And of course, it makes no sense to have a viable property and not reprint it. But I am sad that the 17 year old’s book is no longer out there to engage and encourage 19-year-old-writers.

Which brings us back to the author I mentioned at the outset rewriting their first book in their first series from ten years ago. Artistically, I don’t think that’s remotely necessary. And I’m not entirely happy that the thematic development of the series will be smoothed out so it’s now all grimdark, not the sort of escalating existentialism that I appreciated as the original series progressed.

But commercially . . . yeah, I get it. If that first book is preventing potential new adult / grimdark fans from reading and discovering (more importantly, buying) the whole series, than yeah, that needs to be fixed. But let’s think of it as “repurposing” the book rather than “fixing” it. By all means, re-edit to relaunch the successful series for a new generation of readers. Just don’t bad mouth the original.

A lot of self-published authors get better over time, and many of them have expressed regret to me over their having rushed their first novel into print before it was ready. That’s one reason I sometimes advise authors to use a pseudonym when starting out, rather than risk associating their name (i.e., their brand) with a book that won’t always remain up to their standards.

And of course, I think the services of a good editor can make a difference in ensuring that first book isn’t something that will be regretted later, but I’m pretty obviously biased on that one.

Going back and rewriting that book, though… Usually the time would be better invested in writing something new at one’s current level than revisiting and reinvesting in—“throwing good money/energy/time after bad”—at a title that has already had its turn. Let it go, unless reader feedback makes it clear that it’s sabotaging sales of more recent titles (e.g., when it’s the first in a series and one is losing all the readers who insist on starting any series with book 1).

If one is going to revisit and rewrite—the rule has to be:

  1. wait at least ten years, to ensure one has actually gotten ten-year’s-worth-of-writing better; and also so that the original audience has forgotten it such that it counts now as a new release.
  2. Changing the title is acceptable if and only if it’s noted somewhere that this is a re-release of the old title. (Tricking people into rebuying the same book, even rewritten, is likely to piss them off enough so they never buy from that author/publisher again.)
  3. really consider the strengths of the original (e.g., youthful vitality) and ensure one is not eviscerating what made the original book work and end up with something actively worse. Rewriting is always a double or nothing bet.

Was it really that bad, or merely a different genre/demographic/market/purpose? Smart authors often deliberately choose the simplest novel (of the dozens in their brain) to start with, in order to master the craft of plot, pacing, dialogue, basic character, and so on before attempting their magnum opus. Starting with a space opera before writing one’s Dostoevsky-equivalent (or whatever) doesn’t mean the first novel was crap, just that it was serving a different purpose/market than one is writing for now. The Dostoevsky writes space opera thing isn’t likely to work out.