Ever feel like you’ve lost your way when you sit down to another writing session on your Great American Novel? Who hasn’t?
Elizabeth Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction is the second book in an ongoing series for writers on various aspects of the craft called—you guessed it—Writer’s Compass.
A Writer’s Guide to Fiction is a compass for novices, a general reference for intermediates, and a refresher course for pros. I recommend a lot of books to my editing clients and friends, but this craft book lies at the top of an esteemed list.
In the following Q&A, I asked Ms. Lyon about writing, editing, and the publishing industry in general.
On the Series
Q: What was the thinking behind the “Writer’s Compass” series? How did the series come about?
A: The small press (the acclaimed small press, Blue Heron Publishing) that published my first two books went out of existence; I was orphaned. I wondered if my short publishing career was over. That was in 2000.
I saw that many writing books were beginning to come out under a “brand.” I was at the wonderful writer’s haven on the Oregon coast called Colonyhouse (www.oregonwriterscolony.org), and asked my writing friends to brand-storm with me. When my friend Martha Holmes, a former ad executive from NY, came up with “writer’s compass,” I knew that was it. Because my thinking and teaching style involves making abstractions clear and translating them into writing technique, everything about a compass as a symbol fits what I do.
Next, I started to work on a proposal for a Writer’s Compass series. All I can say is thank goodness the publisher did not go with my plan of some eleven books! I had planned to have individual books on leads, characterization, plot, style, and theme, for instance.
What actually happened is that I planned a trip to New York on frequent flier miles, taking my then seventeen-year-old daughter Elaine with me—her first time to the Big Apple. We stayed with my friend Martha, and I brought with me a stack of my now out-of-print first two books (on proposals and the tool kit for marketing novels). I also brought my proposal for the eleven book series. I met with my agent, Meredith Bernstein. She promised to try to find a publisher that would reprint the first two books and buy the behemoth eleven-book Writer’s Compass series.
My daughter and I spent the rest of the most ideal week ever in New York, and sadly said goodbye to New York on 9-11. A half hour after our United Airlines flight took off from LeGuardia, the first twin tower was struck. Our plane landed at O’Hare and three days later, Elaine and I got a rental car and drove home to Oregon.
It not only seemed like a miracle, it was a miracle when Meredith called me about six weeks after 9-11 and told me she had the offer of a four-book deal with Perigee, an imprint of Penguin USA. They offered to reprint my first two books and publish the first two of a scaled-down four-book Writer’s Compass series. They decided that the Compass books should be on 1) writing nonfiction, 2) writing fiction, 3) self-editing, and 4) marketing.
What was I thinking—eleven books?! Of course, I was thrilled with the deal.
On the Difficulty
Q: You mention on your acknowledgments page that “this book tested my mettle like none prior.” What difficulties did you run into and how did you overcome your writer’s block?
A: You’re referring to A Writer’s Guide to Fiction. I know that the term “writer’s block” is a misnomer, and if you can figure out what is really going on, you can begin to address the true problems. I had a complex knot of problems to solve.
First, I always hold myself to the standard of contributing to the literature and not merely repeating what is already available. There is a huge amount of how-to instruction on writing fiction. What could I add? How would I offer similar advice but from a different perspective all my own? That was problem #1.
Second, I knew from working with my editor, Michelle Howry, on A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, that her standard for writing instruction included a hundred times more examples than I had previously thought to use. I contemplated the necessity of providing examples from all categories of fiction, for all age groups of readers, throughout all time. That expectation was a great showstopper. We’re talking paralysis. This was problem #2.
Third—as if I needed anything more—I had to contend with the most difficult part of the whole “block”: myself. If only I didn’t have to deal with me! A friend and wonderful editor in Washington, Ariele Huff, once described my reality as “hyperbolic pressure.” I live inside a bubble of constant pressure, from within outward and from outside inward. If the outer pressures become too great, my fear rockets. If my inner pressures grow too great, I begin chewing on my toes.
Another way to put it is that I have a touch of some diagnosable inclinations that I constantly battle to turn into assets rather than liabilities: bipolar II or III, which can be more neatly referred to as hypersensitivity to everything and swings of “genius”; and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which in positive terms means I am highly organized, detail-oriented, and prefer to let no stone be unturned. My peculiarities are ideal for being an editor. I also had/have chronic back and neck pain. At that time, it was growing worse and I suspected surgery was in my near future. Me, myself, and I were problem #3.
Fourth, the sands were rushing through the hourglass toward my deadline of March 1. Problem #4. By November, I had written a loose outline but not much more.
The solution was as follows: After perusing many craft books on how to write novels and short stories, I closed them all. I’ve been an independent book editor for nearly twenty years. I know how to teach novel craft in a way entirely different than teachers who are novelists or college instructors or MFA professors. I would wager that I have far more breadth of experience, especially with writers at the earlier stages of learning how to write fiction, than ninety-nine percent of the authors who have written how-to books. I have been told by novices and published novelists alike that my “method” has demystified the process. I’m proud of that. I decided that I could take comfort that putting my method on paper would be a contribution to the literature.
I think I presently read far fewer published novels than the average writer, but I win the prize on reading the most unpublished novels in my work as an editor. Everyone reads selectively. To supply examples that might serve every reader, I happened upon one idea that worked very well: I sent an E-mail to twenty writing friends and fellow editors. It contained a list of about fifteen different genres of fiction. I asked everyone if they would write the titles of what they considered to be the best novels in any of the genres.
After I got the responses, I collated them—there were many repetitions—and took my long list to my favorite used bookstore. In my shopping trip, I purchased close to a hundred novels. What’s funny is that the store was running a special: buy X dollars of books and you get a free T-shirt with our logo. I came home with eight T-shirts and a few book bags.
I filled bookshelves I had freed up with nothing but novels. Then as I worked on A Writer’s Guide to Fiction and needed an example, I dashed to my shelves and pulled out books and read passages until I found the example I needed. I sought to vary genres and age groups and the gender of authors as well. This solution worked great.
When it came to contending with the problem of me, I wasn’t terribly successful. I have a giant difficulty in saying “no” to requests for help or editing and unrealistic visions of how quickly I can deliver. Therefore, I always have a backlog and I miss deadlines, mostly because I never factor in having a life too. While I was writing this book, my short-lived editing company was moving into a crisis, adding time for meetings, training, coaching, paperwork, and editing. I got further behind in work when I took a real vacation with my daughter (to Spain after their 3-11) and returned home to have a biopsy after a suspicious mammogram (proved nothing), but then a giant scramble to find help with the huge bill, as I did not have insurance. I had a busier calendar than usual for attending conferences and doing workshops. As well, I was not then taking medication for depression. As summer moved into fall into winter, I sank into a dark hole, compounded by the fear and pressure of the deadline. Finally, I reached out for help and started taking some medication.
Time was slipping, slipping, slipping away. When I finally got past a herky-jerky beginning (my beginnings are always weak and have to be redone multiple times), I counted out my days until March 1 and realized I barely had time to write the book much less revise it. So I wrote. Of course, a saner person would have never put themselves under this pressure. When I reached March 1, I sent what I had finished-three of the four sections of the book, organized by North—the largest section of instruction; South—a self-editing section; and East—a section on marketing. With my editor’s blessing, I sent in West—a philosophical section on taking stock with finishing a novel, and how to know when you are done-done, which I wrote on a wonderful writer’s week with friends in Enseňada, Mexico. When I had finished the whole book, I had an internal feeling that the book had exceeded my hopes for it and was my best writing to date. Perhaps writing by fire had its merits.
On the Process
Q: What does your writing process normally consist of? Do you write an outline? Do you give yourself daily word count goals or write for a set number of hours?
A: One of the reasons I am a good instructor about how to build a writing career in a practical way is because I have experienced all of the blocks and made all of the mistakes, and still do. I also have had years of therapy and earned a masters in counseling. I highly recommend sessions with therapists for writers, not only to get a coach, move past personal blocks to the process, but also to gain insight into the deeper meaning of characters and story, in a way similar to how therapists work with you on dreams.
I’ve learned that self-knowledge reduces symptoms, but I am who I am. My normal process is catch-as-catch-can. Creative chaos. I do think that a person who has developed a settled life with consistent obligations at set times has the best possible chance to follow the ideal writing process. That process is to figure out what you already average per week or per day in writing (not research, reading, or E-mail).
Then, up that average gradually, just as a runner would increase miles. For one person, adding fifteen minutes to a practice of three times a week for one hour would be sufficient and shouldn’t be upped again for several weeks. Over time, the person will reach an optimum regular time to write. Maintaining that optimum is a great comfort and becomes as easy as doing anything else that you do regularly. It’s the sane way, and it will help the person reach any big goal by amassing small gains. The tortoise does win the race. It’s a myth and a mistake to wait for the muse. Like any other activity or job, writers have good days, bad days, and muse days.
Other people have such demanding commitments, they may only be able to write on weekends, and then only for part of one day. That’s fine! Maybe they can add fifteen to thirty minutes once a week for one lunch hour. For very busy people, putting writing time into the appointment book is a necessity. Many writers know that John Grisham claims he wrote his first novel in the bathroom at the law firm—the only place he was guaranteed privacy. He caught fifteen minutes at a time. I don’t know if I believe this, but it conveys how much can be done in fifteen-minute segments of time. Always, for instance, carry a notepad to make use of those idle times in life.
Some writers are binge writers. This means they write once in a blue moon, but when they do, they hole up and write fifteen hours a day for three days. This is the least successful—over the long haul—way to write because it is grueling more than it is exciting. Some part of the self rebels and says, “Again?! Yikes! Cut my wrists, will ya. I’d rather be sailing!” The word “exception” means not very often, and this kind of writing is exceptional; it is guaranteed not to be often and it will produce a certain misery with doing it and suffering in the periods where nothing is written.
One of my practices is to spend a week, several times a year, at this one writer’s haven that is accessible to anyone living anywhere who wants to join Oregon Writers Colony. It’s a three-story lodge on the northern Oregon coast where you have no TV and no phone (well, we all bring cells now). These weeks re-center me in my writer self—and are extremely productive. The most I have written there in one week is 50,000 words—that was on The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, which was fully outlined and ready for the dash to the finish.
Otherwise, I write to deadline. I believe in finding or forming a critique group. I formerly led three groups that met on a weekly basis for thirteen years. I also put myself into the schedule of all three groups, which kept me hopping to produce. Now I am in one group of five professional women that meets every other week.
When I have a book due, as I face once again now, there is a time when I have to say no to everyone and dive deeply into the reality of nothing but writing. I do believe in outlines, although I have had a decreasingly detailed outline with each writing book. But I can’t imagine writing these kinds of books without any outline. I’ve lived inside the information I’m writing about for nearly twenty years. It would be different if I needed to do research.
Q: What is the most crucial piece of advice you would give a first-time novelist about revising their fiction?
A: First novels are beloved gems. If your novel is sacrosanct, put it on a shelf and write a second novel that you can revise to death, and perhaps even trash. Seriously. You can only learn how to write fiction by practice based on a lot of trial and error. It’s unrealistic to expect that the writing in a first novel will be publishable. If you can bear to “mess with” your first novel, then expect it to be your learner. Yes, you can hope it will be good enough, and a few are. Never count on being that exception; instead follow the well-worn path of 99 percent of the fiction writers before you. Most often, their third or fifth or eighth novel sold, not their first. However, learning how to revise, committing to writing as much as you can, taking courses, and getting professional editing—all of these pursuits can shave years off the learning curve.
Revision happens through multiple times going through a manuscript, deleting, reshaping, and weaving in missing elements. Take on one or two tasks at a time. Perhaps you will look at one chapter for improvement of scenes: removing ones that do little work and have low conflict, combining others, rewriting to have all of the steps in scene structure, making stronger opposition for higher tension, adding a second source of hidden conflict from the setting or in the mind of the viewpoint character. On another time through, you might work on adding similes and metaphors to strengthen your style or transform weak to-be verbs (is, was, were, be, being, been) into strong verbs.
Every novelist will discover natural strengths and perhaps natural weaknesses or blind spots. When you start out, you may not know either. Through learning and practice, feedback and reading, it is vital to discover your own abilities and skills. To a great extent, developing a strength into a fortress can compensate for a weakness. For instance, I think a lot of the published thriller writers are “plot monsters,” but they are often weak on character development. Some authors have such an ear for voice that their dialogue makes up for thin description.
When you figure out your weaknesses, develop a list and read everything you can on how to correct those weaknesses, but don’t make the mistake of reading without implementation. You must practice, or the information will mostly stay in your mind and not flow through your fingertips. Knowing craft intellectually is different from know-how, which only comes from practice.
Q: When a writer first begins a new novel, what should their very first step be?
A: Write. Do exploratory surgery, so to speak-whatever the starting point, which may be an image, idea, character, conflict, or theme—explore it. For some writers, that means writing a few chapters. For other writers, that means writing summaries or beginning a “novel notebook” and sketching out sections on character, plot, or other ideas. For outliners, that means starting a whole book outline.
I don’t recommend writing beyond three chapters, however. After that much, stop and put your pencil down, as they say at the SAT test. Now it’s time to write a first synopsis—a whole book summary. It may be a paragraph long, a page long, or longer. This is the first time a writer seeks to capture the novel as a whole. It’s a chance to collect your ideas and put them into a first form of what will become a whole novel.
Then I highly recommend making a map of the whole novel’s structure. Most novel plots correspond to Campbell/Vogler’s Hero’s Journey (Read: A Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler). Novels with strong female protagonists and inner or psychological conflicts may better fit the Heroine’s Journey (Read: The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock).
To avoid having cardboard characters and unrealistic superheroes, ponder what your protagonist’s wound is that produces a need, a universal need and yearning. We all, for instance, yearn for love, forgiveness, friendship, loyalty, identity, self-determination. Choose one. You’ll want to conjure a traumatic or dramatic event in the past that wounded the protagonist psychologically (divorce, death, betrayal) and left a “hole in the soul” that will pressure the hero throughout the novel, and will possibly have created the character flaw or weakness as well as the strength.
Of course, read A Writer’s Guide to Fiction.
Q: You’ve been a book editor for a number of years. What got you started in editing originally?
A: You won’t believe this, but what catapulted me from dabbling into a professional career was the tragic suicide of a close friend. Gaines Smith was Eugene, Oregon’s only full-time freelance book editor (that I know of), teacher of non-credit college writing classes, leader of two critique groups, and one of my best friends. In June 1988, he took his life. He wrote several suicide notes, one to me. He bequeathed me his three jobs. Of his editing company, I inherited some old journalism texts and his forwarded phone messages, and I soon filed my own dba as Lyon’s Literary Services, which eventually became Editing International, my present company.
Amazingly, the community college accepted me as his heir, on the phone—”If Gaines thought you were the best person to teach his classes, then we accept his judgment.” Two weeks later, I stood in front of four summer writing classes. Within a year, I had replaced the two courses Gaines had taught for decades: Beginning Freelance Writing and Intermediate Freelance Writing, and I developed a full curriculum of a dozen classes on fiction, nonfiction, and publishing. I created weekend retreats at scenic places on the coast. I set my imagination free and was learning at the speed of light.
You can’t hand-me-down a reputation, and his critique groups, of which I was a member of one, rejected my leadership. However, by the end of my first summer classes, I started my own first critique group, and subsequently started two others, and led them for the next thirteen years on a weekly basis.
I had always wanted to teach writing. I had always wanted to be a writer. I had an exploratory period of years during which I had written (albeit terrible writing) two sci-fi novellas, a partial memoir, a manual of speed reading and study systems (I was a former Evelyn Wood teacher), short stories, articles, essays, fifteen years of journaling, tons of bad poetry, and more. I had begun editing manuscripts in college and had continued here and there through the years, simply because I was that egg-head nerdie gal who got A’s in English and understood symbolism. I was a natural editor before I knew what editing really was. As I taught all facets of writing, my editing skills grew; as I edited more manuscripts and a greater variety of fiction and nonfiction, my editing skills grew.
About two weeks after Gaines died, I received a forwarded call from a literary agent new to the Northwest. She was checking to see if his business was a literary agency already serving the Eugene area. I explained all that had happened and she invited me to become her scout. Thus began an apprenticeship in what New York publishing was really seeking by way of excellence. And the standards were different, higher, than what I had learned in how-to books on writing, in articles in magazines, or from other, more accomplished writers. There seemed to be a gap and I was now privy to this insider knowledge.
The agent was Natasha Kern, to whom I am forever grateful for her generosity and brilliant teaching. After several years, I understood that agents must champion a work they represent, which means that a work might be rejected but saleable if represented by a different agent. I saw that it was in the interest of my growing editing clientele to have relationships with many agents. At this time, my clients have been represented by over two dozen different agents.
On the Horizon
Q: What’s next on the horizon?
A: I’m one month from the deadline for Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. In many ways, this is a magnum opus as it is a chance to hand over the keys to the editing Mercedes (hybrid, of course), a way for me to impart techniques I use to edit novels. My prior books for fiction writers were on marketing (The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit) or writing (The Writer’s Guide to Fiction), and the latter emphasized structure. I knew I gave short shrift to style. I’m particularly proud that this next book has a section on developing style, i.e., enhancing that ephemeral quality referred to as “voice.”
What happened to the Writer’s Compass series? My publisher decided they wanted a flashier title. I rejected several of the proposed titles, and they rejected mine. During three or four back-and-forths with my editor and agent, involving the marketing department and the president of the company (Perigee), we rejected at least fifty titles. Finally, everyone agreed on Manuscript Makeover, which was suggested by one of my best friends, Carolyn Rose, who is a former TV news director. Or, if we didn’t all agree, the title war had worn us all down and this one sounded good.
As soon as I finish this book, I should begin the next book, which is the companion book to this one. It covers revision techniques for nonfiction writing.
When these two books are finished, I plan to close the door on writing instruction for writers. I have been studying and practicing writing memoir, and would like to complete at least one of these projects. I am also dogged by the desire to write at least one bestseller in this lifetime. LOL.
I am, by the way, happy to answer questions. Anyone may contact me via E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.