Ugly Babies

By PJ Parrish
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Not your life. Your first book. That thing that burst from your heart and took flight and lifted you up there with it, making you feel on top of the world.
Until, maybe, you went back and read it again.
Did you still love it? Or did you see its little warts and uneven gait? Did it seem to maybe need a little grooming or a good flea-dip? If you had the chance, would you try to clean it up so it would be more…adoptable?
Our first book was DARK OF THE MOON. It’s a good story that we’re proud of. It got some great blurbs and reviews. But it got one bad review from Kirkus, which is the Life cereal of the publishing world. (“Give it to Mikey, he hates everything!”). Here is part of what Kirkus said:
“Clumsy prose, stereotyped people and a first novelist who has to learn that in plotting the twist is better than the wrench.”
I’ve submitted this review every year to Thrillerfest’s worst review contest but I keep losing to folks like John Gilstrap. The prize is fossilized poop. I really want that damn award.
Here’s the thing: We own the eBook rights to DARK OF THE MOON so my sister Kelly and I started formatting it for Kindle et al. As we were going along, we realized we could tweak things here and there if we wanted. So we started tweaking.
Then we realized it needed more than a tweak. It needed a full-bore heavy-muscle pipe refitting with one of those giant wrenches you see hairy men with butt cracks carrying out of Home Depot.
Here’s the second thing: As good as our freshman book is, it contains transgressions that now, twelve books later, we teach would-be writers in our workshops not to do.
It has heart but no head. That means we wrote with great passion, especially for our hero Louis, but we didn’t have complete control over our craft. What were our sins exactly?
STRUCTURE: We switched point of view in mid scenes. Our transitions between chapters had continuity lapses. We had too many unnecessary scenes “on camera” often showing things we had already covered. And our timeline was confusing. We now keep detailed chronologies and use big story boards to keep track of each “day” in our plot. See picture above of Kelly employing our two vital writing tools –- Post-Its and wine. 
CHARACTER: We veered into stereotypes, an easy thing to do when writing about the Deep South, and we used clunky dialect. Our fictitious Blackpool was also a one-dimensional character. Even the rattiest place on earth has something redeeming about it. We chose not to see it.
THEME: This might have been our biggest sin. We now believe that every good book has a theme, an underground railroad on which your plot progresses. Without a theme, you have nothing to say. Although we were writing about the effect of a 30-year-old lynching on a small southern town, we didn’t really connect this plot to the larger question of what this meant for our hero.
We didn’t ask ourselves the most important question we now ask of every character we create: What does Louis want? It wasn’t that he wanted to identify the lynching victim. It wasn’t even that he wanted to bring the murderers to justice. We didn’t realize that what Louis really wanted was to find his sense of home (and “home” meant his identity as a biracial man). Now this theme colors everything Louis does and every book we write.
So if this book is so awful, why are we putting it out in eBook?
It’s still a good book and readers like it. They forgive us our sins. But for now, we have put it aside and are readying our second book DEAD OF WINTER for eBook. See, we learned a lot by the time we started that one, just as parents learn a lot about babies by the time their second one comes along. DEAD OF WINTER must have been okay. It was an Edgar finalist.
But our first born? I remain undecided, reluctant to send this homely thing out into the world a second time. But my sister, who holds the book much closer to her heart than her writing brain, is not so sure about permanently closing the DOM yellow folder. It is, after all, the story that started a series and career, but also changed our relationship as sisters.
And when something is that special, as writers it’s had to let it just lay unloved and unread by our loyal readers. So, I am sure, one day when we are between books and novellas and conferences, Kelly will convince me to reopen DARK OF THE MOON and together, we will begin the necessary surgery. Maybe with a scalpel instead of a wrench.

12 thoughts on “Ugly Babies

  1. I have put my first four published romance novels into ebook format, and I completely revised them first. It’s amazing what you can see in your work years later. I wish I’d had that luxury with my mysteries that are in ebook format through eReads, but they just copied the hardcover version verbatim. I’d made corrections for the paperbacks so they could at least have copied those. Nothing I can do about it as I don’t have the rights.

  2. I haven’t reread my first book, but I’ve heard it can be helpful. I might have to break down & do it. I’ve never read my books when they were in print, because I’m afraid of the dreaded typo. Oy!

  3. Kris, I would be surprised to find any artist that would pass up the chance to go back and change something in an earlier work. Having rights revert back to the author and re-publishing as an e-book is nothing short of a literary time machine. I’ll bet if a local Italian scribe had interviewed Michelangelo in his later years, the artist would have wished they could put the scaffolding back up so he could tweak a few things on the Sistine Chapel.

    Your points about DARK OF THE MOON are proof that the best rule in writing fiction is: anything goes as long as it works. Obviously, it worked for you guys.

    My first published novel (co-written with Lynn Sholes) was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY. I’ve gone back a number of times and reread it. Based upon things I’ve learned about the craft over the years, there are definitely things I would change. But for whatever we got right or wrong with TGC, it became an international bestseller translated into 24 languages. And 7 years after it was published, the e-book version hit #1 on Amazon last year. So for me, that first novel will forever remain a flawed but beloved ugly baby.

  4. I faced this with the re-release of NATHAN’S RUN and AT ALL COSTS last spring. It’s an interesting exercise to see how one’s narrative senses change over the years. Ultimately, I decided that those were the books that I wrote at the time, and that they should remain as they were, with warts and all.

    Okay, I did engage in a massive defuckification of the prose, thanks to abundant email that told me I was far too enamored of the F-bomb, and that I was turning them off. Otherwise, they remain as they were written. That’s just me.

    And I have my dino poop proudly displayed in my office! (It comes in a lovely wooden box.)

    John Gilstrap

  5. I’m still on my very first WIP and read your post and the responses with all the eagerness of a newbie. I initially wrote my MS rather quickly (gee, what’s so hard about writing?)then let it sit for a couple months while I read books on the craft of novel writing,lots of them. When I went back to my MS, I cringed. Boring in places with little tension, mundane dialogue, POV changes like there was no ‘morrow. But I still like the premise and basic story. I’m tackling it again with a little more knowledge. Articles and comments like the ones here are a great help! Thanks for sharing. PS I’m glad to see someone promote the relationship of wine to writing.

  6. Interesting insight about theme, Kris. Writers are split on this. Some say it’s necessary, others say it’s hogwash (and that the battle of the characters carries a theme naturally).

    I’ve started teaching something in my workshops that reaches a literal middle ground: there’s a thing about the midpoint of the story where we can find what the story is really all about.

    Anyway, you hit upon a deepening move, and that’s a good thing.

  7. This is an interesting post. It is a fascinating time to be an author where you can edit and rewrite and launch an old book anew. My 1st novel never sees the sun in its drawer, but my son wants to know when I’m publishing that one. The answer may be never. As it would require as much work as you’ve spelled out here for us! You are right too that readers who love your book will forgive a lot.

    Congrats on the Edgar win and keep on writing the next one! Now am wondering if I want to do the hard work on that 1st novel as you’ve done…on the other hand, dust bunnies need friends too.

  8. This is interesting as I just finished reading Dark of the Moon this week, and where I can see what you point out, I also enjoyed it immensely and would not have said the book lacked because of these points. In fact, I’d say by the popularity of the book and its springboard to the series that you’ve done a great job in introducing the character of Louis to the reader.

    If you added theme and full character arc than there would be nowhere for the character to go in book 2,3,4…

    And, having lived in Mississippi for the last year and a half, the stereotypes are there for a reason. Yes, they seem crazy but they are not so far off the mark, even now.

    I LOVED Dark of the Moon and am looking forward to more–warts and all.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  9. Hi guys…
    Still in Paris here and we lost our internet until this morning so excuse the tardy response:

    Jordan: I still cringe when I see an old typo, but I can almost live with that. It’s the big stuff that eats at me.

    Joe: I forget which famous artist (a sculptor, I think) said but it was something to the effect of half the work of art is knowing when to stop.

    John: “Defuckification.” Love that one. We did the same round about book three after several gentle reminders from readers that we didn’t need to use the f-bomb so much. They are right. It’s like oregano…a little goes a long ways.

    Julie: Keep working on the WIP. The first, second, third drafts are made by the heart. The fourth, fifth and sixth are made with the head.

    James: I agree. Not all books NEED a theme but I find that all the best ones seem to have one. But it is never pedantic. It sort of creeps up on you, as you said.

  10. Donna: I remember being SHOCKED when I heard Mike Connelly say he wrote three complete manuscripts before the one that his agent and he felt was ready to go out. That was The Black Echo. The rest is history.

    Victoria: You made my day. 🙂

  11. I have two novels sitting in drawers, and I’m pretty sure they will (deservedly) stay there. The thought of going back and doing a heavy edit is not as tempting as the possibility of starting fresh. But I learned something from the process of writing each of them; I think of it as my continuing writing education class.

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