By Elaine Viets
I can’t read my novels when they’re hot off the presses. That’s when I see the parts that sag and the phrases I wish were more graceful.
But when I finally read Shop till You Drop, the first Dead-End Job mystery I wrote in 2003, it almost seemed like it had been written by someone else.
I had to reread all my Dead-End Job mysteries. I have four mystery series: the Dead-End Job series is a collection of funny mysteries set in South Florida. There’s the cozy Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mysteries. Plus the Francesca Vierling newspaper mysteries. Right now, my current series is the forensic mysteries with death investigator, Angela Richman.
I am “backlist rich,” as my agent, Joshua Bilmes says. Joshua is president of the JABberwocky Literary Agency in New York, and he wanted to re-release my backlist. JABberwocky represents award-winning authors including Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Toni Kelner and Tanya Huff, and has made books available from two dozen of the agency’s clients within its e-book program.
Done right, re-releases are expensive: re-releasing my 23 books in the Dead-End Job and Josie Marcus mystery shopper series can cost a solid five figures, and JABberwocky fronted the money. The novels will get new covers and fresh cover copy. We started with the first 13 Dead-End Job mysteries. Jenn Reese at Tiger Bright Studios designed clean, bright covers with a different symbol and color for each novel.
Meanwhile, I had to read all 13 Dead-End Job mysteries, and correct the small errors that happen when the files are converted to book format, plus the occasional typo. I was blessed with good copyeditors for this series, but one was crazy for semicolons. I have a deep, abiding hatred for semicolons in novels. They should be banished to term papers. I rewrote to get rid of the pests.
I recommend rereading your own work. I shouldn’t have waited 15 years. Reading your work will teach you a lot about your writing. Here’s what I learned:
(1) I needed a bible. Not the Good Book, but a list of every character and place I used in the series. I never expected this series to last for so many books. How long did Helen’s deadbeat husband live off her without getting a job? In some books, it was five years. In others, it was seven. I settled on a biblical seven years. And Helen’s age ranged from 41 to 42. She became 42 forever. Even if you have a two-book series, start a bible.
TKZ writer Kristy Montee, one half of PJ Parrish, says she has a high-tech method: She keeps a handwritten notebook. “We started it with the first book. It’s a dossier with a page(s) for every character we have ever created. To be honest, it’s easier to use than a computer file.
“On Louis’s page, for example, we have such strange facts as:
“Foster father was wounded in left leg in Korea.
“Joined Ann Arbor PD Jan. 1981
“His badge number in Loon Lake was #127
“Got college girlfriend pregnant in Feb. 1980.
“Takes 3 sugars in black coffee.
“Refurbished his vintage Mustang in the book Paint It Black.
“We do this for every character. It’s saved us MUCHO grief.”
This is what I should have done.
(2) I was overly fond of certain phrases. Never mind which ones – they’re gone.
(3) I insulted an ethnic group. I described a Caucasian woman who’d had too many eye jobs as having “Chinese eyes.” More than one reader said that was insulting to Asians. They were right. Never mind that I didn’t mean to insult anyone. That phrase is gone.
(4) The novels I thought were the best turned out not to be. I didn’t rewrite them – they got good reviews. But I learned another lesson: don’t overload the first few chapters with too much information.
(5) Some lines made me laugh. In Clubbed to Death, Helen’s co-worker says this about their hated boss: “Her heart is as hard as her fake boobs.”
When Helen meets her future husband in Dying to Call You, she notices, “His nose was slightly crooked. Helen liked that quality in a man.”
The novels were wistful at times. In Murder with Reservations, Helen wonders, “How come when you finally got what you wanted, it wasn’t what you needed?”
After reading all the novels, I liked them. They’re mysteries with a sharp look at Florida life.
But from now on, I need to woman up, and get booking. I’m taking my own sharp look at my writing.
Thirteen Dead-End Job mysteries are being re-released as e-books by JABberwocky Literary Agency. Buy the whole set or treat yourself to the books you missed. Prices start at $2.99 and go up. Check them out here. http://awfulagent.com/ebooks/elaine-viets
Elaine, great post. Interestingly, I am going through a massive rewrite myself, and I feel your pain. As we get better at our craft, looking at what we did years ago is always a lesson in humility. But hey, humble is good, right?
Agreed. I didn’t realize I had so much to be humble about, Steven.
This makes me smile, Elaine. I’m glad you have an agent that’s taking good care of these books because your backlist is a treasure. Thanks for sharing your process and insights. Going back to read was a very brave act.
I’m just about to do this with the 3 novels I own and about a dozen short stories. Fortunately, I did a lot of rewriting for the first 2 when I got them back from Ballantine and put them up as ebooks.
And, yes, you are SO right about a bible! I rather wish I’d kept them for even my standalones because they all have possibilities for sequels. (Also as cheat notes since my memory is a sieve.)
“Her heart is as hard as her fake boobs.” Hahahahaha! Love it.
Yes, the bible — the thing I tell all aspiring writers to keep. Don’t do as I do . ..
It’s natural for writers to get better over time. Don’t sweat it. My local library has a bunch of your books, and readers certainly seem to be enjoying them given the amount of wear and tear on them. I love your book covers – very artsy.
Thanks, Joanne. I like the covers, too.
I think in trilogies so I always keep notes on characters. I’m also a continuity fiend.
I love the corgi on the cover. So cute!
My daughter recently sent me a copy of a column I wrote years ago – Anaconda in the Living Room. It was like reading someone else’s work. It still made me laugh.
Good luck with your series.
Well, they say we’re a totally new person after 7 years, at least on a cellular scale, Cynthiia. So maybe we are reading someone else’s work.
Series Bible. YES! Not that I have one, because it’s too scary a task at this point. But the old brain isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and I’m forever having to go back through books to find the details. Never mind characters, which is a major continuity challenge, but, Where is the mayor’s office? What kind of a car does Joe drive? How many bedrooms in the heroine’s house? Does she even live in a house?
Since your series is still continuing, Terry, you might want to start your bible by reading the first book. That’s the most important.
And I keep saying that. And then I think about the fact that I have four series, and say I’ll do it when I decide which one I’ll write next, and then I start, and then I give up.
I can’t remember which conference, or which panel, or which author said that one of his readers created a Bible for his series, so he didn’t have to! Sigh.
I’d thought of a series bible, but then I thought that that was a little presumptuous.
But I got to chapter 14 of the first book, and I couldn’t remember what’s-her-name’s name. And I couldn’t find her name in my outline. The outline note was, ” . . . marine lance corporal pulls her sidearm while trying to hold her bologna sandwich with her teeth.”
Presumption went straight to humility. So, according to my bible, her name is Nadie. And the scene has been scrapped.
Don’t scrap that scene – I’d read it!
(Lance corporal’s mom)
God bless the 2/5 and the 3/1, your Son’s or Daughter’s battalion, and all of them. God bless the United States Marine Corps.
You were smarter than I was, Jim. You can be proud.
You made me laugh, Elaine. When Kathryn posted the page 69 test and I went back to check past books, I cringed at some of the writing. I can’t imagine rereading 23 books. You’re lucky to get a chance to update them. Yay for story bibles! They make the process so much smoother. Thanks for this peek into your process. Love the boob line. Hilarious!
I suppose we should be grateful we can recognize our writing flaws, Sue. It would be worse to think our writing is perfect when it’s not.
Writing software helps me to keep track of details at the scene level. One program (completely free and easy to use) is called yWriter5. (I think there’s a yWriter6 now that’s also free. Be sure to get the correct version for your operating system) The software was written by a computer scientist (not me) who is also a writer. It allows you to keep track of everything, and it is simple to use. Here’s a screenshot: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5_Screens.html. There’s a review on the called “Choosing the Right Writing Software: Scrivener Versus yWriter” that you might want to read. (Mac Users may prefer Scrivener, but Scrivener is not free). If you like yWriter, you can choose to support the author by registering the program, but the program is free (as of today, anyway). Anyway, I thought I’d throw this out there in case it helps someone.
Interesting solution, Joanne. thanks for proposing it.
If you’re a visual person like I am, it even lets you print scene sards for each scene.
sards = cards
Good point, Joanne.
Elaine, I’m starting a series bible today. Thanks for the nudge!
You decided to make Helen permanently age 42. Can you do that for me also please? Oops, guess I should have asked you a couple decades ago.
As a kid, I remember reading Nancy Drew who’d had at least 32 different adventures, all at age 18. Stretched my 10-year-old credibility. I’m curious how you’re handling age with Angela Richman, a grittier series than your previous ones?
Congratulations on the re-release and a truly impressive body of work. That’s a legacy to be proud of.
I sort of fudge the time element, Debbie, and hope the readers don’t notice. As least a Death Investigator has a lot of cases in a year.
Wonderful that the books are being given new life, and that you get to time travel to the beginnings of the series. A “bible” of details makes sense to avoid inconsistencies . . . now thinking of Twain’s critique of Cooper. I appreciate your attention to detail, which makes it so rewarding to read your works, Twain again, the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. <3
I’ll take a comparison with my favorite Missouri writer, Mark Twain, any day. Thanks, Mary.
Yes, even if it is your first book, you want a Bible. It will prevent Joe Hero from going to both Yale and Princeton. After the second book, it will have the answer to pesky fan questions. Considering I looked up where Sheldon Cooper got his doctorate, this week.
For the tech savy, start a wiki. It is easy. Maybe I should set one up for the Elaine Viets fan club. Then we the readers can build a Bible.
Ooh, I like that, Alan. TKZ readers, you need to know Alan Portman. He’s my webmaster and knows how to extract amazing amounts of data.
YES, Elaine. The bible!! I started doing it in my Miami Crime Trilogy of novels, and now I’m halfway through a new series, a quartet of novels. I keep meticulous notes on every character, including dates and places of birth, where they have lived, what they like and don’t like, physical characteristics, and so on. Like you say, it saves A LOT of trouble later on. You may never need that info for some characters, but at the very least, it gives you a firmer grip on each person in your novel.
My advice to every writer in the world:
Must … do … bible.
I absolutely second that, Don Donovan. Writers, listen to Don. Learn from my experience.
Love the story Bible concept. Now I just need to get on a roll of published novels. HaHa! After becoming an MWA Sleuthfest finalist for the Freddie award in thriller, I hope I’m on my way. Thank you, Elaine, for volunteering your time for the contest.
Congratulations on winning the Freddie Award, given at SleuthFest, Jo. More than 118 writers entered that contest, and the judges saw blind submissions. You were in the lead in a tough competition. Now that you’ve proven yourself, go write!
Good luck with the re-release!