Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Biltmore, Edith Wharton, Henry James and I

Early this week I was out of town with my husband. To celebrate our anniversary, we went to the Biltmore Estate. (I have some photos at the end of the post.) It was amazing—the history, the architecture and the forestry. But even more fascinating to me was how many famous people visited, including authors. Henry James stayed there. Edith Wharton visited. What a fabulous time they must have had visiting each other and talking about writing.

I could just imagine them discussing (disagreeing over?) the latest novels, poetry, and philosophies. Perhaps they were a kind of Inklings group but for literary writers. I admit I became a little jealous of the camaraderie and the opportunity to share and learn. But then I realized how spoiled I am. The numbers of books about the life and craft of writing is unparalleled. They didn’t have On Writing or any of the host of books that we have. They learned by trial and error—others and their own.

And as for the camaraderie, if I’m honest with myself, I probably would have had nothing in common with Henry James. And all we would have done is argued about adverbs. I abhor adverbs. And he said, “I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really respect.”

Instead of the opportunity to bicker over adverbs, I have something better. Thanks to writers’ groups and conferences and the internet, I have a whole host of writing friends. Think of how easy it is for us to send a quick email (or even a phone call) for an opinion, a shoulder to cry on, or a kind “stop whining and write.” Back in the day, you’d have to write and letter and wait. And wait. And then wait some more.

So I think I’ll keep my word processor, my internet author friends, and my books on writing. After all, changing clothes four to eight times a day would be frustrating—I like yoga pants and t-shirts. And the hours of polite party talk would drive me crazy. Though I wouldn’t mind the eight course meals at the Biltmore or the servants who take care of everything.

Here’s a photo of me at the Biltmore.

Here I am on the loggia, pretending I'm Edith Wharton. No doubt she wrote while overlooking the Smoky Mountains. (You can get a sense of the view from the reflection on the French doors.)

Be sure to check back on Tuesday when I'll be participating in "Indie-pendence Day," a celebration of indie authors.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Check Back on Thursday

I'm out of town, so there's no blog post today. But check back on Thursday, and I'll have a post for you then.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Setting As Character

If you’re a writer (or a thoughtful reader), you’ve probably heard the phrase “setting as character.” It’s kind of an odd cliche. How can setting be a character? When people use this phrase, they mean that the setting should be so distinct that it’s almost a character in the novel.

I suspect that we’ve all experienced this in reading, a sense of being transported to another place. The Harry Potter series is an excellent example. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that I know what it feels like to ride a broomstick or play a game of Quidditch. A lot of sci-fi writers are also good at this. If you’ve read Dune, you felt and saw the planet. You knew what it was like to wear a stillsuit. You could taste the recycled water. Ugh.

If you’re writing a novel where the setting is familiar to you like your hometown, it’s not as hard to come up with details that ground your story in the setting. For example, I live in Chattanooga. If I were writing a story set here, I’d include details about the many bridges that cross the Tennessee River and give the city a European feel. I could include details about the humidity that hangs heavy in the air like moss in the trees. I could even compare the Southern cultural niceties that overlay all social interactions to the kudzu that covers the landscape. But what if you’re not writing about your hometown? What if you're writing about a time and place you never lived in? What then?

Obviously, the answer is research. But giving the reader some paragraphs of setting description doesn’t work either. Your setting needs to be integral to the story. It needs to be a supporting character that doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it needs to appear to make the story possible only at this place and in this time. I believe the best way to do this is through details.

If you provide your reader with concrete details—unique sights, smells, tastes, and sounds, their minds will fill in the rest of the exotic place. But what if you can’t find the specific facts you want?

Instead of approaching research as “finding facts to fill in your story,” try to allow the facts to craft your story. For example, in the sequel to Screwing Up Time, one of the settings is a civilization that we don’t have a lot of information about. But I wanted to give the reader a sense of what daily life would be like. So I researched “daily life in civilization X.” I didn't discover what people's daily activities were, but I discovered what a visitor to the civilization might see in the streets. So I set one of the plot sequences in the city streets.

I used the same technique in another novel I wrote called Dark Mercy, which is a lit-fic set in the 1930s and 1940s in the Netherlands. I did a lot of research into the time period and tried to include important socio-cultural issues in the novel. For example, during this time, coffee drinking was a very important social ritual to the Dutch, and there were strict, unspoken rules about how it was to be done. So I made one of the plot turns take place while two women shared coffee. The woman serving the coffee was very concerned to make sure that the handles of the coffee cups pointed to the right side when the coffee was served—this was one of the unspoken rules. And I used her anxiety to influence the progression of the novel, to make this cultural issue affect the way the plot and character developed so that it wasn’t just a setting detail tacked onto the story.

When the novel was finished, I asked my mother to read it (my mom grew up in the Netherlands of the 1940s). Afterwards, she said, “When I read it, I felt like I’d been transported to my childhood. It was as if you took me there again, and I was nine years old. How could you do that?”

The answer, of course, was that I didn’t. I just gave her enough detail that her mind created the reality and grounded the plot. So when the character worried about serving the coffee, my mom experienced the character’s anxiety. My mom remembered serving coffee (hoping and praying that the coffee wouldn’t spill over the rim of the cup) and reminding herself, “Make sure the handle points to the right.” Thus, the character and plot development that happened in this scene felt like they could only happen in the 1940s in the Netherlands.

It’s those kinds of details woven into the plot that ground the story into time and place. Find what is unique in the time and culture you’re writing about and make those details part of your story. They will create the illusion of experiencing another’s life and times.

What about you, readers? Any ideas, suggestions, or examples of how to craft setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Single Scene

A month ago, I signed a contract to write a short story for an anthology. At the time, I thought, “No problem. I can whip out a short.” After all, I’ve written lots of short stories. Then, I sat down to write it. And it wasn’t as easy as I thought.

When you’ve been writing novels for a long time, the short story skills get rusty. A writing friend who also is in the anthology was having a similar problem. She’d started two short stories only to have them crash and burn.

The problem is the scope and complexity. With a novel, the author introduces layers of complexity—tensions, minor characters, hints of character development, subplots, etc. Short stories only have hints of these elements. Some not at all. Or they focus on one aspect of these elements. Mentally, I knew this. But I couldn’t get it to work on paper. Every idea I came up with was too convoluted for a short story with a maximum of 5000 words. The plots couldn’t be resolved in the space, and the settings and characters couldn’t be developed. I knew that if I wrote what I had in mind, I’d end up with a glorified plot sketch. And I (and my readers) didn’t want that.

So I talked with a friend. She’s been a published writer for years and years. And she’s done it all—novels (sequels and stand alones), novellas, short stories, etc. I said, “Help.” She told me, “Remember a short story (particularly of that length) is a single scene.” I wish I could say that it was a lightning bolt that struck my mind. It wasn’t. But I began to ruminate on what she said.

I realized I was doing too much. Everything in the short needs to revolve around a single writing goal. In my mind, my short story had three settings, several plot points, and too many characters. I realized that my first setting was only a starting place. A place where my characters would start from on their journey—it would have to be cut. I’m in the midst of trying to cut the second setting. A single scene, I keep telling myself.

After taking apart the settings, I cut all but one plot point. My characters needed a single goal. Everything needs to flow from that goal. If it doesn’t, it needs to be cut. (Remember the writer’s mantra, “Kill your darlings.")

But setting and plot trimming weren’t enough. Once I trimmed those, I realized that I needed to dump three of the six characters that inhabited my story. I’m sure some of my readers will miss seeing their favorite characters in the short story (my short uses the characters from my Screwing Up Time novel), but that’s the way it is with a short story.

Now the story is beginning to feel manageable. Of course, I haven’t put pen to paper yet. But in theory, the story feels doable.

What about you? What helps you focus your writing goals for a short story? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

To See Or Not To See

I finished my third edit of the sequel to Screwing Up Time. (Throws confetti.) And I’ve given the book to one of my first betas. This beta isn’t a writer and doesn’t even do a lot of fiction reading. But this beta has one “gift.” He doesn’t see scenes in his head.

A lot of readers are people like me—as they read, they see the scenes of the novel in their mind. It’s like watching a movie. (In fact, that’s why I often think I’ve seen a movie version of a particular book even when I haven’t. It’s led to some unfortunately recommendations.) But not everyone “sees” in their minds. So a scene that’s clear to me and others who see in their heads may not be clear to readers who don’t.

I’m sure there are many readers out there like this beta, and I want my novel to “work” for them. So this beta marks the scenes that he can’t follow. And then, I go back to the unclear scenes and work on them until they’re completely understandable and the beta says, “Oh, right. I get it now.”

I’ve wondered over the years how many different types of reading experiences there are. For example, I have one beta who “hears” everything in her head. The characters actually speak aloud with appropriate accents, etc. (She’s an amazing beta reader for voice.) What about you all? What are your reading experiences like? Do you “see” movies or “hear” dialogue? Or do you do something completely different? I’d love to know.

BTW, I was recently featured on Samantha Sotto's blog along with two other authors. Samantha is the author of Before Ever After--a page-turning romance through history and time. If you'd like to visit here blog,click here.