Joanna Penn Shares her Process for Excellently Edited Books
Over the past eight years, the publishing industry has seen rapid changes in both how readers discover and consume books, and how authors create, market, and distribute books.
Many people have taken advantage of the changing system to make a quick buck, but what if you’re an author who wants to make a lifetime living through publishing? The best advice is to follow industry leaders were not as being successful today but creating a lasting future business based on their writing.
There is one author who exemplifies this more than any other in the realm of publishing today. That author is Joanna Penn. If you’re serious about your career, you need to pay attention to what she’s doing.
In this episode, Peter and I had the opportunity to sit down with Joanna and learn all about her process in writing both fiction and nonfiction, and the importance she places on her editors.
Listen to this episode; you’ll be glad you did.
What are your best and worst experiences working with editors? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Joanna is an industry leader for a reason, check out Leslie Watt’s column, criticism: giving and receiving, where she shared more great tips from Joanna.
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under J.F.Penn and also writes non-fiction for authors. She’s also a professional speaker and award-winning entrepreneur. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers. Connect with Joanna on Twitter @thecreativepenn
This week, Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley welcome bestselling, self-published author, speaker and award-winning entrepreneur, Joanna Penn. She discusses the writing and editing process she’s developed over the years and some valuable lessons she’s learned in her ten-year writing career.
Tips Joanna Would Tell Herself…Knowing What She Knows Now
[7:07] If you’re struggling with moving from reading books on writing or listening to podcasts on writing or going to seminars on writing and not actually writing, then timed writing sessions are the secret to writing books. It literally is set a timer, sit down and don’t do anything else for the amount of time on the timer and therefore you will get to a finished book eventually.
[8:29] The biggest shift in the way that I thought about books was moving from Microsoft Word to Scrivener. With Scrivener, you can just drag and drop chapters. So whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, Scrivener is just a fantastic tool for writers. I would probably tell myself to start using Scrivener sooner because it just makes such a difference.
The other tip would probably be this. As we’re talking today, I’m about to send my next non-fiction book to my editor. It contains lots of excerpts from my diaries and journals over the years. I couldn’t cope with other people reading the inside of my head. So probably the other thing I would say to me is that these feelings will get easier the more books you write. So just hang in there.
Joanna’s Hardcore Editing Process
[10:19] I have different editors. I use a content and line editor for my fiction and then I have a line edit straight proofreader for non-fiction and a proofreader for fiction. So I have probably about five different people I work with.
The point is that it’s another pair of eyes. You only get that “first read” once. A first read is when you often pick up the issues. So that’s why I use a proofreader.
My fiction editor will do a really big story edit and a line edit, and then she might might read it again if I’ve made significant changes, there’s no way she’s going to pick up typos at that point. A proofreader is doing a very good job picking up typos.
- First Draft. I call it a first draft when I can print it out and you could read it all the way through regardless of fiction or non-fiction and it would be coherent. So I’ve done everything so far on Scrivener; I’ve created that draft and then I print it out. Then I spend however long it takes, depending on how rough it is, hand editing that myself.
- Second Draft. I do all those changes back into the document, then I print out the second draft. I read the whole thing more slowly and hand-edit again.
- Third Draft. I may often have to do that whole thing again. I might add another scene for fiction or add another chapter; I might move the order around and print it out for the third time.
- To The Editor and to Beta-Readers. I will send it to my editors. Also, at this point I send it to beta-readers and I’d tell them this is not the finished book yet; this is not the fully-edited; but it’s good enough to send and get feedback on that level.
- Fourth Draft. So the edits come back, then I do those edits. I print it out again; I hand-edit again.
- Fifth Draft. Then I send it either back to the editor, if I need that, which I sometimes do on the first book in a series. Then I make any changes.
- To The Proofreader. Then it goes to a proofreader.
Editing Is Crucial
[18:04] Editing is about making my work better. I pay a premium to get a good editor to make my work better. What’s gratifying about the editing process to me is not making the same mistakes next time. I’ll continue to use editors in order to improve my writing. An editor acts more like a creative partner. I think you have to change editors over time as you improve and also as they change what books they like.
Beta-Readers are Important
[22:30] I always use beta-readers as a “cultural check” because I don’t want to use stereotypes. A beta-reader should give you some kind of emotional reaction or be an expert at their area. These are not paid roles. I would consider paying a technical beta-reader if I really need an expert for technical technicality. When I talk about my books on my podcasts, people will email me and say, “can I beta-read it?” With a platform like a website and podcast, or an email list, people actually self-select themselves to me. Whereas in the early days, I just found people.
Getting Help is Helpful
[26:37] As I was really struggling, I knew something does not work, but could not work out what is wrong with it. That’s one of those points where I sent to my story content editor she said, “this is what’s wrong with it.” Sometimes that’s what you need. I’ll pay for another full edit if necessary to get over that hump.
You don’t have to do it on your own. When you have an editor, you can pay them to be a story or a plot editor, or a structural editor for non-fiction. Don’t get stuck in your own world of pain. Don’t worry, the editor will not be stealing your idea or your book.
Finding the Right Editor
[30:52] I think editing is a bit like dating; it won’t be the first person you kiss. Look at the back of people’s books and find editors in your genre. I’ve paid a number of people. You have to give people a go and see what happens.
Here’s the “Why” Part
[35:08] I love research, so I do loads and loads of research. But that’s my fun; that’s what I love. I write books so I can research. I think that is actually the point.
You can research the stuff you’re interested in and that’s probably my number one tip for writing. You write what you’re interested in and what you’re curious about and that’s what drives you. Because if you write what you know, you rapidly run out of stuff. Whereas if you write what you’re curious about, you’ll never stop writing.
Why Use Editors?
[38:03] As professional indie author with a long term career, I want my books to stand next to traditionally-published books and be better than them. So I want to pay professional editors and I want to pay cover designers and want my books to be the best they can be. Traditional publishing, I believe, would never skip editorial so therefore I will never skip editorial. Bottom line.
“End of Days” (next ARKANE book)
Jen Blood http://www.adianediting.com/
Pomodoro Technique http://pomodorotechnique.com/
The Book Editor Show http://www.thebookeditorshow.com/
The Creative Penn Podcast http://www.thecreativepenn.com/podcasts/
Here is the full transcript of the show:
Welcome to The Book Editor Show. Brought to you by Raven International Publishing. If you’re looking for great editors, good book layout or want to make more off-line distribution, stop by www.raveninternationalpublishing.com and see what they can do for you.
Today on the show, we will be talking to the ever prolific Joanna Penn about her process in writing and editing.
I’m Clark Chamberlain and it is said that he once edited the 27-volume “Men of Good Will” while traveling the entire length of the Great Wall of China on the back of a camel. That man is my friend and co-host Peter Turley. Peter, how are you doing today?
Peter: I’m great. I’m just glad I didn’t have to edit that intro. Because that sounded like quite the tongue twister.
Clark: Yes. Unfortunately, I really like alliteration and it doesn’t do so well sometimes when I’m actually saying it out loud.
Peter: I’m great. how are you doing Clark?
Clark: I’m doing really well. It’s been a good relaxing weekend. Here in the States we had our Memorial Day weekend, which is kind of the three-day weekend kick off for summer. Both the boys are out of school now and terrorizing me here at the home studio. But it’s great. It’s been a lot of fun. How about you? What’s going on?
Peter: That’s excellent.
Well summer has kind of kicked off here at least in the north of the UK so I went out and racked up a few steps today and got mildly sunburned. But I know, we were talking off-air and I said using my technical skills I just adjusted the white balance of my camera to hide my complete and utter sunburn that I’m sporting today. [laughs]
Clark: Well, good. You look very nice today, by the way.
Peter: It’s nice to sort of… We’re getting some nice weather over here. It’s a little out of season but we take it where we can get it.
Clark: That’s right, we are too. We’ll have it for about two weeks and then it will be 110 degrees outside. What is that like 50 Celsius or something like that? [laughs]
Peter: I mean, I doubt it’s 50.
Clark: I know, I’m pushing that. It’s going to be very warm here in just a couple of weeks.
Peter: But I mean anything above like 18 over here feels hot.
Clark: Without further ado I want to introduce our guest, Joanna Penn. She is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under the pen name JF Penn and also writes nonfiction for authors. She’s a professional speaker and award-winning entrepreneur. Her site, thecreativepenn.com is regularly voted one of the top ten sites for writers. Connect with Joanna on Twitter @thecreativepenn.
Joanna, it is so great to have you here on the show. We are very pleased.
Joanna Penn: Oh, thanks so much for having me on. This should be fun.
Clark: We are going to have a lot of fun, because I’m going to really mess up a whole bunch and it’s going to be fun.
Joanna Penn: It’s only me.
Clark: I’ve already shared this once with our listeners, but for those who haven’t heard before, I had a very fun experience down in Austin, Texas, and got to do a little country dancing with Joanna at the Smarter Artists summit and that was kind of the highlight of that whole little trip there.
Joanna Penn: I must say you’re quite the dancer and I’m not. So… It was short-lived but fun while it lasted.
Clark: Yes, it was. It was a good time. It was really great to meet you there. I’ve always been a fan of your work. In fact your “Blueprint” I think was one of the first things that I found when I started looking in to do publishing on my own and definitely a lot of help right there at the beginning. What you spoke about at the conference — the future of publishing — was just fantastic. You seem to be the one always ahead of the curve. So we’re just really glad to have you on the show today.
How did you get started into this? What drove you to get into publishing and working in fiction and non-fiction?
Joanna Penn: Like many people, I used to work in — well, many people still do work — in big corporates and I was a business consultant working in the accounts department of many companies across Europe, Asia-Pacific. Although I had this what many people would consider a good job, well paid and travel and everything, I really hated it and I was miserable and I tried a number of different things. I tried running a scuba diving business; I tried property investment and none of it suited me.
In the end I decided to write a book on how to enjoy your job which is now available as “Career Change.” Writing that book just changed my life, really. It didn’t change many other people’s, but it changed mine which is often the truth with your first book, to be honest.
I wrote that book and then I took one glance at the publishing industry and went — that is not for me — because I was like — what? You have to send things out to all these people and some of them might not reply and some of them say “no, thank you” and some of them are rude and…
I was like, no, that’s just… And they have to wait all that time?
So I decided to self-publish first way back in 2008 before the Kindle was international, before people were making money with e-books, before self-publishing was acceptable in the world as it still isn’t in many places, but certainly back then it wasn’t.
I made loads of mistakes with that book and first self published it. Started The Creative Penn back in December 2008 to basically share all the ways I’d been ripped off and all the lessons I’d learned, all the money I’d spent on things that didn’t work.
Basically that’s how I’ve just continued. I wrote a few more non-fiction books, started writing fiction, put my first fiction out 2011 and also left my day job in 2011 to do this full time.
I’m kind of on the cusp. This year will be my ten-years in writing since I first started writing that first book. If people listening have ever heard of me or are aware of what I do now, this is ten years on from day one of writing that first book.
So I hope that’s kind of an encouragement, an encouragement that it takes time, but that you can make a full time living with your writing. It just takes time and effort and writing.
Clark: That writing one seems to get in the way a lot of what people . . .
Joanna Penn: Yes. I think… This is a big thing and if people… If we’re doing tips and everything, probably one of those tips is — at some point if you’re struggling with moving from reading books on writing or listening to podcasts on writing or going to seminars on writing and not actually writing, then timed writing sessions are the secret to writing books. It literally is set a timer, sit down and don’t anything else for the amount of time on the timer and therefore you will get to a finished book eventually.
Clark: I’ve done some of those as well. What is the… Oh, I’m going to mispronounce it — the Modoro… It’s a 25 minutes on —
Joanna Penn: Yes. Pomodoro method doesn’t work for me. I just put a timer on of whatever time I have.
Clark: I just like having that five minute break. I’m like — ah, now I can do something else.
We’re talking about tips. What would you tell yourself? What would be the best advice you could give yourself today versus when you started? If you could go back in time and say — hey, this is what you need to be doing.
Joanna Penn: It’s really tough, because in 2006 the world was very different. The Internet was very different. Writing and publishing was very different.
I think back then the advice to self publish was very bad. As a writer, I don’t think it’s changed as in you still need to get words on the page. Probably the biggest shift in the way that I thought about books was moving from Microsoft Word to Scrivener. So that might be one big tip.
Microsoft Word is very difficult to move chapters around. With Scrivener, you can just drag and drop chapters. So whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, Scrivener is just a fantastic tool for writers. So I would probably tell myself to start using Scrivener sooner because actually I didn’t start using it until about my second novel and probably my fourth book in total and it just makes such a difference. So that would probably be my biggest tip. The other one would probably be… I’ve just finished… Actually as we’re talking today, I’m about to send my next non-fiction book to my editor. It contains lots of excerpts from my diaries and journals over the years and as I’m reading it back, reading back stuff from 2008 or 2011 when I put out my first novel, I was just devastated at the time when I put out that first book. I just couldn’t cope with other people reading the inside of my head. So probably the other thing I would say to me is — these feelings will get easier the more books you write. So just hang in there.
Clark: Peter, are you back now? . . .
Peter: Yes. I dropped out there and I came back and I feel like I missed a really great answer.
Joanna Penn: Yes, it was a secret to the whole world.
Peter: I’m going to have to do the thing I hate most and listen to our own show.
Peter: I don’t hate it; I secretly love it.
Clark: So along that line, at what point… Do you work with an editor for both your fiction and non-fiction?
Peter: Yes. I have different editors. But yes, I use a content and line editor for my fiction and then I have a kind of line edit straight proofreader for non-fiction and then proofreader for fiction as well. So I have probably about five different people I work with, to be honest.
Clark: That’s really smart. Being able to have people there. Especially getting the editing portion done but then also that proofreading because editors — occasionally we make a couple mistakes; we forget to correct something or miss something there.
Joanna Penn: On that, I think the point is that it’s another pair of eyes. I often say to people, “you only get that first read once.” A first read is when you often pick up the issues. So that’s why I use a proofreader. Because you can’t expect someone who’s edited your work… My fiction editor for example — she’ll do a really big story edit and then she might — and a line edit — but she might read it again if I’ve made significant changes. She might read it again. There’s no way she’s going to pick up typos at that point and to be fair, I don’t want to pay an editor to pick up my typos. I want to pay somebody with — it’s terrible… A proofreader is doing a very good job picking up typos but they are cheaper than a line editor or a content editor whose job is to make my book better. A proofreader’s job is not to make my book better; it’s to stop people emailing with typos. [laughs]
Clark: [laughs] Yes.
Joanna Penn: So I think they have to be different people. You always need someone else to read the book before you upload it, as far as I’m concerned.
Clark: I would totally agree with that. In fact that’s some of the problems that I had with my very first book — and got me into the editing — was because of that. I didn’t realize and kind of rushed ahead before getting some decent eyes on there and getting a good editor to work through it.
Peter: It sounds like you have a whole bunch of editors there. How much do you actually do yourself before you decide to hand it over to the content editor or whoever you pass it to first?
Joanna Penn: My first draft, I do in Scrivener and I call it a first draft when I can print it out and say I gave it to you at that point. I could give you the first draft. You could read it all the way through regardless of fiction or non-fiction and it would be coherent. So it wouldn’t have things like “insert action scene here” or “[xxx] find out who said this” for my non-fiction or “xx research this.” Basically, I go through and highlight things and change flags on Scrivener until the whole book is marked, basically, yellow flags. We all know that takes time, but once it’s all yellow flags, I print it out. So I’ve done everything so far on Scrivener; I write, I type, I dictate now, but I’ve created that draft and then I print it out. So I do two pages to one page, print out the whole thing and then I spend however long it takes, depending on how rough it is, hand editing that myself. So I often go to cafes. So the last few days because I’ve been editing I’ve been at cafes and I basically do two hours coffee and then I need the toilet and then I’ll move to another cafe and I’ll do another two hours and by then I’m pretty dizzy. Today I think… It’s a good job we have this scheduled because I was on my sixth hour of editing and I’m like — whoa — I’m a bit woozy. But basically I hand-edit and hand-edit and scribble and scribble. Then I bring that back and I type my changes up into my Scrivener document.
By the way, I always back up so I will save that draft, the draft that I’ve printed and I’ll email it to myself; I will back it up on my spare drive so I will always have a work in progress draft and I do that every day I’m writing first draft material and every day I edit. So I will always have a copy of the book at some point. I will never be the author who loses a draft. Touch wood. But I’m really hardcore careful about that. Because as much as you don’t want to mess the drafts as you’re writing; you do not want to miss a day of edits because it’s so painful. So I do all those changes back into the document. Then I print it out again.
I now print out the second draft all the flags are going to be blue for example; I just change them all. Then I print it out again and then I go and read the whole thing and edit again. That one, sometimes I’ll read it out loud or I’m reading it in my head, like trying to enunciate. I’m not reading it fast. Again, I’m still going through the whole thing.
Say, for non-fiction, like this book I’ve just finished, this was my second full read and I’m pretty happy. So that’s now going to the editor but this is like the eighth or ninth non-fiction book I’ve written so I’m quite confident about how I do things. I’m quite happy with structure, that whole thing.
For a novel, if it’s the first in a series, for example when I’m inventing character and inventing worlds, I may often have to do that whole thing again. Write new scenes, print it out for the third time.
By the third time… I don’t call it “re-writing;” I would definitely call it “editing” so I never re-write a whole scene. I might add another scene for fiction or add another chapter. I might move the order around. But generally my books are quite in order and I know what I’m doing. But the edits at that point are kind of line edits. They’re turning cliche into something better. They’re fixing things like dates or names or things wrong with the characters. Or they’re adding new things or foreshadowing. Just a whole kind of checklist of stuff.
Then I will send it to my editors. Also, I would say at this point — say, for “Risen Gods” which was one of the last novels I wrote — it has set in New Zealand and it’s got a lot of volcanoes and volcanology and also Maori mythology. So with that book at that stage, I also send it — as well as to my editor — I send it to beta-readers so to… I send it to a Maori guy and also to a volcanologist and they will beta-read for content. I’d say to them, “this is not the finished book yet,” this is not the fully-edited, but it’s good enough to send and get feedback on that level.
So then it goes to my editor. Then the edits come back. Then I do those edits. Then I print it out again. Hand-edit again. Send it either back to the editor, if I need that, which I sometimes do on the first book in a series. Then I make any changes; then it goes to a proofreader.
I’m pretty hardcore with my process. Is that hardcore do you think?
Clark: I would say that’s hardcore.
Joanna Penn: I’ve thought about this, because some people say that this is unnecessary. But I’m in this for the long haul. Also, for me, editing is about making my work better. So I pay a premium to get a good editor to make my work better. What’s gratifying about the editing process to me is not making the same mistakes next time. But I never want something to come back from an editor with nothing on it. That’s a waste of money. [laughs]
I want “you could make this better by giving this character a better arc” — or — “there would be more balance if there was this imagery in this scene” — or… You know, stuff like that. That’s what I’m paying for at this level and I think I’ll continue to use editors in order to improve my writing.
Clark: Then have you found… Because you say you’re growing and you’re learning as you’re getting more back from the editing, do you find that the notes are coming back with less and less on it each time? Not each time that you’ve sent it back, but each new book that you do —
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Clark: — are you getting less back?
Joanna Penn: Definitely. The line edits can be very few. As in the grammatical or sentence structure. I think you can get that. I’m more interested in an expert in thrillers, for example. My thriller editor, Jen — she did her Masters degree in commercial fiction; you know “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne — that’s what she does with the book.
She’ll map it and she’ll say — if you’ll just… It’s more about deconstructing the emotional rise and fall of the story. She will literally say, “if you add the same symbolism here, it will echo the beginning and the end” — or — “this character feels unfinished; but here’s something you could do.”
That’s what I really like, is when an editor basically acts more like a creative partner and says, “how about this happens” — or — “why don’t you use that character here and that will give them a bigger role in the story” — or — “this is awesome” which I really like because one of my…
, I think you have to change editors over time as you improve and they change also what books they like. One of my editors resigned when my books got darker. But Jen, when I write a particularly good death scene, she’ll be like, “this is great.” [laughs] Therefore I know we have the same mind. That’s really important, I think.
I would never have a romance editor edit my books. With respect, romance author should not have a thriller editor or a horror editor edit their books because it’s just a different type of book.
Peter: I’d like to go back to something you said. I think that’s kind of awesome how you kind of made your editor quit when your novels went so dark. [laughs] But you sort of said there about your beta-readers, you had a meteorologist and a —
Joanna Penn: A volcanologist and a Maori . . .
Peter: Not to be mistaken for a Vulcanologist for any Star Trek . . . [laughs]
Joanna Penn: Whatever that is. [laughs]
Peter: With beta-readers, how do you… Is this how you pick them? Is this how you go about choosing your beta-readers? So you think what kind of specific knowledge is in this novel, for example, in your fiction, then you choose them around that? Is that your approach for each book?
Joanna Penn: Yes, definitely. Again, like the last one, “Destroyer of Worlds” which is set in India, I had an Indian lady read it who’s a fan of my fiction who lives in Mumbai and she was great. She said “oh, you’ve call a taxi on the corner, this corner in Mumbai; you can’t get that kind of taxi in that area of Mumbai; change it to this kind of taxi.”
I’m like, yeah, cool. OK. [laughs]
Joanna Penn: So I changed it and I’ve had several Indian readers say “you got it right.” I’ve traveled a lot in India and a lot of my books are based on my own travels, so I try really hard to get it right but I use… I think I always use beta-readers in that sense as a “cultural check” because I don’t want to use stereotypes. Again, with “Risen Gods” one of the characters is Maori, a Maori male, and I did not want to have like a caricature of a Maori man. So I actually… I don’t even know how this guy, Aaron… Well, basically, when I talk about my books on my podcasts, people will email me and say, “can I beta-read it?” So they kind of self-select half the time. So this book, the successful Author Mindset, which is the non-fiction I’ve just finished — a lovely reader, author friend emailed and said, “I’ve got a degree in psychology; I’d love to beta-read this for you from a psychology point of view,” and I’m like — yes. Great. That’s fantastic.
And the volcanologist guy actually did email me on my website and said, “I’ve got a Masters in volcanology; I could read it for you for that.” So now, with a platform, people actually self-select themselves to me. Whereas in the early days, I just found people.
But to be honest, my feeling with fiction is, I think some people think a beta-reader should give you editorial feedback, but I don’t think that’s right. I wouldn’t… That’s not what they should be doing. That’s what you should pay for. A beta-reader should give you some kind of emotional reaction or be an expert at their area. Really, you just want them to pick up any false notes. Like that taxi in Mumbai, it took the reader out of the story. Or the Maori guy could have said “you’ve completely made my culture terrible in your cultural appropriation.” [laughs] But luckily he didn’t.
Joanna Penn: That would have been difficult.
So that’s what I think beta-readers are. I might actually ignore what they say like I might ignore what my editor says. But generally, I implement about 90%, I would say.
Clark: How many readers do you have — beta-readers — go through your work?
Joanna Penn: Like just what I said. A couple . . .
Clark: Just a couple. Two…
Joanna Penn: On “Destroyer of Worlds” I think it was just that one. There will be one on this non-fiction. These are not paid roles. I would pay a beta-reader if it was necessary. Say for example, I’ve got an idea that would be sort of a bio-hacking genetic thing. I would really need an expert bio-geneticist, whatever, to read it for technical technicality. So I would consider paying a technical beta-reader for that reason. But generally, I think people are really happy to be involved in your books.
So if you have a platform or you have an email list, don’t be afraid to ask. People love… I just basically send… I’ll put their name in the acknowledgments and then I send them a free copy.
Clark: That’s a nice way to do it. That’s a nice way to get them along on that.
Your process — definitely hardcore, but necessary, I’d say, because you’re going to get a much higher quality product. Is there any time along the way that, as you’re writing a book that you have to shelve it for a while to try to redevelop some ideas or do you even have a set time before your editing, like you’ve finished your first draft; you put it away for a while before you start editing more?
Joanna Penn: I set deadlines around trying to get stuff done. But I don’t really have any set times around putting things away.
Actually, to be honest, with my fiction, there was one particular book I was really struggling with, I think it was “Delirium,” the second one in my London psychic series, I was just like “this does not work; but I can not work out what is wrong with it.”
That’s one of those points where I sent it to Jen and I said, “tell me what’s wrong with it.” As a story content editor, she said, “this is what’s wrong with it,” and sometimes that’s what you need. I’ll pay for another full edit if necessary to get over that hump.
I’ve only co-written one — well, two books; one fiction and then a book on co-writing about that experience — with J. Thorn and one of the things I learned in that process — you don’t have to do it on your own. Especially if you’re paying an editor. If you have a co-writer, awesome. You can figure it out together or get the other person to write that scene.
But when you have an editor, you can pay them to be a story or a plot editor, or a structural edit for non-fiction. Don’t spend however long just stuck in your own world of pain.
I think authors feel like you have to protect your ideas and you can’t talk about this story issue, but I think more and more indies certainly are talking about this more and kind of saying “look, I’ve got this plot issue; how could I get out of this?” or whatever.
Clark: I teach at a local college here and that’s the same thing in all of my classes. I’m like, “how many of you are scared to share what you’re working on,” and half the hands go up.
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Clark: Everyone is so terrified that someone’s going to —
Joanna Penn: Steal their idea.
Clark: — steal their beautiful idea. Yes. And make a million dollars on it.
Joanna Penn: I still get people who email me and say, “should I register-copyright before I send this to an editor?” because they’re afraid that the editor will steal their idea.
I’m like — don’t worry, the editor will not be stealing your idea or your book. I mean, seriously, it’s crazy. But yes. It’s very odd; I don’t know whether it’s just because I’ve been blogging for so long or I don’t know, but I don’t see that as a concern as we all know, you should protect yourself in some ways but you just have to get on with it.
Peter: I see that as a goal, really, having ideas worthy of stealing. [laughs]
Joanna Penn: — stealing. Yes. It’s true.
Peter: I’m like, “oh, someone stole my idea. Yes.” [laughs]
Joanna Penn: At the end of the day we’ve all got to acknowledge that there is nothing original under the sun and what is original is taking existing ideas and combining them.
I’ve written a book called “Ark of Blood” which is about the Ark of the Covenant, finding the Ark of the Covenant. I mean, seriously? Someone stole my idea. I think it was Indiana Jones.
And all romance books have been written before.
I don’t think people remember that, that story is archetypal and wont change. The only thing that is terrible is plagiarism and we have seen instances of that. Piracy is not so bad. Plagiarism is, I think.
Clark: Yes. When someone takes a little-known book and just slaps a new cover on it, changes a couple things…
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Clark: I had a friend who’s down in a neighboring city but she’s been going through a lawsuit trying to get it back. Of course, the lawsuit is costing her more than she ever has made on the book to begin with, but…
Joanna Penn: It’s very rare. We should say that’s very rare and shouldn’t stop you creating.
Clark: Absolutely not. Because you’ve just got to keep going with it.
There was a question I had. So Jen is your thriller editor. Correct?
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Clark: A lot of times when — I know people are in the indie and they’re just trying to get their stuff put together — when they think editor, they just are thinking about grammatical editing. So they just look on line to find someone who can do that.
How did you go about finding a great thriller editor?
Joanna Penn: I would say to everyone, I think editing is a bit like dating and you’re never going to find the first person. It won’t be the first person you kiss, basically.
I’ve had about 12 different editors, I think, along the way. It will be highly doubtful to say that Jen will my editor until I die. I would love her to be but she’s busy as well; she’s also an author. Jen Blood, in case anyone is interested, which is a brilliant name for a thriller author.
Joanna Penn: I started out with some other editors. In fact, if people are interested, at thecreativepenn.com/firstnovel I actually have all the posts from 2009, when I first did NaNoWriMo through to 2011 when I put out that first book, through all the editing process, through a structural edit, line edits, proofreading, launch — pain — through to when I got a New York agent and then sold like 100,000 copies of something. So it’s really a long process.
That goes through how it feels to get your first edit and I just literally found my first editor, Steve, and his interview is still online — by Googling I think. I think it must have been Googling. Then picking someone that I resonated with.
I actually do have a list on my website — thecreativepenn.com/editors — and there’s a whole list there of people who I’ve met over the years. I’ve interviewed a lot of them.
So I think if people can… Or ask other authors, so especially indies, look at the back of people’s books and find editors in your genre and then basically, I can’t even remember how I found Jen. I don’t know how it worked. I remember that… This editor that I was using resigned and then I was like, “oh, dear, what do I do now? That’s crazy.”
Then somehow I found Jen and everything was brilliant. It may be that I read one of her novels and then read at the back that she was also an editor. But anyway, we connected and that’s how that happened and she’s brilliant. She works really well for me.
But I paid a number of people at the time and just they did an edit of a book and then I didn’t think that was right for me. But a lot of people moan about it and just tar all editors with the same brush and that’s just not the way it works. You have to give people a go and see what happens.
I have one more question. Peter, do you have anything to this off the top of your head before I kind of shift focus?
Peter: Yes. Just off the back of the editorial topic. Your novels have subjects quite wide range, like the military and self defense and paranormal and… How challenging do you find the research for this sort of stuff in regards to accumulating any knowledge that you need before you go ahead and tackle the plot idea that you have?
Joanna Penn: I probably do it quite sneakily. Like you mentioned, the military, Morgan Sierra is “ex-military” [laughs] so I don’t have to actually do anything in the military. She does know Krav Maga so that would be an example, is really martial arts. So I just watched a whole load of Krav Maga videos on YouTube. I’m like, “Krav Maga fighting in a neck lock” or something and then I would literally just write what I see on the screen. So that is my research over fight scenes. I literally Google it and then write what I see. “Elbow moves here.”
Peter: That’s really cool.
Joanna Penn: Also, a very good friend of mine, Alan Baxter, has a great book called “Write the Fight Right” and it is…
Peter: Yes. I think I recall that podcast.
Joanna Penn: Yes. Alan is brilliant and it’s a really good book. If people want to write fight scenes, go do that. One day I’m just going to pay Al to write my fight scenes.
Joanna Penn: He doesn’t know that but that’s what I really want; that’s my goal.
I love research, so I do loads and loads of research. But that’s my fun; that’s what I love. I think that’s why I write books — is so I can research. I think that is actually the point.
I’ve been to Israel loads. But for “End of Days” which will be my next ARKANE book. After “Destroyer of Worlds” I have to have “End of Days;” it just works — we’re going to go back to Israel so I can do a research trip, obviously, that will tie into that book. They’re basically why —
Peter: That old chestnut.
Joanna Penn: Yes. That old chestnut. Pretty good, eh? You know, my accountant’s happy. So…
That’s the thing. For me, the research is kind of the point. But if there’s stuff I don’t want to research, like the other one, “Desecration,” my character starts out as a police officer but I rapidly got bored with the police so she left the police [laughs] and became a private investigator so I don’t have to write about the police.
So essentially, you don’t have to. You can research the stuff you’re interested in and that’s probably my number one tip for writing. You don’t write what you know, you write what you’re interested in and what you’re curious about and that’s what drives you. Because if you write what you know, you rapidly run out of stuff. Whereas if you write what you’re curious about, you’ll never stop writing.
Clark: Yes. I just have a blank page. That’s what I know. There it is, right there.
Joanna Penn: Yes, exactly.
Joanna Penn: Our lives are all quite boring, really.
Clark: I had one other question as we wrap this up. What is one of your biggest pet peeves when working with an editor?
Joanna Penn: Probably not getting enough comments back. Like, it’s painful, but that’s what I’m paying for. So I want a good amount of stuff that I could improve. Whether or not I use that is up to me, but I want the full critical stuff. Even my proofreader, I say to my proofreader, “if anything, if you want to just leave any comments, you can leave comments as well; or if you think something just stands out, just add that too.”
I value all of that before publication. It’s a small peeve but that’s probably why I have move on from editors is maybe if they haven’t actually… I don’t feel they’ve given me value for money in terms of enough stuff that I can improve. But partly again, that comes from finding the right person.
Generally, you can hear, I’m a real fan of editors, I think.
My aim is as professional indie author with a long term career, I want my books to stand next to traditionally-published books and be better than them. So I want to pay professional editors and I want to pay cover designers and want my books to be the best they can be. Traditional publishing, I believe, would never skip editorial so therefore I will never skip editorial. Bottom line.
Clark: [claps hands] I just want to stand up and applaud for that. That’s good stuff right there.
I don’t have anything else to add. Peter? That’s like the perfect way to end that up. So…
Joanna Penn: You can’t cut that clip out and like, just play it? [laughs]
Clark: I’m just going to play it again and again. Anyone who I talk to.
Joanna Penn: You can play it at the beginning of every podcast. [laughs]
Peter: “Joanna Penn, 2016.”
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Clark: Joanna, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you or to find your work?
Joanna Penn: So — thecreativepenn.com — “Penn” with a double-N — and you’ll find my podcast there, The Creative Penn Podcast, if people like podcasting. I’m on episode, I think, 272 now. It’s been years. Also, JFPenn.com — “F” for Francis — jfpenn.com and all my fiction, non-fiction, everything, is in all the stores in all the formats.
Or “tweet” me — @thecreativepenn.
Clark: Well, we certainly appreciate having you here on the show today. This has been a real pleasure.
Joanna Penn: Thanks for having me guys.
Clark: You are very welcome.
I think we lost Peter, there, but I’ll close this up.
If you like the show, please leave us a review on iTunes, a “+” on Google, or a Like on YouTube. And if you’re an editor who’d like to be a guest on the show, stop by TheBookEditorShow.com and drop us an email. I’m Clark Chamberlain and from our co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning and build a better book.