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The Art & Craft Of Fiction

The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual - Victoria A Mixon ——The Review——One of the frustrations when buying instructional books is determining if a book is written for someone of a similar skill level as yourself. In a break between writing, I spent five years teaching myself an extremely complex 3D program, Autodesk Maya. Once you learn the basics, finding new instructional materials becomes difficult. Much of what is written assumes very little knowledge. Sometimes a book called "Advanced Techniques" targets advanced beginners instead of people who have spent a few years on the material. Yet there are books called "Fundamentals of" or "Basic" that require a substantial basis of knowledge before having any utility. Writing books rarely fall into the "too advanced" category, but frequently target beginners, placing a great deal of emphasis on things like "show, don't tell," that appear in almost every guide whose spine you've cracked. What makes Mixon's The Art & Craft of Fiction such a joy is that it sidesteps the problem of being too beginner-ish for more studied authors without leaving those just started in writing without the valuable basics. To start, Mixon is a joy to read. I had started an engaging novel when my order for The Art & Craft of Fiction arrived at the Book Cellar. I had planned on finishing the novel before starting Mixon's book, but made the error of reading a few pages. From that point, I read it like a can't-put-it-down thriller. Like Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext, the last writing book I read, Mixon's mastery of prose shines on every page. She's been a "professional writer and editor for a bizillion years," and it shows. Even when covering areas that I feel comfortably competent in, I never felt the urge to skim. Moreso, often when writing about topics I have general mastery in, Mixon had something new to add that will enhance my writing.The Art & Craft of Fiction covers a broad swath. I'm tempted to call it a complete book on the topic, but she has a second book (that I haven't read), expanding further on the subject. However, even if Mixon has yet more to say, it's unlikely a beginning writer will be left wanting. She covers planning and development, character, plot, scenes, dialogue, prose, grammar, and just about everything else; and she covers it poignantly with insight.In short, this is a book anyone who hasn't published a bunch of novels and worked with a good editor for years will benefit from and enjoy.——Chapter 21——There is, however, a significant problem with the book, and it's name is Chapter 21. I'm not rescinding even a quarter-star for it, nor changing my must-read recommendation, but Chapter 21, you and I have some issues. Let me talk about the subject to debate issue of the ellipses first. The Chicago Manual of Style (Twelfth ed.—alas mine is quite out of date) doesn't mention them in any context except for deletion in quoted text. E.g., "Use three dots…[t]wo look silly" could be used if you didn't value the entirety of "Use three dots, no more, no less. Anything more than three is wasteful. Two looks silly." Within the context of non-fiction, that is the only proper use of the ellipses. But Mixon isn't writing about non-fiction and we fictionistas get to flout some rules or hew to a somewhat different set of regulations. So when Mixon says one shouldn't use an ellipses with a period, she isn't incorrect in a technical sense. However, the ellipses used in fiction indicates a pause or interruption and, in the case of an interruption, may occur at the end of the sentence. In such a case, The Chicago Manual of Style leaves no doubt about the propriety of an ellipses followed by a period. Moreso, under the influence of Emily Brontë, Mixon opposes ellipses in favor of em-dashes. In five paragraphs, I would hope that she mentions the great utility of using ellipses and em-dashes to represent different kinds of interruptions. In Browne and King's equally vital volume on writing, Self-editing for Fiction Writers, the authors suggest using ellipses to indicate a self-interruption: a pause or trailing off. The em-dash is reserved for external-interruptions, such as in this exchange: "But didn't you promise…" Jessie said. "I did nothing of the sort," Tyrone said. "Now, look, you two—" Dudley said. "You stay out of this," Tyrone said.In that exchange, we understand that Jessie has spoken without the confidence to finish her accusation against Tyrone, while Tyrone interrupts Dudley. The ellipsis has use. (I should note that The Chicago Manual of Style does call for em-dashes to indicate breaks in speech or thought, but, you know, Browne and King had it right.)You might conclude this is nit-picking and I just wasted a bunch of words on a nit. Fair enough. My next complaint with my nemesis, Chapter 21, is more substantive. It is a matter of fact, not opinion and I am correct. Mixon may edit books, but I design them (amoung many other things) and know the fundamentals of typography. Trust me when I tell you that the en-dash is not a hyphen and is not used for hyphenation. That's the hyphen (this guy: - ). The en-dash, as Mixon correctly points out, is the width of an en (it looks like this: – ). It has two uses, one of which is extremely rare, the other largely ignored. The primary use of the en-dash is to replace the words "to" or "through" in ranges, such as "1997–2001" or "2001-". A rare secondary use is the join compound adjectives, such as post–Civil War (although not non-English Speaking).Okay, I'm a typography nut. I'll spare you the other typographical misinformation contained in Chapter 21. The section on the period is quite good, so you might as well read it. Just expect that if you mess up with en-dashes, whomever lays out your book will be at pains, because nobody expects that. ——The Book as a physical object——As one might expect from somebody who gets worked up over typographical misinformation, the design of a physical book matters to me, and here, Mixon's husband (who not only formatted the book but put the typefaces on the copyright page—swoon!) did a bang-up job. The cover design feels comfortable and inviting, suggesting a safe, calming space for writing. The typeface choice was dead-on, and the archaic choice of pen lines gives the cover a sense of gravitas. (There is one error that makes a designer grind teeth: the subtitle's font is stretched. Most readers won't notice, but I had to search to find out if there was a badly done extended version of Poor Richard, the typeface. There isn't. When you spend your days being hyper-careful about type layout, once you notice an error like this, it takes over the page.)However, what truly makes this book a physical treasure is it's soft matte coating. This is a relatively new finish that I've yet to see on a book. Apple uses it on some of their packaging, so it's going to get broad use, but for now, it's a smart, cutting-edge choice with enormous tactile rewards. The soft matte finish gives the cover a silky/rubbery feel that is entirely caressable. It also prevents fingerprints and smudges from showing. I'm pretty sure The Art & Craft of Fiction is print-on-demand. Prior to seeing this, I didn't think it was possible to get even a decent standard matte finish from the POD printers*. If you're self-publishing and can get a soft-matte finish, ante up a bit more for it if your book will appear anyplace where the reader will pick it up pre-purchase. The sense of luxury will make the price of the book seem more reasonable.*If you are fanatical about design, self-publishing is frustrating. You can't control the paper the cover is printed on, have no embossing options, forget about a foil or metallic finish, and don't even dream of spot varnishes. Go into a real bookstore sometime and pick up Francisco X. Strork's Marcello in the Real World. Hold it up to the light and look at how the spot varnish on the black surfaces shine while the blue sky remains without reflection. Run your fingers across the cover and feel the differences in texture between the varnish and the unvarnished paper. Ironically, the interior paper isn't as nice as The Art & Craft of Fiction nor the handful of prints I made of the first draft of my current novel through Lulu.com. But that cover is a joy. It's almost as much of a tactile thrill as Mixon's book.