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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

    First things first: I’m being interviewed by Katie Weiland over on AuthorCulture. Have you ever wondered whether or not independent editing means staying home all day in your jammies? Now’s your chance to find out!

    Second: I promised you guys back in December that whatever I learned from the fabulous Notebooks of Henry James I would share with you here. I haven’t finished it yet—it’s a heck of a long book, plus I got completely sidetracked by Shirley Jackson’s key to increasing tension over time, Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade’s face in v’s, and Stephen King’s coke addiction, not to mention my grandmother—but I’ve read enough to be able to share some wonderful stuff.

    So. . .please allow me to introduce you to the lessons I’ve learned from the indomitable Henry James:

    1. What passes for exposition in much of modern fiction is merely notetaking to the greats

    2. If you didn’t know how beautifully-rendered and meticulous-written James’ stories and novels are, you might mistake his notebooks for his fiction.

      It’s all there: the protagonist’s situation, character, relationships to the other characters. The secondary main characters and their relationships. The Hook, Development, and Climax (which he sometimes called the denouement, as did Gustave Freytag when he invented Freytag’s Triangle). The motivations for everyone’s behavior. The insights explored.

      All that’s left is the actual writing.

      For the record, James never stopped exhorting himself to write shorter stories that he did. His notebooks are simply riddled with announcements that he intends to limit himself “this time” to 5,000, 8,0000, or 10,000 words. And he seems to have been a consummate failure. I think it was The Ambassadors that was intended to be barely a nibble.

    3. Characters, even in the most ‘literary’ of fiction, always cause their own problems

    4. Very often, James started with an idea based on a story someone had told him at a dinner party. (He was quite the social butterfly of London, an upper-class American expatriate who complained, Camille-like, of the ceaseless whirl of invitations even as he hurtled constantly from taxi to taxi, doorstep to dining room.) His notebooks will say something like, “Lady M told me last night of the case of H de L,” and then elaborate upon the anecdote, commenting in almost audible mumbles, “I think if I were to make it someone young—a woman? a man?—and give them a reason for objecting to the elder woman’s ambitions, I might have a nice little vignette. Yes, I believe that would illuminate what I mean to discover.” Half the time he was mumbling to himself in broken French.

      Always, always he was working with the characters, delving into their conflicting interests and needs, piling pressures on them to see what they’d do. In long, luxurious discussion with himself.

      This could go on for weeks, months, years. He didn’t bother to start the actual writing until he had the conflicts worked out.

      He knew the Climax of a story is the whole point. So he delved and delved and delved until he knew exactly what his point was.

    5. The more a writer develops their storytelling muscles, the greater a thrill it is to be a writer

      And the loveliest part of reading James’ writing process is the sense you get of his great pleasure in his expertise at spinning tales.

      I believe, of course, that he loved the actual writing. He was so adept with a well-turned sentence, so skilled with flashes of insights. What a joy to be able to produce such accomplished lines, paragraphs, and scenes! Although his writing in his later years became ridiculously convoluted, if you take the time to disentangle his sentences you see that he really was mining ore worth mining, creating refractions with his complicated sentences that could not be created any other way.

      But he also loved the planning. Oh, how he loved it. Because he knew this work takes two different parts of the writer’s brain: the storytelling part and the prose part. We cannot become writers by choosing to develop only one and neglect the other.

      This is a lesson it’s too easy to forget in today’s manic rush to publication.

      There is the art. And there is the craft.

    I’m incognito this week—elsewhere aging gracefully in media res with a ghost story—so if your comments don’t show up right away that’s why. I’ll be back next week and get them posted. Also, I’m expecting you all to have run out and gotten your hands on The Notebooks of Henry James while I’m looking the other way.

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    —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

    11 Comments

11 Responses to “3 Things I Learned from Henry James”

  1. Interesting points. I’ll be adding this to my round-up.

  2. Jeffrey Russell said on

    “…this work takes two different parts of the writer’s brain: the storytelling part and the prose part.”

    That thought is why I refer to The Art And Craft of Story regularly.

  3. Not sure if I’ve read any James – some sound familiar. Will download some – free on iTunes now. And will check the Notebooks out of the library. Thanks for the info – I think. Not that I needed more distractions …

  4. Crichardwriter said on

    Thank you for this article Victoria. I seem to have a lot in common with Henry James, and it is nice to hear that I am not the only meticulous planner. I sometimes wonder if I am overplanning because I hear about so many writers who “pants” it, but I think that this is just how I am wired. I need to have a clear picture of everything before I start weaving a story.

  5. Totally agree. There is no Right way to write. I’m sure some people have tried to lay down a law or plan on how to write a novel over the years, but this is an art form and everyone’s approach and ability is going to be different. Planners or Pantsers, Gardeners or Architects, we all have to find our own path.

  6. Victoria… I’ve not read much about H.J. so I’m glad you’ve introduced him to me. And I sooo appreciate these notes about the Art as opposed to the Craft of writing. You don’t find many (wannabe) writers tending to the Art. In fact, many are disdainful of “planning”. I love the way Hemingway put it: “Prose is architecture, not interior decorating.” This morning, I had just had my coffee and was preparing to stop writing my new story until I have outlined the entire drama. I do this so that I can save time (years maybe!) in the writing. This is my first time on your site, but I’ll be back.

  7. Yikes Victoria! As usual your points are excellent, but they could have been made without the “The preponderance of cheap Made in China crap in our society does not make that stuff the best quality stuff in existence.” line thrown in! It leaves a bad taste in the mouths of writers of color like me (and others whose families do business in and with China.)

  8. Oh, Sophia, I do apologize if that sounds like anything remotely insulting to the Chinese people.

    My husband and I have many Chinese and Chinese-American friends in the computer industry. The objection to cheap Made in China crap is a stand taken years ago in solidarity with the Chinese people, whose exploitation by the cheap crap industry has led to some dreadful tragedies in unsafe factories.

    Chinese culture and history are fascinating, and I’ve studied in some depth the 2,000-year-old tradition of mystery in Chinese storytelling. (Mystery only goes back 150 years in Western literature.) Wonderful stuff.

  9. You’re making me want to read this Henry James and I can’t help but reflect on how miniscule my breadth of experience in literature can seem at times. I *used* to think I read a lot. Now…not so much.

  10. Just wondering why my previous comment has not been moderated…?

  11. I just got back after being away last week, that’s all!




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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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