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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

    To begin with, Marlowe was dead. The police dispatcher said that over the phone, when he broke into Ben’s sleep at five a.m., and the coroner’s assistant said it again, to Ben’s face. Marlowe had been dead at least seven hours, shot and dumped in a filthy alley.

    The assistant was pear-shaped, dressed in a black suit, his short neck balancing a head that resembled a soft-boiled egg, gluey white and hairless. He stood beside a sleek dark van, meticulously placing thin metal instruments inside a black leather satchel. Two other vehicles—a brown sedan and a black and white police cruiser—stood at careless angles to the van. All headlights blazing, the three cars illuminated a small island in a sea of fog that filled the street. Red and yellow lights on the roof of the cruiser turned lazily, splashing the gray with murky color.
    —Michael Wright

    Developmental Edit

    Great hook—“To begin with, the main character died.” Too bad for you reader people—now you have to keep reading to find out what happens after there’s nobody in the story!

    Tense? check
    Detailed? check
    Raises a question? check Who killed Marlowe?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Almost. We’ve gone from bright lights and efficient coroner’s assistants to gray murk, which is a good mood transition. We could use one more detail on the end to slam dunk us into the story. But there’s an interesting issue here that I’ll mention in the discussion on structure.

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A character named Ben has been waken by the police to go to the site of a murder and talk to the coroner’s assistant. Ergo: Ben is probably a detective.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? At this point all I know about Ben is that he’s willing to get out of bed at five a.m. and go downtown. But, considering how awful it is for me to get up at five a.m., I’m going to say he’s got the toughness and determination to keep my attention at least into the next page.

    Genre? Mystery. The body’s a dead (excuse me) giveaway.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I don’t. A mystery is about the crime. The detective is secondary. And so far, this mystery is starting out with a bang.

    Do we need to know what happens next? I expect Ben to get some immediate, very pertinent clues. Most detectives at this stage examine the body.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Absolutely. First we’re with Ben being waken by police dispatch, by the end of the sentence we’re being spoken to in Ben’s face, and then we’re with the coroner’s assistant on a foggy city street. You bet.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. First: a warning. If this Marlowe is THE Marlowe, this book had better be as well-written as Chandler’s. Otherwise you have a lot of company. Lots and lots of aspiring mystery writers try to include Philip in their work—it’s flattering to Chandler, but I have never, ever read one that worked. Just like using another writer’s song lyrics, if you are piggybacking on the fame of someone else’s creation, your creation had better be able to stand up to the comparison, or you’re cheating.

    Second: I mentioned an interesting issue with the drop-kick category. It’s this: your hook doesn’t have to be 150 words long. I think you already have your hook, and it’s that first paragraph. See the drop-kick? Not only is Marlowe dead, Marlowe’s body had been dumped unceremoniously in a filthy alley—even worse than dead!

    Can this be made shorter and snappier? I’ll tell you, I’d remove one comma before the phrase “in Ben’s face” and you’ve got your hook in the first paragraph. Excellent job! The faster you get to the drop-kick, the more powerful the hook. Suck that reader in! This second paragraph is actually the beginning of the story.

    Just so we know that’s the hook, I’ll go ahead and tighten the second paragraph. Mostly, I’ll drop the words “careless” and “lazy.”

    This is one polished piece.

    Copy & Line Edit

    To begin with, Marlowe was dead. The police dispatcher said that over the phone, when he broke into Ben’s sleep at five a.m., and the coroner’s assistant said it again to Ben’s face. Marlowe had been dead at least seven hours, shot and dumped in a filthy alley.

    The assistant was pear-shaped, dressed in a black suit, his short neck balancing a head that resembled a soft-boiled egg, gluey white and hairless. He stood beside a sleek dark van, meticulously placing thin metal instruments inside a black leather satchel. Two other vehicles—a brown sedan and a black and white police cruiser—stood at angles to the van, all headlights blazing. The three cars illuminated a small island in a sea of fog that filled the street. Red and yellow lights on the roof of the cruiser turned slowly, splashing the gray with murky color.

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    3 Comments

3 Responses to “Free HOOK Edit: To begin with, Marlowe was dead—”

  1. You certainly have a way with description! Fun reading with all those colors and food comparisons. Great job!

  2. I was going to say it was perfect as it was, but after reading the edit I can see it’s snappier. This reminds me of the kind of novels I like, my personal favorites being mystery and crime. I would keep reading for sure!

  3. I love the description of the coroner’s assistant! Especially his gluey white and hairless head. That is just ewwww! (Which is perfect, you know, for a coroner.)




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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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