Learning to Write MRUs

I’ve mentioned in a past post that my efforts to learn to write Scenes and Sequels were derailed briefly by…well…let’s just call it a side quest. You see, many of the articles that explained the Scene-Sequel technique referred to another technique that many use as part of their writing process: the MRU (motivation-reaction unit). Honestly, this is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, dummy, write cause and effect!” (Seems obvious. Isn’t always. I’ve now seen some scary examples of this.)

For many writers, Scenes and Sequels are made up of these MRUs, and if you put enough of these together, you eventually end up with a story that makes some form of sense. People might even read and enjoy your story. (No promises.)

All right, so…what is an MRU? It’s a basic action sequence made up of two parts: the motivation and the reaction.

  • Motivation – an external, objective stimulus that can be experienced by at least one sense
  • Reaction – the character’s subjective response to the Motivation in order: emotion; reflex action; rational thought/action

The MRU is pretty straightforward, because it’s how we actually respond to things. I know some of the articles pointed this out, but I didn’t actually get my mind around it until I realized trying to overthink my way into writing MRUs was just leading to writing how I normally write. I’ve always tried to write out how I would move through something, right down to the stage blocking. (And hearing professional writers use stage terminology to describe how they write has helped me understand and accept that I’m not a total weirdo for doing it. It helps me to see what’s going on in the scene I’m writing.)

When I was first reading about MRUs, I thought you were supposed to use them to build the entire story. And found out the hard way that’s not exactly true. I struggled for days trying to make MRUs work for my action-light stories, unable to figure out why they weren’t working, before I finally learned they’re for action sequences. I don’t write a lot of action to begin with, so practicing MRUs has been a frustrating process for me. I finally came up with the following and incorporated it into my daily writing habits so I have something to practice on.

My MRU Practice Routine

  • Respond to oneword’s daily prompt. (I do it in my journal instead of on the site.)
  • Rewrite the response into an MRU format. (Also in my journal.)

Feel free to steal that, or use it to create something that suits your own writing habits. And then let me know how exploring MRUs goes for you. Maybe you’ll find yourself frustrated like I was. Maybe it will be just the thing to help with a problem you’ve been experiencing in your writing. But I’m willing to bet you’ll find something useful in it.



Learning to Write Scene-Sequel

Like so many others, I spent the beginning of the year looking over what I had done last year and thinking about what I wanted to get done this year. I know I have a tumultuous relationship with my writing, and thought I was starting to turn things around. Really, I was deluding myself. While I got more written last year than I had in the previous five years combined, I wasn’t getting any productive writing done.

So I started my writing plans for this year by tabling every writing project I failed at working on last year. Then, I planned out a new daily writing practice schedule, focusing first on reconnecting with and strengthening my writing skills and letting my projects grow out of that recentering. Because somehow, things are easier for me if I feel like I’m learning and practicing something concrete. (I know you’re surprised.)

My first writing lesson: Writing Scenes (not to be confused with scenes) and Sequels.

I’ve heard people talk about Scenes and Sequels on writing blogs and in writing podcasts for some time now, but never actually looked into it. Now seemed as good a time as any, so I pulled together some favorite podcast episodes, added in some blog posts and articles, and jumped right in. It did require a small side trip (which I’ll get to later), but I think I’m starting to get the hang of things.

Scenes and Sequels are narrative units that work in pairs to create rhythms that encourage readers to keep moving through the story. The Scene consists of three parts: the Goal, the Conflict, and the Disaster. The Sequel also consists of three parts: the Reaction, the Dilemma, and the Decision. Breaking those down…

The Scene contains the action (or rising action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help keep that action building.

  • Goal – what the character wants when they first come into this moment
  • Conflict – the infamous try-fail cycle (It can be as simple or as complex as the situation requires.)
  • Disaster – an obstacle appears that severely hinders the character’s ability to reach their goal (This does not have to be a literal disaster. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that.)

The Sequel contains the reflection (or falling action) in the pair. It is composed of three parts that help the character process what has happened and figure out how to move forward.

  • Reaction – what it says on the label; the character’s immediate response to the Disaster
  • Dilemma – the character figures out what options they have moving forward, with no good options present
  • Decision – again, what it says on the label; the character picks an option and runs with it, moving us into the next Scene

The nice thing about these two units, when used well, is that they really follow a logical flow while building in good opportunities for tension in a scene. And they build a cycle, which can help minimize writer’s block to an extent. If you’ve crafted a good Scene, it should lead into a logical Sequel, which if well-crafted leads into another Scene, and so forth and so on.

As I said, I’ve been playing with is for about a month now, and I think I’m starting to craft them without having to look up each step. I’m even starting to find some success with them. Try them out in your own writing and let me know how your own explorations go.

Why Tagging Matters For Online Writers

I was recently reading some Yu-Gi-Oh fan fiction (as I do periodically) when I came across an unfamiliar situation. Someone new to writing for the fandom, rather than look up established names for various ships, tagged their story with their own names for the ship they were writing. Three different names for the ship, plus a tag admitting they didn’t know how to identify the well-established ship in question.

I tend to surf this repository by tag because the fandom is usually flooded and I have narrow reading interests within the fandom. Because I know the proper name for the ship, I would have completely missed this story. I just happened to surf the general catalog that day and stumble across it. Anyone who surfs by tags would miss this story because it doesn’t use the long-agreed upon name for the ship.

The Perc’ahlia ship in the Critical Role fandom has a similar problem. When people first started writing fan fiction and creating fan art for this ship, there were at least half a dozen stabs at giving the ship a meaningful name that didn’t necessarily rely on a portmanteau. Again, those searching for fan work in this ship have to know not only Perc’ahlia, but also those other early contenders, or miss out on some potential gems.

In this day of social repositories and search engines, tags matter. To some degree, we all know this. We work with them enough on blogs and in these catalogs. We tag to identify fandom, genre, characters, topics, any potential triggers. The list goes on. We understand that it’s useful to label our work with these tags to help potential readers understand at a glance what’s in the story.

But we don’t always think about what it really means to tag. We forget that tagging in archive situations like these repositories is really setting up a way to help people interested in that tag find our contribution to the tag. This becomes evident when you see a tag that reads, “ireallyjustlovethishipandnobodyiswritingitsoidid” (yes, I have actually seen this tag), or something equally ludicrous. (I once saw a tag that was literally the writer rambling to see how long she could make the tag before she was cut off. It failed because it split between lines and caused anything after the break to form its own link.)

I think this practice comes from the sarcastic hashtag trend favored on Twitter, but it does nothing but clutter your tags list (and therefore your findability) on search engines and repositories. And the point of the game is to be found, or else you wouldn’t be tagging at all…or posting publicly online, if you want to be completely honest about it.

So, the next time you’re posting a story, be it original or fan fiction, by all means, think about the fandom, characters, genre, and potential triggers. But also take a moment to think about how readers might search for your story, and make sure your tags reflect how you want to be found.

Project Log – Trails & Paths

Last fall, I jumped back into NaNoWriMo for the first time in several years. Really, I’d wanted to focus on a story I’d been dragging my feet on for a couple of months. But I’d ended up getting through that by the halfway mark, and so I thumbed through my Percolator for another story to play with to finish out the month.

The prompt I latched onto was one I often played with while driving between home and school on breaks during grad school – a pair of siblings, one a cleric, the other a ranger. I didn’t have many of my old notes, so it was pretty much an open playing field. I assumed I’d play with the religious differences that came with their respective lines of work, but as I started to really work with the idea, it became a different story all together, drawing in influences from other prompts I had lying around.

They became half-siblings (only a couple of months apart in age), their paladin father the common parent between them. While that alone opened the door to so many possibilities, I chose to keep it focused on just the two of them and the relationship that had developed between the siblings growing up. More than that, it became an exploration of each sibling on his or her own. I gave them a twist that the stories got a half-hearted chance to play with because I’m not accustomed to writing truly dark characters. And as I worked, it became clear I could work this into another storyworld I’ve been working on, and so that changed the setting, and in turn the story.

One of the biggest challenges I faced working on these stories is that I wanted to write a pair of parallel stories, something I’ve wanted to try for years, and I figured this was my chance. But I didn’t have the first clue where to start. Somehow, though, I fumbled my way into a process that seems to have produced a mostly coherent pair of stories. The characters and their outlines were developed together, and then their drafts were written and edited separately. Then, I went back, created the timeline for both stories to run in, and edited both stories to fit within that timeline. (It sounds backwards, but I don’t know that it was possible for me at that time to have done it differently.) and to sync them. Editing them together was also a bit of a trip. I eventually set them to different fonts so I could flip back and forth between them without losing track of whose story I was working on.

Another major challenge was handling the earthquakes that roll (pardon the pun) through both stories. Despite knowing they would be a part of the storyworld, I didn’t actually plan for them in the outlines. Or the first drafts. But it gave me time to really research and figure out how to incorporate earthquakes into the story. While it was a pain to layer them back into the story, it made syncing the stories easier, and it showed places where I hadn’t fully thought through the storyworld itself or the overarching timeline.

I’m hoping to eventually come back to these stories and pull them into a larger story, perhaps one that incorporates more action, maybe a little combat (which I don’t really write, either). But for now, the stories are out there for consideration and comment. And I’m looking  for my next project.

Creating Content: Publishing Writing vs. Publishing Audio

As we’ve been looking at each stage of the creation project in terms of my two primary creative activities, I’ve been able to break down activities into writing-specific activities and voiceover-specific activities. Publishing is a little bit different, because publishing is just publishing more often than not.

When you’re preparing to publish or release a project, you make sure the project is in the right format and the right file type, that all of the little technical issues are in order. For writing, this might be checking margins, fonts, appropriate conventions and style use. For voiceover, this might be making sure you meet all of the specs for the project (bit rate, noise floor, limits), that you’ve included the designated quiet spaces (commonly, the head and tail on the track), and that you’ve included sufficient room tone if required. Whatever you’re preparing to release, always, always, always make sure it meets the rules of the platform you’re publishing to. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief later.

For some projects, you also get to do fun things like create cover art, sales copy (be it a blurb or a project description), and metadata (creator, publisher, participants, genre, subgenre, category, etc.). Having had some experience with all of this as a writer and a museum/library girl came in very handy when I suddenly found myself doing this for voiceover projects (something to keep in mind when you’re looking for transferable skills as you’re changing fields). Again, as you’re preparing these additional materials, make sure it meets the platform’s rules, because having to re-do things when you misread the rules the first time around is a pain.

Finally, you announce to the world you’ve done a thing. Maybe you post it to social media. Maybe you announce it on your blog or in your newsletter (if you have one). Maybe you announce it everywhere you have access. When it’s your own project, you’re responsible for getting the word out into the world. When it’s a project you’ve been part of, there will probably be some line in the contract that says everyone involved has equal responsibility to promote the finished product. Either way, do your part.

This last bit is challenging because you’re going to run into all kinds of things as you start to promote a project. You’re going to come across people (some who really ought to know better) who think all of the marketing should fall on your shoulders. Don’t fall for it if that shared responsibility bit is in your contract. You might also run into people who believe just releasing something into the world will attract readers and listeners, and will suggest that promoting it will violate some rule. Don’t fall for that, either. If there’s a link to the publicly available project, get that puppy out into the world to help people find the project.

Okay, I think that’s everything I can think of about creating as a writer versus creating as a voice actor. If I’ve left anything out or not been clear, please feel free to ask me questions.

Using deviantArt as a Writer and Voice Actor

I’ve used deviantArt over the years, constantly trying to figure out how to best use it for my various creative interests. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve reinvented that account probably close to half a dozen times over the last ten years just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from the site and then again trying to figure out how to use it to show off and highlight the creative directions my life has taken.

deviantArt is a site dedicated primarily to visual artists. Photographers, sketchers, painters, sculptors, costume and jewelry designers – They can all find a home on deviantArt. There is also a corner set aside for writers and poets, but vocal artists have to be a little more creative.

Being a writer on deviantArt is really the easier part. While deviantArt isn’t necessarily geared toward writers, especially those who write chaptered or serialized stories,  it does offer a space to play and get feedback. I like to post stories, vignettes, and even scraps of an idea I was playing with that I can’t find a good home for among my more serious work. Sometimes, it’s the only writing I get done in a week (or a month, as has been the case more recently), and sometimes those bits of story become the basis for voiceover and sound design practices. (I’ll post the audio to SoundCloud and then link the two together so someone finding one can check out the other.) I also like to back up writing from classes and other sites, just in case.

I also find the Journal a useful place to share posts on writing-specific topics from my blog along with craft-agnostic productivity and creativity topics. (You may have noticed I’m currently on a bit of a transdisciplinary kick. How unusual, right?)

One of my better ideas, though, came when I had to start creating covers for my stories and audiobooks. I’ve read so many books and articles on how to create a brilliant book cover, but I find it’s almost always more telling to get them out in front of people and see what the actual reaction is. So, I’ve taken to sharing covers for completed projects, giving them their own gallery so I can see my own progress (and catch any ticks I may be relying on). It’s one of the few ways a voice actor can really use deviantArt, even when she forgets to post the track covers she designs for projects headed to SoundCloud, and it’s a great way to get in some graphic design practice.

My other favorite way to use deviantArt as a voice actor, and I’ve only just started doing this recently, is to create promotional shots for my audiobooks and the audio dramas I perform in. These have really taken off on Instagram, but I back them up to a gallery in deviantArt, again so I can see my progress in developing these and to make sure I’m not getting stuck in ruts. Plus, it’s a great way to get in some photography practice.

What makes deviantArt a great place to store all of these stories and images is that you never know when some random deviant will come by and offer just the right piece of advice or well-timed supportive word on your work.

Creating Content: Editing Writing vs. Editing Audio

Some creators look at the blank slate of the creation stage and panic. Others look at the editing stage and go into hiding. We all have our own relationships with our craft and our work. In my case, I hate being asked whether I prefer creating or editing because both have their charms and their detractors. And I really don’t like being asked if it’s easier to edit written material or audio material, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

As a writer, this is where the fun begins. The manuscript is a lump of play-doh waiting to be twisted, rolled out, and otherwise abused until something hits the “Well…it doesn’t suck…” phase. Notes are made, outlines sometimes drawn back up, holes or otherwise weak points in the story are identified. Sometimes, scenes are completely rewritten. Sometimes, the story itself is completely rewritten. Characters are fleshed out or dropped, world details are added and removed (sometimes in the same editing session). Huge tracts of text are mercilessly cut. In one last step to guard against the trolls and grammarphiles, you then read through it a couple more times looking for those tiny details – spelling, punctuation, etc. – that can throw the more eagle-eyed reader.

As a voice actor, this is the tedious (and sometimes hilarious) part. This is where things like quality control (known in some corners as prooflistening) happen. You sit there and listen to everything accelerated to chipmunk speed (my tracks actually sound more like a little kid), waiting to hear what you actually read in comparison to what’s on the page. The mistakes can be kind of adorable sometimes, especially when your voice sounds like a seven-year-old girl. Then, you go through and clean up the file for any extraneous noises that could throw a listener. And then you get to see just how much your voice changes from day to day as you try to match yourself to fix the lines you misread the first time around.

Regardless of which medium you’re in, this phase is about building the best story you can. It’s very detail-oriented, and leaves you spending too much time wondering what’s “good enough”. It’s also a lot of time spent with your inner critic, which can be debilitating if you let it really get to you. But I’ve found that really good mistakes (and someday I’ll actually think to start creating project blooper reels) are a great way to shut down that inner critic because you remember that the work is fun.

Creating Content: The Act of Writing vs. The Act of Recording

Most creators don’t start working on a project without going through some sort of planning phase. Even those who write by the seat of their pants will have a handful of ideas, a genre, a target audience, and maybe a target word length in mind when they sit down to work. Some creators will even (deliberately or accidentally) use the planning phase to delay the phase of actually making the thing. But eventually, work begins on the project.

As a writer, this is the terrifying rough draft phase, complete with research periods, outline revisions as ideas change and grow, and however many false starts it takes to get through it. Ideally, this phase is nothing but writing, reading over notes to know where you’re headed next, and reading over the last page or so to get into the day’s writing, but some writers just can’t help themselves and edit bits and pieces as they go. (This way lies a lot of madness. We all do it at some point, but still… Use your planning phase wisely and with your own process in mind.)

As a voice actor, this is the hours of just sitting down at the mic, performing, and trying to not get into a rut. In my case, I’m often sitting there hoping like anything I’m not screwing everything up. (It’s been nearly five years, and I still haven’t really found my confidence as a voice actor. I’m told this is not unusual.) This phase is ideally characterized by just recording and then listening back to make sure you got everything correct word-wise, but it’s really hard when you realize you’ve changed a major character’s voice in a major, non-defensible way (like the character aging over the course of the project or suffering a major change within the story). But for reasons unknown, I find it much easier to stay on target with recording than with writing.

I say that I struggle with faith in my work while I’m recording, but that’s not entirely true. I doubt myself when I’m writing, too. Even when things are going well, I have give myself pep talks, remind myself that I’ve been doing this craft for a while now, and that I wouldn’t be doing it if I couldn’t do it. While my writing work is almost exclusively personal, my voiceover work tends to be for others and then I can remind myself that someone else picked me to do this work because they thought I could do it and do it well. It’s not my own arrogance at play like it is with my writing.

I bring this up because those moments of self-doubt can really hinder your work while you’re in creation mode, and I want you to know that no matter how long you’ve been doing something, it’s normal as a creator to have those little moments, and to acknowledge them and then continue on with your work. You wouldn’t be doing it if you couldn’t.

All right, next time we leave the scary seas of creating to the even scarier seas of editing.

Creating Content: Prepping to Write vs. Prepping to Record

My high school and college both had a technology class requirement, and I chose to fulfill both by taking basic programming courses. Honestly, it seemed more fun than several weeks of having basic terminology explained to me. I took three classes total. My high school class focused on teaching the basics of Turbo Pascal (because I’m that old). I did well enough in the class to pull out a decent score on the AP test. As a result, the first course I took in college was a bit of a refresher.

The second course, however, was more interesting. We spent the semester switching over to object-oriented programming in C++, leaning by first designing and implementing the project in Turbo Pascal and then learning how to design the same project in C++. It seems redundant, but what we really ended up learning was how to view processes when developing programming, a skill we could carry on to learn other languages, be they programming or markup.

I’ve written things other than code most of my life. The writing cycle is as natural to me as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Prepare, write, edit, publish. Repeat.  So, when I started narrating audiobooks, it took me longer than it should have to realize it was pretty much the same process as writing, just a different medium and set of tools.

Regardless of the medium, it all starts with preparing the project.

As a writer, the moment of prep comes when an idea grows too large to be left alone any more. I make notes, writing down absolutely everything I’m thinking about. I add in notes from my Percolator (what I call my swipe file/brainstorming file). I play with ideas, eventually pulling them into an outline of sorts. (Sometimes, it’s an actual outline). If there are things that need to be researched, I take care of that…sometimes to the point of delaying the project a bit in favor of all the pretty rabbit holes. *wink* But by the time I’ve finished preparing to write a story, I have enough of a foundation laid out to successfully start writing.

As a voice actor, the moment of prep comes when the script hits my hands. I’ve been fortunate so far in that I’ve nearly always been given the full script (I always have the full manuscript for audiobooks) and have had time to sit down and read the entire thing. (It really does help.) For audiobooks, I open my notebook to the next available page and start a pronunciation guide. If it’s a series, I make a note of what characters are returning so I can pull up those reference files to reacquaint myself with those voices. If it’s an audiobook I’m producing, I’ll also write the blurb and create the cover when I’m finished reading. For audio dramas, I read the script on my Kindle, highlight my lines (bookmarking pages where my highlighter won’t work) and review my audition so I can reconnect with the voice. By the time I’m finished, I’m set up to make decent use of my very limited recording time.

Regardless of the medium, once I have my prep work done, I add the project (with detailed notes for the production process) to its own queue in GQueues, and then I add the project with a checklist of major milestones to Habitica. And then I usually go to bed so I can face the next part well rested and with fresh eyes.

The Importance of Negative Space in Digital Writing

When published writing started moving from print to digital, there were a lot of growing pains. Rules that had been developed over years of printing suddenly had to be reconsidered in terms of digital readers. At first, it was little things like the number of spaces after a period. (Because typewriters didn’t always strike a page cleanly, a practice of putting one space after a comma and two spaces after a period was adopted to make it more clear which was intended. Digitally, that was more clear, but the extra space added to the file’s size.)

But then it became the formatting of the text. In print, paragraphs are indented at the beginning. Digitally, this isn’t as easy as it looks. Again, the spaces necessary to indent the first sentence of a paragraph increase file size. But more importantly, browsers and e-readers need code to tell them to display a paragraph correctly, and coding can be a little terrifying for the average writer (and misinterpreted for fun and profit by every browser out there). When it became clear people reading digital material preferred a bit more space in their reading material, the problem resolved itself by making non-indented paragraphs with spaces in between to help separate them the norm.

And that’s really what a lot of the struggles surrounding the move from print to digital has been about: negative space (in this context, “white space”). Looking at…well…anything for a period of time can be draining on our energy, our eyesight, and our attention span. White space gives us a chance to take a break from whatever we’re looking at. But we interact differently with print than we do with digital, so our white space requirements differ depending on what we’re looking at (although I am seeing more print books that have dropped the second space after a period as printing devices have become more effective).

The change in paragraph markers (indentation versus extra spaces between paragraphs) is just one example of ways that we have adapted text-based content  to provide the right balance of text to white space for digital environments. but it also explains why we learn a different set of rules when moving from one environment to the other. Ultimately, it’s about providing the best, most comfortable reading experience for the viewer in their chosen environment.