Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps to Writing Successful Fiction - Setting and Conclusion
Setting is character. Almost everything that applies to character applies to setting.
Science Fiction and Fantasy often rely on unique settings. However, setting is no less important for realism, romance, commercial, literary, women’s fiction, and so on. A teenage girl can confront organized crime in the hills of Missouri, the slums of Chicago, on Mars, Pluto, or in a parallel universe. "Any setting can potentially acquire this vividness. It slowly arrives during the period of research, until it is as immediate to me as my own real surroundings." -- Rose Tremain
Creating Your Setting:
1. Choose a familiar place
2. Research unfamiliar locations
3. Create your own world
Or, combine familiar places with unfamiliar locations and create your own world.
Better to give too little than too much. Choose specific details that will help readers form their own image. Of course classics such as Charles Dickens "Tale of Two Cities" (or almost any eighteenth-century novel) can take several pages to "set the stage" for the action. Most modern readers, however, expect the setting to blend into the action. Your characters should interact with the environment, each with their unique perspective.
The four-foot high metal railing was painted black, bordered the apartment courtyard, and was bolted into the concrete with three-quarter inch bolts. The concrete was cracked. Past the railing was an open field full of weeds, some rye grass, and some bluegrass, and a bare spot of dirt where a structure must have stood at one time but was gone. The wind was blowing from the North at 20 miles per hour and Canadian Geese with their gray and white fluff and distinctive beaks flew over the field. A fluffy white cloud drifted in the blue sky which made it look warm but the temperature was 32 degrees. The landscape was dark and the day gave the impression of being undecided on whether to be spring or still winter.
She leaned against the wobbly railing and looked up at the old apartment building - three stories, L-shaped, yellow brick with streaks of dirt stained down its walls like permanent black tears. The sun broke through the clouds. Self-pity, she thought, was getting her nowhere. Time to go. She leapt over the railing and ran, splashing through the muddy vacant lot, nearly falling but determined to go on.
Activity: Look around you right now and list objects quickly. Create a scene with the first three objects (or observations) using a first person narrative with yourself as the main character. Use the same three objects, or others further down your list, to create a scene with someone else as character.
Here is the opening to my novella Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow, which adequately demonstrates the importance of setting. (And it sets up the conclusion to Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps to Writing Successful Fiction.)
Cynthia’s cabin is nestled among trees next to a blue river. The river is alternately deep and shallow, running smoothly over amber stones, mottled by an occasional pearl white stone. Cynthia fishes the blue river. The path to her cabin is matted yellow and the nearby grass bright green.
The first draft of my novella Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow was written in two days and the original story remains as is, with minimal rewrite. (Significantly less revision than any of my other stories/novels over 45 years.)
Cynthia provides an example for (perhaps a testament to) going with your instincts, especially on the first draft. To be sure, I had studied the classics in college and read at least one "how to" guide. But during the passion of that first draft (I was 24), I did not stop and say, "Gee, I should consider a different setting, my character descriptions need fewer adjectives, and what about that simplistic dialogue?"
Therefore, I am compelled to provide the following warnings and disclaimers. They might have served you better in the Introduction. Maybe not. I like them here.
Try not to think too much about technique or methodology while writing the first draft. Most of it will come naturally. Do not question yourself; write what feels right. Then, in the revision process, pay attention to methods and technique. (On the other hand, if you are travelling down the wrong road in your first draft, you might save some time by questioning your whereabouts.)
It should be obvious to you now that you must know the rules before breaking them. But study them separately, let them simmer in your subconscious. Do not obsess on them, especially when you are full of passion, and you are letting your characters live their own lives in your imagination and through the tips of your fingers.
I am not responsible for your writer’s block. It’s not my fault if you’re writing along and suddenly come to a panic-stricken halt, thinking, Fake dialogue! One-dimensional characters! Oh no, I’ve lost my fiction! But if that happens I apologize. Hopefully understanding the basics gives you the will and confidence to set about manipulating and bending the rules, and occasionally breaking one or two.
Although I can’t recall having "writer’s block," I have lacked the energy to start or go on. Writing takes energy and endurance. A routine of exercise, followed by 20-30 minutes of meditation, and then a strong cup of coffee has been helpful for me. Also, I try to keep the time of day consistent. At a specific time, I write whatever crap comes to mind, every day, every other day, or three days a week. "Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day." -- Macbeth
You could try ending in the middle of a scene so that when you come back to it the next day, you know exactly where to start and what to write. I’ve tried this, but prefer exhausting myself, recharging and coming back at it fresh. You could try writing your favorite scene, or writing the ending so you know where you are going. "If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else." -- Alice in Wonderland.
You may of course try the following: drinking a beer, stretching, updating the computer, drinking water, cutting back on caffeine, increasing caffeine, seeking absolute quiet, confronting psychological issues. If all else fails, take a break, go for a walk, mow the lawn, run a marathon, cook, dance, visit your grandmother (or her grave), and try not to think about your writing. (If not thinking about your writing sounds easy or is easy in practice, you might not be a writer.)
For psychological issues, try the following: reexamining or reassessing your dreams, building yourself up with positive thoughts, determining your emotional trigger points, imagining critics downing in a pool of sewage, or seeing a therapist. While I could use some therapy, I don’t think I need it to write. But who knows? Except for having to spend the money, it couldn’t hurt.
"Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition." -- Graham Greene
Find something repulsive to you and write about it. Find something you hate... and write about it. Find something you feel as if you should never write... and write about it. Find someone.... You get the idea. "Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure." – Rainer Maria Rilke
Finding Your Fiction
How to Write a Damn Good Novel
Assuming you’ve gained a thick enough skin, or at least understand that you might feel like crap after having someone rip apart your fiction, then you might consider joining a critique group or workshop.
Generally, effective groups follow similar patterns. Participants start by discussing the strengths of the work, then go on to constructive suggestions. Criticisms are specific and stated tactfully, such as "When Jack says that Sally likes men, it confused me a little," or "I’m not sure her name fits her character," or "Maybe you should make this a full scene instead of just a summary."
Participants explain why they think something does not work.. Comments are limited to the two or three most important elements of the story and avoid obsessing on grammar and typos.
James N. Frey, in his highly recommended book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, breaks critique groups into three types: puff, literary, and destructive. (I’ve summarized, paraphrased, and added my own experience.)
Serves brownies and has potlucks.
Leaves you feeling that you’re ready for the Nobel Prize.
"I loved every one of your characters and your imagery is so exquisite."
Leader has actually read past the third paragraph of Finnegan’s Wake.
Participants try to write like Hemingway, Jane Austin, or James Joyce.
"Oh, you should read Smirnoff’s Confessions of a Mad Madam."
Serve Brie and white wine in bottles with corks.
Will compare you to the masters
At first, might feel like a new kind of ego-destroying psychotherapy.
"Your characters are acting like hairdressers, not Marines."
"This reads like it could have been written by a Republican (or Democrat)."
According to Frey, the "destructive" group is the only one worthwhile. At first, you might get mad, drunk, or bang your head against a wall. But then you will ask yourself what the others see that you don’t. You will have to be careful, however, that they aren’t trying to get you to write what they wish they could write. Be sure there is a consensus. Don’t listen to one or two vociferous members, but ask others if they agree. Then rewrite.
"Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money." -- Moliere
Finding Your Fiction does not include finding your publisher or agent. While the essentials of writing good fiction have remained fairly constant, especially regarding plot, character, point of view, and setting (style appears slightly more malleable), "publishing" is a fast ever-changing landscape that often eludes even the best writers.
After you have perfected your fiction, I can recommend smashwords and kindle direct! For hard copies, consider Print On Demand, such as amazon’s CreateSpace. You can of course try the traditional route. First, query the "big" agents. "Big" publishers almost always ignore you unless you have an agent. After that, go smaller; for example, Where the River Splits was published "traditionally" by a small international company. Unfortunately, they (like so many others) have succumbed to the Great Recession.
One: Editing For Suspense.
The following activity was inspired by "Keep ‘em Hanging" by William G. Tapply, August 2005 edition of The Writer. I borrowed Taply’s general framework. My rewrite likely made it absurd, but it serves the purpose.
The scene gives too much away, substituting information for suspense by telling the reader exactly what the character is thinking. Edit it. Make it suspenseful. (While some variation is to be expected, I’ve provided my edit below.)
Marla wiped away the sweat from her brow, took off her muddy boots, and headed to the refrigerator for a beer. But Jon had taken the last one, and was lounging in front of the TV. He would expect her hop in the car and get more before she made dinner. That was Jon, the bastard. Marla was sick of it, sick of him expecting her to wait on him all the time, cook, and take care of the kids, and clean house, and everything. She didn’t even have time to work in her garden, and now she could hear him snoring in the other room, empty beer on the table. Waiting for dinner. Waiting to be waited on. She was sick of it. Sick of him. Marla made herself a vodka tonic and started slicing her fresh tomatoes.
Through the window over the sink, she watched the kids playing catch in the yard, Sally pitching like an all star to her brother Ricky who missed the pitch, laughed and chased the dirty old baseball into the bushes. Sally followed after and helped him, pushing branches aside and laughing, telling him that he’d never be a good catcher unless he could catch her super-duper curveball. As Marla watched her kids, she slid the paring knife across her thumb, cutting, watched blood bubble on her skin, then she let it drip into her vodka, and drank it, sort of her own new bloody Mary. And she imagined cutting Jon’s throat, blood spurting like geyser, the look of shock in his eyes for that one moment before she was rid of him forever. She imagined enjoying the moment when he would regret everything he denied her, like the ménage à trois she wanted with the neighbors. She imagined Jon bleeding to death on the couch, Marla smiling, happy she did it, the son of a bitch…
Outside in the driveway, Sally and Ricky argued about who lost the ball. Marla put down her knife, sucked blood still oozing from her thumb, and rapped on the window.
While yours might be slightly different, I omitted a lot with the idea I might hint at it in rewrite: 1. That was Jon, the bastard. Marla was sick of it, sick of him expecting her to wait on him all the time, cook, and take care of the kids, and clean house, and everything. She didn’t even have time to work in her garden, and now she could hear him snoring in the other room, empty beer on the table. Waiting for dinner. Waiting to be waited on. She was sick of it. Sick of him. 2. who missed the pitch, laughed and chased the dirty old baseball into the bushes. Sally followed after and helped him, pushing branches aside and laughing, telling him that he’d never be a good catcher unless he could catch her super-duper curveball. As ... watched her kids, she 3. And she imagined cutting Jon’s throat, blood spurting like geyser, the look of shock in his eyes for that one moment before she was rid of him forever. She imagined enjoying the moment when he would regret everything he denied her, like the ménage à trois she wanted with the neighbors. She imagined Jon bleeding to death on the couch, Marla smiling, happy she did it, the son of a bitch…
Two: Writing Is A Joke
Literally. Examine any joke and find the essential elements of fiction. (You know what they are). So my conclusion is a joke.
I got this one online, an email from one of my friends in low places, and I’m sure it’s been part of our oral tradition for some time. I’ve rewritten it and provided possible "answers." You should find answers in your own joke.
A Woman Who Reads
Sherri Novell loves to read and her husband John Bass loves to fish early in the morning, often going out before dawn (character). Sherri and John are vacationing at a resort in Michigan known for it’s serenity and it’s fishing (setting, point of view, present tense).
One morning John returns after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Sherri however has just gotten out of bed. Bored with sitting on the front porch to read, she decides to take the boat out, even though she isn’t familiar with the lake. She steers the boat into the lake, finds a nice inlet, anchors, and reads her book (plot).
A game warden zooms up in his speedboat, pulling alongside Sherri’s small boat, and says, "Hello, Ma'am. What are you doing?" (dialogue)
"I’m reading my book," she replies, thinking that her answer was obvious (internal dialogue).
"You're in a restricted fishing area," he informs her (attributive verb, rising plot).
"I'm sorry officer, but I'm not fishing, I'm reading" (tone).
"Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up" (conflict).
"If you do that," Sherri says, "I'll have to charge you with sexual assault" (climax).
"But I haven't even touched you," says the game warden.
"That's true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know, you could start at any moment" (resolution).
"Have a nice day ma'am." And the game warden leaves (denouement).
Never argue with a woman who reads. It's likely she can also think (theme, moral)
More by this Author
To John Zavgren and me, the 18,000 foot mountains of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy seemed a worthy quest, so we made lofty plans to climb a few of the high peaks.
Sometimes, after verbal sparring, I could see it happen, their glare abruptly interrupted, eyes filling momentarily with understanding, then receding back beneath the rough multi-layered exterior.