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

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

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

  • By Victoria Mixon

    We travel a certain amount in our family—partly because my husband is a community manager in the computer industry and organizes a lot of conferences, partly because my son loves O’Reilly Media’s Maker Faire, which is held within a few hours’ drive of our house, and partly because we live way the heck out in the boonies and occasionally get the wind up and just feel like seeing the world. And today I’m going to tell you why I never take my cat.

    1. He does not like to share

      My cat and his brother have a long-standing routine in which one of them finds a comfortable place to sleep and the other turns up two minutes later and tries to lie down in the same place. Often they try to lie down on each other’s head. This is, naturally, quite annoying to the one who owns the head, so after a certain amount of mutual grooming their conscientious tidying-up turns into bear-trap locks on each other’s spinal column, and suddenly everyone is screaming.

      Maker Faire ‘Makers’ and writers, however, have one big thing in common: we like to share.

      We like to share so much that we’re willing to spend practically all our leisure time (and an unrecorded amount of ‘work’ time) sharing the visions that inhabit our teeming brains.

      Makers envision shareable material that can be built in their kitchens out of papier-mache, alligator clips, small motors, and a whole lot of duct tape.

      Writers envision shareable material built out of words.

    2. He thinks he’s more important than anyone else

      You know Zaphod Beeblebrox of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the two-headed narcissist who gets himself elected the President of the Galaxy and then kidnaps himself so he can steal the one-of-a-kind spacecraft Heart of Gold with its bizarre Improbability Drive? (If you don’t, then you haven’t been paying attention for something like thirty years.)

      And when Zaphod is put into the ultimate torture machine, in which you’re shown the entire universe and your own teeny, tiny, inconsequential place in it so that your brain implodes, Zaphod comes out utterly pleased with himself because it’s shown him the entire universe, and he’s the most important thing in it?


      That’s my cat.

      But Makers and writers are not the centers of their universes. That’s the whole point.

      Makers live in universes populated by other Makers, with their infinite communal potential to create cool stuff nobody has ever created before, like the Leave Me Alone Box (which, when turned on, opens up so a hand can come out and turn it off again).

      Writers, of course, live in universes populated by our characters. We’re not the centers of those universes. In fact, we’re not even visible in those universes.

      We are the Divine Scribes watching from on high and frantically recording everything so we can share it later with the occupants of other universes, universes to which we do not have the keys.

    3. He can’t take deviation from his routine

      I’ve already mentioned my cat’s extraordinary faith in his own judgment, which leads him to do things like sit in a prominent place during dinner every blessed night (the top of a stepping stool, the middle of the kitchen floor, sometimes even one of our chairs at the table) with his back facing us so that we will get the message it’s time to stop dilly-dallying and give him his bedtime snack.

      He has the most articulate—and aggressive—back I have ever seen in my life.

      However, Makers and writers can’t afford to be locked into routine.

      If Makers refuse to open their minds, they’ll be stuck inventing the same things over and over again. Lightbulb! Wow, amazing. Lightbulb! Yep, there it is again. Lightbulb!

      And if we writers refuse to open our minds, we have no reason to write. We can’t all write Pride & Prejudice over and over unto infinity, although I know some people would like to try. Jane Austen already wrote it, and she wrote it beautifully, and nobody else is ever going to write it again. Really. . .done.

      We must write new stories, develop new characters, have our own special new perspectives, explore the same classic themes through the infinitely new variety of specific, perceived, telling detail that is the stuff of life on this earth.

    4. He poops in the car

      And I’m not even going to elaborate upon this one.

      Suffice it to say, I’ve never met a Maker who pooped in the car. That’s where they carry their cool gadgets that they’re taking to Maker Faire. It’s their transportation, the way they get where they want to go. If they ruin their cars, they go nowhere.

      Now, we do see a lot of fouling of nests going on in the publishing industry these days.

      But writers’ imaginations are our transportation, it’s how we get in and out of our fictional universes, it’s where we carry the virtual pens and paper on which we record everything our characters go through. If we ruin our imaginations—skating on the thin ice of imitation and television and brand names and movie-inspired gore and instruction-manual sex and quick marketing-crazed lunges for easy bucks—we’ll never write anything we can be proud of.

      So I’m going to condense all of my writing advice to you down into five simple little words, and I hope that you take them to heart. They have certainly served me well in my decades as a professional writer and editor:

      Writers—don’t poop in your cars.

    In honor of my blog cat, my beloved Grey Terror, who passed on to the Great Cat Heaven in the Sky in 2015 at the age of 14.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

    He’s my inspiration.

    And he should really be the writer in our family. Because. . .

    1. He is undeterrable

      When he wants something, he gets it.

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

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

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

      Until we get what we want.

    2. He knows what he likes

      Specifically, what he likes is lying on my shins.

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

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

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

      But because we like it.

    3. He’s passionate

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

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

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

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

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

      Writing makes us purr.

    4. He doesn’t mind complaining

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

      Some snarl. Some hiss. Some fight back. And some take you apart from the elbows to the wrists whenever they feel it’s necessary.

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

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

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

    5. He trusts his own judgment

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

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

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

      Then that is what he does.

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

      Then that is what he does.

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

      Then that is what he does.

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


      No, we have not.

    6. He spends practically all his time in dreamland

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

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

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

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

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

      Oh, yes.

      A writer should be so lucky.

    Once again—dedicated to my blog cat, my beloved Grey Terror, who went to live in the Land of Imaginary Mice in 2015 at the ripe old age of 14.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • 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:


    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 Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Remember, we’re all lost together, everywhere the same.
    —Garry Schyman, Alicia Lemke, & Matt Harding, “We’re Going to Trip the Light”

    Here’s another story for you all today about how life works and who we are.

    There’s this guy named Matt. You might know about him. He’s a perfectly ordinary American who lives in Seattle with his wife and baby. Some years ago Matt and a friend made a short video of Matt doing a bizarre little awkward dance he does, in dozens of quick moments in dozens of countries, all edited together and set to music.

    He called it Where the Hell is Matt?

    And he released it on the Internet.

    It went viral, and by the next year he was getting pretty well-known for his random global dance (he calls it “bad dancing”), and he got a sponsor. So he made another video, this one slightly more coordinated. In some places he’s dancing in front of historical monuments, and in other places he’s dancing in nowhere in particular. In Rwanda a small gang of laughing children dances with him. But he’s still mostly just dancing his heart out alone, all across the planet.

    He called it Where the Hell is Matt? 2006

    And again he released it on the Internet.

    Then something utterly extraordinary happened.

    It occurred to Matt that the small gang of laughing children in Rwanda is the whole point of his story. (You all knows about the whole point of a story, right?) So he and his crew made another video, this one set to a haunting piece of music, “Praan,” sung in Bengali by a young woman named Palbasha Siddique. In the beginning of the video there’s Matt, still dancing like a fiend all over the world, one scene after another, the sheer epitome of optimism about this great world in which we live.

    And then people start running into view around him, scene after scene, while Siddique sings. And suddenly, in a sort of primeval explosion of exuberant insanity. . .the crowds of people are dancing with him.

    One scene after another. Madagascar, San Francisco, Tokyo, Botswana, all over Europe, all over Africa, all over Asia, all over the South Pacific, with native tribal dancers of Papua New Guinea and children from every continent—there’s Matt, lost in a crowd of people dancing their hearts out in their own random awkward little global dances, all to this haunting, beautiful song. There’s a single, brilliant moment when he’s dancing with a group of women in India and he suddenly breaks character to do their choreographed dance with them.

    The result is beyond moving. Simply seeing with your own eyes the unbelievable diversity and beauty and humor and humanity we all share. . .it will make you cry.

    He called this video Where the Hell is Matt? 2008

    And my husband found it on the Internet.

    When I saw it I suddenly realized what an unprecedented force for good the Internet can be. Yes, I know it’s teeming with lowlifes and spammers and hackers and thieves. I know our shared etiquette of what’s honorable and what you just don’t do to other people has taken a massive hit through the advent of trolls.

    But, still, the open, grassroots nature of the Internet can unite us, every human being alive in this moment of coordinated (and uncoordinated) joy. Our entire species can be given to us—homo sapiens—by a handful of lunatics inspired by one person who just keeps pursuing what they love and know to be good and true.

    In 2012, Matt and his crew went beyond, again, the bounds of their last video. Again, he saw the whole point in that one, brilliant moment of dancing with the women in India. So this time, although the crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic than ever, it’s no longer just random awkward dancing.

    It’s thousands of people from all cultures all over the planet moving in choreography to music, creating beauty out of their bodies together.

    Where the Hell is Matt? 2012


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Here’s my story for you guys for this week.

    Because I’m a storyteller:

    1. Start innocently

      Yesterday I was at the kitchen table while my husband baked a complicated type of Italian bread (in between bouts of gardening—the man’s a miracle to live with).

      I was doing our monthly household bookkeeping, which I do with old-fashioned pen and paper in a big ole binder like my bookkeeper mother did and her businessman father did before her.

      I do this partly because I have always done it this way and partly because I want my son to see that handling money is a tangible, three-dimensional, non-virtual thing that plays a very real part in real life (and partly because I’ve learned too many software programs and plug-ins for social media, so my brain is already full).

    2. Prepare your patience

      Now, this bookkeeping yesterday happened to require that I cut-&-paste a tiny little piece of bookkeeping paper over something that someone (me) should not have written they way they did (in ink).

      And when I say “cut-&-paste” I don’t mean click-&-drag, I mean “cut with very old and dull scissors” and “paste messily with Elmer’s Glue.” (There is of course an even more old-fashioned way to paste, but that stuff was rumored to be made out of horse hooves and tasted like peppermint. Not that I would know. That’s what the other kids told me.)

    3. Assemble your tools

      Bookkeeping paper isn’t difficult to find around our house. They sell it at our local art store, and I keep piles of it in a drawer in the creaky old pine hutch in our kitchen.

      Elmer’s Glue isn’t difficult to find, either. Between me and my bookkeeping and my son and his zillion projects throughout childhood, there are always a few almost-empty containers of Elmer’s in the drawer in the hutch where we keep all the broken pencils and pens that don’t work.

      However, Elmer’s Glue can sometimes be a little difficult to access, because of course it dries around the nozzle.

      And it’s—um—glue.

    4. Apply force

      So I sat at the kitchen table wrestling valiantly with a brand-new container of Elmer’s while my husband kneaded dough.

      I didn’t want to have to ask him to open the glue for me because I actually have pretty strong wrists, and besides, you know, he bakes bread. So when I couldn’t get it open I simply concluded it was “too new” and returned it to the drawer in exchange for a container I knew for a fact I’d opened numerous times with success.

      That one was stuck too.

    5. Take a chance

      So I said brightly, “Want to see me spatter glue all over myself?” and before he could answer I whacked that thing on the edge of the table to loosen the dried glue around the nozzle.

      The nozzle shot straight across the table, trailing an arc of glue from its blast zone all over my jeans and T-shirt and bookkeeping as though I’d planned it. The result was so sudden and unexpected—and yet inevitable—that it was exactly like having a literary epiphany. . .covered in glue.

    6. Duck!

      But you don’t need me to tell you this step.

      If you’ve been writing for any length of time at all, you already know about this step.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    You don’t have to floss all your teeth. Just the ones you want to keep.
    —dentists’ motto

    Ever since I began this blog in 2009, everyone in the publishing industry has been weighing in on the big question: “Do you really need to hire an independent editor? Don’t agents love you just as much without one?”

    This is complicated by the use of “editor” for three different jobs in the publishing industry: someone in charge of the writing staff of a periodical (a magazine or newspaper editor), someone who acquires manuscripts for a publisher (an acquisitions editor), and someone who, independently and freelance, works with an author to translate a manuscript from talented amateur to talented professional.

    Most folks point out that the blogosphere is absolutely ripe to bursting with amateur critiquers peddling themselves as independent “editors” without actually offering more than what you could get from a moderately-accurate grammar- and spell-checker.

    And this is an excellent thing to point out.

    Always hire a freelance independent editor with whom you feel comfortable,
    knowing exactly what you’ll get for your money.

    I don’t mean they’ve just taped Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules to their monitor, either.

    I mean:

    • They know how to read a synopsis and/or manuscript and help the author create from their original vision a concrete, smooth-moving, tension-laden plot to grip the reader from hook to climax.

    • They know how to disentangle a currently frustrating manuscript and show the author what’s redundant, what’s sagging, and where to write new scenes to move the plot powerfully forward.

    • They know how to find out what’s going wrong when a seemingly beautiful manuscript comes back time and again from agents with a “not quite” rejection letter.

    • They know how to line-edit paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of both first-draft and heavily-polished material into professional style without losing the author’s unique voice.

    • They see enough manuscripts to recognize rookie mistakes and common overuse of specific techniques.

    • They’re familiar enough with the mechanics of publishing to know what authorial tricks publishers are likely to baulk at, especially from newbies.

    • They know not to put a comma between a subject and verb, no matter how long the subject or how wispy the verb.

    • They’re also keeping a keen eye on the Gutenberg-sized shake-up of the publishing industry.

    • And they even know what’s wrong with Leonard’s 10 Rules and why.

    I mean they have glowing, enthusiastic, explicit testimonials from previous and current clients, both published and unpublished, explaining exactly what those clients like about their services, posted somewhere easily-accessible to all and sundry. (You shouldn’t have to ask. Why keep such things secret?)

    In an ideal world, there’s actually some way for you to engage them in brief conversation about their deeper understanding of the craft before you even discuss their editing services.

    I mean they know a hawk from a handsaw, people.

    If every manuscript being queried today had been through a really good (not just copy edit) professional edit first, the quality of manuscripts agents saw when they opened their inboxes tomorrow morning would jump like a kangaroo. (Just as the quality of the manuscripts publishers’ editors get from agents is—hopefully—measurably greater than what they get through direct submissions.)

    So why doesn’t everyone recommend good independent editors for all aspiring writers?

    It’s mostly confusion.

    Independent editors are on the cutting edge of the changing face of publishing. Unless you know what you’re looking for, reputable independent editors are impossible to differentiate from amateur critiquers trying to make a quick buck off the industry. There used to be very confident, definitive-sounding explanations out there written six, five, even just four years ago assertively claiming that edited manuscripts are no more attractive to publishers than unedited manuscripts.

    Well, this is silly.

    Of course well-edited manuscripts are better-written than unedited manuscripts. Even Hemingway’s manuscripts were better after Maxwell Perkins got his hands on them. Even Kerouac’s scroll manuscript was unpublishable before he and Malcolm Cowley spent a month working it over. Even publisher’s editor Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye had to be edited.

    Agents and publishers just don’t want you to think professional editing—even really good professional editing—is a guarantee of publication.

    It’s not.

    There are no guarantees.

    It’s also partly a very real sense of responsibility. Although my list of requirements for potential independent editors is reasonably exhaustive, many publishing professionals don’t know where to find such an editor on short notice, particularly one they can personally vouch for.

    And it’s also financial.

    Independent editors get paid.

    In today’s publishing industry, the burden of paying the editor very often falls on the shoulders of the writer. And so—as the number of aspiring writers continues to explode, while traditional publishing houses continue to unload anything they consider ballast in their efforts to make their cash flow as lucrative as possible—the modern aspiring writer takes on yet another chore.

    However, you know what? That’s okay. Because decades ago, the aspiring writer expected to spend years and years learning their craft before publishing.

    And now they don’t. They expect to be published within a year or two—even less than a year—after they begin learning to write. Amazingly. . .sometimes they even do!

    They have freelance independent editors to thank.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking this month about vetting publishing professionals as you work your way from your original inspiration all the way to actual publication—particularly the role that freelance independent editors play in this journey.

    A funny thing happened in the publishing industry thirty or forty years ago.

    We went through all of this the first time. But it wasn’t independent freelance editors we were talking about then. It was somebody else.

    It was literary agents.

    Did you know that we didn’t always have agents? Of course you did. Once upon a time, there were writers, and there were publishers, and ever the twain did meet. Writers queried publishers’ editors, and publishers’ editors acquired and edited their manuscripts.

    Then someone wrote a book claiming everyone was a writer, they just didn’t know it, and suddenly Being a Writer became one of the Top 10 Luxury Destinations. Suddenly writing magazines were born. The writing workshop was born. The writers’ MFA was born.

    The flood was born.

    And suddenly publishers’ acquisitions editors were drowning in manuscripts from everyone who up until then had been a writer but just hadn’t known it. Was the first literary agent some acquisitions editor’s husband or wife trying to pick up part of the workload so they’d still have someone to talk to over the dinner table? The best friend of a bunch of acquisitions editors? An acquisitions editor gone renegade? (Plenty of them do.)

    We know that Morton Janklow of Janklow & Nesbit Associates was the one who bumped agents’ commission from the old standard 10% up to the current standard 15%. He also sued William Morrow for trying to refuse to publish a book. This is what happens when you tangle with an ex-lawyer.

    Not only that, but publishers routinely told writers, “You don’t need an agent.” (Some of them still do.) You know why? Because they didn’t want writers thinking agent representation was a guarantee of publication.

    It’s not. There are no guarantees. Publishers themselves have been known to buy books and then refuse to publish them.

    Even so, these days agents are everywhere, the gatekeepers of the inner sanctum, and I support them with all my heart.

    You bet I do.

    Even though they cost money. They’re not essential. And they can’t guarantee publication.

    The big stick that agents carry is access to publishers’ acquisitions editors and the leverage to negotiate advances. Top agents understand the business of the industry because they help make it. The contract itself isn’t rocket science. My husband and I have signed real estate contracts that make publishing contracts look like Sesame Street.

    You can learn them. You have to try.

    There have also always been small presses, as well as imprints of large presses, who commonly work directly with authors, no agent involved. My friend Cynthia Wall, author of The Courage to Trust, was asked to write her book by Cypress House Publishing and is now being asked to write a sequel. (Did Wall hire an independent editor? Yes, she did. Does she share her royalties with an agent? No, she does not.)

    And as the economy carries us all toward the waterfall of the Death of Giant Advances, negotiation is becoming less an issue of leverage and more an issue—as it should have been all along—of long-term goal-setting and, most importantly, cooperation.

    In fact, with the advent of self-publishing, the implosion of the big houses and concurrent rise of small presses, and the massively-networked ease of Print On Demand and e-publication, agents are actually becoming less essential.

    And there are literary agent scams. Boy, are there. You track them down the same places you track down freelance independent editor scams: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware.

    But I still recommend agents. Some of my best friends have been agents. Agents have the time and motivation to keep an eye glued permanently on publishing, track its permutations, network with other publishing professionals, build relationships with publishing houses, attend conferences, hash over late-breaking industry news in graphic detail, and generally manage an author’s career so the author has time to—guess what?—write.

    Besides which, agents like this stuff! Writers, if they’re smart, like to write. They’re not the same thing.

    Most of all, the agent’s role as gatekeeper is more important now than ever.

    The truth is that the business of selling fiction is nothing like the craft of creating it, and if you’ve put all your energy into learning the craft you can easily be mowed down by the maddened hordes stampeded toward the business end. Agents may have been invented to alleviate this problem, but now the sheer numbers mean, honestly, that the busiest agents need agents of their own. (This is why they hire assistants, rely increasingly on recommendations, and even refuse unsolicited submissions.)

    Agents building relationships with top freelance independent editors only makes sense in today’s publishing environment. Those of us in the trenches with aspiring writers know who has the fresh ideas. We know who’s in it for the long haul and who’s just an amateur looking to take advantage of what seems like little more than a glorified lottery. We also know how to turn an over-used plot into a fresh take on a proven idea. And we have the time to help.

    Agents and acquisitions editors—although they also know a lot of this stuff—do not.

    As publishers’ acquisitions editors edit less and less, more and more agents struggle to edit their clients’ manuscripts without either the time or training to do it effectively. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that excellent agents aren’t taking on editing chores. They are. And this bodes ill for everyone concerned. . .especially the reader.

    As the economy makes the growing lack of publishers’ in-house editing more and more obvious and entrenched, it becomes much more important for agents and their clients to differentiate the really good independent freelance editors from the amateurs.

    This difference is absolutely essential for the aspiring writer.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking this month about the mechanics of the publishing industry: understanding author bios, understanding freelance independent editors, understanding agents.

    So today let’s talk about understanding writer credentials.

    There’s something very important that you should know.

    Dashiell Hammett wasn’t the world’s greatest writer. He wasn’t even the world’s greatest self-marketer. But he had something essential to success as an author:


    Hammett had been a professional private eye for the San Francisco Pinkerton Agency for years when he began writing his ground-breaking, gritty, realistic PI mysteries set in—you guessed it—San Francisco.

    The British author Ivy Compton-Burnett was one of the eldest of an enormous mixed family full of malice and intrigue. Her twin youngest sisters committed double-suicide in their locked bedroom on Christmas Day, while the rest of the family was sitting down to dinner, and are now suspected of having been lovers.

    Compton-Burnett was once told by an incredulous interviewer that real families don’t act the way they do in her fiction: secretive, back-stabbing, prone to multiple marriages and bare-faced lies and theft and suicide and even murder by neglect.

    “Oh, but they do,” she said.

    Stephen King uses a medical expert.

    So what does all of this tell us?

    Successful authors have great credentials.

    If at all possible, you should have professional experience in the subject matter of your fiction. Failing that, you must become a professional researcher and find an expert who does. Interview. Study. Read the books, watch the documentaries, analyze the reference material.

    When an agent reads an author bio that says, “I don’t have any experience in this field, but I can picture it,” I’m afraid that’s a donation to the circular file right there. However, when they read one that says, “I’m a retiring homicide detective with the Chicago PD,” for a mystery about an unsolved series of murders in Chicago’s notorious Englewood neighborhood or, “I’ve been the head of ER at the Las Vegas Valley Hospital for eight years,” for a novel about a recovering gambler turned doctor who gets embroiled in a local casino scam that implicates the head of a fictional Las Vegas ER or, “I spent two years interviewing young streetwalkers in the red-light districts of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and LA,” for a white slavery horror novel set in the underworld of West Coast prostitution. . .then that agent’s going to sit up and take notice.

    Even Compton-Burnett—who wrote literary novels entirely based on inner-familial warfare—could have said, “After sixty years as the matriarchal eldest sister of a mixed Victorian family of twelve, four of whom died young and all of whom bear intense hostility toward each other, I have accumulated a certain knowledge of human nature within the confines of the traditional Victorian family milieu.”

    Of course, the quality of her writing helped.

    If you’ve been on this planet long enough to learn how to write business letters to total strangers (queries), then you’ve been here long enough to accumulate complex, persuasive, and utterly intriguing data on human existence.

    So do yourself a favor.

    Use it.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re going to spend this month learning to understand the players in the publishing world: freelance independent editors, agents, and writers.

    But first let’s get a little silly as we examine the whys and wherefores of an excellent author bio.

    Have you ever wondered why agents want to see an author bio paragraph in a query letter that is—as least ostensibly—supposed to be entirely about selling them on one particular book?

    They don’t want to hear about your other unpublished novels or ideas, but they do want to know whether or not you have any published books, even if they’re not the same type. They don’t want a detailed plot of this particular book, but they want hear what you do for a living if it matches your subject. They don’t even want to know the ending of your story (which they’re such sticklers about with synopses), but they want to know if you’ve won a major writing award, although it obviously didn’t lead to literary representation.


      Sterling Lord
      New York, New York

      Dear Mr. Lord:

      A hopped-up madman and a psychotic angel shift the steering trannie into neutral and roll silently backward down Hyde Street into the San Francisco dawn of 1949.

      “America is my soul,” says Sam Eden as he and the saint with God in his eyes creep out Brody’s steep San Francisco driveway toward the sunrise. Sam and Brody roll all the way to the pencil-thin heaven-piercing masts of Fisherman’s Wharf in a turgid, angel-heavy silence under the clouds, leaving Brody’s cigarette-girl wife from the alleys and red velvet backroom paradises of the International Settlement to wake to the grainy dawn between the baby in the sad sheets and the god-who-is-not in her womb. They are off to find the roads of America. Before they’re done, they’ll have met and kissed all the hobos and streetwalkers and tired seraphim turning crumpled bills into salvation on this cusp of the last mid-century before God’s throne falls with a crash to shake the ages through the blood-bellied sky.

      I am seeking representation for my literary novel, BACK ON THE ROAD, completed at 70,000 words.

      Unfortunately for you, I am a belligerent drunk and an idiot. I style myself on my hero, Jack Kerouac, whom I am certain wiped his feet on women and despised his social inferiors as much as I do. I write exactly the way he did—putting a roll of paper towels in my typewriter and letting the words just breathe out onto the page in all their original genius and life force, after which I allow no one to edit a single word. I’ve submitted this query to I don’t know how many agents, all of them complete morons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without their mommies, and gotten it bounced back in my face faster than a speed-addict’s rubber band. You might think I’m a joker, but actually I’m just a mean son-of-a-bitch who’s been convicted of assault and battery against at least three of those agents, not counting the ones who were afraid to press charges. I feel terribly sorry for myself and am only interested in an agent I can call up at all hours and insult horribly in my frequent black-outs. If you don’t believe me, ask around.

      I keep submitting my stories to magazines, but they are staffed entirely by my unknown enemies who know I can write circles around them any day. I wouldn’t waste my time on contests, which are beneath me. Even you are beneath me. But what choice do I have? I hate you already.

      Over-professional demeanor is not one of my glaring faults.


      The author who will never get representation because now the agent knows what kind of person they’d be dealing with if they took on this project.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Those of you who have read The Art & Craft of Fiction know that I first came to tightly-structured plot through Syd Field’s great book on scriptwriting, Screenplay.

    Field is one of the top two scriptwriting teachers in Hollywood.

    The other is Robert McKee.

    So last year I finally read Story, McKee’s canonical work on writing. I know—kind of late to the party. McKee is credited with naming and defining such essential writing techniques as the ‘inciting incident,’ ‘plot points,’ and ‘set-ups and pay-offs.’ He’s been doing this work forever, and his name is probably the best-known and most-revered among scriptwriters. It’s worth knowing what McKee has to say.

    However, I actually learned to use three-act structure for fiction from Field. When I wrote about three-act design in The Art & Craft of Fiction in 2010, structure was a dirty word in the online writing community. ‘Pantsing’ was the popular mode of creating stories. And prose structure based upon scriptwriting was considered just ridiculous. So I had mixed feelings about venturing into the piranha-infested waters of the blogosphere with what I already knew was an unpopular idea.

    I did it.

    But I was wary.

    And I got pushback. “Entirely different forms!” I was told. “Novels and scripts can’t compare to each other.” “Don’t confuse yourself by writing for the wrong audience!” With perhaps the most insidious and spectacular of bad advice: “Don’t plot. It sucks the creative juice out of your story.”

    By now we all know that this is craziness. Both forms of storytelling rely heavily upon dialog to establish and develop character while illuminating subtext; both are best shown in scenes rather than exposition*; and both need solidly-designed structure.

    I’m not sure why, but these things were either unknown or simply ignored by a lot of writing teachers in those heady days of the mass explosion of aspiring writers onto the publishing scene, when the number of people hoping to become professional writers escalated so quickly that new writing terms had to be invented: “POV,” “WIP,” “pantsing.” (Writers who have been writing since before that era even now don’t necessarily know what those terms mean—they’ve only existed since the birth of mainstream blogging and its attendant rise in aspiring authorhood.)

    Now there are plenty of books on writing that address structure. And this matters. . .because structure is the most important thing, I believe, that Robert McKee ever contributed to the teaching of our craft.

    So check him out: An Interview with Robert McKee

    * In fiction, exposition is a type of narrative summary that ‘exposes’ anything the reader can’t get from the sensory experience of a scene. In screenwriting, though, everything is set in scenes—so exposition is a term used for explanation and/or background information, which usually appears in dialog. And in playwriting, exposition refers to the second act, in which the first act is illuminated through essential backstory.


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments


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

SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, tragic and beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. 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. . .

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

SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I'm working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .

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

M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which "space bridges" allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .

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

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

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

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

LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .

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

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

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