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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

    I was happy. Life was good. I had a beautiful twenty-two year old daughter, a successful practice, numerous friends, and a nice home. Now I have nothing to speak of, all because of those evil boys.

    My daughter is dead though she died months before her death.

    My practice is dwindling because I’m rarely there to treat patients.

    My friends I’ve alienated.

    My home is empty.

    I’ll never be happy again. Life is over for me. And, is or will be, over for a few others.

    I stand corrected. I do have something to live for—my quest for justice.

    This society will not provide justice for my daughter. No. She has no proof. No witness. Nothing but her word. Not enough evidence to arrest, much less convict. I know how the system works, and she did too. Yes. It’s up to me to make things right again.
    —Lanetta J. Sprott

    Developmental Edit

    This sets us up like a rubber ball on a high dive.

    Tense? check
    Clear? check
    Raises a question? check What happened to the daughter?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check The dead daughter has something to say? So cool!

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? Some adult old enough to have a twenty-two-year-old daughter has lost almost everything they value over something that happened to kill their daughter. This character knows whom they blame, and they have made the decision to “make things right again,” whatever that means to them. There’s a reference to “evil” boys, which could be either hyperbole or an indicator of the paranormal. There’s also a reference to “this society” not providing “justice,” terms that aren’t defined in this context.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I don’t know yet. If this character is just self-righteous and prone to hyperbole, probably not. However, if this is a character with their back against the wall fighting paranormal murderers with the aid of a daughter who continues to speak and bear witness after she’s dead, then, yeah, I’m interested!

    Genre? Revenge thriller, possibly paranormal.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I wouldn’t mind more specific details. I’d like to know how this character is different from everyone else who ever had beautiful grown kids, a successful practice, friends, and a nice home (whatever that means to them) and lost it all.

    Do we need to know what the character’s going to do next? I’d like to meet them, see them in action in a scene. So far, I really don’t have a grasp on their personality at all.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? No. This is mood-setting.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. It’s a series of emphatic simple statements, building to a longer paragraph that fills out some of the subject matter. That’s nice use of sentence structure to create tension! However, there is some real question about whether or not this is an interesting protagonist, someone with clear judgment, an intriguing conflict to deal with, and real backbone to fulfill that promise about justice. I’m going to assume that it’s an interesting protagonist and the use of the abstractions “evil” and “justice” are there not to be taken at face value as abstractions, but to create a noir effect. Can this be made shorter and snappier, focused on the protagonist’s need, while maintaining reader interest and sympathy?

    Copy & Line Edit

    I was happy. Life was good. I had a beautiful twenty-two-year-old daughter, a successful practice, friends, a nice home.

    Now my daughter is dead—she died months before her death.

    My practice is dwindling.

    My friends I’ve alienated.

    My home is empty.

    This society will not make things right. My daughter has no proof, no witness, nothing but her word. Not enough evidence to arrest, much less convict. I know how the system works, and she did, too. But I do have something to live for—

    Justice.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    When I saw him shot through the head, it was unexpected, but it was less of a surprise than one might think. I had seen it before. It was always the same. Driven by some reflexive impulse I couldn’t seem to overcome, I looked up and followed the trajectory from which the shot must have originated.

    But there was nothing there.

    People spilled sideways, parting like the sea to make space for a strange man lying motionless on the pavement. What had been a single crowd of persons moving in a uniform pattern towards their various points of destination split down the middle so that a single tear was visible in their formation. As was generally the case, I was the only one who stopped. I always stopped. Even if I couldn’t look, I stopped.
    —Elizabeth Leslie

    Developmental Edit

    This hook is packed to the gills with questions—good job!

    Tense? check
    Intriguing? check
    Raises a question? check check Who got shot? Why isn’t anything at the source of the bullet’s trajectory?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check check Why doesn’t anyone else stop? (Why is that generally the case in this character’s experience?) And why can’t this character look sometimes?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A character with a background in analyzing shooting scenes comes across someone shot through the head on a busy sidewalk and is the only one to stop. And there’s no evidence where there should be evidence.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I’ll follow them to the next page, at least. They’re rather blase about shooting victims and can’t look at certain things, and that’s intriguing enough to keep me going.

    Genre? Mystery? Thriller? I’m guessing maybe a paranormal element because it turns out there’s nothing where there ought to be something. It might also be futuristic sci fi, since this character’s from an environment in which it’s normal for pedestrians not to stop for a dead body.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? Well, I’m okay with this amount of information for now. But there should be more pretty quick. Particularly, I think we should know why pedestrians in this world don’t normally stop for something like this.

    Do we need to know what the character’s going to do next? I’d like to know why they can’t look sometimes. That seems paramount, considering this time they looked at both the bullet wound and the trajectory.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Indubitably.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. The first sentence is a bit awkward. And there’s a problem with the use of the word “trajectory,” since a bullet doesn’t originate from its trajectory. I’m a bit confused by the descriptive paragraph, too, because it seems to be from high above the protagonist. Can this be made shorter and snappier, while clarifying the language?

    Copy & Line Edit

    It was unexpected, but it was less of a surprise than one might think. I had seen it before. It was always the same. Driven by some reflexive impulse I couldn’t seem to control, I looked from the man on the pavement with a bullet in his head to the point at which the shot must have originated.

    But there was nothing there.

    People spilled sideways, parting around the body. As was generally the case, I was the only one who stopped. I always stopped. Even if I couldn’t look, I stopped.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Bethany is stalking me outside my cubicle. She’s sauntering back and forth like a slinky tiger. Her shoes, sleek and shiny and sharp-toed, are like silky claws. The pointy heels dig into the bland blue-gray carpet.

    As soon as I hang up the phone, Bethany plops down on my desk. I know what she wants to talk about, but I get to the question first. “What is Jack doing here?” I say and point to his closed office door a few feet down the hall.

    Jack’s only been the new Vice President for a month. His nameplate isn’t even outside his office yet and his family is still living in New Hampshire. They’re having a hard time selling their house since the economy is worth shit right about now. This is his second visit to Chicago, but I wish it was his last.

    “Sadie, you can’t tell anyone,” Bethany says.
    —Lisa Katzenberger

    Developmental Edit

    I love Bethany! She’s a go-getter!

    Tense? check
    Specific? check
    Raises a question? check check Who’s Jack? And why does this character hate him?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Why doesn’t Bethany want anyone to know he’s here?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A character named Sadie works in a cubicle at a Chicago company that just acquired a new Vice President, a male character named Jack from New Hampshire. Sade knows how many times Jack’s been to Chicago, and she doesn’t like him. Her friend Bethany apparently knows even more about Jack than that.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I don’t know. I’ve seen the stalker Bethany in her shiny, sharp-toed shoes digging holes in the nice carpet. And I’ve learned Jack’s family is having trouble withe the real estate economy. But all I know about this protagonist is that she can talk on the phone and beat Bethany to the punch. Because she can beat Bethany to the punch—and I get the impression that’s not easy—I’ll ride with her to the next page.

    Genre? Romance? That’s my guess.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? Nah. I know just enough about her history with Jack to be interested in finding out more.

    Do we need to know what she’s going to do next? I hope she marches over and throws Jack’s door open and demands to know what he’s doing on her turf. But barring that, I’d like to find out what Bethany knows that Sadie doesn’t.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? You bet. Stalker pal and all!

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. There are a few metaphors we don’t need and one cliche verb. I’d save some of Jack’s backstory for later. But it’s pretty solid. Can this be made shorter and snappier?

    Copy & Line Edit

    Bethany is stalking me outside my cubicle. She saunters back and forth, her sleek shoes with their pointy heels digging into the bland blue-gray carpet.

    As soon as I hang up, Bethany is on my desk. I know what she wants, but I get to the question first. “What’s Jack doing here?” I point to a closed door a few feet down the hall.

    Jack’s only been the new Vice President for a month. His nameplate isn’t even outside his office yet. This is his second visit to Chicago, and I wish it was his last.

    “Sadie, you can’t tell anyone,” Bethany says.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Red letters flew into John’s vision, projected from his Eyespy. Maps and instructions flooded the Wallscapes. Warnings wailed in his Earbug.

    Full evacuation? They can’t be serious. This is the third major drill since June.

    John glanced up at the skylight of the observation lounge where he had escaped to catch up on technical documents. The blue and white orb of the Earth sparkled in the mid-day luminescence of the Sun. The sight, while beautiful in calmer moments, suddenly chilled him to the bone. The normally laser-straight and hair-thin cable that anchored his world to the Earth bowed and shimmied. The implication coalesced in his mind like a driver whose car was careening off a bridge.

    The cable. They said this could never happen. They said it was unbreakable.

    His heart thundered and his breath shuddered in ragged gasps.

    “Evacuation,” he cried out, “evacuation! It’s no drill! We gotta get off!”
    —Andrew Rosenberg

    Developmental Edit

    I like the progression from John’s casual, confident tone to sudden panic. That’s a nice little character arc right there!

    Tense? check
    Detailed? check
    Raises a question? check What’s the warning for?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Holy cow—the cable broke!

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? John is on some type of space station anchored to the Earth by a single cable. He works with technical documents, likes to be alone to focus, is equipped with a whole smorgasbord of technical gadgetry, and has been here at least since June.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? Sure. He seems intelligent, well aware of his surroundings, and able to interpret a situation in the blink of an eye. Those are excellent qualities in a protagonist.

    Genre? Sci fi. Space sci fi.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? We have plenty of information to know what he’s doing and how he needs to react.

    Do we need to know what he’s going to do next? We already know—he’s going to try like heck to evacuate! As would I, in his shoes.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? You betcha. And it’s an excellent moment, one in which he is facing unexpected mortal danger.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. It’s got good, concrete details and high tension. I’m slightly distracted by the verbs “flew” and “wailed,” and this is one situation in which I’d add a couple of words to keep the reader from stumbling over what to think of John’s vision. I would also expect John’s physical reaction to be slightly more instantaneous than it is, and there’s a metaphor at the climax of the scene that distracts us from the tension of the moment. Can this be made shorter and snappier, avoiding repetition, while streamlining the tension and jolting us exactly the way John’s jolted?

    Copy & Line Edit

    Red letters ran across John’s line of vision, projected from his Eyespy. Maps and instructions flooded the Wallscapes, and warnings sounded in his Earbug.

    Full evacuation? They can’t be serious. This is the third major drill since June.

    John glanced from his technical documents to the skylight of the observation lounge. The blue and white orb of the Earth sparkled in the luminescence of the Sun, a sight that suddenly chilled him to the bone. Normally laser-straight and hair-thin, the cable that anchored his world to the Earth bowed and shimmied.

    His heart thundered.

    They said this could never happen. That cable is unbreakable.

    His breath came in ragged gasps.

    “Evacuation!” He jumped up. “Evacuation! It’s no drill—we gotta get off!”

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    The blood pooling under the man’s back reminded Nick of butterfly wings. They spread from the twin wounds, sweeping to each side in graceful arcs that sparkled in the sunlight from a kitchen window.

    Nick didn’t blink when the man writhed on the floor, choking on his blood. His yellow teeth turned red. “I’m not the only one, Avery. The others will get you. Both sides.”

    Clenching his jaw, Nick raised his pistol and sent a bullet between the Brazilian’s eyes. A muffled pop from the silencer. As rarely as it happened, taking a life was the worst part of his job. What job he had left. He glared at the bloody wings on the floor, an image that made him think of her. Death and wings.
    —Michelle Davidson Argyle

    Developmental Edit

    I love the graceful, sparkling arcs in the sunlight. That’s a beautiful image.

    Tense? check
    Freaky? check
    Raises a question? check check What are the wounds? What’s wrong with Nick’s job (besides the obvious)?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check What her?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A fairly-calm male character named Nick has a job in which he sometimes has to kill people—possibly only dying people. And even that job is in danger. He also have a female love interest associated with death and wings.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? Well, he’s not a bad character. I mean, he hates having to kill people for work, and I can relate to that. I don’t like it either. Also, his love interest could develop into something profound. But this is a pretty gory scene.

    Genre? Horror. Possibly fantasy.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I am a little confused about the difference in significance between Nick and Avery. So far, we know more about Avery—he’s Brazilian, he has two matching wounds (so apparently something dreadful happened to him), and there are others after him—than we do about Nick, who just has a job and a gun.

    Do we need to know what he’s going to do next? I’m rather stunned by the gore and hoping he’s suddenly going to be in some nice boring office giving us some backstory.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Wow, does it.

    Let’s talk about the structure of it. There’s a practical problem, which is that the butterfly shape of the pools of blood has to stay until the final line, in order to lead Nick’s thought to “her,” but the bleeding man writhes in the middle of the scene, presumably smearing the puddles. I’ve never seen anyone bleed to death, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I think the writhing might be a mistake. I mean, it is revolting—you’d only use that ugly of an image if you wanted the reader to really hate that particular character. And so far I don’t know enough about Avery to hate him, which makes me feel like my shock-detectors are just being yanked.

    Can this be made shorter and snappier, being careful not to alienate the reader and saving any backstory details for later, while clarifying which character we’re supposed to care about and how “bloody wings” makes Nick think of “her” without it being simply that she also died in a matching pair of pools of blood?

    Copy & Line Edit

    The blood pooling under the man’s back reminded Nick of butterfly wings, sweeping to each side in graceful arcs that sparkled in the sunlight through the kitchen window.

    “I’m not the only one, Avery. The others will get you. Both sides.”

    Clenching his jaw, Nick raised his pistol and sent a bullet between the Brazilian’s eyes. A muffled pop from the silencer. As rarely as it happened, taking a life was the worst part of his job. What job he had left. He glared at the bloody wings on the floor. Everything made him think of her—death and wings.

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    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Carmen slammed her keycard on the counter. She was old enough to remember metal keys, much more satisfying when it came to slamming. Metal clanked; plastic only clunked. Dully.

    Her head ached and she was filled with remorse at the slip of the tongue that had revealed her insomnia. Only sometimes, she’d added quickly, but the agent had already checked the box. Hell’s bells. Mandatory end-of-life counseling, at age 52! What a world.

    A noise from the old furnace vent startled her. Carmen tilted her head, listening, and heard nervous laughter followed by a series of thuds and muffled exclamations.

    It was noon, and Shasta was downstairs instead of in school. Again. How long before a Social Enforcer buzzed? And what in God’s name was going on down there this time? Carmen faced the basement door, wishing she hadn’t declined the Aging Agent’s offer of nerve pills after all.
    —M. Shirey

    Developmental Edit

    This is a wonderful, matter-of-fact take on sci-fi, bringing it home to reality with a very human protagonist.

    Tense? check
    Realistic? check
    Raises a question? check What’s Shasta doing in in the basement?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check What nerve pills?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A 52-year-old woman named Carmen with a child named Shasta has been to see someone called the Aging Agent and is bent because they prescribed mandatory end-of-life counseling when she accidentally admitted to insomnia. On top of that, she’s in trouble with some Social Enforcers’ agency because her child keeps skipping school, AND she turned down nerve pills! Nerve pills! I ask you!

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? Man, Carmen’s completely got my attention. What kind of 52-year-old mother with insomnia and problems with Social Enforcers turns down nerve pills? Is the woman mad?

    Genre? Sci fi. Looks futuristic to me.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I’ve got it—she just came from the Aging Agency, where she royally screwed up.

    Do we need to know what she’s going to do next? I have a pretty good idea she’s going to investigate the giggling in the basement.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? So totally.

    Let’s talk about the structure of it. One note: numerals are spelled out, unless they’re extremely long, like years.

    Other than that, this is pretty darn tight. I like that the first that happens is Carmen slamming her keys down, but I’d like to skip over the backstory and go straight to the point, which is that Carmen just got herself in the dog house with the Aging Agency. And is about to get herself in the doghouse with the Social Enforcers.

    Clearly, this was the wrong time to turn down nerve pills.

    Can this be made shorter and snappier? Marginally. I am going to do something I virtually never do, and that is replace a sentence, turning a statement to a gesture.

    Copy & Line Edit

    Carmen slammed her keycard on the counter. That slip of the tongue about insomnia. Only sometimes, she’d added quickly, but the Aging Agent had already checked the box. Hell’s bells. Mandatory end-of-life counseling, at age fifty-two! What a world.

    She was old enough to remember metal keys, much more satisfying to slam. Metal clanked; plastic only clunked. Dully. She put a hand to her forehead.

    A noise from the old furnace vent startled her. Carmen tilted her head, listening to nervous laughter followed by thuds and muffled exclamations.

    It was noon, and Shasta was in the basement instead of in school. Again. How long before a Social Enforcer buzzed? And what in God’s name was going on down there this time? She wished she hadn’t declined the Aging Agent’s offer of nerve pills.

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Trapped.

    Isem’s eyes flickered around the room as he shifted on the chair. There wasn’t much to see. A small table lined with chairs, a fire licking away at the logs in the fireplace. A wood stove, a sink, and a counter where his captor stood, back to him. She was a short woman, but powerful. Overpowering her was not an option. To Isem’s right, an open door beckoned him with the inviting rays of dawn. His hands twitched as they rested on the table. If I could just make it to the door, he thought, she’d never catch me.

    He glanced back at the woman. But if she catches me… He shuddered at the thought. The punishment facing him was bad enough without anything else tacked on. The prospect of freedom was too tempting though, and Isem braced himself against the table in preparation for a mad dash for the exit. On three…
    —Richard Young

    Developmental Edit

    Terrific tension! Syd Field, the quintessential playwright, always begins a scene as close to the end as possible. You don’t get much closer than this!

    Tense? check
    Detailed? check
    Raises a question? check Will he try to escape?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Will he make it?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A male character named Irem is being held against his will by a woman physically stronger than him and apparently planning to punish him. They appear to be in a home, and it is dawn.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I’m ready to at least follow him to the next page! I want to see if he makes it. And whether he does or not, I want to know why he’s being held against his will and by whom.

    Genre? I couldn’t find Isem in any name catalogues online, so I’m guessing it’s fantasy. It could be adult, children’s, or YA (I suspect the reason Isem can’t overpower the short woman is because he’s smaller than she is—a child), but there could also be a thriller or mystery element.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I like not knowing. That’s tension!

    Do we need to know what’s going to happen next? I am POISED to find out!

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Yes, it does. The sun is coming up, and Isem desperately wants to make a break for it.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. This is a very tense moment. There’s a certain amount of explanation that can be left to the reader’s imagination, inferred from the characters’ action and internal dialog. There is also one instance of sunlight “beckoning,” which is a problem because beckoning is a very specific gesture performed with the fingers, meaning inanimate objects—even fingerless objects—cannot beckon. Can this be made any shorter and snappier, while removing the explanations and beckoning and retaining the tension and ambiance?

    Copy & Line Edit

    Trapped.

    Isem’s eyes flickered around the room—a small table, chairs, a fire licking at the logs in the fireplace. A short, powerful woman stood at the sink with her back to him. The light of dawn came through an open door, and his hands twitched on the table. If I made it to the door, she’d never catch me.

    He glanced at the woman. But if she catches me. . . He shuddered. Isem braced himself against the table. On three. . .

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    The filming began last week after months of preparation. He was eager to get on with it. He was known for channeling a character so well that his physical appearance changed. He’d been making movies since his twenties, and was well known for a time. He was aging though, faster in movie life than real life. Even with filters and makeup and soft lighting, the camera picked up the worry lines, the softening of his features. He was 45, and no longer the big star. He’d been relegated to supporting actor by age and a fickle public. He didn’t mind, it was still absorbing and let him escape himself. He was spared most of the publicity obligations, where the media wanted the fresh face of the star sitting at their interviews. He didn’t get many people recognizing him anymore, because the public had moved on. He had a chance to start over.
    —Amy Henry

    Developmental Edit

    I like the philosophical attitude of this character. I should be so philosophical!

    Informative? check
    Detailed? check
    Raises a question? check Who is he?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check How is he going to start over?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A 45-year-old male movie star is facing the decline of his fame due to aging. But he doesn’t mind. He still has work, and he likes the percs of greater anonymity. He is starting a new life.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? Well, he’s not unpleasant. But he doesn’t have a very complete personality yet, aside from his philosophical attitude toward his conflict. I’m interested in seeing how he reacts to something he’s NOT philosophical about.

    Genre? Mainstream fiction?

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I’m interested in a few more concrete details. We know his backstory, but we don’t know much about him as a person.

    Do we need to know what he’s going to do next? I’m hoping something unexpected. I’d like to be thrown into a scene where he shows us the things we’re being told.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Not yet. We know he’s a week into filming a movie and several months into prepping for it.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. One note: numerals are spelled out unless they’re ridiculously long, like years.

    Now, the character seems like a perfectly nice guy with a solid philosophical side, which is attractive. But this is mostly backstory. Can we make it shorter and snappier, while saving the backstory for later—or, better yet, set this up to illustrate the backstory in a scene—focusing right now on the most intriguing elements?

    Copy & Line Edit

    The filming had begun last week, after months of preparation. He had a chance to start over. He was eager to get on with it.

    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

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Dear Major Bradon,

    I’ll keep this simple for you.

    Technomancy: The fine art of combining science and sorcery.
    Technomancers: People who manage to survive combining science and sorcery.

    Did I mention that there aren’t that many of us?

    We’ve been called many things over the years, alchemists, magicians… But don’t get hung up on whole ‘sorcery’ thing. Technology is what it’s really all about. Take a look at my business, I can apply occult biometrics to anything. Yes, even swords in stones, though I’d recommend sticking with more modern technology, it works better. Trust me, if Merlin would’ve had a chain gun with a biometric trigger-lock keyed to Arthur, he’d have used it. The crazy old codger would have loved the idea of guns.

    I don’t think I need to tell you not to try this at home. Actually, don’t try it all, stick to the military. You’ll live longer.
    —Angie Capozello

    Developmental Edit

    I love that Merlin’s gun would be keyed to Arthur. Terrific eye for the telling detail!

    Detailed? check
    Threatening? check
    Raises a question? check Who’s threatening Major Bradon?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Don’t try what at home?

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? Major Bradon doesn’t understand Technomancers. In fact, it looks like he’s thinking about messing with them. Someone is warning him not to—on pain of shortening his life.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? I’m not completely certain what character we’re dealing with. I get the impression it’s not Major Bradon. It must be the anonymous author of the letter. They sound intelligent, creative, assertive, and a bit smart-aleck. I like that!

    Genre? Fantasy, possibly sci fi, possibly violent with that reference to the military.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? We know quite a bit about this narrator, what they do, how they do it, why they’re squaring off against Major Bradon and his military. That’s great!

    Do we need to know what happens next? I hoping we cut directly to a scene in which either the narrator looks up from writing the letter or Major Bradon looks up from reading it.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Well, the personal address to another character tells us we’re in an exchange. So that’s immediate. But I’m hoping to meet a character directly any second.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. There is a problem here, and that is that agents and publishers don’t particularly like stories that start with letters anymore. I think it confuses them. Whatever the reason is, it’s a strike against you. And your hook is not a good place to have a strike against you.

    There’s also the grammar in the first sentence about Merlin. This might very well be intended to illustrate the voice of the narrator, in which case we keep it. (But if it’s an author error, it needs to be corrected.)

    Other than that, there’s a whole lot of information packed into character communication, with good motivation so it doesn’t sound contrived. And the narrator’s character comes through clearly. Excellent stuff!

    Can this be made shorter and snappier, keeping the 1st-person address to Major Bradon without relying on a letter format?

    Copy & Line Edit

    I’ll keep this simple, Major Bradon. Don’t get hung up on the whole ‘sorcery’ thing. Technology is what it’s all about.

    Look at my business: a Technomancer can apply occult biometrics to anything. Yes, even swords in stones, although I’d recommend sticking with more modern technology than that. Trust me, if that crazy old codger Merlin would’ve had a chain gun with a biometric trigger-lock keyed to Arthur, he’d have used it.

    I don’t need to tell you not to try this at home. Actually, don’t try it all.

    Stick to the military. You’ll live longer.

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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

    VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN

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  • By Victoria Mixon

    To begin with, Marlowe was dead. The police dispatcher said that over the phone, when he broke into Ben’s sleep at five a.m., and the coroner’s assistant said it again, to Ben’s face. Marlowe had been dead at least seven hours, shot and dumped in a filthy alley.

    The assistant was pear-shaped, dressed in a black suit, his short neck balancing a head that resembled a soft-boiled egg, gluey white and hairless. He stood beside a sleek dark van, meticulously placing thin metal instruments inside a black leather satchel. Two other vehicles—a brown sedan and a black and white police cruiser—stood at careless angles to the van. All headlights blazing, the three cars illuminated a small island in a sea of fog that filled the street. Red and yellow lights on the roof of the cruiser turned lazily, splashing the gray with murky color.
    —Michael Wright

    Developmental Edit

    Great hook—“To begin with, the main character died.” Too bad for you reader people—now you have to keep reading to find out what happens after there’s nobody in the story!

    Tense? check
    Detailed? check
    Raises a question? check Who killed Marlowe?
    Drop-kicks us off the end? check Almost. We’ve gone from bright lights and efficient coroner’s assistants to gray murk, which is a good mood transition. We could use one more detail on the end to slam dunk us into the story. But there’s an interesting issue here that I’ll mention in the discussion on structure.

    What does this paragraph tell us about the book we’re starting? A character named Ben has been waken by the police to go to the site of a murder and talk to the coroner’s assistant. Ergo: Ben is probably a detective.

    Do I want to follow this character through a whole novel? At this point all I know about Ben is that he’s willing to get out of bed at five a.m. and go downtown. But, considering how awful it is for me to get up at five a.m., I’m going to say he’s got the toughness and determination to keep my attention at least into the next page.

    Genre? Mystery. The body’s a dead (excuse me) giveaway.

    Do we need to know who the character is, how they got here, where they were before? I don’t. A mystery is about the crime. The detective is secondary. And so far, this mystery is starting out with a bang.

    Do we need to know what happens next? I expect Ben to get some immediate, very pertinent clues. Most detectives at this stage examine the body.

    Does this paragraph drop us right smack in a specific moment in this character’s story? Absolutely. First we’re with Ben being waken by police dispatch, by the end of the sentence we’re being spoken to in Ben’s face, and then we’re with the coroner’s assistant on a foggy city street. You bet.

    So let’s talk about the structure of it. First: a warning. If this Marlowe is THE Marlowe, this book had better be as well-written as Chandler’s. Otherwise you have a lot of company. Lots and lots of aspiring mystery writers try to include Philip in their work—it’s flattering to Chandler, but I have never, ever read one that worked. Just like using another writer’s song lyrics, if you are piggybacking on the fame of someone else’s creation, your creation had better be able to stand up to the comparison, or you’re cheating.

    Second: I mentioned an interesting issue with the drop-kick category. It’s this: your hook doesn’t have to be 150 words long. I think you already have your hook, and it’s that first paragraph. See the drop-kick? Not only is Marlowe dead, Marlowe’s body had been dumped unceremoniously in a filthy alley—even worse than dead!

    Can this be made shorter and snappier? I’ll tell you, I’d remove one comma before the phrase “in Ben’s face” and you’ve got your hook in the first paragraph. Excellent job! The faster you get to the drop-kick, the more powerful the hook. Suck that reader in! This second paragraph is actually the beginning of the story.

    Just so we know that’s the hook, I’ll go ahead and tighten the second paragraph. Mostly, I’ll drop the words “careless” and “lazy.”

    This is one polished piece.

    Copy & Line Edit

    To begin with, Marlowe was dead. The police dispatcher said that over the phone, when he broke into Ben’s sleep at five a.m., and the coroner’s assistant said it again to Ben’s face. Marlowe had been dead at least seven hours, shot and dumped in a filthy alley.

    The assistant was pear-shaped, dressed in a black suit, his short neck balancing a head that resembled a soft-boiled egg, gluey white and hairless. He stood beside a sleek dark van, meticulously placing thin metal instruments inside a black leather satchel. Two other vehicles—a brown sedan and a black and white police cruiser—stood at angles to the van, all headlights blazing. The three cars illuminated a small island in a sea of fog that filled the street. Red and yellow lights on the roof of the cruiser turned slowly, splashing the gray with murky color.

    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

    3 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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