Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Drive-Thru Book Review: Back to School the Hard Way

Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford To Ignore
by Elizabeth Lyon
ISBN: 0-399-53395-8

Summer is nearly over here -- the big red First Day of School appeared when we flipped the calendar -- and that means my summer revision-reading frenzy is about complete. Only three short months until NaNoWriMo 2010 kicks in, so two months until I start my pre-planning rituals. With all that in mind, I was looking for a big sendoff to see me through that last two-fifths of last year's draft: some wisdom that would let me put it to bed for a while and clear my head of the old to make way for the new. I've limited these reviews to the (mostly) worthwhile titles: there have been a couple of stinkers in the bunch, including one that name-checked President Carter and took a few friendly (?) jabs at the women's movement. I've been shooting for a mostly-wheat/low-chaff ratio here, and hope they've been informative to you. I've certainly learned a lot from reading all these books, especially in how little I actually know when I slip on that "Editor" hat.

Few books have thrown that knowledge gap into such sharp relief as this one. Despite its small size, this is a hefty book, at 336 pages of text and chapter reviews. It would be very suitable as a textbook, if only because I feel like I got schooled by reading it (as the hep kids say.) Lyon pulls no punches in laying out the components of a successful work, and as I read through the chapters and examples, I'm very aware of how far my own draft has to go. It's not a dense book, and certainly not a hard read, but more than the others I've gone through this summer, it's one that has made me slow down and pay attention. (I skimmed that Carter-era book in around three days.) In fact, I've been reading it so slowly that I had to renew it, just because I want to sit down and take some notes. Heavy schooling indeed.

She's divided the book into four parts: style, structure and pacing, characterization, and marketing. I only gave the last part a pass and a light read, but it's also the smallest portion of the book (Lyon has another book dedicated to this specific topic.) And to tell you the truth, I was pretty dispirited by the time I got there. Sell the book? With the shape it's in, I'll be lucky if I can get anyone to read the book. Clearly, some major reconstruction work is ahead. But it's not all gloom and despair. I learned that my novel could be classified as picaresque, which is a wonderful four-dollar word to whip out the next time I'm invited to a snooty wine-and-cheese mixer. Ah yes, my previous novel was a picaresque comedic fantasy, you know. Sounds nice, even with a mouthful of cheese.

I recommend Manuscript Makeover if you're strong of stomach and willing to hold your own work up to a very clear, high-definition mirror. And if not, might I recommend a little wine first?

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