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Writer's Digest: 2013 Best Writing Websites (2013)

  • I’m still studying Shirley Jackson, and if you don’t know why you can easily find out. I spent all day doing a scene-by-scene analysis of Chapters 5 and 6 of The Haunting of Hill House that turned into line-by-line—that’s how fast she switches gears in her most profound passages!—and at some indefinite point degenerated into re-reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Utterly seductive writing. Of course, this all started with Stephen King and his 1981 overview of the twentieth-century horror genre, Danse Macabre, a whole world of learning how to push readers’ buttons.

    But this week I’m discussing with a client the writing of Dashiell Hammett.

    Speaking of shifting gears.

    Now, my client isn’t writing detective mysteries. In fact, she’s not writing any kind of mysteries. But she is writing wonderful, gripping scenes shaped largely around dialog, so we’re exploring the tools and techniques of drawing a reader fully into scenes, the way the balance of description, action, and dialog has altered over the decades, and the ever-growing modern dependence upon exposition.

    Sometimes writers hear, “You have to intersperse scenes with exposition because otherwise your story is too intense,” and, “There’s no formula, you have to just sense when to slip into exposition.”

    There are reasons for this advice, and the best way I know to ferret out the reasons for any fictional techniques is to study how the greats used them.

    So I went to Hammett, because I already knew that he changed styles drastically between The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, and in this change in style he illustrated a number of things:

    1. It is not true that stories without exposition are simply too intense

      Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon pretty much entirely without exposition—pure scenes. And it’s a heck of a fabulous novel.

      How did he do it?

      Well, for one thing, he did it in the 1930s, long before most of the publishing professionals who recommend exposition today were even born. Most of those people depend, not upon a deep understanding of the craft, but upon whatever they read on current best seller lists.

      Do those novels tend to be largely exposition?

      Yes, they do.

      Why?

      Because current publishing market conditions require successful authors to crank out novels as fast as they can to feed the appetites of the dominant industry players, who are the marketers. This means, although an author might be able to visualize their story quite clearly and be adept enough with language to flesh it out in good, solid scenes, they don’t have time. They must be content with sketching the story in exposition—practically essay—and shoving it on down the chute.

      Now, does this phenomenon mean that exposition-heavy fiction is the best fiction?

      Absolutely not.

      The preponderance of cheap crap in our society does not make that stuff the best quality stuff in existence. It just means it makes money the fastest for the people who produce it. Not over the long haul. Only in the moment. Enormous waste.

    2. The modern shift away from description dates from the 1940s

    3. The difference between the opening pages of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, published only a few years apart, is simply amazing.

      On page one of The Maltese Falcon, we get a meticulous, detailed description of the face of Sam Spade. (Just as Hammett’s colleague, Raymond Chandler, devoted the first chapter of more than one novel to a meticulous description of a house.) Boy, did Hammett love the idea that Spade’s face is designed in a series of v’s! We also get a detailed description of how her dress clings to the body Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie, who plays a minor role in the story. And Hammett gives us the fake name of the villain—which will be discarded long before the end of the novel—and the fact that Spade is willing to see pretty much any ‘customer’ who’s a good-looking woman.

      That’s all the information.

      One page one of The Thin Man, on the other hand, we get half-a-sentence of exposition about waiting for ‘Nora’ (the protagonist’s wife, his comic foil and the source of his character layering—even, at one point, the author’s mouthpiece, exhorting both reader and other characters to believe the protagonist is a brilliant detective although he hasn’t actually shown himself to be anything but a wiseacre and a serious alcoholic—Nora appears in pretty much every single scene of the novel) to do her Christmas shopping (placing the story in the time of year, as the chronology of events over previous months is pivotal to the plot).

      Then we immediately get a little action, some sketchy description, and a bunch of extremely pertinent dialog. In the dialog, we learn the name of the murder victim as well as that of his daughter, who is the character speaking to the protagonist and a very major character indeed, the protagonist’s main link to the victim throughout the novel. We also learn the Backstory of how long it’s been since the protagonist last saw the murder victim (eight years), the victim’s current marital status with the girl’s mother, who turns out to be the main red herring of the story (divorced), plus the victim’s current notoriety in the newspapers, which is the source of everyone’s motivation to believe the man is bonkers and has suddenly taken to running around New York murdering people.

      Character motivation! The single most important character motivation in Hammett’s entire story.

      And a bit of genuine wit (which, aside from engaging the reader, neatly establishes the protagonist’s character).

      “Listen: remember those stories you told me. Were they true?”

      “Probably not. How is your father?”

      Almost all of these basic building blocks of the novel right there on the first page—and in dialog!

      Not exposition.

    4. The modern shift away from dialog is quite recent

      Actually, you can learn this from Armistad Maupin, whose Tales of the City of the 1970s and ’80s are almost entirely dialog. When sitcom-watching was first becoming a 24-hour American lifestyle, dialog absolutely took over fiction.

      But even before that, dialog had a long and respected history as the main staple of literature.

      However, now that hyper-emphasis upon making a quick buck, big-box outlets that churn books for maximum bookseller profit like Barnes & Noble and Walmart, and the omnipresence of blogging are all the focus of modern publishing, even dialog isn’t slick enough for those making the decisions high up on the industry ladder.

      Is this because dialog doesn’t work as well as exposition?

      Of course not.

      But exposition is just that much easier to read when you’re not really paying attention—say, while you’re texting your friends or watching your favorite television show or toying with your blog (or your own novel) or just standing in line waiting to buy a bunch of cheap crap.

      (I have a whole lot of things I could say about the relationship between this development and the rise of the dimestore novel in the 1930s, but it would be quite a serious tangent, so I will spare you.)

    5. The resulting dependence upon action coincides with the rise of stories dependent upon the physical rather than the perceptive

      And this is a really interesting development.

      What happens when you suck the bulk of your description and dialog out of your scenes? You wind up stuck with action.

      Thriller (violence). Romance (sex). The biggest-selling modern genres by a very large margin.

      Think about it.

    6. Therefore, for lack of most scene techniques, modern writing leans toward exposition

      And this is what happens when your novel is neither violent action thriller nor soft-core p*rn romance: you have no adrenaline-triggering actions left to put into your scenes. And you can’t write actions that don’t trigger intense pre-programmed adrenaline because, you know, that’s what everyone else is writing, and industry marketers want you to compete.

      So you wind up falling back on exposition—trying to talk your reader into caring about your characters and your story.

      “They’re really nice people!” you see yourself typing. “They’ve always been good neighbors, taken good care of their elderly parents, worn the right brand-name clothes [insert brand name here], watched the right TV shows [insert names], listened to the right music [insert names]. They’re very upset when bad things happen to them!” And then you write a nice little essay on the bad things that happen.

      Sadly, essay—not fiction.

    7. It is not true that a writer can’t plan where to put their lines of exposition

      Actually, it’s not true that a writer can’t plan any of the techniques we use. That’s just silliness. . .promoted by the people in the industry who have not studied literature and therefore have no idea why fiction works the way it does.

      “We don’t know!” Palms up, shrug. “It’s the magic of those wacky successful writers!”

      No, it’s not.

      It’s technique.

      1. Identify what steps your characters must take between the hook and the climax of every single long scene. (Don’t use too many steps, though. I know exactly how many you can get away with, and if you read my blog and books you know, too.)

      2. Identify what the little tiny climaxes of those steps are going to be.

      3. Write something really good for each of those tiny climaxes. (Cut out all the uninteresting stuff.)

      4. After each tiny climax, throw in a brief, vivid, perhaps unexpected action, a bit of significant description, or—if you must—a very nice line of essential exposition. A very nice line.

      5. Then hook the reader into the next step of the long scene.

      6. Develop it a bit and give it a little tiny faux resolution before the next little tiny climax.

      7. If it’s a short scene, do this and then hook the reader into the next scene.

      Lather, rinse, repeat.

    UPDATE: I’ve gotten more than one comment asking for the definition of exposition, so I answered the first (from Susan Kelly) on my advice column: Growing plot out of character, situation out of need.

    Please be aware that “exposition” is one of the most confusing of the terms used in fiction today, defined in different places as everything from backstory to narrative to data. It is none of these, although it can be used for the purposes of any of them. I take my definitions from the OED and the great editors of the twentieth-century, such as Maxwell Perkins, who told an author, “You have too much explanation, too much exposition,” which, he advised, should be cast into scenes.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • Now, you all know who Shirley Jackson was, and if you don’t you can find out from last week’s post about Stephen King. She was most famous for her story “The Lottery,” in which the citizens of a small American town draw an annual lottery to stone someone to death—a story that caused an unbelievable furor when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948.

    The most frightening aspect of “The Lottery” is that Jackson claimed a great many of the hundreds of letters she received were from people who wanted to know where that lottery was held and whether or not they could go watch.

    Wow. She didn’t just find the pressure points in her readers and press them. Her readers pressed back!

    A miracle of a writer.

    But what I love Jackson for best are her ghost stories. She wrote a number of novels with the sole purpose of making you wonder what the hell is going on. I haven’t read all of them—I’m savoring the anticipation—but I have read We Have Always Lived at the Castle, The Sundial, and of course the wonderful, classical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.

    I just analyzed Hill House this past weekend. Although Jackson didn’t plan her novels (and, in fact, seems to have dealt with their structure with a rather liberal hand), I discovered a few things I didn’t know before, which I find simply extraordinary.

    1. Anticipation and fulfillment follow a simple arc

      If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about structure, you know it’s a straight-forward three-act design. And in a ghost story (or any story in which you want tension), this design depends as much upon anticipation and dread as it does upon fulfillment of the reader’s expectations:

      1. threat is perceived
      2. threat is described
      3. threat arrives
      4. threat develops
      5. threat retreats
      6. threat wins


      Can you can identify the six elements of structure in that? It’s really simple.

    2. Push/pull mechanism operates most powerfully in extremes

      Weak elements lead to weak reader engagement. This is why thrillers monopolize the best seller lists. You can write a story of people who are only slightly annoyed with each other while mainly pretty happy with their lot. But if you make your reader (not just your character!) really nervous, then really entertained, then really nervous again—you’ll have them by the nose-ring.

    3. The key to increasing tension is adding elements over time

      In Jackson’s work, this means adding emotional strategies for the characters to explore, ways in which they struggle harder and harder to cope with their dilemmas. Yes, your protagonist has two fundamental needs to meet. And they might have two ways in which they’re accustomed to meeting them. But the reader wants to know what they do when they’re backed in a corner, which means when their normal coping mechanisms are taken away from them.

      At first Jackson’s characters are either funny or frightened. Those are pretty normal coping mechanisms. Later they branch out into aggression. Numbness. Terror. And finally, against everything the reader has always believed in, surrender. . .

    4. Humor pushes tension past the reader’s defenses

      Humor is extremely difficult to manage because it’s such a very specialized skill, but if you’ve got the touch you’re golden. And the best place for humor to exist is not in the voice (although a lot of writers today, particularly children’s writers, depend upon a generic humor in first-person narrative voice) but in the characters.

      Jackson’s characters are deep, conflicted, touchy, secretive, and most of all witty. Even at the height of the climactic drama of the novel, in which the four main characters cower together in a bedroom all night while the house rocks and spins and tears itself to pieces around their heads, she managed to slip in a tiny bit of humor in the dialog of two characters trying—with white knuckles—to alleviate the terror that’s threatening to become all-out panic. In that instance, the reader’s resistance to their suspension of disbelief is broken by the deftness of Jackson’s touch, and the scene suddenly becomes unbearably real.

      WARNING: Don’t try to insert humor into your stories without working long and hard at it. Failed humor is worse than no humor at all.

    5. There is no substitute for beautiful writing

      Seriously. I don’t care how many times you hear, “Genre writing doesn’t have to be beautifully-written. It’s only entertainment,” that is bull. All writing is about getting into the reader’s mind, and now more than ever we need writers who understand that readers are not slot machines—insert genre whatever, out dumps a bunch of money—they are human beings with complex and sophisticated relationships to the stories they love.

      Yes, you can wring money out of readers with cheap stuff dashed off the top of your head so long as you accidentally or deliberately plug into some current fad. I could be doing that instead of editing and probably make a much better living. But fads fade over time, and if you’re dependent upon them for your sales your income will fade with them.

      You cannot create stories that last if you don’t care about the writing of them.

      Do you know why we’re still reading The Haunting of Hill House over fifty years after it was published, but nobody knows the names of the bad genre authors of the 1980s and ’90s (which authors are now griping away their years at ordinary jobs, embittered by the shift in their fortunes)?

      The writing.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • I love ghost stories.

    Particularly the whole gothic genre of the nineteenth century: intense questioning of reality layered with beautiful houses and dramatic landscapes and sometimes hilariously-dated kitsch. I’ve read all of Mrs. Radcliffe. Whooee!

    I especially love the whole concept that my love for ghost stories is the other side of my utter yellow-bellied, chicken-livered response the few times I’ve thought there was a real ghost in my vicinity. Have you ever seen anyone levitate straight in the air and cling to a chandelier?

    Yeah, that was me.

    That makes my relationship with ghosts and ghostly ephemera the complete encapsulation of everything I know about the internal conflict that is the driving fuel of all fiction:

    1. Be careful what you wish for or you might just get it

    2. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers

    So it will be no shock to any of you to learn that my one of my favorite novels of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

    My god, what an amazing writer. I stumbled on that book in a second-hand store a few years ago, but I was not surprised to discover later that it is canonical and, in fact, one of the novels that taught Stephen King his trade. (I would love to get into a discussion of all Jackson’s work, and at a some point I probably will, but for now I’m going to content myself with recommending this gorgeous, mysterious novel to writers in general.)

    I was interested enough when I heard that King discusses The Haunting of Hill House in his nonfiction exploration of horror to run out and buy a copy of Danse Macabre, which King wrote in 1981 between Firestarter and Cujo (not counting one of the novels he wrote under his Richard Bachman-Turner-Overdrive pseudonym).

    Now, it turns out King’s interpretation of Hill House is, sadly, so wildly pedestrian as to be almost useless. He analyzes Hill House at length as the height of narcissism because it’s about the internal world of a young woman with whom he can’t identify (although one of his own favorite novels is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which is about the internal world of a man with whom he apparently can). King finally admits there might be another “truly terrifying” interpretation of Hill House, which is that it’s the house itself that’s generating the ghosts. . .um, bingo, Stephen.

    However, King is still heck of smart, his book is a meticulous research project on the horror genre of the twentieth century (largely movies and television, but also fiction), and he’s a very good writer when he wants to be.

    I dog-eared dozens of pages of Danse Macabre so I could go back later and copy out quotes and insights, which I am studying right now. And I’m discovering that even when King is a little limited in his exploration of his basic insights, they lead me into truly rich ground in my own understanding of fiction.

    1. Fiction is seeking pressure points

      Wow, do I love this insight.

      Fiction is about reaching into the reader, past their intellectual understanding of both your story and themself, and pressing where it’s sensitive. Some writers—like King—do what they do because for many people the resulting adrenalin rush of terror temporarily deadens all other feeling and gives them some relief from their own fears. And King has learned that readers in an era of political upheaval and economic uncertainty are willing to plunk down a whole lot of cash for relief.

      This is also why romance aka soft-core p*rn is the top-selling genre these days.

      Adrenalin rush through either procreation or running for your life, the two most predictable chemical jolts in the animal kingdom. Temporary relief.

      Yes, indeed.

      But even if you’re not interested in simple-minded triggering of the adrenalin of terror or sex (as I really am not—there are real-life social and personal consequences to addiction to those particular adrenalin triggers, which I’m not going to get into here), your goal is still to trigger emotion in the reader.

      Not in your characters. In the reader. Visceral response.

      Without that, you’re just talking to yourself.

    2. Without belief, there is no reader engagement

      King talks about reader engagement purely in terms of terror and horror, but again this insight applies to all genres, all fiction.

      Is your goal to engage the reader in a fantasy adventure? That reader had better believe the logic behind your fantasy, or they’re not going to feel the thrill of the adventure.

      Is your goal to engage the reader in an exploration of sci-fi? That reader had better believe in your science, or they’re not going to feel invested in the consequences.

      Is your goal to engage the reader in YA or MG? That reader had better believe in the authenticity of your teenagers’ or children’s world, or they’re not going to feel one cotton-pickin’ thing for the dilemmas of your characters.

    3. Fiction is both what you say out loud and what you say in a whisper

      This is called subtext, and it’s essential for all storytelling.

      An enormous amount of the writer’s toolbox is devoted to techniques specifically designed for subtext: structure, pacing, resonance, juxtaposition, dialog, description, action, gesture and mannerism and expression, word choice and and sentence structure and telling detail. The list goes on and on.

      Devote yourself to learning these techniques, and the entire universe of subtext will blossom for you with a complex and unearthly beauty.

    4. Locking the world out is locking the world in

      Again, King discusses this purely in terms of terror—that the character’s efforts to hide (specifically inside a house) lead them very often to closet themself with their enemy.

      But this is, in the greater scheme of things, why readers read: as they sink into fiction to escape their own worries and griefs, they find themselves unconsciously drawn to stories that reflect those very things.

      This is the psychological reflex of healing. We are unconsciously desperate to lock ourselves in with what truly haunts us (not just what pushes our buttons), to face it and triumph once and for all.

    5. Lives and careers can be destroyed in a moment

      Fast, succinct, condensed—these are the hallmarks of great fiction.

      You want your fiction to be powerful, don’t you? Well, power is greatest where matter is most condensed. Don’t stand too close to a black hole, people.

    6. Reader engagement arises from the feeling that the world is ‘unmaking’

      And this is perhaps my very favorite insight. Just that word: ‘unmaking.’ King has put his finger on the pressure point of all humanity with that one.

      Both anticipation and anxiety are the key human responses to the possibility that something we want and need will all our souls is being ‘unmade.’ And those are two of the most powerful push/pull emotions a writer can use.

      Push the reader away with anxiety—oh, no! things are falling apart!

      Pull the reader in with anticipation—oh, boy! things are falling apart!

      The ways in which the reader feels these developments depend entirely upon how you craft your characters, what needs you give them, what illumination you cast upon their endless struggles to meet their needs.

      This is the core of the writer’s work: employing the myriad wonderful techniques of fiction to play upon the reader’s emotions like a xylophone.

      Oh, yes.

    7. Stephen King did a lot of cocaine in the early ’80s

      And you can sure tell.

      You get this from the last third of Danse Macabre, which escalates into the final chapters until you can veritably hear that ole razor scraping the mirror. “Just one more last thing,” he starts saying. “Just one more last thing.”

      Notice how he loses reader engagement when it stops being about leading the reader where he’s decided he wants them to go and begins to be only about him and his frantic, hopped-up need to just keep talking?

      Take a lesson from Stephen King.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

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  • I’m going to introduce you all today to my grandmother, to whom I was very close and who gave me most of the instructions that now guide my life.

    1. If you can’t say something interesting, don’t say anything at all.

      This, of course, is not what she really said, but it is the cardinal rule of fiction.

    2. Sit down nicely and share with your sister.

      This one she said all the time.

      Because it’s not about me. It’s not even about you. It’s about sharing this amazing, complicated, poignant world with the reader, and if we can’t share nicely they’re not going to follow us around begging.

    3. If you don’t learn to make your bed, no one will marry you.

      This one she also said, and I’m not going to use up space here recording my many witty adolescent replies. Suffice it to say that she was mistaken, and nobody in my house now is any good with hospital corners.

      However, she was correct that if we don’t learn how to shape and tidy our manuscripts no one will ever read them. They’re incredibly lumpy, uneven, and full of missing socks in their early drafts. Readers find them extremely uncomfortable and cannot relax.

      This is a bad thing.

    4. Don’t be a smart-aleck.

      This is also a bad thing.

      We’re all very clever and amusing people, I know, in the privacy of our own heads and usually a number of hours after it doesn’t matter anymore. I infused my own early novels with a whole plethora of snarky asides and snappy comebacks.

      Turns out Grandma was right on the money with this one too, though.

      Readers don’t want untutored attempts at snark. They want either real, one-of-a-kind, death-defying humor that makes them spontaneously laugh out loud or no smartypants nonsense at all.

    5. Stop kicking the table leg.

      No kidding, people. I know we all get intensely frustrated at the state of the publishing industry these days. It is indeed an intensely frustrating state, in which unknown writers become less and less likely to see publication every single time someone buys a best seller at Walmart.

      But the truth is we were already complaining about the state of the industry decades ago, when it seems in retrospect that we actually had it fairly good.

      We need to just stop annoying people and buckle down to the hard work.

    6. Wipe your feet before you walk on my clean floors.

      Leo Buscaglia tells the story of meeting a famous Buddhist lama and walking in the garden with this gentle little man, yammering on and on and on about himself and his big, brilliant ideas and how important they all were, until the gentle little man turned suddenly and slapped him right in the face.

      “Stop walking in my head with your dirty feet!” the lama exclaimed.

      This is excellent advice for all of us—but especially for writers.

    7. Keep your sticky fingers off my wallpaper.

      Again, the reader has their own big, brilliant ideas, which they love far more than they are ever going to love ours. It is our job to show them their own lovely wallpaper, not muck it up getting our fingerprints all over it.

    8. Don’t make me tell Grandpa.

      You know who Grandpa is? That’s right. The reader. And Grandpa always gets the last word.

    9. Machst gut.

      Actually, it was my great-grandmother who said this, the German granddaughter of pioneers, a woman who lived to be 93 and, at the end of her life, began seeing the ghost of her husband in her room at night.

      Make it good.

      If you’re going to be haunted, you know, it had better be worth your while.

    10. You can cry on me.

      Grandma also said this, for which I will always love her.

      There’s a lot of grief in first struggling for years to get our beautiful dreams down in words and then finding someone who wants to read them. I don’t care how brilliant or talented or experienced we are, our kindness to each other is truly the most important thing we have to give.

    11. Come back and see us again soon, honey.

      Because when you get right down to it, it’s all about dedication and long-term commitment—commitment and good-heartedness and being in this world with others. We’re able to share our wonderful fictional adventures with the reader only if they add significantly to the reader’s life.

      And if we can’t develop the habit of producing great stories—not just one, but one after another, for as long as we expect others to pay attention—we must content ourselves with being readers.

      After all, everyone loves them.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • Hey, guys, I just spent the entire day trying to develop video for this blog. Guess what? That’s right. So let’s talk about how my experiment with video mimics the experience of writing fiction:

    1. It always seems like such a good idea at the time.

      Who has not begun a story with the gripping, overwhelming conviction that this is the best idea ever?

    2. It gets intensely complicated, overblown, and unwieldly really, really fast.

      Writing fiction is enormously complex and involves far more facets than can ever be entirely remembered or even explained. We try and try and try to simplify the basics so we can build a sense of competence and an inner sensory map—a body memory of how to navigate these complexities—but the sheer number of layers always makes the overall picture invisible from any particular vantage point.

    3. It involves a whole lot of little, nickpicky details you simply can’t see coming.

      Fiction is all details: the details of character, the details of plot and subplot and plot thread, the details of setting, the details of tens and tens of thousands of words and sentences. Detail overload. . .and yet every one of them is essential.

    4. The exact aspect of any and all illumination is crucial.

      If we don’t have complete control over where we shine the light when we create, we can’t hope to show our audience what we want them to see.

    5. Repeated attempts to accomplish the same piece of the project over and over again becomes something akin to hammering jello on porcelain.

      Revision is massage taken to the point of pummeling. The breakage can be, eventually, deafening.

    6. Stagefright is a constant.

      Although the camera acts as an audience in the external world, our critical faculties act as an on-going internal audience, so that the accumulation of silent tut-tut’s can be paralyzing if we listen.

    7. Halfway through, you’re guaranteed to forget what you’re doing.

      We are a simple species, and one of the most predictable of our reflexes is the urge to mentally step away when things stop being fun. This is especially true right about when we’ve acquired 36,000 of the 72,000 words we need.

    8. Freezing in the headlights is sometimes the only thing that makes sense.

      Fortunately, the fact that none of this is live means we can freeze for as long as we like. It’s never detrimental to the final product, and it’s often the key to quality.

    9. It turns out you don’t actually have a single, consistent voice.

      Did you know this about yourself? Even when you’re talking? Me neither.

    10. The longer you struggle, the more obvious it becomes this can’t possibly end well.

      I really don’t have an answer for this.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • I don’t usually futz around with grammar issues here, but this one came up and it’s kind of an exception, so I’m going to give you a little grammar lesson today.

    You all know me well enough to know I don’t make too many grammatical howlers, and you probably also know that I use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third-person singular construct. But so far (almost five years of this blog now) you’ve all been quite accepting of that and not questioned my reasoning. Then someone linked to a post of mine, but when they quoted me they felt obliged to insert a ‘[sic]‘ after ‘they’ to let their readers know they know they think it’s ungrammatical. Which was very conscientious of them.

    So I thought I’d better explain: this is not an ungrammatical error; this is a deliberate editorial decision.

    One I made thirty years ago.

    Back in the early 1980s, shortly after the women’s rights movement had finally put Equal Rights for women into a Constitutional Amendment (a no-brainer, right? it was voted down), there was a lot of hoopla over the correct third-person singular pronoun in the English language. Because, of course, we don’t have a neutral third-person singular pronoun, and historically English grammarians (mostly men) had made the decision that all third-person singulars must be considered male until proven female.

    An extremely odd decision, all things considered, since more than half the people on this planet are female. You’d think it would go with the majority, wouldn’t you? But no. A female was male to all strangers in print unless she could give a really good reason to refer to her as female. It seems simply being female wasn’t a good enough reason.

    And the feminists—rightly—took issue with this.

    There was a little book that came out around then called The Tao of Pooh, which I liked a lot. So when the author wrote a sequel, The Te of Piglet, I ran right out and bought it. And what do you know—the author had decided that the great success of The Tao of Pooh had transformed him magically overnight into an authority on all things literary, and he devoted a whole chapter in The Te of Piglet to this grammatical contretemps and his personal opinion that any female who objected to being considered male sight-unseen was a hysterical freak and should simply be shouted down. His argument was that it didn’t hurt anybody, it was easy to get used to, and feminists were making a big old flapadoodle about nothing.

    And he had a point.

    So I sat myself down and wrote him a letter—in those days we didn’t have email, so when you wrote an author a letter, you wrote a real letter, put it in a real envelope, stamped it with a real stamp, and mailed it off to their publisher—in which I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Such a trivial issue didn’t hurt anyone in the slightest and could easily be considered a whole lot of flapadoodle about nothing, as I could prove by having taken to using the female third-person singular pronoun for everyone, which I’d gotten used to almost immediately. And I thought this author, when she’d had a chance to think about it, would throw her weight behind me as well.

    Sadly, in spite of my enthusiasm, The Te of Piglet failed as a philosophical treatise, and nobody ever heard from that guy again.

    I was kidding, of course, about using the female pronoun for third-person singular. You could. Just as easily as the male, and with a little more logic, seeing as how you had better odds of being right in a world dominated by the female gender. But it would miss the point that respect is a pretty fundamental attitude to hold toward our fellow humans, and respect for each of us as a member of our own gender is pretty close to most of our hearts.

    Fortunately, I saw a simple solution that didn’t involve either the awkward constructs he/she or she/he (I was always surprised nobody seemed to choose the latter) or some variation on randomly messing with everyone’s gender in general.

    And that was in the natural evolution of language and—slightly lagging but still evolution—of grammar.

    Grammar was not handed down from on high the day the English language was invented, never to be deviated from again. Grammar is a product of usage, and all language usage evolves first in oral tradition, only to be accepted in written grammatical forms eventually, even if at a slightly later date. So that, for example, when the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ dropped out of common daily usage, it was some time before grammarians realized it no longer made sense to insist upon it for the English version of the Romance Language variations on the Latin intimate second-person singular, ‘tu.’ Nobody insists a writer use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anymore, even in dialog between parents and children. I’m pretty sure.

    In the same way, common usage had already, even thirty years ago, solved the third-person singular pronoun dilemma. In oral communication, we all simply used ‘they.’

    “Who was that jogger? They just threw garbage in front of my house!”

    “I got the weirdest call the other day. This person said they had a hot deal for me, but it turned out they didn’t know what it was.”

    “I know you always think a pundit’s clever so long as they’re fast with a pun, but I’d like to see them disagree with themself once in awhile.”

    It seemed a simple step to adjust my grammatical compass to accept this common-sense solution to such a sticky problem. So I did. In fact, I even use the third-person singular reflexive pronoun ‘themself.’ I’ve been using it for thirty years—in speech as well as in writing.

    Now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, with all its flapadoodle flapping in the breeze in all directions, I’ve simply stopped worrying about it. Am I on the cutting edge? Or am I just going with the flow?

    Either way, common usage has proven for decades now that it’s grammatically correct.

    UPDATE from Christine Kidney:

    Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules says: ‘Note, however that it is now generally regarded as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts is probably the best solution, but can become tiresomely long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.’





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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

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  • Elizabeth Spann Craig is well-known in the online writing community for her Writers Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, where she maintains links to all the best posts on writing online, and her weekly Twitterific post, rounding up the weeks’ exchange of writing posts through Twitter on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder.

    But that’s not all—not even half! Because Elizabeth’s understanding of writing craft is based solidly in her popular mystery series, published through Penguin and her own imprint: the Memphis Barbeque Mystery series with Penguin/Berkley under the pseudonym Riley Adams, the Southern Quilting Mystery series with Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clove series with Midnight Ink.

    Elizabeth’s a busy woman! And today she’s taken time to talk with us about the dark, labyrinthine ways of both our favorite genre. . .mystery.

    Elizabeth, so lovely to have you here! I know your forte is mystery, as is mine, so let’s be completely self-indulgent today and talk of nothing but mysteries. Who are your favorite mystery authors?

    Thanks so much for hosting me, Victoria! I’m excited to be here. I love indulging in a conversation about mysteries—my favorite topic.

    I have lots of favorite mystery authors, and I love them for different reasons. Agatha Christie is my all-time favorite because I love her quirky sleuths and their unusual approaches to solving crimes. M.C. Beaton has been a more recent favorite. Her Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin sleuths are very human and fallible, but know how to capitalize on their individual strengths. And I’m amazed by the work of Elizabeth George (especially her earlier books), Deborah Crombie, Caroline Graham, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter—yes, I could go on and on ad nauseum. Who are some of your favorites?

    Well, Raymond Chandler, you know. Anyone who can say, “He had a chin like a strap-hanger’s elbow,” owns me. I love the classics and Golden Age writers: Poe, Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Chesterton, Hammet, Gardner, Sayers, Van Dine, Stout. Let’s not forget the brilliant Wilkie Collins. Robert van Gulick wrote Westernized versions of Chinese mysteries about a real fifth-century judge. Ngaio Marsh’s charming Detective-Inspector Alleyn. Georges Simenon’s deadpan noir Maigret. Alexander McCall Smith’s hilariously pragmatic Precious Ramotswe. And I’ve recently discovered Derek Raymond and his haunting How the Dead Live.

    Oh, we could turn this whole interview into a list of names! I’m addicted to the Gold Room at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Have you ever been there?

    No, I sure haven’t, but it’s legendary. I’m very envious! I’d probably get absorbed and forget to leave and they’d have to send a search party after me.

    [Laughing] Such a dangerous place.

    Recently I’ve discovered that some really old mystery titles from the Golden Age and lesser-known authors are becoming available on e-readers. It’s fantastic to be able to find and enjoy some treasures from the past.

    So how did you get into mysteries? What first made you love them?

    I’m a little bit of a cliche there. I’m one of those mystery writers who was heavily influenced by Nancy Drew as a kid. I read all the Nancy Drews I could get my hands on. . .my mother had ladies tearing up their attics looking for old bags of Nancy Drew books. I plowed through mysteries wherever I could find them—Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden—even watching Scooby Doo on television. Yes, I was even one of those kids who had a detective notebook of observations and recorded what adults were doing and saying. It kind of bordered on the fanatical, now that I think of it!

    As a teenager, I started moving into adult mysteries. I read Christie, Sayers, and Carr before moving into P.D. James. I love a whole range of mysteries—private eye, police procedural, thriller, noir—and feel like I’ve been influenced by all of them, although I’m writing traditional mysteries/cozies.

    I just love the puzzle aspect of mysteries and the fact that it’s an almost interactive experience—we solve the case alongside the sleuth. I also enjoy being scared, in a safe way. With a mystery, I get a safe thrill. If a book gets too intense, I can close it or shut down the Kindle and return to safety quickly. I think that’s one reason so many readers like traditional mysteries—the murders occur in a tranquil, safe environment. It disrupts the town, but then everything is tidily returned to normal by the end of the book. It’s a satisfying feeling.

    Exactly. The triumph of sanity over insanity. Hey, remember Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s book, Harriet the Spy? Very odd, insightful take on what the world of sleuthing is all about in the childlike recesses of the human mind. Did you ever read it?

    I sure did. . .maybe because I was also an odd child with a notebook! Of course in an adult murder mystery little Harriet, with all her eavesdropping, would have known too much. . .she’d have met with an untimely demise.

    [Laughing] That’d make a fabulous children’s mystery—you’d better write it! It’s strange to read Raymond Chandler’s letters from the 1950s, when he railed against the difficulty of mystery earning its rightful place in the canon. And now there’s a whole world of literature based on, as you say, that sense of “safety” in exploring frightening themes, the puzzle that satisfies the intellect. What is your favorite mystery technique or storyline?

    You know, there are just so many elements that make up a great mystery. It takes real skill to keep readers from guessing the murderer’s identity without making them frustrated. One of my favorite techniques is the unreliable witness, which Agatha Christie used to such great effect. It involves discrediting a witness/supporting character by either showing his incompetence, lack of intelligence, or immaturity (if the witness is a young child), and then having him either unveil a major clue or actually name the murderer or motive. Since the readers don’t respect the character, they won’t give credence to his statements. It’s a fun technique to play around with.

    Oh, excellent. Yes. I just re-read Shirley Jackson’s canonical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, and the way she confuses the reader about who’s portraying the truth and who’s simply bonkers—genius! So what’s the most common failing you see in unsuccessful mysteries?

    I read a lot of reviews of mysteries, actually, because I’m interested in finding out what readers like and dislike most. One of the biggest complaints that I see is when readers lose respect for the sleuth. Over and over again, I’ve read reviews where readers were upset because a sleuth did something stupid, just so the writer could further the plot. If the reader loses respect for the sleuth, it really compromises the story. So if the detective needs to go into a remote part of town—by himself, at night—when he knows the murderer is probably lurking nearby, the writer needs to have to have an excellent reason for it. Does the detective think he’s going there to meet someone else? Did he suddenly realize there was a clue that he’d overlooked before—and the killer happens to realize the same thing simultaneously? There has to be a good reason for our supposedly intelligent sleuth to endanger himself.

    You’re so right. No matter what the genre, it’s always about character motivation. ‘What does this sleuth need? Why are they driven to solve this mystery?’ Marlowe often thinks he needs nothing more than to make his twenty-five bucks a day, but it’s layered with his overwhelming need to see justice done. Elizabeth, is there a mystery angle you’d like to explore but don’t believe could be successfully pulled off?

    Oh, sure. I’m a fan of unreliable narrator stories (as well as the unreliable witnesses I mentioned above.) But. . .it’s very tricky. When it’s done well, it makes such an amazing twist ending. I’d mention some examples in mystery literature and also some recent examples that were done well on film, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone. It’s a difficult technique because if it isn’t done well, the reader/viewer feels cheated or manipulated. If it is done well, the reader gets a surprise ending that causes them to think about the entire book in a different way.

    I’m going to name Christie’s Roger Ackroyd as the most obvious example of this. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it yet—I’m sorry! It’s still a good read. What do you think of Chandler’s claim that, no matter what anybody says about the Rule of Fair Play, there’s no such thing as a 100% honest mystery?

    I think Chandler is right. Mystery writers have to employ trickery in their books. We’re deflecting attention from clues, sending readers on wild goose chases, and generally deceiving the reader. But—we have to be at least a little deceptive to give the readers a satisfying read. We have to play fair, but we can’t let the reader learn the killer’s identity in Chapter Four. That’s not fair to them, either.

    That’s a fabulous point: it’s not fair to the reader to ruin the mystery. We all read for fun. In fact, mystery is one of a handful of highly-popular modern genres all based upon the intensity of the thrill. What qualities do you think mystery shares with horror, thriller, paranormal, romance?

    The biggest thing all genre fiction has in common is its popular appeal. Genre writers know that when their book is published they will have a group of readers waiting for their release. It’s like having a built-in, established readership. Genre fiction writers bring books to the people—books that are usually accessible, interesting, and entertaining. Genre fiction’s goal is to pull readers into the world of the story instead of distracting them with the intrusion of heavy use of literary devices or the author’s opinions/viewpoints.

    You know, even literary fiction isn’t supposed to interfere with the story, only seduce the reader with language rather than excitement. I do miss good experimental fiction. What’s the weirdest mystery you’ve ever read?

    The weirdest mystery I’ve ever read is the first detective story ever written: Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It’s creepy, baffling, carries a violent theme throughout the story, and has a fairly horrifying solution. But then. . .that’s Edgar Allan Poe for you! It’s not a mystery that would play well for today’s readers, since the reader doesn’t really have a fair shot at solving the case.

    It’s true, Poe failed to incorporate Fair Play, but that’s one of those little inconsistencies that will occur when you’re inventing an entire new genre. Did you know his second mystery, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” was based on an unsolved murder to which the perpetrator later confessed, saying, “He pretty much nailed it”?

    I loved “Marie Roget,” but didn’t realize the story was based on a true crime. Interesting! I wonder what Poe thought about his role in solving the real case (or prompting a confession from the killer?)

    What an amazing man—I wish he’d written about his knowledge of the craft. What are your favorite books on the craft of writing mysteries?

    The ones I’ve got on my shelf are:

    Don’t Murder Your Mystery—Chris Roerden
    Book of Poisons—Serita Stevens, Anne Bannon
    Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit)—Lee Lofland
    The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery—Robert J. Ray, Jack Remick
    Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers—Lawrence Block
    Writing the Modern Mystery—Barbara Norville
    How to Write a Damn Good Mystery—James N. Frey

    Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit are great no matter what genre you write.

    Occasionally, my husband looks at the bookshelf and gets a little nervous. He reminds the kids that if anything ever happens to Daddy, they need to tell the police what Mama does for a living!

    Elizabeth Craig is the author of Finger Lickin’ Dead and Hickory Smoked Homicide, among other mysteries. She writes the Memphis Barbeque for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

    Elizabeth can be found on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder, on the Writer’s Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, on Twitter, and on Google+.





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • Now, as far as genius, you think I’m going to say, “Shut up and write,” don’t you? But unfortunately that won’t make you a genius. It won’t even make you a writer. That will only make you a scribbler, which isn’t a bad thing to be, at all. . .but it’s not the same thing. We’ve talked about 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. And 3 Tricks for Ratcheting Tension in One Day. And 4 Tricks for Improving Your Fiction in One Day.

    So now I’ll reveal the real secret to becoming a genius, particularly a genius writer. Pay close attention.

    1. Realize what exactly genius is

      What do you mean by, “becoming a genius”?

      Do you mean, “having extraordinary intelligence granted to me without me lifting a pinky”?

      Do you mean, “being recognized by the smartest people on earth”?

      Do you mean, “relishing every spec of living I possibly can in the few fleeting years granted to me on this planet—years I see flashing past me more and more quickly the older I get—because, baby, we’re none of us getting any younger”?

      • Extraordinary intelligence doesn’t come to anyone without them lifting a pinky.

        Extraordinary intelligence is developed by the constant creative use of the the brain. How much of your time do you spend using your brain creatively—developing your skills with logic and critical analysis of the things that truly matter to you, using all five senses to perceive your moment-by-moment experience of life to the fullest capacity, asking not just, “What do I think or believe or feel?” but, “What do I think and believe and feel that I would never have guessed about myself?”

        Do you have the courage to face your disowned self? Honestly, truly face it?

        Eight hours of that will ratchet your genius for human understanding—the core of all storytelling—through the ceiling.

      • Being recognized by the smartest people on earth involves being seen by them.

        And on an increasingly crowded planet, that means not getting the attention of those recognized in the media—how smart could Charlie Sheen be anyway?—but finding the unrecognized geniuses who walk among us every day and devoting yourself to learning what they know. Apprenticing yourself to them. Earning their recognition.

        Would Einstein have been as smart if nobody had ever heard of him? Yes. Was Franz Kafka a great literary and philosophical genius even though he died before anyone ever found out? Yes.

        Who can you identify in your life right now who’s one of the smartest people on earth?

        Eight hours of listening at their knee will teach you the secret uniqueness—the core of all memorable storytelling—of their genius.

      • Relishing every spec of living you possibly can in the fleeting years granted you starts right now.

        Let me tell you a story, okay?

        My husband and I spent this weekend working on our house, even though we burned ourselves out on it so badly when we built it four years ago that we’re still content to live with subfloor on the stairs and big, gaping holes for lag bolts in the hall floor and cracks you can see light through where there’s supposed to be trim.

        We really hate working on the house.

        So late yesterday we were in the attic, me on the stairs exhausted from moving stacks of flooring, him on his knees cutting a piece of wood. He glanced up and said, “Are you okay?” and I said, “I’m just thinking. It looks like I’m in pain when I do that, I know.”

        And we started laughing.

        In that instant I knew what we’ll remember when we’re old and sick and frail and, maybe, there’s only one of us left alone in this world. (I spent a lot of time with my grandfather after my grandmother died. I know what it’s going to be like.) We’re not going to care that we were working on the house even though we hate working on the house, or that we were exhausted and bruised and filthy, thinking about bills and work and mortgages and the difficulties of raising a teen.

        We’re going to long with every fiber of our being to be back in that over-heated attic together at the end of that long, hard Sunday. . .laughing.

        And knowing that—knowing I’m already living the life I long for with all my heart—you better believe. . .that’s genius.

      How close are you to being a genius right now?





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • We’re talking this month about instantaneous ways to improve craft—because, as Carrie Fisher says, “Instant gratification takes too long.” We’ve talked about 2 Tricks to Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. And 3 Tricks to Ratcheting Tension in One Day.

    Now let’s talk about how you can use your own life to improve your fiction. . .in one day.

    1. What do you most want?

      Protagonists are people who want.

      And when you’re talking about characters who want things badly enough to keep readers intrigued for 300 pages, you’d better know those characters inside and out. In fact—you’d better know them as well as you know yourself.

      Know what drives you through life. That’s the best drive to give your protagonists.

      Most of the great writers wrote the same character over and over again under different names, in different plots, throughout their lives. Those particular characters have the motivations those particular writers understand. Deeply. Profoundly. In the magnificent, complex manner necessary to write about it.

      Raymond Chandler wrote a whole series of characters exactly like Phillip Marlowe before he finally settled on the name, career, and face of Marlowe.

    2. Why can’t you have it?

      What the hell is wrong with you?

      That’s what the hell is wrong with your protagonist.

      And don’t mistake this to mean it’s something outside of you. Of course you’re strapped for cash, tied to a job, inevitably tethered to the need to make a living. But your need to survive lives inside you. And that’s an excellent need to impose upon a protagonist.

      You’re also desperate for love and understanding, lonely, frustrated, trapped alone in a tormented little skull without the skills or confidence to survive what you have to do just to survive. That’s also all going on inside you. Another excellent need.

      Why do you think so many books are built around protagonists torn between a fight to stay alive and the need to be loved?

      Even Pride and Prejudice—with Austen’s pivotal exploration of entailment and the precarious futures of disinherited young gentlewomen—is about nothing but love and survival.

    3. How are you buying into this?

      Make no mistake about it: you are.

      And that’s what makes you interesting. Otherwise, you’re just a blob.

      That’s what makes your protagonist interesting, too. Internal conflict. How are they buying into their own nightmare? What inside them keeps them strung up on their own self-made scaffold? What makes them kick? What makes them kick over the chair?

      If you’re not interested enough in human nature to sink to this level of self-examination, to bare your chest to the elements, to admit to this severe of self-sabotage (and you have it—we all do), you’re simply not tough enough to write fiction.

      Emily Bronte exposed her guts in Wuthering Heights. Self-loathing doesn’t get any more fascinating than that.

    4. What would force you to choose?

      Because eventually you’re going to choose.

      In your life. And in your fiction.

      This is what readers read for: what do you choose when you can’t have it both ways? How do you make sense of a life that is, in the final hour, senseless?

      Everyone reads to learn how life makes sense. You’re here to drag the ultimate nightmare—what if life doesn’t make sense?—out into the light and reveal it for what it really is: angel or devil, creation or destruction, incandescent hope or crippling despair.

      Nothing less.

    NEXT WEEK: 1 Secret Trick to Becoming a Genius Writer in One Day





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • I love the idea that so much of learning to write well starts the instant you learn it. What a fabulous craft! Last week we learned 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. Now for the rest of the month we’ll be talking about other tricks that also work in one day.

    We’re always hearing about how we need to increase the tension in our stories, how we need to get ahold of the reader by the lapels and never let go.

    But how?

    1. Curiosity

      Don’t answer your questions the minute you ask them.

      Give the reader time to wonder. Who is that suspicious character? Why are they involved with your protagonist? Why is your protagonist reacting the way they’re reacting?

      You’re constructing a puzzle, and the reader keeps turning pages to collect the clues and discover whether or not they’ve solved it correctly.

      Patricia Highsmith began The Talented Mr. Ripley—about a man who drifts into murder for the sake of wealth and a new identify—with a scene in which Tom Ripley scurries down a busy street escaping in great distress a man obviously following him, whom Tom believes is a police officer set to bust him for one of his confidence tricks. He’s not from the police, it turns out. In fact he doesn’t mean Tom harm at all. He’s just desperate to offer Tom the opportunity of a lifetime.

    2. Cutting

      Don’t let your final draft ramble.

      Far too many aspiring writers write and write and write and forget to revise out the standard 75%. Go ahead and write everything you can discover about any given scene, but then go back later and cut everything you possibly can—all exposition, every possible dialog tag (especially internal dialog), every single extraneous scrap (choose one action instead of two or three, one line of dialog instead of back-&-forth, one pivotal descriptive detail). Cut paragraphs. Cut scenes. Cut sentences, phrases, individual words. Trim it down to the lean, mean bones.

      James M. Cain packed so much into so few, simple words that his classic novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity read like explosions.

    3. Contradiction

      Don’t let your stories lie flat.

      Toss them like hot potatoes from one plotline to another. Now we’re startled! Now we’re entranced. Now we’re scared! Now we’re intrigued. Now we’re freaked out of our seats! Now we’re flying high. . .

      Zane Grey, the granddaddy of all great adventure stories—from which sprang such modern post-apocalyptic blockbusters as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—wove double plotlines through his novels so thickly the reader is forced to let go the reins early on, so they wind up sky-high without either wings or parachute by the end of the Hook.

    And that’s where you want your reader: in the air, out of control, completely possessed by an ungovernable urge to discover what on earth your story is all about.

    NEXT WEEK: 4 Tricks for Improving Your Fiction in One Day

    FINALLY: 1 Secret Trick to Becoming a Genius Writer in One Day





    “The freshest and
    most relevant advice
    you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

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Authors


MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan. Read more. . .


LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .


SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .


STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .


ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights. Read more. . .


TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .


JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ is a debut author writing literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I developed and line edited Mercado-Fernandez' The Shoebox, published through Abbott Press, and her up-coming The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.