In the world of ebooks, is a story ever finished?

vonnegut

Over the last year, a consistent comment I’ve gotten is that the third book of my sci-fi trilogy, Oyu’s Trident, seemed rushed. At the time, I thought, “OK. I’ll be more conscious of my pacing that next time.” But lately I’ve had the thought of fixing it — not changing the story, but just describing what happens at the conclusion in greater detail. I think another 20-40 pages would do it. (This would also be something to occupy my mind with while my next book goes through pre-publishing reviews.)

For some reason, at the time I finished Oyu’s Trident, I found the suggestion that it was too short to be irritating. Now I can see their point. It’s practically Japanese in its ending.

I know what I intended — war is bad, it’s not as neat as movies, and (I suspect) there’s less a feeling of victory than survival. But I recognize that I was clumsy in my execution. You can have a modern ending (you survived, yay!) without feeling like someone just unplugged the TV set.

Using reader feedback to edit a narrative is nothing new. The Iliad and Odyssey were probably tweaked over a period of centuries, as the orators responded to their audiences. “Oh, you like that fight scene? OK, I can add a stanza. The romance is dragging a bit? OK, I can talk about that like it already happened.”

Even Shakespeare tweaked his plays, based on audience response. Depending on which quarto you look at, Hamlet says either:

‘To be, or not to be, I there’s the point’ (1603)

or

‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ (1605)

This was fine, because the quartos were short and not mass-produced. They were for actors and directors, not a general audience.

It’s only in the age of the modern novel — say, Don Quixote (1605) onward — that we’ve had to nail things down. The printing process was just too costly to screw around with it.

That paper-is-expensive tradition helped forge writers like Kurt Vonnegut, who worked on each page until it was perfect, then didn’t change it again. What if the story went in a crazy direction? Well, anyone who’s read Vonnegut knows the response to that: “So it goes.”

Would it irritate you, as a reader, if an author changed the book after you read it? How about after you reviewed it?

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4 thoughts on “In the world of ebooks, is a story ever finished?”

  1. Hah- what a great question! I guess it depends. If I reviewed a book, and the author then responded to my criticisms by improving the book, I think I’d be flattered beyond belief! That would be wonderful.

    If a book got changed after I’d read it, then I might feel a little cheated, as a reader. Like “my” version had disappeared. I’d say it would be best (and most honest) to archive the older version, and make it permanently available. That would leave an anchor for your readers, and fixed points of comparison for critics. Not to mention richer grist for the criticism mill. Critics might just love the ability to analyze the temporal development of a work over the decades, as a writer re-re-re-writes the novel to adapt to his/her maturing understanding of people and the world. Fun idea! 🙂

  2. Good points. I guess the way to think about it is like Star Wars. Those of us who saw it as kids in 1977 want to see the version where Han shot first.

  3. Saw the link to this blog post on Twitter and had to check it out. This very thing has been on my mind all week. I haven’t had anyone mention it in reviews, but I feel that the last few chapters of my debut novel were a bit rushed. I want to fix it and am debating doing just thought.

    The idea that ebooks can make your story a fluid thing is really pretty interesting. I compare changing a published version of your novel to releasing a director’s cut of a film, with all the extended and deleted scenes included.

    Pondering.

  4. Thanks for dropping by! Yep, the ease of publishing does make changing/updating your ebook novel a realistic option. Just FYI, if the change is significant, you can request that Amazon push the updated version to existing ebook customers, though it’s up to Amazon whether or not they feel it’s necessary. That’s one of the few areas where we indie authors do not have full control.

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