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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Writing Wednesday: Is Less More?

Hello, everyone! First up I'd like to apologise for the lack of Book Talk on Friday. I was at the hospital all day and when I got back I couldn't muster up the energy to so much as fire up the laptop, let alone obsess about a certain book for 400+ words. I am sorry. But I'm back this Friday! :)

Now that's done with, onto today's actual topic: setting. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, since a) I've been editing the WIP, b) Jill Williamson over at GTW has been talking about creating every aspect of a storyworld, and c) Joy Preble talked about settings in her blog post here. But until recently, I gave setting little of the thought or importance it truly deserves. Plot and character, those are the main aspects of a story, right? Right?

Wrong. Even though I brainstormed the perfect creepy house and the perfect forest to set my tale in, I still didn't have it up there with plot and character where it should be, and if I had to pick one of the three, setting is definitely my weakest point. The balance, I find, between too much and too little, is hard to strike. Currently, I think I'm adding too little. This is probably worsened by the fact that I read a very badly-edited book not that long ago (which shall remain nameless) wherein the author went on and on and ON describing Every Little Detail of her storyworld. Every. Tiny. Thing.

"But isn't this a good thing?" one might say. "You had a vivid mental image, didn't you? Surely that's a good thing?"

Well, yes I did, and if I close my eyes now I can still picture that desert perfectly, and describe it to you exactly. What I could not tell you is the plot, because there wasn't any, and this wasn't literary fiction where that kind of thing doesn't matter. This book was clearly supposed to be a very plot-focused piece of genre fiction, but the setting completely took over. I'm telling you, I was 40% through (this was on my Kindle) and we were barely past the inciting incident. It drove me away, along with the abundance of grammatical errors that even my twelve-year-old cousin could have spotted with ease, and no, I never finished that book, nor will I, nor will I ever read that author again, most likely. This example is extreme, but you can still bore people if you ramble on too long, even if you are getting to the plot, promise, and no matter how beautiful your description of that flowering bush is. If it's not important, don't go on forever as if it is, because you will a) lead the reader to believe it is, in fact, very important, thus confusing and irritating them when it turns out not to be, and b) bore them to sleep. At the end of the day, when I buy your book, it's because I want you to tell me a story. Not paint me a picture. And that is, as the meerkats say, simples. (It's an advert here in the UK, for all you foreigners.)

Having said that, it is far too easy to take it to the other extreme -- what I did. I got paranoid about over-describing and boring the reader and, consequently, I have great action taking place in a load of white space. I'm exaggerating here, but you get my point. I noticed as I reader that I liked it when we're left to fill in the gaps, but my so-called gaps were gaping hollows. I was leaving the reader to paint the picture all by themselves, and that's just as bad. I'd like to say I'm getting better now, but I know I still have a lot to learn, and that's okay. I have the rest of my life to improve, and so do you. How do you do that, you say?

Well, I'm sorry to tell you that really the only way you can do this is by trial and error. Craft books help, as does paying attention to your favourite authors and the methods they employ, but to get better at writing setting, you have to, well, write setting. It goes without saying, really.

How much detail you choose to put in will vary on your genre -- fantasy is going to require a lot more worldbuilding skill than a contemporary romance set in your typical, everyday town -- but also on your individual writing voice. No matter who you are or what you choose to write, what you are aiming to do is to make the peculiar familiar. (Sidenote: Ransom Riggs and Lili St Crow are awesome at this, so I recommend them for teaching yourself, especially if you write YA paranormal.) You want to grab your reader by the shirt front and drag them -- kicking and screaming if you must -- right into your storyworld. By the end of the book, they must know it as well as their own bedroom. They should be able to navigate it in their dreams. They should be able to feel the cool kiss of the ocean breeze, the grains of warm, yellow sand between their toes. They should taste the salty spray on their lips as seagulls swoop, screaming, overhead, and they should smell that seaweed rotting in the warm summer sun. They should know that behind them is a row of souvenir shops, even if presently they're looking out to sea -- is that a sail boat on the horizon? And finally, when one of those aforementioned seagulls poops on them, they should be able to feel the wet splat! on their own shoulder. Which brings me to the point that everything that comes to your MC's rescue must be mentioned previously, or it feels like cheating. Like in The Hunger Games, how it's established that Peeta is amazing at camouflage before the arena, and then Katniss almost steps on him because he's so well hidden. If you use a fishing net to trap the bad guy in chapter 24, you'd have better mentioned it that first time you visit the beach in chapter 7, or even the second time in chapter 11. Just make sure you mention it, and if you want it to be a surprise, leave enough time between mention and use for the reader to forget.

Setting is hard. You need to weave everything together seamlessly so as not to take the focus off the plot, yet still achieve that perfect balance between rambling and white space. If you can do that, then congratulations! You have mastered the art that is setting. Now go clean off your shoulder ;)