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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 a young writer, and a total newbie, but not a pantser. I spend months thinking my plot over and getting to know my characters’ inner angels and demons before I ever get to the keyboard.

    In one of your posts from 2009 you mention that characters become interesting only when they have to make a difficult, conflicted choice about how to act within the novel. I was later struck by Dwight Swaine’s words that the character’s journey only starts when he stops running from problems and decides to fight them. In my novel, ALL of my main five characters are essentially struggling with a choice of being easy on themselves and running away from problems vs. solving them. Am I missing the real conflict? Are my characters stuck with a resolution that will exhaust itself by the middle of the novel? I am aware that selfishness vs. altruism IS among the essential and basic human dilemmas, but I am quite blind when it comes to seeing how viable it is in a novel plot.

    Thank you in advance for reading this. I appreciate your time and I hope to hear your professional opinion that I highly respect.—Nastia Slesareva

    Ah, Nastia, struggle is wonderful! And internal conflict—being torn between two fundamental, overwhelming needs—is golden.

    What actually happens in a story is that the characters frequently burn up the first half trying to find a way out of their problems: they keep choosing ways to cope, and those ways keep resulting in hotter and hotter water, bigger and bigger problems, even through and past their first Plot Point, which is the climax of their first Conflict. Those are choices. They’re just choices in the wrong direction.

    Then, around halfway through the story, the characters must decide to try a new way of handling their problems: instead of trying to get out of them, they must forge through them to the other side. That’s the midway, the Fulcrum, and it’s the climax of the second Conflict, upon which the entire weight of the story swings. That must be what Swaine was referring to—the first half of the story is the set-up for that point.

    The significance of the Fulcrum is that, when you’re dealing with internal conflict (and all conflict, really, can be traced to internal needs, otherwise it’s meaningless), that’s the point at which the characters must stop flailing wildly toward meeting first one driving need and then the other and begin the complex task of coping with the fact that their solution, at some point, is going to be about the irreconcilable abyss between the two. This is a really hard pill to swallow. It hurts. And so the third Conflict, which eventually climaxes in the second Plot Point, is a humdinger.

    That means the Faux Resolution, which comes after that second Plot Point, dupes the characters into believing they’re not going to have to choose between those two driving needs after all. Psyche! Just kidding! They think they’re going to get away with some kind of compromise that doesn’t, honestly, turn out to solve things. In fact, the effort to avoid their nightmare is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it brings the final nightmare on.

    So that your Climax is the point at which those characters face their ultimate hell: choosing between two mutually-exclusive needs, neither of which they believe they can live without. This is very often the need to hide from their problems in some way—even after they believe they’ve stopped hiding—and the need to face their demons in all honesty, their shadow sides, and grapple with the one thing in the world they most do not want to grapple with.

    It is the monumental effort of that grappling that explodes your story off the end into your reader’s own epiphany.





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    2 Comments

2 Responses to “Making choices between fight or flight”

  1. Thank you for the insights! After reading this I saw exactly where my MC would change her mind in my story. I gotta say – it’s priceless. I feel like I did a full day of work on top of my regular job…. who thought writing is so painfully awesome?

  2. Victoria Mixon said on

    You’re very welcome, Nastia! “Painfully awesome” is perhaps the best description of this craft I have ever heard in my life.




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Authors


MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


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.

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