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

  • 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, 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




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  • 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




    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




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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




    No Comments
  • 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




    No Comments
  • 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




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  • By Victoria Mixon

    There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the demise of blogging, which was brought home to me by a friend who said, “Just when I decided to start a blog I was told blogging is over!” At the same time we hear more and more in the self-publishing arena about How to Turn Your Blog into a Book. So it would appear, on the surface, that the whole blogging movement is segueing into a whole book-authoring movement.

    But is it?

    Well. . .

    Here’s the thing: it’s true that blogging is writing. It’s fabulous practice at developing confidence in your voice and ease with words, as well as focus, dedication, and a solid understanding of the importance of getting to the point (not to mention the inevitable epiphany that writing enough words to fill an entire book is a whole darn lot of writing).

    But blogging is a very specific form of writing. It has very specific purposes. And it has very specific readers.

    These are not necessarily the same readers a writer needs in order to succeed with a book.

    1. Blogging is conversation

      Blogs are about the writers, not the readers.

      They have to be.

      Free, largely invisible, and sometimes—when visible—lifted without permission by less-visible bloggers who don’t know about the DMCA of 1998, (most) blog posts give their owners none of the usual rewards of massive publication:

      • reputation
      • income

      Yes, some bloggers are famous. As Andy Warhol said in the 1960s (and without benefit of ESP regarding the Internet), “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

      However, most of us are not.

      And yes, some bloggers make money by monetizing their blogs. But unless you’re using your blog as the portal to a service or product others find both intensely helpful and worth a considerable amount of their hard-earned money. . .

      most of us don’t do that, either.

      And because of this—the basic lack of tangible rewards—blogging can really only be worth the blogger’s time if it provides intangible rewards. For most bloggers, these are the same rewards as those of unpublished writing: the thrill of self-expression.

      Oh, blogging is great fun. Whee, doggies! It was plenty of fun even when no one but my husband and one friend were reading.

      But then you folks started reading, and it turned into an extraordinary, unexpected party. All of you friendly and amazing people who love this craft I love, coming here to talk with me about it and saying kind things, all you people I never would have known otherwise!

      Suddenly I understand why people get up on soapboxes under Marble Arch in Hyde Park and wave their arms and pontificate to the crowds.

      Talking about what’s important to us is utterly invigorating.

    2. A book is a monologue that costs money

      Because books cost money, they are about the readers, not the writers.

      A little over a year ago, a guy named Paul Ford wrote a fascinating post about blogging: The Web is a Customer Service Medium. Boy, do I love Ford’s theory that blogging is all about addressing the question: “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But even more than that, I love the old James Thurber bio that describes him as someone always thinking about what he’s going to say when the other person stops talking.

      This is a typical blogger.

      This is, coincidentally, also a great blog reader.

      “Nice blog post,” the blogger hears (if they’re lucky). “You know what I think. . .”

      And thus begins the conversation between a blogger, a commenter, and all the other readers of that particular blog post.

      But this has nothing to do with reading books, where the reader is alone with the words and their own imagination, absorbing in utter privacy something for which they have paid hard cash. They don’t really care about the writer, beyond imagining that writer would, if they only knew, like to be their best friend.

      The writer doesn’t fit into the book equation. It’s entirely between the reader and the book.

    All of which is what we’re missing when we talk about the popularity or demise of blogging and How to Turn Your Blog into a Book:

    1. the difference in purpose between:

      • tangible rewards
      • intangible rewards
    2. the great, yawning abyss between the needs of:

      • the person who writes
      • the person who reads

    So when you’re wondering:

    • Is blogging over? or,

    • Should I turn my blog into a book?

    Try shifting that to:

    • How am I thinking about blogging and books in terms of my own needs?

    • How am I thinking about blogging and books in terms of the needs of others?

    • If blogging is quote unquote ‘over,’ does that mean it’s automatically not worth it to me?

    • Or. . .?

    “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

    I promised you guys a long time ago that whatever I learned from the fabulous Notebooks of Henry James I would share with you here. I haven’t finished it yet—it’s a heck of a long book, plus I got completely sidetracked by Shirley Jackson’s key to increasing tension over time, Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade’s face in v’s, and Stephen King’s coke addiction, not to mention my grandmother—but I’ve read enough to be able to share some wonderful stuff.

    So. . .please allow me to introduce you to the lessons I’ve learned from the indomitable Henry James:

    1. What passes for exposition in much of modern fiction is merely notetaking to the greats

    2. If you didn’t know how beautifully-rendered and meticulous-written James’ stories and novels are, you might mistake his notebooks for his fiction.

      It’s all there: the protagonist’s situation, character, relationships to the other characters. The secondary main characters and their relationships. The Hook, Development, and Climax (which he sometimes called the denouement, as did Gustave Freytag when he invented Freytag’s Triangle). The motivations for everyone’s behavior. The insights explored.

      All that’s left is the actual writing.

      For the record, James never stopped exhorting himself to write shorter stories that he did. His notebooks are simply riddled with announcements that he intends to limit himself “this time” to 5,000, 8,0000, or 10,000 words. And he seems to have been a consummate failure. I think it was The Ambassadors that was intended to be barely a nibble.

    3. Characters, even in the most ‘literary’ of fiction, always cause their own problems

    4. Very often, James started with an idea based on a story someone had told him at a dinner party. (He was quite the social butterfly of London, an upper-class American expatriate who complained, Camille-like, of the ceaseless whirl of invitations even as he hurtled constantly from taxi to taxi, doorstep to dining room.) His notebooks will say something like, “Lady M told me last night of the case of H de L,” and then elaborate upon the anecdote, commenting in almost audible mumbles, “I think if I were to make it someone young—a woman? a man?—and give them a reason for objecting to the elder woman’s ambitions, I might have a nice little vignette. Yes, I believe that would illuminate what I mean to discover.” Half the time he was mumbling to himself in broken French.

      Always, always he was working with the characters, delving into their conflicting interests and needs, piling pressures on them to see what they’d do. In long, luxurious discussion with himself.

      This could go on for weeks, months, years. He didn’t bother to start the actual writing until he had his conflicts worked out.

      He knew that the Climax of a story is its Whole Point. So he delved and delved and delved until he knew exactly what his Whole Point was.

    5. The more a writer develops their storytelling muscles, the greater a thrill it is to be a writer

      And the loveliest part of reading James’ writing process is the sense you get of his great pleasure in his expertise at spinning tales.

      I believe, of course, that he loved the actual writing. He was so adept with a well-turned sentence, so skilled with flashes of insights. What a joy to be able to produce such accomplished lines, paragraphs, and scenes! Although his writing in his later years became ridiculously convoluted, if you take the time to disentangle his sentences you see that he really was mining ore worth mining, creating refractions with his complicated sentences that could not be created any other way.

      But he also loved the planning. Oh, how he loved it.

      Because he knew this work takes two different parts of the writer’s brain: the storytelling part and the prose part. We cannot become writers by choosing to develop only one and neglect the other.

      This is a lesson it’s too easy to forget in today’s manic rush to publication.

      There is the art. And there is the craft.

    “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

    I’m still studying Shirley Jackson, and if you don’t know why you can easily find out. I spent all day doing a scene-by-scene analysis of Chapters 5 and 6 of The Haunting of Hill House that turned into line-by-line—that’s how fast she switches gears in her most profound passages!—and at some indefinite point degenerated into re-reading for the sheer pleasure of it. Utterly seductive writing. Of course, this all started with Stephen King and his 1981 overview of the twentieth-century horror genre, Danse Macabre, a whole world of learning how to push readers’ buttons.

    But this week I’m discussing with a client the writing of Dashiell Hammett.

    Speaking of shifting gears.

    Now, my client isn’t writing detective mysteries. In fact, she’s not writing any kind of mysteries. But she is writing wonderful, gripping scenes shaped largely around dialog, so we’re exploring the tools and techniques of drawing a reader fully into scenes, the way to balance of description, action, and dialog has altered over the decades, and the ever-growing modern dependence upon exposition.

    Sometimes writers hear, “You have to intersperse scenes with exposition because otherwise your story is too intense,” and, “There’s no formula, you have to just sense when to slip into exposition.”

    There are reasons for this advice, and the best way I know to ferret out the reasons for any fictional techniques is to study how the greats used them.

    So I went to Hammett, because I already knew that he changed styles drastically between The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, and in this change in style he illustrated a number of things:

    1. It is not true that stories without exposition are simply too intense

      Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon pretty much entirely without exposition—pure scenes. And it’s a heck of a fabulous novel.

      How did he do it?

      Well, for one thing, he did it in the 1930s, long before most of the publishing professionals who recommend exposition today were even born. Most of those people depend, not upon a deep understanding of the craft, but upon whatever they read on current best seller lists.

      Do those novels tend to be largely exposition?

      Yes, they do.


      Because current publishing market conditions require successful authors to crank out novels as fast as they can to feed the appetites of the dominant industry players, who are the marketers. This means, although an author might be able to visualize their story quite clearly and be adept enough with language to flesh it out in good, solid scenes, they don’t have time. They must be content with sketching the story in exposition—practically essay—and shoving it on down the chute.

      Now, does this phenomenon mean that exposition-heavy fiction is the best fiction?

      Absolutely not.

      The preponderance of cheap crap in our society does not make that stuff the best quality stuff in existence. It just means it makes money the fastest for the people who produce it. Not over the long haul. Only in the moment. Enormous waste.

    2. The modern shift away from description dates from the 1940s

    3. The difference between the opening pages of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, published only a few years apart, is simply amazing.

      On page one of The Maltese Falcon, we get a meticulous, detailed description of the face of Sam Spade. (Just as Hammett’s colleague, Raymond Chandler, devoted the first chapter of more than one novel to a meticulous description of a house.) Boy, did Hammett love the idea that Spade’s face is designed in a series of v’s! We also get a detailed description of how her dress clings to the body Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie, who plays a minor role in the story. And Hammett gives us the fake name of the villain—which will be discarded long before the end of the novel—and the fact that Spade is willing to see pretty much any ‘customer’ who’s a good-looking woman.

      That’s all the information.

      One page one of The Thin Man, on the other hand, we get half-a-sentence of exposition about waiting for ‘Nora’ (the protagonist’s wife, his comic foil and the source of his character layering—even, at one point, the author’s mouthpiece, exhorting both reader and other characters to believe the protagonist is a brilliant detective although he hasn’t actually shown himself to be anything but a wiseacre and a serious alcoholic—Nora appears in pretty much every single scene of the novel) to do her Christmas shopping (placing the story in the time of year, as the chronology of events over previous months is pivotal to the plot).

      Then we immediately get a little action, some sketchy description, and a bunch of extremely pertinent dialog. In the dialog, we learn the name of the murder victim as well as that of his daughter, who is the character speaking to the protagonist and a very major character indeed, the protagonist’s main link to the victim throughout the novel. We also learn the Backstory of how long it’s been since the protagonist last saw the murder victim (eight years), the victim’s current marital status with the girl’s mother, who turns out to be the main red herring of the story (divorced), plus the victim’s current notoriety in the newspapers, which is the source of everyone’s motivation to believe the man is bonkers and has suddenly taken to running around New York murdering people.

      Character motivation! The single most important character motivation in Hammett’s entire story.

      And a bit of genuine wit (which, aside from engaging the reader, neatly establishes the protagonist’s character).

      “Listen: remember those stories you told me. Were they true?”

      “Probably not. How is your father?”

      Almost all of these basic building blocks of the novel right there on the first page—and in dialog!

      Not exposition.

    4. The modern shift away from dialog is quite recent

      Actually, you can learn this from Armistad Maupin, whose Tales of the City of the 1970s and ’80s are almost entirely dialog. When sitcom-watching was first becoming a 24-hour American lifestyle, dialog absolutely took over fiction.

      But even before that, dialog had a long and respected history as the main staple of literature.

      However, now that hyper-emphasis upon making a quick buck, big-box outlets that churn books for maximum bookseller profit like Barnes & Noble and Walmart, and the omnipresence of blogging are all the focus of modern publishing, even dialog isn’t slick enough for those making the decisions high up on the industry ladder.

      Is this because dialog doesn’t work as well as exposition?

      Of course not.

      But exposition is just that much easier to read when you’re not really paying attention—say, while you’re texting your friends or watching your favorite television show or toying with your blog (or your own novel) or just standing in line waiting to buy a bunch of cheap crap.

      (I have a whole lot of things I could say about the relationship between this development and the rise of the dimestore novel in the 1930s, but it would be quite a serious tangent, so I will spare you.)

    5. The resulting dependence upon action coincides with the rise of stories dependent upon the physical rather than the perceptive

      And this is a really interesting development.

      What happens when you suck the bulk of your description and dialog out of your scenes? You wind up stuck with action.

      Thriller (violence). Romance (sex). The biggest-selling modern genres by a very large margin.

      Think about it.

    6. Therefore, for lack of most scene techniques, modern writing leans toward exposition

      And this is what happens when your novel is neither violent action thriller nor soft-core p*rn romance: you have no adrenaline-triggering actions left to put into your scenes. And you can’t write actions that don’t trigger intense pre-programmed adrenaline because, you know, that’s what everyone else is writing, and industry marketers want you to compete.

      So you wind up falling back on exposition—trying to talk your reader into caring about your characters and your story.

      “They’re really nice people!” you see yourself typing. “They’ve always been good neighbors, taken good care of their elderly parents, worn the right brand-name clothes [insert brand name here], watched the right TV shows [insert names], listened to the right music [insert names]. They’re very upset when bad things happen to them!” And then you write a nice little essay on the bad things that happen.

      Sadly, essay—not fiction.

    7. It is not true that a writer can’t plan where to put their lines of exposition

      Actually, it’s not true that a writer can’t plan any of the techniques we use. That’s just silliness. . .promoted by the people in the industry who have not studied literature and therefore have no idea why fiction works the way it does.

      “We don’t know!” Palms up, shrug. “It’s the magic of those wacky successful writers!”

      No, it’s not.

      It’s technique.

      1. Identify what steps your characters must take between the hook and the climax of every single long scene. (Don’t use too many steps, though. I know exactly how many you can get away with, and if you read my blog and books you know, too.)

      2. Identify what the little tiny climaxes of those steps are going to be.

      3. Write something really good for each of those tiny climaxes. (Cut out all the uninteresting stuff.)

      4. After each tiny climax, throw in a brief, vivid, perhaps unexpected action, a bit of significant description, or—if you must—a very nice line of essential exposition. A very nice line.

      5. Then hook the reader into the next step of the long scene.

      6. Develop it a bit and give it a little tiny faux resolution before the next little tiny climax.

      7. If it’s a short scene, do this and then hook the reader into the next scene.

      Lather, rinse, repeat.

    UPDATE: I’ve gotten more than one comment asking for the definition of exposition, so I answered the first (from Susan Kelly) on my advice column: Growing plot out of character, situation out of need.

    Please be aware that “exposition” is one of the most confusing of the terms used in fiction today, defined in different places as everything from backstory to narrative to data. It is none of these, although it can be used for the purposes of any of them. I take my definitions from the OED and the great editors of the twentieth-century, such as Maxwell Perkins, who told an author, “You have too much explanation, too much exposition,” which, he advised, should be cast into scenes.

    “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

    Now, you all know who Shirley Jackson was, and if you don’t you can find out from last week’s post about Stephen King. She was most famous for her story “The Lottery,” in which the citizens of a small American town draw an annual lottery to stone someone to death—a story that caused an unbelievable furor when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948.

    The most frightening aspect of “The Lottery” is that Jackson claimed a great many of the hundreds of letters she received were from people who wanted to know where that lottery was held and whether or not they could go watch.

    Wow. She didn’t just find the pressure points in her readers and press them. Her readers pressed back!

    A miracle of a writer.

    But what I love Jackson for best are her ghost stories. She wrote a number of novels with the sole purpose of making you wonder what the hell is going on. I haven’t read all of them—I’m savoring the anticipation—but I have read We Have Always Lived at the Castle, The Sundial, and of course the wonderful, classical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.

    I just analyzed Hill House this past weekend. Although Jackson didn’t plan her novels (and, in fact, seems to have dealt with their structure with a rather liberal hand), I discovered a few things I didn’t know before, which I find simply extraordinary.

    1. Anticipation and fulfillment follow a simple arc

      If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about structure, you know it’s a straight-forward three-act design. And in a ghost story (or any story in which you want tension), this design depends as much upon anticipation and dread as it does upon fulfillment of the reader’s expectations:

      1. threat is perceived
      2. threat is described
      3. threat arrives
      4. threat develops
      5. threat retreats
      6. threat wins

      Can you can identify the six elements of structure in that? It’s really simple.

    2. Push/pull mechanism operates most powerfully in extremes

      Weak elements lead to weak reader engagement. This is why thrillers monopolize the best seller lists. You can write a story of people who are only slightly annoyed with each other while mainly pretty happy with their lot. But if you make your reader (not just your character!) really nervous, then really entertained, then really nervous again—you’ll have them by the nose-ring.

    3. The key to increasing tension is adding elements over time

      In Jackson’s work, this means adding emotional strategies for the characters to explore, ways in which they struggle harder and harder to cope with their dilemmas. Yes, your protagonist has two fundamental needs to meet. And they might have two ways in which they’re accustomed to meeting them. But the reader wants to know what they do when they’re backed in a corner, which means when their normal coping mechanisms are taken away from them.

      At first Jackson’s characters are either funny or frightened. Those are pretty normal coping mechanisms. Later they branch out into aggression. Numbness. Terror. And finally, against everything the reader has always believed in, surrender. . .

    4. Humor pushes tension past the reader’s defenses

      Humor is extremely difficult to manage because it’s such a very specialized skill, but if you’ve got the touch you’re golden. And the best place for humor to exist is not in the voice (although a lot of writers today, particularly children’s writers, depend upon a generic humor in first-person narrative voice) but in the characters.

      Jackson’s characters are deep, conflicted, touchy, secretive, and most of all witty. Even at the height of the climactic drama of the novel, in which the four main characters cower together in a bedroom all night while the house rocks and spins and tears itself to pieces around their heads, she managed to slip in a tiny bit of humor in the dialog of two characters trying—with white knuckles—to alleviate the terror that’s threatening to become all-out panic. In that instance, the reader’s resistance to their suspension of disbelief is broken by the deftness of Jackson’s touch, and the scene suddenly becomes unbearably real.

      WARNING: Don’t try to insert humor into your stories without working long and hard at it. Failed humor is worse than no humor at all.

    5. There is no substitute for beautiful writing

      Seriously. I don’t care how many times you hear, “Genre writing doesn’t have to be beautifully-written. It’s only entertainment,” that is bull. All writing is about getting into the reader’s mind, and now more than ever we need writers who understand that readers are not slot machines—insert genre whatever, out dumps a bunch of money—they are human beings with complex and sophisticated relationships to the stories they love.

      Yes, you can wring money out of readers with cheap stuff dashed off the top of your head so long as you accidentally or deliberately plug into some current fad. I could be doing that instead of editing and probably make a much better living. But fads fade over time, and if you’re dependent upon them for your sales your income will fade with them.

      You cannot create stories that last if you don’t care about the writing of them.

      Do you know why we’re still reading The Haunting of Hill House over fifty years after it was published, but nobody knows the names of the bad genre authors of the 1980s and ’90s (which authors are now griping away their years at ordinary jobs, embittered by the shift in their fortunes)?

      The writing.

    “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


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. . .

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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. . .

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