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.
Fanfiction. Yes, I write it. Harry Potter fanfiction, to be exact. I find it a great way to practice. I’ve heard so many arguments about copyright infringement, but honestly, I myself would be flattered. As long as others don’t sell my characters off as their own, I can see nothing wrong with it. It’s free publicity and probably brings in money for the writer. Even more than that, I love the idea that my work would be the inspiration that starts a whole new group on the path to become writers, that it could change them, that it could make them think so much and see so much in it. Isn’t that what we look for, after all?
So, my question to you is: what do you think about the controversy? I’m simply a eighteen-year-old girl about to graduate high school, yet you’re a published author with a successful writing blog. What are your thoughts, being on the other end?—Isabella
Congratulations, Isabella, on beginning your writing career young! It sounds as though you’re committed to your craft and very thoughtful about the current writing industry.
Copyright infringement is an entirely legal issue. Some things an author can legally copyright, and if they choose to do so then other writers break the law when they violate that copyright. This can lead to lawsuits, which the author holding the copyright will win.
Other things an author cannot legally copyright. These things must be trademarked if the author does not want to share them.
Copyright is designed to protect an author’s intellectual property: the effort they put into inventing characters, settings, fictional worlds. This effort is very hard work, and writing fiction traditionally pays so little that when an author has worked that hard on their material they often feel quite proprietary about their creative results.
I can sympathize. My colleague, Roz Morris, has compared copyright infringement to being tied up while your house is burgled.
However, is the publicity of fanfiction good for the original author? Does it promote that author’s income? Should authors take fanfiction as a compliment rather than a violation?
This is an individual decision for each author. None of us can make that decision for another.
Since the rise of the blogosphere and self-publishing, many professional writers have tackled the question of whether copyright contributes to or detracts from an author’s career. These people have created something called Creative Commons, which is a form of copyright that allows re-use of an author’s material so long as the author is credited as the creator.
So, for instance, if JK Rowling uses Creative Commons as her copyright, you could publish your Harry Potter fanfiction with the written caveat that it is based upon characters and situations created by JK Rowling. Unfortunately, I suspect that Rowling and her publisher do not use Creative Commons, which would preclude you from publishing fanfiction based upon her creations. (I’m afraid Rowling really doesn’t need any of us helping her publicize her work.)
Many other less-famous authors, though, do use Creative Commons. These are the authors you’ll want to seek out. The self-publishing industry is absolutely chock full of unknown authors who might very well be glad of any publicity they could get.
The key is respect for the author’s legal right to their own material.
If I were you, I’d search for self-published fiction copyrighted under Creative Commons and then contact the authors directly. Make friends with them. Compliment them on their terrific material. Show them that you understand the hard work they’ve put into creating their characters and fictional worlds and that you respect their right to own them. Chances are that you’ll very quickly acquire not only fresh material for your fanfiction but—more importantly—a network of writing friends interested in the same genres as you.
Then you can all move forward in promoting and publicizing each other’s work through your collective creativity. . .which is the ideal solution for everyone.
For years I have been writing, but looking back on what I have written I’ve come to realize I finish very little of what I start. I want to stop that and to finish a work. I feel a big part of this is not-plotting and, despite knowing what I want for the ending, never knowing how to bridge that gap between beginning and end. Whenever I try to plot, I end up either not following it or realizing halfway through that it is something the characters would not do. Is there any advice you can give me on how to plot properly? I have been reading several writer’s websites, but I can’t seem to find any concrete steps in how to properly plot—and finish—a novel. If you have any advice or can suggest any readings, I would greatly appreciate it. Sincerely, Annie H.
Yes, Annie, I can teach you how to plot properly. When you sometimes find yourself unable to follow a plot—when your characters simply will not do what you thought they would do—it’s because all good plotting grows out of character. So only when you entirely understand your characters and already know that they will do when their backs are against a wall can you begin plotting a story that will remain true to those characters.
However, because a novel is such a very long work of fiction, the in-depth details of plotting an entire book can be quite complex, especially when you take into account protagonist(s), genre, and your hoped-for readership.
I try to cover a wide variety of writing issues here on this advice column and my blog, although of course each novel is unique and requires its own unique details in the design. So please feel free to begin by browsing my website. There is years’ worth of information here. You can search for “plot” and “character” both here on my advice column and on my blog, and you should find useful advice.
I also have two books on writing, organized according to what I consider the three fundamentals of fiction: character, plot, and prose—The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual. My books are the cheapest avenue to learning the basics of what I know about plotting and character. I teach writing through the simplest concepts possible, as I worked for years in the tech sector writing simple explanations for complex computer concepts and procedures. And besides, my brain leans toward simple answers.
Additionally, if you’re a young writer, you may want to do a search for “young” here on my advice column, as I’ve addressed specifically the issue of writing a lot of fiction without finishing it—I like to consider that work “committing random acts of literature.”
“The freshest and
most relevant advice
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
Your remarks on Twitter seem to say that you love editing as much, if not more, than writing. What is it about editing that you like? For me, the alarming part about working with an editor is that my judgement as to too much sex, too much violence, too much exposition is something I’m having difficulty with. When an editor told me that a character would not act “that way” in the real world it gave me great pause. In my mind the actions of characters are based on my real life experiences, and I find that some people do act “that way.” Feminism, religion and sexual orientation are all issues I’ve discussed in editing. But I seem to be on a railroad of editors until I find the conductor that fits me.—John Johnson
I do indeed love editing. I also love writing. And I love reading wonderful stories. Fiction and storytelling make up my entire professional and leisure worlds.
Your experience of being on “a railroad of editors” is not at all uncommon these days. I hear of this problem frequently from new clients. This is because far too many of those marketing themselves now as ‘editors’ are not editors. They are peer critiquers who have been on forums for years and see the decline of editing in publishing houses and corresponding rise of independent editing as a lucrative cash cow.
This is why I always caution aspiring writers to do their due diligence in selecting an editor. I do expect anybody who charges aspiring writers for editing to have the experience cited and to be able to prove it through their blog and books.
In addition to a broad and deep knowledge of storytelling through the written word, an editor must be able to represent to the aspiring writer the reader’s sensitivity to taboo material, such as sex and violence. This is one area in which the writer must fictionalize real life in order to communicate it to the reader properly, taking into account the reader’s preconceived sensitivity to taboo material.
Exposition is almost always summary of story better shown through scenes. Unless exposition is, in fact, essential ‘exposure’ or illumination of subtext, it should be cut or transformed into scenes. This is the basis of Henry James’ injunction: “Show, don’t tell.”
And an editor must also be able to represent to the aspiring writer the perspective of the average reader in their target market.
Feminism is definitely a part of modern Western society—sexism, like so many other prejudices, is a cultural dinosaur, and equality between the genders something that readers know to be perfectly normal. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Outside of Christian fiction, the average American reader is not looking for religious bias—they expect their religious beliefs to be treated as their own business. Likewise, the average American reader has a fairly balanced perception of homosexuality and heterosexuality in our modern society. The old hysterical bigotry against anything but stereotypical love between adults has thankfully vanished, along with widespread illiteracy and belief in ghosts.
Proper editing is never about the editor’s personal preferences. This is the underlying principle of our work. It is always about the editor’s ability to guide the aspiring writer in communicating a story to the reader effortlessly, through the myriad techniques of our art and craft.
Hi Victoria, I am a poet and the editor of a community journal of literature and visual art. We publish short prose and poetry, as well as the work of local artists. This is an annual, and we have just completed our twelfth journal. It is published by a not-for-profit organization, and my position as editor-in-chief is unpaid. I have also done some paid freelance editorial work for people I have met through the journal. Before the founding of the journal, I worked for ten years doing editorial functions for a publisher of law books. That position gave me a great deal of training in electronic editorial programs. I am now interested in pursuing work as an editor for self-published writers. Can you offer any suggestions for “breaking into” this business? Thank you, Judith MK Tepfer, Editor-in-Chief, East on Central
Hi, Judith! As you must know, there are zillions of aspiring writers now seeking publication in journals like yours. The question of editing lies in both selection and the preparation of manuscripts.
My work is both similar to and different from yours. Now that I have a full roster of clients, I’m forced to select only a percentage of the manuscripts with which I’m queried. However, I edit them much more deeply than I probably would if I were working unpaid for an annual journal.
Certainly, my background in editing technical manuals helps enormously with Copy Editing, as yours in editing law books must. It means that I can throw Copy Editing in free with Line Editing because Copy Editing takes so little effort.
However, the real work I do—Developmental Editing and Line Editing fiction and memoir—takes years to learn properly. It took me thirty years of studying storytelling, most of that while I was working professionally as a writer and editor in the tech sector.
I know there are, right now, almost as many aspiring editors hoping to break into freelance editing as there are aspiring writers hoping to break into publication. Most of these aspiring editors have no experience in professional editing. However, some are long-time editors laid off by publishing houses, who have a great deal of experience in professional editing. And some worked briefly at publishing houses before being laid off, giving them only a modicum of experience in professional editing.
So your competition is enormous.
I earned my reputation in freelance independent editing through four years of intensive blogging and editing. I created an enormous ‘portfolio’ of blog posts on craft significantly different from those on other writing blogs, along with sample edits for writers to study. I worked constantly to build credibility in the online writing community through Twitter and StumbleUpon, making friends with my favorite bloggers by reading their blogs regularly and inviting them to mine as guests, while offering them unique guest posts. I worked my heinie off to create content nobody else was creating. And it wasn’t easy—there are a lot of blogs about writing out there!
This was all was a ton of work, easily ten or more hours a day, five days a week, for four solid years. It took all my attention from early 2009 to early 2013. And I still maintain my blog and Twitter presence, even though editing now takes up most of my time.
While I was working to build my reputation as a freelance independent editor, I was also reading and analyzing scores of novels so that I could develop an understanding of plot structure that would work for any story brought to me by any client. And I was dissecting, word-by-word, the sentences and paragraphs and scenes that struck me most forcibly so that I could develop an ease with language that would allow me to Line Edit any writer’s prose into their own special, polished voice.
Hi Victoria, I’ve heard you speak in a Writer’s Digest webinar about the Fulcrum of a story and have been hooked on your blogs and advice column since. I do have a question though. If I have two protagonists, could they each have a separate Fulcrum that is ‘physically’ near each other in the book (each near the middle), or should the same event/scene be the Fulcrum for both characters? What are the pros and cons for each if either is acceptable? Thanks a million! Shaila
Thank you for your kind words, Shaila!
When you work with two protagonists, you must design a separate mini-novel for each, which you will then layer into each other, rather like braiding a braid.
However, you want the climax of each episode—Hook, each Conflict, Faux Resolution, and Climax—to be a striking of sparks as the two protagonists’ storylines bounce off each other.
So that means, yes, you really want the same scene to be the Fulcrum for both characters.
The story of two (or more) protagonists is the story of how those protagonists influence, interfere with, and ultimately cause each other’s Climax. And that 100% dependence upon cause-&-effect is what makes your Climax feel so deliciously inevitable to the reader.
When all is said and done, this braiding of storylines together in meticulously-designed conflicts creates such a tightly-woven plot that there could be simply no other Climax to your story.
“The freshest and
most relevant advice
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
I have a question and I’ll just get to the point. Today, I emailed an article to my unit adviser to be inserted into the June newsletter of New Directions Clubhouse. If I decide to submit the same article elsewhere for publication, do I mention that the article first appeared in my barely-there little clubhouse newsletter? Only most mental health communities in Michigan and a few out-of-state places know about us. Thanks so much—Rosa
This kind of depends upon where else you want to submit it, but if your newsletter is known in professional circles, then that publication probably counts as first North American publication—which is what periodicals in North America are interested in.
Professional freelance journalists deal with this issue all the time.
Once you’ve done a lot of research on a topic, it’s not really economically-viable to only use it in only one place. So freelance journalists use their research to write a number of similar articles on a given topic for a variety of publications. They query the editors of those publications with their topic before writing each version of the article. Each editor knows exactly what their publication needs and, if they’re interested in the topic, will give the writer a specific slant to write.
There are some very experienced and helpful freelance journalists out there blogging about such issues, as well as others you might want explore.
I recommend you do a “Search” for this issue on the blogs of:
I have two questions regarding publishing and platform. I’m hoping you can answer. Is it possible to be a highly successful published author, even best-selling author if the author wishes to remain reclusive, not wishing to do interviews or book tours, and writing under a pseudonym, hoping to keep themselves unknown and private? Is it possible to only have a blog as a platform, answering questions and updating readers through this route, rather than public engagements? Thank you for your time. I sincerely appreciate it. C. S.
Wow, C.S., you’re definitely asking what’s on everybody’s minds these days!
The most succinct answer anyone could give is: in this world, anything’s possible.
However, in today’s publishing industry, publication depends more and more upon whom you know, not what you write. So those of us who are not best friends with the buyer for Barnes & Noble or the CEO of Bertelsmann or some agent married to the Executive Director of a major fiction publisher—even with the best-written books in the world—have a very steep hill to climb.
This is why everyone in the industry tells us to sell ourselves as incessantly and enthusiastically as humanly possible. Because it’s just so incredibly easy to fall off the radar of the Powers That Be.
And they sure don’t miss us when we’re gone.
So, given that anyone can write under a pseudonym, and that’s perfectly fine. . .
If you’re Stephen King—
so that you have a name that will sell books even if you write them backward with your left foot in the dark, which name you made decades ago when the publishing industry was a very different place—
then, yes, you can be a recluse and simply hide away in your multiple mansions living your own personal life.
You will notice, if you experiment (and King did), that writing under a pseudonym instantly demotes you to the realm of the Little People Like Us.
So you probably won’t write a lot under pseudonyms. . .unless perhaps Stephen King is your pseudonym.
Or if you’re Annie Dillard or Anne Lamott—
so that, again, you have a recognizable nonfiction name, which again was made decades ago when the publishing industry was a very different place, and you teach writing for a living, even though your name is not particularly recognizable in the fiction field—
then, again, yes, you can refuse to sell yourself and simply concentrate upon teaching. And your nonfiction will sell, even though your fiction may fall a little flat.
Or if you’re any one of the scores of midlist authors who publish for sheer joy—
while you work a regular job for your living—
then, yes, you can probably be picky about your appearances and book tours, so long as you don’t expect to continue publishing if your lack of exposure eventually results in your sales falling so far that you get bumped right off the Publication Train.
After all, you were never relying on publication to keep you alive anyway.
Or if you’re me, and you don’t care whether or not you publish your fiction—
you just happen to have decades of professional writing experience under your belt, an overwhelming lifelong passion for the art and craft, and enough things to say about it that maybe aren’t being said by others out there (and there are a heck of a lot of others these days, boy, howdy, not all of them hesitant to re-hash your original ideas as their own), as well as a living partner with a really good income—
then, yes, it’s true, you can stay home in your rocking chair by the fire all day every day, paying your mortgage through your partner’s income.
If you’re hoping to break into the midlist, and
your name is not already known to tens of thousands of potential readers, and
your online persona is not already a unique, major presence in the online fiction community (I’m afraid I wouldn’t try to sell my fiction through my blog, and I get around 12,000 between 12,000 and 22,000 views every month), and
you’re one of those talented, committed, experienced, and simply fortunate enough to have both an agent and a publishing contract, and your publisher offers to pay for a book tour. . .
then you should probably count your lucky stars and get yourself out there on the road making your name known to tens of thousands of potential readers.
It would also not be a bad idea to encourage them to remember that name by reading your blog and Twitter and Facebook and Google+, putting you onto StumbleUpon and Reddit and Digg, etc, etc, etc.
Also, you’ll need to have things to say about this work that aren’t already being said by others on their blogs. If it’s not both fascinating and unique, and you’re not a full-bore death-ray-focused take-no-prisoners self-marketer, you’ll be instantly washed away in the raging torrent that is the online fiction community.
There really are that many aspiring writers out there. All those tens of thousands you see online and in the forums and on Amazon, working and struggling desperately with all their hearts to break into the industry?
They’re your competition.
Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, spent six years building her audience, working like a fiend night and day and sometimes even days on end without sleep until she made herself physically ill and wound up in the hospital, running ad-hoc charities through her blog and finding ways to make friends with celebrities, until she had a horde of literally hundreds of thousands willing to follow her anywhere, including off a cliff.
And even Jenny has spent most of the past year on book tour, taking her face and name constantly all around the country while her husband stays home with their daughter, in order to get her book on the best-seller list and keep it there.
Now—is this situation fair to writers?
Of course not.
Is this a reasonable way to run an industry: by forcing those whose greatest talents lie in the creative arts to run for miles in the tight shoes of marketers and salespeople?
Of course not.
But is this simply what we have to deal with at this particular time in the history of publishing?
Sadly, I’m afraid it is.
“The freshest and
most relevant advice
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
Ms. Mixon, I’ve been reading your Practitioner’s Manuals. They are amazing and have opened my eyes to thinking about writing in ways I haven’t over the past twenty years. So, thank you!
I do have a question. I am writing a series. Your plot explanation is so exact and extremely helpful. Everything seems to be in sync within a novel—everything is a smaller version of the whole. I was wondering if this same thing would apply to a series. Would the plot structure that you have explained in the 2nd Practitioner’s Manual work over the course of a series? Any illumination on this you could offer would be wonderful. Thank you so much!—Brandi Grubbs
Hi, Brandi! You’re very kind.
Yes, the plot structure does hold for a series. You—in your mind and in your notes—can break your overall series down into its parts: Hook, Conflict #1, Conflict #2, Conflict #3, Faux Resolution, and Climax.
Now, the tricky part is dividing those into your books. The length (wordcount) of your entire series determines how many books you break it into, as the publishing industry has pretty hard-&-fast rules about no longer publishing novels of less than about 70,000 words (and there’s a point over 150,000 where you’re dealing with print books whose spines will break pretty darn quickly).
You can divide your series into six books if you’ve got enough complex story, but most publishers these days like a nice, round trilogy, so the simple thing to do is divide the series into three books corresponding to your three acts.
Be warned if you’re hoping to publish:
Publishers are getting harder to please and quicker to pull the plug on authors if their first novels don’t do as well as the publishers think they ought to, so writers are beginning to be told to write each book of a series as a stand-alone just in case the rest of the series never sees the light of day. It’s one of the harsh realities of where the industry is right now.
But of course the best reason to write is for the sheer love of storytelling. . .and in that world, there are no rejection letters.
“The freshest and
most relevant advice
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
In my completed novel (currently on query to an agent), I have a scene where two people have flat tires, one the protagonist and one a girl he meets who becomes his girlfriend. I don’t say in the scene that both flats were purposeful. The girl did her own flat to manipulate the protag into being her hero to get a chance to meet him. The protag’s flat was done by an antagonist to disrupt his life. But I never tell the reader both of these were purposeful, hoping they’ll get it. If, in a later scene, after the protag finds out his girlfriend was a fraud, I insert [Ronny thought back to how me met Sarah, to her flat tire, and wondered whether it was a ruse to inject herself into his life.] that would be exposition. Since my beta readers didn’t get it, maybe I need to add that.—David A. Todd in the comments on 6 Things I Learned from Dashiell Hammett
Never apologize, never explain.
In your situation, David, explaining Ronny’s thoughts about Sarah removes the tension from their relationship and ends the reader’s investment in it. That’s the point at which the reader closes the book and walks away. So you’d only use such an explanation on your very last page. However, Ronny’s behavior as he begins to suspect that Sarah machinated their meeting is wonderful, rich material to explore in illuminating what he does about his situation when he finds out he’s gotten involved with someone other than the woman he thought he was getting involved with.
That’s your story.
I do hear this kind of thing a lot about beta readers, that they don’t understand what’s going on and therefore recommend the writer explain it. And there’s a very good reason for that:
Beta readers do not have the same motivation to read that real readers do
Real readers read out of curiosity: What’s happening? Who are these characters? Why are they going where they’re going? What are they going to do about it when they get there? Every single thing a writer puts on the page is intended to make the reader just so darn intrigued they can’t help turning to the next page.
It’s all about the reader’s experience.
Beta readers, on the other hand, read out of a sense of duty. Either they’re reading your manuscript because they’re a friend or loved one and want to do you a kindness—lend you whatever advice they can—or because they’re a critique partner and need to give something for what they hope to get in return.
It’s all about the writer’s experience.
The problem with beta readers is that, unless they’re professional editors, they don’t actually know any more about the difference between a reader’s experience and a writer’s experience than you do. Which means they can’t guide your education in your craft, only share it.
Beware of leaning on your beta readers to tell you where you need explanation. I have never yet seen a situation in which they were right.
Lean on beta readers for companionship, motivation to get the work done, sympathy when the work goes bad on you. They are absolutely terrific people to have around whenever a writer needs a friend.
But lean on professionals for writing advice.
“The freshest and
most relevant advice
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle P-I
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. . .
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. . .
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.