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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

    The samples below are Free Edits from two different Free Edit Specials I’ve done. The first section are edits of the novel CLIMAX, and the second section are edits of the novel HOOK.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Free CLIMAX Edit #6 goes to Kathryn Rushing, whose MG novel is set in the Zagros Mountains thousands of years ago. Kathryn wins a free private email chat about her writing!

    Setup

    Twelve-year-old Mirren has found her father, Kanen, high in the mountains where he has been sent to capture (for Sargon) a mankilling lion. The villages in Sargon’s empire all believe the lion is a symbol of the gods’ displeasure with Sargon, and every moment the lion lives weakens Sargon’s rule. Mirren has her wardogs Valon and Jax with her. Kanen has only one surviving wardog left.

    The lion is going for Mirren, but Valon and Jax intercept it.

    Climax

    The three met with an impact that cracked the air. Mirren rolled toward her father and tossed him her hunting stick. He wasted no time. He flipped it around so the sharp end was toward the lion and plunged into the fight, the brown wardog at his side.

    Jax was already at the lion’s throat. His jaws worked furiously to find a hold through the lion’s thick mane while Valon leapt for the lion’s back. Her teeth sank into its spine and her back claws raked its shoulders as she struggled to pull her weight on top of it.

    Moons spent avoiding the nip of cave rats had made the wardogs quick. When the lion swiped at Jax, he danced aside, and the great curved claws passed through his black coat like a comb. Valon tightened her jaws on the back of the lion’s neck, and the lion swung around to throw her off. Her legs slipped off the lion’s back and, for a moment, her underbelly was exposed. The lion jaws opened wide to tear at her, but Jax launched himself upward, taking the massive head with him.

    The brown wardog worked vengefully on the other end, tearing at the lion’s rump, trying to bring the lion down. Kanen maneuvered around the dog and stabbed the hunting stick into the soft spot behind the lion’s ribs. The lion roared and contorted its body wildly, shaking off all three dogs.

    It was the opening Mirren was waiting for.

    Developmental Edit

    First things first: that line, “The three met with an impact that cracked the air.” WOW. Can you hear it? Can you feel it? Short, succinct, specific, physical—total economy of words. If I were Kathryn, I’d frame that sentence and hang on the wall.

    Can we tell what the premise of the novel is? Twelve-year-old Mirren attacks a lion and proves herself to her father. Anything else? Well, obviously the wardogs are pivotal. Why was Mirren following her father? How much do we get to learn about Sargon and his rule? What’s going to happen after Mirren goes for the lion? Curiosity is very good for the reader’s soul.

    This whole piece moves at a powerful, headlong clip, just one concrete action after another, which is trickier than it looks when you’ve got this many characters moving and acting simultaneously. I did change “danced” to “jumped” to keep from distracting the reader with a complex motion right at that riveting instant. And I changed the lion’s “jaws” to “mouth” because Valon’s jaws have already appeared in that sentence. I’ve trimmed some other words and streamlined the sentences to keep flowing, always, flowing straight toward that final sentence (which, I suspect, is not quite the climax, but the last sentence before the climax of the Climax). Is Mirren going to take out the lion? I am so sure she is. Mirren is one hardcore twelve-year-old mountain village girl!

    Am I on the edge of my seat waiting to find out? You better believe it.

    Copy & Line Edit

    The three met with an impact that cracked the air. Mirren rolled toward her father and tossed him her hunting stick. He flipped it so the sharp end faced the lion.

    Jax was already at the lion’s throat, his jaws working furiously to find a hold through the lion’s thick mane. Valon’s teeth sank into the lion’s spine, and her back claws raked its shoulders as she struggled to pull her weight on top of it.

    Moons spent avoiding the nip of cave rats had made the wardogs quick. When the lion swiped at Jax, he jumped aside, and the great curved claws passed through his black coat like a comb. Valon tightened her jaws, and the lion swung around to throw her off. Her legs slipped off the lion’s back, for a moment her underbelly was exposed, and the lion’s mouth opened wide, but Jax launched himself upward, taking the massive head with him.

    Kanen’s brown wardog tore at the lion’s rump, and Kanen maneuvered around the dog to stab the hunting stick into the soft spot behind the lion’s ribs. The lion roared and contorted its body wildly, shaking off all three dogs.

    It was the opening Mirren was waiting for.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    AND! Free CLIMAX Edit #5 goes to Julie Cross, who also wins a Developmental Edit for her entire chapter!

    Setup

    15 year old girl MC being haunted by her forty-year-old Algebra teacher whom she hated and watched die during detention, but has now grown to like. The two discover his death was a murder, and Jaycie and her boyfriend Matt head to his apartment to look for clues about what might have caused his death when the murderer shows up to thwart their operation.

    Climax

    “Matt! Stay awake, please.” Panic rose again when he didn’t respond. I forgot where I was and what was happening. My eyes darted over to Schuster and a horrible idea formed in my head and I couldn’t get rid of it.

    “This isn’t why you’re here is it? Please tell me it’s not why you’re here. To take Matt somewhere or. . .” I couldn’t finish. I’d seen too many movies like this, they were clouding my judgment.

    Schuster’s eyes widened, “I don’t know Jaycie. How would I know if that were the reason?”

    He was asking me? Now I was totally freaked. I let go of Matt’s side and put my hands on his face, “Matt wake up! Please don’t die. This is all my fault.” I laid my head on his chest letting everything go.

    Then I don’t know how much later someone was prying my hands from Matt and pulling me to my feet. I turned slowly to look into the eyes of a man with a yellow jacket then everything went black.

    I woke up to the sound of sirens ringing in my ears. My head jerked and I sat up quickly staring at what looked like the inside of an ambulance. The movement stopped abruptly and I still couldn’t focus. Colors and lights swirled around me. I felt the sting of the cool night air. I inhaled the scent of the hospital through my nostrils and people asked me questions.

    “What’s your name?”

    “How about your friends, what are their names?”

    I think I answered but I’m not sure. I was consumed with the horrible truth of what happened and I wanted to float away before it sunk in. I looked down at my hands, they were covered in his blood.

    Developmental Edit

    Whoa—is he dead, or isn’t he? This is tension!

    Can we tell the premise of this story from the climax? Matt either dies or almost dies, and Schuster is the key. That’s pretty good.

    I’m hoping from the way the protagonist talks to him that Schuster is a spirit or angel or some other character who might conceivably turn up when someone dies to take them somewhere. The ghost of the Algebra teacher? Oh, yeah! If this isn’t paranormal, it sure ought to be!

    Okay, I’ve done a little editing for punctuation, particularly around the dialog, and trimmed a few words to sharpen the focus. I’ve also removed some of the exposition. Do you see how the reader is drawn in further when they’re not told exactly what the character’s thinking? I also removed a couple of pointers you don’t need, specifically that the protagonist smells with their nostrils and that people began asking questions. (I used “smell” rather than “scent” for the hospital, as “scent” tends to be more commonly understood in terms of “perfume.”) You can jump right over that stuff. If the reader can’t pick it up from the context, boy, they’re just not paying attention.

    Copy & Line Edit

    “Matt! Stay awake, please.”

    He didn’t respond.

    I forgot where I was and what was happening. My eyes darted to Schuster, and a horrible idea formed in my head.

    “This isn’t why you’re here, is it? Please tell me it’s not why you’re here. To take Matt somewhere or. . .” I couldn’t finish. I’d seen too many movies like this.

    Schuster’s eyes widened. “I don’t know, Jaycie. How would I know if that were the reason?”

    He was asking me? I let go of Matt’s side and put my hands on his face. “Matt, wake up! Please don’t die. This is all my fault.” I laid my head on his chest.

    I don’t know how much later someone was prying my hands away and pulling me to my feet. I turned slowly to look into the eyes of a man with a yellow jacket. Then everything went black.

    I woke up to the sound of sirens ringing in my ears. My head jerked, and I sat up quickly, staring around at the inside of an ambulance. The movement stopped abruptly, but I still couldn’t focus. Colors and lights swirled around me. I felt the sting of the cool night air. I inhaled the hospital smell.

    “What’s your name?”

    “How about your friends—what are their names?”

    I think I answered, but I’m not sure. I looked down at my hands.

    They were covered with his blood.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Free CLIMAX Edit #4 goes to someone who asked if they could be anonymous. I don’t mind. Do you guys?

    Setup

    Elizabeth is under the control of a warlock who needs to get to her husband, the warlock hunter Anthony, in order to destroy him and complete his (the warlock) world domination. The warlock has summoned his forces of the elements and finally forced open the door to Anthony and Elizabeth’s house, their last defense.

    Climax

    If Elizabeth wasn’t going to close that door, Anthony would.

    The wind whirled around her against the night. It whipped her long hair into his eyes. He threw his weight against the door. She threw up a hand and staggered back, but still didn’t speak. The door shuddered and lurched against him. He braced his foot against the wall and strained. Sweat poured down his face in the icy air. The door creaked ominously and inched toward him. He crushed his full weight into his shoulder, pushing back. The door creaked and groaned. The timbers cracked at the hinges. He began to weep helplessly. Tears poured down his face. His foot was squashing deeper into the triangle between the wall and the floor. And still he pushed. And shoved. And strained. The door wavered and paused. It was equally forced from both sides. It began to inch toward him again. He felt a socket give in his shoulder. It was over. He could never win. It was over.

    Elizabeth rolled her lifeless eyes towards him. Then she staggered forward. She couldn’t bend her knees. She dropped her weight on him like a sack of cement. The door slammed shut.

    Developmental Edit

    Well, we’ve got tension, all right! Toe-to-toe struggle—that’s what readers like to see!

    Can we tell what the premise of this story is? A warlock hunter triumphs over the efforts of a warlock to destroy him.

    Do we know what the implications of that triumph are? Since Anthony is described as a warlock hunter, I’m assuming it’s either Anthony or warlock. If the warlock can’t destroy Anthony, I’m guessing Anthony’s got the warlock by the scalp.

    Now, this is an interesting example of the use of short sentences to create tension. But it’s easy to over-do. I’ve broken that up a little to keep the reader from becoming acclimated to the short sentences and hence immune to the tension. Yank them forward: yank, yank. Reel them out a little. Yank them back in again. Yank, yank. That keeps the reader off balance, while hypnotizing them deeper and deeper into your fictional dream.

    There are two instances of “threw” pretty close together, so I replace one with “put” to avoid the repetition. There are also two instances of “creaked” pretty close together.

    I’m also going to suggest you beware of accidentally sounding a comedic note. “Squashing” is an inherently funny word. “Like a sack of cement” is an inherently funny metaphor. I’ve replaced “squash” with “force” and dropped the sack of cement altogether in order to keep the tone dark and threatening all the way.

    Copy & Line Edit

    If Elizabeth wasn’t going to close that door, Anthony was.

    The wind whirled around her, out of the night, whipping her long hair into his eyes as he threw his weight against the door. She put up a hand and staggered back, but still didn’t speak. The door shuddered and lurched against him. He braced his foot against the wall and strained. Sweat poured down his face in the icy air. He crushed his full weight into his shoulder, pushing back. The door creaked and groaned ominously. The timbers cracked at the hinges. He began to weep helplessly. Tears poured down his face, as his foot was forced deeper and deeper into the triangle between the wall and the floor. And still he pushed. And shoved. And strained. The door wavered and paused. It began to inch toward him again. He felt a socket give in his shoulder. It was over. He could never win. It was over—

    Elizabeth rolled her lifeless eyes toward him and staggered forward on stiff knees. She dropped her weight against him.

    The door slammed shut.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Free CLIMAX Edit #3 is Jeff’s. . .

    Setup

    Jeff didn’t send a setup, and the reason is obvious. Because we can get everything we need to know from his climax. Yeah—that’s pretty vivid writing!

    Climax

    The cockpit didn’t go silent, but the noise changed.  There had always been a background hum before, and now all I could hear was the wind.  The nose pointed down automatically.  I eased back on the yoke out of habit, practically without thinking, and watched the airspeed bleed off as I tried to hold altitude.  The propeller spun in the wind.

    Below me was a country road and a vineyard.  To the right was a rocky riverbed, to the left a four-lane highway dotted with cars.  By Hobson’s choice, I lined up with the vineyard, which was rapidly becoming my only option.

    Suddenly a powerline appears, right in the path.  Who would string a powerline over a vineyard?  I listen for the stall warning horn but there was none, so I ease back just slightly on the yoke, raising the nose.  I see the wires go by twenty feet below.  Now to line up with the rows.  Damn, should the wheels be up or down?  I don’t remember!  They are down now, and no time to change them. I don’t see any person or truck below, and it wouldn’t matter now.  I am committed.  I hold the yoke as if I were going to break it off.  Forty feet to lose, now thirty.  I am lined up, the wings are level.  I have to keep them level.  That is the only control I have left. 

    It never goes through my mind that this could be my last moment on earth.

    Developmental Edit

    First off, I’ll tell you all what Jeff already knows: This climax is actually twice as long, but I asked him to cut it down to 250 words for the special. I’m really sorry I had to, because it is GRIPPING and would have scared you guys right out of your chairs.

    So. . .given that we lost a lot of the telling details in cutting it down to size, this has some excellent stuff in it that puts us right in that cockpit, in that moment, going down with that plane. We have all the clues we need to know where we are: cockpit, wind, nose, yoke, propeller. What’s particularly interesting is that it’s not all visual details. The first tangible one, in fact, is a sound. Very nice!

    Now, jumping from tense to tense can work in a seriously literary piece, but I wouldn’t try it in an action sequence. I chose past tense because it seemed to be working just fine in the first paragraph and put it all in that.

    I’ve trimmed out every word I can to keep the momentum up, focused on the moment of impact (which, tantalizingly, doesn’t appear). Do we need that moment of impact? Imagine it without it: “last moment on earth” and cut straight to whatever happens after impact. It could work!

    I’ve altered “propeller spun in the wind” to “propeller spun with the wind” to strengthen the indication that the propeller is not spinning of its own accord. That’s essential to the plot point and absolutely must be clear.

    I’ve also removed the reference to Hobson’s Choice. Although it’s a distinctive detail that adds depth, it’s also a potential head-scratcher, and you don’t want to lose the reader at any point in this climax, wondering, “Who’s Hobson?” God forbid they should stop and go look it up.

    Overall, very powerful, very clean!

    Copy & Line Edit

    The cockpit didn’t go silent, but the noise changed. There had always been a background hum before, and now all I could hear was the wind. The nose pointed down automatically. I eased back on the yoke out of habit, practically without thinking, and watched the airspeed bleed off as I tried to hold altitude. The propeller spun with the wind.

    Below me was a country road and a vineyard. To the right was a rocky riverbed, to the left a four-lane highway dotted with cars. I lined up with the vineyard, which was rapidly becoming my only option.

    Suddenly a powerline appeared right in the path. Who would string a powerline over a vineyard? I listened for the stall warning horn, but there was none, so I eased back just slightly on the yoke, raising the nose. The wires went by twenty feet below. Now to line up with the rows. Damn—should the wheels be up or down? I couldn’t remember! They were down. No time to change them. I didn’t see any person or truck below, and it wouldn’t matter now. I was committed. I held the yoke as if I were going to break it off. Forty feet to lose. Thirty. I was lined up, the wings were level. I had to keep them level. That was the only control I had left.

    It never went through my mind this could be my last moment on earth.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    The intrepid Andrew Rosenberg of Seattle, Iapetus999, gets the FIRST Free CLIMAX Edit! And for having the cojones to throw it out there in front of you all without precedence—to be, in fact, the first at the party, so to speak—he’s going to get a Free Developmental Edit of that entire chapter. He also gets to be the only one posted today. I’ll work on the others tomorrow.

    I know. I didn’t tell you. But it’s true. Andrew gets a reward for being so entirely and courageously on the ball.

    You know what else? From here on out it’s based not on timing but on quality. The best climax I get each day for the next three days will receive a Free Developmental Edit of that entire chapter.

    I should have told you. I know. But I wanted your courage to be based on integrity and not competition.

    You can go ahead and compete over the others.

    Oh, yes, and let’s get in there and praise the authors of the Free Edits. You know as well as I do it’s not easy to put your WIP out there for others to scrutinize. Praise! That’s why we do it. Let’s make it worth these brave authors’ while!

    Setup

    Prudencia married Dunstan, Duke of Hartford, to restore her family’s prestige.
    What she really wants/needs is a man who respects her and loves her for herself.
    And there’s a lot of Steampunk shenanigans going on, since they just were defeated by a mechohorse attack.

    Climax

    “Dunstan.” Prudencia turned to the man. “You…lied to me. You’ve lied to me all along. You—you bastard. You tricked me into believing I was special, an heir to something. But I’m nothing! I never was, and I never will be!”

    “You’re my wife,” he cried, stepping closer. “You’re a Duchess, a noble woman of New Britannia. Compared to these native mongrels, you are a goddess.”

    A light dawned inside of Prudencia, from somewhere deep inside. “No. No, I’m not. We’re not. These two people, my friends, are the only noble people in this room. We should worship them. We are the mongrels, we are the infidels, thinking ourselves superior because of some title passed down by the greedy invaders of this continent, but we’re nothing. We’re craven cowards of the worst order, and we bring nothing but shame to the title Duke and Duchess. We don’t deserve any of this. They do. They should carry the titles.”

    “Blasphemy! You mock centuries of tradition, of order, of the finest breeding. These mongrels are not fit for anything of the sort, except for rounding up and executing.”

    “Over my dead body.”

    “We’ll see about that.” He lunged for the weapon in her hand. She fought him, struggling to regain control of the pistol, and it fired.

    [Note from Andrew: My wife thinks that that shot shouldn’t kill anyone important, but I disagree. Someone has to die.]

    Developmental Edit

    Can we tell clearly what the premise of this novel is? Well, we know Prudencia and Dunstan are going to lock horns over just how special or not special she is. And what’s that all about? Prudencia realizes it’s not enough to be an aristocrat—she wants to matter as a human being.

    But what happens because of her realization? Andrew’s right. Someone has to die. Because this is the exploration of values that probably inspired the author to concoct this story in the first place. But the real premise of a story is an event:

    [Whoever] accidentally killed [whomever] in a tussle over Prudencia and Dunstan’s ambitions.

    I say you make it one of them. Accidentally killing your beloved over your conflicting values is a HECK of a premise!

    I also say that immediately prior to this you make Prudencia and Dunstan on the verge of total reconciliation over previous conflicts, unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival or revelation of some piece of information, or character development, that changes everything for Prudencia.

    These characters are both strong, they’re determined, and they’re in fabulous opposition to each other. No wimps or hand-wringers here! We’re right there in the room with them, watching the sparks fly!

    Now, the dialog does cross the line into a little too much exposition/telling the reader how to feel. Prudencia and Dunstan must always been firmly rooted in real character. Do lovers and spouses talk like this when they’re mad at each other? When they’re suddenly talking divorce? (Dunstan certainly doesn’t see this coming.) Well, you know, I don’t.

    I’m going to suggest Prudencia would be more concerned with her own outrage over Dunstan’s hoodwinking her—“I’m your wife, you idiot!”—than about explaining her ethical logic to him. It’s all come to a head in her, all of a sudden, and she’s MAD. She’s in a HURRY to tell him about it. She wants to lay her cards on the table vis-a-vis their marriage, and she wants to do it NOW. If he doesn’t totally follow her philosophical dilemma, screw him. He can just figure it out.

    I’m also going to suggest Dunstan would be focused on this unexpected about-face in the woman he thought was doing okay as his Duchess, the woman he thought shared his values and his view of the crawling hordes. She’s saying what? To him? The DUKE? What, has she lost her frigging MIND? He’s going from WTF to your dead body in about five seconds flat. That kind of acceleration tends to throw a guy.

    This is pretty cleanly-written for genre, a nice little melodrama that’s not pretending to be anything but what it is: a kick in the pants. We’ll just keep in mind cutting out every word that isn’t essential to the pacing or plot.

    You will notice one thing, a little [dumpety-dumpety-dum] at the very end. We need something there, just a bit more rhythm going to get the reader barreling full-speed at that final smash into the wall: “it fired.”

    You do need to verify that whatever era this is set in actually had something we would consider a pistol. If it’s too different, you’ll probably need to use a word that describes it more specifically. Unless perhaps you’ve settled all this way back at the beginning of the novel, so the reader has known all along exactly what the thing is.

    Oh, yes. And you have to include who gets killed—that’s the climax of the Climax. That’s why you’re telling this story.

    Copy & Line Edit

    “Dunstan.” Prudencia turned to him. “You…lied to me. You’ve lied all along. You—bastard. You tricked me into believing I was special, an heir to something. But I’m nothing! I never was and never will be!”

    “You’re my wife,” he cried, stepping closer. “You’re a Duchess, a noble woman of New Britannia. Look at these mongrel natives. You’re a goddess!”

    A light dawned somewhere deep inside Prudencia. “No. I’m not. We’re not. These two are the only nobles in this room. We should worship them.”

    “You mock—mock centuries of tradition, of order, of breeding. Your ‘friends’ are fit for nothing but rounding up! execution!”

    “Over my dead body!”

    “We’ll see about that.” He lunged for the pistol in her hand. She fought him, struggling to regain control, and [dumpety-dumpety-dum] it fired.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Steam rose from the surface of Gina’s latte.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Your face. You look—”

    “I was jogging. I ran here.” Gina dumped a packet of sugar into her cup.

    “Not that. You look a little—spent.”

    “I am spent. I’m single-parenting while Todd’s out of town.”

    “He’s still out of town? It’s going on, what, two weeks?”

    Gina took a sip of her coffee. “He’s not coming back.”

    I covered my mouth with my hand and waited for her to say something, but she was silent.

    “Where is he now?”

    She looked up. “In San Jose. That’s where his brother lives—”

    “And his mistress?”

    She snorted. “If only it were his mistress.”

    “You don’t mean—”

    “I mean, he has a mister.”
    —Amy Carey

    Developmental Edit

    This is great—it throws us back and forth between stress, out-of-town husband, lover, and switch in sexual orientation so fast it’s like a tennis match!

    Tense? check
    Specific? check
    Raises a question? check What’s Gina going to do about being abandoned by her husband?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check He’s turned gay?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A female character named Gina is stressed out because she’s been left with one or more children by a husband who’s turned out to be gay. The first-person protagonist is shocked at the news.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I don’t know much about Gina except her situation, but her situation is GRIPPING. So, yes, I’m going to turn the page!

    Genre? Contemporary fiction, unless something else crops up to place it in a more specific genre.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? We know Gina’s married with kids and has a friend to confide in. That’s enough!

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Point-blank. We get the news as the protagonist gets the news, and we’re just as shocked as they are. Not bad for no backstory.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. This is almost entirely dialog. It’s a technique that’s served writers like Amistead Maupin well—crisp, clean, fast-paced, it leapfrogs right over such concerns as whether or not you’re using too much exposition or description. It also seems well-suited to both the light, witty tone and surprise-packed story. I’d trim maybe a word here or there, but other than that we’re fully engaged by the time we’re sprung off that last word like a spring bug. Excellent work!

    Copy & Line Edit

    Steam rose from the surface of Gina’s latte.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Your face—”

    “I jogged here.” Gina dumped a packet of sugar into her cup.

    “Not that. You look a little—spent.”

    “I am spent. I’m single-parenting while Todd’s out of town.”

    “It’s going on, what, two weeks?”

    Gina took a sip. “He’s not coming back.”

    I covered my mouth and waited, but she was silent.

    “Where is he?”

    She looked up. “In San Jose. Where his brother lives—”

    “And his mistress?”

    She snorted. “If only.”

    “You don’t mean—”

    “He has a mister.”

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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

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Katie had just taken the first bite of cake when the world stopped. Focused on the chocolate icing melting on her tongue, it took a moment to assimilate the absence of sound in the room. She looked up from her plate and stared at the party guests frozen in time. The streamers and balloons, printed with a cheery ‘happy 18th birthday’ message, hung motionless in the still air. The plate slipped from her fingers, spilling the gooey mess onto the light beige carpet.

    Gary stood before her, halted in mid-sentence. Katie could see all the way back to his tonsils. Eww…

    “Gary?” He didn’t move. She tapped him on the shoulder, lightly at first but then harder when he didn’t respond. He toppled over as she pushed, falling face-first into the cake she’d dropped.
    —Laura Eno

    Developmental Edit

    I love him going face-first into the gooey mess. That’s a great moment of slapstick! Which is hard to do in words.

    Tense? check
    Specific?check
    Raises a question? check What do you mean, the world stopped?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Face-first into GOO?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A female character named Katie is at an 18th birthday party when, apparently, time freezes. She is the only person who can move. She accidentally knocks a male character named Gary onto his face when she tries to get his attention.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I don’t really know Katie, but I like that she’s not hysterical and that her first reaction to the end of the world is to accidentally knock someone on their face in cake.

    Genre? Sci fi.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I think we have enough clues. We should find out pretty quick whether this is Katie’s birthday party or someone else’s, which might be important to whatever triggered this.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? And how! Where were YOU the day the world stopped?

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. It’s got a nice voice to it—I don’t usually include words like “uh” or “ew,” but in this case it succinctly captures the character’s response, giving us a clue not only to her lack of hysteria but also her age, in just one word. Nice! I’m just going to streamline this a bit to keep it focused on the point, which is that the world has stopped and Gary is consequently going down in a funny way.

    Copy & Line Edit

    Katie had just taken the first bite, chocolate icing melted on her tongue, when the world stopped. It took a moment to notice the silence in the room. She stared around. Streamers and balloons, ‘Happy 18th Birthday,’ hung motionless in the still air. Her plate slipped, a gooey mess spilling onto the carpet.

    Gary stood in front of her, frozen in mid-sentence. Katie could see all the way to his tonsils. Ew. . .

    “Gary?”

    He didn’t move.

    She tapped him on the shoulder, lightly at first, then harder. He toppled over, face-first, into the cake she’d dropped.

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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

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    The uninhabited island lay thirty meters to port, and somewhere beyond the white sand beach an ambush. In the star-filled blackness of night neither were visible to the man standing alone on the bow of the ship, but the sound of the waves rolling across the wide, shallow reef placed the island, and the Captain had warned of Fuentes’ presence. Unfortunately, both were more apparent than the family’s destiny the old woman on Haiti had seen when she threw the bones.
    —Sean O’Mordha

    Developmental Edit

    This is a good, vivid image of a cool-headed man in danger, using description and exposition very nicely to communicate the tension. I love the throwing of the bones!

    Tense? check
    Specific? check
    Raises a question? check What’s he going to do about the ambush?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check WHAT destiny?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A male character on a ship at night faces an island where an ambush waits for him. He’s not the Captain of the ship. But he’s recently been in Haiti, where a fortuneteller gave him a cryptic reading on the destiny of a family—possibly his own.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? He’s level-headed, in danger, and thinking deep thoughts. I like him!

    Genre? Historical fiction, maybe? Adventure. Mystery?

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? He’s been to Haiti to see the fortuneteller, and now he’s gotten a warning from his Captain. This guy’s stage is set.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? No question. He’s facing some real decisions here, with Big Mean Consequences.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. This is a terrific example of using description and exposition, rather than action and dialog, to dump this character’s quite serious problems in our laps. This piece has obviously been worked over carefully, extra words removed, the tone sculpted. I’m going to suggest this is one of those situations where you’ve lavished such care on these lines, they’ve begun to lose their flow. It happens to all of us. I’m going to simplify the language slightly to keep the focus on the moment and let the imagery come through as clearly as possible.

    Copy & Line Edit

    The uninhabited island lay thirty meters to port, and somewhere beyond its white sand beach lay an ambush. Neither was visible, in the star-filled night, to the man alone on the bow of the ship, but the sound of waves rolling across the wide, shallow reef placed the island, and the Captain had warned him about Fuentes.

    Unfortunately, both the island and Fuentes were more apparent at this moment than the family destiny the old woman on Haiti had seen, when she threw the bones.

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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

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  • 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.

    Subscribe:


    “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

    No Comments



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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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