Monday, November 24, 2008

Updike, Morrison and Roth Revisiting Old Material. Should You?

Because of the coming Thanksgiving weekend, I am reprinting this from my editorial in last week's Sharing with Writers newsletter. This week, the same segment in the letter will tell you how you can compete to be featured on the Oscars. I hope those of you who don't get the complete newsletter will send me an e-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line and I'll take care of the subscription for you.


When I facilitate critique sessions or teach, I tend to advise published authors not to go back and rewrite old novels. It is always a temptation for we do move on, learn new things about craft and publishing and formatting and grammar and . . . well, you get the idea. Nevertheless, there is so much new in the world . . . stories we must tell, helpful books we must write, etc. Having said that, I am updating The Frugal Book Promoter. It is the kind of book that needs a second edition and, hopefully, will need a third. There are some broken links, as an example, that need to be fixed.

So that's one reason to revisit our old books.

Time magazine mentions some others in their Arts section (Nov. 3 issue). John Updike, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth--a trio of American greats if there ever was one--are all looking back to earlier material. This essay/review by Time's critic Lev Grossman, gives us these valid reasons to harken back to previous books, especially if one is an . . . mmmm, older writer.

Here they are:

*It is a way for older writers to recontact our younger selves.
*It is a way for us to add to what we missed before, in terms of content. Now we're more experienced.
*It's a way for us to rectify what we got wrong. Again, in terms of philosophy or theme. I don't think reworking the finer points or the way we present our dialogue, as an example, is worth a revisit. I didn't get the idea that Grossman thought so either.
*It's a way to "register the ways that time has altered their (the author's) understanding of the world."

The last is the most important. As an example, in Updike's original Couples the theme seems to be that sex is empowerment. Now he is older he seems to understand that sex is not the issue for us we thought it was when we were young, we must find new ways to approach love to maintain our power. That is Grossman's take (paraphrased), anyway.

Both Updike and Grossman have identified some really good reasons to revisit our work. Doing so may add to knowledge and understanding of a body of work and if we're real writers we'll be concerned with what our writing as a whole says about us when we're gone.

One of Updike's characters, Alexandra, says, "Everybody needs power . . . otherwise the world eats you up." Writers need to maintain their power, too. So, as I'm fond of saying, there is always a time to break a writing "rule," including the "don't waste your time going back rule" that I frequently espouse.

Am I being too philosophical? Is it the death of my mother? Or that I am aging so fast! Is it that our boomer population is aging? That the world is changing so quickly? Perhaps a little of all of those things. But writing is a process, just like living. Sometimes we just have to do what we have to do.

Happy promoting! And yes, writing and editing, too!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

PS: Just a little teaser of things to come: Listen to my co-author, Magdalena Ball read a selection from her portion of the new poetry chapbook we are co-authorsing, She Wore Emerald Then , in her dreamy voice with her slight and lilting Aussie accent: . The book will be released shortly.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and two how-to books, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. She is also the author of the Amazon Short, "The Great First Impression Book Proposal." Some of her other blogs are and, a blog that helps writers and publishers turn a ho-hum book fair booth into a sizzler. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at

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