Posted in setting, the novel, Uncategorized, writing prompts

How to Write A Setting With Personality

“The setting was like another character.” Have you ever heard someone describe a story this way? What is it that makes some settings feel alive, as if they were a person and not just a landscape? It takes more than just writing vivid description. Today, I’m sharing three ways to give your settings personality.

Setting is Responsive

My favorite instruction on writing setting comes from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In her essay, “Place” Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Caroline, shares what makes setting come alive for her.

I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feeling in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page–articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details–if you keep telling me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious–then I’m a bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story that I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.

Dorothy Allison, “Place”

In other words, in order for a place to feel like a character, the other characters should display an interactive relationship with it.

Allison goes on to say, “Place is where the ‘I’ goes. Place is what that ‘I’ looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?”

You have to know your main character’s personality well. This is especially important if you have a first-person narrator, since everything is being filtered through that character’s opinions.

Writing Prompt

In Allison’s essay, she makes a list of single lines of description that summarize her feelings toward various cities she’s visited. They are as follows:

  • Central Florida is despair.
  • New York City is sex.
  • California is smug.
  • Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
  • Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
  • Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.

Using Dorothy Allison’s sentences as a model, write single sentence descriptions that sum up the feelings you have about each of the cities and neighborhood where you have lived.

These lines make great opening sentences for stories or essays. Vladimir Nabokov began one of his short stories, “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull.”

Setting is Personified

So far we’ve talked about how characters react to settings, but sometimes settings have an agency of their own. In the following passage, Jeanette Winterson introduces the setting in the first chapter of her novel The Daylight Gate.

The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt. […]

There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptized; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate

Notice how she describes the hill like a creature, wearing a coat cropped like an animal pelt. Then as we go on, the hill begins to act, not just look, like a living creature. It knows the girl, as much as she knows it.

When nonliving things are described as if they had the qualities of something alive, this is called personification.

In this particular novel, we might suspect that there is something supernatural or uncanny about this setting that is giving it its agency. But even if your setting’s personification is a mere metaphor, it can still be effective in making it more evocative to the reader.

Writing Prompt

Your setting is alive. Write a scene where the setting has a message that it wants to communicate to a human character. How does it get its message across? Also think about your human character’s emotional response to the situation.

Setting is Defamiliarized

There’s an old saying that it’s the job of a writer to make the ordinary feel strange and new. This is called defamiliarization. The passage below describes a place that many of you should be familiar with, but does it feel comfortable and ordinary?

If there is a river within a thousand miles of Riverside Drive, I saw no signs of it. It’s like every place else out there: endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up.

Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Here we have the suburban sprawl typical of southern California, but the description makes it feel anything but typical. Everything is slanted and irregularly shaped. The buildings are ready to vomit.

It is described in a way that makes the readers feel like they’re dizzy themselves. This isn’t just because of the word choice; the long run-on sentence is used intentionally to make the reader feel overwhelmed.

Whether or not the reader feels comfortable with your setting has nothing to with whether they know the place in real life. It’s all up to your words and sentence structure.

Writing Prompt

Write a scene where an alien visits a setting that is familiar to people living in the West in the 21st Century. It might be a supermarket, a highway, or a school. How does this setting feel outlandish, strange or unfamiliar to your character? What words and sentence structures capture this feeling?

The character doesn’t literally have to be a space alien. They could be an escaped circus animal, time traveler or anyone else you can imagine.

Wrapping Up

Now that we’ve learned about ways to give our setting personality, it’s time to think about how you might want to apply this information to your work in progress. You might want to double-check descriptions you’ve already written in your novel or memoir. Is it doing at least one of the following?

  • Showing something about your main character’s personality and how they relate to the world around them.
  • Creating a sense that the landscape is alive through its interactions with the human characters.
  • Disorienting readers with surprising word choices and sentence structures, giving them a sense of newness.

If it’s a “no” to all of the above, it may be that your setting is, pardon the pun, fading into the background. Revising with what you know now will make your setting an active character in its own right.

Need more advice on making your writing come alive? Follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in the novel, Uncategorized

How to Write A Gripping Opening Line

First impressions are everything. If you don’t hook your readers from the start, they might turn on Netflix or start doom-scrolling on Facebook. There are plenty of other things for people to do besides read your novel.

But don’t worry! Today we’ll learn how to find a hook for your novel so your readers won’t be able to put it down.

Examining Opening Lines

Let’s look at some opening sentences and see how they are working. I selected these by pulling famous novels off my husband’s bookshelf. In other words, I could have picked any number of well-regarded books and found opening lines that work similar ways.

Catch-22

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The hook: This line begs the question: Why did Yossarian fall in love with the priest? Making the reader ask a question is always a good strategy for an opening line. It hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading to see if they get an answer.

The tone: In addition, the idea of a man falling in love with a priest at first sight is humorous. This sets the silly tone of the rest of the novel. It is important that your opening line help establish the reader’s expectations about what kind of book they have chosen to read, even if the book later subverts some of the reader’s expectations, which Catch-22 certainly does.

The character: We are also being introduced to the character of Yossarian here. Generally the first person you see in a novel will be the main character. That may sound basic, but it’s important. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if you chose to begin with someone other than the main character, you need to write carefully so the reader can follow the transition.

The Golden Compass

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening halls, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The hook: Here we see the main character sneaking through the hallway. This begs the question: why does she need to sneak? Right away we sense that there is a mystery afoot. The story begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. This means there is no exposition or introduction at the beginning of the story: we are thrown into the action right away.

The world: The fourth word in this sentence is “daemon.” This tells us right away that we are in a fantasy novel and sets the readers expectations accordingly.

The movement: It is significant that Lyra is not in a static position. She’s moving through the hallway. This movement makes the reader feel like they are getting pulled into the story. If Philip Pullman had started the novel a little later, we would see Lyra hiding and overhearing a conversation she’s not supposed to hear. Even though this would technically still be in medias res, it’s less gripping than seeing her in motion.

Gravity’s Rainbow

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

The hook: There’s a big mystery here. What is this thing in the sky and why is it screaming? Why did it happen before and why is it happening now? Having this much mystery up front can be risky because it may alienate some readers. Make sure you introduce a character quickly to help ground them.

The movement: Once again we begin a story with movement, but this time it is the movement of an object across the entire skyline, rather than the movement of a single character that we saw earlier. This alone says a lot about the novel: it’s a big book about big ideas and takes a broad view of history. The movement of the large object across the large space is mimicking this.

The Devil Wears Prada

The light hadn’t even officially turned green at the intersection of 17th and Broadway before an army of yellow cabs roared past the tiny death trap I was attempting to navigate around the city streets. Clutch, gas, shift (neutral to first? or second?) release, clutch, I repeated over and over in my head…

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

The Character: We learn a lot about the main character from these opening sentences. We learn she’s a frantic, anxiety-prone loser. Her struggle against traffic immediately establishes her as an underdog. Readers tend to love underdogs and want to root for them, especially if they find her anxieties and problems relatable.

The Movement: Once again, we are in motion. This time, we’re careening through the chaotic streets of New York City. We know this even though the city isn’t named because of the concrete pieces of description: the familiar street names combined with the yellow cabs and traffic. But importantly, this setting is done inside the act of driving. This allows the reader to feel like they are driving through New York City with the character.

Pumping Up Your Novel’s Opening Line

Now let’s apply what we’ve learned to our own opening lines. The following are general principles you can apply to begin your novel with a bang.

Add Movement

As we saw in our examples, keeping the readers in motion will draw them into the story. This is a great way for the writer to prove that they created a dynamic world, assuring the reader that the characters will experience change by the end of the story.

Act First, Explain Later

Don’t bog down the beginning with paragraphs of backstory. Begin with an intriguing scene and incorporate the necessary background in small doses throughout the first chapter.

Build an Iceberg

Remember Hemingway’s iceberg? A good writer doesn’t need to spell everything out for the readers. Instead, they give just enough information for the readers to use their own imagination. This is especially true in opening sentences, where some mystery or ambiguity can hook the reader.

Establish the Voice

The reader should get a hint at the general tone of the novel from the very beginning. Will it be a tender love story or a side-splitting satire? If you have a first-person narrator, you also have to give a hint at the character’s personality. Are they a hapless schmuck, like the narrator of The Devil Wears Prada, or are they are sardonic and bitter, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye? In a first-person novel, the reader’s interest is often dependent on the strength of the narrator’s personality.

Wrapping Up

I suggest you take some of your favorite books off the shelves and examine their opening sentences. How many of them follow these rules? How many break them? Do you notice a difference between classic and contemporary novels?

If you’d like more advice on improving your novel, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing prompts

3 Writing Prompts Inspired by Hemingway

We learn by doing, not from just hearing advice. Ernest Hemingway, that heavyweight of American literature, would agree with that more than anyone. Blog posts detailing writing tips from Ernest Hemingway are practically their own gene at this point. And they are so popular for a reason: Hemingway was full of writing tips that benefit beginner writers and established novelists alike.

But advice without practice will only get you so far. Today I’m sharing three Hemingway-inspired prompts that I often use with my students. Let’s start putting ideas into action!

One True Sentence

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

It’s certainly comforting to know that even Nobel Prize-winning writers like Ernest Hemingway experienced writer’s block and insecurity during their careers. And here he’s giving us his trick for getting the pen flowing again: writing just one true sentence. But what does he mean by “one true sentence?”

Let’s look at the first lines from some of his stories and see what similarities we can see in them.

  • It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
  • It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
  • He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”

What commonalities did you notice in these sentences? They all introduce both the setting and the character. The sentences are all simply written, but also full of concrete details that you can see: the shadow of a tree, the green fly of the dining tent, the open windows.

We also get a picture of where the character or characters are in this space and what they are doing, even if we don’t learn anything else about them yet. This makes the reader feel like they are entering a scene that is already in progress. As Hemingway said, he never started a story as if he was presenting or introducing something. He threw the reader right into the action.

Writing Prompt

Spend a few minutes coming up with your own “true sentences.” Remember that each should have a character and a setting. Try to include one concrete visual detail in each sentence.

Write How You Really Feel

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Here Hemingway makes a distinction between what you feel and what society expects you to feel. We’ve all experienced this at some point or another. Maybe you got your dream job, but instead of feeling happy you felt sad because it meant moving across the country away from friends and family. Or a loved one died after a long illness and rather than feeling sad, you felt relieved that they were finally out of pain.

Complicated emotions make good fiction. And Hemingway advises that we don’t simplify our emotions just because it makes the story easier to write.

He also discusses how writers make readers experience emotions. He says that we do that by following the sequence of actions that led to the emotion as closely as possible.

Let’s look at an example:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”― A Moveable Feast

In this passage from Hemingway’s memoir, he describes the vivid, sensual tastes of oysters and wine. Hemingway was feeling depressed and empty earlier in the chapter, but because the reader followed him through this experience, we can understand the change in his mood.

Writing Prompt

Write about a time in your life when your emotions felt different from what you were “supposed” to feel. Follow the sequence of actions that led up to that feeling so that the reader experiences the emotion with you.

Be Brief

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Hemingway is famous for his strong but simple prose. Let’s look at another example:

“She was crying. I comforted her and she stopped crying. But outside it kept on raining.”― A Farewell to Arms

We know, without Hemingway telling us directly, that the woman is still sad, even though she stopped crying. This is what he means when he refers to the iceberg. Give the reader enough information that they can imagine the rest.

A poorly written setting can feel like a New Yorker cartoon. It’s a simple line drawing outlining a room, but it’s not a real place. It’s a caricature.

When you write a scene, you should know every detail. If your scene is in a restaurant kitchen, you should know what kind of food they serve, whether they are at peak hours or between meals, what languages the staff uses to speak to each other, how many cooks are old veterans and how many are students trying to make it through college. How many flies are buzzing around the garbage? What brand of rat poison is under the sink?

Inevitably, not all these details will fit into your scene. But if you provide just enough details, the reader will feel like this scene takes place in a real kitchen, not a caricature.

The same is true for your characters. You should know every detail about their lives, but most of it won’t end up in the final draft. Let’s see one final example:

“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”― The Sun Also Rises

In this tidbit of dialogue from Jake Barnes, the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, we learn a lot about his personality and his attitude toward life. We can envision a lot about his past from this brief passage, and there’s a hint of tragedy that made him this way.

Writing Prompt

Choose your favorite “true sentence” that you wrote in the first exercise. Write the story that follows. Follow Hemingway’s advice about brevity and follow the sequence of actions that produce powerful emotions.

Wrapping Up

The only kind of writing is rewriting.

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

One last piece of advice: your first draft is just one step. No matter how “truly” you write (to paraphrase Hemingway), you still have to revise your work. If you want more writing advice, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing prompts

My Favorite Prompt for Writer’s Block

Writer’s block happens for many reasons. Often, I know what I want to write and I have my goal, but when I sit down to write, I start thinking about the laundry I need to do or a stressful situation from work or some other distraction, and I just can’t focus on the task at hand.

This is a great prompt for redirecting attention. Think of it as a guided meditation for writers that will take you step by step away from your everyday life stressors to a new place where you can focus on creating. I like to do this prompt on the first day of class as it’s a great way to show my students how to clear their minds at the beginning of a writing session.

Step 1: Write Out Your Stress

This is the most important step. Take five minutes and write about anything that might distract you from creativity. This might be stressful situations at work or with your family, it might be the pile of laundry on your floor or your overwhelming to-do list. When I do this prompt in class, I inevitably write about my worries for the semester and any perceived awkwardness I might have had interacting with my students.

When we put our worries in an orderly form, they’re less likely to bother us for the rest of our writing session.

It’s important that you don’t censor yourself. Think of this as a diary entry that’s just for you.

Coming Up Next

For my own writing sessions, I usually just do this part of the prompt. If you already know what you want to write about, often this is all you need to get right to work. If you need more writing inspiration, continue on.

For the next steps of this prompt, we’ll use a piece of visual art to inspire our writing. I’ve used various photographs and paintings in my classes. I’m using one of my favorites here, but you can do these steps with any piece of artwork that appeals to you.

I encourage you to use a timer, and don’t spend too much time on any one step.

Giorgio de Chirico, “L’ enigma dell’ arrivo e del pomeriggio” (The Enigma of the Arrival and of the Afternoon)

Step 2: Focus on the Feelings

Spend a minute or two jotting down the emotional impression that the image makes on you. You can write either words or short phrases, but do not physically describe the image.

Step 3: Step Inside the Picture

Spend five minutes describing the image. Don’t limit yourself to what you can see, but use your imagination for all five senses. What does the air feel like? Hot and dry? Cold and windy? What about the smells and sounds of this place? How would the ground feel underfoot and what is the texture of the walls?

Try to imagine that you are really there, not just looking at a two-dimensional representation.

Step 4: Meet the Characters

Spend five minutes imagining two characters in this scene. They might be the ones that you can see in the image, or they could be someone else, outside the frame. I often do this exercise with images that don’t have people in them.

The important thing is to imagine what would motivate someone to be in this space. Why did they come here? Was it by choice? Were they born here? Do they want to leave or stay? What do they hope to get out of either going to staying? Think about what life goals your characters might have.

Make sure you answer these questions differently for your two distinct characters.

Step 5: Create a Scene

This is the final step. Now that you know a little bit about the setting and characters, spend ten minutes writing a scene that takes place in this picture.

The scene should feature a conflict between your two characters. There are many possibilities, depending on the backstories and life goals that you have chosen for them. A new-comer to the location might threaten the life ambitions of a long-term resident. A parent might want to prevent their child from leaving, or alternatively, encourage their child to leave for a better life.

You can re-use any of your favorite phrases or sentences from the previous steps in this stage.

Wrapping Up

Once you’ve finished, congratulate yourself on sticking it out and focusing on the new scene you’ve created. You might have ended up with a great flash fiction piece or the beginning of a longer story. But even if this piece of writing never sees the light of day again, you’ve learned several important lessons:

  • When life is intruding on your writing, spending a few minutes getting your feelings out can help you focus.
  • When you feel overwhelmed by a writing project, try breaking it into smaller and more manageable steps. You wouldn’t have been able to create the scene at the end without doing the pre-writing steps first.
  • Writing is a product of sitting down and getting the work down, not some magical muse appearing to inspire us.

Thanks for joining me for this journey today. If you want more writing advice and prompts like this one, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.

Posted in Uncategorized, writing habits

How to Achieve Your Writing New Year’s Resolutions

Sometimes meeting our writing goals can be difficult. I learned that myself last month when I got sidelined by appendicitis. Today I want to talk about how to achieve your writing resolutions in the New Year. This is a particularly pertinent topic for me, as I’m still getting back in the swing of things after recovering from surgery. We won’t always know what life is going to throw at us, but if we establish good habits, we can always find a way to achieve our goals, whether that means finishing that novel, or simple starting a daily writing habit.

Sign a Contract

And I don’t mean signing a book deal. In this case, I mean making a promise to yourself. The Creativity Contract is a concept that I first discovered in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Her original contract is quite simple:

I, ___________________________________, understand that I am undertaking an intensive, guided encounter with my own creativity. I commit myself to the twelve-week duration of the course. I, ________________________________, commit to weekly reading, daily morning pages, a weekly artist date, and the fulfillment of each week’s tasks.
I, ___________________________________, further understand that this course will raise issues and emotions for me to deal with. I, ______________________________, commit myself to excellent self-care–adequate sleep, diet, exercise and pampering–for the duration of the course.
______________________________Signature
______________________________Date

But I make some changes to the contract for my own writing classes. I find it’s helpful to have my students reflect on their concrete goals for the course. For some of my students, that might mean writing their first ever short story. For more experienced writers, they might want to refine a publishable collection by the end of the term.

So what do you want to achieve by the end of the year? Spend a few minutes today jotting down your goals. Be realistic, but also challenge yourself.

Experiment

When I’m advising my students on starting a daily writing habit, I always tell them to experiment with different elements in their writing routine. Some people like to write in the morning, some at night. Some people prefer to write in twenty minute bursts, while others need an hour to get into a good groove. Some people need to make a cup of tea and curl up in their favorite chair in a quiet house in order to focus, while other people can scribble in a notebook in a crowded cafe. There is no wrong way to write. There’s only what works for you.

It is also important to remember that what works for you might change over time. Before the pandemic hit, I was writing on a novel during my long commute by train. When I stopped going into work, I found it difficult to work on this project that I associated with writing in this very specific space. I decided to take a break from that project and work on other writing while I found a new routine for my stay-at-home lifestyle.

Join a Group

Having a writing group is one of the best ways to increase your accountability. I’m part of a bi-monthly writing on Zoom, and sometimes knowing that my friends are looking forward to seeing my latest chapter is all I need to push through a difficult passage.

Even if an in-person writing group is off the table right now, there are many different kinds of writing groups that can fit your lifestyle. If you are new to writing, taking a writing class online can be a great way to meet other writers. The friends that you make in your writing class might end up being your critiquing partners for life.

Forgive Yourself

Remember, a single slip up doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Unexpected difficulties will always pop up in your life. After I had my appendectomy, I couldn’t write for almost a week. I was groggy from pain killers for the first few days, and my incisions made it difficult to sit upright at a computer. I missed a lot of goals that I had made both for this blog and for my other writing projects. It is natural to feel discouraged. Even after I recovered from my surgery, my routines had all been broken and I’ve had to work to establish them all over again.

But sometimes feeling discouraged can make us give up on our goals altogether, and that is a trap to avoid. I once had a roommate who was always trying to quit smoking. Every time she broke down and had one cigarette, she would think, “well, this attempt to quit smoking has failed, so I might as well finish the pack.” Then she’d need a new pack. Soon the cycle would start again.

It’s inevitable. At some point, you are going to fail to meet your goals. But the important thing is that you try to get back on track as soon as you can’t. Don’t wait for another New Year’s resolution to start again. You can renew your commitment to your writing in any season of the year.