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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

    Sherman hated this town, he hated his life, but most of all, he hated this job. He looked over the counter at the customer and asked, “Would you like fries with that?”

    “Ha! That’s priceless!” The woman grinned at him. “They actually made you say that back then—I mean, back now? Well, you know what I mean.” She looked up at the menu board again. “Ooh, wait! Can I change that order? Instead of a Filet-O-Fish can I have a Big Mac? What is a Big Mac anyway?”

    Most customers seemed to melt into a blur to Sherman, but this one stood out. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t real old either. Her looks were pretty average. She was dressed in overalls, but Sherman had seen that before with all the farms around here. Perhaps it was her attitude. She acted like she had never seen a McDonalds before.
    —Jeannette Bennett-Farley

    Developmental Edit

    I love the tension between cranky Sherman and the ebullient woman in overalls!

    Tense? check
    Mysterious? check
    Raises a question? check What does she mean: “back then”?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check How could anyone who speaks English not have seen a MacDonald’s before?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A male character named Sherman who hates basically everything meets a female character of indeterminate age wearing overalls at his job at McDonald’s. The female character seems quite chipper, especially compared to Sherman.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I’m not sure about a character who hates everything, but I like the character in overalls who thinks scripted junk food service is pricelessly funny! And the tension between the two is great.

    Genre? I’m going to guess time travel sci fi.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? Oh, I think I know enough about Sherman. This focuses pretty nicely on the character in overalls who may never have seen a McDonald’s, which I find quite interesting.

    Do we need to know what he’s going to do next? Please tell me he’s going to get more information out of Overalls Woman!

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Without a doubt. We’re at McDonald’s, and we’re offering a side of fries.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. I like the voice: “real old.” That’s good! And I think we’ve got a nice solid character conflict here between Mr. Grumpy and The Priceless Grinner. Don’t put a dialog tag before dialog unless it’s absolutely necessary. There’s also an extraneous “oh” and “well,” we’ve got three “but” constructs in three sentences in a row, and two “before’s.” Those two “befores” are going to be difficult to sort out. But other than that this is pretty clean!

    Copy & Line Edit

    Sherman hated this town, he hated his life, but most of all, he hated this job. He looked over the counter. “Would you like fries with that?”

    “Ha! That’s priceless!” The woman grinned at him. “They actually made you say that, back then—I mean, back now? You know what I mean.” She looked up at the menu board again. “Wait! Can I change that order? Instead of a Filet-O-Fish can I have a Big Mac? What is a Big Mac, anyway?”

    Most customers melted into a blur to Sherman, but not this one. She wasn’t young, and she wasn’t real old either. Her looks were pretty average. She was dressed in overalls—Sherman had seen plenty of that, with all the farms around here. Perhaps it was that she acted like she had never seen a McDonalds before.

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No Responses to “Free HOOK Edit: Sherman hated this town—”

  1. Veddy interesting! So easy to imagine the scene. It reminded me of a movie where everything looks normal…until the camera pans in and we gradually see that something is eerily, deliciously amiss. Great work!

  2. I like both characters. I’d definitely read on to see what’s up with this overall woman. I mean, who doesn’t know what a Bic Mac is? And oh heavens, now I want a Big Mac. Thanks a lot!

  3. Thank you so much for your comments. They are appreciated.

    You’re right about the genre. The woman, Dr. Serendipity Brown from the 24th century, just invented a time machine. Being her, she jumped in before testing it or even changing her clothes. If anyone wants to read the rest of the scene, they can go to Excerpt from Chapter One.

    Sherman’s attitude does get better through the book. Right now he’s devoid of all hope for the future. He’s nineteen and feels stuck in a small town. He will progress from mopey hanger-on to Serendipity’s right-hand man and trouble shooter.

    I hadn’t noticed, but I do have too many “buts” in that last paragraph. (Maybe comes from stammering, eh?) I like the rework you did on it.

    My philosophy on dialogue is to write the way people talk, even if the grammar isn’t quite right. Only edit if it’s confusing, hard to read, or gets too boring. Am I way off base with that?

    Also I have a question. Throughout the book I talk of the 20th century, 27th century and 24th century. Should I use numbers or spell it out (twentieth century)? Myself, I think the numbers are easier for the reader to tell at a glance which century I’m talking about. Or does it look amateurish?

    Thank you again for your help!

  4. Hi Jeannette,

    As far as dialog, I’m afraid writing the way people really talk can turn out pretty boring. Good dialog is an art whose purpose is to condense the words down to an essence that 1) carries the speaker’s voice, 2) gets across essential information, and 3) holds the reader’s attention. That’s why I strongly recommend cutting all extraneous words like “well” and “oh” or “ooh” that are used constantly by almost all of us. They clutter your dialog and don’t generally show us a particular speaker. On the other hand, specific dialog like, “They actually made you say that, back then—I mean, back now?” tells us this speaker speaks quickly, perhaps without thinking so she has to correct herself in mid-sentence, which results in repetition. Suddenly we feel like we know her, and we’ve only heard her say one thing! Then she goes on to change her order, and again we hear the repetition. Now we see that she’s thinking about what she’s said as she’s correcting herself, because she’s curious about things and not afraid to show her ignorance. Smart, curious people are interesting. Imperfect people with good intentions are interesting. Smart, curious, imperfect people with good intentions who don’t know something we think everybody knows—we REALLY like THEM!

    As with every other aspect of fiction, the general rule is condense, condense, condense. What you absolutely can’t do without are the words that make up your story.

    The issue of spelling out numbers is a dicey one. In journalism, you spell out every single-digit number and use numerals for the rest. In fiction, you generally spell out every number—particularly in dialog, which is meant to be heard rather than seen in the reader’s mind—unless it’s something commonly-recognized as numerals, like a year. But it can depend upon your publisher’s preference. I would probably spell out twentieth century. Twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh? Well, I strive for consistency, so if I was spelling out twentieth, I’d probably spell out those, too. But it’s a good question. Your publisher might feel differently.

    The one hard and fast rule is that you never, ever start a sentence with a numeral. This can be tricky if you want to start a sentence with a year (“Nineteen-eighty-one was the year we all regretted.”), so most writers find a way not to start a sentence with a year.

    Victoria

  5. All right, put that way, “Oh” and “well” are as bad as saying “uh”. I was trying to show her excitement, but that comes across without them. I’m going to do a word search through my novel for “Oh” and “well”. If they aren’t actually doing something, and are just loitering, they’ll get booted.

    To be on the safe side, I’ll just spell out the centuries.

    This isn’t the first novel I’ve written, but it is the first I thought might have a chance, so it’s my first real polishing job. I’ve heard you can polish too much, and take out all the goody. So if someone suggests something I just don’t see, I won’t immediately change it. However, I don’t blow it off. I think about it very hard. If I can I’ll ask them to defend their opinion so I’ll understand what they are really saying. Sometime you have to see something from a different angle to really see it.

    I’ve made all the changes you suggested now that I understand why you made them.

    You’ve given me a few things to consider as I do my next revision. Thank you for being patient and for all your help. I plan on reading all your essays. Hopefully someday I’ll have an acknowledgements page to put you on.

  6. Jeanette,

    Yes, there is such a thing as polishing too much. But I wouldn’t worry about it. You can always put stuff back. What generally happens is not that you take out all the goody, but that you lose the rhythm and flow of sense, so you wind up with a series of perfectly good insanely-clunky non-sequiturs. “He put his hand out. The apple had a rind with a spot. His hair was brown with threads of highlights. Noon came sooner than he expected. His fingernails were clipped square.”

    I’ll look forward to reading your acknowledgements page with pleasure!

    Victoria




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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, tragic and 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 her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers 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 worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of 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, which agents had told him to throw away. 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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