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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar, "Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction."

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.






  • By Victoria Mixon

    You know how everyone’s always telling you “Show, Don’t Tell”? Well, that means “Write Scenes, Not Exposition.” So we’re spending three weeks covering the three aspects of scenes: description, action, dialog. Last week we did description. Next week we’ll do dialog. And this week we’re doing action.

    Action is important because:

    1. Fiction is about movement

      This is the fundamental purpose of fiction: to get a protagonist from point A to point B with the greatest difficulty possible.

      Don’t make it easy on them, whatever else you do. The excitement lies in the complications, the many and varied ways in which you can pull the rug out from under your characters and force them, time and again, to scramble to their feet with every ounce of strength and wit they’ve got.

      And the very best way to pull the rug out from under them is to give them needs and internal conflicts that make them pull it out from under themselves.

      It may be possible to write an entire novel without action, but I’ve never seen it work. Even Virginia Woolf’s alarmingly passive classic To the Lighthouse is about—what else could it be?—a trip to a lighthouse. It’s not a long trip, and it gets canceled at least once. But, yeah. She did eventually have to send them there.

      And a novel packed with action is not only thrilling but gets from point A to point B. Making that journey the gist of the novel is the very stuff of great storytelling.

    2. Readers are fascinated by characters in motion

      You know how interesting people are when they never move? Uh-huh. Just about that interesting. How much time can you burn up watching your co-workers stare at their computer screens in their lonely little boring cubes?

      You just fell out of your chair, didn’t you?

      Now ask yourself why mysteries, paranormal, thrillers, romance, urban fantasy/sci-fi (contemporary Westerns) are such long-time staples of best-selling fiction. Because the characters never sit still.

      In mysteries they’re always rushing around tracking down the activities of the other characters—except Rex Stout’s canonical Nero Wolfe, who spends most of his time tending his orchids and drinking beer while his sidekick Archie does the rushing around (there’s a really good reason those stories are told from Archie’s point-of-view rather than Wolfe’s).

      In paranormal not only do the characters move, they move in really weird ways.

      In thrillers they move at top-speed in terror for their lives (and thriller is the number one best-selling genre after romance).

      In romance, of course, the ways they move tend to do things to the readers’ gonads.

      And although Westerns have faded—to be replaced by urban fantasy/sci-fi, the new Wild West—it’s all about action. Westerns were riveting to generations of men who’d been raised to be intensely active boys and then wound up working rather less-active jobs in their adult lives. Urban fantasy/sci-fi readers can’t get enough of an industrial landscape much like the cities and even modern rural environments where children these days learn what adult activity is all about. . .sadly enough for those who grow up to while-away their days among endless five-foot carpeted walls.

    3. Action creates that essential Visceral Response

      Of course, the whole purpose behind the purpose of fiction is Visceral Response.

      Readers read for experiences. They want to suffer your characters’ traumas and learn through that suffering how to survive. They want to learn how it feels to survive.

      That means in their bodies. In their guts. In their hearts.

      Have you ever read an action scene that made the hair stand thrillingly up on your head? That Visceral Response is the Whole Point of action scenes.

      And if you can create that in your reader, you have earned the right to call yourself a writer.

    However, action is not important because:

    1. Action is easy to screw up

      And. . .that’s why not everyone who wants to become a best-selling thriller author does. Because action must be meticulously choreographed, tightly worded, designed and polished exactly right for maximum impact.

      Aspiring writers screw up high-tension action scenes all the time, writing them long, writing them disorganized, writing them without even realizing they need to shape them perfectly, which means cutting every single word possible.

      It is far easier to learn to shape scenes around simpler internal conflict—a conversation in which the characters misunderstand each other, or an exchange of information, or a moment of regaining balance—than around external conflict or action that requires perfect timing.

      I spend a lot of my time teaching clients how to shape action scenes exactly right. It’s not easy. But it is essential if you want to use them.

    2. Action is not plot

      You can write all the action scenes you like, and if they don’t move your plot forward they’re just churning mud. An endless number of perfectly-shaped fight scenes will eventually lose all but the most die-hard fight fans. And even those guys are probably already watching cable.

      Every word you put into a story must be essential to getting the protagonist from point A to point B. If an action scene doesn’t do that. . .throw it out.

    3. Action without meaning is just a windmill

      Because, in the final analysis, we don’t read simply to learn how to act. We read to move alongside characters through their worlds toward and through their worst nightmares. It is the movement through the nightmare that has meaning. Everything else is set-up for that.

      That meaningful action teaches your reader how to live.





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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about the pros and cons of the three aspects of scenes: description, action, dialog.

    Now, as we all know, dialog is the mainstay of modern fiction. Raised in a world of television, radio, and telephones, we as an industrialized race are familiar with nothing if not the power of talk.

    Dialog is important because:

    1. Fiction is talking, and dialog is talking from the core of character

      It’s words, all words. Words in your mind, words on the page, words in your characters’ mouths. That’s what fiction is. That’s what sets it apart from the other arts.

      When you take that one step further—move from your own words to your characters’—you pull your reader that one step further into your imaginary world.

      And writing is all about pulling your reader as far as humanly possible out of their world into yours.

    2. We are social animals, and we socialize through speech

      More than anything, your reader is human, and human beings need connection. When we speak to each other, we’re making connections to each other. When our characters speak to each other, they’re making connections to each other and to your reader.

      Be aware of this at all times: your reader is in the room with your characters, listening to them talk and getting to know them through their conversation. That’s your magic pill! Take full advantage of it.

    3. Readers love eavesdropping

      Even better than hearing what they’re supposed to hear, readers love hearing what they’re not supposed to hear. She said that? He blurted out this? They confessed what?

      The thrill of eavesdropping through fiction—rather than real life—is that no character ever says, “Our reader’s such an idiot.” And this sometimes does happen to eavesdroppers in real life.

      It’s a win-win situation!

    Dialog is not important because:

    1. We say a lot more than anyone cares to hear

      Even the most stoic non-conversationalist says more than they need to. Nobody gets the chance to go back and edit their own dialog. That means all that extra crap is always there.

      Your job as a writer is to edit out the extra crap.

    2. A great deal of real conversation is boring beyond boring

      By far, the majority of what we say in real life is shorthand allowing us to cooperate on the things we want to do.

      “Is it?” “No.” “Yes.” “Oh, yeah?” “Um, well.” “I guess.” “Then what?” “I, uh. . .” “Huh-uh.” “Uh-oh.” “Call me?” “See you later.” “I will.”

      Do not inflict this on your reader. They don’t even listen to it when people they like say it.

    3. Talk is cheap

      What readers want is a story with legs.

      Use dialog to introduce your reader to your characters, to reveal the hidden dramas inside that complicate the characters’ worlds all out of proportion, to move your plot always, inevitably forward toward the catastrophe that is the point of using all these words and characters to illuminate something about life that your reader needs to know. . .

      . . .but don’t get bogged down in the chatter.

      Go wherever the excitement is.





    “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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    advice you’ll find.”

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    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
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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR


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  • By Victoria Mixon

    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
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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR


    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN


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    advice you’ll find.”

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I promised you guys a long time ago that whatever I learned from the fabulous Notebooks of Henry James I would share with you here. I haven’t finished it yet—it’s a heck of a long book, plus I got completely sidetracked by Shirley Jackson’s key to increasing tension over time, Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade’s face in v’s, and Stephen King’s coke addiction, not to mention my grandmother—but I’ve read enough to be able to share some wonderful stuff.

    So. . .please allow me to introduce you to the lessons I’ve learned from the indomitable Henry James:

    1. What passes for exposition in much of modern fiction is merely notetaking to the greats

    2. If you didn’t know how beautifully-rendered and meticulous-written James’ stories and novels are, you might mistake his notebooks for his fiction.

      It’s all there: the protagonist’s situation, character, relationships to the other characters. The secondary main characters and their relationships. The Hook, Development, and Climax (which he sometimes called the denouement, as did Gustave Freytag when he invented Freytag’s Triangle). The motivations for everyone’s behavior. The insights explored.

      All that’s left is the actual writing.

      For the record, James never stopped exhorting himself to write shorter stories that he did. His notebooks are simply riddled with announcements that he intends to limit himself “this time” to 5,000, 8,0000, or 10,000 words. And he seems to have been a consummate failure. I think it was The Ambassadors that was intended to be barely a nibble.

    3. Characters, even in the most ‘literary’ of fiction, always cause their own problems

    4. Very often, James started with an idea based on a story someone had told him at a dinner party. (He was quite the social butterfly of London, an upper-class American expatriate who complained, Camille-like, of the ceaseless whirl of invitations even as he hurtled constantly from taxi to taxi, doorstep to dining room.) His notebooks will say something like, “Lady M told me last night of the case of H de L,” and then elaborate upon the anecdote, commenting in almost audible mumbles, “I think if I were to make it someone young—a woman? a man?—and give them a reason for objecting to the elder woman’s ambitions, I might have a nice little vignette. Yes, I believe that would illuminate what I mean to discover.” Half the time he was mumbling to himself in broken French.

      Always, always he was working with the characters, delving into their conflicting interests and needs, piling pressures on them to see what they’d do. In long, luxurious discussion with himself.

      This could go on for weeks, months, years. He didn’t bother to start the actual writing until he had his conflicts worked out.

      He knew that the Climax of a story is its Whole Point. So he delved and delved and delved until he knew exactly what his Whole Point was.

    5. The more a writer develops their storytelling muscles, the greater a thrill it is to be a writer

      And the loveliest part of reading James’ writing process is the sense you get of his great pleasure in his expertise at spinning tales.

      I believe, of course, that he loved the actual writing. He was so adept with a well-turned sentence, so skilled with flashes of insights. What a joy to be able to produce such accomplished lines, paragraphs, and scenes! Although his writing in his later years became ridiculously convoluted, if you take the time to disentangle his sentences you see that he really was mining ore worth mining, creating refractions with his complicated sentences that could not be created any other way.

      But he also loved the planning. Oh, how he loved it.

      Because he knew this work takes two different parts of the writer’s brain: the storytelling part and the prose part. We cannot become writers by choosing to develop only one and neglect the other.

      This is a lesson it’s too easy to forget in today’s manic rush to publication.

      There is the art. And there is the craft.





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

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


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    advice you’ll find.”

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Seth Godin doesn’t think you should write a book thinking you’ll make money off it. He’s written thirteen. I’m guessing he might know.

    But you should watch the video he links to, because it is very cool, and everything Taylor says about teachers can be said about writers.

    What do YOU make?

    Subscribe:


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    A bizarre thing happened to a client of mine one day.

    This author is one of my best clients. She’s been writing all her life. She has a fabulous imagination and sees her characters moving and acting and speaking with wonderful vividness. She’s written lots of screenplays, so her dialog is especially sharp—dialog, in fact, is her style. (Not as blatantly as Amistead Maupin or Ivy Compton-Burnett, naturally. . .but still her style.)

    She knows the premise of every novel she writes, so she knows where she’s headed all along as she delves deep into creating the plots and scenes that illuminate her stories.

    She’s humble and dedicated and willing to write and rewrite and think and rethink everything she needs to in order to make her novels just right. She’s completely, utterly committed learning to this craft.

    And I teach her—as I teach all my clients—to minimize the use of exposition.

    1. Exposition is telling

      Yes, this is shorthand, but it’s still pretty much the gist of it.

      We can get into the finer definitions of exposition and telling (and we will further down), but, really, fiction in general can be broken into showing and telling—scenes as showing, and exposition as telling.

      As it happens, I know a whole lot about exposition.

      It’s a fascinating technique that can slip information unobtrusively into story, throw in a little backstory without taking time for flashback, carry rhythm, and—mostly wonderfully—in the hands of a master create strong voice, even plumb the depths of profundity.

      Some of my favorite authors (Elizabeth Bowen, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Isak Denisen, Graham Greene, Henry James, et cetera, et cetera) were whizzes with exposition, so I’ve studied and practiced exposition for many, many years.

      However, exposition is really hard to do so well a story simply can’t exist without it.

      And stories are best-written when they’re written only in the words they absolutely need and no others.

      The truth is that good scenes are within the reach of pretty much anyone with three or more senses and the ability to type (or write longhand). Flannery O’Connor was a great one for advocating the use of your senses and your writing hand to skip over all that fal-de-rol about deep thought and just write great stories about what you perceive.

      I think we can safely say O’Connor knew what she was talking about. What she described is showing, and if you study O’Connor you’ll see she stuck strictly to scenes.

      And so did the vast majority of the other canonical writers still making money for publishers.

    2. Pink Is not necessarily the new red

      However, I know you’re seeing articles floating around recently turning “show, don’t tell” inside-out into, “tell, don’t show!” This is partly because exposition can play a role in fiction if you know what it’s for and have practiced learning to do it well.

      It’s also—largely—because those of us who blog about craft have said most of what we have to say over the past few years of the explosion of the blogosphere and are now looking for ways to say something new and unexpected.

      “The anti-rules are the new rules! Pink is the new red! Telling is the new showing!”

      It gives us something to talk about.

      Yes, we can get into complex high-level academic discussion about whether or not details included in exposition make that exposition ineligible for the term telling. And we can contemplate together the ways in which a line or two of exposition dropped adroitly into scenes can illuminate subtext and the meaning story has for its characters, thus complicating the term showing.

      Both these techniques blur the distinctions and give those of us who like that kind of discussion all kinds of good material to chat about.

      We like chatting about this stuff.

      But most of the aspiring writers who come to me aren’t looking for complex high-level academic discussion. They’re just looking for useful, straight-forward guidelines that they can remember as they focus—and rightly so—upon writing their stories.

      Fiction lives and breathes through scenes.

      So, as the greats have been saying along with Henry James for a very long time: “Show, don’t tell.”

    3. Dialog is showing NOT telling

      Of course, it wasn’t an unbelievable surprise when my client got a rejection on that day long ago.

      Although she was querying a lovely novel with good, strong writing, aspiring writers always get rejections. In fact, lots and lots of aspiring writers are getting rejections lately. It was bad ten years ago. Now that we have the current publishing industry, it’s an epidemic.

      What was depressing about this one was the agent saying they’d rejected the novel—even though they thought it was “well-written” and “were crazy about” the premise—because it didn’t have enough of that good stuff about the characters’ feelings in it.

      The agent didn’t know what to name that stuff, but they did know that they wanted to be more constantly told what to feel rather than mostly shown the characters and events of the novel and allowed to react with their own feelings, in their own way.

      It was, in a word, too subtle.

      This agent thought that telling the reader how to feel would be ‘more commercial.’

      And while the agent didn’t know the word for it (although their resume lists working as an editor at a major publishing house), what this agent meant was exposition.

      They meant the novel needed more telling, less showing.

      There are, of course, reasons for why this agent thought exposition would be more commercial, which I intend to delve right into next week. (And just this morning my husband sent me a link to a letter by C.S.Lewis explaining quite simply why telling the reader what to feel is a bad idea.)

      But for now let’s just politely say. . .this agent should probably have been better trained at that publishing house where they were employed as an editor.

      Because then they became bizarro.

      The agent informed my client that the real problem with her manuscript was the dialog, “which is telling, not showing.”

      And this is when I started to bang my head on my desk.

      Dialog is not telling. Good heavens! Dialog is the characters’ voices.

      “Telling” is the narrator’s voice telling the reader what to think and how to feel. That’s exposition—exactly what this agent wanted more of.

      Dialog is part of showing.

      “Showing” is where the author shows the characters as they act and speak and move in their described environment—and keeps their own big trap shut.

    This is my head on my desk: bang, bang, bang.

    O, ye innocent aspiring writers querying in today’s industry: beware.

    Not everyone associated with publishing knows what they’re talking about. A great number of them are quite young and therefore understandably low on professional experience. Some of them have picked up terrible advice and, without the guidance of experienced editors or in-depth study of literature to correct them, they pass it on to aspiring writers, secure in the assumption that the unpublished will take anything publishing professionals say as gospel.

    If you want to be involved in this industry, you must simply be prepared for such nonsense.

    Truly, folks—it’s a very bizarre era.

    NEXT WEEK: We’ll get into the reasons behind why heavy exposition might be considered more commercial in today’s publishing industry.





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    most relevant advice
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    —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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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking this month about vetting publishing professionals as you work your way from your original inspiration all the way to actual publication—particularly the role that freelance independent editors play in this journey.

    A funny thing happened in the publishing industry thirty or forty years ago.

    We went through all of this the first time. But it wasn’t independent freelance editors we were talking about then. It was somebody else.

    It was literary agents.

    Did you know that we didn’t always have agents? Of course you did. Once upon a time, there were writers, and there were publishers, and ever the twain did meet. Writers queried publishers’ editors, and publishers’ editors acquired and edited their manuscripts.

    Then someone wrote a book claiming everyone was a writer, they just didn’t know it, and suddenly Being a Writer became one of the Top 10 Luxury Destinations. Suddenly writing magazines were born. The writing workshop was born. The writers’ MFA was born.

    The flood was born.

    And suddenly publishers’ acquisitions editors were drowning in manuscripts from everyone who up until then had been a writer but just hadn’t known it. Was the first literary agent some acquisitions editor’s husband or wife trying to pick up part of the workload so they’d still have someone to talk to over the dinner table? The best friend of a bunch of acquisitions editors? An acquisitions editor gone renegade? (Plenty of them do.)

    We know that Morton Janklow of Janklow & Nesbit Associates was the one who bumped agents’ commission from the old standard 10% up to the current standard 15%. He also sued William Morrow for trying to refuse to publish a book. This is what happens when you tangle with an ex-lawyer.

    Not only that, but publishers routinely told writers, “You don’t need an agent.” (Some of them still do.) You know why? Because they didn’t want writers thinking agent representation was a guarantee of publication.

    It’s not. There are no guarantees. Publishers themselves have been known to buy books and then refuse to publish them.

    Even so, these days agents are everywhere, the gatekeepers of the inner sanctum, and I support them with all my heart.

    You bet I do.

    Even though they cost money. They’re not essential. And they can’t guarantee publication.

    The big stick that agents carry is access to publishers’ acquisitions editors and the leverage to negotiate advances. Top agents understand the business of the industry because they help make it. The contract itself isn’t rocket science. My husband and I have signed real estate contracts that make publishing contracts look like Sesame Street.

    You can learn them. You have to try.

    There have also always been small presses, as well as imprints of large presses, who commonly work directly with authors, no agent involved. My friend Cynthia Wall, author of The Courage to Trust, was asked to write her book by Cypress House Publishing and is now being asked to write a sequel. (Did Wall hire an independent editor? Yes, she did. Does she share her royalties with an agent? No, she does not.)

    And as the economy carries us all toward the waterfall of the Death of Giant Advances, negotiation is becoming less an issue of leverage and more an issue—as it should have been all along—of long-term goal-setting and, most importantly, cooperation.

    In fact, with the advent of self-publishing, the implosion of the big houses and concurrent rise of small presses, and the massively-networked ease of Print On Demand and e-publication, agents are actually becoming less essential.

    And there are literary agent scams. Boy, are there. You track them down the same places you track down freelance independent editor scams: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware.

    But I still recommend agents. Some of my best friends have been agents. Agents have the time and motivation to keep an eye glued permanently on publishing, track its permutations, network with other publishing professionals, build relationships with publishing houses, attend conferences, hash over late-breaking industry news in graphic detail, and generally manage an author’s career so the author has time to—guess what?—write.

    Besides which, agents like this stuff! Writers, if they’re smart, like to write. They’re not the same thing.

    Most of all, the agent’s role as gatekeeper is more important now than ever.

    The truth is that the business of selling fiction is nothing like the craft of creating it, and if you’ve put all your energy into learning the craft you can easily be mowed down by the maddened hordes stampeded toward the business end. Agents may have been invented to alleviate this problem, but now the sheer numbers mean, honestly, that the busiest agents need agents of their own. (This is why they hire assistants, rely increasingly on recommendations, and even refuse unsolicited submissions.)

    Agents building relationships with top freelance independent editors only makes sense in today’s publishing environment. Those of us in the trenches with aspiring writers know who has the fresh ideas. We know who’s in it for the long haul and who’s just an amateur looking to take advantage of what seems like little more than a glorified lottery. We also know how to turn an over-used plot into a fresh take on a proven idea. And we have the time to help.

    Agents and acquisitions editors—although they also know a lot of this stuff—do not.

    As publishers’ acquisitions editors edit less and less, more and more agents struggle to edit their clients’ manuscripts without either the time or training to do it effectively. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that excellent agents aren’t taking on editing chores. They are. And this bodes ill for everyone concerned. . .especially the reader.

    As the economy makes the growing lack of publishers’ in-house editing more and more obvious and entrenched, it becomes much more important for agents and their clients to differentiate the really good independent freelance editors from the amateurs.

    This difference is absolutely essential for the aspiring writer.

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    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    This is writers conference month here, so a few weeks ago I taught you guys how to get people all riled up at you at a writers conference.Then we discussed what to watch out for in the way of presenters—the bullshitters and the non-bullshitters, part one and part two.

    So now I’ll tell you another writers conference story.

    This one is a story of hope.

    Once upon a time many years ago, I had just returned to the San Francisco Bay Area from a thrilling, hair-raising, and actually quite productive six months of adventure and writing in Hawaii and Australia. I’d gotten a job as a tech writer at a small computer start-up in Silicon Valley, so I was recovering a bit from the state of abject poverty into which my adventures had plunged me. And a friend and I were sitting in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Northbeach neighborhood one afternoon when he pulled a flyer from his pocket.

    It was an ad for the Writers Community at Squaw Valley.

    “Are you going to apply?” I said.

    “Maybe. Are you?”

    “Maybe.”

    I went to my manager at work, who happened to be extremely smart and extremely cool and extremely cute, and asked him what he thought. After all, he had a degree in Creative Writing from the University of California in Santa Cruz. Plus he was extremely cute.

    “Well, you know what I think about writers conferences,” he said.

    Actually I didn’t, but I was afraid he’d already told me and I’d been spazzed out on his cuteness and not listening, so I didn’t ask.

    Instead, I went to the conference.

    It was the very first writers conference I’d ever been to, and I didn’t know who Oakley Hall was (the guy running the conference), so when I got to the registration desk and the woman at it announced grandly that she was Mrs. Oakley Hall, I replied without a spark of recognition, “I’m Victoria Mixon.”

    I had signed up to share a house with other attendees, and I wound up with five other women, among whom were two in my writing workshop. We had a great week—we went to lectures by agents and famous authors like Amy Tan, we attended our workshop, we read each other’s manuscripts, and we drank a lot of wine. There was a big party to which we went as a gang, where we accidentally knocked a painting off a wall and almost got kicked out by the homeowner.

    One of my roommates and I went up to an agent after an agents’ panel and introduced ourselves. My friend already had an agent, so their conversation was kind of general. But I didn’t have an agent and wanted one, so I was quite happy when the agent invited me to lunch the next day. (We had lunch, and after we got home to San Francisco I took her my current manuscript, and she became my first agent.)

    I had also signed up for my manuscript to be critiqued by Anne Lamott, who was right then becoming famous for Operating Instructions and had just published Bird by Bird. In my excitement and confusion, I had sent her the second chapter of my novel instead of the first, so she was understandably baffled by the storyline, but she seemed to like it.

    “It has a strange sort of power,” she said. “And you write like a dream.”

    Then she waited politely for me to ask her to sign the copy of Bird by Bird that I had in my lap.

    But I was too embarrassed by my excitement and confusion, so I didn’t ask.

    During that week I became particularly close to the two of my roommates who were in my workshop, whose manuscripts I found extremely beautiful and compelling. They were unpublished, like me—one a professor of Native American law in Kansas, and the other a struggling English teacher at a community college in New York City. We traded addresses when the conference ended, but we fell out of touch anyway.

    A few years later I thought of them and found an address for the one in New York. Her first novel, Angels in the Morning, had been published by the Permanent Press—she’d rewritten it from a different point-of-view and given it a different title—and become a Booksense Selection. Her second novel, The Forgotten Island, was being published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and it too went on to become a Booksense Selection, translated into several languages.

    We were both recently married and had very young sons, so we bonded again.

    At some point I also wrote to the professor of Native American law, saying that I hoped she was still writing, since if anyone was a writer she was. And she wrote back a beautiful letter saying she had, in fact, just been on the verge of giving up when she received my letter. She was so moved that she read the letter out loud to her family over the dinner table. She said she was still working on her novel.

    That novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, was published in 2008 and nominated for the most prestigious national prizes in the US (which she is too modest to mention), while being highly-acclaimed by NPR and Kirkus Reviews.

    And now I’m pretty sure you guys know by this time who these writers are. I’ve written about them in my books, and I use quotes from them on my blog to make me look good.

    • Unpublished, struggling, dedicated craftspeople when I met them

    • Acclaimed fiction authors today

    I want you to know that it happens—talent and hard work and dedication to craft do get recognized:

    Lucia Orth

    Sasha Troyan

    (Also, I married my cute manager and have been with him for 20 years now. So that worked out as well!)

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    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I don’t really attend writers conferences anymore, because it’s much more comfortable to stay home in my cozy attic office editing the books of the coolest writers on the entire planet—but I have attended a few.

    And I want to tell you a story today about something that happened to me once at a writers conference:

    1. Step #1: Saying what you shouldn’t

      This was a number of years ago, before I became an independent editor. We were in a workshop led by the very popular creative writing teacher at the local community college. This teacher was at the board doodling graphs and calling out for contributions and scribbling them down as fast as she could, and it was all quite exciting and loud and creative. Everyone was thrilled, and the energy ran high.

      Then things calmed down while we all thought about what we’d created together.

      And after a few minutes a small, shy woman directly in front of me raised her hand.

      “I have a question,” she said tentatively. “I’ve written a novel that was published and even favorably received, and I’m working on my second now. But it’s not coming along so well. In fact, I’m kind of paralyzed. I’m scared. What if I only had that one good book in me? What if I’ve lost it?”

      There was some murmuring, and the teacher said brightly and with great confidence, “Oh, don’t let it get you down. I’m sure you’re fine!”

      A woman in the back cried loudly, “I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend, but you haven’t lost it. You’re a great writer!”

      The other attendees chimed in with their encouragement and positive opinions and exhortations to ignore her anxieties. . .

      And the woman tried very hard to smile and simply swallow their diagnosis. But I was close enough to see the fear growing in her eyes.

      So I turned to her.

      “You know,” I said, “maybe you have lost it.”

      The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.

    2. Step #2: Facing what you haven’t

      I smiled at her rather shakily. “It’s probably wherever mine is.”

      She was the only person in the room who smiled back.

      “I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the friend aggressively. “You don’t even know her!”

      “You can’t say that to her,” someone else chimed in. “She’ll stop writing!”

      “Victoria, don’t you mean maybe she’s lost her confidence?” said the teacher helpfully. “Not that she’s lost her talent?”

      “No, I mean her talent,” I said. “Maybe it’s gone. Maybe she can’t rely on it anymore.”

      I looked around, and the entire hostile room looked back at me.

      “Because isn’t that our big fear?” I said, a little desperately. “Isn’t that the terrible shadow under which we work all day long every day, year in and year out? That we’re relying on a talent that could just go away? That one day we’ll wake up and we’ll have lost it?”

      That room full of aspiring writers stared at me as though I’d just burned all their manuscripts.

      However, the shy woman was looking at me as though I were her lifeline.

    3. Step #3: Doing what you can’t

      I turned back to the shy woman. “So we keep on working without it. Whether we’ve lost it or not. We just keep writing. . .because, you know, that’s what we do. We’re writers.”

    By the end of that sentence, nobody in the room was on my side—except the shy woman who had asked the question. She kept staring at me, and I kept staring at her.

    And that was the end of that class. The teacher wouldn’t smile at me as I walked out.

    However, the shy woman came up to me in the parking lot later and flagged me down. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for what you said in there. I feel so much better now. Nobody else seemed to get it. I’ve been really frightened!”

    “I know,” I said. “This work can be really frightening.”

    And that stranger and I stood there in a parking lot holding each other’s hands for a few long, very quiet minutes.

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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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11 posts. . .because this blog goes to 11



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. . .


SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. 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. . .


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 Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I’m working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. 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. . .


M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who has worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In his sci-fi Anghazi Series, Beyer uses his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which “space bridges” allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. 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, and her second novel, Sandara. 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. . .


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 writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez’ debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff’s abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .


LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star. Read more. . .


ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .


ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .


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

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