Rewriting: Keep Your Eyes
Open And Your Ego Closed

“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:

  1. Dig around in the dusty bins of the house to find an old paper copy of the book
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

20 thoughts on “Rewriting: Keep Your Eyes
Open And Your Ego Closed

  1. My screenwriting instructor defines theme as: “A statement or question about the human condition, looked at from all angles.” (If you want to write propaganda, you can skip the “all angles” part.)
    Yes, theme is important. Ideally, you’ve identified your theme before writing. If you’re a pantser, you may have to discover it when you’re done, then go back and emphasize it cautiously, as needed, throughout. If you pick one theme and find that the completed m/s or film actually has a different one, you’re hosed.
    Similarly for motif. Motif is less important than theme, but provides an opportunity to add another dimension to the story or to echo the theme. The motif in Matchstick Men was dog images. Roy’s stash is in a bank shaped like a pooch. In one scene, the director added a dog barking in post.

    • Excellent breakdown there, JG. Esp your point about motif. Which is subtle but very different from theme. I rarely know the theme going in but it does, as you say, slowly reveal itself. Then it is my job to go back and enhance it as need be. Thanks. Might do a post on motif, theme, symbolism etc. later.

  2. Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.

    So much good advice here, Kris. Esp. The more dramatic your theme, the more you need to underwrite.

    It’s the same with an actor showing emotion. I learned from a great actor to “pull back 25%” on emotion. Same principle for writing, I’d say.

    And just a note on formatting for the indies out there. I use Vellum. I’ve also heard good things about Atticus.

    • I was a big fan of The Actors Studio, hosted by James Lipton. I learned more about writing from that show than any book. He had Michael Caine on (one of my fave actors) and Caine talked about the need for understatement in ultra-dramatic scenes. He specifically talked about how he used his eyes. Great stuff. (Is that show still on?)

      • As I will be taking my first steps in formatting in the next several months, I would love to hear about people’s experience with Atticus. I’ve heard Vellum is the top choice, but I’m not a Mac user, so that’s out.

  3. Wow! Great post, Kris. I’ve been in editing mode for my next book, and these are all excellent points for a new book as well as revising an older one.
    Less is More, by all means.
    For ebooks, Draft2Digital does excellent formatting from a Word doc. I haven’t tried them for print yet.

  4. Interesting. Scan hard copy, convert to Word is how I saved an almost complete manuscript for Elaine Viets. She keeps much better backups now. I do have the advantage of my day job providing me with the Adobe creative suite. It made it a lot easier.

    I have done page layout. It is harder than it looks at first glance. My day boss was shocked when I told her there were an average of 25 corrections to be made per page of our course catalog fixing the formatting. The devil is in the details.

  5. Great post, Kris. I like your comments on theme. For me, theme often motivates my writing of the story, so I have to pull back to keep from “preaching.”

    For formatting: Atticus is excellent for Windows Word documents. Draft2Digital has made a lot of improvements in the last year or so and (by their claims) now has a lot of options for formatting. And you can’t beat their price.

    Thanks for your words of wisdom.

    • I have a friend (who shall remain nameless) who insisted on formatting his own book. It is a hot mess. This man is not poor. He refused to pay someone. He sent me his book and I didn’t have the heart to write back. This is why I have stopped giving advice to friends who are trying to publish. Except you guys. You all are smart.

  6. Terrific post, Kris. My late friend and collaborator K.C. Ball used to emphasize with me to go deeper with emotion in the first draft, then dial it back in revision, a very of less is more, keeping what’s most effective.

    I find typo hunting to be a real grind, and easy to begin skimming. Reading passages out loud helps me. I always have a copy editor go over the manuscript, but I also always do a final pass, because no one catches everything.

    Another recommendation for Vellum here, and also for Draft2Digital. I did use their new print option for my latest book, and in fact have author copies en route.

    Thanks for another keeper of a post.

  7. Wow, Kris, Word Perfect goes back a ways. I wrote several early mss in WP’s then-competition, Word Star. Fortunately none was published. In in the ensuing years, my ego has been humbled enough that I now realize they weren’t worth publishing so I’ve been spared the task you’re facing.

    Interesting realizations about your first book. It was strong enough that a publisher put money behind it. I remember reading it years ago after I first discovered TKZ and thinking it was great. But kudos to you for recognizing that it can be even better.

    Writers are our own worst critics. A wise teacher (maybe William Kittredge?) once said, “It’s never as good as you think it is but it’s never as bad as you think it is.”

  8. Great information, Kris. I’m out on that same limb with you: all good books have a theme. If you’re going to go to all the trouble to write a book, it should, even in some small way, enhance our understanding of the human condition. (My latest novel, Lacey’s Star has an epigraph that is the theme: “The truth is bitter, but with all its bitterness, it is better than illusion.”)

    I also use Vellum. It has a simple, easy to understand interface, and it produces excellent results.

  9. Thanks so much for this post. It was really “eye-opening.” 🙂

    A piece of advice one of my writing professors told us was to read you work backward when editing for grammar and typos. Start with the last sentence, then go backward. It breaks the flow of the story and forces you to just pay attention to the words.

    • Yikes. Backwards? Really? I can read upside down. A talent I learned in my newspaper days when we had hot type and you had to go upstairs to the composing room (linotypes! dinosaurs! rotary phones oh my!) and read the page on a rolling table they called the turtle.

  10. I’ve always like using text-to-speech for my final edit because I’m so blind to errors by that point. I speed it up so I really have to pay attention. Changing font and font size makes those periods and commas easier to see.

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