AND THEN IT BELONGS TO THE AGES

First you get an idea. Then you suffer over whether or not it’s a good idea until you come to grips with what I’ve called Schrödinger’s Idea, then you start writing it anyway. Then you revise it, you suffer over it. At some point you send it to beta readers, an editor like me, your agent (if you have one), or your writing group, or professor, or no one at all. Then you get to the point where you’re pretty sure it’s at least the best you can do at the time. Then one way or another it’s published, either by someone else or yourself.

And what then?

It continues to be your book in terms of copyright, royalties, other rights, and so on. It belongs to you on a legal and financial level.

But that’s all.

Once it’s available to be read by distant strangers it becomes something more than your book, it becomes—at least as long as a reader is reading it, then as long as that reader remembers it—their book too.

In “On Taking Writing Lessons from Quantum Physics,” Hisham Bustani wrote:

As the observer plays a key role in a physical event, changing it by their mere observation, so does the reader—investing meaning in words and sentences, involving emotions and perceptions, changing viewing angles.

A text does not exist purely, supernaturally; it exists only through reading, and reading is necessarily an act of interpretation, extension, comparison, construction. It is an act of active engagement; of coauthoring; of creation.

And one thing I can tell you from bloody experience is that those unknown distant strangers might not only not like it, but might not like it for reasons that make no sense to you whatsoever. The fact that people didnt like my Baldur’s Gate“novelization” largely stemmed from the many ways it varied from the experience of the game, which wasn’t finished in any playable state when the book had to go to press. “The author obviously never played the game,” is criticism I can absolutely understand because it is indeed factually correct. I’ve written other things before and since then, including a Forgotten Realms trilogy that was often totally misunderstood and in the short term got a bunch of people I strongly disagree with thinking I was on their side…

Let’s not even get into that.

And, I’m sure like pretty nearly every published author ever, I’ve fantasized about getting the chance to set some of these wrongs right—to go back and either revise or even completely rewrite a previously published book. Could I carefully play through all of Baldur’s Gate and start completely fresh with a rigorous understanding of the story as it played out in the game rather than as it was sketched out on an Excel spreadsheet some months before anyone actually started working on it?

There is the tiniest sliver of that desire in me, but the rest of the much bigger slivers remind me that, hey, that was a lot of years ago. It’s about a body of work. Let’s face forward, not backward, and let that book be that book while I worry about the next one (if there is a next one).

In the brave new world of Kindle Direct and print-on-demand it actually is possible to go into the text of a previously published book and fix a typo, clarify some missing point, make sure your footnotes and citations are correct—and I’m 100% behind that when it comes to fixing factual errors in non-fiction, and so on. But going back and revising or even rewriting a novel?

I just don’t think it’s either necessary or worthy of the medium.

Novels are, no matter who has written it and when and where and from what point of view, a historical document. Reading a novel like The Sound and the Fury (even the “Corrected Text”) in 2022 isn’t the same as reading Cloud Cuckoo Land in 2022. With The Sound and the Fury, or The Great Gatsby, or War and Peace, we’re interacting with the story in many of the same ways we’d interact with a book published this year, but we’re also interacting with a past sensibility, a voice from the previous century, or centuries even more distant. We’re going back into the time and culture in which it was written, and maybe with the added layer of the time and culture in which it was translated.

Once the first week passes after publication, a novel belongs to the ages.

It’s out there, and the world and all the people in it—your potential readers now and into some unknowable future—are moving around it.

Don’t worry about going back to a book you published twenty years ago. Like Baldur’s Gate, that book belongs to the late 90s. The circumstances around which it was written are just as important as the words on the page, and though I’m as certain as I can be that Baldur’s Gate won’t be being read in three hundred years, if it is, then the readers of 2322 will make up their own minds, won’t they?

And for me? No take-backs.

I know it’s scary to think about, but publication, for an author, means letting go.

Your work is done, and your readers’ is just beginning.

—Philip Athans

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I can’t go back and add to this…

…so I moved forward with…

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to AND THEN IT BELONGS TO THE AGES

  1. Pingback: THANK YOU, READERS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Pingback: WHERE TO BEGIN? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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