Tag: revising

Changing Telling into Showing

Changing Telling into Showing

“Show don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing. So why is it so important?

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Bad feedback will ruin a wonderful story. Learn to recognize bad advice.

Motivation-Reaction Unit

Motivation-Reaction Unit

The basic building block of prose. Despite being decades old, Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction technique is still relevant. Every time something feels off in the prose, the improperly constructed MRU is usually to blame.

What is a Motivation-Reaction Unit?

MRU’s are the small blocks of actions and reactions that make up a character’s story. These are the moment to moment interactions, thoughts, and lines of dialogue that make up any scene. When a character stubs his toe and then shouts in pain. This is a motivation-reaction unit.

There must be a logical progression to a character’s thoughts and reactions.

Switching the order of an MRU creates confusion and distance for the reader.

Consider the psychic MC who always reaches the conclusion before the evidence is presented. I see this so often it’s become my personal nemesis.

The intruders had gotten what they came for. Books lay scattered across the floor. My brand-new sofa was shredded. Shattered glass fanned out from beneath my son’s portrait. On the wall, the door of the safe hung open. The contents, gone.

In this example, the MC is psychic. She knew the thieves had stolen her documents before she saw the empty safe. Since we don’t experience the process of gathering evidence and reaching a conclusion at the same time as the MC, the author creates distance from the action. The second problem with putting these elements out of order is that the reader doesn’t feel obligated to read the description. We already have the answer.

Now, I will move the first sentence to the end. Notice how it changes the entire feel of the paragraph.

Books lay scattered across the floor. My brand-new sofa was shredded. Shattered glass fanned out from beneath my son’s portrait. On the wall, the door of the safe hung open. The contents, gone. The intruders had gotten what they came for.

By discovering what the MC experiences, in the order she experiences it, we feel more connected to her. We feel like we are living her story.

The second major problem I see with MRU’s is a missing component.

‘Talking heads’ being the worst offender, but an emotionless MC runs a close second. In order to fix this, we need to know what goes into an MRU.

How to create a properly constructed MRU

MRU’s are simply input/output cycles. Characters take in information via their five senses (Motivation) then the characters process that information and output a response. (Reaction)

In Swain’s original model the reaction consists of three parts in this order:

  1. Feeling
  2. Action
  3. Speech


In this model, feeling encompasses visceral and other involuntary responses. In other words, a reaction that your character didn’t have to think about.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose. I shudder.

Shudder counts as feeling. It’s an involuntary response. While her feeling of revulsion is not explicitly stated, the physical reaction shows the emotion.


Next, we move to action

There are two kinds of action: mental and physical

Mental Action

Here’s where internal thoughts happen, where your character thinks through new information by:

  1. Adding it to current knowledge. This is where you sprinkle in whatever backstory is needed to understand the current conflict.
  2. Analyzing this information. This is where your MC thinks through a problem.
  3. Reaching a conclusion This is where your MC decides on a course of action.

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this, I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

Physical Action

Physical movements your MC does in response to a motivation

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick.


Last is speech

“This all they have?”

Swain insists the three components of a reaction should remain in this order: feeling, action, and then speech. Let’s look at the previous example in Swain’s recommended order and then again in a different order.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.I shudder.

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick. “This all they have?”

Compare that to an example that is out of order

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

“This all they have?”

We’ve got hours until we get to Vegas. I’m starving, but if I eat this I won’t make it to the state line, and I sure as hell don’t want to puke inside my helmet.

I poke the rolls with the end of my chopstick and shudder.

Notice how the second example feels off. It doesn’t make sense for her to ask for something else until after she has decided she can’t eat the sushi.

Do you need all the components?

No. You don’t need to have every component in every MRU. Often there is no need for both physical and mental actions, and trying to have both in every MRU will slow your pacing. You can also leave out elements for specific effects: a terse conversation or an action-packed fight scene.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

I shudder.

“This all they have?”

But if you remove too many components, the prose starts to feel clipped.

He plops the gas station sushi down in front of me, and the smell of dead fish hits my nose.

“This all they have?”

Without the feeling or the action, the prose feels thin. The characterization is missing, and the MC starts to sound robotic. If you need to fill out your MRU’s focus on feeling first, particularly in scenes with less action. This will give your readers more opportunities to connect with your character. Then, focus on action when you need a faster pace and more excitement.

Practice building your scenes using Swain’s MRU’s. Look for places where your reactions and motivations are out of order or are missing components. Complete MRU’s will provide solid building blocks for your scenes and create meaningful experiences for your readers, allowing them to connect with your character by seeing the world through her eyes.

motivation reaction cheatsheet

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How to Be a Good Critique Partner

How to Be a Good Critique Partner

Learning to give better critiques will not only make you more valuable as a critique partner, it will also give you a set of tools to evaluate the feedback you receive.

Writing mistakes ruining your prose

Writing mistakes ruining your prose

No matter how great your plot is, bad prose will sink it fast.

Query Swap

Query Swap

Query Swap Twitter event
Coming June 1, 2018

It’s Query Swap time again

To help you polish your query, I’m hosting Query Swap from 8am-8pm EST on June 1, 2018

Your hook is your selling point. It has to be perfect. But getting good feedback can often be difficult or expensive. That’s why I’m organizing the Query Swap Twitter party, an all-day event for people seeking critique partners to participate in feedback exchanges on query letters or back cover blurbs. The query swap Twitter party is designed to help writers connect with other writers. And since this is an exchange, both parties will benefit.

OMG a new contest?

No, it’s not a contest. Just an opportunity for writers to help each other.

Who are the mentors? Can I read their bio’s?

No mentors. The party is for writers in the querying process who are willing to exchange feedback on queries.

What about agents? Will agents be following?

This isn’t a contest. There won’t be agents or mentors. This is a chance for writers to connect and help each other.

How do I win?


All you need to do to participate is:

  1. Tweet a brief pitch about your MS with the tag #QuerySwap include genre and age category hashtags. (They might look familiar; they are the same as #Pitmad) No need to tweet multiple times since you can search the feed and look for a match too.
  2. Watch the feed and find someone with an MS in a similar genre, category, and tone
  3. Ask him/her to swap
  4. Exchange queries
  5. Give constructive feedback to your new Critique Partner.

Can I just recycle my #pitmad pitch?

Maybe, but it might need tweaking. In this swap, genre, category, and overall MS tone will be more important than plot in finding a good match. Someone with a snarky sensibility might be less suited to selling your Anne of Green Gables retelling, so make sure you look for a person who writes in a similar style.

example pitch:

#LGBT historic retelling of Frog Prince set in Polynesia also dragons #YA #F #R #QuerySwap


Dark portal fantasy with family drama and talking cats #MG #F #DIS #QuerySwap

Obviously, these won’t work for #pitmad, but they convey the necessary information for this event.

A word about the 280 limit: Proceed with caution, I have heard many people state they tend to skip longer pitches. (TLDR)

Want to help Query Swap Succeed? Share this post with your Facebook writing group or on social media

Hashtags … (These are the same as #pitmad)

Age Categories:

#PB = Picture Book
#C = Children’s
#CB = Chapter Book
#CL = Children’s Lit
#MG = Middle Grade
#YA = Young Adult
#NA = New Adult
#A = Adult


#AA = African American
#AD = Adventure
#CF = Christian Fiction
#CON = Contemporary
#CR = Contemporary Romance
#DIS = Disabilities
#DV = Diversity
#E = Erotica
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#F = Fantasy
#H = Horror
#HA = Humor
#HF = Historical Fiction
#HR = Historical Romance
#INSP = Inspirational
#IRMC = Interracial/Multicultural
#MR = Magical Realism
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#R = Romance
#P = Paranormal
#PR = Paranormal Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#S = Suspense
#SF = SciFi
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#T = Thriller
#UF = Urban Fantasy
#W = Westerns
#WF = Woman’s Fiction

Some tips:

  1. Don’t flood the feed with pitches for the same book. Pitching multiple books is ok
  2. Pitch only books you are querying
  3. Don’t just wait for someone to ask you first. Be proactive.
  4. Use the hashtags to simplify your search.
  5. Be polite.
  6. Remember this is a swap. Both parties must give feedback

I’m relying on writers to get the word out. Help #QuerySwap succeed Please share via social media, reblog this post, or sign up for the promotional blog tour!


Questions or concerns, please leave a comment.

Is Overused I-Construction making your MC a narcissist?

Is Overused I-Construction making your MC a narcissist?

The most frequent problem I see with drafts written in first person is the overuse of I-construction sentences, or its close cousin, “me” as object.

Creating Higher Stakes

Creating Higher Stakes

Simple tips for raising the stakes and creating more tension in your manuscript.

Unlikable Protagonist

Unlikable Protagonist

Tips for Writing Fantastic Jerks

The last few books I have read all suffered from the same flaw: an unlikable protagonist.

Having the jerk at center stage is nothing new. It is the basis for the redemption character arc: the Grinch, Scrooge, or my personal favorite, Melvin Udall in As Good As it Gets. These guys are nasty individuals, and yet they are some of the most beloved characters around. But just because the protagonist is a jerk, doesn’t mean he can’t be likable. And if your readers are going to get past the fifth page, he had better be.

So why do these characters work, where others fail?

First and foremost, no whining

Tips for creating a great anti-hero-www.themanuscriptshredder.com

Falling into the self-loathing, woe-is-me mentality is the first major hurdle. Resist the temptation to elicit sympathy for your character by rolling out all the tragedy that your character has endured. No one likes a whiner. Don’t “explain” why your reader should feel sympathy for your character. Telling me about how sad he feels about his dead sister on page 1, or how he lost his job and doesn’t know if he’ll find another one makes your character pathetic, not sympathetic. The pathetic character is something different and requires different handling. Pathetic mixed with a jerk is the formula for the person no one likes.

What to do instead:

Show your character taking control of the situation. Melvin Udall hates his neighbor’s yip-yip dog. But instead of whining about it, he takes action. The action, dropping the dog down the garbage chute, is deplorable, but that’s why it works. We can relate to the situation, a pet parent who is inconsiderate of those around him. Our ability to relate to the sentiment makes us relate to the character. His over the top response to the situation speaks to the level of his frustration, and it also appeals to our own hidden villain. We wouldn’t do it, but we might think it.

Second, Avoid the victim mentality

Similar to the no whining, the victim mentality will elicit eye-rolling and disgusted guttural noises from your readers. Don’t let your character’s situation overwhelm him into inaction. Jerks never just sit there and take it. A spineless character is not only annoying, he’s boring.

What to do instead:

Sometimes bad things happen to characters. Everyone at some time in his/her life has felt powerless in a situation. Capitalize on this shared experience. Show a reaction. Fight back against an attack; make a mental plan for revenge, something. Is your protag getting chewed out by her boss? Let her make a mental Target list of things she’ll need to set his car on fire and then check to see if any of it’s on sale on Cartwheel. Jerks are never helpless.

Third, Personality

Jerks get all the best lines: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. A character can get away with the most inexcusable behavior if he has a quick wit. In As Good as it Gets, Melvin, a writer, is cornered by a fan who demands to know how he can write women so well. The fan’s obnoxious behavior is enough to make us sympathize with Melvin, but when he responds with, “I think of a man, and then I remove reason and accountability,” we can’t help but laugh at an insult so perfectly crafted to the situation. Giving your jerk a fantastic voice will make him more memorable. Let him say all the things you’ve thought, but would never say.

Fourth, Be consistent

A jerk who is prone to random nasty outbursts is difficult to follow. Narrow the focus of your jerk’s anger. The Grinch hates Christmas. Scrooge is greedy. Their motivations are clearly defined. Make sure your jerk’s behavior has a specific reason related to his goal. Melvin Udall goes on a racist rant to clear people out of his table. We don’t have to agree with the tactics, (that’s why he’s a jerk) but we should understand why he’s doing it. Once this motivation is established keep his outrageous behavior related to his goal. The key to creating relatable characters is keeping the motivations clear.

Not every MC needs to be likable. Having clearly defined character goals will make him relatable, and that will make your jerk someone we can all cheer for.

Have a favorite anti-hero? Let me know in the comments

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How to avoid introducing too many characters

How to avoid introducing too many characters

Don’t introduce all your characters in the first chapter I’m ready. Well, I’m pretty sure I’m ready. This is not my element, but I’m intelligent, capable. I can do this. I grip my drink tighter, just to steady my hand. My brain is racing. My […]