Somebody once said that no books are ever finished, they’re just abandoned, and I have found that to be so true. I just get to the point where the book is dead in my brain, I’ve worked on it for too long, and even though I know it’s flawed, that I should keep trying to improve it, I just can’t any more. That’s when it goes to Jen, and she sends me a brilliant editing letter, and I fix everything she tells me is wrong, and it goes to copy edit, and I go through the copy edit–still doing rewrites on small things–and then it’s gone forever set in stone, or at least in paper and digital ink.
Then I found Laura Miller’s article in Slate about Karen Hall rewriting a book she’d published twenty years before.
Before I read it, I thought, “That was a bad idea,” thinking from experience. Several years ago, I did a rewrite/polish on my first published book to make it technically better. When I wrote it, I had an English major’s idea of fiction; I had an MA in lit, how hard could this be? So I committed all kinds of egregious sins including headhopping (I know, I’m so ashamed). There is no (or at least very little) headhopping in Manhunting now because I fixed all the places I could by deleting the unnecessary PoV. Much tighter writing. But it was still a mistake.
The life of a writer is a good parallel to the life of any human being. You start out enthusiastic about life, not knowing what you’re doing but embracing the experience. You make a lot of mistakes. You learn. You get tougher, smarter, leaner in your views, not necessarily more conservative, although that often happens, but definitely sharper, more focused. Life becomes less about back flips on the trapeze and more about your ground game. You’ve cleaned up too many messes after back flips.
In the same way, I started out as a writer completely free, a mess at craft but inordinately confident and full of story. Twenty-five years later, I’m a much, much, much better writer, but I can’t do the back flips any more. My back hurts from the ones I did in the 90s. And besides, I was a really sloppy back-flipper.
The thing I have to remember, though, is the writer I was then believed as passionately in her writing, in writing well, as I do now. If the past is another country, then the woman who wrote Manhunting and Getting Rid of Bradley and even Sizzle is another woman, not me, not the writer I am now. She’s a lot younger, but not young, and she’s been through a lot, and she writes with a freedom and an anger I’ve lost. She’s a sloppy writer but she believes in her work. If she were a student, I’d point out the headhopping, but I would never dream of rewriting her. You don’t rewrite somebody else’s work.
And that’s why I’ll never again rewrite an earlier novel, even to polish it. I can see taking out typos and fixing italics, that’s copy editing. But a rewrite of the story itself? That’s betraying Jennifer Crusie 1.0. She worked hard, and that work got me where I am today (where am I, anyway?). And I apologize to her for fixing the headhopping in Manhunting. That was just wrong.