To Change Or Not To Change

ME hardI’ve had an interesting experience recently. Yawn your way through the next paragraph and you’ll find out what it was.

The original print versions of my first two novels in the Carston series were published in hardback in the UK by Piatkus. (That was exciting, of course, but strange because they were crime novels written by an unknown author and they cost £14.99 and £15.99. This was back in 1995-6 and it translates into about £30 each in today’s money. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t fly off the shelves.) They were then published in the USA by Bywater as paperbacks in the Bloody Brits series. The rights recently reverted to me (at my request) because they’ll be appearing in a new edition next year.

So, in order to prepare for the new editions, I had to proofread them. Remember, they were written in the 90s and that was before I’d fully realised the value of reading my work aloud to check its rhythms, look for repetitions, crappy stylistic touches, mis-Material Evidencespellings, bizarre punctuation, etc. In fact, there weren’t many real issues – just some repetitions that I got rid of very easily. In the first book, however, there was a whole scene – possibly the most critical in the book – which I wanted to rewrite.

A quick bit of background to the novel (and the series). I’d sent a stand-alone thriller to my agent. She liked it, sent it to Piatkus, who also liked it but weren’t doing stand-alones at the time. However, they were looking for police procedurals and asked if I’d written one. I hadn’t but, with the prospect of it being accepted, I wrote Material Evidence.

Back then, I thought that readers of crime novels probably liked a bit of gore so I made the description of the death scene a bit nasty. It’s the only scene in the book which is and, as I re-read it, I felt a bit uncomfortable. It seemed self-indulgent, was deliberately designed to shock and I wondered whether it would be legitimate to rewrite it.

So I did.

Instead of a flashback to the event (which exasperated one reviewer and upset  RJ hardanother to such an extent that they decided never to waste time reading anything else I wrote), I had Carston piecing together the evidence and clues in a way which made the solution seem the only appropriate one. The nastiness became implicit rather than explicit.

But I’m not going to use the new version. The moment it’s published, a novel becomes a product and if you make significant changes to it, it seems deceitful to sell it under the same title. It somehow questions the value and legitimacy of the first edition. Beyond that, though, I realised that the Carston who was putting together the evidence wasn’t really the same one present in the rest of the book. Since that case, he’s had four others, and each of them has changed him a bit – he’s become darker, sees sudden deaths less as puzzles to be solved and more as manifestations of the cruelties that can come from relationships and the shadows we all carry. So it seemed that I was suddenly changing detectives at a crucial point.!rough_justice

And it’s not only Carston who’s changed. The me who wrote that book was over twenty years younger than I am now and he’d never written a crime novel before. I’ve now written nine, and they’ve all got some aspect of crime in them, even my children’s novel. So, both the protagonist and the author would have changed from one edition to the next and that, it seems to me, is bad writing practice.

Anyone got any counter-arguments? I wouldn’t mind being persuaded because I think the rewrite’s not bad.

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