Revisiting a Work You’ve Already Published: Things to Keep in Mind
It’s not often you get a chance to revise your book after it’s been published.
What would you do with that opportunity? It’d be tempting to launch a down-to-the-studs revamp—a line-by-line edit, tweaking and deleting and improving everything you found deficient the first time around. But you might not have the time or energy. You might fear that, if you do too much, you’ll strip away whatever made the book work the first time around.
Such was my thought process with Love & Bullets, a crime novel that began its complicated life as three novellas (A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, Slaughterhouse Blues, and Main Bad Guy) published over three years by indie crime label Shotgun Honey.
In 2020, the novellas were translated and bound into one edition by Suhrkamp Verlag, a German publisher. The translated Love & Bullets sold far more copies than it did as three English-language novellas. Inspired by those sales, Shotgun Honey decided to re-release Love & Bullets in English as a single-volume work—which gave me a rare shot at a re-do (provided I could do it within a relatively limited period of time).
Love & Bullets is a madcap tale of two criminal lovers, Bill and Fiona, who betray their mobster employer and run off to the Caribbean. As you might expect, complications ensue, and the wisecracking duo must make their way back to New York to steal a lot of money and confront their past misdeeds. Their misadventures through various countries’ seedy underbellies features everything from an assassin who dresses like Elvis to a deadly brawl in a self-driving Tesla.
A chain of novellas has a different pace than a novel. For Love & Bullets to work as the latter, I would need to go in and readjust the flow, shortening some chapters and lengthening others, adding connective tissue and reordering some scenes. On a more ambitious note, I wanted to bring a major character back from the dead and extend his arc through the whole book—while his death provided a nice capper for one novella, I missed having his voice.
As I reviewed the novellas with an eye toward editing them into a more cohesive whole, I realized something that probably deserves its own subhead, a piece of writerly advice I’d never considered until it was far too late:
Keep Your Notes and Outlines
Whatever format you use for all the materials that eventually inform your manuscript—paper, digital, stone tablet—it never hurts to keep them after the work has been published. Lots of things might come up in the future. Perhaps you want to write a sequel, and you need your character lists and deleted scenes in order to figure out how to continue the story. Or maybe you want to turn your novella into a play, and you need your outline so you can build out a skeleton of scenes.
I’d chucked a lot of my notes after finishing the novellas, which turned out to be a big mistake, because they contained the master timeline that I used to keep all the characters’ journeys straight. Without it, I essentially had to play detective with my own work, reading back through (again and again and again) to determine when things happened in relation to one another. After that, I could insert new, connective scenes at the right moments.
It was, to put it mildly, a pain. Your notes and outlines probably don’t take up much space (either in terms of paper or bytes). Don’t toss them.
Oh, and something else:
Think Hard About Bringing Characters Back to Life
This doesn’t just apply to rewriting your own work—if you’re writing a series (for example), you might wake up one day and decide that Awesome Character didn’t deserve to go tumbling off a cliff at the end of your second book. You might decide that Awesome Character needs another shot at life.
However you decide to bring that character back (lightning bolt, divine intervention, etc.), the return is going to exert a massive gravitational pull on your narrative. Other characters are going to react to this resurrection; you may have to retcon (i.e., retrospectively revise) your entire story in extreme ways. It’s a heavy lift, so make absolutely sure the character adds enough to justify it.
And on top of that—
Respect What You’ve Written Before
Many writers want to endlessly poke at their work. I’m one of them. It’s done when it’s pried from my cold, dead fingers, I like to joke—although that platonic ideal of done-ness inevitably crumbles in the face of deadlines.
If you’re ever given the chance to substantially revise your work post-publication, you might find it tempting to re-do the whole thing. Polish every sentence even shinier. Add all kinds of nuance to characters that didn’t exist before. Make that final twist a little more twist-y. Delete big chunks.
It’s an understandable impulse, but as I mentioned before, there’s a reason your work was published in the first place: People—meaning your editor, your agent, and hopefully a large group of readers—found it compelling. While it’s hard to identify the magic that allows your book to work, there’s always the chance that too radical a revision could snuff it out. Proceed carefully, and consider having some folks read your revised manuscript before you send it out again.
Are there circumstances in which you shouldn’t revise something you’ve already released? If you’re a bestselling author with a legion of fans, you might risk angering them if you do something radical to a beloved work. Stephen King, for example, has tweaked books and short stories; there’s probably someone who likes the original version of The Stand far more than the epic-sized, “uncut” revision he published in 1990.
Most of us won’t have that issue, though. Revising scratches that itch deep in the writer’s mind; indulge it whenever you get the chance.
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