One of the biggest challenges we face as writers is getting what we see in our heads onto the written page. We live with our characters and settings for so long as we plot and plan and then get down to the actual writing. Our characters are alive to us and we see the world through their eyes. That’s a good thing except when it’s not.
It’s a good thing when we let ourselves listen to those characters and yet we still hold enough control over them to make sure they tell us everything the reader needs to know as the story progresses. That doesn’t mean we have to lay everything out on the first page. But it does mean we have to sprinkle cookie crumbs of plot throughout. The last thing we want is to make our reader mad because we suddenly pull a rabbit out of our hat and reveal the killer as someone who has only walked onstage once, and in such a way as they were forgotten. That is when the book — or tablet — go flying against the wall and none of us want that.
But there is more to making sure we get the details down on paper than just making sure we don’t pull an ending out of nowhere. We need to paint a picture of sorts for our readers that lets them know not only what our characters are doing and thinking but where and when they are as they do it. We need to let them see what our characters are seeing just as we need to let them feel what our characters, at least our POV characters, feel.
Sarah beat that lesson into me — and, unfortunately, it is one I sometimes forget — early into our friendship. I’d made the mistake of telling her that I sometimes wrote. When she finally pressured me into sending her a sample — yes, pressured, complete with pointy boots — I waited in fear, knowing she would tell me my writing sucked eggs. Part of me even wanted her to because then I could go back to just writing for pleasure and then throwing it into a drawer or under the bed.
What she did instead was start mentoring me. The one thing she kept hitting me on was setting. I needed to let the reader see where my POV character was. If Mac Santos walked into her boss’ office, I needed to give at least a sense of what that office looked like, not only so Mac could react to it but so the reader could start getting an insight into the boss. She was right and, if I’m honest, it is something I still have to work on.
Why am I harping about this so early this morning? It was something I was reminded of during the last meeting of my local critique group. We saw both ends of the spectrum when it comes to putting your reader into the scene. In one, we were drawn into the story be not only the bleak dystopian setting and fast paced plot. Even when we had a question or concern about the chapter we were critiquing, the unanimous decision of the group was that we felt like we were part of the story because we could see and feel what the POV character was going through.
The other end of the spectrum was the opening for a novel where we knew what was happening but not why and certainly not when and where. This has been one of the challenges for the particular member, someone new to writing. They have a story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. There are emotional peaks and valleys. But this particular writer is having a hard time getting all he sees in his head onto the page.
It would be easy to simply nod and tell him that he’s improving — which he is — and not give a solid critique of his work. That’s especially true because everyone in the group likes him. But that isn’t why I started the group so long ago. A critique group isn’t worth anything if you don’t give honest critiques, with suggested solutions, to help writers improve their craft. But this was beyond me. Or I thought it was.
Then, as the group discussed his chapter, I slowly started realizing what was happening. He thought he had given us the information we were missing. In his mind, when he read his submission, all the information we wanted was there. Hmm.
So, I read aloud the first paragraph and then asked him one question. When he listened to me reading the excerpt, what did he see in his mind? I had him tell us, in detail, the picture he saw and the light bulb went off — for both of us, I hope. Suddenly, we knew where the setting was. We knew the time of day and weather. We knew what the characters in the scene were doing and why. We knew their relationship and we started getting a hint at their motivation. That one paragraph, suddenly turned into several pages.
Better was seeing the impact this had on the rest of the group. Not only did they suddenly see the story shaping and want to know more, I could see them thinking about their own work with this in mind. Since I still have to remind myself to toss in those details because they can and do make a story richer, I understood. I also understood something else, it is important to remember these lessons, no mater how many books or short stories you’ve written.
So here is my question to you: how do you try to pull your reader into your work? Second, do you think about setting when writing, and how it can play into the plot and atmosphere?
Now for the update. Last week, I wrote about the changes to the KU/KOLL payment scheme and how some authors were reacting to them. I listed the number of “pages” read the first two weeks of the month and compared that with the number of downloads for the first half of last month. As noted, there were more downloads but, using the new payment scheme, as it is currently believed to play out, I would make more money now than then.
Well, I thought I would revisit my numbers for the three books I listed last week and see how things look now. To refresh everyone’s memory, here are my numbers from last week:
|Duty from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 2)||232||524||20||4946|
|Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1)
|Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1)
The numbers this week are as follows:
Duty from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 2): 9088 normalized pages read. The translates into approximately 17 copies of the book read. At the $1.40/copy read (10% threshold met), I would have earned $23.40. Taking the normalized page counts and the $0.006/page a number of sites are quoting as what Amazon will be paying, I would be receiving $54.53.
Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1): 8293 normalized pages read. That is approximately 16 copies of the books read. Under the old rules, I would make $22.40 for those downloads. Under the new rules, assuming the $0.006 is the proper payout per page, I would make $49.75.
Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1): 77525 normalized pages read.That is approximately 115.5 copies of the book read. Under the old rules, I would have made $161.70. Under the new rules, I’m looking at earnings of $465.15.
Needless to say, if the per page figure is anything close to what has been estimated, I think I’m going to like this new version of payment rules much more than I did the older version.
Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff.
One trick I’ve found, and I picked it up from an excerpt of a literary novel, is to use all the POV character’s senses. This is especially fun when you have a non-human character, or one who is missing a sense. The excerpt I read took place as a boy walked from his home through a souk in Cairo (as I recall) to the mosque and madrassa. It was not until someone else made a comment at the end of the reading that you realized the character was blind. The author used such a rich sensory descriptions of scent, sound, and touch that the reader never noticed that visual cues were missing,
I try to do the same. But the problem comes when you do that in your head and forget to do it on the page.
My problem is the other way. I end up pruning a lot of unnecessary detail. [Describing Rada’s wardrobe every fourth page? Really? Every tree in the forests around Nagymatra, or the carpet in the parlor in the town palace in Budapest, the one under the cover because the house is empty at the moment? Whack, whack, trim, trim]
LOL. Of course, I would rather prune than have to go back and try to figure out how to add the detail.
I am horrible at setting. I’m great with dialogue and characters, but I have to work on descriptions, like what action is going on, and setting is right there at the bottom. It’s something I go through and add in during revisions because it gets forgotten in the rush of the first draft. I still have not figured out how to use setting to help establish atmosphere well. Beyond something cliched like using grey, rainy weather to make things gloomy, I’m not sure what to do. Anyone in the MGC or any readers have tips on how to better describe and utilize setting?
I have the fault of assuming that because I see it in my head, the reader does as well. But on atmosphere, it’s as much as what happens in it as the surroundings. Imagine a scene in a dentist’s examination room. The character walks in and sees the lights on, the gleam of the chrome, tools neatly laid out in a tray. easy listening music piped in, and the crisp smell of disinfectant. What does that make you feel?
Now imagine the character walks into an abandoned dentist’s examination room, the only light is from his flashlight, dust coats everything but the chair, tools tossed everywhere except for two in a tray, dark with a dried, dark red substance, and there is the stench of decaying flesh. Then he hears scratching in the dark. How does that make you feel?
That’s just a non-expert’s example. But consider a funeral home that an hour ago was full of guests, and now the character – and the reader – is there alone. The body is in the casket, surrounded by flowers, the lights are still on. No storm. No traffic. No howling wind. The character settles down in the break room, picks up a magazine, and in the silence hears footsteps on the tile. He calls the funeral director’s name, but there’s no answer. Then he hears a door open. He puts down the magazine and goes to investigate.He finds no one, On the way back to the break room, he notices the door to the embalming room is now slightly open. He calls the funeral director’s name. Silence. He walks to the door, puts his hand on the knob, and hears the light clink of metal against metal inside.
How does that make you feel?
These are crude attempts at atmosphere. But, really, the only things creepy about the above is the location, time, the character is supposed to be alone, and the near silence. It’s just the combination that gives it a creepy feel. You might try asking what makes you feel what you want to evoke in your readers.
Keep in mind, though, that I’m not an expert.
Haha, pretty much anything with a dentist’s office makes me feel scared, but one was worse than the other 🙂 Great examples. Thank-you
I would say, just as an exercise, to go to a place like what you’re describing and writing down what you notice. For example, I recently hiked the Bumpass Hell trail in Lassen National Volcanic Park (and dreamed about it last night, which is why it came to mind.) I could start off by describing the way the snow banks were still on the verge of the trail, despite the warm temperatures, the twisty bristlecone pines, the dust underfoot, and how the view opened up as we went around a corner. Then I could write how the wind disappeared as we went over the ridge and how we started to get wafts of that smell, that nasty sulfuric smell that (thankfully) was not consistent, so that we did not end up nauseated. I could write how when we got down to the boardwalk, we could see above the mud pits some incredibly verdant meadows, aided by the heat which took their little brooks and turned them into scalding mud. And of course, I could write of how much variety there was in the vents, how one was the orange of iron and another that pale yellow-green of sulfur.
I may end up using that experience sometime—I’m not really sure why I’d have characters needing to cross such a place, but oh man, I could describe it well. And of course, *somebody* will need to fall through the fragile crust and burn a leg off, like poor Mr. Bumpass did. (He survived, but that put paid to his hopes of monetizing the area.)
As an exercise for setting, pick an opening paragraph and remove all the dialogue (if any). What’s left? Where is this set? What genre of story is it, and what mood does it convey?
What setting and mood do you get from these openings?
Hating the Earth was easy.
It was always there to hate, a filmy blue eye hanging in the black sky, winking side to side. Even on that high day of the month when the eye was shut, a blue halo, a crust of dirty air, stared on. It asked to be hated, sending its people who thought Luna’s land was ugly and her cities strange and her gravity comical, sending its message that Earth was the source of all the life in the Universe as if nobody had ever been born on Luna or Mars or the Frames, never mind the Far Worlds, sending its stupidity and its lies. It was full as a pimple of trash and stink and jealousy, spitting them all by shipfuls at Luna, hating Luna for not being another piece of Earth itself, refusing even to call the world by its proper name, as if “Moon” meant “owned,” as if gravity made property: what was there to do but hate it back?
-Growing Up Weightless, by John M Ford.
Leda came back into my life one sunny spring afternoon while I was standing in line at the Magic Lantern. The marquee promised The Seven Samauri and The Court Jester, and I could use a couple hours of forgetting my woes. A couple of Dragonstooth elves in shiny red leather were talking too loudly behind me. They would drop their parents’ Faerie silver in front of the ticket-taker and get in without a second’s hassle. I’d probably be laughed at for my last, rather wilted four-leaf clover.
-Nevernever, by Will Shetterly
Thanks Dot! I’ll try that 🙂
I can go either way. Some times I forget that the audience can’t see the drawing/photo that I am using for inspirations, other times I end up giving them a ‘travelogue’ -sg-
A habit that was pointed out to me, that I am trying to work on, is using only the visual and leaving out the sounds and smells. Using the other senses can give you just about as much information as visual.
The other senses are what a lot of us have to work on weaving into our work. I have a note attached to my monitor to remind me that there are five senses and they all have to be used from time to time.
-chuckle- nice to know that I am not the only one.
I try to add time of day and seasonal information. ::Sigh :: and then I do a heavy edit and have to recheck _everything_.
Those are nice numbers! Close to the amount you’d get for sales.
Thanks, Pam. Now to see if KU pays out the way everyone is anticipating. To be honest, I don’t expect to be paid for a borrow what I get paid for a sale but it is only fair for longer works to receive more per borrow than a short piece does.
Of course, there are some people who do the opposite. I was reading what was supposedly an awesome fantasy novel, and this guy is supposedly hurrying to the local equivalent of his high school’s championship baseball game (he’s the pitcher); there’s a storm coming — and the writer decided to start describing the guy’s backpack. (In a way that was much more intricate than how she’d described his friends or family. And not because the writer was suggesting that the guy had a backpack fetish or that it was a magical backpack.)
So yeah, maybe the book got better, but I’m not interested in any saga which includes “two pages of description and backstory for a nondescript backpack for absolutely no reason.” I mean, maybe Terry Pratchett could have done it and made it funny and touching and relevant, and also kept me patiently reading. But most writers should know better. Being able to perform a two minute song doesn’t mean it’ll be ten times better if you do a 20 minute guitar solo.
LOL. I always felt Michener did that with his books. The running joke in our family was that he spent the first hundred pages of every book creating the Earth. But I know what you mean. I was in a group once where one of the members could set a scene — and by that I mean paint a picture of where her characters were and what the atmosphere was — better than almost anyone. The problem was that she couldn’t write characters worth a flip. They were all one dimensional (and I’m being generous here) and the reader simply couldn’t connect with them. Frankly, it was more interesting reading the page or more about the backpack than it was reading about the characters.
my problem is best cited as having a huge elaborate setting and trying to pace how i dribble the back-story into the story.
That can be the problem with world-building. How much is enough and how much is too much. What I always ask myself is does the description of setting break the pace of the novel and take the reader out of the action?
It’s so humbling to hear people who know what they are doing . . . I think we need a blog on pacing, and how to analyze for problems in pacing.
I have the same problem, it’s about letting the reader USE their imagination to flesh out the scene in their minds. The question I always deal with is how much is enough, and how much is too much detail… sigh…
Yep. One example I have used in workshops and in my critique group is Psycho’s shower scene. The music helps set the scene. You just know something is about to happen. Then you see the door open, the hand at the shower curtain, the knife, Janet Leigh screaming and blood flowing down the drain. But you never see the actual knife entering flesh. Yet you can see it in your head. So how do you translate that into the “printed” word?