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....


  1. Elizabeth--thanks so much for visiting us! And also--though you didn't realize it--for being one of my first mentors. Your "Toolkit" was the very first writing-related how-to book I ever purchased. It was such a rite of passage... and instantly made me feel like a real writer.

    What do you mean, using "look" too often? YOu mean as in: He looked like, or it looked like? Or I looked in the mirror and..

    And here's an out-there question. Chapter length. My rhythm is to make them as long as they need to be for the action. And end each by enticing people to start reading the next chapter. But I've heard it's "better" to make them uniform in length.

    What do you think? Or can you tell I'm supposed to be writing, and should just go back to my manuscript instead of asking questions that will solve themselves??

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Welcome to Jungle Red, I love your writing advice, especially the part about loosenng up and exaggerating voice to initially find it. And I'm also intrigued by your like of mixed first and third persons, which I've always wanted to do, but have been afraid to try. But most of all I want to know why you recommend trying other genres because I have a feeling there's a very interesting reason


  3. Hank--thanks for telling me about the Toolkit. Wow, full circle--I get to meet YOU.

    I was hoping someone would ask about "look." It is THE single most repeated, unconsciously used verb in the manuscripts I edit. Sometimes it is the best verb. But most of the time, you're missing an opportunity to not only avoid word repetition by using a synonym, but characterizing. Consider the nuances that are revealed through this list: examine, study, browse, stare, gaze, gawk, glance, reflect, and so forth. The best choice in a sentence will add tension and emotion and contribute to a character-driven story. Now ask me about the verb "walk."

    Chapter length: That is another one of those answers where I say "both." You need to conform to what is typical within your genre and best for the story. And, as you have said, entice people to turn the page.

  4. Hi Jan,

    I led three critique groups on a weekly basis, meeting in my living room, for 13 years. That's when I first recognized that shifting to a different genre, or just trying out something different, did wonders for writers.

    I remember a retired soc prof who was in love with love and wrote four, so-so romances. Then she wrote a novel of mainstream women's fiction about a high-powered binge-eating, binge-dieting woman, who was elected President, but her inner issues increased her self-hatred. The writing was head and shoulders better.

    I've known a mystery novelist who shifted to a woman-in-jeopardy novel and found her voice, and a writer who kept trying to fit into the box of adult literary writing but who found home with y/a mainstream writing.

    The point is that in exploring, you find more places where you shine and expand your repertoire. I'm very big on the advantages of cross-fertilizing. You can take the girl out of the country but . . . .

    By the way, I also think it is helpful for fiction writers to write nonfiction and vice versa. Nonfiction writing sharpens awareness of preciseness, brevity, organization, and specificity. All skills that improve fiction writing, too.

  5. A post-script on chapter endings:

    What you don't want to do is end a chapter at the close of a scene. That is an emotional release point for the reader and now they can turn off the light and go to sleep.

    Do you know about Jack Bickham or Dwight Swain (Jack's teacher), both dead now, who developed materials on structure? I recommend Jack's SCENE AND STRUCTURE. Great places to end chapters are in the midst of conflict as the scene pov character is striving to reach his/her goal, or after the goal is reached or not but there is a twist of disaster.

    In what Bickham refers to as a "sequel," reactions to scenes, a great place to end chapters are when the pov character makes a decision--but you don't let the reader know what it is.

    I also think there needs to be a "ta-da" (new literary term) that communicates "end of chapter here." Sometimes that is a single-word paragraph. Be aware that the final word, sentence, or paragraph of a chapter holds a "power position" and therefore has greater impact. Use it consciously.

    Am I lecturing? Oh dear. . . .

  6. Okay, Elizabeth. You got me.


    And anonymous, thanks so much! I have to get to 13,500 words of Drive Time by the end of today,and your ideas are perfect and perfectly timed.

    (And, parenthetically, is it hailing like mad here. (Boston.)It was terrifying and amazing. I just ran out and took pictures, so I'll try to post them.)

  7. Elizabeth, I'm so interested in those ideas about changing's kind of scary to think about losing the audience we've built up by moving to something new...but you're saying "go for it!" With the publishing world so stressed out right now, I for one am so happy to hear you talking about experimenting a bit and maybe coming out stronger for it.


  8. I was so glad to read this interview with Elizabeth. I can't say enough great things about her. Her edits on a nonfiction book my husband wrote were excellent. Elizabeth is a kind and generous editor. Great to "see" you here Elizabeth!

  9. Hi all:

    Okay, the "walk" thing is just like the "look" thing. Walk is such a *yawn* boring verb. You can convey emotion and characterization with apt synonyms: amble, meandered, strolled, slogged, shuffled, lurched, galumphed, etc. Aren't these great verbs? Basically, do a search for the Dick-Jane-Sally verbs: look, see, walk, run.

    And changing genres: Well, if you are published and have a name-following, then you are succeeding and probably have found a great voice for your genre.

    You must know, however, that lots of successful authors write under pseudonyms to stretch into other genres. If you feel that you'd make too many waves using your present published name, then dust off an alter ego.

    And/or write short stories in different genres for all the benefits that will come from shifting genres, shifting voice.

    Hailing in Boston? Well, it's California wildfire smoke plus the highest grass pollen count in the nation greeting the people here (Eugene and Springfield).

  10. Yeah..I have a great idea for a paranormal-ish book. I like it, at least. And its very very tempting. But I have to keep those characters riding in the back seat for a while longer. And I kind of worry about..well, I'm not going to worry.

    Hi Mary Frances--welcome!

  11. Dale Evans!?!?! Tell more...did you know her??

    (Hi, Elizabeth -- see you again at Willamette Writers Conference!)

  12. Working with Elizabeth is an exciting experience where learning is without fear and stress.

    She's given me much to think about today, although mixing first and third persons scares the ---- out of me.

    (I'm sure the answer about Checkpoint Charlie was one of the true ones because I happen to know she was on the wrong side of the wall because she was looking for a better tiramisu recipe.)

  13. Hello Mary Frances--are you writing novels now? Thanks for the kind words.

    Hank, I know how it is to have to hold a book idea at bay. I hope you will go for the paranormal story--all in good time.

    And Hello Hallie! Yes, WW conf coming up soon.

    I wondered if anyone was going to try to guess which one of the 4 things about me is the fake. Smart Hallie--nope, the Dale Evans story is true.

    In WWII, my dad was in the Merchant Marines, on furlough and staying at a YMCA in NY. Beautiful Dale Evans, a member of Marble Collegiate Church, swept into the Y and swept out with a trail of servicemen willing to follow her to church. Dad stayed after for the social time, and as he and Mom used to joke, they knocked heads under a Ping-Pong table.

    Given that this church's minister was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and my Mom a member there, I had a helluva rebellion in my 20s against positive thinking. Jung's dark side and psychoanalytic therapy. Could have been worse. ;)

  14. Hi Janelle! For everyone's benefit, may I introduce Janelle, a wonderful novelist who has been gifted with a great sense of humor. Tiramisu? How'd you know?

    Actually, the champerone for my student group forgot to put my name on the list, which was fine when we drove into East Berlin, but not so fine when we tried to get back to the West. 1968. After an hour of questioning by the guard, I finally decided to swith to talking German. My thought process was that if I was friendly, the gesture might soften the old guy.

    Moments after my first response, he got a giant smile and we were released. See, it worked! So I thought for a few decades until i was talking in German to a woman at a workshop and told her the story.

    "Your accent is so bad, he knew right away you weren't German," she said amidst doubled over, gasping, laughing. Guess my accent sucks.

    Have any of you ever created a lexicon, a dictionary, for a character?

  16. Great to see you here, Elizabeth!

    What advice would you give to someone who has only written non-fiction, who would like to tackle a mystery novel?

    Thanks much,

    Ava R.

  17. Ava R., you didn't ask me, you asked Elizabeth, but even so, first step should be to join Sisters in Crime!

    great networking and sooooo much fun!

    And Elizabeth, if you wanted to hear terrible German...I gave an Isleib family crest and motto to my nephew's new bride at their reception--in absolutely horrendous, laughable German. The DJ bought it though: he played a polka and invited the German family to get up and dance!

  18. I lived in Germany for part of high school--my real father was a diplomat, and was posted in Hamburg for four years. SO I spent the summer and part of one school year there. (I also went through Chdkcpint Charlie, just with a high school girlfriend, because my Dad was not alllowed to cross the border into East Germany. I lhave lots of memories of the grey-coated Vopos, and their huge dogs.

    Oh. Thinking back now. They were German Shepherds. I never realized that til this second.

    Okay. Well anyway, I used to entertain my German friends by conjugating verbs. (Yeah, I was a laugh a minute.) But I would take irregular verbs, and conjugate them like regular verbs. And they thought that was hilarious.

    A lexicon for a character, Elizabeth? Huh. NO, but tell us more.

  19. Great thread, and nice to "meet" Elizabeth Lyon!

    To the question at hand: I do have a lexicon of sorts for my dog in the book I'm currently working on, based on how I translate what she's telling me nonverbally. I'm going for a verbal echo of the nonverbal signal.

    (She's a search-and-rescue dog, so a lexicon becomes important to the reader--so he or she can ideally begin to interpret the dog as the book progresses.) Is that pretty much what you mean?

    By the way, Hank, I was in an MD-80 on a 'gate hold' at Logan when that storm passed through today. We had to wait a loooooong time for pushback.

  20. Ava--hello. I would add to Roberta's advice that a good place to start is to read a lot of mysteries and notice what kind of mysteries you most like to read. Chances are that is the kind to try to write.

    Also, depending upon your personality, either make some sort of outline that looks like a reasonable crime, sleuth, clues, and criminal, or just start writing to get a feeling for the joy of writing fiction. Then get back to me!

  21. Susannah C--your description of keeping track of and developing the language and translation for your dog character is definitely what I mean by a lexicon.

    Extending that idea, I advocate building word lists, i.e. a dictionary/lexicon, for every main character, especially paying attention to character-defining words. Some of those will be metaphoric, based on the natural words and phrases that reflect the character's values, origins, work, and hobbies, plus more. Then you can more easily build similes and create a consistently authentic voice.

  22. Elizabeth, how great to see the interview. Your books have been a huge help to me in figuring out this writing stuff, and you're actually the reason I started freelance editing all those years ago. I heard you talk at the Cuesta College Writing Conference and, because of the things you said, took my first steps into freelancing. So, thank you!

    I love your technique for getting to voice-that's the only way I've been able to figure it out--push for an extreme and see what you end up with.

  23. Wow, I'm late to this one too! Busy week, I tell you.

    Ditto first and third person, Jan.

    And, Hello Elizabeth!

    I'm so glad you mentioned about changing genres. I could understand Roberta's comments, especially with a following.

    However, for me, the first novel was "transformational fiction" which then segued into a paranormal thriller that I started developing with Bill Thompson. What's interesting is that when Bill read the first he scoffed and said, "Mike, table that and give me something else! You've got too much talent to waste on, what did you call it - transformational fiction?" To which I replied "Okay, Bill, give me 4 mos? I'll take it in a new direction in the second book."

    And, by the way, I loved developing it. The first book was about following your heart, and forces the reader to confront their life. The next was about maintaining yourself when pushback came at you from the world around you. And, just to make it interesting - the easiest transition was a paranormal thriller. Bill was very impressed with what I came up with - however, and I just realized this, I needed to heed my own advice about pushback. The world did pushback and the novel so far has not been finished. Hmm... I'm so glad I follow this blog... I have learned so much about dealing with the practical issues of the craft and Elizabeth - wow! Enlightening.

    The last edit I did - I looked at every word in the sentence and questioned wether it was necessary, what it contributed in terms of character arc and whether it moved the story forward. Sometimes I had to look at phrases to assess it. But in effect the purpose of each word was assessed.

    By the way, Bill Thompson was Stephen King's editor for "Carrie" and John Grisham's editor for "A Time to Kill." Unfortunately, I've lost track of Bill. He was an amazing person.

    So, what I just learned, when you do follow your heart - there can be pushback and you need to deal with it!

    What you teach was very affirming for me. I had been concerned about genre jumping, about too much stress about word details, but you've put all that to bed.

    Thanks again, Elizabeth!


  24. Becky and Mike--hello and thanks for everything you've written. Your comments remind me of how much one can learn about the self from "the writer's path."

    Becky, I'll be at Cuesta again this year, if you're still living in the area. Great little conference. I think the Central Calif coast is one of those Shangrila places.

    Mike, I've never heard of the phrasing of "pushback." There is that constant dialectic between the writing I want to abandon myself to and the demands of life, and sorting out how much of those demands are self-created and therefore can be altered one way or the other and how many intrusions really are demands.

    I am very interested in how everyone else handles that process--the sifting and the sorting and decision-making. I find it a constant challenge.

    By the way, Mike, I had the privilege of meeting Bill years and years ago, as we were both hired to teach at a same very small conference. Is your paranormal thriller published as yet? Way way back in my novel-writing explorations of yesteryear (that's redundant), I started what I called a mainstream women's novel with a parallel past-life twist. Someone told me it sounded like a mixed drink. Apt.

  25. Elizabeth -

    I'm fully in favor of mixed drinks as long as they don't affect your head and you can flesh it out in an original and exciting way!

    No, that paranormal thriller has never been finished. It was fleshed out enough for Bill to get the gist of it, but then "pushback" came. That's my term for what seems to be offered up by "the world" in resistance to what you have or even your very life's path. That's when you must hold or fold - At least in that local time frame. That's what tests you. Do you believe in your work? Is it time to go forward? It's part of a discernment process.
    I'd be interested in your view of that as well.

    Right now I feel it's time to move rapidly with what I have. So, yes there were things that disrupted my process, but in the end - I'd rather have it go bigger now than have had it sooner.

    Glad you met Bill! I loved the man and have always lamented the fact that I did not keep track of him! He was totally honest and original. He told you exactly what he thought and I truly valued that.

    Intrusions vs. demands -- the only thing I can say is awareness and discernment are essential to any life and any writer!!!

    Thanks for the comments - you definitely are one of the best!!


  26. Hi Mike,

    Really loved your thought-provoking comments. I hope we get a chance to talk about them in person as I have a lot to ask and share.

    Here's a novel title: THE PUSHBACK LIFE.

    Currently, I'm abandoning myself to writing a memoir that has haunted me since 1967. I've made many stabs at it over the years, and now I may have the writing skill plus a handle on the deeper truth of the experience to write it. At least, I'm doing it, no matter.

    JungleRedWriters--thank you, I've thoroughly enjoyed the exchanges.


  27. I was lucky enough to see Elizabeth Lyon for the first time at PNWA this past weekend. Finding this recent interview was a timely and fascinating further exploration of a clearly great woman. Thanks for this!