A. Victoria Mixon, Editor
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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about how to approach the first draft of your novel this month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, Last week we talked about the 3 Essential Guidelines for your overall novel, and the week before that we talked about Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And today we’re going to be talking about the protagonist’s character, because that’s the core of all storytelling. (I tackled this topic 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




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  • 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 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




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  • 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

    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 P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Some weeks ago I did a post that was almost nothing but the covers of fabulous vintage mysteries and a list of some of my favorite vintage authors. And that post was in response to a question asked by Sabine on an earlier post about being interviewed by the fabulous and hilarious Rachel X Russell.

    So I’m dedicating today’s post to Elisabeth Grace Foley, who spoke up in the comments to recommend the nineteenth-century authors Anna Katherine Green and Melville Davisson Post.

    I already knew about Green—although I had not read her (shame on me)—but Davisson Post’s name was a new one. So I immediately ran out and bought Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries: A Collection of Classic Detective Stories.

    But first I had the following conversation with my husband:

    Me: Uncle Abner? Are you kidding me? The cartoon character?

    My husband: I don’t think it was a cartoon about mysteries.

    Me: So this Davisson Post had a whole other double life—how brilliant is that?

    My husband: Except Davisson Post was apparently born in 1869, and the L’il Abner cartoon ran until the 1970s.

    Me: Holy crap! Talk about longevity!

    Eventually he convinced me that Uncle Abner and L’il Abner were not the same character. And I started reading the mysteries.

    Oh, so wonderful. . .

    1. Doomdorf

      Anyone who can invent a name like Doomdorf has me on their side automatically. Now I’m in a terrible quandary because I desperately want to write a ghost story about a house called Doomdorf, but that name is already taken.

      Watch for a novel called Dorfdoom.

    2. Historical setting

      Davisson Post was born only a few years after the end of the Civil War and lived his life in the back hills of Virginia, the land he knew so well and about which he wrote so vividly.

      His characters and stories ring true to life because they’re filled to the brim with details, habits, etiquette, and assumptions that could only possibly work in a world shaped entirely around them.

      When Uncle Abner and the boy-narrator ride through snow falling like great, grey, almost-sinister objects to cling to the branches of trees until they break, and they come upon a dilapidated old mansion with a single light burning and bang the knocker. . .the reader is not surprised that their reply is a gun report and splinters of wood flying through the door around them.

      We are purely delighted—here, indeed, is a mystery worth investigating!

      And when the narrator refers casually to the “disastrous failure of Prince Charles Edward Stuart to set up his kingdom in Scotland,” resulting in an influx of Scottish settlers in these Virginia hills whose ways and by-words Uncle Abner must understand in order to bring justice to a girl being married off against her will. . .again we are not surprised.

      Because Davisson Post speaks with such utter, detailed authority of his material, we are on the edge of our seats to learn what terrible secrets might lie hidden among these expatriates so far from home!

      And when the countryside teems with haggard women plaiting thorns to hide the wounds on their hands, and mortgages that can bought with gold coins in order to be forgiven, and insane old men who laugh demonically over having murdered abolitionists who would steal away their slaves. . .then we know we are not in our modern, automated, technological world at all.

      We are in Davisson Post country.

    3. Punch lines

      But what makes Davisson Post’s stories live on indelibly in the reader’s mind is not even all this—although we might think this would be enough.

      It is that each story ends on its punch line.

      And then stops.

      This is high art, my friends. This is the perfect design for which we each, in our many and various approaches to storytelling, are always seeking.

    4. Literary wisdom

      It is a law of the story-teller’s art that they do not tell a story. It is the listener who tells it. The story-teller does but provide them with the stimuli.
      —Melville Davisson Post, “The Doomdorf Mystery”

      If you study these lines long enough and hard enough, you’ll learn from them everything you ever need to know about creating literature.

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • 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 P-I

    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—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 P-I

    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 say, “I’m sorry.” 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.

    However, 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 P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    This is writers conference month here, so a few weeks ago I taught you guys how to get people all riled up at you at a writers conference.Then we discussed what to watch out for in the way of presenters—the bullshitters and the non-bullshitters, part one and part two.

    So now I’ll tell you another writers conference story.

    This one is a story of hope.

    Once upon a time many years ago, I had just returned to the San Francisco Bay Area from a thrilling, hair-raising, and actually quite productive six months of adventure and writing in Hawaii and Australia. I’d gotten a job as a tech writer at a small computer start-up in Silicon Valley, so I was recovering a bit from the state of abject poverty into which my adventures had plunged me. And a friend and I were sitting in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Northbeach neighborhood one afternoon when he pulled a flyer from his pocket.

    It was an ad for the Writers Community at Squaw Valley.

    “Are you going to apply?” I said.

    “Maybe. Are you?”


    I went to my manager at work, who happened to be extremely smart and extremely cool and extremely cute, and asked him what he thought. After all, he had a degree in Creative Writing from the University of California in Santa Cruz. Plus he was extremely cute.

    “Well, you know what I think about writers conferences,” he said.

    Actually I didn’t, but I was afraid he’d already told me and I’d been spazzed out on his cuteness and not listening, so I didn’t ask.

    Instead, I went to the conference.

    It was the very first writers conference I’d ever been to, and I didn’t know who Oakley Hall was (the guy running the conference), so when I got to the registration desk and the woman at it announced grandly that she was Mrs. Oakley Hall, I replied without a spark of recognition, “I’m Victoria Mixon.”

    I had signed up to share a house with other attendees, and I wound up with five other women, among whom were two in my writing workshop. We had a great week—we went to lectures by agents and famous authors like Amy Tan, we attended our workshop, we read each other’s manuscripts, and we drank a lot of wine. There was a big party to which we went as a gang, where we accidentally knocked a painting off a wall and almost got kicked out by the home-owner.

    One of my roommates and I went up to an agent after an agents’ panel and introduced ourselves. My friend already had an agent, so their conversation was kind of general. But I didn’t have an agent and wanted one, so I was quite happy when the agent invited me to lunch the next day. (We had lunch, and after we got home to San Francisco I took her my current manuscript, and she became my first agent.)

    I had also signed up for my manuscript to be critiqued by Anne Lamott, who was right then becoming famous for Operating Instructions and had just published Bird by Bird. In my excitement and confusion, I had sent her the second chapter of my novel instead of the first, so she was understandably confused about the storyline, but she seemed to like it.

    “It has a strange sort of power,” she said. “And you write like a dream.”

    Then she waited politely for me to ask her to sign the copy of Bird by Bird that I had in my lap.

    But I was too embarrassed by my excitement and confusion, so I didn’t ask.

    During that week I became particularly close to the two of my roommates who were in my workshop, whose manuscripts I found extremely beautiful and compelling. They were unpublished, like me—one a professor of Native American law in Kansas, and the other a struggling English teacher at a community college in New York City. We traded addresses when the conference ended, but we fell out of touch anyway.

    A few years later I thought of them and found an address for the one in New York. Her first novel, Angels in the Morning, had been published by the Permanent Press—she’d rewritten it from a different point-of-view and given it a different title—and become a Book Sense Selection. Her second novel, The Forgotten Island, was being published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and it too went on to become a Book Sense Selection, translated into several languages.

    We were both recently married and had very young sons by then, so we bonded again.

    At some point I also wrote to the professor of Native American law, saying that I hoped she was still writing, since if anyone was a writer she was. And she wrote back a beautiful letter saying she had, in fact, just been on the verge of giving up when she received my letter. She was so moved that she read the letter out loud to her family over the dinner table. She said she was still working on her novel.

    That novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, was published in 2008 and nominated for the most prestigious national prizes in the US (which she is too modest to mention), while being highly-acclaimed by NPR and Kirkus Reviews.

    And now, I’m pretty sure you guys know by this time who these writers are. I’ve written about them in my books, and I use quotes from them on my blog to make me look good.

    • Unpublished, struggling, dedicated craftspeople when I met them

    • Acclaimed fiction authors today

    I want you to know that it happens—talent and hard work and dedication to craft do get recognized:

    Lucia Orth

    Sasha Troyan

    (Also, I married my cute manager.)

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’ve been talking about writers conferences here, in particular how to make friends and enemies at them. And as I promised last Monday, here are the other five things that should set off your bullshit alarm at writers conferences:

    1. A presenter who can’t be bothered to research what they teach

      • True story:

        I was at a writers conference once when the presenter sketched a quick triangle on the board.

        “Do you all know the plot triangle?” he said. “I think this is from Aristotle.”

        And he proceeded to “teach” a sort of vague, truncated, misunderstood version of Freytag’s Triangle.

        Now, I’m pretty courteous. I’m not going to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but don’t you mean you think that’s from Freytag? As in: the nineteenth-century German writer who developed a pyramid structure to describe beginning, middle, and end along the lines of the five-act play of Shakespeare’s era? Because that triangle’s really famous. And I don’t think he’d ever even met Aristotle.”

        No, I’m not.

        I’m going to sit there on my hands, and if necessary I will smile. I will not point out in front of a class full of innocent hopefuls that this presenter hasn’t even looked up this triangle he likes to think he’s teaching, before sailing blasely into this room to try to teach it.

      • Another true story:

        I was at a writers conference once where the workshop presenter added nothing at all to the critiques.

        She simply sat at the front of the room saying, “And what do you think of what we just heard?”

        This presenter had been snickering to me earlier about how she always accepts invitations to present at conferences because it’s freebie food.

        I was an attendee in that particular session, but I wound up carrying the ball whenever the attendees didn’t know how to sort out a fiction dilemma because the presenter just sat there smirking and trying to hide the fact that she didn’t know either.

        One attendee came up to me later and expressed her disappointment that the presenter hadn’t contributed anything to the workshop. At all. Several others came up to me later and thanked me for my help and asked me if I was a professional editor. (At the time I was, but I wasn’t freelancing.)

        Even worse, another presenter came up to me later—a smart, engaging, professional writer—and told me how sorry he was I hadn’t appeared in his session. . .because I’d been in the lame workshop instead.

    2. The presenter who ignores the demographics of their class

      You should know that presenters are told by the conference organizers what to expect in their classes. This is so that everything will go smoothly and the attendees will know they’ve gotten their money’s worth.

      However, once I was in a seminar in which certain attendees were local high school students who had won scholarships to the writing conference.

      And we were all forced to sit there listening to the presenter announce gleefully, “I love teaching adults because then I can talk about sex all I want,” and proceed to describe fiction techniques in terms of sex, tell stories about sex, and even read sex-related blurbs from her own book. She told us all about how she was violently raped when she was a teenager.

      I wound up coping in scribbled notes with a disclosure of traumatic sexual shame from the teen writer I was there to mentor on the craft of fiction.

      Yeah. We missed a lot of that presenter’s talk.

      The thing is that, whether any particular class is made up entirely of adults or not, this presenter had no way of knowing if they were going to trigger PTSD in some of the attendees. Sex is either a painful or quite private topic for many people.

      Writing conference attendees do not pay to have their personal issues messed with by strangers in public.

      They pay to learn the craft of writing.

      Sex, religion, and politics: these are not appropriate topics for lecture at writers conferences without previous warning.

    3. A presenter who can’t be bothered to plan their session so they actually cover everything they promise to cover

      How many times have you seen this one happen?

      At the beginning of the session, in accordance with popular advice on public speaking, the presenter lists out loud everything they intend to cover before their time is up.

      If you know anything at all about teaching fiction, it might sound like kind of a lot to cover in one session, but you figure they’re probably going to skim. Or maybe they’re just way the heck more organized than you would be in their shoes.

      So you jot down the list, making little asterisks next to the items that look most interesting to you. If you’re really organized and really OCD (like me) you even leave big spaces in between in which to fill in what you’re going to learn about each item.

      Then you spend a good, long time listening to the presenter tell stories about their own experiences with the first few items (probably, “How I got my idea for my novel,” and, “What my agent said about how my novel was the fastest sell in publishing history”), until suddenly it’s five minutes until the end of the session, and they still have half-a-dozen points left to make.

      So you and the rest of the class sit and watch them riffle through their notes saying loudly without looking up, “Uh, plot—don’t be boring. Character—ditto. Troubleshooting—come to one of my classes back home, I’ll give you my card. Professionalism—have it. Any questions? Okey-dokey. All out of time. ‘Kay, thanks, bye!”

      And then you’re in line politely waiting with a burning question that you’d hoped this class would answer, while everyone else gets a chance to ask their questions and get their copies of the presenter’s book autographed and make personal friends with the presenter, until the attendees for the next session flood into the room and appropriate the chairs, and the presenter picks up their things and heads out the door, still chatting vivaciously with someone about three people ahead of you in line.

      And the whole class turns out to have been a complete waste of your time. . .and your money.

    4. A presenter who teachers misinformation

      And this is the one that really makes smoke come out my ears.

      Because you guys can’t necessarily tell. If you already knew this stuff, you wouldn’t be here to learn it, now, would you?

      • Did Aristotle invent Freytag’s Triangle?

        No, he did not.

        Aristostle invented the Six Elements of Drama, which any presenter worth their salt can discover in two minutes by googling Aristotle. Or Aristostle’s Triangle.

        Gustav Freytag invented Freytag’s Triangle.

      • Did Syd Field invent three-act structure?

        No, he did not.

        Syd Field wrote a terrific book called Screenplay in which he describes three-act structure and explores the ways and means behind why it works.

        Our current understanding of three-act structure, according to some sources, actually dates back to (are you ready?) Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. It has been immortalized in our lifetime in books on screenplay by Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Yves Lavandier. (I talk about it a lot in my books too.)

      • Should aspiring writers plot?

        Hell, yes, they should.

        Otherwise Freytag’s Triangle and three-act structure are of no use to them whatsoever.

      Oh, I could go on and on and on about this one. So many of you innocents come to me asking about the misinformation you’ve been taught, and I’m here banging my head on my desk thinking, Who is doing this to these poor people?

      Then I go to writers conferences, and I find out: academics who earned advanced degrees or inexperienced authors who got lucky with publication without actually learning the craft.

    5. A presenter who indulges in snark, bad manners, or irritability

    6. And this one makes smoke come out of everyone’s ears.

      Or it should.

      However, only too often conference attendees assume that, because they’ve paid to be taught by these pillars of the publishing industry, any snark or bad manners or irritability that falls on their heads they brought on themselves.

      You know what professionalism is?

      Professionalism is being friendly and polite and encouraging to everyone you meet, regardless of how silly or ill-informed you might secretly find their questions and comments. Because they’re human beings. And they’ve paid you to treat them professionally.

      If a presenter has trouble with an attendee who’s sincerely a problem, they go to the conference organizers. That’s what they’re there for.

    7. A presenter who makes no bones about being there solely for the party with the other presenters

      “Oooh, look,” these presenters say to other presenters at the presenter/attendee social mixers. “They have square dancing in this town.”

      “How’s the room they gave you?” these presenters say to other presenters five minutes later, still ignoring the attendees. “Have you been to the beach yet?”

      “Oh, my god, you’re wearing the orange plaid!” these presenters cry from the podium when another presenter sidles into the room in the middle of their lecture to attendees. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher—your turn next time!”

      “Are you a local?” these presenters say to random attendees without even pretending to be interested in them. “How do I get home from here?”

      Now, when I was the editor of my high school newspaper I once got my butt kicked by our teacher for running a gag front-page article about how to set up a “directions booth” downtown in our lovely vacation town to tell rude tourists right where they could go.

      So what these presenters who ask me for directions don’t know is that. . .I’m a fiction writer because I like to lie.




    Folks, these people are trouble not just for you, the attendees, but also for those presenters who really are prepared, who really have come to make themselves available to aspiring writers, who really do take these conferences and their function in the writing community seriously.

    Those presenters can’t blow the whistle on such shenanigans without sounding petty and competitive. So they walk away smiling politely and shaking hands, while inside seething on behalf of the paying attendees they’ve just spent several days watching being duped.

    But you can.

    You can blow that whistle loud and clear.

    For the sake of everybody involved—both present and future—please do.

    LAST WEEK: 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




    No Comments


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.