If you’re thinking about sprucing up an unfinished manuscript or trying to get an old story published, don’t be afraid to revisit that old work—it might be better than you think.
by Edward Willett
Back in 2018, when I founded Shadowpaw Press, I had a couple of new projects in mind (a collection of my short stories, Paths to the Stars, and my grandfather-in-law’s First World War memoirs, One Lucky Devil), but after that, I thought my focus would be primarily on republishing my own older novels whose rights had reverted to me after previous publishers perished. (I often say I’ve killed a number of publishers, but hasten to add, “only metaphorically.”)
As it happens, Shadowpaw Press has expanded tremendously beyond that initial vision to the point where I’m now publishing both new work and new editions of notable previously published work in a variety of genres from many different authors. Nevertheless, I’m still endeavouring to put out some of my own older work: most recently, my very first published novel, Soulworm, released way back in 1997.
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For me, there’s always some trepidation in going back to my older books. After all, Soulworm, a contemporary young adult fantasy, was originally written in the 1980s, when I was only in my twenties (which is why it’s set in Weyburn, Saskatchewan—I was news editor of the Weyburn Review newspaper at the time). Forty years later, I’m not in my twenties anymore. Nor am I a fledgling author as I was then: I’ve got more than twenty novels to my credit, including a dozen from a major New York publisher, DAW Books, and twice that many (at least) nonfiction books. I’ve now been a full-time freelance writer for three decades.
Set aside anything you’ve written for a few days to allow the inferno of inspiration to give way to the coolness of critique.
Nor had I read Soulworm from start to finish since it was first published. There’s an oft-proffered bit of writing advice to the effect that you should set aside anything you’ve written for a few days or even weeks to allow the inferno of inspiration to give way to the coolness of critique. Going back to a book you wrote that you haven’t read in twenty-five years means the fires of creation have been swallowed by a veritable glacier of fresh perspective.
That being the case, I had already given myself permission to change the text as I saw fit, as I have done in the other old novels of mine I’ve resurrected. For most of them, those have been minor tweaks, but I fully expected Soulworm to require something more like major surgery.
And yet … it didn’t. Rather to my surprise (and much to my delight), I found the old story actually held up pretty well.
Oh, if I were writing it now, it would be different; more complex, probably; likely longer (whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure); have different pacing in places, etc. Still, it’s a decent book, and in the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that was true.
Possibly all this means is that I’m blind to my own faults; that, to steal an aphorism originally applied to lawyers, “An editor who edits himself has a fool for a client,” but I prefer to think that my initial desire to keep my earlier books available was justified. I believed in the book when it was published (and it was nominated for the Best First Book Award at the Saskatchewan Book Awards when it first came out, so I guess others did, too), and the ensuing twenty-five years of experience has not disabused me of that belief even if there are elements of it that definitely betray my youthfulness at the time of its writing.
Is there a moral to this story? Only this: don’t be afraid to revisit your old work. When Soulworm came out, there were no viable publishing options beyond the send-it-out-in-the-mail-to-publishers-over-and-over-again model. Today, there are, and thanks to that, your older titles need not languish in out-of-print limbo. Don’t be afraid to resurrect them. Don’t be afraid to tweak them. But do be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. You-of-the-past may have been a better writer than you-of-the-present fears.
Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages, and hosts The Worldshapers podcast, which features interviews with science fiction and fantasy authors about their creative processes. Edward runs his own publishing company, Shadowpaw Press, and is also a professional actor and singer who has performed in dozens of plays, musicals, and operas in and around his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan.
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