A. Victoria Mixon, Editor
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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar for them, '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

    Hi Victoria, I am the proud owner of your books, and I cannot tell you how fantastic they are. I do have a query regarding third-person limited. Is it possible to express a character’s personal emotion that is not the main character? I hope you reply, and thank you again for your books. Regards, Brooke

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Brooke!

    The terms limited, unlimited, and omniscient narrator refer to the way your story is written. If you include the personal emotions of a character who is not the main character, then you are using unlimited or omniscient narrator, not limited.

    I strongly recommend limited narrator with one Point-Of-View (POV) protagonist. This gives the reader the strongest connection to your protagonist. And this is one of the best literary disciplines to teach yourself as an aspiring writer.

    If you use more than one POV for unlimited narrators, you weaken the reader’s connection to all of them. It can be done, but it’s best to design a pattern of POV switches so that the reader’s unconscious expectation of the POV switch counteracts their weakened connection to the characters. This is a much more complex discipline to teach yourself and best to tackle once you have some experience.

    And if you use omniscient narrator, you transfer the reader’s connection from your protagonist to the story. Omniscient narrator was once very common, but in today’s literary climate readers tend to prefer a personal connection with a protagonist over the effort of making a connection with an impersonal story. It’s a good thing readers are not really interested in it, as it’s a fantastically difficult discipline to teach yourself, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald screwed it up.

    I do strongly recommend not expressing the character’s personal emotions for them. That’s telling. Instead, show the reader how this character feels, through their dialog and actions and the things they notice in their described settings. Again—this is one of the great literary disciplines of our craft, teaching yourself how to portray your story through detailed scenes rather than exposition.

    Showing rather than telling is also a much more powerful way to communicate emotion, as it makes space for unspoken subtext (one of the greatest of our fictional techniques) and gives the reader the chance to have their own feelings about what you’re showing them—which is what they really want.


    “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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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Hello Victoria, My name is Alex, and I’ve been reading your blog “five ways to make your novel inescapable.” First of all, I’d like to thank you for the blog post. It is a very nice piece. My question is concerning a hook climax. Can you please explain what a hook climax is? I believe what you’re saying is that is the hook climax is one of the major elements, the counterpoint. I think the point and the counterpoint are the two main themes that are intertwined throughout the entire story. But I believe you’re also saying that the hook is tied into the climax at the end of the book. Can you please explain this more? Should I be focusing on having my hook tie to the story’s climax? Alex

    That’s a really interesting interpretation! What you’re talking about is what I call resonance.

    What I’m talking about with the Climax of the HOOK in “5 Ways to Make Your Novel Inescapable” is plot outline.

    The key to keeping the reader intrigued is the novel’s CLIMAX, which is the Whole Point of any story. And knowing that climax is the whole point of any story allows us to use it to emphasize the whole point of any aspect of any story.

    I use three-act structure to design novels, partly because our brains are hardwired to prefer things that come in threes, and partly because it’s easy:


    I discuss these three acts in-depth in Art & Craft of Writing Fiction, relating them to our classical understanding of story design through Syd Field, Gustav Freytag, and Shakespeare. They’re really important.

    And when we use the climax of each act to illuminate the whole point of that act, we get two parts to each one:

    ACT I

    CONFLICT #1 (Act I Climax)

    ACT II

    CONFLICT #2 (Midpoint)
    CONFLICT #3 (Act II Climax)


    CLIMAX (Act III Climax)

    I also use something I call holographic design to give each of the six parts their own six parts. This means that the HOOK has its own Climax. (Three of these six parts I call CONFLICTS, to avoid confusion, and each part has its own Climax.)

    Now, of course there’s a lot more to structure than this. But this is the general gist of it.

    I outline all of this in detail in Art & Craft of Writing Stories, in which I describe how I’ve analyzed scores of novels to discover how they’re put together so they keep the reader intrigued all the way through, and I walk you step-by-step through six canonical examples of stories that helped originate our biggest-selling modern genres.

    I mean, 70-100,000 words is a LOT of words. All too often, we hear someone say, “I started that book but never finished it.” We writers don’t want that book to be ours.

    So we must know how to keep the reader intrigued on every page: by shaping the story around its climaxes.


    “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

    Comments Off on Climax: the whole point
  • By Victoria Mixon

    You have a highly informative website! Now, about:

    The best technique for proofreading is to read each sentence backward.

    Did you really mean what that sounds like? Taking one sentence at a time, I should reverse all the words of the sentence front to back and read the words of the sentence in reverse sequence? Or maybe you meant something like the following: The best technique for proofreading is to advance backward through the text you are editing, one full sentence at a time, starting with the last sentence of the text, and ending with the first sentence of that text. Also, if you would explain the rationale for using this technique, it might be clearer what you have in mind. Thanks!—Todd Shandelman, Houston, Texas

    Thank you, Todd!

    Yes, you read that right: read each sentence backward.

    Backward sentence each read: right that read you, yes.

    The biggest pitfall of proofreading is our brain’s tendency to assume that the words it expects are already there. We’re not robots, diligently accepted only the data with which we are presented. We interact constantly with our environment, accepting data, embellishing it, interpreting it, making lightning connections between it and the data we already have—understanding it.

    So, for instance, if you’re moving lickety-split at top speed and there’s a starving predator lunging twenty feet behind you and you don’t see the hole you’re about to step into, the ability to remember that hole (“I stepped in it last time!”) and supply it to your eye can save your life.

    You will then live to breed, and with any luck at all your offspring will inherit the same ability to remember and supply to the eye data that’s not necessarily visible in the moment.

    Fast-forward a million years.

    You’re reading a page that you’ve read a dozen times before, moving lickety-split at top speed thinking about a hundred other issues with this novel, and you don’t see a missing or misspelled word. It’s okay! You have the ability to remember that word (“I know what I meant”) and supply it to your eye.

    All is well, and you will live to breed.

    However, if you reading each sentence backward—backward sentence each reading you (hey! typo!) if—you are suddenly reading something you haven’t read before. And so missing and mispelled words become more visible: if you’re reading each sentence backward.

    This is why proofreaders are necessary and why most top editors are not proofreaders. We’re thinking about those hundred other issues with this novel, and it would cost you a fortune to hire us to read every one of your sentences backward.

    This is also why Truman Capote famously put his stories in a drawer to let them go cold for a year before re-reading them.

    That works too.


    “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

    Comments Off on Proofreading: reading each sentence backward
  • By Victoria Mixon

    I’ve found myself in a particularly unique situation. I have no formal education in editing, and I am quite young. However, a month or so ago one of my aunts showed me the first few chapters of a story she was working on. She’s an author and has a few published works. I was absolutely giddy. I’ve always wanted to be an author/editor, and there was my chance. A few weeks later, I overheard my mother speaking of me to my friends. My aunt had told my mother that I had shown an incredible aptitude and that my feedback rivaled that of her generously-paid editor. My aunt had also said that I could begin editing online immediately, even charging, so long as I kept my age under a veil. So—long story short—this is what I would like to do. But I’m not quite sure how. I don’t know how the process of billing people online works, nor do I find myself very capable of successfully advertising. As of right now, I am doing some pro bono work on Wattpad in hopes of building up references, but I have yet to charge a dime. What do you suggest I do?

    It is truly wonderful that your mother told you such kind things about your aunt’s feedback. I hope that your aunt spoke with you directly. It is always a good thing for a young person to be supported and nurtured in their work.

    I assume that you have done solely Copy Editing—not Line Editing or Developmental Editing. There are many intricacies to Copy Editing for which you will need a formal education, so that’s something you can start right away. A course in Advanced English Composition will help, as well as Journalism and a class on Grammar and Punctuation. An internship with your local newspaper can be extremely helpful—journalistic Copy Editing is an excellent place to hone your skills. There are any number of differences between editing fiction, nonfiction, and journalism that you’ll need to know, as well as between American and British English.

    We speak a very complicated language, so take your time learning your craft—I have been a professional editor for 35 years, and I still find myself looking things up and consulting with my editor colleagues.

    The best way to begin working is to become an apprentice to a reputable independent editor. There are zillions of very bad amateur ‘editors’ advertising themselves online right now. The vast majority don’t know what they’re doing and frequently damage manuscripts. I hear the horror stories all the time. So you definitely don’t want to wind up associated with them. You might apply with Renni Browne, who has been a reputable independent editor since the 1980s and maintains a stable of editors working for her. You will learn during your apprenticeship how to bill, take payment, schedule projects, and follow-through on your commitments.

    Once you have one or two years’ worth of excellent client testimonials, you can create your own website and begin to advertise your services independently.

    But don’t be in a hurry!

    Like any other professional work, it takes years to learn how to do this well. There are many of us editing who have been professionals for decades, and we are your competition. It is far better to apprentice yourself properly than to ruin your reputation by charging for editing before you are ready.

    You must always be aware that when a writer hires an editor, someone is paying good money for a valuable service. If you love this work enough to do it, treat it as a career—for that is what it is.



    “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

    Comments Off on Becoming an independent freelance editor, for young writers (part 4)
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Dear Victoria, I came across your lovely website while googling the difference between copy-editing and line-editing. I was a news sub-editor for a year and worked for six years as a quality assurance proofreader of technical documents. I’ve also worked in Asia, bringing ESL texts up to English native speaker standard. Recently I’ve been helping some self-publishing writers with a bit of basic copy editing and proofreading using New Hart’s Rules. I have also signed up for the SFEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing course. I recognise that news editing, technical proofreading and ESL editing are all very different and unrelated to fiction editing! I would like to move into line editing as a freelancer. I understand that without experience this will be very difficult. Do you have any advice? Claire George

    Yes, I do! I can sum it up in two words: endless study.

    • I also began my career as a journalist, with many years as the editor-in-chief of the smallest periodicals in the Pacific Northwest. Journalism is terrific training for conciseness:

      Use only the words you absolutely need and no more.

    • I worked for a very long time in technical documentation in Silicon Valley, as well. Tech docs is terrific training for clarity:

      The reader must understand what you’re saying effortlessly and intuitively, or they’ll walk away.

    • And I’ve studied English communication through translating Asian tech docs and my background in Spanish. ESL is terrific training for comprehension:

      Take full advantage of the reader’s preconceptions and natural understanding of their native language wherever you possibly can.

    • Finally, yeah, I’m a published poet. Poetry is terrific training in subtext:

      What you don’t say is more powerful than what you do.

    Now, Hart’s Rules apply only to British English, and the SfEP Introduction to Fiction Editing is a copy-editing course only, which does not teach line-editing. Proofreading is a non-issue—that can be done by anybody, and most of the professional Editors I know are terrible at it (including me, although I worked for many years as a typesetter, in which it could be argued that my one responsibility was proofreading).

    So what you’re studying right now is copy-editing, specifically copy-editing as it applies to British English.

    You will probably not learn line-editing anywhere except from an experienced long-time professional Line Editor. (Not short-time! Most short-time Editors have never been taught proper line-editing.) College and university English Departments can teach you how to dissect a phrase or sentence or paragraph to understand the power of language. And poetry classes can teach you the importance of word choice, rhythm, and subtext. But I don’t know anyone reputable teaching courses in prose line-editing. And I definitely wouldn’t trust anyone I didn’t know—it’s far too easy these days for someone who doesn’t even realize that language techniques exist to set themself up online as an ‘expert’ and start taking money under false pretenses.

    I taught myself line-editing over the course of several decades through an exhaustive study of hundreds of novels and stories and poems, a massive project involving meticulous word-by-word analyses of thousands of samples. I discovered for myself what the best techniques are and where and when and how and why they work. (Notice the basic tenets of journalism!) Today I know a ton of ways to make prose powerful, elegant, and transparent.

    I’ve discussed the fundamentals and terminology of line-editing in Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: 1st Writer’s Manual.

    Line-editing is a fabulous craft that deals directly with the reader’s subconscious. It allows fiction to by-pass the consciousness to create visceral responses to brilliant language. And it is one of my greatest joys.

    But it is also a dying craft.

    So if you truly love language deeply enough to make it your life’s work, then definitely: embark upon your endless study of it! Help us save this craft and, with it, a full half of all the magic of fiction!

    In the meantime, I would finish the SfEP Introduction to Fiction Editing course and then begin building your professional reputation as the best Copy Editor in the world.

    Make this your life’s work.



    “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

    Comments Off on Becoming a freelance independent editor (part 3)
  • By Victoria Mixon

    I regularly receive requests from high school and college students asking how to become a freelance independent editor. So here is our interview for this week:

    1. What education do you recommend? I have done some research and found that an editor often has a B.A. in English or Literature or even a Graduate degree. Did you do anything to gain experience before become a full editor? Did you become an editor right after you got out of college? Is the field of editing competitive?

    Definitely, get your education. As you so accurately point out: your competition will.

    I earned my BA in English after many years as a professional journalist. Then I worked as a tech writer and editor in the computer industry for many more years, while studying fiction nights and weekends. Only then did I feel qualified to advertise myself as an independent editor. The work I do is very complex and in-depth. I didn’t learn it in college. I make this my life’s study.

    The field of editing is crammed right now full of people advertising themselves as editors who are not actually qualified to edit. So that’s a hugely competitive pool of shysters taking money from innocent writers for nothing—or, worse, for damaging manuscripts. Whatever you do, don’t get your reputation entangled with theirs.

    Many of us who are highly-qualified know each other personally, so we don’t compete. We help each other out and sometimes refer to each other potential clients. (I have referred to others probably a dozen writers in the last couple of months.) We mightily enjoy our editor-talk. . .whenever we get the chance!

    2. Many websites say that having a love for books makes editing easier. Would you say that you have this love, and does it help you? Would you say that you specialize in a certain genre?

    There’s no point in doing this work if you don’t love books. Don’t waste your life on something you don’t love. If you love something else, go do that instead. If you can’t make a very good living at it, don’t worry. We don’t make much of a living at editing either.

    We do it because we love it. Yes, a thousand times yes, I love books. That love is my reason for doing this.

    I specialize in the mystery genre, but I work in almost all genres: thriller, love story, sci-fi, fantasy. I do not work in category romance or with gratuitous violence. I have just recently begun specializing in the fabulous genre of ghost stories.

    3. What do you look for in a manuscript, and how long does take you to edit a manuscript? How many manuscripts do you turn down in comparison to the manuscripts you keep? Do you ever find that it is hard to turn down a manuscript? Do you ever recommend that an author has their manuscript looked over by another editor before it is published, just to be sure?

    I look for a fresh idea, great qualifications in the story background, and a writer with guts, commitment, and good humor. The length of time for an edit depends upon the type of edit requested and how many days a week a writer wants to reserve, how fast they want to work. A full Copy, Line, and Developmental Edit takes (minimum) @120 hours.

    I can only accept a fraction of the manuscripts with which I am queried. I take on every job I love, so I’m fortunate that if it’s hard to turn down I don’t turn it down.

    I do not send writers on to other editors after me. I know some editors who do. However, I believe that a writer should be able to get from me everything they need. It doesn’t seem fair to take a writer’s money and then tell them to spend even more on someone else.

    4. How would you describe your relationship with the authors you edit for? What would you say your favorite part and least favorite part of editing are? Would you say that you enjoy editing?

    I LOVE my writers! I absolutely love them. Because I work only on projects that I love, I get to work only with writers I love—we have a wonderful time, become friends, and bond over our shared passion for each of these stories that mean so much to them. Then they bring me further manuscripts, and we work together throughout the years.

    Absolutely, my writers are my favorite part of my job. Their imaginations, creativity, and dedication to this fabulous craft are my constant joy. My least favorite part is dealing with the tide of misinformation currently flooding the Internet and the horror stories of writers who have paid fake ‘editors’ and been burned. That’s always rough.

    I love editing. I love the art and craft of storytelling. I love working with wonderful writers to develop their ideas and expertise into gripping, polished books that their readers will love as much as I do. I love the written word: beautiful description, significant details, brilliant dialog, unexpected-but-perfect action, the rare profound touch of exposition. I also love the grammatical eccentricities of the English language, my favorite punctuation, and the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th Through 18th Centuries.

    The bottom line? I love it all. My writers and their writing mean everything to me.



    “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

    Comments Off on Becoming a freelance independent editor, for young writers (part 2)
  • By Victoria Mixon

    These questions from Diana Rubino are about my new ebook, Art & Craft of Writing: Secret Advice for Writers. If you haven’t got a copy, you can now pick one up free.

    1. “10 Ways to Become a Better Writer in 10 Days”: “We can feel free to throw in gratuitous imaginary details, so long as they’re neutral and not meant to sway the reader toward positive or negative interpretations. If we feel the urge to sway the reader, we’ll use a detail bent in the opposite direction from where we want it bent.”—Why wouldn’t you put in a detail that elicits a positive (or negative) interpretation if you want to sway the reader that way? And why would the detail be bent in the opposite direction?

      This is about learning authorial control.

      Too often, we just put down on the page whatever falls out of us in the moment. When we’re riding along on the surface of the story like that, we’ll very likely to put down cliches, because those are what occur to us first.

      So we use this exercise to build the habit of drilling down past the surface cliche stuff into surprising details that will make our scenes unique.

    2. Tension: “We don’t bother with transitions.”—Are you applying this to first drafts, when it’s all coming out of our right brains? Because I’ve been told that I have weak transitions.

      Yes. Skip right over the boring bits. Go straight to the exciting scenes. The reader does.

    3. Isn’t SOME exposition necessary? I try to tell as much as possible in dialogue, but don’t want it to read like a play. Isn’t exposition part of a scene?

      This is a very, very common misconception. I can’t even tell you how many industry professionals routinely parrot this belief without doing their research.

      NO exposition is necessary.

      The reader doesn’t want to be ‘told’ about the story. They want to be ‘shown’ the story itself. They don’t want to waste their time on extra stuff. They just want to see characters speaking and acting in their environment.

      So the more you stick to your characters speaking and moving in their environment and leave the reader to do the thinking, the better the reader will love you.

      Now, exposition can be done beautifully. Most of our canonical greats are famous for it. I post their quotes on Twitter. And we do generally wind up using some exposition, just because none of us is ever as disciplined as we ought to be. But exposition is so incredibly difficult to make worthwhile—and so incredibly easy to screw up—that I always advise writers to work as hard as possible to discipline themselves to do without it.

    4. What’s that one word Henry James uses to show his perfect authorial control?

      “Stopped.” It’s the final word of “The Turn of the Screw.”

    5. “5 Ways to Make Our Novels Unforgettable”: “The reader is not moved to weep when we get all blue inside.”—You know that saying ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’?

      Yes, I do. Another very, very common misconception.

      And the only way for it to make any sense at all is to simply ignore the myriad fabulous techniques of fiction that have been discovered and developed over the past 150 years.

      I’m afraid this is the kind of thing that happens when your industry becomes inundated with people who don’t even know that techniques exist.

    6. I realize they’re not going to cry at everything in the story that makes us cry, or be entertained as we laugh hysterically (love that line—I laughed at it!) but since our purpose is to evoke emotion, don’t we want to make them laugh and cry at the things we want them to?

      Yes, we do. That’s why we have fiction techniques. And that’s why we practice our perfect authorial control.

      For example: the first time I taught at a major writers conference, one of the things I was asked about was humor.

      How do you do it?

      I told them that I could teach them the techniques of humor, but I could not give them a good sense of humor.

      This got a laugh.


      Because I used the technique that I was about to teach. Humor is exactly the same as a story: build the reader’s expectations, then end on a punchline that is both surprising and yet—in the context of the expectations you’ve just built—inevitable.

      I didn’t need to laugh in order for them to laugh. I already knew the punchline was coming.

      Then I told them the old Groucho Marx joke: “Outside of a dog, a book is your very best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

      Groucho didn’t need to laugh either. He also knew his punchline was coming. But it’s still one of the best jokes ever.

    Read more in: Art & Craft of Writing: Secret Advice for Writers


    “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

    Comments Off on Authorial control, transitions, exposition, & how to tell a good joke
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Dear Victoria: Thank you for answering my first question about Art & Craft of Writing Stories.

    2) My other question is about P. 270, (I have your book open in front of me). About midway down, “What do you suppose happened here?” Then we’ll ask “And how could these needs have led somewhere else?” “How could my char have responded to their problems differently, given their fundamental driving forces?” “…a possibility, some way for them to wriggle out of their nightmare right before it happens. We’ll avoid thinking about the original solution to their dilemma. If we can’t avoid it, we’ll think about its opposite. Pose the question as if for the first time ever. . .And what if something else happened instead?” What I’m not clear on is, the story’s been outlined and plotted, we know our protag inside out and what’s driving her. So why add a something else? Wouldn’t that be another story altogether? I thought they acted according to who they are and that drives the plot. Why would she respond differently, after we’ve fleshed her out and know how she’s been driving the plot? If something else happened instead, that’s another plot, another story. Or is what you’re saying is to make that something else an even bigger complication?—Diana Rubino

    This is a very good question, Diana.

    Writers often bring me manuscripts for which they’ve developed plots according to advice and then been dismayed to discover that the Climax did not turn out to be as powerful as they’d hoped. This is mistakenly attributed to the act of plotting rather than pantsing. I have heard it even from presenters at writers conferences: “Don’t plot. It sucks the juice out of your story.”

    This is wrong. Plotting does not suck the juice out of your story. Plotting is the juice of your story.

    However, because novels are enormously long and the writing of them enormously complicated, it is almost guaranteed that the writer will, at some point, lose the thread and wind up writing a Climax that is not the most powerful Climax for this protagonist in this particular story.

    That’s why the gods invented revision.

    So when we’ve finished our first draft, we go back into the design phase and ask ourselves, “How close did I get to the story I intended to tell?”

    We don’t really know our protagonist inside and out until we’ve walked alongside them scene-by-scene, word-for-word, through their entire novel. Characters are so complex. Their needs are so huge. Their dilemmas are so overwhelming! And 70,000 words are a whole lot of words to get down on paper.

    So it is only at the very end that we know our protagonist well enough to ask, “Did I capture you truthfully?”

    This is why we must both know our plot beforehand and still leave room for our imaginations to evolve over the course of the writing—because it takes both halves of the brain to create a great novel.


    “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

    Comments Off on Revision: the forward motion of conflicting needs
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Dear Victoria: I have questions about two things in Art & Craft of Writing Stories. I’m going to meet with my longtime crit partner Bonnie on Saturday to toss around some ideas for my next book and wanted to talk about your book. We do that a lot; I bring a writing book I’ve just read and we try to figure it out. 🙂 Now I can tell her you answered my questions!—Diana Rubino

    Thank you for writing, Diana! I’ll answer your first question here and your second question in a separate column.

    1) “The protagonist must have two needs that are mutually exclusive.” I’ve never heard that before, and find it very interesting. I’ve learned that the protag must have a need, a goal, and that has to be thwarted, over and over. Does having two needs give the story or the protag more depth? In saying she needs to have two goals or needs, is that an external one and an internal one? To parallel the ext. and int. conflicts?—Diana

    You haven’t heard it before because I developed this idea myself, through my work with editing clients and study of fiction. 🙂

    Exactly—it gives the story more depth, but more than that it gives the writer greater clarity about what they’re doing and therefore greater control over the story.

    Very often I see manuscripts in which the writer has followed normal writing advice to give their protagonist a need and then thwart it, but they do this by imposing on the protagonist some outside force that simply makes the protagonist a victim. This creates weak storytelling and undermines the reader’s investment, because we’re not interested in reading about victims. We’re interested in reading about fighters. We need to know what to do when life knocks us down, and we can’t learn that from victims.

    This is all internal. An external conflict can be associated with one need for contrast between the two needs—need for a difficult loved one, or a challenging job, or actual survival—but this has no power unless the protagonist is personally invested in both needs, deep down inside. (Otherwise, they’d just walk away.)

    Power is derived by showing your protagonist as both a sufferer and a fighter. Root both extremes of their conflict in their own character. Each time the protagonist meets one need—the one that creates their suffering—they create the other need—the need to fight suffering.

    This focus upon the internal allows you to show through myriad aspects exactly how our strengths become our weaknesses and our weaknesses our strengths. And this keeps the reader intrigued page after page throughout an entire novel, because the reader is learning that there is no enemy as great as ourselves, there is no success so powerful as triumph over our own failings. Paradox is the key to all epiphany.

    As Bryan Ferry says, “When you love someone, you get to know how the strong get weak and the rich get poor.”


    “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

    Comments Off on Internal needs vs. external needs
  • By Victoria Mixon

    Hi Victoria—You have really good information on your website. After looking around, I have a question. What exactly are the differences between developmental editing and substantive editing? Jake

    Thank you for your kind words, Jake! There’s a really good reason I don’t use the term ‘substantive’ in discussing editing: it is the most confusing term used by editors to describe the different types of work we do.

    When an editor talk about ‘substantive editing’ they can mean anything from developmental editing—designing and structuring a story or book—to line editing—polishing the prose.

    Some editors mean one or the other.

    Some mean both.

    Just about the only thing they all agree on is that substantive editing is not copy editing—making the prose conform to the grammar and punctuation rules of the reader’s native language (different, for instance, in the US and UK)—or proofreading—checking for typos.

    So I use ‘developmental editing’ when I address the way a story or book is put together.

    And I use ‘line editing’ when I address the language.

    I don’t use ‘substantive editing’ at all.

    ‘Substantive’ means, really, an independent identity. I don’t honestly know how that word got tangled up with editing terminology throughout the eras in traditional publishing.

    By ‘substantive’ editors mean ‘substantial,’ in which the editor makes substantial changes and alterations. Some editors confine themselves to discussing each individual issue with the writer. Others work with the writer to arrange the story or book in the way that will convey to the reader most clearly and powerfully the writer’s vision and then polish the resulting manuscript for professional language.

    It depends entirely upon the editor’s own definition.

    The British editor Diana Athill even confesses in her marvelous memoir Stet that she was not above adding jokes.


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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. . .

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 PanMacmillan. 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. . .

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. . .

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. . .

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. . .

TERISA GREEN, represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. 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. . .

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, forthcoming from 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. . .

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 her up-coming The Eighth Summer. 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. . .

LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .

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. . .

In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.