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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Sometimes we travel for my husband’s work, and although we all enjoy the thrill of the open road and the excitement of escaping housework and chores and the incessant arguments over who gets the comfortable armchairs, us or the cats, still—

    It’s always good to get home.

    What is it that makes home home? And why do we return to our writing time and again, over the years, to find those same qualities in the imaginary universes alive in our heads?

    1. Familiarity

    2. Of course. Home is you. That’s why you’re there.

      And that’s why you keep going back to your fiction—in spite of the frustration of never quite being able to bring that wonderful, multifaceted plane of inspiration here into the tangible daily world, in spite of loneliness and failure and exhaustion and conflicting demands upon your time.

      Because it’s you. It’s where you live.

    3. Context

    4. In that familiar sphere, you find the framework you develop throughout your life for understanding the trials of living. Newborn babies have no such frameworks—they spend most of their time crying out in anguish. Growing up is developing the frame of reference you need to stay sane for the rest of your life.

      When you read great books, you’re building framework for understanding life. When you learn from great writing and spiritual mentors, you’re building framework. And when you go into your fictional landscape and live alongside the characters there, meticulously noting and writing down the details of their experiences, you are applying your framework of understanding to the very real ’slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ with which we all constantly contend, from cradle to grave.

      Storytelling keeps us sane.

    5. Emotion

    6. Because writing allows you to feel what goes on inside you, your physical, emotional, gut-wrenching reactions to those ’slings and arrows,’ without simply disintegrating into a pile of shattered rubble. Newborn babies cry and are comforted—babies who are not comforted die.

      When you use your words, the details of observed and felt life, to record what it’s like to be alive, you give yourself that comfort. “Someone else has lived through these hard times,” you are saying to yourself and to others. “We can transcend our suffering.”

    7. Safety

    8. And the aftermath of those emotions—the devastation of cities, countrysides, relationships, lives—can be caught and named and held up to the mirror so it serves not to destroy you but to temper you, not to compound the darkness but to illuminate the strengths that keep you on your feet, year after year, helping everyone you touch stay on their feet, too.

      We need to confront that aftermath, to break through the terror of the darkness that rings our lives.

    9. Companionship

    10. All those others are here with you—your characters (whom of course you love, “not always,” as Emily Bronte so candidly pointed out 160 years ago, “as a pleasure any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”) as well as your writing friends.

      This is what the blogosphere has given writers of this generation that writers have never had before: the companionship of thousands. Do not underestimate the power of tribe in your life. You are a writer among writers. You have family.

    11. Epiphany

    12. And finally all that exploration, all that suffering, all that tempering and reaching the depths and reaching out and sharing your experience, culminates in those brief, iridescent moments that make all that survival worthwhile: the epiphanies that convince you there’s more going on than any of us know.

      There is something intangible beyond what we see and do and say every day, even though the only way to find it and illuminate it is through showing tangible characters, with tangible problems, seeing and doing and saying.

      It’s the ultimate paradox, the paradox of living: that the transcendence of the niggling, harrowing, incessant ills of life—the breaking through the familiar to the intangible beyond—is coming home.


    The Art and Craft of Fiction:
    A Practitioner’s Manual

    by Victoria Mixon

    “The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”—Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    “Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .demystifies essential aspects of craft while paying homage to the art.”—Millicent Dillon, five time O. Henry Award winner and PEN/Faulkner nominee

    “Teeming with gold. . .makes you love being a writer because you belong to the special club that gets to read this book.”—KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel


    The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon

    “This book changed my life.”Stu Wakefield, Kindle #1 best-selling author of Body of Water and Memory of Water

    “Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”—Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel

    “As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches. Highly recommended.”—Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering

    “I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”—Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop


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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about how to approach the first draft of your novel this month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, Last week we talked about the 3 Essential Guidelines for your overall novel, and the week before that we talked about Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And today we’re going to be talking about the protagonist’s character, because that’s the core of all storytelling. (I tackled this topic last November in a post so bizarre that it famously prompted Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel to ask, “My dear, what are on you on?” 4 Post-Its to Stick Up Over Your Writing Desk. And I outlined the basic elements—which I’m going to talk about in greater depth below—back last summer in one of a series I did on how to write fiction all wrong: How to Characterize Wrong in 3 Easy Steps.)

    But, honestly, you don’t have to be doing NaNo to be starting a novel. If you’ve got holidays coming up in December, you might very well be getting yourself in gear to take advantage of them in the most luxurious way a writer can imagine: by writing!

    1. Your protagonist believes they cannot survive without this

      It’s a need so core to them that if you changed it you wouldn’t be writing about a human being anymore. What is it? Writers have been using the canonical primary needs for hundreds of years without wearing them out:

      • survival
      • love
      • justice

      Truly, these three needs have powered most of the fiction ever written. And there are still more aspects to explore in them. They’re that enormous. They’re that complex.

      Some of the other things characters need are:

      • to protect a child
      • to heal a wound
      • to learn the truth
      • to have an adventure

      These needs also have powered incredible numbers of stories. Remember Don Quixote? Out there scampering around the countryside on that mangy old nag with his reluctant sidekick at his stirrup? What was he up to?

      He certainly wasn’t defending his life. And I don’t think he ever really had a chance with Dulcinea.

      Justice. Adventure.

      He needed them really badly.

    2. Your protagonist can’t survive without this either

      Because that’s what makes a story: two needs. Otherwise, it’s a bildungsroman, the story of a protagonist grappling with a whole series of internal conflicts, and modern readers don’t have the attention span to survive a bildunsroman anymore. They need explicit signposts on why they should care. (I’m sorry, Moll Flanders.)

      But here’s the magic wand—you’ve already done this step. Yes, you have! Look above. How many stories are about two of those top three in conflict with each other? What if you mixed and matched two out of the seven? One of the seven with some equally-powerful but more subtle need?

      • to prove a point
      • to accomplish a lifelong goal
      • to protect someone elderly (or otherwise physically or intellectually vulnerable)
      • to escape evil
      • to come to grips with their own dark side

      You’ll notice that, no matter how subtle a secondary need you give your protagonist, it can pretty much always be traced back to one of those three canonical primary needs. And when you choose not to root your protagonist’s character in a secondary need quite that canonical, for whatever reason, you must add motivation to that subtle need through one of the canonical ones.

      Also, although experts once swore mysteries were too ‘intellectual’ to accommodate romance, pretty much any story gets better when you add thwarted love to the mix.

    3. Your protagonist has absolutely no intention of choosing between the two

      Which means any situation in which they are forced to do just that serves as a rip-roaring, roof-raising, mind-bending catastrophe for your Climax. As country singers are so fond of reminding us, “My baby left me, I lost my home, and then my dog died.”

      1. Say you have a protagonist who needs:

        • survival
        • love

        Whomever they love, it puts them in danger. In danger of losing their job? In danger of losing their home? In danger of losing their sanity?

        When Jane Eyre had to choose, she lost all three. Well, she wasn’t totally plugged in to begin with, but I really don’t think that night on the moor could have helped much.

        Pit your protagonist against themself by giving them the two most fundamental needs in the human animal. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, either. It could be love of a friend, love of a place, love of a cause.

        Romantic love has the added attraction of sex, of course, which always gets the attention of the hormonally-bullied. (You know who you are.) Just keep in mind—and this is really important—you must address sexual issues through their grip on the personality rather than through simple textbook instructions. Your reader doesn’t need to learn how to do it. They need to learn how to handle the consequences when they indulge in something they know how to do all too well.

      2. Or say your protagonist needs:

        • justice
        • survival

        Their pursuit of justice does nothing but put their life in danger. You know what that is?

        Every thriller ever written.

        This is why thriller works so well as series genre. Because you can pit your protagonist against themself through their need for justice—and the evil perpetrators’ efforts to kill them—over and over and over again until Doomesday and never run out of excitement.

        Be aware that thrillers get their layering through complicated technical subjects, so the authors of thrillers do a great deal of research into specific industries: law, politics, banking, history, international espionage, high-tech weaponry, et cetera, plus very often exotic locales. That all needs to be professionally-researched and very adroitly handled. For advice on how to use your research properly, read Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, in which she explains exactly how she used her research for eleven ghostwritten books, eight of which were best sellers.

      3. Or maybe your protagonist needs:

        • love
        • justice

        What would force a person to choose between what they want and what they know is right? Well, almost everything. Anne of Green Gables tells us all about it as she works her way through her daily life—the endless, excruciating decision-making process that never leaves us alone. It’s when she has to choose between the things she loves and the things she knows are right that she becomes important to the reader, someone they will carry with them internally for the rest of their life.

        Because such stories don’t have death hanging over anybody’s head, they tend to be more mild-mannered. That allows them to go deeply and profoundly into the human experience. Remember that your reader is reading not only to be reassured that life is worth living, but to learn something they don’t already know. If you choose to pit your protagonist against themself through these two very human (but not dastardly) needs, you’ll have to know something about those needs that the reader can’t figure out for themself. Just reiterating an experience identical to the reader’s own without adding anything original won’t hold their attention.

    You can see how this simple pyramidal design gives you a protagonist your reader passionately wants to see succeed, even as you back that protagonist into worse and worse corners until you’ve backed them right against a wall.

    Then your protagonist must always, in the Climax, choose. That choice is the secret ingredient that makes your story work.

    This, my friends, is what we call sympathetic character.

    [I KNOW: I finally turned off comments because of the spam. Thank you for all your comments over the years! You're such a joy to write for. If you like these posts, please feel free to click StumbleUpon and/or Facebook and/or Twitter.]

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Every year I write a series of NaNoWriMo posts like the bizarre and inexplicable 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable, 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive, and 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Inescapable. Last week we looked at Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And for those of you who learn better in conversation than through written instructions, this year I’ve even been interviewed on video by Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog. Joanna asks me for pointers on how to approach writing the sequel to her Kindle best-seller, Pentecost—pointers I make universal to storytelling in general so they’ll help all of you diving into writing your own new novels right this minute.

    So let’s review quickly how to make that dive a swan dive and not a cannonball:

    1. Know why this story matters

      Somewhere, somehow, at that one moment when they can least afford it, your protagonist is going to come up against themself in a spiritual dark alley. And it’s going to be bad.

      They have always, all their life, sincerely and desperately believed they could not handle this confrontation. Chaos, madness, mayhem, yes. But not this.

      And that heart-stopping confrontation is why you’re writing this story. Handling the impossible matters to readers—it’s possibly the only thing that does.

      That’s your Climax.

    2. Be great fun to run around with

      The bulk of a novel is just for fun, thrill, excitement, unending adventures that leap from one peak to another as though in Seven-League Boots. Your reader’s grappling with one drama! Aaagh! They’re grappling with another! No! They’re back to grappling with the first drama again! Eeee! There’s a new drama they didn’t see coming!

      Back and forth, round and round, in and out of the complexities of your plot they run full-tilt, flapping the pages of your book as they go. They can’t stop!

      That’s your Development.

    3. Understand Backstory

      Don’t get too attached to the first scenes that it occurs to you to write. Those are your warm-up scenes, and chances are almost certain they’re Backstory, not Hook.

      Write them! Have a fabulous time! But be willing to set them aside in their own little outtakes files later, when you’re far enough into this story (possibly at the end) to be able to see what originally happened to force the decision that got your protagonist into this whole impossible mess in the first place.

      That’s too important of a scene to toy with by getting yourself emotionally-dependent upon it right now. Just take lots of notes as you work on your novel so it will be a truly fabulous opening scene when you do eventually write it.

      That will be your Hook.

    And because we all live here in the twenty-first century, I know as well as you do how hard it is to squeeze NaNoWriMo into your already-packed schedule. So remember the 9 Ways to Find Time to Write.

    Take a deep breath, run to the top of the highest pinnacle you can find, and start flapping your wings. Welcome to NaNoWriMo!

    Is all your hair standing on end yet?

    [I KNOW: I finally turned off comments because of the spam. Thank you for all your comments over the years! You're such a joy to write for. If you like these posts, please feel free to click StumbleUpon and/or Facebook and/or Twitter.]

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    A couple of weeks ago Sabine asked a fabulous question in the comments on Being Interviewed by Rachel X Russell:

    Thanks for that great interview. Your obvious love of literature is refreshing in an environment where there is too much talk about sales and marketing.

    Speaking of vintage mysteries, I know you have written posts about Hammett and Chandler before, but do you think you might write a post about obscure writers from the 20s to 50s that are worth rediscovering?

    Despite having a TBR pile that’s trying to reach the sky (and well on its way to succeed) I’m always on the lookout for ‘new’ authors and I’m sure your readers would be interested too!

    The answer to this question is actually enormously long and involved, however I am (technically) not even here this week, as this is O’Reilly Media’s OSCON week. We normally spend this week in Portland, Oregon, while my husband gives presentations and talks and hangs out playing guitar and singing Bohemian Rhaopsody on the floor in the halls of the Portland Conference Center with all the great minds who have changed your life through computer technology.

    Bohemian Rhapsody is kind of the theme song of the geek world.

    Even worse, Portland is home to the infamous four-story city block of used books, Powell’s Books, which is where I get a lot of my best vintage stuff. I have to cover my eyes and run past the shelves of vintage westerns and Daphne du Mauriers—vintage mystery is my speciality, and as much as I long to, I simply can’t collect everything.

    So I will just first show you what I’m reading right now:
























    What I just read this weekend:
























    And what I intend to read this week:

























    And I’ll give you a list of authors to look up (just so you know, these are all mystery authors):

    1. Ngaio Marsh

    2. Julian Symons

    3. Georges Simenon

    4. Margaret Margery Allingham

    5. Ellery Queen

    6. S.S. Van Dine

    7. Erle Stanley Gardner

    8. Rex Stout

    9. Mary Roberts Rhinehart

    10. The famous creator of Winnie-the-Pooh wrote a mystery:

    11. A.A. Milne, The Red House Murder

    12. In addition, there are the little-known:

    13. David Alexander

    14. Cleve F. Adams

    15. Dorothy B. Hughes

    16. Leslie Ford

    17. The dreamily-beautiful:

    18. John Franklin Bardin

    19. And my favorite mystery title ever:

    20. Eunice Mays Boyd, Murder Wears Mukluks

    21. Edith Wharton also wrote a collection of ghost stories that are totally worth reading.

    I’ve taken these names from the bookshelves over my desk, and there are hundreds up there, so I’m probably missing some excellent authors. Also, many of these authors began in the 1920s and continued to publish into the 1960s, so you’ll find eras all over the board. But these should get you started.

    Pay attention to the quality of the writing, even in what was once considered throwaway pulp.

    You won’t see that attention to detail, pacing, tension, and reader investment in most modern fiction anymore.

    Also, I’ve reviewed something like a hundred of these vintage mysteries on Goodreads.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Today’s story is even stranger than the one about how gardening is like writing or how dancing makes the Internet humane or even me spattering glue all over myself.

    But it is utterly brilliant, and I never get over watching this woman doodle:

    DOODLING IN MATH

    This is someone named Vi Hart, whom I have never met but I love. She is a something called a mathemusician at Khan University (I think she, like Shakespeare, makes her own words up) and the only person I follow on Twitter who is not all about writing.

    She explains the most amazing, complex mathematical concepts by doodling apparently-aimlessly all over the pages of her notebooks while she rambles on about how much she dislikes math class and is not listening to the teacher.

    She makes all kinds of doodle videos about math, and I love every single one of them.

    This particular video I’m linking to today is about Fibonacci Numbers and Lucas Numbers (I don’t even know what those are) and how a plant decides where to grow its leaves and why they don’t all use the same system, much less grow them randomly. She shows you the ends of pine cones so you can see the growth patterns, and she slices up a plant stem so she can create a little model out of torn pieces of paper in order to draw her own pattern of leaves.

    It’s all very casual and entertaining. One of the plants she uses she refers to as a “whatever-this-is.”

    In fact, very early on the plants are suddenly wearing googley-eyes and looking at you, and then a snapdragon starts talking to the camera. (Remember being a kid and making snapdragons talk?) She uses googley-eyes to show how scientists have studied repulsion, and she doodles comments as she talks, so the plants demonstrating these mathematical principles are saying, “Hi! I’m a plant!” and the sprouting doodled leaves say, “Go away,” to each other.

    It’s all just incredibly wonderful and hilarious and educational.

    And at the end it turns out the whole point of her story is that she’s just demonstrated the growth patterns of plants are not only possible. . .they are inevitable.

    She says, “That’s why I love math. Because it shows how the patterns of life are inevitable.”

    Which is, coincidentally, exactly why I love fiction.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Cats don’t act as though you’re the one bright ray of sunlight in an otherwise clouded existence.—Raymond Chandler

    You all know my cat. He sits on my blog banner staring into space with the studied expression of someone who is being prevented from walking on a desk he knows perfectly well he walks on all the time when I’m not looking.

    He’s my inspiration.

    1. He is undeterrable

      When he wants something, he gets it.

      If it’s not lying around where he wants it, he yells. If I don’t respond, he yells louder. If I still don’t respond, he comes and finds me.

      If it involves walking on a desk upon which he is forbidden to walk, he waits until I leave the room and then he walks on it.

      This is how writers act about the stories we so desperately want to write. Time and again, our stories fail to come out right. So we write them again. And again. And again. And again. . .

      Until we get what we want.

    2. He knows what he likes

      Specifically, what he likes is lying on my shins.

      Now, do I always want him on my shins? No, I do not. Sometimes I prefer to move my legs once an hour or so, at which point I disturb him, and he gives me a look that tells me exactly how heartbreaking it is to own an insensitive blockhead for a human being.

      Then he settles back down again. Because he likes it there.

      This is why we write what we write. Not because someone tells us to. Not because writing is going to make us rich. Not because we have a guarantee that if we write something we find boring and insipid that it will morph our lives out of what they are now into some daily routine for which we have always longed.

      But because we like it.

    3. He’s passionate

      I know—cats are known for being indifferent hipsters in black turtlenecks and berets.

      “I am zo tired of zees world before me,” says the caricature cat. “When will zey understand my geniuz?”

      But cats aren’t indifferent at all. In fact, they’re the most emotional pets I know. Dogs like sticks and barking. Horses like eating and running. Rabbits like hiding. Canaries like flinging seed. Turtles like pretending to be rocks. But when was the last time you heard any of them purr?

      Writers don’t write because books are sticks or food or shelter or things to be flung. (Well, sometimes that.)

      We write because writing—exploring the vast panorama of human nature through very particular character traits, following devastating motivations wherever they naturally lead, picturing specific events in which wherever those motivations lead is just exactly where the characters don’t want to go, and then polishing, polishing, polishing the prose through which we’ve create these scenes until it does to the reader exactly what we want it to do—makes our insides feel good.

      Writing makes us purr.

    4. He doesn’t mind complaining

      I have yet to meet a cat too demure to object. And I’ve lived with a lot of cats.

      Some will snarl. Some will hiss. Some will fight back. And some will take you apart from the elbows down if they feel it’s necessary.

      But they do not roll over on their backs and expose their bellies when they feel threatened.

      Writers, especially in the early years, must fight an enormous urge to make things nice for our characters. We like them! That’s why we hang out with them! But happy characters are excruciatingly dull characters when they are put into their settings, the stories that bring them alive.

      What readers really want is protagonists willing to scratch and tear their way out of every single situation they don’t want to be in.

    5. He trusts his own judgment

      Oh, it’s so easy to get derailed. It’s so easy for writers to doubt ourselves and begin to wonder whether or not this whole business of writing is not just an inanely bad idea.

      But not him. He makes decisions about his life and follows through on them, no matter how hard I try to convince him he’s wrong.

      Does he feel like carrying his food, piece-by-piece, out of the cat room and dropping it in the kitchen traffic lane, where he eats it at his (extremely slow) leisure?

      Then that is what he does.

      Does he feel like crying at the front door five minutes after he’s just come in because he likes seeing his human beings turn the knob, even if he has absolutely no intention of going outside again?

      Then that is what he does.

      Does he feel like expressing his displeasure with my decisions about what he is allowed to do or not to do—regardless of how or why—by leaving little calling cards that I will later have to clean up, in high dudgeon, with a sponge and bucket of soapy water, roundly cursing him and all cats that came before him?

      Then that is what he does.

      Has any of us ever managed to convince him that these ideas are not, in fact, the sterling guidelines for successful living that he so fervently believes they are?

      No.

      No, we have not.

    6. He spends practically all his time in dreamland

      He eats, drinks, sharpens his claws, and bathes. Then he kicks his brother’s butt, curls up with him, and goes back to sleep.

      Now, he happens to be a fortunate creature in that someone else buys his food, provides his clean water, and gives him someplace to sleep in comfort out of the weather.

      But I also yell at him for sharpening his claws on perfectly good claw material—especially the leather armchair I inherited from my grandfather—and give him hell for all the fur his bathing leaves on my furniture.

      So the business part of his life is kind of a draw between us.

      Fortunately for him, a good three-quarters of his life has nothing whatever to do with any of this. He’s someplace else. . .living the lives of innumerable thrilling imaginary kitties.

      Oh, yes.

      A writer should be so lucky.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I wrote this one day a long time ago out of sheer, overwhelming gratitude for my craft.

    And you know what?

    I’m still grateful.

    1. You have all the tools you need

      They’re right there at your disposal: the world, your five senses, literacy, a brain. You will never need anything more.

    2. All you have to do is be a recorder

      Record, as faithfully as you know how, the world around you as you perceive it through your five senses. Even one or two senses will work. Even one.

    3. The more you do it, the more you love it, the better you get at it

      The attention you pay to it makes it flourish. Your passion for it feeds it. Over the course of your life it becomes exactly what you, personally, need it to be.

    4. Writing is a human activity

      It is one of the gifts the gods have given us just for being us. The more you write, the more human you are. The more you reach out to other writers, the more human your world is.

    5. You are not your fiction

      When you create a fictional world, you are multiplying your experience of life. You get to be someone else, living another reality, and at the same time still be you. The more times you multiply your life, the more living you can do in this brief handful of years you have been allotted.

      But the real you, in your real life. . .that’s the one that counts. And no matter what happens in your fiction, you will always have that.

    6. You are not alone

      Now more than ever in history you are surrounded by others—thousands of others—who also love this craft that you love. And the Internet gives you a way to be in touch with as many of them as you like, which is something writers have never, ever had before.

      The community of writers in your lifetime is mind-boggling. Your literary soul mates are out there.

    7. The creation of fiction gives your heart depth

      The exploration of the world through the lens of your individual perceptions and choices makes you a better person.

      Inside every writer burns the wild, unreasoning, piercing hope that life can be transformed through experience into something more than what it seems to be.

    We can transcend the madness.

    (Also, we have Western Spaghetti.)

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    A bizarre thing happened to a client of mine the other day.

    This writer that it happened to 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 part of 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’ve been teaching her to minimize her 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 & Paul Bowles, Isak Denisen, 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. 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!” That’s 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 for over a hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”

    3. Dialog is NOT telling

      Of course, it wasn’t an unbelievable surprise when my client got this rejection the other day. Although she’s 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 they wanted to be more constantly directed what to feel rather than mostly given their head to react to the characters and the events of the novel with their own feelings in their own way.

      It was, in a word, too subtle.

      The agent thought focusing on telling the reader how to feel would be more commercial.

      Although they didn’t know the word for it (and 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. . .that agent should probably have been better trained at that publishing house where they were employed as an editor.

      Because then they got bizarre. The agent informed my client the real problem with her manuscript was the dialog, “which is telling, not showing.”

      And that’s 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 shenanigans.

    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.





    “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: For Writers

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the demise of blogging (and, oddly, the demise of commenting, although they couldn’t prove that by you guys), which was brought home to me recently by a friend who said, “Just when I decided to start a blog I was told blogging is over!” At the same time we hear more and more in the self-publishing arena about How to Turn Your Blog into a Book. So it would appear, on the surface, that the whole blogging movement is segueing into a whole book-authoring movement.

    But is it?

    Well. . .

    Here’s the thing: it’s true that blogging is writing. It’s fabulous practice at developing confidence in your voice and ease with words, as well as focus, dedication, and a solid understanding of the importance of getting to the point (not to mention the inevitable epiphany that writing enough words to fill an entire book is a whole darn lot of writing).

    But blogging is a very specific form of writing. It has very specific purposes. And it has very specific readers.

    These are not necessarily the same readers a writer needs in order to succeed with a book.

    1. Blogging is conversation

      Blogs are about the writers, not the readers.

      They have to be.

      Free, largely invisible, and sometimes—when visible—lifted without permission by less-visible bloggers who don’t know about the DMCA of 1998, (most) blog posts give their owners none of the usual rewards of massive publication:

      • reputation
      • income

      Yes, some bloggers are famous. As Andy Warhol said in the 1960s (and without benefit of ESP regarding the Internet), “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

      However, most of us are not.

      And yes, some bloggers make money by monetizing their blogs. But unless you’re using your blog as the portal to a service or product others find both intensely helpful and worth a considerable amount of their hard-earned money. . .

      most of us don’t do that, either.

      And because of this—the basic lack of tangible rewards—blogging can really only be worth the blogger’s time if it provides intangible rewards. For most bloggers, these are the same rewards as those of unpublished writing: the thrill of self-expression.

      Oh, blogging is great fun. Whee, doggies! It was plenty of fun even when no one but my husband and one friend were reading.

      But then you folks started reading, and it turned into an extraordinary, unexpected party. All of you friendly and amazing people who love this craft I love, coming here to talk with me about it and saying kind things, all you people I never would have known otherwise!

      Suddenly I understand why people get up on soapboxes under Marble Arch in Hyde Park and wave their arms and pontificate to the crowds.

      Talking about what’s important to us is utterly invigorating.

    2. A book is a monologue that costs money

      Because books cost money, they are about the readers, not the writers.

      A little over a year ago, a guy named Paul Ford wrote a fascinating post about blogging: The Web is a Customer Service Medium. Boy, do I love Ford’s theory that blogging is all about addressing the question: “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But even more than that, I love the old James Thurber bio that describes him as someone always thinking about what he’s going to say when the other person stops talking.

      This is a typical blogger.

      This is, coincidentally, also a great blog reader.

      “Nice blog post,” the blogger hears (if they’re lucky). “You know what I think. . .”

      And thus begins the conversation between a blogger, a commenter, and all the other readers of that particular blog post.

      But this has nothing to do with reading books, where the reader is alone with the words and their own imagination, absorbing in utter privacy something for which they have paid hard cash. They don’t really care about the writer, beyond imagining that writer would, if they only knew, like to be their best friend.

      The writer doesn’t fit into the book equation. It’s entirely between the reader and the book.

    All of which is what we’re missing when we talk about the popularity or demise of blogging and How to Turn Your Blog into a Book:

    1. the difference in purpose between:

      • tangible rewards
      • intangible rewards
    2. the great, yawning abyss between the needs of:

      • the person who writes
      • the person who reads

    So when you’re wondering:

    • Is blogging over? or,

    • Should I turn my blog into a book?

    Try shifting that to:

    • How am I thinking about blogging and books in terms of my own needs?

    • How am I thinking about blogging and books in terms of the needs of others?

    • If blogging is quote unquote ‘over,’ does that mean it’s automatically not worth it to me?

    • Or. . .?


    The Art and Craft of Fiction:
    A Practitioner’s Manual

    by Victoria Mixon

    “The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”—Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    “Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .demystifies essential aspects of craft while paying homage to the art.”—Millicent Dillon, five time O. Henry Award winner and PEN/Faulkner nominee

    “Teeming with gold. . .makes you love being a writer because you belong to the special club that gets to read this book.”—KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel


    The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon

    “This book changed my life.”Stu Wakefield, Kindle #1 best-selling author of Body of Water and Memory of Water

    “Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”—Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel

    “As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches. Highly recommended.”—Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering

    “I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”—Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop


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  • By Victoria Mixon

    In honor of having given up sleep last week (apparently after fifty years you’ve had all the sleep you need), I’m going to introduce you today to my grandmother, to whom I was very close and who gave me most of the instructions that now guide my life. She didn’t actually say any of these in reference to writing, but even Grandma can use an editor.

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

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

    2. Sit down quietly and share with your sister.

      This one she said all the time.

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

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

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

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

      This is a bad thing.

    4. Don’t be a smart-aleck.

      This is also a bad thing.

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

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

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

    5. Stop kicking the table leg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    7. Keep your sticky fingers off the wallpaper.

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

    8. Don’t make me tell Grandpa.

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

    9. Machst gut.

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

      Make it good.

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

    10. You can cry on me.

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

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

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

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

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

      After all, everyone loves them.

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Authors


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ 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 her up-coming The Eighth Summer. 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. . .


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. . .


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

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