Tinker, Tailor, Topple, Die

So, you want to make your work–book, movie, sculpture, whatever–perfect, don’t you? You want it to shine. And you’re going to polish it, rewrite it, re-imagine it, and retcon it every chance you get? Or maybe you just can’t resist adding those few last-minute flourishes?

Well, you’re in good company. The impulse to tinker is universal. So universal, that some people make vast fortunes just so they’ll have the ability to tinker endlessly. People like, for example, George Lucas.

I don’t need to belabor this point too much, other than to perhaps mention that George’s newest release of the original Star Wars trilogy contains MORE changes that do nothing substantive and occasionally undermine the original work’s dramatic power. You know, just like the last four times he’s released them. The movies people know and love, the original ones made way back when? They’ll never see the light of day again, at least until George dies.

His inability to resist indulging his tinker’s urge has had three basic effects on the world:
1) It has utterly arrested George’s creative growth. In the 70s, George was a growing creative force. He got better with every film. He was experimental. He was thoughtful. Whether he was writing or producing he turned out superior products, and he never sat still. Through the 80s, he came into his own as a producer, giving us great popcorn films (Indiana Jones and Willow), sharp-tongued comedies (Radioland Murders), and some really kick-ass breakthroughs in craft and technology for films and theme parks alike. In the late 80s and early 1990s, he created Pixar, then had the sense to let it go to make its way in the world. He produced The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which were superior in many ways to the Indiana Jones films. George Lucas wasn’t just Francis Ford Coppola’s golden boy, he was THE golden boy, and he did it on his own, as a maverick, outside the studio system.

Where’s that growth now? Where’s the energy, the expansion? It’s all gone into the tinkering. Everything stopped and slammed into reverse when he dug Star Wars out and started rewriting it. And since then, his creative chops and the quality and appeal of his work have gone solidly downhill.

2) It’s deprived his industry of one of the finest producers in the world, full stop. When George is doing Star Wars, George is not doing the noir films, the mythology films, the art films, and the TV shows that he’s been talking about in interviews since the 1970s.

3) It’s rewritten a big piece of American cinematic history. The Star Wars films that (along with Jaws) changed the entire business structure of the film industry, that created modern fantasy cinema, that kickstarted the digital revolution, and that launched the career of Harrison Ford? They’re gone. We don’t get to see them anymore. Oh, and George’s other films–like THX-1138 and American Graffiti–they’ve been revised too. Nonsensically. We don’t get to see those either, even though they also became important cultural touchstones (Graffiti much moreso than THX, granted).

— — —

So, this is just me griping, right?

Well, no. This is me jumping up and down with a big sign pointing at George and saying “SEE? Heinlein was right!” The most important (and most controversial) of Heinlein’s rules of professional writing is:

You must not rewrite, except to editorial order. With Ellison’s addendum being And then only if you agree.

That rule is there to remind you not to turn into George Lucas. Rewriting a finished piece (I’m talking rewriting, not doing the normal copy edits, continuity tweaks, and fact checks that you do as part of the writing process) is the road to nowhere. It most often results in bad work, for a very simple reason, as exemplified by the post-1997 George Lucas corpus:

Writers are not competent to tinker with their own work.

With recent work, it’s because they’re too close to see what might be broken–this is why we have beta readers and editors. It’s also because, living with our own voice all the time, we don’t understand what makes it special.

But what about an old book that you’re wanting to bring up to date and/or perfect, as George keeps trying to do?

In that case, you’re not competent to do that either. And there’s a very good reason why:

That book (film, whatever) came from a person that doesn’t exist anymore. You wrote it at a different time in your life, when you had different concerns, and different skills. You don’t have access to that creative headspace anymore, and you’re very unlikely to be able to actually improve one aspect of the book without completely fucking up another aspect.

Now, if you’ve got a book like that that you REALLY want to redo, don’t rewrite it. Reboot it. Pick your favorite scene, or idea, or handful of characters and rewrite it from scratch. Don’t just rework the style, give it a new coat of paint, or try to do a new draft. Don’t even touch the old document. Start with a blank page. Do what’s called in Television a “reboot” or a “re-imagining.” It’s always possible that the first time you wrote the book you were too ambitious, tried to do things you weren’t close to being ready for. Books like that might do well with a reboot.

But do it going FORWARD. Don’t do it looking back. You’re not updating an old work when you do this, you’re reincarnating it. Make it new, and stretch yourself. Let the storyline go different places than the original. Let it surprise you.

Or, better yet, leave your old books alone. Treat them like they were written by another person. Leave then on the market, learn from them, and move on to the next story. Work on doing better this time what you did poorly last time, and work on that improvement every time.

Growth comes from moving forward, not moving backward. Tinkering is moving backwards, and it moves your creative growth backwards. You don’t want to wind up on this path. No matter how brilliant you are, you can get stuck in your own creative swamp. And if you wallow there long enough, that’s where you’ll die.

Just ask George.

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5 Comments

  1. Wow… Thanks, Dan. I was just asking myself the other day where the George who imagined the original Star Wars movies went, and how he went so far downhill.
    I’d like to bring up another author who is doing this, and ask for your opinion on it, if you have one. Scott Sigler has been bringing all of his previously written books into his new ubercontinuity. Along the way, he’s made some changes I liked and some I didn’t, like renaming the dog in Ancestor. Pasty will always be Pasty to me. It’s been a little infuriating at times, but the good thing is that he keeps coming out with more original content, even though he’s reworking everything he’s written so far.

  2. Heya HoopyFreud–

    It’s one thing to use George Lucas as an object lesson–he’s a cultural icon hugely public figure. He’s also working in another medium than I am, so I can throw peanuts at him as a righteous audience member, rather than a frustrated peer who thinks he could do better 😉

    It’s another thing entirely to criticize a peer in public, particularly one who’s both 1) a friend and 2) far better at big swaths of this business than I am. If I had an opinion on what Sigler was doing, I wouldn’t share it unless he were doing something brilliant I thought people should know about.

    Fortunately, I am not current on what Scott’s up to, and don’t have an opinion on it specifically, so I can just comment on the broader principles around what you’re describing.

    1) Scott is revising his work to editorial demand. Someone’s writing a check. This fits with Heinlein’s rules: the person buying the work has the right to demand minor changes if they don’t pervert your vision of the story. This is, after all, a business.

    2) I happen to know that Scott is VERY big on the “leave it alone, move on to the next project” part of writing. He’s lectured me about it before, when I was just learning to listen to that lesson.

    3) From the first time I talked to Scott in ’07, he’s always had a unified vision for the Siglerverse. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s using the editorial demands of crown as a way to massage little continuity issues around the edges so that his grand vision comes out the way he wants it.

    4) Scott’s still doing original work. Every year, two or three new novels, last I checked. And I suspect he’s got a couple dozen more in the queue, and that a lot of them are going to be really fun.

    Talking about this makes me realize I should get around to reading “Contagious,” since “Infected” has always been my favorite of his books. Deeply creepy, that one.

    As to how well his alterations are working, I don’t know. And, frankly if I did, I wouldn’t tell you, except maybe if I thought they were all brilliant, which I probably wouldn’t, because I’m a really unforgiving reader. (This is why I don’t do book reviews very often).

    Nonetheless, I’m glad you found the post useful as a window nito the things that can go wrong with the creative process 🙂

    -Dan

  3. Hi, Dan. I think I wrote that badly – I admire Sigler for his willingness to go into his work and change it around to such a degree, while still managing to produce OC – something that Lucas himself failed to do quite so well. I may not like some of his (Sigler’s) edits, but I think that his work as a whole is better for it. I wasn’t asking what you thought of his edits, just using them as an example I thought you might be familiar with to illustrate my main question; does your interpretation of Heinlein’s rule allowed for retconning to a certain extent, and has Sigler broken it.
    Thank you for the answer.
    Also, Contagious is absolutely brilliant – possibly better than Infected, especially the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, though.
    I think a rewrite of Nocturnal is next on his list, but don’t hold me to that. Right now he’s producing The Starter.

  4. It seems like George was a guy who had some great ideas and knew how to trust aspects of those idea to other craftsmen who knew their parts well but as he progressed he lost that sense of trust and collaboration and decided he had the skills and ability to do it all himself and we paid the price for it, not just in the re-releases but in the prequels as well — shoot, I’d even go back so far as to say it started with Howard the Duck.

    He has accomplished many great things, but his insistence to operate from talents he doesn’t have only serves to heap more contempt on his fan base.

  5. Hear Hear, well said Dan.

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