Showing posts with label revising older works. Show all posts
Showing posts with label revising older works. Show all posts

15 January 2018

Second Thoughts and Second Best


by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I read a Facebook post from a writer I didn't know, ecstatically proclaiming that his writing was so good he never revised anything. I went to his Amazon page and opened the "look inside" button on his most recent masterpiece. His claim was about half-right. I read a page and decided he really didn't revise. If he'd been in my tenth-grade comp and lit class when I taught, he might still be there, too.

Someone I know once compared a first draft to that stranger at the bar who looks a little better after every beer. If you don't look again in the cold harsh light of day, you'll never appreciate the bullet you just dodged.

One advantage of accumulating over 700 rejections (That's when I stopped counting) is that it gives you plenty of work in progress. When I published my first short story (I think it was my 23rd), I learned enough from it to go back and revise several of the others. Some of them have sold since then, but many didn't pass the sniff test.

I wrote twelve novels before I sold my first one, too. Three or four of those early attempts have undergone major surgery, since then, always for the better. Cherry Bomb, my second Zach Barnes novel in Connecticut, started as the second Woody Guthrie (He had a different name then) book set in Detroit. The last half of the book rocked, but the first half rolled over and almost died. Moving it to Connecticut solved a few problems immediately, but it took me six years to figure that out. Blood on The Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, changed the character's name three times and had four different titles over the course of ten years and 112 rejections. The cold case surrounding the dead rock singer stayed constant, but the original story had a cozier concept that confused agents, and setting it in 1991 forced the action to stretch out over abut three months and dilute the tension.

This is stuff you learn only by doing it wrong and getting called out for it. Then you have to find your own way to fix it. That journey is a personal quest, but most people agree that you start with the major issues (Plot, structure, setting, character arc) and gradually zoom to smaller details: prose style; dialogue; backstory and description; spelling, punctuation, grammar.

I like revision because it's working with something you already have. You can't make a cake without flour and sugar and various other ingredients, and it's the same with a story. Even if it's a half-baked mess, you can add more ingredients or change the proportions and cook it a little more until you get lucky. The more you do it, the luckier you get, too.

One advantage of self-publishing is that you can go back to a WIP if you're not happy with it and not have other people screaming at you to hurry up. You can put it away and look at it again after time gives you more perspective. When you do come back, you're not as invested in it so killing your darlings won't upset you as much.

I never throw anything away (Flash drives are a wonderful invention) and I recycle stuff fairly often. The October 2017 issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine features "Death by Water," which received its first rejection in 2009. My spread sheet says I sent out three different versions of that story before I got it right. Another story that first crossed the street in 2010 will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2005, I interviewed several people and did lots of research for a book that I thought would feature Woody Guthrie. I moved it to Connecticut in 2011, and discovered the plot didn't work. Several supporting characters worked perfectly for The Kids Are All Right in 2014. Postcards of the Hanging was my sixth-year project in grad school in 1980, and about 90% of what appeared in 2013 is what I wrote then, but re-sequenced with flashbacks to introduce the conflict earlier.

This week, Before You Accuse Me, the fourth Woody Guthrie novel, makes its debut. I first conceived of the story (Including the title, which never changed, a first for me) in 2004, but knew it was the fourth or fifth book because I had to develop the intervening backstory first. That took nearly 14 years, but about half of what I thought up back then remains and the rest is stronger for the time away. The biggest change is the move from San Francisco (which would have required LOTS of research) to Connecticut, where I live. That made geography easier to work with and allowed me to feature Hartford cops Trash & Byrne as supporting characters.

It never gets easier, but you get better.

28 May 2013

The Wordsworth Trap


by Terence Faherty

My first post on SleuthSayers, "Doyle When He Nodded," was about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fascinating lapses. One of the comments I received was from fellow contributor Elizabeth Zelvin, who wondered whether Doyle would have addressed his mistakes if he'd lived long enough to bring out e-editions of his books. (To do this, the long-lived doctor would had to have outlived Sherlock Holmes himself.) Elizabeth reported that she was having fun updating her novels for their e-debuts. That reminded me of an ethical dilemma I faced while working on the e-book editions of my early novels. I call this e-dilemma the Wordsworth trap.

Wordsworth the Younger
The Wordsworth in question is William, dean of the English Romantic poets. Wordsworth was even longer-lived than Doyle, making it to eighty, not a bad trick in 1850, the year he died. It certainly broke the pattern established by his Romantic stablemates Keats, dead at twenty-five, Shelley, dead at twenty-nine, and Byron, dead at thirty-six. Wordsworth should have amassed a much larger body of work than those three, but he really didn't. In my copy of Major British Poets of the Romantic Period, William Heath editor, a survivor from my college days, Wordsworth's poetry fills 224 pages, while Byron's takes up 230. It's true that Keats and Shelley have to team up to top Wordsworth with 245 pages, but William had roughly five more writing decades than either John or Percy was granted.

So what happened? For one thing (the one thing I'm interested in), Wordsworth spent time he might have devoted to new poems tinkering around with his old ones. And not necessarily improving them. This isn't just one mystery writer's opinion. Editor William Heath, mentioned above, noted in his introduction that he went with the later, revised versions of Wordsworth's poems even though, in the case of the longer work now called "The Prelude," the original version was "livelier, less abstract, less conventional in literary form and religious doctrine." Perhaps the revised one was gluten free.

Wordsworth the Elder
The way this tinkering wastes a writer's finite time supply is one objection to the practice. Another, philosophical one is best expressed as a question. Is any human project perfectible? After all, Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for years and never got the eyebrows right. Say you think perfection is possible or that it's noble to strive for perfection whatever the odds. You're then left with another question. Whose standards of perfection apply? That may seem like an easy one. If the subject is Wordsworth's poetry, then Wordsworth's standards apply, not William Heath's or anyone else's. But which Wordsworth? The Wordsworth who thought The Lyrical Ballads was ready to go in 1789 or the Wordsworth who was still changing a word here and there in 1829?

You may give the nod to Wordsworth the Elder, due to his many years of reflection and his maturing as an artist, but what of Wordsworth the Younger's claims? He was closer in time to the experience that inspired a given poem, "Tintern Abbey," say.  And he was the one who actually wrote it. Isn't he entitled to have it the way he wanted it?

These questions came to mind when I sat down to review the e-edition of Deadstick, my first Owen Keane novel. It was first published in 1991, and I was reviewing it for a twentieth anniversary edition. Twenty years is a long time. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge (or over the damn, if you prefer) since then. I'm not the same person I was in 1991 on any level, not even cellular. I hope I'm a better writer; certainly some of the challenges that seemed daunting when I wrote Deadstick I now take in stride. But I'm definitely a different Faherty. And as such, I felt the temptation to rewrite rather than review. That is, I strayed close to the powerful jaws of the Wordsworth trap.

(I should note here that this ethical dilemma did not apply to Elizabeth Zelvin. She was reviewing a book written in 2008, a mere blink of the eye ago.)

I did make minor changes here and there to Deadstick, of course. Sometimes it was because a sentence that had passed the "What am I trying to say?" test in 1991 didn't seem to now. And I corrected at least one continuity error caused by my failure to write the series in chronological order (from Owen's point of view). But for the most part, I respected my lost self's right to have the book the way he wanted it. And I followed the same rule when reviewing Live To Regret, the second Keane novel, which just made its e-book debut, and the upcoming third, The Lost Keats. (Yes, that Keats.)

If I live to be eighty, I hope my future self will treat my current stuff with the same deference when he's preparing the thought-transference editions--or whatever they have then. I won't be around to write stet in the margins, but I hope he'll imagine me doing it.

Oddly, Wordsworth once explored the concept of the earlier self as a separate person. According to Reginald Gibbons of Northwestern University, he was the first to do so in poetry. Here's a link to Professor Gibbons' essay "Earlier Self is Other." Wordsworth cannibalized an older poem about a childhood experience for his epic "The Prelude," and then, being Wordsworth, he kept tinkering with it. In his early drafts, he's clearly writing about his own lost self; he uses first person. But in later versions, he backs away from the interesting idea that the earlier Wordsworth is a separate person by switching to third person point of view, making the lost self simply a lost boy. And that's a shame. I think he got it right the first time.