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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

    How many times have you screwed up your writing? Once? Twice? A hundred times? A thousand times? Counting all the times you’re screwing up this very instant and the times you intend to screw up in the future. . .infinity?

    EVERYONE SCREWS UP. This should be printed in big, bold letters at the top of every sheet of paper, every typewriter, every keyboard, every pencil and pen. It should be something all writers sit and stare at all day long as they mull over their novels. It should be something you could get tattooed on the insides of your eyelids so every time you start thinking you’re the only hopeless loser in history to fail so abysmally at the impossibly simple task of writing what you know needs to be written—all you have to do is close your little eyes.

    But until that particular tattoo becomes a realistic possibility, let’s talk about the lessons to take away from your ghastly, nightmarish, soul-destroying facility with failure. Shall we?

    1. Writers get to erase.

    2. Why, yes. Yes, we do. And we leave no trace. Painters don’t get to do this. Neither do sculptors, woodworkers, theater actors, live musicians, or jugglers. Not to mention dentists, surgeons, emergency rescue teams, air traffic controllers, pilots, deep-sea divers, venomous snake handlers, stuntpeople, firewalkers, or bungie-jumpers. You know what job I do not want? The guy who has to dangle off a wire from a helicopter to save some window jumper from a tall building when a bug flies into the pilot’s eye. Now THAT job would suck.

      But in writing I get to make all the mistakes I like. I can write a zillion words based on a complete fallacy, I can make my characters wooden imbeciles, set stories on a moronic cartoon set, make the action about as swift and decisive as custard pie. I can be simply atrocious at this!

      And so long as I learn from my mistakes before I get around to trying to publish, nobody will eeeeeeeeever know.

    3. Nobody can tell how many times you’ve erased.

    4. Not only do I get to hide my mistakes, but I get to do it an infinite number of times. Screwed up my protagonist’s personality? Fine. I’ll fix it. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Wound up with a half-witted three-armed ignoramus bully with delusions of racial superiority who owns far too money, which they use solely to support the sweatshop and advertising industries, and signed them up for a red herring political organization for brainless gorms that accidentally managed to name itself after a particularly vivid sexual innuendo?

      No problem! I can keep nothing but the character’s name. In fact—I can even throw out the name.

      And I never, ever, ever erase all the way through the paper.

    5. Plots are endlessly adjustable.

    6. Yes, but what if it’s my plot that sucks? What if I started off with a mind-numbingly boring first chapter I didn’t know was supposed to be a hook, switched gears to backstory that makes mind-numbing look interesting, rambled on for five chapters covering my cliche-ridden survivalist manifesto, filled the next twenty chapters with rude observations about my reader’s personal hygiene, and ended lamely on nothing in particular when I realized I don’t know how to write a novel?

      It’s okay! All I have to do is think of what story I’m really, super-duper interested in telling. Then I ask myself, ‘Yes, but what’s the point?’, backtrack from there a few major steps, and launch into it at a random startling place.

      And if it turns out I’m not all that interested in telling that story after all? So what?! I can go out on the back porch, scratch my heinie on a post, hawk a loogie in the rhodies, and belt out Don’t Cry for Me, Agentina until the neighbors throw shoes. Then I can come back indoors and turn it into the story of how I totally humiliated myself at the rodeo that time, only I can say it was my sister who did it, not me.

      It doesn’t matter! Plots are made of unbreakable elastic.

    7. Characters can’t rat you out.

    8. And those characters I used the first time—well, the first dozen times—while I was trying to figure out what story I really wanted to tell? The only creatures on earth who know the truth about all this?

      Completely mute except for the words I put into their mouths myself. Hear that incoherent screeching in the distance? Hear how it gets all mumbley when I put my hand over it?

      Yeah, that’s me. Stifling my characters. Even in a court of law, they can’t bear testimony against me.

    9. Settings always look as good as new.

    10. You know, I used to set all my stories in invisible settings. I was too lazy to go find out what those places actually looked like, so I just set my characters down wherever I wanted and let them start talking. I let them do things, too, so long as it didn’t rely on anything in the setting. And I didn’t even know I was imitating Hemingway!

      But even when I made my settings ridiculously impossible—they call it an “anarchronism” when you let your Druids smoke cigars—and even when I went out later and found out how impossible it was, I still got to take out the impossible stuff and insert the correct details later, and it looked like I’d done it that way in the first place.

      Sometimes I still do it that way, just to amuse myself.

    11. Dialog gets more interesting as it gets more disjointed.

    12. And sometimes I wrIte and rewrIte the same dialog over and over again, trying to get it right, taking it apart and putting it back together again, hammering it to bits, until it sounds like the characters are having totally different conversations all in the same room at the same time over the same table.

      Hey, you know what I’ve discovered? Dialog sounds a whole lot better that way!

    13. Actions are always replaceable.

    14. I even leave out the actions. Randomly. Whenever I’m too sleepy or bored or preoccupied clipping my fingernails to think up anything worth writing down. Or, worse, sometimes I use actions I know perfectly well are trite and unbelievable (never “hips that beckon,” but sometimes pretty darn close), just to fill up the space.

      Then when I feel like it I go back later with a thesaurus and try out different words in different orders without even considering what might work best—“slapped/kicked/slid across ice/fingered greasily/dashed past and back again/yodeled like a Swedish tenor/baked in a steak-&-kidney pie.” Sometimes I do it with my eyes closed. That’s how little attention I feel like paying.

      That’s also how the characters in my stories wind up doing things that really make each other sit up and do a double-take!

    15. In imaginary space, no one can hear you scream.

    16. You have total and complete freedom to vent the frustrations of writing on your story. Go ahead and take out on it everything that’s ever happened or not happened to you, tear out its heart and jump up and down, savage it like a bulldog.

      Try it. Yeah. Nobody made a peep, did they?

      I love this craft.

    No matter how badly you screw up your manuscript, it’s okay! So long as you’re one of those 6 Personality Types Who Will Succeed as Writers.


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

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22 Responses to “8 Lessons To Learn from Screwing Up Your Manuscript”

  1. I absolutely LOVED this post!!

  2. Great post, especially since I accepted last night that my story contains 3 plots that do not belong together. Sigh. But on the bright side, that means I now have 3 concepts just sitting there waiting for me. Now that’s a half-full glass if ever I’ve seen one.

  3. Great post Victoria! I am in the middle of revisions right now, and this really helps.

  4. Nice post, Victoria! I’m glad that chest full of old characters can’t rat me out:-)

  5. Good to know – there’s still hope!

  6. Oh, yeah, you guys. That’s really the point—when you’re a writer, there’s always hope!

  7. Megs, you might think about the very real possibility that those three plots DO belong together, you just haven’t yet envisioned the Climax that makes them fuses that are going to spectacularly collide. Then you might think about interweaving them. Then congratulate yourself on the half-full glass attitude that’s going to get you where you want to go.

  8. Jessica, revisions can be hell. You’ll stumble into the Self-Loathing Phase any day now, when it all looks dreadful and you start thinking you should rewrite the whole thing with a completely different premise. Don’t succumb to the self-doubt. You’re going to be okay!

  9. Hey, Paul, wouldn’t that make a great story? Your chest full of old characters. . .ratting you out?

  10. And, Marisa, you are always so appreciative. Boy, you make my day!

  11. This post helped me so much. I tend to be pretty tight-@$$ed about writing–six years as a composition major created that–but you’re teaching me to just let go and enjoy myself.

    Thanks!

  12. I should have clarified that it was music composition… 🙂

  13. Oh, I’m glad, Steph! I’m pretty OCD about it, too. That’s why I became an editor. It’s amazing how much easier it is for two people to work on an manuscript than it is for one little lonely all on their own.

  14. Victoria,

    So glad I found your site. In regards to # 3, plots being endlessly adjustable, I have found that to be an inherent issue for me. I find myself changing the plot often and have to ask myself, much like you stated, what is this story really about? It’s easy to lose focus over the space of 85,000 words!

    I’ve added your site to my blogroll. Thanks for the sound advice!

  15. You’re welcome, Rhonda! Yes, 85,000 words is a whole lot of words.

    Be very aware of the skeletal structure of your story. You need to tell how something happened to someone. So you look at where the snowball started rolling toward that thing that happened and identify the roughly three steps it took to get them to that thing that happened. Then you either identify or create a nice, cozy, little comfort zone right before the big thing that happened.

    That’s the framework that’s going to hold it all up and together.

    Then you climb inside and start writing down everything going on around you, in as great of detail as possible.

  16. Do you mean that no one will ever know how many times I’ve changed my characters’ names? Even if I change them one more time? 🙂

    K

  17. Well, I know.

  18. This is great, because…well…I screw up my manuscript regularly! I always love your articles, Victoria. Great advice–well told.

  19. Victoria, I am so glad I found you. This post couldn’t have come at a better time, (I guess I should say I couldn’t have finally gotten here at a better time).

    I’m working on my first novel, after having written shorts and flash for only a couple of years, (it was all nonfiction before then). As I was writing a scene today it hit me that the story does not belong to my intended main character – it belongs to a couple who was supposed to be nothing more than an extension of that character. Realizing that was like having a couch fall on my chest. It’s great to hear that This Is Okay, that I can simply keep on writing and let “whoever’s” story come as it may, then decide what the hey to do with it later.

    Thank you very much for this post!

  20. Thank you, Suzannah! Yeah, we all screw up all the time. It’s pretty much the one thing you can guarantee about us fiction writers. 🙂

  21. It’s true, Deanna—all too frequently we write and write about one or two original characters, thinking that’s who the story is about, only to discover they were only the warm-up exercise, the lead-in to the real characters with their real story to tell.

    It’s a good thing getting good at fiction takes so darn much exercise, isn’t it? Otherwise we’d be tempted to think of that writing as wasted. . .when it’s not. All practice is grist for the mill.

  22. I love it! It emulates my Six-Word Memoir to a tee . . . .

    “Thoughts are editable in paper format.”

    Thanks for a great post, for expansion of my inner thoughts.




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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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