Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Evolving Published Story

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
file0001546045843I read a Salon post by Joseph Lord-- “Walking Dead” author is OK with AMC’s creative liberties"--  on Sunday that struck a particular chord with me.

The article was about Walking Dead creator,  Robert Kirkman’s, thoughts on AMC’s plot changes and character changes for the series (Walking Dead started out as a graphic novel.)  Basically, as the post’s title indicates, Kirkman was fine with it. 

But what I was especially interested in was this statement from Salon writer Joseph Lord:
…he doesn’t mind the implicit criticism — and revels in the opportunity to revisit, re-craft and re-create five-year-old writing.
The article goes on to explain that Kirkman is creatively involved with the television show, which means he’s helping craft the changes.

What I found most thought-provoking was the attitude behind this statement—that creative fulfillment can be found by tinkering with a completed, published story.

Now, the reason Kirkman’s story is changing is primarily because it’s going from one medium to another.  But I’ve also noticed this post-production editing phenomenon with the sudden popularity of ebooks.  Even with some of my stories.

No matter what you might hear about traditional publishing’s superior editing process—mistakes still happen.  I hate to admit that.  I didn’t catch them, even though I read the manuscripts until I was cross-eyed. My editor didn’t catch them and Penguin’s proofreader didn’t, either. I’ve made small mistakes in, I believe, nearly every single one of my books.  Not big mistakes—but hey…they’re all big mistakes if readers contact you over them. 

And readers do contact you.  They don’t look at the acknowledgments page and find the editor’s name and send her an email.  Which is fine—it’s my book.  I’m the public face for the book. 

I’ve heard about a variety of different flubs on my part with my Penguin books.  Each time I apologized to the reader who drew it to my attention, explaining that the last thing I wanted was to draw her out of the story.  And…that was basically it.  When the reader asked if the book could be corrected, I said if I was told it was going into another printing, I’d ask my editor to see if it could be corrected.  As far as the ebooks…I’ve never heard it suggested that Penguin will correct those after the fact.

On the other hand…I’ve also heard about a couple of minor errors (still…errors…grr) in my Myrtle Clover self-published mysteries.  You won’t find those errors—I removed them myself and republished the books.  Again, I apologized to the readers who drew my mistakes to my attention.  But this time, I had the real pleasure of telling them that I would correct the errors.  And that was a pleasure.  There’s nothing like fixing a problem. 

That’s a big difference right there between traditional and self-published. 

But, aside from proofreading….what might evolving books mean for the future?

I have some mixed feelings about changing books, post-publication.  I’ve read posts where writers argue for story integrity—the story is the story.   I understand where they’re coming from.

What if our story is a bit outdated?  What if we mention Facebook in our ebook and Facebook goes under (oh happy day!)?   Should we go back into our story and remove the reference and republish?  Or will this destroy historical texture in our books?  Okay, maybe we won’t do that with a Facebook reference.  But what if our backlist book referred to the Twin Towers and we were republishing it as an ebook?   Would we update those types of references, given the opportunity? What if Dickens and his descendants had updated his story all the way to the present day? 

Of course, nonfiction might acutally benefit from this approach.  Imagine creating a resource that doesn't become obsolete or outdated.

On the pro side—I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever reread an old book I wrote and wanted to make changes.  A better word, a better bit of dialogue.  A stronger verb.  Who’d even notice the difference?

On the con side--there is such a thing as over-writing. I know I used to write the life out of my story and the personality out of my characters by scrubbing relentlessly at my manuscript over and over again...when it was really fine to begin with.

What about reader preference?  What if an author read complaints about the sagging middle of his published book—then he had a fantastic idea about changing it?   Should the readers influence the book’s text?

Maybe the above example was a weak one…because I think many authors would want to fix a weak scene or two if they knew how to.  What if it were a more controversial change?  What if a writer received complaints about the profanity in his books?  Should readers get a vote on that?  What if it were fifteen readers complaining?  What if it were a hundred?  Would that change our answer?  How much input should readers have?  How responsive should future authors be and what’s our responsibility to our readers, ourselves, and our story?

One other point…we do need to get on with writing our next book, don’t we?  To establish a name for ourselves, income, and a career.  It’s probably not in our own best interests to stay stuck on the same books…after a certain point, anyway.

Or—can we/should we, as the article stated—“revel in the opportunity to revisit, re-craft and re-create”? 

How much messing with a book is too much?  And y’all…I don’t have an answer for this, so I was hoping you could weigh in. Maybe our responsibility is to the reader to provide the most perfect entertainment we can and to capitulate to their requests. Maybe that's outrageous for a finished book.  Maybe our responsibility is to the story itself.  But...I know that when I’ve gone into my self-pubbed books to make my proofreading corrections, I couldn’t resist tinkering with other stuff, too.  Where does it stop? 
Image: MorgueFile: jdurham