April 18, 2012

Commitment Phobe

Vaishak Suresh

I’m having trouble getting into my writing again, of which anyone who has ever read any of my posts will be tediously aware. I read what I’ve written and it seems…flat. There’s no texture, no mood. Sometimes, I just can’t feel the scene. And as soon as that thought occurs to me I realize what (at least, part of) the problem is, and actually has been for some time. Setting. I can’t seem to commit to a time setting. When I first conceptualized A Bird’s Eye View, I saw it on an old fairytale forest island; but I’m terrified (and overwhelmed) by the idea of being factually inaccurate (re: vehicles, tools, etc). So, I re-started the book in a more modern time, the 1960’s (because I really don’t want to deal with cell phones and internet). But it isn’t working. It’s not the right…feel. When I think of my setting, I feel something old. But when I think of my characters, I hear their youth, their modernity.

Part of me says, “Just write the damn thing already and fix it later.” But I know I’m not underestimating the importance of the setting.

Donald Maass said, “Highly memorable settings have a palpable reality that is larger than the characters…It lives in the readers’ mind after the plot is long forgotten.”

Setting is what most strongly conveys mood, in my humble opinion. New Orleans is a city on my Bucket List because I read The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. Could Jack London’s White Fang have been set anywhere other than Canada’s Deep North, or Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City in any city other than New York? Even Forks, a place you know (and I know you know it) because of a book that somehow made the town so real for readers that when you set the book down, you’re shocked to find yourself here instead of there (especially if it’s sunny).

So, I need to really hammer it out. Commit. I close my eyes. And the island wins out. My story is set on an ancient, living island. The characters come after. 

Now, how do I show my readers what the island is all about?

I’m reading a book right now that has a setting that makes me so cold every night, I’ve been sleeping with my socks on….really. I have no idea when this book is set, and it doesn’t seem to matter. How does she do it, this author?

Well, I googled it.

And Google told me that it’s all about the senses. (Oh God, I know, it’s so obvious! But when you’re writing a scene, ok when I’m writing a scene, you’re so focused on the movement of it. The dialogue, the plot points, the character development. Sometimes I forget to treat the setting like another character of the story. Sorry, Setting.)

The Bookshelf Muse has a great post called the Setting Thesaurus.

“So how do we achieve great setting description? Two words, people: Sensory information. The five senses Sight, Touch, Smell, Taste and Sound are key to involving the reader, because they transform descriptive word choices into experiences.”

They go on to list dozens of descriptive words to help convey sensory information for a particular setting. For example, I clicked on “forest” and some of the results were:

Sounds: soughing wind, groaning trees
Tastes: bitter, gritty, mushrooms
Touch: knobby roots, spider webs on skin

At first, I’m unimpressed. But then, I think of the island, and I see how these words can act as a guide. Using these types of words will help me show the island and how she reaches out and touches her people; she whispers to them in the winds and strokes them with fingers of moss. (See? It worked! I’m inspired.)

So, here’s my plan. The island is not just a place; she’s a character in my story. She’s ancient, timeless. She is, always has been, and always will be. The characters are just telling her their little story.  I need to develop her involvement. I’m going to write each scene making sure that she is present, that the other characters are influenced by her, that the reader is aware of her, write it from her perspective.

But AJ, you ask, what about your youthful characters? Well, I have an idea. I’m going to plant a time specific object. Anyone reading my story can either let me take them where I’m going, or if they want more detail, they can research this object, which will reveal a more obvious, more modern, time frame.

So maybe, I can have my yewts and my fairytale forest too.

I won’t go back and re-write though, not yet, because I really do just have to get the damn thing done already. 




    1. Sigh, it's coming...just, rather slowly... ;)
      PS: I sent you my "Backstory" to read, it might tide you over for now...well in 11 days when tax season is over!


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