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I began writing a fantasy novel as a "last week of vacation fun project", and it hit off very well. It is my first time writing. I'm publishing as a web novel in a popular webnovel site.

And of course the first chapters have several points that I think I can improve now, reading back on them.

Things I'd like to do on the previous chapters:

  • Some descriptions are lacking, or entirely missing.
  • There are some scenes that I think should use greater detail.
  • There are elements I will need later on, and if they are introduced earlier it would flow more naturally.

I am currently writing 4k words a day, and the new ideas for pushing the story forward are ok.

But I am (weakly) afraid that leaving these things for later will just make them pile up.

What should I do, and how should I do it? Are there good techniques / best practices for reviewing past work? Should I leave sleeping lions lie?

  • Keep on writing until you are done. Editting is an unending job that will never finish. So you can do that later. There are probably more similar questions then this out there pretty much all with the same advice. – Totumus Maximus Aug 1 '18 at 14:22
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    4,000 words a day? Holy wow. I have an ongoing web serial for which my schedule is 4,000 words a month, and I'm struggling to hit that. This isn't really an answer, but I still want to suggest that you slow down a bit and take more time to craft each chapter going forward. That way, when you go back and edit those chapters, you'll find you have less to do compared to the older ones. – F1Krazy Aug 1 '18 at 14:50
  • @F1Krazy i am very psyched, and the story just writes itself. I get in "the zone", my fingers move and suddenly it has a life of its own. I can't vouch for the quality though. – Mindwin Aug 1 '18 at 14:51
  • @Mindwin so keep trying to get yourself in that zone and don't pesk yourself by going back in time to edit. Fight against your rational side and keep your creative side at work. – Totumus Maximus Aug 1 '18 at 14:53
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    @TotumusMaximus I watched a TED talk once, some author was saying "Your first work will be crap. My first work was crap. [...] Just keep writing". – Mindwin Aug 1 '18 at 16:40
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You mean you have your first chapters already online, and now you want to go back and edit them?

Your main problem would be that most readers wouldn't go back and re-read the edited material. So if you intend to rely on an edit for stuff you write in the future to make sense, you're in a bit of a problem. You can inform your readers that you've made this change. However, while some readers would be understanding, others would find this rather annoying. If you do this multiple times, some readers might become discouraged, finding that it takes too much effort to follow your novel, and consequently drop it. Which would be a pity.

I would treat your already-published material as a first draft. Keep writing. Keep notes to yourself regarding what works and what doesn't work. If you fear you won't be able to do the edits later (forget what you wanted to change / amass too much to change / etc.) you can do those changes in an offline file. Then, once you have a final (or at least semi-final) version of the complete story, you can upload that. Or, by that point, you might have enough of a following to get the thing printed - you never know.

The readers can forgive one big change. They are unlikely to follow multiple smaller changes.

  • +1 to 'readers will forgive one big change'. Emphasis on one. – Sara Costa Aug 2 '18 at 13:10
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What I do:

  • immediately make essential changes that affect later chapters

    If I just write on, I will have to revise even more, than if I go back now and rewrite the first chapters, before I continue.

    I also have never had the problem that I couldn't get back into the flow after an early-chapter-revision-break. Of course it took me a day or three to find back in, but then I was writing away as before. And with a better feeling, because I was now on the right track.

  • leave polishing, fine-tuning, fleshing out, foreshadowing etc. until I have finished the draft

    Working on these now is pointless, as you may change your mind about them once you learn how your story ends.

    I have often found that while I was working on a novel and thought back on the first chapter that I would have liked to add more description or something like that, but when I came to the end and began revising from the front, I was surprised to find that it was either fine as it was or that it needed something completely different, now that I had the whole story down.

    So don't waste time and energy on polishing parts that you may delete!

  • do not publish until the work is done

    And then don't go back and start perfecting it, because you will forever feel that you could improve it. Instead let it be and write the next book.

    Your readers won't notice much difference between 78% perfect and 84% perfect, but they will definitely notice another book by you they can buy.

    (Learn about the 80-20 rule, if you want to make money with writing.)

  • It is a web novel, I am publishing as I write. Can you link something good about the 80 - 20 rule and how to apply it? – Mindwin Aug 1 '18 at 15:55
  • There is a Wikipedia article about it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle In general, the idea is that with 20% effort you will achieve 80% effect. If you invest more effort, the increase becomes smaller and smaller. So it is better to stop once you have reached an acceptable level of quality. That's how bestselling authors work: They write more, instead of revising more. – user32282 Aug 1 '18 at 17:21
  • thanks a lot. but comments may disappear, you might want to edit that info into the answer. – Mindwin Aug 1 '18 at 17:22
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From what I've read in a comment, you don't want to hear this particular piece of advice, but I'm going to give it anyway: don't publish it until it's done.

I also publish online and, when I first started, I published the chapters a week after I'd finished them (it allowed me to re-read it with fresh eyes in order to catch mistakes otherwise invisible).

After six months, I was agonising because the path of the story became clearer and I needed to make adjustements to the first chapters that would severely impact the reader's reception/understanding of later events. Characters also became more mature and there were some manneirisms I'd thought cute which I now wanted to get rid of. I also found myself needing to rewrite someone's background from absolute-cliché to something more palatable.

After that, I started writing an entire arch (it can be a novel, or a section of a novel, but it's a whole unit) before publishing it. It came down to writing a chapter one day and publishing it 1-2 months later. It improved my satisfaction with the published work immensely. When I go back and re-read those early pieces, even now I feel happy with them (which does not happen with the work I produced in those very early times). Sure, the stories aren't perfect, and there were some things I might do differently now, but I do not regret them.

Unfortunately, I started writing a saga. After two arcs (an arc more or less equals a novel/novella), I realised I was back at the start (needing to make changes to the first chapters/arcs). Once more, I adjusted my work flow. Nowadays, what I am writing will be published in 6-9 months time, and what I am publishing now was written 6-9 months ago.

I write anywhere from 300 to 8000 words a day (unfortunately I can't write daily) and I publish a chapter every week. My readers have no idea how old those chapters are, but the comments do say they love how I manage to interconnect events, and how smartly I foreshadow things. One comment said (and I paraphrase): "Everything was so well thought out! I had totally forgotten about X [apparently insignificant event at the beginning] and I totally ignored all the clues you left. The ending blew me away but it made perfect sense!"

Even if you plan things carefully, once you start writing, you will always come to a point where you want to make changes. Especially when one is writing thousands of words per day because you get 'in the zone', the story and the characters tend to get a life of their own and they'll often lead your away from the plan (if you had one), because you were probably forcing it to happen. This often means readjustments further back.

EDIT: sorry, forgot to address your questions directly.

What should I do, and how should I do it? Are there good techniques / best practices for reviewing past work? Should I leave sleeping lions lie?

In my humble opinion (based on the experiences I mentioned above), the moment you publish a chapter, it becomes untouchable. In the worst case scenario, you can fix typos.

In the case you decide to rewrite, keep the following in mind:

1. If you rewrite just a paragraph or a dialogue line...

a) add a note to the most recent chapter mentioning that there was a change (if you are lucky, about 1% of your readers will go back and re-read).

b) if the change has an impact (a secret was revealed or an essential clue was given), add a note to the most recent chapter mentioning that there was a change and immediately reveal the nature of the change. Even if the reader doesn't go back, they'll be aware of the situation and won't wonder how the character suddenly knew about the secret.

2. If you rewrite a chapter completely, the effects on the future chapters will be paramount. The readers must be aware of everything that changed or the story may stop making sense. In this scenario, summarising the changes may be too long or impractical. I strongly advise publishing it out of order (with the appropriate apology and explanation) in order to force your readers to check it out, otherwise, only 10-20% of your readers will go back to re-read it (this in the event of you repeatedly telling them to go and check because it's a game changer, if you don't push the envelope, count on 2-5% going back).

Note: Do not use strategy 2 more than once. If more than one chapter needs a makeover, publish it at the same time. If those 2 chapters are not one after the other... it's tricky. Just publish the whole group (so readers can effortlessly re-read the whole thing) at the same time.

Moreover, put yourself in your readers' shoes. You've read a dozen chapters, and then you're told chapters 2 and 4 were heavily revised and changed. Do you remember what went down in detail (especially if the chapters are uploaded once or twice a week)? If you re-read them, will you get bored/annoyed with all the parts that weren't changed? Will the very idea of having to go back be pleasant to you? If the revamped chapters are posted out of order, will that annoy you because you don't fully remember what happened before and you feel the need to check it out but it's too much work?

In conclusion, it will save you a lot of headaches and heartache to simply write on a text editor and publish it at least one month later. It will also save your readers a lot of frustration. Unless the story is excellent, I tend to quickly give up on...

  1. the ones which are published the moment they're finished (it's obvious in the amount of typos and in the flow (it's either wavy, with hiccups or heavily 'not-seamless'), not to mention there are often too many retcons as chapters pile up (one retcon is already too many in my book; readers typically create a mental image and expectation as the story progesses, if the facts start changing midway... )

  2. the ones which are always being adjusted (I'm in the 1% who checks the changes). It gets annoying, especially because readers typically create a mental image and expectation as the story progesses, and if the writer keeps saying they fixed things in the back, the reader must be constantly changing what they thought was the facts. Oh, and it really breaks the flow of the narrative when one's forced to go back and re-read past scenes.

So...

Don't change stuff you've already published.

If you're really unhappy with what you've done and feel the need to make radical changes, apologise to your readers and explain you're revised the whole concept in order to make it water tight. Then delete everything and start anew. Do this only once. If the second version is better, you'll be forgiven.

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As others have said, this problem is made more complicated that you're publishing chapters as you go.

An important piece of writing advice I received is to just keep writing. Save editing for later. It might not be an issue for you, if you're writing 4k words a day, but I, personally, could go over a single chapter over and over and always find ways to improve it. Your story will probably never be "perfect."

The only time I would go back and edit something now is if it is essential to the story. (such as if you've decided to follow a plot direction that needs build-up details you didn't add in the beginning.) Other than that, I would just try to finish first, and go through and polish-edit at the end.

Also, any time you think of a change, make note of it, write it down somewhere. If you change everything as you think of it, you'll never finish, but you also don't want to forget/overlook an important edit you need to make.

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