December 7th, 2016

Your Story as a House

Tiffany Yates Martin

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(In the past two months, I’ve shared my revision process with you here at Writers in the Storm as I’ve moved through the suggestions Tiffany has made. Today, she shares what she does in her job working with authors, like me, as a professional editor. -Fae)

My husband doesn’t want me to be on HGTV.

I’ve been a junkie of the station ever since it debuted, and every time we’ve been at a housing crossroads—whether it’s deciding whether to sell and buy something new, or considering renovations—I toss out my dream of one day being on the receiving end of the magical transformations on Love It or List It, or Fixer Upper, or Property Brothers, only to have him knock my pie out of the sky like a champion skeet shooter.

His reason is always the same: The “after” reveals may look fantastic, but in the way a stage set does: pretty on the surface, but in rushed TV production schedules, the underlying structure may not necessarily be constructed well enough to support it in the long run.

I know he’s right. But it looks so pretty.

The same mind-set often happens to authors in the editing process. I see a good number of manuscripts with appealing stories, intriguing characters, well-written prose. These are among the trickiest edits—for me and for the author—because on the surface everything actually looks pretty good.

img_0053But often something is still “off.” There’s something underneath the initially appealing surface keeping the story from being as effective and satisfying for the reader as it could be.

This was the case in my recent work with Fae Rowen on the first of her Keep Sphere series, Finding Athena. Many of you who know Fae and her writing may already be familiar with the quality of her work. In Athena she has a good, original romantic sci-fi tale, and the writing chops to have created a very readable, enjoyable story.

I often work with authors the way I do with publishing houses—in a three-pass editorial process that allows us to do a deep-dive inspection of every corner of the story. In three separate passes, we have the chance to hone the manuscript into a final product that’s not only aesthetically polished, but built rock-solid, and that’s how Fae and I worked on Athena.

We tackled some foundational story structure issues in pass one—we worked a lot on developing character, honing the plot (which induced Fae to kill some well-loved darlings), and addressing world-building elements and other stylistic issues.

Fae revised like a rock star, and came back with a second pass that seemed to have addressed many of the areas I mentioned. We polished a bit more, and both of us expected pass three to be fairly straightforward—often by this point in the process the manuscript has been progressively built out in each preceding pass, and we’re in the final stretch of finishing touches.

img_0067Almost every one of my beloved HGTV makeover shows has the moment where, after the crew knocks out a wall or a ceiling or a fascia to achieve their fancy computerized rendering of the final design, something unexpected is revealed: construction shortcuts, deterioration, inadequate support. Sometimes improving one area reveals hidden problems in another.

In Fae’s case, the more deeply she had fleshed out and developed one key element of the story—her fascinating protagonists—the more clearly it revealed another element that still needed attention: their individual arcs and how they were developed in the plot. She’d done wonderful work, and if we’d stopped there things would have looked pretty darn good on the surface. But the structure wasn’t as solid as it needed to be to create a story as impactful and effective as we both believed was possible.

So I dug really deep in the story on my last edit, and our pass three, which I often return with only a smattering of embedded notes, came back to Fae with a full complement of queries in the manuscript, and another extensive editorial letter—4,500 words’ worth this time (and that’s after a 4,800-word first-pass ed letter).

I knew this might be deeply daunting for her, after all the work she’d done already—to be approaching the manuscript yet again with the same level of feedback and revision suggestions we’d started with.

Luckily Fae happened to agree with the feedback, which matched her vision for the story (remember—an edit, like everything else in any creative field, is somewhat subjective, and ultimately the story belongs to you, the author), but rather than being discouraged by the amount of work still to be done, she jumped back in with both feet—and both brains.

Almost all writers find it easy to access the creative, dreamy, visionary right brain. It’s practically the definition of an artist or storyteller. Editing often poses a greater challenge to authors because, to a degree, it’s a left-brain activity, applied to a right-brain process.

One thing I try to do as an editor is to offer specific ideas and “tricks” for authors to access that side of their brains—exercises I’ve found useful for taking a logical, methodical approach to a creative, more numinous endeavor. In Fae’s case, I made several specific suggestions for defining each main character’s arc, and for clarifying the plot to make sure it held together and that every scene moved the story—and each character’s journey—forward.

As Fae has written in her previous posts about our work together, this isn’t always (or ever, really) a painless process. But, as a mathematician, she tackled it logically, creating a worksheet for herself on character arcs from the exercises I’d offered, and executing the “X-ray” for the plot I’d suggested to take an objective look at whether each scene furthered the story and the characters’ journeys.

It’s a longer and more involved process than either one of us was expecting at this point. But Fae’s investment in this story—not only of her time and the expense of a professional edit, but her emotional investment in telling this story, capturing her vision on the page in the best, most effective way she can—sent her back to the studs, and she was willing to do the work.

At the end of it, she’ll still have a story with all the “curb appeal” her talent and skill had created from the first. But what lies behind the HGTV-pretty will be meticulously constructed and solid—not just appealing on the surface and in the short term, but a creation with real substance, that will endure.

Have you faced an edit that felt especially daunting before? What techniques did you use to approach the actual revisions—and to keep your spirits from flagging?

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Tiffany Yates MartinTiffany Yates-Martin pic has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty years, currently through her editorial consulting company, FoxPrint Editorial, helping authors hone their work to a tight polished draft. As a developmental editor she works both directly with authors as well as through major publishing houses. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com, or on Facebook  or Twitter [@FoxPrintEd].

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