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

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

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

    We’re 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 in 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—in a series on how to write fiction 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.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Every year I write a series of NaNoWriMo posts, like the admittedly bizarre 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, 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 explain as universal to storytelling in general, so they can help you dive into writing your own new novels.

    So let’s review very quickly how to make that 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 honestly 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?


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    UPDATE: November 11—Secret Advice for Writers just hit #1 in its category in the Kindle Free Store. Fiction and Stories are now #15 and #16 in their category in the Paid Store.


    It’s been five and a half years since we first published The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual.

    A year later we published The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.

    And ever since, I’ve been busy editing.


    But. . .this past year I began hearing of an amazing new movement in the self-publishing industry: a brilliant system for connecting readers with the self-published books they love—a system that really works.

    This system was just pioneered last year by Nick Stephenson and Mark Dawson, and it is awesome.

    I spent all summer studying their system, involved in their courses, learning how to do what they do. Because Nick and Mark have cracked the code that’s transforming the self-publishing industry from a toddler staggering drunkenly across the landscape, largely dependent still upon the distribution networks of the traditional publishers, into the new wave of fiction following in the venerable footsteps of the 1930s genre revolution of the drugstore paperback.

    Our time has come.

    So we at La Favorita Press have just this week done two things:

    1) Re-issued Fiction and Story under slightly-altered titles to be better referenced by the online bookseller referral engines:

    Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: First Writer’s Manual

    Art & Craft of Writing Stories: Second Writer’s Manual

    Fiction and Stories are now priced permanently as ebooks at $3.99 and in paperback at $19.95/$17.98 (unless you have Amazon Prime, in which case they’re free).

    Favorite.300x4502) Published two new books:

    Art & Craft of Writing: Secret Advice for Writers

    Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers

    And the kicker to Secret and Favorite?

    They’re FREE.


    Because this is the system that Nick and Mark teach:

    *) offer your first book permafree through the online booksellers (and, of course, your website)

    *) include in that book a link to your new email list, which list we’re calling here “Art & Craft of Writing”

    *) give away your second book free to everyone who subscribes to your list

    Dev Editing copyIn this way, we can easily find the readers who want my work, and they can find me. From now on, we know exactly whom to notify whenever we publish a new book on the Art & Craft of Writing. This email list is solely for this one purpose—no blog-type ‘newsletter’ filling your inbox, no reminders to buy, no hovering or pestering. Just the information you want whenever we publish each new book, and otherwise polite radio-silence. Because we know you’re busy.

    Now, naturally, none of this would be any good if these were the only books I ever planned to write about fiction.

    So guess what?


    I’m going to launch a new series of books: Step-to-Step Guides to Become Your Own Editor.

    If you wonder what those will look like, you can check it out. That’s the page for my launch team, the Mixoneers. For a limited time, you can still join.

    Or you can simply sign up for the Art & Craft of Writing email list, in which you’ll be given the chance to join the Mixoneers once you’ve read my Advice to Writers.

    Or you can go get your free copy of Secret Advice for Writers and sign up for the Art & Craft of Writing list through the link in the book.

    Such excitement to have you along for this new adventure—I’m so looking forward to meeting every one of you!

    Because our time has come.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again. Time to take off our shoes and socks, roll up our pants, flex our fingers, and with blood-curdling yells of terror and glory in our eyes. . .

    run straight into the jaws of NaNoWriMo

    Every year I run a series helping those of you doing NaNoWriMo stay focused on writing the very best novel you have in you.

    Are you doing it this year?

    You’ll have company!


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Elwood in sunlight on my desk.Saturday

    . . .

    It is with great sorrow that I share the news of the passing of my beloved blog cat.

    He was diagnosed last month with inoperable cancer and died yesterday in our arms. He was fourteen and a half years old.

    For those of you who have been with me since I began this blog in 2009, you’ll know him as a familiar sight and the subject of a number of my favorite blog posts: 4 Reasons My Cat Can’t Be A Writer, 4 Reasons My Cat Should Be the Writer Instead of Me, and of course A Writer’s Organizational Tools. He has been by my side, sleeping in the sunlight on my desk, throughout all the years of my editing business. A little bit of him has gone into every piece of fiction and memoir I have ever worked on. I hope you can feel the influence of his kind and wise spirit in your writing.

    He also appears invisibly in my arms at the bottom of every blog page, where he will remain invisibly in my arms forever.



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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Last week we talked about reasons to love Melville Davisson Post, the great nineteenth-century mystery author of the backwoods of Virginia. In case you’re new here, that conversation was caused by a post I did that was all lurid, over-the-top covers of vintage mysteries. And that post was caused by Sabine in the comments on an even earlier post when I was interviewed by the extraordinarily strange and wonderful Rachel X Russell (see how I get cause-&-effect worked into everything I tell you?).

    So this post is dedicated to Donna Montgomery, who spoke up in the comments to recommend Rafael Sabatini.

    I ran right out and got a copy of Sabitini’s marvelous 400-page novel, Scaramouche.

    Whoa, Sabatini.

    1. Rafael

      First off, I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful names ever. If I hadn’t already had a name ready for my son twenty years before he was born, I’d have named him Rafael. I did put a Rafael into a story once—a charismatic and lovable rascal—but it’s not finished yet. He’s still busy being charismatic and lovably rascally.

    2. Historical setting

      Just like Davisson Post, Sabitini was master of his era. However, unlike Davisson Post, Sabitini didn’t live through the historical times or anywhere near the times he portrayed in this novel. He apparently grew up in Italy and England at the end of the nineteenth century—raised by opera singers—and spoke six languages.

      The setting of Scaramouche is late eighteenth-century France. . .that’s right: the French Revolution.

      This is the world of Victor Hugo and Les Miserables. However, Sabitini makes it entirely his own through the fabulous attention to authentic detail and the excruciating moral rack upon which he puts his protagonist, the lawyer and aristocrat Andre-Louis. I learned more about the French Revolution from following Andre-Louis’ adventures through the tangled underground of proletariat revolt (aided, according to Sabitini, by the king himself against the aristocracy) than I ever got out of a history book.

      Granted, Marie Antoinette gets a decidedly bum rap from Sabitini, as she has gotten through the history books as well, although there is now some question about exactly how dastardly she was and, contrariwise, how easy it was to scapegoat her for being a foreigner during a time in which the French were already doing quite well destroying their own proletariat without any help from outsiders at all.

      But it doesn’t matter.

      Because Scaramouche is a rollicking, rolling, high-quality literary tale of hair-raising adventure through one of the most significant and world-changing events of recent centuries.

      And nobody’s ever going to agree about Marie Antoinette anyway.

    3. Theatrical players

      And this I love so much, because Andre-Louis acquires his nickname Scaramouche when he joins a troupe of traveling theatrical players and takes on the role of the archetypical ‘little skirmisher,’ as explained by the theatrical director: with “the gift of sly intrigue, an art of setting folk by the ears, combined with an impudent aggressiveness upon occasion when he considers himself safe from reprisals.”

      Do you recognize this archetype?

      I do.

      The Native Americans called him Coyote, the Trickster. The Scandanavians called him Loki. The ancient Greeks called him Eros. Even during the Middle Ages, medieval courts always came equipped with their jester, the quintessential Fool of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

      Now whenever I find myself frustrated by those who seem interested only in disrupting the joyous-but-serious work that we do here in the writing community, those who would throw cold water on our efforts to help craftspeople develop literary craft, who seemingly-deliberately take our sense of humor for insulting challenge and hard-won advice for penny-ante poker. . .I remind myself:

      Life is a very mysterious place.

      The gods may simply be messing with us.

      Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?

    4. Freddie Mercury

      And of course I couldn’t get through this without mentioning him.

      If there was ever a Scaramouche for our poor and benighted, dark and dour, painfully-cynical and utterly-confused age, it was the exuberant queen of Queen.

      The other night, my husband and I sang the entire “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of our lungs (okay, at the top of my lungs) while cooking dinner for our son, who said sweetly when we were finished, “I would have suggested we just play the record, but you seemed to be having so much fun.”

      Must we forever be tilting at windmills, Freddie—our lives un-spared of monstrosities, trapped between Beelzebub and getting our lips to our babies, just got to get out, just got to get right out of here. . .

      . . .any way the wind blows?

    Yes. We must. They must.

    And then we must create art about it.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Today I’m sending you all on over to another one of my most-viewed blog posts:

    8 Ways NOT to Describe Your Main Character

    Although StumbleUpon only shows around 500 views, that’s because we didn’t add the StumbleUpon button until after 8 Ways had already cut its swath through the StumbleUpon crowd. In fact, that darn post has garnered thousands of readers, all hoping—I strongly suspect—they weren’t going to find their own protagonists in that post.

    They probably didn’t.

    But this does show us that it’s simply amazing how many people want to know what they’re doing wrong.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    My husband found this excerpt from Mark Twain’s famous criticism of The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper on the blog of Marcel Gagne: Writer and Free Thinker at Large.

    This excerpt has become known as “Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing.” And I tell you people, verily, these rules are as true today as they were in the nineteenth century.

    My personal favorite is:

    The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

    Although I’m also very fond of:

    The author must say what they are proposing to say, not merely come near it.

    My husband followed Marcel’s link to Project Gutenberg, where Twain’s entire criticism of The Deerslayer is housed, and he sent me this excerpt on the definition of art, which it seems to me we need in this era now more than ever:

    “There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now—all dead but Lounsbury. I don’t remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that Deerslayer is a “pure work of art.” Pure, in that connection, means faultless—faultless in all details—and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper’s English with the English which he writes himself—but it is plain that he didn’t; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper’s is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

    “I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

    “A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

    “Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.”

    —Mark Twain


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    So, last month was all about writers conferences, and if you were busy all month actually attending those conferences you can catch up with us here, and here, and here, and especially here (a story of hope!).

    Then last Friday I confessed what happened after that last writers conference. . .when I got my first agent and my first book published and my whole life turned into one, long, glamorous stroll up the glorious, golden rainbow of publication.

    Except for my publishing house whizzing by on a souped-up roadhog so I wound up hospitalized with a bad case of broken dreams.

    While I was at the hospital I also had a baby (well, nine months later), but that wasn’t the publisher’s fault. That was mine and my husband’s.

    And—for the record—that particular move turned out to be brilliant.

    But actually what I did last week—while I was telling you all that story of hope—was go offline and hang out in the summer sunshine and enjoy the hilarious, charming, and charismatic fruits of that brilliant trip to the hospital fifteen years ago: my son.

    Plus I worked on a novel that used to be a ghost story (as described in The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual) but is now a god-knows-what involving all my favorite elements of grand, gothic literature only as if it all happened at my house.

    Sort of.

    1. Jadestone Hatchet

    And while I was flexing my arms over my head yesterday reveling in the pure, unadulterated joy of fiction—of being a writer of fiction—I finally figured out how to keep my papers organized.

    For those of you who write fiction, this will be of extraordinary importance.

    It involves an object I once wanted with all my heart and soul when I was traveling in New Zealand as a young, footloose, rather scatter-brained writer (a poem about which trip can be found in the Volume 34, Number 1 issue of The Northwest Review), but which at the time I couldn’t possibly afford.

    So fifteen years later when some friends traveled to New Zealand they brought me home a smaller facsimile.

    No, I didn’t use the little jadestone hatchet to chop up all my notes into tiny subatomic particles so I wouldn’t have to organize them.


    2. Artist’s Easel

    Instead, I took the artist’s easel my father made for me for my fifteenth birthday—back when we both thought there was a possibility I would become a painter rather than a writer—which I keep propped in the corner next to my desk to remind myself I could so easily have gone to art school and wound up qualified to teach something for which I might actually have to leave my office. . .

    And I looked at the mountain of notes on my current manuscript that I had intended to spend the day sorting so I could clear my desktop for the activity of—um—writing. . .

    And a little lightbulb went on over my head.

    Now, after thirty-odd years of constantly digging frantically through piles of slithering, disorganized, increasing pages of notes on all the books I am, at any given moment, in the middle of writing. . .

    I suddenly have the perfect combination of organizational tools.

    And you will notice, of course, that my notes are classified according to the three great building blocks of literature: CHARACTER, PLOT, and PROSE (with an emphasis upon notes for the Climax).

    3. Cat

    Plus cat.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world,
    To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth?
    Throw your arms round each other and love one another,
    For it’s only one life that we got—and ain’t it enough?

    Old Crow Medicine Show

    This is the story about what happened after that Writers Conference in 1996 at which I became friends with the brilliant novelists Lucia Orth and Sasha Troyan.

    Actually, a lot of things happened, one of them being that I went home and completely rewrote my current novel yet once again. Because we novelists do that. We rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You know why? Because we are practicing a craft that goes on unto infinity, and the joy of the craft lies in practicing it. Some other things happened too, though, and they’re pertinent to what you’re doing (I’m pretty sure), so I’m going to tell you about them this week.

    This is the story of my experience with traditional publishing, back in 1996 when traditional publishing was not even as crazy as it is today:

    Step #1 THE WINDMILL

    1. I got my first literary agent

      I know—everyone says agents don’t get clients at writers conferences. But she did.

      So I did.

      It was great.

      I had a novel in early draft that she wanted very much to see, but what I had that was really worth something was a book already at the publisher’s, Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, for which unfortunately my co-author and I had prematurely signed the contract.

      For the record, I hadn’t wanted to just sign it blind. I wanted to have it vetted by an agent or at least someone who knew anything at all about publishing contracts. For heaven’s sake. But my co-author refused to involve an agent on the grounds that it might annoy our publisher’s editor. The book was riding on his name, so I went along with him.

      Later I showed the contract to my new agent.

      She said it was a travesty.

    2. I got to know my new literary agent

      That agent happens to have a last name that’s extremely well-known in publishing: Caen. As in: Herb Caen. She’s his ex-wife, and her son is Herb’s only child.

      She knows everybody in publishing.

      She was chock full o’ excellent stories about famous people with whom she had hobnobbed—Jim Morrison of the Doors and the poet Michael McClure, the Black-&-White Ball Truman Capote threw in NYC to which she flew with her mask on her knee—simply great fun to visit with.

      I was doing a couple of book-readings for my just-published book around the San Francisco Bay Area, getting excited about being a published author.

      Altogether, a pretty thrilling time.

    3. I started writing nonfiction book proposals

      My agent was happy to work with me on my fiction—having already read an early draft of the novel I’d brought to the Writers Conference—but she explained that she couldn’t get me any kind of reasonable advance on my next book unless it was in nonfiction, like my first. (My co-author had gotten us $750 apiece as an advance on Children and the Internet to attend some event he said we were going to attend, although he never actually told me the name of it.)

      So my agent and I were going to get the nonfiction ball rolling while I developed one of my novels into a polished manuscript.

    4. I was still writing fiction

      Because that’s what we fiction writers do: we write it.

      Because in those days—1996—the whole zeitgeist of quality and editing and publication had not yet morphed into what it is today. All novelists took years to write their first novels.

    5. Then I stopped doing anything

      I got pregnant and, in short order, sick with morning sickness, and I stopped doing book-readings and book proposals and writing of any kind and just lay on the couch a lot thinking about chucking my lunch. I was in love and newly-married and a published author, so that was all still wonderful.

      But morning sickness sucked.

    Step #2 THE WIND

    My agent and I were now spending only as much time talking as it took to deal with the fact that it turned out my publisher’s editor had:

    1. not edited my book before publishing it

    2. not read—or even had proofread by someone else—our final manuscript before publishing it

    3. not sent me galleys to proof before publishing it—a violation of our legal contract—with the result that:

    4. it was published packed to the eyeballs with typos and even worse things

    No kidding. If you look on the page facing page 1 (page 0), you find a charming quote attributed to “Irish Murdoch.”

    Plus my co-author inserted various cartoons on his own authority, one of them making light of pedophilia, which he inserted into one of my chapters. This was a book about children, to be marketed to the parents and teachers and educational administrators of children. Apparently nobody on that project but me knew that pedophilia is not a joke, especially to the people who care for children.

    Step #3 THE MILL

    So my agent was sending faxes and making phone calls, demanding some accountability from the publisher.

    All to no avail.

    Our editor ignored my agent. She was the head of her department at that publisher and apparently felt she could afford to. I’d met the editor and not particularly liked her, so I wasn’t surprised, but my agent and I were still both pretty bent.

    I wrote a letter to the editor threatening legal action after I found out she’d gone to press without sending me my galleys. That scared her, so she kind of made an effort to act a little more professional after that. . .for about a minute.

    Not much.

    Step #4 THE TANGLING

    Children and the Internet was published in September, 1996, and disappeared immediately from the landscape.

    This was unfortunate and also inexplicable in a number of ways:

    1. It was an extremely important book

      It was about how to handle the sudden accessibility of the Internet to those who teach children.

      Using the Internet for children’s education had never been possible before on anything but the most limited, exclusive scale. . .although now of course there are computers in every classroom.

      Also, my co-author had an international cult following as the author of the first easily-understood book for the average amateur on how to access the Internet.

      And I had been a Computer Science student for three years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California, a highly-technical university where we couldn’t even get an email address unless we could prove we were computer students, much less access the Internet. Also, I had become a professional tech writer in the computer industry. So I knew a little about the technology we were explaining.

      I had, in addition, years of experience working with and educating children across the board—from being Art Director at a cutting-edge alternative preschool for pacifist, non-sexist families in the early 1980s, to child advocacy for the abused children at a Battered Women’s Shelter, to Director of the Children’s Room at the Earthling Bookshop when it opened in San Luis Obispo.

    2. It was the first book of its kind

      Nobody had yet written a book about this phenomenon of using the Internet to educate children.

      This technological advance was so new and so exciting and so obviously going to change the entire future of education around the world forever.

      We checked constantly to make sure we weren’t being scooped.

      We weren’t.

    3. It was timed perfectly for its target market

      it came out the week Silicon Valley held their Computer Use in Education Conference—the first-ever conference on using the Internet to teach children.

      We were in Silicon Valley. We lived and worked there. The schools I visited and profiled for the book are in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Berkeley. This Computer Use in Education Conference was literally on our doorstep.

      But we didn’t know about it until it was too late. We were head-down in writing the book all those months, and our publisher’s Marketing Department apparently didn’t do a lick of marketing research.

      I heard about the conference from one of the teachers I profiled in our book when he apologized for not being able to attend my book-reading the next night.

      “I’ll be at CUE,” he said. “You know about that, right? The big Computer Use in Education Conference the computer companies of Silicon Valley are holding for teachers all about NetDay 96? I’m so sorry.”

      I called our publisher’s Marketing Department in a panic.

      “I don’t know,” she said laconically. “If you want to get me the information, I’ll look into it.”

      “You can’t get us in now,” I cried. “It’s tomorrow night!”

      She was remarkably unconcerned.

    4. It was timed to coincide with a Presidential edict

      If that’s not too rich for you.

      President Clinton had pronounced 1996 the year to connect all schools in the US to the Internet. He’d declared a single Saturday in July NetDay 96. On this day, the President encouraged parents, educators, and engineers across the country to volunteer to help their local schools connect to the Internet.


      So teachers could use the Internet to teach children.

      My co-author and I had actually gone out on NetDay 96 to our local schools and spent the day personally helping pull wires and set up computers and, generally, create access to the Internet for the teachers of children. I wrote a chapter about it for the book.

      There was a real possibility we could have gotten a statement from the White House supporting us.

      The White House.

      But our publisher’s editor—yawn—couldn’t be bothered to ask.

    So Children and the Internet sank out of sight.

    (There are now zillions of books on this subject. The field is flooded. Naturally.)


    About a year and a half later, when my son was old enough to walk and I got a chance to go back to work, I finally gave up waiting for my agent to get results about the legal implications of what our publisher had done to our book (and was still doing, refusing to even re-issue an edition without all the typos and the pedophile cartoon.)

    I went to the National Writer’s Union, which my agent had advised me to join the minute she met me.

    They told me to collect all the information about her communications with the publisher and they’d help me write a letter to the top brass. I asked my agent to send me all her communications with the publisher on my behalf.

    “Thank you for everything. Sorry you couldn’t get results. That damn editor. I know you did your best. I’m ending this whole fracas now, so we can go on with our lives.'”


    So why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:

    1. The publishing industry is brutal

      It was brutal then, and it’s brutal now. There is nothing we writers can do about this.

    2. But you know what was worth it all?

      The day I gave my new agent my partial novel manuscript to read, she called me at about six-thirty in the evening.

      “I never call anyone after six,” she said. “Ever. But I had to call you. I love this. I love your novel.”

      And while I was standing there reeling—thinking of everything you practice saying for just this moment when a literary agent calls you up and says just exactly that—she started quoting me to myself.

      She did.

      She read my own words out loud to me over the phone.

    So now I can die happy. I didn’t sell that novel. I didn’t even get the publisher’s editor who screwed us over so badly on Children and the Internet to apologize. I certainly didn’t get my one traditionally-published book published properly, without too many obvious typos or pedophilic jokes or with some teeny, tiny modicum of marketing by—oh, I don’t know—maybe the publisher’s Marketing Department.

    But a literary agent with a famous name called me up and quoted me to myself.

    And the good things in life have got to be enough.


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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Fiction
    The Art & Craft of Story



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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. . .

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, forthcoming from 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. . .

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. . .

M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with her three sci-fi/fantasy series. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. 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 her up-coming The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .

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

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

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