Copyright copyright 2015 by Victoria Mixon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. Art & Craft of Writing Fiction™, La Favorita Press™, and the La Favorita graphic are trademarks of La Favorita Press. All other trademarks are trademarks of their respective owners.
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Art & Craft of Writing
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Art & Craft of Writing
“Buy it. I recommend it.”
—Preditors & Editors
“Mixon is brilliant. These are the lessons of a writing lifetime.”
—Roz Morris, bestselling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel
Table of Contents
6 Golden Rules for Life as a Writer
BECOMING A WRITER
Chapter 1: 10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days
BEGINNING TO WRITE
Chapter 2: 9 Ways to Find Time to Write
Chapter 3: 4 Essential Notes to Post Over Our Desks
Chapter 4: 2 Steps to Launching Headfirst into Writing
Chapter 5: 5 Pickles to Write Ourselves Into
WAYS TO MAKE OUR NOVELS
Chapter 6: 5 Ways to Make a Novel Inescapable
Chapter 7: 5 Ways to Make a Novel Helplessly Addictive
Chapter 8: 5 Ways to Make Our Novels Unforgettable
PERSONALITY TYPES OF WRITERS
Chapter 9: 6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers
Chapter 10: 6 Personality Types Who Will Succeed as Writers
Life as a Writer in the Real World
Please Review This Book
Art & Craft of Writing Series
About the Author
6 Golden Rules for Life as a Writer
The real & the imaginary
It was 2009 and the blogosphere was in its first blush of youth when I started my blog on writing for my new independent editing business: Victoria Mixon, Editor & Author. My husband had been listening to a lot of talk about fiction over the dinner table for many years and was ready to make something happen with it.
So we did.
Now six years later, the blogosphere is an ambitious young adult in the prime of life with thousands upon thousands of blogs on writing by both professionals and amateurs.
The way in which we all use the Internet has altered drastically. Blogging—which was once just a type of journaling with photos, shared with any stranger interested—has morphed into a sophisticated form of communication more similar to the pamphleting of the 1800s than the daily captain’s ‘logs’ after which weblogging was originally named.
Many bloggers have found ways to make blogging their livelihoods, even in a world of increasingly urgent bells and whistles.
Many bloggers have cashed in their chips in the blogosphere and gone back to three-dimensional reality.
And I have now a collection of my most-popular blog posts containing the most essential things I know about fiction.
Unfortunately, these blog posts are buried in the hundreds and hundreds of posts that I’ve written over the years, so nobody but me knows they’re the most popular and get the most views.
Until now. . .
Welcome to my secret writer’s advice!
Together, these pieces have earned the majority of the approximately one million views of my blog to date. This is the very crux of what I have to teach about our wonderful art and craft: the secret advice behind all the work I do.
Thank you, all of you, who have made this such an exciting six years to be a blogger.
Thank you, everyone, who has read and commented.
And thank you, especially, to those special people with whom I’ve worked on their manuscripts: my beloved editing clients.
1. We’re not supposed to take it too seriously
If you only learn one thing about writing right now from me or ever from anyone, learn this: it’s meant to be fun.
It’s meant to be creative.
It’s meant to be about stretching our wings.
It is not meant to destroy our lives—it’s meant to thrill us to the very marrow of our bones.
p)<. If it’s not a novel, it’s a novella
p)<. If it’s not a novella, it’s a short story
p)<. If it’s not a short story, it’s flash fiction
p)<. If it’s not flash fiction, it’s probably a poem
Truly, we don’t need to worry about the length.
We’re not finished when we’ve cranked out a set number of words or chapters or pages.
We’re finished when we’ve told our story.
And if we tell it and we’re still rarin’ to go, we can always use that story as the Hook for yet another story. Or another, or another, or another. . .
p)<. If it’s an epic narrative, we might have a problem
On the other hand, if our story goes on for a thousand pages and includes most of the cast of Cats, we might have a runaway slime mold on our hands.
Not that this is a bad thing. But I hope nobody minds when it takes over the entire house.
2. Certain things don’t count
You know how some people cheat shamelessly on those exercises in which we’re supposed to write an entire piece in one sentence, littering their ’sentence’ with semicolons until we want to pass a federal law against gratuitous punctuational crime?
Be aware, people.
p)<. Gratuitous repetition doesn’t count
Her hand moved slowly, slowly moved her hand across the window pane, in a long, slow motion, moving slowly across the window pane of doom.
Repetition, unless used incredibly rarely and with only the most specific intent, puts readers to sleep.
And the whole point of writing a novel is. . .to keep our reader awake!
p)<. Excruciatingly dull action doesn’t count
I swung a left. And a right. And a left. And a right. And a left. And a right. And my foot came forward a little. Then my other foot came forward a little. And the rail rose up in front of me until it was against the sky. And I was flat on my back against the steps. The porch was all around me. I had to shift my hips to avoid getting tripped over. So I swung a right. Then I swung another left. And another right.
Action is fast.
That’s why action films are called action films.
We had better be able to fly our reader through that scene at top-speed, or it’s not going to read like action anymore.
p)<. Meaningless dialog doesn’t count
“Good morning. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Did you get my email?”
“Yes, I got your email. Did you get my answer?”
“Yes, I responded.”
You know what our reader wants to know?
What’s in the email.
p)<. Rambling, unspecific, cliché description doesn’t count
The dinner party was alight with gaiety and mirth, medium-sized, very attractive guests mingling with their voices murmuring in everybody’s ears, and the candles were lighting the room up.
One telling detail is better than ten details that just anybody could have used.
Two telling details are better than twenty.
Three telling details will sketch an entire, three-dimensional image in the reader’s eye more powerfully than infinite paragraphs of nothing-special.
And once we’ve put an image into the reader’s eye, our story will live on under its own power in the reader’s imagination, without any more words.
p)<. Interior dialog reiterating action and exterior dialog doesn’t count
I couldn’t believe I’d just watched them run down that slope and jump into that water. I could see them still splashing. Yes, I thought, she was still wearing the headdress. Yes, he was still singing “Tea for Two.” I wondered what they would do next. They really were all wet.
Interior dialog is almost always impossibly dull.
We need to give that character something to do and then show them doing it.
p)<. Explanatory exposition doesn’t count
They had finished eating the dinner they’d started earlier, and he wanted to know why she’d said she’d been run out of town on rails. Could it have something to do with what she was talking about when she whispered behind her hand that time that there were knots within knots? He was filled with euphoria and also despair.
You know why we don’t have to explain to the reader what just happened? Because they were there! Unless they were asleep. In which case nothing we can say now matters.
And abstractions are simply exposition gone horribly wrong.
We won’t use them.
3. Certain other things count enormously
You know why genre fiction—’the people’s fiction’—grew up past so-called literary fiction over the last hundred years, until it took over the entire world of fiction like the roots of a giant aspen colony?
Because readers don’t waste time. They want excitement, they want it big, and they want it now.
We can write pretty much anything so long as we give our reader that.
p)<. Straight-forward unexplained action counts
He stopped painting his toenails when the flowers fell off. Sparkly little sprinklers scattered all over the carpet, lifting and fluttering every time he’d almost caught a handful and shimmering out of his reach on the peculiarly warm breeze that blew in under the door. When she slammed in through the window, she hit the chandelier so hard it stopped the clock down the hall.
Honestly, nobody cares what happens. All they care is that it’s vivid, detailed, and unexpected.
The more unexpected it is, the more potential it has for further plot developments. Oh, boy!
p)<. Surprising, inexplicable dialog counts
“It wasn’t your bottle in the first place.”
“But there are eggs everywhere!”
“Besides which, bottles are outside the Law of Possession.”
“Listen, my Uncle Eunice threw up in that bottle.”
“What kind of name is Uncle Eunice?”
Characters speaking at cross-purposes drive each other crazy. And that’s how the reader likes them—chocked to the eyeballs on conflict!
When we can’t think of anything else to write, we write inexplicable dialog. It gives us tons of material for up-coming scenes.
p)<. Swift, specific description counts
The stars made her ears ring. When she landed on her knees, the mud was cool and reassuring, and rising mist filled the meadow with the bitter scent of crushed acorns.
What does it mean?
But it’s clear, it’s concrete, and the reader can experience those details through their own senses.
Fiction is nothing but an experience for the reader.
p)<. A single line of original, unexpected exposition is worth a thousand words
Even waxed wings couldn’t help her now.
If we don’t have a story to go with it, it doesn’t matter. The reader’s mind will conjure the story or an infinite number of stories—that’s the spark of epiphany that feeds our reader’s soul.
4. It doesn’t need to make sense, only be exciting
And this is the big secret: the reader is only interested in one page at a time.
We must make every single one a page worth reading—load it with tactile experiences, visceral action, thought-provoking dialog—and the reader will be happy.
It’s a good idea for us to keep a notebook at hand in which we can record particularly exciting developments as they occur to us. (He remembered crossing the Atlantic on the Ile de France in a past life! She tore out her kitchen cupboards because the gnomes were drunk and singing all night! They once got trapped on the rotating floor at the top of the Space Needle by stylish gun-runners!)
We can bring these back up later whenever we run out of inspiration. Writing our novels will never get old.
5. It’s waaaay easier if we plot it out ahead of time
Of course, if we want a story that we can turn into something we’ll be able to sell, we need it to make sense.
But that’s not hard. We just piece together a simple plot and give ourselves milemarkers to aim for at regular intervals, a series of main episodes that we know ahead of time will all hang together in the end.
6. It’s really about making friends
The truth is that when it’s all over and done with, and we finally write the last sentences of the climax scenes of our Climaxes, we’re often so tired of our manuscripts that we just want to put a match to them.
Either that, or we love them so much that we want to sew them into our pillowcases.
Whichever—they’ll be out of the way.
However, the people we meet who love writing in the way we do, the camaraderie of comparing wordcounts, the late nights of checking-in with each other to make sure that we’re not the only people in the world teetering on the brink of word-induced madness, the congratulations and shared pain and encouragement and empathy. . .
[_That’s _]what it’s about.
Long after we’ve come to grips with everything that we can (and did) do wrong trying to write our stories way too fast with way too little preparation and way too few skills, gotten over the shock, pulled ourselves together, and started on our next stories—our real stories—it’s our writing community that sticks around.
This is what makes our lives a better place to live.
Becoming a Writer
[10 Things to Do to Become a Better Writer
*in 10 Days *]
1. Spend one day being a troll
Let’s be as obnoxious as humanly possible. Let’s go around online arguing with people on their own sites, expressing opinions that they won’t agree with, picking fights we have no possible hope of winning, making complete idiots of ourselves.
And no hiding behind “Anonymous,” either. We must use our real names.
Then we’ll go back at the end of the day and read all of the responses, especially the ones that prove us wrong.
We’ll apologize sincerely. (This step doesn’t count if we skip the apology.)
We’ll endure the shame.
This is our crash course in publication.
Alternatively—if our moral code won’t let us be trolls—we must go to the last three people we’ve hurt in our lives and ask them to talk to us for as long as they want about how it felt to them. We won’t respond, just listen.
We will endure the shame.
This step is necessary to clean out the interior censor, the one who believes that there’s still time left to protect our reputations.
There’s no time left. We’ve already long-since destroyed our reputations with the ones we love, the people who really matter.
Welcome to the real world.
If we’ve never hurt anyone, we must put down our manuscripts and go apply for sainthood. We are the wrong kind of liar to be writers.
2. Spend one day being silent
We won’t speak. Not even when asked a question. We’ll point when our spouses ask where we keep the toilet paper. Smile and nod when our neighbors ask about our weekend.
We won’t email or text. Just be silent.
The actor Larry Hagman used to do this every Sunday for years on end, and he said that it was an extraordinary education in self-awareness. Of course, he informed his friends and family of what he was doing, so they wouldn’t think he’d lost his mind—we should too.
This step is necessary to clean out the interior egoist, the one who thinks that what we have to say is the most important thing to be said.
We have nothing all that important to say.
We can only record the world of our reader for them.
3. Spend one day as a student of reality
Let’s take a notebook and make a list of the most important locations of scenes in our stories. Then, beginning as early as possible, we’ll go to each location at the time of day our characters are there. Sit for at least an hour at each place taking copious notes. Note down every single fact we can about that location and the people in it.
Not impressions. Just facts.
The sidewalk is pale grey with oval splotches of charcoal grey one-to-three inches in diameter every foot or so and, when the sun gets to about 60 degrees, almost invisible sparks of rainbow light from bits of glass embedded in the concrete, more reds and blues than yellow. The woman who sells fruit at the corner is in her fifties with a slight double chin ending rather sharply in premature dewlaps and a dress with huge pinkish-brownish-greenish blossoms and what look like spiders, which hangs on her as if there were weights in the hem.
This step is necessary to teach us to write in our reader’s world.
4. Spend one day with song lyrics
Let’s pick one song and annotate every single line with random details that we can see or hear (or smell or taste or touch) from where we are.
We’ll make the details absolutely specific—not a book, but the green over-sized block-cut illustrated version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights lying open on its face; not a cat, but the grey-&-black striped elderly James Dean wannabe or the carrot-tip Siamese who smiles when he purrs.
We can feel free to throw in gratuitous imaginary details, so long as they’re neutral and not meant to sway the reader toward either positive or negative interpretations. If we feel the urge to sway the reader, we’ll use a detail bent in the opposite direction from where we want it bent.
We’ll do this with a handful of our favorite songs, then treat the annotated songs as Rorschach blots. Read them and take copious notes on what underlying connections we pick up. Swap the details around and do it all over again.
This step is necessary to teach us subtext.
5. Spend one day writing & re-writing a scene
We’ll make it a scene about confrontation, and we’ll write it the first time as though we were the protagonists and we were indisputably in the right.
Then we’ll write it as though we were indisputably in the wrong.
Then as though we were insane.
Then as though we were unbelievably boring.
Then we’ll write two scenes about different confrontations and cut-&-paste the characters’ lines into the opposite scenes.
We’ll read the first scene we’ve written and notice how appallingly self-congratulatory victims are to read.
We’ll read the second scene and notice that we didn’t entirely manage to make ourselves indisputably in the wrong—we’ll write that second scene over again, more honestly.
We’ll read the third scene and notice how hilarious non-sequiturs are.
We’ll read the boring scene and notice how much we rely on action and description to illuminate boring dialog—we’ll write that scene over again with the same action and description, but only 1/3 of the lines of dialog.
We’ll read the final two scenes and notice how much innuendo is buried in scenes at cross-purposes.
We’ll write the second scene over again, even more honestly.
We’ll write the boring scene over again with those 1/3 lines of dialog taken from one of the two final scenes.
We’ll write the second scene over again, even more honestly.
We’ll write all kinds of confrontation scenes, swapping characters indiscriminately when we’re done.
We’ll keep this up for the rest of the day.
This step is necessary to teach us hard work.
6. Spend one day on research
Let’s pick a handful of topics we know a little or nothing about and learn everything we can about them. Read articles. Take notes. Collate our findings. Write essays. Compare our conclusions.
We’ll look for the essential truth about reality underlying two of our topics and write an essay on that. Do the same thing for two others. And the same thing for two others. And the same thing for three. And four. And five.
We’ll write an essay taking the most fascinating fact out of each topic and linking them into a single theory of everything.
Voila! We’re Einstein!
Then we’ll write a counter-essay proving ourselves completely wrong.
This step is necessary to teach us deeper understanding.
7. Spend one day watching children
Children are people confused by their world, without adequate skills to either communicate or function within the social norms of their tribes.
We’ll watch a family—preferably several generations—and pay special attention to the children.
We won’t be creeps! This should go without saying. We must watch children with their adults.
We’ll take copious notes on how the family members interact with each other—how they treat one child, how they respond to that child’s efforts to communicate and function, how they communicate with each other about that child, how they communicate with each other with no reference to that child at all.
We’ll take notes on how the child attempts or does not attempt to engage with them.
Now we’ll take the same notes on the other children, along with notes on why we picked that first child first. Sketch choreographic notes on how the members of this family move around each other in space.
We’ll write a scene in which a character is an adult using the child’s tactics, only in adult language and with adult understanding. We’ll read it and analyze the subtext between the characters.
We’ll write it again with a different character.
And again with a different character.
And again with the same character but a different outcome.
And again with the same character but a different outcome.
We’ll write it as though it were our one chance in life to communicate what we need to communicate.
This step is necessary to teach us compassion for every single character we create.
8. Spend one day crying
Face it: we’ve got a lot to cry about. Sometimes life sucks. And putting all the effort of not crying into our work makes it superficial and dishonest.
So let’s go ahead and cry as much as we can out of our systems. Reach the anger underneath and go punch a tree. Reach the pain under that and go bandage our hands. Take a good look at the damage while we’re bandaging it.
We did this to ourselves.
We punched a tree. Don’t we feel like prize idiots?
We must learn to love the prize idiot who punched the tree. We must know how to love prize idiots who rush around getting themselves into trouble, without ever feeling sorry for them or allowing them to feel sorry for themselves.
This step is necessary to teach us courage.
If we don’t have a lot to cry about, we must put down our manuscripts and go apply for a job in a nice, safe cubicle somewhere. We’re the wrong kind of fantasizers to be writers.
9. Spend one day laughing at things that nobody thinks are funny but us
This will feel like hysteria brought on by all the crying, which it is.
We’ll laugh until we can’t talk. Laugh until we can’t breathe. Laugh until tears are running down our faces. Laugh in front of loved ones to whom we can’t explain the joke. Laugh in front of strangers until they raise their eyebrows and shy away.
This step is necessary to teach us to accept what each of us brings to the craft of fiction. We must claim our own utterly unique and bizarre natures. This is the only new thing we have to bring to storytelling, the one thing—paradoxically—that our reader comes here seeking.
If we don’t have anything to laugh about, we must go back a step and cry some more.
10. Spend one whole day being grateful
At our house, we sometimes do a gratitude ceremony around a lit candle at the dinner table, each of us taking a turn to say what we’re grateful for. Dinner guests wonder if they need to be grateful for only important things, and we say, no, no, anything at all. We used to have one friend who was always grateful for compost. Sometimes I’m grateful for flowering weeds or fingernail clippers. Sometimes our son—when he was very young—was simply grateful for the candle.
Let’s write long, rambling, specific letters to people who have made a difference in our lives. We don’t have to send them. Just get them down in words. And we won’t worry about making sense or communicating what we really mean. Just blither.
Let’s go up to people we love and look them in the eye. Tell them why our lives are better because of them, in very specific terms. Mention compost and fingernail clippers and candles, if they’re pertinent.
Let’s write letters to our characters.
Letters to our imaginations.
Letters of gratitude to ourselves about all the most dreadful aspects of our personalities without which we would not be us.
Remember that 1970s chain letter in which we were supposed to send cute underwear to the top ten people on the list and then sit around waiting for five hundred pairs of underwear that some unknown strangers thought were cute?
Let’s say, “Thanks for all the underwear.”
We’ll put our hands on our hearts and say to the world in general, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me all you wonderful, insane senders of underwear.”
Then let’s go keep our promise.
Beginning to Write
9 Ways to Find Time to Write
We all know what I’m talking about.
The number of hours that a writer can waste on the Internet would make even the most hardened computer geek’s blood run cold.
Here’s my #1 tip to getting work done, the one that carves out time in my schedule every blessed day so that my clients don’t gang up on me and appear at my door waving fistfuls of precious manuscript in righteous indignation over their heads.
You know the little doohickey with the floppy ears that plugs the blogosphere, Twitter, and Wikipedia into our computers like a cable plugging the Matrix into the back of our necks?
Reach right over and yank that sucker out.
2. Close our mouths
And a weird thing will happen.
Everyone out there will stop listening.
There we’ll be, sitting at our desk or kitchen table or armchair or porcelain throne with a head full of words and nowhere for them to go.
3. Plug our ears
But before we bring out our manuscripts or open our notebooks or click that golden Open button, let’s take a quick look behind us and all around.
Are we alone? We’d better be. Otherwise we’re going to have to roll up some little bits of tissue and insert them (very carefully!) into our outer ears. Or take a moment to breathe deeply and hum through our noses until we’ve forgotten all about the other people in the room.
Whatever we do, we won’t look up.
That only encourages them.
4. Watch the clock
What time is it right now? And what time can we expect to have the biggest chunk of time available today?
Let’s whip out a red pen and scribble that time on our hands. I write on the thumb part of the back of my left hand—always have, always will, even though twenty-five years ago I injured my arm and damaged a nerve there, so it feels kind of icky.
Now whatever else we do all day, we’ll keep one eye peeled. About half an hour before that time, we’ll start closing down shop. Take care of anything that might interrupt us—like kids with appetites—and shut down the airlocks.
We’re going into orbit.
5. Take advice
Then we’ll pick up a really good book on writing advice, something that makes our heads just want to detach from our necks and do a little dance across the room. I mean, a really good book. Something full of concrete, hands-on advice while also intensely encouraging and inspiring.
Let it fall open randomly and start reading. This is called divining, and it works for writing just as it works for oracles.
6. Doodle a name
If we get too absorbed in the reading, we’ll pick up a pen and doodle our protagonist’s name on something.
It doesn’t matter what—an arm, the margin of the book, our jeans, the back of a cat. The act of holding that pen and writing that name over and over links synapses in our brains and makes them start pumping juice toward the little grey cells allotted to that personality in our minds.
7. Drink tea
We won’t eat unless we’re starving. And we won’t get ourselves all jazzed up on caffeine or stupid on booze.
We’ll just make sure that we have something warm and comforting—which we can reach without looking up, like a swimmer taking a breath—before we sink back down into the imaginary places we’re exploring.
8. Zonk out
And if the noise in the room or in our heads is really loud, we’ll go take a nap.
This isn’t copping out. It’s preparing ourselves to stay up late after everyone else has gone to bed, after our part of the planet has turned off the lights and disappeared, when the quiet rises up around us like mist so that we can see our characters come walking or stumbling and crawling out of it toward us.
Then even if we try to do a runner from our writing at bedtime, it won’t work because we won’t be able to sleep.
9. Disappear. . .
. . .for a week up a river or a mountain, break a leg, lock the door and turn off the phone, get snowed in.
And if all else fails, do what I regularly do and just vanish into thin air. Leave the house. Go somewhere else. Trade homes with a writer friend and only communicate by phone.
We don’t want to back ourselves into a corner in which we actually injure ourselves unconsciously in desperation to escape our daily routines.
You know that feeling of being about to get sick and spend a day in bed, requiring a re-emptive strike to spend a day in bed in order to avoid getting sick?
We’ll do that.
4 Essential Notes to Post Over Our Desks
1. “What if. . .”
Let’s write down the “what if?” premise of a story. Then every time we look up, pondering where to go in a difficult scene, we will be re-oriented on our chosen path, kept within the bounds of the story that we intend to tell. We’ll make sure that there is not only an initial premise, but also a problem with that initial premise:
What if 1950s hair-dryers were the doorways to an almost-identical parallel universe where the truth floats in the air over people’s heads whenever they lie—but everyone arrives there hair-first, so when more than one person arrives at once the truths get mixed up when they collide?
1950s hairdryers = parallel universe of truth-words collisions
What if the world were secretly populated by a super-intelligent race that lives in fire and speaks a fire language that sounds to us just like popping and crackling, and forest fires were the result of psychotic episodes among the powerful politicians of their species? And the plucky members of a backwoods volunteer fire department discover this secret just in time to learn that the fire creatures have decided to wipe out humanity and start over again with a less dangerous species—but the fire chief is in the throes of an identity crisis in which they question the destructive influence of humans upon the earth?
Fire race apocalypse vs. environmental despair of fire chief
What if dogs were secret agents with the ability to solve international crime if they could only be distracted from sniffing each others’ tails all the time? And they were now, decades after Eisenhower first warned Americans to beware the military-industrial complex, finally positioned to reveal the source of evil that has been chiseling away all this time at American political stability—but the evil-doers have concocted a special drug to put into the agents’ food that make their own tails crack-level addictive to sniff?
Check Fido’s food for weird drugs!
2. “My protagonist needs. . .”
Now let’s write down the enormous, gut-wrenching, overwhelming need in our protagonist that fuels this story. What has this character devoted their entire life to obtaining—even if unconsciously? (Especially if unconsciously!)
Franky and Johnny need to consummate their love for each over the resistance of obstacles they create themselves in order to overcome their own fundamental terror of nihilism.
F & J need to overcome obstacles re: fear of nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman needs to prove his mother’s creepily-possessive faith in him by becoming the most financially-successful used-car salesman in the blogosphere.
Albert needs the most blogosphere used-car sales
Peony Surplus needs to reject the values of Buddhism with which she was raised, in particular the belief that destructive impulses must be tempered with humility.
Peony needs to rebel against Buddhist humility
3. “My protagonist also needs. . .”
Then we’ll write down the conflicting need that prevents our protagonist from satisfying their first need. Internal conflict is the heart & soul of fiction. For every need there is an equal and opposite need—this is what makes the reader turn pages:
Franky and Johnny are really, really, really good at creating obstacles for themselves.
F & J also need obstacles re: fear of nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman needs the emotional validation of his secret online identity as the revolutionary covert incest spokesperson, bringing support and healing to thousands of anonymous sufferers.
Albert also needs his online covert incest exposé
Peony Surplus needs to succeed at running her dead parents’ groundbreaking Buddhist think-tank that is the source of income keeping her little sister in the hospital on life-support.
Peony also needs to save her sister w/Buddhism
4. “My protagonist’s worst nightmare is. . .”
Finally, we’ll write down the worst thing we could possibly do to this protagonist in order to bring their two needs into opposition. This is the Climax that we’re aiming for:
Franky and Johnny lose their creative capacity to create obstacles for themselves and must face life together without protection against their terror of nihilism—just as they unwittingly uncover the plot to disable the secret agent dogs who are the world’s only hope of uncovering the secret evil that is bent on global domination.
F & J’s worst nightmare is: save world vs. succumb to nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman learns of the dilemma of the backwoods fire chief who is the only person in the world who speaks fire-language, and realizes he is the one person who can help the chief resolve the covert incest issues that his environmental despair masks—just when Albert’s used-car business rockets to the top of a global blogosphere competition to face off against their biggest competitor, in the used-car selling showdown to end all showdowns.
Albert’s worst nightmare is: save world vs. most used cars sold
Peony Surplus is given responsibility for deciding whether to sell the think-tank to her parents’ mortal enemies, who plan to turn it into a Tea Party marketing franchise, and get out for good, knowing she is putting a finite cap on the duration of her little sister’s life just as she takes a turn for the better, or to lead a seven-month meditation fundraiser in which she must lead meditation upon the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and Three Marks, as well as all 31 planes of existence, in order to give the think-tank a new boost in popularity—just when she is shot through a hair-dryer into the truth-telling parallel universe and collides with the Dalai Lama.
Peony’s worst nightmare is: rebellion vs. truth
Plus now her hair is all tangled up with the Dalai Lama’s. . .oh, wait—
That’s not a problem.
2 Steps to Launching Headfirst into Writing a Novel
We’re alone in a room with our keyboard. It’s 11:59 at night, the house is quiet, the street is quiet, the world is quiet. Nothing and nobody exists but us: us and the blank page.
We’re about to start writing our first complete novel.
Our fingers are poised. Our hearts are racing. We’ve never done this before.
Actually, we have—we’ve done it once, or twice, or even continuously every year since we were young (except the year our cat died)—but we’ve never finished. Or we’ve finished but we’ve never finished the actual novel. Or we’ve finished the actual novel, but it was. . .oh, the agony in our gut. . .garbage. It just petered out.
The second hand jumps, the clock ticks over, our fingers descend.
And our minds go blank.
We have no idea what we’re writing about.
Something matters to each of us more than anything in the world.
Is it a relationship between two family members who love and hate each other simultaneously beyond all reason? Is it the marriage we never got over? The pregnancy that came at the wrong time? The difference between our safe little armchair and the terrors of the mind that make our hair stand on end? A glimpse of someone trudging through snow—someone waving—someone standing at a window at dawn while a sleeper lies dreaming behind them?
Something in our hearts is running our lives.
We pick it out carefully and lay it on the desk next to us.
We’re going to write about it.
To whom does this thing happen?
Maybe we find it easiest to write about a character of the same gender as ourselves—which is the best choice for a beginner—or maybe we feel like exploring the heart of someone completely different.
Maybe they’re human, maybe they’re fantasial, maybe they’re historical, maybe they’re futuristic.
Each of us shares one essential thing with this character: whatever it is running our life, it’s running theirs, too.
Now we know what our protagonist needs. They need to not lose this one thing that matters most to them.
This gives us our Climax.
We’re going to take whatever matters most away.
How are we going to take it away?
Easy! We’re going to give them another need that’s completely and fundamentally incompatible with the first need. And at the Climax we’re going to put them in a situation in which they can only have one.
Which one will it be?
Now we know the path that we’re going to send our protagonist down.
What’s at the head of this path? What’s the first step they take out of their usual life—the life that, up until now, has not included this terrible loss—the hole in the road that they unthinkingly fall into?
This gives us our Hook.
We’ll let this one simmer right under the surface of our consciousness as we mull over the rest.
By the time we’re done with the basic storyline, we’re going to need a really good visual of those moments to start our story. We’ll come back then and plant a clue in that moment to the Climax. It doesn’t need to be obvious, but it must be something that will make sense when the character gets to the Climax.
“Whoa, it really was about that all along! How did I get so involved in the rest of the story that I forgot to see this coming?”
Now we know who our protagonist is, where they start, and where they end up. What compromise can we give them to lull them into a sense of false security?
This gives us our Faux Resolution, which occurs right before the Climax.
What can we hand them in order to pretend, “It’s not going to come to the Climax, honey. You’re going to get away with not facing your demons, after all”?
Now we know how our protagonist enters this story and what Faux Resolution they’re going to get. So we give them a push. Our Hook forces them to do something to protect themself, but that’s going to turn out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.
Why? What are they going to bring down on their head by doing this?
This gives us our first Conflict.
We’re going to need three good solid ones, and they need to get worse and worse and worse as we go along. We’re spelling this poor protagonist’s doom.
And as we spell it, we’re giving this protagonist the chance to show their stuff again and again and again. We knock them down, pick them up, knock them down again.
We’ll be thinking, as we write, about:
What strengths does this character have, what weaknesses, what complex, contradictory, ultimately human mix of traits? What’s going to keep leading them into trouble and dragging them back out of it?
Everything our character does makes something else happen. Whatever it is, it turns out wrong, and this forces them to do something else. How does the chain form? After the third major obstacle, how do we let up on them a bit, allowing them a moment of thinking they’ve finally outwitted their fate?
Exposition is not tense.
So we always write in scenes. Scene after scene after scene. Jump from the end of one scene into the middle of the next. We don’t bother with transitions. Just keep going, running along with this plot, pushing these characters into problem after problem, letting them bail out again, only to fall into even deeper water.
As we work our way from one of the three major Conflicts to the other, we give them plenty of little conflicts and reprieves. Push them away, pull them in, over and over again.
Never apologize, never explain.
When in doubt, we add more tension. We make characters misunderstand each other, make them uncomfortable, make them—likable as they are—screw up.
If all else fails, we drop a piano.
The reader reads to learn something that they don’t already know.
We writers write for the same reason.
Wherever we go with our story, whatever we do to our characters, however inevitable the Climax, we’re writing this to learn about being human.
This is why we don’t plan the Resolution—the way in which the Climax shakes down.
We haven’t written this story yet. We don’t yet know how it all shakes down.
When we get to the end of the first draft, and we’ve finally written that outrageous Climax, and we’ve got our protagonist on the floor in the headlock of the angel—then we can think about our Resolution.
What did we write this novel to learn about being human?
That’s still beyond our horizon.
Most of all, we must remember: in writing a first draft it’s okay to cheat. Novels run from 50,000 to 90,000 words and more, and this doesn’t count the 25-75% that we cut when we go back to revise. (We’ve got to throw it on the threshing floor before we can see what’s wheat and what’s chaff.)
If we get to a place at which we know that something has to happen, but what we really want to write is what happens after this, we use a placemarker. I put mine in ALL CAPS so that they’re easy to find later. Or a row of XXXX’s with notes on the missing piece. Or fire-engine red.
We keep moving. The best scenes—the keepers—are the ones we simply can’t wait to write.
From our Hook to our Climax: this is what we’re up to. Characters in scenes. Forgetting about the reader. Just examining human life, in all its terrible, beautiful, significant details—examining it with a magnifying glass.
This is writing.
5 Pickles to Write Ourselves Into
As we know, there are more ways to make a mess of our manuscripts than angels on the head of a pin. So I’m not going to try to name all the angels here, just some of the main ones that I see crop up repeatedly in the work of fresh, innocent, hopeful aspiring writers.
1. Too many protagonists
Omniscient narrator: everyone wants to do it. Nobody knows how. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald made a hash if it.
So the innocent aspiring writer tells themself, ‘I just go into the point-of-view of whomever I’m interested in at that part of the story.’
And the next thing we know, the reader is asking themself, ‘What ever happened to the guy with the headache on page one? Why have we never heard again from the woman with the mohawk? Since when does the parrot get a say in all of this?’
It’s everybody’s story, which means it’s nobody’s story, which means the reader has no one to identify with, and the reader’s real life echoes louder in their head than the call of our story.
We must pick a protagonist.
If we’re designing two entirely distinct and separate subplots to weave in and out of each other, we can pick two. If we’re designing three or four distinct subplots, we can pick three or four protagonists (as Carson McCullers did in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and William Gibson did in Mona Lisa Overdrive), but we’d better be darn certain that we need all those subplots. And with this many protagonists, we’ll have to pick a primary one.
Then we stick to them like glue. We don’t have to live inside their head with them. That’s simply a lack of personal space. But we must make sure that this character is the only one who gets a narrative perspective if we do zoom in for a close-up.
Everyone else must shut their yap.
2. Sympathetic villain
This is a by-product of too many protagonists: the villain becomes the reader’s favorite.
How does this happen?
Easy! The reader is fascinated by characters with powerful internal conflict. This is why they read: ‘What if someone just like me—amped to the nu-nu’s on conflicting needs and desires without adequate resources to achieve any of them—were to land in the hottest of hot water?’
They don’t want to live through it. They want some imaginary character to live through it on their behalf. Vicarious triumph! It’s all the rage in fiction and has been for four hundred years.
So we give the reader a protagonist with only goodness inside, struggling courageously in defense of the brave and the free.
And we give them an antagonist, a seething bundle of angst and outrage and despair, determined to bring down the brave and the free because, goddammit, they deserve it!
And the next thing we know we’ve written Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and our reader identifies with the guy underground.
Instead, we must choose our protagonist and then pile them sky-high with all the good and bad traits, the empathy and the greed, the sorrow and the malice, the heroism and the self-sabotage that we have at our disposal.
We make them fight themself. Make them lose. Make them rise from the ashes, and always give our reader the fleeting, contradictory, anguished hope that this time it’s going to be for good.
3. Book report instead of fictional dream
This is a simple one to fix, but it’s a ton of work, which is why it turns up in so many early-draft manuscripts.
It’s not a novel, it’s a synopsis.
A novel is set almost entirely in scenes: action, dialog, description—characters moving and speaking and suffering and transcending in realtime.
A synopsis tells the reader in exposition what’s supposed to go into those scenes.
Our work as a writer is to give our reader an experience of life. They don’t get an experience of life from reading a book report. If it’s a really, really great book report, it just makes them want to read that book.
We must write that book.
4. Endless climax
We have so much to say.
There’s so much that needs to go into this Climax in order for the reader to get the full, shattering impact of our vision. There’s so much more that doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel. We’re scrambling to pack it all in. It goes on and on and on. . .but we don’t notice that because, you know, we love this stuff!
Power by definition hits hardest when it hits the smallest surface—which in fiction means the fewest number of words.
The craft of fiction is the craft of deftly dropping addictive hits of power into our manuscripts at regular intervals in order to keep our reader hooked and salivating, building their addiction, until they’re so needy for our Climax that it takes barely a handful of words to blow them sky-high.
Henry James could do it with one word.
We must strive toward Jamesism.
5. Garbled resolution
And hot on the heels of the Climax that never ends comes the Resolution that makes no sense.
The reader has stuck with us through 70,000+ words, hundreds of pages, soaking up those addictive hits of power until their pump is primed like nobody’s business.
And we give them. . .what?
A[_ limp noodle?_]
This happens most often because the writer has tried to plan out the Resolution from the beginning. We’re not writing about our characters’ worst nightmares, we’re writing about our own sweetest dreams.
But readers have their own dreams. Truly, they’re not all that interested in ours.
So we must always, always write toward our Climax. Keep our sights on the greatest possible challenge to our protagonist’s needs. Force the protagonist to face their biggest demons. Squeeze blood from their stone.
How this all shakes down in the end is so incredible and profound that we can’t possible predict what it will be until we’ve seen how our characters cope with their nightmare. We’re writing our stories to learn for ourselves what happens to someone who’s had blood squeezed from their internal stone.
And we can’t teach our reader something that we haven’t learned yet.
So we write.
Ways to Make a Novel
5 Ways to Make a Novel Inescapable
How do we design a Hook that gets our reader’s imagination in a half-nelson and simply won’t let go?
Curiosity killed the cat, and it will kill our reader too, and they will love it.
That’s how good our surprise must be: worth trading their life for. Because they actually are giving up a piece of their life to us—hours of time that they could spend doing something else—and they will never get that piece back again.
We must make it worth their while.
What on our first page is the reader not expecting to see there? (We never try to gross them out—surprise will be quickly superseded by repulsion, and that’ll be the end of that.) What have they never seen on a first page before? This is called “fresh” and “new,” and it is the Golden Egg for which all agents, editors, and readers spend their lives hunting.
Even further, what is the whole point of our Hook—which ‘whole point’ is the climax that we’re going to reach at approximately 1/8-1/6 of the way into our story? What in the whole point of the Hook shows just how dreadful of a mess our protagonist has gotten themself into? How is it a real, head-spinning surprise? What does our reader simply not see coming? What is the anti-thesis to the expectations that they’ve been building ever since our first page gave them a whirl for their money?
First page: Point
Hook climax: Counter-Point
These are the two main threads running through our story. The tension between them, which must be as powerful as humanly possible, is what keeps our reader on the edge of their seat.
And the moment at which Point and Counter-Point finally collide is going to be (way, way, way down the line at the Climax of our novel) the whole reason we’re writing this.
The thing about curiosity is that the reader doesn’t know what the heck is going on.
And they love that!
Amateur peer critiquers are always telling each other, “I don’t understand what’s going on here.”
Of course they don’t.
That’s why they have to keep reading!
Ever wonder why thriller is one of the highest-selling genres out there?
Because curiosity is the single greatest motivation for reading that has ever existed.
Thrillers are stories in which the reader doesn’t know what’s going on. (Oh, why do those people in black keep trying to kill the protagonist I adore?) But they are intensely emotionally motivated to find out. (Fear! Excitement! More fear!)
What on our first page poses a question that the reader desperately wants the answer to, but can’t get without turning the page?
And what in the climax of our Hook is an even deeper mystery that the reader now can’t live without solving—but they can’t solve it without following our protagonist into the full exploration of their fictional nightmare?
The climax of our Hook is the moment in which our protagonist first becomes aware of the existence of both threads at once, making the danger that those threads will collide suddenly extremely real indeed.
Which, of course, leads us straight to conflict, the essence of fiction.
Our reader isn’t reading to find out how things are always just ducky for everyone.
Our reader is reading to find out what to do when all hell breaks loose.
What on our first page sets up conflict? It doesn’t have to be the single, overriding conflict that’s going to fuel this novel. That comes out of our Point and Counter-Point, which aren’t fully realized in contrast to each other until the climax of our Hook. But it’s best if the conflict on page one can be some microcosm or symptom of that single, overriding conflict. This is part of holographic structure.
Is it the bottle of whiskey on the table, in which our protagonist’s loved one will drown themself in the end? The bare feet that will trigger the silent escape that destroys our protagonist’s hopes? The cat that runs in front of the car that veers off the road and puts our protagonist in traction right when their dreams are about to be realized?
In this miniscule dewdrop is reflected the entire world of our characters’ hell.
And this is the final layer: we must take up residence in our reader’s brain and never move out again. We’re not just surprising. We’re not just mysterious. We’re not even just chock-o-block full of fabulous, riveting conflict and an endless series of quite intelligent and forceful attempts to resolve those conflicts.
We’re fun to hang out with!
Push our reader away with shock, fear, anxiety, mystery.
Pull them in with reassurance, strength, entertainment (humor, if we can!), answers.
We’re secretive—then honest. We’re twisted—then straight-forward. We’re subtle—then heartrendingly naked.
This is charm, people. This is addictive charisma.
We don’t want to forget this detail. We’re going to need it later.
5 Ways to Make a Novel Helplessly Addictive
Before our reader gets to the part that’s unforgettable, we must make them turn all 250 other pages.
All of them.
And guess what? Two hundred and fifty are a whole lot of pages to turn!
We don’t want our reader to do it half-heartedly, either. We don’t want to write a “pity-page-turner.” We want full-contact addiction.
You know what’s the best kind of book to write? The kind that gets little rips in the bottoms of the pages from readers turning the pages too fast.
On every single page:
1. Make something exciting happen
Not just anything—no tooth-brushing, people—but something really unexpected but fascinating. Plot twists!
You know what nobody wants to read? A novel about people being boring. We must write fiction that’s thrilling and entertaining enough to get attention even in this era of inescapable stimuli. Fiction that our reader reads because they simply can’t help themself. And because they can’t help calling up everyone they know and bending the ear of everyone they don’t know about how those guys simply won’t be able to help themselves either.
Fiction that’s helplessly addictive.
2. Give one of our main characters. . .
. . .something brilliant, insightful, hilarious, heart-breaking, or completely baffling to say or do or see happening.
Does it take five pages to get through a transition scene, just characters sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and trading meaningless banter until Jeb comes back from the barn?
Do our characters have a tendency to say, “Hi! How was it?” “Fine. How was yours?” and exchange lots of information about their kids that has nothing to do with the plot?
Do their arguments about side issues tend to go on for-freaking-ever?
Something needs to happen on every page to make our reader’s eyes open wider.
She said what?
He did what?
There was a what?
What[_ came through the door?_]
We’ll weave in a new subplot thread (this is what subplots are for—to give us material to keep surprising our reader), mention a significant detail, write a fabulous line of dialog, give someone an exciting action, or introduce a fascinating technical subject.
John D. MacDonald teaches the reader how to live on a boat off the Florida coast. Dorothy Gilman teaches random retirement-age New Jersey housewife expertise adapted for espionage. John Gardner teaches cocktail party shenanigans of ancient Greece.
Then we’ll subtly shape the page around that eye-opener.
3. Give another character an unexpected response
And just when our reader thinks that they know what we’re driving at, we’ll throw them off-balance by linking it back to the interaction of the characters.
He said what in response?
She took it how?
[The what caused _]what[ to happen?_]
It’s not just that Travis McGee knows how to fix a broken sump-pump and gets himself filthy doing it for a friend. It’s that his friend’s face is grey with fear when he comes in to check on McGee’s progress. It’s not just that Mrs. Pollifax knows what can be accomplished with a bobby pin and a serious attitude. It’s that, even though she succeeds, the people she needs to escape come back early. It’s not just that Agathon gets drunk and plays hanky-panky with the wrong political opponent’s wife. It’s that when he does he discovers she’s got a secret agenda.
Every choice, on every single page, turns out differently from what we’ve lead our reader to believe.
4. Give our reader an experience they’ll remember
This is why exotic genre fiction is so popular, so that some really incredibly lame authors continue to make huge money with impossibly limp stories.
If we happen to know a lot about living someplace other than where our target audience lives, that’s wonderful. We’ll do our research and organize our notes. Meet lots of interesting people and watch them carefully to learn what makes them tick.
Then on every page, we’ll make it detailed. Make it authentic. Make it real.
But if we happen to live pretty much exactly the same life as our reader, that’s still wonderful! We’ll think long and hard about what it’s like to live that way. Go around taking lots of notes about it. Interview our friends about what it’s like for them. Stay up late drawing unexpected links between our experience of it and our friends’ experiences, links that we’ve never seen before, links that nobody but us could ever notice.
Then on every page, we’ll make it detailed. Make it unexpected. Make it authentic. Make it different from what our reader thinks it is.
On every single page: make it real.
5. End the page by making our reader curious
Now, we ought to notice something about these ways to make our story addictive: it’s a whole lot to pack into a single page.
Why, if we did all this on every single page, we’d never have room for anything else! None of the other stuff we’ve written, none of the extra description, the unimportant actions, the insignificant dialog, the explanatory exposition, the filler. . .
Yep, there it is!
And we ought to notice something else about all this, too: each of these ways either pushes the reader away (what just happened? why would that character react like that?), or pulls the reader in (that’s amazing that character did that! I love this experience!).
However, at the bottom of the page we don’t want our reader satiated, satisfied, sighing with fulfillment. No, we certainly do not. That all goes on the very last page. After satiation, you know. . .we’re done.
For every single page leading up to that last one, we need our reader desperate to satisfy their curiosity.
Where is all this heading? What are these characters all about? Why does the weaving in-&-out of the subplot threads feel so threatening, so promising, so intriguing, so inevitable?
This curiosity is why they simply can’t stop themself turning the page.
5 Way to Make Our Novels Unforgettable
Here’s the thing about storytelling: it has to have a purpose.
Why are we telling this story?
I mean, what’s our point?
If our point is that writing fiction is one heck of a fun and entertaining way to spend our leisure time, then I say, “Good for us!”
We’re having ourselves a field day. We’re enjoying life! That’s what it’s for.
However, if our point is that we expect to sell this story and make money off other people reading it, then I say, “Know thy audience.”
Thy audience is not entertained by watching us hang out at our desk laughing hysterically at our own in-jokes. They are not moved to weep when we get all blue inside. They are not cast off the rainbow into epiphany by us leaping to our feet yelling, “Eureka!”
They’re still sitting there stolidly waiting for it to matter to them.
And if we can’t give them that. . .well, we won’t be holding our hands out waiting for the cash registers to start ringing. They’re not going to.
There is only one purpose to storytelling, and that is to get to the Whole Point, which is the Climax.
So if our novel’s Climax is boring, redundant, more trouble than it’s worth—forgettable—then we have a problem that no amount of writerly hype can overcome.
This is the simplest technique ever, but aspiring writers rarely know about it. Resonance is that wonderful reverberating feeling inside the reader that makes their whole body feel like it’s been gong’d. Gonging a reader is putting them between two large brass gongs and giving it a hearty whangngngng.
Great novels always have resonance.
The reader reels back in their chair at the end shrieking, “That was [_toooooooo _]fabulous!”
Then they’re desperate to read it again. Or, better yet, to read the very next thing we write.
We create resonance by putting a subtle but clear clue to our Climax somewhere near the very beginning, then spending the rest of the novel drawing the reader’s attention away from it. This is why mystery writers have to put the culprit in the first 1/4-1/3 of the novel.
The simplest technique ever.
This is the part that pantsers love doing but rarely know they have to follow up on. You know what we call fuses that aren’t followed up on?
When we pants loose threads without knowing they’re supposed to be fuses, we get to the end of our story. . .and it doesn’t end in all the fuses coming together to make an almighty explosion, but in us, personally, getting bored.
Sadly, the writer is the last person who ever gets bored.
Guess what this means? That’s right. All of our readers have already died of boredom and turned up their toes long, long before we finally meandered into our ad-hoc, how-can-I-get-out-of-this? ‘whatever’ ending.
That’s not a Climax.
That’s just a fizzle.
We can go ahead and amuse ourselves to the eyeballs with the fruitful, verdant abundance of our random imagination.
Lots of fuses! Boy, howdy!
However, then we must spend lengthy, intensive, brain-breaking hours figuring out exactly how all those wild ideas come together in the most thrilling, wonderful Climax ever, the reason that our legions of future fans are going to love this novel and read it again and again and again.
We all know about cause-&-effect, right? Because we’ve been listening to me rant about it for ages, on my blog, on my advice column, in my books?
The reader does not read for the honor of watching us sit around all of our days scratching and drinking (as fascinating as this might be).
The reader reads for logic. Their mind is a steel trap.
If a character were to have this personality, and they were to find themself in that impossible predicament, then how would they cope?
Every single event that we put into a story must be tied inextricably to the other scenes.
What’s our Climax? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that?
You know the old E.L. Doctorow saw about writing a novel being like driving a car at night where all we can see is whatever’s within reach of our headlights?
That’s actually reversed.
Writing a novel is like [_backing up _]a car at night where all we can see is whatever’s within reach of our taillights.
We all recognize this one, don’t we? Of course we do!
The reader stops reading when they stop being addicted to our story. When it stops surprising them. When their curiosity dies.
“What’s that? Something just fell out of me onto the floor. Oh. My curiosity. Dead.”
Not only must every single page inspire our reader’s curiosity anew, keep it fat & healthy, thrill it with unending surprises, keep our reader helplessly addicted to us and our story. . .our whole reason for telling this story had darn well better be the most surprising, curiosity-inspiring, addictive part of the entire thing.
“How’d this author do that?”
We need the reader desperate to keep reading our stories to find out: “What kind of magic are we working here?”
At the same time that our Climax must be surprising, it must also be inevitable. Deus ex machina is cheating. And readers with minds like steel traps hate cheaters.
Do we want our reader to hate us? No, we do not. Not if we want their money we sure don’t.
But how do we make our story’s Climax both surprising and inevitable? Both unexpected and familiar? Both shocking and ringing impossibly true?
All three parts of the braid working together: resonance, fuses, impeccable, inescapable cause-&-effect.
Lock it in.
6 Personality Types Who Will Fail as Writers
So let’s be brave. We’ve forced our protagonists to face their worst nightmares.
Now let’s face our own.
We’ve all seen them out there. We could hardly miss them. Ever since tens of thousands of new writers began launching themselves into this craft every day, they’re everywhere: the writers who will fail.
1. The whiny
Those who throw hissy fits when the industry is hard on their tender egos.
We all get our feelings hurt.
All of us.
But we don’t have to throw fits about it.
These are the people who write back to agents who send them rejection letters. You know how many acceptances those people get from those agents once they’ve let them know that they’re not taking rejection lying down? I can tell you in words of one numeral.
Now that the blogosphere has made good on Andy Warhol’s promise, “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” it is simply amazing how many folks are out there cleaning up the Intertubes for democracy, storming around letting other people know how dreadfully unhappy they are with the way things are going.
Some years ago I found somebody posting an extraordinarily thoughtful and lengthy letter from a mega-top literary agent saying, in response to his post-rejection tantrum—in which he apparently not only objected mightily to the agent’s rejection of his work but also made claims for its quality that he clearly could not sustain—“Can we please stop?”
When I picked myself up off the floor from the shock of seeing how much time and courtesy this amazingly busy agent had spent trying to bring a little light to the life of this unknown person, I was even more appalled to read the nasty letter he wrote back, which of course he also posted.
That agent is neeeeeeeeeeever going to represent that guy.
And now that he’s posted his eye-popping attitude online, no other credible agent is going to, either.
2. The lazy
Those who have no intention of making writing their life’s work.
Sometimes I talk about what it takes to become a professional writer: learning how to write impeccably, for one; learning the ropes of the business, for another; learning all the ways to earn a living as a writer besides fiction, for sure.
Years of practice and dedication. A lifetime of work.
And the minute that I type the words “professional writer,” I hear in my head the chorus of objections from those who are trying to make a fortune through fiction as a hobby.
“We don’t want to be professional writers!” they cry. “We just want to win the lottery!”
Professional writing is dull.
Winning the lottery is exciting!
Planning our work, meeting deadlines, taking advice, being edited, attending business meetings, negotiating contracts, doing it when we don’t feel like it, making good on our promises, treating it like a responsibility rather than a right—that’s boring.
Dreaming up a few characters out of half-remembered movies and throwing them on the page and waking up the next morning to find that we’re J.K. Rowling—now, that’s living!
3. The self-involved
Those who insist on writing only about themselves.
We’ve met them in workshops and critique circles, the ones who submit, time after time, endless, mind-numbing, pointless droning on and on and on about whatever their pet peeve happens to be, styling their protagonist (almost universally in first person) as the ultimate blameless victim of fate who just—coincidentally—happens to do and say things that bring down all hell and high water on their own faultless little heads.
Oh, the injustice!
In sleep-inducing detail.
“I woke up. It was just like yesterday, when I also woke up. I got up and got dressed in my every-day clothes. I brushed my teeth and spit in the bathroom sink. I rinsed my mouth and looked in the bathroom mirror, thinking about myself. I went into the kitchen to see if everyone in there was thinking about me. They weren’t! They were talking about their own stuff! Of all the nerve.”
If even the people in our critique group keep saying that our protagonist is unsympathetic, there is no way in the world that anyone is ever going to pay us for the privilege of passing on this information.
4. The disgruntled
Those who are already furious that they don’t make enough.
Hey, you know what’s a bad idea when we think we don’t earn what we’re worth? Going into a field that people work just for the love of it even when they have to move back in with their parents.
Then quitting our day jobs.
In the UK people have the Dole. It’s not so easy here in the US.
You know who lives under bridges? That’s right!
Lots of really pissed-off people who quit their jobs the minute they got an agent, any agent—or a reader, any reader—completely misunderstanding the publishing industry and our own teeny, tiny little roles in it.
Remember the ultimate torture chamber in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Where we see the entire universe in all its enormity and our own dust spec of a self, diminished down to its actual subatomic particularity?
This is us.
This is us without our day jobs.
Even George Clooney appeared in a zillion unmemorable TV shows and movies for sixteen years before he was ‘discovered’ on ER. I remember. He was really good. All of us with less talent and inherent compatibility with our medium than George Clooney can multiply sixteen by the number of years that we were doing something else before we decided to throw our hat in the ring for this craft.
And we thought we were disgruntled before.
5. The unrealistic
Those who have no idea what it is about writing that makes it worth money.
Are we Twilight enthusiasts? Bella-wannabes? Mooning over Bella’s identification with Wuthering Heights and thinking that the only thing greater than being the creator of Edward would be being the creator of Heathcliff?
Sadly, the creator of Heathcliff was mistreated by her publisher, left unpublished until he could ride the coattails of her unexpectedly-bestselling sister Charlotte, then published in a terrible edition with sloppy typesetting and cheap paper, and finally ignored by the reading public, who found Heathcliff beyond reprehensible.
Emily Bronte was a bonafide literary genius whose most intriguing work—a saga in verse—was altered against her passionately-clear wishes by her busybody sister Charlotte after Emily’s death and re-published in its mutilated form, although half the poems had vanished by then and have never been recovered.
Emily Bronte died young, unloved, unhappy, unfulfilled. Undiscovered.
A literary genius.
6. The unimaginative
Those who look at published garbage and say, “I can write that!”
Why, yes. Yes, we probably can. So can a monkey. Are we as smart as a monkey? Congratulations!
And if we fail to take our work seriously, to delve into our imaginations, to learn our tools and techniques, we will suffer the fate of those garbage authors: nobody will ever take us seriously because we have treated a craft that many, many people love with all their souls as a quickie money-making gimmick.
People will point to our books at garage sales and say, “I can write better than that!”
That’s not us.
6 Personality Types Who Will Succeed as Writers
We just got the bad news.
Now we get the good news.
You’re very welcome!
1. The diligent
Those who sit down and write.
Natalie Goldberg immortalized it without words, the simple gesture of holding up a pad of paper and writing.
We don’t write for publication. Not for ambition. Not because we keep reading the news about people less literary than us making it in the bestselling Big Time.
We don’t base our dreams on greed.
We write for zest and exploration and color and detail. As research and daydreaming and argument and creativity and hypothesizing. For experimentation and hallucination and entertainment and friendship and education and sheer goodness of heart. In amusement and revenge and anguish and, ultimately, exhaustion.
We write because writing is what we do—and what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives—even when we have nothing to write about.
2. The imaginative
Those who are always looking for ways to liven up the party.
You know why so many writers have such great biographies? Because the best ones never know when to leave well enough alone. They pull up their socks and yank on their boots and go out there to face life with all their innocence and guilt and huevos shining in all directions. They pay their dues and take their chances. They shoot the rapids. They wrestle the angel. They throw themselves on the mercy of the lion.
And when they sit down to write, they approach it the same way, with recklessness and bravado and sheer, uncontrolled, brain-bursting inanity.
This is how they get themselves into the tops of trees and under the bowels of the earth, on the extreme end of adventures they can’t possibly get out of in one piece, hurtling lock, stock, and barrel into outer space.
And this is how they have the stamina and endurance to drag a whole galaxy of readers along with them.
3. The sensitive
Those who pay attention to their senses.
We were each born with five, or at least most of five. They are our passport to the world of words.
No matter where we go, what we do, or what we think about it, those five senses are always operating, twenty-four hours a day, rushing an infinite number of perceptions to our brains, where they are promptly transformed into concrete, vivid, material details.
Even more than this, our brains sort, classify, and store them all.
And for the rest of our lives they’re there, being carted around inside that unbelievable micro-storehouse that is the human mind and added to every instant of every second of every moment of our experience. . .a constant, unending stream of fertile material.
All we have to do is write it down.
4. The insensitive
Those who have a businessperson’s professional attitude toward rejection, vagaries of the industry, unforeseen disaster, yes, even self-parodying black humor.
I’ve been out here in the writing business for three decades, and I know that if we don’t develop a sense of humor about the weaknesses and failings that we ourselves bring to this work, it will chew us up and spit us out long, long before we ever thought we could possibly be done.
The publishing industry is not out there waiting for us to bring it out tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of our teeming shore.
The publishing industry doesn’t care about us and our wretched refuse.
The publishing industry is nobody’s mommy.
It’s a business, that’s all. And the only way we’re ever going to succeed as a writer is by learning to laugh at ourselves alongside others just like us, in the spirit of camaraderie and warts-&-blemishes and cockroaches scuttling around under rocks in the dark of all those who have gone before us.
Because they are legion.
And when we are dead and gone, legions more will still continue to arrive on these fictional shores.
So we just quit worrying about getting our feelings hurt by those who misunderstand us, and we throw our arms open in joy that we have arrived here when we have.
Even as we speak, we are recreating this place in our own image.
5. The patient
Those who take their time, realizing that life is long and a career in the arts takes the whole of it and even the greats never live long enough to learn it all.
Somerset Maughm lamented it. Flannery O’Connor lamented it. We can lament it too: we will never live long enough.
We can devote all the decades of our lives to this art and craft that we love and be ecstatic because we did, but we will still die—like Albert Einstein—leaning out of bed with the last frail ounce of strength, grasping for a reproducible theorem of the divine.
And we will know, as we lean, that we gave it our all, every single day: our passion and creativity and love and devotion to this work that means so much to so many but, especially, to us. We will die grateful that we had the chance, thanking heaven that we stumbled on it while there was time to luxuriate in it. . .even if we became writers only days before we died.
It came to us—this extraordinary craft—as a free and unfettered gift, and we got to own it, for just a little while.
6. The blessed
Those upon whom the gods smile.
Because there is luck in all the business of humanity.
We must simply get used to it. And we must get used to recognizing when we are blessed. It is a huge and amazing thing. It is well worth stopping and making an issue out of.
We’ve been smiled upon!
Break open the clouds, stand in shafts of sunlight, let the angels sing.
One of the gods has smiled on us.
For the rest of it, well, we’ll get used to sharing it with all the other writers in the world—this ridiculously motley crew of hapless strugglers, drowners, fighters, dreamers.
Do we sometimes think that we’re alone in our natural lack of blessedness?
We must open our eyes and look around.
We’re not alone.
Truly, people. A piece of paper, a pen, a handful words, and this life of ours: that’s it.
Luck comes, and luck goes. Live long enough, and we won’t be able to escape it.
We are all that we have.
Life as a Writer in the Real World For the Living
My family came home from a trip to San Francisco one long-ago evening in 2010 to a notification that the proof of my first book on writing, Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: First Writer’s Manual, had been shipped overnight UPS.
We all know what that means, don’t we?
Of course we do.
I did not eat, breathe, or blink all the next day until the UPS truck pulled up in our driveway.
I had been talking a lot on my blog about why we write, what we’re all doing in this field, what our dreams are, why we dream them.
And one of the things that kept coming up is the dream of a book.
A book in our hands.
A book of our own.
I was fifteen years old and living in an attic bedroom under the eaves of a towering Victorian pile in the Pacific Northwest with an antique hundred-pound Royal typewriter and a lot of onionskin paper when I wrote my first novel. It was—not surprisingly—the story of a family living a peripatetic life in Europe, which my family had recently done. The children were philosophers. They spent a lot of time talking about whether or not reality exists.
It troubled me deeply that I had no idea what I’d put on the cover.
I have always thought of my books as complete works of my own, and there were years in that attic in the wet, green Pacific Northwest when I typed and re-typed over and over again the first page of my first chapter of my first novel, experimenting with the graphic design.
I was in my early twenties and living in a ramshackle, falling-down wreck of a little house some blocks from my parents’ towering Victorian pile when I wrote my second novel. I had just read one of the original Tarzan books and become so incensed at the misogyny that I didn’t care what I wrote so long as my heroine was a swashbuckler and my hero a fainting ninny. That turned into a fantasy novel based on the shape of the letter S.
I pictured for the cover either the palace from whence my heroine sallied forth to battle the forces of evil, or a map of my imaginary country, surrounded as it was by a magical shield of dancers.
I was about thirty and a student of Computer Science working at a small, notorious coffee shop in San Luis Obispo, California, when I began my third novel. I had just realized that our coffee shop wasn’t only being run badly, it wasn’t actually being run at all, only kind of shepherded along haphazardly based upon the therapy of our manager. I thought it would be hilarious to write the story of how it was discovered that this coffee shop wasn’t even owned by humans, but by a magical creature with a much more earthshaking agenda than simply serving coffee.
I also needed a senior project when I transferred from Computer Science to English after I abruptly lost patience with earning a degree (only seven years into it) and decided to get out of college.
Later, I spent a spring in Hawaii rewriting this novel on a tiny little lanai overlooking the Pacific Ocean with an Indonesian carving for inspiration.
I was in Bolinas—a tiny village north of San Francisco—when I found a beautiful black & white photograph of a Thai mermaid statue. It was my protagonist, exactly my protagonist. I knew this photo had to go on my cover.
So I kept the photograph on my desk for the next fourteen years.
A whole lot of tech writing
I was a technical writer and editor for many, many years after that while I was writing fiction.
I finally quit.
It annoyed me.
A published book of nonfiction
Eventually, I was in the right place at the time. I met someone with an ‘in’ with a major publisher: Prentice Hall.
I got my break into traditional publishing through the long-ago best friend of the man I have loved most in my entire life.
This other author was a geeky guy who had written an underground cult bestseller on how to hook up to the Internet in the years before the blogosphere. He and my now-husband shared an apartment and an office, and I was looking for an excuse to hang out in both places, mooning over my not-yet-husband.
I was also desperate to become a professional writer.
My co-author’s acquisitions editor at Prentice Hall wanted him to write another book on computer technology. I wanted to write a book on children, with whom I had worked for many years. So we pooled our resource and wrote a book about hooking schoolchildren up to the Internet, published in 1996 to coincide with the first Net Day, ’96 under the auspices of the Clinton Administration.
I can not tell you how insanely amateur is the cover that Prentice Hall gave to my one book in which I had no say. However, Children and the Internet: a Zen Guide for Parents & Educators is how I wound up in the Who’s Who of America.
And I got to see a great deal of the man with whom I was in love. We later married.
So that turned out well.
4th, 5th & 6th novels
Since then I have written a novel based upon the personalities of my cats (a love story), a novel based upon my family (a ghost story), and a novel based upon my favorite novel of all time (a nineteenth-century love story about ghosts).
4 books of poetry
While I was at it, I wrote four complete books of poetry, each with its own theme: the natural world of the Pacific Northwest, the strange and mysterious childhood that I shared with my rather bizarre family, the mental instability of attempting to grow up into a sane adult, and a book of poems set in the wilds of Northeastern Australia and New Zealand, where I once traveled.
2 story collections
I also wrote a collection of noir mystery stories and another collection of comic stories about my small town on the Northern California Coast.
8 children’s books
And I wrote at top-speed at the very last minute before the December holidays for eight years eight 200-page children’s books for my son as he grew up.
4 more books of nonfiction
Many years after my original foray into publishing nonfiction, I wrote and self-published two books on writing: Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: First Writer’s Manual and Art & Craft of Writing Stories: Second Writer’s Manual.
I got to give these books exactly the covers I wanted: photographs of my office high up under the eaves of our attic. With cat.
I’ve also put together two books of my collected blog posts (just some of my blog posts—nowhere near all of them): Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Writer’s Advice and Art and Craft Writing: Secret Writer’s Advice.
This is the last one.
A book of one’s own
And I’m still writing.
Because that’s what I do: I’m a writer.
Around a hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf sat down in her big armchair at the Hogarth Press and wrote a book on women writing that is still considered ground-breaking today: A Room of One’s Own.
Of course, Woolf had no children to shut out of this room of her own, much less employers, only a husband with whom she shared the printing press in their basement that published not only her own books but also those of her friends and peers (eventually amassing an author roster of the contemporary luminaries of London of that time)—the mathematician Maynard Keynes, the art critic Roger Fry, the poet T.S. Eliot, the New Zealand short story innovator Katherine Mansfield, the novelist E.M. Forster, and all-round dabbler Vita Sackville-West. . .
What Woolf did not write—and certainly could have—was A Book of One’s Own, an exploration of what it means to a writer, to hold in our hands not just our words, but the physical, concrete, imagistic manifestation of our vision.
A book of our own.
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Art & Craft of Writing
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Art & Craft of Writing
“Buy it. I recommend it.”
—Preditors & Editors
“Mixon is brilliant. These are the lessons of a writing lifetime.”
—Roz Morris, bestselling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel
I am so very grateful to the nearly one million blog readers who have read my blog posts and brought such great heart and soul and curiosity about this wonderful art and craft to Victoria Mixon, Editor & Author. You are the people for whom I write. I am also, of course, eternally grateful to my husband, who told me in 2009 to start a blog on fiction, and to my son, who is always enthusiastic about talking about storytelling.
About the Author
Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series, including Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: 1st Writer’s Manual and Art & Craft of Writing Stories: 2nd Writer’s Manual. She is listed in the Who’s Who of America and has been covered for her expertise in fiction by the Huffington Post. She teaches fiction through Writer’s Digest and the San Francisco Writers Conference. Mixon is currently writing a forthcoming noir mystery series.