Editor Victoria Mixon is back with us today to share an excerpt from her book for writers, Art & Craft of Writing: Secret Advice for Writers. Written for her blog over the years as Victoria’s editing business blossomed, this advice is now collected into one place—for free.
Four Post-Its to Post Over Our Desks
- “What if. . .”
Let’s write down the “what if?” premise of a story. Then every time we look up, pondering where to go in a difficult scene, we will be re-oriented on our chosen path, kept within the bounds of the story that we intend to tell. We’ll make sure that there is not only an initial premise, but also a problem with that initial premise:
What if 1950s hair-dryers were the doorways to an almost-identical parallel universe where the truth floats in the air over people’s heads whenever they lie—but everyone arrives there hair-first, so when more than one person arrives at once the truths get mixed up when they collide?
1950s hairdryers = parallel universe of truth-words collisions
What if the world were secretly populated by a super-intelligent race that lives in fire and speaks a fire language that sounds to us just like popping and crackling, and forest fires were the result of psychotic episodes among the powerful politicians of their species? And the plucky members of a backwoods volunteer fire department discover this secret just in time to learn that the fire creatures have decided to wipe out humanity and start over again with a less dangerous species—but the fire chief is in the throes of an identity crisis in which they question the destructive influence of humans upon the earth?
Fire race apocalypse vs. environmental despair of fire chief
What if dogs were secret agents with the ability to solve international crime if they could only be distracted from sniffing each others’ tails all the time? And they were now, decades after Eisenhower first warned Americans to beware the military-industrial complex, finally positioned to reveal the source of evil that has been chiseling away all this time at American political stability—but the evil-doers have concocted a special drug to put into the agents’ food that make their own tails crack-level addictive to sniff?
Check Fido’s food for weird drugs!
- “My protagonist needs. . .”
Now let’s write down the enormous, gut-wrenching, overwhelming need in our protagonist that fuels this story. What has this character devoted their entire life to obtaining—even if unconsciously? (Especially if unconsciously!)
Franky and Johnny need to consummate their love for each over the resistance of obstacles they create themselves in order to overcome their own fundamental terror of nihilism.
F & J need to overcome obstacles re: fear of nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman needs to prove his mother’s creepily-possessive faith in him by becoming the most financially-successful used-car salesman in the blogosphere.
Albert needs the most blogosphere used-car sales
Peony Surplus needs to reject the values of Buddhism with which she was raised, in particular the belief that destructive impulses must be tempered with humility.
Peony needs to rebel against Buddhist humility
- “My protagonist also needs. . .”
Then we’ll write down the conflicting need that prevents our protagonist from satisfying their first need. Internal conflict is the heart & soul of fiction. For every need there is an equal and opposite need—this is what makes the reader turn pages:
Franky and Johnny are really, really, really good at creating obstacles for themselves.
F & J also need obstacles re: fear of nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman needs the emotional validation of his secret online identity as the revolutionary covert incest spokesperson, bringing support and healing to thousands of anonymous sufferers.
Albert also needs his online covert incest exposé
Peony Surplus needs to succeed at running her dead parents’ groundbreaking Buddhist think-tank that is the source of income keeping her little sister in the hospital on life-support.
Peony also needs to save her sister w/Buddhism
- “My protagonist’s worst nightmare is. . .”
Finally, we’ll write down the worst thing we could possibly do to this protagonist in order to bring their two needs into opposition. This is the Climax that we’re aiming for:
Franky and Johnny lose their creative capacity to create obstacles for themselves and must face life together without protection against their terror of nihilism—just as they unwittingly uncover the plot to disable the secret agent dogs who are the world’s only hope of uncovering the secret evil that is bent on global domination.
F & J’s worst nightmare is: save world vs. succumb to nihilism
Albert Reed McNeedleman learns of the dilemma of the backwoods fire chief who is the only person in the world who speaks fire-language, and realizes he is the one person who can help the chief resolve the covert incest issues that his environmental despair masks—just when Albert’s used-car business rockets to the top of a global blogosphere competition to face off against their biggest competitor, in the used-car selling showdown to end all showdowns.
Albert’s worst nightmare is: save world vs. most used cars sold
Peony Surplus is given responsibility for deciding whether to sell the think-tank to her parents’ mortal enemies, who plan to turn it into a Tea Party marketing franchise, and get out for good, knowing she is putting a finite cap on the duration of her little sister’s life just as she takes a turn for the better, or to lead a seven-month meditation fundraiser in which she must lead meditation upon the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and Three Marks, as well as all 31 planes of existence, in order to give the think-tank a new boost in popularity—just when she is shot through a hair-dryer into the truth-telling parallel universe and collides with the Dalai Lama.
Peony’s worst nightmare is: rebellion vs. truth
Plus now her hair is all tangled up with the Dalai Lama’s. . .oh, wait—
That’s not a problem.
What post-it do you have over your writing desk?