lizabeth Lyon is a bookworm with an uncontrollable curiosity about almost everything. Her liberal arts education encompassed half a dozen majors in the languages and humanities, but ultimately earned her a degree in sociology. Elizabeth claims she has always been a writer, but didn’t know it until almost age 30. But she’s made up for it big-time with many well-know books about writing.
Elizabeth is the author of Manuscript Makeover, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, and The National Directory of Editors and Writers for Hire. A professional editor, teacher, and writing mentor, Elizabeth has contributed to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and other publications.
WOW: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you for taking time out of your busy life to share your story with our readers! For those who don’t know you, at conferences, you’ve talked about “your explorations.” What do you mean by that?
Elizabeth: My explorations included writing a journal for a decade, two sci-fi novellas, poetry (all bad), several how-to books, a fantasy novella, a mainstream novel, an astrology book, and lots of short articles and essays.
I'm driven to understand what motivates each person and how we decide the meaning of our lives. My interest in human psychology and spirit, plus expressing myself through writing, made a natural bridge to story. I love storytelling and the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell so famously expressed it.
I've also had a hard adult life. I'm a single parent of two disabled children who are now adults with lots of needs. I have my own disabilities as well. I'm grateful for incredible friends, the awesome people who have entered my life through writing, and work that involves creativity.
Now, my big project is to write a memoir about my experience at age 17, in 1967, when I attended a summer humanities program in Greensboro, NC and figured out that I was the only white student.
WOW: Thank you for sharing some of your struggles. But you have also had great success with your books, especially the classic Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write. Can you tell us about the book and why it sold so well?
Elizabeth: In the early ‘90s, the only proposal book on the market frustrated me. In computerland, Windows was relatively new, and I perceived that everyone wanted their information faster and “cleaner” (better organized). I used a technical writing style and introduced what may be the first book for writers that utilized clear organization, hierarchies of information, and sidebars and text boxes for Windows-like menus. One of the best compliments I received from a reader (besides the many that tell me their proposal won a contract) is that the book reads like an engineer wrote it. Even now, 19 years later, over 30,000 copies sold, this book is often described as the standard on proposal preparation.
I also sought to write it for the unpublished writer living anywhere. I chafe against elitism and believe that publication should be accessible to any qualified writer living in any life conditions—Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write.
“I chafe against elitism and believe that publication should be accessible to any qualified writer living in any life conditions.”
WOW: Let's talk about your latest book, Manuscript Makeover. What was the impetus for writing it? And when did you know it was something you wanted to write?
Elizabeth: For about ten years, I had wanted to write a book that would give writers everything I’ve taught, learned, and offered to editing clients about revising fiction. I suppose the “impetus” was getting a contract! Nothing like a deadline! I’ve been an editor of novels and nonfiction books for twenty years. The whole book is organized around what can go wrong and how to fix it. They made me stop at 100,000 words—the contract called for 85,000. As my last book on writing, I am proud of it. It will be a bestseller, like the proposal book, from all indications.
WOW: Speaking of a publisher’s word count rules, can you talk about your publisher? What type of experience have you had?
Elizabeth: I’ve had four different publishing experiences. I self-published a book in 1981, which was a fantastic education in all facets of publishing. Next, I found Blue Heron Publishing, a small and highly regarded press located near Portland, Oregon. The owners, Dennis and Linny Stovall, were like Mom and Dad to my first two books. I loved the close relationships, their support (including for promotion), and their belief in writers’ rights. Their contract modeled the one suggested by the National Writers Union. I felt respected and part of a team. The downside was no advances, which made it difficult to complete books and deal with life, and more limited distribution. However, after several decades, Blue Heron was sold, after which it didn’t thrive and ended. I was an orphan.
My agent, Meredith Bernstein, was a magician as far as I’m concerned. In 2001, six weeks after 9/11, she called with a four-book contract with Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin. They picked up the proposal book and my second, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, and contracted for two more books on craft: A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction and A Writer’s Guide to Fiction.
There are several terrific things about gaining a behemoth publisher: getting into the larger distribution system, including more library purchases (although Perigee doesn’t directly promote to libraries); getting advances; and gaining the prestige associated with a “New York publisher.” I also had superior editing because my editors had cut their teeth at Writer’s Digest Books. The downside is that my books became a product, one of over a hundred Perigee produces each year. Very corporate and not my style.
I had one other—a small New York publisher—M. Evans & Company, who published my National Directory of Editors & Writers, featuring profiles on 520 freelancers living in 48 states. Soon after its release in 2005, M. Evans was purchased by its distributor, Rowan & Littleton. The M. Evans staff got their pink slips, and my book slid into oblivion.
“The expectations for promotion have changed vastly since I began.”
WOW: I was in that National Directory. (Laughs) Thanks again. I’m curious, what do you do for publicity for your books?
Elizabeth: Interesting choice of the word “you.” Blue Heron provided some limited funds for promotion and made connections for me to speak at bookstores from L.A. to Seattle, and also gave me entrée to do workshops at conferences. Perigee provides no such support, nor did I expect any, although I always asked. The publicist sent out “e-blasts.”
For earlier books, I relied upon appearances at conferences, talks or private workshops to small organizations, writing occasional articles for The Writer and Writer’s Digest as well as for newsletters (now all online). Because I evidently have a talent for teaching, I am frequently invited to conferences where the “market” for my book exists.
The expectations for promotion have changed vastly since I began. With the publication of Manuscript Makeover, the Internet has become vital. I still do everything I did before. Not only were book announcements sent through e-mail, not mail, but I also made a targeted effort using the Net. I went to a clearinghouse site, www.shawguides.com, and clicked on “Writing Conferences and Retreats.” There I selected the U.S. and began surveying any writing event happening in all fifty states. I clicked through to the website organization, then to a newsletter editor, or a board member.
I sent a personal e-mail introducing myself and asking if they would consider posting an announcement to their membership (which I included in the e-mail) and offered a review copy of the book. This was the most effective publicity I have ever done. It resulted in close to thirty reviews, seeding the existence of the book across the country. It also resulted in invitations for me to present my weekend workshops in such diverse places as Boston (Sisters in Crime), Virginia, and under discussion [is] Anchorage.
I have also taken the tedious time to amass an e-mail list of the professors and instructors who teach fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or lead MFA programs in the U.S. It’ll take me ten years to contact them all.
What I have not done—and it is on my publicity to-do list—is to update my websites into a web 2.0 form, add a blog, RSS feed, and the rest of the bells and whistles. I may be too old. I’m lucky because I am already connected, but new authors really need to get Web sophisticated.
WOW: That’s a clever method for marketing, thanks. I’m taking notes. You have other jobs in the writing industry, too, don’t you? What are they?
Elizabeth: I’m a full-time independent book editor. I work in team editing with two associates—one a specialist in commercial novels and one in nonfiction book proposals. Both trained by me but also editors in their own right. My company is Editing International, and I take reservations as there is no evidence of the recession in my work.
Other jobs: consultant on any aspect of book publishing, co-judge of nonfiction for the Surrey International Writers Conference, my favorite conference ever. I teach private workshops to writing organizations, customizing them to their needs.
My favorite new role is as a model! Oregon Writers Colony, a non-profit with an incredible log-cabin lodge/writer’s haven on the Oregon coast, is having a fundraiser calendar. It is a “bare almost all” calendar. I am one month’s model. I hope everyone will buy one—twelve multi-published writers in whimsical poses, sharing ideas about writing as well. The photography is stellar. The calendar can be pre-ordered from Marlene Howard, marlenehow[at]comcast[dot]net. Hint: my new nickname is Legs Lyon.
“In nonfiction, writers need a ‘super platform.’”
WOW: If I might change the subject here, can you speak about the state of the economy in regards to publishing?
Elizabeth: Recent data released by BookScan to Nielsen, based on sales from twelve thousand bookstores and outlets, supplied evidence that things are not very good—but with exceptions. From 2008 to first quarter 2009, adult nonfiction sales are down overall by 8.37 percent; adult fiction down by 0.33 percent. Juvenile (includes YA) nonfiction is up 8.85 percent, and juvenile nonfiction is up 2.48 percent. More interesting are specific categories. For instance, in adult nonfiction, cooking/entertainment and humor are up about 5 percent and 9 percent. But that means some other categories are really down: travel about 19 percent, business about 10 percent, and biography/memoir about 7.5 percent.
My agent friends—I’ve talked with about six from both coasts—tell me that in nonfiction, writers need a “super platform,” referring to channels to sell their books, i.e., interactive websites, a teaching and speaking history, national article or essay publications and plans for more, media interviews, etc. One agent, who handles nonfiction exclusively and is very well established, said she had not sold one book in the first five months of 2009.
In fiction, a look at statistics from BookScan reveals that two categories have leaped ahead between 2008 and 2009 so far: religion by a whopping 68.5 percent [increase] and suspense/thrillers by nearly 28 percent. Romance held on by a 1.5 percent [increase]. But all other adult fiction is very low, and the worst hit is mystery/detective, down (rounded off) 20 percent. The only subcategory of mystery that is thriving is the female sleuth. The winner of the “frontlist” or bestseller types of books goes to juvenile titles. By the end of 2008, there was a gigantic surge of 61 percent. Can anyone spell Twilight, the mega-selling books by Stephanie Meyers, out-earning Harry Potter?
The economy is changing; but most of all, publishers must acquire to stay in business. They need authors.
“A well-written query should get a 20-30 percent positive response, not the industry-reported 99 percent rejection.”
WOW: We shouldn’t all try to jump on the Twilight bandwagon—it’s already left. So what should writers do differently today to find themselves a publisher?
Elizabeth: First, I advocate that every writer with a finished book self-publish with an inexpensive but quality print-on-demand (POD) publisher. Check into Lulu and others. I have long admired Trafford, one of the early POD publishers, although they are more expensive. (Don’t pay extra for marketing or promotion.) For a few hundred dollars, writers can complete the circle from creation to finished piece that can be shared (and sold) to family, friends, and others. All writers deserve this satisfaction.
Second, self-publishing doesn’t preclude continuing to seek a publisher. With nonfiction, decide if your book’s subject and audience would be narrow/limited or broad/large. If the first, then write a great query and send it to publishers you’ve researched, who print your type of book. They may or may not ask for a proposal; some have proposal-like guidelines to follow. Others may be open to reading the whole book or a portion. If your nonfiction book could sell to the larger market, then write a proposal and then a query letter. Spend tons of time revising both. A well-written query should get a 20-30 percent positive response, not the industry-reported 99 percent rejection. Memoirs have different guidelines: many agents will request the entire memoir or a good half. Write and revise it fully; then send out a query followed by a proposal upon request.
Know that as difficult as it is in pre-meltdown to write well and gain agent and editor interest, now you have to compete to be on American Idol. Nonfiction writers, including memoir writers, get articles and essays published in print or online, as many as you can, to show you are already a professional making a buzz. Implement the ideas in Christina Katz’s book, Get Known Before the Book Deal. Platform, in other words. Christina’s mentor was Julia Fast, who has sold over 150,000 of her self-help books.
For novelists, I can tell you that 99 percent of all novelists think their novels are ready for publication—and they’re not. We can’t know what we don’t know. Besides learning how to write a great five-paragraph query letter, revise an extra ten times more than you usually would. Use Manuscript Makeover’s end-of-chapter checklists, and go through them like a pilot would a take-off. Query like mad, but also get going writing your next book. On average, it is the fourth book that gets published; and on average, it is ten years before a first novel gets sold.
Use this recessionary time to practice by writing more and also marketing to learn business skills. Don’t become overly invested in success; consider it skill-building. Write short stories and enter contests. Go to conferences and pitch your novels as this is a query. Collect invitations for later use when you really have a ready novel and when the economy is better.
To all writers: get systematic about marketing. Check agent websites after looking them up in Guide to Literary Agents. Make A-lists and B-lists. A lot of agents want e-mail queries. Send out in batches of six or so. If you get nothing but rejection or never hear back, alter your query letter. Send again.
In general, this may be a fortuitous time if writers use it well to build an arsenal of manuscripts and deepen connections, amass credits, and revise!
WOW: I think your advice has covered a lot of territory, thanks. But this brings up another point: how do you balance fiction with nonfiction? Isn't that difficult to demonstrate expertise in both?
Elizabeth: It is an accomplishment to become an expert in both fiction and nonfiction. We have plenty of role models, however. Many journalists have done well shifting to crime fiction (Carl Hiaasen, for instance), and lawyers have created the courtroom thriller. The advantage of being a professional nonfiction writer, who moves to fiction, is the high level of skill in writing and the discipline of writing. The difficulty is in freeing the imagination, learning fiction craft, and especially in subjective development of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. I’ve seen a shorter learning curve, however, for professional nonfiction writers shifting to fiction. For nonprofessional nonfiction writers, the shift seems more difficult.
I do think that short writing exercises to open the imagination and writing short pieces—vignettes, character sketches, etc.—can aid the transition. I also believe that writing fiction requires a block of time to “get into it.”
We each have areas of greater and lesser talent and can fill in the difference with hard labor and learning. Currently, my abilities in instructional nonfiction writing outstrip all other areas. I also don’t think I have a “gift” for fiction writing. But I have written three novellas, one YA novel, a first draft of a mainstream novel, and early starts on two others. That was before I had the chance to write writing books.
Now, I am immersed in writing creative nonfiction, a memoir. I’m still in the “stick-figure” draft, the first one that is so thin. Perhaps creative nonfiction is a bridge for writers of either nonfiction or fiction to learn the “other” skills.
“Raising questions and using reversals are two techniques that help every work.”
WOW: If I know you, your memoir will be interesting. What tips can you share with WOW! readers about the importance of making over a creative manuscript?
Elizabeth: First, revision is what turns that “lovely” draft into a jewel. Nobody I know writes well the first many drafts. And nobody revises well in just one, two, or three times through. Expect to take a few assignments at a time for revision, and go through your book. At the very least, I would recommend focusing (separately to the extent one can) on whole book structure, protagonist dimensionality, scene structure, subjective character and setting description (telling well), suspense and stakes, movement and conflict (showing well and show/tell), character uniqueness—personality and dialogue, style, beginnings and endings, and mechanics (copyediting).
WOW: What is your favorite part in the book Manuscript Makeover?
Elizabeth: In the section on style, I love riff-writing, and I have had the most feedback from readers on this as well. This is a directed technique for leaping beyond barriers of unconscious censorship to get at original writing. The “directed” part means you can choose one part of writing, a description of a character for instance, then “riff” to open it up and develop a unique description not possible in any other way.
In “Characterization,” I am pleased with the sidebar and a section on “Developing Your Character in Distinguishing Detail.” By writing this, I fully understood, at last, the importance of giving characters “edge” by developing attitudes and “an attitude” as well as adding rocket fuel to a character’s passion.
The chapter on movement makes a real contribution to craft literature as it involves far more than writing action. Raising questions and using reversals are two techniques that help every work.
I also feel I’ve added to the literature by making powerful scenes; it is not just about great structure and plotting. In fact, it may be more about effective characterization operating in the mind, emotions, and subtext of the scene viewpoint. Not enough has been offered about writing subtext, a source of tension beneath the surface.
WOW: Is there anything you would like to add?
Elizabeth: A few last thoughts: every writer should celebrate small completions—beginning, getting to a halfway mark, completing a first draft, and so forth. These self-congratulatory rituals are not just fluff; it’s important to give oneself credit, the psychologists say, to fully own our accomplishments and not succumb to self-sabotage.
Learn more about Elizabeth Lyon by visiting her website: www.elizabethlyon.com.
Andrea Campbell is the author of twelve nonfiction books on a variety of topics; you can visit her website at: http://www.andreacampbell.com. Andrea teaches the WOW! e-course “Publish That Book,” but she has a new class called: The Gatekeepers: All About Agents and Editors—Getting Them, Working with Them, and Growing as a Career Author.