Did you miss BEA this year? Think inspiring writers need to attend? Think again…here’s agent Janet Reid ‘splaining things.
Last month I attended a luncheon at the Pennwriters Writing Conference. Lucky me, it was the amazing Jane Friedman talking about using social media to sell books. She’s a whiz at all things publishing and social media. You might want to download one of her weekly goal sheets. They’re perfect for the writing life. You’ll find it at her post on list making and the creative process.
At the conference I also listened to Ridley Pearson’s keynote talk. He’s so funny and humble and real that I wish you could have all been there. The man is hard working, has a pass to get into Disney parks after hours, and is part of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders. If he comes to your town, I recommend going to his reading-book signing or attending the conference he’s speaking at.
If you’ve never read the blog at Tor I also want to recommend it. Some funny, insightful posts on writing, plotting, the limits of fantasy, and publishing. You’ll find really fun reviews of the Game of Thrones fantasy series and television series.
Author of the Ghost Hand series, Ripley Patton purveyor of myth, is an inspiring source for all things fantasy and offers a terrific list of book recommendations. You can sign up for it here. I believe you’ll appreciate this post on Writing for the Joy of it. (I know, Ripley and Ridley—aren’t names fun?)
I enjoy reading author interviews, don’t you? Here’s one at powells.com with Anthony Doerr talking about how he writes and how he puzzled together his latest novel. You can find the whole interview here. And if you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See (winner of the Pulitzer) I highly recommend it. Texured, layered, thoughtful, full of heart.Jill Owens the Powells’ interviewer asked him about the genesis for this novel set during World War II.
Anthony Doerr: “The easy answer is: It was 2004. I had finished the novel About Grace. Back when they didn’t email you the covers, I was in Princeton for a year, and they wanted me to come up to New York to see the designs. I had been scratching around for a new idea. I was riding into Penn Station, I think it was, and we were going through the tunnels underground. The guy in the seat right in front of me was on a 2004 cell phone and lost his call. He got angry, physically angry. He was rapping his phone with his knuckles.
I had my notebook with me. I was writing stuff down about how we’ve forgotten what a miracle it is to be able to speak with someone. Here I am in Hawaii using light waves to talk to you in Portland. That’s a miracle! That was not available to humans for the entire history of our species. That night I started thinking about different ways to remind the reader about how radio was so strange. To hear the voice of a stranger in your house that you couldn’t see was a total miracle in the ’20s and ’30s. I started trying to evoke that.
I had a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story to him. I didn’t even know what story it was. I didn’t know the circumstances of his entrapment, anything like that. But that was the genesis, I guess. In those early paragraphs, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just fumbling along in the dark.”
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. ~ Henry Miller
“Adults look at colors, yet do not see them. Adults perceive shapes, yet do not understand their speech. Adults live in light and from light, yet do not notice it at all. Adults cast long shadows, yet do not play with them. Adults take up much (indeed too much) space, yet never just for once marvel at it spaciousness. Adults look at the world with closed eyes. This is why space shrinks, shadows die, light darkens, colors fade, and shapes fall silent. Children are different. Children, with eyes wide open, gaze out at the world and marvel at things. Children play with colors and with shapes. Their play blows away the dust from the faded colors and returns to them the sheen with which they were born. Play brings to life new shapes, unseen and unheard before, fresh in their beauty.” ~ Boris Novak, in celebrating International Children’s Reading Day in 1997
|100 Writing Contests That Want Your Work|
Whether you write short stories or translate Icelandic nonfiction, Poets & Writers has got you covered with our Writing Contests database, which lists over 100 contests with upcoming deadlines. What are you waiting for?
Gival Press Novel Award — A prize of $3,000, publication by Gival Press, and 20 author copies is given annually for a novel. Deadline: May 30.
Short Story Award for New Writers — A prize of $1,500 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not appeared in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. Deadline: May 31.
American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prizes — A prize of $2,500 and publication in Scandinavian Review is given annually for an English translation of a Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, or Swedish work of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. Deadline: June 1.
Boulevard Emerging Poets Contest — A prize of $1,000 and publication in Boulevard is given annually for a group of poems by a poet who has not published a poetry collection with a nationally distributed press. Deadline: June 1.
Research more contests online in our Writing Contests database, or pick up the current Writing Contests issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine, on newsstands now.
Old Homes With Secrets, Car Living, and Scottish Men in Kilts. How To Create Compelling Settings In Your Books.
I don’t like boring words.
I like scintillating words. Words that are skippy and delicious, or long with multiple syllables that roll like literary candy out of your mouth. Words that make you think, words that sound like what they are, words that dance and tease and have hidden meanings.
I do not like this word: Setting.
So boring. Lifeless. No romance to it. No high jinks. No dynamite.
As a writer, the setting is so important in a book. The setting can increase the tension and the conflict, transport the reader to paradise or to terror, and ratchet up the odds, the mystery, the romance or the thrill ride.
Here are a few thoughts on setting, from my fried writer brain to yours. I apologize for using my books as examples all the way through, but hey. I know my books best and I know why I used that setting as I did, so hopefully it will be helpful.
- Use setting to heighten a difficult personal struggle and make life even more challenging for your character.
In my latest book, What I Remember Most, the primary setting is a small, western style town in central Oregon surrounded by snow capped mountains. You can almost taste the snowflakes on your tongue and see sexy cowboys galloping by on horses.
But within that setting, my protagonist, Grenadine Scotch Wild, is living in her car. Yes, her car. On the run, away from a husband who has been arrested for embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering and will not tell the officials she’s innocent unless she returns to him. Grenadine’s accounts have been frozen by the government, she’s dead broke, therefore, car living.
Do you have a vision of car living? If not, go and park in your car in a parking lot and sit there for three hours. Stuffy. Hot. Uncomfortable. How do you sleep? Dangerous. Where do you pee? Yes, that. What a problem.
The setting worked because no one wants to live in a car and the readers were rooting for Grenadine to escape it. She was a sympathetic character, a woman who had lost everything, a woman who was fighting to get out of car living, a woman who was working hard, had no help, and was on her own. And oh, a jail sentence hanging over her head.
Use setting to toss your character into chaos.
- Make your reader shudder. Your setting can be used for tension, horror, angst, crimes. Take them to a place they DON’T want to go. Ever. Make them uncomfortable. Make them catch their breath.
I put Grenadine in jail for the weekend. I went to jail for three hours on a tour so I could get it right. Think: Suffocating. Bars. Scary people. Violence. Group showers. Horrible food and who looks good in a blue jumpsuit?
In The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life, I created a small, dusty, cramped house in the middle of nowhere for a crime to take place. The setting scared me, and I wrote it.
Settings can illuminate the plight of your characters, their internal hell and their external challenges.
- Make your reader gleeful. Let your reader live vicariously through your characters in their setting.
Later, after working as a bartender and as an assistant to a furniture maker, two exhausting jobs, Grenadine finally got enough money together to rent a place.
So what setting did I put her in next?
A cozy remodeled apartment above a red barn in the country.
I described the two decks overlooking the farmland, the magnificent sunset and sunrise views, the animals she sees, the peace and tranquility.
Why this setting?
I would love to live atop a barn, horses below, in the country. Many of my readers would, too.
In the book I just finished, My Very Best Friend, which almost made me want to go and live in a cabin, alone, in Montana, and mutter to myself, but that is another story, I set it in Scotland.
Imagine: Hot Scotsmen in kilts. Bagpipes. Green rolling hills. Charming villages.
Who wouldn’t want to go to Scotland?
I’ve also set stories on quaint islands, Oregon beach towns, a town along a river, a schoolhouse transformed into a home, Cape Cod, a lavender farm, a tree house, and a Queen Anne house.
Take your reader on a trip with you. They want to go. Their bags are packed and ready.
- Tap your readers’ inner most imaginations.
In Julia’s Chocolates, Lara is a closet painter. I gave her an attic, then described all the wild, free wheeling paintings in there.
Grenadine is a collage artist and painter. I gave her a studio on the top floor of her little green house. I described the colorful tables and cheers, the jars full of paints, sequins, fabrics, brushes, lace, etc. The books on art, the plants, the windows. Being an artist appeals to readers, to their dreams.
Build settings that encourage your readers to think, to be inspired, to dream. What if…what if I started painting again? Building again? Writing? Making a collage? What if I changed my life? What if I became a new me?
- Relate to your readers’ real lives with your setting.
In A Different Kind Of Normal I created a home that belonged to my character’s ancestors. There was history in that house. Jaden was walking up the same stairs as her ancestors, looking out the same windows, crying at her kitchen table, which her ancestors had probably cried at, too.
Your readers have homes they love and miss, homes that have prickly memories. They have grandparents, crazy aunts, beloved dead fathers, too. They have Godzilla – type ex spouses and distracted boyfriends. They have funny pets. They have jobs and bosses they hate in the corporate world. They go to family reunions at the lake and take tranquilizers while they’re there.
They have failing businesses and cliques they have to deal with in the suburbs.
Link your readers’ personal lives to the setting in your story, which will make your book more relatable, and personal, to them.
- Know your readers. What do many of them like? Use it.
I think my women readers like lingerie. It’s frilly. Pretty. It inspires passion. So in If You Could See What I See, Meggie had a lingerie company, filled with silk and lace.
In The Last Time I Was Me, Jeanne Stewart gutted and remodeled a dilapidated house. I think my readers like reading about remodeling and décor, new kitchens and paint colors. They have homes, too.
Appeal to your reader via your setting.
- Make your setting something that readers can laugh about.
In Julia’s Chocolates, Julia is out on her Aunt Lydia’s farm. Aunt Lydia has tons of chickens. Chickens in brightly painted chicken coops, chickens who chase each other, chickens who have quirky personalities. And the roosters, those dandy fellows!
Aunt Lydia also has a wooden rainbow bridge in her front yard, toilets overflowing with flowers, and four foot tall ceramic pigs who each have a name tag. The pigs are named after men Aunt Lydia doesn’t like.
Her front door is painted black to “ward off seedy men.”
To sum up this huge essay, which I did not intend to be quite so long, write your settings to evoke memories, emotions, thoughts, tears, laughter, etc. from your readers. You want them to feel. You want them to think. You want them to block everything else out of their life and dive head first into your story.
Use the setting in your books to help them do so.
There is so much more to say about setting, how to use weather, charging rivers, frothing oceans, seasons, evocative or dangerous landscapes, bleak neighborhoods and destitute countries, etc. but that is enough for today. I have to start writing my new book now, if I can get my brain to work.
I do know the setting, though. It’s a tugboat on a river, complete with ducks who lay eggs in pots on the deck, a blue heron, geese, sailboats, and odd ball neighbors. Including a secretive man who lives two houseboats down…
“Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us, from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses – but a human being, we call it poetry.”
– Ted Hughes
Quick Take: Every protagonist comes into a story with emotional baggage and justifications for their behaviors. These qualities and foibles, acquired over a lifetime, are also called back story. And these emotional needs, blind spots and hungers motivate the protagonist to behave the way he or she behaves. Because these behaviors are also coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms—denial, projection, suppression, acting out and the like are used to stifle or hide from problems just as in real life. If your protagonist fully realized the cause of his or her problems, he would solve them and your story would lack inner conflict. Characters are often (but not always) blind to why they do what they do, or powerless to stop using their coping mechanisms, but acquire more self- knowledge and strength as the story progresses. The storyline exists to deliver insights.
By the way, your antagonist or villain has his or her own set of justifications and coping mechanisms. Which ones do your characters use?
Keep dreaming, keep writing, have heart
Here’s helpful list of coping mechanisms. Which ones fit your character?
A terrific interview at The Atlantic. Thanks Mr. King for speaking out against adverbs and lazy writing. My favorite line: Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart