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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

    Guess what I spent the Thanksgiving holiday doing? That’s right—giving myself repetitive stress injury writing my annual 45,000-word children’s book for my son. I didn’t start until halfway through November this year, so it got pretty darn busy toward the end there. Now I have a completed book (hurrah!), but I also have a gimpy elbow, which means today’s post is going to be more a checklist than a regular tirade. (Sorry about that.) We’ve been on the subject of first drafts all month: Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo , 3 Essential Guidelines for starting a novel, 3 Vital Steps to creating an excellent, story-worthy protagonist, and 3 Crucial Aspects of Writing Scenes.

    So let’s sit down together now and ask all those hard, necessary questions a writer must ask themself when they finish a first draft of a novel:

    1. Is your protagonist the same character at the end as the beginning?

    2. Is the catastrophe your characters are heading toward at the Hook the same one they wind up with at the Climax?

    3. Does your protagonist matter more than anyone else in the story?

    4. Does your Climax matter more than anything else that happens?

    5. Can you clearly state your protagonist’s two mutually-exclusive needs, which drive them relentlessly forward throughout their story?

    6. Can you account for every single scene in relation to one or both of those needs?

    7. Can you justify basing an entire novel on those needs when you ask yourself why a reader would care?

    8. Can you identify exactly how your Climax forces your protagonist to choose between their two needs?

    9. Can you link every single scene in an inevitable chain of cause-&-effect toward that Climax?

    10. Can you pin-point the tension in every single scene that’s so powerful it makes the reader turn the next page?

    11. Have you made your protagonist interesting, entertaining, smart, human, and unique enough to hold a reader’s attention for 50,000 words?

    12. Have you shown your protagonist’s world in significant, telling details that simply couldn’t describe anybody else’s fictional world?

    13. Have you stuck to only essential dialog?

    14. Have you choreographed your action scenes for tightly-paced action?

    15. Have you skipped all urges to repeat yourself?

    16. Have you avoided every paragraph, sentence, and word of exposition humanly possible?

    17. Is any and all exposition left just so brilliant and essential that your story can’t exist without it?

    18. Have you moved the Backstory from the beginning to its rightful spot after the Hook (or else cut it altogether)?

    19. Have you resisted the urge to ramble in Resolution after the Climax?

    20. Is this story truly, sincerely important to you, above and beyond its basic quality of containing a whole lot of words?

    21. Will you love sinking ever-deeper into this story in the New Year as you launch into the revisions that are, in actuality, the real work of writing a novel?

    22. Are you proud—not of yourself—but of your story?

    23. Are you in love?

    You are a high-dive artist who just dove into the deepest point of the entire ocean. Congratulations! You’ve got some kind of crazy-brave glitter shining in your eyes!

    And when you return to this story later, after a well-earned respite over the holidays, you will begin swimming home.

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    24 Comments

    “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

    24 Comments

24 Responses to “23 Inevitable Questions to Ask Yourself
at the End of NaNoWriMo”

  1. Jeffrey Russell said on

    Those questions, properly and honestly answered, will definitely make a story better, won’t they?

    It’s a good checklist to keep handy.

  2. Hey, Jeffrey! You probably recognize a lot of this from our conversations about your manuscripts, don’t you?

    Yes—these are all essentials for a well-written story. It’s just that first drafts have a tendency to get entirely out of hand and run amock all over the office. Then we have to go around picking up the pieces and putting them together again.

  3. Jeffrey Russell said on

    Oh yes, I recognize them, alright. And I know just what you mean about picking up pieces and putting them back together, too! I’m glad I have your “how-to” guide.

  4. 🙂

    You bet, Jeffrey. Up On Cripple Creek—if you spring a leak, I’ll mend ya.

  5. I’m definitely not hitting all of these points, but that’s okay. Mine is a Nano project, and at this point it’s been all about writing fast. I can pick up the pieces later.

    I hit #22 and #23 with this work, surprisingly enough. I think those two may be enough to continue work on this story, and I’ll be able to answer ‘yes’ to the rest of the questions in the list.

  6. Hi Roxanne,

    Don’t worry, nobody hits all these points in a first draft. The pieces wind up scattered all over the place, and asking the right questions now is what helps you know where to find them and how they need to be arranged. That’s what leads you into the future of your story.

    You are right on track if you’re hitting those last two!

  7. Terrific list – probably very scary at this stage, but something to pin to the computer to guide revisions. I’m tweeting, of course mydear. Now rest your weary elbow.

  8. Hi Roz! Yes, writing a novel is a hair-raising experience, isn’t it? You’d think we writers would walk around all the time with our hair sticking out off our heads as though we’d just been electrocuted.

    Thanks for the tweeting—you’re a love! I’ve had my elbow on ice for days.

  9. Susan Kelly said on

    “Are you in love?” Oh, sigh!

    What a great question to ask about writing. Or anything.

    🙂

  10. Susan, isn’t it? I keep waiting for someone to say, “Why, yes. Yes, I am. Oh—you mean with my novel?” 🙂

  11. What a fantastic list!

    I’ve been able to say “yes” to a number of those questions in the past, but not so many this year. I’m not sure what went “wrong” this NaNo for me, but I haven’t been as enthralled as I typically am, and the action hasn’t seemed so pell-mell as usual. Perhaps after I’ve finished (I’m very close) and put it away for a few months, I’ll be able to tune it up a bit in edits and make it zing!

  12. Hi Jen,

    Letting a manuscript go cold is a fabulous way to get a fresh take on it! While you’re doing that, don’t be afraid to think a lot about your story (without going back to the ms). Write about it to yourself—ramble on and on in your notebooks about the characters and their story and what it’s all about and how and where and when and, in the final hour, why. Talk to yourself. All the best writers do! 🙂

    (Flaubert used to roll around on the floor yelling.)

    Don’t worry about going “wrong.” Many a wonderful novel has had a difficult birth. Sometimes it’s the most complex ones that give their authors the hardest time.

  13. I think I’m going to print this and pin it to the wall above my computer. I especially like #7. I need to ask myself if the story really needs to be told as a novel. Sometimes a great idea is best told in short form.

  14. Hi Suzanne!

    Oh, form is such a fabulous question to explore. Unfortunately, traditional publishing moved into quite rigid expectations in the 1990s and 2000s, attempting to turn all storytelling into genre novels of specific, pre-set lengths. It’s only been recently that a few have taken chances with short story, narrative essay, and memoir again and been amazed to find that many stories fit those forms beautifully—and readers love them!

    Now that self-publishing is becoming a reality for more and more writers, I think we’ll find all that freedom to explore form opening back up to us again.

    Personally, I’m writing a novella right now. What a lovely, flexible form it is.

  15. If I had the money I’d love to hand over two manuscripts to you right now. I just know they’d be SO much better for it. But you are the Bentley of editors I’m afraid – 😀 – So if until I make enough, I’ll have to made do with a cheaper company 🙁 This is a great list, which is bookmarked and will end up in my Scrivener notes 😀 X

  16. Hi Shah,

    Oh, that’s why I’m writing my books—because I remember only too well decades of being a starving writer, unable to afford the proper mentoring and unable to move forward without it. I want you all to get the help you need! I’ve spent most of my life in your shoes.

    I love being called “the Bentley of editors,” but if it makes you feel any better I’m actually low-priced for my experience. I deliberately keep my rates low so I can help folks who couldn’t afford me otherwise. There are a certain number of us out here working on high-level developmental and line editing, but not for less than $75/hour and most for $85 to $100.

    Be aware of what you get for less! There are suddenly zillions of folks these days charging professional fees for amateur advice. I see inexperienced self-titled ‘editors’ asking innocent writers for $40, $50, even $65/hour, although more than one of those has turned out to be simply passing on what they learn on others’ blogs—sometimes in the blogger’s own words.

    Cheap developmental editors are just peer critiquers who would like to be paid for their opinions. They don’t know that’s not editing. Cheap editors who are good are copy editors, which is a specialized editing niche for otherwise finished manuscripts.

    Be sure to educate yourself on the difference—it’s your money! 🙂

  17. This is a great check list to keep on hand after writing THE END to any book any time. Appreciate it!

  18. Thank you, Donna! Yes, it works for any novel or even story. These questions should help you focus your start on revisions—sometimes that next step just feels so undifferentiated and overwhelming!

  19. […] for more specific advice, I like Victoria Mixon’s post on 23 Questions to ask yourself at the end of NaNoWriMo. I can see spending several hours contemplating that list, […]

  20. Karen Davis said on

    These are great questions to ask even when the only thing you are working with is an idea.

  21. Thanks so much. This is a great list to keep handy.

  22. […] 23 Questions to Ask Your Novel – A fantastic exercise to go through after you’ve typed “The End.” […]

  23. Hey thanks for the great list of questions. Is the first question to make sure the characters stays the same or to make sure he changes? Because In most novels I read the characters change as they develop.

  24. Oh, yes, Conor. All novels are stories of change. I mean literally: did you start off with the twenty-something punk musician as the protagonist and wind up showing the life change in the elderly grocery store clerk? This happens quite often to pantsers. If the writer doesn’t keep their eye on the ultimate challenge to their protagonist, they get bored partway through and detour off to explore some other new character. Don’t do that! 🙂




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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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