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Marissa Lingen

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Writing hacks: what you don’t get for free [Jan. 10th, 2014|10:10 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Lots of my friends talk about skills that each writer gets “for free”–things they’re naturally good at. Well, what I am not naturally good at is describing setting. For quite some time, everything I wrote at any longish length had among its first critiques “needs more setting,” “describe more setting!,” etc. Well, if every time you make stew, everybody says, “needs more salt,” at some point you really have to think of adding salt to your stew earlier in the process.


(Exception is if you disagree and think salt would make it worse. But just as food is cooked to be eaten, stories are written to be read, so–you at least think about the salt.)


Problem: there is not a shaker labeled “setting descriptors” sitting by my desk. The first thing I tried, a couple of books ago, was to set things in a location that was very vivid for me. This did not work at all–I still heard the same crits and still had to go back and fix setting stuff in revisions. The second thing is how most advice gets ladled out in fiction writing: the “just do it” method. Just–be better at this! (Seriously, this is how writers give advice 90% of the time. “Do this! Make it come out this way! Do not make it come out this other way!” Most common version: “Just put your butt in the chair and write!” Timprov has often commented that if standard writing advice was applied to running, no one would ever have developed Couch-to-5K, they’d just stand over the couch shouting, “Run a marathon! Run a marathon now! Just put your shoes on and run a marathon!”) And that worked…about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not at all.


So with The Spy from Atlantis I tried an actual plan. You will be amazed to hear that this worked better. Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like. (And smell like and those other setting things. But I have noticed that if I put in what things smell like, people gloss over it and still tell me I need more setting, rather than extrapolating all the important stuff from scent like sensible people.)


Bottom line: this worked. Nobody started raving about my lush setting descriptions and how they were the most amazing setting that ever had set. This was not the goal. The goal was to get the setting stuff to the point where it would get other people where they needed to be with the story. I will probably never be a setting-focused writer (sorry, Kev), but actively putting off settingy people is also not my goal. So: putting the thing I’m working on first, before the stuff that’s more natural. That actually worked. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more ingrained that way or whether I always find that I need to sit down and Do Setting Stuff Dammit.


I don’t know if this would work for other areas of weakness, but it’s worth thinking about. More to the point, I like it when other people talk about improving their writing in specific concrete terms, because overcoming the “just–do that thing! do it well!” culture is important. So I thought I’d share it with you.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sartorias
2014-01-10 06:20 pm (UTC)
I didn't do it either, being a visual writer, I thought it was all just magically there, because it was there for me when I reread it. So then I went overboard, cramming in every detail I saw, while the story sat at the sideline, motor idling. Once again, ZZZZZT! Wrong answer, Smith!

I finally figured out how to get setting in for me, which was to take note of only those aspects of the setting that a character would note. If it was an important setting I could catch others' slants on it on the backswing. It more or less worked as a guideline.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-11 02:53 am (UTC)
See, I tried "what would this character notice?", and it very much backfired when I was writing people in familiar places, because what they would notice is more like, "Oh, hmm, they're tearing down the old Gustafsson place," and not like, "here is what is on the road to begin with." So it needs to not be things they would not notice (unless someone else brings it up), but just what they would notice seems to result in everybody else saying, "No, that's not enough."
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2014-01-11 03:01 am (UTC)
Yeah, that makes sense. I guess it works depending on how we see their brains working!
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[User Picture]From: tilivenn
2014-01-10 08:14 pm (UTC)
Huh. You know, I've grown rather attached to the idea of myself as someone who doesn't and probably can't write fiction, and I think a lot of it has to do with that really unhelpful second kind of advice you've mentioned. That is, I know that there are fiction writing things I can't do easily, and it's completely unclear to me how you're supposed to develop those skills. Whereas nonfiction writing, I understand how you build up those abilities. Hm. Huh. Interesting.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-11 02:53 am (UTC)
I am particularly glad to be useful in this regard even if you never write a word of fiction. I would rather have you not writing fiction because you have decided you don't want to than because you think you can't.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2014-01-11 03:22 pm (UTC)
A class I took this summer and a new writing book have just been sort of putting it in my mind this year that I can approach improving my fiction writing with some of the same approaches that I brought to improving my nonfiction writing in college. Which has been a really encouraging thought.
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[User Picture]From: cloudscudding
2014-01-10 09:13 pm (UTC)
'Tis true, I didn't notice the description one way or another in it. If pressed, I probably would describe it as "spare, but there." Interesting approach to fixing blind spots.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-01-10 10:53 pm (UTC)
I still have trouble doing setting gracefully. One of the pleasures of writing the Memoirs is that I can occasionally get away with Isabella just being all "HERE HAVE SOME SETTING" -- there's a block of several paragraphs in The Tropic of Serpents that's her going "look, most of you reading this have never been in a tropical jungle, and you need to understand the conditions I was living in before I go any further with this story." (Also known as, swan_tower Channels the Three Weeks She Spent in Costa Rica.)

It isn't that I can't envision this kind of thing; I just have difficulty conveying it without stuffing it down the reader's throat.
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[User Picture]From: finnyb
2014-01-11 02:59 am (UTC)
Thank you for reminding me to go add that to my wishlist on Audible!
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2014-01-10 11:54 pm (UTC)
I should try something like that with person descriptions. I have mild prosopagnosia, and tend to describe characters by hair color and... hair cut--isn't that enough? Height? Clothes? Apparently faces actually look different in ways you can describe with language.

S does the scent thing too. And filling in details from very minimal description.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-11 02:56 am (UTC)
Faces are hard even if you're not prosopagnosic, though. I mean, yes, you can say "round face, receding chin, prominent cheeks," whatever, but there are only so many descriptors that way. It's good to sometimes use them, but: hard. Sometimes when I am trying to do one of those, I shout, "Two eyes, one nose, one mouth!" at the screen. This does not help a bit but relieves my feelings.
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[User Picture]From: cloudscudding
2014-01-11 04:00 am (UTC)
Love this!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-11 05:00 am (UTC)
I am thinking of having an alien narrator who describes the monkeys this way.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2014-01-14 07:27 pm (UTC)
Papazian appeared, disguised as a human being. He checked quickly to make sure that his head was on right. "Nose and toes the same way goes," he reminded himself, and that was how it was.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2014-01-11 09:00 pm (UTC)
"Item, two lips, indifferent red…"
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[User Picture]From: finnyb
2014-01-11 02:59 am (UTC)
Faces. Augh! (Faceblindess sucks!)
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-01-17 09:24 pm (UTC)
My god do I have trouble with that one.
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[User Picture]From: thanate
2014-01-11 02:32 am (UTC)
Here I thought scent was just part of the advanced level of setting description.

I fully endorse there being more discussion on the topic of actions taken that did or did not work in the pursuit of improving writing. Thank you for writing this one.
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From: diatryma
2014-01-11 05:45 am (UTC)
I hate descriptions, particularly of people. I will have to use this advice. Grazie.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2014-01-11 12:45 pm (UTC)
All I can write is setting. Because places are VERY important to me! Plot, eh! Can't do it too well ... but I can set.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-11 12:51 pm (UTC)
Maybe you need plot about setting changing?
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2014-01-11 08:03 pm (UTC)
This is a great idea. Thanks for sharing it. One problem I have with setting is the weather. Living in California for the past twenty-five years, I no longer think about things like fierce rainstorms, ice, blizzards, pleasant dustings of snow-- you get the idea. You'd never think it, but the rest of the world doesn't have constant pleasant sunny warm weather.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-12 02:23 am (UTC)
I thought of hardly anything else for the four years I lived there.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2014-01-21 09:13 pm (UTC)
Wish I could let you borrow my settings shaker in exchange for occasional use of your character-description shaker, because I'm getting tired of hearing from test readers, "Well, this is all good, but we have no idea what [character] looks like." Um, they look like people? I'm not allowed to single any of them out by obvious visual cliche any more because I'm told that's sloppy (or worse - e.g. skin color, which leads to an enormous minefield). I've gotten better in this new book about describing the other characters, I'm told, but I still don't describe the protagonist well, and the big problem there is that it's partially deliberate - I never describe my protagonists well because I assume the reader will project into the protagonist - what, doesn't everybody do that? Sigh.

Anyway, setting I have to have, because I apparently can't write the play without envisioning the sets first. I might be happy to just have people talking on a blank stage, but I'm not Thornton Wilder (alas). Nor do I have any decent advice on how to make writing setting easier, except that wilder settings seem to be easier than commonplace ones. That is, "this story is set in space transit station where the hallways are around a big circle and thus the horizons are kind of odd" is a lot easier to set up than "this story is set in a child's bedroom." So maybe the trick is to find the distinctive features - a special toy, an unusual piece of furniture - and hit those rather than just trying to describe a room that, unqualified, is like any other bedroom in the rich world?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-01-21 09:32 pm (UTC)
In first person it's being useful for me to have a narrator who is aesthetically judgy. If you said to, say, Carter Hall, "Hey, Carter, you're visiting Tam's parents. What does their kitchen look like?", he'd say, "Uh...like a kitchen? With, like, counters and appliances and stuff? And a table and chairs?" You would have to poke him extensively to get more than that. ("Brown? It's brown, does that count?") Whereas the narrator of the thing I just finished has all sorts of stylistic vocabulary that Carter just doesn't have, and opinions about same. Makes it easier to get some of that stuff in there--even when it's not a special toy in a child's bedroom, but rather that the room is kind of cookie-cutter samey-same.

(The special toy is difficult, because most of the ways I know to describe the special toy make people think it's a special toy--hazards of writing fantasy instead of mainstream, where the battered stuffed bunny is more likely to be a plot point.)
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