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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

    We’re in October mode, which means that we’re revisiting the three most basic aspects of plot structure, beginning (as we like to begin: backward) with CLIMAX: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable.

    That was fun!

    So now let’s back our way into the middle of the novel, where all the crazy complications and subplots and inexplicable tangents live. And we’ll review exactly what’s going on there and why the reader loves it so:

    DEVELOPMENT: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I always like to spend every October studying in-depth the three most basic aspects of plot structure:




    There are lots of folks in the online writing community who are limbering up their writing muscles at this time of year. And I have found that the simpler and more straight-forward the lessons in craft, the better we learn them.

    Also, I had a teacher once who told me it takes 14 iterations for a lesson to sink into the human brain. So after 14 years of revisiting these three fundamentals. . .you all should be pretty darn adept.

    So let’s start backward—as we always do.

    Because what’s the fun of doing it the normal way?

    CLIMAX: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • 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?”


    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!)


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’ve been talking about writers conferences here, in particular how to make friends and enemies at them. And as I promised last Monday, here are the other five things that should set off your bullshit alarm at writers conferences:

    1. A presenter who can’t be bothered to research what they teach

      • True story:

        I was at a writers conference once when the presenter sketched a quick triangle on the board.

        “Do you all know the plot triangle?” he said. “I think this is from Aristotle.”

        And he proceeded to “teach” a sort of vague, truncated, misunderstood version of Freytag’s Triangle.

        Now, I’m pretty courteous. I’m not going to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but don’t you mean you think that’s from Freytag? As in: the nineteenth-century German writer who developed a pyramid structure to describe beginning, middle, and end along the lines of the five-act play of Shakespeare’s era? Because that triangle’s really famous. And I don’t think he’d ever even met Aristotle.”

        No, I’m not.

        I’m going to sit there on my hands, and if necessary I will smile. I will not point out in front of a class full of innocent hopefuls that this presenter hasn’t even looked up this triangle he likes to think he’s teaching, before sailing blasely into this room to try to teach it.

      • Another true story:

        I was at a writers conference once where the workshop presenter added nothing at all to the critiques.

        She simply sat at the front of the room saying, “And what do you think of what we just heard?”

        This presenter had been snickering to me earlier about how she always accepts invitations to present at conferences because it’s freebie food.

        I was an attendee in that particular session, but I wound up carrying the ball whenever the attendees didn’t know how to sort out a fiction dilemma because the presenter just sat there smirking and trying to hide the fact that she didn’t know either.

        One attendee came up to me later and expressed her disappointment that the presenter hadn’t contributed anything to the workshop. At all. Several others came up to me later and thanked me for my help and asked me if I was a professional editor. (At the time I was, but I wasn’t freelancing.)

        Even worse, another presenter came up to me later—a smart, engaging, professional writer—and told me how sorry he was I hadn’t appeared in his session. . .because I’d been in the lame workshop instead.

    2. The presenter who ignores the demographics of their class

      You should know that presenters are told by the conference organizers what to expect in their classes. This is so that everything will go smoothly and the attendees will know they’ve gotten their money’s worth.

      However, once I was in a seminar in which certain attendees were local high school students who had won scholarships to the writing conference.

      And we were all forced to sit there listening to the presenter announce gleefully, “I love teaching adults because then I can talk about sex all I want,” and proceed to describe fiction techniques in terms of sex, tell stories about sex, and even read sex-related blurbs from her own book. She told us all about how she was violently raped when she was a teenager.

      I wound up coping in scribbled notes with a disclosure of traumatic sexual shame from the teen writer I was there to mentor on the craft of fiction.

      Yeah. We missed a lot of that presenter’s talk.

      The thing is that, whether any particular class is made up entirely of adults or not, this presenter had no way of knowing if they were going to trigger PTSD in some of the attendees. Sex is either a painful or quite private topic for many people.

      Writing conference attendees do not pay to have their personal issues messed with by strangers in public.

      They pay to learn the craft of writing.

      Sex, religion, and politics: these are not appropriate topics for lecture at writers conferences without previous warning.

    3. A presenter who can’t be bothered to plan their session so they actually cover everything they promise to cover

      How many times have you seen this happen?

      At the beginning of the session, in accordance with popular advice on public speaking, the presenter lists out loud everything they intend to cover before their time is up.

      If you know anything at all about teaching fiction, it might sound like kind of a lot to cover in one session, but you figure they’re probably going to skim. Or maybe they’re just way the heck more organized than you would be in their shoes.

      So you jot down the list, making little asterisks next to the items that look most interesting to you. If you’re really organized and really OCD (like me) you even leave big spaces in between in which to fill in what you’re going to learn about each item.

      Then you spend a good, long time listening to the presenter tell stories about their own experiences with the first few items (probably, “How I got my idea for my novel,” and, “What my agent said about how my novel was the fastest sell in publishing history”), until suddenly it’s five minutes until the end of the session, and they still have half-a-dozen points left to make.

      So you and the rest of the class sit and watch them riffle through their notes saying loudly without looking up, “Uh, plot—don’t be boring. Character—ditto. Troubleshooting—come to one of my classes back home, I’ll give you my card. Professionalism—have it. Any questions? Okey-dokey. All out of time. ‘Kay, thanks, bye!”

      And then you’re in line politely waiting with a burning question that you’d hoped this class would answer, while everyone else gets a chance to ask their questions and get their copies of the presenter’s book autographed and make personal friends with the presenter, until the attendees for the next session flood into the room and appropriate the chairs, and the presenter picks up their things and heads out the door, still chatting vivaciously with someone about three people ahead of you in line.

      And the whole class turns out to have been a complete waste of your time. . .and your money.

    4. A presenter who teachers misinformation

      And this is the one that really makes smoke come out my ears.

      Because you guys can’t necessarily tell. If you already knew this stuff, you wouldn’t be here to learn it, now, would you?

      • Did Aristotle invent Freytag’s Triangle?

        No, he did not.

        Aristostle invented the Six Elements of Drama, which any presenter worth their salt can discover in two minutes by googling Aristotle. Or Aristostle’s Triangle.

        Gustav Freytag invented Freytag’s Triangle.

      • Did Syd Field invent three-act structure?

        No, he did not.

        Syd Field wrote a terrific book called Screenplay in which he describes three-act structure and explores the ways and means behind why it works.

        Our current understanding of three-act structure, according to some sources, actually dates back to (are you ready?) Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. It has been immortalized in our lifetime in books on screenplay by Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Yves Lavandier. (I talk about it a lot in my books too.)

      • Should aspiring writers plot?

        Hell, yes, they should.

        Otherwise Freytag’s Triangle and three-act structure are of no use to them whatsoever.

      Oh, I could go on and on and on about this one. So many of you innocents come to me asking about the misinformation you’ve been taught, and I’m here banging my head on my desk thinking, Who is doing this to these poor people?

      Then I go to writers conferences, and I find out: academics who earned advanced degrees or inexperienced authors who got lucky with publication without actually learning the craft.

    5. A presenter who indulges in snark, bad manners, or irritability

    6. And this one makes smoke come out of everyone’s ears.

      Or it should.

      However, only too often conference attendees assume that, because they’ve paid to be taught by these pillars of the publishing industry, any snark or bad manners or irritability that falls on their heads they brought on themselves.

      You know what professionalism is?

      Professionalism is being friendly and polite and encouraging to everyone you meet, regardless of how silly or ill-informed you might secretly find their questions and comments. Because they’re human beings. And they’ve paid you to treat them professionally.

      If a presenter has trouble with an attendee who’s sincerely a problem, they go to the conference organizers. That’s what they’re there for.

    7. A presenter who makes no bones about being there solely for the party with the other presenters

      “Oooh, look,” these presenters say to other presenters at the presenter/attendee social mixers. “They have square dancing in this town.”

      “How’s the room they gave you?” these presenters say to other presenters five minutes later, still ignoring the attendees. “Have you been to the beach yet?”

      “Oh, my god, you’re wearing the orange plaid!” these presenters cry from the podium when another presenter sidles into the room in the middle of their lecture to attendees. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher—your turn next time!”

      “Are you a local?” these presenters say to random attendees without even pretending to be interested in them. “How do I get home from here?”

      Now, when I was the editor of my high school newspaper I once got my butt kicked by our teacher for running a gag front-page article about how to set up a “directions booth” downtown in our lovely vacation town to tell rude tourists right where they could go.

      So what these presenters who ask me for directions don’t know is that. . .I’m a fiction writer because I like to lie.




    Folks, these people are trouble not just for you, the attendees, but also for those presenters who really are prepared, who really have come to make themselves available to aspiring writers, who really do take these conferences and their function in the writing community seriously.

    Those presenters can’t blow the whistle on such shenanigans without sounding petty and competitive. So they walk away smiling politely and shaking hands, while inside seething on behalf of the paying attendees they’ve just spent several days watching being duped.

    But you can.

    You can blow that whistle loud and clear.

    For the sake of everybody involved—both present and future—please do.

    LAST WEEK: 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    ‘Tis the season for writers conferences. And last week I told you a story about something that happened at a conference once.

    Now this week and next I’m going to re-run these two posts I wrote a couple of years ago about writers conferences for all of you out there (or heading out) into the trenches this month.

    Because I think it’s really important that you get your money’s worth.

    All over the country, hopeful aspiring writers are breaking open their piggy banks and digging their savings out of tin boxes under their mattresses and hieing themselves off to invest in their commitment to their craft.

    I salute you people.

    You bet I do.

    You finance all those writers conferences.

    However, I’m here to tell you those conferences—while often brilliant, thrilling, and enormously helpful—are not always all they’re cracked up to be.

    I’ve been to my share, and I’ve also taught plenty of fiction myself. So when I show up at a writers conference these days and find myself rubbing shoulders with authors/teachers/presenters who are only there for the free doughnuts and expensed party out of town, with little or no concern for the people who actually paid to be there. . .I get a little irritable.

    I get especially irritable because 99.9% of the people who pay to attend writers conferences give these authors/teachers the utmost in polite, respectful, student-like attention, whether they deserve it or not.

    And because writers conferences themselves are billed as opportunities to meet and connect with professionals in the writing industry.

    So while you’re out there attending (and evaluating!) writers conferences, folks, be aware that you’ve paid for something, and if you’re not getting it you have the right to complain.

    Things that should set off your bullshit alarm:

    1. A presenter who can’t teach anything but themself

    2. Say you show up for a seminar called Make Your Novel Happen!

      You’re ready, by god. You’ve got a novel (or at least a bunch of pages you think of fondly as a sort of misshapen favorite manuscript). You’ve got love of the craft. You’ve got a basic understanding of the enormous amount of sweat and dedication it takes to produce a really good work, and you’re under no delusions about how much of that you might not yet know.

      You’re here to learn.

      And you spend two hours sitting in a hard, uncomfortable chair in a room full of strangers listening to someone talk all about. . .how they made their novel happen.

      Huh, you’re thinking. I didn’t know I signed up for a seminar on their novel. I thought I signed up for a seminar on mine.

      But you imagine the publishing industry as made up of professionals who approach the work professionally, and you’re willing to approach this work professionally.

      So you’re willing to listen to a presenter talk only through the lens of their own work as much as you possibly can.

      Hey, you’re thinking. Everyone’s style is different. This is this presenter’s style.

      And you’re a good sport.

      They’re enthusiastic about their novel. Oh, boy! Maybe they’re even entertaining about enthusing over it.

      So when they burn up a certain amount of class time trying to find someone with copies of their books and, when they do, jump up and run over to see if what they’re thinking about is in the copy that somebody pulls out, you’re willing to roll with it. Maybe there’s something important in that book they want to read to you, and they somehow simply managed to forget to bring a copy from home.

      But when they hand the book back, saying, “Yeah, this copy has it,” and go on with their talk about themself without relating either that book or the class time they took asking around for a copy or what they found in it to what they’re saying in any way. . .

      Yeah. You’re a teeny bit disgruntled.

    3. A presenter who doesn’t know any writing techniques or standards but those they, personally, accidentally stumbled upon writing their own novel(s)

    4. All over out there I hear about “pantsing,” as in, “I never plot. I don’t have to.”

      And I find this extremely bizarre, because writing a novel is not filling out the crossword puzzle on the back of a cereal box. It takes an enormous amount of foresight and planning and note-taking and delving.

      So I walk around scratching my head, wondering where on earth aspiring amateurs got the idea they could write an entire salable novel without paying any attention to how they’re doing it. Because, let’s face it, none of us is as brilliant as E.L. Doctorow. Even John Steinbeck planned out his novels for years before he sat down to write them.

      Then when I see a presenter at a writers conference stand up and say, “Don’t plot. It sucks the creative juices out of your story. It doesn’t take into account the life on the page,” a lightbulb goes on over my head, and bells ring in my ears, and suddenly I know exactly where aspiring writers get that idea: from ignorant presenters at writers conferences.

      • Now, have I ever pantsed a novel?

        Of course I have! I’ve pantsed five novels. Then I learned how to plot, and that’s how I found out which way produces a marketable work. How about that.

      • Does plotting “suck the creative juices” out of a story?

        Not if it’s done properly. If it’s done properly, plotting itself draws the creative juices from you, until you’re sitting in a veritable fountain of them and it’s all you can do to scribble it all down as fast as humanly possible.

      • Does plotting “not take into account the life on the page”?

        Plotting is all about taking into account the life on the page, so that you can bridge the abyss between how it looks to you and how it looks to your reader.

      Then plotting continues to take the life on the page into account, drawing your creative juices in a controllable flow throughout the process of writing your novel, which is what you need in order to make it all the way through 72,000 words of storytelling.

      Practicing any technique improperly is likely to confuse you and steer you wrong to the extent that you conclude it’s the technique itself that’s causing your problems.

      It’s not the technique.

      It’s not being taught how to use that technique.

      And authors/teachers who haven’t happened to stumble across how to plot properly in the course of writing their own work are the ones telling you not to do it at all.

    5. A presenter who can’t answer straight-forward questions on the topic of the session

    6. Because, it turns out, they don’t know the craft of fiction.

      They only know themself.

      You’ve figured out that they’re mostly only going to talk about their own novel. You got that after the first forty-five minutes. So you’re listening politely, taking notes, thinking as intelligently as you can about how to apply what they’re saying to what you’re doing with your novel.

      And when you simply can’t find the connection, you raise your hand and courteously ask for clarification on a particular technique.

      But you don’t get an answer on that particular technique. You get an unrelated answer about how this author happened to write their novel.

      Of course, since you just spent the last hour listening to how that author wrote their novel, you’re already pretty conversant with that. So you ask again, still courteously, how to apply such a technique to your own work. (You’re not going to take up class time describing your beloved manuscript, but you do want to know how to apply such a thing in generic terms.)

      “Hey!” says the presenter excitedly. “Something shiny!”

      And the next thing you know, they’re off answering someone else’s question, which—if it’s about that presenter’s novel—turns out to have an answer it takes the rest of the session to fully explore.

      Now, these are quite delicate situations for me personally, because I kind of want those aspiring writers to get the answers to their questions. But I don’t want to appear to be rudely taking over someone else’s class.

      So I wind up trying to remember what those aspiring writers look like and finding them later to say, “Here’s my website. I answer these questions free on my advice column. There are real answers. Please—ask.”

    7. A presenter who relies almost entirely on advice out of a famous book on writing by someone else

    8. This one’s a no-brainer: Anne Lamott and John Gardner.

      • For the record, Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, which she says right up front is basically just stories about her own experiences teaching fiction and writing her books.

      • John Gardner wrote a whole slew of intellectual, rather academic books on the craft of fiction, but the one everyone talks about is On Becoming a Novelist because in it he lists what he considers the essential qualities of a writer, which include qualities that we are normally ashamed of. Aspiring writers love that. I refer to his books a lot too, along with lots of other canonical writers who also wrote some very perceptive and charming books on the craft indeed.

      Even worse is the presenter who relies on writing advice by someone whose name they can’t recall. And of course they didn’t plan ahead and write it down.

      So I have to tell them.

      This has literally happened to me: the presenter looks to me (because they know I’m there as a tutor, not a student) and says, “Who said that?” I say the expert’s name politely and clearly so that everyone can hear. And they all write it down. Then the presenter nods and goes quickly back to talking about themself.

      Yes, it was Donald Maass who said, “Tension on every page,” and he said it in Writing the Breakout Novel.

    9. A presenter who dispenses their advice from on high and avoids any meaningful human contact outside the classroom

    10. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched aspiring writers show up full of hope over the promise of meeting and talking with professionals in the industry—because, after all, that’s one of the promises writers conferences hold out as an enticement.

      And then I watch them get dismissed time and time again by presenters who are too Big And Important to be seen on the quad talking in all human connection with some plebeian who isn’t even published yet.

      I watch these presenters get caught answering questions outside the classroom as quickly and unhelpfully as possible, refuse to make eye contact, and disappear without saying good-bye.

      Then I run after them into the private presenters’ lounge, and I kick them in the shins.

      You betcha.

      You’re welcome!

    UPDATE: The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • 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.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



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  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. What it’s like to be transported to a parallel universe of incandescent vision through your own small words.
    2. How it feels to unravel the mystery of all human endeavor into a web of light that pulses delicately in your hands.
    3. Everything about your main characters’ childhoods, which were so poignant and heart-rending and touching but don’t fit into the story you have to tell today.
    4. What’s in the shadows of your protagonist’s heart that makes them gesture so gracefully, lie so effectively, turn their head with such sudden tenderness.
    5. Where your villain has been to make them burn so deeply, grasp so strongly, care so powerfully about destroying everything that’s ever been against them.
    6. What really happens when the secondary characters go in the other room while the protagonist is watching out the window for the villain.
    7. What hilarious jokes those secondary characters are telling in the background during the pivotal bar scene.
    8. All the subtle, complex minor subplots going on between the secondary characters that would only distract your reader from following with bated breath your protagonist’s driving agenda.
    9. What every single detail of every single room in every apartment or house looks like, down to the patterns on the upholstery and the type of wood the coffee table is make out of.
    10. Your protagonist’s favorite books and movies.
    11. Your villain’s favorite books and movies.
    12. What great clothes your protagonist is wearing in every scene. AND where they got them.
    13. What your villain knows about hatred and malice that you wish you didn’t know and will never actually admit to.
    14. Exactly how—although it would disrupt your reader’s epiphany for you to spell it out in so many words—your protagonist and villain understand each other in the final moment, when they face each other across the abyss of their irreconcilable differences.
    15. What lies beyond the hill in that panoramic view in front of which your characters enact their mesmerizing climactic scene.
    16. How their dark figures against that view epitomize everything you know and feel and believe about the vividness of living.
    17. What your protagonist means when they say, “I’ll just let you wonder.”
    18. What your villain means when they say, “I don’t have to.”
    19. Where your characters go when they walk off the last page.
    20. Exactly how your protagonist felt before it all fell apart, when they were lying in the arms of your own imaginary beloved.
    21. Where your villain hid the steak knives.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



  • By Victoria Mixon

    Let’s talk about querying. Because I found a great piece on querying the other day while investigating an agency with which one of my clients is in talks, Folio Literary Management.

    You’ve all read this advice before (although Mr. Kleinman’s is particularly well-written). So why is it that when you send out your own meticulously-researched and -crafted queries, you always wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night immediately afterward, realizing you’ve committed one of these unpardonable sins?

    Why does the universe hate you so?

    1. You addressed your query to the wrong agent.

      Spelled it correctly. Wrote it in your best cursive on the envelope (you should probably get an award for that calligraphy). Made sure they represent your genre. Then stuck the wrong letter in the wrong envelope and—voila!—mailed that sucker off.

      And you can’t dash down and try to get it back out of the mailbox, because you have a friend who did that once and found out (guess what?) it’s illegal. At least that’s what the cop said.

      Hi. I’m not Agent X. I’m Agent Y, X’s worst enemy.

      Just so you know, X hates you. In fact, X is spreading the word in the agent community that you have a communicable disease that travels with your queries. This means agents don’t just reject your queries. They don’t even just throw them away. They carry them into the backyard at the end of long tongs and torch them in an exorcism ceremony.

      I apologize on behalf of X and wish you well in your endeavors. Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!
    2. You misspelled significant words.

      Including the agent’s name, the name of the author to which you would like to be compared, and “representation.”

      Dear Writer: I’m afraid I don’t “repersant” anyone. But I bet you could get a job at Home Despot. All best.

    3. You spent so many hours writing and rewriting the central paragraph about your novel it now reads like some kind of disjointed dystopian fantasy about gnomes and Humphrey Bogart.

      Even YOU would fling this one off you like a bug.

      Dear Whoever-the-Heck-You-Are: Good luck and all that, but you might want to come out of your cave and have a conversation with a real human being at least once before you try to launch yourself into the field of simultaneous communication with thousands of strangers. Regards.

    4. You forgot the SASE.

      It’s okay. I wasn’t going to respond to you, anyway.
    5. You claimed to have been published, not in the New York Times “Letters to the Editor Department,” but in The New Yorker.

      Honest-to-god, it looked like the New York Times “Letters to the Editor Department” every single time you proofed it.

      Dear Anonymous in Albuquerque: Yeah. The New Yorker‘s never heard of you. I guess their records are pretty slip-shod. Ciao, baby.
    6. You forgot to mention either the title or wordcount of your novel.

      How did this get by you? Were you ASLEEP?

      Dear Yoo-hoo: It’s a fascinating idea, and it sounds like you’re capable of writing really amazing, mesmerizing prose. If you ever get around to writing that thing, you know, you should probably query someone with it.

      Not us.
    7. You misspelled your own name.

      Fortunately—this one’s salvageable. Just hie yourself on down to the courthouse and legally change it. No one will ever know.

    (Also check out this excellent piece on writing a synopsis from James Scott Bell.)


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



  • By Victoria Mixon

    You know what’s hard? Sitting at your desk day in and day out, month after month, year after year, trying to come up with fresh and significant angles on life in an imaginary world. After awhile it seems like every character you create spends all their time flipping through random papers, looking under books, and trolling the blogosphere. (Garrison Keillor once said the characters in his first novel spent all their time smoking cigarettes and looking out windows.)

    Get up! Go out in the world. Your characters are living there. Go look for them.

    1. On a high ladder.

      This is how your characters feel when they have to do something they don’t want to do.

      How do YOU feel? What’s under your hands? Under your feet? In your stomach? Between your ears? Ask yourself what it would feel like if you let go. Then ask yourself what it would feel like if you let go and your foot got caught.

      That’s what happens to your characters after they’ve done what they didn’t want to do.
    2. In an advanced physics class.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re in a conversation they can’t control.

      What are you thinking? What is the person next to you thinking? What is the teacher thinking about you? Ask yourself how you’d teach this class if you were a genius. Then ask yourself what you’d do if the teacher told you to take over with the brain you’ve got.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they have to speak.
    3. In a cold bath.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re waiting.

      What’s your body doing? What’s your skin doing? What’s your brain doing? Ask yourself what would happen if you never got out. Then ask yourself what would happen if your mortal enemy got in with you.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they stop waiting.
    4. In a room full of boxes.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re facing strangers.

      What are your lungs doing? What is your scalp doing? What’s the first thing that flashes through your mind? Ask yourself what’s in these boxes that you’ve forgotten about. Then ask yourself what you’re going to do when you’ve got them all opened and the contents everywhere and you don’t know how to put it all back away.

      That’s what happens to your characters at the end of the scene with the strangers.
    5. Under the sink working on plumbing.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re trying to break through a stonewall.

      How do your muscles feel? How does your spine feel? How do the synapses that are supposed to get you out of this pickle feel? Ask yourself what it would take to get someone else to do this. Then ask yourself what you’re going to say to the person with the gun when you crawl out and explain why you quit.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they break through the stonewall.
    6. On a bridge over a moving ship.

      This is how your characters feel when they have a chance to get something they desperately need.

      What do your legs want to do? What do your arms want to do? What does your neck want to do? Ask yourself how it would feel to throw yourself off the bridge onto the ship. Then ask yourself how it would feel to miss.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they go for the chance.
    7. In an airplane bathroom.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re spying on someone.

      How cramped are you? How twisted can you get? How does the privacy feel compared to being out there with everyone else? Ask yourself what it would be like to go down the drain and fall through the sky. Then ask yourself what it would be like to get stuck.

      That’s what happens to your characters when footsteps head their way.
    8. In the open trunk of a car.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re about to die.

      How do your eyeballs feel? How do your palms feel? When was the last time you used the bathroom? Ask yourself how it would feel if someone slammed the trunk lid closed. Then ask yourself what it would be like to wake up still in the closed trunk.

      That’s what happens to your characters at the moment of death.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. If you’ve got a love story, bring in a third party.
    2. If you’ve got a thriller, break their tools.
    3. If you’ve got sci fi, create unexpected social norms.
    4. If you’ve got a fantasy, make reality too hard to cope with.
    5. If you’ve got historical fiction, unearth facts no one from this era would know.
    6. If you’ve got a mystery, kill off your informants.
    7. If you’ve got horror, use prosaic details.
    8. If you’ve got an adventure, put your protagonist’s life in danger. And everyone else’s.
    9. If you’ve got comedy, add a touch of poignancy.
    10. If you’ve got YA, give your protagonist a dry sense of humor.
    11. If you’ve got MG, add random non sequiturs to the dialog.
    12. If you’ve got a picture book, make sure your illustrator is the very best.
    13. If you’ve got literary fiction, make sure your editor is the very best.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories





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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, tragic and 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 her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers 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 worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of 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, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .

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