by Bob Spear
This interview appeared March 15, 2010, on Book Trends Blog.
Occasionally I have the good fortune of running into wonderful people in the writing business who have important things to say to the writing community. Her blog is called A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, at http://victoriamixon.com.
Victoria, there are several types of editors. Where would you place yourself?
I do all three types: developmental, line, and copy editing. However, the copy editing is a very minor aspect of my work. I sort of throw that in with the line editing because it would make no sense to craft someone’s language into the best possible form and then leave the grammatical and punctuation errors. Besides, typos escape everyone. They’re like mice in the house. You need multiple readers to catch them all.
I have a lot of background in organizing nonfiction for publication. That’s developmental work of a very straight-forward kind. I help nonfiction writers find the principles that form their topics and create an intuitive flow from overview to tasks, with clear, logical Table of Contents, index, and reference sections.
Developmentally, I do a lot of work with fiction writers on shaping their novels—the characters and plots. We talk a lot about what the writer intends, what they have in mind for their characters, what they sense around the edges, what’s still out of their line of vision but waiting to be taken into account. We talk a huge amount about proper structure and inevitable cause-&-effect, how it’s all about the reader’s experience. I analyze the plots of what they send me and return them with outlines showing what’s there and what’s yet to be envisioned.
It’s very fun. Writers get so excited about working with someone who takes their novels as seriously as they do and even pushes them beyond what they thought were their limits. It really gives them the validation they crave. They take themselves more seriously as writers after we’ve worked together. I hear that a lot—they understand for the first time what it is to be an author, to write on a professional level.
I do the line editing on my own. Again—it’s an aspect of the work that I love. There’s nothing like a few decades of pulling your hair out trying to polish your own writing to make you seriously appreciate objectivity. A writer simply can’t line edit their own work. God knows I’ve tried. You can be the most brilliant storyteller in the world, and you will not see the bumps and inconsistencies in your own language.
I love being able to bring out what the writer means with their language, particularly in fiction—to eliminate everything extraneous and reveal the snap and sparkle and flow that’s really there. Writers typically clutch their hearts and reel back in their seats when they see the number of Track Changes—I always tell them to read it through the first time with Track Changes turned off. But as soon as they recover from the surprise of learning how much can be trimmed, they fall in love with their words the way they’ve always dreamed of.
I understand your blog focuses primarily on fiction issues. What are three areas that seem to be common trouble spots for writers? Are there any others worth mentioning?
I’d say not delving deeply enough into your story. Particularly in this day and age, the hustle to get that book written and fired off to agents is so pressing that writers typically underestimate how much is really in the story they want to tell. They get hung up on throwing those words on the page and moving on. It’s only when we go through their manuscripts together step-by-step and ask, “Why this? Why that? What was your thinking here? What did you intend there? What’s going on elsewhere while this is happening?” that they realize how deep and complex and multifaceted their imaginary worlds are. The words—they’re just the surface refraction of what’s really going on.
Not educating yourself on proper grammar and punctuation is a fairly common problem. If you’re a writer, you have to learn how to write. Writers need to learn the proper punctuation for dialog, what you can and cannot use for dialog tags, where to put commas (not between a subject and its verb!), what a pluperfect is and where to use it and where to go straight for the perfect. It’s all part of the craft.
The biggest issue, though, is probably not understanding just how much work goes into writing a book. Books are big. Books are enormous. Seventy thousand words is a whole lot of words. And it all has to be revised and reworked over and over again. Are you prepared for that kind of workload? Can you appreciate the different tasks for what they are and pace yourself, without pressure to finish, so it’s a joy to work on—maybe not every day or every page—but so your motivation for doing all this work is the sheer pleasure of being a writer? Because that’s the payoff. And it’s an enormous payoff. But an aspiring writer needs to understand the magnitude of what they’re attempting.
There are all kinds of very particular trouble spots writers can fall into, and I try to give readers and potential clients as much information as I can through my blog and magazine and advice column, so we can focus specifically on the unique issues in their individual manuscripts when we work together. Wordiness—that’s a biggie. Everyone, even the most consummate artist, uses more words than they need to. Shaky plot structure, insufficient character development, missing motivation, loose threads, awkward writing—all of these are things I see in every manuscript, even (sometimes especially) those that have been through heavy peer critiques and workshops. Yet most of them are things a writer should be able to avoid in the first place if they’re properly educated. And when they’ve handled that on their own, then we have room to go really deep with the editing.
What advice would you give to new writers starting from scratch?
Have fun with it. Don’t go looking for a whole lot of advice. There’s way too much out there, and the bad stuff conflicts with the good. It will give you a massive headache and make you hate everything you write. And it will steer you wrong.
Find those people who speak intelligently, thoughtfully, and with humanity, whose voices and common sense you trust, and listen to only them.
Write what you want to write when you want to write it, and let yourself love what happens when you translate what you see in your mind’s eye into words. That’s what it’s all about.
Also: don’t read crap. I can’t emphasize this enough. Read really good literature. Read Raymond Chandler and J.D. Salinger for atmosphere, Hemingway for clarity, Flannery O’Connor for humor and insight, Emily Bronte for passion, Ivy Compton-Burnett for dialog, Isak Denisen for symbolism and depth, Paul Bowles for beauty of language. Analyze mystery writers like Erle Stanley Gardner for plot—even if you don’t write mysteries, they’ll teach you about plot twists and foreshadowing and writing toward the climax (not the resolution!). Read Henry James if you’ve got a strong heart and head, because he knew absolutely everything about language and plot, he just made it really hard to follow his sentences. All of that stuff was edited by real professionals, so it’s almost word-perfect. When in doubt, read Shakespeare.
Especially in the early stages, bad writing will work its way into your language without you even noticing, and it will take years, if not decades, to work it back out again. Don’t let bad writers poison your well.
What advice would you give to writers who have been out of the business for a long time and are considering trying it again?
Remember why you did it in the first place and why you want to go back. Writing fiction is a great high. It’s a joy to throw yourself into. It makes you feel more alive.
Don’t read too much contemporary fiction, and when you do be very aware of where the language fails to live up to the standards of earlier decades. A lot of contemporary writers do well with plot. That’s what sells. The language, though, isn’t always line edited properly anymore, and you can find yourself reading really glib, cliché stuff in otherwise good novels.
Take advantage of your experience. You’ve already done a certain amount of splashing around in the water. Set yourself the task now of apprenticing to the craft. Learn proper structure. Learn techniques. Take the work seriously. You will never master it—nobody ever masters it before they die. All you can do is dedicate yourself to it to the best of your ability and bow to the extraordinary power of words.
Are there any traps out there waiting for naïve, unsuspecting writers?
You bet. Bad advice. Lots of expensive bad advice. An entire industry has grown up around milking aspiring writers of their cash. Especially now that the Internet allows anyone who’s ever survived a critique group to hang out their shingle, writers really have to do their due diligence before hiring anybody for anything. The cheap editors are copy editors and guessers. You really need to understand that.
Yes, a writer has to spend money for really excellent, specific advice. Yes, it will be totally and absolutely worth it. . .if they make sure they know what they’re going to get before they pay for it.
Don’t listen to the high-pressure marketers—they have nothing to offer that you can’t get more reasonably and, generally, free from someone else. For heaven’s sake, don’t spend money on them. They’re high-pressure for a reason. Don’t choose your help by how cheap it is—you’ll get what you pay for. And watch out for dangling carrots. Learn to recognize them when you see them. It’s an epidemic these days.
The publishing industry is in serious flux right now. Parts of it are in serious trouble. You’ll hear a lot of advice about how to deal with that in the traditional arena. Most of it is wild guesses, but an inexperienced writer can’t tell because sometimes it comes from big names. Don’t worry too much about it. Things will eventually shake down. And you’ll still be here when it does. Your novel will still be here. Don’t be in a hurry—I mean, where are you going to go?
Should writers consider self-publishing and why?
Heck, yes! This is a fascinating time to be writing and publishing on the rogue wave. Indie publishing is really cutting edge. Writers need to just be sure to 1) hire a really good editor, and 2) hire a really good designer. They should also seriously consider hiring a really good marketer/promoter if they have any doubts about their own ability to keep up with the work on that end.
The self-publishing world is full to overflowing right now with early draft stuff that’s been published, in all innocence, by people who don’t know how to write books. It’s a waste of their money and a crying shame.
I think that will clear up as the whole indie publishing industry becomes more stabilized and it becomes more common knowledge that a writer needs professional help in order to do a professional job. Every single word a journalist writes is edited. Always has been. The great authors you love were edited. You don’t try to bind your books yourself. Don’t try to edit them, either, or design their covers (unless you already are a designer; but even an editor can’t edit their own work).
Writers just need to accept the simple facts of publishing, and once a good number of them do I think we’re going to see a jaw-dropping amount of incredible literature hitting the airwaves. I see it in my clients’ work right now.
I understand you’re in the process of producing a book titled: The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. Who is it directed toward and how should it be used?
Oh, gosh, thanks for asking about that! Yes. I’ve collected all the advice I was putting out on my blog for the benefit of my fiction clients and readers last year and crafted it into an overall manual on creating fiction.
It was really hard to organize. I’d just been throwing stuff out there. But once I got the organizational principles down, I realized this book is something aspiring writers can keep on their desks as they work—it’s not only inspirational stuff to kick-start their writing day, and not only textbook information on what constitutes good writing, but both, and organized in a way that allows them to either read it for the conversation or to use it as reference when they come up against a stonewall with their work. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the past year from clients and readers, telling me what helps them the most. That’s been enlightening and, really, very gratifying.
My book is literally a manual. I want writers to be able to talk intelligently about the fundamentals that editors understand—developmental issues, line issues, copy issues. Hook, development, climax. Character motivation. Point-of-view techniques and what they achieve. Sentence parsing. Everything. I want writers to know what revision is, what to expect from it, how to do it. And I want them to know what it means to be a writer and what it doesn’t mean. There’s so much hype floating around out there. I’m not going to lie to them or feed them false hopes, inflate their egos. Now more than ever, they need someone to deal with them honestly. I want them to be able to stand with their feet on the ground.
There’s also a section on surviving the special despair of writing. We all know about it—it’s part of the craft—we might as well help each other deal with it.
I want writers, most of all, to feel welcomed into the world of serious writing. There are lots and lots of good books out there that will teach you helpful things. But, so far as I know, only Anne Lamott has said, “Come, walk with me. I’ll be funny and smart and use profanity. Let’s chat.” I’m not too profane—not on the page, anyway. But I do want to offer that warmth, that feeling of welcome. Walk with me, talk with me. There are so many things to learn. It’s a nearly infinite art. The love of crafting fiction is a wonderful glue between human beings.
I also have pretty high standards for what I consider good fiction. I’d like to see standards go back up. If it works properly, my book should become dog-eared and worn out just hanging around a writer’s desk. That’s my dream—to see my book smudged and coffee-stained! Maybe people can send me pictures.
Do you have any other ideas for writer books?
By me? I’ll tell you, I’ve got ninety-five in-depth posts on the craft of fiction on my magazine right now. A few I wrote because I found gaps in the organization of my book that I needed to fill, but the bulk of them will probably become Volume II next year. I love thinking about this craft. I love writing about it. I love helping writers. I could keep this up indefinitely.
I’ve also gotten advice recently on creating additional material to bundle with the book. Readers love that. They’re so hungry for real guidance, real concrete methods for developing their skills and understanding. So I’ll be putting together workbooks on craft, specific hands-on exercises focused on specific areas, stuff to you can really sink your teeth into, for the hardcore serious writer.
Of course, there are canonical books out there, which I mention throughout mine so writers can gain a sense of the help that’s available to them. Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners—possibly the single greatest book on fiction ever. John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Syd Field’s Screenplay. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Bernard DeVoto, Eudora Welty, Annie Dillard, Jerome Stern, Natalie Goldberg, Jack Bickman, Dave King and Renni Browne, Donald Maass, Raymond Chandler. . .I have three packed shelves of books on writing over my desk, but I’m downstairs by the fire right now, so I’m just reeling these off the top of my head. I can get you a complete list if you’d like. I’m probably forgetting somebody brilliant.
How should people contact you for editorial work?
I try to make it easy! There are Contact buttons at the top of my website and magazine. There’s an email link on my Services page and another on my About page. Nothing’s more frustrating that finding a blogger—particularly an editor—you’d really like to contact and not being able to find their contact info. Leave a message in my comments. I’ll get it!