MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore
"The Writer" magazine selected MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER as one of the "10 Great Writing Books in 2008."
-- Bestselling author of 6 books for writers, over 65,000 sold
-- Independent book editor since 1988
-- Founder of Editing International
To visit Elizabeth Lyon's website, click here.
Elizabeth Lyon has published six books for writers.
Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write
A Writer's Guide To Fiction
A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction
The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit
The National Directory of Editors & Writers
Yes, these are Elizabeth's legs! The "Legs Lyon" shot is part of a fundraiser for a writer's group.
ML: In Chapter One of MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER, you address inauthentic prose.
How can writers check their WIP's for this faux-voice?
EL: Assume you have written in a “faux-voice” because early drafts mostly spring from a writer’s mind not gut. One way is to reread a draft slowly, intentionally putting yourself into the mind, body, emotions, and spirit of your point-of-view character. As you read, pay attention to what reactions, viscerally and emotionally, you experience as that character. Chances are they aren’t on the page. Additionally, follow the emotion back.
What I mean is that if your character reacts with anger, ask why.
Then ask why again, and again. Why else?
You want to get to the deepest levels of motivations and causes for the reactions of a character to make them fully authentic. Does everything you discover end up on the final page? No. But once you know that, for instance, your character is not only angry at her partner for not keeping her up on the leads and evidence in a case but that her anger is also at herself, and that she has always felt insecure about her
skills, holding back from her personal power, you begin to get at the truth of your character.
Where did all of these reactions come from? The past.
ML: How would you recommend writers develop an authentic voice?
EL: Practice what I’ve described above, which I also call “harvesting the emotions,” and use riffing. Riffing is a technique where the writer gives her/himself an assignment, such as exploring an emotion that comes up in a scene, or describing the environment using the unique language, personality, and worldview of the character—and writing whatever comes to mind and heart. The idea is to keep riffing, staying within the key, melody, and form of music (i.e. tone, assignment, and genre) but to run free with your character’s whole persona. The idea is also for the writer to stop cens
oring and give free reign to what emerges. When you’re done, select the writing to keep and then reread it, asking yourself what else the character might have felt or remembered. Ask yourself what in a particular place of a story your character feared, loved, loathed, and denied. These techniques and questions will lead you into a deeper and more authentic connection with your characters. Guaranteed.
3. ML: In your chapter on the five-stage structure, you explore common problems endemic to each stage. What are some typical flaws specific to crafting story problems?
EL: One common mistake is to create a problem that does not have stakes high enough to hook the reader for the duration. For instance, the hero seeks a better job. Well, so what? Why is that important and something a reader should want to read about, care about. In fact, a lot of times the story problems may be absent. How can this be?
Writers often get wrapped up in action, in conveying the movie in their minds, and the characters become two-dimensional actors. Short-term problems seldom have the gravitas to hook readers. They may be “filler,” such as the problem of oversleeping and getting to work late or trying to decide what to wear today or wondering if there will be an e-mail from so-and-so. Filler doing no work, creating no conflict and not providing a good answer to “So what? Why should I care?” that can be deleted! Ask if a problem is sufficiently important that readers will understand what will be lost should the protagonist fail to reach that goal. Even more important, what is the psychological problem that defines the story and is that present, clear, and important? The psychological problem will have its origins in some trauma in the past and will produce a “hole in the soul,” a need that is universal such as identity, love, respect, friendship, or freedom. The psychological problem will be to fill this deep need. It can supply a story problem that operates within any scene and allow for some problems of lesser weight because of the gnawing desperate need going on inside the POV character.
4. ML: What recommendations do you have for writers who think their plot is clichéd?
EL: Brainstorming in a relaxed, quiet and unrushed place with a group of other writer friends will help a writer leap out of the cliché box. Take notes. Use the question “what if” to get at possibilities not thought of when creating the first ideas for the plot. Again, don’t criticize or censor what comes out of everyone’s mouth. “Hey, what if your protagonist was actually born on a parallel planet to Earth and was switched at birth with a mother from Earth?” It can be nixed later since the writer is working on a mainstream thriller, not sci-fi or fantasy. Clichéd plots arise from hasty choices, grabbing an early idea and running with it.
5. ML: What are the advantages and disadvantages of single POV and dual POV’s?
EL: The best choice between one and two viewpoints often depends on genre and not just an author decision. For instance, dual POVs are common, often expected, in category romance. Two viewpoints means that both characters are equal in importance and that the storyline and psychological story of both are intertwined, mirrored, or highly related. A single viewpoint means that the protagonist is the one character who is developed fully. In either choice, the author’s obligation is to offer unique, believable, and in-depth characterization.
Disadvantages of one point-of-view are that your character must be present to reveal events. Other characters are known through the viewpoint of the protagonist, who is limited to what he or she knows and observes. A reader can become bored by the singular voice and viewpoint. The story may seem too simple. Disadvantages of dual viewpoints include inadequate characterization of the two POVs, an absence of character chemistry, or a tendency to develop a rhythmic pattern that shifts from one to the other with too much predictability.
6. ML: What are three occasions when you think flashbacks are effective? Please elaborate.
EL: After a set-piece, a big dramatic scene, a flashback can help to deepen characterization and fill out background. Flashbacks can be effective for almost the same reason deep into a novel and just before the build up to the climax, at a point commonly called “the darkest hour.” At this time, the hero or heroine will typically be at a loss for how else to reach the story goal and resolve the story problem introduced at the beginning of the novel or memoir. In fact, the protagonist may be on the verge of giving up or in a situation where action is impossible due to sickness, imprisonment, or another reason.
A flashback in which the protagonist realizes the way his or her weaknesses have contributed to setbacks and failures, based on reviewing a past event or events, can then empower the protagonist to neutralize the weakness, rely upon strength, and mount the final fight.
7. ML: Chapter 16 addresses what is a pain-in-the-brain for most writers, query letters and synopses. Could you share some specifics regarding the composition of the two-to-three paragraph synopsis that goes in the query letter?
EL: Use paragraph one of the synopsis principally for characterization. Also establish setting, time, story problem/situation, and story goal. Present your protagonist and other characters as unique and dimensional. Offer some snippet or sentence about the significant past and what universal need the character yearns to fill. If you can, work in a weakness and strength. Make sure you show a three-dimensional character.
In paragraph two, summarize the story arc, putting emphasis on character-driven actions that lead to turning points. You only have room to hit the big scenes. Work in details about the antagonist, what’s at stake, and what makes your story unique.
Continue the story summary in paragraph three and make sure to tie it up with a return to the protagonist and how he or she was changed (the inner psychological story) by the end.
You’ll need to leave out a lot of subplots and mentions of minor characters—and perhaps some major characters. Minimize the number of names in these paragraphs and stay away from too many “blow by blow” statements, meaning, “and then this happened, and then this.” If the struggle drives you to the brink, instead of writing your query synopsis in 3 paragraphs, write it in one. Seriously. Sometimes one gets you off the hook of the blow-by-blow recounting of events and forces you to give a coherent summary of the primary story and its impact on the protagonist.
ML: Elizabeth -- Great responses! Thank you. I am impressed with MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER. I bet our blog guests would like to know more about what you cover in this how-to book. Here's the Table of Contents:
Introduction: Preparing to Revise
Part I: Style Speaks
Chapter One: Inside-Out Revision
Chapter Two: Outside-In—Simple Revisions
Chapter Three: Outside-In—Advanced Revisions
Part II: Craft Works
Chapter Four: Revise for Genre
Chapter Five: Whole Book—Five-Stage Structure
Chapter Six: Whole Book—Journeys and Less Common Structures
Chapter Seven: Movement and Suspense
Chapter Eight: Time and Pace
Part III: Characterization Endures
Chapter Nine: Viewpoint
Chapter Ten: Character Dimension and Theme
Chapter Eleven: Character-Driven Beginnings
Chapter Twelve: Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense
Chapter Thirteen: Character Personality and Voice
Chapter Fourteen: Character-Driven Narration
Part IV: Marketing Pays
Chapter Fifteen: Copyediting
Chapter Sixteen: Queries and Synopses—Polishing for Marketing
Now -- It's time for you all to take advantage of having Elizabeth Lyon here to answer your questions.
One lucky person who posts a comment or question to the blog today WINS a copy of MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER from me.
Another lucky person who posts today WINS one of my six LECTURE PACKETS.
We may have additional winners. I will donate one Lecture Packet for every 25 people who post today.
Elizabeth will drop by the blog several times this afternoon. She will respond to people who post by 5:00PM Mountain Time.
TO BE ENTERED IN THE DRAWINGS -- POST TO THE BLOG BY 8PM MOUNTAIN TIME.
Check back at 8:30PM Mountain Time to see if you are one of our winners.
Here's your chance to probe Elizabeth's brain. Enjoy!
See you on the blog. :-)