New Hope for the Dead: Fiction Rehab And The Magic Of The Makeover

by Ruth Harris

Every writer has (at least) one—

They're the orphans, the misfires, the unloved and the unappreciated—and they're hopeless. But are they?

The makeover, defined

Beloved by magazines and TV, a makeover usually means a "new look" or at least a bit of refreshing. It might entail a new shade of lipstick, a new hair style or a new gym routine. Applies to books, too.

Sometimes a few small changes—a new title, a zippy cover, a name change for the main character, some zany new incidents for a cozy—can add up to a big difference and a new life.

Rx for more serious problems: Rehab

Rehab is a bigger deal than the mere makeover. Rehab usually implies the major changes needed to make the trip back from a setback: booze, drugs, athletic injuries. We're talking AA, drug counseling and Tommy John surgery to get the patient (or the book) back on the right track.

Ebooks have revolutionized book publishing in almost every area from editing, marketing, distribution, to pricing—and in one more but much less often discussed way. Unlike the hardcover or paperback of the TradPubbed past, today's novel isn't set in stone. In fact, the digital novel is almost infinitely malleable, the shape-shifter par excellence.

These days a lot of writers aren't writing for an editor, a publisher, or to meet a deadline. We're writing on our own schedules to reach thousands and maybe millions of readers—and we have more than one opportunity to reach them.

When I reread Decades, an international bestseller for me in hardcover (Simon & Schuster) and paperback (NAL), I still liked the structure and the story—a traditional marriage torn apart by an adulterous affair and the women who must confront the cultural convulsions of the mid-Twentieth Century. Told from the points of view of three women—wife, mistress, daughter—the story and theme seemed as relevant as ever but the book felt too long and the pace too slow.

To refresh Decades, I kept the bones of the story but cut over 20,000 words, deleted, tightened and/or combined scenes, and refocused the portrait of the daughter, a rebellious child of the 'Sixties in conflict with her parents. I relaunched the refreshed edition and, with a boost from a BookBub promo, Decades went to #1 in the Kindle store and #1 in Women's Fiction.

Three Authors Refresh their Books

As authors revert rights to previously published books, they are taking the opportunity to refresh them for digital editions. Self-publishing also allows for reviving manuscripts that didn't fit the needs of traditional publishing. Anne R. Allen, Consuelo Saah Baehr and Harriet Smart share their experiences.

Anne R. Allen

"I had an 'unpublishable' literary novel that languished in my files for decades. It explored the myth of mid-century America as a 'Golden Age' through the story of a friendship of two Boomer women from wildly different backgrounds. The subject matter had been too big and difficult for my fledgling writing skills, so I'd shelved it.

"Two years ago, when I had several books on the bestseller lists, my publisher, Mark Williams, asked me if I had anything in the archives that might be quickly polished up and published while I worked on my next Camilla novel.

"I sent him one of the 20 or so versions of the 'unpublishable' novel. I was pleased he saw potential in it. He gave me some great suggestions:

  • Shorten it. At 110K words, it was way too long for contemporary readers.
  • Emphasize the humor and mystery aspects of the story, since my 'brand' is humorous mysteries.
  • Think of a better title. "The Ashtrays of Avalon," and "The Leaders of the 21st Century," my working titles, did not fly. 
  • Beef up the opening scenes, which are set in the present and making the story more accessible to 21st century readers. 

"After about three grueling months of editing, I sent him the 95K word version, newly titled The Lady of the Lakewood Diner which has been a steady seller for me, and has got some of my most enthusiastic reviews."

Consuelo Saah Baehr

Here's what Consuelo did when Amazon approached her about publishing her bestseller Daughters: "I had typed the book into my computer (yes all 700 pages) and had done some editing (always making scenes tighter) at the time."

"Amazon did not ask me to change the storyline of Daughters although they didn't restrict me. They wanted to edit for punctuation, formatting, grammar, typos, etc. At the beginning I asked them about changing aspects of the story that reviewers complained about and they said that reviewers always complained about the things I mentioned and I should leave the story as it was if I wanted to.

"I did some editing on my own but it was minimal. Toned down some scenes, streamlined others, etc. There was no difference in the way I saw the plot or characters. Here's the thing, there is a segment of readers that object to any sexual content (no matter how tastefully done) and will one-star you and call the book trash.

"The Amazon publisher asked me to change the title because she felt the older title didn't convey the breadth of the book. We went through several rounds and settled on Three Daughters and I went from a modest couple of hundred reviews to 750 in three and a half months."

"Two of my other novels, Nothing to Lose and Best Friends, received new covers because I did not own the artwork to the original covers. Each book presented me with different issues and each required a different solution.

"Many reviewers of Best Friends complained about the ending and they were MAD. After about twenty complaints I changed the ending. One character who was hanging by a thread was allowed to live.

"Nothing to Lose had a lot of dated references since it was written pre-Internet. I updated some and just took out others that didn't translate well."

Harriet Smart

English mystery writer Harriet Smart took her TradPubbed books and approached the rehab this way:

"All in all. I have 'rehabbed' four out of my five traditionally published books now, and I have to admit I didn't really do much in the way of textual tinkering, as I was quite satisfied with them as they were. 

The most recent one, The Wild Garden, did give me some pause for thought, however, as it was a contemporary romance, written and set in 1996, and rereading it I was astonished at the character's use of landline phones and handwritten letters. Email appeared but only in passing. I did wonder if I should update this, but the story would not have worked in the age of Google and Facebook (it is about old lover's losing touch and then finding each other again by accident) so it remains a period piece—a conscious decision on my part.

"My first novel, A Garland of Vows, all three hundred thousand words of it, is another matter. An unabashed romantic historical epic, parts of it now make me cringe with embarrassment. I was learning my craft on the job when I wrote it, and it shows. 

"I would tackle such a story in a very different way now, I am sure. But then again there are parts of which I am proud, and I wonder if I shouldn't scan it in, and try and re-form it into something that satisfies me artistically now. It would be a lot of work and I wonder if there would any real point to doing it. Would I just ruin it? A very difficult question and so it remains, untackled…"

Thanks to magic of digital publishing, no book need be left behind.

Inspiration from pros like Anne, Consuelo and Harriet can be your best friend when faced with a book or manuscript in need of help. A makeover might do the job. Maybe a trip to rehab is required. Or even a week or two in intensive care. A sympathetic eye and some well-considered refreshing can come to your—and your book’s—rescue.

First things first: The Dirty Details of The Salvage Operation

The cover: One of the first changes to consider when you are contemplating a book makeover is a new cover. A new cover, like a new shade of lipstick, can make all the difference and help your book stand out in the correct category where it will draw the attention of readers you are looking for. If your book's cover doesn't quite convey the genre or tone, check the covers of the top selling books in your genre and see if a new cover could be the equivalent of a weekend at the spa.

Joanna Penn wrote a detailed post filled with excellent information about what was involved when she decided to change the covers—and titles—of her books in a successful rebranding effort.

The title: Perhaps your publisher stuck you with a title you never liked. (Trust me, it happens.) Or, perhaps, like Consuelo's editor, you feel that your title, while OK, doesn't quite adequately convey the tone or scope of your book. Now's the perfect opportunity to spend time to come up with a title more fitting to the book.

Even though titles can't be copyrighted, be sure to search your title in case it's been overused. If so, think of a way to differentiate your title from the umpteen dozen already out there.

If you do change your title, be sure to add a note to the blurb indicating that the book was "originally published as [OLD BORING TITLE]" You do not want angry readers who already bought your book in its previous incarnation to feel cheated and bomb you with one-star reviews!

New author name: There is no reason not to use a pen name. Perhaps you want to start a new series or perhaps your book would sell better with an author name that fits well in your genre. Von Poopen Outhaus is not exactly the greatest author name for a romance even it is your real name!

New names for old characters: Don't forget that in the original draft of Gone With The Wind, Scarlet O'Hara’s first name was Pansy. (!) Would Hannibal Lector be as scary if he were named Joe Smith? And what about that old perv Humbert Humbert? Choosing character names carefully will instantly help define that person. Name generators offer suggestions for almost any ethnicity/age/historical period you can imagine.

Strategic Revision

Once you've made the small makeover changes and you still want to address the larger problems in a ms., you need a diagnosis. Ask yourself why you've given up and try to ID the problem—plot holes, weak characters, slack pacing. The next step is to zero in and figure out how much and what kind of makeover is required to take your book out from under the bed and into the light of day.

Solve background/setting issues with research. Travel blogs and Goggle offer all sorts of foreign setting ideas. Get details on Southeast Asia at Nomadic Matt's, the latest on South America and what's offbeat, interesting and new in New Zealand.

  • An unfocused, go-nowhere scene or story arc? Don't forget the power of the delete button. Here's a superb example from TV writer, Ken Levine.
  • Need medical facts from allergies to appendicitis (or is it constipation?) Here's a guide for fiction writers written by Jordy N. Redwood, an ER nurse,
  • Too much tell, not enough show? What's the difference and how to fix it with examples.
  • Characterization issues: Good guy/gal or bad guy/gal, the super spy, the nutcase, the grunt who saves his battalion, the alcoholic teacher who can't save herself but rescues her class, the jihadist with a heart of gold, the whore with a heart of coal, the psychotic, psychopathic, and just plain psychic are the writer's best friend. How to write characters readers remember.
  • First line blahs: A killer first line in every chapter can go a long way to rehab a plain vanilla draft, hook your reader and keep the pages turning.
  • Endings that keep readers hanging on: The art and craft of the cliffhanger
  • How to write sympathetic characters readers will identify with and want to know more about. 
  • Need a bad guy or gal? Want someone despicable yet charming? Sexy but dangerous? How to write a villain.
  • Here's advice on how to fix your plot from Janice Hardy plus extra help from the story grid and Writer Unboxed .
  • Bring in the rescue crew, aka the editor or the book doctor. Sometimes you need help from a pro. What an editor can—and cannot—do--advice from The Kill Zone. 


  • Changing a time period—sci-fi retrofitted to Regency—is most likely just too big a jump.
  • Changing a historical from Edwardian to World War II will require massive research plus deep-dish psychological makeovers of characters' personalities and attitudes.
  • Satire into tragedy probably not worth the amount of work involved as is dystopian survivalist to contemporary romance.
  • Hard-edged big city noir to small-town cozy is another bridge too far.


English politician and writer Lord Michael Dobbs did, and look what happened when he decided that "Location is irrelevant in political drama" and transferred the story in his novel and BAFTA-winning mini-series House of Cards from London to Washington. 

What about you, Scriveners? Have you got a book in the archives that needs a makeover? A trip to rehab? Were you as pleased as I was to read that reviewers always complain about certain things and Amazon editors think we should leave the story as it is if we want to? Have you tried some of these makeovers?...Anne



"The songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the way we made love. Absolutely perfect!" ...Publisher's Weekly

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THREE WOMEN. THREE DECADES. Spanning the years from the optimistic post-War 1940s to the Mad Men 1950s and rule-breaking "Make Love, Not War" 1960s, DECADES is about three generations of women who must confront the radical changes and upended expectations of the turbulent decades in which they lived.

Evelyn, talented but insecure, is a traditional woman of the Forties. She is a loyal and loving wife and mother whose marriage and family mean everything to her.

Nick, handsome and ambitious, a chameleon who changes with the changing times, is her successful but restless husband.

Joy, their daughter, confused and defiant, a child of the Sixties, needs them both but is torn between them.

Barbara is the other woman, younger than Evelyn, accomplished but alone. She is a transitional woman of the Fifties who wonders if she can have everything--including another woman's husband.

DECADES, sweeping in scope yet intimate in detail, is the emotional, compelling story of family, marriage, crisis, betrayal and healing.


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015
 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizesDeadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS SHORT STORY CONTEST NO FEE! Open to emerging diverse writers from all diverse backgrounds (including, but not limited to, LGBT, people of color, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities) who have not been published in BOOK format in any genre. The winner receives US $1,000 and publication in the “Stories For All Of Us” anthology to be published by Random House. Opens April 27--Deadline May 8.

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