Wednesday, July 2, 2008
On Elizabeth Lyon
ROBERTA: When I began the quest to get my first mystery published back in 1998, I didn’t know a soul in the publishing business. I did all my research like the lifetime student I was: Locate the best books on the subject and study their advice. One of the most useful books I found was Elizabeth Lyon’s THE SELL-YOUR-NOVEL TOOLKIT. And I’ve recommended it to hundreds of aspiring writers since then. Now JWR is absolutely thrilled to have Elizabeth as our guest blogger, here to talk about writing and her brand new book, MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER.
All the way from Oregon, welcome Elizabeth! I have so many questions. Let’s start with this one: Can good writing be taught or are you born with talent?
ELIZABETH: Yes and yes. We all learned how to write the equivalent of “See Spot run.” We can all learn the fundamentals of good writing. We are all born with talent--differing in degrees and manifestations. I don’t believe you need talent to get published. Polished good writing founded on authenticity of character and author passion can win the day.
ROBERTA: When we hear panels of agents talk about what excites them, the number one answer is probably “voice.” Please talk about what that means and where the heck we can find ours.
ELIZABETH: Voice is the expression of individuality in a writer’s choice of words that is appropriate to her characters and stories. We’re each unique so in theory all writing should be stand-out original. But for the fact that we learned how to write through conforming--to grammar and syntax, diction of the culture and times, and other forces of expectation, social mores, and censorship.
We can find our original voice behind the big rock of these factors--by practicing riff-writing--free-associating and pushing what you let out on the paper to an extreme. Take tight or “right” writing and open it up by letting the outrageous come through. Later you can revise to delete what you don’t want. We’re great monkeys, too, so imitate by replicating or modeling other authors’ writings. Imitate to then innovate.
ROBERTA: What would you say are the top mistakes beginning writers make?
ELIZABETH: Quitting. Expecting instant success. Not finishing a first draft. Revising till the cows come home. Not revising till the cows come home. Writing in a vacuum--without critique, support, or editing. Repeating the same mistakes but expecting a different outcome and blaming the agents for rejection. Using “look” too often.
ROBERTA: Any advice for writers who are discouraged about the publishing business today?
ELIZABETH: Broaden your repertoire; write in a different genre. Write as much as you can as often as you can. Study marketing and get savvy. Go to workshops, author talks, conferences, and get-away retreats. Enter contests and apply for fellowships. Study and apply what you learned. Use your connections and be as helpful to every other writer you encounter as you can. Use a print-on-demand outfit like Lulu to complete the artistic circle and share with family and friends. Then keep writing; keep marketing. Be as flexible as Gumby and as persistent as Wiley Coyote.
ROBERTA: What are you working on these days?
ELIZABETH: I’m writing a memoir set in 1967, in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was 17 years old, and the only white student at a summer humanities program. I’ve started this memoir in various forms at least half a dozen times over the years, never finding “the voice” or the entry into the whole piece. Now I believe I have found both. That experience was my coming of age about race, about community, and about writing. After completing this work, I have two other memoirs, one novella revision, and a new novel all circling O’Hare waiting for landing instructions.
And drum roll please, for the JRW quiz:
Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss Marple. She’s fearless at examining corpses, including autopsied body parts.
Sex or violence?
Pizza or chocolate?
Dark chocolate with Grand Marnier at its core.
Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan? (We won’t even include Sean Connery because we know the answer, don’t we?)
None of the above, even Sean Connery. After Johnny Weismuller, I didn’t “bond” again.
Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Katherine Hepburn, who was a great Taurus role model, throwing her little body into the ice cold Atlantic every day. I always admired her pluck.
First person or Third Person?
Yes, one or the other or both in the same novel. I love first-person protagonists and third-person viewpoints used in the same book and even with different tenses. And if a work has many characters, third-person often works best, I think. I don’t like multiple first person.
Prologue or no prologue?
That is the question. A prologue can be compelling and necessary. I dislike the big, indigestible block of narration types, however.
Making dinner or making reservations?
Wanted: a chef who uses primarily locally grown and organic foods to cook for me every night. Sadly, I make my own dinner 99% of the time.
And finally: STUMP THE READERS in The Jungle Red Quiz: Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We’ll guess.
I was detained and questioned at Checkpoint Charlie as the unaccounted for person on the bus from East Berlin.
I wore two different shoes to a College Board Entrance Exam.
I got a 4.0 throughout high school, college, and graduate school.
I exist because Dale Evans dragged my sailor father to Marble Collegiate Church in NY, where he met my mother.
Thank you so much for coming Elizabeth! Now the floor is open for questions....