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Writer's Digest: 2013 Best Writing Websites (2013)

  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

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

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

    I salute you people.

    You bet I do.

    You finance all those writers conferences.

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

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

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

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

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

    Things that should set off your bullshit alarm:

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

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

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

      You’re here to learn.

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

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

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

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

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

      And you’re a good sport.

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

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

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

      Yeah. You’re a teeny bit disgruntled.

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

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

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

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

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

      • Now, have I ever pantsed a novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It’s not the technique.

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

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

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

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

      They only know themself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      So I have to tell them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      You betcha.

      You’re welcome!

    UPDATE: The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I don’t really attend writers conferences anymore, because it’s much more comfortable to stay home in my cozy attic office editing the books of the coolest writers on the entire planet—but I have attended a few.

    And I want to tell you a story today about something that happened to me once at a writers conference:

    1. Step #1: Saying what you shouldn’t

      This was a number of years ago, before I became an independent editor. We were in a workshop led by the very popular creative writing teacher at the local community college. This teacher was at the board doodling graphs and calling out for contributions and scribbling them down as fast as she could, and it was all quite exciting and loud and creative. Everyone was thrilled, and the energy ran high.

      Then things calmed down while we all thought about what we’d created together.

      And after a few minutes a small, shy woman directly in front of me raised her hand.

      “I have a question,” she said tentatively. “I’ve written a novel that was published and even favorably received, and I’m working on my second now. But it’s not coming along so well. In fact, I’m kind of paralyzed. I’m scared. What if I only had that one good book in me? What if I’ve lost it?”

      There was some murmuring, and the teacher said brightly and with great confidence, “Oh, don’t let it get you down. I’m sure you’re fine!”

      A woman in the back cried loudly, “I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend, but you haven’t lost it. You’re a great writer!”

      The other attendees chimed in with their encouragement and positive opinions and exhortations to ignore her anxieties. . .

      And the woman tried very hard to smile and simply swallow their diagnosis. But I was close enough to see the fear growing in her eyes.

      So I turned to her.

      “You know,” I said, “maybe you have. Maybe you have lost it.”

      The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.

    2. Step #2: Facing what you haven’t

      I smiled at her a little. “It’s probably wherever mine is.”

      She was the only person in the room who smiled back.

      “I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the friend aggressively after a minute. “How can you tell her she’s lost it? You don’t even know her!”

      “You can’t say that to her,” someone else chimed in. “She’ll stop writing!”

      “Victoria, don’t you mean maybe she’s lost her confidence?” said the teacher helpfully. “Not that she’s lost her talent?”

      “No, I mean her talent,” I said. “I mean maybe it’s gone. Maybe she can’t rely on it anymore.”

      I glanced around, and the entire hostile room looked back at me.

      “Because isn’t that our big fear?” I said, a little desperately. “Isn’t that the terrible shadow under which we work all day long every day, year in and year out? That we’re relying on a talent that could just go away? That one day we’ll wake up and we’ll have lost it?”

      That room full of aspiring writers stared at me as though I’d just burned all their manuscripts.

      However, the shy woman was looking at me as though I were her lifeline.

    3. Step #3: Doing what you can’t

      I turned back to the shy woman. “So we keep on working without it. Whether we’ve lost it or not. We just keep writing. . .because, you know, that’s what we do. We’re writers.”

    By the end of that sentence, nobody in the room was on my side—except the shy woman who had asked the question. She kept staring at me, and I kept staring at her.

    And that was the end of that class. The teacher wouldn’t smile at me as I walked out.

    However, the shy woman came up to me in the parking lot later and flagged me down. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for what you said in there. I feel so much better now. Nobody else seemed to get it. I’ve been really frightened!”

    “I know,” I said. “This work can be really frightening.”

    And that stranger and I stood there in a parking lot holding each other’s hands for a few long, very quiet minutes.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Recently, my husband made me my own custom mug. Then we discovered you could also get them as all kinds of different drinking vessels like frosted glasses and travel mugs and a cup that looks black when it’s cold but shows the design as it heats up. Then he ventured into the land of beer steins and mousepads and flip-flops.

    And the world was no longer safe.

    Now author M. Terry Green—who’s sold over 45,000 copies of her books on tattooing Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo, published by NAL Trade, and The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo, published by Fireside, and is self-publishing her sci-fi/fantasy series on Olivia Lawson, Techno-Shaman—just sent me a picture of herself in her new T-shirt.











    Is she a goddess or what?


















    UPDATE: And this is a photo-montage that Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Selling Body of Water, gave me of himself not wearing one of my blog T-shirts:




























    My god, I love you both.

    UPDATE UPDATE: Some people are very small.

    UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Some people are middling.

    UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: And some people prefer a pure, angelic white. (Although my cat couldn’t pull it off.)





    “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

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Wow, it’s been years since the New Yorker magazine published the original editing job Gordon Lish did on Raymond Carver’s short story, “Beginners.”

    You may or may not have heard about the fracas surrounding that publication. And even if you’ve read some of Carver’s work, you might not recognize this particular short story.

    That’s because, although it was Carver’s big story—the title of which was given to the story collection that made Carver’s name—it wasn’t Carver’s title.

    Lish is the one who named it “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

    Now, I’m not a huge fan of Carver’s work, and not only because this particular story is the story of an argument about whether or not battering is ‘love.’ All of us who’ve worked at Battered Women’s Shelters already know the answer to that one, so reading an argument about it is a lot like listening to smokers argue about whether or not cigarette-smoking is dangerous to your health because, after all, the Tobacco Institute says it’s not.

    Yeah. Not really debatable anymore, guys.

    However, it is true that Lish did an enormous amount in his Line Editing to tighten, focus, and illuminate the power inside Carver’s story.

    Let’s look at the very first sentence:

    My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

    Okay, aside from the random altering of the character’s name—which is complete nonsense—what did Lish do?

    1. Lish removed the distracting information

      The defining term ‘a cardiologist’ is completely unnecessary to that first sentence and,through being unnecessary, detracts from its power. How? By distracting the reader from the point.

      The point is that Herb/Mel was talking.

      All stories should be written in exactly the right words and no others. This means all unnecessary words—words that do not lead inevitably to the point—should be cut.

      Ruthlessly. Mercilessly. With eyes closed if that’s the only way.

      But cut.

    2. Lish saw the remote connection inside the distracting information

      And this is a really fascinating thing.

      If the point of the first sentence is that the main character is talking, then what should we do about that interesting-but-distracting detail, the fact that he’s a cardiologist?

      Specific details are almost always gold. The question is:

      • does this detail add to or detract from the point of the story?

      As it happens, cardiology doesn’t have anything to do with the point of the story. The story’s about battering, not cardiology. The only aspect of cardiology even remotely connected to the point of the story is that both love and cardiology have to do with the heart (although cardiology actually has the greater claim—the seat of emotions resides in the brain).

      But it’s still an interesting piece of telling detail. And that remote connection does exist.

      So Lish kept it. In fact, he actually gave it its own sentence in order to highlight it. Then. . .

    3. Lish gave the information meaning

      The way he did this was to add a tiny bit of exposition that, in context, appears to be a non sequitur.

      Non sequitur is incredibly intriguing stuff. Fiction itself, if constructed properly, can be based nearly entirely on what appears on the surface to be non sequitur.

      In this case, what gives the sentence meaning is the juxtaposition of the information “cardiologist” with the rather surprising news that being a cardiologist gives you “the right.”

      The right to what?

      Apparently the right to talk.

      But it can’t be that simple! We all know lots of people who have the right to talk who aren’t anything even remotely like a cardiologist.

      What could Lish possibly mean by “the right”?

      Suddenly Lish has us thinking. He has us thinking and guessing and—most important of all—curious about where he’s going. So we keep reading.

      Bingo for Gordon Lish!

      And that curiosity leads us (without any prodding by the writer) to epiphany about the remote connection between:

      • cardiology
      • what we talk about when we talk about love

      (hint: it’s not medical school)

    Remember what that remote connection is?

    Does your own epiphany tell you why it matters to readers?

    UPDATE: By the way, I’ve been reminded that I talked about the whole concept of Line-Editing in more depth last year on my Editor’s FAQ.

    UPDATE 2014: I know—the New Yorker took down the webpage that held Lish’s edit of Carver’s story. Bummer about that. I wish I’d thought to copy it while it was still up. As it is, all I have is this tiny snippet here. If anybody actually did think to copy it while it was still up, I’d love to see it.





    “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

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. . .”
    —Rudyard Kipling

    Okay, two very disparate things to draw links between today (which linking is, of course, the basic act of all art):

    MUGS

    We had a quick chat one week recently about whether or not we need these:








    The vote was yes, so my husband set it up so now you can get the mug on Zazzle. (The reviews rate these things very high for quality.)

    PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

    Then the next day I just happened to have the same conversation three times with three different clients who are all going through a sort of crisis of faith, struggling with the current publishing industry.

    And the day after that I had to un-teach and re-teach plotting to another client, an innocent aspiring writer (quite a good writer) who’d just been to a plotting workshop taught by one of those published authors/Iowa Writers Workshop grads who are all over the place out there teaching workshops.

    Now, the fact is that this workshop-leader is teaching complete nonsense through a sort of morphed generic ‘arc’ based on Freytag’s Triangle, without knowing that it’s based on Freytag’s Triangle. . .and certainly without knowing that Freytag based his triangle on analysis of the Shakespearean five-act play.

    This is not the first time I’ve seen this happen.

    • What the hell is going on at the Iowa Writers Workshop?

      We don’t use five-act structure these days. We use three-act structure. It’s quicker, punchier, and it doesn’t include an entire final act to wrap up all the loose ends. Today’s readers expect the loose ends to be tied up in one single fast knock-out blow of a grand finale—without that old 20% of the story of whoever’s left behind cleaning up the wreckage.

      In today’s world, the story ends when Romeo and Juliet die.

      On the other side of the coin is what happens to an industry when you let people run around teaching its craft wrong to the new folks just entering it: the industry collapses (much like Romeo and Juliet).

    • What the hell is going on in New York?

      In a really big industry worth billions of dollars this kind of collapse can take years, and during those years the new folks are still struggling to cope with it just the way they’re being taught to by the workshop-teachers and agents (many of them brand-new to the industry themselves).

      Aspiring writers are writing books, querying agents, sending out requested manuscripts, signing with agents, and then waiting for their novels to sell to publishers, pass editorial inspection, pass marketing inspection, and maybe even—um—be published.

      And as much as this sounds like exactly the right way to do it, for far too many writers it’s turning out to be a secret nightmare.

    • What’s going on on our end?

      It’s because we’re in those collapse years right now, folks.

      This is what’s going on on our end:

      • Some of you have agents and published books

        And you’re struggling to get your new books published, over obstacles that were not there before and actually make no sense to industry long-timers.

      • Some of you have agents and unpublished books

        And you’re struggling to supply your agents with the very best unpublished books you can, trapped against a stonewall that was not there before.

      • Some of you have manuscripts out there right now with agents

        And you’re struggling with long delays, close calls, and finally rejections letters that begin, “This is a great book, but in today’s market. . .” lost in a bottleneck that was not there before.

      • Some of you are querying

        You’re writing and re-writing those queries and synopses—and you’re struggling with blanket rejection (the “no response means no” rudeness that did not exist before) and conflicting advice from conference teachers and agents and sometimes downright ignorant stupidity from people who claim to be industry professionals.

      • And some of you are still working on your books

        You’re looking forward to the day you’ll be querying. You people, quite frankly, are the only ones not being driven insane right now. Because you’re still dealing purely with craft, and craft does not change (except for dropping the fifth act—that did).

    So I just want to say to all of you, to everyone I’ve talked with in the last four days and everyone else out there still struggling:

    it’s not you.

    It’s not even me.

    It’s not us.

    It’s the industry.

    And we’re going to be okay.

    We’re simply focusing upon our craft.

    PS Now my husband is expanding his horizons. It turns out that you have your choice of not just a regular ole coffee or tea mug but also a travel-mug, a 16-ounce frosted glass, or a stein.

    A beer stein, you guys.











    I’m getting me one. I’m also getting a mousepad with my cat’s face on it.

    He’s not going to know what hit him.





















    “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

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    I used to listen to the radio so much I actually played it all night when I was a teenager while I slept. Then I stopped for about thirty-five years and just started again this past weekend when it occurred to me it’s a really easy way to listen to music without getting up and changing the CD all the time.

    So I was listening one day when I found myself in the middle of the most wonderful interview with Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter responsible for A Few Good Men, Social Network, and West Wing.

    Sorkin is promoting his new television drama called The Newsroom on HBO, starring Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels.

    And I’ll tell you, although I haven’t watched television in fifteen years, after listening to Sorkin talk about writing and storytelling and the work he does I am ready to watch that darn show.

    Sorkin speaks so intelligently and so beautifully about our craft:

    1. dialog

      “I love the sound of dialog. It’s like music to me. David Mamet is the master of writing two people communicating who don’t know how to communicate. I like to take characters who are hyper-articulate and see what happens when you give them a silence when they can’t think of what to say.”

    2. action

      “In A Few Good Men I had Tom Cruise driving along and pull over to pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated. He pulls over, hops out, buys the magazine, and hops back in again. That’s about as active as my action scenes get.”

    3. complex character

      “Don’t confuse me with my characters. I have never in my life written autobiographical.”

      This isn’t Sorkin speaking about himself below: this is a character he created. Study how much contrast, backstory, and information he’s packed into a single line:

      ‘I’m a registered Republican—I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.’—Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, protagonist of The Newsroom

    4. reader investment

      “In thinking about writing a show about the news, I didn’t want to invent catastrophes for my characters to cover. It finally hit me I could use recent news events. That way the audience knows more about what’s happening than the characters, and I can use that leverage.

      “The audience wants to yell at the screen, ‘I know how this is going to turn out! Pay attention!‘”

    5. conflict

      “I have people surrounding me who help me find the point of conflict in a scene: the information, be it the BP oil spill or immigrations.”

    6. theme

      “I like to show that it’s okay to be alone in a big city if you can find a workplace family.

      “And I like heroes who don’t wear disguises in the real world.

      “You think, ‘Why can’t that be the real world?’”

    7. reader sympathy

      “We connect to people who are trying. And we connect a lot to people who are failing a lot. Because that’s what we do.”

    Suddenly, I love Aaron Sorkin.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m probably misquoting him like crazy because I listened to this instead of reading it, but you can get the real quotes from the NPR interview transcript.

    2nd DISCLAIMER: When I worked in offices in the old days, maybe it was just us, but we never french-kissed on the public stairs. We took long lunch hours like civilized people.





    “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, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Some time 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 will try to keep it focused.

    Every year my family and I travel to Portland, Oregon, 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 specialty, and as much as I long to, I simply cannot 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. Ellery Queen

    5. S.S. Van Dine

    6. Erle Stanley Gardner

    7. Rex Stout

    8. Mary Roberts Rhinehart

    9. And the famous creator of Winnie-the-Pooh wrote a mystery:

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

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

    12. David Alexander

    13. Cleve F. Adams

    14. Dorothy B. Hughes

    15. Leslie Ford

    16. The dreamily-beautiful:

    17. John Franklin Bardin

    18. The heartbreaking:

    19. Derek Raymond

    20. And my favorite mystery title ever:

    21. Eunice Mays Boyd, Murder Wears Mukluks

    22. 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’ll rarely see such 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.





    “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

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Ever since we built our house in the woods, we’ve had a momma deer living on our property. And every fall a handsome young buck has visited her.

    Now, those deer are not exactly an unmixed blessing in our lives. We haven’t been able to put in a vegetable garden because they come right up to the house and eat everything in sight, including the leaves off the grape growing next to the front door.

    Back in the first year we lived here the deer hadn’t discovered us yet, so we put in a garden. But then the buck did discover us, and that freak not only ate the tops off all my huge, healthy tomato plants, when I netted them so he couldn’t eat them he walked on them instead.

    One day that fall I looked out the front door, and there he was standing right smack dab in the middle of the path through my garden.

    I threw open the door and ran at him shrieking in fury, “Get out of my garden! Get out! Get out!”

    He stared at me for a moment, with his huge chest, black eyes, and extraordinary rack of antlers.

    He lowered his head a bit.

    Then, when I was about fifteen feet from him he turned and cantered slowly in to the woods, pausing once to look back as though he simply couldn’t believe his eyes.

    I stood in the middle of my garden path panting in rage, staring him down. Later, when I told our logger about this, he said, “You know it’s rutting season. They get pretty feisty. I don’t think I’d run straight at any more bucks if I were you.”

    So I didn’t (but I was still furious when the bear came through later and tore down our new fence and in the morning the deer had eaten all the leaves off my strawberry plants).

    Then last Sunday morning my husband and I were sitting in our rocking chairs by the living room french doors, and he said suddenly, “Look.”

    And out of the tall grass beyond the new deer fence came hopping a tiny, graceful, carefree little figure with spots all over it.

    My husband got his camera and said, “There’ll be another,” and sure enough, about a minute later here came the other half of the matching pair, bouncing through the tall grass as though on springs. Bounce! Straight in the air. Boing!




















    And in that moment I saw myself perfectly clearly as the protagonist of my own story:

    1. I need my beloved vegetable garden, upon which I lavish such intense work and care.

    2. And I also need to be enchanted. . .by my nemesis.





    “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

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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.





    “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

    Subscribe:

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Recently we’ve talked about my cat, who is not a writer (or else who is, depending upon how many opposable thumbs you think it takes). Now this morning the cat is peacefully asleep on my legs, and I am sore all over from working in my garden all weekend.

    So let’s talk about writing and gardening.

    Because you’d be surprised at the similarities.

    1. Gardening is hard work

      This can be news to those of us not raised by gardeners.

      I happen to have been to be raised by farmers, who are gardeners gone mad. My grandparents and great-grandparents owned large potato farms in Southern California, to which they’d migrated from Lodi (when my grandmother told me she was born in Lodi, I said, “Oh, Grandma. Nobody was born in Lodi”), to which they’d migrated from South Dakota, to which they’re migrated from the great Russian steppes, where I have no doubt at all those people farmed potatoes.

      They were Germans. What else would they farm?

      So everywhere I lived in my childhood, I was surrounded by fields and fields of agriculture, mostly potatoes. And everyplace we moved, my parents put in a kitchen garden.

      Now I do it too.

      Which is why my husband and I have spent the last few weekends outdoors busting our heinies in the garden. We happen to have very, very heavy clay soil here, so when I say “busting,” I mean parts of our bodies were actually breaking and falling off.

      You know why I do this?

      So when I come back indoors on Monday I will be all rested up and primed for the seriously hard work:

      Writing.

    2. Gardening is about the big picture

      On my pauses between client manuscripts, I like to lean on my office windowsill and gaze down from the attic upon my garden below. My garden is very nicely-planned, because I am a past-graphic-designer and also extremely OCD. I picture it in my mind bursting with opulent green leaves and massive vegetables and the undeniable good health of a garden well-loved.

      Even though it spends a lot of its life just looking like a whole lot of dirt.

      I know, in the back of my mind, that I do this every year, that every year begins with whole a lot of dirt backed by a whole lot of optimism. Some years I get the opulence, and some years I get a bunch of scraggly dying stuff surrounded by weeds, which all but grabs me by the collar and begs me to put it out of its misery.

      At such times, I ask myself why I keep at it.

      And I answer myself, “Because this is what I do.”

    3. Gardening lies in the little details

      I always worry every spring about the tiny seedlings out there struggling through sun and wind and rain to extend their root systems and buckle down to photosynthesis and eventually maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud green parents of the fruits of their labor.

      Then I go back to my clients, who are also knocking themselves out to extend the roots of their knowledge of this craft and buckle down to producing scenes and maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud bookish parents of the fruits of their labor.

      I know all about how many complicated and even contradictory techniques a writer must master in order to result in a completed story.

      They usually don’t know.

      So I teach them. Slowly and carefully.

      I try not to burn their tender roots with too much information too fast. And I encourage them to produce scenes, while understanding that many of those scenes will not add to the finished story, but will assist in photosynthesizing the fuel for the final scenes. And I keep reminding my clients that the goal is not a whole lot of dirt—as necessary as that is for results—or even opulent leaves.

      The goal is fruit.

    4. You can’t always control the outcome

      Sadly, there are things bigger and stronger than gardeners. We call it weather. We also call it wildlife, insects, fungus, and pure bad luck.

      Part of the craft of gardening lies in learning each of these challenges and the many techniques developed by gardeners throughout the ages to meet them. And part of it lies in learning to be good sports.

      Because life is not just gardening.

      Life is being alive, whether the gardening goes well or not.

      We talk constantly here on this blog—in my books, on video, on my advice column, even on Twitter—about the zillions of techniques of writing craft designed by writers throughout the ages.

      But part of this work lies in learning to be good sports. It’s not always going to turn out the way we want.

      We’re not always going to be up to the task of realizing the visions in our imaginations. And even when we are, the rest of the publishing industry (agents, acquisitions editors, marketers, booksellers, reviewers, other bloggers, and most importantly readers) are not necessarily going to cooperate.

      And that has to be all right—life is not just writing.

      Life is being alive, whether the writing goes well or not.

    5. Gardening is only worth it if you long with all your heart to garden

      Sometimes when I guest post I hear from the readers of other blogs (never here—I don’t think anyone following this blog has any question about the meaning of the work we do) that I seem to expect an awful lot from writers, when they’re really only in the game to make big bucks with this new self-marketing gizmo about which everyone talks so much.

      “I’m only writing to finance my real love,” I hear, “competitive afghan-knitting or professional spelunking or entreprenureal self-marketing or, you know, my art.”

      And I respond with enthusiastic, heartfelt encouragement for them to do what they love.

      Writing is not a way to finance your real life.

      It’s not even a way to finance writing.

      In spite of JK Rowling, Stephen King, and Amanda Hocking, writing is and remains a passion. Writing is something we do not because it always bears fruit (it doesn’t) or because the big picture is a snapshot (it isn’t) or because the myriad details ever end (they don’t) or—certainly—because it’s possible to guarantee the results of our writing will turn out just the want we want (they never do). . .

      But because it’s our real love.

    Oh, people. We can’t ask life for more than that.





    “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, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments


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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