Saturday, August 2, 2008

PNWC: Elizabeth Lyon on Manuscript Makeover

The next workshop I attended was presented by Elizabeth Lyon, a teacher/editor/writing coach who's written several books on the writing process. I'm trying to learn more about revision as I get ready to tackle the daunting task of smoothing out my extremely rough draft of Invasion, so choosing this workshop was a no-brainer for me.

Lyon breaks revision down to Style, Characterization, and Structure. Most guides to revision treat style as an afterthought, which she thinks is wrong because editors and agents say they're looking for fresh, original voices, and style is how you polish your voice so your uniqueness shines.

I see what she's saying, but I'm not sure it makes sense to revise for style first, which is what she seems to be advocating. If your story needs work on structure and/or characterization, you're probably going to be writing whole new scenes and doing radical surgery on existing ones. Why fine-tune your prose first when you're just going to have to go back and do it over again for your new sections? If you fix structural issues first, then you can do one big polishing sweep at the end when the story as a whole is in place. Which isn't to say I wouldn't fix an awkward wording or correct a typo at whatever point I happened to notice it, but still.

She started with a recommendation for how to free up your voice when your writing is tight in a bad way--i.e. when there's not enough emotion or richness of detail coming through in a scene. She calls it riff-writing. You take some piece of your WIP and allow yourself to free write, riffing like a jazz musician. Overwrite in order to capture everything that's there--emotion, details of setting, etc. You then have more there to edit down into what you need. I like this idea and intend to try it out as soon as I hit editing mode. I tend to underwrite, all the more so now that I'm writing a protagonist who controls his emotions with a curb rein at least 90% of the time.

She then gave a lot of examples of wordsmithing techniques to enhance style. I won't go into them all, just the ones that were especially striking or new to me:

- Make use of "power positions," i.e. the beginnings and endings of chapters, scenes, paragraphs, even sentences.
- Figure out what you overuse and edit it out.
- Watch for inadequate specificity of detail. You want to put your reader in a world like no other.

On characterization, Lyon said the goal is to make your protagonist so believable and memorable that he will outlive you. Which made me think about my mortality maybe more than I really want to while enjoying a writers conference, but it's a powerful point--and one with resonance for me because at least one of my characters feels compelled to seek fame to gain a measure of immortality.

The components of a memorable character are attitude and passions. Your character should have strong opinions and unbridled desire and energy for what matters most to him. Writers tend to understate rather than overstate, so look for ways to bump up attitude and passion.

At the very end of the workshop, Lyon moved on to structure, especially scene structure:

- The POV character in each scene should be that scene's protagonist.
- Each scene should have a clear goal.
- The end of a scene needs to have some disaster or surprise to hook the reader into the next scene.
- You can foreshadow a big scene by a small scene of a similar nature.
- You can also use reverse emotions--a fight before lovemaking, a bonding scene before battle, etc.

She didn't have time to get to story structure, which disappointed me, because that's what I'm trying to focus on the most. Fixing scene-sized units of text is easy-peasy compared to making sure the entire structure of a 110,000-word manuscript is unified, coherent, and engrossing. Which is why I bought a copy of The Writer's Journey to replace my old one that I lost. I like the Hero's Journey approach.

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