“It is easy to be wise after the event.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes
By PJ Parrish
I’ve been doing a lot of reading of my old stuff lately. It’s all in prep to get the last of our backlist titles re-packaged and up for download. What a chore — and eye-opener — this has turned out to be.
First, it’s a lot of grunt work. Some of our books are so old they hail from the dark ages of Word Perfect. (For the record, the BEST word processing system ever designed). There is no manuscript that I can feed into the Amazon maw. So here’s the primitive process:
- Dig around in the dusty bins of the house to find an old paper copy of the book
- Send it to our book scanner (Blue Leaf in Ballwin, Mo). Our guy Brad then rips the book apart, scans it, and sends us a Word document.
- The manuscript comes back surprisingly clean. But it has quirks. The spacing is off at times, “t” often comes out “st” and Louis’s name is sometimes Louie. So I have to CAREFULLY read every single line. This is hard to do because:
- I am a bad copy editor.
- Reading for typos is like taking three Ambiens.
- I get caught up in the story and miss the typos. This is sometimes a good thing because I hit a passage and think, “Damn, I’m good!” This is sometimes a bad thing because I hit another passage and it’s, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Once I have a clean manuscript, I ship it off to my sister Kelly who has mastered the art of formatting. (If you don’t know how to do this, hire someone who does. Please. If you are self-pubbing, one of the biggest turn-offs to readers is shoddy formatting. It screams amateur.) So, Kelly makes it pretty with perfect chapter breaks, drop-caps, correct page numbering and a table of contents. We write new backcopy and design a new cover (you can’t use your original publisher’s).
Covers, as we’ve talked about here, are important. Again, hire a pro! If you have series, it’s best to brand them with linking graphic devices, type faces and colors. We chose black backgrounds and an odd type face. Here a sample of the covers, original and new, for book we’ve just finished.
The left one, from our publisher Kensington, was adequate. But it looks dated now (design trends mutate!). I always disliked it because the only image is a nondescript (purple?) house that had no relation to the story. In our re-branding new covers, we’ve used a human figure on every book because we think it gives the reader a person to begin to bond with, be it a victim, protag or villain. (Also the necklace the dead girl wears turnss out to be a big clue).
So Thicker Than Water is available in ebook and very pretty trade paperback. Click here. Now we take you back to our regular programming.
I’d like to return to my first point, way back in the first paragraph. Because this is what I really want to stress for you guys out there who are struggling with getting your first book out there in the world.
That is my biggest take-away from this experience of getting our old stuff back out there. Because no matter where you are in your writing, rewriting or editing process, you have to be willing to have your eyes opened. And your ego closed.
You really have to be ruthless in rewriting. You have to make hard choices, sometimes about passages or whole chapters that need to be cut. You have to recognize that your plot foundation might be shaky. Or that your characters are cardboardy. I always tell folks one thing, going into a new story:
Write the first draft with your heart. Then write the second, third, tenth or twentieth draft with your head. We’ve now re-published ten of our old books. Yes, we did some rewriting on all of them. The first one, Dark of the Moon, we have yet to re-publish because we believe it has fundamental problems that need more than a normal rewrite can solve. Here’s some of the things we learned in this process with our freshman effort book:
We got preachy. Our protag, Louis Kincaid, is biracial. The issue of race is, at times, important in the plot but more often than not is tangential to the story. Still, a couple times we allowed Louis to sound pedantic. Here’s the thing about themes: The more dramatic your theme, the more you need to underwrite. Go at your theme — be it bigotry, spouse abuse, environment, gay rights — obliquely, and always through the lens of your characters, not through your writerly narrator. You can make your point but you can’t be didactic.
We fell prey to stereotypes. Dark of the Moon is set in a small southern town in 1983. Our dialogue was too dialect-dependent. Our characters came across as one-dimensional. And we managed to have nothing positive to say about the town itself. Remember: your setting is a character. Treat it with respect.
We lost track of “book” time. This was an issue in our first two books, wherein we didn’t account for lapses in time. We neglected to tell readers that X-days had passed or we didn’t account for holidays like Christmas. (Hey, readers notice that little stuff). The sequence of events must be clear in the reader’s mind. We now use timeline boards and chronologies.
We didn’t know what we wanted to say. I’m going out on limb here and say all good books have themes. I don’t think we understood this until about book 4. Yes, you want to entertain readers. But beneath the grinding gears of plot, even light books can have something to say about the human condition. A romance might be “about” how love is doomed without trust. A courtroom drama might be “about” the morality of the death penalty.
We missed the theme in Dark of the Moon. Only now, as we rewrite it, are we understanding that the theme is every person’s search for home. For Louis, it was literally going back to the southern town where he was born and then understanding that it wasn’t “home” at all. The entire series now has a theme — Louis, a man who has walked uneasily in two racial worlds — trying to find his spiritual home.
I know you’re tempted to dismiss theme as mere enhancement. Le cerise sur la gateau, as the French say. But it’s essential. Try this experiment: Write the back copy for your work in progress — three paragraphs at most. Ha! Can’t do it? Well, you might not have a grip on what your story is about at its heart. Now often your theme doesn’t show itself until you’re well into your plot. Well, that’s okay. But when it begins to whisper, listen hard. Good fiction, Stephen King says, “always begins with story and progresses to theme.”
Eyes open, crime dogs.