Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore
The Penguin Group, New York, 2008
It was at a conference for new writers in Austin that I saw a lot of shocked faces when literary agent Jim Donovan proclaimed that they could not imagine how much revising is necessary before a manuscript is ready for publication. How much revision? Elizabeth Lyon cites Dean Koontz who did thirty-one drafts of his novel, Whispers. Every author will have a different experience, but all will find that the largest part of the labor of writing is in revising.
So where do you learn how to revise? Book upon book and course upon course will teach you the techniques of writing, but when it comes to revising, you are on your own.
Now comes an indispensable book for fiction writers from writer, editor, and teacher, Elizabeth Lyon. The book is Manuscript Makeover. The subtitle says it all: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.
Makeover is more than revision; it's a transformation, a matter of style. All too often, authors approach revision as a technical problem. They delete; they add; they rearrange. They correct grammar, replace weak words with strong ones, and vary sentence structure. Sometimes this produces real transformation, but sometimes it produces only cosmetic changes.
In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon addresses the essence of style and how to transform an ordinary first draft into a distinctive manuscript. Editors are looking for style, not sentence structure. They want an exciting story with an original voice. Lyon's book gives you practical revising techniques to bring out your style and voice. Each chapter begins with a brief statement--she calls them options--of what you can expect to get out of the chapter. Each chapter ends with a checklist of things to look for in your manuscript. These checklists themselves are worth the price of the book.
In Part One: Style Speaks, Lyon presents two approaches to revision--the inside-out and the outside-in approaches. She distinguishes between voice and style. Voice is the writer's natural use of language to create authentic characters and unique storytelling. Style is choosing words to create a desired effect. By making use of inside-out techniques, such as riff-writing which is a kind of directed, free writing, and deep listening by which you attune yourself to your reactions as you read your own work, you can cultivate your natural voices. Where inside-out is a process of internalizing your writing, outside-in relies on wordsmithing to sharpen your style. The outside-in techniques will be familiar to most writers. Everyone using this book must read Part One. The distinction between inside-out and outside-in opens the door to a deeper understanding of the creative process, which will ultimately lead to more effective revision.
In Part Two, Lyon presents the craft of writing, beginning with a brief overview of genres. The different genre categories have been, and continue to be, dissected elsewhere. If you want a comprehensive analysis of genres, don't look here. The purpose of the chapter on genres is to drive home the point that to be successful, you should pick a genre in which you want to write and read widely in it. The rest of Part Two deals with plot, dramatic structure, journeys--the hero's and the heroine's--movement, pacing and suspense. To me, this is the heart of fiction. The checklists that follow these chapters take up eighteen pages on their own. I foresee many writers photocopying them to keep as handy references by their computers.
Most people assume that scene equals plot, but, as she did in Part One, Elizabeth Lyon shakes our assumptions. She defines scenes in Part Three as ". . . character-driven action toward a goal that occurs in a particular time and place." If you want to write compelling fiction, do not skip the chapters on Character-driven Beginnings (chapter 11) and Character-driven Scenes and Suspense (chapter 12). In this section, she also discusses aspects of character that beginning writers struggle with--viewpoint, dialogue, personality and voice.
Finally, in Part Four, Lyon discusses the basics of copyediting, querying and marketing.
Manuscript Makeover gives us a step-by-step guide to the art and craft of revising. Considering all of the techniques inside, any one of which will make our writing better, this is a book that belongs, not on every writer's bookshelf, but on every writer's work table.