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Writer's Digest: 2013 Best Writing Websites (2013)

  • By Victoria Mixon

    Recently we’ve talked about my cat, who is not a writer (or else who is, depending upon how many opposable thumbs you think it takes). Now this morning the cat is peacefully asleep on my legs, and I am sore all over from working in my garden all weekend.

    So let’s talk about writing and gardening.

    Because you’d be surprised at the similarities.

    1. Gardening is hard work

      This can be news to those of us not raised by gardeners.

      I happen to have been to be raised by farmers, who are gardeners gone mad. My grandparents and great-grandparents owned large potato farms in Southern California, to which they’d migrated from Lodi (when my grandmother told me she was born in Lodi, I said, “Oh, Grandma. Nobody was born in Lodi”), to which they’d migrated from South Dakota, to which they’re migrated from the great Russian steppes, where I have no doubt at all those people farmed potatoes.

      They were Germans. What else would they farm?

      So everywhere I lived in my childhood, I was surrounded by fields and fields of agriculture, mostly potatoes. And everyplace we moved, my parents put in a kitchen garden.

      Now I do it too.

      Which is why my husband and I have spent the last few weekends outdoors busting our heinies in the garden. We happen to have very, very heavy clay soil here, so when I say “busting,” I mean parts of our bodies were actually breaking and falling off.

      You know why I do this?

      So when I come back indoors on Monday I will be all rested up and primed for the seriously hard work:

      Writing.

    2. Gardening is about the big picture

      On my pauses between client manuscripts, I like to lean on my office windowsill and gaze down from the attic upon my garden below. My garden is very nicely-planned, because I am a past-graphic-designer and also extremely OCD. I picture it in my mind bursting with opulent green leaves and massive vegetables and the undeniable good health of a garden well-loved.

      Even though it spends a lot of its life just looking like a whole lot of dirt.

      I know, in the back of my mind, that I do this every year, that every year begins with whole a lot of dirt backed by a whole lot of optimism. Some years I get the opulence, and some years I get a bunch of scraggly dying stuff surrounded by weeds, which all but grabs me by the collar and begs me to put it out of its misery.

      At such times, I ask myself why I keep at it.

      And I answer myself, “Because this is what I do.”

    3. Gardening lies in the little details

      I always worry every spring about the tiny seedlings out there struggling through sun and wind and rain to extend their root systems and buckle down to photosynthesis and eventually maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud green parents of the fruits of their labor.

      Then I go back to my clients, who are also knocking themselves out to extend the roots of their knowledge of this craft and buckle down to producing scenes and maybe—just maybe—one day be the proud bookish parents of the fruits of their labor.

      I know all about how many complicated and even contradictory techniques a writer must master in order to result in a completed story.

      They usually don’t know.

      So I teach them. Slowly and carefully.

      I try not to burn their tender roots with too much information too fast. And I encourage them to produce scenes, while understanding that many of those scenes will not add to the finished story, but will assist in photosynthesizing the fuel for the final scenes. And I keep reminding my clients that the goal is not a whole lot of dirt—as necessary as that is for results—or even opulent leaves.

      The goal is fruit.

    4. You can’t always control the outcome

      Sadly, there are things bigger and stronger than gardeners. We call it weather. We also call it wildlife, insects, fungus, and pure bad luck.

      Part of the craft of gardening lies in learning each of these challenges and the many techniques developed by gardeners throughout the ages to meet them. And part of it lies in learning to be good sports.

      Because life is not just gardening.

      Life is being alive, whether the gardening goes well or not.

      We talk constantly here on this blog—in my books, on video, on my advice column, even on Twitter—about the zillions of techniques of writing craft designed by writers throughout the ages.

      But part of this work lies in learning to be good sports. It’s not always going to turn out the way we want.

      We’re not always going to be up to the task of realizing the visions in our imaginations. And even when we are, the rest of the publishing industry (agents, acquisitions editors, marketers, booksellers, reviewers, other bloggers, and most importantly readers) are not necessarily going to cooperate.

      And that has to be all right—life is not just writing.

      Life is being alive, whether the writing goes well or not.

    5. Gardening is only worth it if you long with all your heart to garden

      Sometimes when I guest post I hear from the readers of other blogs (never here—I don’t think anyone following this blog has any question about the meaning of the work we do) that I seem to expect an awful lot from writers, when they’re really only in the game to make big bucks with this new self-marketing gizmo about which everyone talks so much.

      “I’m only writing to finance my real love,” I hear, “competitive afghan-knitting or professional spelunking or entreprenureal self-marketing or, you know, my art.”

      And I respond with enthusiastic, heartfelt encouragement for them to do what they love.

      Writing is not a way to finance your real life.

      It’s not even a way to finance writing.

      In spite of JK Rowling, Stephen King, and Amanda Hocking, writing is and remains a passion. Writing is something we do not because it always bears fruit (it doesn’t) or because the big picture is a snapshot (it isn’t) or because the myriad details ever end (they don’t) or—certainly—because it’s possible to guarantee the results of our writing will turn out just the want we want (they never do). . .

      But because it’s our real love.

    Oh, people. We can’t ask life for more than that.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

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

    Because I’m a storyteller:

    1. Start innocently

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

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

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

    2. Prepare your patience

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

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

    3. Assemble your tools

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

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

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

      And it’s—um—glue.

    4. Apply force

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

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

      That one was stuck too.

    5. Take a chance

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

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

    6. Duck

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

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





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

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

    He called it Where the Hell is Matt?

    And he released it on the Internet.

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

    He called it Where the Hell is Matt? 2006

    And again he released it on the Internet.

    Then something utterly extraordinary happened.

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

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

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

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

    He called this video Where the Hell is Matt? 2008

    And my husband found it on the Internet.

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

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

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

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

    Where the Hell is Matt? 2012

    Happy Summer Solstice.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

    1. He does not like to share

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

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

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

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

      Writers envision shareable material built out of words.

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

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

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

      Yeah. That’s my cat.

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

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

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

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

    3. He can’t take deviation from his routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4. He poops in the car

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

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

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

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

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

      Writers—don’t poop in your cars.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

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

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

    He’s my inspiration.

    1. He is undeterrable

      When he wants something, he gets it.

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

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

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

      Until we get what we want.

    2. He knows what he likes

      Specifically, what he likes is lying on my shins.

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

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

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

      But because we like it.

    3. He’s passionate

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

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

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

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

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

      Writing makes us purr.

    4. He doesn’t mind complaining

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

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

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

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

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

    5. He trusts his own judgment

      Oh, it’s so easy to get derailed. It’s so easy for us writers to doubt ourselves and begin to wonder whether or not this whole business of writing is not just an inanely bad idea. But not him. He makes decisions about his life and follows through on them, no matter how hard I try to convince him he’s wrong.

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

      Then that is what he does.

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

      Then that is what he does.

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

      Then that is what he does.

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

      No.

      No, we have not.

    6. He spends practically all his time in dreamland

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

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

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

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

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

      Oh, yes.

      A writer should be so lucky.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    I wrote this one day a long time ago out of sheer, overwhelming gratitude for my craft.

    And you know what?

    I’m still grateful.

    1. You have all the tools you need

      They’re right there at your disposal: the world, your five senses, literacy, a brain. You will never need anything more.

    2. All you have to do is be a recorder

      Record, as faithfully as you know how, the world around you as you perceive it through your five senses. Even one or two senses will work. Even one.

    3. The more you do it, the more you love it, the better you get at it

      The attention you pay to it makes it flourish. Your passion for it feeds it. Over the course of your life it becomes exactly what you, personally, need it to be.

    4. Writing is a human activity

      It is one of the gifts the gods have given us just for being us. The more you write, the more human you are. The more you reach out to other writers, the more human your world is.

    5. You are not your fiction

      When you create a fictional world, you are multiplying your experience of life. You get to be someone else, living another reality, and at the same time still be you. The more times you multiply your life, the more living you can do in this brief handful of years you have been allotted.

      But the real you, in your real life. . .that’s the one that counts. And no matter what happens in your fiction, you will always have that.

    6. You are not alone

      Now more than ever in history you are surrounded by others—thousands of others—who also love this craft that you love. And the Internet gives you a way to be in touch with as many of them as you like, which is something writers have never, ever had before.

      The community of writers in your lifetime is mind-boggling. Your literary soul mates are out there.

    7. The creation of fiction gives your heart depth

      The exploration of the world through the lens of your individual perceptions and choices makes you a better person.

      Inside every writer burns the wild, unreasoning, piercing hope that life can be transformed through experience into something more than what it seems to be.

      We can transcend the madness.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Many years ago I used to hang out all the time in the bars of San Luis Obispo, California. A good friend and I were sitting on the curb outside our favorite dive with our feet in the gutter one night talking deep in our cups the talk of life.

    “Victoria,” he finally said, “we’re poet drunks.”

    “Mark,” I said solemnly, “we’re not poets.”

    It wasn’t strictly true—I was, in fact, a poetry major at Cal Poly State University at that time—but we laughed anyway.

    Hemingway hunching over his typewriter with whiskey at his elbow, Faulkner holding court grandly drunk when he came to New York to see his editor, Fitzgerald going so white when the booze hit that Hemingway thought he needed an ambulance, Raymond Carver and his wife and friends hashing over the meaning of love as they drank, Jean Rhys in her borrowed cottage in winter mourning the lost past over a bottle, James Thurber blind and hysterical with delerium tremens at the end of his life, Jack Kerouac deliberately drinking himself to death when the media named him a ‘beatnik’ instead of an artist. . .

    We all know the myth.

    1. We write to explore our worlds

    2. Probably all of us poor misdirected writers have, at one time or another, walked the streets of midnight alone with our fists in our pockets, our chins in our coat collars, our footsteps ringing in our ears. We’ve all looked through lighted windows as we passed, at life going on inside without us—all the strangers, all the stories, all the gestures and interactions and words and unspoken messages, the devastating secrets that will never be told.

      We’ve all wondered about our own isolation, our own internal sargasso seas.

      And we’ve taken those images and experiences and questions home with us and tried to work with them in the words on the page, which is the only way some of us know how to work with things.

      Yes, the streets outside your house are your world, and if you’re smart you spend some time every week out there with a notebook and pen jotting down descriptions of the people and places and things you see, the telling details of your vivid life.

      But then you have to take those notes home and put them them into your stories.

      Practice recording life as you live it until you can make it utterly vivid even in stories that well up without your permission from your subconscious.

      This is the bedrock of what it means to you to be alive.

    3. We write to create tribe for ourselves

    4. Writing is about finding others who see life through the same inexplicable, convoluted, bizarre lenses that we do.

      When we go to bars we go to deaden ourselves to the differences between people so that we can feel bonded to pretty much anyone who wanders in and appropriates the barstool next to us.

      “I know egxactly what you mean. I have always tripped over my shoelaces too! hic!

      I’ve sworn blood kinship to people I had nothing more in common with than the cheap cans of beer we both happened to have in our hands.

      We, as human beings, are truly that desperate for tribe.

      But when you stay sober and write fiction, you find extraordinary, magical characters blossoming right out of the pages—people who make jokes you find hilarious, who suffer tragedies that break your heart, who fascinate you in just the way you long to be fascinating, who feel and think and act exactly like you do.

      You love them! They totally understand your world.

      And the deeper you dig into your own idiosyncratic take on the details and convolutions of life and bestow those unique qualities upon your characters and plots, the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become.

      And the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become. . .the more other people—total strangers—recognize them as part of their own tribes.

      This is the human glue of fiction.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • 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 entirely and completely about slipping those ole wallets out of readers’ pockets.

      Successful authors are pressured to churn out more and more 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 go straight to the presses without editorial interference—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 Maxwell Perkins, wonder-editor 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 P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

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  • 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 P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    I don’t really have an introduction for this. I’m just going renegade on my own blog and talking about blogging instead of fiction today.

    1. It’s a playground

      Remember in grammar school when the bell would ring and everyone’d spill onto the playground at once and the volume of voices would be simply deafening? And you had to work your way through the crowd to find your friends—who maybe were in different classrooms—and then go off to your designated favorite spot to play?

      But you first had to make those friends, and you had to discover that designated favorite spot?

      That’s the blogosphere: a playground the size of the entire planet. At eternal recess.

    2. It’s a cocktail party

      I used to go to a lot of parties in my twenties, and I spent quite a few hours sitting in the corners of people’s living rooms watching everyone else visit in states of great animation. They all looked like they were having such a good time that I never really noticed the other people sitting in the other corners.

      Eventually I’d figure out where the kitchen was—there’d be a stream of people going in and out like ants—and I’d go in there and get a drink. And since getting a drink is one of those social things people do with strangers, sometimes I’d bump into some other poor soul who had also come to get a drink because they didn’t know anyone.

      And we’d sit down on the floor together and visit in a state of great animation.

    3. It’s a railway station

      If we stayed in the kitchen long enough, other lonely people would wander in. We’d hail them from the floor, and they’d sit down with us.

      Then someone else would come in. And someone else. And the party in the kitchen would be bigger for awhile.

      Then someone would leave to use the bathroom and never return. And someone else. And someone else.

      This back-&-forth would go on all night.

      Sometimes for days.

    4. It has historical precedence

      In the nineteenth century, bloggers were called pamphleteers and they had to pay for their own printing. Then they’d run out and distribute their pamphlets all over the city. People would read them and write angry or appreciative letters to the editors of the newspapers.

      And the pamphleteers would rustle up the cash to pay for another printing. Huge, long, involved debates went on this way.

      History in the making!

    5. It is addicting

      Because blogging is almost free, the one serious constraint to unlimited opinion-making is now gone. And once you develop an opinion-making voice and get involved in an on-going community of opinionators, the conversation becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

      You realize blogging not only has historical precedence, it is a historical precedent.

      You are part of history.

    6. There are too many bloggers out there to follow all the ones you want

      Which makes it a little sad when it turns out you can’t possibly keep up with everyone you want to keep up with, because you have a livelihood to make and a mortgage to pay, so you still wind up spending most of your time working.

      But you know the conversation is going on out there, with or without you, and you rush into the kitchen every now and then just to find out whether or not they’re playing kickball.

    7. People will swipe your stuff

      Yes, as in all walks of life, there will always be someone who wants credit for being part of the conversation but doesn’t have anything interesting to contribute. So they lift material from the sites of people who do.

      NOTE: I do not mean quoting a paragraph or two with a linkback, which is intended to serve as the jumping-off point for discussion or to interest readers in a blog post you just really, really like. That’s all good clean fun. I mean lifting most or all of a post without so much as a by-your-leave.

      There’s no point to it. Why would you want to lift from someone when you could simply ask permission? Or, better yet, just enjoy what they have to offer where it already is?

    8. You have protection

      Some people do this because they don’t understand the blogosphere. Thousands of newbies start blogs every day. (I did it once, too.)

      And some do this under the mistaken assumption that the Internet is anarchy and there’s nothing you can do about it if they behave badly toward you. I call those people “rancid peanuts.”

      Fortunately, they are wrong.

      My sys admin knows to contact an ISP and have a chat with them about one of their hosted sites. ISPs are usually really nice about simply removing swiped material, and they can get quite annoyed at bloggers who make a pain of themselves by swiping material repeatedly or from various bloggers. (For the record, it’s not a very good idea to get your ISP annoyed at you.)

      But ISPs consider it good form for us to send the site a Cease-&-Desist letter before we get around to contacting the ISP. “Cease” means “knock it off,” and “desist” means, “I said knock it off.” *

      Of course, we always send a very friendly little note before a Cease-&-Desist letter, just saying, “We notice you have posted stuff that’s copyrighted. Please cut it back to the normal one or two paragraphs with a link. Thanks a bunch!” because we realize a certain number of these people aren’t consciously trying to be rude, they just don’t know what they’re doing.

      And that generally solves the whole thing. **

      * Definitions taken from the Dictionary of Victoria, which is not by any stretch of the imagination a legal reference, not even in my novels. Although it might be one day.

      ** And you can always get a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer—I don’t have the attention-span. But we never take legal advice from anyone who swipes my stuff. That wouldn’t make sense, would it? Nobody in their right mind takes legal advice from someone antagonistic to them.

    9. You will make friends

      This is, hands-down, the best reason to blog: because the blogosphere is chock full of other kids just like you who would like to join you playing in your designated favorite spot.

      I work from home, which means I don’t hang out with anybody around the water-cooler during the week (except my husband, who also works from home, and even then we wind up IMing each other from our offices next door to each other in our attic).

      Social isolation is becoming a phenomenon in modern industrialized society, especially in the US, where the 60-hour work week is, unfortunately, not uncommon these days. Americans have become used to socializing at work.

      Guess where they’re socializing?

      That’s right. Online.

    10. Most of your readers will be invisible angels

      And this is the second-best reason to blog: because, in spite of a handful of rancid peanuts out there, by far the majority of folks in the blogosphere are innocent and good-hearted, just looking to make friends. We read blogs, we talk about them with others, we pass the word around. Often we don’t have time to comment, but still, it’s lovely that we have time to read.

      I know you guys are out there. I’m out there too. We can wave to each other in passing—hi!

    11. Blogging is a ridiculous word for something that is changing the world

      It comes from the term “web-log,” which comes from a mash of the terms “World Wide Web” and “log.” A log is a kind of regularly updated record or journal. Sea captains use logs to record their progress at sea. Pilots use them to record their flights.

      Bloggers use them to record everything.

      It is a strange and wonderful phenomenon. What is it all about? How it is changing society?

      We don’t really know yet. But when historians look back on this era, they will look back on the meta-blog that is the blogosphere.





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

    —Helen Gallagher,
    Seattle P-I

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


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, INDEPENDENT FREELANCE EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

    Subscribe:

    No Comments


Authors


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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