For those of us who have more than one published book in our resume, looking forward is only natural. The second book leads us toward the third, the fourth, the fifth. But the first? Old news, maybe even ancient history. Why revisit that first effort when so many new stories are beckoning?
There are actually a couple of good reasons.
Recently I took the time to re-read one of my earliest books. I wrote it over 30 years ago and have re-read it periodically, but the last time was several years ago. I figured I’d probably catch a few more typos, and I have, but I’ve caught more than that. I’ve found some huge honkin’ errors.
The book is a western and takes place in Arizona. When I wrote it, I lived in Oregon. Oh, yeah, I did research, but back then you had to buy individual books (or borrow from the library) for research. It wasn’t as easy or as affordable as now, when I can easily access zillions of free resources and I can check and crosscheck with just a few mouse clicks. Back then, I did what I felt was good research — good enough, at least.
I wrote about a fort in the Arizona wilderness and very dutifully mentioned the wooden stockade that we have all seen surrounding every fort in every John Wayne movie. Only problem is, now that I live in Arizona I know that no forts here had stockades.
For one thing, wood is not a common commodity in the more arid parts of the state. Except for the higher elevation areas around northern Flagstaff and the eastern White Mountains, our trees tend to be small, scrubby, and straggly. Not good stockade material at all, plus much more valuable as firewood. Added to that, stockades were not necessary; no Indians ever attacked an Arizona fort.
Forts were where the soldiers were. Soldiers had guns. The Indians in Arizona raided settlers who lived out in isolated areas, places where they could easily round up cattle and horses and drive them off without much opposition. Why challenge soldiers when settlers were easy marks?
So back to my book with this glaring error. Luckily for me, most people probably would not recognize it as such unless they knew their Arizona history. But know I now, so I need to fix it.
The second reason to revisit and revise the backlist has nothing to do with errors and everything to do with growth. I’m not the same person I was 30 years ago. I’ve changed, matured, experienced a few things. And I’ve learned a lot more about the craft of writing.
I read some of my sentences and just cringe. Clichés are sprinkled through. Some sentence structure is clunky and needs reordering; pronoun confusion sneaks in. There’s some obvious head-hopping going on in places. There are even some philosophical issues that seemed normal 30 years ago, but I feel differently about them now. There’s absolutely no question that if I wrote the book today — starting from scratch — I’d write a very different book.
However, that’s not what I plan to do. The book is what it is, and I would venture to say that I will not change 95% of it. I’ll fix the typos, fix the errors, and do some light editing, but beyond that, the book is sound and I’m happy with it. The story is solid and the characters are well defined. It’s not a train wreck, and for that I am grateful. But it’s a little like digging out a favorite trinket that was carefully packed away, only to find that there’s a chip on one edge and the shine is gone from the finish. It just needs a little TLC to bring it back to better condition… at least for a few more years.
Until I re-read it again.
24 thoughts on “One Author’s View on Revising Your Backlist”
Very good post. And very true.
Thanks, Will. Appreciate the comment.
This is something that I’ve been doing with a couple of my earlier works – fixing, polishing, and giving them better covers. However, I’m reluctant to admit that they aren’t decades old. They’re actually only 3-4 years old.
Bruce, I think it’s less about how old the book is and more about how much we’ve learned and grown as writers. The fact that you’re doing this already puts you ahead of the curve as far as I’m concerned.
I’m champing at the bit to rewrite/polish my first novel, and I only published the darn thing two years ago. It’s funny how you can think that your first novel is ready, when it really isn’t. The more you write, the more you learn–and the more you learn, you realize that “good” just isn’t good enough!
Thanks for the relevant post, Melissa.
Thanks, Linda. I’m guessing the book was fine at the time, but you’re looking at it with new eyes and a more experienced mind. The thing is, there never seems to be a finish line when it comes to books. There’s just the finish–for now.
I’m tweaking my first book at the moment too. It’s only four years old (but was in the writing process for 5 years prior to that, and 10 years in the research phase) but even I can recognise that I’ve grown in my writing since I published it. Like you, I’ve found a couple of minor typos, and I would phrase a sentence differently now, but it’s flat in parts. It needs more active words rather than passive, but I’m happy to say 95% of it stacks up. I just feel it would benefit from a few timely edits and a re-release.
Vicky, a little polish never hurts. Good luck!
I’m preparing to do the same thing with my backlist – reread, proof, edit and update the back matter. Thanks for the timely post!
Good for you, Danita. A writer’s job is never done!
Ah – yes, even with seven novels and a bunch of other books out there, my first ones all need a periodic once-over. Which I undertake from time to time, with the added bonus of a new cover. My first novel came out 14 years ago, but it’s my story collections that need the occasional spring-clean more than any other of my books.
I’ve noticed that you’ve redone several covers so they all have a similar look and feel. Excellent way to tie all your books together, even though they are stand-alones. And more food for thought on revisions…
Some of the cringifying aspects of early works become endearing with the passing of the years. I love my old short stories, cliches and all, just like you do, Melissa.
What a great, honest post! Yes, as we grow we find there’s always something in our older work that looks as though it needs a shake-up. Trouble is, if you don’t let it rest your editing work is never done. For me, the best thing is to re-read, learn, smile at myself (as you’ve so superbly done) and pat myself on the back for having dared to jump into the publishing pool. And then—onwards!
Thanks, Ester. Yes, there’s a fine line between updating occasionally and never-ending editing. Therein lies madness. Luckily, most of us have plenty of other things to do that usually have a stronger call–like new books. Yes, onward!
Excellent subject, Melissa. I’ve known a fair number of indies who have gone back and had some major editing done to earlier books based on a combination of success (they can afford what they needed to do) and a recognition of the need. That an indie can do this fairly easily is yet one more positive.
But the situation I think of when thinking of this sort of thing is more like yours. I have a friend who is a romance author and managed to get several of her titles, some 20+ years old, reverted. She went through each prior to republishing them as an indie. I know some of her changes were the kind of things you mention. However, she also make a few other tweaks to some. One was to update things that made the book sound dated. (For example, a reference to Michael Jackson as a current pop star was changed to Justin Beiber.) The other was in a few cases minor plot changes had been made at the insistence of an editor which she disagreed with and obviously continued to disagree after many years and much more experience.
Good point, Al; luckily something I didn’t have to consider when revising my westerns, but any contemporary story could probably do with an update every few years, just because the technology and pop culture change so rapidly. Thanks for adding that!
I haven’t been writing quite as long as you Melissa, but even after ten years doing so I can see things wrong with my earliest books. Not just the early ones, I’ve become much more critical as I’ve learned about the craft of writing and hopefully it makes me both more diligent and more effective as I edit new manuscripts. A few years experience certainly teaches one not to be precious about something just because you’ve written it and I now view my work with a far more objective eye.
Going back is good, and sometimes one finds gems and wonders why more was not made of them at the time. But like you, I won’t change too much.
Rosanne’s idea of new covers whenever she revises is a good one too, as it gives a freshness to the book.
You’re right, Ian, it’s a two-edged sword. We find things that make us cringe (I like Rosanne’s “cringifying”), but other things that have withstood the test of time and are still pretty darn good writing. We can be thankful for those as we fix the others. Thanks for commenting.
Ah, so true, Melissa… so very true. And by the responses I’d say that it doesn’t matter if it was something we published 30 years or 30 months ago; it’s a true measure of our constant growth.
Yup, I think we’re all in agreement here. Growth is hard work, but so much better than sitting on a single book that’s become an outdated “sacred cow.” We can always improve.
Good post, Melissa. Like you said, it’s very easy to remain forward looking, and even to just be busy wanting to read other really interesting books (as opposed to rereading your own). But, probably a good thing to do from time to time. Maybe in two or three years, I’ll check out my backlist, and cringe, too.
A little house-cleaning is always a good thing, RJ. It’s a low priority, since we’ve got so many other things to focus on, and the years slip by, but that’s ok, too. Gives us a bit more distance and objectivity when we do get around to the revisions. Thanks.
Ah, Sacred Cows, because of what they are, they invariably make themselves targets for slaughter.
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