This Came From A Question I Get A Great Deal…
In fact, I think some form of this question is the most common question I get overall.
The question basically boils down to this… A writer has learned something new. Should that writer go back and fix some old stories or novels to make them better?
The last two times I got this question (just yesterday and today) caused me to flash back to a memory. (Might have been being so tired from CES, but either way, here came the memory.)
I remembered clearly how when I finished a story back in my “rewriting” days it was something special. And I often would see something a year later and go back and “fix” the story to make it more perfect.
This happened all the time in my seven years lost in the wilderness of rewriting and polishing hell where I didn’t sell a story or even get a personal rejection. And only managed two “perfect” stories a year.
It never happened after I started following Heinlein’s Rules and thus started selling, but I am sure at times I was tempted.
The memory that came clearly of a “feeling” I always had about how important every story I had created was. Now this is understandable when I only did two a year. But wow those perfect little stories in my mind needed to always be perfect, and if I learned something new I would go back and fix them.
Amazing I learned anything new at all since I was always moving backwards on my writing.
And what is amazing is that none of those unsold special stories are remembered or survived, but wow were they special back then.
Then came Heinlein’s Rules and that all making stories special ended and in that first year of staying on Heinlein’s Rules completely, I did 44 short stories and all of them were in the mail to magazines. Every one of them. NO EXCEPTIONS.
And I started to sell almost at once, often stories I didn’t think worked, which started teaching me that I was the worst judge of my own work.
And my focus was always on writing the next story and getting it out in the mail.
My memory sucks, as many will attest to over the decades, and with that many stories out in the mail, I could not remember (or much care about) any of them. They were just stories I wrote at some point and mailed. (A year or so later I had over 70 different short stories in the mail to markets at the same time, all paying markets. That was my peak because they were selling at one point faster than I could write new ones.)
In other words, I faced into the future, and when I learned something, I applied it to the future stories and novels. And slowly kept getting better at craft and storytelling.
I never once, not once, turned around and went backwards to old stories. Never.
In fact, you can buy my first published novel, Laying the Music to Rest in its original exact form from the 1988 Warner Questar paperback. I had someone just type it in from the paperback word-for-word. It represents my skill level in 1987 when I wrote it.
And you can still buy my second short story sale in Writers of the Future Volume #1. (I will have a new story in Volume #35 this year.)
(By the way, I have not read either that first novel or that story in Writers of the Future since I wrote them all those decades ago. And why would I?)
Stories as Signs Along A Road Through Time
So here is how I think about all those hundreds and hundreds of stories and hundreds of novels that are out there in one form or another.
From 1982 (the start of Heinlein’s Rules) until today, each story is a marker of the best I could do at that moment in time. So think of time as a road and I have been planting signs along that road every year since 1982. And I have not changed a one of those signs.
Why do I so firmly believe this?
First… I never would have written a quarter of the work I wrote if I had been rewriting everything, and chances are I would never have started selling. In fact, I was near giving up in 1982 because of not selling and rewriting.
Second… I hate looking backward at anything. Life is far, far too much fun going forward to waste time looking backward (which might also play a part in my really bad memory that I have always had.)
Third… Learning should always be applied forward. You learn with the critical mind, but you write with the creative voice. Basically learning in fiction writing is just getting out of the way of the creative voice and giving it permission to do something.
Fourth… Rewriting is always critical voice. Can’t be anything else. The creative voice has already moved on. So if you turn around and walk back, not only will you miss writing a new story in that time wasted, but you will bring up the critical voice you are trying to control.
Fifth… You rewrite everything, eventually the creative voice will just say “Why bother.” And then not show up and you will be left trying to write from critical voice and that is not only painful, but not fun.
Sixth… And most important, by going back, you are making one story, one novel MORE IMPORTANT than other work. You make that story or novel into a special snowflake, to use a common term. And that story or idea starts growing in importance in your mind and once that happens, the creative voice just doesn’t want to play at all on even new projects.
So when you finish a story or novel, release it (Rule #4 of Heinlein’s Rules) and move on to the next story. Be excited about writing something new.
Just leave the stories and novels scattered back through time as breadcrumbs along the trail, to switch up the metaphor completely.
Nah, I like the sign metaphor better. Plant the story at that moment in time, as a marker that you were there and that was your skill level at that point and move on.
Keep learning, apply the learning to the next project, and never look back.
Doing that is a ton of fun.