Version control, sort of

Aaron asked, in the previous thread:

A bit off topic, but you don’t have a general “contact the author” web submission page and this may be better suited for your LJ:

Actually, before I get to the question, let me quickly say this: If you have a question that I think I can answer, you can leave it in a comment thread, or you can email me at Michelle.Sagara@sff.net. Actually, even if I can’t answer it, you can do either, but it’s less productive.

I won’t answer questions about future developments unless the question is really, really general (e.g. Will there be more about dragons? (Yes)), because some readers are very spoiler-averse. I’m personally not one of them, but I try to respect that reading choice (and it drives my husband crazy when I flip to the end of a book I didn’t naturally arrive at by reading through all the intervening pages).

This is subject to the fact that I am terminally underorganized, and frequently behind (I’m actually almost caught up. My inbox is only at 348). There is a lovely, funny post at Hyperbole and a half, titled “this is why I’ll never be an adult which caused me to cringe in instant self-recognition.

Speaking of which: the page proofs for Cast in Ruin have gone back to Luna. There is now nothing else I have to do to make this a book, except wait. I am, on the other hand, doing final (editorial) revisions on Skirmish. Or will be, once I’ve finished this post.

And now: less PSA, and more answer. The actual question:

How do you feel about self-published authors or established publishers being able to retroactively copyedit e-books and release ‘new and improved’ versions of their texts? Do all future copyedits have to go through you (the author) for approval? Do you think that there is potential for abuse if people fundamentally change the structure? Would you go back and change minor details (e.g. eye color)?

I had to think about this one for a bit.

Henry James revised all of his novels at one point later in his career, and this was well before the time that such a production would have been effortless on his part, or the part of his publishers, who were still stuck with moving little slugs around in order to actually print.

Stephen King revised the The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger before he finished the series. He added 500 pages or thereabouts to The Stand. There are other authors who have gone back to do ‘authoritative’ editions of earlier works. The difference is, it’s not easy compared to revising and resubmitting an ebook.

Publishers have always had a method for tracking errors in printed books, if they’re aware of them; if a book goes back to press (i.e. they print more), they can fix typos while they’re at it, and this isn’t announced. On the other hand, I’m not sure how many publishers still do this. Publishing has become very lean, and I imagine production departments are pushed to exhaustion merely getting the new books to press.

A major print revision would, of course, require complete resetting of every page, and it’s therefore not done often; when it is, it’s for authors whose audience is naturally large enough to include readers who would want or insist on owning a book that is very similar to the one they already own by the same author.

So, it would depend. To a lesser extent, revisions to text were done before ebooks. Fixing formatting errors in ebooks, rife because of the lack of standardization in the process, seems like it would be a godsend, frankly.

A major revision done by a self-published author also doesn’t seem an abuse of privilege, to me, in the sense that s/he is altering his/her own work. I would love to change about four small things, myself, because, you know, making mistakes of that nature in my own books is really, really stressful, guilt-inducing and embarrassing. In public.

I would have serious, serious qualms about a publisher randomly revising my text – but I cannot honestly bring myself to worry about this on the print side of the equation at least; the publisher’s production departments are hugely overworked, and they’re unlikely to try their hand at secretive editing in the middle of their day. In the extremely unlikely event a publisher should somehow decide to hire a copy-editor for a manuscript that has already been printed and published, I doubt anyone would think to ask me first.

But I honestly cannot see this ever happening.

I do know that BenBella did work on the Sundered books after their first release, to clean up the text and the formatting. At the time, I had no e-reader, and I haven’t actually seen either the formatting/typo ridden versions or their improvements. I have no issues whatsoever with the clean-up; I think there might have been ulcers had I seen the first release.

However having said that, there were readers who were deeply upset at King’s revision of his own book. I understand why. As a reader, I form emotional attachments to the books I read and loved years ago. I will return to them. I love them now.

As a writer I understand the desire to change finished books, I really do. I feel that I’m a better writer than I was when I started out in 1991. (In 1986, to be fair, but the book wasn’t published until 1991). There are sentences, paragraphs and whole scenes that I would like to nuke down to zero and totally rewrite. There are plot threads I would like to flesh out, and plot threads I feel are enormously clunky. I’m allowed to feel that way. I am not the same person as I was in 1986. Or 1991. Or even 1996.

But what I feel about my own writing and what readers feel about it are not the same. I have whole days during the writing of any one of my novels in which I feel like an abject, talentless failure. I conversely have days where I desperately want to be able to immediately send all my readers the scene or scenes I’ve just finished because I feel so certain they will love them. Both extremes are part of the process of writing a novel–at least for me.

What I hope for, at the end of any novel, is that the finished book will speak to my readers; that it will move them, that it will mean something.

But some of the books I would rewrite, revise or alter have already done that. They’ve moved readers. It’s why I still have any of them (readers, I mean). And if I go back and change those early books wholesale, I’m destroying some part of the experience of those readers. I’m effectively saying they’re wrong to love the work, or that they had no taste because the books were so bad they need to be obliterated and totally redone.

I love early books by some authors with an abiding and unreasonable devotion–but I’m aware that their authors, decades later, do not feel any of that same love. At all. Ever. And if one of those authors were to take the books that spoke so strongly to me and demolish them in the service of improving the words, I would feel it to be a tragedy.

So. I do not feel that an author revising their own work is abuse, per se. It’s certainly not illegal. But I still feel that if you wrote the best book you could at the time, it’s better to find the best books you can write Right Now than it is to revisit and change the older works.

The only case in which I feel this would not be true is if you personally feel that you butchered the book because your publisher insisted that it had to be cut by 75k works. In that case, though, I think it would be better if you published a second edition – a clear, distinct “author’s preferred” edition.

I’m not sure if that answers the question, because I’m not entirely certain what you mean by abuse. If it doesn’t, and you elaborate, I’ll do likewise.

In the meantime, how does everyone else feel about the idea?

Tools of the Trade

Because I have page proofs and I cannot stand to look for any more errors at this time of night, I thought I would take a few minutes to talk about the tools of my trade.

I use a Macbook Pro as my main writing machine. This is not a religious stance; I have a PC (an Asus), on which I play games. I fully believe that a writer is more than the sum of his or her tools, and that each of us should work on whatever platform we find most comfortable.

This is my way of saying that if the comments descend into platform wars, I will moderate with the world’s heaviest hand, possibly because I have read it so many times and there is nothing new.

On the other hand, if anyone has suggestions for PC equivalents of the Mac only apps I list here, that would be great!

——

The first application I use — and the one I would not be without if you paid me — is Scrivener. It started life because Keith Blount was trying to write a novel, and he found none of the programs he tried up to the task of handling his process. He was not, before Scrivener, a programmer. I find his creation incredibly impressive because of this.

There are probably a thousand ways to use Scrivener; I’m not a power-user. Most of its features are features that don’t suit my writing process, so I don’t use them. The ability to break text into scenes, partial scenes, that follow a loose/tight outline doesn’t work for me; I know writers who love the program because it allows them to move whole scenes from one part of their novel to another with just a drag-and-drop. I know people who make really smart use of the filing card view as well, to denote which chapters are viewpoint chapters, or which chapters are heavy action and which are quieter. It’s not a view I use, but if you head to their web-site, you can see it in action.

I write sequentially, chapter-by-chapter, scene by scene. When I revise, depending on the book, I will sometimes break chapters into their component parts – but folder them so they’re contiguous when exported. I can tag those scenes in any way I like, and will often tag them for their structural components: things that are necessary, things that aren’t.

Only when I’ve finished a novel do I make use of the “export draft” feature, which exports the entire book as a single file, in whatever format I choose. It will change underlines to italics or vice versa, keep a running page count, and keep a wordcount if that’s necessary.

Scrivener 2.0 will also export to epub. This takes a bit of set-up and experimentation, but once it is set-up, it works like a charm, and produces compliant epubs. It will export to .pdf, .doc, .rtf and .txt as well.

At 45.00 U.S., it’s a bargain; it’s one of the few programs I own that I would pay old-school money for, if it came to that. There is a PC version of Scrivener in beta.

——

Microsoft Word wasn’t always a necessity, but as more and more publishers make use of track changes for line-edits and copy-edits, it’s become necessary for me. All of my Luna line-edits and copy-edits are now sent in .doc or .docx format. For that reason, I have MS Word 2011 for the Mac in my toolset. I found 2011 a good upgrade because it’s faster than the prior version for the Mac, and I find the layout of track changes clearer and easier to address.

I use it only for publisher-sent copy-edits, but those are necessary.

——

Flying Meat’s VoodooPad is a wiki app. I don’t have an on-line wiki–although with very little effort, I could, thanks to VoodooPad.

Why do I use it?

I keep track of the bits and pieces of information about my various worlds and the novels written in them. If I create a page for a character, every incidence of the character’s name will automatically link to that page. If I’m too lazy to do a find I just type the name in a random on-screen page and click it. I have my time-line, which is the longest single page, my gods, my visible magical effects, magic items, loose ends, characters, etc., stored in VoodooPad; it’s like a hyperlinked notebook.

You can make the pages look nice; since I’m not an .html wiz, I don’t. Except for the fonts. It’s a way of keeping the information I need in a form I can easily revise and add information to, without having a million smaller documents.

I don’t think there’s a PC version of VoodooPad, but I’d be really surprised if there wasn’t a similar application available for Windows.

——

I have the Oxford English Dictionary as my main dictionary. No, it wasn’t cheap – but I made humongous puppy dog eyes at everyone in my family at Christmas time. I really like the OED; it’s very comprehensive, and I find it fascinating to look at the first (known) use of various English words.

The port is not a pretty port. It confounds the operating system by ignoring most of the basic rules that otherwise govern application interfaces. The review I’ve linked I linked because it’s hysterically funny.

But to be perfectly fair, the PC port is equally horrible, and also ignores Windows paradigms. You don’t buy the OED because you expect it to be pretty, or well-behaved.

—–

Although it doesn’t directly apply to writing, I use DevonThink as a general aggregator/database, as well. I clip web-pages, throw in .docs and .pdfs, and keep receipts. Again, I’m not a poweruser, and while mail can be archived in Devonthink, I don’t because I can’t stand the messy way it looks. Devonthink has a great search engine, as well, so all the bits and pieces of on-the-fly “that might be useful” web pages or emails that come my way get tossed into the in-box. It’s the equivalent of the shoe-box for the pre-computer age. There are very flexible ways of arranging the data: in folders, with tags, in separate databases with clones (business, writing, home).

Not everyone is going to love this, but it means I have things in one place instead of all over the drive. If you don’t want or need multiple databases, there are similar apps that people love: Yojimbo, by Barebones, has a really lovely interface, and it’s very intuitive; Notebook by Circus Ponies, which allows the same clipping and pasting of any information (they have better integration with the overall contextual menus than Devonthink), but contains it in a “Notebook”, a visual, literal scrapbook.

I tried them all, which is why I mention them — Devonthink is, imho, the ugliest. But it does a few things the others don’t.

I’m certain there must be PC equivalents.

——

I want to put in a plug for software that’s in beta at the moment, even if I’m not up and running at 100%: Aeon Timeline. Aeon Timeline is timeline software, yes – but it does a few things that are incredibly useful. Entities are defined as character, places, etc. When a character first appears in a time-line event, you can set the characters age at that time — and every time the character appears on the time line, his or her age will be noted. This is helpful when you’ve flubbed ages because you’re writing at 4:40 in the morning. You can set locations and characters and look at all events on the timeline that involve them, as well; you can have multiple characters marked for the same events. You can tag all entries and search on or show tagged entries.

If I did not have 11 books worth of time-line events, I’d be using this now, because it also allows you to define your own calendar year – with month names, day lengths, etc. So for those whose fantasy calendars don’t precisely match our own, it’s ideal. When I have time, I add more of the timeline on flat paper to the program; if I’d had this years ago, would have added events as they occurred, and I would have loved it like a crazy person.

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