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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, 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.

  • By Victoria Mixon

    We talked last week about an alarmingly bizarre piece of writing advice one of my clients got from an agent in response to her requested full manuscript. We also talked about exposition & telling and why they’re pretty much exactly the same thing, even though I know we out here in the bathosphere of professional fiction sometimes like to sit around chewing the fat over the fine points of complex technicalities.

    1. Exposition is authorial commentary

      I advocate minimizing the use of exposition.

      This is because it’s a great deal of what we usually write when we’re still mulling over our stories in early drafts—lots of stuff like, “This was interesting, because she really hadn’t ever thought much about rabbits, and suspenders reminded her of her uncles,” and, “If only he had known about the sad, heartbreaking history behind the woodshed he’d have thought twice before buying an ax,” and “Again, they wondered why the operator kept buzzing through.”

      That’s all useful to us as writers, but it can safely be edited out once we figure out how to “Dramatize!” as Henry James said. “Dramatize!”

      Drama is the good stuff that moves the story out of the writer’s head and into the reader’s.

      We also call that stuff “scenes.”

    2. Run-of-the-mill authorial commentary is supposed to be edited out of final drafts

      Sadly, though, exposition is often used these days in published fiction to skim right over scenes without delving into the vivid details that bring characters alive. The overwhelming telling doesn’t get edited out. So exposition winds up being used as a crutch rather than a technique.

      Why does this happen?

      Because the publishing industry has morphed in recent decades from being about storytelling that lasts—which has always been financed, it’s true, by a great deal of mediocre mass market shove-a-matic fiction—to being mostly about slipping those ole wallets out of readers’ pockets.

      Successful genre authors are often pressured to churn out books faster and faster. Authors who don’t arrive on the publishers’ doorsteps with massive followings can be summarily booted out high windows if their first novels don’t bring in big bucks.

      And the worst part of it: many publishers have stopped editing manuscripts altogether, so whatever early drafts their authors (particularly big names) churn out can go straight to the presses without editorial interference (ask me about a book going straight to press without editing)—still full of their authorial commentary, which is the exposition we writers accidentally write as we explore our novels.

      Publishers’ editing is becoming a dying craft.

      It’s a self-consuming cycle of failing literature.

      Now those early-draft unedited novels full of exposition are seen by newbies to the industry as the models upon which all fiction must be formed, although they’re the lowest-common-denominator of our day.

      A whole generation of publishing professionals is growing up without even knowing about the existence of editing techniques, as though no publisher’s editor had ever sweated long hours in the office over polishing good writing into beautiful prose, or spent weeks and months (yes, even years) working over and over scenes and storylines and character development with their authors, guiding the translation of narrative summary into narrative—as though professional editing itself were meaningless to fiction.

      A reader’s nightmare.

    3. Lack of editing is killing the craft of fiction

      Remember John Gardner and his wonderful, immortal discussion of fiction as a “vivid continuous dream”?

      Remember Malcolm Crowley, Robert Gottlieb, Pat Covici? Remember Maxwell Perkins, wonder-editor of Charles Scribner’s Sons who ‘discovered’ and edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe? He famously told James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, “You explain too much, you use too much exposition. Put it into action and dialog!”

      Exposition is not more commercial than scenes.

      It is simply common in today’s early-draft unedited fiction.

      Actually, dependence upon heavy exposition isn’t even a new literary crime. It’s always been a problem in throw-away fiction, the cheap stuff nobody remembers. Vintage fiction, of which I am a minor aficionado, can occasionally be full of it. (In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft wrote a whole lot of treacly, emotional exposition. Wow, he could be a terrible writer.)

      And the less fiction is taught and mentored and edited by editors through whose hands pass the literature of an era, the worse that fiction turns out to be.

      Take note, folks: this is what it’s like to watch your era’s literature die right there on the vine.

    Jane Austen is now and always has been an enormously commercial author. That’s because she filled her novels with vivid scenes and mostly left the reader to decide how they felt about them. So did Arthur Conan Doyle. And Emily and Charlotte Bronte. And Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Colette, Gordimer, Cather, Conrad, Bowen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bowles, Updike, Salinger, Bellow, Carver, LeGuin, Chandler, Nemirovsky, Tolkien, Peake, and “I Am a Camera” Isherwood.

    Every one of these authors is still making money for publishing houses.

    Because stories that rely on scenes to show the reader things about which they might have feelings—rather than on exposition to tell that reader how to feel—is the stuff of fiction. . .in fact, the stuff of great literature.

    And it’s commercial.



    “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




19 Responses to “3 More Things to Know About Exposition & Telling”

  1. Hmm….editors paying less attention to second-time authors? That sounds a bit worrying. Somehow there must be a way to encourage writers to work a bit harder, or find some more critical eyes to make up for the freedom they had been given.

    Also, on Dickens: Didn’t he got paid by the word? I’m not too familiar with him, but I would supposed he would use some expo dumps to pad his works.

  2. Victoria said on

    Publishers’ editors are paying less attention to all authors, not just second-time. This is complicated by the fact that they get moved around from house-to-house a lot these days, so there is no longer the long-term loyalty between editor and author that nurtured the careers of many of the twentieth-century greats. A friend of mine is on her fourth editor in only two novels. Susan Orleans famously went through eight with The Orchid Thief.

    Dickens actually owned his own magazine, so he got paid by the subscription. He wrote a great many of his novels as serials in his magazine, cranking stuff out like a whiz. He was one of those authors who had the luxury of learning the craft as he earned his living in it, and the rising quality of his published work shows it. In the early days he often didn’t know where his stories were going, beyond that week’s serial. Later he learned to plot, and his novels became more memorial.

    Either way, he went back over it all later and edited it when it went into the novels. He was both a journalistic editor and a fiction author, which is why he was able to line-edit his own work—it takes a ruthless pen, and journalism is certainly the place to lose your tender writerly ruth.

  3. Hi Victoria,
    really found your post interesting. And although you appear to be based in the US, I think a lot of what you say about the publishing world is happening here in the UK and it seems a pity – so many great stories and so much great fiction doomed not to be mediocre, or worse, because of the lack of a good edit and/or greed for a quick buck. Look forward to more posts!
    very best

  4. Victoria said on

    Yeah, I hear it’s bad in the UK too. The two publishing industries are extremely closely linked.

  5. Lovely post – excuse me a moment while I give you a cross-Atlantic virtual hug.

    I was just about to write that it’s just as bad in the UK and I see you’ve already started talking about that.

    These days, editors hardly seem to edit, though unbdoubtedly they would love to because it’s such a valuable part of the job. Now that gets passed back along the chain to agents, who are working on spec in the hope that the manuscript will sell. In the meantime, I’ve seen books with enormous problems get published and on the shelves, without proper time being taken to get them right. And the greed for a quick buck means that authors are pushed through the mangle again and again. Horrible.

    This happens a lot less, though, with the smaller, independent publishers. They’re also happier to wait for an author to get a book right, rather than risk throwing it out too soon.

  6. Victoria said on

    Yes, you and Dave are my best source of info on what’s going on in the UK!

    I think you’re absolutely right about the smaller publishers (O, for another Diana Athill!), although I also hear horror stories about new small publishers who are even more bloodthirsty toward authors than their traditional counterparts.

    Speaking of UK fiction, I just read Christine Falls last week—I do force myself to read a reasonably recent best seller once in awhile, to see how things are holding up.

    What a disappointment to see some really wonderful description, characterisation, and exposition brought down to the status of just more grist for the publishing mill because nobody edited Banville, simply relied on his reputation to sell (which it did) his quote-unquote “debut” mystery. (How is a novel a debut if you’ve already won the Man Booker Prize? One must wonder.)

    If I were Banville I’d be weeping into my pillow at how close I’d come to writing a canonical beauty and missed through my publisher’s laziness.

    But of course it can take years to get enough distance from one’s own manuscript to see how loose and unfocused an unedited draft really is. So perhaps he’s not weeping too hard.

  7. Hi Victoria…
    Another great post! I am eager to see how the world of self-publishing helps or hurts this. That dumped author, for example, now has another avenue for becoming published. On the other hand… will they take the time (and perhaps spend the money) to truly edit their book before publishing it? I like to hope some of them do.

    I also like to hope that it will encourage growth and competition in the editing market. Many very good editors are working as salepeople at Nordstrom… or bartenders… or office admins… simply because (not unlike authors) there are only so many jobs being offered by the publishing companies.

    I know some fantastic people in the literary world right now are trying to figure out how to connect great editors with great writers for a great price. If you have any ideas about how to do this…. I’d love to pass them along.

    Int he meantime… thank you for making it easier for all of us writers to find the potholes in our work!

  8. Victoria said on

    Hi, Deanne!

    You bring up a terrific point here.

    It’s a really difficult moment in the history of literature regarding connecting great editors with great writers for a great price. Now that publishers no longer figure the cost of editing into their editors’ salaries, how can authors and/or agents afford the editing everyone knows a manuscript needs?

    The key, I would suggest, is striking a deal between a great editor and author/agent/publisther similar to that used in the field of technical writing, where they distinguish between the freelance contractors and the permanent or semi-permanent employees.

    Freelance contractors in the technical industry get to charge far more per hour than permanent employees. Wow, do they. So every technical writer/editor makes a choice: would I rather get more bucks upfront, whee doggies! or greater security (and maybe benefits) over the long haul?

    Right now, independent editors in the publishing industry are pretty much freelance contractors, meaning they don’t have any security that once a job is over there’s any more work coming down that particular pike. There are indie editors who work closely with certain agents or publishers, but they’re not usually out here taking on lots of pre-query writers. There is still that glass ceiling.

    However, if an agency or publisher wanted to sign on with an editor for a certain amount of work over a number of books, that editor could probably afford to cut them a special rate.

    I’ve worked with writers whose agents brought them the feedback from multiple acquisitions editors, and I helped the writer and agent devise a plan for each book that fills the gaps and satisfies the questions that those multiple editors identified. In this way, I’m able to help get those acquisitions editors the books they need—while helping the author/agent pair cross the barrier between them and a publishing deal.

    Finding common ground on the issue of volume versus rate works for technical writers and editors.

    There’s no reason it wouldn’t work for authors, agents, and/or publishers as well.

  9. This is a beautiful post, thank you so much for it. I wondered a great deal about exposition and why there’s so darn much of it everywhere, and now I’ve got my answer. No one wants to pay money to make something into a truly beautiful piece.

    Is there even a future for indie authors who don’t get signed to publishers and are frequently too poor to hire someone for a full-on edit?

  10. Victoria said on

    Aah! Anastasia! I would love to say, “Heck, yes. Do your stuff!”

    The truth, however, is a little more complex than that.

    There is a huge future for indie authors—we won’t even have data to make reasonable predictions on just what that future is for some years yet.

    And, yes, some of us do successfully self-publish right now without hiring indie editors, those of us who:

    1) have been writing and editing professionally for decades, and

    2) also have friends who are professional editors willing to do the work in exchange for something other than pay (my husband does the bulk of the line-editing on my books for me—he happens to have been a professional author and editor for twenty years, and he likes me)

    Notice that even I couldn’t do what I do without both resources.

    So that’s really your answer:

    If you can’t afford to hire an independent editor (as so many can’t) and you’re being passed up by the current traditional publishing industry (as so many are), you can still write and sell wonderful books if you do it the old-fashioned way, the way writers have been doing it clear up until the very recent complications in the publishing industry of the last few years, which two essential ways are:

    1) you spend a decade or two honing your skills in the craft, and

    2) you also spend that time becoming close friends (even marriage partners) with professional authors and editors who grow, over the years, to love you very much

    But if you’re hoping to break into self-publishing right here, right now, without putting in the time it takes to become really adept at the work. . .

    you’re relying on sheer genius.

    Me—I don’t have that.

  11. Quote: But if you’re hoping to break into self-publishing right here, right now, without putting in the time it takes to become really adept at the work. . .
    you’re relying on sheer genius.

    Gosh, I see more and more of such authors (Amazon kamikazes I call them), and wonder how (and if) it all will sort itself out…

  12. Victoria said on

    You know, it will.

    In the 1930s Penguin introduced a revolutionary new idea: cheaply-made dime paperbacks to be sold at drugstore counters. It was the true birth of genre. The publishing industry was shocked and even distraught at the idea—the bar for publishable literature suddenly dropped through the floor!—and nobody knew how it would play out.

    What happened was that a lot of really terrible writing got published and sold through cheap dime paperbacks. And a lot of really good writers managed to make a decent middle-class living writing genre through the same channel.

    This is the same mechanism, only with much bigger numbers because there are approximately 3 1/2 times as many people on the planet now. (That’s a huge leap—FYI.)

    It’ll play out in very much the same way. It might just have have more twists and turns and take longer to reach a point upon which we can base reasonable assumptions.

    People will always figure out a way to read and write.

  13. I’ve become very concerned at the lower standards of writing appearing all across the industry along with indications that readers are not aware of what makes good writing (Ifor example, I’ve seen plenty of 5 star reviews of writing that is virtually all ‘telling’) That’s why I created the Awesome Indies listing, to promote those Indie books that are well written.

  14. Anistasia, I was about to say the same thing. If more fiction is flowing into the mainstream from publishers, agents, now vanity presses and e-books and it those filters that only allowed the best to enter have started to clog up and are less effective to improve the quality of what enters the stream then we need to start forming a system that rates books before the market gets them. It would be bad for writing if readers got frustrated with reading diluted fiction. Who is going to open and close the gate?

  15. Victoria said on

    Readers, Nathan. They already read authors rather than books. And this is why—because nobody else is paying attention.

    Sadly, that means a lot of writers are selling sub-quality books on their names alone. And a lot of excellent writing goes unnoticed.

  16. Hi Victoria,

    A bit late on the discussion. I’m in the process of catching up on all my blog inboxes that filled up during my two week vacation.

    I am currently editing my second unpublished novel and am in the process of taking out all those nasty authorial expositions from my scenes. A good trick for me is if a chapter starts with three or more paragraphs of no dialogue, then I cut it and start later in the scene with dialogue. As I do this, I’ve found all the info I had put into the exposition I could do much more dramatically and efficiently with dialogue and interspersed exposition.

    Your post showed me I’m on the right track. Thank you!

  17. Victoria said on

    Nice trick, Patti!

    Syd Fields, the great screenwriting guru, says, “Start the scene at the end where all the excitement is.” That excitement is what your audience is after.

  18. I believe the New York Times also had an article about this. they pointed out that as more and more readers are turning to Kindles and Nooks, publishers are demanding from established and popular authors more works. When a popular author wrote one book a year, they now must submit two or three.

    Author’s like Patterson now have co-authors, and actually act more like editors than writers.

  19. Victoria said on

    Yeah, Stan, Patterson’s been doing that for eons. He’s a marketing executive, not a writer. That would explain Stephen King’s opinion of his ‘writing.’

    This has been going on for much longer than e-readers have existed. Renni Browne and Dave King talked about it in 1993 in their canonical book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. (Browne had already, I believe, been an independent editor for thirteen years by then.)

    Publishers have been trying to squeeze more and more books out of their big-name authors faster and faster for decades. It has to do with the buy-out of American publishers by overseas corporations in the 1980s-90s. Then on Black Wednesday of 2008 a whole raft of publishers’ editors were laid off, creating the current non-editing publishing climate.

    Publishers can pretend it’s about e-readers, but it’s not. It’s about them.

    There was a time when they were afraid of ‘saturating’ the market.

    Now they’re just hysterically stuffing their faces.