Robert Heinlein put a loophole in his "Don't Rewrite" rule by adding the phrase "except to editorial order." This is an exceptionally large loophole for self-publishers because the writer is the editor.
So you have to ask yourself, who's asking for the rewrite -- you as writer, or you as editor -- and do they have a good reason or not?
I bring this up because Dean Wesley Smith started a new series about setting goals the other day (great post -- read the comments too) and one of the things he pointed out was that one reason people go into that destructive endless rewrite cycle is fear. (Fear is a bad reason to do anything.)
This seemed like a good jumping off point for a look back at the book I just finished -- a book I did more rewriting than usual on, but also a book which is done.
"...which is done" has a special meaning here.
What it means is revisions are closed. The ship has sailed. It's after hours and no new visions will happen on this story. It's a done deal. I may do some line editing as I proof it (I always do) but that will be purely spontaneous, because it is what it is.
And that, imho, is what Heinlein's Rule 3 is really all about -- it's a reiteration of Rule 2 "You must finish what you start."
When you are your own editor, you need to be a hard-nosed business person who wants to get that dang story out there. You've got to know when to stick a fork in it. You've got to set deadlines for that creative fuss-budget who works for you.
If you rewrite from fear, you are doing the opposite. You're using the mean boss inside you to demand more work and waste your time. Fire that boss. Hire the one that sets limits instead.
When I rewrite, it's for me. I have a very strong vision of what I am going for, and yes, I do rewrite to meet that vision. (And yes, if the boss tries to stop me from that rewrite before I'm ready, I tell him to go suck an egg -- but I do recognize that is his job. His job isn't to tell me what to write, or whether it's good or not. His job is to say "hurry up!")
When you are younger and just learning your craft, your vision will be more malleable. You second guess yourself, and you're not sure about anything. This leads to what DWS calls "writing by committee." You let critique partners and book doctors and editors co-write the darn thing with you. And instead of having the best of all of the above, you end up with the average of all of the above. Just plain bland.
(I would stop to note that, for all everyone snarks about Hollywood and the way it produces stories by committee, we should all remember that Casablanca was written by committee. So sometimes the best of all the parts do make a brilliant whole.)
Ahem, where was I? ....I rewrite for me, right.
When I look back at the process I went through on The Man Who Did Too Much, you could call a lot of what I did "revision," but I don't see it that way. I see it as creation.
I've mentioned before about my method of layering in scenes and story, like a painting. Or like a movie. A movie is not done when all the shots are in the can. It still has to be assembled, and the transitions marked in and efx added, and sound (which is a multi-layered effort in itself).
I hope I'm not ruining your enjoyment with the following revelation, but take a look at this two minute clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The voices you hear are theirs and probably (though not necessarily) the sounds which were actually made by their mouths at the time the shots were taken. And I'm sure you know that there wasn't an orchestra playing in the room as they danced either. A recording was being played as they danced, but we aren't hearing the sound of a record being played in the studio. Because the sound on that would suck. No we're hearing the sound of the actual orchestra, edited in later to match the steps.
Furthermore, those tapping sounds you hear? Not Fred's or Ginger's feet. All the tapping and shushing were sounds made by the foley artist, who danced on a box in a sound booth afterwards while watching the shots being screened.
It isn't that Fred and Ginger's feet didn't make such sounds, it's just that capturing the sound effectively is tricky, and sound is so critical to tap.
So even though those tracks were recorded separately from the production of the scene -- the orchestra on its studio, and the foley artist in a booth -- these are essential parts of the story. They are necessary for the creation to be fully realized.
Laying in the soundtrack is not revision, it's creation.
Now, fiction is different from film -- film is a logistical nightmare even at its simplest level -- but even so, it's an apt metaphor for what goes on in my head in writing. Just as a live sound recording can't effectively capture the sound of the voices and the orchestra and the tapping all at once, my attention span can't always deal with all I want to deal with in one pass at a scene.
So yes, I do "revise" up to the point of finishing the scene. This particular book was like a musical, with lots of complications on the technical end.
Beware The Siren Call of Doom
However that was all done to meet the vision. The thing I never do is change the vision itself out of fear that others won't like it as much as I do, or it's not "good enough" or it's too silly or embarrassing or stupid. As soon as you start down that path, you're lost. That's the Siren Call of Doom.
And that brings me to the rewrites I didn't do.
I said above that this story is done. Not because I could think of no way to make it better, but because I declared it done.
Let's just pretend I did not have the sense (or courage) to declare it done.
In the writing of this book, I discovered something: this series is not about Karla, it's about George. Furthermore, the genre model I thought I was going for isn't really suited for the characters. I thought this was going one of those cozy madcap series where each story starts with Karla getting into trouble and calling on George to help out. Silly me. Karla is not a meddler. George is the obsessive compulsive hero who can't resist "helping" people whether they want it or not. Karla is... Nero Wolfe. A kind of zany Gracie Allen sort of Nero Wolfe, but still a person who would prefer to stay in her house and mind her own business. (Unless you want a movie recommendation.)
So if I were the "it's not done until it's perfect" sort of person, or if I were the sort of person to listen to publishing gurus, I'd be frantic right now, and put off the publication of this book for another year, so I could tear the plot apart and make it fit the new model.
And you know what? It might well be a better book if I did that... except for three things.
1.) It wouldn't be THIS book. And my motivation for writing this book is to write THIS book.
2.) That direction I discovered is where I want to end up. Why would I ever want to start there? You don't get places by rearranging the furniture where you are. You get there by moving.
3.) The first book in the series is not going to be the best book in a series. (At least it had better not be.)
That last one is the one I think most young writers (and a lot of modern agents and publishers) miss. All the great series -- the ones that last for twenty or thirty books or more -- develop over time. The first book is never the best book, and certainly not the most successful. Even those series which seem very formulaic often started differently: The first ten Perry Masons, for instance, didn't involve much lawyering. And even though they are different from later books, they are still fun to read.
Here's the kicker: most readers of any successful series did not start that series by reading the first book. MOST of the readers will come after the series is established.
And because modern traditional publishing doesn't recognize that fact, we don't have as many successful series as we once did -- because we never get to the sixth or seventh or twentieth book which draws those readers into the series.
When seen from that perspective, you have to realize that the job of the first book -- for most readers -- is very different from what we are led to expect. In traditional publishing, the first book is everything -- it's make or break. With indie publishing, not so much.
With indie publishing, we can publish the way books used to be published. We can let things sleep. The first book rather than being the lure to bring readers in, is more of a back story. It's there to fill in, to bring the reader up to speed. It's there to just be an interesting book in and of itself.
Your first book is not going to be your last book. But every time you stop to revise a book, that's another book you won't write at the end of your life -- when you're a much better writer.
So... if I were to decide to tear this book apart to make it a perfect whiz-bang kick off for the series: not only would I cause the readers to miss out on the journey to get there, more than likely I will rob them of a later, better, more satisfying book.
I'll wrap up with a thought about fear.
I have one writing fear, and it only gets worse as I get older: I am afraid that I'll never get the stories in my head written down an released into the world.
If you let fears prevent you from finishing your work when you're young -- whether it is fear of failure or embarrassment or what-have-you -- you WILL have my fear when you get old. Time is a precious thing. Don't waste it worrying about what anyone else thinks.
See you in the funny papers.