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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

    A bizarre thing happened to a client of mine one day.

    This author is one of my best clients. She’s been writing all her life. She has a fabulous imagination and sees her characters moving and acting and speaking with wonderful vividness. She’s written lots of screenplays, so her dialog is especially sharp—dialog, in fact, is her style. (Not as blatantly as Amistead Maupin or Ivy Compton-Burnett, naturally. . .but still her style.)

    She knows the premise of every novel she writes, so she knows where she’s headed all along as she delves deep into creating the plots and scenes that illuminate her stories.

    She’s humble and dedicated and willing to write and rewrite and think and rethink everything she needs to in order to make her novels just right. She’s completely, utterly committed learning to this craft.

    And I teach her—as I teach all my clients—to minimize the use of exposition.

    1. Exposition is telling

      Yes, this is shorthand, but it’s still pretty much the gist of it.

      We can get into the finer definitions of exposition and telling (and we will further down), but, really, fiction in general can be broken into showing and telling—scenes as showing, and exposition as telling.

      As it happens, I know a whole lot about exposition.

      It’s a fascinating technique that can slip information unobtrusively into story, throw in a little backstory without taking time for flashback, carry rhythm, and—mostly wonderfully—in the hands of a master create strong voice, even plumb the depths of profundity.

      Some of my favorite authors (Elizabeth Bowen, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Isak Denisen, Graham Greene, Henry James, et cetera, et cetera) were whizzes with exposition, so I’ve studied and practiced exposition for many, many years.

      However, exposition is really hard to do so well a story simply can’t exist without it.

      And stories are best-written when they’re written only in the words they absolutely need and no others.

      The truth is that good scenes are within the reach of pretty much anyone with three or more senses and the ability to type (or write longhand). Flannery O’Connor was a great one for advocating the use of your senses and your writing hand to skip over all that fal-de-rol about deep thought and just write great stories about what you perceive.

      I think we can safely say O’Connor knew what she was talking about. What she described is showing, and if you study O’Connor you’ll see she stuck strictly to scenes.

      And so did the vast majority of the other canonical writers still making money for publishers.

    2. Pink Is not necessarily the new red

      However, I know you’re seeing articles floating around recently turning “show, don’t tell” inside-out into, “tell, don’t show!” This is partly because exposition can play a role in fiction if you know what it’s for and have practiced learning to do it well.

      It’s also—largely—because those of us who blog about craft have said most of what we have to say over the past few years of the explosion of the blogosphere and are now looking for ways to say something new and unexpected.

      “The anti-rules are the new rules! Pink is the new red! Telling is the new showing!”

      It gives us something to talk about.

      Yes, we can get into complex high-level academic discussion about whether or not details included in exposition make that exposition ineligible for the term telling. And we can contemplate together the ways in which a line or two of exposition dropped adroitly into scenes can illuminate subtext and the meaning story has for its characters, thus complicating the term showing.

      Both these techniques blur the distinctions and give those of us who like that kind of discussion all kinds of good material to chat about.

      We like chatting about this stuff.

      But most of the aspiring writers who come to me aren’t looking for complex high-level academic discussion. They’re just looking for useful, straight-forward guidelines that they can remember as they focus—and rightly so—upon writing their stories.

      Fiction lives and breathes through scenes.

      So, as the greats have been saying along with Henry James for a very long time: “Show, don’t tell.”

    3. Dialog is showing NOT telling

      Of course, it wasn’t an unbelievable surprise when my client got a rejection on that day long ago.

      Although she was querying a lovely novel with good, strong writing, aspiring writers always get rejections. In fact, lots and lots of aspiring writers are getting rejections lately. It was bad ten years ago. Now that we have the current publishing industry, it’s an epidemic.

      What was depressing about this one was the agent saying they’d rejected the novel—even though they thought it was “well-written” and “were crazy about” the premise—because it didn’t have enough of that good stuff about the characters’ feelings in it.

      The agent didn’t know what to name that stuff, but they did know that they wanted to be more constantly told what to feel rather than mostly shown the characters and events of the novel and allowed to react with their own feelings, in their own way.

      It was, in a word, too subtle.

      This agent thought that telling the reader how to feel would be ‘more commercial.’

      And while the agent didn’t know the word for it (although their resume lists working as an editor at a major publishing house), what this agent meant was exposition.

      They meant the novel needed more telling, less showing.

      There are, of course, reasons for why this agent thought exposition would be more commercial, which I intend to delve right into next week. (And just this morning my husband sent me a link to a letter by C.S.Lewis explaining quite simply why telling the reader what to feel is a bad idea.)

      But for now let’s just politely say. . .this agent should probably have been better trained at that publishing house where they were employed as an editor.

      Because then they became bizarro.

      The agent informed my client that the real problem with her manuscript was the dialog, “which is telling, not showing.”

      And this is when I started to bang my head on my desk.

      Dialog is not telling. Good heavens! Dialog is the characters’ voices.

      “Telling” is the narrator’s voice telling the reader what to think and how to feel. That’s exposition—exactly what this agent wanted more of.

      Dialog is part of showing.

      “Showing” is where the author shows the characters as they act and speak and move in their described environment—and keeps their own big trap shut.

    This is my head on my desk: bang, bang, bang.

    O, ye innocent aspiring writers querying in today’s industry: beware.

    Not everyone associated with publishing knows what they’re talking about. A great number of them are quite young and therefore understandably low on professional experience. Some of them have picked up terrible advice and, without the guidance of experienced editors or in-depth study of literature to correct them, they pass it on to aspiring writers, secure in the assumption that the unpublished will take anything publishing professionals say as gospel.

    If you want to be involved in this industry, you must simply be prepared for such nonsense.

    Truly, folks—it’s a very bizarre era.

    NEXT WEEK: We’ll get into the reasons behind why heavy exposition might be considered more commercial in today’s publishing industry.


    “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 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



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

    This one is a story of hope.

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

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

    “Are you going to apply?” I said.

    “Maybe. Are you?”


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

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

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

    Instead, I went to the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Unpublished, struggling, dedicated craftspeople when I met them

    • Acclaimed fiction authors today

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

    Lucia Orth

    Sasha Troyan

    (Also, I married my cute manager and have been with him for 20 years now. So that worked out as well!)


    “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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      So I turned to her.

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

      The silence that fell was instantaneous and deadly.

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

      I smiled at her rather shakily. “It’s probably wherever mine is.”

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

      “I don’t like what you’re saying,” called the friend aggressively. “You don’t even know her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. Step #3: Doing what you can’t

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

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

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

    I salute you people.

    You bet I do.

    You finance all those writers conferences.

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

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

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

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

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

    Things that should set off your bullshit alarm:

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

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

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

      You’re here to learn.

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

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

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

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

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

      And you’re a good sport.

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

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

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

      Yeah. You’re a teeny bit disgruntled.

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

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

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

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

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

      • Now, have I ever pantsed a novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It’s not the technique.

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

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

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

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

      They only know themself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      So I have to tell them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      You betcha.

      You’re welcome!

    UPDATE: The Other 5 BS Indicators for Writers Conferences


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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories



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  • By Victoria Mixon

    You ask if a man who wrote as Jane did would be more famous? A man, of course, could not write as she did.—Millicent Dillon

    Over the course of her illustrious forty-year writing career, Millicent Dillon has won five O. Henry awards and been nominated for a PEN/Faulkner. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and invitations to such prestigious writing residences as Yaddo.

    Dillon is also the world’s expert on the Bowleses, one of America’s most extraordinary and puzzling literary couples. Her book, You Are Not I, is the definitive biography of Paul Bowles, author of copious fiction and nonfiction, including The Sheltering Sky, which Bertolucci made in 1990 into a movie with John Malkovic and Debra Winger, and the shockingly realistic 1940s stories of violence, sex, and alien culture, “A Distant Episode,” “The Delicate Prey,” and “Pages from Cold Point,” which, said Norman Mailer much later, long before their time “opened the world of Hip.”

    Dillon is also the author of A Little Original Sin, the only biography of Paul’s wife, the brilliant Jane Bowles—author of one Broadway play, a handful of stories, a puppet play, and the 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies, which has just been reissued by Sort of Books in the UK. Jane, even more than Paul, was a writer of such unique talent and vision that even those literary experts who embrace experimentalists like James Joyce and William Faulkner have never known what to do with her.

    I’ve been fascinated by the Bowleses ever since I found A Little Original Sin and My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles in a San Francisco bookstore in 1995. Who were these people? What is the truth behind their enigma? And what must it have been like to travel to Morocco shortly after Jane’s tragic death in the early 1970s, an accomplished fiction author yourself, to meet and become friends with the mysterious Paul, to whom so many aspiring writers of that era—including the Beats—flocked like pilgrims?

    Join me on Monday for:

    The Forces Within: the Millicent Dillon interview


    “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



    1 Comment
  • By Victoria Mixon

    We talked last week about an alarmingly bizarre piece of writing advice one of my clients got from an agent in response to her requested full manuscript.

    We also talked about exposition & telling and why they’re pretty much exactly the same thing, even though I know we out here in the bathosphere of professional fiction sometimes like to sit around chewing the fat over the fine points of complex technicalities.

    1. Exposition is authorial commentary

      I advocate minimizing the use of exposition.

      This is because it’s a great deal of what we usually write when we’re still mulling over our stories in early drafts—lots of stuff like, “This was interesting, because she really hadn’t ever thought much about rabbits, and suspenders reminded her of her uncles,” and, “If only he had known about the sad, heartbreaking history behind the woodshed he’d have thought twice before buying an ax,” and “Again, they wondered why the operator kept buzzing through.”

      That’s all useful to us as writers, but it can safely be edited out once we figure out how to “Dramatize!” as Henry James said. “Dramatize!”

      Drama is the good stuff that moves the story out of the writer’s head and into the reader’s.

      We also call that stuff “scenes.”

    2. Run-of-the-mill authorial commentary is supposed to be edited out of final drafts

      Sadly, though, exposition is often used these days in published fiction to skim right over scenes without delving into the vivid details that bring characters alive. The overwhelming telling doesn’t get edited out. So exposition winds up being used as a crutch rather than a technique.

      Why does this happen?

      Because the publishing industry has morphed in recent decades from being about storytelling that lasts—which has always been financed, it’s true, by a great deal of mediocre mass market shove-a-matic fiction—to being mostly about slipping those ole wallets out of readers’ pockets.

      Successful genre authors are pressured to churn out books faster and faster. Authors who don’t arrive on the publishers’ doorsteps with massive followings are often summarily booted out high windows if their first novels don’t bring in big bucks.

      And the worst part of it: many publishers have stopped editing manuscripts altogether, so whatever early drafts their authors (particularly big names) churn out can go straight to the presses without editorial interference (ask me about a book going straight to the presses without editing)—still full of their authorial commentary, which is the exposition we writers accidentally write as we explore our novels.

      Publishers’ editing is becoming a dying craft.

      It’s a self-consuming cycle of failing literature.

      Now those early-draft unedited novels full of exposition are seen by newbies to the industry as the models upon which all fiction must be formed, although they’re the lowest-common-denominator of our day.

      A whole generation of publishing professionals is growing up without even knowing about the existence of editing techniques, as though no publisher’s editor had ever sweated long hours in the office over polishing good writing into beautiful prose, or spent weeks and months (yes, even years) working over and over scenes and storylines and character development with their authors, guiding the translation of narrative summary into narrative—as though professional editing itself were meaningless to fiction.

      A reader’s nightmare.

    3. Lack of editing is killing the craft of fiction

      Remember John Gardner and his wonderful, immortal discussion of fiction as a “vivid continuous dream”?

      Remember Malcolm Cowley of Viking Press working meticulously with Jack Kerouac on his scroll manuscript–plus pages and pages of additional scenes–to create On the Road?

      Remember Pat Covici, also of Viking Press, corresponding with John Steinbeck for years about the development of The Grapes of Wrath?

      Remember Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, famous for lying on the floor with his authors going over their manuscripts for hours and even bringing in other editors to back him up in arguments over details as granular as punctuation?

      Remember Maxwell Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons, who ‘discovered’ and edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe? He famously told James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, “You explain too much, you use too much exposition. Put it into action and dialog!”

      Exposition is not more commercial than scenes, as some of the inexperienced sometimes claim.

      It is simply common in today’s early-draft unedited fiction.

      Actually, dependence upon heavy exposition isn’t even a new literary crime. It’s always been a problem in throw-away fiction, the cheap stuff nobody remembers. Vintage fiction, of which I am a minor aficionado, can occasionally be full of it. (In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft wrote a whole lot of treacly, emotional exposition. Wow, he could be a terrible writer.)

      And the less fiction is taught and mentored and edited by editors through whose hands pass the literature of an era, the worse that fiction turns out to be.

      Take note, folks: this is what it’s like to watch your era’s literature die right there on the vine.

    Jane Austen is now and always has been an enormously commercial author. That’s because she filled her novels with vivid scenes and mostly left the reader to decide how they felt about them. So did Arthur Conan Doyle. And Emily and Charlotte Bronte. And Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Colette, Gordimer, Cather, Conrad, Bowen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bowles, Updike, Salinger, Bellow, Carver, LeGuin, Chandler, Nemirovsky, Tolkien, Peake, and “I Am a Camera” Isherwood.

    Every one of these authors is still making money for publishing houses.

    Because stories that rely on scenes to show the reader things about which they might have feelings—rather than on exposition to tell that reader how to feel—is the stuff of fiction. . .in fact, the stuff of great literature.

    And it’s commercial.


    “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

    1. He lifted his leg and fired.
    2. With a whoop and a cry, she shot it out the back.
    3. They bent to examine their special organs.
    4. He couldn’t believe he was alive—he touched himself with gratitude.
    5. She knew he’d never get at the secret she was sitting on.
    6. If he couldn’t grab them with both hands, what were they worth to him?
    7. She fingered her favorite bits.
    8. He snatched up his balls and ran with them.
    9. They still didn’t understand why they were stuck together.
    10. He always got belligerent about its size.
    11. When she let go of him, her hand was sticky.
    12. They pressed their parts close.
    13. He waved his pole frantically over his head.
    14. With a tender sigh, she shut the box he loved forever.
    15. He stood under her balcony until dawn, quietly whacking 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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    This one comes from Lyn South, who submitted her question to Victoria’s Advice Column, which I like to think of as Miss Lonelyhearts for the Word-Worn.


    1. Identify your protagonist(s) and their nemesis(es) clearly right up front in each book. Your reader wants to know who this series is about. And they’re not going to go hunt down earlier books to learn.
    2. Identify your protagonist(s)’s dilemma for each book clearly. Each book gets a major dilemma, and all of these dilemmas can be traced back to the one overall dilemma of the entire series. Simultaneously identify your protagonist(s)’s overall dilemma clearly. Handle both of these right off the bat, i.e. in your first one or two chapters.

      Although you give your protagonist(s) a new dilemma for each book, always keep the overall dilemma pointed like a diamond at your protagonist(s)’s greatest nightmare (which of course you will address in the final book). This overall dilemma is going on at all times, no matter what else also happens to be going on.
    3. Fill in backstory—what happened in earlier books—as briefly as possible, each time with a slightly new slant, and without repeating yourself. That way your most loyal readers will not be your most ANNOYED readers. They will get something special for their loyalty: multiple layers of the same story told with some tiny fresh illumination every single time. (This is harder than it sounds.)
    4. Think of your series holographically, that is: each book has a hook, development of conflicts, faux resolution, and climax. And the series itself has a hook book, development of conflicts in separate books, a faux resolution (at the beginning of the final book), and climax (the bulk of the final book).


    1. Lose track of your protagonist(s)’s basic, driving agenda. They need something. They have always needed it, and they will always need it. And their ultimate failure to get that something is the climax of your series.

      Although characters should grow and change throughout your series—fiction is, after all, the record of a human change—this basic agenda is your Pole Star. Don’t wind up with a final book starring a main protagonist who couldn’t possibly be the same character as the main protagonist of your first book. If you do make a serious change in character, make sure you’ve accounted for it properly in a significant place.
    2. Muddy your subplots. Make sure you’ve got these mapped out. Writing a novel is complicated. Writing a series—which is really an uber-novel—is that much more complicated. It’s all too easy to find yourself solving the wrong problem for a given book. This is, um, bad.
    3. Guess what? You knew I was going to say this, especially after that last point. Don’t pants. You’ll wind up with your climax in some book other than your final book, and later books won’t be able to compare. And the loyal readers who read all the way to the end will COMPLAIN LOUDLY.
    4. Forget your supporting characters’ personalities. No kidding. It happens all the time with enormously long works—you change your mind about characters in mid-stream. This is completely acceptable in early drafts, so long as you go back later and re-create either character arcs or at least character unity. It is death, however, to published fiction.

    P.S. Hi, Spork people! I don’t know who you are, and I can’t get onto your website to say hello, but you guys are cool. And there are a lot of you!


    “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

    When I came home from a trip to Europe in 1994, I stayed with five friends living in a studio apartment in a bad part of San Francisco’s Mission District. We slept like sardines on the living room floor, and in the mornings I sat at the kitchen table with my friend Ariana, talking vaguely under the overcast sky about having no direction in our lives and looking down into the filthy alley below. One morning, we watched a thin man run lickety-split around the corner of a building, glance over his shoulder, and duck into a doorway.

    “What do you suppose he’s up to?” I said.

    “It’s his dealer.”


    Ariana picked up her coffee. “He doesn’t have any money.”

    Someone appeared at the corner of the building, bent and stumbling, feeling their way along the wall with one hand and calling in a thick, whining voice.

    But the man in the doorway had disappeared. . .

    Leaving behind a desperate wreck of a human life.

    Now, I know as well as you do that you’re not that desperate wreck. Yes, you have your bad days. But that’s not you staggering down the alley, agents scattering into doorways like leaves before a high wind. As Janet Reid has said, we professionals in the industry have “terrified the wrong half of y’all.”

    Which is why you’re going to be able to take it when I tell you that agents and publishing editors lie to you routinely. And it is beholden upon you to take it graciously, because if the desperate wrecks were allowed to run riot there’d be no agents or publishing editors out there to work with the rest of us at all.



    1. “It’s not about the marketing.”

      “The publisher’s not going to shell out.”

    2. Yes, publishers allot marketing budgets to the books they really want to push, and if it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it. You know what happens when you multiply an unknown author’s $1k in sales by the Uniform Marketing Coefficient? You get $1k x UMC. And you know what happens when you multiply Stephen King’s sales by the Uniform Marketing Coefficient?

      That’s right. Makes sense now, doesn’t it?

    3. “It’s all about the marketing.”

      You are going to shell out.”

    4. Everyone wants to see you succeed—your agent, your publisher, and the people who handle their bank accounts. So, hey, knock yourself out. We’re all here in the background rooting for you. YAY TEAM!

    5. “It’s always subjective.”

      “We just happen to all have the same opinion.”

    6. It’s hard not to, when all we base our so-called subjectivity upon years of experience in the same industry and the same sort of exposure to literally hundreds—if not thousands—of manuscripts exactly like yours. We all know how to do this work. That’s why we do it.

    7. “We make mistakes.”

      “But not as many as you wish we did.”

    8. Sure, we forget to pick up half-&-half at the store, and we spike the punch bowl at the office Christmas party, and sometimes we even hurt our loved ones’ feelings. But on the job we’re actually surprisingly competent.

    9. “We pass on a lot of good stuff.”

      “We also pass on crap.”

    10. Is your stuff crap? You can’t tell, can you? We understand—it’s pretty hard to figure this out without the kind auspices of someone in the know. Well, what would you do to us if we told you the unvarnished truth bluntly without any warning?

      Why, yes. Yes, I believe you would.

    11. “Someone else might love this.”

      “Tag! They’re It.”

    12. You know who? That jerk who elbowed in front of everyone at the agents’ buffet at that writers conference. Let me get you their address. Wait—let me get you their home address.

    13. “It’s a tough market.”

      “Although I personally could sell snow to Eskimos.”

    14. Ha ha! Such kidders we are. But seriously. No.

    15. “You don’t need an editor.”

      “You need a psychiatrist.”

    16. But Lulu doesn’t mind. They have no standards. AT ALL. Check their website.

    17. “We wish you well in your endeavors.”

      “We wish you OTHER endeavors.”

    18. And we do sincerely hope, from the bottoms of our warm, fuzzy, little publishy hearts, that you find all the fulfillment, satisfaction, and best use of your natural talents with them that you’re not going to find, um. . .here.

    19. “We’re looking forward to your submission.”

      “You are the reason we drink.”


    “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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11 posts. . .because this blog goes to 11


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. . .

DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who has worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In his sci-fi Anghazi Series, Beyer uses 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. 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.