Friday, January 28, 2011

Second Chances

By John Gilstrap

My first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, are out of print, and the rights reverted to me several years ago. Thanks to the somewhat startling success of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series—No Mercy and Hostage Zero—Kensington Publishing purchased the reprint rights, and both will reappear on the shelves in 2011, first as eBooks and then as pBooks.

They’ll be published in reverse order, however, with At All Costs scheduled for a May release and Nathan’s Run coming out in August. The rationale here is all about practicality: At All Costs introduces FBI Agent Irene Rivers, a secondary yet pivotal character in the Grave books. With the latest Grave book, Threat Warning, coming out in late June, the reverse order seems like an attractive marketing platform. I guess we’ll see.

Enough shameless self-promotion for now.

It’s an interesting exercise to revisit stories I wrote thirteen and fifteen years ago. I have the opportunity to change anything I want—whether to merely put on a fresh coat of paint, or to pull down the Sheetrock and move the walls. I tell you that it’s tempting. If I were to write either of those books today, telling the same story, they’d be structured a lot differently. I’m startled by the degree to which my storytelling instincts have evolved.

But I’m going to resist the temptation—mostly. Fact is, I’m still very proud of both books, and I still think they’re well-written, even if I would write them differently today. They are, in fact, the books I wrote at the time, and the purist in me wants them to remain blazes on the trail I walked in the 1990s. They reflect the sensibilities and the world view of a young father with a small child, written at a time that was in so many ways different than today.

But I can’t leave them alone entirely. In fact, I think I’d be foolish to leave some elements untouched. For example, there’s one scene in At All Costs that I put in specifically under pressure from my editor at the time. I never liked it, and after the book was published, I cringed that it was there. Well, it’s not anymore. It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I don’t apologize for taking it out.

A little trickier are the changes I plan for the ending of Nathan’s Run. My original manuscript ended with a wrap-up chapter—a coda, if you will, much like the codas that end most of my later books. I took it out under pressure from everyone in my publishing food chain—from my then-agent’s assistant, through my editor and beyond. Since then, I have received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who wanted to know precisely the information that I had originally included in my manuscript. I’m putting it back.

Because it’s the ending, though—literally the last images of the story—this change makes me nervous. Part of me wants to put in some kind of note that says, “This used to be the end of the story,” but the rest of me acknowledges that it’s a mistake to interrupt the reading experience. I’ve got three weeks to figure this out, so there’s room for advice (hint, hint).

Most appropriate to threads that have been discussed here in the Killzone is my plan to largely defuckify both books.

Now, before any of you start slinging accusations of hypocrisy, let’s make this clear from the beginning: I told the publisher I wanted to do this, not the other way around. In fact, defuckification vastly complicates things for Kensington.

Again, my rationale is simple and practical: Hundreds (and hundreds) of letters and emails from fans telling me that they loved the books and believed that their children/mother/father/sister/brother would love it, too, if only they could share it. The language was the dealbreaker.

And you know what? They’re right. There’s a lot of gratuitous profanity in those books. In Nathan’s Run—a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist—there’s a passage that rhymes with “you trucking punt.” The story doesn’t need that. Perhaps no story needs that. (For the record, when I wrote that passage in 1994, I don’t think the C-word was as loaded as it is now. And, for the record, the epithet is directed from one male character to another male character.)

By way of full disclosure, a few F-bombs will remain, but in each case, I feel that they’re essential to the scene. In each case, I test-drove the scene sans F-bomb and they didn’t work.

My question to Killzoners is this: Is it okay for authors to “improve” upon their work when given a second chance, or should the first go-around live on forever?

18 comments:

  1. John, consider yourself lucky to have a second chance. I would wager no artist has every considered his or her work totally finished. There’s always room for improvement. I would take advantage of this opportunity and give your books those changes you’ve always wanted to make based upon the skill and knowledge you’ve gained over the years. Trust your instincts, especially those based on the feedback you’ve garnered from your readers since the books first came out. Second chances rarely come along.

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  2. Go for it. None of us are perfect and it is great when we get the chance to improve our work. I don't remember which artist it was, but I remember hearing that he wouldn't go back to correct even one brush stroke because he believed God had inspired him to put it there. Personally, I think he was an idiot.

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  3. I recently got my rights back to my first book, ECHOES OF LOVE. I am currently reworking it as an ebook for Kindle, and John, I'm really grateful that I can tweak the points that I was dying to change since it came out. Long live second chances!!

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  4. Laura Jane ThompsonJanuary 28, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    I think Joe is right about second chances.

    Dean Koontz re-released DEMON SEED several years ago, and although it's still my least-favorite book by Koontz, the second version is far superior. He strengthened the female lead and removed some disturbing scenes from the revised edition.

    I think you should trust your gut. You don't want to change the structural integrity of your re-released novels, and I definitely respect that. But adding a coda, altering word choice, etc., doesn't seem to be an insult to your originals. Actually, it's a very humble position to take, respectful of your years of experience between then and now.

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  5. John, those are your books and I wonder if the changes you make may start the copyright clock from day one. I say they are your books and anything you can do to make them better is something you can do so go for it. I know its hard to go back, but I would improve every book I've ever written if I had the chance.

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  6. The decision to, er, de-F the book is a good one, which should come as no surprise as my opinion.

    Re: the "coda" of Nathan's Run. Dunno. The original ending was powerful and effective. All the people "in the know" said this at the time.. If readers are asking for more material because you indicated it was there, that may not be reason enough to put it in. If there was rampant dissatisfaction with the ending, that's another matter. Personally, I liked it.

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  7. I like your conservative approach to making changes before the reprints come out. I've never been in that situation, but I think my thought process would follow the same pattern--letting the story mostly stand as it was originally written, taking into consideration that time and space in my life, but grabbing the opportunity to put in (or take out) something I felt very strongly about but lost the argument.

    I think that's a nice even-handed approach. And my gut instinct would be that too much years-later revision would ruin it.

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  8. John, Jim raises a good point about the coda. Here's an idea if it's possible. Place a "note to reader" after the last chapter that the coda is on your website, and give the address. This serves two purposes. One, it gives the reader the option of going there to read it, and second, it drives your readers to the site to tell them about other books, etc.

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  9. Yay! I've been looking for a copy of Nathan's Run--now I'll wait.
    My publisher just rereleased my first book Sea Fare to coincide with my second books release. I learned so much about writing in the two years since the first that I jumped at the chance to fix what I saw as glaring errors. I think every writer evolves, no matter what level you are at. The hard thing would be to rewrite without drastically changing the integrity of the first book. You wouldn't want to change it so much that you end of with a completely new book.
    Joe has an excellent idea about directing readers to your web-site. That is brilliant.
    Can't wait to read them!~

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  10. This is a great chance to improve your work and have it see the light of day again for a new generation of readers. Consider it a fabulous opportunity. I have the rights back to my first four romance novels. I've already revised the first three and they are now available in ebook format. I even added a glossary at the end of each book. Now I'm working on book four, and I am tightening as I go. We've evolved as writers since our earlier work. Why not make the new version the best it can be? These digital editions may be out there forever.

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  11. Joe Moore at 9:34 AM stole my thunder. That was going to be my suggestion exactly.

    Congratulations on the reprint!

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  12. Oh yeah, one more thing, John re: Nathan's Run. Don't change the author photo. That would be too much revisionism, don't you think?

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  13. I like the idea of directing people to my website for the Nathan's Run coda. I need to talk to the Kensington folks about that. My biggest concern with this rewriting opportunity is exactly what some of you have hit on. If I'm not careful, I can end up violating one of my cardinal rules of life: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    Jim, the author photo hadn't occurred to me. Definitely changing.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  14. None of us write the same today as we did yesterday, so having the chance to update judiciously is a gift. Nathan's Run was powerful as published and stands up today. But if you want to change it, John, it's your choice. It's nice sometimes that the writer gets both the last word and another chance.

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  15. Certainly you have the right to update any of your previous works--probably with a forward, I'd assume, explaining that it's a slightly new version.

    With the growing popularity of e-books, and the relative ease of updating them, I wonder whether someday it will become commonplace to have slightly different versions of the printed versus e-book content. It would be nice to be able to go back and make minor corrections on the fly in the e-book versions, such as typos.

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  16. I always love the opportunity for a do-over. I think it is a great thing to be able to clean a story up and take it back to what to what you envisioned. And who knows, but a lot of previous readers may pick it up all over again because it contains some slightly different stuff.

    This by the way is why I am loving the whole self-published ebooks thing too, freedom to make it what we want it to be and fix stuff on the fly.

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  17. "Defuckify" -I'm still laughing at that one.

    You know how those DVD's say right on the cover "now with never-before-seen footage!" Or: "Director's Cut." And so on.

    Just sayin'.

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  18. Forget Koontz and forget his book “What the Night Knows” (a ghost vengeance story, been there, done that), instead read a book that’s been BANNED like “America Deceived II” by E.A. Blayre III.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:
    http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000190526

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