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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar, "Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction."

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.






  • By Victoria Mixon

    I always like to spend every autumn studying in-depth the three most basic aspects of plot structure:

    HOOK

    DEVELOPMENT

    CLIMAX

    There are lots of folks in the online writing community who are limbering up their writing muscles at this time of year. And I have found that the simpler and more straight-forward the lessons in craft, the better we learn them.

    Also, I had a teacher once who told me it takes 14 iterations for a lesson to sink into the human brain. So after 14 years of revisiting these three fundamentals. . .you all should be pretty darn adept.

    So let’s start backward—as we always do.

    Because what’s the fun of doing it the normal way?

    CLIMAX: 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    You know what’s hard? Sitting at your desk day in and day out, month after month, year after year, trying to come up with fresh and significant angles on life in an imaginary world. After awhile it seems like every character you create spends all their time flipping through random papers, looking under books, and trolling the blogosphere. (Garrison Keillor once said the characters in his first novel spent all their time smoking cigarettes and looking out windows.)

    Get up! Go out in the world. Your characters are living there. Go look for them.

    1. On a high ladder.

      This is how your characters feel when they have to do something they don’t want to do.

      How do YOU feel? What’s under your hands? Under your feet? In your stomach? Between your ears? Ask yourself what it would feel like if you let go. Then ask yourself what it would feel like if you let go and your foot got caught.

      That’s what happens to your characters after they’ve done what they didn’t want to do.
    2. In an advanced physics class.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re in a conversation they can’t control.

      What are you thinking? What is the person next to you thinking? What is the teacher thinking about you? Ask yourself how you’d teach this class if you were a genius. Then ask yourself what you’d do if the teacher told you to take over with the brain you’ve got.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they have to speak.
    3. In a cold bath.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re waiting.

      What’s your body doing? What’s your skin doing? What’s your brain doing? Ask yourself what would happen if you never got out. Then ask yourself what would happen if your mortal enemy got in with you.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they stop waiting.
    4. In a room full of boxes.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re facing strangers.

      What are your lungs doing? What is your scalp doing? What’s the first thing that flashes through your mind? Ask yourself what’s in these boxes that you’ve forgotten about. Then ask yourself what you’re going to do when you’ve got them all opened and the contents everywhere and you don’t know how to put it all back away.

      That’s what happens to your characters at the end of the scene with the strangers.
    5. Under the sink working on plumbing.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re trying to break through a stonewall.

      How do your muscles feel? How does your spine feel? How do the synapses that are supposed to get you out of this pickle feel? Ask yourself what it would take to get someone else to do this. Then ask yourself what you’re going to say to the person with the gun when you crawl out and explain why you quit.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they break through the stonewall.
    6. On a bridge over a moving ship.

      This is how your characters feel when they have a chance to get something they desperately need.

      What do your legs want to do? What do your arms want to do? What does your neck want to do? Ask yourself how it would feel to throw yourself off the bridge onto the ship. Then ask yourself how it would feel to miss.

      That’s what happens to your characters when they go for the chance.
    7. In an airplane bathroom.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re spying on someone.

      How cramped are you? How twisted can you get? How does the privacy feel compared to being out there with everyone else? Ask yourself what it would be like to go down the drain and fall through the sky. Then ask yourself what it would be like to get stuck.

      That’s what happens to your characters when footsteps head their way.
    8. In the open trunk of a car.

      This is how your characters feel when they’re about to die.

      How do your eyeballs feel? How do your palms feel? When was the last time you used the bathroom? Ask yourself how it would feel if someone slammed the trunk lid closed. Then ask yourself what it would be like to wake up still in the closed trunk.

      That’s what happens to your characters at the moment of death.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. What it’s like to be transported to a parallel universe of incandescent vision through your own small words.
    2. How it feels to unravel the mystery of all human endeavor into a web of light that pulses delicately in your hands.
    3. Everything about your main characters’ childhoods, which were so poignant and heart-rending and touching but don’t fit into the story you have to tell today.
    4. What’s in the shadows of your protagonist’s heart that makes them gesture so gracefully, lie so effectively, turn their head with such sudden tenderness.
    5. Where your villain has been to make them burn so deeply, grasp so strongly, care so powerfully about destroying everything that’s ever been against them.
    6. What really happens when the secondary characters go in the other room while the protagonist is watching out the window for the villain.
    7. What hilarious jokes those secondary characters are telling in the background during the pivotal bar scene.
    8. All the subtle, complex minor subplots going on between the secondary characters that would only distract your reader from following with bated breath your protagonist’s driving agenda.
    9. What every single detail of every single room in every apartment or house looks like, down to the patterns on the upholstery and the type of wood the coffee table is make out of.
    10. Your protagonist’s favorite books and movies.
    11. Your villain’s favorite books and movies.
    12. What great clothes your protagonist is wearing in every scene. AND where they got them.
    13. What your villain knows about hatred and malice that you wish you didn’t know and will never actually admit to.
    14. Exactly how—although it would disrupt your reader’s epiphany for you to spell it out in so many words—your protagonist and villain understand each other in the final moment, when they face each other across the abyss of their irreconcilable differences.
    15. What lies beyond the hill in that panoramic view in front of which your characters enact their mesmerizing climactic scene.
    16. How their dark figures against that view epitomize everything you know and feel and believe about the vividness of living.
    17. What your protagonist means when they say, “I’ll just let you wonder.”
    18. What your villain means when they say, “I don’t have to.”
    19. Where your characters go when they walk off the last page.
    20. Exactly how your protagonist felt before it all fell apart, when they were lying in the arms of your own imaginary beloved.
    21. Where your villain hid the steak knives.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Joy and fullfillment. Yes.

    Are you grateful for your life? I am.

    Are you grateful for just being alive? I am.

    How does writing help me find that gratitude?

    I’ll tell you a secret: it’s whole the reason I do it.

    Gratitude.

    Because we only get this one mortal coil. And we writers know how much that matters.

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    “The freshest and most relevant
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    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We did it!

    We survived!

    And now we have a few questions to ask ourselves. . .one, two, three, four, five. . .in fact. . .

    Join us for:

    23 Questions for the End of NaNoWriMo.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about how to approach the first draft of your novel this month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, Last week we talked about the 3 Essential Guidelines for your overall novel, and the week before that we talked about Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And today we’re going to be talking about the protagonist’s character, because that’s the core of all storytelling. (I tackled this topic last November in a post so bizarre that it famously prompted Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel to ask, “My dear, what are on you on?” 4 Post-Its to Stick Up Over Your Writing Desk. And I outlined the basic elements—which I’m going to talk about in greater depth below—back last summer in one of a series I did on how to write fiction all wrong: How to Characterize Wrong in 3 Easy Steps.)

    But, honestly, you don’t have to be doing NaNo to be starting a novel. If you’ve got holidays coming up in December, you might very well be getting yourself in gear to take advantage of them in the most luxurious way a writer can imagine: by writing!

    1. Your protagonist believes they cannot survive without this

      It’s a need so core to them that if you changed it you wouldn’t be writing about a human being anymore. What is it? Writers have been using the canonical primary needs for hundreds of years without wearing them out:

      • survival
      • love
      • justice

      Truly, these three needs have powered most of the fiction ever written. And there are still more aspects to explore in them. They’re that enormous. They’re that complex.

      Some of the other things characters need are:

      • to protect a child
      • to heal a wound
      • to learn the truth
      • to have an adventure

      These needs also have powered incredible numbers of stories. Remember Don Quixote? Out there scampering around the countryside on that mangy old nag with his reluctant sidekick at his stirrup? What was he up to?

      He certainly wasn’t defending his life. And I don’t think he ever really had a chance with Dulcinea.

      Justice. Adventure.

      He needed them really badly.

    2. Your protagonist can’t survive without this either

      Because that’s what makes a story: two needs. Otherwise, it’s a bildungsroman, the story of a protagonist grappling with a whole series of internal conflicts, and modern readers don’t have the attention span to survive a bildunsroman anymore. They need explicit signposts on why they should care. (I’m sorry, Moll Flanders.)

      But here’s the magic wand—you’ve already done this step. Yes, you have! Look above. How many stories are about two of those top three in conflict with each other? What if you mixed and matched two out of the seven? One of the seven with some equally-powerful but more subtle need?

      • to prove a point
      • to accomplish a lifelong goal
      • to protect someone elderly (or otherwise physically or intellectually vulnerable)
      • to escape evil
      • to come to grips with their own dark side

      You’ll notice that, no matter how subtle a secondary need you give your protagonist, it can pretty much always be traced back to one of those three canonical primary needs. And when you choose not to root your protagonist’s character in a secondary need quite that canonical, for whatever reason, you must add motivation to that subtle need through one of the canonical ones.

      Also, although experts once swore mysteries were too ‘intellectual’ to accommodate romance, pretty much any story gets better when you add thwarted love to the mix.

    3. Your protagonist has absolutely no intention of choosing between the two

      Which means any situation in which they are forced to do just that serves as a rip-roaring, roof-raising, mind-bending catastrophe for your Climax. As country singers are so fond of reminding us, “My baby left me, I lost my home, and then my dog died.”

      1. Say you have a protagonist who needs:

        • survival
        • love

        Whomever they love, it puts them in danger. In danger of losing their job? In danger of losing their home? In danger of losing their sanity?

        When Jane Eyre had to choose, she lost all three. Well, she wasn’t totally plugged in to begin with, but I really don’t think that night on the moor could have helped much.

        Pit your protagonist against themself by giving them the two most fundamental needs in the human animal. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, either. It could be love of a friend, love of a place, love of a cause.

        Romantic love has the added attraction of sex, of course, which always gets the attention of the hormonally-bullied. (You know who you are.) Just keep in mind—and this is really important—you must address sexual issues through their grip on the personality rather than through simple textbook instructions. Your reader doesn’t need to learn how to do it. They need to learn how to handle the consequences when they indulge in something they know how to do all too well.

      2. Or say your protagonist needs:

        • justice
        • survival

        Their pursuit of justice does nothing but put their life in danger. You know what that is?

        Every thriller ever written.

        This is why thriller works so well as series genre. Because you can pit your protagonist against themself through their need for justice—and the evil perpetrators’ efforts to kill them—over and over and over again until Doomesday and never run out of excitement.

        Be aware that thrillers get their layering through complicated technical subjects, so the authors of thrillers do a great deal of research into specific industries: law, politics, banking, history, international espionage, high-tech weaponry, et cetera, plus very often exotic locales. That all needs to be professionally-researched and very adroitly handled. For advice on how to use your research properly, read Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, in which she explains exactly how she used her research for eleven ghostwritten books, eight of which were best sellers.

      3. Or maybe your protagonist needs:

        • love
        • justice

        What would force a person to choose between what they want and what they know is right? Well, almost everything. Anne of Green Gables tells us all about it as she works her way through her daily life—the endless, excruciating decision-making process that never leaves us alone. It’s when she has to choose between the things she loves and the things she knows are right that she becomes important to the reader, someone they will carry with them internally for the rest of their life.

        Because such stories don’t have death hanging over anybody’s head, they tend to be more mild-mannered. That allows them to go deeply and profoundly into the human experience. Remember that your reader is reading not only to be reassured that life is worth living, but to learn something they don’t already know. If you choose to pit your protagonist against themself through these two very human (but not dastardly) needs, you’ll have to know something about those needs that the reader can’t figure out for themself. Just reiterating an experience identical to the reader’s own without adding anything original won’t hold their attention.

    You can see how this simple pyramidal design gives you a protagonist your reader passionately wants to see succeed, even as you back that protagonist into worse and worse corners until you’ve backed them right against a wall.

    Then your protagonist must always, in the Climax, choose. That choice is the secret ingredient that makes your story work.

    This, my friends, is what we call sympathetic character.





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    Seattle P-I

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about tackling first drafts this month, for the sake of all you NaNoWriMoers scampering around out there. We’ve looked at Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo (doing what into the what?), 3 Essential Guidelines for starting a novel in general (doing it how?), and 3 Vital Steps to creating your protagonist (doing it why?).

    And today we’re going to look at writing individual scenes. Because that’s really the nuts and bolts of what’s going on in your squirrely little head right now.

    Or anyway it had better be!

    1. What you need to accomplish

      We’ve been talking over on Jami Gold’s blog about the Story Climax, which is—it turns out—the Whole Point.

      And this is true of every single scene you write, as well.

      What’s the whole point of this scene? Why are you writing it? Why can your story simply not exist without it? Not because it’s:

      • characterization

        That has to happen as texturing in other scenes, the ones that move the story inevitably forward toward its Climax.

      • atmosphere

        See above.

      • info dump

        See above.

      The only thing that’s fair game for a scene is a simply inescapable step in the progress of your characters’ trajectory from the first moment they jump out of the pan until the instant the land in the fire.

      Whatever that step is—that’s this scene’s climax.

    2. How you need to accomplish it

      This part is fun! This is the part about pitting your characters against themselves and each other and watching the fur fly.

      Since all fiction is about cause-&-effect, it’s a given that your characters’ movement through a scene is all about their desperate grappling with their fates. This grappling is what causes whatever you’ve already decided needs to happen in this scene’s climax. And this grappling is enormously entertaining to readers.

      This is why you’ll hear that every scene must have an aim. That simply means that every scene must have something that makes your characters fight. Nobody wants to see them lying around picking lint out of their navels. We want them to do something! And in order for that something to matter, they must have deep, fundamental motivation to do it, motivation rooted—you saw this coming—in their conflicting internal needs.

      So they spend the grand bulk of this scene wrestling with something with everything they’ve got (sometimes in solitude, sometimes in dialog, sometimes in action, even, um, wrestling).

      I have to have it!

      But you can’t!

      Nooooooooo!

      That’s this scene’s development. It’s the bulk of the scene. And it’s a blast.

    3. Why you can’t avoid accomplishing it

      Because, naturally, if your characters could avoid going through all this hell they certainly would.

      But they can’t. Because of the climax of the previous scene.

      They did something in that last scene, made a decision and sealed their doom, and whatever it was acted as the effect that caused this scene. How does the opening of this scene show that, the immediate and dastardly consequences of those actions they thought—they thought!—in the last scene were the only actions humanly possible?

      That’s this scene’s hook.

    Now, most scenes average 1,000-2,000 words, which is four to eight manuscript pages. Use this information as you write. You can go ahead and write the climax first and park it there at the end where it belongs and then go back and fill in with lots of madhouse antics. I do this a lot. And it’s generally not too hard to figure out what to use as the hook that’s going to demonstrate the soup your characters are in now, because you’ve got the climax to that previous scene sitting there staring you in the face. That’s where they were giving their all trying to avoid this exact situation.

    Just be aware as you write this first draft of how many pages you’re looking to fill.

    And remember what your reader expects to find on every single page.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    As October draws to a close and November looms, we all know what’s ahead.

    Yes, we do.

    It happens every year around now, and every year thousands of aspiring writers have the time of their lives with it.

    So let’s review our:

    6 Golden Rules for NaNoWriMo

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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

    The Art & Craft of Writing Stories


    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Every year I write a series of NaNoWriMo posts like the bizarre and inexplicable 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable, 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive, and 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Inescapable. Last week we looked at Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And for those of you who learn better in conversation than through written instructions, this year I’ve even been interviewed on video by Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog. Joanna asks me for pointers on how to approach writing the sequel to her Kindle best-seller, Pentecost—pointers I make universal to storytelling in general so they’ll help all of you diving into writing your own new novels right this minute.

    So let’s review quickly how to make that dive a swan dive and not a cannonball:

    1. Know why this story matters

      Somewhere, somehow, at that one moment when they can least afford it, your protagonist is going to come up against themself in a spiritual dark alley. And it’s going to be bad.

      They have always, all their life, sincerely and desperately believed they could not handle this confrontation. Chaos, madness, mayhem, yes. But not this.

      And that heart-stopping confrontation is why you’re writing this story. Handling the impossible matters to readers—it’s possibly the only thing that does.

      That’s your Climax.

    2. Be great fun to run around with

      The bulk of a novel is just for fun, thrill, excitement, unending adventures that leap from one peak to another as though in Seven-League Boots. Your reader’s grappling with one drama! Aaagh! They’re grappling with another! No! They’re back to grappling with the first drama again! Eeee! There’s a new drama they didn’t see coming!

      Back and forth, round and round, in and out of the complexities of your plot they run full-tilt, flapping the pages of your book as they go. They can’t stop!

      That’s your Development.

    3. Understand Backstory

      Don’t get too attached to the first scenes that it occurs to you to write. Those are your warm-up scenes, and chances are almost certain they’re Backstory, not Hook.

      Write them! Have a fabulous time! But be willing to set them aside in their own little outtakes files later, when you’re far enough into this story (possibly at the end) to be able to see what originally happened to force the decision that got your protagonist into this whole impossible mess in the first place.

      That’s too important of a scene to toy with by getting yourself emotionally-dependent upon it right now. Just take lots of notes as you work on your novel so it will be a truly fabulous opening scene when you do eventually write it.

      That will be your Hook.

    And because we all live here in the twenty-first century, I know as well as you do how hard it is to squeeze NaNoWriMo into your already-packed schedule. So remember the 9 Ways to Find Time to Write.

    Take a deep breath, run to the top of the highest pinnacle you can find, and start flapping your wings. Welcome to NaNoWriMo!

    Is all your hair standing on end?

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    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. If you’ve got a love story, bring in a third party.
    2. If you’ve got a thriller, break their tools.
    3. If you’ve got sci fi, create unexpected social norms.
    4. If you’ve got a fantasy, make reality too hard to cope with.
    5. If you’ve got historical fiction, unearth facts no one from this era would know.
    6. If you’ve got a mystery, kill off your informants.
    7. If you’ve got horror, use prosaic details.
    8. If you’ve got an adventure, put your protagonist’s life in danger. And everyone else’s.
    9. If you’ve got comedy, add a touch of poignancy.
    10. If you’ve got YA, give your protagonist a dry sense of humor.
    11. If you’ve got MG, add random non sequiturs to the dialog.
    12. If you’ve got a picture book, make sure your illustrator is the very best.
    13. If you’ve got literary fiction, make sure your editor is the very best.

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

    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    The Art & Craft of Writing Fiction

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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11 posts. . .because this blog goes to 11



Authors


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


SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .


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


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


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I’m working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .


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


M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who has worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In his sci-fi Anghazi Series, Beyer uses his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which “space bridges” allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .


ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .


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

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