Recently, The Atlantic ran an interesting piece about J.K. Rowling and her constant “tweaking” of the Potterverse. It compared her to George Lucas, whose constant fiddling with the Star Wars universe (adding new scenes to the movies, editing in new characters, “Greedo shot first,” etc.) eventually led fans to turn on him and actually rejoice when Disney took over in 2012. The Atlantic’s premise is that the constant posting of tweets, interviews, and short stories that give out more and more tidbits about the Potterverse will eventually erode the love and goodwill that Potter fans feel for Rowling, just as it did for Lucas. Why would this be the case? Isn’t more always better? Don’t people want to know more about these beloved characters and the universe in which they live? Not necessarily.
The first problem, according to The Atlantic, is that often these tidbits were left out of the books for a reason. They either aren’t interesting or don’t really contribute to the story. Like scenes from a movie that are left on the cutting room floor, the story was probably tighter and more interesting without them. Sure, they might make for weird party trivia, but beyond that most fans don’t need (or want) to know them.
Which leads to the second problem which is, I think, of more concern to writers. Fans don’t always enjoy having their fantasies ruined by facts. When a book ends, fans have the joy of imagining where the characters go from there. As The Atlantic says,
“Given that much of the joy in falling in love with fictional characters comes from being able to envision new stories from them, by continuing to embellish her stories long after publication, Rowling is arguably chipping away at that imaginative freedom.”
Especially when characters are as beloved and the universe as wide as in Harry Potter, fans want to experience it their way. Having the author constantly coming back and telling them, “That’s not the way things are. They’re this way,” can be annoying, particularly to fans who have invested a lot of time and energy in imagining their own stories for these characters. Once a work is pronounced finished, fans tend to think of it as “theirs” and constant tinkering by the author or director only frustrates and alienates them. It’s similar to what happens when a book is made into a TV show. Once you see those characters in person, your imagined version of them is forever changed and you can’t get it back. When an author continually tweaks a storyverse, the way you imagined it is forever changed.
So why do authors keep tinkering with their work? What are the pros and cons of expanding your storyverse beyond the original book(s)? Here are some thoughts on the subject.
First of all, the temptation to fiddle with the work comes about largely because writers tend to be perfectionists. If there’s a chance that we can correct a misunderstanding or make something clearer, we want to do it. We also like to tell stories and since we know everything about our characters and have reams of notes, we are driven to share everything we know (whether that’s wise, or not). It’s a lot like showing everyone pictures of your kids and gushing over all of their accomplishments. You want the world to know how great they are, even though the world may not care or be sick of hearing about your perfect kids.
This temptation to update and share is aided and abetted by the fact that it is now so cheap and easy to do so. Back in the days when drafts had to be typed (or handwritten) and publication was expensive, most authors (and publishers) would not have the money or desire to continue to expand their books. If they were going to invest time and money, it would be to produce a new work, not revisit an old one. But now publishing is cheap and easy. You can post snippets to a website for free. eBooks can be published for free or very little money. POD technology means that even printed copies aren’t prohibitively expensive. It’s just so easy to post that scene, fact, or “0.5” novella. (Even George Lucas didn’t start mucking about with his work until technology made it easy for him to insert and re-cut scenes in the original films.)
However, as my college roommate used to say: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Sure, it may be easy and cost may not be a factor, but you have to ask yourself if what you’re sharing is polished enough for publication. Many times I’ve seen additional work that doesn’t match the quality or tone of the major novels. The characters don’t seem as well developed (or they’re secondary characters that no one cared about, anyway), and sometimes they act out of character. The plot seems thrown together, or it’s hard to determine exactly what this new bit has to do with the original story. If you’re going to expand your universe, you’d better make sure that whatever you’re putting out matches the original in terms of quality and tone. If it doesn’t, your fans are going to be disappointed. This seems to happen most often after the author has been away from the work for a while and moved on to other projects. Once you get out of a particular story groove, it can be very difficult to get back into it and fans can tell.
Second, you need to stop and ask yourself why you’re expanding your universe. Is this fact or story something that people really need to know in order to make sense of your world or characters? Is it significant, or are you just filling up space on social media? Authors are encouraged today to publish additional information as a way to promote themselves and keep themselves relevant. Those “0.5” novellas can be a way to keep your name out there while you’re between major books. Extra scenes or facts can give you something to tweet, slap on Facebook, or use to drive traffic to your blog. And this strategy can work, if handled carefully. But it can also backfire, alienating fans who don’t want their feeds cluttered with junk and who prefer to imagine your world in their own way. Sometimes more is just more and if you’re only throwing this stuff out as a way to fill your social media feeds, you need to think again. Ask yourself what this fact or scene brings to the table and only publish the things that are really important. Most of it won’t make the cut.
Third, you have to make sure you don’t screw something up, or back yourself into a corner with your tinkering. Whatever you publish or post cannot contradict what’s already in your work. If it does, your ardent fans will be livid and you’ll be stuck trying to craft an explanation or backtrack altogether. Neither is the way to inspire confidence in your work. You also have to make sure that you’re not making your job harder. If you write a “0.5” novella and you introduce new characters, plot points, or world elements, are you prepared to carry them forward into the main books? If they won’t make sense there, you’ll have crafted a sticky situation for yourself that may be difficult to get out of without compromising the integrity of the main work.
Fourth, consider whether the work is already finished or whether it’s still in progress. If a series or stand-alone book is finished and published, you may be better off leaving things as they are. It can cost you credibility to go back and mess with something that was pronounced finished. Fans wonder, “Wasn’t it good enough the first time?” “Does the author lack confidence in their ending, world, or characters?” “Did the publisher/editor do a hatchet job on the original that the author is now trying to correct?” “Why wasn’t ‘The End’ really the end?” They’ve also invested a substantial amount of time and energy in your work and may resent you messing with it after they’ve consolidated it in their minds. You might have more leeway if the series is still in progress. Fans may be more likely to view the new work as just part of the series, rather than an after-the-fact addendum. This is particularly true if you can make it flow seamlessly into the larger work and incorporate everything as you go along.
There are no universal guidelines that dictate when an author should leave their work alone and when continued alterations are helpful or welcomed. My advice would be to take a cue from your fans. If there is something that the majority of them are clamoring to know, it might be worthwhile to release something related to that. However, if you start to sense fatigue from your fans over your constant tweaks, then it’s time to take a break. Also consider leaving things alone if you no longer feel a connection to the work. It’s better to leave it alone than to publish things that don’t fit or match the original. Don’t give into the pressure to keep tweaking if you don’t feel that it’s the best thing to do because your lack of enthusiasm will show. Less is usually more and your fans will appreciate the opportunity to live in your world in their own way without your constant interference.