Revising and rewriting old books
Looking at the older drafts of my book and short story manuscripts is similar to going down into the Grand Canyon and seeing the strata of past eras stacked up like cord wood.
Every revision of a book came at a different era of my life, eras that no longer represent the focus of my thinking in the present. Same story, of course, just as I’m still the “me” of ten or twenty years ago. But the ambiance is different. The emotions change, too, depending on whether I was angry about something similar to an event in the novel or, some years later, felt more mellow about it.
I’m reworking an old novel now that has gone out of print. I’m surprised by some of the things I find: (a) Wow, did I write that? (b) Crap, why the hell did I say that? (c) I don’t remember this scene at all.
I try never to change the basic story, but tend to polish a little here and clarify the meaning a little there. Of course, Amazon keeps everything, including books that came and went years ago and haven’t been in print for years. So, if I get this book fixed up the way I want it, there will be an author’s note at the beginning that tells readers the names of previous versions. (I’m not into the romance authors’ ploy of releasing old stories with new names and/or new covers so that readers buy them without realizing they read the things 20 years ago.)
A writer’s journey down into the depths of his older work shows him (hopefully) that he’s writing better stories today than he wrote when he first started out. Most of my really old stuff never gets revised! The work also shows him where he might have slipped in recent years as though he forgot about some of his better techniques. He sees changes in himself as well, for the work–as Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
If you’ve ever come across a diary you kept years ago or the saved letters you wrote to an old friend or family member who’s since passed on, you know what I’m talking about. No matter how careful or flippant or circumspect you were, your secrets are still there–the secrets about yourself as you were then, whenever you wrote what you wrote. What a strange and eerie way to re-discover the selves we thought we’d outgrown and buried in the past.
I see all this when revise or rewrite old books. In some ways it’s a blessing, and it some way’s it’s not.