The Rewrite Trap

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.

Manhunting

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.

27 thoughts on “The Rewrite Trap

  1. I think we all have to remember and respect the earlier versions of ourselves, even if we’re not writers, as you pointed out. The opportunity (and temptation) to rewrite those earlier works seems to be a version of time-travel…an “if I only knew then what I know now” thing. But all those experiences and feelings shaped the person we are now, and I really loved the way you described this process.

    Recently I looked through old family albums and cringed a bit at the photo of the girl wearing the polyester printed dress with the oversized lace-trimmed Pilrim collar and the Dorothy Hamill haircut, but at the same time marvelled at the openess and optimism on her face. We may all have gained a bit of knowledge and wisdom with our years, but it’s hope that makes me get up every day!

    This was a great read, thank you!

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  2. What an interesting article by Laura Miller. I was very much struck by:
    ‘but that’s the confounding thing about novels: They’re often better, or at least more alive, when they’re flawed and messy.’
    To me, that does apply a bit to your novels. I know how hard you work on them, but your latest ones are not necessarily more fun to read than your earlier ones. Maybe you are a little bit too hard on yourself? Structure is good, but so is spontaneity, and that can be polished away.
    I do hope I haven’t hurt your feelings. I know how important a tight structure is to you as a writer, but as a reader I quite appreciate some slack occasionally.

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  3. Everything you’ve written (that was published, anyway) was fun and clever and wonderful to read. Some might have been technically better, but even a “not perfect” Crusie is better than most other people’s best. I love your early books too. Thank goodness for Jennifer Crusie 1.0

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    1. I feel the same way Deborah. Jenny’s books have provided me with so much happiness that I wouldn’t want to see the early ones changed at all.

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  4. I’ve been fortunate to meet one or two indie film makers in my time. A commonality they had was, “I can still see what needs changing.”

    Art being what it is – something that comes through the artist’s frame of reference – it is going to change when the artist looks at it again, BECAUSE THE ARTIST HAS CHANGED.

    We change in subtle ways. We don’t even realise it’s happening. Then one day we wake up and we’re all, “I sound like my mother.” Or hopefully not. Who knows?!

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  5. Btw. The film makers in question had completed their films and won mentions/prizes at, including but not limited to, Berlin and Amsterdam film festivals.

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  6. A very interesting article – yours, that is; haven’t read the other one. A wonderful point about respecting your various selves. Thank you! 🙂

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  7. I recently went to a production of Amadeus, which Peter Shaffer has rewritten regularly over the years since its first appearance. A rewrite for film is normal, but he has reworked speeches and elements of the play itself extensively to change its focus, making it a far more heavyweight text and, in my opinion, making far too wordily explicity points that were there in the original but not hammered home with a pile driver. In other words, he wrote it to death. There’s a long writerly tradition of reworking and rewriting material that the writer just can’t stay away from—I think the best form of this is writing a new work with the same themes/motifs/characters, and we can all think of writers who have done this. But seeing something written into the ground because the author couldn’t step back saddens me. There is always a point in any creative endeavor where it’s as good as the creator can make it, and if it’s not the way the creator wants, then going forward with changes makes it worse. Better to let it go (into the world, into the drawer, into the fire, wherever), and start something new, attack the unsatisfying thing from a new angle.

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  8. I loved this post and the respect for Jennifer Crusie 1.0. I think it is amazing what we accomplished when we were younger and less wise but full of energy and hutzpah. Thank you!

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  9. My first book came out in audio a few months ago, and I had to proof-listen to it before it was released. Now, I’d started this book probably ten years ago, abandoned it, then worked on it off and on, changed things as time went on and I got better as a storyteller, sent the story in a few different directions, finally finished it maybe five years ago, sent it out to agents for ages, got some nibbles but no agent, did some more rewriting (it was a story I just couldn’t abandon), and finally, finally found a publisher to take a chance on it. So, ten years. And then I had to listen to it, word by excruciating word. There was so, so, so much I would have done differently, but I didn’t really have that option, and I had to let it go. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

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  10. We all have to start somewhere, and we only get better by continuing to produce work. I’m glad you respect your younger self and your early work. I adore everything you’ve published.
    In one of our recent book clubs, we read Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, and then most of us reread To Kill a Mocking Bird. It was interesting to compare both works, see where the editor chose the parts from the first to create a more compelling work for the second, and yet, I was sort of enamored of the author’s first attempt. It was not polished, but it had heart, and truth.

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  11. I’m not an author, but I understand how this can be from writing tests and problems for my students. I do have to say that Manhunting has always been one of my feel good books that I’ve read over & over when I’ve been down and needed a good read. So you did something good there.

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  12. I recently read The Book That Shall Not Be Named and loved it. It reminded me of the pilot of a really great tv show, all the elements are there and there are flashes of greatness but it’s just not fully cooked yet. I’m a fan of 1.0.

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  13. Love Crusie 1.0 and will not be erasing her when I update to newer versions. I have enough room in my memory for all versions.

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  14. I like seeing the evolution in your books over time, if you rewrite the early ones, then we lose that evolution. As a reader I don’t see that you’ve lost any freedom or anger, but I do see that the more recent books are, I don’t know, wiser? deeper? They give more to the reader anyway, and that’s not about POV or technical skill. And yet through this evolution, they’re still clearly Jennifer Crusie, with honesty and purpose, and humour, and lightness-of-touch (can I thank you again for Haunting Alice, where all these things are right there on the page in 7000 words).

    I like re-reading your books, so I’m pleased you’re not going to change them on me 🙂 It would be like visiting an old friend and finding they’d moved house and not told you.

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  15. I always clean up old books before publication, including cleaning up my prose (BOY, did I used to love adverbs–excessively! emphatically! overwhelmingly!), and with one or two books, I added some pages here and there (or CUT some pages here and there) to make the exact same scenes or stories work better. But I’ve never changed story in an old book or done anything more than what I would consider a light tune-up before reissue. I didn’t write stories back then that I would now, and I didn’t write back then the way I write now, and I’d rather write a new book now than try to rewrite an old one that I probably wouldn’t write now AS IF I were writing it now. If you see what I mean….

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  16. I’ve heard that the process of writing a book is like that of raising a child, in that it can be very tiring and you eventually just have to let go. Photos are there as evidence that we all were once children ourselves and we cherish those.

    Don’t go destroying evidence of the journey! Cherish Crusie 1.0 even as you shake your head at her antics. I revisit her often and can’t wait for the catch-up encounter the next book will be.

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  17. I know it’s a huge sin to change POV mid-scene, but the book I’ve been working on has each chapter written from a different character’s POV (only using a few character’s heads, so I don’t drive my audience nutty). For example, the reader gets a chapter from the antagonist’s POV, enjoys her sociopathic internal monologue, and knows what she’s up to, while the protagonist remains clueless.

    Is this a sin, too? If it is, I’m in trouble.

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    1. Well, first you start by defining “scene” and “chapter” because they’re not the same thing.
      A scene is a unit of conflict.
      A chapter is a division of pages in a book that serve no useful narrative purpose.
      So if the PoV is switching between chapters you have no problem.
      If the PoV is switching between characters in a third person omninscient story, you have no problem.
      If the PoV is switching within a scene and it’s in third limited, then you’re headhopping and you’re going to Writer Hell.

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      1. Each chapter is first-person POV from a specific character’s perspective, so I should be ok. Hardest/most fun part has been creating a distinctive voice for each one (the chapter from the teenage son’s POV barely mentions anything but food & girls).

        I’m sure I’ll go to Writer’s Hell for something, though. Might be a nice vacation spot compared to teaching middle school.

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