Saturday, May 14, 2011

Elizabeth Lyon Interview (Part I) - Common Mistakes, Characters and Heroes

Please join me in welcoming Elizabeth Lyon , book editor, author, instructor and speaker to Donna's Book Pub.

Elizabeth will be speaking at the quarterly Ozarks Writers League meeting on May 21 at the College of the Ozarks in Hollister, MO, just outside of Branson. For details about
Elizabeth's visit to OWL, check out their website.

Thanks to Delois McGrew, president of OWL, and Louella Turner for arranging for my interview.

I e-mailed Elizabeth about a dozen interview questions, which she answered promptly and thoroughly. To give proper space and time to each, I've divided my questions and her answers into five parts.

In Part I of my interview, Elizabeth discusses character, how to fix common writing problems, and shares the names of some of her literary heroes.

Donna: You have been an independent book editor and writing teacher for two decades, and you are the author of six books on writing. As an editor and a teacher, what are some of the most common mistakes writers make that are easily fixable?

Elizabeth: I’ll break my answer down into areas of craft:

Ego—or maybe that isn’t fixable. I had an editing client long ago who contacted me every time a first-time novelist got a giant advance and was a bestseller. “Why not me?” she asked. The unwillingness to eat humble pie and work hard is surprisingly common.

You asked for craft mistakes. Weak scene structure shows up in 90% of the novels I edit. It’s easy to fix and we’ll cover the steps to correct this. Scenes, goal-directed action, make up 80% of most novels. It is fundamental to know how to write them in your sleep. I also like to add how to add a secondary source of suspense that comes from character development. Oh, let’s add a third level from the environment. Hook the reader at multiple levels. We’ll cover this in the workshop.

Two-dimensional characters that come across like cartoons or stereotypes is common weakness. The last character to become interesting in almost every novel I’ve edited is the protagonist. Go figure! Characters begin to become three-dimensional when writers weave in a back story of a traumatic event that wounded the character and gives them a need. Love, respect, self-determination. Reveal snippets of the past and show the character seeking to fill the need and voila—three-dimensional interesting characters.

“Wordsmithing” corrections make giant improvements: Change as many to-be verbs into dynamic past-tense verbs as possible. Kill dead weight—delete as many small, unnecessary prepositional phrases as possible (Ex: to her, as he thought). Get extra style points by adding similes.

Donna: A critique group I belong to frequently discusses the subject of character. One topic of discussion is the “right” number of characters. I’ve heard from one writing teacher that a writer should have no more than 3-5 characters in a short story. Is there a “magic number” of characters for a short story, novel, or even a scene within a story?

Elizabeth: Of course the only accurate answer is “No!” Anything goes with creativity—technically. If you can pull it off, you can break every rule in the book. That said, most writers are not in that league. For short stories, it is difficult to develop three-dimensional characters--3 characters much less 5. I can see having 5, if several are thinly drawn or “bit”. Stick to one point-of-view character for all but literary short stories. For long short stories, you may be able to use a scene break and develop a second point-of-view character.

Novels are a different matter. Limiting viewpoint to one or two characters can help a beginning novelist to gain control over the elements of craft. Three is one of those magical numbers that facilitates triangulation, conflict, and variety. Some genres have many points of view, but I do recommend aiming for no more than 5, in general. Avoid use of omniscient, all-seeing, endless possibilities as a viewpoint.

Donna: Who are your literary heroes?

Elizabeth: For every one author, I would be leaving out a dozen more. I loved Dostoyevsky and Dickens. I am inspired by Ray Bradbury, was thrilled as a child by Andre Norton, and captivated by Frank Herbert. I enjoy Jayne Anne Krentz, J.A. Jance, and Lee Childs. I would choose to be reborn as Barbara Kingsolver. Alice Walker blew me away. I get great laughs from the Devil’s Harbor comic mystery series by my author friend, Carolyn J. Rose. Dean Koontz and Stephen King are master writers, not to be pigeon-holed as horror writers. I just finished Racing in the Rain and loved it.

Check back on Monday for Part II of Elizabeth's interview for a preview of what she'll cover in her May 21 OWL workshop, "From Dust to Diamonds."


  1. Very good interview. These are common mistakes and I'm eager to see how she corrects them.

  2. Hi Clarissa,
    Thanks. I hope to learn more at Elizabeth's workshop next Saturday,too.

  3. Very meaty advice. Thank you so much for posting this!

  4. Ohhh, wonderful interview and great Q & A. Wishing I could join you for OWL!

  5. Hi Tammy,
    You are welcome. There's lots more to come. Hope you check back for the continuation of my interview with Elizabeth.

    Hi Clara,
    Thank you! Wish you could join us at OWL too!

  6. REally interesting. I know I struggle mostly with the plot and the structure of the novel (being a pantster definitely affects that!) - glad to know it's a relatively easy fix. :)

  7. I can tell this is going to be a great interview and I am going to learn from Elizabeth. Looking forward to the other installments.


  8. Thanks so much for posting this interview. I'm looking forward to the next ones. Great tips, Elizabeth.

  9. Enjoyed the question and answer session with Elizabeth. I like getting advice from other writers.

  10. Great stuff! SO wish I could make Elizabeth's workshop, but I'll be back for your blog-workshop. Hey--maybe you've coined something new here, Donna: Blogshop! :-)

  11. Hi Jemi,
    Thanks. Wow! Pansters are definitely risk takers.

    Hi Margo,
    Thanks. Hope you'll stop back often.

    Hi Carol,
    Thanks. Elizabeth has so much great info to share.

    Hi Janet.
    I agree!

    Hey Cathy,
    Blogshop. I like that. You are so creative!

  12. I like BlogShop, too! :)

    This was a good interview and I look forward to reading the rest. I have Ms. Lyon's SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOL KIT on my bookshelf - in the "keeper" section. :)

  13. Hi Madeline,
    I'll have to check that one out.
    I've got a notebook full of suggestions from Elizabeth's book, A Writer's Guide to Fiction.


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