Ep. 116: The Five Commandments of Story

In this episode, Leslie is joined by Shawn Coyne, the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. They discuss the five commandments of story in the context of chapter five of Animal Farm by George Orwell and what makes this story a great one to analyze.

The five commandments (the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis question, climax, and resolution) provide the basic structure for your global story, but also your acts, sequences, and scenes, like nesting dolls. If you learn to execute the five commandments in your story, you’ll become a better writer.

This week’s mission encourages you to look for the five commandments in one of your favorite stories, and then use them to plan or revise your own work-in-progress.

The Five Commandments of Story by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.

 

Listen to the Writership Podcast

 

About Our Guest Host

Clark is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast so today we welcome guest host Shawn Coyne. Shawn is the author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know and creator of the Story Grid editing process for which Leslie is now a certified editor.

He's also a twenty-five year book-publishing veteran. He's edited, published or represented works from dozens of household-name authors. During his years as an editor at the Big Five publishing houses, as an independent publisher, as a literary agent both at a major Hollywood talent agency and as head of Genre Management Inc., and as a bestselling co-writer (The Ones Who Hit The Hardest with Chad Millman) and ghostwriter, Coyne created a methodology called The Story Grid to each the editing craft.

With his friend, business partner and client Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, Coyne also runs the independent publishing company Black Irish Books and writes for stevenpressfield.com and storygrid.com.

 

Wise Words on the Five Commandments of Story

We didn't include a quote in this week's show but, after recording, we found this one which we want to share with you. 

So my advice is to surrender to [the Five Commandments of Story]. Bow down to them. Hold them closely to your heart. They will save you from yourself. They will outwit and out duel any bullshit you or anyone else will come up with to get you to ignore them so that you can write “freely.” Sure go nuts on your first draft and riff all you want. But when you dive into your edit, you’ve got to make sure that these five elements are present in every beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot and global story.
— Shawn Coyne

 

Mentioned on the Show

 

Don't have a copy of Animal Farm handy?

While Animal Farm isn't in the public domain in the US, it is in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. You can use these links read the scene:

 

Check out the Story Grid Workshop

Don’t forget to check out the Story Grid Workshop, which you can find here. In it, Shawn breaks down Pride & Prejudice to show why it works. Even if you're not interested in love stories, the lessons can be applied to whichever genre you're working in. The course is available for a limited time only!

 

Join the Writership Book Club!

For October, we’ll review one or more stories from The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten.

 

The Writership Index

Listeners have asked for an index of the podcast episodes and the topics discussed, so we've put together a Google spreadsheet containing details of each episode, its airdate, author name, story title, genre, story type, published location, author website, and topics discussed. Get access to the spreadsheet here.

 

Clark's Offer ends Friday!

advanced-novel-writing-clark-chamberlain.png

As you may know, our co-host Clark has been having a rough time recently. While we as a community can’t help him with his health or rewrite his circumstances, we can help give him a little financial breathing room AND get an amazing deal on his course, Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter, at the same time!

Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter is professionally recorded and breaks down the secrets behind why the series works so well and sold by the boatload. It’s really good stuff.

He’s also doing a special on it right now: Pay What You Want. This offer ends this Friday!

That’s right: The course normally retails for $197, but for a very limited time you can pay anything you want and receive this amazing course in its entirety! 

 

Editorial Mission—Look for the Five Commandments of Story

Choose a scene from a book you love and try to identify the five commandments of story. Look for the inciting incident, progressive complications (that lead to a turning point), the crisis question, climax, and resolution. Once you feel comfortable with that, review a scene of your own and see if you’ve missed any of the commandments. Or, plan a scene you haven’t yet written by identifying the points you need to hit. If you struggle with this, leave a comment below or email me.

Below are links to more information on each of the story commandments.

Five Commandments generally

1. Inciting Incident

2. Progressive Complications & Turning Point

3. Crisis Question

4. Climax

5. Resolution

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Ep. 115: Motivation-Reaction Units

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie Watts and Kim Kessler critique the first chapter of Passage, a fantasy-women’s society novel by S. Thies. This week’s author submitted her scene in first- and third-person point of view, providing an opportunity to talk about how to improve scenes no matter which POV you choose.

The answer is MRUs, that is Motivation-Reaction Units. If you practice writing these stimulus-and-response sequences within your scenes, as the editorial mission suggests, your character’s reactions will make sense and be unique to them and your reader can experience the story, rather than have the experience of reading a story.

Intentional Sentence Construction by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.

 

Listen to the Writership Podcast

 

About Our Guest Host

Clark is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast, but our friend and fellow Story Grid certified editor, Kim Kessler, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out. Kim is the author of the upcoming novel, According to Plan. Find out more about Kim on her website.

 

Wise Words on Motivation-Reaction Units

You will write your MRUs by alternating between what your POV character sees (the Motivation) and what he does (the Reaction). This is supremely important. Remember that Swain calls these things “Motivation-Reaction Units”. The Motivation is objective but it is something that your character can see (or hear or smell or taste or feel). You will write this in such a way that your reader also sees it (or hears it or smells it or tastes it or feels it). You will then start a new paragraph in which your POV character does one or more things in Reaction to the Motivation. There is an exact sequence you must follow in writing your Reaction. The sequence is based on what is physiologically possible. Note that the Motivation is external and objective. The Reaction is internal and subjective. If you do this, you create in your reader the powerful illusion that he is experiencing something real. Now let’s break this down into more detail . . .
— Randy Ingermanson

 

Mentioned on the Show

 

Join the Writership Book Club!

For October, we’ll review one or more stories from The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Ten.

 

New Patreon supporters

This week we're welcoming two new members to our Patreon crew! Many thanks to our new Quarter Master Brian Schwimmer and our new Shipmate Kevin Glasgow.

If you want to support the show and get some bonus goodies only available to Patreon supporters, click here.

 

Support Clark and get a great deal

advanced-novel-writing-clark-chamberlain.png

As you may know, our co-host Clark has been having a rough time recently. While we as a community can’t help him with his health or rewrite his circumstances, we can help give him a little financial breathing room AND get an amazing deal on his course, Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter, at the same time!

Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter is professionally recorded and breaks down the secrets behind why the series works so well and sold by the boatload. It’s really good stuff.

He’s also doing a special on it right now: Pay What You Want.

That’s right: The course normally retails for $197, but for a very limited time you can pay anything you want and receive this amazing course in its entirety! 

 

The Writership Index

Listeners have asked for an index of the podcast episodes and the topics discussed, so we've put together a Google spreadsheet containing details of each episode, its airdate, author name, story title, genre, story type, published location, author website, and topics discussed. Get access to the spreadsheet here.

 

More From This Episode

To find out more about Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs), check out Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

The article we mentioned by Randy Ingermanson can be found here.

Here's the Writership episode that talks about narrative distance.

Here's the Writership episode that discusses how to choose your point of view.

 

Editorial Mission—Check Your MRUs

MRUs are easier to understand when you consider that every moment is the culmination of all that has come before and the setup for everything that comes after. You can track the setups and reactions at the beat level of your scene (the units of story that make up a scene). It can be a bit grueling at first, but if you make this a practice

To complete this mission, select a scene from your current revision work in progress or a favorite story. Identify the motivation (some kind of stimulus or trigger, something the character observes from an external force. Make a list of these items.

Then look for the POV character’s reaction (what the character does). Make a list of the reaction and its type (feelings, reflexes, or voluntary thoughts or actions).

  1. Feelings: internal thing you can’t control: physical, visceral response or emotion
     
  2. Reflex: comes as a result of the feeling, external thing you can’t control
     
  3. Rational thought/action: intentionally thinking or doing (character back in control)

Then consider the relationship between the trigger (person, place, thing, thought, etc.), and your POV character. Think about who she is, her past, what she wants and needs (in other words, her story objects of desire), the levels of conflict in the scene, etc.

Does the reaction make sense given all that you know? Do the different elements of reaction happen in the natural order?

If you’re working on a scene from your work in progress, revise or write a new one in light of your new understanding. If you get stuck when moving from motivation to reaction, you can work backward. In other words, if you want a particular reaction (especially if it’s something out of character), what kind of trigger or relationship to the trigger, will create that response?

If you’re looking at a scene from your favorite story, write your own version of the scene in which the reaction is different. Then change the setup so it fits.

Special Mission

We have a special episode coming up in which we'll discuss the scene in chapter 5 of Animal Farm by George Orwell. If you can, I highly recommend reading the scene in advance. It's in the public domain in several countries outside the US, so you can read it here or here

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear S. Thies,

Thanks so much for your submissions and for allowing us to look at the same events in two different points of view. You have a great premise for your novel with lots of possibilities for engaging conflict. The setup makes us want to turn the page, so you’re off to a great start. 

Kim and I discussed some considerations for POV during the episode. It was so helpful to see both versions. We actually thought the first-person point of view gave Abby a stronger character voice, but you may have other reasons for preferring the third-person version. We wouldn’t want to second guess your decision here. If you’re open to reconsidering, the editorial mission in episode 102 may help you with that.

Our big takeaway is that regardless of the POV that you choose for your story, you can make the scenes stronger by paying attention to the Motivation-Reaction Units. Dwight Swain mentioned these call-and-response sequences in his 1965 book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. They take into account the fact that people react in certain ways: voluntary and involuntary, internally and externally. If you make a practice of tracking these motivating events and character reactions (presented in the order they naturally arise people), you’ll write stronger scenes that allow your reader to experience the story events rather than read about them. 

We noticed that Abby reacts within the scene, but not in the full range that she could. Because people react to stimulus in the following ways, you can use these categories to plot Abby’s reaction to what’s happening to her.

  1. Feelings: internal thing you can’t control: physical, visceral response or emotion
     
  2. Reflex: comes as a result of the feeling, external thing you can’t control
     
  3. Rational thought/action: intentionally thinking or doing (character back in control)

Consider making a list of motivations and Abby’s reactions and filling in the gaps. You don’t need to show something in each category for every motivation, but consider which ones will help you tell the story unfolding in this scene. What can you show us about Abby in this moment that will change over the course of the story.

You have a great opportunity when Abby’s mother tells her that her grandmother has died, but there is no immediate reaction on the page. People have a wide range of reactions when they hear that someone close to them has died, and that might include going silent (no external reaction), but you can bet something is happening on inside or they are at the very least feeling numb. 

With a third-person limited POV, you can get very close to Abby’s experience of hearing that a loved one has died—and remember this coming right after a devastating breakup. This is a great vehicle for revealing character because the reader gets the inside scoop on what she shows the world and what she really feels and thinks. For some characters this gap will be tiny, and for others, it could be massive.

Now, if you had written this scene from Abby’s mother’s perspective, Abby’s silence would be something for her to react to. Her mom does react when she says, “Hello?” But again, you might want to show her involuntary feelings and reflexes before revealing her more considered response. 

Here are some picky items to watch for when you’re in the copyediting phase. 

  • The convention for spacing between sentences has changed. Now it’s only a single space. 
     
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks for dialogue (with minor exceptions) when writing for a US audience; UK generally goes outside. Consider what your ideal reader is used when you decide. In this story, I’m assuming US because it’s set here. I made these changes and accepted many of them to keep the copy readable in the show notes. You can download the dialogue punctuation sheet as a guide while revising.
     
  • Consider using said and asked as dialogue tag staples. They tend to disappear so that the character’s speech takes center stage.
     
  • Suspension points take a space on either side of the marks (like … this). If you want to show a thought or speech trailing off, then the suspension points are appropriate. If thoughts or speech are interrupted, represent this with an em dash (—).
     
  • Typically, if you’re going to interrupt the character’s speech with a dialogue tag, it comes after the first sentence or near the beginning. Once the character has gotten this far into what they are saying, the tag isn’t necessary.
     
  • Compound predicates (e.g., I washed and dried the dishes) don’t require a comma the way compound sentences do (I washed the dishes, and Joe dried them.)
     
  • Mother and father/mom and dad are capitalized when used in direct address or when the word acts as a substitute for a name. So, for example, we would say, “What time are you leaving, Mom?” or “What time is Mom leaving?” Compare, “What time is my mother leaving?”
     
  • No quotation marks necessary for a term like black sheep since it’s being used in its usual sense. Unless you mean it in an unconventional sense, are quoting someone else loosely (e.g., “her silly art school plans”), or indicating sarcasm, quotation marks aren’t necessary and can act like speed bumps for the reader.

Thanks again for your submission and for trusting us with your words!

All the best,

Lesli

Line Edits for Our Women's Fantasy Story

 

Third person POV

First person POV

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Ep. 114: Inciting Incidents

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie Watts and Anne Hawley critique the beginning of Sheila Lischwe’s as yet untitled psychological thriller. They discuss inciting incidents: the submission as a possible inciting incident for the global psychological thriller and also within the scene. These pivotal story events pull the rug out from under your protagonist or POV character. This week’s editorial mission will help you identify the elements of inciting incidents to make your scenes and stories stronger. 

Intentional Sentence Construction by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.

 

Listen to the Writership Podcast

This week's submission contains a bloody crime scene.

 

About Our Guest Host

Clark is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast, but our friend and fellow editor, Anne, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out. You may remember Anne from episodes 106 and 108.

After a career in public service during which she wrote fiction to stay sane, Anne Hawley has turned her talents to writing professionally.

As a founding member of the Super Hardcore Editing Group and a graduate of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Workshop, she writes and edits from her small house in Portland, Oregon. When she leaves the house it’s usually on her Dutch bike, Eleanor.

Her forthcoming novel, Restraint, is a sweeping historical love story about a gifted and sexually repressed artist in Regency London. Under the dangerous gaze of high society, he must deny his attraction to the young nobleman who has hired him to paint his portrait, or else risk his livelihood and his reputation by giving in to his secret desires. It's Pride and Prejudice meets Brokeback Mountain in a bittersweet story of two men who fall in love in a time and place where homosexuality is still a capital offense. Find out more here.

 

Wise Words on Inciting Incidents

Like the peanut butter that lures a mouse into a mousetrap, the global Inciting Incident must be irresistible to the writer’s intended audience. And yes, even the big literary writers have an intended audience.

But alas, a fantastic global Inciting Incident does not make for a slam-dunk commercial success. You must load every beat, scene, sequence, and act with tantalizing Inciting Incidents to keep the reader turning pages or to keep the viewer in their seat. Creating these kinds of Inciting Incidents are all about zigging when the reader expects a zag. They require singular imagination. Ideally, the writer fulfills the conventions of a particular Genre’s obligatory Inciting Incidents in a completely unique way. A way that the reader never sees coming.
— Shawn Coyne

 

Mentioned on the Show

 

Support Clark and get a great deal

advanced-novel-writing-clark-chamberlain.png

As you may know, our co-host Clark has been having a rough time recently. While we as a community can’t help him with his health or rewrite his circumstances, we can help give him a little financial breathing room AND get an amazing deal on his course, Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter, at the same time!

Advanced Novel Writing With Harry Potter is professionally recorded and breaks down the secrets behind why the series works so well and sold by the boatload. It’s really good stuff.

He’s also doing a special on it right now: Pay What You Want.

That’s right: The course normally retails for $197, but for a very limited time you can pay anything you want and receive this amazing course in its entirety! 

 

The Writership Index

Listeners have asked for an index of the podcast episodes and the topics discussed, so we've put together a Google spreadsheet containing details of each episode, its airdate, author name, story title, genre, story type, published location, author website, and topics discussed. Get access to the spreadsheet here.

 

A new Patreon supporter

Jarie Bolander, the author of The Entrepreneur Ethos: How to Build a More Ethical, Inclusive, and Resilient Entrepreneur Community has joined our Patreon Crew. Welcome Jarie!

If you want to support the show and get some bonus goodies only available to Patreon supporters, click here.

 

More about inciting incidents

To read more about inciting incidents, check out this excerpt from The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

You can listen to the Story Grid Podcast episode that Leslie mentioned in which Shawn talks about how his commandments of story relate to the hero’s journey and the Kubler-Ross grief process.

 

Editorial Mission—Write an Inciting Incident

Identify the inciting incident of one of your favorite stories and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the event radically upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life?
  • Does the protagonist react to the event?
  • Does the event trigger a desire in the protagonist? Does it create a want and need? 
  • Does the protagonist decide to pursue the object of desire?

If you’re working with a draft of your own story, check that your inciting incident has these elements. Could they be stronger? Revise accordingly.

If you’re not currently revising a story, draft an inciting incident for a minor character from your current work in progress, one from a story you enjoy, or something completely new. 

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Sheila,

It was such a treat to read your submission! You’ve written a gripping scene that pulls us in directly. As readers, we have plenty of open questions and would gladly turn the page to find out what happens when the story picks up again two generations later. The details seem particularly suited to the perception and attention of a young child.

We looked at the scene as if it were the global inciting incident, though we can’t say for sure without more about Devon and her story. We also looked at the scene as a whole and what we thought might be the inciting incident for it. 

A crime of this nature kicking off a psychological thriller is a great fit. It’s causal (Blue Jeans intentionally attacks and kills Miss Nancy) and of course negative. It throws Kelly’s life out of balance, as the first sentence reveals up front. 

The four elements of an inciting incident can be explained succinctly in this quote from Robert McKee: 

Therefore the Inciting Incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance. Out of this need—often quickly and occasionally with deliberation—the protagonist next conceives of an Object of Desire: something physical, situational, or attitudinal that he feels he lacks or needs to put the ship of life on an even keel. Lastly, the Inciting Incident propels the protagonist into an active pursuit of this object or goal.

Kelly witnesses the brutal murder of her babysitter, and that changes her life from safe to unsafe (and for Miss Nancy from life to death). This certainly arouses within her the desire to make herself safe, and it propels her to move back toward the bedroom, overriding her curiosity about who Blue Jeans is or any desire to help Miss Nancy.

From Kelly’s point of view, I think it’s when the stranger enters the trailer for the second time making a noise that keeps Kelly from falling asleep. The noises arouse her curiosity—in part because it could be her mother, and Kelly is hoping for hot chocolate and donuts the next morning, and her mother’s presence would change that. Kelly gets up to investigate the noises. An argument could be made that the phone call is what throws the bedtime routine out of balance (because Miss Nancy forgets to have Kelly brush her teeth).

I think that some of the timing, setting, and movements could be clarified while looking at it through the filter of which event, in your mind, is the inciting incident, but overall this is a scene that works really well.

Anne shared these notes for you: Two approaches: establish the ordinary life before ripping it away, or open in the midst of it being ripped away. 

This inciting incident is also the opener of the novel. It straight out tells us that the character’s ordinary life is ending in the first sentence, then it gives us a 240-word glimpse into Kelly’s ordinary life and its setting. Ballerina sheets, snacks, a game of Twister, a polaroid picture, a babysitter, toys, a caring sister.

But notice also that we get social clues that will probably play a role in the investigation later: they live in a trailer, their mother presumably has to work nights, their  babysitter is more interested in a boyfriend than in her charges.

Then a Stranger Knocks at the Door—a classic Inciting Incident. In this case the Stranger seems to be the villain. We tick three boxes off the list of obligatory conventions of the thriller in this scene alone: a crime, a victim, and a villain.

Specificity creates universality, and I like the specific details of Kelly’s life—the soft toy with a name, the ballerina sheets. They evoke a whole way of life in a few words. Some of them repeat certain ideas and actions, though. 

This is very standard and normal in early drafts, as the writer is figuring out what’s important. In revisions, you begin to trust yourself, and trust your reader to pick up on single details. 

In a later draft, two sneaky journeys from bedroom to kitchen, two mentions of Ed Wrinkles the toy, two references to the cold December air--all might be candidates for converging into single instances.

An inciting incident, especially for a psychological thriller, has to launch the story steeply and fast. But even in a more sedate genre, beware of elaborating specifics. A few go a long way.

Thanks again for your submission! 

All the best,

Leslie 

Line Edits for Our Psychological Thriller Story

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Ep. 113: Intentional Sentence Construction

Fiction editor Leslie Watts is joined by Liz Green, Writership’s first officer, to discuss the first chapter of The Left-Handed Gunslinger, a western fantasy novella by Shaun Gill. In this episode, they explore intentional sentence structure.

You have a wide variety of tools to support your story, including the words and sentence structure you choose. The trick is to understand when to use different tools to provide the reading experience you’re aiming for.

This week’s editorial mission will help you get granular so you can revise your sentences with intention.

Special note: Clark Chamberlain is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast, so we’ll invite guest hosts for the next couple of months.

Intentional Sentence Construction by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.

 

Listen to the Writership Podcast

 

About Our Guest Host

Clark Chamberlain is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast, so this week Leslie is joined by Liz Green. Liz is the first officer of the Writership Crew and the ghostwriter behind Green Goose Ghostwriting. She helps entrepreneurs write books that build their businesses.

A Post Graduate Degree in Journalism and a decade of working in news, PR, marketing and events taught Liz to find the nuggets in other people's knowledge and turn them into transformative stories. Through years of ghostwriting blogs she learned to listen and look deep, and to emulate bloggers' voices. As she started working with authors and editors, she found joy in helping them express their ideas and experience in a way that truly felt "like them."

Now she works with entrepreneurs who want to turn their ideas and experience into a book that builds their business.

 

Wise Words on Intentional Sentence Construction

It is important to express actions as verbs, but the first principle of a clear style is this: Make the subjects of most of your verbs the main characters in your story.
— Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb
Whether you write short, punchy sentences or long, flowing ones, keeping track of your subjects and predicates can prevent your prose from shifting and drifting.
— Constance Hale

 

Mentioned on the Show

Listeners have asked for an index of the podcast episodes and the topics discussed, so we've put together a Google spreadsheet containing details of each episode, its airdate, author name, story title, genre, story type, published location, author website, and topics discussed. Get access to the spreadsheet here.

Leslie attended the Story Grid Editor Certification Training last week in Nashville. You'll hear more about this on the blog soon but in the meantime, visit Shawn Coyne's website to find out more about the Story Grid.

Episode 101 is the one in which we talked about narrative distance.

To find out more about using Microsoft Word macros in editing, check out this post by Jordan McCollom.

We want to give a shout out to our new Patreon supporter, Colby Rice. Colby is the author of The Ghosts of Koa series, which appeared in an earlier episode of the podcast.

 

Editorial Mission—Intentional Sentence Construction

No matter where you are in your work-in-progress, whether you have a raw first draft or something that’s ready to go to press, select a five-page sample to analyze, preferably a passage you haven’t reviewed recently. If time is tight, try two pages. Copy and paste that sample in a new document.

  1. Read the entire sample quickly. 
     
  2. Read the sample sentence by sentence and mark the subject and predicate for each. (Reminder: The subject of the sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being in the sentence. The predicate expresses the doing or being.) If you do this on a hard copy, you could circle the subject and put a square around the predicate. If you’re reviewing a digital copy, you can use bold and underline or different colors to highlight them. Save this as a new document.
     
  3. Review your subjects and predicates and ask yourself, is the subject the main character or actor in the sentence? Is the predicate an expression of the main action in the sentence? If you answer no to either of those questions, do you have specific and compelling reason to de-emphasize the main character or action? If not, rewrite the sentence. (What constitutes a specific and compelling reason? You don’t want to reveal the actor to the reader [mistakes were made], the POV character doesn’t know or can’t perceive who the actor is [I was shoved from behind], or the actor is irrelevant [the cake was ruined]).
     
  4. Set the revised sample aside for a day or two then read it again. How does it sound? Is there anything you would tweak or change to make it stronger? 

If you had to change several sentences, it could feel overwhelming. Don’t be discouraged! Try this as a practice four to seven times. Once you know the problem is there and you train your mind to spot it, you won’t have to go through the process of marking each sentence. I do recommend doing the test for each new manuscript, though. I mentioned that you can try this no matter where you are in the writing process, but typically you won’t be tackling sentence-level edits until the copyediting phase. Make your story-level edits first before getting down to this level.

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Shaun,

Thank you so much for sharing your story world with us! As I mentioned in the episode, I think the combination of western and fantasy is fun one. You’ve got some great lines in these passages and mysteries that make us want to read on (Why was Marshall telling stories, and what were they about?). Leaving out the four-letter word at the end of chapter 1 was a great choice. It’s much funnier written that way. I like the way you revealed what Marshall looks like (e.g., handlebar mustache) through action instead of providing a police description for him.

One area I would focus on—but not until you’re doing sentence level edits—is passive construction. Passive writing includes the passive voice and making inanimate objects the actor in sentences. There are a few problems that arise with when we repeat this sentence construction. It takes away from the action in the scene (the character is passive, and the objects around him/her are doing and being). Passive writing can make the sentences wordy, awkward, and also alter the narrative distance in tight/limited 3rd person POV, where the character provides the lens through which we experience the story. Perhaps most important, as readers, we care about and bond with the character, not the objects in the scene, and when we make the characters the subjects of our sentences, we relate to the character and can imagine the action more easily. 

Of course, this is not a blanket prohibition on passive construction. There are instances when it can be useful. For example, if you want to vary the sentence structure and emphasize something besides the character. Also, you may want to use it as a subtext to show that the character is acting passively. The passive voice comes in handy when you don’t want to say who the actor is (mistakes were made), the POV character doesn’t know or can’t perceive who the actor is (I was shoved from behind), or the actor is irrelevant (the cake was ruined). 

Active writing and voice are generally more engaging, so you’ll want to be intentional about your choices and use the alternatives sparingly.

If you apply the editorial mission I mention in the episode to this piece, you might add the mission from episode 71 to get some specific and descriptive verbs doing the heavy lifting for you. 

There are some echoes that you’ll want to flag for later revision stages. “Character doing something as s/he does something else” is a common structure in these pages. The good news is you know it’s there, so you can spot it. The better news is that as you rework sentences to avoid it in revision, you’ll use it less and less often in the early drafts of your work. 

One story level item that I want to mention is the fantasy element. You mentioned that it comes along later, and I’m not sure if that means as soon as chapter 2 or much later. Typically, to satisfy reader expectations and orient your reader to the story you want to tell, it’s best to give them the level of reality up front. I would recommend checking this out so that it doesn’t feel like a cheat or deus ex machina to the reader. 

Thanks again for sharing the opening of The Left-Handed Gunslinger with us!

All the best,

Leslie

 

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Ep. 112: Flashbacks

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie and Clark critique the first chapter of The Fifty-Two Week Chronicles, a chick lit/romantic comedy novel by Joslyn Westbrook. They discuss flashbacks, getting specific, and obtaining feedback when you write about characters and situations that are different from your own. This week’s editorial mission will help you decide if flashbacks are right for your story and how to employ them effectively.

Flashbacks by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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This episode contains strong adult language.

 

Wise Words on Flashbacks

A writer always pays a price for flashbacks. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, will distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. The flashback is not happening right now—it is, by definition, already over. Are you more thrilled by a kiss you experience today or one you remember from a year ago? Flashbacks are not as immediate as story time. Even so, the flashback can be a good choice for a second scene if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.
— Nancy Kress

 

Mentioned in the Show

If you want to follow Penelope’s adventures, you can grab a copy of The Fifty-Two Week Chronicles here.

Emma Darwin has a great post on flashbacks here.

This post contains information about hiring sensitivity readers and a great source for finding them.

Find out about our NEW book club here!

Check out Clark’s 90 Day Healthy Author Challenge here.

 

Editorial Mission—Flashback to the Future

Flashbacks, like other narrative choices, come with advantages and disadvantages. You’ll best serve your story by understanding what those are and making an intentional choice, in this case, to weigh the depth, clarity, and emotional power against the loss of immediacy and interruption of the story. 

Flashbacks are great because you can convey information in a more immediate way with more emotion than can generally be conveyed by summary/telling alone. The problem is that these events are outside the main story and have already happened, so the only way they have impact is by way of revelation or reflection. 

If you have a flashback in a story you’re revising, consider why you’re using it. Are you worried about writing a full-fledged scene or weaving the details into the narrative? If not, check your scene using the questions below to see if it works. If you’re considering a flashback, you can check your motives and use the same questions. 

  1. Does your flashback follow a strong scene?
     
  2. Is it related to the scene it follows (or the one in which it arises)? What is immediately relevant and necessary to the story?
     
  3. Is there a logical trigger in present story time that would naturally lead the character to think about the past?
     
  4. Are time and place clear? Have you provided a smooth transition from the present to the past and back again?
     
  5. Does it add something to the story that can’t be added in another way?
     
  6. Have you focused on a discrete event that supports the story arc? 

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Joslyn,

Thanks so much for your submission! Penelope is a witty and entertaining character with a strong voice and personality. I can tell from the opening that the reader will be in for plenty of fun shenanigans.

Your opening gave us a great opportunity to talk about flashbacks. They are a great tool because they provide an emotional punch and immediacy that you don’t get from a summary or telling of past events. But flashbacks are not without their downsides, and it’s important know our intentions and when best to use them.  

Of course, it’s important to begin your story with a strong hook, which you have here—your story starts with a bang! The drawback is that it seems to require extensive explanation of events outside of Penelope’s main story arc. We get the most from a flashback when they follow a powerful scene in the main story. This makes me wonder if there is another spot on Penelope’s timeline to begin the story that avoids your having to share so much backstory right away.

I didn’t have to look very far to find a scene that could kick this story off in a big way in the present: walking in on her boyfriend in flagrante delicto. That is a powerful scene that would support a trip back in time. The current story begins sometime later in the same day, so it’s not a big change. This scene warrants a sentence or two in summary (rather than in scene) within the current opening chapter (more may be revealed later, of course), and I think you could use this event to your advantage. 

This makes me wonder why an author might want to avoid that scene. Scott Edelstein in his book 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer thinks that authors sometimes use flashbacks to avoid tackling big scenes. I’m not saying this is what’s happened here, but it’s something to consider. The most detailed portions of the flashback deal with Penelope getting the job, and I wonder if this is the most relevant backstory for the start of the beginning hook. Based on what's in front of us, it seems like the breakup is what throws her life into chaos. 

Another reason we might use flashback, according to Emma Darwin, in her post referenced in the show notes is that we’re worried about weaving the backstory into current events. I don’t know if that’s the case, but again, it’s worth looking at. It can seem easier to write about past events and present events separately, but often the story flows more smoothly and the reader has a richer experience when it’s woven together. It’s the same with fantasy or science fiction stories when it feels vital to give the reader information about a world that is different from our own all at once.

For flashbacks, we should always consider whether the reader needs to know this information and whether it needs to be right away. Does it reveal stakes, motive, context? It’s useful to review this in the context of the entire story. It’s good to remember that open questions are powerful fuel to pull the reader forward, so even if it turns out that the flashback is the best way to reveal this information, we might not want to reveal everything all at once. 

Finally, flashbacks tend to work best when they are short interludes. With a lengthy flashback, we lose the immediacy of the main story, which is interrupted. The main event is on hold, and any tension we’ve built up could drain quickly. If that happens often, it can produce a jarring effect for the reader.

This is a lot to consider for a book that you’ve already published. I would read these comments and suggestions as food for thought and things to consider for the next story you write. You could make changes to this one, but please realize that you already have a powerful opening for your story that pulls the reader into the narrative. 

Thank you for trusting us with your words!

All the best,

Leslie

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Ep. 111: Experiment with Omniscient POV

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie and Clark critique the first chapter of The Palace Thief, a YA fantasy novel by AR Richardson. They discuss omniscient point of view and why you should give it a try if you haven’t.

This POV option is often considered old-fashioned, but it offers flexibility and options that you don’t have with the other POVs. While it’s probably the most challenging, you might find that it’s the best vehicle for your story.

Speaking of options, Leslie and Clark have a fun editorial mission with lots of choices to help you experiment with the elements of this writing tool.

Experiment with Omniscient Point of View by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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Wise Words on The Omniscient Point of View

[The Omniscient point of view] is the most openly, obviously manipulative of the points of view. But the voice of the narrator who knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters cannot be dismissed as old-fashioned or uncool. It’s not only the oldest and most widely used storytelling voice, it’s also the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view—and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.
— Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Mentioned In The Show

It helps to look at examples of omniscient POV to see how others have mastered it. Jane Austen’s and Charles Dickens’s stories are great examples of older novels that employ an omniscient POV. But you can find more recent examples as well, including J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Earthsea Cycle from Ursula K. Le Guin, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

Other authors who make this choice include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martin Amis, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike, but also The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an example of a book with an omniscient narrator who is also a character.

Another example is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

Clark mentioned that it helps to read and watch stories about storytellers, including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

 

Editorial Mission—Omniscient Point of View

This week, we want you to try the omniscient point of view. It can be tricky to master, but with all it has to offer, it would be a shame to avoid it simply because it’s hard. If you’re listening to this show, that’s probably not the kind of writer you are. Be willing to make mistakes and write a crappy scene in furtherance of your art. You may discovery that it’s perfect for your current work in progress or one in the future. If not, you’ll learn something about the craft of writing and yourself as a writer. Here are some options:

  1. Review a scene from a story you’ve written in third limited or first POV. Rewrite it in omniscient POV. Put it away for a couple of days before you review it. Compare the two versions of the scene. What do you know now (about your story, characters, setting, etc.) that you didn’t know before?
     
  2. Read a scene from a story you love written in omniscient point of view. Write a side story or scene (also omniscient) using the characters and setting. You can change what happens next, write a scene that happens “offstage” or create the beginning of a subplot that doesn’t already exist.
     
  3. Watch a scene in a movie or TV show and write it as an omniscient scene. 
     
  4. Think of a real or fictional situation where someone is making a huge mistake and you know exactly what the person should do. Write a scene in omniscient POV in which your fears for that person are realized. 
     
  5. Write a modern day fable or fairy tale. Try starting with Pixar’s fourth rule: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
     
  6. Map out a simple scene with three characters goals that are in conflict. It can be as simple as a disagreement over where to eat. Write the scene three times, once from each character’s perspective. Then weave the three accounts together into one scene that includes what’s relevant to the story you want to tell about the scene.

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear AR,

Thank you for your submission! What a fun premise for a YA story with lovely descriptions and phrases. We feel curious about the characters, and the opening promised great conflict and humor. 

We’re so pleased you decided to use third person omniscient POV for your story. Omniscient POV provides flexibility, but consider where you are shining a light for the reader’s attention. Focusing on the camel first could pay off later, but we can’t tell that from the scene we have in front of us. Consider what’s most relevant to your reader as you decide where to point the narrator’s camera. 

Think of your narrator: who is she, what is her purpose in telling the story, what does she care about? From what vantage point is she telling the story? Understanding that will help you know what to leave out or put in, and how much time to spend on the elements.

One of the tricky things with omniscient POV is providing a smooth transition when changing focus. We recommend keeping narrative distance in mind (how close we are to the characters and their awareness and thoughts) and shifting focus gradually to avoid a jarring experience for the reader. 

There are some great lines and imagery in the world, but the characters could use more consistency. They feel a little vague and seem to float in the room. One moment the reader forms a clear picture of the scene, and then one of the characters will suddenly be elsewhere. When that happens, the reader has to rebuild the scene in their mind. This happens when Munir has the book on his head, from the librarian’s perspective, but later is using it as a pillow. At one point it seemed the librarian was right next to Munir, but then seems to be farther away. If this is meant to show that the two characters have different ideas about what is going on, be really intentional about showing the reader what’s going on. 

We can’t tell how this scene relates to the rest of the story, so you’ll want to check that it is directly connected to the main conflict in the story and does more than introduce these two characters and show us how they meet. It’s entertaining, but the opening scene should be working hard and accomplishing multiple tasks. 

It could be just my (Leslie) personal preference, but I wanted to see more of the library, the building, the books, the furniture. It would be good to have a better sense of where we are in time within the novel as well. Speculative story settings don’t have to correspond to historical periods in the real world, but they tend to be loosely connected or derived from some time in the past or projected into the future as shown, for example, by modes of transport and communication. Think about how Steampunk happens in the Victorian era or much epic fantasy happens in a time resembling the medieval era. You can create the setting as you wish, but consider including more clues about what we can expect. The camel and scimitar give us some indication, and you may provide more in later scenes, but I wanted to mention this since it came up on my radar.

Thanks again for sharing your opening with us, AR!

All the best,

Leslie and Clark 

 

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Ep. 110: Self-Editing Your Fiction

This is a slightly different episode. Leslie and Clark talk about some personal challenges, then delve into self-editing. To get the most from hiring an editor, you’ll want to tackle certain tasks before you turn it over. There are plenty of steps you can take to improve your story so that your editor can focus on deeper issues. Plus, don’t miss Clark’s Healthy Author Challenge.

Self-Editing Your Fiction by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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Wise Words on Self-Editing

All writers—restrained or lyrical, avant-garde or traditional, avocational or professional—need to revise, yet editing is commonly taught as an intrinsic part of writing, not an external tool. As such, the practice is elusive and random; it induces panicky flailing more than discipline and patience. It is vital to teach editing on its own terms, not a shadowy aspect of writing. Writers need to learn to calibrate editing’s singular blend of mechanics and magic. For if writing builds the house, nothing but revision will complete it. One writer needs to be two carpenters: a builder with mettle, and a finisher with slow hands.
— Susan Bell

 

Mentioned in the show

Find out more about Clark's Healthy Author Challenge and listen to the 90 Days to A Healthy Author podcast on iTunes or Spreaker. Here's the video that started it all:

If you're having a rough time, talking to someone can help.

  • In the US, call the Crisis Hotline on (775) 784-8090 or text: “ANSWER” to 8398.
  • If you're in any other country, click here to find your local crisis line phone number.

 

Get Peter Turchi's book Maps of The Imagination here.

You can explore David Mitchell's books on Amazon.

Check out episode 70, in which we discuss adverbs that end in ly.

Here's Steven Pressfield's blog post about his emotional response to receiving a critique from his editor.

In this podcast, you'll hear Shawn Coyne talk about moving from the micro to the macro. One of Shawn’s rules is, if you’re really concentrating on something small and you’re stuck, you then go big.

 

Editorial Mission—Interrogate Your Manuscript

Take your manuscript out and look at where you’re at.

  • Do you have your genre conventions in place?
  • Do you have a solid plot?
  • Are the scenes working?
  • Are your characters introduced well?
  • Do you have an arc for your main characters?
  • How is the language?

Look at a book in your genre that’s done well and assess how you compare. Don’t feel bad by comparison, but instead use this as a tool to see what you can work on. Pick one area in which you can grow your writing and choose to focus on that.

 

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Ep. 109: Where to Begin Your Story

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie and Clark critique the prologue and first chapter of From the Flame, a fantasy novel by Kristen Franklin. They discuss where to begin your story. If all the events of the protagonist’s life were laid out in front of you, which is the most powerful moment to use for chapter one?

Where to Begin Your Story by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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Mentioned in the Show

Hire Clark for your developmental edit! Click here to find out more or email Clark.

Find an illustrated guide to writing scenes and stories here.

 

Wise Words on Starting Your Story

But where should you start your story—and when—given that it makes such a difference in the story’s success or failure? For example, right now you’re in a room with a talking penguin, a woman with a gun, and someone hiding behind a potted plant. From your perspective, you might want to rewind events to a point where you can make more sense of it all. However, many writing instructors suggest starting the story as late as possible. What does “late” mean? It often means that moment at which maximum dramatic tension occurs without the loss of so much context about character, setting, and other elements that the drama is meaningless or confusing.
— Jeffrey VanderMeer

 

Editorial Mission—Where to Begin Your Story?

Look at your story as a whole and consider where the protagonist is starting and where she ends up. What are the events that lead up to what happens in the story? Have you shown enough of the ordinary world to allow the reader to perceive the impact of the inciting incident? Have you started too early?

 

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Editing Advice To Our Author

Dear Kristen,

Thank you so much for your submission. Helena is an intriguing character, and the opening of chapter one has me quite curious about her coming adventures. We expect princesses and queens to be trained in certain skills, but these don’t usually include combat and spying. This is a lovely twist that tells us that Helena isn’t a standard potential princess that we’re used to seeing in fantasy novels.

We have some suggestions that we think might make the opening stronger, but I want to preface this with a couple of caveats. This is an early draft, so you hadn’t had the opportunity to review the opening in light of how it ends. The beginning often changes dramatically once we get a better idea of what we’re writing toward. 

It’s tricky to make suggestions about where to start, especially when we don’t know what follows, and prologues often don’t make sense at first because the reader is seeing events or characters out of context. Please consider our suggestions as representing options to consider. An editor reviewing your story would read the entire manuscript and understand how the events in the prologue fit. 

The History of the World portion of the prologue didn’t seem critical at this point. It was a lot of information when we don’t yet know what’s important. If you refer to a time before the fires without explaining it, you create mystery that can pull the reader forward. It’s tempting to give the reader an explanation of the world when it’s unfamiliar to them, but consider waiting until the facts can provide the greatest impact, where its revelation will bring the protagonist closer to or further from her goal. Readers know they are entering a world different from their own, so you have the luxury to reveal your world strategically.

In Helena’s portion of the prologue, I didn’t feel as pulled into the story as I would have liked. Much as I love Helena as a character, I didn’t feel fully engaged with her until chapter 1. That’s when we get a characteristic moment in Helena’s ordinary world that is moments away from an event that could throw her life into chaos. We see her engaged in an activity she loves and we hear about her training. We also know about the big event to come, which raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind. The prince is supposed to choose his future wife, but will he choose Helena or someone else? He could flat out refuse to choose. Some other event could happen that changes everything. These possibilities make for a compelling opening where we’re eager to find out what happens next. 

Again, this is something to consider in light of what you know about how the rest of the story unfolds. Thanks again for your submission, Kristen!

All the best,

Leslie

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Ep. 108: Narrative Drive—Compelling Your Reader to Turn the Page

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie Watts and Anne Hawley critique the first chapter of Esperanza, a science fiction horror novel by Mike Ward. They discuss narrative drive.

Different people use the term “narrative drive” to mean different things. What we discuss here is the amount of information the reader possesses relative to the character. The reader can have more, less, or the same information the characters in the scene have.

In the opening scene of our submission today, the author gives the reader a key piece of information that the character doesn’t have, and it changes the way we experience the scene and the question that compels us to find out what happens next.

Narrative Drive—Compelling Your Reader to Turn the Page by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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This week's submission contains mild language and a gory injury.

 

ABOUT OUR GUEST HOST

Clark is away for a couple of weeks, but our friend and fellow editor, Anne, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out. You may remember Anne from episode 106.

After a career in public service during which she wrote fiction to stay sane, Anne Hawley has turned her talents to writing professionally.

As a founding member of the Super Hardcore Editing Group and a graduate of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Workshop, she writes and edits from her small house in Portland, Oregon. When she leaves the house it’s usually on her Dutch bike, Eleanor.

Her forthcoming novel, Restraint, is a sweeping historical love story about a gifted and sexually repressed artist in Regency London. Under the dangerous gaze of high society, he must deny his attraction to the young nobleman who has hired him to paint his portrait, or else risk his livelihood and his reputation by giving in to his secret desires. It's Pride and Prejudice meets Brokeback Mountain in a bittersweet story of two men who fall in love in a time and place where homosexuality is still a capital offense. 

 

Wise Words on Narrative Drive

Narrative drive is that quality that keeps readers riveted. It is the lightening in a bottle that creates great fortunes. If your work has none … fuhgetaboutit.
— Shawn Coyne

 

Editorial Mission—Check for Narrative Drive

Take a slow scene in your story, and look for places where you can reveal more, less, the same information as the character to pull the reader forward. Get feedback from beta readers or notice yourself that a scene is slow, not pulling the reader forward.

 

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your submission. Anne and I both appreciated the way you opened your story. You've done a great job of setting up reader expectations for a horror story. It’s clear right away that we aren’t in a thriller or plain action story because of the circumstances of Emilio’s death—they certainly qualify as horrifying—and his final cogent thoughts are of failing his beloved wife, which for him seems like a fate worse than death.

One of the things we most appreciated about the story was your use of narrative drive. People sometimes use the term to describe different things, but what we mean is what the reader knows relative to what the POV character(s) know. We have three options in this respect: the reader can know less than (mystery), the same as (suspense), or more than (dramatic irony) the POV character in a scene (We’ve used the terms that editor Shawn Coyne uses, but other people describe them with different terms). Authors tend to employ mystery and suspense more often than dramatic irony, so it was exciting to see it employed to great effect in your opening. 

Why does this matter so much? One of the reasons a reader continues to read a story is to answer a question raised by the events of the story. The narrative drive technique affects the question(s) the reader asks and therefore the answer(s) they seek. 

When you said, “Death, when it came for him, was swift but unmerciful,” you let us know that the question is not if Emilio will die, but when and under what circumstances, and perhaps even why. We might also wonder how unmerciful it will be and how Emilio will meet his death. It’s a completely different inquiry and as readers, we view what happens and the information revealed in a different light and have a different emotional reaction when he dies. This question compels us to keep reading through end of the scene. 

We also know that this horrifying spider has laid eggs in the ship thought to be the United Earth Confederate Colonies’ last hope. This question compels us to read further. 

The other types of narrative drive are operating in this scene as well. Mysteries include Emilio’s understanding of the political climate and who the major players are. He also knows what happened to his wife and how she lost her mind. As for suspense, we know about the sting as it comes and its effect on Emilio when he does. But the big questions that will cause us to turn the page are most likely those that come as a result of what we know that he does not. 

Thanks again for your submission! 

All the best,

Leslie

Line Edits for Our Sci-Fi Horror Story

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Ep. 107: Check the Tension in Your Opening Scene

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie and Valerie critique the first chapter of The Arctic Compass, a middle grade fantasy novel by Ryan Gannon. They discuss how to check your opening scene for tension.

Check the Tension in Your Opening Scene by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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About Our Guest Host

Clark is away for a couple of weeks, but our friend and fellow editor, Valerie, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out. You may remember Valerie from episode 105.

Valerie Francis is a best-selling indie author, story editor, and creative entrepreneur. After 20+ years in various writing-related careers, she published her first novel (a middle grade fantasy) in 2015. Upon hearing that J.K. Rowling sold 1,500 books her first year, Valerie set out to match that sales goal and, as a complete novice to the industry, hit her target in eight months. Her children's and women's fiction novels currently sell in over 10 countries.

Valerie's helps elementary schools foster a love of reading in their students, and she works with authors to develop their novels. 

Valerie named her company Fifth Hammer Books, a reference to the myth of Pythagoras and the blacksmith's shop, because she believes that the most beautiful art is made, and the most important work is done, when the rules aren't followed. The Fifth Hammer is a reminder that the best ideas, like the best stories, work precisely because there is tension.

Learn more about Valerie and how she adds dissonance here.

 

Wise Words on Narrative Tension

Narrative tension is often described as “the reason you turn the page”—in other words, the reader’s desire to know what happens next.

Narrative tension has three components: anticipation, uncertainty, and investment. … [T]here are different ways to create each component, and the way you mix them together will determine the flavour of the narrative tension in your book. Think of it like a stew: stew always contains a liquid base, solid ingredients, and seasonings, but your choices as the cook determine whether it’s an Irish Stew or a Cajun Gumbo.

Narrative tension should not be confused with conflict. Conflict is when characters are placed in opposition with other characters or with their circumstances. Conflict on its own does not guarantee narrative tension, and narrative tension doesn’t always come from conflict.

Narrative tension should also not be confused with pacing, which is the speed at which you tell the story. A fast or slow pace can support tension, but pacing alone doesn’t create tension.
— Saul Bottcher

 

Mentioned in the Show

Here is a great post on narrative tension.

Here is another one!

 

Editorial Mission—Check for Tension

Tension is the vehicle that pulls your reader through the story. When people talk about tension, they often mention conflict, stakes, and pacing. These are all important and related to tension, but how do you create it, what are the elements? As Saul Bottcher mentions in the quote for the episode, it’s composed of anticipation, uncertainty, and investment. 

This week, we want you to check your story’s opening for tension. 

  • Have you set up the possibility that something interesting is going to happen?
  • Have you left room for uncertainty? Is there an open question in the reader’s mind?
  • Have you added reasons for the reader to care about what happens? 

If you’re lacking any of these elements in your opening scene, be sure to augment them.

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Ryan,

Thank you so much for your submission. This is such a delightful premise for a story, one that young readers would really enjoy. The attic is a great setting in this scene, and the Rube Goldberg-like action is really fun. Valerie and I have some suggestions that we think could take the lovely elements you already have and make them even stronger. 

One important point that Valerie shared as a middle grade author is that a book’s competition (particularly for young readers) is not another book. It’s all the devices. There is no difference between writing for an adult, teen, tween, or kid when it comes to the elements of a great story and getting the reader to turn the page.

Tension is vital in pulling your reader into the story right away. It can be tricky to develop, though, so I want to unpack it a bit. Tension is created when the character has a specific goal, we care about whether he attains it, and a question arises in our minds about whether he will be successful. 

You can help the reader care about your character and whether he’s successful in several ways, and it helps to add layers of interest and empathy. The character can be likeable or similar to the reader or someone they know, but that isn’t the only way. The challenge the character faces could be like one we face, or we might simply be curious about how someone like the character will work out a complex and challenging problem. One of the best ways to make the reader care about whether the character is successful is to show us what he wants and why he wants it—very specifically. We all have desires, so we understand the feeling of wanting something badly. The object of the character’s desire could be something we wouldn’t ever pursue. What we relate to is the wanting, and a specific desire is more powerful.

Along those lines, we want to know what’s at stake for the character if he fails. It would certainly be tragic if the magic of Christmas were lost forever—that’s pretty universal for kids who celebrate the holiday, and that’s a great place to start. But when we have desires or stakes that are common, we can miss out on details that make them more compelling. Knowing what failure means to the specific character in specific circumstances helps us to relate more easily. Consider Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and what failing to attain the golden ticket would have meant to Veruca Salt compared to Charlie. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about Veruca or people whose lives are easier, but a story about her would be more compelling if she risked losing something that meant a lot to her. The same negative consequences have different meaning and impact for different people, and that difference affects how the reader relates to and cares about the character’s efforts to achieve the goal.

Another aspect of tension is anticipation. When the character achieves his goals easily, the reader doesn’t have time to wonder or worry about whether the character will achieve the goal because it happens so fast. Stretching out the anticipation with obstacles and missteps will increase the tension so that your reader can’t help but keep reading. 

If we put these elements together, Duncan is a likeable kid, but I suspect you could reveal more about him and his desire than we’ve seen. This is not to say you need to add loads of new material or present it in an obvious way, but it would be interesting to see more of what makes Duncan different from other boys in his world and what makes him care so much about finding Santa. What does he lose if Santa is lost forever? 

Consider making the obstacles tougher for Duncan and making him stretch and work for what he wants. Middle grade readers have a lot going on because they aren’t little kids receiving the care and attention that their younger peers do, but they don’t have the autonomy of their older peers. Things are changing rapidly mentally, emotionally, and physically. And everything feels hard. A character who faces seemingly insurmountable challenges will naturally appeal to readers of this age, and they will want to keep reading to find out what happens to him. 

Thanks again for sharing your magical story with us! 

All the best,

Leslie

Line Edits for Our Middle Grade Story

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Ep. 106: Capture Your Character’s Essence

In this episode, fiction editor Leslie Watts and guest fiction editor Anne Hawley critique the opening pages of The Bad Shepherd, a published crime story novel set in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Dale M. Nelson. They discuss characters, how to make them relatable, and how to make sure you’ve captured their essence in your story.

Capture Your Character's Essence by Leslie Watts at writership.com.

 

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This week's submission contains colorful language and drug use.

 

About Our Guest Host

Clark is away for a couple of weeks, but our friend and fellow editor, Anne, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out.

After a career in public service during which she wrote fiction to stay sane, Anne Hawley has turned her talents to writing professionally.

As a founding member of the Super Hardcore Editing Group and a graduate of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Workshop, she writes and edits from her small house in Portland, Oregon. When she leaves the house it’s usually on her Dutch bike, Eleanor.

Her forthcoming novel, Restraint, is a sweeping historical love story about a gifted and sexually repressed artist in Regency London. Under the dangerous gaze of high society, he must deny his attraction to the young nobleman who has hired him to paint his portrait, or else risk his livelihood and his reputation by giving in to his secret desires. It's Pride and Prejudice meets Brokeback Mountain in a bittersweet story of two men who fall in love in a time and place where homosexuality is still a capital offense. 

 

Wise Words on Characters

Story is as much (if not more) about characters as about plot. They are your plot—their needs, wishes developments. Their introduction and establishment should be foremost on your mind. Even if you begin with heavy plot action, character introduction should be integral to this action, and the action of the plot should not be just for its own sake, but should serve to further growth of the participating characters.
— The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

 

Mentioned in the Episode

The Bad Shepherd is available to buy here.

If you love podcasts like we do, you might enjoy a new one from C. Steven Manley, called the Story Shots podcast. Manley is a longtime storyteller and the author of the Paragons trilogy and Brace Cordova space opera series. The episodes are short (thus shots) and full of insights and practical tips. You can find the Story Shots podcast on Apple podcasts and Stitcher

 

Editorial Mission—Capture Your Character’s Essence in a Sentence

Write a one-sentence description of each character that includes their name, who they are in the story (could be their position or status), and something of what makes them unique and also hints at what they want or need. You could start with this [Name] is a [status, position] who [does, thinks, believes something]. Try to limit each sentence to twenty-five words. Here are two examples:

Elizabeth Bennet is a marriageable, middle class woman with no fortune, who thinks wealthy people are prideful, and will marry only for love. 

Charlotte Lucas is a middle class spinster who prefers to marry a ridiculous man she doesn’t respect than be a burden on her family.

Use this sentence as a jumping off point for introducing your character by showing who they are through action, dialogue, description, or reactions.

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Dale,

Thank you so much for your submission. Anne and I really enjoyed your opening! You did a great job of conveying the hardboiled/noir aspect of the story and dropped it into LA in the early 1980s. There are lovely parallels in terms of crime, drugs, and music. You’ve shared some incredible concrete details in this opening that make for a rich setting for the story. The Plymouth Fury, club names, and the clothing all come to mind.

I had some trouble with Bo Fochs as the protagonist and POV character in this first scene because we get one action (he’s looking through the viewfinder of a telephoto lens at his informant) and one internal thought (Good, you’re smart to be scared, Rik.) before we read a page of backstory about Rik Ellis is and why he’s sitting in a café across the street from our protagonist and POV character. This information is relevant to the scene (though it might be more powerful to withhold it and leave some mystery about what’s going on), but we don’t have an opportunity to know who Bo is. 

We find out why Rik is sitting in the café, his motives (at least insofar as Bo knows them), and what he has at stake. We don’t have this for Bo, however. We don't know what he looks like, which may not be the most important thing (and some authors purposefully let the reader fill in the blanks), but if he engages in story action in the future (fighting, chasing, etc.), it would be good to have an idea of how he would do (we find out, for example, that Gaffney is fit and fast). You’ve revealed some reaction after the backstory, but still not enough that for me to have a sense of who Bo is so we’re ready to jump in the Plymouth Fury with him and join him on his adventures. 

It’s important to note, though, that Anne wasn’t bothered by this, so when considering this, you would want to tap into your sense of the story and where it goes from here. 

Of course, you want to allow for some mystery about who Bo is; you wouldn't want to share everything we’ll ever need and want to know about Bo right here, but consider what does the reader need to know to relate to him (some challenge, emotion, situation that your ideal reader can relate to) and care about whether he’s successful in his scene/story goal (what he wants/needs, what’s at stake if he’s not successful).

On a somewhat related note, we’re getting Bo’s direct thoughts, and we seem to be in third person limited POV, rather than omniscient. It seemed unlikely that while he’s doing the stakeout that he would be (necessarily) thinking about all the elements of the backstory include—absent a compelling trigger in the present. Consider what would he naturally be thinking about as the scene is unfolding before him. 

Thanks again for sharing your opening with us. It was a fun trip to another time and place!

All the best,

Leslie

Line Edits for Our Crime Story

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Ep. 105: Do Your Scenes Work?

Do Your Scenes Work? by Leslie Watts from www.writership.com

In this episode, I'm joined by best-selling author and fiction editor Valerie Francis while Clark is away. We critique the prologue of Shadow Falls, a thriller novel by Maxwell Perkins. Scenes are the building blocks of your story, but how do you know if an individual scene works? Valerie and I use Shawn Coyne's Story Grid analysis to look at what's working in this opening scene and how the author might make it stronger.


We have a special treat for you. The author is a professional audiobook narrator, and agreed to share a reading of his submission with us. We weren't able to include it in the podcast episode that aired, but we've included it here in the show notes. We're considering having professional narrators read the submissions in future episodes. If you have a moment, please let us know in the comments or at hello@writership.com if this sounds like a good addition to the podcast.

 

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Wise Words on scenes

There is just no hiding for a writer when it comes to a scene. It either works or it doesn’t. There is either a very clear shift in value from beginning to end—a change—or there isn’t. If there is no change, no value at stake, no movement, the scene doesn’t work. And if the writer’s scene doesn’t work, no matter how well he can craft a sentence, his Story won’t work.
— The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne

Mentioned in the Episode

You can find the video about Ian Rankin's writing process here

You can find Shawn Coyne's original post on the Five Commandments of Storytelling here, and this is an episode of the Story Grid Podcast in which he takes a deeper dive into these topics.

Want to learn more about Valerie? You can find her here

 

Editorial Mission—Check Your Scenes

Review a scene in your story to discover whether it's working, and why or why not, by unpacking the six elements of a successful scene (You can see our analysis of the submission in the letter to the author below):

  • Inciting incident: an action or coincidence that throws the main character in the scene off balance
  • Progressive complications: the obstacles that get in the way of your main character's scene goal
  • Turning point: an action or revelation that brings the main character to a point of no return
  • Crisis question: having reached a point of no return, the character faces a choice of the best or two bad choices or two irreconcilable good choices
  • Climax: the main character's choice
  • Resolution: what happens as a result.

If you find something that’s missing or that could be made stronger, add it to your list of items you need to fix (rather than trying to fix it right away). 

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Maxwell,

Thanks so much for your submission! Valerie and I both enjoyed reading your prologue and getting to know your characters and found that this scene had us fondly remembering Stand by Me.

I’m concerned after the fact that this may not be as helpful to you as we’d like it to be in light of the fact that the characters don’t appear again in the book and that we’re seeing this scene out of context more so than we normally do for a submission. I hope some of this discussion will be useful to you, though, if not with this scene than with others.  

We looked at the scene through the Story Grid (SG) filter, and it’s certainly not the only way to assess a scene, but it’s one we’re both familiar with and that we’ve found helpful. I can’t speak for Valerie, but for my part this framework provides specific and actionable feedback that’s better than a vague sense of something’s not quite right here. Shawn Coyne developed this tool out of necessity. He needed a way to show authors how to fix their stories so that they could become best sellers because acquiring a certain number of successful books every year was a requirement of employment. But it also makes sense to me in light of what I know about story and where stories come from and why we tell them. I could go on about that, but this is meant to be a written critique of your scene. I could see how this might feel like unwarranted criticism, though, so I wanted to explain this.

I want to make it clear that in our assessment we don’t speak for Shawn Coyne, and this isn’t an official SG pronouncement. With these caveats, we present one way you could look at the scene using this framework.

The Story Grid has five commandments of story and one “little buddy”:

  1. Inciting incident: something happens that throws the character or world out of balance.
  2. Progressive complications: escalating degrees of conflict related to what the main character in the scene wants (sometimes to regain the status quo, sometimes something else).
  3. Turning point (little buddy of the second commandment): a point where someone acts or information is revealed that forces the character to make a decision.
  4. Crisis: the dilemma that the character faces that can be distilled this way: the best bad choice (like the lesser of two evils) or irreconcilable goods (two positive but mutually exclusive options).
  5. Climax: the moment when the character acts based on his decision.
  6. Resolution: shows the world after the character has made his choice.

If we look use this framework in the scene before us, we could break it down this way:

  1. Inciting incident: Mikey decides at long last that he will jump.
  2. Progressive complications: Depends on who the main character in the scene is. Anthony wants Mikey to jump. It’s not altogether clear what Mikey wants because he says he will jump, but then seems to have second thoughts. Our discussion on this point is pretty speculative.
  3. Turning point: This is another point where we’re not clear. Again, it depends on who the main character is in the scene. We get a closer view of Anthony, so let’s assume it’s him first. He wants Mikey to jump, and Mikey is stalling. If Mikey decides he’s not going to go, then we might have a turning point that requires some action on Anthony’s part to get what he wants, but Mikey never says he won’t. If we look at Mikey as the main character in the scene, there is no turning point for him unless, for example, he learns that there is a dead body in the water below.
  4. Crisis: This is a little confusing because we’re still left with the question of will Mikey jump or won’t he. Anthony doesn’t make the decision, and Mikey doesn't face a clear best-of-bad or irreconcilable-goods question (as far as we know because we’re not aware of what he’s thinking and feeling). Is he worried that Anthony would never speak to him again, for example? We don’t know what the consequences might be if he decides not to jump.
  5. Climax: Mikey decides to jump.
  6. Resolution: Mikey jumps. Jon has discovered a body in the water, which causes Mikey to vomit. This is where we would argue that the scene turns, but the conflict about Mikey jumping in the water has already been resolved, so this turn didn’t impact his decision.

Although I feel confident of this analysis of the scene, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. It’s your story, no one knows it like you do, and I’m well aware that I could have missed something. I also think that all the elements are here for a scene that works under this construct, that you could shift the discovery of the body, but you should do what feels right to you. 

The analysis that I feel less confident about is whether this works as a prologue for your story because I don’t know what happens later to see how it fits in. My biggest concern, which we shared in the episode, is that the reader might wonder what happened to those kids from the prologue. Does that matter? It depends on what comes later. The only thing I would add after the fact is a consideration of Chekov’s gun, but again that could only be assessed in light of the whole story. If we had an omniscient POV showing the boys from a distance and revealing how sometimes things go wrong who saw the boys from a distance without our getting attached to them and noted how it could be dangerous (for the reasons cited), but that mostly this is a great place to swim, then that would appear to be more relevant to the overall story, but again, it’s hard to say without knowing where the story goes from here.

Thanks again for your submission, Maxwell! It presented a fun challenge for us!

All the best,

Leslie

 

 

This Week's Submission

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Ep. 104: Revising Your Action Scenes

In this episode, Clark and I critique a scene from Beneath the Crypt, a middle grade fantasy novel by Alex Heath. We talk about how to evaluate and revise your action scenes. When characters fight, chase each other, or engage in acts of derring-do, it can be hard to keep track of all the moving parts. Often, the clear image of how the action unfolds in our minds doesn’t make it into the story. If you unpack what’s happening in your action scene, you can make sure that it does everything you intend, and nothing you don’t.

Ep. 104: Revising Your Action Scenes by Leslie Watts at Writership.com

 

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Wise Words on Action Scenes

However, Hollywood films are not good examples of action scenes for books. Action scenes in movies are eye candy, designed to give the viewer a visual “Wow!” at the awesome feats. But all these action scenes flash by in just a few seconds. The viewer doesn’t have time to even think about how impossible that stunt is. In a book, the reader is with that scene a lot longer. She has more opportunity to say, “Wait a minute. They can’t do that.” And the moment she does, you’ve lost her.
— Linda Adams

Additional Resources and Links

Want to find out what Henry did to upset the thief of Carcassone? Read on here

Clark mentioned that the most realistic fight scene he’s observed is in Old Boy with Josh Brolin.

John Wick with Keanu Reeves is a movie with fight scenes that are realistic in how they portray the combatants’ energy.

To find great examples of dialogue in action scenes, check out Spider-Man comics.

 

Editorial Mission—Unpack Your Action Scenes

In episode 67, we asked you to look at model fight and other action scenes to help you revise your work. This week, we want you to unpack your own action scenes.

Use an action scene you’ve written and record what you observe in a list of what happens in the scene. Add every instance, one per line, of the following:

  1. action a character takes (e.g., character throws a punch)
  2. piece of information that’s revealed (e.g., character notices the bad guy has a knife)
  3. result or consequence (e.g., man falls to the ground)


Once you’ve exhausted everything you can think of about the scene, put the items in chronological order. Here’s an example:

  • Fred slashed at Joe’s face with his knife.
  • Joe ducked under Fred’s arm.
  • Joe kicked the side of Fred’s right knee.
  • Fred shouted.
  • Fred fell to the ground.
  • Fred dropped the knife.
  • Joe grabbed Fred’s wrist with both hands.
  • Joe twisted Fred’s wrist.
  • Joe felt the bones crack.
  • Joe felt relieved.
  • Joe saw Fred’s friend walking toward him.

This is a simplistic list, but it will give you a clear view of what you have and what you need. When you're done, review the list and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it make sense? 
  • Have you missed any crucial actions, pieces of information, or results?
  • Does each element appear in the best place in the sequence?

Next, consider the setting and where people and objects are, especially in relation to one another. I recommend drawing a diagram and using small tokens (I use Lego minifigures) to show keep track of people and objects, especially if you have a battle or an action/fight scene that involves more than two or three people.

Think about visibility. Is it a crowded street, the woods at night? What can your POV character actually observe (sights and sounds)? Does this affect the action as you’ve laid it out?

Once you’ve done all this, then revise your scene. You could approach this in different ways. You could use your new understanding of the scene to revise the one you’ve already written, write it from scratch, or begin weaving the sentences in the list together into a scene.

Why go through all this work? Action scenes are intense, fast-paced, and often contain several different elements. Sometimes the author has such a clear vision of the scene as a whole, as if it’s a video playing in their minds, that they don’t see and record the individual elements to transfer that conception to the reader’s mind. Unpacking what you’ve put on the page can help you discover if anything is missing.

Please remember this is a tool for revision! I wouldn’t mess with the minutiae while writing an early draft, but when you review it, if you deconstruct the action this way, you can be sure that what you imagine in your mind’s eye ends up in the story.

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Alex,

Thanks so much for your submission! Beneath the Crypt sounds like a fun adventure story, and Henry and Aurélie are great characters to play with. Even though we’re jumping into the middle of the story with no other introduction to the characters, it was easy to follow. The approach of the mysterious figure is a great hook to pull us into this scene, and the open question you leave us with at the end of the scene is intriguing and would make it hard to put the book down.

Clark and I focused on action scenes for this episode, and I think you’ve done a nice job of conveying who is doing what, where, and when, which as we mention in the episode can be a bit tricky. Although combatants in a fight don’t have time for a lot of reflection (unless one is skilled and facing an unworthy opponent), I think you could make the scene stronger with more reaction from Henry. I’d love to know about Henry’s experience in the fight, what he’s feeling physically and emotionally, and how he reacts what’s unfolding.

One example is when the thief faces Henry, and we get a pretty good look at the black-clad figure through Henry’s POV—with the exception of his face, of course. We see what he’s wearing, that the only armor he’s employed is a helmet, and that he is thin and lightly built (which could possibly clue the reader in to his identity or not depending on your intent and what you’ve revealed before this scene). We also see his weapon and that he is advancing on Henry with apparent violent intent. In the next paragraph, we see that Henry is scared and not sure what to do, but don’t know if he is generally scared or if something he’s seen and concluded about his opponent evoked the reaction. If you were to weave in a direct connection between his observations and what he does, the details you reveal would be immediately relevant to the scene before us rather than only the description of a character.

We noticed that you don’t have a lot of dialogue in the scene, and that may be in part due to what’s happening. As it opens, Henry and Aurélie are resting and wouldn’t necessarily be speaking. The thief is trying to avoid revealing is identity, so he might not want to speak if his voice is distinctive. Consider if there are opportunities when Henry or Aurélie might say a word or two periodically to break up the narrative and alter the pace.

We can’t assess this from only one scene, but wanted to mention this because it’s important in fantasy stories. The magic used in an action scene should be consistent with how magic is used in the story world in general. This is a helpful item to add to a revision checklist for anyone who writes speculative fiction.

For picky stuff, we flagged a few echoes and awkward phrasing in our comments. We spotted some places where specific verbs would enable you to cut some adverbs.

Note: We’ve labelled this middle grade fiction, but other factors within the story could tip it into young adult.

We appreciate your sharing this entertaining scene with us, Alex! Thanks again for trusting us with your words!

All the best,

Leslie & Clark

 

Line Edits for Our Mystery Story

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