What are the two hardest jobs for an author? Not writing a novel, in fact, though that takes countless hours of blood, sweat and tears, and not editing, though that can be gruelling, but:
- Publishing the book.
- Continuing to publish that book exactly as it is.
By ‘publish’ here I mean the act of sharing the book with the world – of sending the final, final manuscript to the publisher and approving it for publication, or clicking ‘publish’ on a self-publishing platform. Sharing a creative work is hard. Leaving that creative work alone can be even harder.
You must ship
Steve Jobs famously told Apple employees ‘You must ship’, meaning delivery is essential. Creatives can easily get lost in their art and fail to ship it, usually due to an inability to accept the endeavour as complete and ready to share with the world. But toying with a book for months, years even, isn’t helpful because:
- When you mess with art too much, you mess it up. Over-editing can destroy what was unique and beautiful in a book.
- You improve in your art through practice. So if you’re serious about writing, you need to write the next book, and then the next book, and so on (ad infinitum).
Shipping requires courage, and it can leave you feeling somewhat vulnerable. A little voice nags, Maybe you should just tweak…
When famous authors fail to ship
Perhaps you’re wondering what inspired this post. I’ll tell you: I finally got around to reading Stephenie Meyer’s reimagining of Twilight, entitled Life and Death. In her foreword, the author breaks down the changes she made in the new version of her book. By her own admission only 15 per cent of the revisions were in line with rewriting Twilight with gender-swapped characters – the entire point of the exercise. All of the rest of the changes were down to Meyer re-editing her book ten years after its publication, to fix perceived mistakes and inconsistencies and to add in elements she’d dreamt up in the last decade. She writes:
70% of the changes I made were because I was allowed to do a new editing run ten years later. I got to fix every word that has bothered me since the book was printed, and it was glorious.
I don’t doubt it was glorious for Meyer. But was it glorious for her fans, who adore her every – original – word? And was it the best use of her time, energy and talent? Wouldn’t her fans have enjoyed a new story instead?
JK Rowling is another author who upsets the apple cart now and again by questioning her past works. Take, for example, the storm that erupted when she announced that pairing Hermione with Ron was a mistake, and she should have paired her with Harry. Such challenging is fabulous for publicity, of course, but it does shake the foundations of the story world she created; it undermines the artistic work, to some degree.
The view from the shore
Every author is capable of looking at a past work and pulling it to pieces. But in doing so, you’re looking backwards, not forwards; you’re pulling a piece of art out of the time to which it belongs; you’re beating your younger writer self with a large, prickly stick.
By all means, learn from your older writing and infuse your new writing with that learning, but re-editing? I don’t advise it.
Instead, here’s a simple approach to take: ship the book, and then leave it at sea. It’s not an easy path to tread for any author, but it’s the only one that leads to writing more, learning more and, crucially, enjoying the writing journey.