Intuitive Editing With Tiffany Yates Martin
How can you create distance from your manuscript in order to see it as a reader does and edit effectively? What are some of the biggest issues with editing a manuscript? How can you edit on a budget? Tiffany Yates Martin talks all about editing in this interview.
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Tiffany Yates Martin is an editor, speaker, and teacher with almost 30 years in the publishing industry. She writes contemporary women’s fiction as Phoebe Fox, and her latest non-fiction book is Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing.
You can listen above or onyour favorite podcast appor read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- The three ‘brains’ we need: writer, reader, editor
- Tips for creating distance from your manuscript so that you can see it the way a reader does
- The importance of writing characters that readers care about — and making their stakes clear
- Momentum vs. pace
- Finding your author voice
- Editing support on a budget
You can find Tiffany Yates Martin at FoxPrintEditorial.comand on Twitter @FoxPrintEd
Transcript of Interview with Tiffany Yates Martin
Joanna: Tiffany Yates Martin is an editor, speaker, and teacher with almost 30 years in the publishing industry. She writes contemporary women’s fiction as Phoebe Fox, and her latest non-fiction book is Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Welcome, Tiffany.
Tiffany: Thank you, Joanna. Thanks for inviting me onto the show.
Joanna: Ah, it’s good to talk about this topic.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and editing.
Tiffany: The writing I’d always done. Like most of us, I started from the time I was very young. My mom recently gave me back a copy of a book I must have written in elementary school, called, embarrassingly enough, My Autobiography About Me: I Wrote It Myself.
Tiffany: It’s full of gems, like ‘my brother is annoying,’ that kind of thing. But it was funny because I bound it and I put my author note in there at the back, and I had back cover copy, so I think that was ingrained.
I actually went into acting as a career, which is how I side hustled into editing. I was working as an actor, and thus working as a waiter in New York, like many of us, and one day I saw in ‘The New York Times’ something that said, ‘Get paid for reading books. Send us $25 and we’ll tell you how.’
I wanted to find something with a little more longevity than waiting tables, that would allow me flexibility for my acting career. I had been an English major, and always good at it, always loved it, so I thought, well, give this a try, it’s probably a scam.
It wasn’t actually a scam. It was full of really great suggestions for how to approach copy editing and proofreading, which is how I started, how to approach the managing editors and the copy chiefs at big publishing houses.
Probably that was in the early ’90s, and for probably the first 15 years of my career, I was working as a freelance copy editor for most of the big six, back when I started. And then about 12 years ago, I decided to move into developmental editing, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
I work with authors directly, both indie and traditionally published, and I also work with several publishers.
Joanna: You also write contemporary women’s fiction, which I always find interesting, because obviously we all self-edit as writers, but the editor’s brain, it can be so different.
When did you think, ‘Oh, I know. I’ll write fiction too,’ and how do you manage those two different brains?
Tiffany: Interestingly, I didn’t try to set out to become an editor, but I realized, right around the time I think I shifted into developmental editing, it’s my first love. I do love writing, and I always have, but I think I’m an editor first.
As you correctly point out, the hardest thing about being a writer, if you’re also an editor, is that your brain is working as editorial mindset, and that can shut you down. I think it’s what we do sometimes as writers.
I always advocate try to draft the story as freely as you can, because if you are sitting there editing it or observing it as you’re going, you’re getting in your own way and you’re shutting yourself down. You’re shutting off the very part of yourself that can achieve what you’re trying to achieve.
It’s the equivalent of having somebody over your shoulder judging every line. ‘Did you really mean to say that? Is that the best way to do it? Oh, come on. That sucks.’ That’s a horrific way to try to write.
Fiction was always the thing I most wanted to write. I did work as a journalist for a while, but I loved fiction, but I had to learn to shut off the editor brain. It was interesting because that was part of what helped me develop a lot of the theories that I used in the book, Intuitive Editing.
I talk about the three stages of writing, and the three brains you need to be in at different times.
You have to be in writer brain when you’re writing.
And then you shift to reader brain when you’re doing your first assessment of what you have on the page, to see how effectively it comes across, how it strikes you.
And then you transition into editor brain, to be able to figure out why it may not be working as well as it could in certain areas, and how to address those things.
But then once you figured that out, you go back into writer brain, and you bring in all of those skills you learned as a writer, to use as revision. One reason I think editing can be hard for us is because we’re not really taught how to edit. We’re taught how to write.
Those skills are definitely what you will use in editing and revising. But we teach them almost as if drafting is the main process of creating a story, and it really is just, as I always say, the first base camp on Everett.
Much of the bulk of what a writing career and writing craft is, is the revision part. You put your story on the page as well as you can, and you then get to deepen and develop it into the thing that you saw in your head that may not be coming across yet on the page.
I love it. I know a lot of authors dread editing. Hate having to do it. They see it as the red pencil slashing into their work. I don’t think that’s what it is. To me, it’s the process of doing more, and more deeply, of what you love about writing in the first place, which is creating these characters, creating worlds, putting them into these situations, and you find out what the soul of that story is.
Then you develop it organically as you are working through your editing and revision. All editing is doing is identifying where what’s on the page may not reflect as fully and deeply and effectively the way you envisioned it in your head.
Joanna: I like editing a lot, actually. I find that first draft is the more difficult bit, and then I love my editing. I think people’s processes differ so much.
I love that you mention there, the reader brain. I haven’t really heard it described like that before, but you’re exactly right, because you do the writing brain thing and you write the thing, and then if you read it as a reader, you realize that you’ve used an acronym that you haven’t explained, or you’ve just introduced this character and you haven’t described them, or they’re just talking in a empty room.
In your head, you know what the setting is, but you haven’t actually described that, or you’ve completely forgotten something, putting it into action, or doing something to communicate with someone else’s mind. I feel that’s so important, that we have to remember we’re not telling the story to ourself.
We’re telling it to a reader who literally hasn’t got a clue what we’re talking about until they read the words that we put on the page. So, that’s just going into the book a bit more.
How do we get the separation?
How do we create enough distance so we can move into that reader brain or into that editor brain?
Tiffany: To get back to reader brain for a second, I love that you hit on that, because I think that’s one reason we run into problems when we’re editing our own work, is we skip that part. We don’t teach how to edit or how to revise.
What most writers do, in my experience, is finish the draft and then turn back to page one and start going through, and little by little, you’re making little changes, whatever tweaks you think you might need to make. But what we skip over is that crucial piece that you just pointed out about seeing it as a reader, and seeing how the whole holds together.
It’s your first, really, only best chance to take in your work as close to the way a reader will see it as possible, because you’re still fresh, because you’ve finished writing it, and you have not yet seen how this whole thing holds together.
How can you start at the beginning if you haven’t yet taken stock of exactly what you have on the page? The reason that it doesn’t usually come across exactly as you intended is because of the other thing you pointed out, that filling in the blanks.
It’s not like, ‘Oh, we assume readers will know this.’ I think we forget. We think we have put it on the page, and we don’t have the objectivity to assess whether or not we have, and that’s why I think of it as three different brains, because you really have to disconnect from it, to a degree, as the creator.
How do you do that?
The best way to do it is time.
The longer you can step away from a story, the more you’ll come back to it with an astonishing freshness that will reveal things to you that you probably would never have seen if you had immediately started going back through it.
That’s not always a luxury we have, especially if we’re on deadline or put deadlines on ourselves that we’re trying to meet. I have a bunch of little, I call them tricks. I hate that word, but some of them really are just silly little ways to trick your brain. I recently heard you talk about the fact that I think you have two different desks.
Joanna: I go somewhere else. I went to the cafe this morning to edit.
Tiffany: We train ourselves as writers to put your butt in the chair every day, or whatever your routine is, so that the muse knows where to find you. It’s the same thing when you’re approaching editing and revising. If you do it in the same place where you created it, sometimes it’s really hard to get out of that mindset because it’s habitual.
So shake it up. Go to a different part of your house, go to a cafe, as you said. I used to be not a skeptic about this, but one of the things I always suggested to authors and never did myself was read it aloud, or have it read to you. I knew it worked for some people, but I was like, ‘Mmh, I don’t really need to do that. That’s not going to work for me.’
And then I just finished recording the audiobook for Intuitive Editing, and oh my god, I was stunned by how much…you see it differently, you hear it differently. Not only the words themselves. I was catching echoed words and clumsy phrasings I could have made better, but that’s just line editing stuff.
I was seeing how the flow holds together and how the ideas come together. Is this in the right place? Is this the most effective way to state this? Luckily, because it’s set in stone already and has been published for a couple of years, I was pleased to see it was, but it was really fascinating to see how that changed it, and not just the reading of it. Then, when I went to proof the files, the audio files, hearing it read opened up even more stuff to me.
So that’s a great way. This is one of the silly little tricks, but honest to god, it can work. Change the name on the cover sheet of your manuscript, not to your pen name, not to necessarily a real author’s name. Just make up a name.
It’s the weirdest little distancing trick, as is changing the font that you usually write in. I know one author who swears by the much-maligned comic sans when they’re doing their edits, because it makes it look different, in the same way that you might put it on your e-reader is another great way to do it, because suddenly it’s formatted differently. And that sort of tricks your brain. Or printed out.
Joanna: I print it out. I edit by hand.
Tiffany: Does that give you a different perspective?
Joanna: Yes, because when I write and I do the first self-edit, it’s all on the computer, and then I print the whole thing out, and I print it double page, so I could almost fold it over and it would be like a book.
Tiffany: Oh, cool.
Joanna: I have to wear my glasses now because I can’t really see the font properly, but I feel like by printing it out, it looks like a real book. And also I can just see more how it looks on the page, and that helps me with pacing and there’s all kinds of things that printing it out does.
I like that you say “trick.” You have to trick your brain, because we think we know better. We think we’ve done everything and then, like you say, you change the font and that will move words onto another line, which then helps you see words that you’ve repeated, or sounds that you’ve repeated, and you’re like, how did I not see that?
Tiffany: It forces you outside that creator perspective, and to see it in a new way, and it can be really helpful, as silly as it sounds.
Joanna: Let’s just talk about some of the common issues that you see, and I want to take it in two parts.
First of all, with early-stage writers, which is people with their first to their third book within the same genre. If you jump genres, it’s almost like starting again every time.
What are some of the common issues you see with manuscripts from early-stage writers?
Tiffany: Honestly, differentiating between what I see from early-stage writers and then more experienced writers is a little bit, to me, in my experience, artificial just because you’d be surprised how universal the things I see most commonly are.
It usually has to do with what I call the “holy trinity of story,” which is character, stakes, and plot. It just may be that an author who is farther down the road of their career, we can dig maybe a little bit deeper, or I can shorthand as an editor.
I can say something a little bit more like ‘Stakes here are not really clear. Could you put that on the page more,’ whereas, with a newer reader, I might have to go into a bit more detail and explain why the stakes are important, what I mean by that, exactly how to show that on the page, that kind of thing.
The things I see most often are with character. I always say that readers don’t care what’s happening until we care who it’s happening to. If we do not have sufficient character development so that we have a reason to invest in the character… And we don’t have to like them. They have to be real.
We have to know enough about them and who they are to feel that we want to get in the car with them and take this journey that’s going to be 80,000 words or more. Is this somebody we want to be with that long?
And then, with stakes, if the character, who we now have come to care about, or at least invest in, if they do not care profoundly about something that they are pursuing, then we don’t care.
So if stakes are not clearly differentiated, clearly defined, and evident throughout the story, then it’s hard for readers to feel invested.
And then, with plot, I have little catchphrases for all of these. With plot, I always say action is not plot, and plot is not story. So, this is one area where I do see a difference with newer and more experienced writers.
Newer writers sometimes will have a whole bunch of exciting stuff going on, but that’s just action. What makes it plot is that it is in service to something that the character wants, their goal. What is at stake?
What makes that story is how the character is changed by it as a result of their pursuit of this goal, the things that happened to them along the way, which is the plot, changes them, which is the character arc, from who they are at the beginning to who they are at the end.
If those three things are not rock solid, then the story, it’s like three legs of the tripod. It’s just not going to stand as firmly as it could.
But the other thing that I will often see is an unclear central story question, which is, what’s the main reason that we as readers are reading this story?
What is it we want to find out? Why do we keep turning the page?
There will be one big umbrella question, generally, ‘Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games?’ for example. But then there’ll also be smaller questions. Will she keep her sister from having to go to the Hunger Games? Will she get a good weapon? Will she be adequately trained? Will she get Rue out of that tree?
We need to have that propelling us all the way through the story, with, also, sustaining tension, which works in service to suspense. Suspense basically creates a question.
Tension creates conflict, friction, something standing in the way of what the character wants. At some times, I think newer authors get into the habit of everything’s fine, smooth sailing, the character’s just going along, living her life. That’s not story, that’s real life. We don’t read for that.
We read for the peaks and the valleys, for opposition, for conflict, for things standing in the way.
And we need to have that all the way through the story. If tension flags, think about pulling your reader through your story on a rope. If you let go of that rope and tension flags, what happens? Nobody’s moving forward anymore.
Joanna: And it’s so interesting because you’ve talked about character, about stakes, about plots, suspense, tension. You have not even mentioned grammar and typos.
Tiffany: Thank you for pointing that out.
Joanna: This is what I think the difference is between early-stage writers and later-stage writers, or what I’ve at least seen in myself and other people, obviously, I’m not an editor, but is the early-stage writers, they literally jump into grammar and typos.
Whereas once you’ve done a few books, you understand that, ‘Hey, you know, I can use ProWritingAid to fix those, but I cannot fix some of these much, much bigger things that a developmental editor, as you’ve talked about, will get into.’
Where do grammar and typos sit in the editing process? Where’s the importance of that?
Tiffany: Grammar and typos, honestly, if we’re just talking about that, that’s copy editing stuff, and that’s the very last gilding the lily.
But a lot of authors, I think, do line editing first, and that’s polishing the prose. That’s making it pretty. I always say trimming the flab and adding the flavor. That’s sexy and fun.
Everybody wants to do that. But that’s the thing about going back to the beginning and starting doing that. You’re missing all the stuff that’s more foundational to the story itself.
I always say, if story is like building a house, that would be like hanging the curtains before you’ve got the drywall up or the windows installed. You’ve got to make sure that structure is solid before you start doing the sexy HGTV makeover part where you get to decorate it all.
When I wrote the book, I actually laid it out the way that I approach an edit, that I often suggest authors approach an edit, which is to start with the macro edits. And that’s the holy trinity that I just talked about, character, stakes, and plot, which is the foundation of your story.
Once that’s in place, then you can look at the micro edit stuff. That is suspense, intention, it’s showing and telling, point of view, momentum, structure, the voice.
Only after you’ve got all of that in place do you get to reward yourself with the sexy fun part of doing the line editing, which is tied in with voice, but it’s also making your prose as specific and tight and elegant and polished as you can.
But don’t start with that, because it’s counterproductive. You may cut a lot of it. You may want to revise a lot of those scenes you just painstakingly spent so much time making literarily perfect.
Joanna: Absolutely. Back on the improving, you said there about getting some distance, that leaving it for an amount of time is a good way to get some distance. It’s funny because I’m actually, right now, I’m editing my first three novels, which I wrote in 2009, 2010, and 2011. They started my career. They’ve got good reviews. But I’m now reading them more than a decade later.
Joanna: In 2009, I wrote Stone of Fire and I’ve just finished revising it. I’ve just put out a new 2022 edition. And it’s so crazy what I’m noticing from that difference. I’m like, ‘Okay, interesting.’ The distance is so far that I’ve been scared of it for a long time, but I was able to get some perspective.
One of the biggest things I noted that I wanted to, and I notice you have a chapter on this in the book, is pacing.
Now, I write thrillers. And I noticed that my first, the book I published, the pacing was almost nonexistent. I think, because I read so much literary fiction back then, as I still do. But, I’ve read a lot more thrillers since.
My paragraphs were pages long, and I didn’t have any white space. I didn’t have enough dialogue. Even just hitting the return key, sentence fragments, ways of communicating pace on the page. Obviously, not everyone writes thrillers.
What are your thoughts on pacing? How do we communicate pace?
Tiffany: Let me start, if I can, by differentiating between momentum and pace, which I think some authors confuse, and so they’re approaching the wrong thing.
Momentum, a lot of authors refer to that as pace, but really what momentum is, is how your story moves forward. And it should always be moving forward.
Pace is the speed at which each scene progresses, and that can vary. And it should vary.
I always say Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River both have momentum, but they move at a very different pace, so that’s a good way to remember the difference between them.
Pace is a great tool to use in service of creating the effect you want to create in the reader, as you said. So, one consideration is genre. If you’re working in a thriller genre, you are going to have a different pace throughout than you would if you’re writing literary fiction, which moves at a much slower pace.
But also, in every genre, you want to vary your pace. If it’s always moving at this crazy fast clip, you’re going to exhaust your reader. But if it’s always moving at a really slow pace, you may lose your reader.
So if we’re talking strictly about pace, I talk about suiting it to your genre, suiting it to the mood of the scene that you’re writing. If this is a high-paced thriller scene, where you’ve got a chase scene, let’s say, or you want to create high suspense, high suspense is often well-served by fast pace.
How do you actually do that? You talked about several ways. You do short sentences. You give a lot of white space. You keep not just short sentences, but keep in mind the feel of your sentences.
You can use long, multisyllabic words, and that’s going to draw your pace out, or you can keep them short and sharp. And that keeps pace clipping faster.
If you have a lot of dialogue, and you break that up, if you have big chunks of dialogue, that’s going to slow down the pace.
One thing I often see is there’ll be a very high-stakes moment in a scene like that, and the characters will be talking like this, where they’re simply chatting out the way you would in a regular conversation, what’s going on. That’s not how you communicate pace and urgency.
If a scene is meant to be happening at a fast pace, then you want to, the way we do in an actual fast-paced scene, if you, let’s say, had a car wreck, you’re not going to call your husband and say, ‘Well, I wanted to tell you that I just saw this car coming by and I hit them and then,’ you’re just going to go, ‘I got hit by a car. I need your help.’
So you want to keep in mind how we communicate, and not just your characters, but you as the narrator.
Momentum is a really important thing to talk about too, because very often momentum flags when we lose those key holy trinity areas, like the plot is losing cohesion or the characters stop progressing along their arcs or the story stakes have deflated.
When that happens, it doesn’t matter how fast your pace is. You’re not going to be able to pull the reader back in, because you’ve lost momentum, which is the basis of what story is.
Joanna: I don’t want to discourage anyone listening. If you are starting out as a fiction writer, I remember feeling like, ‘Oh, I just have to learn this, this, this, and this, and, it’ll be all fine.’
And then decade or so later, it’s like, ‘Goodness, I still have so much to learn.’ Do you feel that? You’ve obviously written a number of novels, and you do all this editing. It feels like it never stops, right?
Tiffany: It never stops.
Joanna: Maybe that’s a good thing, because why would we bother just writing the same thing over and over again? We need to challenge ourselves. From whatever the next book is, or a book that we’ve read, that we’ve just gone, ‘Oh, yeah. That did that thing in a really good way.’
There’s always something to learn, isn’t there?
Tiffany: Which I think is part of the process. It’s how we grow as artists.
You just talked about going back to books that you wrote more than 10 years ago. And part of it is that you’re seeing what you’re seeing because of that time and distance we talked about. But I would bet that the bigger part of it is that you have grown so much as a writer.
That doesn’t make those books bad. I look at my early novels, and they’re not as good as my most recent novel, but they’re not bad. I just was in a different place as an artist then, as a writer. Now I’ve learned more, and I’m still learning more.
Even as an editor. I’ve been doing this 30 years, Joanna, and I learned something all the time. And if I didn’t, I, as you said, I would get bored. That’s what the process is. That’s how we grow as creatives.
Joanna: You just reminded me there, and I’m not comparing us to Picasso, but I have been to the Picasso Museum in Malaga, in the south of Spain. Picasso was from Malaga. They have a museum there of his early work, as a child and a teenager.
You would no way look at those things and go, ‘That’s a Picasso,’ if you compare it to what he was doing in his later stage. But what I love about the visual art community is that you’ll go to a museum like this, and they’ll be, ‘This was this period, his turquoise period. And this was his orange period. And that was the modernist period. And that was the realist.’
It’s almost like part of the artist’s journey is separating your creative life into stages, with an acceptance that you will grow and change.
Whereas I almost feel like in the publishing community, there’s this sort of deification of debut writers being amazing.
Tiffany: That’s so true.
Joanna: You know what I mean? Why can’t we have this acceptance of these different stages of the artist’s life path? It seems to me that traditional publishing just bangs another name, another pen name, on an author. What do you feel about that?
Tiffany: Back in the day, in the glory days of publishing, back in Max Perkin’s era, my editing idol, the way that writers and publishing worked was that they found a writer with promise, someone whose skill and talent they wanted to nurture. And that became the process.
You didn’t just sign an author for the two-book deal, and if it wasn’t a smash, out you go. So the debut wasn’t as important. In fact, I would venture to say that it was more what you just described.
That the debut was simply a starting place, which to me feels so much more, forgive me, intuitive, as far as what any artistic career is. If we see it as some sort of finish line, or we quantify success by saying, ‘You are a multi-best seller on your first novel, so you are a successful writer,’ I think that sets up an artificial expectation of what being an artist is.
We’ve conflated the business side of the art, which has very little to do with the creative side, with the creative side, which is a constant experience of growth and learning.
That’s what being an artist is.
Joanna: On that growth and that learning, and the things that people talk about when you’re an early writer and you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, I think author voice is one of these things. You have a great chapter on the author voice.
And it’s funny, because, again, I’m reading my early… And the only reason I’m rewriting these three books is they’re the first 3 in a 12-book series. So, the first book is free everywhere, and it needs to draw people in to the rest of the books, so I can make more money from the series. So that’s why I’m doing it.
But as you said, like, they’re not bad, they’re just different. As I’m reading them, I’m like, ‘Okay, I can see a glimmer of my author voice,’ but one part of my edit is strengthening that voice, because I know now what my voice is as an author. But it’s so hard to define.
What are your tips on finding that voice? Or is it literally just a case of having to write a number of books until you discover it?
Tiffany: No, I don’t think always. That is a way to do it. I love that you called it ‘finding your voice,’ and what your voice is now, because I often hear authors talk about creating their author voice, and you don’t have to create it. You already have it.
We all have a voice, in the way we communicate, in the way we write, as far as our phrasing and our rhythm and our word choice. It’s in our imagery. But it also stems from our experiences, our worldview, our background, our cultural inheritance, our frame of reference. All of that already exists inside of you.
The process of figuring out your voice is really just freeing that, letting that loose. But there are ways you can do it. One way is to do what you did, and write dozens of books until you figure out what it is.
But if you want to figure out what it is, my favorite way of analyzing anything is to look at other authors’ work, because that’s where we have the built-in objectivity we do not have with our own work.
Voice is everything.
Frankly, I talk about in the book, voice is the way somebody dances. It’s the way somebody sings. It’s a director’s voice in how it informs their art. Their films all have a same, a similar feel to them.
So you can analyze anything at all. But literally, don’t just read to read. First take it in as, ‘This is why I love this story,’ and then sit down and figure out exactly what it is you love about your favorite author’s voice.
Is it the way they say things? Is it their phrasing? I remember I once read one of Jennifer Weiner’s books, and she was referring to a character as ‘every hipster.’ And I thought that was the funniest thing. She had this really unique worldview and way of putting things, that kind of shifted my mindset on them.
So, what is it you love about them? That’s the best way to learn, really, any craft element, because you have the objectivity.
Here’s more little tricks that I use. Analyze the impressions that people do of other artists. You can’t do an impression unless you understand the essence of what makes that person so distinctive. So, if you look at, for example, Matt Damon doing Matthew McConaughey, he doesn’t sound like him so much. He has his intonations. He has his delivery.
He has his kind of laconic, laid-back… he says the, ‘All right, all right, all right.’ But he does it in a way that evokes what makes Matthew McConaughey, Matthew McConaughey. Jamie Fox does that with John Legend.
Why are Christopher Walken or Robert De Niro endlessly mocked, or have people do impressions of them? Because they have these distinctive characteristics. Have someone do an impression of you is incredibly revealing, because you realize how you communicate yourself, how you communicate your ideas.
For example, I looked at my own communication style, and I know that I tend to use long sentences, and I use $5 words where a $2 word would do just fine.
I love imagery and metaphor and the em dash and semicolons. All of that is part of my voice. But then if we default to only those things that are our instinctive voice, that can become a bit repetitive also. So then, we get to experiment with voice.
One way to do that is to take a passage in another author’s book and rewrite it in your style, rewrite it with no voice, or write one of your passages in the style of another author’s voice. See if you can start to pin down what creates voice, but also differentiate between your character voice and your voice as an author. They’re two different things.
Joanna: For sure. And this also, for me, I didn’t really figure out until after those first three novels. I actually started my new author name. I write fiction under J.F. Penn. Obviously, you use a different name as well. But I feel like my voice as J.F. Penn is completely different to my voice as Joanna Penn.
Having two author names really helped me, and also the brand, which is really the promise to the reader. That’s part of author voice, too.
Once you understand author voice and branding, I feel like they’re almost the same thing.
I’m Joanna Penn talking with you, and you’re Tiffany, and it might be a completely different conversation if it was J.F. Penn and Phoebe Fox.
Tiffany: I think that you sort of focus the camera in a different place, if that makes sense?
Tiffany: In one persona, this is where the camera is focused, and then you shift to another, I hate to say persona, because it sounds fake. It’s not, really. It’s just another aspect of your personality.
If you’re a writer who writes in different genres, for example, as you just pointed out, you may have a different voice in your romance novels than you do in your mystery thrillers.
Joanna: That helps me too. It’s another trick, because when I go and do my editing or my work as J.F. Penn, it’s different to when I go as Joanna Penn.
Tiffany: But it’s all authentic. Yes?
Joanna: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But it helps me; it’s another trick. If you’re speaking, you put on makeup and you wear certain clothes because you’re going out to this event or that event. And I think voice and brand resonate with each other. But that is a massive topic.
We’re almost out of time. And I do have a really important question. Now, both of us are clearly believers in the importance of a professional edit, where we pay a professional. But many writers struggle with money, especially when they’re starting out.
You have a great chapter on getting editorial feedback as a frugal writer. Can you give us a few ideas?
Tiffany: I don’t think finances should ever be a barrier to your creative pursuits. And while I think a professional edit is an incredible tool, and can be a huge help and a shortcut to getting your story where you need it to go, it’s not a deal-breaker. Many authors have gotten publishing deals without ever having hired a professional editor, because it wasn’t really a big thing.
Up until the explosion of indie pub, when suddenly they became widely available. So, there are lots of ways.
What an editor is doing for you is sort of like when you’re doing a home improvement, and you hire a contractor, because they know all the right people to hire, they’ll bring in the best craftspeople, they’ll keep everything on schedule. They know what order everything needs to go in. It makes the job massively easier, but also more expensive.
Can you do all that yourself? Yes. Will it be harder? Yes. Is there going to be a giant learning curve? Probably. But don’t feel that you can’t do it.
What you’re really looking for by hiring a professional editor, you are trying to get someone to hold up the mirror to what you have on the page, and see how closely it reflects the vision that you had in your head. And is it coming across as effectively, efficiently, powerfully as possible? So, how can you get people to help you with that?
The first thing is critique partners, which are so valuable in so many ways. The obvious way is you get critique from people who are generally also writers and can give you their input, can reflect back to you what they’re seeing, in ways that are actionable, like an editor does. They can phrase it.
Instead of saying, ‘This wasn’t really working for me,’ they can say, ‘I didn’t understand what the character wanted in this part of the story.’ And that can help guide you in making those revisions.
The hidden value of critique partners and crit groups is in doing those critiques on other authors’ work, for the reason I talked about earlier. You are so much more objective, and you learn how to see things. You’re really just training your editor brain.
Once you learn how to make that shift in your own work, you get that distance, and then you learn how to come at your own work with that same objective perspective.
The other hidden value of critique partners and groups is that you get to hear, especially in a group… I was once in a huge critique group, which was a little bit unwieldy. It was 25 people, often.
But one after the other after the other, you hear all these people’s input on story, and you learn to see what they’re seeing, why it’s affecting people the way they are, and really importantly, how to process the critique that you’re getting, because you see very viscerally that there will be things that many of the readers see and point out, and those are probably things that you want to look at, because they’re striking a lot of people the same way.
And then, each reader will also have her subjective take on it.
It’s important to remember that all editing, all critique, all input, is subjective, even by your editor, even by a publishing house. Nobody knows the magic formula. Story is as personal as it gets.
One of the skills that you want to develop is knowing how to take the feedback you get, and incorporate that, take what works and toss what doesn’t, as I always say.
Beta readers are invaluable as well. I differentiate those from crit partners. Crit partners can often help you work as you are drafting.
Sometimes they work with you at the end of it, just as an editor would, but beta readers generally will read the finished product, and they are often not writers, which can mean that the feedback you get may not be as actionable and helpful unless you help guide your beta readers.
For example, on my website, I have, among other free downloadables, I have sample questionnaires you can offer to beta reader, so that if you ask a layperson.
The first time I ever gave my husband one of my novels before it was published, to help me with, I said, ‘What did you think of it?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, it was good.’ I said, ‘Great. Thank you. So, how? What was working for you? What did you think was most effective?’ And he goes, ‘It was good.’
So, if you give them questions, specific things. They’re lay reader questions. ‘Was there anywhere you put the book down and it was a while before you got back to it?’ ‘Was there anywhere you found yourself disliking the protagonist, or didn’t understand what they wanted?’ ‘Was there anywhere you didn’t feel especially engaged?’
Those are questions anyone can answer, whether you’re a reader or not. One thing I suggest, and I’m always a little leery about it, is little baby editors. When I first started, when I wanted to move into developmental editing from copy editing, I didn’t have a track record. And I needed one.
I wasn’t going to ask someone to spend thousands of dollars until I could feel pretty confident that I was offering them that value. So I would offer free and incredibly cheap edits to my author friends while I was learning my skills.
You take that with a grain of salt, because you have a little baby editor, who may not be quite as adept at seeing all the things a more experienced editor would see. They may not be able to give you the feedback in a way that is constructive and positive, in a way the more experienced editors might. But it might be a great way to get kind of a bargain edit.
I would not ask an editor for this, because that’s a little bit insulting, but if you happen to find one of these hungry little unicorns, that can be a way.
The only other thing I want to add, though, is that one of the misconceptions I think we’ve gotten into with this explosion of having editors available is this mindset of, ‘You must hire an editor, because an editor does the editing part.’
That is true, to a degree, that they do the editing part. But that is also one of the basic skills every writer should have. We talked a little bit before about the three sort of stages of creating a story, and editor brain is part of writer brain. ‘Writing is rewriting,’ Ernest Hemingway said.
Editing is something that we can all improve on by doing things like reading books on the topic.
Mine, or Sol Stein has two that are brilliant. Dave King and Renni Browne have one specifically about editing.
There are great classes and workshops you can take at the University of Chicago, which is the industry standard, standard bearer for editing in general, that offer editing courses. The EFA, Editorial Freelancers Association, offers reputable ones.
If you’re going to conferences, or sitting in on them in our post-COVID world, if you’ve ever heard of R&Cs, reading critiques, that’s another way to see what agents and editors who are experienced in the business will read somebody’s submission out loud, and then talk through exactly what they’re seeing about it.
That’s an amazing way to start getting that analytical, objective distance we talked about. And then, do other people’s critiques, and listen to the critiques of their work. That’s another way to hone your skills.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, we’ve talked about loads of fantastic tips today, and I recommend your book, Intuitive Editing, which is fantastic.
Where can people find you, and your books, and everything you do online?
Tiffany: Easiest place is probably my website, foxprinteditorial.com. That’s got a lot of the downloadables I talked about. Tons of free resources, actually, for authors. Recommendations of books.
I’ve got a free YouTube channel that gives tips. I’ve got a weekly blog that goes out with craft tips and writing life information. I’ve also got online courses on there, and not just my editing book, but there’s a link to my fiction as well, if people are interested in that. And all my socials are on there.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Tiffany. That was great.
Tiffany: Thanks, Joanna.