Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Elizabeth Lyon (Part IV) Manuscript Makeover, Revision, and a Haiku

In today's interview, Elizabeth begins her discussion of her most recent book on writing, Manuscript Makeover, with a Haiku.

Donna: Your sixth book, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, has been called “one of the eight great writing books for 2008 . . . and perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.” Will you please briefly summarize the highlights of Manuscript Makeover?

Elizabeth: Now you’ve put me on the spot! Let’s see, summarize 100,000 words of instruction. There must be a haiku for that.

Use check-off lists

At the end of each chapter

To fix all problems

I made Part I on Style, where most how-to books tuck style into the end and give it short shrift (you got it or you don’t). I placed it first because I’ve heard countless agents say they are looking for “voice,” “a fresh original style.” Without distinctive writing, you’ll have trouble selling your novel. I wanted to help everyone set the imagination on fire and re-capture lost originality, first and foremost.

Then I developed a fat Part II on Craft: structure, structure, structure. Get the architecture of a whole book planned and then shift to interior design. I firmly believe that if novelists start with a solid foundation in structure, whatever they write can be polished into that diamond talked about earlier. Recently, I edited a mystery where the whole book structure included about three novels in one. It’s very difficult to tell a writer that what they may have labored on for years should be demolished. I spent about 30 pages suggesting what great ideas could be salvaged and how to put them into a new solid structure for one novel.

Part III includes 100 pages on Characterization and how to put the characters behind the steering wheel of plot. We should all aspire to such believable and memorable characters that they outlive us. Scarlett O’Hara, Tom Sawyer, Jo March, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes. We can create classic characters. Deeper characterization is the answer to most problems in writing, and solid techniques of structure serve characterization, not vice versa.

Part IV offers revision techniques for Marketing: how to improve the pitch, query letter, and synopsis, to gain literary agent representation and publication. Because the rejection rate is so ferocious, these marketing documents must be competitive. The great irony is that fiction writers must write fantastic nonfiction letters in order to gain a request to read their fiction.

Donna: Thanks for summarizing your latest book, and I love your Haiku! What can you tell us about the other books you've written?

Elizabeth: As a writing teacher and book editor, I’m a generalist; I edit almost every type of book. My first writing book covered how to sell nonfiction books. I’m proud to say that Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write has been kept in print since 1995 and is considered one of the standards on proposal preparation.

Next I covered how to sell novels at a time when there was zip on how to write queries and synopses. I still get fan mail and testimonials for The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, first published in 1997.

In terms of the books I’ve written, the cart arrived before the horse—how to sell before how to write. With A Writer’s Guide to Fiction and A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, I filled that gap, and had the pleasure of sharing my unique style of teaching craft. One of the goals I set for myself with each book was to make a contribution to the literature and not merely to rehash existing ideas.

Second, because I see my approach as exceedingly practical (a Midwest farm girl watching my father fix equipment), I also sought to break down my how-to instruction into steps. The sections “Going South” in the Writer’s Guide books, and all of Manuscript Makeover, are organized by what can go wrong and how to fix it.

I have two out-of-print books. National Directory of Editors & Writers (2005) profiled 520 freelancers living in 48 states. I wanted to provide a resource for writers and non-writers to compare and select a best editor or ghostwriter for their project.

In 1981, I self-published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, and intend to bring it back for e-readers. The first third of it was a biography of Mabel Dzata, a midwife from Ghana who moved to Oregon and performed home births (including “catching” my two children) and the last two thirds was a collection of home birth stories. I was once told it is a “midwifery classic.”

I’m sure I was born with a big fat pencil in my hands. From about age six on I was on a joyride of writing—short stories and articles, letters and diaries, very bad poetry, novellas and novels (fantasy, speculative sci-fi, y/a and women’s fiction), how to manuals, ghostwriting, book-length memoirs, a work of philosophy, and a children’s picture book.

When the opportunity presented itself to teach writing and build an editing business, I shifted away from my own creative writing. With book contracts dangled in front of my nose, I couldn’t look at gift horse in the mouth. Twenty years later, I finally figured out that I should stop writing writing books if I want to live long enough to enjoy my own creative writing. That is why Manuscript Makeover is the last of my six books for writers.

Donna: That's an impressive list! And I can't wait to buy my copy of Manuscript Makeover while I'm attending Elizabeth's workshop at OWL this weekend.

Tomorrow will be the final installment of my interview with Elizabeth, so hurry back for her wrap up and final words of wisdom.


  1. Enjoying this. Ms. Lyon has convinced me; I just ordered her book!

    Oh, and Donna, I am reading the Tankas on this chilly rainy day. Wow, I am loving this book I won from you. I usually mark my favorite poems in a book but had stop on this one as marks all over the place! Thank you again so much!

  2. Hi Bookie (Claudia),
    I'm glad you're enjoying Elizabeth's interview. Hope you like her book.

    And I'm thrilled you are enjoying Kirk's poetry book.


  3. I think it's interesting that Elizabeth Lyon put style first. It certainly makes sense. I wonder if many writers (of books on writing) put it last because it's such an elusive thing. It's hard to describe, unless a writer has a strong, distinct voice, and then we all point and say, "THAT'S what voice is!" but we can only point...when we try to grab onto it so we can examine it and describe it, it vanishes, like fog.

    It's amazing what one name will do. I saw her mention of Jo March, and I went reeling back to my childhood. Jo was my favorite of the "Little Women."

  4. Very informative. Fiction is not my bag, but I just ordered both of Ms. Lyon's books on nonfiction.

  5. Hi Sioux,
    Elizabeth is a prolific writer. Did you notice she also wrote a book about a midwife?

    Hi Val,
    Thanks. I think Elizabeth will be pleased to know her interview has encouraged writers to check out her books.


  6. Donna--Certainly. My ears pricked right up. And she had both of her babies at home. Cool!

  7. Hi Donna, Elizabeth's book sounds like the perfect pick for writers and for using in writing groups and workshops.I've got to get a copy for myself! Thanks so much for these posts!

  8. Hi Sioux,
    Silly me. I should've known you would.

    Hi Clara,
    You are welcome. Thank YOU for stopping by and leaving a comment.



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