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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, 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 multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

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

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

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

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

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. Read more. . .

ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .

ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .

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

  • By Victoria Mixon

    This topic came from @__Deb, and it’s such a good topic that I’m going to extrapolate from it for two more weeks, covering all three aspects of scene: description, action, dialog.

    “Show, Don’t Tell.” Write scenes, not exposition.

    Description is important because:

    1. Details create the life on the page

      If there is one key to the difference between amateur and professional writing, this is it.

      Do you know why agents toss certain manuscripts aside without even pausing to roll their eyes? Not because they’re imps of Satan. But because they can often tell from a single page whether or not the writer has any experience at all with what they’re describing. And that authenticity is essential.

      Do you know why Grisham sells? Not because he’s Dickens. But because he fills his novels with the telling details of his characters’ worlds. Those details make his shenanigans ring true—as though he’s chronicling the real adventures of real people.

      Readers want that. Even when they’re freaking terrifying adventures.

    2. Readers read for new experiences and new angles on old experiences

      We all know how to live our own lives. I don’t need some faceless writer out there to tell me what it’s like to be me (although if they could tell me where my toothbrush has gone, that would be fab).

      A great deal of incredibly poor storytelling gets bought and gobbled up every single day solely for the sake of the experiences described. Best sellers routinely set their stories in celebrity fat farms, tourist destinations (the Louvre!), cruise ships (the Titanic!), pretty much anywhere in New York City. Readers want to believe they are also celebrities, tourists, on a world cruise. (And some of the powers of the publishing world, apparently, believe everyone wants to live with them.)

      Give your reader an experience they couldn’t get without you.

    3. Writing is about using your senses to recreate the world

      Flannery O’Connor taught me this in her canonical work on writing, Mystery and Manners, decades ago, and it was an epiphany I’ve never gotten over. Five senses. All the words in your language. Put them together: a believable fictional world.

    However, description is not important because:

    1. Setting is static, and character is dynamic

      The reason stories aren’t entirely description is that readers don’t read only for the visual (or audio or olfactory or tactile). They can get that from a painting—and in less than a thousand words, too.

      Readers read for character. They want to know how that charismatic rascal is going to pull yet another Houdini to extricate themself from whatever dreadful predicament they’ve gotten themself into. They want it to feel real, sure. But they really want it to move.

    2. Readers want room to project themselves into your scenes

      You’ll hear teachers, editors, and other mentors pussyfooting around this one:

      “Use enough detail, but not too much.”

      How much is too much?

      “You’ll just know.”

      No, you won’t.

      Too much is more than the absolutely bare-bones essential bits it takes to sketch this one scene with only those details the characters need in order to get through their story to the epiphany at the end. O’Connor used the general rule Three Telling Strokes to sketch a character or scene.

      If your scene has towering philodendrons and leafy maidenhair and fat succulents and towering ficas and leafy swordfern and fat nasturtiums and towering bamboo and leafy begonias and fat little lemon trees, and the characters need a sturdy flower, a lacey screen, and a long stick. . .pick what you need and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

    3. Writing is about going beyond the senses into the very meaning of life

      Which means even Emil Zola had a heck of a time creating great fiction out of purely Naturalistic description. He (and Dashiell Hammett, too) needed both action and dialog to flesh it out.

    Fortunately, you actually can get beyond the five senses through just the nuts & bolts of detail. That’s part of the magic of fiction. In fact, if you’ve crafted your story properly they can be pretty darn simple nuts & bolts.

    One of my favorite endings ever is Raymond Chandler’s beautiful, “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.”

    Even if he’d left off the exposition about Velma, he’d have said what he needed to say, putting the reader into that simple final experience after the long, rich, complex experience of his novel—letting them understand for themself The Whole Point.


    “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

    Now, we’ve gotten ourselves into the dark side of fiction—in which we’ve learned who will fail as writers (not us!), how we screw up our manuscripts, and the things we writers always overlook—so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. I mean, the real dirt on writing.

    I remember the day I received my first spam about my blog. I felt as though I had finally arrived.


    Nathalie here from Bozo Media and I wanted to drop you a line and just compliment your site Nice layout, good info, good resources. I was looking around at a few different sites relevant to Washing Machines. I definitely thought yours was one of the best. That being said, I also noticed you guys have some great content related to them.

    I currently work for a company that maintains website that offers best deals and information about Washing Machines – http://www.wtfwashingmachines/fakeurl. We are a nationally recognized, reliable source for Washing Machines and I was wondering if you’d be interested in giving us an opportunity to write guest post relevant to your site. I can assure you that our article will be very informative to your visitors and also drive more traffic. I would be very pleased if you allow me to add a link to our site in the article.

    Looking forward for your reply.


    Wow. Nathalie. I just don’t know what to say.

    Because the truth is teaching the craft of fiction is exactly like teaching people to use washing machines.

    But how did you know?

    1. Fiction starts life dirty

      This is the honest, unvarnished truth, people: modern published fiction is, from many angles, as Dirty as Hell. And it’s in desperate need of a really good Cosmic Fictional Washing Machine.

    2. Your job as a writer is to get your fiction all dirty

      Go ahead—write it, thrash around in it, have a fabulous time, make a big old fun muddy mess. Get it all over yourself. You don’t need me for that part. Anyone can do it, and hundreds of thousands of people do.

      It’s a blast!

    3. Really dirty

      Then go back and write your story again more honestly.

      Go down through the layers of superficial uniform dirt that get all over everybody when they truly relish a big, hefty, messy, magnificent first few drafts.

    4. Cosmically dirty

      Find underneath those top layers the story that’s really there.

      Find the real people living inside the characters, of whom you have barely scratched the surface. Find the details of their lives that make them three-dimensional in exactly the way your reader’s life is three-dimensional. Find the universal themes of comedy and tragedy out of which they’re been created and the complex interweaving of those elements that your characters must navigate on their way to enlightenment.

      Uncover the fabric of your characters’ unique lives that your reader needs to touch in order to reach the heart of what you’re doing.

    5. Beyond cosmically dirty

      Then write it again even more honestly. And write it again. And again. And again. . .

    6. My job is the washing machine

      Then I’ll teach you how to clean up your fiction.

      Every time you let your manuscript go cold and take it out later for another revision, you’re sending it through the Cosmic Fictional Washing Machine.

      Every time you come here seeking help with your writing, you’re bringing it to the Cosmic Fictional Laundromat.

      Every time, the structure of your story gets a little clearer, the humanity of your characters gets a little truer, your reason for writing this novel gets a little more significant, to you, and to your readers too. Eventually—if you work hard enough, with enough dedication and soul-searing honesty, for long enough—it will be beautiful, vivid, shining.


      A new definition of meaning.

      And you will be proud to wear it around in public for the rest of your life.

    7. Cleanliness is clarity

      However! If you rush out and insist your fiction be published while it’s still even sort of dirty (much less as dirty as it is when you first stand up out of rolling around in all that mud—and, yes, you can get stuff published in that condition, it happens all the time)—then, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the dirt will become ever more and more obvious as the years go by and your craft improves.

      Your increasing clarity as a writer will show you the dirt you left in that manuscript. . .

      . . .as your understanding of the meaning of life deepens

      . . .as your reasons for living make more and more sense in the overall universal scheme of things

      . . .as you see more and more clearly through your own unique, vivid, unforgettable lens.

    This is the process of writing, my friends: first dirt, then cleaning.

    I say this with all editorial love for the writers in you and compassion for what writing your novels means to you (I know—I write novels too):

    Develop a sincere, lifelong, humble respect for the Great Cosmic Fictional Washing Machine.

    There’s that lighter side to writing again.


    “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

    Luckily for us, even the dark side of writing (even the really dark side) has its light side.

    How many times have you screwed up your writing? Once? Twice? A hundred times? A thousand times? Counting all the times you’re screwing up this very instant and the times you intend to screw up in the future. . .infinity?


    This should be printed in big, bold letters at the top of every sheet of paper, every typewriter, every keyboard, every pencil and pen. It should be something all writers sit and stare at all day long as they mull over their novels.

    It should be something you could get tattooed on the insides of your eyelids so every time you start thinking you’re the only hopeless loser in history to fail so abysmally at the impossibly simple task of writing what you know needs to be written—all you have to do is close your little eyes.

    But until that tattoo becomes possible, let’s talk about the lessons to take away from your ghastly, nightmarish, soul-destroying facility with failure. Shall we?

    1. Writers get to erase

    2. Why, yes. Yes, we do.

      And we leave no trace.

      Painters don’t get to do this. Neither do sculptors, woodworkers, theater actors, live musicians, or jugglers. Not to mention dentists, surgeons, emergency rescue teams, air traffic controllers, pilots, deep-sea divers, venomous snake handlers, stuntpeople, firewalkers, or bungie-jumpers. You know what job I do not want? The guy who has to dangle off a wire from a helicopter to save some window jumper from a tall building when a bug flies into the pilot’s eye.

      But in writing I get to make all the mistakes I like. I can write a zillion words based on a complete fallacy. I can make my characters wooden imbeciles, set stories on a moronic cartoon set, make the action about as swift and decisive as custard pie. I can be simply atrocious at this.

      And so long as I learn from my mistakes before I get around to trying to publish, nobody will eeeeeeeeever know.

    3. Nobody can tell how many times you’ve erased

    4. Not only do I get to hide my mistakes, but I get to do it an infinite number of times.

      Screwed up my protagonist’s personality? Fine. I’ll fix it. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Wound up with a half-witted three-armed ignoramus bully with delusions of racial superiority who owns far too money, which they use solely to support the sweatshop and advertising industries, and signed them up for a red herring political organization for brainless gorms that accidentally managed to name itself after a particularly vivid sexual innuendo?

      No problem! I can keep nothing but the character’s name. In fact—I can even throw out the name.

      And I never, ever, ever erase all the way through the paper.

    5. Plots are endlessly adjustable

    6. Yes, but what if it’s my plot that sucks?

      What if I started off with a mind-numbingly boring first chapter I didn’t know was supposed to be a hook, switched gears to backstory that makes mind-numbing look interesting, rambled on for five chapters covering my cliche-ridden survivalist manifesto, filled the next twenty chapters with rude observations about my reader’s personal hygiene, and ended lamely on nothing in particular when I realized I don’t know how to write a novel?

      It’s okay! All I have to do is think of what story I’m really, really interested in telling. Then I ask myself, ‘Yes, but what’s the point?’, backtrack from there a few major steps, and launch into it at a random startling place.

      And if it turns out I’m not all that interested in telling that story after all? So what?!

      I can go out on the back porch, scratch my heinie on a post, hawk a loogie in the rhodies, and belt out Don’t Cry for Me, Agentina until the neighbors throw shoes.

      Then I can come back indoors and turn it into the story of how I totally humiliated myself at the rodeo that time, only I say it was my sister who did it, not me.

      It doesn’t matter! Plots are made of unbreakable elastic.

    7. Characters can’t rat you out

    8. And those characters I used the first time—well, the first dozen times—while I was trying to figure out what story I really wanted to tell? The only creatures on earth who know the truth about all this?

      Completely mute except for the words I put into their mouths myself. Hear that incoherent screeching in the distance? Hear how it gets all mumbley when I put my hand over it?

      Yeah, that’s me. Stifling my characters. Even in a court of law, they can’t bear testimony against me.

    9. Settings always look as good as new

    10. You know, I used to set all my stories in invisible settings. I was too lazy to go find out what places actually looked like, so I just set my characters down wherever I wanted and let them start talking. I let them do things, too, so long as it didn’t rely on anything in the setting. And I didn’t even know I was imitating Hemingway.

      But even when I made my settings ridiculously impossible—they call it an “anarchronism” when you let your Druids smoke cigars—and even when I went out later and found out how impossible it was, I still got to take out the impossible stuff and insert the correct details later, and it looked like I’d done it that way in the first place.

      Sometimes I still do it that way, just to amuse myself.

    11. Dialog gets more interesting as it gets more disjointed

    12. And sometimes I wrIte and rewrite the same dialog over and over again, trying to get it right, taking it apart and putting it back together again, hammering it to bits, until it sounds like the characters are having totally different conversations all in the same room at the same time over the same table.

      You know what I’ve discovered? Dialog sounds a whole lot better that way.

    13. Actions are always replaceable

    14. I even leave out the actions. Randomly. Whenever I’m too sleepy or bored or preoccupied clipping my fingernails to think up anything worth writing down. Or, worse, sometimes I use actions I know perfectly well are trite and unbelievable (never “hips that beckon,” but sometimes pretty darn close), just to fill up the space.

      Eventually, when I feel like it, I go back later with a thesaurus and try out different words in different orders without even considering what might work best—“slapped/kicked/slid across ice/fingered greasily/dashed past and back again/baked in a steak-&-kidney pie/yodeled like a Swedish tenor.”

      Sometimes I do it with my eyes closed. Sometimes that’s how little attention I feel like paying.

      That’s also how the characters in my stories wind up doing things that really make each other sit up and do a double-take.

    15. In imaginary space, no one can hear you scream

    16. You have total and complete freedom to vent the frustrations of writing on your story. Go ahead and take out on it everything that’s ever happened or not happened to you, tear out its heart and jump up and down, savage it like a bulldog.

      Try it. Yeah. Nobody made a peep, did they?

      I love this craft.

    No matter how badly you screw up your manuscript, it’s okay! So long as you’re one of those 6 Personality Types Who Will Succeed as Writers.


    “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

    So now that we’ve taken a good look at the 6 personality types who will fail as writers, let’s turn and face our demons.

    You know how you work so hard to get that first draft down on the page? How you sacrifice comfort, companionship and casual entertainment, family time, work time, leisure time, exercise, sleep, nutrition, freedom from toxins, sobriety, eventually your very sanity—all for the sake of that novel?

    Then you suffer the hellfires of the damned in revision?

    Then you realize in a blinding flash of epiphany it’s a huge piece of crap and start the whole cycle over again? Because you want that badly for it to be good?

    And then you finally, finally, finally have a manuscript you’re proud of, a beautiful, heartfelt evocation of everything you needed to say in exactly the way you needed to say it, and you hire an editor, and send that baby off, and it comes back. . .all. . .EDITED.

    What the hell?

    Such a thankless task it is. These are the things every writer—even you, even me—always, by necessity, overlooks:

    1. Chaos

      You designed it. Swear to god, you did. And you did your blessed best to stick to that design. But everyone knows characters have no respect for their maker, they go tripping off with their heads in the clouds, or in the sand, or under a rock, their fingers in their ears, singing, “la-la-la-la-la-la—I can’t hear you!” while you’re leaping up and down shrieking, “It’s a cliff! You idiots! You’re going to die a horrible death! Watch your stupid—! damn. Back to the drawingboard.”

      I don’t care how carefully you planned your story or how meticulously you adhered to your plan, there is stuff in there that makes no sense. You know why? Because you have a great imagination, that’s why. And there simply isn’t enough story in the world to sensibly organize absolutely everything you’re capable of thinking up.

    2. Lag

      Closely related to all-out chaos, these are slightly better-developed detours. Your characters come up with cool stuff to do that has nothing whatever to do with your story, but they’ve got you convinced it’s okay because, hey! they can get a whole lot done while they’re doing it. So you follow them dutifully, writing it all down, shaping it and molding it for climax and polishing the language, thinking, “Maybe there’ll be a spot for it.”

      But there’s not. Bummer about that. So you shoehorn it in—not because it works—but because you simply can’t bear to leave it out.

    3. Flab

      Oh, the words. Words, and words, and words, and words. It’s not your fault. It just comes out of you that way.

      Everybody uses more words than necessary, because it takes that many words to get the golden nuggets mined out of your subconscious and onto the page. Then you go back and bravely cut out 25% of them. But there’s another 25% that needs to come out, and you’re faced with a choice: this 25%? or that 25%? or some impossibly intricate, interwoven combination of the two? And what about the other 50%—is that all good, or are you missing something important that needs to be cut out of there, too?

      And your vision goes swimmy, your head starts lolling around on your neck, there’s a ringing in your ears, and the next thing you know you’re on the floor under your desk biting your knuckles and twitching convulsively.

      You just don’t know.

    4. Overkill

      The single most fundamental fact about the craft of fiction is the impassable abyss between what the writer sees on the page and what the reader sees. You see absolutely everything. Some of it you don’t even get around to writing down. And when you come back for revision, you automatically doubt every single instinct you had in the original writing about what the reader can tell is going on and what’s just a bunch of gibberish.

      So you help them out. You insert a lot of useful, enlightening paragraphs meant to focus their telescope for them as they peer, eternally short-sighted, across that abyss at the world you happen to know is far more vivid and brilliant and meaningful than they can ever discern from such a distance.

    5. Anticlimax

      And this one’s due to sheer, helpless, futile, blind hope. You know perfectly well that Climax doesn’t do it. But, oh, my ever-loving god, you have been through this entire manuscript so many times, so faithfully, so laboriously, so intently. There is no more blood in the stone.

      What are the chances that Climax works just exactly perfectly, and you simply can’t see it for all the sweat and tears blurring your eyes?

      Whatever, you know?

    REMEMBER: There’s a lighter side too.


    “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

    That’s what love is: learning to love what your lover loves.Greg Brown, husband of Iris DeMent

    Mama taught me to tell my truth.Iris DeMent, wife of Greg Brown

    Your manuscript owns you. This might not seem obvious at first, but it is a fact that every writer (eventually) comes to accept. The manuscript—not the writer—gets to decide when things begin, where things go, and how things end. All the writer can do is cling to their manuscript with all their strength and try to love whatever that manuscript loves.

    So, with no further ado, here are fourteen tried and true ways to love what your manuscript loves:

    1. Blatantly

      Manuscripts, honestly, are even shyer than their notoriously shy authors. Your ms does not necessarily want to be talked about to your friends. However, it does want you to respond when it calls to you and make sure nobody interrupts you or stops you from pursuing it.

      So be a dragon. Stand guard over your manuscript’s tender little personal space.

      Know thy manuscript.
    2. Under a spotlight

      Manuscripts are secretive, so you have to turn the limelight on them and make them dance.

      Personally, I always hated the idea of going on-stage clear up until I won a minor poetry award in college and had to go behind the mic to read my poem. Suddenly I loved it! I could have stayed all night! Maybe they’d like me to read something else while I was there—say, Moby Dick?

      This is your manuscript in front of the footlights. Throw the switch.

      Know thy light switch.
    3. In conversation

      Manuscripts are inveterate eavesdroppers. Speakers are utterly fascinating to them.

      No matter how dull or pointless or rambling the conversation, your ms wants to record it all and then mull it over in privacy. Why did she say that? What was he doing while he wasn’t answering? Where would this have all gone if they hadn’t been interrupted? And how did that interruption catapult them into further complications between them?

      Listen for your manuscript out among the madding crowds, and it will reward you with great riches.

      Know thy ears.
    4. Publicly

      Manuscripts are also unscrupulous spies. They want to know absolutely everything everybody does.

      They want to be constantly holding things up to themselves like clothes in front of a mirror: Would this fit? Would that work? What if I went over there and did the other thing? How would it turn out if I made this happen and reacted to it that different way?

      Be your manuscript’s vision upon the world, and it will reward you with gold in abundance.

      Know thy eyes.
    5. Falling asleep

      Manuscripts are also wicked Imps of Satan and love to disturb your sleep.

      This is because they get the most freedom when you’re too tired to fight back.

      There is a magic moment when you have quit caring about the responsibilities of the day but have not yet succumbed to the wayward randomness of dreams—Proust introduced his entire ouvre, Remembrance of Things Past, with a nearly endless soliloquy on that very tiny space. Guess from whence those seven classic volumes sprang?

      Know thy magic moment.
    6. In a bad mood

      Manuscripts have no shame. Your ms likes you no matter how awful you are.

      In fact, it likes you best when you’re at your wit’s end.

      It especially likes leaning over your shoulder pointing out exactly how you move and speak and think when you’re least likely to appreciate such solicitude. It is your overbearing siblings at their very worse.

      Fight it off, and it just gives it that much more material. And the more you try to ignore it, the more powerfully present is its note-taking. That means the greater detail you will recall later, with a cooler head, when you are done throwing your tantrum and are ready to sit down and convert it into the internal conflict from which all great protagonists suffer like the blazes.

      Know thy rage and suffering.
    7. During inappropriate activities

      Manuscripts like to imagine themselves chronicling what has never been chronicled before. This doesn’t mean you are going to chronicle those things. But your ms wants to know what it would be like if it did.

      So pay a little attention.

      Just the tiniest details, the most fundamentally true elements dropped into references in your scenes can snap a story around and reveal the underlying tension of which your characters refuse to speak. Notice what nobody else has ever mentioned. Ask yourself, “How is this moment, right now, changing me permanently? How will I be different from now on forever?”

      Don’t tell your partner.

      Know thy secrets.
    8. With a microscope

      Manuscripts are so extraordinarily complex and multifaceted that nobody, in truth, ever tells the complete story exactly perfectly. There is always stuff that falls by the wayside.

      But is it the right stuff?

      Your ms doesn’t want to let go of any tiny spec of information about itself without a thorough review, and you shouldn’t either. Those tiny specs are what create three-dimensional worlds in which your characters seduce your readers into their eternal clutches.

      Sondra Day once advised treating emotional baggage as garbage and throwing it out as fast as possible without stopping to sort it. But she wasn’t a storyteller.

      Sit down with your ms and meticulously sort through it.

      Know thy garbage.
    9. With a bullhorn

      Manuscripts also like to whisper and look the other way just when things get hairy. They long to be drawn out. And you’re going to have to be the one to do it.

      You know that moment in Nancy Horan’s disastrous novel, Loving Frank, when the protagonist leaves her husband for Frank Lloyd Wright, only Horan doesn’t show the protagonist actually doing it? She skips right over it and goes on her merry apple-cheeked way to the worst ending to a cute little love story ever?

      Whip out your bullhorn whenever you come to such pivotal, life-altering, load-bearing scenes in your story and yell through it, “She looked at her husband! She said, ‘I’m leaving you for Frank!’

      Know thy story.
    10. Before it matters

      Manuscripts are not born on the page. They are born in the deep, dark roots of your past, somewhere years ago when somebody said that thing to someone else that one time.

      Always be paying attention to the manuscripts you have not yet conceived. Collect details, data, trivia, facts, impressions, faces, names, gestures, ideas. Let them burble around in your subconscious, stewing in their juices. Let them take from each other, give to each other, trade meanings and references. Let them alter each others’ chemical make-up.

      Someday you’re going to need all that stuff in a form you cannot yet imagine.

      Know thy life.
    11. After the fact

      Manuscripts don’t stop needing love and affection when you think they do.

      Please believe me when I say this.

      I see dozens and dozens and dozens of manuscripts, every single one of them polished to the full extent their writers think they can possibly be polished. And not one of them is finished.

      When you have done everything you possibly can for your ms in this incarnation, set it kindly aside and go on to other things. Raise your kids. Do the laundry. Go on vacation. Finish building your house. Start another ms.

      Your ms is still living and growing in the back of your mind, all the time you’re doing other things, and that life and growth are essential to its publishable version.

      Know thy patience.
    12. When you have exhausted all other options

      Manuscripts are an endless dump of everything you don’t know what else to do with, the infinite acceptance of all you are that makes no sense.

      Your ms loves being that for you. Go ahead. Let it be.

      When you have no resources left, when you have been sucked dry and thrown aside, when you are but a shell of the persona you fondly believe yourself to be. . .go back to your manuscript. Sink into your fictional dream. This is why you write—this bond between your story and you.

      Know thy passion.
    13. On the ground

      Then get up out of your chair or down off your bar stool or pedestal or wherever you’ve been hanging out, lay both palms on the ground, and be intensely grateful that it is there.

      The planet on which you live is the source of everything good and bad and creative and fictional coming your way.

      Know thy source.
    14. With your arms thrown open

      And finally stand up and throw your arms wide to the sky and the sun and the rain and the wind and the stars.

      You will never get it all down in words. You will never triumph over the unknowable. And this is your saving grace. Because if you could get it all down in words once and for all—triumph over the unknowable—then fiction as an art form would die, taking all of us who love writing it along with it.

      Know thy grace.

    But what exactly is it that your manuscript loves? This magical thing you’re struggling to love in fourteen different ways?

    Oh, that one’s easy. It’s always the same eternal, ephemeral work:

    Thy truth.


    “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

    Sometimes we travel for my husband’s work, and although we all enjoy the thrill of the open road and the excitement of escaping housework and chores and the incessant arguments over who gets the comfortable armchairs, us or the cats, still—

    It’s always good to get home.

    What is it that makes home home? And why do we return to our writing time and again, over the years, to find those same qualities in the imaginary universes alive in our heads?

    1. Familiarity

    2. Of course. Home is you. That’s why you’re there.

      And that’s why you keep going back to your fiction—in spite of the frustration of never quite being able to bring that wonderful, multifaceted plane of inspiration here into the tangible daily world, in spite of loneliness and failure and exhaustion and conflicting demands upon your time.

      Because it’s you. It’s where you live.

    3. Context

    4. In that familiar sphere, you find the framework you develop throughout your life for understanding the trials of living. Newborn babies have no such frameworks—they spend most of their time crying out in anguish. Growing up is developing the frame of reference you need to stay sane for the rest of your life.

      When you read great books, you’re building framework for understanding life. When you learn from great writing and spiritual mentors, you’re building framework. And when you go into your fictional landscape and live alongside the characters there, meticulously noting and writing down the details of their experiences, you are applying your framework of understanding to the very real ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ with which we all constantly contend, from cradle to grave.

      Storytelling keeps us sane.

    5. Emotion

    6. Writing allows you to feel what goes on inside you, your physical, emotional, gut-wrenching reactions to those ‘slings and arrows,’ without simply disintegrating into a pile of shattered rubble. Newborn babies cry and are comforted—babies who are not comforted die.

      When you use your words, the details of observed and felt life, to record what it’s like to be alive, you give yourself that comfort. “Someone else has lived through these hard times,” you are saying to yourself and to others. “We can transcend our suffering.”

    7. Safety

    8. And the aftermath of those emotions—the devastation of cities, countrysides, relationships, lives—can be caught and named and held up to the mirror so it serves not to destroy you but to temper you, not to compound the darkness but to illuminate the strengths that keep you on your feet, year after year, helping everyone you touch stay on their feet, too.

      We need to confront that aftermath, to break through the terror of the darkness that rings our lives.

    9. Companionship

    10. All those others are here with you—your characters (whom of course you love, “not always,” as Emily Bronte so candidly pointed out 160 years ago, “as a pleasure any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”) as well as your writing friends.

      This is what the blogosphere has given writers of this generation that writers have never had before: the companionship of thousands. Do not underestimate the power of tribe in your life. You are a writer among writers. You have family.

    11. Epiphany

    12. And finally all that exploration, all that suffering, all that tempering and reaching the depths and reaching out and sharing your experience, culminates in those brief, iridescent moments that make all that survival worthwhile: the epiphanies that convince you there’s more going on than any of us know.

      There is something intangible beyond what we see and do and say every day, even though the only way to find it and illuminate it is through showing tangible characters, with tangible problems, seeing and doing and saying.

      It’s the ultimate paradox, the paradox of living: that the transcendence of the niggling, harrowing, incessant ills of life—the breaking through the familiar to the intangible beyond—is coming home.


    “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

    I have probably over 2,500 books in my house. Something around 1,500 of them are on the shelves my husband built for me in my office. And most of those books I’ve read—many of them multiple times.

    I really, really, really love reading.

    Here’s how to get the most out of it:

    1. Pleasure

      Read once for sheer pleasure. That’s the joy of every serious reader.

    2. Structure

      Then, right away, skim once more for structure.

      Find the 1/2, 1/4, and 3/4 marks and jot down notes on what occurs there or in the immediate vicinity. Find the 1/3 and 2/3 marks and do the same. Then find the 1/8 and 7/8 marks and the 1/6 and 5/6 marks—one of those pairs is the pair of lintels holding this entire novel up.

      You will be absolutely astounded to discover how concretely a well-written novel is structured. The Hook ends just about 1/8-1/6 of the way in. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act I occurs around either the 1/4 or the 1/3 mark. The shift of focus from Hook to Climax occurs at the halfway mark. The ‘spin’ at the end of Act II occurs around either the 2/3 or the 3/4 mark. And the beginning of the end—the build-up to the Climax—starts just about 1/8-1/6 of the way from the last page, 5/6-7/8 of the way in.

      While you’re at it, check out the 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and 4/5 marks. Find out exactly what this author had in mind.

      It’ll give you chills when you see just how deftly you’ve been lead.

    3. Character

      Could you ever get tired of hanging out with your favorite characters? That’s why they exist—to add depth and texture to your life.

      When you re-read for character, you don’t have to read chronologically. Browse for your favorite scenes. Stumble accidentally on ones you loved but forgot about. Let the novel fall open in your lap and pick up reading wherever it catches your eye.

      Sink all the way into those scenes, soaking up the dozens of little, telling details with which the author has sketched these people for you. Finger them like beads. Copy out your favorite sentences.

      “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” That line has been a part of my internal world since I was twelve years old. The marvelous, adroit encapsulation of Darcy’s dignity, pomposity, internal struggle, and genuine, simple passion are all there.

      Memorize your favorite sentences in which your favorite characters come fully to life, and you will be richly rewarded later when your own sentences about your own characters roll out of you in similar detail and rhythm.

    4. Layering

      Nobody ever gets everything there is out of a single reading of a great novel. Read lightly for pleasure and then read the whole thing through again for the deeper meanings. . .consciously, slowly, luxuriously, paying attention to every little development as it unfolds. Follow closely the trajectory of scenes this author has created. Notice how each scene leads inevitably to the next, how they build on each other, shaping the characters and aiming them where they need to go. Notice what’s essential. Notice what the author left out.

      The obvious layers of the story sink into your subconscious as the subtle layers rise to the surface.

      Tom Stoppard said, “Talking to intelligent grad students about one’s own work is like getting caught in customs. ‘Yes, officer, I can see it there in my bags, but I honestly do not remember packing it.'”

      Find even those layers that came out of the author without their knowledge.

    5. Epiphany

      And realize, with the greatest works, why they’re great: because they are packed in all directions with not just a single, high-flying, breath-taking epiphany off the end of the novel, but with hundreds of wonderful, indirect little epiphanies all the way.

      Just yesterday I paused in an early chapter of Nicolas Freeling’s Criminal Conversation at the lovely, hilarious line, “‘There are times, Chief Inspector, when I should like to take a fast run of about a hundred yards at you doing up your shoelace.'”

      A few chapters later, casual commentary on police interrogation technique leaped out at me as advice on great writing:

      “The well-known raid technique: the amiable little domestic pleasantry and the bomb in the same breath. . .After the flash, the burn cream.”

      And I laughed out loud at the 1960s London slang, “fearfully twee!”

    Oh, the utter joy of fiction. You’d better believe—somewhere, sometime, somehow—somebody in one of my novels is going to one day say, “How fearfully twee!”


    “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

    This week I’m going to send you all over to one of my all-time favorite posts (and one of my most popular, as a matter of fact), in which I explain in meticulous and even excruciating detail exactly how to go wrong in this writing life:

    5 Pickles to Write Yourself Into

    You’re welcome!


    “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

    So, I’ve been writing this blog since 2009, and one year I thought it was about time I shared with you all a few of the unexpected things I’ve learned during the course of it.

    There were some real eye-openers!

    To wit:

    1. Big numbers don’t always mean quality readers

      This is called the quantity-vs-quality debate, and online community managers already know a lot about it.

      Some time in early December 2010 one of my posts, 10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days, suddenly and rather unexpectedly hit the StumbleUpon Big Time. I got 10,000 hits in two days, and since then I’ve gotten close to 80,000 320,000 views of that one post alone. It leaked over into other posts, so now some of those get tens of thousands of views as well, while that one is still climbing.

      Of those tens of thousands of readers, though, almost none paused to comment (when I still had active comments). Mostly what I picked up in that first year was random marketers. I got a lot more pitches to sell things like washing machines and ski equipment.

      I gained one editing client—whom I love to death, and his little doggies too.

      And I gained subscribers.

      You who are reading this right now, whether you came through StumbleUpon or elsewhere, are the quality readers I’m looking for. You guys are here because you care.

    2. Readers tend to make more negative comments on blogs they never intend to re-visit

      I did get the occasional interesting comment through StumbleUpon, like the long, rambling, argumentative, self-promoting one from Christopher Moore that made it clear he’d only skimmed the list items and not read the post itself.

      As it happens, I know a little about Christopher Moore, who lived in San Luis Obispo at the same time I did back in the early ’90s. I had an intensely pretty and giggly young roommate who used to come home from her job at a coffee kiosk in a theater lobby talking about some guy who hung out there all the time hitting on her and asking people what it would take to sell a book for a million dollars. Apparently, he finally did sell a book to Disney for a million dollars, so she told me his name.

      “Huh,” I said. “Are you going to go out with him?”

      She was not.

      I left his argumentative comment up for awhile, but I finally removed it because pointlessly negative comments discourage other readers from making positive comments, and that brings down the tone of the whole blog. But I thought it was funny that he had nothing better to do than troll the Internet looking for places to brag about his best sellerdom. I guess my pretty young roommate understood him well enough.

      It’s the positive comments—especially the ones sharing your own experiences—that make all us feel like this is a safe place where we belong.

    3. There’s no law that says you have to accommodate trolls

      For a long time, there was a lot of debate about whether or not it’s okay to take down those pointlessly negative comments. Online community managers tend to wait for their communities to respond before they become draconian.

      However, this blog isn’t a community, because you guys have never had the capacity to contribute other than comments, so it’s my responsibility to keep the tone friendly and welcoming to everyone.

      Don’t like a post? That’s okay. Don’t read it! If you have felt compelled to rain on our parade though, I have felt compelled to remove the little black cloud.

      Interestingly enough, one of the things I recommend on 10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days is trolling and then apologizing. I said this rather ironically at the time, aiming to embarrass trolls by pointing the spotlight on them. But it’s true that apology is excellent for your writing skills, as well as your overall constitution.

      The funniest thing about the trolls is that that particular list item inspired the most indefatigable to include a disclaimer: “This isn’t following your instructions.”

      There is a priceless moment at which the absurdity of the absurd becomes a philosophical school: Absurdism.

    4. Humor is a precious commodity

      So you know what gains me readers?

      Saying things that make people laugh.

      I’ve gotten emails for 6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers about people falling on the floor laughing and crying at the same time. I get the same kind of hysterical laughter for 10 Lies Agents and Editors Tell You. And Why. And those are pretty snarky posts!

      Readers love seeing all our communal foibles reflected as funny rather than terrifying. It makes life in general so much easier to bear. And those who read more than one of my posts know that behind the lunacy is always undying compassion for all of us who elect to paddle around in this lifeboat of writing together.

      The blogosphere is valuable precisely because it gives readers an outlet from dreary, rote jobs alone in veal-fattening pens and a bond with others they can’t get from corporate life, where 50+ hour weeks leave almost no time for socializing and city life can be secretly mighty damn lonely. The rise of the blogosphere has brought back tribal life to millions of us conditioned over the past thirty years to simple hopelessness.

      And laughter is the basis of all great tribal life. Readers who laugh come back.

      Humor is loyalty glue.

    5. Readers want to learn what they’re doing wrong

      You know what else gains me readers? Solid, reliable information. The plethora of bad writing advice out there is phenomenal—really, quite painful—and when writers know they can come here time and time again to get good, solid advice about their concerns that really works when they put it into practice. . .yes, they keep coming back.

      Oddly, what people love most is information on what they’re doing wrong. Three posts—5 Things a Writer Always Overlooks, 8 Lessons to Learn from Screwing Up Your Manuscript, 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot—are still getting passed around the blogosphere all these months years after I wrote them.

      Apparently there are an awful lot of aspiring writers out there in desperate need of some relief from constantly looking over their shoulders. They get all the helpful hints and timely tips they can take, but they still have the sneaking suspicion there’s something they don’t know about going on behind the scenes.

      “For the love of Mike, just tell us!

    6. Writers want to pay to learn

      You’d think my advice column would be the most active part of my whole site, wouldn’t you? Freebie advice answering specific questions from specific writers about the problems they’re having with specific manuscripts?

      Actually—not. The more readers I get, the more work I get, but very few writers indeed make use of the freebie help.

      This is why I used to charge for the Lab when it was public: so readers would value it. And whenever I did get a new subscriber, the first thing I invariably heard from them was, “Wow!” While on the subject of the similar-but-free advice column readers remain rather quiet.

    7. Consistency is the lifeblood of both blogging and writing

      Truly, the most helpful thing to writers about blogging is that it trains you into a consistent voice. When you let go of the internal censor and learn to say what you mean to say the way you mean to say it, week in and week out, your language gets stronger and simpler, and writing just gets easier.

      And if there’s one thing readers of all types of writing are looking for it’s consistent voice.

    But the best thing about blogging is tribe. You people are friends. You’re friends to me and to each other. You’re taking turns at the oars, keeping this little lifeboat afloat, while I yell through a bullhorn from the prow and gesture wildly over my head.

    I can show you the way, but it’s all of you who are going to get us there.

    And you know you can count on this blog to be heading where you writers want to go. The only thing you’re ever going to get from me here is a discussion of the art and craft of writing. Everything else that goes on in my life (and it’s a pretty exciting life) is almost invisible in the blogosphere. I don’t need to tell you guys my childrearing adventures or housebuilding travails or bafflement over my own personal, idiosyncratic mental challenges. Are there actually seven of me living inside my head? Who cares?

    This is a blog about one thing only, and what all of us in this tribe have in common is our overwhelming love for 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

    Even if [the yeast of intelligence] operates in vain, it remains evolution’s peak. . .: something to enjoy and foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair, however deep the many pits of darkness.
    —Diana Athill, Stet: An Editor’s Life

    Sometimes I get so involved in the daily difficulties of writing that I forget why I ever wanted to become a writer in the first place.

    Then I remember. . .

    1. Whenever my cats object

      . . .to my prescribed determination of their fates—and sometimes just random flexing of my ability to boss them around—I think of my own helplessness at the whims of of the gods. I sometimes find myself wishing in real anguish I had some magical ability to create a portrait of that link between their worlds and mine so I’d feel less crippled by everything I simply can’t do anything about.

      And I remember: I do have that ability.

      I have words, and I have the techniques of fiction. I just need to practice them until I know how to handle them deftly enough, and I can create something vivid and tangible, something I can hold in my hands and revisit again and again, something that truly helps make my life less of a private assault upon me, personally, and more of a resonance echoing throughout the experience of all humanity.

      Something that might even help others, like me, caught in this mortal coil.

    2. Whenever I’m washed-up

      . . .in an airport terminal or doctor’s waiting room or endless meeting I remember the strict injunction I gave myself when I was still a teen: “A writer has no business ever being bored.”

      And I remember that as long as I have words and five senses and something—anything—to write on, my job is to stop feeling sorry for myself and practice my craft.

    3. Whenever I’m suffering

      . . .the reverberating shock of a really bad injury to my heart: walking into my grandmother’s bedroom to see them wheeling out the life support; coming home from sending a get-well card to a beloved uncle and my husband taking my hands to say, “Your mother called. Peet died last night”; holding my grandfather’s hand as his face contorts through the horrible B-movie grimaces of dying—

      I remember that I have something to do with that experience beyond simply being destroyed by it.

      I have words. And I have the techniques of fiction. And I have a deep, immovable longing that has never left me, no matter what I’ve been through in all my fifty years on this planet—a longing to make it all have been worthwhile.


    “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