Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How to bring setting and description alive in your writing

It’s a strange thing, but I find writers of contemporary novels struggle the most with setting and description. It’s as if because they’re writing about the world around us today, they think the reader will know what they’re talking about. Despite Google Earth and all those films and TV shows, nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s how to learn the lessons that fantasy and historical writers know. 

The settings in your novel will benefit immensely from being unique, and from you taking the time to work on them until they evoke strong images and sensations in the reader’s imagination. Michael Connelly, crime writer, talks about the “telling detail”. You don’t have to overload your paragraphs with lengthy descriptions; rather, you write a lot in your first draft, or perhaps leave a gap and a note, and then choose and craft those details that will bring your story alive.

How do you do this? By focusing on one aspect at a time. What world are we in? What makes it different from anywhere else? What makes this character stand out? How can you describe them in two or three sentences, in a way that creates a picture? Look at your favourite novelists and see how they do it. Reading as a writer can teach you a huge amount. Here are two examples, one of character and one of setting.

“He was a tall man. Nose like a bird’s beak. Eyes of a bird, too. He gave Carl a brief glance and went on surveying the room, jerking his head in precise movements, the way a hawk surveys the ground beneath it. The eyes missed nothing.” A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove by James Moloney.

“The afternoon wore on towards evening, and the broken glass and mica of the roadside glittered in the last, low sunlight of the day. The snowy fields glowed briefly and went dark. At the dump the fires of burning rubbish smouldered, red and smoky in the dusk.” The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban.

Another good question to ask yourself is how the setting and description add to your plot. What is the weather? A snowstorm? A very hot day? Are we in a house with faulty electrical wiring? What is that like? How might it change the story if it goes out, or starts a fire? Does the setting influence the character’s mood or actions/reactions in some way? Is that blue antique phone booth something to crash into, or hide in? How do other characters react to something specific or strange about your main characters? For example:
“We watched her sit down in class and pull from her canvas bag a blue and yellow ruffled curtain that she draped over three sides of her desk. We saw her set out a three-inch clear glass vase and drop into it a white and yellow daisy. She did and undid this in every class she attended, six times a day.” Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.

Another question to ask is what changes in your setting and description that shows the reader either a passage of significant time (a season perhaps), or a change in the characters. The simplest example of character is one who loses or puts on weight, or deliberately changes their appearance (we ask why). In terms of setting, it could be the result of a disaster, or positive change such as a new queen shown by new prosperity and happy people. It can be quite small but still significant.

An example of a wider application: if a village or suburb is described as wealthy and filled with trees and gardens, expensive houses and well-dressed people at the start of your novel (using specific, telling details) and later is described as a downtrodden, ruined place, the reader can much better imagine how and why this devastation happened, rather than you explaining it all (yes, the old “show don’t tell” in a different way). Great details can also convey irony and contrast, as in these small excerpts:
“But with legs slotted under metal armrests, ten thousand watts of fluorescent light glaring directly overhead, hundreds of disgruntled travellers for company, an abandoned acrylic airline blanket for a cover and his loyal dog at his feet, Justin slept like a baby.” Just In Case by Meg Rosoff.

“There were dark green dots of trees and lines of windbreaks, the flashing of galvanised-iron roofs like little square pools of water, the tanks and sheds and stockyards and dams, the endless boring fences. It was my country, even more than the bush and the mountains, and definitely more than the cities and towns. I felt at home in those hot, rustling paddocks.” The Dead of Night by John Marsden.

A way to use detail and description that affects readers at a deeper level is to work with symbolism. A particular flag flying over devastation, the pits of Mordor that symbolise death and decay, the daisy in the Stargirl example above (what does that flower tell you about that character?). What are evocative symbols of power? Of powerlessness? If you choose ones that are particular to your characters, rather than just the common ones, they will resonate more with readers. For example, a flock of abandoned ducklings taken in and cared for by someone wrongly accused of murdering a child. What does that convey to your reader without you spelling it out?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, use the five senses, and use them well. Too often, our fallback position is what we see, what our characters see. Don’t forget sound, smell, taste and touch. A character might see a brocade cushion, but running their fingers across it will evoke an extra sensory detail, and perhaps it smells musty, or of a particular perfume. If a character is lost in a large department store, that loud, grating muzak might be the thing that sends them into a real panic or rage, or it could be the cloying scents in the makeup area that make them faint. Sensory details often provoke our characters into actions and decisions without them being completely aware of what influenced them – but if you write it well, the reader will understand.

What interested me when I went looking for examples was how easy it was to find them. So many readers (young and old) say they skip lengthy descriptive passages, but I could have picked almost any page from these novels and provided examples. I think the key is that they are not only short-ish, but also very evocative, and they are in the story at a point where the reader will benefit immensely from being able to visualize where the characters are or what they look like. Bring your stories alive on the page, make them feel really real, through the intensive work you do in crafting setting and description.

I have been writing a lot of these articles on writing and developing skills for Medium online. My most recent Medium article is on research for fiction writers - a much expanded version of a post that appeared here a while ago - read it here.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sunday, January 20, 2019

I'll give those pesky questions a go

The Guardian runs columns where they ask famous writers to answer a series of questions I got to thinking - what would my answers be? So here they are.

The book I’m currently reading
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s so good. I discovered her books in an independent bookshop in Collingwood – one of those where staff read a lot and wrote recommendations to attach to the shelves (and they still do, but that shop is gone now). I picked up Pigs in Heaven and later Animal Dreams and never stopped reading her. Everyone says they loved The Poisonwood Bible but my favourite is actually Prodigal Summer.

The book that changed my life
Not one book. Every book I read as a child and teenager that showed me something different, new, exciting and that showed me my life was more than what I was living right then. Even if I didn’t understand how just then.

The book I wish I’d written
Probably The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – not just because it’s a great book but because it was so hard for him, so weird, and he just kept slugging away at it until he found a way to make it work. Such kudos to him, when most people would give up or write something more “sellable”.

The book that most influenced my writing
My first pick here would be The Bone People by Keri Hulme. It showed me very early in my writing that you could write in ways other than the standard beginning/middle/end. I wasn’t up to that then, but I remembered it. In my teens I read a huge amount of crime and historical fiction, including Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler, and I think that has influenced me a lot more than I realise.

The book I think is most under/overrated
Currently I would say books that authors co-write with James Paterson (I’ll get criticised for saying that). I’ve seen writers whose work I really enjoy, but their JP novels are boring.

The book that changed my mind
About? Life changes all the time. At the moment I’m reading Seth Godin’s new book about marketing, and that has both changed and confirmed my thoughts on the topic.

The last book that made me cry
Lots of books make me cry, especially if their endings really resonate on several levels. Movies and TV shows do, too. One I remember that made me cry unexpectedly was a fantasy by Juliet Marrillier. And I always cry when I read Fox by Margaret Wild. 

The last book that made me laugh
Janet Evanovich’s books always made me laugh out loud, until I got to about No. 15, and the humour/jokes got tired. Right now, I can’t think of any recently – maybe I read too much crime fiction!

The book I couldn’t finish
I don’t finish more books now than I used to, since I realised how slogging through something wasted a lot of time I could be spending on something much better. I confess at the moment Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay is sitting there and I still haven’t got past page 50 and I don’t really know why. I will keep trying, because I love his other books. Oh, I know – Macbeth by Jo Nesbo. Just could not get into it. I’m not a fan of classics rewrites, no matter how clever.

The book I give as a gift
I try to give books as gifts all the time, either ones I have read and think are really good and should be shared, or ones I hear about and think – that would be perfect for X. So the most recent of those is The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands by Huw Lewis-Jones, which I gave to a friend who is a wonderful fantasy writer.

My earliest reading memory
My eldest sister gave me The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis when I was about ten, and it changed everything for me about books – created my addiction, I think!

My comfort read
I’m not sure I have comfort reads. For comfort I tend to watch TV, things like The Great British Bake Off where I can imagine myself baking marvellous cakes (instead of burning them).

Friday, November 23, 2018

An Evening with Lee Child

By my estimate, Lee Child has probably done several hundred writer's events and interviews, and in fact he'd just completed a writer-in-conversation event in this venue no more than half an hour ago, yet he sat, relaxed and engaged, ready to talk. I was expecting to hear something rote, something that sounded like he'd said it a million times before - I spent 8 years doing radio interviews with writers and I've learned to pick that tone. But Lee Child managed to make it sound fresh and interesting. He also talked as if Jack Reacher was a real person, not just a character. Before I knew it, I had my notebook out, writing things down.

Firstly he talked about the idea of Reacher as a mythical archetype - the silent stranger who rides in off the plains (like in a Zane Grey novel), finding women and children alone and helping to save them. In a similar way to the hero who rides out of the forest and saves everyone - think Beowulf or Odysseus - the knight errant, the wanderer. Of course the saving hero has to leave afterwards and remain mysterious and mythical, and often he lives nowhere 'realistic'. Reacher is fundamentally of myth and legend, in a contemporary world where myth and legend has been ruined.

Child was very aware right from the start that the Reacher books needed a distinctive voice, and really worked to create this - someone who is articulate but unaccustomed to doing much talking. He also said he thought a book is a crude version of an audio recording, so the voice on the page is very important. He thinks about the rhythm of his sentences all the time, so the reader is pushed through the book by the way the sentences work. He does read what he's written aloud.

He doesn't do research, but he talked about having been to all the places that are his settings, and how much he loves trivia and stores little things away. It seemed to me that he has a prodigious memory for details and can draw them out and use them. He never plots or outlines - he starts at Sentence 1 and writes Sentence 2 and just keeps going. He often worries about whether the book will be long enough, and that awareness of length stays with him all the way through. The story unfolds organically - he talked about 'living' the story as it happens and writing it (and he doesn't do revisions or revise with the editors because 'that's how it happened').

He did talk about character arcs, but said he thought it was fatal for an author to fall in love with their character (and mentioned Dorothy Sayers falling in love with Peter Wimsey and the series falling apart). You have to maintain critical distance from your character and stay honest about them. If a character 'takes over' it means the author is not working hard enough. He banishes Reacher from his thoughts when he's not writing a book about him.

There was some discussion of Reacher's love life - women leave Reacher, not the other way around. An intelligent woman soon works out Reacher is not a good prospect! Child always gets asked about Tom Cruise playing Reacher. He said he loved working with Tom and he is very hardworking and intelligent about how stories work - but Child underestimated how upset people would be that Tom was cast as Reacher in the movies. However, Child had a veto clause and after two movies he was able to say - no more movies. There was mention of a TV series but I'm not sure how serious that was!

There were a few audience questions - one was about guns. Child said: Reacher says never tell a soldier that guns are fun. Anyone who gets excited by handling a gun is the person who shouldn't have one. Another question was about Reacher's age, and Child said Reacher was 36 in the first book, and probably now he is about 52, so he's slowed down the aging (not one book/one year of aging) and there may be more prequels, going back in Reacher's life. 23 books so far and no sign he's stopping writing them.
And two of Child's favourite writers? John MacDonald's Travis MGee books and Dick Francis.
It was interesting to see how many men were in the audience - probably about 50% - but lots of female fans, too! It was a great session and I went home with lots to think about.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Touchy Topic

A long, long time ago (in a galaxy right here) I wrote a children’s chapter book called The Too-Tight Tutu that became a kind of classic in Australia, for a while anyway. It seemed everybody knew it, with its bright pink cover and great illustrations by Cathy Wilcox. It stayed in print, year after year, which is something of an achievement in this age of disposable, here-today-gone-tomorrow children’s book series. It was one of the Aussie Bites, which was a terrific series developed by Julie Watts, then children’s publisher at Penguin.

Over the years I have always talked about TTTT during school visits. I show the kids a photo of me dressed as a fairy when I was about six, and sometimes read some of the story (the beginning where Merry talks about being fat), and also talk about how really the story is based on me. I was a fat child who desperately wanted to be a ballerina and, thanks to a ballet teacher who came to our little country school, I got to do ballet lessons for one year. At the end of that year, when it came time to dance in the competitions, they couldn’t find a tutu to fit me (or the character in the story, who’s called Merry). All ends well, of a sort – they find a tutu at last and she gets to dance on the stage in it, although she doesn’t win any prizes. Neither did I. Such is life! I wasn’t going to sugar-coat that, even in a fictionalised version.

But over the past few years, when I have done a school visit and talked about this book, I’ve seen an awful lot of adults squirming, and I know exactly why. It’s because I use the word FAT. Once or twice, I substituted horrible, euphemistic words like large or big or … I try not to remember now. And then I thought – I’m talking about something that is real for a lot of girls and boys, and using euphemisms is something I hate at any time. It doesn’t protect anyone. Fat kids know exactly what you are talking about. I certainly did. 

So I went back to talking about being fat as a kid, about not fitting into any tutu other than an ugly black and red adult one, and about having dreams and finding out they can come true. I have a lot of feelings about being fat, about being teased, about all those years of dieting, about why I have spent most of my life being overweight. About why I’m not fat now, which is not some heroic Woman’s Day story either.

Recently I read this articleby Kelly deVos about what she calls Body Positivity and what it has meant to both her and her daughter, and about the YA novel she has written, Fat Girl on a Plane. It’s an interesting piece, because she talks about how she thought she knew all about feeling positive about being fat, taking no notice of fat shaming and all the debates about it. Until her daughter started dieting and she herself was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. And it’s still not a simple issue for her – or for anyone!

What is the difference between talking openly about being fat and what that brings with it in our society, and fat shaming? The intention, I guess, like any contentious issue. It becomes even more contentious, weirdly enough, when you try to write fiction about it. Because you can’t usually get away with a wishy-washy character that never has an opinion or strong feelings, or always tries to be nice. So what strong feelings will your main character have about being fat?

Shame? Delight? The urge to confront? (Not likely when you’re a teen.) How about being matter of fact? Of simply telling it like it is? Of showing all sides, or at least showing a layered or multi-faceted view of the topic. Despite TTTT being a chapter book of less than 4000 words, I suspect it has resonated all these years because I was honest about me and what it was like. I knew I was fat. I knew it caused issues, like my mother telling me off for eating too many cakes (usually when she was out), and not being able to fit the tutu I so badly wanted to wear. That was simply the story I told. 

I don’t believe shielding or protecting kids from these kinds of facts helps them at all. Like death, like accidents, like friends who dump them, kids know this stuff happens. You can pretend all you like that you’re making their lives better by not talking about it. Ultimately, they know better than you.

There are other things I could write here about being fat but they are not my stories. When I write about fat characters now (which I have in a recent MG novel), I write from the memories of myself in my teens and 20s, and how I felt, and why I ate and ate. I know damn well that MG novel is going to create more squirming, and it may also mean it won’t get published. But like TTTT, I wrote it from my heart. We’ll see what happens next. (And I do intend to read deVos’ book – in the meantime I highly recommend a YA novel called Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L Going.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

I'm not really eavesdropping ...

OK, I am. I'm out and about, and as I pass you, you say something like, "She told him he had ten minutes to get his stuff and get out", or "I don't know how to tell him how I feel", or "Listen, kid, nobody asked you to be born." I hear you and I wonder what the story is behind those words.

There is a cartoonist in Melbourne who eavesdrops and then draws a cartoon each week in the Sunday Age - Oslo Davis. Funnily enough, his cartoons make me laugh and wonder about people, but they very rarely make me want to write. Perhaps the drawing takes away the urge? Or maybe it's simply that what intrigues him doesn't intrigue me.

Nonetheless, I do listen. And I watch. Sometimes it's better not to hear what they are saying and rely on body language. I do this a lot. Hence the way my boss rolled his eyes once when I asked a question told me a heck of a lot more than his answer, or anything he's done since! I watch the way people sit - arms tightly crossed, heads shaking while they agree with someone, the smile that makes their face look like they are in pain.

I listen to people make promises, pretend they are brave, protest loudly while they twist and squirm in their chair, tell lies while their bodies say they are totally hiding something. I listen to tone. Those who are loud but are whining like small children saying "Not fair". Those who lay down the law but use words and a tone that show their fear. And the people whose smile really does light up a room just because they are genuinely good, happy people (not many of them these days).

I gather up story ideas from all kinds of places, but very often from things people tell me - or half-tell me. Snippets of memory, of family secrets, of something that deeply affected them. I gather them from stories in the newspaper, too - I once wrote a whole novel based on a sentence from an article about a New York murder. I wrote a whole verse novel based on a social psychology experiment I was told about - the end result bore no resemblance to the original story whatsoever. It didn't matter. The spark was what mattered, what got me thinking, creating characters, making a story, taking huge leaps and bounds with ideas to create something big and meaty.

I have a lot of family stories of my own. After many years of believing I had nothing to say about my own life, apart from in a few poems, I have started writing memoir pieces. One day perhaps my grandson will read them. For now, it's a way of keeping some family history and memories intact. So often the past is dismissed. How many tons of family records, letters, photos and mementos have been tossed in the trash by family members who don't care or think it's better all gone and buried? When you have a family where your parents and grandparents are all gone, suddenly you see how many stories have been lost.

So if you feel the urge to write your own stories, your family stories, or even just to try and preserve things in some way for future generations, do it. And if you write and you hear something that lodges in your brain and won't let go, that you keep on hearing like an echo - let it grow. It could be a novel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Online writing courses

I had to go back and correct a link in an old post, and I ended up reading a few others I had written more than ten years ago! It was an interesting experience. I hadn't realised I'd written so much about various writers' festivals and sessions, to start with. But I also found a post on online courses - it was written just when Tracey Rolfe and I were first creating online units for the Professional Writing and Editing course we teach in. I've decided to update the post and put it here, for things have changed indeed. Now everyone is doing it! Online writing courses, I mean.

Where I work and teach, there has been a constant push to get us to provide our courses and/or subjects online, particularly so we can offer them to overseas and remote/rural students. While some people shudder at the idea of studying via the computer without the stimulation of the classroom, I actually did most of my degree by off-campus delivery (no online technology in those days!) and recognised then and now that what made it work for me was the terrific study guides and course materials.

In some ways, writing is a great thing to study via the internet. When this push first started, they funded some of us to go online and become students for a while, testing out for ourselves what worked and what didn't. I chose to study the Writer's Digest Advanced Short Story course, and really enjoyed it. Mikki Hayden was the instructor, and as well as a structured series of units, I had access to their online library of articles and resources. What made this course especially memorable for me was that 9/11 happened about four weeks in, and several people ended up dropping out because of different ways in which they were affected by it (family or friends dying, living close by, etc). They did explain this to the rest of us, and then we all took a deep breath and kept going with the course.

So, in creating new materials and writing new content for my units, I keep all of these experiences in mind, plus the knowledge that students these days are much more used to using technology and the internet for study and fun. Many students are not able to attend face to face classes, for a variety of reasons. We started offering online units back in 2008, and in the past four years, our online student cohort has grown in leaps and bounds. Part of the reason for this is that more than half the TAFEs offering Professional Writing no longer do so.

Thus, our online writing subjects are now, as they were back then, available to anyone and everyone who has a computer and an internet connection.  Still, not all courses are the same. MOOCs have taken the world by storm, but statistics show less than 5% of people ever finish the MOOC they sign up for. Some that I have enrolled in (and yes, not finished) were just a series of videoed lectures, not very engaging, although often interesting. Some lectures were an hour long, just as if they'd been transported from the lecture theatre into a small room with a camera. 

These are things to think about when you create an online course. How do you replicate a great classroom discussion about plot and pacing in a historical YA novel, or repetition and irony in a poem by Billy Collins? Or the experience of workshopping a chapter of your novel, or your poem about death that was based on your uncle dying last week? In the classroom, the teacher is able to push the discussion along, or introduce a new idea quickly, or temper someone's comments when they've become less than constructive. How do you do that online when mostly it isn't happening in real time, so a rude comment can be up there for several hours or days?

All good questions, which is why we keep going off and doing more training and talking about these issues and how to resolve them. (Sadly where I am, it seems training now is all about making cookie cutter videos, which we are resisting. We know the way we do them works.)

But beyond that, I think offering subjects online provides a great resource for any writer who wants to increase their skills, get some unbiased feedback and feel like they're not so alone. Even a writer in the middle of a huge city can feel isolated and depressed about what they're trying to achieve. Who cares? How can I know if I'm on the right track or not? Is this story any good? A good online course is like a classroom in that everyone is learning together, sharing ideas and problems, and a good teacher helps that along via the Discussion Board. For us, the DB is vital in most subjects. It's where I get to know my students, help them engage, respond to their ideas and comments. Hopefully it's where they start to feel part of a class.

When I did my degree, a large part of it was focused on writing - it was the first time I was able to get feedback on my stories and poems from experienced writers/readers who didn't know me from a bar of soap. So their comments were, to me, more valid because they weren't there to pat me on the back - they were there to show me how to improve.

This year (2018), I'm working on creating online content for three different subjects - writing for new media (blogs, websites, etc), a Diploma creative arts industry subject and a core unit in using Word that everyone has to do. The content for each is very different, but I try to write materials as though I am speaking to the class. I'm about to experiment with recording something that I think would be explained better that way. Ten years ago, internet speeds for uploading and downloading wouldn't have allowed me to do this.

Personally, I hate cookie cutter courses that run you through a whole lot of stuff to read and then give you questions to answer to test your understanding. Creative writing, to me, doesn't work that way. The closer I get to creating a classroom online, with interaction, ideas, writing to share and (yes) fun, the better I think it works.

(Pencil photo 
Davide Guglielmo)