Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Short Short Contest

Have you completed your short story? Polished it? Does it show you’ve mastered the MRU and story structure? Does your main character grab your heart? Then it’s time to share your baby with the world—or at least the English speaking people.

Writers Digest is sponsoring its 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition for manuscripts with 1,500 words or less. The first ten winners will have their entries published in the 2014 July/August edition of Writers Digest Magazine. The first place winner will also receive $3,000 and a trip to the WD Conference in New York City. Second prize is $1,500, third is $500 and fourth through tenth receive $100. Eleventh through twenty-fifth will get $50. Good luck to you.—Quinn

Submission information may be found at: writersdigest.com/competitions  

Monday, August 26, 2013

What in the World is an MRU?

Let’s digress from our study of emotion this time and talk about motivation reaction units (MRUs). The first time I heard these explained was by Randy Ingermanson, creator of the Snowflake Method. He read about them in Dwight V. Swain’s classic. Techniques of the Selling Writer, which is available on Amazon.com.

 So what is a motivation-reaction-unit? An MRU is the fundamental grouping of words that form a story.

 The first component of the MRU is a sentence or several sentences which comprise a cause. The cause is something the reader can see. It is totally outside of the point-of-view (POV) character, and can be anything tangible or intangible, conscious or unconscious that stimulates a change in the character. Neither the POV’s name nor pronouns that refer to him may appear in this part of the MRU.

The paragraph that follows contains the second half of the MRU. It is a sentence or group of sentences that show the effect of the stimulus. It is about the POV character and shows the change in his behavior or state of mind in response to the motivating stimulus.

The following is an excerpt from the prologue of my novel Kokoweef, which may be accessed by clicking the tab under the banner. I’ve labeled the alternating pattern of motivation and reaction. Notice that the motivating sentences are completely outside the POV. Also note how the stimulus produces a change in the POV that moves the story along

 The soldiers assumed their posts. Commander Lucifer positioned himself on high ground opposite the wormhole, his generals at his sides.  [MOTIVATION]

 Malum drew his swords. With Michael and his army vanquished, what would Lord Lucifer do next? Attack High Heaven? It had been eons since the Enemy cast them out. A victorious return would be joyous.   [REACTION]

 The wormhole rumbled, and Lucifer raised his hands.   [MOTIVATION]

 Malum’s swords shook. Steady. Only moments until Lucifer signals to attack. [REACTION]

 A low whine grumbled in the passage.  [MOTIVATION]

 Malum tightened his grips.   [REACTION]

 The noise rose in pitch and volume. The tunnel’s crystalline walls vibrated.  [MOTIVATION]

 He swallowed, and his breaths quickened. The surface on which he stood rolled and swayed. He fought for traction then furrowed his brows. Something was wrong. The resonance frequency had changed. An operational wormhole never made that high, warbling sound. What was Michael up to?  [REACTION]

 Fire roared from the wormhole and incinerated several soldiers. The tunnel warped. Squealed. Folded inward. In a blink, it disappeared.  [MOTIVATION]

 Malum cursed, and turned his attention to Lucifer.  [REACTION]

 Rage contorted the commander’s faces. He bellowed and lashed out with his swords. The heads of his generals rolled down slope to Malum’s feet.  [MOTIVATION]

 His hearts lurched.  [REACTION]

So why are the MRUs important? They provide the momentum that moves the story along. Strings of MRUs form scenes and sequences. Alternating scenes and sequences then produce the story pattern.—Quinn

Monday, June 10, 2013


My last few blogs dealt with writing for children. A good way to hone your craft and get the attention of editors is by entering writing contests. Children’s Writer is sponsoring a contest called Kindergarten Story: Exploration. The publication is an e-mail newsletter read by editors of children’s books and magazines in North America. First prize will be $500; second will be $250; and third, fourth, and fifth will be $100. Submissions are due by July 12, 2013 and prizes will ne awarded by October, 2013.

Entries need to be fictional, their topic exploration, and they cannot exceed 150 words. The target is five through seven-year-olds, so use settings familiar to children of that age group and create a main character that explores an appropriate topic. Some suggestions for exploration include people, animals, nature, professions, and make-believe. The vocabulary should be fun, colorful, and on a level that most early learners can read. Use techniques covered on this blog and its archives and be sure to use normal story structure. That is, there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Pay careful attention to the contest’s submission standards, especially to word length. They may be accessed at Children’s Writer by clicking on Guidelines in the sidebar—Quinn

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Writing for Children-Part Three Non-Fiction

While non-fiction’s purpose is to impart well-researched information, non-fiction for children should retain the flavor of lively storytelling. It must be age appropriate with word and page restrictions identical to that of fiction. As with all stories, non-fiction’s structure consists of a beginning, middle, and an end.

Make the opener invoke curiosity, awe, and urgency. This can be done by using an anecdote, an amazing fact, a quote, or a quotation. A reason why the child should be interested in the topic must follow.

In the middle, present one fact at a time. Use short paragraphs and short sentences. Organize your information logically so the child understands sequentially. Break up narration with images, graphs, or timelines and compare difficult concepts to something easily visualized. Always use concrete language. Difficult words can be defined in the text.

The conclusion will be a summation and restatement of the beginning. A glossary, index, bibliography or a list of books for further reading can appear at the end.

The following describes several of the categories you can choose from if you decide to write non-fiction. Biographies are written for preschoolers as well as older children. Rather than only mentioning major events, anecdotal information is used and a large part of the story takes place in the subject’s childhood. How to and activity books use illustrations and materials lists along with step-by-step instructions. Behind the scenes books show how things work or are produced. Holiday books may deal with origins, traditions, or folk tales. Games, crafts, and songs may be included. History books cover one era, event, or topic. Sports and adventure books are lively, action-packed, and present basic information while using pictures. Museum books are primarily visual. Filled with color pictures and artwork, their subjects are explained directly and concisely. Science books cover many subjects. In the lower grades, some of the topics that interest children the most are dinosaurs, fossils, insects, weather, simple machines, habitats, and anatomy. For older children, subjects that relate to school curriculum are considered.

So, you are ready to write a non-fiction book. How do you choose your topic? Study your audience. Discover the leisure pursuits of the children in your targeted age group. Be familiar with the magazines they read and the news they see. Find out what interests young adults, for their tastes may have filtered down to the younger kids by the time you are published. Then research, using source materials.—Quinn

Friday, April 26, 2013

Children's Literature---Part Two Writing for Elementary Age Children

My last blog dealt with picture books and story books for preschoolers. Today, I’ll cover easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels, which are also quite structured.

Easy readers are written for children from kindergarten through second grade. Vocabulary is simple and illustrations, which may be in black and white or color, contain reading cues. They run between 1,000 and 1,500 words and 40 to 60 pages in length. The plots and settings are not complex. Though there is action, conflicts are not serious and they involve situations common to this age group.

Serving as a transition between picture books and novels, chapter books are aimed at children in the first through third grades. They may be illustrated. If so, it is with black and white drawings. At 1,500 to 10,000 and 40 to 80 pages in length, they require a longer attention span and a higher reading level. As in all stories, the plot must have a beginning, middle, and an end. Short three to four page chapters are self-contained but must serve to move the story along. Conflict is not serious.

Middle grade novels are written for third through sixth graders. Subjects are usually divided by gender. Books for boys deal with things traditionally masculine like sports and science. Stories for girls include traditionally feminine subjects like friendships, pets, and art. There are few if any illustrations. Typically, they run from 64 to 120 pages long and contain 10,000 to 16,000 words. Each of the eight to sixteen chapters has three scenes.

Like adult novels, the middle grade novel must have plot structure and character growth. It must be visually appealing starting with a realistic cover illustration. Inside, there must be balance between dense text and “white space,” accomplished by mixing dialogue and paragraphs. Sentences should be short, averaging ten words long and avoiding too many clauses. For vocabulary, use the easiest word that conveys the meaning. Rely on repetition, context, and intuition for understanding new or difficult words.

The story should be very visual and contain a lot of action and humor. While adults may be in the novel, the main character is a child. The story is told from his point of view and he reacts to situations as a child would. While likeable, he needs to be flawed in some manner. His voice should be light-hearted and intimate. Problems should be familiar to a kid’s world, and he must be the one who solves them. By the end of the book, he must change in some way.

Aside from the main plot, middle grade novels should have no more than two subplots. Characters should be slightly older than the reader. Popular genres are mysteries with kid detectives, fantasies that empower kids, and histories where a child is in a difficult situation. In addition to a physical description, humor, snappy dialogue, internal dialogue (thoughts), and gestures describe him. Humor can be visual gags, corny jokes, or ridiculous situations. However, bear in mind that he and the readers can’t process sarcasm and never let him poke fun at anyone’s expense.

The audience and market for easy readers still include adults. Adults are less involved in selecting chapter books, and middle graders choose their own books. To determine what kind of characters children can identify with, the writer should become familiar with kids’ conflicts, aspirations, and interests as well as how they think, talk, and perceive the world. The best way to do this is to observe them in various settings.

Next time we’ll look at non-fiction books for elementary children.—Quinn

Friday, April 19, 2013

Children's Literature--Part One Writing for the Preschooler

Perhaps the most difficult genre is children’s literature. This is because children are very literal and because there are constraints on vocabulary, age appropriateness, and word count. Also the theme must appeal to both the child and the adult who chooses his books.

Books for preschoolers are tightly structured. Typically, they are 24 or 32 pages long with four pages reserved for the title, copyright, dedications, and other information. Sometimes they run a little more or less, but they are always a multiple of eight. Word counts for picture books are less than 1,000 with less than 600 preferred. Picture storybooks are less than 2,000 words with 1,000-1,200 words preferred.

The word limitations make pacing very important. Each word on a page must move the story forward, provide action and variety, and at the same time flow well with the artwork. While benefitting from the illustrations, each story must stand on its own. Typically each book has 14 to 18 scenes with a single activity per scene. The genre comes in three categories: fiction, concept, and novelty books.

As with adult books, the fictional story must have a beginning, middle, and an end. At the outset, the main character, a child, is introduced along with some difficulty he must overcome. Story is conflict, so in the middle there must be three obstacles to overcome. Though the character tries and fails with the first one, he will get closer to his goal. The second obstacle is more difficult and the conflict more intense. The third obstacle is the most difficult and he almost fails. At the end, he both reaches his goal and has changed for the better in some way. While adults may have a role in him reaching the goal, he must be the one who conquers the problem.

The concept book can be fiction, following the above form, or non-fiction. It teaches an educational concept or suggests a way in which the child may overcome a childhood dilemma.

Novelty books can also be fiction or non-fiction. They use a gimmick such as seek-and-find, pop-ups, or lift-the-tabs in addition to story.

Stories appropriate for preschoolers include situations common to the child’s world, timely topics, diversity, and life passages. At this age, topics appealing to children must also appeal to parents. Adults tend to like stories that include nostalgia, relationships, and redeeming values.

In my next blog entry, I’ll discuss books for elementary and middle school children.—Quinn

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!”
For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper,
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you may seek refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.
                                       Ps 91: 1-4
                                       New American Standard

Thursday, January 24, 2013

First or Third?---Point of View

The holidays are behind us and you and your family have made a lot of memories. Many could make a good story. By the end of March, editors will have selected articles and stories for use in their 2013 holiday publications. So, now is the time to submit your work. If you are not ready for a magazine, consider newsletters, bulletins, or your local newspaper.

One of the first decisions to make before you start is which point of view to use in telling the story. The two most common are first person and third person. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

First person point of view feels most natural to the novice writer. It is simple and intimate, allowing the reader to see deep inside the point of view character’s thoughts. The story’s narrator is the main, or point of view, character. He refers to himself as I and usually tells the story in the past tense. He is part of the action, reveals his emotions and reasons for writing the story, and is aware of the audience. His voice reflects his background, education, and regional accent, not the author’s. An example is this snippet taken from Black Sunday, which may be viewed in its entirety by clicking the Black Sunday tab near the top of this page.

Guess I was too big for my britches. I looked over the boys real good. Thought they was all pretty poor quality. But, all that changed one night.
First I seed of Franklin Pierce Pettigrew was at a box social at Preacher Pettigrew’s. He’d breezed in from Texas on horseback. And my! From his Stetson to his boots, he looked mighty fine. Had a sassy smile that shivered my heart. But, oh was he a wild one.

Right now, the most popular point of view is third person, because it allows the reader to identify with the main character (MC). In third person, the narrator is an observer, not a character. The MC is referred to by name and the pronouns used are he or she. The reader has access to only the MC’s observations, thoughts, feelings, and memories. Though the story is told in past tense, it feels like the MC is experiencing everything in the present. The following is the Black Sunday snippet written in third person. It takes more words to tell the story, but the result is more immediate.

Caroline turned up her nose at the farm boys who were hanging over the fence railing and gawking at the girls. She flounced to a hay bale and sat with her back to them.
Mary Ann approached, handed her a frosty jelly jar filled with sweet tea, and sat next to her. “My, Caroline, seems you’ve caught the eye of half the young men in Guthrie.
Caroline tossed her curls. “I pay those chewing, spitting, hawg callers no never mind.”
“Hmm.” Mary Ann gave her a sly look. “I ‘spect you’ve got your bonnet set for one of those big-city boys. Wonder who.”
Caroline’s cheeks burned.
Yip! Yip! Ye, haw!
A cowboy on a black stallion galloped over the hill. The horse skirted the grassy area around the parsonage, kicking dust on the guests who lounged on the lawn with their suppers.
The pastor’s wife coughed and dusted her dress. “Franklin Pierce Pettigrew, you stop that showing off right now, or I’ll take a stick to you.”
The young man drew the horse up short and jumped from the saddle. “Aw, you talk so mean to your favorite nephew.”
He grabbed her, kissed her cheek, and swung her off her feet.
“Put me down, fool. I’m getting all dizzy.”
Franklin set her down. As his gaze fixed on Caroline, his sassy grin widened and his eyes grew bolder. He whipped off his Stetson and made a sweeping bow. “Howdy, ma’am.”
Caroline’s heart shivered. Unable to respond, she held her breath. This brash young cowboy was quite the finest man in all the territory.

Which point of view should you use? That depends on what “feels right” for your story and what you want to accomplish. First person feels more factual. The narrator is presenting the story and he and the reader are aware of each other. He can digress, make comments, maintain a comic distance. In third person, the reader can immerse himself in the story world and the lives of the characters. It feels natural and the narration is not distracting.

Now’s the time to write that story. If it’s not ready for publication, it still can delight your family and friends.—Quinn