Friday, January 3, 2014

Revising and . . . Revising

Every writer learns early on that writing is also rewriting and revising—revising, revising, revising. No mss goes out to a publisher without lots of revision, and then the editor sends the mss through another series of edits. Once the mss is published, it becomes a book, a physical thing to be held and passed around, or used as a coaster for that huge cup of morning coffee, marked up and dog-eared and forgotten in the glove compartment of a car. It is what it is and whatever was wrong with it will be wrong forever. If you misspelled a street name in chapter 7, it will be misspelled for eternity, or at least until every copy of your book falls apart. If you wince every time you recall that Aunt Matilda swore a blue streak in chapter 11 because you forgot to change the dialogue tag, you just have to learn to live with it. But that may be changing.

It is very easy to put a book up on Kindle or Smashwords or any of a number of sites that help writers publish their own books. And it’s very easy to review the text and make sure that all the tabs have been removed, the paragraphing and spacing are correct, and the chapter headings are in place. Even after an eBook is live, if the author notices the paragraphing is off, she can take down the eBook and make a correction. So, what does this mean for revising?

I have never seen a contemporary novel revised from format to format, such as hardcover to paperback, or paperback to large print, with the exception of the occasional typo being corrected. But that may be changing. If a book is published only as an eBook, almost anything is possible. I can imagine the time when a writer decides a character should change his explanation of an alibi, and the writer takes down the eBook and rewrites the passage. The new version is uploaded, and this is now the eBook. There is no record of the earlier version unless the writer keeps multiples records of the mss. Let’s take this another step. Suppose the writer changes the ending, and the villain in the first version becomes a bystander or innocent victim in the second version. Is this the same book? How many changes can the writer make before the book is a different book deserving of a different title?

I am new to the world of self-publishing, or indie publishing as some now call it. I have had eight books published commercially, both fiction and nonfiction, with another one due in May 2014. I have put all my out-of-print books up on Kindle and other eBook sites, and self-published one book in the Mellingham series. Last Call for Justice is available in both eBook and paper format. Does that mean that I can never make a change if I decide the murderer should have a different motive? Suppose I want to change the opening scene? How much can I change before the buyers of this book should be told that this version is different from an earlier one, and therefore not the book that another reader has recommended?

In November 2013 I achieved another first—I self-published a mss that had never been published before in any format and was not part of a series. Love Takes a Detour is a novella about a woman who lives and farms in the back woods of New England, living an isolated existence until a new family unexpectedly links her with a lost love and a forgotten past. After I posted the story I thought about other incidents in Zellie’s life that I could add, but I have held them back because I considered the story finished, since it’s now published. But is it?

Could I take down the eBook and add scenes and subplots and characters, and then repost it? How many, and what sort of, changes can a writer make before the story must be considered a different one? When does the book belong to the reader and not the writer? And what about reviews? When does the review of the first version become irrelevant for the second or third?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they intrigue me. If you have dealt with any of these questions, let me know. I’d like to know how others are approaching these issues.

To learn more about Last Call for Justice: A Mellingham Mystery, go here:

To learn more about Love Takes a Detour, go here:


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I really like the idea that we can improve upon our manuscripts. We can just call them the "updated" edition. For instance, let's say our "contemporary" novel was published ten years ago in print. We re-edit it because the technology has changed so dramatically in the past decade that the novel no longer appears to be contemporary. This is, of course, just one example. There are many others. As you say, we constantly find small errors that even the editors didn't catch. I know it's true of my writing. I'm going to provide a new edition of each of my novels as they come out in e-book editions too. I'm trying to improve the quality of my work all the time!

Terry Odell said...

When I got the rights back to Finding Sarah, enough time had passed that the technology was out of date. (Doesn't take long for THAT to happen!) I made some revisions, but left a note to the reader to 'step back in time (to 2005!).

I also leave a note in the description if I make changes to things other than typos or formatting, such as when I added a prologue that wasn't in the original.

I'm listening to the audio books in production now, and am catching still more little things, and when I do, I'll reupload the book again to the e-stores. But I've never made the changes you're mentioning here, and I don't think I'd do it, because changing that much makes it a different book. Readers often get upset when a publisher republishes a back list title with a new cover and new title -- they buy it thinking it's a new book.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for your comments, Jacquie and Terry. I didn't know you had already done some of this. I do think we're looking at a time when mss/stories will be a lot more flexible than ever before, more like oral literature.

Jan Christensen said...

Susan, fascinating post. I rarely think much about what's already published--too busy thinking about current writing. My concern would be about copyright. If you change the book substantially, should it be re-registered? I see fixing typos and minor errors, but to change a lot of things, especially adding scenes, I'd think you'd have a different book. So, is it one or diferent two books, now?

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jan, you're getting to one of the knottier questions. I don't know the answer but the questions really bring into focus what is happening to publishing options now. I doubt anyone knows the answer either. Thanks for commenting.

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