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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

    “Knock me down, pick me up, knock me down again.
    Break my heart, steal my gold, slander my good name.”

    —Gordon Lightfoot, “Sixteen Miles”

    You’re alone in a room with your keyboard. It’s 11:55 on Halloween. You’re about to start NaNoWriMo.

    Your fingers are poised. Your heart is racing. You’ve never done this before. Actually, you have—you’ve done it once, or twice, or even continuously every year since the inception (except the year your cat died)—but you’ve never finished. You’ve finished but you’ve never finished the actual novel. You’ve finished the actual novel, but it was. . .oh, the agony in your gut. . .garbage. It just petered out.

    The second hand jumps, the clock ticks over, your fingers descend.

    And your mind goes blank.

    What’s wrong?

    You have no idea what you’re writing about.

    THE PLANNING

    1) Theme

    Something matters to you 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 you never got over? The pregnancy that came at the wrong time? The difference between your safe little armchair and the terrors of the mind that make your hair stand on end? A glimpse of someone trudging through snow—someone waving good-bye—someone standing at a window at dawn while a sleeper lies dreaming behind them?

    Something in your heart is running your life.

    Pick it out carefully and lay it on the desk next to you. You’re going to write about it.

    2) Character

    To whom does this thing happen?

    Maybe you find it easiest to write about a character of the same gender as yourself—the best choice for a beginner, anyway—or maybe you 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. You share one essential thing with this person: whatever it is running your life, it’s running theirs, too.

    Now you know what they need. They need to not lose this thing that matters most to them.

    3) Plot

    Climax:

    That gives you your Climax. You’re going to take whatever matters most to them away.

    How are you going to take it away? Easy. You’re going to give them another need that’s simply and completely incompatible with the first need. And at the Climax you’re going to put them in a situation in which they can only have one. Which one will it be?

    Hook:

    Now you know the path you’re going to send them sliding down. What’s at the head of that 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 they unthinkingly fall into?

    That gives you your Hook. Let this one simmer right under the surface of your consciousness as you mull over the rest. By the time you’re done with the basic storyline, you’re going to need a really good visual of that moment to start your novel with. Plant a clue in that moment to the Climax. . .it doesn’t have 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 I forgot to see this coming?”

    Faux Resolution:

    Now you know who your protagonist is, where they start, and where they end up. What compromise can you give them to lull them into a sense of false security? What can you hand them 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”?

    That gives you your Faux Resolution, which occurs right before your Climax.

    Conflicts:

    Now you know how yourprtonagist starts and what Faux Resolution they’re going to get. So give them a push. Your 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?

    That gives you your first Conflict. You’re going to need three good solid ones, and they’re going to need to get worse and worse and worse as you go along. You’re spelling this poor protagonist’s doom.

    And as you spell it, you’re giving this protagonist the chance to show their stuff again and again and again. You knock them down, pick them up, knock them down again.

    THE WRITING

    Be thinking, as you write, about:

    1) Strengths

    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 again?

    2) Cause-&-effect

    Everything the character does makes something else happen. Whatever it is, it turns out wrong, and that forces them to do something else. How does the chain form? After the third major obstacle, how do you let up on them a bit, allow them a moment of thinking they’ve finally outwitted their fate?

    3) Tension

    “Tension on every page” is from literary agent Donald Maass, and it’s the best writing advice you can get. It’s also linked to Show, Not Tell. Exposition is not tense. Scenes are. Write scenes. Scene after scene after scene. Jump from the end of one scene into the middle of the next. 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 they work their way from one of the three major Conflicts to the other, give them plenty of little conflicts and reprieves. Push them away, pull them in, over and over again. Never apologize, never explain. Just scenes.

    When in doubt, add more tension. Make characters misunderstand each other, make them uncomfortable, make them—likable as they are—screw up in little ways. If all else fails, drop a piano.

    4) Curiosity

    Readers read to learn something they didn’t know. Writers write for the same reason. Wherever you go with your novel, whatever you do to your characters, however inevitable the Climax, you’re writing this to learn about being human. Don’t plan the Resolution, the way the Climax shakes down. You haven’t written the novel yet. You don’t know how it all shakes down.

    When you get to the end of the month, and you’ve finally written that outrageous Climax, and you’ve got your protagonist on the floor finally giving it up for dead—then you can think about your Resolution. What did you write this novel to learn about being human? You don’t know yet.

    5) Cheating

    Most of all, remember: in NaNoWriMo it’s okay to cheat. It’s only 50,000 words. Novels run from 60,000 to 80,000 and more, and that doesn’t count the 25-75% you’ll cut when you go back to revise. (You’ve got to throw it on the threshing floor before you can see what’s wheat and what’s chaff.) If you get to a place where you know something has to happen, but what you really want to write is what happens after that, use a placemarker. I put mine in ALL CAPS so they’re easy to find later. Or a row of XXXX’s with notes on the missing piece. Keep moving. The best scenes, the keepers, are the ones you can’t wait to write.

    From your Hook to your Climax. That’s what you’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.

    Take the ball and run with it.

    MIDNIGHT!


    The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon

    The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon








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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

    2 Comments

2 Responses to “Launching head-first into NaNoWriMo”

  1. Victoria, this is such a clear, succinct post. Really enjoyed it. Maybe all writing advice should be geared to teenagers!

  2. Well, thank you, Lisa!

    Actually, I don’t gear writing to teenagers. They have the intellectual capacity of adults. They’re just waiting for their hormones to settle down so they’re not so much at the mercy of them (that lasts about thirty years) and to accumulate adult experience. Both of those things take time, but neither keeps them from writing well.

    I actually wrote a post once just for teenagers in response to John Scalzi’s claim that all teenage writing sucks by nature. It doesn’t. Teens frequently write much cleaner, clearer stuff than adults with similar amounts of writing experience under their belts.

    All you really need is a wild imagination and huevos, and teens have those in abundance!

    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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