Monday, July 14, 2014

When is a Story Done?

There are a lot of steps to writing a fanfic, almost all of them optional.  You can come up with an idea, plan an outline, write a draft, revise, edit, engage the services of a beta reader, modify, edit again... or you can just slam out a thousand words, publish, and hope for the best.  One way will probably give you better results than the other, but both are processes which end with a story.

I'm not interested in talking about that, though.  I'm interested in talking about what happens after you submit your story to the attentions of readers at large.  Click below for my thoughts on what does--or doesn't--come next.

Yesterday, I noticed Simply Rarity sitting around the top of FiMFiction's feature bar, and a curiosity-inspired click revealed that Somber had just put the story onto the site and that it was enjoying its "hey it's finally on FiMFic!" resurgence (lest anyone get the wrong idea from my snark, I'm a big fan of those resurgences--they're a good way to bridge the fanfic barriers that can spring up between newer and older members of the fandom, it seems to me).  Anyway, I clicked over to his profile, to find his wall peppered with "When is Project Horizons (probably Somber's most famous story, an as-yet incomplete million-word-plus Fallout: Equestria fanfic) coming here?"s, and saw this answer from another author:
Project Horizons is a work in progress. Not only new chapters are written, but old chapters are edited to fit the story to how it develops. Sometimes many changes are made across many past chapters to adapt to changes of plans.
It utterly SUCKS to maintain such a huge, constantly changing bulk of text in two places, especially with one of them being FimFiction, which is not really all that friendly to uploading and editing stories.
 One of the big differences between professional writing and fanfiction is that, at a certain point, professional writing gets set in stone: it goes off to the publisher, who prints a bunch of identical copies of one's book, and they can no longer be altered thereafter.  Now, you can still make changes in subsequent editions (Tolkien's changes to The Hobbit in order to bring it into line with what he needed in The Lord of the Rings are just one of the most famous examples), but generally you lock yourself in to what you've written well before your book actually goes on sale.

In fanfiction (and internet-only fiction in general), though, it's much easier for the author to make alterations at any point--before, immediately after, or long past the date of "publication."  This makes it easy for authors to do anything from fix a spelling error or two that an early reader points out to completely rewriting old stories to bring them into line with their later, presumably more developed abilities.

Personally, I almost never make changes to stories after I've finished them.  There are a few reasons: I know that, given my personality, I could easily get caught up in constantly trying to "perfect" old stories at the expense of any other writing (or free time) if I did; I feel like a story I wrote should reflect my best abilities at the time I wrote it, and major updates would muddy that water; I would feel that I'd disrespected anyone who read the story before I "fixed" it (whether they felt disrespected or not) by tacitly acknowledging that that story I wanted them to read--that story they liked, hopefully--wasn't good enough for me to bear its association with my name in its original form.  The most I'll usually do with an old story is fix formatting or technical errors, and even then I try to draw a line between "correcting a mistake" and "improving ____"--for me, the latter seems a slippery slope.

But lots of authors are more able than I am to juggle publishable with mutable.  Somber obviously is able to keep writing new chapters even as he goes back and updates and modifies old ones.  Of the regular commenters here, InquisitorM has rewritten Shades of Grey at least twice.  And Pen Stroke's many revisions of Past Sins are well-known.  I don't know how much backlash any of them faced for those decisions (I know I'd be unlikely to read for pleasure a story that I believed was going to be altered--hopefully for the better--after I read it), but obviously the vast majority of readers were fine with it.

Clearly, the best of all possible worlds would be to write a perfect story right off the bat.  But, if you've published a story and now (thanks to a reader comment or the passage of time) you can see that it's flawed, what's better?  To file the lesson away for reference the next time one writes a story, or to go back and bring your old story up to your new standards?  I think that, more than anything, this depends on the mentality of the author, but it's still a question worth considering.


  1. My personal preference is to simply move on to the next story. I expect that Somber's Project Horizons will never be done. A million word story both being written and being edited? Even if he actually gets to the end he'll have probably two editing waves traveling through it. I bet that the creativity and effort of the editing could have been used to put out several complete stories.

    So I'm of the side of the debate that argues for just finishing a story and moving to the next project. No artistic work is ever going to be perfect, there will always be something to tweak if you focus hard enough on it. Not to mention that an author is going to change over time anyway. Not that I'm completely opposed to editing old works. I just think that there should be a considerable period of time between finishing and any editing. Enough for an author to get some space and work on some other things.

    I'm also of the opinion that once a story gets tossed out to readers and fans it's no longer solely the author's. Once readers have read it, enjoyed it, shared it. Well, who are you to say that what they enjoyed isn't good enough? Just, as authors should always do, try to make the next story better.

  2. There's only one story I plan to rewrite. That may well come after this fandom has run its course, since I'd like to get new stories done as a priority, but I'll do it anyway. Other than that, I'll only correct typos or change two or three paragraphs to clarify something that readers were missing.

    Definitely, you can't keep going over a story, because you'll always find something you want to change, particularly if you have editing help. And the more you rely on that help, the more you have a story that satisfies your most recent reviewer. Really, a story will be tailor-made to suit one person's tastes, and that person should be the author, but as that author gains experience and discretion, he can make something that has a broad enough appeal that enough people will find it almost perfectly suits their tastes. And that's close enough.

  3. Misspellings, grammatical errors and AJ's accent* are all fair game, since the readers are going to mentally correct those themselves anyway

    * Seriously, why do people write her so horribly?! The fic I'm currently reading has her saying "ta" instead of "the". When has she ever done that in the show?

  4. I often think I should go back and rewrite my oldest story, but A) it's not like anyone's ever read it, and B) bringing it in line with my current ability would also require removing large chunks of the story, since it isn't canon, never was, and was more or less conceived based on faulty understanding of the show. :B That said, there is at least one story in my gallery that I plan on rewriting, because it just didn't work the way I wanted it to, and I've got designs on turning it into a trilogy.

    But mostly, once I've published something, I only change typos.

  5. I am in favour of editing completed stories, within reason. I believe that to show respect to one's readers, an author is obligated to make their story the best experience for those readers that they can. However, this is done in two different ways. The first is in preserving the experience of those who read the story the first time and liked it how they read it, and the second is in accomodating potential future readers. So you have to strike a balance.

    Pen Stroke took one extreme end of the spectrum. He wanted to (understandably) apply all the feedback he'd gotten and create a story that was better than his original piece. This is good in a sense, because Past Sins is a famous fic that will probably keep attracting new readers for as long as the fandom exists. If people are gonna keep discovering the fic and reading it, better that they read his best attempt than a version that a reader will enjoy less. Where this gets problematic is that he changed the whole plot. He did not respect previous readers. I read the whole fic, and it took me a damn long time. Now the version currently on FimFiction is a completely different story, and that's the version that its sequels follow. When reading those sequels, I just have to shrug and accept that this universe now has Shining Armor in it, even though I remember nothing of the sort, because there's no way that I'm spending that amount of time to read the whole thing AGAIN just to familiarise myself with the differences.

    Taking a look at the other end of the spectrum, we have authors like Kkat. Kkat is aware of the flaws in FO:E, but has chosen not to do anything to so much as touch them. The rationalisation is, of course, that this way, every reader will have a consistent experience and that the story will always be exactly as a reader remembers it, with no more or no less. And this is fair, but this is also taken to an extreme, to the point that Kkat refuses to even correct spelling or grammar mistakes, which can only lead to an objectively worse experience for a reader, even if those are minor flaws. And if you're the kind of reader who will find more major flaws in the fic (Hi, Present Perfect!), then, well, you're shit out of luck, because there will never be a better version of the story than what we've got.

    So we strike a balance. We do our editing, we fix mistakes, we close plotholes and we undo terrible decisions if they don't have too much of a ripple effect, and we hopefully leave off with a better story that nobody is required to re-read to understand anything. Because I don't know about you guys, but personally, I'd not dare inflict my first ponyfic in its original state on anybody else here. It's not even that great NOW.

    1. Hi. :D

      You're not missing much in Past Sins, Shining and Cadence are the "obvious shoehorning" I often refer to in conversations like this. You have to look to side fics for more about them, as I am currently.

    2. Hence why I never read the most recent version. Possibly one of my biggest peeves is attempting to shoehorn in continuity from after a story has been started just to stay current, and that is exactly what happened with that revision.

  6. I think it varies over time.

    One of the great strengths of online publishing is instant feedback. So if initial reactions lead an author to believe something needs fixing they should feel free to change it. But after a certain amount of time has passed (three or four weeks?) there shouldn't be any major changes made.

    Once a story has been out for a few months the only things that ought to be changed are spelling, grammar, and other such minor mistakes. The kind of things that as ProfessorOats said the readers are going to be mentally correcting anyway.

    So kind of like spoilers, but in reverse.

  7. Often I make big changes in the month after publishing a story. "Corpse Bride", "Long Distance", & "Moments" had major rewrites after publishing. Sometimes I add chapters later; when the story isn't episodic, this can look odd. I'll still polish a story at any time, rewording things, but not usually rewrite it after the first few months. Writing is story is like growing it; rewriting after it's solidified is like doing surgery. You may leave scars. It's hard to remember all the things that needed blending together.

  8. I don't edit stories after I publish them (save for minor, easily corrected and obvious mistakes), but it doesn't have anything to do with a fear of disrespecting readers or such noble reasons. It's simply because at a certain point I get burned out on my stories, and would rather simply be done with it and move on. And usually that burn-out happens quite quickly, like right after the major editing phase just before I post a story.

    Besides, with my stories there's always a clear point where very few people are looking at it, at which point it really isn't worth the energy to re-write it.

  9. Anytime I pick up one of my older stories, I'm liable to make some changes. It's almost never anything to the actual plot, but I'll find a sentence that doesn't sit well with me, and I'll rework it until it sounds better. There are always plenty of small choices that I made at the time that I think I can improve on. To this end, a story like A Door Jam reads a lot better now than it did when I originally wrote it, but the essential story hasn't changed.