A couple of years ago, I attended a (predictably hilarious) reading by David Sedaris. During the Q&A, an audience member asked him which of his books was his favorite. Sedaris looked both surprised and totally horrified by the question. “Once a book is published, I turn on it,” he said. “If I ever thought about what was between the covers, I’d never stop throwing up.”
This is precisely the reason I never read any of my own books once they’re published, at least, not if I can help it. I always second-guess myself, always wonder if there was a better way to begin the story. Or end it. Or jazz up all those bits in the middle.
“Once a book is published, I turn on it."
So, it was nerve-wracking to open the Word file of my OP middle-grade novel LILY’S GHOSTS in preparation for re-release as an ebook. I was tempted to put back my original ending and restore this or that scene. But, as I cleaned up the file, making various small edits here and there, I was happy to find that I didn’t want to revise, oh, everything. And I liked the ending. (My editor was very good at her job.)
But there was one scene I wanted to revisit. LILY'S GHOSTS is, no surprise, a ghost story, so it features quite a few characters who are, well, dead. Some died of natural causes, some by accident, and a few at the hands of others. There is one secondary ghost character, however, that died at his/her own hand. At the time I wrote the book, I felt it suited the story. But after looking at it again, I wondered about it. No kid ever complained about the scene, but a few adults, who tend to be a lot more sensitive, have.* And now that I'm more than a decade older than when I first wrote the story, I'm that much more sensitive, myself. I wanted to see if I could make this brief scene — just a page and a half — more powerful, even creepier, by changing the way this character died.
"You already made your choices."
I revised the scene, and brought both the old scene and the new one to my writer's group to see which they felt was more effective. Several members thought the revision was quirkier and more interesting than the old version. But one woman, a writer whose opinion I greatly respect, was adamant that I not revise the scene at all. She said I was censoring myself. And then she said, "This book was published. You already made your choices."
I've got a few worries about ebooks. One of them is that ebooks are necessarily more ephemeral and transitory than print books, especially when you take into account the fact that changing technology could render the ebooks you purchase today unreadable in a few years. I worry that editing files from one version of the book to the next contributes to the sense that stories are short-lived and fleeting, and because of this, not as valuable. And yet, I can't help but want to improve a story if I have the opportunity to do it.
I guess the questions here are a) am I censoring myself? and b) should I edit a book that has already been in print? The answer to that first question is no, I don't think I'm censoring myself. The things that might make the book a difficult choice for some — the ghosts, the light romance, mentions of the occult, the cheerfully creepy tone, etc. — all remain, as they are all central to the story. The manner of this particular ghost character's death? Not so much.
The answer to that second question, however, is fuzzy to me. Is it a bad idea to re-edit OP books? Have I already made my choices? What do you think?
*This book was a Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award Winner and an Edgar Award Nominee, but it was also challenged in a few Florida elementary schools after it won a Sunshine State Award. Though no one associated with the schools ever pointed to this scene as the reason — the administrators refused to give any reason why LILY'S GHOSTS and a few other authors' titles were challenged — a couple of people suggested that it might have been part of the problem. Me? I'm thinking it might have been the fact that the original illustrated cover skewed a bit younger than the story.