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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

    1. He lifted his leg and fired.
    2. With a whoop and a cry, she shot it out the back.
    3. They bent to examine their special organs.
    4. He couldn’t believe he was alive—he touched himself with gratitude.
    5. She knew he’d never get at the secret she was sitting on.
    6. If he couldn’t grab them with both hands, what were they worth to him?
    7. She fingered her favorite bits.
    8. He snatched up his balls and ran with them.
    9. They still didn’t understand why they were stuck together.
    10. He always got belligerent about its size.
    11. When she let go of him, her hand was sticky.
    12. They pressed their parts close.
    13. He waved his pole frantically over his head.
    14. With a tender sigh, she shut the box he loved forever.
    15. He stood under her balcony until dawn, quietly whacking it.


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    This one comes from Lyn South, who submitted her question to Victoria’s Advice Column, which I like to think of as Miss Lonelyhearts for the Word-Worn.


    1. Identify your protagonist(s) and their nemesis(es) clearly right up front in each book. Your reader wants to know who this series is about. And they’re not going to go hunt down earlier books to learn.
    2. Identify your protagonist(s)’s dilemma for each book clearly. Each book gets a major dilemma, and all of these dilemmas can be traced back to the one overall dilemma of the entire series. Simultaneously identify your protagonist(s)’s overall dilemma clearly. Handle both of these right off the bat, i.e. in your first one or two chapters.

      Although you give your protagonist(s) a new dilemma for each book, always keep the overall dilemma pointed like a diamond at your protagonist(s)’s greatest nightmare (which of course you will address in the final book). This overall dilemma is going on at all times, no matter what else also happens to be going on.
    3. Fill in backstory—what happened in earlier books—as briefly as possible, each time with a slightly new slant, and without repeating yourself. That way your most loyal readers will not be your most ANNOYED readers. They will get something special for their loyalty: multiple layers of the same story told with some tiny fresh illumination every single time. (This is harder than it sounds.)
    4. Think of your series holographically, that is: each book has a hook, development of conflicts, faux resolution, and climax. And the series itself has a hook book, development of conflicts in separate books, a faux resolution (at the beginning of the final book), and climax (the bulk of the final book).


    1. Lose track of your protagonist(s)’s basic, driving agenda. They need something. They have always needed it, and they will always need it. And their ultimate failure to get that something is the climax of your series.

      Although characters should grow and change throughout your series—fiction is, after all, the record of a human change—this basic agenda is your Pole Star. Don’t wind up with a final book starring a main protagonist who couldn’t possibly be the same character as the main protagonist of your first book. If you do make a serious change in character, make sure you’ve accounted for it properly in a significant place.
    2. Muddy your subplots. Make sure you’ve got these mapped out. Writing a novel is complicated. Writing a series—which is really an uber-novel—is that much more complicated. It’s all too easy to find yourself solving the wrong problem for a given book. This is, um, bad.
    3. Guess what? You knew I was going to say this, especially after that last point. Don’t pants. You’ll wind up with your climax in some book other than your final book, and later books won’t be able to compare. And the loyal readers who read all the way to the end will COMPLAIN LOUDLY.
    4. Forget your supporting characters’ personalities. No kidding. It happens all the time with enormously long works—you change your mind about characters in mid-stream. This is completely acceptable in early drafts, so long as you go back later and re-create either character arcs or at least character unity. It is death, however, to published fiction.

    P.S. Hi, Spork people! I don’t know who you are, and I can’t get onto your website to say hello, but you guys are cool. And there are a lot of you!


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    When I came home from a trip to Europe in 1994, I stayed with five friends living in a studio apartment in a bad part of San Francisco’s Mission District. We slept like sardines on the living room floor, and in the mornings I sat at the kitchen table with my friend Ariana, talking vaguely under the overcast sky about having no direction in our lives and looking down into the filthy alley below. One morning, we watched a thin man run lickety-split around the corner of a building, glance over his shoulder, and duck into a doorway.

    “What do you suppose he’s up to?” I said.

    “It’s his dealer.”


    Ariana picked up her coffee. “He doesn’t have any money.”

    Someone appeared at the corner of the building, bent and stumbling, feeling their way along the wall with one hand and calling in a thick, whining voice.

    But the man in the doorway had disappeared. . .

    Leaving behind a desperate wreck of a human life.

    Now, I know as well as you do that you’re not that desperate wreck. Yes, you have your bad days. But that’s not you staggering down the alley, agents scattering into doorways like leaves before a high wind. As Janet Reid has said, we professionals in the industry have “terrified the wrong half of y’all.”

    Which is why you’re going to be able to take it when I tell you that agents and publishing editors lie to you routinely. And it is beholden upon you to take it graciously, because if the desperate wrecks were allowed to run riot there’d be no agents or publishing editors out there to work with the rest of us at all.



    1. “It’s not about the marketing.”

      “The publisher’s not going to shell out.”

    2. Yes, publishers allot marketing budgets to the books they really want to push, and if it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it. You know what happens when you multiply an unknown author’s $1k in sales by the Uniform Marketing Coefficient? You get $1k x UMC. And you know what happens when you multiply Stephen King’s sales by the Uniform Marketing Coefficient?

      That’s right. Makes sense now, doesn’t it?

    3. “It’s all about the marketing.”

      You are going to shell out.”

    4. Everyone wants to see you succeed—your agent, your publisher, and the people who handle their bank accounts. So, hey, knock yourself out. We’re all here in the background rooting for you. YAY TEAM!

    5. “It’s always subjective.”

      “We just happen to all have the same opinion.”

    6. It’s hard not to, when all we base our so-called subjectivity upon years of experience in the same industry and the same sort of exposure to literally hundreds—if not thousands—of manuscripts exactly like yours. We all know how to do this work. That’s why we do it.

    7. “We make mistakes.”

      “But not as many as you wish we did.”

    8. Sure, we forget to pick up half-&-half at the store, and we spike the punch bowl at the office Christmas party, and sometimes we even hurt our loved ones’ feelings. But on the job we’re actually surprisingly competent.

    9. “We pass on a lot of good stuff.”

      “We also pass on crap.”

    10. Is your stuff crap? You can’t tell, can you? We understand—it’s pretty hard to figure this out without the kind auspices of someone in the know. Well, what would you do to us if we told you the unvarnished truth bluntly without any warning?

      Why, yes. Yes, I believe you would.

    11. “Someone else might love this.”

      “Tag! They’re It.”

    12. You know who? That jerk who elbowed in front of everyone at the agents’ buffet at that writers conference. Let me get you their address. Wait—let me get you their home address.

    13. “It’s a tough market.”

      “Although I personally could sell snow to Eskimos.”

    14. Ha ha! Such kidders we are. But seriously. No.

    15. “You don’t need an editor.”

      “You need a psychiatrist.”

    16. But Lulu doesn’t mind. They have no standards. AT ALL. Check their website.

    17. “We wish you well in your endeavors.”

      “We wish you OTHER endeavors.”

    18. And we do sincerely hope, from the bottoms of our warm, fuzzy, little publishy hearts, that you find all the fulfillment, satisfaction, and best use of your natural talents with them that you’re not going to find, um. . .here.

    19. “We’re looking forward to your submission.”

      “You are the reason we drink.”


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. You didn’t know you had that many words in you.

      And no, they’re not all just variations on “and then.” They’re all possible variations on twenty-six simple little letters, higgledy-piggledy arrangements of sound and thought and meaning, and the images that leap out of them are a magic of physical manifestation that put you in actual touch with something you can’t explain but know now no one has ever lived without.

      The miracle of fiction.
    2. The party in your head just got a little more fun.

      It used to just be you and your alter-egos, the Nice You and the Mean You. Most of that was full-contact wrestling between the Nice You and the Mean You, with the Real You standing by, shaking your head, and saying, “Hey, guys. . .guys. . .guys! It’s getting kind of warm in here—”

      But now that’s only a minor aspect to the 24-hour excitement. Now the main stage is taken by a whole host of riveting characters meeting, talking, dancing, sparring, lying, confessing, stealing, recovering, moving and moving and moving around each other in an infinite choreography of fascination. The temperature’s gone way up. . .and YOU DON’T MIND AT ALL.
    3. You’re smarter than you used to be.

      You know so much more about words and what they can do, language and what it’s meant for, communication and why we need it to survive. You also know far more than you ever have about human nature and how the thousands of interactions between people even in a single day add up to life and what it’s all about.

      You even get—in an ethereal and intangible sort of way, when the wind is right—how the whole of humanity is greater than the sum of its parts.
    4. You’re more alive than you used to be.

      Your careful, note-taking attention to vivid details has made your world vastly more of an experience for you. You hear more things, see more things, feel more things. When you’re miserable you can identify a hundred nuances, when you’re laughing you hear the interweave and cacophony of how voices blend and emerge, when you’re quiet your physical self is so alive it’s like you’re on drugs. And free! Without hangovers!
    5. You’re saner than you used to be.

      Now and for the rest of your life, even when you’re overwhelmed, you still have this foundation on which to stand: the incessant inquiry into, What is happening to me? What are its significant and insignificant parts? How am I reacting? What do I understand about it? What if it’s something other than what I’ve always assumed it was?

      Your options for understanding yourself and others are opening outward in all directions like eyes seeing for the very first time.

      And even more importantly, your options for understanding your own beliefs about reality and meaning are far more complex, profound, and intriguing than ever before.

      You’ve gone to the core. You’ve wrestled with the angel.

      And the angel has taught you—just a smidgen of—their secrets.

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

    “The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”
    —Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    “Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .it demystifies the essential aspects of the craft while paying homage to the art.”
    Millicent Dillon, five time O.Henry Award winner and author of the PEN/Faulkner-nominated Harry Gold

    “Teeming with gold. . .will make you love being a writer if only because you belong to the special little club that gets to read this book.”
    KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel

    The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon

    “Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”
    Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel

    “As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches.Highly recommended.”
    Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering

    “I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”
    Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. Are your heroine/hero and villain related? Closely? Are they, in fact, siblings or, maybe, parent & child? Because if they are, you’re going to have a lot of trouble explaining your idea of parenting.
    2. Do your characters care about the dilemma you’ve given them? Passionately? Desperately? Enough to carry both them and your reader through 72,000 words on the edge of their seats? Or are they actually thinking about that ticket they booked to Bermuda back last winter before they read up on the hurricane season and wondering whether they can sell it on eBay when the time comes. . .and maybe even make a killing. . .wait—who are you, and why are you so annoying?
    3. How many of them are there? Do you even know? Proust put over 2,000 people into Remembrance of Things Past. Guess what? Nobody can name them. Nobody remembers what they’re there for. Nobody knows what was important to them and why it matters to anyone. This is why nobody’s read all seven volumes. (Except a small but elite cadre in San Francisco who hold a Proust Wake every year, most of whom actually lie about whether or not they’ve read his work, themselves.)
    4. Do you like your protagonist? A lot? A WHOLE LOT? Almost infinitely? Because you’re stuck with them almost infinitely longer than your reader is. Agatha Christie grew to hate Poirot, just as Conan Doyle got tired to death of Sherlock Holmes, but they made the huge blunder of being popular authors and got stuck with them forever. Don’t make the same mistake.
    5. Can your characters recognize the dividing line between likeably inept and sadly hopeless? between hilariously dark and simply unpleasant? between intriguingly naive and boring? Because your reader can.
    6. How many facets do your characters have and what distinguishes them from each other? ANYTHING?
    7. Which ones are just entertaining duplicates of each other? How are you going to merge them into single individuals with a lot of contrasting traits that make a weird kind of sense when they’re all put together?
    8. Which ones are dull as ditch-water? Uh-huh.
    9. Do your characters have the foggiest idea what they’re doing in your book? Or are they just sitting around waiting for you to enlighten them? Are they going to do anything about it when you do? Or are they going to pat their yawns and goggle at you politely?
    10. When they talk, do they say interesting things? Because if they don’t, don’t let them talk. I mean it.
    11. Do they have imaginative ideas about how to handle trouble and strife? Do they have the cojones to follow through on them? When trapped beneath a falling elevator, will they scream and bang helplessly on the walls, go into a fetal position, have a bad underwear day, or grab the upward cable and be yanked, yodeling like Tarzan, skyward and through a conveniently cracked door? Or will they, in a bizarre but inevitable twist, suffer a cosmic visitation that will have your reader looking askance at elevator shafts for the rest of their natural born days?
    12. What the hell do your characters NEED? Because if you don’t know this, you don’t have a story at all.
    13. Finally, is your villain really your heroine/hero? Yeah—I know. Caught you with your pants down, didn’t they? Again.


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. It’s already been done by other writers

      Thousands of others. Thousands of times. And some of those times were classic.

    2. It doesn’t care if you know

      In fact, it wants you to know.

      “The truth will set us free.”

    3. It plans to keep being done by others

      Even after everything you’ve meant to each other.

      “It’s not my fault,” your story says. “They pursue me. I have to let them have their way—it’s just my nature.”

      Those are the words of an addict. And there is no such thing as rehab for unfaithful stories.

    4. And yet it will still keep coming to you. . .

      . . .in the middle of the night: when you’ve got insomnia, when you’re most yourself, most alone, most wounded, most vulnerable.

      It will swear you’re the only one who ever really understood it.

    5. It will mean it

      It really will.

    6. You can try to escape it

      You can get a great job that has nothing to do with it, fall in love and get married, have children, buy a home, invest your money wisely, go on with your life. . .but you won’t be able to get it out of your system. It will always be there, waiting patiently.

      It knows you can’t stay away.

    7. You can try to treat it in an honest and honorable manner

      You can set schedules, make plans with it, be forthright about negotiating for what you want, what it wants, what you both want from this relationship.

      But it’s a liar. It’s not going to stick to any plans.

      It knows this perfectly well, even while it’s enthusiastically agreeing with everything you say.

    8. You can try to purge yourself of it

      Throw yourself at it, merge with it, spend all your time with it, force yourself to admit to all its warts and blemishes and wrinkles. . .but as soon as your get yourself out of its clutches and think you’re finally free, it will come slipping back into your subconscious, refreshed from the conflict and full of its own impossibly imperfect beauty. And you’ll be hooked all over again on the heartbreaking potential in it, the complexity and anguish and glory.

      And you’ll take it back, suckered even worse than before.

    9. For all life. For all eternity

      And do you know why?

      Because you’re an addict, too.

    UPDATE: 9 Secrets You’re Keeping from Your Story


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    1. You have no idea what you’re doing

    2. Even if you did know. . .

      . . .you wouldn’t be able to articulate it.

    3. You read all the advice on writing out there

      How to do it, how not to do it, when and where and why to do it, and what to do with it when you’ve done what you’re doing to it—and you would parrot without a qualm anyone on earth who said, “It’s all in the service of the story.”

      But when nobody’s looking you spend the vast majority of your time wondering what you’re going to wear on Oprah and answering imaginary questions for your Paris Review interview.

    4. You have never read such a stupid, clumsy, inane, self-aggrandizing story

    5. You have never hated a story so much

      You’re ashamed to know such a story exists in the world. You want to hit it on the nose with a newspaper: “Bad story! Down, story! Play dead, story!”

      You feel trapped, cheated, robbed of life you’ll never get back by this story

    6. You’re already planning your next story

    7. You know your next story is the one you really love

    8. You know, deep in your heart, this story was only practice

      Someday you will write the stories you really want your name on.

      You’ll finish this story to the best of your abilities and then put it in a drawer, part of an artist’s inevitable backlog of old work that never sees the light of day.

      You know it takes years to learn how to do this right. You know you’re only partway there. You’re dedicated. You want to be good. Practice, practice, practice.

    9. You have looked at that stack of pages at the end of the workday. . .

      . . .when it’s raining outside your leaky window and the sun is hot and moist on the pina coladas under the coconut trees in Costa Rica and there’s a folding chair on the beach there with your name on it.

      And you have thought about matches.

    UPDATE: 9 Secrets Your Story Is Keeping from You


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    Sometimes we travel for my husband’s work, and although we all enjoy the thrill of the open road and the excitement of escaping housework and chores and the incessant arguments over who gets the comfortable armchairs, us or the cats, still—

    It’s always good to get home.

    What is it that makes home home? And why do we return to our writing time and again, over the years, to find those same qualities in the imaginary universes alive in our heads?

    1. Familiarity

    2. Of course. Home is you. That’s why you’re there.

      And that’s why you keep going back to your fiction—in spite of the frustration of never quite being able to bring that wonderful, multifaceted plane of inspiration here into the tangible daily world, in spite of loneliness and failure and exhaustion and conflicting demands upon your time.

      Because it’s you. It’s where you live.

    3. Context

    4. In that familiar sphere, you find the framework you develop throughout your life for understanding the trials of living. Newborn babies have no such frameworks—they spend most of their time crying out in anguish. Growing up is developing the frame of reference you need to stay sane for the rest of your life.

      When you read great books, you’re building framework for understanding life. When you learn from great writing and spiritual mentors, you’re building framework. And when you go into your fictional landscape and live alongside the characters there, meticulously noting and writing down the details of their experiences, you are applying your framework of understanding to the very real ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ with which we all constantly contend, from cradle to grave.

      Storytelling keeps us sane.

    5. Emotion

    6. Writing allows you to feel what goes on inside you, your physical, emotional, gut-wrenching reactions to those ‘slings and arrows,’ without simply disintegrating into a pile of shattered rubble. Newborn babies cry and are comforted—babies who are not comforted die.

      When you use your words, the details of observed and felt life, to record what it’s like to be alive, you give yourself that comfort. “Someone else has lived through these hard times,” you are saying to yourself and to others. “We can transcend our suffering.”

    7. Safety

    8. And the aftermath of those emotions—the devastation of cities, countrysides, relationships, lives—can be caught and named and held up to the mirror so it serves not to destroy you but to temper you, not to compound the darkness but to illuminate the strengths that keep you on your feet, year after year, helping everyone you touch stay on their feet, too.

      We need to confront that aftermath, to break through the terror of the darkness that rings our lives.

    9. Companionship

    10. All those others are here with you—your characters (whom of course you love, “not always,” as Emily Bronte so candidly pointed out 160 years ago, “as a pleasure any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”) as well as your writing friends.

      This is what the blogosphere has given writers of this generation that writers have never had before: the companionship of thousands. Do not underestimate the power of tribe in your life. You are a writer among writers. You have family.

    11. Epiphany

    12. And finally all that exploration, all that suffering, all that tempering and reaching the depths and reaching out and sharing your experience, culminates in those brief, iridescent moments that make all that survival worthwhile: the epiphanies that convince you there’s more going on than any of us know.

      There is something intangible beyond what we see and do and say every day, even though the only way to find it and illuminate it is through showing tangible characters, with tangible problems, seeing and doing and saying.

      It’s the ultimate paradox, the paradox of living: that the transcendence of the niggling, harrowing, incessant ills of life—the breaking through the familiar to the intangible beyond—is coming home.

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

    by Victoria Mixon

    “The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”—Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    “Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .demystifies essential aspects of craft while paying homage to the art.”—Millicent Dillon, five time O. Henry Award winner and PEN/Faulkner nominee

    “Teeming with gold. . .makes you love being a writer because you belong to the special club that gets to read this book.”—KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel

    The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
    by Victoria Mixon

    “This book changed my life.”Stu Wakefield, Kindle #1 best-selling author of Body of Water and Memory of Water

    “Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”—Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel

    “As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches. Highly recommended.”—Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering

    “I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”—Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    We’re talking about how to approach the first draft of your novel this month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, Last week we talked about the 3 Essential Guidelines for your overall novel, and the week before that we talked about Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And today we’re going to be talking about the protagonist’s character, because that’s the core of all storytelling. (I tackled this topic last November in a post so bizarre that it famously prompted Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel to ask, “My dear, what are on you on?” 4 Post-Its to Stick Up Over Your Writing Desk. And I outlined the basic elements—which I’m going to talk about in greater depth below—back last summer in one of a series I did on how to write fiction all wrong: How to Characterize Wrong in 3 Easy Steps.)

    But, honestly, you don’t have to be doing NaNo to be starting a novel. If you’ve got holidays coming up in December, you might very well be getting yourself in gear to take advantage of them in the most luxurious way a writer can imagine: by writing!

    1. Your protagonist believes they cannot survive without this

      It’s a need so core to them that if you changed it you wouldn’t be writing about a human being anymore. What is it? Writers have been using the canonical primary needs for hundreds of years without wearing them out:

      • survival
      • love
      • justice

      Truly, these three needs have powered most of the fiction ever written. And there are still more aspects to explore in them. They’re that enormous. They’re that complex.

      Some of the other things characters need are:

      • to protect a child
      • to heal a wound
      • to learn the truth
      • to have an adventure

      These needs also have powered incredible numbers of stories. Remember Don Quixote? Out there scampering around the countryside on that mangy old nag with his reluctant sidekick at his stirrup? What was he up to?

      He certainly wasn’t defending his life. And I don’t think he ever really had a chance with Dulcinea.

      Justice. Adventure.

      He needed them really badly.

    2. Your protagonist can’t survive without this either

      Because that’s what makes a story: two needs. Otherwise, it’s a bildungsroman, the story of a protagonist grappling with a whole series of internal conflicts, and modern readers don’t have the attention span to survive a bildunsroman anymore. They need explicit signposts on why they should care. (I’m sorry, Moll Flanders.)

      But here’s the magic wand—you’ve already done this step. Yes, you have! Look above. How many stories are about two of those top three in conflict with each other? What if you mixed and matched two out of the seven? One of the seven with some equally-powerful but more subtle need?

      • to prove a point
      • to accomplish a lifelong goal
      • to protect someone elderly (or otherwise physically or intellectually vulnerable)
      • to escape evil
      • to come to grips with their own dark side

      You’ll notice that, no matter how subtle a secondary need you give your protagonist, it can pretty much always be traced back to one of those three canonical primary needs. And when you choose not to root your protagonist’s character in a secondary need quite that canonical, for whatever reason, you must add motivation to that subtle need through one of the canonical ones.

      Also, although experts once swore mysteries were too ‘intellectual’ to accommodate romance, pretty much any story gets better when you add thwarted love to the mix.

    3. Your protagonist has absolutely no intention of choosing between the two

      Which means any situation in which they are forced to do just that serves as a rip-roaring, roof-raising, mind-bending catastrophe for your Climax. As country singers are so fond of reminding us, “My baby left me, I lost my home, and then my dog died.”

      1. Say you have a protagonist who needs:

        • survival
        • love

        Whomever they love, it puts them in danger. In danger of losing their job? In danger of losing their home? In danger of losing their sanity?

        When Jane Eyre had to choose, she lost all three. Well, she wasn’t totally plugged in to begin with, but I really don’t think that night on the moor could have helped much.

        Pit your protagonist against themself by giving them the two most fundamental needs in the human animal. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, either. It could be love of a friend, love of a place, love of a cause.

        Romantic love has the added attraction of sex, of course, which always gets the attention of the hormonally-bullied. (You know who you are.) Just keep in mind—and this is really important—you must address sexual issues through their grip on the personality rather than through simple textbook instructions. Your reader doesn’t need to learn how to do it. They need to learn how to handle the consequences when they indulge in something they know how to do all too well.

      2. Or say your protagonist needs:

        • justice
        • survival

        Their pursuit of justice does nothing but put their life in danger. You know what that is?

        Every thriller ever written.

        This is why thriller works so well as series genre. Because you can pit your protagonist against themself through their need for justice—and the evil perpetrators’ efforts to kill them—over and over and over again until Doomesday and never run out of excitement.

        Be aware that thrillers get their layering through complicated technical subjects, so the authors of thrillers do a great deal of research into specific industries: law, politics, banking, history, international espionage, high-tech weaponry, et cetera, plus very often exotic locales. That all needs to be professionally-researched and very adroitly handled. For advice on how to use your research properly, read Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, in which she explains exactly how she used her research for eleven ghostwritten books, eight of which were best sellers.

      3. Or maybe your protagonist needs:

        • love
        • justice

        What would force a person to choose between what they want and what they know is right? Well, almost everything. Anne of Green Gables tells us all about it as she works her way through her daily life—the endless, excruciating decision-making process that never leaves us alone. It’s when she has to choose between the things she loves and the things she knows are right that she becomes important to the reader, someone they will carry with them internally for the rest of their life.

        Because such stories don’t have death hanging over anybody’s head, they tend to be more mild-mannered. That allows them to go deeply and profoundly into the human experience. Remember that your reader is reading not only to be reassured that life is worth living, but to learn something they don’t already know. If you choose to pit your protagonist against themself through these two very human (but not dastardly) needs, you’ll have to know something about those needs that the reader can’t figure out for themself. Just reiterating an experience identical to the reader’s own without adding anything original won’t hold their attention.

    You can see how this simple pyramidal design gives you a protagonist your reader passionately wants to see succeed, even as you back that protagonist into worse and worse corners until you’ve backed them right against a wall.

    Then your protagonist must always, in the Climax, choose. That choice is the secret ingredient that makes your story work.

    This, my friends, is what we call sympathetic character.

    [I KNOW: I finally turned off comments because of the spam. Thank you for all your comments over the years! You’re such a joy to write for. If you like these posts, please feel free to click StumbleUpon and/or Facebook and/or Twitter.]


    “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



  • By Victoria Mixon

    Every year I write a series of NaNoWriMo posts like the bizarre and inexplicable 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable, 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Helplessly Addictive, and 5 Ways to Make Your Novel Inescapable. Last week we looked at Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And for those of you who learn better in conversation than through written instructions, this year I’ve even been interviewed on video by Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog. Joanna asks me for pointers on how to approach writing the sequel to her Kindle best-seller, Pentecost—pointers I make universal to storytelling in general so they’ll help all of you diving into writing your own new novels right this minute.

    So let’s review quickly how to make that dive a swan dive and not a cannonball:

    1. Know why this story matters

      Somewhere, somehow, at that one moment when they can least afford it, your protagonist is going to come up against themself in a spiritual dark alley. And it’s going to be bad.

      They have always, all their life, sincerely and desperately believed they could not handle this confrontation. Chaos, madness, mayhem, yes. But not this.

      And that heart-stopping confrontation is why you’re writing this story. Handling the impossible matters to readers—it’s possibly the only thing that does.

      That’s your Climax.

    2. Be great fun to run around with

      The bulk of a novel is just for fun, thrill, excitement, unending adventures that leap from one peak to another as though in Seven-League Boots. Your reader’s grappling with one drama! Aaagh! They’re grappling with another! No! They’re back to grappling with the first drama again! Eeee! There’s a new drama they didn’t see coming!

      Back and forth, round and round, in and out of the complexities of your plot they run full-tilt, flapping the pages of your book as they go. They can’t stop!

      That’s your Development.

    3. Understand Backstory

      Don’t get too attached to the first scenes that it occurs to you to write. Those are your warm-up scenes, and chances are almost certain they’re Backstory, not Hook.

      Write them! Have a fabulous time! But be willing to set them aside in their own little outtakes files later, when you’re far enough into this story (possibly at the end) to be able to see what originally happened to force the decision that got your protagonist into this whole impossible mess in the first place.

      That’s too important of a scene to toy with by getting yourself emotionally-dependent upon it right now. Just take lots of notes as you work on your novel so it will be a truly fabulous opening scene when you do eventually write it.

      That will be your Hook.

    And because we all live here in the twenty-first century, I know as well as you do how hard it is to squeeze NaNoWriMo into your already-packed schedule. So remember the 9 Ways to Find Time to Write.

    Take a deep breath, run to the top of the highest pinnacle you can find, and start flapping your wings. Welcome to NaNoWriMo!

    Is all your hair standing on end yet?

    [I KNOW: I finally turned off comments because of the spam. Thank you for all your comments over the years! You’re such a joy to write for. If you like these posts, please feel free to click StumbleUpon and/or Facebook and/or Twitter.]


    “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





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11 posts. . .because this blog goes to 11


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.