An author’s backlist is her fortune. It’s also her taskmaster. And maintaining it sometimes brings up deep questions that go straight to the heart of storytelling. When it comes to backlist, what do you change? Do you change anything at all? Or is it all sacred and untouchable?
I’m not as prolific as I once was, but I’ve written and published something like 74 stories so far, for several of NY’s major publishers. Then I took a sharp left in 2014 and “went indie.”
Slowly but surely, with my constant vigilance and prodding, the publishers have relinquished the rights to all but about 12 of my books, and it looks as if I’ll live long enough to get those too.
Last summer, Harper Collins reverted rights to my most beloved series, Wings in the Night, a 24-book vampire romance epic, born before vampire romance was even a thing, and I took on the task of re-releasing 24 books in 12 months. So I had a crash course in backlist management.
Here’s what I learned, and how I solved the dilemma of what to change.
Scanners are stupid
If you don’t have the original files (and some of mine would’ve been on floppy disks) the first step in re-launching a previously published novel is to have the book scanned. You can ask the publisher for the electronic file first, as that would be a lot easier since they could drag and drop it into an email to you in about 3.5 seconds.
Go ahead, ask. I’ll wait.
Scanners have to guess at words when the letters are too close together for it to tell for sure. And scanners always guess wrong. They turn your "barns" into "bams," your "burns" are now "bums," and your "faces" have all become "feces." Many instances of the word “the” have transformed themselves into "die," which can really mess with the tone of the tale, and myriad instances of "I" have become "1." Sometimes “I’ll” becomes 111. So that’s fun.
Takeaway: Multiple proofreads are required.
To Change or Not to Change
That is the question. As I went back through these books, I found lots of things I wanted to change, but for the most part, I opted to keep the books pure, even when they waxed a little purple.
You could make a drinking game out of how many times the word “utterly” was peppered throughout the books, and I admit, I cut a few of those. But I also noticed the fun and lovely baby-writer things that I tell other writers not to do today, when I edit for them.
In the vampire romance, everything is…amped up. There’s not a precise word for what I mean. If you press your palms to your chest and grunt as if you’ve been gut-punched by a wrecking ball of emotion—that sound is the best description I can come up with to convey the level of angst in these books.
Instead of using one descriptive word, I tended to use them in threes. His eyes were sparkling, glittering, beaming into hers. (Not a direct quote, but you get the idea.)
There are lots of filter words, too, because it was before I had heard that term or understood what it meant—words that get in between the reader and the story. Everything was almost, practically, virtually, just as if, just about, nearly, all but, anything but, nothing if not, and so on.
Stuff like that, I admit, I cleaned up. I can’t send an editorial letter telling a writer to clean up her filter words and cut 75% of her adverbs while having a nightmare that they are, at that very time, reading one of my 90s books.
There has been a mistake in Wings in the Night that has been haunting me since a sharp reader pointed it out long ago.
Scene: Two of my vampires, one in the front seat of a car, and the other in the back seat, make eye-contact by way of the rear-view mirror.
I had decided at the beginning to adopt the “no reflection” part of the vampire mythos for my universe, so this act was impossible.
I finally had the chance to fix that!
So on fixing actual errors and on cleaning up only the most embarrassing bits of prose, I vote yes.
Should I update tech?
I’ve just been re-reading one of my best romantic suspense novels, Thicker than Water, in preparation for its re-release this summer from Oliver Heber Books. It was first out in 2003, and I cannot believe how far we’ve come with technology in our daily lives since then.
Some of the scenes brought me up short, like when one character had a roadmap, trying to read it across the dash while another character drove. In another scene, a daughter asks her mom, “Did you bring a camera?” while talking to her on her cell phone. In another, I describe a key-fob with a button on it to unlock the car as if it’s not something everybody knows about yet. There are still landlines in everyone's houses. And for some reason, people keep shutting their phones off.
Did we really used to shut them off when not in use? Who the hell does that?
At first, when it was something simple, like watching footage on a VCR/DVD player, it would have been an easy change. But as I went through the story, I realized, tech was everywhere. I read some aloud to my hubs to see what he thought I should do. He thought it was cool and should be left alone. “It sets the story in its time,” he said. “People will love that.”
If I wrote it today and got it the tech of '03 this accurate, I’d be hailed as brilliant. Because I always feel like everything has been the way it is now for a lot longer. In my mind, I’ve always texted with all five of my daughters several times a day.
Every time I hit a tech reference in the book, it jarred me out of the story a little bit. And that’s the last thing I want to do as a novelist. I want my readers to fall into the story so deep they forget they’re reading. I want them blinking like moles when they finally look up from my pages, momentarily forgetting where and when they are.
I can’t have them tripping over somebody’s Palm Pilot.
I solved the issue to my satisfaction by putting the year, 2003, in a subhead at the top of the story, and every once in a while I I made sure the year was referenced as a subtle reminder.
What about story content?
This is where it gets dicey.
My heart says content is sacred and to never mess with my story. But let’s face it, some commonplace stuff from the 90s doesn’t fly today. I think we writers have to go with our own comfort levels. If something I wrote in the past feels offensive to me today, then I don’t want my name on that. But sometimes, I made the opposite choice, and here's how I decided and what my lines were as I revisited the oldest of these books.
I removed the pejorative term “Gypsy” in reference to Roma vampire Sarafina across the entire Wings in the Night series. I think it’s an easy call when it comes to terminology like that, especially when it’s not serving any story-vital purpose. It’s not showing up in dialogue to reveal character for example, nor is it designed to reveal the social mores of the time or place. It was simply to paint a picture of the character. Roma does the same thing.
This was an easy call for me. My goal with the word was to suggest Sarafiona's character, history, and mystery. If I'd meant to use an offensive term when I wrote the book, I would have used one. Rather, I used a word that I did not understand as offensive then. The word's meaning has changed, that will change the reader's understanding and experience of the book. The scene won't mean what it meant before unless I change the word. Keeping the word the same, changes the story from what I intended it to be.
By replacing the original word or phrase with one that better conveys my original meaning to today’s reader, I am actually preserving the book’s integrity by preserving its original meaning, intent, and soul.
The male-female stuff!
Tougher decisions than these already mentioned abound, though, because of the genre in which I write–romance focused on male-female relationships, with sex. And the way we look at, talk about, and understand those things is light years from the way we understood them in the 90s.
So, inevitably I came across a few scenes that used to feel to me like flirting, and now felt to me like sexual harassment.
I usually found that I could fix most of these with the simplest of tweaks. Changing one word of dialogue, one adjective in the narrative, even one facial expression, can alter the energy of the entire exchange preserving its flirty, playful nature.
And you know, I want the readers to fall in love with my male leads, not wish they could kick them in the gonads.
There’s one scene very early in the first Wings in the Night book where the vampire proves his power by taking control of the female lead’s mind very briefly. It's a very sexy scene that touches on some favorite female fantasies.
I decided to keep the scene, objectionable as it is. It’s discussed between them going forward, the wrongness of it acknowledged and called out. I didn’t just let them go on as if it had never happened. But for me, rewriting or eliminating that scene would have been a betrayal of the story.
And you know, things like that tend to piss off my muse.
Cleaning up prose by eliminating excess adjectives, adverbs, and filter words: Yes
Updating dated, pejorative terms: Yes
Updating technology: Depends on the book, but can be avoided by setting the date.
Updating a word whose meaning has changed over time: Yes
Breaking the book's integrity by changing its original meaning, intent, or soul: No
For me the first and most important consideration is the integrity and soul of the story. That is sacred, and (in my mind) must not be changed.
Are you an author who has faced this dilemma? How did you handle it?
On sale now:
Wings in the Night: The Fiona Files
Book 1: FIONA: ORIGINS
Ebook on Kindle & KU
Paperback at Amazon and coming soon to other retailers