Second Chances

By John Gilstrap

My first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, are out of print, and the rights reverted to me several years ago. Thanks to the somewhat startling success of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series—No Mercy and Hostage Zero—Kensington Publishing purchased the reprint rights, and both will reappear on the shelves in 2011, first as eBooks and then as pBooks.

They’ll be published in reverse order, however, with At All Costs scheduled for a May release and Nathan’s Run coming out in August. The rationale here is all about practicality: At All Costs introduces FBI Agent Irene Rivers, a secondary yet pivotal character in the Grave books. With the latest Grave book, Threat Warning, coming out in late June, the reverse order seems like an attractive marketing platform. I guess we’ll see.

Enough shameless self-promotion for now.

It’s an interesting exercise to revisit stories I wrote thirteen and fifteen years ago. I have the opportunity to change anything I want—whether to merely put on a fresh coat of paint, or to pull down the Sheetrock and move the walls. I tell you that it’s tempting. If I were to write either of those books today, telling the same story, they’d be structured a lot differently. I’m startled by the degree to which my storytelling instincts have evolved.

But I’m going to resist the temptation—mostly. Fact is, I’m still very proud of both books, and I still think they’re well-written, even if I would write them differently today. They are, in fact, the books I wrote at the time, and the purist in me wants them to remain blazes on the trail I walked in the 1990s. They reflect the sensibilities and the world view of a young father with a small child, written at a time that was in so many ways different than today.

But I can’t leave them alone entirely. In fact, I think I’d be foolish to leave some elements untouched. For example, there’s one scene in At All Costs that I put in specifically under pressure from my editor at the time. I never liked it, and after the book was published, I cringed that it was there. Well, it’s not anymore. It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I don’t apologize for taking it out.

A little trickier are the changes I plan for the ending of Nathan’s Run. My original manuscript ended with a wrap-up chapter—a coda, if you will, much like the codas that end most of my later books. I took it out under pressure from everyone in my publishing food chain—from my then-agent’s assistant, through my editor and beyond. Since then, I have received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who wanted to know precisely the information that I had originally included in my manuscript. I’m putting it back.

Because it’s the ending, though—literally the last images of the story—this change makes me nervous. Part of me wants to put in some kind of note that says, “This used to be the end of the story,” but the rest of me acknowledges that it’s a mistake to interrupt the reading experience. I’ve got three weeks to figure this out, so there’s room for advice (hint, hint).

Most appropriate to threads that have been discussed here in the Killzone is my plan to largely defuckify both books.

Now, before any of you start slinging accusations of hypocrisy, let’s make this clear from the beginning: I told the publisher I wanted to do this, not the other way around. In fact, defuckification vastly complicates things for Kensington.

Again, my rationale is simple and practical: Hundreds (and hundreds) of letters and emails from fans telling me that they loved the books and believed that their children/mother/father/sister/brother would love it, too, if only they could share it. The language was the dealbreaker.

And you know what? They’re right. There’s a lot of gratuitous profanity in those books. In Nathan’s Run—a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist—there’s a passage that rhymes with “you trucking punt.” The story doesn’t need that. Perhaps no story needs that. (For the record, when I wrote that passage in 1994, I don’t think the C-word was as loaded as it is now. And, for the record, the epithet is directed from one male character to another male character.)

By way of full disclosure, a few F-bombs will remain, but in each case, I feel that they’re essential to the scene. In each case, I test-drove the scene sans F-bomb and they didn’t work.

My question to Killzoners is this: Is it okay for authors to “improve” upon their work when given a second chance, or should the first go-around live on forever?