By Guest Contributor Little_Karol. On the first of her series she shared her research on the novel writing process. The second piece encompassed her interview with author Carolyn Rose. Today she shares her interview with author Elizabeth Lyon.
Lyon is the author of six writing books on fiction and nonfiction, revision, and marketing: Manuscript Makeover, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, The Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, and National Directory of Editors & Writers. Elizabeth Lyon lives in Springfield, Oregon. The December issue of “The Writer” magazine selected Manuscript Makeover as one of “10 Great Writing Books in 2008.”
I sat down at my computer after a long day of cleaning the house. I connected to the internet and logged into Gmail, nothing out of the ordinary. I had e-mailed her earlier that week and was surprised when I saw, she had e-mailed back. I learned from Carolyn Rose that Lyon was supposed to be going on vacation soon. I thought she had already left, considering it took her a while to respond. I later found out she had responded to half of my questions, just to have accidentally deleted her answers.
“What is your creative process (What do you do when you are writing)? I know that seems kind of vague, but answer it to the best of your ability.”
“When I am writing something creative, like the memoir I have begun, I am back in the mental movie of the story. Most writers, I think, write from the movie in their minds and then revise more intellectually. When I write, I do a little of editing along the way, changing this word or that phrase, perhaps because I am an editor. I know, at least as a professional editor, that the best way to write a first draft is to just let the words blat out on the screen or page. Getting something written is most important of all. So my writing of my first draft is like a condensed version of what the final book will be. Like, just add water. Or, just add character depth through thought and feeling and reactions; add sensory detail; add description of Nature, man made objects, and of other characters; add similes and metaphors; harvest my own emotions as I relive the story as my character and add emotions.”
“How does you feel when your with an editor? What kind of thoughts go through your mind?”
“I have two forms of ‘editors’ for my work: my critique group friends and my New York editor who works for my publisher. Before my New York editor sees my work, I run it past my writing friends who give me their honest, constructive criticism. I always feel a bit anxious and insecure about what they will tell me. I have the same fears, hopes, and trepidations as most writers do when facing criticism. Afterwards, I’m relieved and excited, because they catch mistakes, not only in grammar and punctuation but also in facts, logic, and style. I feel grateful and relieved as well as eager to revise.
“By the time my in-house editor is reviewing my manuscripts, they have already been ‘vetted,’ so to speak by my critique group friends. I have had 6-7 different editors who worked for publishing houses, and they have all been astute, kind, and accurate. They have helped me save face by pointing out whatever is left that my writing friends did not address. As I wait for my editor’s mark-ups and evaluation, I hope that she (I’ve had one male editor) will praise my work and be enthusiastic about it. Sometimes I have needed to directly ask the question, “Did you like it?” because they are focused on corrections. While waiting, I have days when I worry whether the book will not meet the editor’s approval, but most of the time, I am confident that whatever is found is fixable.”
“What is it like when you’re presenting your work to an audience? Do you feel relaxed or do you still get butterflies?”
“Because my nonfiction books, six of them for writers, are typically presented in the form of workshops, here is how I feel: Before a workshop, I build up tension. Some of it is working tension that leads me to prepare, make photocopies, and think about my audience and how to present the work. The other portion of the tension I could do without: anxiety based on imagined scenarios, such as being dull-witted and “off,” or being asked questions I cannot answer and looking like a fool, or having a non-responsive audience. I get more anxious when my audience is all pros. Then I worry that they will stump me or what I have to offer will be old hat. So far that has not been the case, but the anxiety says, “There is always a first time so watch out, missy.”
Once I am in the room and am passing out handouts, I feel relaxed, cheerful, ready to have a good time as well as offer help to writers. I am a bit of a ham, so I crack jokes and fully enjoy meeting all of the people.
“If I am giving a speech, such as a keynote, that is a different story. Whereas I find teaching to now be natural, I find speeches to be unnatural. I know that I have to entertain, inform, and inspire. That is tough! I find speeches to be more formalized, best not done off the cuff, and giving them more like walking through a mine field. I try to structure in a laugh line in the first few sentences. If the audience laughs, I relax and feel as if I have purchased a little bit of extra rope, though I know I can still hang myself if I don’t deliver. If they don’t laugh, I sweat like an animal facing slaughter. When my speech succeeds and they clap–they actually clap–I’m soaring high on adrenalin. I summated Mt. Everest.”
“What is it like for you to find a publisher? What stages do you have to go through?”
“So far, I have been a self-publisher, then had my first two books published by a small Oregon publishing company that went out of business (so I was “orphaned”), then was picked up by a giant New York publisher for reprint of my first two books and for publication of two new books, and have had a small New York publisher who got bought out by a bigger fish and thus I was orphaned of all editorial support.
“In the beginning of my search for a publisher (outside of doing it myself), I wrote a proposal and a query. I already knew agents and one represented me, but was unsuccessful in selling the book (Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write). I queried publishers directly and an editor at St. Martin’s was very enthusiastic, only to have the sales/marketing people shoot it down in the editorial review process. The editor so believed in my book that he did independent market research and went back to the review committee and it still didn’t sail. At the time, I had no prior publications (except a few magazine articles and a few contest wins) and my only “platform” (ability to sell books myself) was that I taught adult education writing classes and had an editing business (my current dba is Editing International). I put the project aside and worked on another proposal for a travel memoir, again represented by the agent I knew, and again rejected. In hindsight, I was not yet a strong enough memoir writer.
“A year or so later, I was having lunch at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference with a NY agent friend of mine, and she suggested I pitch my proposal book to a small press. She knew that Blue Heron Publishing (Hillsboro, OR) was starting a line of writing books. I had seen a note about that as well, but her encouragement led to me attending a group pitch meeting with one of the co-owners, Dennis Stovall. I tend to be intuitive and I felt fully in sync with Dennis–a meeting of the minds–and he requested my proposal. I spruced it up and sent it in, and I got that call: “We want to publish your book.” Although I haven’t won a lottery, the emotions I felt were what I imagined winning Lotto would feel like.
“Dennis and Linny Stovall, founders and editors of Blue Heron Publishing, published my proposal book in 1995 and followed with publishing “The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit” in 1997. To gain consideration of their publishing this second book was entirely different because now I was one of their authors. I wrote a short proposal and after answering their questions, we signed the contract.
“When they decided to end Blue Heron to pursue other life goals, I was then “orphaned” with rights reverted to me of my first two books. By year 2000, I had a New York literary agent I had met by going to conferences. As a freelance book editor, I sought to meet as many agents as possible for my clients and in the process, that meant I had an inside connection–and now I was a published author. On September 4, 2001, I flew with my daughter Elaine, then 17, to New York. We patched together the trip using frequent flier miles and staying with a client and friend of mine in the city. The budget trip to New York City. I took a stack of my two books to give to my agent, with the hopes that she could find a new “home” for them. It seemed like a long shot as publishers like to discover and acquire new books more than “retreads.” I had also written another proposal, for a series of writing craft books, and I left 10 copies of the proposal with her as well.
“On September 11th, 2001, my daughter and boarded out United Airlines flight at 8:30, leaving LeGuardia and, we thought, to arrive home in Eugene, Oregon by afternoon. The pilot gave us the shocking news soon after we took off, and landed us at O’Hare. Amidst confusion and disbelief at what had happened, we lucked out and were among the displaced passengers who found a room at a nearby hotel. Three days later, when a rental car was returned to the airport, Avis gave us a one-way “distress” discount, and my daughter and I drove 2200 miles home. I could not have been more amazed than when my agent called six weeks later, only six weeks after 9-11, with a four-book deal. Perigee Books, an imprint of US Penguin, purchased reprint rights to my first two books, and agreed to publish two of my proposed books in the new writing series.”
“What will you do after you are done writing books?”
“I’m done writing *writing* books now. Which means that I am unleashing myself on projects I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Foremost among them is a memoir based on my being the only white student, at age 17 in 1967, at a summer program for high school kids held at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. I think of this memoir as a 3-5-year project, art and craft, a “legacy” work that may or may not be publishable, but most of all, must meet my inner artistic satisfaction.
“Second, I’ve always wanted to write a book involving my hobby, which is astrology. That one might be commercial as I am writing it for the masses and not for astrologers per se. I’ve begun outlining and doing some first writing on it. Because I don’t want to write under deadline pressure, and the advances have so far been inadequate to let me stop working and just write, I want to have at least half of this astrology book done before I hand the proposal over to my agent for representation. I’m thinking of this book as being on a one-year track, perhaps longer.
“Of course, I have many other books in the queue, including a young adult novel. It is germinating in the back of my mind, so I’m “working” on it in the fertile womb of imagination.”
“Reflecting back on your work, how do you feel you did?”
“I hope the question doesn’t mean that I’m all done! I feel great about the contributions I have made to the how-to instruction for writers. I have always held myself to the standard of contributing something new to the topic and writing in the clearest way I possibly can. All of my books have been well-received and some have reviews that feel like winning the lottery.
“My one disappointment is that I thought there would be more sales, more royalties, from writing writing books. When I started out with publishing, I thought that after my third writing book, I would surely receive enough royalties to cover my expenses and buy time to write more creative works. I now have six books in print with two earning royalties (meaning, they have sold well enough to pay back the advance). If the books continue to be in print, I am now joking that they will be my IRA, my retirement income, in addition to the pathetic amount I’ll get from social security–if it still exists. The reality is that my choice of writing nonfiction was for a niche market, a specialty readership and not for a mass audience.
“One way out is to now write a bestseller! How many writers dream of that? Don’t answer that. I assume we all do. But, I have now paid considerable dues: I am a professional nonfiction writer, I have a great agent, and I know how to write proposals and develop an already-existing strong platform, which refers to my promotional ability to sell my book. So the only thing in my way is thinking of that bestselling idea and carving out time. I’m hoping my astrology book for the millions will be that book. . . .
“I know I will never ever run out of creative ideas. They swarm around all the time. I dream them, I stumble across them, they come beckoning on knees. Do me!”
“How many books have you had published?”
“Seven. The six writing books and a first self-published book (in 1981) called “Mabel–The Story of One Midwife.” I published 200 hardback and 2000 paperback, and learned every aspect of this business. Mable Dzata was the midwife for my two children, who were born at home. The book is her biography plus a collection of home birth stories by the families she helped. I was told a few years ago that it is a “midwifery classic.” It took 10 years to sell out all copies! I say I was a tad bit naive when I thought they would all sell in 3 months. That’s when I learned that it is one thing to write a good book, and it is another thing to let a reader know it exists and then to get ’em to fork over money.”
“How do you know when your book is done?”
“Most writers of all levels of skill and experience don’t know. We’re so subjectively tied to your creation. When you’ve written the best you can and revised up the wazoo, and you can’t see anything else to do, other than change a few words here and there, you’re done. The work may not be close to the quality for publication, but you’ve done the best you can. You can market and will have confirmation of its readiness by acceptance or rejection. But no matter what, you should start a next project.
“The more experienced a writer becomes in all areas of craft, with more books under the belt–or in the drawer–the greater will be the writer’s instinct for how much to revise. There is a point where too much revision makes the book slick, like newly waxed tile. It loses its edge and the sheen will push the reader away instead of making the reader stop, engage, and feel the character’s emotions. Of course I am talking fiction and memoir here, not how-to or information writing.
“I think all writers need someone outside of them to give feedback, and criticism. Astute readers are one choice. Other choices include a fellow writing buddy, a critique group (in person or online), a writing teacher, or a professional freelance editor.
“Writers also need to cultivate an ability to tune into their own heart, soul, and gut. They need this to be able to discriminate between suggestions and criticism they agree with and those they do not agree with. As I’ve often said, The Writer Rules. Everyone else has opinions. In the end, deciding when your work is done is a solo job, just as writing the work in the first place. You simply get better at the decision.
“Even after books are published, probably every author you talk to will tell you that he or she can pick one of the published books off the bookstore shelf, read a bit and find something they would now change. It is the nature of creativity and the inability to be perfect.”
“Where do your ideas come from? Pete Fromm has an idea folder and I was wondering if you had something similar.”
“I formerly put ideas onto sticky notes and plastered them onto my file cabinet. Bad idea. The sun makes them fade. And I never looked at them again. I have three places where I put ideas: I carry a little spiral notepad in my purse. I make computer files with working titles for the projects I think will get developed. And I have an artist’s sketchpad where I doodle, think on the page, use colored markers, and build a “playground” for ideas to come in without censorship.
“My view on where ideas come from is this: “Build a field and they will come.” (Field of Dreams) The field for a writer is your imagination. Just stating the intention to receive ideas gets implanted, like an egg in the womb. It will be nurtured and return at odd times with an idea and some growth to it. The process for a writer is, I think, to facilitate the flow from imagination into thought, which is different than searching for a “where” to find the ideas. It is not like going out into a field and digging for a buried treasure. It is more like building up the soil for a great garden.
“For me, these activities or conditions help build that field, or add nutrients to the garden soil: water–taking showers and getting lost in your thoughts, washing dishes, swimming, soaking in a hot tub, eyes closed to see the inner movie screen; walking–moving the body, getting a rhythm where you don’t have to think about walking but your mind is walking–into the imagination and coming back in thought with ideas; driving–same thing though not quite as safe! I do have my notepad open with a pen as I drive longer distances, to jot down “great ideas”–they always seem great when they arrive. I also nab dreams I remember and as soon as possible write down the basics of them. I have “received” several ideas for novels directly out of dreams. Brainstorming with writing friends is another source of ideas and problem-solving for existing writing. “What if” is the best phrase for writers to complete.
“Last of all, and you didn’t ask this is to note the “right stuff” to succeed as a writer: A love of expressing yourself in writing; the courage to ignore the inner voices of criticism and overcome the silent forces of censorship; patience and perseverance to practice writing skills for years, not expecting instant success; openness to constructive criticism; commitment to the process of multiple if not seemingly endless revisions to produce a finished work; immersion in the business side of writing as a career, learning marketing and networking skills; and last: remembering always that your reason to write is for the joy it brings you.”
Added as a side note was “Good luck and I hope this proves valuable. PS: You may find something else useful from the YouTube shorties that were taken at the talk I gave at Cover to Cover where we met each other.