The Niggling Urge to Rewrite

I’m not referring to a work in progress here. Rewrites are standard procedure for new pieces of writing.

I’m talking about rewriting a published novel.

Have you ever read one of your own books years after it was published and thought how much better you would write it now? Have you ever agreed with a critical review pointing out fixable flaws in one of your books?

Have you ever thought about such a rewrite? Either tightening up the prose or stripping the book down to its basic concepts and embodying them in new words?

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Soon it will be ten years since I published my first novel, The Friendship of Mortals. Twenty years since I started writing it. It was inspired by, and mostly based on, a story by H.P. Lovecraft called “Herbert West, Reanimator.”

Every now and then, I think about how I would write that book if I were starting fresh right now. I even have an opening scene sketched out in my mind.

Rewritten, the book would be shorter and edgier. Herbert would be more gritty and less charming. Charles would be less willing to go along with Herbert’s schemes and would need to be persuaded by something harsher than friendship. Alma would take a more active role and not get sidelined to the edge of the plot. A clash of motives would produce more conflict and tension.

I’d have to do a sh*tload of research into the criminal world of Boston and environs in the 1910s, and the way people talked and behaved at that time. (The trouble with being realistic is you have to find out what was real at the time and in the place in question. You can’t just make stuff up and hope it passes the plausibility test.)

Or I could ditch the early 20th century setting and make it a contemporary story, dragging in technology and present-day problems and issues. Except that doesn’t excite me at all. Plus I’d have to do a different sh*tload of research — about medical schools and biochemistry, among other things. Tedious, heavy, and full of opportunities to screw up.

If I did the work and did it well, I think I would produce a better book than the existing one. But do I want to? And what if Version 2 wasn’t any better than The Original? Most likely it wouldn’t be Version 2 at all, but an entirely different work.

There definitely would be no sequel, never mind a four-book series, because the ending would be quite different. In fact, the ending would be really interesting.

I’ve always said all I need to write a story or even a full length novel is a good beginning and a good (as in satisfying) ending. Hmm…

Fellow writers, have you ever rewritten one of your books, or at least thought about it? Do you think it’s better to perfect improve an existing book or to keep creating new ones?

By the way, The Friendship of Mortals is available for free at Smashwords during the Authors Give Back event until April 20, 2020. Description and details HERE.

47 comments

  1. We had a good long look at our books last year, and at least one was rewritten. Several others were re-edited and supplied with new covers too.
    This is something we all seem to do from time to time, probably because we do get better as time goes on…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wonder if muses ever demand their writers to rewrite something. Usually they inspire new creations, and the writer would be wise to comply. I noticed this post under your banner in my Reader just now, so as always, thanks for sharing it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve extensively rewritten a couple of short stories because publishers loved everything other than the words and plot ; )

    I also have a couple of urban fantasy manuscripts I finished but haven’t published that I’ve rewritten several times in search of the “zing”.

    Haven’t yet done more than fix a few typos in a published work though.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Why not? The plot sounds different enough to be more than a rewrite. The only downside I can see is that a new “Herbert West” story violates the canon of your previously created world of Herbert West, unless you created all new characters to play their new roles. But if you do that, you might weaken the links to Lovecraft, who is enjoying a newfound popularity these days. Still, all in all, I think creating characters that are all your own, instead of borrowed, might be very satisfying. Heck, you could just move the time period of the new story up a decade or two — to the roaring 20’s or dirty 30’s — and have your new character somehow following in the footsteps of Mr. West, thus tying the two story lines together and keeping the Lovecraft connection.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes, it would be a different book, if I were to write it, which I’m now thinking I won’t, for some of the reasons you mention. My time and energy would be better spent on a sequel to She Who Comes Forth, which is already a sequel to the whole HW Series. Some of the elements of that would be present, but it would be new and fresh.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll probably never get to that point because anytime I’ve tried to write something longer than a children’s book or short story, I’ve lost interest in continuing a project. You do raise some very interesting questions. I will be interested in hearing what you decide. The comments already submitted are interesting to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve thought now and then about rewriting my first novella, “The Start of the Majestic World.” Looking back, it’s pretty bad, to be honest. I even pulled up the Word file once with the goal in mind of doing some revisions. But I could never figure out exactly where to begin–any single change I thought of only made it worse, and the number of changes I’d need to make for it to be worth doing made me decide I might as well just write a brand-new book. (Which I ultimately did–“1NG4”)

    For me, there comes a point when I’ve worked enough on a book that I know I’m done with it. Except for things like typos, if I notice (or someone tells me about) a flaw in one of my books, I commit to avoiding that same mistake in the future, and sometimes write a whole new book with the specific goal of “atoning” for the mistakes I made in past ones. But I leave the old book alone.

    I once read an interview of someone directing a comic opera. The show in question is very long and verbose, and they said many directors tried to fix that by cutting bits here and there. But that did not work, the director said, because “once you start cutting it, it unravels,” and becomes incoherent–which is much worse than long. Better to leave it as a whole, warts and all, and have it at least be coherent.

    The other cautionary tale I think of when I’m tempted to rewrite published work is film director George Lucas, who became infamous for constantly tinkering with minor aspects of his “Star Wars” films, periodically re-releasing them with tweaks that many felt only made them worse anyway.

    All that said, this might be an excuse for laziness on my part. I occasionally read books by other authors and think to myself, “Why didn’t they just make this one simple change? That would have made the whole story vastly better!” (I think this about a number of HPL’s stories, actually. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) But that of course is much easier said than done.

    To this specific case, I can’t imagine a re-write of “Friendship of Mortals”–the book is wonderful as it is, and something I especially loved about it was the very lack of a “modern” or “edgy” feel. There are so many books like that now–F of M is refreshing because of its throwback, almost genteel sensibility. You wrote it in a way that genuinely feels like a book written in that time period, which is an immensely impressive feat. Usually when people try to write in the style of an earlier era, they trip up and make jarring anachronistic errors. But there’s none of that in your book, and I loved that.

    A final note, before I wrap up this long, rambling comment which has probably been much more verbiage than you bargained for when you posed this simple question: I would love to see another “spin-off” like “She Who Comes Forth,” and one following another West in a modern setting (or even–dare I to hope?–a slightly futuristic one) would be most welcome indeed. I would be first in line to get such a book!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You make some good points here, Berthold. In fact, after reading them and thinking about it, I don’t think I will write a new version of F of M. I’m still working on a bunch of short stories, some of which are spinoffs from the HW Series. And a sequel to She Who Comes Forth may still happen; every now and then, an idea knocks on the door and I make note of it. There is definitely scope for a futuristic version of Herbert, but I don’t think I’m the one to write it. Hey — what about you? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I go back and read stories I wrote years ago and have already published, I occasionally see minor things that could be improved, but re-write? No. Like Berthold says, there just comes a point when I’m done with a story and I’ve moved on to other things.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Fascinating post! My philosophy has always been, once it’s published, stick a fork in it, it’s done. The only reason I would ever republish one of my books is if I found I had duplicated a chapter (I did find a duplication of one page in Termire Queen, so I did republish that one). I’ve often thought that if I revised The Termite Queen now, I could make it shorter just by cutting words or a few sentences – tightening up, basically. But I would never change the plot substantially. One reviewer who is a FB friend told me bluntly I should reduce the entire fourth part to two chapters – I guess it bored her to tears. But I just thought, well, phooey on you – you don’t get the point at all. You’ll never understand why Griffen was the way he was unless Kaitrin talks about him with his sister. The second plot of the book would be a wash-out. The mystery of Griffen’s psychological hangups is the secondary (or even primary) aspect of the book. (And it also gave me the opportunity to describe life in Africa in the 30th c.) I would sure have liked to have reduced the length of Man Who Found Birds, Parts 5 and 6, but I worked on that a long time and couldn’t do it, so now it’s published and set in stone. Take it or leave it.
    As for Friendship of Mortals, I loved it – don’t rewrite it. My only quibble is a few things in the end that aren’t resolved, but many of those are handled in the subsequent books.
    Re researching the period – laziness on my part is one of the reasons my books are all laid in the distant future. More freedom to construct technology and physical settings. I do try to base my fictional science on present-day science, but I discover the undiscovered along the way.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You already do a ton of research, I suspect. That’s why the termite books are so interesting and the science and technology in the MWFB ones is so solid.
      Actually, I don’t really intend to rewrite F of M. If I really feel the need to write out that alternate beginning, I’ll just do that and put it up on my blog or something. I do have a list of other stories to be written, as well as an unpublished manuscript (literary fiction) that’s been waiting in the wings for a decade.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m only one of your readers, not a writer. But as a singer, I have experience with composers who want to constantly tinker with their works. I would say, leave it alone. The urge to rewrite may be more of a temptation. Let something new gestate. Like one of the other commenters above, I am waiting for a sequel to “She Who Comes Forth”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right — writing a sequel to SWCF would be a better use of my time, as well as publishing Winter Journeys. AND there’s that annoying story collection to finish up! Thanks for your thoughts, Lorna.

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  9. If you found a new spice or technique that livened up an old recipe, would you apply it in future?

    The trouble with writing is that you get better with time. The stories you had in the beginning of your career are still just as vibrant and potentially enduring today but their telling sucked. They deserve better now that you can do better. Or so one would think.

    If my original novels had shit concepts, themes, plots and characters then I’d say yeah, sit there dusty on the shelf. But they still speak to me, “Make me better, worthy of new readers, representative of your advanced craft.”

    But who has the time?

    Maybe if Spielberg rang in, “Found your story in a dumpster, good plot, needs a rewrite. Let me know when you’re done.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The beauty of publishing e-books is that it’s relatively easy to edit and republish with no one the wiser. It helps with typos, misspelled words and changes. I’ve done a complete revision of my first published book which I converted to e-book. Now I’ve republished it as a paperback combined with it’s sequel. Amazon is making it much easier to publish both e-book and paperback at a decent price, and priced separately.. I agree with most of the others and say leave A Friendship of Mortals alone. There are too many who’ve read the book and it’s sequels and like it the way it is.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. If I were to rewrite it (which I’m not, after reading all the comments and thinking about them), it would be a totally new work with a different title and cover. But that does’t need to happen. Thanks for weighing in, Patrick!

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  11. I’m a little late to say anything that hasn’t already been said! When I look at the books I’ve published, even the earliest ones, all I see is an occasional sentence that needs a rewrite. Have never had the urge to rewrite a published book, though I did change the cover on one. Maybe because I’m obsessive about rewriting before I publish. Which is why it takes me so long to finish a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’ve successfully resisted the rewrite urge. Now I just have to get my creative brain in gear to write something new. You make a good point about getting it right, even if it takes longer.

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  12. Yes, I did a second edition, reviewed of 2 of my 10 published books and I am working on other 2 novels now (who were designed as a series, but this time also each volume will be able to be read independently). However, none of them becomes a different story through editing. Minor things might be cut out, the characterisation or action might improve here and there by a couple of paragraphs added, the narrative flow is streamlined, not changed.

    And the other 6 of my published books won’t have a reviewed edition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a difference between correcting errors and improving specific parts of a book and a total rewriting of the basic story. After reading comments and doing some thinking, I’ve decided it’s best to leave my published books as they are and concentrate on writing new material. Thanks for your thoughts, Marina!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve had a fair number of my books come out in second edition, which has involved various levels of re-working. All are non-fiction. Often it’s involved updating with more recent information, but there’s also been a fair amount of re-thinking. Whether the new version is ‘better’ than the old is moot: I do what I think is right at the time. I suspect most writers fall into that category. New thoughts usually arrive post-fact, and if opportunity arises it’s always good to express them if possible. The issue is doing so: the problem with getting second editions is that the first has to sell well enough to justify it, and there has to be sufficient market to judge the risk of re-publishing worthwhile.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The situation is different for non-fiction, isn’t it? There would be a demand for an improved and updated edition of a book that has sold reasonably well. In fiction, on the other hand, people who have already read a book may not be interested because they’ve already experienced that story. Unless it’s a mega bestseller or a classic and gets a lot of hype.

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  14. Oh-oh, not the ‘niggles!’ … I was tempted for a long while with ‘Mortal Instinct’, even had a few chapters all rewritten, but ultimately. I wasn’t the person I was when I first wrote it, and to haul that story through time to try and fix it in the here-and-now, seemed like, a) way too much work on something that was already complete in it’s own right, whether I liked it or not, and b) I wanted to spend my time and writerly energies on writing/editing new stuff … so it stands as is. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I published a mystery back in 1995, which had some nice reviews and I eventually sold out of the 1,500 print copies I had. But in looking over the first chapter a while back, I didn’t like the writing at all, so the question of rewriting the book came to mind. In the end, I decided to let it go and stick with current and new projects. For me, a large part of my writing life is about moving on, and writing newer, better books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the consensus from everyone who’s commented to this post. It confirms my inclination to let published books be what they are and use my experience with them to write new material. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Debra!

      Liked by 1 person

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