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Monthly Archives: April 2011

The secret to better writing . . .

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You’re not going to like this. You’re going to tell me this is the worst idea you’ve ever heard and it’s the antithesis of good writing.

But if you stop and think about what I’m about to say, and start trying to incorporate it in your writing, I promise you that you will see positive results.

So here it is : the idea you already hate (though you don’t even know it).

Motivation Reaction Units, developed by Dwight Swain.

First, you hate this because its weird technobabble that doesn’t mean anything to you.

Let me explain what it is.

Every scene should be composed of a series of these units. Each unit has three parts : objective stimulus, internal reaction of character, character’s response.


1. Objective stimulus :

She caught a glimpse of a large white tiger crouched in the grass ahead of her.

2. Internal reaction :

She felt her heart speeding up in response and sweat forming on her brow. At last! Her prey in sight!

3. Character’s response, typically with some rational words and action :

“I’ve got you now,” she whispered, raising her gun slowly until she had the animal in her sights. She wrapped her finger around the trigger and squeezed.

Your entire scene should be a series of these.

Ok, now that you know what it is, you hate MRUs for a new reason : because this sounds like some horrible formulaic approach to writing.

But it’s not. It does everything needed to get the reader into the action. It shows the objects in the character’s world; it shows the characters mental response; and it shows a reaction. Much amateur fiction that I read is missing at least one of these elements, which is what keeps it from being zingy or fast paced or absorbing.

With this idea in mind, I decided to look at Trees again – and right away I can see so many places where I’ve flat out failed to include any indication of the MC’s internal responses to what’s going on. If I never show the MC having emotions, well, no wonder the story comes off a bit cold.

So. I think this is a good idea. As with all writing “rules,” you should always remember that there are no hard and fast rules.

But take a scene that isn’t working for you and try rewriting it with the goal of creating nothing but a series of motivational reaction units and you’ll find that it goes more smoothly and grabs interest more easily.

Go on. Give it a try.

Next up : Two types of scenes


Book Country and Using the Web to Find Your Niche

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Many of you know that I’ve used for years in order to get critiques of stories I’m working on. It’s been very beneficial to me, but there’s one thing it’s lacking. is a place to get critiques of your work, but it is NOT a place to post your work for people to read it. It’s a site devoted to people who are trying to prepare work for official publication, not for those who want to use the internet to get their work out there, hoping that people will like it enough to want more.

Enter, launched recently by Penguin books.

Book Country is similar to critters in some way. You read and critique three others, and once you’ve done so, you can post your own work and be critiqued.

It has a couple features critters doesn’t have. It allows you to rate the pieces you critique. It has a “buzz” and a “favorites” section, which allows users to gain notoriety on this site by having stories that gain the highest reviews and are most often recommended to friends and other sites. So it’s a place not just to improve your writing, but also to find other writers you’d enjoy reading and hopefully gain your own following.

I’m intrigued.

After all, writers need to be read, just as artists need to have their work appreciated and musicians need someone to hear their songs.

For most of us, writing is an avocation, a hobby, an unpaid obsession, and it always will be. It’s great that a few people are able to merge avocation and vocation.

(as per Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time –

“But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.”)

Most of us will never achieve this goal, and yet write we can and write we will because write we must.

So sites like Book Country can give us the encouragement of knowing that someone out there is reading what we wrote, that it’s not something that will be shoved in a desk drawer, forgotten, and never appreciated.

The one concern I do have (and perhaps Book Country addresses this in some way) has to do with “publication” status. If you just put up the first chapter or two of your book, then it’s not published. If you put up your entire finished short story, would that count as published? Critters keeps their manuscripts password protected so only people reading them for purposes of providing critiques can look. Book Country’s stuff is available for anyone regardless of whether they’re registered.

I like this feature of Book Country. I don’t think I will ever fail to be published because I had stuff on the web at some point; after all, if I’m going to be a published author someday, then even if someone DID steal a random short story I had on book country, or even if I COULDN’T sell that particular story, well, I really don’t think that small bit of lost revenue will affect my career at all.

Honestly, I’d be flattered if someone wanted to bother to steal my stuff.

But I’m sure this will be a sticking point for some people.

Those people are stuck in the last century, however. The internet is a tool that allows you access to a large community of people who like to read and write the same stuff as you. This is an advantage, not a problem, and it’s time that we all recognized it as such.

A Mysterious Shadow is Falling Over the Land . . .

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It’s not true that every speculative story involves a young hero saving the world from a dark overlord determined to destroy the planet. But damn near every speculative story involves something like that. Something, usually described with monotonous regularity as simply “dark” is out to destroy the world.

Nearly every Dr. Who episode (the latest show I’ve been glomming) has a line in there somewhere about “It’s the end of the world” followed by the Doctor saving the day. Sometimes it’s the end of the universe or the end of time. But there’s an awful lot of evil out there large enough to destroy (at least) the planet. Enough for a new episode every week.

Yet despite decades of exposure to all the best villainy of our age, the villains rarely or never stick in my memory. When I try to create fiction, I’m often stuck when it comes to creating antagonists because it seems like all the stories about antagonists are trite and boring. A helluva lot of the time in speculative fiction the antagonist is nothing but a mysterious wave of darkness overtaking the world.

I call that “night time” and I don’t think it would be wise for my heroes to end it, since the cycle of night and day is pretty important to the growing of crops and the balance of the earth on its orbit and all that good stuff.

As far as I can tell, many villains are just an excuse to fake enough conflict to make the climax. But I’m a feminist. This isn’t the 1950s and women have learned to love their private parts, so let’s stop faking climaxes, eh?

There doesn’t need to be a big world-ending evil to create a good fantasy novel. The drama of one person’s private life is plenty. Hell, the little engine that could was a great story and all that little engine wanted to do was go over a hill. Why should every hero need to stop the destruction of reality itself?

Enough, I say. I’m not going to force in something that simply doesn’t fit with my story or world. I don’t want to tell stories about the destruction of the Empire.

Empires bore me. I prefer reading about people.


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Cool art from Nancy to go with my Grass story – Thanks Nancy!
Grass by Nancy Hsue

The Need for Structure

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Structure is my biggest problem. Ok, I know I said earlier that endings are my biggest problem, but in a sense, it’s the same thing.

For example, here’s something I did the other day. I thought of an idea for a story. Think of it as sort of cylons-in-a-fantasy world.

Liked the idea. Jotted down some notes. Went to lunch and scarfed down my usual two black bean tacos with guacamole. Brain worked furiously the whole time coming up with more details for a fuller world.

Some part of my mind screamed This could be a novel! Make it happen!

Enjoying it all. This is the fun part of writing, the part that keeps me coming back for more.

After maybe an hour of thinking and jotting down a few ideas, I decided to begin. And I wrote the opening scene of Golem.

Hold on. Wait, you say, smartly spotting my gigantic mistake. You started writing the first draft an hour after the first seed of an idea was planted? Major problem!!

And you are right, gentle reader. You’ve cottoned on to exactly where my biggest weakness is.

I didn’t take time to flesh out a plot or a world or characters or anything. I had the barest germ of an idea.

How can I sit down and begin describing my world, characters, and their problems when I have only the vaguest sketch of them in my mind?


To the rescue comes . . . Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Design.

It’s helpful.

Here’s what you do.

1). You describe the entire novel in one sentence, preferably 15 words or less.

Two things to note here.

First, Randy suggests you take an hour to do this.

Thank god!

Constantly doubting (as I do) my worth as a writer, creative thinker, and citizen of this planet, I nearly tail-spinned into despair when my first couple attempts at this produced crap. But since I knew he expected me to take an hour at this, I thought – It’s OK! I’m supposed to work at this for a while.

Second, I realized in this process that my germ of an idea — girl-who’s-really-an-animated-rock-creature-who-was-used-to-fool-the-parents-of-the-prophesied-savior-to-come-when-he-was-kidnapped-by-his-enemies-as-a-baby — well that whole germ of an idea describes NOTHING that would happen in the book. All those events take place before the novel even starts. So. I realized that I actually didn’t even have a vaguely sketched outline of where this book was going, just where the characters were coming from.

No wonder plots always bite me in the ass.

So step one has helped me a lot. It’s made me realize that I don’t even know one thing that will happen in the story. Gotta fix that.

The Next step :

2). Expand your 1 sentence into a paragraph, taking another hour.

Considering what a major revelation the first sentence was, well, doing the paragraph summary should be quite a ride!

But you get the idea. Using this method forces you to keep in mind the big picture, since you start by focusing on that, then narrow down to the details. There’s more on his blog but he explains it better and with more flattery than I, so go check it out if you, like me, get stuck with plot.

Trees – Final Draft (hopefully!) Updated

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I still need to tighten up the ending on Trees a bit – there are a couple places where I repeat myself, so I’ll go back and smooth that out. But it’s finished, and I like the ending a lot.

Why you shouldn’t Multi-Task – And why I may have to –

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I multi task alot. I’ll be in the middle of writing, think of an email I should have sent, stop to email it, think of a blog post idea, jot it down, notice my stuffed animals sitting above my monitor are dancing and singing a song, stop to chat with them and record the conversation (for the sake of science of course), etc.

And when I try to get back to what I started writing, I can’t remember where I left off or what I was going to say next.

Sure, I got a lot of other stuff done. But research shows that multi-tasking is less efficient than working on one task at a time. Your brain expends a lot of energy to jump from one mode or thought process to the next, so going back and forth takes more effort.

And for me, it turns into procrastination. I can’t think of the next word to write, so my brain keeps suggesting other things I could be doing instead and, weak of flesh and spirit, I follow.

It’s bad.

But here’s my issue. I am scatterbrained. Yes, my brain is scattered all around me in a whirling tornado, little pieces and chunks flying about in all directions. And I’m scared.

If I remember that I need to call the vet to schedule an appointment for my old sick cat, I’m terrified that if I don’t act on it at that exact second in time, that thought will whirl away and up into the air and it will never come back and I’ll get home and realize the vet is full and my sick kitty has to wait one more day before she can get her medicine.

So a lot of times, I stop and address whatever I’m thinking of because I’m scared that if I don’t do it while I’m thinking about it, I’ll forget to do it at all.

Anyone have a solution for that? Because I’m baffled.

Ok. Here’s what I’m going to try. A to-do list. If I MUST multi-task, I’ll permit myself to stop what I’m doing to put notes into a to-do list, and that’s it. Then back to the task I’m working on.

Fair enough?

We’ll see if it works.

I long for Zen focus and discipline. Maybe I should join a meditation center. Wait, I’ve got to go put that on my to-do list!

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