Revising Old Books

Sometime I’m really going to have to learn how to use Squarespace, but I’m like most people – I jump right into a program or a piece of technology and it’s only under duress that I RTFM (Read The Fucking Manual). But I digress.

That’s a very old book of mine – Banish Misfortune (which belatedly all the editors realized you said Banish Mishfortune if you weren’t careful)l. When Harlequin was finally going to reprint it they were going to change the title, but then we took it back and I’m going to leave it, because Banish Misfortune is a wonderful old fiddle tune that’s important to the story (and if I knew more about Squarespace I could put a youtube video or music file right here). Editors grab titles out of nowhere (think A Rose at Midnight) and sometimes we writers can save the day (I was given the title One More Valentine but I managed to put it into the book is a really interesting way). You remember I’m somewhat overfond of my own writing, right? I’ve never written a ghastly book, but some could easily disappear and I wouldn’t shed a tear, and others, to me, are absolutely brilliant. Revising my older books has been an instructive journey, but this particular book is unlike all others.

This was written in 1983, on a typewriter (God help me). Back then Harlequin American had just started, and they decided they wanted a single title off-shoot – this was one of their many experiments before they finally got it right with Mira. I think there were five of us who wrote these – they were called Harlequin American Premier Editions. But like most of HQ’s early single-title experiments it foundered, and BANISH MISFORTUNE, the third of the five books they put out, had a total of just over 5,000 copies sold. That, at a time when romances were selling insanely well, was absurd.

Since then (early 1985, it turns out) it’s never been republished, also unknown in the Harlequin universe, and had no foreign sales. Which is no big deal except it won the precursor of the RITA that year (called the Golden Medallion, but RWA considers it a RITA for statistics’ sake). To my amusement it beat out a Lavyrle Spencer book (albeit a minor one). And damn, it’s a good book. But …

I’ve noticed going through all these older books that there wasn’t much editing done. I knew that anyway – I’d sometimes get mss. back with not a pencil mark on them – I think BLACK ICE didn’t have red marks until page 117 (that stuck in my mind). Now BLACK ICE is one of my best books, but even I, in my own inflated self-esteem, know i’m not that good. I think part of the problem was that I was uber-literate compared to some of the other writers – I was published when I was 25, I grew up in an academic family so grammar, sentence structure, all the technical stuff were ingrained in me, and editors seldom had to bother, so they kept attention on the ones who needed more help. (That’s not all of my books, of course, and I had some real howlers, including one where, in technically grammatical terms the hero was wearing pink panties and a lace bra instead of the heroine he was looking at.)

I caught a lot of the more ghastly ones, which I’ll tell you about later. But in the meantime, I have BANISH MISFORTUNE back in my lap, and I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

For one thing, I head hop! Oh, the humanity! It’s one thing I find very difficult in other writers – there are some lovely books with mixed POV, but I never write them, never read them, have always considered them even worse than Jenny Crusie considers flashbacks and epilogues (and for her those are practically moral crimes). I have no idea how I could have done it it – at first I wanted to blame the editor but it happens too often for it to be someone else fucking up my book. We just go along in the heroine’s POV, where she’s looking at the hero and thinking how hot he is (or something like that) and suddenly we have a paragraph of him thinking how hot she is. Not a great crime for most people, but it is for me, and my husband’s been listening to me howling while I go through the mss.

I can only blame the typewriter. The process is so different, and while you’re mentally in the story the entire time, you’re not physically in all of it when some of it is down on paper and some of it is in the machine, beneath your fingers. I haven’t run into this before, but then, my first five books were first person, making it an non-issue. But the other ones I wrote around that time weren’t similarly afflicted.

I’ve probably written over 100 books and novellas in my 46-year career, and going back over them, picking and choosing the decades they were written, has been incredibly enlightening. Some treasures bored and embarrassed me. Some throw-aways turned out to be brilliant. But this one has been a revelation.

For one thing, it’s painfully autobiographical. Several friends of mine, like Kathleen Gilles Seidel and Donna Ball (Rebecca Flanders) had already written long books and needed a place for them to be published. (I think Kathy’s brilliant one, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, won the RITA the year before I did.) Some of us were simply given a contract to write one, like me and Beverly Sommers, a wonderful writer (if you ever find her stuff in a used bookstore you should grab it). Anyway, I was young, and I had the impression that it was supposed to be Women’s Fiction (before anything was called Women’s Fiction) so I went for the jugular – my own. I described my dysfunctional family dynamic, the suicide attempts, I combined characters and split other ones, but as I read through it again everything gave me an unsettling feeling of deja vu. I’d lived all of that and in the years since I wrote it, I’d blessedly forgotten a lot of it. Sigh.

That was okay, though painful. It has the absolute ring of emotional truth because it is the truth, making for a complex main character (who’s painfully thin and borderline anorexic when the book opens, so all resemblance to me quickly disappeared ). Once I accepted the hard truths I then dove into the head-hopping. Urp.

When I rewrite books I don’t want to update them – rather I try to take away phrases that set it in a particular time. I don’t put cell phones and the internet in, because that makes such a huge difference in plot (since almost all my books have some kind force of evil that has to be overcome. Not in this very different book, though). So I started stripping stuff out (she wore designer clothes by very ’80s designers, etc). Since this was a long book I had a secondary love story, and that heroine came a lot from me as well – she lived the life I was living when I wrote it (though fortunately I had the love of my life with me), she drank the wine I drank back then, she wore the clothes and lived in one of my family’s houses (my main heroine lived in another one). I set it in Vermont, technically 70 miles from where I live, but mentally the same small town, with the names of the now-dead postmaster and farmers, and I don’t write books set in the place I’ve lived in for the past 46 years and visited every year before it. I don’t know why, I just don’t, but I did this time.

So I’m back in this microcosm of a time I once lived, and it’s rattling. I was almost at the end when I finally realized that I didn’t want to move this out of time. The place it existed is a place of truth, and updating designers and cars weakened it. Now BANISH MISFORTUNE (and hell, I may change the title) exists in 1985, with a new, final chapter set in the present.

When I was a kid I used to read Nancy Drews (of course) and for some reason I really loved the ones set in the 1930s, before they started updating them. I loved her snappy little roadster, etc., but clearly most people wanted them to feel current. Anyone got an opinion on this? It would probably work better for people if I did my date-less update, bt the feel and sense of the time is so rich for me that I really don’t want to.

Ah, well. I imagine it’ll come out some time in May.