Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Forever Tinkering?

I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend that got me thinking. The article was entitled: Tinkering With the Ideal.

The article began by referencing the new Broadway revival of "West Side Story", which has had huge changes made to it by none other than Arthur Laurents, the man who wrote the original book for the show. I first heard about these changes from my husband, who listened to a piece discussing it on NPR way back in December.

Basically, Arthur Laurents felt that the show was no longer relevant to the youth of today and decided that some big changes needed to be made to update it. These weren't little changes just for show, but big ones like having Maria sing 'I Feel Pretty' in Spanish. In fact, all the Jets speak Spanish in this version of the show. There are other changes too, all with the goal of making the show grittier and more realistic.

The New York Times and other reviews have been mixed, but that isn't really the point. The point is that Arthur Laurents made the choice to change a 52 year old show that is considered a classic.

The WSJ article goes on to discuss other artists that couldn't stop tinkering, like an artist who made little changes to his painting after it was already hanging in the gallery, or a composer revising some of his most famous works so that he could earn Western royalties on them.

The example that most caught my attention though was the one about writers making changes to their works. W.H. Auden and Henry James are the two authors whom the article provides as examples.

Here is the Henry James example given from his novel "The Portrait of a Lady" initially published in 1881, and revised by him 25 years later for a new collection of his works.

This is the original:

"His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free."

And this is the new version:

"His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and
stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing
in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his
face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one
with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water
following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was

Which version do you prefer as a reader and/or a writer?

Personally, I like the added details towards the end of the revised example, in the second last sentence, but the rest of it doesn't do much for me.

More than just questioning the tinkering of others, this article also made me consider how long the tinkering on my own works might last. Right now, at the very beginning of rewriting my novel, and struggling to just make it through my first read through, the thought of continuing to make changes twenty-five or fifty years from now sounds awful.

At the same time, I know myself. I cannot go back and read something that I wrote years ago without seeing something that I want to change. Sometimes, it's just a tweak of a few works, and other times it is a huge change brought about by some sudden epiphany. Mabye these are the types of changes that can only be made once we have the distance of years, when we can see past our affection for the original idea.

The other question this begs is: if tinkering, rewriting, and revising is an endless process then how do we know when our writing is ready to submit and send out there into the world?

My thought is that you make the work as good as you possibly can right now. Use your best sense of what works, along with beta readers, and while it may never be perfectly perfect, there should be a point where it has reached a certain amount of polish and completeness.

Now what do you think? Did West Side Story need to be changed? What about the Henry James story? And in your own writing are you an endless tinkerer? And when do you know that it's the point to stop the revising and just put it out there already?


  1. I just read a fantastic post on Jessie's blog where she met with an author. She said in her blog post:

    We spoke about the editing process, and she warned against self over-editing. She said it comes to a point you are not making your manuscript better, you are just making it different.

    So... with that said, I think overtinkering is just changing your work - not improving, just CHANGING. If that makes sense. And sometimes that's good and sometimes it's bad. I know that there's a point I reach where I just have to STOP and let the story live as it is. Let it be and move on to write something else.

    Just my thoughts. I would hope that once a work is published it is fine as is and you shouldn't mess with your audience by changing things.

    I do love Henry James though, changes or no changes. :D

  2. Yes, I am an over-tinkerer. I can't help it, but I guess there comes a time when you have bundle up the baby and sent it out - never to be revised again.

  3. Perhaps instead of remaking we need to make anew. I disagree with updating a classic.

  4. I like the first better than the second. Less is more. And...there is so much to be found in the wording of the first. Images flashed through my mind without benefit of an extended description. I can see how your post is relevant to my current dilemma. We need to be able to reach a point of satisfaction in our manuscripts and then believe in what happens from there. Thanks for the post, it was interesting.

  5. I liked the first one myself. West Side Story could have been updated, I guess, but I think these authors are ruining their pieces.
    How do we know? I let myself go over my manuscript and make sentence changes about three times. No more. Now, if there's a plot problem or something needs to be fixed, that's different. I agree with over-editing. At some point we just have to step back and say, let's see what happens. Then query people.

  6. LG - I definitely agree there is a point where you can over-edit something. But I also think it's possible to come back to something at a later point in your life where your writing skills have maybe improved, or even just your perspective has changed a bit, and you can add something to a past work that does in fact make it better.

    DD - I love "bundle up the baby". You are right though - the problem is just recognizing that point when you hit it.

    T. Anne - I think it's hard to see a classic that we are attached to change, but at the same time I think it is a way of keeping art constantly alive and living. For example, I always love when I see Shakespeare productions set in a modern setting. Sometimes it lets us see something we thought we knew in a different way.

    Cindy - Yeah, I agree with that example less was more, although like I said, I did enjoy some of the additions. And I hope you find that point of satisfaction in your own manuscript too!

    Jessica - I like your rule of three on sentence changes. I've never heard of someone imposing a limit like that before, but I can see how it might be a good idea to prevent over-editing and just generally making oneself crazy.

  7. I think that's where it helps to get an objective opinion about your work. I'm absolutely loving having a professional critique service take a look at my MS. Even so, I'm sure I could still go back through after her edits, and find more! I don't think it will ever be "perfect." But I'll try!!

  8. I feel like I'm forever tinkering with my ms. ARGH!!! When will it be good enough? Ah... Never. LOL

    Lynnette Labelle

  9. Some things just shouldn't be messed with like West Side story! Though beautiful, I don't think Henry James' addition actually made that much of a difference either. There is definitely a point where you can over edit, but I think it's just human nature to strive for perfection. For my part, I remember learning in elementary about first and second rough drafts. The third should be pretty close to "perfect". Granted, if it doesn't sell, I wouldn't be opposed to going over it again, but in all reality, maybe it would be time to seek perfection (or at least progression) in a new work. If, after a decent amount of time has passed, you want to come back to an unpublished work to make changes, go ahead, but I wouldn't mess with anything that has been published. In a way, it marks our personal journey, our progression as writers. Did that make any sense at all? Too much to say, too little time.

  10. I totally tinker with everything until I'm so frustrated with it I want to die. So put me in that category, will ya? LOL.

  11. I was REALLY thinking about doing a post on over editing today. Maybe I should be LG to do one! :-D

  12. Jody - A critique service does seem great for getting that truly objective opinion. I would love to try that sometime!

    Lynnette - Good to know I'm not the only endless tinkerer!

    Janyece - Yes, that makes sense;) The funny thing is that you would do more rewrites if it didn't sell, whereas with all of these examples these are people who are tinkering with something that was already considered a success. I don't know what that means... maybe to be successful you need to be the type of person who never stops striving for perfection?

    Elana - Yeah, I know the frustration of the tinker til death feeling too!

    Litgirl01 - Wow, something about this topic just must be in the air. I would love to here your thoughts on it in a blog post as well though.

  13. I definitely over-tinker...but I do think there comes a time when you simply have to let go of it and send it (whatever "it" is) off to the world. Part of being a good writer is never feeling satisfied with your work.

    Great post!