Monday, March 31, 2008

Manuscript Makeover with Elizabeth Lyon

Today, multi-published writing teacher and book doctor Elizabeth Lyon joins the Manuscript Mavens to dish about editing and revision. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Elizabeth's latest book: Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, released April 1!

MM: You have been a book editor and writing teacher for 20 years. Can you tell us how you got started on that path and what you enjoy most about editing books and teaching writing?

EL: I was lucky to have a talent for English grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and an eye for detail. I was the nerdette in your high school class who raised her hand when the teacher asked, "What is the symbolism in this novel?" Of course, my ready answers meant I didn't date.

Because editing was not among the choices for a major in college, it is only in hindsight that I see my developmental steppingstones:
* Reading 3-4 books a week from age 9-18 with my coke bottle-thick glasses, until contact lens were invented. Then I could see the boys and my 4.0 GPA dropped.
* Taking and loving humanities' courses for years, in high school and college
* Editing friends' papers and tutoring them on organization and style
* Teaching study skills and speed reading
* Writing throughout my life (experimenting in nearly every genre)
* Studying human psychology (i.e. characterization) in depth through classes, getting a masters in counseling, having five years of belly-button contemplating psychoanalytic therapy, and learning astrology. I wanted to be a Jungian psychiatrist but I had avoided (and hated) math, and didn't like long science labs.
* Writing, editing, compiling, producing, promoting, and distributing a self-published book about my children's midwife-including twenty home-birth stories by other mothers and an interview with one doctor. This first book, published in 1981, got me hooked on writing and publishing.
* Starting a business-writing service.

A dramatic turning point in my career and life happened in June 1988 when a close friend died and bequeathed his editing business, writing classes, and critique groups in a suicide note to me. Two weeks later, I stood before four community college, adult ed writing classes as their new teacher. Six months later, I had begun my own weekly critique group, which grew to two, then three, groups and lasted thirteen years.

Editing work flowed from the students in these groups and classes. As I worked on all types of manuscripts, my skill and understanding grew. I received mentorship from one agent, Natasha Kern. With the Internet and websites, my client base became worldwide, I became acquainted with or friends with scores of agents, and my list of client successes grew. After about ten years, I began to coach and train other editors. I learned that it takes about three years for an editor to become experienced enough to do professional work on nonfiction book proposals and about five years to do a good job editing novels and memoirs.

What I love about editing is that each piece of writing is an original creation. The process uses all of my skills, my experiences in life, and my intuition. I am a literary detective searching for the writer's individuality and coaxing it out. I have to find the story arc and theme and figure out what is illogical or omitted. Often I must intuit what the writer meant to express or thought was on paper but isn't. I'm a tracker in the woods. Sometimes the brush is thick and I worry that I will not find any way through. Other times I can see the highway, and I wish the writer would build a forest, put in a copse of fir trees here, a hundred-year oak there, a family of angry crows, and a coyote making silent footfalls toward a deer munching grass by the creek. Most writers develop first drafts of novels and memoirs intellectually, in their minds. They typically under-develop description, sensory data (taste, sounds, visual detail, temperature, smells, and touch), and other nuances of body language and facial expressions in reaction.

Editing is a challenge every time. Good editing demands risk-taking to dive deeply into someone else's creation, including the writer's mind on paper and emotions-conscious or unconscious. As an editor, I become immersed the writer's emotional and metaphoric world as expressed symbolically in story. I feel as if I become a translator, that I need to be a lightning rod, and I hope to be a catalyst and guide.

Teaching writing is editing out loud. I'm glad I'm extroverted more than introverted because I am energized by teaching. I have a good time-fun-and my goal is always that each person has received a nugget that makes a difference in his or her writing. My teaching style is extemporaneous and I hope more interesting as a result.

MM: You wrote several Writers Digest books on topics ranging from fiction and non-fiction to proposals. What was your impetus to writing Manuscript Makeover and what kind of material did you include?

EL: I've always wanted to write a book on what I've been doing as an editor and teacher, which is very practical instruction for the writer. The books written on revising fiction have been primarily written by teachers of classic literature or in-house editors whose experience is with manuscripts that are nearly ready for publication. I wanted to convey how to fix problems for the beginning novelist and how to finesse writing for the pro or nearly pro. I also wanted the book to show how to write each element of craft, down to the nitty gritty, through examples drawn from the full rainbow of fiction: genre, mainstream, and literary; contemporary and classic, and for adults, young adults, and children. I believe Manuscript Makeover may have 100 excerpts as examples to model.

My goal and I believe hallmark as an author of instruction for writers is organization, clarity, and accessibility of information. Each chapter ends with a revision checklist that is a summary outline of what was in the chapter. My readers will have these checklists for review and for quick reference. I consider this book, my sixth and last, on writing to be my magnum opus on writing and revising fiction.

MM: In your experience as a writing teacher, what are 2 or 3 common mistakes or misunderstandings aspiring authors have about the craft of writing and/or the publishing industry?

EL: A common misunderstanding is that right now is the worst possible time for getting published. I've been hearing that since I first attended conferences nearly 30 years ago. It's always the worst time. Therefore, there is no time like the present.

Another myth is that you are born talented, so if you don't think you are or someone has said your writing sucks, you should stop writing and take up an easy profession like brain surgery. With some 20,000 markets for writing, I assure you that the majority of what is written doesn't show remarkable talent. Because each of us is an original, we all have that originality to lend to our writing. Some people are better able to do this than others, but publishing is as open to talent-challenged but hard-working writers as to the gifted, literary artists. In fact, there are more markets for the talent-challenged.

A mistake that some writers make is thinking "it's easy." After all, don't we all know how to write? Writing well requires that same kind of persistence and openness to learning and criticism as any profession. It also requires a lot of practice to reach a reliable level of skill, and emotional fortitude to turn off the inner gargoyles of perfectionism, distraction, and doubt. The biggest obstacle, ultimately, to any writer's success, is the self. I also believe that writers who "make it" need to cultivate resiliency-trying one thing or another until a connection is made-within and with others-and to develop risk-taking. Committing words on paper is a risk. Creation takes risk. Marketing takes risk.

MM: In your experience as a book editor, what are 2 or 3 mistakes or missed
opportunities writers made with their manuscripts?

EL: There are several key mistakes that are a writer's undoing:
1. Inadequate revision. Nearly everyone thinks a manuscript (of any kind) is finished and ready to sell when it isn't. We can't see our own writing clearly. Revise. Put it aside. Read more about how to revise. Do some more revision. Put it aside. Get constructive criticism. Revise again.
2. Belaboring one piece too long. This mistake seems contrary to my advice above. I have met far too many writers who are still working on their first novel-years or decades later. Part of the learning curve is encountering new problems, overcoming them, and adding to the tool kit. That means gaining more breadth of experience by writing different works. Of course, you want to figure out your weaknesses by reading about craft and learning in workshops so that you don't simply repeat your mistakes.
3. Finishing. Another group of writers begins with gusto but runs out of gas. It's hard to finish . . . anything. Not all works deserve finishing, but if you find that you seldom finish a story, an article, a novel, or memoir, recognize a skill deficit: learning how to finish. How do you do that? You make yourself continue writing, and writing, and then you are done with your rough draft. You finished. It's learning how to fulfill a commitment to yourself when, possibly, interior programming or censorship have been putting up a road block.

MM: In your opinion as a book editor, at what point in the process should a writer consider using one? Are there any warning signs of "scam" book editors a writer should be on the lookout for?

EL: One good use of a professional editor early in the process of writing a novel is to read and respond to a whole book synopsis. The editor should be able to spot problems of logic, mixed genres, unoriginal plot, unclear story theme, and superficial characterization-from a five-page synopsis. The synopsis is a book doctor's MRI. Outside of reading a synopsis or brainstorming alternatives for the novel at an early stage, the primary purpose of a professional book editor should be to alert the writer to later-stage revisions. The catch-22 is that most novelists believe they are at that stage when they are actually an apprentice or even a beginner. We don't know what we don't know. This was the first paradox I had to deal with in writing Manuscript Makeover.

I compiled and was heartened to sell National Directory of Editor & Writers specifically to help writers (and non-writers) go shopping for an editor or ghostwriter. I satisfied a personal curiosity about how other book editors run their businesses. It was no less than illuminating to learn about 530 other colleagues. I advise writers seeking editorial help to do their homework. What I mean is to learn all they can about several editors' background, accomplishments, successful clients, specialties, and fees. I'm a teacher as much as an editor so I believe in lengthy evaluations that teach craft as well as model changes using portions of the writer's work. I also believe in writing comments (positive and instructive) all over the pages, and making corrections, but stopping far short of imposing the editor's ideas or style.

Writers need to be alert to what they expect and need and ask for it-like in any other service. I have seen appalling responses by published (and unpublished) authors who edit works for a living. Some of these, which I consider unacceptable include:
* Handwritten evaluations of a few pages after reading a whole work
* Criticism worded in demeaning ways without specific details supporting the comments
* Criticism absent of direction or modeling to show how to make needed changes
* Manuscripts that have few corrections on them, as if they have only been read, not edited
* Editor personal reactions without explanation of the relationship to the writing
* Absence of knowledge of craft or style that is conveyed to the writer

I admit that I don't like the description of "scam editors" any more than "scam agents." I think that is because I don't see any higher percentage of scammers in this business more than in any other, and my optimistic view of human nature would like to believe that true scammers, rather than less competent editors, are a tiny portion of everyone doing business.

On the other hand, skill will always vary. And the very most skilled, which often but not always corresponds to the highest prices, may not be the best match for an individual writer at a particular time in his or her development. Sometimes, editors in the beginning of their careers give far more coaching and time, for less money, than later in their careers. For writers who really are professional, or nearly so, an editor who can help that writer see and make the last revisions, has to be an editor who is experienced and maybe a specialist in a particular genre. The best thing a writer can do is talk to many editors and many friends who have used editors. Word of mouth reputation is still the best way to find help.

MM: In your opinion as a writing teacher, at what point in the process should an aspiring author consider taking a writing class? Do you have any recommendations on how to determine whether a topic/teacher/level is appropriate for that writer?

EL: In the beginning of learning how to write, aspiring authors should take as many courses and workshops as they have time and the brain cells to absorb. I like conferences for the fact that the workshops are short and nearly always geared to beginners and apprentice-level writers. Conferences offer the smorgasbord. Community college continuing ed (adult ed) classes are usually at a pre-professional level as well. All a writer need do is ask to talk with the teacher, or e-mail, and ask questions about the level of instruction, the topics that will be covered, and that should help greatly.

Word generally gets around about teachers and what they offer and how they teach. A writer can also ask any administrator who sets up classes. Seldom can you go wrong in taking a writing class. However, if you are taking classes that cost mega-bucks, I would ask to speak with or e-mail several other people who have taken that class previously. I have noticed that famous and/or talented writers do not necessarily have the vocabulary, knowledge, or teaching skill to guide others in what they do so apparently naturally.

For writers who cannot, or do not want to, attend classes or conferences, they can find online correspondence courses and critique groups. Always, pay attention to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, 99 times out of 100, there is some good reason. Never stay in a position where you are receiving criticism that is unconstructive or unsupported. Always expect and demand that you receive comments about what you are doing right, so you can build on your strengths.

MM: Is there anything else you would like to share that we didn't cover?

EL: Oh my, there is a universe advice, guidelines, instruction, and stories to share. In fact, I could write a book. . . .

What I continue to learn that I can pass on to every write is this: Life can deal us a lot of tough realities, and despite them, we can go on and write and succeed. I would like to say, "If I could do it, you can do it," but that is simply not true. We can't compare lives or impose expectations. What I will say is that you can confront and banish thoughts of entitlement (I deserve x, y, z). You can overcome fear and anxiety by learning how to stay focused in the moment. You must become forgiving of yourself; you're human not superhuman after all. Celebrate every step, even tiny ones. Gather a group of cheerleaders to encourage you, but also find others who are dedicated to helping you become the best writer you can be-which means they will give you honest, constructive criticism. Compare yourself to no one but learn from everyone. The writer's life is one path of self-realization and self-acceptance is a great reward.

YOUR TURN: What writing classes have you taken or craft books have you read that improved your writing or gave you an ah-ha moment? What are your tips on accepting constructive criticism and revising your baby manuscript? One lucky commenter wins a copy of Elizabeth's new release: Manuscript Makeover!

Elizabeth Lyon, a regular speaker at writing conferences and retreats nationwide, has been a contributor to The Writer and Writer's Digest and is a mentor, professional book editor, and writing teacher. The author of The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, and National Directory of Editors & Writers, she lives in Springfield, Oregon.

14 comments:

Marnee Jo said...

Wow! This was a wonderful interview and it sounds like an incredibly useful book. Thank you, Elizabeth!

I'm only halfway through my WIP, but I think the best advice I have found is to be open to constructive criticism. Not just open to it coming in but open to letting it go too. Every reader looks at a piece of writing differently so their suggestions come from the place where they read. Some suggestions will fit better than others. I haven't been able to use every one and some that I think will work don't. But, it's being open to that entire experience that is the most vital to my writing.

Tez Miller said...

My problem is I can edit (which is good!), but I can't rewrite. I'll learn, with time...

Last year, or maybe this year, Rachel Vincent mentioned something on her blog about hanging participles - I'd never heard of the term before, but I switch them out of my writing now. I feel like I've learned something :-)

Have a lovely day! :-)

Bill Clark said...

emotional fortitude to turn off the inner gargoyles

Now there's a phrase for the ages! :-)

(Well, from the Middle Ages on, anyway.)

*Bill goes off to see what his inner gargoyles are up to today*

Mary said...

Great information here. Now I want to go pick up that book.

Stephen King's book "On Writing" helped me overcome the need to please everyone with my writing, and instead focus toward my main reader.

Kendra said...

Margie Lawson's Empowering Characters' Emotions class was amazing. She covers a mind boggling amount of information to strengthen writing. I agree Stephen King's On Writing is a must read. Also Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel.

Kelly Krysten said...

Great interview! And so helpful. I took one RWA writing course, so far, and it was hugely helpful. I also bought the book You Can Write a Romance Novel-which is very good.
I'm nearly done with my third revision of my WIP and am finally ready for critique partners.
But I feel very confident after reading this interview.
Thanks!

MsHellion said...

I love Victoria Schmidt's books--her book in a month; 45 character archetypes; the story structure book...I'm addicted to her books!

Of course, I'm addicted to writing books in general--and have ordered Ms. Lyon's books just because I stumbled onto this blog, went to Amazon (read the amazing chapter headings), and decided "Hey, you're revising, this is perfect for you"--and plus if you order today, you get an extra %5 off at Amazon! So THANK YOU, Ms. Lyon! I'm excited to be getting your book!

MsHellion said...

I don't know if this is always "doable" but I find that constructive criticism works better if you can do the critics face to face. There is something about the black-and-white criticisms on the page that seems...well...criticizing. The critiquer, at a face to face, can explain what it was that bothered them about that part of your book; and you can explain where you were TRYING to go with that piece. (AFTER they are done explaining their problems with that part of your book; you don't get to interrupt or get huffy; you have to wait your turn)--but I find that face to face, you get to offer your side of things and a sort of "brainstorming" comes about. You don't feel diminished by the critique, but that you've suddenly got a handful of new possibilities of how to make your story stronger.

Darcy Burke said...

Hi and welcome Elizabeth! /Waving from Tigard up the I-5 corridor. what a great post. I'll definitely be picking up your book, especially since I'll be embarking on a revision in the next few weeks.

I really love Stephen King's On Writing also. I've gotten a lot of good nuggets from Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer by Renni Browne and Dave King.

lacey kaye said...

You could write a book on it? LOL! This is a great blog. I'm so glad you stopped by. I may have to print this out...I mean buy your book :-)

Brynn Paulin said...

Great interview! Thanks!

Jackie Barbosa said...

Wow, this is a fabulous interview, just chock-full of great advice. And I have to admit I laughed when I read the part about being able to explain the symbolism in a book not being conducive to getting a date. I resemble that remark :).

Thanks so much for blogging with us, Elizabeth, and you can be sure I'll be referring to this post often in the future.

Karen said...

Great interview! Editing your own work isn't easy, and good 'how-to' books are extremely useful. I like Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas. He gives concrete examples from modern literature and specific assignments to fix your manuscript.

shereagan said...

Donald Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel" and his seminar were excellent as was Tony Hillerman's Writing Conference. The other "best" how-to book I've read is Chris Roerden's "Don't Murder Your Mystery." They got me through the first manuscript and got me a half-dozen "good" rejection letters. "Good" meaning they didn't start "Dear Author" they were addressed to me, referred to the title, some characters and offered suggestions. I guess that's a good start.

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