November 20, 2011

Guest Post: Elizabeth Lyon

Filed under: Great Reads,The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:00 pm

Manuscript Makeover

It’s not every day–OK, it’s never happened before–that I get to feature someone on the blog who played an instrumental role in helping me get published. There’s a dream guest of mine who would also fit this description–but today’s dream guest came in at an earlier leg of my journey.

I was querying agents with a 180,000 word manuscript. How did I get requests from agents despite that enormous pink elephant in the room? Because I’d read Elizabeth Lyon’s book, The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, and she’d taught me how to write a query letter and a synopsis.

Pure and simple.

Of course, I did many of the things wrong that Elizabeth is going to warn more savvy writers than I was against in her post below. But it didn’t matter. I was getting requests, and soon one of those requests was going to lead me to slice 60,000 unnecessary words from my very first novel, and I was hooked on the process.

Thank you, Elizabeth. And here’s to all our writing roads being paved smoothly…with golden stories.

Elizabeth Lyon

How do I know when my novel is ready to query?

Brace yourself. Stop sending out queries. Am I serious?

All writers are blinded by subjectivity. Few books are ready for publication but the writer is the last one to know this.

Let’s assume that you have done everything you’re supposed to in order to have a completed, ready-to-publish manuscript. That means you’ve done several critical actions first:

  • Finished your novel,
  • Revised it multiple times,
  • Gained feedback from a critique group or a circle of readers,
  • Read Manuscript Makeover then
  • Revised it another 3 or 5 or 12 times.

In addition, to gain marketing savvy you may have boosted your chances of winning in the marketing game by:

  • Attending conferences to gain a quantum leap in understanding of the industry
  • Meeting agents or editors and pitched your book (trial runs on marketing)
  • Entering contests, and
  • Bagging publication of short stories.

You may be thinking, “That’s a huge amount of work. I’d rather be writing.”

Consider this: why should you expect to gain the prize—a contract, money, and recognition, if you have not fully pursued the education and apprenticeship that are pre-requisites in other professions such as playing in a symphony, practicing law, or performing brain surgery?

Let’s say you have done most of the above items. You may even match the following demographic profile:

On average, novelists who break in have 4 novels sitting in a drawer. On average, they have spent 10 years of writing, studying, and marketing. On average, they have a million words under their belt.

To flip this serious blog around, many writers do see publication of first novels (or memoirs—equally difficult to write and publish), after spending only a few years, and some do nothing that is advised and still succeed. Every writer’s trajectory is different.

When you’re ready to query, sometimes the only way to find out if your book makes the grade is by jumping in. Test the market. First, you’ve got to write the query that gains a request to see your pages. Read The Sell Your Novel Toolkit. The query should be 5 to 7 paragraphs, the shorter the better. I’ve seen 3 do the job. If you are sending the query in the mail, your pitch must fit on one page—and don’t forget that SASE. Most agents now want e-mail queries. Some require submission via forms on their websites.

Edit and revise that query till you are sick of it. One writer I know spent 40 hours, literally, on her query. A successful query, in my opinion, gains 3 positive responses out of every 10, and that is what her query produced.

Now, test your query’s effectiveness by sending it to 6 agents via email. If you get rejections, revise your query. Be Teflon coated and let rejections slide away. If you get requests, send exactly what is requested and no more. If you get a request to mail your manuscript or a partial, add a 1- to 3-page synopsis—and an SASE.

Next, send out another batch of 6 or 12 or 30 queries. Rejections? Revise your query; subject it to scrutiny by critique group members or your resident OCD critical friend. Change the order of paragraphs. Amp it with stronger verbs and a stronger hook. Shorten the sentences. Draw your hero in a way that shows original and three-dimensional characterization.

Since many agents (or their assistants) read only a few paragraphs of a query or a few pages of a novel before they hit the delete key or slap the form rejection into the SASE, consider hiring a professional editor to do a critical read-through or a full editing and evaluation of 50 pages and a synopsis.

Obviously, I’m a big believer in using professional freelance book editors either prior to querying or after you know that your novel is apparently not making an agent yelp “Eureka!”

When have you reached the flick-it-in time? You’ll have to decide. Maybe after 30 rejections. Or 50. Or when Catnip walks over your keyboard and won’t let you send more.

History is rife with novelists who believed in their work and were soundly rejected only to self-publish, or to find that one enthusiastic agent after 400 rejections. Some of these books later became bestsellers and award-winners. Traditional mainstream publishing is often too elitist, passing up books that deserve publication; books that are fully professionally written and simply do not guarantee the bottom-line return the publisher is seeking. A plague on all their publishing houses.

So what if your novel is ready to be published? In that case, make it happen. You deserve to complete the circle from idea to creation to a book you can share. We are artists; we deserve an audience. If your marketing gets you an agent and a sale, you’re in. If not, with print-on-demand and e-book technology, the costs are relatively small (do your Google homework) and the satisfaction immense. With completion, you can move on to your next novel, at last returning to what is most satisfying: writing.

Elizabeth Lyon is a freelance book editor for over 20 years. She is the author of 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 Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.

Manuscript Makeover was featured in “The Writer” as one of the “8 Great Writing Books of 2008,” and as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.”


  1. Everything you’re saying is so true…I am on novel #5 and have been writing for about ten years…I have an agent — my second — and am about to go out on submission early next year with #5…

    Comment by Judy — November 20, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  2. Great Post! It all comes down to hard work, whether it be in the writing,the editing, the querying and then starting it all over. But those that are relentless are the ones that succeed.

    Comment by Patty — November 20, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  3. What an excellent, informative post!

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — November 20, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

  4. Judy, you are an inspiration. And, to have hung in there with the Everest learning curve deserves a writer’s Gold Medal. Publication is not nearly enough recognition.

    Alison, thanks for ringing in. Hope the blog helped and didn’t discourage.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 20, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  5. Verrrry interesting post! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Kristie Leigh Maguire — November 20, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

  6. I really enjoy reading this blog. Elizabeth, I will look into your book, “Nonfiction book proposal everyone can write”.

    Comment by Lisa Zhang Wharton — November 20, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

  7. I’m one of the lucky ones to have had a class with Elizabeth early on. I recommend it to any serious writer on the verge of publication. Thanks for the great post.

    Comment by Camille Minichino — November 21, 2011 @ 12:15 am

  8. I appreciate the comments. Just a note–there may be a lag for my response to Monday morning comments or questions from the East as I live in Oregon. Do check back!

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 21, 2011 @ 2:19 am

  9. I have always felt Elizabeth was one of the best writing teachers out there. I had the privilege of taking one of her first workshops back in the 1990s at Seattle Writers. It was workshop on fiction and non-fiction proposals. I have taken several workshops from her since. Her books are close by on my writing shelf. I still have notes from that very first one.

    Even more meaningful to me, she was one of my judges at Surrey Writers when I won first place in non-fiction in 2006. Her comments continue to encourage and inspire me.

    Comment by JLOakley — November 21, 2011 @ 2:58 am

  10. Wow, so very true, but it’s so hard to be patient and go thru the process. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

    Comment by mountainmama — November 21, 2011 @ 6:24 am

  11. It’s hard to read the averages and not feel a little dismal about the chances for my little first novel, but like so many others I will continue to work and work harder. It’s an exciting process and prospect, no matter what happens, isn’t it?

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Have a safe trip back west. :)

    Comment by Leah — November 21, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  12. Good, sound advice. Lots of it out there re queries, etc. This post sums it up perfectly. I really like the emphasis on revision.

    Comment by alex lukeman — November 21, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  13. Thanks for this very informative post. After expecting an immediate “We love your book” response to my first novel and query, I’m a bit wiser. Tips like these would have been great to read but I didn’t even know about the value of visiting blogs at the time. These days I continue to love writing and actually do enjoy the process of the business end of it.

    Comment by Theresa Varela — November 21, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  14. Great post – almost makes me want to get out that metric ton of rejection slips and start over. ALMOST.
    But seriously, I learned a lot from the querying process – like how to craft a letter full of hooks and tweak it often. And I learned even more from the years I was an associate editor for Elizabeth, even though she was the toughest boss I ever had.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — November 21, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  15. It is hard to read the averages, and you know what they say about statistics. I had one editing client who held his published, mass-market paperback in his hands only 4 years after he had begun to write fiction. I didn’t think his writing was ready, at a publishing caliber, but obviously others did.

    Another editing client took about 10 years to write her first novel, a literary mystery, but that included a lot of down time due to the demands of her job. After she retired, she got back to it, finished, and queried. She was represented by one of the better agencies and her novel was sold to a mid-sized NY publisher with a somewhat low advance. And her agent sold German rights where they contracted for a two-book deal–which meant a healthy advance in Euros. Her experience didn’t match the statistics either.

    You never know! Your path is unlike anyone else.

    And Carolyn–if I was your toughest boss, you must have been working for spaghetti noodles.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 21, 2011 @ 11:39 am

  16. Great post. After sending out several mss to the big houses and having them rejected, I decided to try the small epublishers. Three of my mss were accepted, and my second mystery is coming out in the spring. My goal is to have my books available to readers. I’m delighted when I receive an email or a phone call from someone who’s read A MURDERER AMONG US, to tell me how much he or she enjoyed it.

    Comment by Marilyn Levinson — November 21, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  17. Although ten of my books have been published and another adult mystery is scheduled for March publication, I still don’t have an agent and would certainly like to work with one. So I read Elizabeth’s input with serious interest. Thanks for posting such valuable info on your blog, Jenny.


    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE TRUTH SLEUTH–large print edition out in February
    THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL–now out on Kindle as well as

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — November 21, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  18. I’m overjoyed about the DIY (do it yourself) revolution in publishing. I’ve always believed that every writer deserves to see completion from idea to book to audience. Selling your own book for e-readers and as POD (print on demand), in concert with social media and the internet for promotion, has put the power back into the writer’s hands.

    There are downsides, however. Often, a DIY book could have used several if not many more revisions. And, most DIY books have far more mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and spelling than traditionally published books.

    If a reader of a digital or POD book is off-put for either of these reasons, the writer may not win a second chance with subsequent works. At the very least GET A GOOD COPYEDITOR!

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 21, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  19. Elizabeth, I’m impressed at how much time you’re taking to answer all of us. Thank you!

    Comment by Judy — November 21, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  20. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts. You’ve put in the time and the exercises and the hard work to know what you’re talking about. We should all be paying attention.

    Comment by Terry Persun — November 21, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

  21. My wife Carolyn Rose and I took our first serious writing class from Elizabeth in Eugene, then had the good fortune to spend time in writer’s groups with her and become fast friends over the years. The lady knows from whence she speaks. Plus, she is ultra-supportive of the writers she takes under her wing. With my help, we successfully loaded my new book SHOTGUN START into Kindle. I’ll be excited to hear her observations about it. I know they’ll be both positive and helpful.

    Comment by Mike Nettleton — November 21, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  22. This was so interesting to read. It makes me feel better about abandoning novel #3 after receiving only a few reading requests from agents. Maybe someday I’ll put in the time to rework it but right now I’m chomping at the bit to start novel #6. I wonder if I have a million words under my belt yet? Spoken, definitely! Written, not sure.

    Comment by Johanna — November 21, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

  23. I am so glad to see you all here and to listen to this Conversation with Elizabeth (we should totally do that TV show). The comments about how unique all our processes and roads can be are fascinating.

    I recently heard screenwriting demi-god Richard Walters speak and he said the #1 thing writers do wrong is send their work out too soon, a point Elizabeth is certainly corroborating.

    I understand what Leah is saying–we all love the novel we’re writing at the time and from reading some of Leah’s work, I have hopes that she might be one of the statistical tie breakers and come in way under the average.

    But it’s good to know for people like Johanna, writing #6, or Jacqueline who’s written 10 but wants to move in a different direction, or Judy, whose agent is about to go out with #5, or Mike who is trying the Kindle route, Marilyn the small press route–that just because the first road or first book doesn’t work out, there’s no reason for a book not to reach readers–once it’s ready.

    Janet, how wonderful that you won that award–if Elizabeth judged, I know your piece must’ve been great! And Camille, same thing, in terms of the class.

    Mountain and Kristie and Theresa and Lisa and Caroline, thank you so much for visiting and weighing in!

    Comment by jenny — November 21, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  24. Elizabeth, I read The Sell Your Novel Toolkit and did my level best to follow your advice meticulously. I’m now finishing my third mystery for Poisoned Pen Press. Thank you!

    Comment by Ann Littlewood — November 21, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  25. I agree, Jenny. I think the diversity of writers’ experiences points to the fact that we each have our own personal statistics.

    Almost every editing client I’ve had in the last [over] 20 years has submitted prematurely. But, there is value in doing this too. Another set of skills is the business side of publishing. It’s a good thing to learn how to query, assess agents, write the synopsis, polish those first 5 pages, and figure out the complex set of options. More and more these days, I consult with writers to help them make good choices.

    At some point, each writer has to test the readiness of her/his novel, independent of what anyone else thinks or says. That is very valuable. In the olden–LOL–days, like Carolyn mentioned, a writer took pride in a drawer full of paper rejection letters. Some of you may remember the cliche about you had to have enough rejection letters to paper your bathroom before you were ready to get published.

    I appreciate everyone’s comments. Since I’m west coast time, I can still respond to the night owls on the east coast.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 21, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  26. So guess what this means? Alex Lukeman, a thriller author who may do me the favor of appearing on this very blog one day soon, left a comment. Which caused me to get all confused re: Lukemans, mostly because Alex’s nephew wrote a book called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, which is very germane to our convo here today. If you’re enjoying Elizabeth’s post and books, I would also add this one to the reading list

    Welcome to the new visitors, Patty & Terry, and so nice to see Allie here!

    Elizabeth, I agree. Sometimes we have to go too early. If I hadn’t, I never would’ve gotten piece of advice that told me why I was overwriting. It was literally life-changing.

    Comment by jenny — November 21, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  27. Thank you, Jenny, and everyone who has dropped by to comment.

    And good luck!

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — November 21, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

  28. I’m particularly delighted to respond to your post, Elizabeth. Not only do I have an autographed copy (from PNWA 2000) of The Sell Your Novel Toolkit sitting beside me right now, but I followed your advice–especially about writing query letters and extensive revision–and found that your ideas really worked. You were tremendously encouraging to an author just starting out. It’s always a slog to revise my work yet again, but it has paid off. Eleven years later, thanks! I live in Oregon, too, so I can respond late, even if Jenny has gone to bed. Liz

    Comment by Elizabeth C. Main — November 21, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

  29. I’m here, I’m here! Hi to you too, Liz. I might’ve guessed we’d both be Elizabeth Lyon fans!

    Comment by jenny — November 21, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

  30. Wonderfully informative post, thank you, Elizabeth! I have MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER, but it will be some time before I crack it open. Like your one client (whom I actually know of, from taking a class with her husband), I’ve spent almost ten years on one novel, and it’s gone through so many significant changes that it feels like I’ve written three books rather than one. I have a fabulous editor friend who gave me the brilliant insight that there are a lot of writers who have beautiful writing–voice, language, and so on–but are lacking a deep understanding of the structural underpinnings that make a story work properly. I realized that I’ve been part of that category, and it’s only recently that I’ve hit the books on structure, in the same way that I learned historical methodological practices back in grad school. It’s been liberating, and it’s making me restructure the same novel all over again. This time, I’m hoping I’ll finally have a functioning draft ready by next summer that enables me to go to your book on revising. It’s sitting on my shelf, a symbolic goal of where I hope to be in the next 6-8 months. Thanks for your dedication to helping writers of all levels hone their craft!

    Comment by Becca — November 22, 2011 @ 12:44 am

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