Thursday, April 12, 2012

To Rewrite or not to Rewrite?

I’m currently rewriting a story that I originally wrote eight years ago.  Some writers regard this kind of thing as a waste of time, or an unhealthy obsession with stories that should be left behind, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

I have many, many stories in my files that simply aren’t good enough to be published.  Most of these are stories I wrote twenty or thirty years ago and seemed a good idea at the time, although there are also recent attempts that... well, also seemed a good idea at the time.  For the most part, I leave well alone – but not always.

In the past year, I’ve had two stories published that I’d recently “done up”.  One was actually a reprint, but its original publication, back in the 90s, was in a little amateur magazine, and I doubt that I could have got that version into any of the markets I’m aiming at now.  After rewriting, which included changing it from omniscient 3rd person to 1st person, it was accepted by a pro magazine.

Another was a story I wrote in 2005, which had spent the interim garnering quite an impressive tally of rejections.  After I’d gone through it, fixing POV errors and tightening up the style, it got (I believe) one rejection from a high-rolling magazine, then was snapped up.

So what is it that makes some stories worth revisiting and others only fit for the “chalk-it-up-to-experience” file?  Well, one factor is how interesting the basic concept is.  One of the stories I have no intention of ever trying to get published, for instance, is a piece I wrote back in the early 80s about an author whose muse turns up on his doorstep.  Back then, it felt like an intriguing and novel concept.  Nowadays, it appears on many magazines’ “plots we’ve seen too often” lists.

Other stories might have interesting ideas, but the characters are flat, or the plot doesn’t do justice to the concept.  Or it might just be that all the story’s elements are OK, but not especially exciting.

Sometimes, though, stories I really believe in have spent years being rejected by all and sundry.  It might, of course, just be that I haven’t yet found that one special editor who “gets” the story enough to publish it, but it’s far more likely that there’s something wrong with the way I’ve written the story.  Maybe something fixable.

In the case of the story I’m working on now, I believe the two main characters and their relationship were interesting and the basic plot was sound.  (It may be that I’m deluding myself about that, of course, but that’s the way I call it).  The most obvious fault was the opening, where the POV sloshed around awkwardly and, for reasons I may have understood at the time, I was trying obsessively to hide the identity of the main character.

There were other issues to be fixed, ranging from technical faults in the writing to some minor plot holes.  Nothing, I believe, unfixable, and I really believe that, once I’ve sorted out the story’s problems, I’ll have a piece with a good chance of being published.  Better than throwing a decent story on the scrap heap.

In the early 1970s, the American SF and fantasy writer Poul Anderson republished his fantasy novel called The Broken Sword, written nearly twenty years earlier.  In an introduction, he explained why he’d chosen to revise and polish the novel by saying “I like to think that the author would have been glad to take the advice of a man more experienced”.  I’ve never found a better explanation for my own desire to improve some of my older works.


  1. Great post, Nyki - thanks. I have a number of things I've gone back and forth abut whether I should rewrite ...

  2. Nice post, Nyki. I haven't been writing seriously for long enough yet to have anything old to pull out and dust off. For me, the hard part is going back to something I started and abandoned several months or a year ago. I tend to be out of sight out of mind about creative endeavors a lot of the time, and if I don't get bitten by the obsession bug or hit a real snag when I'm writing something, I tend to drop it. In my case, forcing myself to go back and finish (and maybe rewrite) some of those short stories may be good for me, even if they turn out to be horrible.