Interview with Eric Elfman, Manuscript Consultant

In my last post, I described the benefits of Working with a Manuscript Consultant and promised interviews with two of these professionals.
This week, I give you Eric Elfman.
I met Eric years ago during a critique session at the Big Sur Writers Conference. As the group leader, Eric gave insightful feedback with just the right blend of warmth and humor. We hit it off, and that was before I met his wife and son, and became a full-fledged Elfman Groupie. (Trust me. This is an amazing family.)
Eric and I have kept in touch in the years since. When I began my current WIP, we started working more closely in the bi-monthly critique groups mentioned below. He's been a trustworthy voice throughout the process, sharing his keen eye for story as well as loads of encouragement. Eric has become a dear friend, and I'm delighted to share more about him with you.
1) Tell us a little bit about your writing credentials and/or how you decided to become a Manuscript Consultant:
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a writer. (Well, when I was really little, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I didn’t know how to spell it, which ended up causing much confusion in my first grade class.) I wrote my first screenplay, a science-fiction/horror spec, in 4th grade--in longhand on notebook paper! When I started writing professionally, I said yes to every freelance job that came along: I wrote articles for Disney Adventure Digest, Dwell, mental_Floss and other magazines, and several chapters of elementary school history textbooks are mine. For an independent production company that dubbed films, I wrote English-language dialogue for Indonesian kung fu flicks, Uruguayan cowboy movies, and Japanese cartoons--does anyone remember Captain Harlock? Anyone?
In 1985, I wrote my first book for children, the VERY SCARY ALMANAC, published by Random House. I’ll never forget the experience of walking into a bookstore for the first time after it came out and seeing it for sale on the Halloween table. Since then, Random House has published two more of my offbeat almanacs, ALMANAC OF THE GROSS, DISGUSTING & TOTALLY REPULSIVE (an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers) and ALMANAC OF ALIEN ENCOUNTERS. I also wrote an X-FILES novel, OUR TOWN, for HarperCollins, and two collections of scary short stories, THREE MINUTE THRILLERS and MORE THREE MINUTE THRILLERS. And even as we speak, I’m doing the final polish on my new YA, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, which I like to describe as “The Exorcist for kids!”
I also still write screenplays! A few years ago my screenwriting partner, Neal Shusterman, and I sold an original screenplay to Revolution: CLASS ACT, based on the true story of a 6th grade teacher in Reno who ran for Congress with her 11-year-old students as her campaign committee. The film is currently in development with Halle Berry attached to star. Neal and I also wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT for Walden Media, and a sequel to the Curious George movie for Universal.
In 2003, my agent, Andrea Brown, invited me to the Big Sur Children’s Writers Workshop to lead critique groups and meet with writers one-on-one. At the time, I’d only ever critiqued friends’ work, so I was a bit anxious after I said yes. I still sometimes relive that heart-stopping moment when the first writer in my first critique group finished reading her pages and looked up expectantly for my response. It turned out to be a great experience for me and the writers I worked with. I’ve been a member of the Big Sur faculty twice a year ever since, and many of the writers I critiqued there have gone on to be published. A few years after that first Big Sur workshop, I became a private writing coach.
2) Can you describe some of your services?
My innovation as a writing coach is the concept of telecritique groups, where I “meet” with three or four writers twice a month by conference call. Each writer reads a few pages from their manuscript, then we spend the rest of their time (about 30 minutes per writer) discussing those pages. Because I believe that any problems in the larger work -- in the writing, the voice, the characters, the story -- will also show up in that brief excerpt, we spend some of our time exploring those issues as well. I am forming new telecritique groups all the time--I just try to keep the voices of all the writers in the group compatible.
I also read writers’ manuscripts, of course. If the work is a first or an early draft, I may start with a 30 page excerpt. (I occasionally help writers work their way through their first drafts, three or four chapters at a time.) If the work is more developed, I often read the full manuscript. As I read the pages, I’m looking at narrative voice, story structure, characters, relationship, motivations, conflict, pacing, exposition, dialogue, set-ups, pay-offs, reversals, etc.
Then I meet with the writer, either in person or over the phone, to discuss their work. It’s definitely a dialogue between me and the writer as I seek clarification and the writer strives for clarity about the story they’re telling. Often we come up with solutions to story problems and flawed characterization on the spot. If the writer has requested my Level One coaching, I can spend more time on their manuscript, and I return it with my written page notes--pointing out issues, asking questions, and offering specific suggestions.
As a coach (and a friend!), I will check in occasionally to see how their rewrites are coming. The writers I work with often hire me to read their revised manuscripts for further feedback--especially before they submit it to an agent or editor.
3) What kinds of genres do you specialize in, if any? Also, do you have a favorite genre you like to read, outside of your work?
I wouldn’t say I specialize in a genre--although I find that many of my clients are working in fantasy or the paranormal, that might just be a result of the popularity of those genres. But I also have clients who are writing in realistic, contemporary settings and others who are writing historical novels.
I don’t think genre matters as much as the quality of the writing. A good story is a good story regardless of the genre. A believable character with a thwarted goal is always compelling, whether he or she has magical powers or is fending off a bully.
As to what I read in my off hours -- I have off hours? Why wasn’t I informed?!
When I was a kid, I loved to read and I read mostly mysteries. From Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade, as long as there was a mystery to be solved, I was there -- my tastes ran the gamut from middle grade to adult.
I try to keep up with the best middle grade and ya fiction--a sisyphusian task!--so I have very little time to read adult fiction, unfortunately! But when I do, I like books that play with the building blocks of story structure. Two of my all-time favorites are IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT, A TRAVELER by Italo Calvino (a novel written in the form of a series of unrelated first chapters of novels, about a reader who is, with increasing desperation, just trying to finish one of them!) and DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS by Milorad Pavic, which is written in the form of an encyclopedia that you create your own path through by reading the entries as your mood dictates. I also loved William Goldman’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE, which played with structure in a super-fun and funny way (and if you’ve only ever seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the book -- it works on four levels of narrative reality, while the movie only operated on two.)
4) Who is your favorite client? (kidding. I'll answer this one myself.)
LIA KEYES, of course! ( j/k -- of course it’s you!)
(Grrrr.... I'll get you for that one, Eric... The truth is, folks, Eric is one of the nicest, sweetest people you'll ever meet. He's incredibly respectful of everyone's process and makes you feel like you're his favorite client, even if it might be Lia Keyes... I need to stop now. I'm grossing myself out.)
ok, so for real:
4) What is the most satisfying aspect of helping writers with their craft/manuscripts?
Well, the obvious answer is when a writer I’ve worked with finds an agent or, even better, a publisher.
But there are many, many steps before that happens, and what really feels great along the way is to see the work improve. And even more satisfying is when the writer isn’t simply implementing changes I suggest, but starts to learn what makes a story work, what makes their characters tick, what makes the reader have to turn the page. As much as I appreciate it when a writer comes back to me for more feedback, I am happier when they don’t have to!
And okay, and here’s the selfish response -- perhaps the most satisfying aspect of coaching writers is the number of close friends I’ve made in the process.
5) Free advice! Can you tell us what the best advice is for a starting writer?
If you’re ready to pull your hair out and scream, if you find revising your manuscript confusing and nearly debilitating, if you’d bang your head against your keyboard if you weren’t suffering from paralysis in deciding what your character should do next--then congratulations, you’re a writer. That’s the job. Writing is hard. And it doesn’t get easier. (Okay, there are a lucky few who leap to their laptops in the morning and burn through pages with ease. I hate writers like that.)
But overall, if you can do anything besides write, do it.
And along those lines, when you’re writing, think long and hard before you make a choice that makes your job as the writer easier. The story or character beat that is more convenient for you is rarely the more interesting one.
But in spite of it all, just keep writing! Unless you’re lucky enough to have elves in your basement, your book isn’t going to write itself! (Which, by the way, is the premise of a spec screenplay Neal and I wrote!)
6) How can we reach you? I mean... not physically. But, you know. Online.
My coaching site,
I also have a fan site:, but it’s in the process of getting a facelift!
Thanks so much for your time, Eric!


My favorite answer is number four... ;)

Congratulations on the great new blog, Muses! Long may you rock!

Thank you. You will probably hear from me. Do I have to have completed my manuscript?

Eric is awesome! Because of his help, my manuscript improved so much that I won a contest with it based solely on the first ten pages.

Eric is fabulous! *waves to Eric* I met him at Big Sur also. What a great workshop.

Encyclopedia Brown was a favorite of mine too!

Thank you, Eric, for the skill & knowledge you've shared with me. I've moved down to the coast, so maybe I'll start writing again.

Great interview. I also met Eric at Big Sur. Hi, Eric! The workshop was fantastic. I'm going back soon--hopefully next year!

I like the Telecritiquing idea. I'm going to bookmark the site.

The blog is fab, YA Muses. I'll be back often.

Thanks for coming by, everyone, and sharing in the Eric love!

Eric is, indeed, a terrific editor and a delightful man. Thanks for the interview.

Eric is all you say and more. He's a guru and a friend. He critiqued a pilot I'd written and helped me see that I was literally moving in two stylistic directions simultaneously. He gave me numerous, detailed notes; always sensitive and respectful. I implemented most of his suggestions, (not because I thought I should but because they made a ton of sense) and the piece went on to win the Scriptapaloozas TV writing contest. He is a gem and genius. I can't recommend his services enough.

Thanks so much for this interview with Eric, one of my favorite people. He has the mind and soul of a writer and the heart of a mentor. Eric, I'm still waiting for a slot in an evening workshop group :)

Nice interview, Eric! I also LOVE William Goldman. One of my favorites.
Like the advice :-)

Loved the interview! The more I hear about it, the more I'm going to try to get to the March 2011 Big Sur workshop, or at least try the online crit group!


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