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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I don’t usually futz around with grammar issues here, but this one came up and it’s kind of an exception, so I’m going to give you a little grammar lesson today.

    You all know me well enough to know I don’t make too many grammatical howlers, and you probably also know that I use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third-person singular construct. But so far (almost five years of this blog now) you’ve all been quite accepting of that and not questioned my reasoning. Then someone linked to a post of mine, but when they quoted me they felt obliged to insert a ‘[sic]‘ after ‘they’ to let their readers know they know they think it’s ungrammatical. Which was very conscientious of them.

    So I thought I’d better explain: this is not an ungrammatical error; this is a deliberate editorial decision.

    One I made thirty years ago.

    Back in the early 1980s, shortly after the women’s rights movement had finally put Equal Rights for women into a Constitutional Amendment (a no-brainer, right? it was voted down), there was a lot of hoopla over the correct third-person singular pronoun in the English language. Because, of course, we don’t have a neutral third-person singular pronoun, and historically English grammarians (mostly men) had made the decision that all third-person singulars must be considered male until proven female.

    An extremely odd decision, all things considered, since more than half the people on this planet are female. You’d think it would go with the majority, wouldn’t you? But no. A female was male to all strangers in print unless she could give a really good reason to refer to her as female. It seems simply being female wasn’t a good enough reason.

    And the feminists—rightly—took issue with this.

    There was a little book that came out around then called The Tao of Pooh, which I liked a lot. So when the author wrote a sequel, The Te of Piglet, I ran right out and bought it. And what do you know—the author had decided that the great success of The Tao of Pooh had transformed him magically overnight into an authority on all things literary, and he devoted a whole chapter in The Te of Piglet to this grammatical contretemps and his personal opinion that any female who objected to being considered male sight-unseen was a hysterical freak and should simply be shouted down. His argument was that it didn’t hurt anybody, it was easy to get used to, and feminists were making a big old flapadoodle about nothing.

    And he had a point.

    So I sat myself down and wrote him a letter—in those days we didn’t have email, so when you wrote an author a letter, you wrote a real letter, put it in a real envelope, stamped it with a real stamp, and mailed it off to their publisher—in which I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Such a trivial issue didn’t hurt anyone in the slightest and could easily be considered a whole lot of flapadoodle about nothing, as I could prove by having taken to using the female third-person singular pronoun for everyone, which I’d gotten used to almost immediately. And I thought this author, when she’d had a chance to think about it, would throw her weight behind me as well.

    Sadly, in spite of my enthusiasm, The Te of Piglet failed as a philosophical treatise, and nobody ever heard from that guy again.

    I was kidding, of course, about using the female pronoun for third-person singular. You could. Just as easily as the male, and with a little more logic, seeing as how you had better odds of being right in a world dominated by the female gender. But it would miss the point that respect is a pretty fundamental attitude to hold toward our fellow humans, and respect for each of us as a member of our own gender is pretty close to most of our hearts.

    Fortunately, I saw a simple solution that didn’t involve either the awkward constructs he/she or she/he (I was always surprised nobody seemed to choose the latter) or some variation on randomly messing with everyone’s gender in general.

    And that was in the natural evolution of language and—slightly lagging but still evolution—of grammar.

    Grammar was not handed down from on high the day the English language was invented, never to be deviated from again. Grammar is a product of usage, and all language usage evolves first in oral tradition, only to be accepted in written grammatical forms eventually, even if at a slightly later date. So that, for example, when the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ dropped out of common daily usage, it was some time before grammarians realized it no longer made sense to insist upon it for the English version of the Romance Language variations on the Latin intimate second-person singular, ‘tu.’ Nobody insists a writer use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anymore, even in dialog between parents and children. I’m pretty sure.

    In the same way, common usage had already, even thirty years ago, solved the third-person singular pronoun dilemma. In oral communication, we all simply used ‘they.’

    “Who was that jogger? They just threw garbage in front of my house!”

    “I got the weirdest call the other day. This person said they had a hot deal for me, but it turned out they didn’t know what it was.”

    “I know you always think a pundit’s clever so long as they’re fast with a pun, but I’d like to see them disagree with themself once in awhile.”

    It seemed a simple step to adjust my grammatical compass to accept this common-sense solution to such a sticky problem. So I did. In fact, I even use the third-person singular reflexive pronoun ‘themself.’ I’ve been using it for thirty years—in speech as well as in writing.

    Now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, with all its flapadoodle flapping in the breeze in all directions, I’ve simply stopped worrying about it. Am I on the cutting edge? Or am I just going with the flow?

    Either way, common usage has proven for decades now that it’s grammatically correct.

    UPDATE from Christine Kidney:

    Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules says: ‘Note, however that it is now generally regarded as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts is probably the best solution, but can become tiresomely long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.’

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Elizabeth Spann Craig is well-known in the online writing community for her Writers Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, where she maintains links to all the best posts on writing online, and her weekly Twitterific post, rounding up the weeks’ exchange of writing posts through Twitter on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder.

    But that’s not all—not even half! Because Elizabeth’s understanding of writing craft is based solidly in her popular mystery series, published through Penguin and her own imprint: the Memphis Barbeque Mystery series with Penguin/Berkley under the pseudonym Riley Adams, the Southern Quilting Mystery series with Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clove series with Midnight Ink.

    Elizabeth’s a busy woman! And today she’s taken time to talk with us about the dark, labyrinthine ways of both our favorite genre. . .mystery.

    Elizabeth, so lovely to have you here! I know your forte is mystery, as is mine, so let’s be completely self-indulgent today and talk of nothing but mysteries. Who are your favorite mystery authors?

    Thanks so much for hosting me, Victoria! I’m excited to be here. I love indulging in a conversation about mysteries—my favorite topic.

    I have lots of favorite mystery authors, and I love them for different reasons. Agatha Christie is my all-time favorite because I love her quirky sleuths and their unusual approaches to solving crimes. M.C. Beaton has been a more recent favorite. Her Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin sleuths are very human and fallible, but know how to capitalize on their individual strengths. And I’m amazed by the work of Elizabeth George (especially her earlier books), Deborah Crombie, Caroline Graham, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter—yes, I could go on and on ad nauseum. Who are some of your favorites?

    Well, Raymond Chandler, you know. Anyone who can say, “He had a chin like a strap-hanger’s elbow,” owns me. I love the classics and Golden Age writers: Poe, Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Chesterton, Hammet, Gardner, Sayers, Van Dine, Stout. Let’s not forget the brilliant Wilkie Collins. Robert van Gulick wrote Westernized versions of Chinese mysteries about a real fifth-century judge. Ngaio Marsh’s charming Detective-Inspector Alleyn. Georges Simenon’s deadpan noir Maigret. Alexander McCall Smith’s hilariously pragmatic Precious Ramotswe. And I’ve recently discovered Derek Raymond and his haunting How the Dead Live.

    Oh, we could turn this whole interview into a list of names! I’m addicted to the Gold Room at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Have you ever been there?

    No, I sure haven’t, but it’s legendary. I’m very envious! I’d probably get absorbed and forget to leave and they’d have to send a search party after me.

    [Laughing] Such a dangerous place.

    Recently I’ve discovered that some really old mystery titles from the Golden Age and lesser-known authors are becoming available on e-readers. It’s fantastic to be able to find and enjoy some treasures from the past.

    So how did you get into mysteries? What first made you love them?

    I’m a little bit of a cliche there. I’m one of those mystery writers who was heavily influenced by Nancy Drew as a kid. I read all the Nancy Drews I could get my hands on. . .my mother had ladies tearing up their attics looking for old bags of Nancy Drew books. I plowed through mysteries wherever I could find them—Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden—even watching Scooby Doo on television. Yes, I was even one of those kids who had a detective notebook of observations and recorded what adults were doing and saying. It kind of bordered on the fanatical, now that I think of it!

    As a teenager, I started moving into adult mysteries. I read Christie, Sayers, and Carr before moving into P.D. James. I love a whole range of mysteries—private eye, police procedural, thriller, noir—and feel like I’ve been influenced by all of them, although I’m writing traditional mysteries/cozies.

    I just love the puzzle aspect of mysteries and the fact that it’s an almost interactive experience—we solve the case alongside the sleuth. I also enjoy being scared, in a safe way. With a mystery, I get a safe thrill. If a book gets too intense, I can close it or shut down the Kindle and return to safety quickly. I think that’s one reason so many readers like traditional mysteries—the murders occur in a tranquil, safe environment. It disrupts the town, but then everything is tidily returned to normal by the end of the book. It’s a satisfying feeling.

    Exactly. The triumph of sanity over insanity. Hey, remember Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s book, Harriet the Spy? Very odd, insightful take on what the world of sleuthing is all about in the childlike recesses of the human mind. Did you ever read it?

    I sure did. . .maybe because I was also an odd child with a notebook! Of course in an adult murder mystery little Harriet, with all her eavesdropping, would have known too much. . .she’d have met with an untimely demise.

    [Laughing] That’d make a fabulous children’s mystery—you’d better write it! It’s strange to read Raymond Chandler’s letters from the 1950s, when he railed against the difficulty of mystery earning its rightful place in the canon. And now there’s a whole world of literature based on, as you say, that sense of “safety” in exploring frightening themes, the puzzle that satisfies the intellect. What is your favorite mystery technique or storyline?

    You know, there are just so many elements that make up a great mystery. It takes real skill to keep readers from guessing the murderer’s identity without making them frustrated. One of my favorite techniques is the unreliable witness, which Agatha Christie used to such great effect. It involves discrediting a witness/supporting character by either showing his incompetence, lack of intelligence, or immaturity (if the witness is a young child), and then having him either unveil a major clue or actually name the murderer or motive. Since the readers don’t respect the character, they won’t give credence to his statements. It’s a fun technique to play around with.

    Oh, excellent. Yes. I just re-read Shirley Jackson’s canonical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, and the way she confuses the reader about who’s portraying the truth and who’s simply bonkers—genius! So what’s the most common failing you see in unsuccessful mysteries?

    I read a lot of reviews of mysteries, actually, because I’m interested in finding out what readers like and dislike most. One of the biggest complaints that I see is when readers lose respect for the sleuth. Over and over again, I’ve read reviews where readers were upset because a sleuth did something stupid, just so the writer could further the plot. If the reader loses respect for the sleuth, it really compromises the story. So if the detective needs to go into a remote part of town—by himself, at night—when he knows the murderer is probably lurking nearby, the writer needs to have to have an excellent reason for it. Does the detective think he’s going there to meet someone else? Did he suddenly realize there was a clue that he’d overlooked before—and the killer happens to realize the same thing simultaneously? There has to be a good reason for our supposedly intelligent sleuth to endanger himself.

    You’re so right. No matter what the genre, it’s always about character motivation. ‘What does this sleuth need? Why are they driven to solve this mystery?’ Marlowe often thinks he needs nothing more than to make his twenty-five bucks a day, but it’s layered with his overwhelming need to see justice done. Elizabeth, is there a mystery angle you’d like to explore but don’t believe could be successfully pulled off?

    Oh, sure. I’m a fan of unreliable narrator stories (as well as the unreliable witnesses I mentioned above.) But. . .it’s very tricky. When it’s done well, it makes such an amazing twist ending. I’d mention some examples in mystery literature and also some recent examples that were done well on film, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone. It’s a difficult technique because if it isn’t done well, the reader/viewer feels cheated or manipulated. If it is done well, the reader gets a surprise ending that causes them to think about the entire book in a different way.

    I’m going to name Christie’s Roger Ackroyd as the most obvious example of this. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it yet—I’m sorry! It’s still a good read. What do you think of Chandler’s claim that, no matter what anybody says about the Rule of Fair Play, there’s no such thing as a 100% honest mystery?

    I think Chandler is right. Mystery writers have to employ trickery in their books. We’re deflecting attention from clues, sending readers on wild goose chases, and generally deceiving the reader. But—we have to be at least a little deceptive to give the readers a satisfying read. We have to play fair, but we can’t let the reader learn the killer’s identity in Chapter Four. That’s not fair to them, either.

    That’s a fabulous point: it’s not fair to the reader to ruin the mystery. We all read for fun. In fact, mystery is one of a handful of highly-popular modern genres all based upon the intensity of the thrill. What qualities do you think mystery shares with horror, thriller, paranormal, romance?

    The biggest thing all genre fiction has in common is its popular appeal. Genre writers know that when their book is published they will have a group of readers waiting for their release. It’s like having a built-in, established readership. Genre fiction writers bring books to the people—books that are usually accessible, interesting, and entertaining. Genre fiction’s goal is to pull readers into the world of the story instead of distracting them with the intrusion of heavy use of literary devices or the author’s opinions/viewpoints.

    You know, even literary fiction isn’t supposed to interfere with the story, only seduce the reader with language rather than excitement. I do miss good experimental fiction. What’s the weirdest mystery you’ve ever read?

    The weirdest mystery I’ve ever read is the first detective story ever written: Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It’s creepy, baffling, carries a violent theme throughout the story, and has a fairly horrifying solution. But then. . .that’s Edgar Allan Poe for you! It’s not a mystery that would play well for today’s readers, since the reader doesn’t really have a fair shot at solving the case.

    It’s true, Poe failed to incorporate Fair Play, but that’s one of those little inconsistencies that will occur when you’re inventing an entire new genre. Did you know his second mystery, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” was based on an unsolved murder to which the perpetrator later confessed, saying, “He pretty much nailed it”?

    I loved “Marie Roget,” but didn’t realize the story was based on a true crime. Interesting! I wonder what Poe thought about his role in solving the real case (or prompting a confession from the killer?)

    What an amazing man—I wish he’d written about his knowledge of the craft. What are your favorite books on the craft of writing mysteries?

    The ones I’ve got on my shelf are:

    Don’t Murder Your Mystery—Chris Roerden
    Book of Poisons—Serita Stevens, Anne Bannon
    Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit)—Lee Lofland
    The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery—Robert J. Ray, Jack Remick
    Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers—Lawrence Block
    Writing the Modern Mystery—Barbara Norville
    How to Write a Damn Good Mystery—James N. Frey

    Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit are great no matter what genre you write.

    Occasionally, my husband looks at the bookshelf and gets a little nervous. He reminds the kids that if anything ever happens to Daddy, they need to tell the police what Mama does for a living!

    Elizabeth Craig is the author of Finger Lickin’ Dead and Hickory Smoked Homicide, among other mysteries. She writes the Memphis Barbeque for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

    Elizabeth can be found on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder, on the Writer’s Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, on Twitter, and on Google+.

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Now, as far as genius, you think I’m going to say, “Shut up and write,” don’t you? But unfortunately that won’t make you a genius. It won’t even make you a writer. That will only make you a scribbler, which isn’t a bad thing to be, at all. . .but it’s not the same thing. We’ve talked about 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. And 3 Tricks for Ratcheting Tension in One Day. And 4 Tricks for Improving Your Fiction in One Day.

    So now I’ll reveal the real secret to becoming a genius, particularly a genius writer. Pay close attention.

    1. Realize what exactly genius is

      What do you mean by, “becoming a genius”?

      Do you mean, “having extraordinary intelligence granted to me without me lifting a pinky”?

      Do you mean, “being recognized by the smartest people on earth”?

      Do you mean, “relishing every spec of living I possibly can in the few fleeting years granted to me on this planet—years I see flashing past me more and more quickly the older I get—because, baby, we’re none of us getting any younger”?

      • Extraordinary intelligence doesn’t come to anyone without them lifting a pinky.

        Extraordinary intelligence is developed by the constant creative use of the the brain. How much of your time do you spend using your brain creatively—developing your skills with logic and critical analysis of the things that truly matter to you, using all five senses to perceive your moment-by-moment experience of life to the fullest capacity, asking not just, “What do I think or believe or feel?” but, “What do I think and believe and feel that I would never have guessed about myself?”

        Do you have the courage to face your disowned self? Honestly, truly face it?

        Eight hours of that will ratchet your genius for human understanding—the core of all storytelling—through the ceiling.

      • Being recognized by the smartest people on earth involves being seen by them.

        And on an increasingly crowded planet, that means not getting the attention of those recognized in the media—how smart could Charlie Sheen be anyway?—but finding the unrecognized geniuses who walk among us every day and devoting yourself to learning what they know. Apprenticing yourself to them. Earning their recognition.

        Would Einstein have been as smart if nobody had ever heard of him? Yes. Was Franz Kafka a great literary and philosophical genius even though he died before anyone ever found out? Yes.

        Who can you identify in your life right now who’s one of the smartest people on earth?

        Eight hours of listening at their knee will teach you the secret uniqueness—the core of all memorable storytelling—of their genius.

      • Relishing every spec of living you possibly can in the fleeting years granted you starts right now.

        Let me tell you a story, okay?

        My husband and I spent this weekend working on our house, even though we burned ourselves out on it so badly when we built it four years ago that we’re still content to live with subfloor on the stairs and big, gaping holes for lag bolts in the hall floor and cracks you can see light through where there’s supposed to be trim.

        We really hate working on the house.

        So late yesterday we were in the attic, me on the stairs exhausted from moving stacks of flooring, him on his knees cutting a piece of wood. He glanced up and said, “Are you okay?” and I said, “I’m just thinking. It looks like I’m in pain when I do that, I know.”

        And we started laughing.

        In that instant I knew what we’ll remember when we’re old and sick and frail and, maybe, there’s only one of us left alone in this world. (I spent a lot of time with my grandfather after my grandmother died. I know what it’s going to be like.) We’re not going to care that we were working on the house even though we hate working on the house, or that we were exhausted and bruised and filthy, thinking about bills and work and mortgages and the difficulties of raising a teen.

        We’re going to long with every fiber of our being to be back in that over-heated attic together at the end of that long, hard Sunday. . .laughing.

        And knowing that—knowing I’m already living the life I long for with all my heart—you better believe. . .that’s genius.

      How close are you to being a genius right now?

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking this month about instantaneous ways to improve craft—because, as Carrie Fisher says, “Instant gratification takes too long.” We’ve talked about 2 Tricks to Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. And 3 Tricks to Ratcheting Tension in One Day.

    Now let’s talk about how you can use your own life to improve your fiction. . .in one day.

    1. What do you most want?

      Protagonists are people who want.

      And when you’re talking about characters who want things badly enough to keep readers intrigued for 300 pages, you’d better know those characters inside and out. In fact—you’d better know them as well as you know yourself.

      Know what drives you through life. That’s the best drive to give your protagonists.

      Most of the great writers wrote the same character over and over again under different names, in different plots, throughout their lives. Those particular characters have the motivations those particular writers understand. Deeply. Profoundly. In the magnificent, complex manner necessary to write about it.

      Raymond Chandler wrote a whole series of characters exactly like Phillip Marlowe before he finally settled on the name, career, and face of Marlowe.

    2. Why can’t you have it?

      What the hell is wrong with you?

      That’s what the hell is wrong with your protagonist.

      And don’t mistake this to mean it’s something outside of you. Of course you’re strapped for cash, tied to a job, inevitably tethered to the need to make a living. But your need to survive lives inside you. And that’s an excellent need to impose upon a protagonist.

      You’re also desperate for love and understanding, lonely, frustrated, trapped alone in a tormented little skull without the skills or confidence to survive what you have to do just to survive. That’s also all going on inside you. Another excellent need.

      Why do you think so many books are built around protagonists torn between a fight to stay alive and the need to be loved?

      Even Pride and Prejudice—with Austen’s pivotal exploration of entailment and the precarious futures of disinherited young gentlewomen—is about nothing but love and survival.

    3. How are you buying into this?

      Make no mistake about it: you are.

      And that’s what makes you interesting. Otherwise, you’re just a blob.

      That’s what makes your protagonist interesting, too. Internal conflict. How are they buying into their own nightmare? What inside them keeps them strung up on their own self-made scaffold? What makes them kick? What makes them kick over the chair?

      If you’re not interested enough in human nature to sink to this level of self-examination, to bare your chest to the elements, to admit to this severe of self-sabotage (and you have it—we all do), you’re simply not tough enough to write fiction.

      Emily Bronte exposed her guts in Wuthering Heights. Self-loathing doesn’t get any more fascinating than that.

    4. What would force you to choose?

      Because eventually you’re going to choose.

      In your life. And in your fiction.

      This is what readers read for: what do you choose when you can’t have it both ways? How do you make sense of a life that is, in the final hour, senseless?

      Everyone reads to learn how life makes sense. You’re here to drag the ultimate nightmare—what if life doesn’t make sense?—out into the light and reveal it for what it really is: angel or devil, creation or destruction, incandescent hope or crippling despair.

      Nothing less.

    NEXT WEEK: 1 Secret Trick to Becoming a Genius Writer in One Day

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    I love the idea that so much of learning to write well starts the instant you learn it. What a fabulous craft! Last week we learned 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day. Now for the rest of the month we’ll be talking about other tricks that also work in one day.

    We’re always hearing about how we need to increase the tension in our stories, how we need to get ahold of the reader by the lapels and never let go.

    But how?

    1. Curiosity

      Don’t answer your questions the minute you ask them.

      Give the reader time to wonder. Who is that suspicious character? Why are they involved with your protagonist? Why is your protagonist reacting the way they’re reacting?

      You’re constructing a puzzle, and the reader keeps turning pages to collect the clues and discover whether or not they’ve solved it correctly.

      Patricia Highsmith began The Talented Mr. Ripley—about a man who drifts into murder for the sake of wealth and a new identify—with a scene in which Tom Ripley scurries down a busy street escaping in great distress a man obviously following him, whom Tom believes is a police officer set to bust him for one of his confidence tricks. He’s not from the police, it turns out. In fact he doesn’t mean Tom harm at all. He’s just desperate to offer Tom the opportunity of a lifetime.

    2. Cutting

      Don’t let your final draft ramble.

      Far too many aspiring writers write and write and write and forget to revise out the standard 75%. Go ahead and write everything you can discover about any given scene, but then go back later and cut everything you possibly can—all exposition, every possible dialog tag (especially internal dialog), every single extraneous scrap (choose one action instead of two or three, one line of dialog instead of back-&-forth, one pivotal descriptive detail). Cut paragraphs. Cut scenes. Cut sentences, phrases, individual words. Trim it down to the lean, mean bones.

      James M. Cain packed so much into so few, simple words that his classic novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity read like explosions.

    3. Contradiction

      Don’t let your stories lie flat.

      Toss them like hot potatoes from one plotline to another. Now we’re startled! Now we’re entranced. Now we’re scared! Now we’re intrigued. Now we’re freaked out of our seats! Now we’re flying high. . .

      Zane Grey, the granddaddy of all great adventure stories—from which sprang such modern post-apocalyptic blockbusters as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—wove double plotlines through his novels so thickly the reader is forced to let go the reins early on, so they wind up sky-high without either wings or parachute by the end of the Hook.

    And that’s where you want your reader: in the air, out of control, completely possessed by an ungovernable urge to discover what on earth your story is all about.

    NEXT WEEK: 4 Tricks for Improving Your Fiction in One Day

    FINALLY: 1 Secret Trick to Becoming a Genius Writer in One Day

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Last week I talked to a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile who’s writing a memoir. She told me she was having a lot of trouble with it—she can’t make herself write about a particular incident she seriously needs to write about.

    She asked me if I had any advice: does she need a class? a group? a coach?

    Now, I do this kind of work with writers all the time, helping them write what they need to write when they need to write it, so, yeah, I had some advice for her. And I’ll give it to you too, in case you’re ever up against a similar block.

    Groups and classes can help if all you need is a little peer pressure to get yourself in gear, but they can make it worse if you’re really struggling with an emotional block and find yourself embarrassed to be unable to break through, especially in front of others. So before you invest in anything try these two tricks:

    1. Permission

      Give yourself permission to pause and write about this issue whenever it strikes you, even if it’s only a couple of lines between work projects that you can go back to and develop later.

    2. Details

      Whenever you do have a chunk of time in which you’d like to write, focus first on recording some concrete, neutral, unrelated details—what you had for lunch, the view from where you’re sitting, some conversation you had recently—to kind of grease the writing wheels so the words will come out of you more easily.

    Frequently it’s the effort to make two transitions at once (the transition into writing mode plus the transition into a safe emotional space) that can cause this kind of writer’s block, and it helps to take them one at a time.

    Remember: you’re writing what you write not to bind yourself ever-more tightly in your painful emotional paralysis, but to free yourself so you can live this one life you get as fully as humanly possible.

    NEXT WEEK: 3 Tricks for Ratcheting Tension in One Day

    THE WEEK AFTER: 4 Tricks for Improving Your Fiction in One Day

    FINALLY: 1 Secret Trick to Becoming a Genius Writer in One Day

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    LisaParty-hats and whistles for everyone!

    Our own Lisa Mercado-Fernandez has just self-published her debut novel, The Shoebox, through Abbott Press.

    The Shoebox has been a labor of love for Lisa for years. She was one of my first editing clients and has remained one of my most dedicated. All through the process of first Developmental Editing and then Copy & Line Editing her debut novel, Lisa remained focused, endlessly creative, and utterly committed to bringing her vision to life.

    She saw a young man, a young woman, and a long, sandy beach in the sunlight.

    That vision is now a reality.

    So please, folks, if you love a wonderful, poignant love story beautifully told, hie on over to Amazon and buy Lisa’s novel. Then please write her a review. Amazon uses reviews (and stars) in their recommendation algorithm to generate further sales. The more positive reviews she has, the more sales she’ll be able to make.

    Abbott Press is the new self-publishing arm of Writer’s Digest, and I really like the job they did on Lisa’s book cover and interior design. She says she enjoyed working with them very much.

    So—congratulations, Lisa!

    May your Peter and Maddy live and love forever on that eternal sunny beach on Cape Cod.


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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about the pros and cons of the three aspects of scenes: description, action, dialog.

    Now, as we all know, dialog is the mainstay of modern fiction. Raised in a world of television, radio, and telephones, we as an industrialized race are familiar with nothing if not the power of talk.

    Dialog is important because:

    1. Fiction is talking, and dialog is talking from the core of character

      It’s words, all words. Words in your mind, words on the page, words in your characters’ mouths. That’s what fiction is. That’s what sets it apart from the other arts.

      When you take that one step further—move from your own words to your characters’—you pull your reader that one step further into your imaginary world.

      And writing is all about pulling your reader as far as humanly possible out of their world into yours.

    2. We are social animals, and we socialize through speech

      More than anything, your reader is human, and human beings need connection. When we speak to each other, we’re making connections to each other. When our characters speak to each other, they’re making connections to each other and to your reader.

      Be aware of this at all times: your reader is in the room with your characters, listening to them talk and getting to know them through their conversation. That’s your magic pill! Take full advantage of it.

    3. Readers love eavesdropping

      Even better than hearing what they’re supposed to hear, readers love hearing what they’re not supposed to hear. She said that? He blurted out this? They confessed what?

      The thrill of eavesdropping through fiction—rather than real life—is that no character ever says, “Our reader’s such an idiot.” And this sometimes does happen to eavesdroppers in real life.

      It’s a win-win situation!

    Dialog is not important because:

    1. We say a lot more than anyone cares to hear

      Even the most stoic non-conversationalist says more than they need to. Nobody gets the chance to go back and edit their own dialog. That means all that extra crap is always there.

      Your job as a writer is to edit out the extra crap.

    2. A great deal of real conversation is boring beyond boring

      By far, the majority of what we say in real life is shorthand allowing us to cooperate on the things we want to do.

      “Is it?” “No.” “Yes.” “Oh, yeah?” “Um, well.” “I guess.” “Then what?” “I, uh. . .” “Huh-uh.” “Uh-oh.” “Call me?” “See you later.” “I will.”

      Do not inflict this on your reader. They don’t even listen to it when people they like say it.

    3. Talk is cheap

      What readers want is a story with legs.

      Use dialog to introduce your reader to your characters, to reveal the hidden dramas inside that complicate the characters’ worlds all out of proportion, to move your plot always, inevitably forward toward the catastrophe that is the point of using all these words and characters to illuminate something about life that your reader needs to know. . .

      . . .but don’t get bogged down in the chatter.

      Go wherever the excitement is.

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    You know how everyone’s always telling you “Show, Don’t Tell”? Well, that means “Write Scenes, Not Exposition.” So we’re spending three weeks covering the three aspects of scenes: description, action, dialog. Last week we did description. Next week we’ll do dialog. And this week we’re doing action.

    Action is important because:

    1. Fiction is about movement

      This is the fundamental purpose of fiction: to get a protagonist from point A to point B with the greatest difficulty possible.

      Don’t make it easy on them, whatever else you do. The excitement lies in the complications, the many and varied ways in which you can pull the rug out from under your characters and force them, time and again, to scramble to their feet with every ounce of strength and wit they’ve got.

      And the very best way to pull the rug out from under them is to give them needs and internal conflicts that make them pull it out from under themselves.

      It may be possible to write an entire novel without action, but I’ve never seen it work. Even Virginia Woolf’s alarmingly passive classic To the Lighthouse is about—what else could it be?—a trip to a lighthouse. It’s not a long trip, and it gets canceled at least once. But, yeah. She did eventually have to send them there.

      And a novel packed with action is not only thrilling but gets from point A to point B. Making that journey the gist of the novel is the very stuff of great storytelling.

    2. Readers are fascinated by characters in motion

      You know how interesting people are when they never move? Uh-huh. Just about that interesting. How much time can you burn up watching your co-workers stare at their computer screens in their lonely little boring cubes?

      You just fell out of your chair, didn’t you?

      Now ask yourself why mysteries, paranormal, thrillers, romance, urban fantasy/sci-fi (contemporary Westerns) are such long-time staples of best-selling fiction. Because the characters never sit still.

      In mysteries they’re always rushing around tracking down the activities of the other characters—except Rex Stout’s canonical Nero Wolfe, who spends most of his time tending his orchids and drinking beer while his sidekick Archie does the rushing around (there’s a really good reason those stories are told from Archie’s point-of-view rather than Wolfe’s).

      In paranormal not only do the characters move, they move in really weird ways.

      In thrillers they move at top-speed in terror for their lives (and thriller is the number one best-selling genre after romance).

      In romance, of course, the ways they move tend to do things to the readers’ gonads.

      And although Westerns have faded—to be replaced by urban fantasy/sci-fi, the new Wild West—it’s all about action. Westerns were riveting to generations of men who’d been raised to be intensely active boys and then wound up working rather less-active jobs in their adult lives. Urban fantasy/sci-fi readers can’t get enough of an industrial landscape much like the cities and even modern rural environments where children these days learn what adult activity is all about. . .sadly enough for those who grow up to while-away their days among endless five-foot carpeted walls.

    3. Action creates that essential Visceral Response

      Of course, the whole purpose behind the purpose of fiction is Visceral Response.

      Readers read for experiences. They want to suffer your characters’ traumas and learn through that suffering how to survive. They want to learn how it feels to survive.

      That means in their bodies. In their guts. In their hearts.

      Have you ever read an action scene that made the hair stand thrillingly up on your head? That Visceral Response is the Whole Point of action scenes.

      And if you can create that in your reader, you have earned the right to call yourself a writer.

    However, action is not important because:

    1. Action is easy to screw up

      And. . .that’s why not everyone who wants to become a best-selling thriller author does. Because action must be meticulously choreographed, tightly worded, designed and polished exactly right for maximum impact.

      Aspiring writers screw up high-tension action scenes all the time, writing them long, writing them disorganized, writing them without even realizing they need to shape them perfectly, which means cutting every single word possible.

      It is far easier to learn to shape scenes around simpler internal conflict—a conversation in which the characters misunderstand each other, or an exchange of information, or a moment of regaining balance—than around external conflict or action that requires perfect timing.

      I spend a lot of my time teaching clients how to shape action scenes exactly right. It’s not easy. But it is essential if you want to use them.

    2. Action is not plot

      You can write all the action scenes you like, and if they don’t move your plot forward they’re just churning mud. An endless number of perfectly-shaped fight scenes will eventually lose all but the most die-hard fight fans. And even those guys are probably already watching cable.

      Every word you put into a story must be essential to getting the protagonist from point A to point B. If an action scene doesn’t do that. . .throw it out.

    3. Action without meaning is just a windmill

      Because, in the final analysis, we don’t read simply to learn how to act. We read to move alongside characters through their worlds toward and through their worst nightmares. It is the movement through the nightmare that has meaning. Everything else is set-up for that.

      That meaningful action teaches your reader how to live.

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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    This topic came from @__Deb, and it’s such a good idea 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, want to believe that 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 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 P-I

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




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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. . .

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

LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .

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

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

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

TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

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

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

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

LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a first chapter short story that agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .

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