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Stages Of The Writing Craft: When Is It Worth Rewriting? Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross And Joanna Penn

Stages of the Writing Craft: When is it Worth Rewriting? Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross and Joanna Penn

On the Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast: Stages of the writing craft. When is our work worth rewriting? As indie authors, we can update our books whenever we want. For some authors, this feature of digital publishing is a curse, igniting perfectionism and endless tinkering. Even the most productive self-publisher can decide to do a major rewrite of an old project.

Orna Ross is currently rewriting her novel, Her Secret Rose, and Joanna Penn her first book, Stone of Fire.

Join them for a deep dive into why, when to consider doing this, and the stages of developing your writing craft over time.

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Find more author advice, tips, and tools at our self-publishing advice center, http://selfpublishingadvice.org. And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

Now, go write and publish!

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Show Notes

About the Hosts

Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.

Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com

Read the Transcripts: Rewriting

Joanna Penn: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors' Advanced Self-Publishing salon with me, Joanna Penn and Orna Ross. Hi Orna.

Orna Ross: Hi Jo, and hello everyone.

Joanna Penn: Hello. Well, this evening we're talking about, or today, whenever you're watching this, the stages of the writing craft. When is it worth rewriting, and how does the rewriting process work? Both of us have been going through a few rewrites, and we thought we should talk about that. It's kind of a craft topic today, but also mindset, as well.

But as ever, before we get into that, we're just going to talk a bit about what's going on. So, Orna what's going on with ALLi?

What’s happening at ALLi this month?

Orna Ross: ALLi is gearing up for our 10th anniversary celebrations. I was calling it a 10th birthday, and then an editor kindly pointed out to me, no one gave birth, this is an anniversary. So, you've got to love an editor. So, now it's our anniversary celebrations. So yeah, we're going to be a live at London Book Fair on the 6th of April, and then online on the 16th of April at SelfPubCon, we're doing a mini-SelfPubCon, where we bring all the fun of the fair to all our members and followers around the world. So, looking forward to that.

As part of that, we're about to launch a Ten-word Story competition and that'll be good fun, we're looking forward to seeing entries to that, and we will be sending emails, and blog posts and everything will go up in the next day or two. So, start sharpening your pens and thinking about ten-word stories, we'll have some advice and tips about how to do those, and I look forward to lots of entries.

IngramSpark price changes

Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Right. Well, obviously we're talking about rewriting. I re-wrote Stone of Fire, and then I've just also rewritten Crypt of Bone, my second novel, which has gone to my editor, and I've got one more to go, the first three novels that I ever wrote, over a decade ago, and we'll talk about why you would rewrite in a minute.

I'm also working on my J.F. Penn website. I reckon last year we talked about my main website, and your website. It's been nine years since I did my fiction website, and the old theme is coming to the end of its useful life, as in it's stopped being supported. So, we used to call it a burning platform in IT, which was when you can see the end coming and you really have to do something about it. So, that's been forced upon me.

Another kind of burning platform thing for people, IngramSpark, who are wonderful sponsors, we love IngramSpark they are changing their pricing on March 3rd, which is just, as we record this, in two days’ time. So, if it's been a couple of years since you've updated your IngramSpark print prices, now is a good time, because I went in and discovered that for some of my older books, the profit was just tiny because of paper prices and inflation. So, that's just a little tip, because this is the advanced salon, those of you who've been publishing awhile, go in and check your print prices. I'm also going to do it on KDP print because I presume the same. I mean, it’s still paper, right? Is that something you've heard from other people about, print book prices?

Orna Ross: Very much so. Lots of people are getting notes from Ingram actually to say that they've gone into a negative compensation, but the point is that Ingram will only write to you when it hits that point and may not write you about every book. So, it's definitely something to check. Paper prices are affecting printing everything around the world, it's a global issue and it's not going to go away. In fact, it's going to get worse. So, books, I think, they have these hard price points in the shops, not so much online, but they're going to have to adapt, print books are going to have to adapt, and of course, the gap now between print and eBook will also widen.

So, it makes selling print, maybe a little trickier, and it also means it's worth looking at how you are putting the book together, because sometimes, you know, a change in the size of your font or the size of the trim size of the book can actually make a book a lot better value. It's worth playing around without that a bit, particularly if you feel you're going way out of the price range for your genre.

Joanna Penn: There you go, not a pricing show, but lots of pricing tips today. It's fascinating.

So, what else, what's going on for you personally as Orna Ross?

Orna Ross: Oh, me as Orna Ross? Well, writing me is very caught up with non-fiction at the moment because we're updating, speaking about updating, which we are all {inaudible} this show in a bit, and we're updating the ALLi guides at the moment and that takes some time. But I did get another two of my 12 Poems to Inspire series out. So, that will be five now, and so I'm really pleased about that, and then I'm off poetry and over on to fiction.

So yeah, I'm also, as you know, exploring NFTs and that fascinating world, the whole fascinating world of premium digital. So, it takes you down many a strange path, and I find I've spent hours looking at something and come back with absolutely no decision made.

Joanna Penn: But we're still in the thinking stage, aren't we, around NFT's?

Orna Ross: Yes.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I'll just direct people to, once this goes out on the audio feed, I'll have a new video up on my show, and on my YouTube channel, about NFTs for authors and six different ways that they can be used and all this stuff.

So, that's coming soon, and it's definitely a topic you and I are going to come back to you because we're really looking at this space and thinking about the next decade. So, we'll talk about the 20th anniversary of ALLi, the business model will look quite different, as it always does, you know, time marches on and all that.

And of course, time marches on this evening. So, let's get into our salon.

Orna Ross: A lovely little segue there, very good.

Why might an indie author want to rewrite a book?

Joanna Penn: Okay. So, our topic today is stages of the writing craft, when is it worth rewriting? So, let's start with a sort of bigger question of, why might we want to rewrite a book? Does it really matter if books are out of date? Readers understand that books age, and in fact, much writing advice says that you should never go back, you should never revisit old work, you should just write another book, because you'll bring those lessons into the next book. So, Orna, tell us what you're rewriting and also why you want to rewrite it.

Orna Ross: Yeah. So, I'm rewriting because I wrote a book as a standalone, and at one point I thought it was a trilogy, and then I realized it's actually a series. And so, the original book that I wrote, I've spent a lot of time working on this in the background, there's nothing to show for it as yet, except the original book. But the original book now, you know, the end needs to go into the next part of the series, and the beginning needs to go into the earlier parts of the series, and so I'm left with this kernel, which is operating quite differently. And also, the narrator is featuring in quite a different way in the book. So, it's a very practical reason, really.

That book, it's called Her Secret Rose, and it's the story of, and I'm not going to go into it in any detail, but just that there's a central love story, WB Yeats, and Maud Gonne, and it was pretty much just about that relationship, but it just wouldn't let me go. I didn't really want to rewrite it, I really wanted to move on. I actually had another trilogy that I needed to finish, and it was very pressing, but this kept coming up and coming up and coming up. And so, I just found myself working on it all the time, and that's where it's got to now, and it's a much more ambitious project now, and I like that, and I've just decided to go with it.

So, that's mine. Tell us about yours, it's a bit more of a conventional reason to go back, I think?

Joanna Penn: Well, it's quite different, but I want to just comment on yours. So, first of all, I have A Secret Rose, or Secret Rose, the limited edition you did for the anniversary, which you did a Crowdfunder for, and I have it, and this is a limited edition, you know, it's got lovely design and everything. You're now deconstructing that and reconstructing something else. So, as a reader and a fan of yours, I think, oh, cool, my limited edition is even better because you've changed things in the future. So, that's interesting because as a collector and, of course, we'll come back to digital limited editions another time, but I think this collectible idea is so important.

And then you also said about ambitious, this is a much bigger, ambitious project. Creative ambition, we just don't have that, and we're going to talk about the stages later, but our creative ambition, we can't do it when we're newer writers, we just can't achieve what we wanted, right? We can't do that.

Orna Ross: Yeah, I think that's very true. And the other thing that happened here, which is also very relevant for indie authors, I think, is there was a hard deadline; it was the anniversary, Yeats' 150th birth anniversary, and I rushed the project to meet that deadline. And I suppose it was fine, there's nothing wrong with the book, and in fact, your limited edition has that, and it has Yeats' stories in it. So, that will always stand as a book in and of itself anyway. It's my own novel part which is getting quite the change. So yeah, I think it was partly because it was done on short notice, and partly for all the other reasons that I've decided to do it. It's absolutely the right decision, I have no choice, I really don't.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. So, for me it's interesting, you also said it kept coming up. So, basically, I'm re-writing those first three novels. They were the first three novels I ever wrote. They were called Pentecost, Prophecy, and Exodus, back in 2009 to 2012, I wrote those novels and then rebranded, and I wrote them under Joanna Penn. So, since they came out originally, they're now Stone of Fire, Crypt of Bone, Ark of Blood. I'm J.F. Penn for my fiction author, and a lot has changed in my business and in my craft. There are now 12 books in the Arkane series.

So, what happened over Christmas was I was revisiting ads, and I calculated my readthrough, and I discovered that readthrough from book four is really, really good, I just have to get people to book four.

So, I was like, okay, well, if I rewrite books one to three at this point, that might actually financially improve my readthrough. And then I also realized I'd been putting this off, I didn't want to reread my old work, I really didn't, I was petrified. And then when I did it, I was like, oh my goodness, I wish I'd done this earlier.

But like you said, the books are still good. If you look at my reviews, they're still great. They have a 4.1-star average, or whatever. Stone of Fire is also my Permafree on all stores, so it's a very important marketing asset for me and for bringing people into J.F. Penn.

And my craft is better. So, by rewriting those three books, I am kind of giving my brand a bit of a repaint, proving to myself that I have some writing craft these days, and also hopefully improving readthrough, which will mean my ads can generate more income. So, I guess all of that is important, but any comments on that? Or let's talk about non-fiction, as well?

Orna Ross: Yes, exactly, and poetry indeed, because as I said, we're updating the ALLi books, and I think this is something that happens with nonfiction, particularly how-to nonfiction in a techie sort of area like ours, it's inevitable that you're going to have to do updates, which sometimes turn into complete and utter new books, new ISBNs, new everything. Because you go back in, you think nothing's changed, and you go, oh my God, really? You look at it, and you say two years ago, this is what we were thinking, really? It's fascinating, and you and I are both fairly ahead of the curve, but it just moves so quickly. So that's, I think, a reason that non-fiction writers are going to come up against this very often.

I also have experience of redoing two poetry books, whereby I just gathered a lot more poems, and so I was able to take out ones that I had put in that were kind of relevant to the theme, but not so much, and add ones that were much more on the nose, and it really improved the sales; it was worth doing.

So, yeah, I think we'll be talking about the measure and how you know whether it's worthwhile or not. But so much depends, doesn't it, on your reason for doing it? And you can have so many different reasons to actually go in there.

Is rewriting just about fixing typos?

Joanna Penn: Yeah. Okay. So, this is the big question then, because I've had a few comments. I did my own show, like an in-depth show on my rewrites last week, and I had a comment from someone that said, well, why didn't you edit your book in the first place? And it made me kind of face-palm, because for that first novel, I used a lot of editors. I used like three different editors on that first novel. I've used multiple editors across the three novels and more over the years, actually one of those went to an agent. And I've worked on those books over the years, but here point kind of suggested to me that it was a very simple question of just fixing typos, and the bigger question is, does that mean we shouldn't publish our early work? Should we wait, and wait, and wait, and edit, and edit forever?

Orna Ross: Yeah. Well, I think your questioner misunderstands the difference between an edit and an edition, you know, they are two different things. So, I definitely don't think we should wait, and wait, and wait, and edit, and edit, and edit. Absolutely not. There are people who say, look indies, write three books in your series before you put them out there because you will learn a lot in the doing of that, you can go back and get number one a little bit more shiny before you put it out there, and also from a marketing perspective, really, it's going to be very tough to market book one and book two anyway. So, why not wait until you have three? You know, it's a way to do things, but I think at least 85% to 90% of independent authors are not going to do that.

Joanna Penn: I'm not patient enough to wait.

Orna Ross: No, and it's asking an awful lot of somebody, you know, because the whole thing of writing a book and getting your first draft done, your final draft done, and then going through the whole publishing process and then saying, okay, I'll put that aside now and I'll work on number two. I just don't think anybody has that kind of, and I don't think it matters. I think a lot of that is because traditionally it so difficult to republish, and so once it was published, it was out there, it was gone, it was gone forever, you know, it's a very different sorts of world.

So, then you were kind of judged from that moment onwards kind of thing, whereas re-publication is part of your creative process, it's part of your growth, and you can go back there, and you can change things. It doesn't mean you should, or you have to, but because you can, I think, yeah, off you go, kind of thing.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and talking of limited editions, if anyone has a copy of Pentecost by Joanna Penn. What's so funny is we can't get rid of print, because we can remove our eBooks, we can remove our audiobooks, but we cannot get rid of the second-hand book market. So, if any single print edition went out into the world, then it won't disappear off your profile, which is kind of hilarious. Or Goodreads, this is still sitting on Goodreads. So yeah, we'll talk about the practical side of republishing in a minute.

But yeah, the point is you, you have to know your personality. I was never going to wait, but what is wonderful about being an indie is you can just upload things. And of course, the version of Stone of Fire that just got uploaded was like the 15th version, but it was a big new edition. And what I would say, if you have got Stone of Fire, anyone, check the copyright year, because I think it's the fourth year, like 2022 is the latest year, the latest edition.

But, of course, we all do typos, we do back matter, we do these other things over time.

When is the right time to rewrite a book?

Joanna Penn: But let's talk about, again, a bigger question, at what stage in your writing journey are you ready to re-edit a book? And this is so tough, because obviously it's individual, but I don't think I could have done this edit, you know, five years ago, maybe. I feel like a lot has changed. I mean, I've written like 17 novels or something now, but I feel like a lot of stuff has solidified in the last few years that have really helped me and that doing it earlier wouldn't have helped. But what do you think about when are you ready?

Orna Ross: Yeah, I mean there's no rule. I think, for sure, it varies, but I think you need to have a long gap of learning in between. Writing is a craft and a skill that's learned slowly. You take leaps and bounds at the beginning, and then you kind of come to a shelf, and we'll be talking about stages in a minute, but that's pretty typical. And then you plateau and leap, plateau, and leap, and that seems to be the way that most writers proceed. It slows down; the more advanced you get the more that progression kind of eases off into a plateau. So, I don't think there's any point at all, it's not going to be anything more than minor edits if you go in there too soon.

The other thing I would say, if it's not coming up for you, forget about it, and I think that's when it does actually happen for most writers, it's when it just kind of won't leave you alone, it keeps coming up, for whatever reason. Actually, you might not even be sure what exactly your reason is, but if it's bugging you consistently over a period of time, then it's coming up for a reason. Things don't come up like that for no reason. So, I would say trust that, and don't act on the first impulse, but if it keeps coming up again and again for you, then there's probably something there. And you might find when you go in to do that rewrite, that actually something new comes out of it, a bit like me with my one book that's turned into lots of books.

Joanna Penn: That tends to happen with you.

Orna Ross: Yes, it does.

Joanna Penn: But I want to, in terms of, I mean, obviously we’re talking about non-fiction as well, but I just wanting to refer to Dean Wesley Smith, who has a book called, Stages of a Fiction Writer, and I found that very useful. Dean is kind of famous for tough love, and that book is certainly full of tough love, because you think, oh, of course I'm at stage three or whatever, and then you'd read it and go, oh, okay, I've got a bit to learn. But let's talk about that because you've put together four stages. So, give us a bit of an overview, and then we can dive in.

Orna Ross: Yeah, this is roughly based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which is just a kind of an academic thing that applies to any skill. So, no matter what skill you're learning, there are various stages. Dreyfus has five stages, I think there are four stages in my experience of watching many, many writers over the years, both as a writing teacher and now observing lots of indie authors through ALLi.

So, you've got the complete beginner, and at that point, you kind of don't have a clue. Your skill level is really, really low, and you're listening to all the rules, and you're reading books about craft and how to do it and everything, but you haven't integrated that learning, because it's a very complex skill, writing, and so it takes time. And so, you don't understand the stages of the writing process either. So, you're mixing up your editing and your writing, and just generally in a mess. And you're kind of in awe, you're looking at it and saying, how does anybody ever become a good writer? There's such a gap between where I am and where I want to be, am I ever going to be able to cross that kind of thing?

Then, if you keep at it, just keep writing at that point. That's all you can do. Just keep writing, keep reading the craft books, and listening to the advice. Not acting on everything, taking it in, and let it kind of wash over you, but the main thing, keep writing and keep reading. Then you will become what's kind of called the emerging writer. So, you're beyond the beginner stage. You're still relying a bit on the rules and the maxims and advice of others, but you've got more of a context because you've done some writing. So, for example, if you said to a beginner writer, look, at this passage here, you're telling, you're not showing people what to do. They wouldn't understand what you're even talking about, whereas the emerging writer kind of gets it, but maybe doesn't always see when they're doing it.

So, at this point, the challenge or the downside, the thing to watch out for is overwhelm, because as you take in more and more and more advice, and you're listening to more and more and more people, it can all just get a little bit confusing. So, you stick with that, you keep reading, you keep writing, and eventually you develop competency. And at that point, you're kind of getting comfortable with your own process and with the writing process itself, and with the practices that work for you and the things that you know don't work for you. And you now know if somebody comes up with a piece of advice, you now know, that's not me, you know, that kind of thing. And this phase is brilliant because you very often begin to experience flow and you feel great, you know when it's going well, but you can also find it very frustrating when resistance has come up because you thought you were over that, or when things go wrong, and you can't quite find out why or fix. In this stage, it can become a bit obsessive, maybe, a bit driven or anxious, and here is where you see comparison-itis begins to lift its ugly head because you start comparing yourself to other writers. You've done lots of years, maybe at this point, you've worked really hard and you're looking at people that seem to be “successful” and wondering why you're not there.

And then you keep on writing, you keep on reading, and eventually you get to be a master. And a master writer operates by intuition. Doesn't really know much about rules, would say there are no rules, would possibly not be able to explain how they had achieved a certain effect. They're thinking about the reader, they're thinking about how they're going to kind of get them where they want them, make them cry, make them laugh you know, it all becomes about the reader then more, and less about thinking about what you're doing yourself. So, less attention. You might enjoy playing with sentences or playing with a structure or plot, but it's all done with, a sort of, a design. The other thing about the master, I should say, usually have about 12 projects lined up that they're looking forward to doing, and they're dying to get to the end of this one so that they can get onto the next one.

Joanna Penn: That's a good overview.

Just coming back on a few things. My personal trainer said this the other day, we were talking about lifting years, so I do, you know, lifting weights and he's a decade younger than me, but he has twenty-five years on me in terms of lifting, and it's a kind of simplified version, but it's the same with this writing in that it depends on the domain that you’re doing. So, you can be a competent or a master writer in one area.

I have a friend who's very, very good in, I'll just say non-fiction, I don't want to get too specific, but in a very non-fiction sense, and he's very frustrated because he's trying to write a novel and it's like he's gone back to the beginner, because there's so many different things.

Or, you know, if I wanted to get into poetry, I would jump back to the beginning again. Now, I don't think that's true for every single different thing, or screenwriting, like you and I both tried screenwriting, and it's very annoying because you think, but I can do the other kind, why can't I do this kind?

So, that's something to think about is, it's really also, let's say domain specific, not quite genre-specific, but it's domain specific, right? It really is.

Orna Ross: That's interesting. Also, to your point about the lifting years, young writers get a lot of attention, and they are even prizes and everything for young writers, but actually you could be a young writer because you didn't start until you were 75, and now you're only 76. So, you know, you're a young writer under those conditions. it's the number of years you've spent writing. Obviously, life experience will stand up to you, particularly in writing fiction, but it's not enough, you won't have the craft skills. So, yeah, that another point around that point.

Joanna Penn: And I'd also say, it's not just time elapsed. So, some people might spend a decade writing one book, whereas the person who might've done a book a year, and again, it's so difficult, you can't put rules on it, but it is actual active time writing as opposed to just thinking about writing or all of those types of things.

And again, it's hard not to compare yourself to others, but I also feel that you can dip in and out of master. So, I definitely feel now, I think it's okay to say, I think I'm a competent writer, and I kind of realized this with doing my rewrites. I'm like, do you know what, I can do this. I know how to do this now. And it's made me happy because I have a draft of how to write a novel and now, I feel like I can actually go forward and write that because I understand what I know. I know that I know this. But then occasionally I feel like I might dip into a master writer moment, and then I'm like, oh, this is it, this is what it feels like. And then 10 minutes later, you're kind of back in something else.

Or you might have managed to, you know, you talked about the really thinking about the reader, and essentially trying to manipulate the reader experience, and there were points when I was doing that rewrite in Stone of Fire and I was like, oh, I can see what I meant as that early writer. I can see what I wanted to get the reader to think, but I put it in a very odd way, and I was trying to get it out of my head, but I wasn't thinking about it from the reader's head.

Or for example, I found that I cut out quite a lot of words, and one of the things I did was I kept telling each character what was going on. So, there was a lot of repetition in the book, but I didn't need to, because it was the reader who needed to know the information. I could've just recapped it in one line, but I kept telling over and over and over, and that of course has a massive impact on pacing and boredom in the reader, but I was thinking, well, that character doesn't know that, so I have to explain it all over again. You know, stuff like that, that gives you an insight into where your brain was at the beginning.

Orna Ross: Fascinating. Yeah, absolutely.

How can authors improve their writing craft?

Joanna Penn: Okay. So, those are some of the stages and of course everything blurs. And like we said, you move up and down, but how can we actually move stages, because this is the big deal, how do we get better? And we are talking about craft here, but this does affect everything in your author business, because when it comes down to it, the books, the poems, whatever, they are our written body of work, and they also drive our income, and they attract our readership, they're our voice. There's so many reasons we want to be better. So, Orna, we've talked a little bit, I guess, about time, but what else can we do to improve?

Orna Ross: I think it's about consciously practicing, you know, realizing that we are committing to improving. So, the main thing is practice, and by that, I mean, your core practice, obviously, which is turning up and doing your writing, working on whatever project you're working on. But also, it can help to do practices like free writing, or even crosswords, and Wordle, and Scrabble, and things like that. Words are your medium and the more you play with them, the more you actually become better at manipulating them and using them to affect. So, I think also practices that kind of stretch our imagination and help us to trust our intuition are really important for a writer. So, trusting things like meditation, daydreaming, mulling over things, and perhaps consciously taking your writing into your sleep.

So, there are people who, and I am one of them, who will pose my writing problem to myself before I go to sleep, and sometimes I've been known to write it on a piece of paper and put it under the pillow. And then sleep is, yeah, subconscious mind.

Joanna Penn: I haven't done this.

Orna Ross: Try it. Honestly, it's great. Especially if you're kind of stuck, because the subconscious mind is where the depth and the creativity comes from, I think. And recognizing that and strengthening the subconscious, I think, helps us to get from one stage to another quicker than just doing the front brain work. And I think also, you're going to make mistakes, and I mean, you and I did a whole show about all our mistakes and things we got wrong over the years, and how helpful that can be. I think using failure as data to improve. So, if you get a bad review, actually taking it in at the level of, okay, what are they saying about it, can I learn from that, yes or no? Put it aside and other things that go wrong, seeing it as not allowing it to derail you, but taking it in and absorbing it.

I think also a really important thing is to read at a higher level than you write. So, just lightly, so you still enjoy it, but read people who are skilled and look at how they do what they do. In writing classes, I used to recommend reading twice, read the book for pleasure first, and then go back and read it as a writer and look at how they got their effects. I think that is really important.

And the other thing I think, the most important thing of all, is to recognize what it is to be a writer, to set up your life around that, to give up the things you have to give up if you're going to do this, to do have the life habits that actually sustain you as a creative and help you to do what you're doing. These are the things that keep you there over the long-term because it is a long-term endeavour.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I recommend, I've got a quote on my wall from Steven Pressfield, from Turning Pro, the book Turning Pro. I read it every couple of years, and I remember reading it back when I was like, I need to just take this seriously. And the whole point is, it becomes simple. Everything becomes much simpler when you turn pro, and that doesn't mean you go full-time as a writer, it means you make a decision that your writing is professional, and you are going to commit to that. Which means obviously you're going to give up other things.

And again, craft, I particularly like short classes, and I learned that James Patterson's masterclass, I think really is a masterclass. Whatever you think of James Patterson's writing, like his books, the guy is a story genius, and that masterclass really helped me.

And I've taken, again, to mention Dean Wesley Smith, he has courses on very specific things. So, his class on depth really helped me with point of view. I really just hadn't understood point of view, you know, I'd be like, Morgan said this, or Morgan thought this. Whereas I didn't need to write Morgan thought, because I could just write that, because I was actually in her point of view. So, there are ways that I take these very specific courses.

Now, the other thing I want to recommend is volunteering. If you're part of a genre, this is fiction particularly, but if you're part of a genre organization, so I'm part of International Thriller Writers, Horror Writers Association. You can volunteer to be a judge in the early stages of the book awards. So, they always need early-stage judges to kind of work through the massive amount of books that have been submitted. So, over the last, pretty much five/six years, I've been alternately one of these early-stage judges. And I have read so many books in these genres, and what's so crazy is now, I think this is what agents must feel like as well, is I can read a page, and I know whether or not that's going to go any further. And very often I will be able to, you know, it all goes forward into the process, I'm never a top judge people, nobody send me anything, but it's like I can tell. And I've learned so much from being part of that process, and picking up books that I would never have picked up otherwise and just learning from that. And I know you do a lot of judging too; does it help you with insights?

Orna Ross: Yes, I have done in the past, and I worked as literary agent in the past as well, but I think, specifically in your genre is a great tip, because if you're reading more widely across the range, you don't get the same level of feedback.

But I think you would agree, I think every writer agrees that improvement is mostly a matter of writing. There is no shortcut, just turn up and do the damn thing.

What can you discover from rewriting a book?

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely. All right. So, what are we discovering as we rewrite? So, I guess I've mentioned a few things there. I have deepened character. I mean, if you've read Pentecost or Stone of Fire, you don't need to read it again. The story's the same, the characters are the same, but what I did was deepen the character, and the emotion, and the point of view in the scenes. I also leaned into my voice. I did not know what my voice was in those early books, and I've expanded on themes that now I know I can lean into. So, for me, that is good versus evil. Like Crypt of Bone, which was already pretty evil, is now like, I'm like, oh, this is great. This is so much fun. So, that was good. I've also improved my pacing, as I mentioned, and I have got rid of 17,000 words. And also, what's so interesting is I didn't count them as I was doing it. All I did was, when the final book, when I was like, this is it, this is done, and I'd worked with an editor and everything. I'm like, this is it, it was 55,000, which is actually the length of what I write now as a full-length book. So, I feel like I've done exactly the right thing. I got rid of like extensive research info dumps and now I know how to include my research much more into my writing.

And then of course there's a lot more detail of craft, like passive voice to more active. So, Morgan was walking, to Morgan walked, which turns three words into two words. So, if you do that throughout a manuscript, you can get rid of a lot of words. Now, it's not about getting rid of words for the sake of it, it's just that, that happened through improvement. So, I've definitely discovered a lot of stuff there. What about you?

Orna Ross: Yeah, I think, because my rewrite's a bit more about the structure, I'm not learning as much, and also, a lot of the stuff that I'm doing, I'm deepening. So, it's more nebulous than what you're doing. You're actually looking at a specific book and approaching that. I'm still building out a bit. So, I think it's a little bit different. So yeah, I think deepening is what I would talk about, but the voice is definitely changing, and has become much stronger. And the narrator themselves has become a character, and her back story has intertwined with the characters. So, it's all very structural really, it's all about extra plots and just kind of more stuff.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. More stuff.

What are some practical tips for rewriting a book?

Joanna Penn: Okay. So, let's just talk about the, we're just aware of time here, let's talk about the practicalities of rewriting.

So, for me, I use Vellum to do my formatting and, as I said, I've updated back matter and things over time. So, I just took my current, or my old version of Vellum, and then you can export in RTF format, which is rich text format, which I then imported into a Scrivener file. I like writing in Scrivener. So, basically, I then created a new folder in my drive, 2022 edition, copied everything in there. And remember copying everything, people. So, you've got backups of all your old stuff. I didn't change the old stuff, I copied it and backed it up and then changed the copies.

And then I used ProWritingAid, which I find is super helpful because if you open each chapter, you can open Scrivener within ProWritingAid, and just do a chapter at a time, and they have like a score. So, the scores were often 60% to 70% and I took them all up to over 90%. Too much to go into all the detail of that, but ProWritingAid is just brilliant. I think if I had had that back then I would have been able to learn this stuff so much more quickly, because every time I go in there, I learn something. Actually, that's probably a good tip. Put your own manuscript into ProWritingAid and see what comes up, right? You think so too?

Orna Ross: I use ProWritingAid on pretty much everything. I do think when you get into more creative writing, it picks up on stuff that you want to leave there, but it's always good to be asked and to be questioned. So, yeah, I think it's fantastic.

Joanna Penn: For sure. Yeah. So, just to finish my process then. So, I did the edits there. I also rearranged things and basically did quite a big job between Scrivener and ProWritingAid. Then I printed the whole manuscript out and hand-edited it, put the changes back into Scrivener, printed it again, hand-edited it again. This was a pretty long process, this took me about five weeks, and then I sent it to my editor and then did the changes. And now it is out in the new edition, which I'm so happy about. And I just finished Crypt of Bone, which is here, so that's going too.

Also, I'm working with a new editor, and I wanted to mention that because I think it's important. Over time, we all change editors. Our writing changes, editors move on, and we need different people at different stages. So yeah, I am very happy with that and, as I said, I've got Ark of Blood by the end of March. So, in April, I should be now ready to start new projects, please, but also to see if it makes a difference.

Orna Ross: Fantastic. So, maybe just finish with a few practical tips to say to people.

You will need, if you do this sort of massive edition, you do need to update your copyright page, and you also need to let readers know that you have a new edition so that people, not readers, but also librarians, booksellers, everybody knows that this is a new edition of this book. You need a new ISBN for your print edition, and we would recommend also for your eBook edition, for the same reasons, so that if a library wants to order your eBook or whatever, they can actually get the updated one and not the earlier one.

Joanna Penn: I just want to add on that though, this is a problem, because if you update your eBook ISBN and your print ISBNs, you will lose your reviews unless you manage to get Amazon to move them over, and that is a job in itself. So, personally I did do new print ISBNs, but I just uploaded my files again.

Also, when I published what was Pentecost in 2009, I didn't use ISBNs. So, there never has been an ISBN on that book. But yeah, I would really caution, you have to decide, like, if you have terrible reviews, then of course you want to do the eBook with new ISBNs. But yeah, that's my caveat on eBook ISBNs. If you do a new one, you might struggle to get those reviews. Whereas print is quite normal.

Orna Ross: Print is okay. But I think Amazon's pretty good, you know, when you ask, they generally tend to bring the reviews over for a new edition.

Joanna Penn: Yeah. Personally, I wouldn't, I mean, I have so many reviews on that book, I'm like, I am not doing anything to jeopardize it. So, we disagree on that, which is amazing, we're disagreeing on things.

Yeah. So, just on KDP print, you can unlink those old editions and then delete them, and then link a new edition, which is really good. What do you think about audio?

Orna Ross: Yeah, you mean in terms of going back in now and you have to redo your audio? It's not a problem that I've had because I've only literally started doing audiobooks, so I hadn't done an audiobook on Her Secret Rose. So, it doesn't arise for me, and we're only just putting the ALLi books into audio as well. So, I don't know. What are you going to do?

Joanna Penn: Well, at the moment, I'm not going to do three full length novels in audio right now. I mean, financially, that's quite a big commitment. So, I'm going to think about it and make a decision once I see what happens.

We should also, people always say, oh, don't readers get really angry? No, they don't. Most don't even notice that you've changed because they either read it or they haven't, or whatever. So, most people don't even notice. I put on mine, previously published as Pentecost, that was years ago, and then the copyright date or whatever. And you can see on Amazon and all the stores, you see a date when it's published. So, that will also help. But I don't think readers’ care.

How do you know if rewriting a book was worth it?

Joanna Penn: But we should just revisit what we talked about, measuring success, and how do you know that the rewrite has been worth it? So, what do you think on that?

Orna Ross: I think it's a good idea, once you know that you are going to do it, that you're very clear in your mind why you're doing it, and whether it's for you or whether it's for somebody else, whether it's for a financial reason, whether it's because you can't bear the idea that the early work is out there in the world, whatever the reason is, getting very clear about what it is, or you may have more than one reason. And then, you know, afterwards looking and seeing, did it actually achieve anything? Because the last thing you want to do is start say, re-editing all your old work and it actually is just a big waste of time. So, and it could be, you know, I think it's something not to do lightly. So, like anything we do, we need to know why are we doing it? How are we going to get there? And then how are we going to measure whether it worked, or it didn't work?

And I certainly wouldn't do another one until you had gone through that entire cycle and seen the outcome and measured the result. And yeah, I look forward to hearing about yours, because it'll be quite identifiable, you know, you've got a very specific kind of creative intention.

Joanna Penn: Yes, but as I said, I'm only doing the first three. Sometimes I think, oh, I should look at book four, book five. And then I'm like, no, because the reason was that the first three, once people are into book four, if I can get people into the three, then book four, the readthrough stays much higher, and also those three are linked and they're a box set, the three of them, so they need to be in harmony and all of that.

So, yeah, what I'll basically do is from mid-April, I'll start putting ads again on that permafree book, and then I guess what I'll do is, later on in the year, I'll report back on how things have improved. And look, to be honest, even if they don't improve read-through and sales, I've learned a lot from revisiting my writer-self of over a decade ago. And as I said, I'm going to get on with how to write a novel.

Orna Ross: That in itself is brilliant, because that one has been stalled. So, if it's going to push you over that hurdle, it was worth it for that alone, right?

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely.

Okay, great. So, we're out of time. Next month we will be on the second Tuesday of the month, because we'll be at London Book Fair the week before, and then we will be reflecting on what we learned at the book fair, and the 10 years of the Alliance and yeah, it's going to be a big week.

So, I guess we hope to see some of you at London Book Fair. Is there anything else you want to say on that, Orna?

Orna Ross: Just, yes, we hope as many of you as possible will come. Obviously, we know that lots of you can't, but we will, as I said, be bringing all the fun of the fair, online, on the 16th, which I think is just after our chat on the Tuesday. So, the weekend after that we'll be bringing it.

Joanna Penn: Not all the fun of the fair.

Orna Ross: Not all the fun. All the indie, self-publishing related fun of the fair.

Joanna Penn: Excellent. All right. Well, I guess, thanks for joining us today, this evening, wherever you are in the world. Happy writing.

Orna Ross: Happy publishing. Bye-bye.

Joanna Penn: See you next time.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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