Archive | November, 2008

Answers to Questions on MRUs

This past week, I have been in the final throes of bug-fixing on a software product I’m working on. Looks like I’ve beaten the one remaining major bug into submission at last. In my last blog post, I did some rather minor rearrangement of a short section of a scene submitted by Lynda. Before moving on to critique the next submission, I’d like to respond to a few of the comments:

Daniel wrote:

I think two commenters said that this should be broken up into separate paragraphs based on the MRUs. I haven’t read Swain yet (it’s in my Amazon wish list for a Christmas present) but is this a hard and fast rule? Most of what everyone submitted including my own was not so strict. So, is this more of a rule or more of a guideline?

Randy sez: The only hard and fast rule is that there is only one hard and fast rule, namely this one. :) I don’t know of any rule in writing that can’t be broken somewhere, sometime, somehow.

So all those writing rules you learn in writing conferences or books or even on my blog should be considered (like the Pirate’s Code) as mere “guidelines.” If a segment works, then it works, so don’t mess with it.

There were a couple of issues that I had with Lynda’s submission. First, it felt a little fuzzy. It was just a little out of focus, and I couldn’t quite see why until I analyzed it using those pesky Motivation Reaction Units. One reason that I emphasize MRUs so much is that they are such a powerful tool for figuring out why a segment is out of focus.

You will notice that I violated the rule in the first paragraph of my suggested rewrite for Lynda. The reason is that it just worked better to put the Motivation and the Reaction in the same sentence. So I put them that way.

But there was a second issue that I had with Lynda’s work that I haven’t mentioned yet: The paragraphs seemed to me too long and too uniform. My eye looked at these large blocks of text and complained that this was going to be hard reading.

Luckily, the MRU analysis sugested how to break up those long paragraphs. The new rendition I suggested has some very short paragraphs (where the action is a bit quicker) and some longer paragraphs (where there’s more description). This is what you want–more variety in the paragraph sizes.

That brings us to Adam’s comments:

I was thinking the same thing as Daniel, actually. Although Randy’s version here is definitely better, I think following the MRU paragraph break rules this strictly leaves it with too many paragraphs. The paragraph breaks cease to mean anything.

I admit that breaking paragraphs by MRUs usually does improve a piece, but I don’t think it always works.

Randy sez: I’m going to disagree here (nicely, I hope). The paragraph breaks now actually DO mean something–they mean a switch between a Motivation and a Reaction. In Lynda’s original version, the paragraphing felt a bit haphazard to me. Now it’s much more logical. I purposely combined some of Lynda’s Motivations together into larger blocks (in their own paragraph) and I also combined some of her Reactions into their own blocks (again in their own paragraph). So I did a bit of unshuffling so that there were fewer Motivations and fewer Reactions, but now each was more appropriate to the pacing of the scene.

A word on pacing: When the pace of the scene needs to feel fast, you can create that illusion by using shorter paragraphs. When you want to slow the pace down, you create that illusion by using longer paragraphs. That is the logic behind the paragraphing that I used.

Lynda asked:

Question. If you have a sentence that reads: A therefore B, does it count as a motivation followed by a reaction? Or should it be divided?

Randy sez: Hmmm, I’m not sure. Can you give us an example?

If the sentence is merely the internal thought processes of the POV character, then I would say that it’s all one Reaction and should all be together. But that’s the only example I can think of right now that fits your question. So I don’t know if some other example might need a different splitting.

In general, a Motivation is objective and external to the POV character; a Reaction is subjective and internal to the POV character.

Hannah asked:

I have a question. Is it ever okay to start a scene with a reaction? Something sort of like this:

“Ow!” Ava glared and rubbed her arm. “Cole Travis, I know that was you!” She shook her head. Just like Cole to slam you with a dirt clod when you weren’t looking.

Randy sez: Yes, I think this works. I like to always start a scene by referring to the POV character, which means starting with a Reaction. So I’m good with this example you’ve given. It works. That’s the main thing.

OK, that’s enough on Lynda’s piece of writing. in our next blog, we’ll critique the submission by Ivye, which is set in 1453–a fine year, if there ever was one.

For those of my loyal blog readers who celebrate the US Thanksgiving holiday, Happy Thanksgiving! For those of you who don’t celebrate it, we’ll remember you as we stuff our faces with turkey (or some tofu imitation thereof), potatoes and/or yams, cranberries, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and numerous other goodies that we rarely eat.

Critiquing Lynda #2

In my last post, I first congratulated one of my loyal blog readers, Christina Berry, on the sale of her first novel. I invited her to leave a comment here if she wanted to share details (since I wasn’t quite sure how far along in the process the sale was). Christina left this comment:

I’m the not-so-mysterious “CB” and was thrilled to finally spill the beans about Moody contracting Undiscovered. It’s been a contract more than a month in the making, and remaining quiet ranks right up there with waterboarding for me.

I’ll be blogging about the particulars for the next week or so, but Moody was not the first house to say they had an offer on the way. However, they were the first to actually submit one to my agent and to negotiate a few tiny things. I will also be sharing something I asked my agent to do that will shock a few people.

I could go on and on, so I’ll close with a few intriguing notes: the title has already been changed–before the contract was signed, the slated release date is Sept. ‘09, and Randy’s statement of support was one of the most meaningful ones I read today!

Randy sez: You can read more details on Christina’s blog at AshBerryLane.net. Christina also has some projects she’s working on with her mother, Sherrie Ashcraft–hence the “AshBerry Lane” URL.

I note that Christina and Sherrie have a link to a recent novel, Tuesday Night At The Blue Moon, by Debbie Fuller Thomas. I had the fun of mentoring Debbie a few years ago in a mentoring clinic at a writing conference, and I immediately introduced her to a couple of agents because I knew she was going to be something special. Her writing is terrific.

Getting back to our last post, we had a look at a segment of writing posted by Lynda. I challenged my loyal blog readers to critique the segment first, because I think it’s a good exercise for you all. I know it’s good exercise for me, and I most always learn something when I critique something here.

To review, here is Lynda’s submission:

Rumbles roused Alejandro to half-consciousness. Overhead a succession of sky shattering cracks increased in intensity, each answered by waning reverberations. Something cold splattered against the back of his neck. His eyes flew open, and he stared into dank soil that emitted the moldy stink of decaying leaves. More droplets struck his neck, bled down, and seeped into the depression that cradled his face. He gathered his strength and rolled onto his back.

Excruciating pain shot through his arm. He screamed, clutched a wound, and writhed. The agony decreased by degrees to a fiery throb that radiated into his shoulder. He wiped his eyes and stared into the underside of a shrub that dripped with moisture.

Where was he? He reached up and parted some twigs. The jungle?

The forest around him steamed, producing an earthy cloud. Its heaviness hindered his breath and dimmed the light.

It would storm soon. He had to find shelter. Tangles of Passion Vines reached the forest floor. He grabbed a fist full, hoisted himself to a sitting position, and scanned the area. No outcrops. No hollow logs. His gaze went to a Giant Kapok that towered above adjacent trees. It would have to do. With his good arm, he dragged himself over the thickly mulched ground and hid amid the tree’s buttress folds. The jungle exploded with light. A crash followed. Then like the opening of a spillway, a torrent poured through the rainforest canopy.

He rested his head against the bryophyte encrusted bark. What happened? He’d been in his office at the university. How did he get here? And, what happened to his arm? Through the deluge, he studied the wind ravaged surroundings. Nothing seemed familiar. His temples pulsed with concentration. There had been soldiers. Running. Rifle fire. Pain. Terrible pain. He closed his eyes. The nursery appeared on the inside of his eyelids. And, the bloody bodies of Elena and their baby. Anguish crushed his heart, dwarfing the pain in his arm. His fault. Everything was his fault. He grabbed his face and sobbed, “Perdóname, Señor, Perdóname.”

Here is my analysis of the passage:

First, I think the setting is strong, the descriptions are vivid, and we have a character in some danger. It’s hard to tell just how much danger, because the real danger is experienced as backstory. We don’t know for certain whether Alejandro is now still in danger, though it seems very likely. However, the current story feels a bit out of focus. I don’t quite know what Alejandro wants right now, other than that he would presumably like to rewind the clock to before the soldiers came. Presumably, that goal will become clear shortly, so we won’t worry too much about it here.

Second, if this is the very beginning of the story, then I would suggest that a stronger beginning might be just before the soldiers arrived at his office at the university. Then we could live that bit in real-time, rather than seeing it in narrative summary here as backstory. But it may be that in Lynda’s novel, she’s already shown that. Lynda, can you comment on that?

A number of you made guesses at the number of Motivations and Reactions in this passage. Most of your guesses were different, and they ranged from 5+5 to 13+13. My own best guess is 8 Motivations and 8 Reactions, but I’m not really certain.

I think that my feeling of fuzziness in this passage is due to the lack of clarity in the MRUs. Here is how I broke out the Motivations and Reactions:

Paragraph 1: 3 M + 3 R
Paragraph 2: 2 M + 2 R
Paragraph 3: Continuation of the last R from previous paragraph
Paragraph 4: 1 M
Paragraph 5: 2 M + 2 R
Paragraph 6: 1 R

Might I suggest that the passage should be shuffled around a little to combine some of the one-sentence Motivations into larger units and some of the one-sentence Reactions into larger units? Also, I would recommend that the Motivations and Reactions be broken out into their own paragraphs.

Here is what I have in mind, in which I change almost no words but just shuffle things around a bit and delete a couple of sentences near the end. The first paragraph is a single sentence, part Motivation and part Reaction. But all other paragraphs are either all Motivation or all Reaction. It is now easy to count 7 Motivations and 7 Reactions (counting one of each in that first paragraph):

Rumbles roused Alejandro to half-consciousness.

Overhead a succession of sky shattering cracks increased in intensity, each answered by waning reverberations. Something cold splattered against the back of his neck. More droplets struck his neck, bled down, and seeped into the depression that cradled his face.

His eyes flew open, and he stared into dank soil that emitted the moldy stink of decaying leaves. He gathered his strength and rolled onto his back.

Excruciating pain shot through his arm.

He screamed, clutched a wound, and writhed.

The agony decreased by degrees to a fiery throb that radiated into his shoulder.

He wiped his eyes and stared into the underside of a shrub that dripped with moisture. Where was he? He reached up and parted some twigs. The jungle?

The forest around him steamed, producing an earthy cloud. Its heaviness hindered his breath and dimmed the light. Tangles of Passion Vines reached the forest floor.

It would storm soon. He had to find shelter. He grabbed a fist full of the vines, hoisted himself to a sitting position, and scanned the area.

No outcrops. No hollow logs. A Giant Kapok towered above adjacent trees.

It would have to do. With his good arm, he dragged himself over the thickly mulched ground and hid amid the tree’s buttress folds.

The jungle exploded with light. A crash followed. Then like the opening of a spillway, a torrent poured through the rainforest canopy.

He rested his head against the bryophyte encrusted bark. What happened? He’d been in his office at the university. How did he get here? And, what happened to his arm?

His temples pulsed with concentration. There had been soldiers. Running. Rifle fire. Pain. Terrible pain. He closed his eyes. The nursery appeared on the inside of his eyelids. And, the bloody bodies of Elena and their baby. Anguish crushed his heart, dwarfing the pain in his arm. His fault. Everything was his fault. He grabbed his face and sobbed, “Perdóname, Señor, Perdóname.”

What do you think? Is it clearer? Does the scene feel a little more focused?

Let me be clear that there is never just one right answer in writing fiction. There are a million good answers and a thousand extraordinary ones. So I am always cautious about changing a writer’s words or style. I prefer to just buff up a writer’s work so their individuality remains. It would be a dull world if everyone wrote like me — or like anyone else for that matter.

Critiquing Lynda

Last week, I resumed my regularly scheduled series of blog posts on critiquing the snippets of fiction posted here recently by my loyal blog readers.

We’ll continue that today, but I wanted to note that I heard today via the grapevine that another of my students/friends sold her first novel today. Her initials are CB, so if she wants to post the good news here in a comment, I’d love to hear all the details, or as many as she’s willing to share. Of course, she may be so busy celebrating that she forgets to read my blog, but let’s hope not.

I met CB at a conference a couple of years ago and have been following her progress with interest. I absolutely loved the sample chapters that she let me read last summer and I told her that she was very close to getting it published. So I’m thrilled to hear the news, because I really want to read the rest of the book.

In any event, today we’ll critique a submission by Lynda. Here it is:

Rumbles roused Alejandro to half-consciousness. Overhead a succession of sky shattering cracks increased in intensity, each answered by waning reverberations. Something cold splattered against the back of his neck. His eyes flew open, and he stared into dank soil that emitted the moldy stink of decaying leaves. More droplets struck his neck, bled down, and seeped into the depression that cradled his face. He gathered his strength and rolled onto his back.

Excruciating pain shot through his arm. He screamed, clutched a wound, and writhed. The agony decreased by degrees to a fiery throb that radiated into his shoulder. He wiped his eyes and stared into the underside of a shrub that dripped with moisture.

Where was he? He reached up and parted some twigs. The jungle?

The forest around him steamed, producing an earthy cloud. Its heaviness hindered his breath and dimmed the light.
It would storm soon. He had to find shelter. Tangles of Passion Vines reached the forest floor. He grabbed a fist full, hoisted himself to a sitting position, and scanned the area. No outcrops. No hollow logs. His gaze went to a Giant Kapok that towered above adjacent trees. It would have to do. With his good arm, he dragged himself over the thickly mulched ground and hid amid the tree’s buttress folds. The jungle exploded with light. A crash followed. Then like the opening of a spillway, a torrent poured through the rainforest canopy.

He rested his head against the bryophyte encrusted bark. What happened? He’d been in his office at the university. How did he get here? And, what happened to his arm? Through the deluge, he studied the wind ravaged surroundings. Nothing seemed familiar. His temples pulsed with concentration. There had been soldiers. Running. Rifle fire. Pain. Terrible pain. He closed his eyes. The nursery appeared on the inside of his eyelids. And, the bloody bodies of Elena and their baby. Anguish crushed his heart, dwarfing the pain in his arm. His fault. Everything was his fault. He grabbed his face and sobbed, “Perdóname, Señor, Perdóname.

Randy sez: I have some thoughts on this, but I’d like to see my loyal blog readers exercise their own critiquing skills on this passage. What is Lynda doing well here? What could she improve and why would it be an improvement?

As a first exercise, I’d recommend counting the number of Motivations and the number of Reactions in the passage. If you have never heard of Motivations and Reactions, now would be a marvelous time to read my summary article on them, “Writing the Perfect Scene.”

Let’s resume tomorrow, and I’d like to see some brilliant and incisive comments from you all. Post a comment with your thoughts!

Critiquing Davalynn

Life is finally getting back to normal around here. Thanks to those of you who’ve been asking about my mother-in-law. She’s doing a bit better, and my wife has been back home for about the last week. My oldest daughter even persuaded us to paint the living room/dining room/halls on Saturday, which turned into a three-day project. And we still haven’t quite put the living room back together again, but I think we’ll finish on Saturday. Gotta love those “one-day projects.”

Today, I’d like to pick up where we left off a few weeks ago–critiquing those of you who were brave enough to post examples of your writing. We’ll mainly be looking for good structure with those pesky motivations and reactions. For those of you who read my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, you’ll know that yesterday’s issue had quite a long article on the virtues of “tactical writing.” And a big part of tactical writing is getting your motivations and reactions right.

Exactly right. Because the difference between “sorta right” and “exactly right” can be huge.

Today, I’ll critique Davalynn, who posted the following:

OK, here goes. Porter (with a flashlight) and James are 10-year-old cousins who have made their way into a forbidden tunnel beneath a small town. They hear a sudden noise coming from another opening in the tunnel:

“Be quiet and listen.” Porter switched off the light.

“What are you doing?” James’ voice chafed with fear as he groped for Porter in the darkness.

“Shut up and listen!” Porter took a deep breath of musty air and held it in as he tried to figure out what was making the scuffling noises. “Hear that?” he whispered. “Someone’s coming.”

Porter heard his cousin make a tight little squeaking noise like he thought a girl would make, so he grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the bar. “Come on. Let’s hide back here,” he whispered. “And stop squeaking!”

“I’m not squeaking.”

“Shut up!” Porter rasped. He could feel James beginning to sweat. He could smell James beginning to sweat. But he had little time to think about it because a spot of thin light was growing inside the hole and soon spilled into the room followed by two hunched-over men who stood straight up as they stepped out of the opening.

Randy sez: This is good. The tension is wound pretty tight here. But can we do better? Maybe just a wee bit better? I think we can.

For starters, we’ll note that Porter is the viewpoint character (also known as the Point-Of-View character or POV character). So Davalynn’s goal here is to put the reader inside Porter’s skin and show us exactly what Porter sees, hears, thinks, smells, etc. Which means that if Porter can’t see it, hear it, think it, smell it, or sense it in some other way, then Davalynn mustn’t let the reader see it, hear it, think it, smell it, or whatever.

Let’s look at each paragraph and see how it works.

“Be quiet and listen.” Porter switched off the light.

Randy sez: Well done! We’ve got four words of dialogue which set the mood very well. Then we’ve got a good strong action tag–Porter switches off the light. I wouldn’t change a thing here. This is what we call a Reaction because it shows us the POV character acting.

“What are you doing?” James’ voice chafed with fear as he groped for Porter in the darkness.

Randy sez: This is a Motivation, because it’s done by a non-POV character. The first half of this is excellent. The reader can hear that quivery voice in the pitch darkness. But . . . the reader CAN’T see James groping for Porter. Because it’s dark. So that needs to be cut. Many readers won’t notice this small glitch, but those who do will suddenly lose the illusion that they are Porter. For just a second, the reader will be a God-like person able to see in the dark. But your goal as a writer is to help the reader maintain that illusion of being Porter.

“Shut up and listen!” Porter took a deep breath of musty air and held it in as he tried to figure out what was making the scuffling noises. “Hear that?” he whispered. “Someone’s coming.”

Randy sez: Well done again! This is another Reaction. Normally, I flag that word “as” because it implies that two things are going on simultaneously. And all too often, the writer presents things as simultaneous that can’t be. But in this case, the two simultaneous things are: 1) Porter holding his breath, and 2) Porter trying to figure out what’s scuffling. These can both happen at the same time, so it works. All is well with this paragraph.

Porter heard his cousin make a tight little squeaking noise like he thought a girl would make, so he grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the bar. “Come on. Let’s hide back here,” he whispered. “And stop squeaking!”

Randy sez: We can tighten this just a little. The reader knows that Porter is the POV character, and therefore if there is a noise, the reader knows that Porter is the one hearing it. So there is no need to say “Porter heard…” It’s better to shave those two deadwood words and get straight to the sensory perception itself. The second minor thing is that it’s not necessary to say that Porter thinks a girl would make a noise like that. We know it’s Porter doing the thinking. Better to just say “like a girl would make.” This is of course a monstrously sexist thought that would be a terrible no-no in a novel for adults. But Porter and James are kids, cootie-hating boys, and such beasts are allowed to be sexist for a few more years yet.

There is a larger issue to resolve though. Now that we have disentangled Porter from what he hears, we realize that this paragraph starts out as a Motivation (it’s about the girly-squeaky noises James is making), but then it morphs smoothly into a Reaction (with Porter reacting to those pesky girl-squeaks). It’s really better to separate them into two distinct paragraphs.

“I’m not squeaking.”

Randy sez: Nice! This is a Motivation again–something said by James, who is not the POV character. Three words, and the reader is immediately wondering what the heck is squeaking if it ain’t little Jimmy. What else is in that tunnel?

“Shut up!” Porter rasped. He could feel James beginning to sweat. He could smell James beginning to sweat. But he had little time to think about it because a spot of thin light was growing inside the hole and soon spilled into the room followed by two hunched-over men who stood straight up as they stepped out of the opening.

Randy sez: OK, I like this. There are a couple of sentences that begin “He could feel…” and “He could smell…” Earlier in this critique, I flagged a sentence just like these and surgically removed Porter from it. But I’m going to argue that it makes sense to leave Porter in these. The repetition of “He could…” works nicely. And the two sentences are tightly bound with the first sentence of the paragraph and the last. So I say that this whole paragraph is really all about Porter, and so we’ll leave it exactly as is.

Now let’s put it all together and see if it reads just a bit better with my edits:

“Be quiet and listen.” Porter switched off the light.

“What are you doing?” James’ voice chafed with fear in the darkness.

“Shut up and listen!” Porter took a deep breath of musty air and held it in as he tried to figure out what was making the scuffling noises. “Hear that?” he whispered. “Someone’s coming.”

James was making a tight little squeaking noise like a girl.

Porter grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the bar. “Come on. Let’s hide back here,” he whispered. “And stop squeaking!”

“I’m not squeaking.”

“Shut up!” Porter rasped. He could feel James beginning to sweat. He could smell James beginning to sweat. But he had little time to think about it because a spot of thin light was growing inside the hole and soon spilled into the room followed by two hunched-over men who stood straight up as they stepped out of the opening.

Randy sez: Does that work just a bit better? I think it does. I didn’t add anything; I just cut a few words. The pacing here is very nice. Davalynn did a great job of mixing up long and short sentences, of action and dialogue and interior monologue. The tension is thick and the reader is RIGHT THERE.

Tomorrow, we’ll critique Lynda’s submission. See ya then!