Friday, January 18, 2019

Location in Your Story: The Importance of the Inner and Outer "Container"

Realtors know that location is everything in buying or selling property.  Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this.  In story, location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything to a story, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.

Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether.  

One of my students, Margaret, was working on her memoir about growing up in post-World-War-II Mississippi. The storyboard worked well: plot points were good and you could track the dilemma of her story. So Margaret confidently took a few pages to her writing group for review.

Feedback was lukewarm. The pages lacked a sense of place, her fellow writers told her. Margaret, confused, came to my class to learn about this mysterious "sense of place."

She didn't want to include moss-hung oaks and sweet tea in her story, she said. The South was old news to her; she was writing her memoir to put it behind her. Thoughts and reflections about what she'd learned since she'd left the South were much more interesting.

When I read Margaret's "islands," I saw how brief was her acknowledgement of setting. She did note the ancient oak tree outside her family's home, the stuffed furniture in the parlor, the separate summer kitchen which kept the main house cool in August. But overall, there was an imbalance of sensory road signs. Indeed, Margaret's story could've taken place as easily in New York as Mississippi.

I told her that while good characters initially engage us, and plot twists provide momentum, it is setting that gives the emotional grounding that keeps us involved.

"But most of this story takes place inside my reaction to it," she argued, "in my thoughts and feelings, looking back from my life now." All good, but thoughts and feelings tell more than show. They are abstract. It's counter-intuitive, but reflective writing doesn't communicate emotion to a reader, only to the writer who has thought or felt it. I suggested Margaret study the container of her story, the environment where it happens, and distill just enough detail to provide the missing sense of place.

Rick Bass, award-winning author of Winter and other memoirs, described this sense of place as the small elements that "lay claim to you, eventually, with a cumulative power." Bass said they can be as simple as "the direction of a breeze one day, a single sentence that a friend might speak to you, a raven flying across the meadow and circling back again." A container comprises these small outer details, but also the inner landscape of culture, politics, religion, history--the 
at­mosphere of the life in your book. Writing believable con­tainer is much more than just adding one or two setting de­tails. It's about creating a strong center that pulls a reader in and lets her fully live in your pages.  

Growing up in such a senses-rich location, Margaret felt the South was overblown and overstated. But it was the container that she could--and eventually did--use to beckon the reader into her book. It was only by showing the South in all its over-the-top glory that she was able to reveal to her reader just how suffocating the South can be.  

How Does Setting Deliver Emotion?
Another student, John, was a first-time novelist. As a professional nonfic­tion writer, he was trying to learn how container functioned in fiction.  

In John's nonfiction books, outer setting details were used effectively to illustrate anecdotes. He was accustomed to crafting a minimal environment in his small stories. But as a new novelist, John was not having success with this plug-and-play approach. He felt his descriptions of breezes, sun­light, and birds were stiff, besides being injected into each scene willy-nilly.  

So I asked him first to consider why he'd selected these details, why he'd placed them just there in his scenes.

John sheepishly said he was just trying to check "setting" off his writerly to-do list. There was also zero intent to use setting to enhance emotion-which is its primary benefit.

Setting must make sense with the emotional moment you're writing about, I explained. For example, if a character was struggling with a decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored his uncertainty. Not the clichéd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he's talking to. Or if it's a really big decision, a tree fallen across a road. A forgotten pan on the hot stove. These details mirror the character's unsettling confusion.

So John began a list of the emotional moments in his book. He began placing small setting details to echo each moment of his main character's emotion. The effect surprised him-there was so much more payoff! We discussed how, if his character just thinks about his decision, it stays in his gut and never reaches the reader's.

The setting is a roadmap for the reader. It emphasizes what we're supposed to be receiving from the scene.

Every book takes place somewhere. Even the most ab­stract nonfiction book has to have a setting. Writers can't neglect this outer container, the exterior setting, the physical location of their stories-and also how the interior environ­ment is reflected in those outer setting details. 

John learned that good placement of shown setting re­veals emotion as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-sum­mer dahlia--without any interpreting by the writer.

A Basic Lesson: Creating Outer Container
Outer container, what is traditionally called setting, is demonstrated via outwardly perceived things: the weather, the time of day or night, where a person is physically in a room or garden or other specific location, how light slants against an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds sur­round us. But how many writers omit these details, thinking, like Margaret, that they're boring or slow or unnecessary?
Outer setting details are the first conveyers of emotion to a reader. They set the stage.

Few playwrights set their theater productions on a completely blank stage-no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. Much easier for the audience to imagine them­selves inside an 1850s farmhouse kitchen if there is a rocker, an old wooden table, a woodstove, and windows with eyelet curtains. So what outer details exist in your story right now? What have you taken time to write in?

Start by viewing what your narrator notices. Describe the seen setting first. Time of day (light, dark), objects, fur­niture, nature.

Move through each of the remaining five senses, asking yourself what might be perceived. What smells are in this place? What sounds? Add in these details without interpre­tation, without qualifiers, without telling the reader what the details mean. Write, "The garden was pink and gold and filled with summer light." Don't add, "It was beautiful to Marci."

We already get that. No interpreting required.

Overly Familiar Settings
Annie, a published mystery writer, was working on her latest story set in the Florida Keys. "I'm trying to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere to heighten the sense of being in Key West," she told me. "But one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar it seemed, how much the Keys were like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in. The marshy and swampy landscape, riddled with bays and inlets in South Jersey, has long en­couraged all sorts of the same activities that take place in the Keys. Even the architecture is similar," she added, "and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike."  

Annie wanted to know how she could give her readers a sense of Key West while showing that, for her character, this setting felt so familiar. I told her that even if a character knows the story's setting, from growing up there or visiting, it's important to realize that her reader won't. It's still neces­sary to place the reader in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Setting places a reader firmly in the time of day, the experience of light slanting across the floor, or the way the tropical wind rattles the win­dows. In Annie's mystery, she could mention the familiarity of it to her character, but she still had to establish setting.

In short, setting lets us get inside the character's head, via what she notices about where she is, how it impacts her, including what she tries to ignore. You can't skip this step of crafting believable outer container. Or else we won't feel your story.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
First, check out my short video on writing container:

Mary Carroll Moore: Writing the Container of Your Story
Mary Carroll Moore: Writing the Container of Your Story

Then, choose a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Answer three of the questions below. Select one or two sentences that come from the answers and add them to your writing.

1.  What does the narrator smell?
2.  What does she sense on her skin (air tempera­ture)?
3.  What does she hear close to her? In the dis­tance?
4.  What three objects are nearby?
5.  What time of day is it? How can she tell via the setting (without a clock)?

Friday, January 11, 2019

Revision Checklist: When You're Ready to Revise, What to Focus on First

If you have any love for the refining and shaping process of making a book, revision can be much anticipated.  I'm not talking about the early tweaking of individual chapters, which can result in rewriting your opening chapter 1 so many times, you get sick of the book and never write chapter 2.  (I've seen this so many times, and it's a sad thing.) Real revision, in my mind, is not that level of line editing but a whole-book reshaping, a re-visioning of the book's purpose, and an attempt to get out of the writer's chair and into the reader's.

It happens most often when you have completed a first draft, however terrible.  My first draft of a new book is usually leagues away from my original vision of it.  I tell myself to be proud of writing those 60-80,000 words, more or less.  I tell myself only about 60 percent of writers reach this glory.  To count my blessings and get on with revising.  

I've learned from writing over a dozen books that revision is where a book really emerges, becomes itself, and fulfills the writer's vision.  But it takes work and detachment to get it there.  

It requires setting aside your sense of urgency to finish.  That urgency, in my experience, can cause much trouble, pushing you to be satisfied with OK rather than good or great.  If you want to publish today, whether agent-fueled or indie-driven, you need at least good.  Readers have so many choices in books.  Make sure they'll want to read yours.

Revision is where you shape the book to speak to a reader.  But how do you get to this lofty viewpoint without sacrificing your creativity?  

Here's a checklist of sorts, compiled from years of both writing and editing.  Maybe one or more of the ideas will help you, if you're ready to revise.

1.  Plan for time to revise.  Ken Atchity in A Writer's Time talks about revision as comprising 60 percent of the book-writing process.  I agree--and it can be longer, depending on how the writer crafted the draft.  If the first draft was bulleted out, say, via Nanowrimo-type deadline, it may be exceedingly rough.  Chapters might be nothing more than placeholders for ideas.  If the writer has storyboarded or charted their book in some way, spent time on the characters or plot or flow of ideas, the draft might be more solid.  I used to dash off my drafts, hoping for generous help from others in revision.  Now I take a long time to plan and develop the book, using my storyboard, charts, outlines, character questionnaires, and other tools I teach in my retreats and workshops.  I estimate that if my draft takes nine months from idea to 80,000 words, my revision will take about a year, maybe longer.  If the draft takes two years, revision will add on another three.  That's my pace, and it might not be yours, but it's great to know these estimates and not hope for revision in a month!

Shortcuts look tempting.  Skip a few steps, get it out the door into other hands.  You're bored with it, so contact that agent, editor, publisher--now!  Capture their attention--before your courage flies away or the publishing window closes.  But no.  Put the brakes on--calm your over-eager self, and remember what's at stake.  What do you stand to lose, if you rush through these final steps?

Well, for one, most agents and editors only give a new writer one look.  Revision is your chance to catch glaring problems that brand you as an amateur.  Editors and first readers are trained to spot these and have an easy excuse to reject a manuscript.  So, when you feel this urgency to just finish the thing, now, remember that this is the most important time to not rush.  

Another thing not to do:  send your very rough draft to readers.  Even those who ask/beg to see it.  I've watched new writers do this, get the correct feedback that a first draft often gets (a lot of problems, confusion, and corrections to make), then out of shame or discouragement or overwhelm, abandon their books.  The urgency to deliver it into someone else's hands, to give them the power, to make them tell you what you need to do next, is compelling.  You're also, understandably, proud of what you've done and want to show it off!  But please.  Consider the steps below first.  It might make the difference between actually finishing your book and not.

2.  Let it rest.  All my favorite writers, teachers, and mentors have advised this.  I get it now:  you need time away to be able to see the draft clearly.  When you're first finished, there's often a passionate love for the story.  And you know, love is blind.  You may not see what's needed.  Or you might be really tired.  That jades your view too--you see stuff to fix that doesn't need fixing.

How long to let it rest?  Most say between two to four weeks.  If you can really get away from it--read other people's books, do another creative task, binge watch Netflix--you'll do better with step 3.

3.  Make a revision list.  When you've rested, you're ready to begin your brainstorming list of stuff you know you need to take care of.  Don't bother organizing this list by severity of task or amount of time it's going to take, even if you know it.  Just open a document in your computer or a page in your writer's notebook and begin jotting ideas as they come.  

Accumulate this list over a period of two to three weeks.  Write EVERYTHING that you can think of, small or large.  Ideas may come slowly at first.  Here are some items on my last revision list, just to give you an idea:

1.  Check make and color of Molly's car for consistency throughout.
2.  Why does Kate not confront her husband about the texts?  Solve this.
3.  Midbook is way too slow--cut about 10,000 words someplace.
4.  Check if the ending loops back to the beginning.
5.  Search for overused words ("deeper" is one of mine).
6.  Search for "ing" verbs and replace with active verbs.
7.  Draw better map of cabin and layout of farmhouse--check location details in each scene.
8.  Check opening of each chapter--revamp for more variation.
9.  Check transitions--last sentence of each chapter, first of next.

4.  Organize your list.  Once you have a couple of pages (seriously!) of items on your list, organize them.  Estimate the amount of time each might take, if there's research (add time for it) or conversations you need to have.  Some writers like to draw a column alongside the list with this information, then sort the list from smallest to largest task.

Robert Boswell, author of The Half-Known World, (check out his amazing article on transitional drafts here), recommends starting with the smallest task first.  I've tried it both ways and I agree.  Smaller tasks often give me confidence in revision.  I see the changes happening, making the manuscript start to shine, and I get courage for the bigger ones.

Of course, this goes out the window if your smaller tasks depend on any large ones first.  It's useless to correct sentence transitions if you still need to revamp the midbook.  

5.  Pause to explore, to even generate new writing, while you revise. This might strike some as odd, but I like to give myself a freewriting prompt to generate a page or two of new writing during every revision session.  Say I'm sitting down for two hours to work on a couple of revision tasks.  I set a timer for an hour then break for a twenty-minute freewrite on a prompt geared to solve one of my revision questions.  Such as:  Why does Kate not confront her husband about the texts?  (taken from the list example above)  I might freewrite a rough scene where she does, see what juice it brings in.  

Doing this regularly often gives me ideas and plot threads and character enhancements that solve other revision tasks.  It's also a wonderful relief for the linear brain, that can get tired during revision and become too nit-picky too early.

6.  Read it aloud.  There is usually a point I come to when I feel I've revised small stuff enough.  I need to regain a sense of the whole.  Easiest way to get this is to read aloud.  I print the revision and sit down with a highlighter or pen or send it to my iPad and open it in an e-reader, such as Pages.  

My goal is to read it in one sitting, two at most, if I can.  And to not stop to rework it.  Reason:  I want to keep the reader's view.  I want to imagine being a reader, picking this book up in the store or online, and diving in.  

The pen or highlighter is just to mark where I stumble, not to stop, get critical, and fix.  Again, this switches me from reader to writer/editor.  Don't need that yet.

Often, I'm delighted by the changes so far--and I see others that need fixing.  That's good, welcome even.  I go back to step 3 and revise my revision list, adding the new ideas and tasks.  Then I dive in once more.

How long does it take?  The formula I gave above counts for multiple times down this particular garden path.  Revising until you can't see the forest for the leaves on the trees, stepping back for a bigger view by reading aloud, recreating your revision task list, then starting up again.  I'm not aghast at fourteen rounds of revisions in this manner; I'm grateful for fewer, but I know some books need more.  

For your weekly writing exercise, if you're ready for revision or in the middle of it, try one of these steps.  See how it works for you.  Adapt it to your particular book and writing needs. 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Fantasies of the Writing Lifestyle: How to Get Real about What to Expect

A colleague sent me two fascinating articles recently about the reasonable and unreasonable expectations we writers have of the writing life.

The first is a funny-sad yet informative article by writers Rosalie Knecht from Lit Hub (link here) about the colorful fantasy some have of the writing life.   

She likens some writers' fantasies of the creative life to images from an Anthropologie catalog, where true creatives drift through unfinished rooms in wispy clothes, have only difficult relationships, and must suffer to create.  I resonated with that last comment, which creeps into my writing life unwelcomed from time to time.  Knecht says this attitude does a disservice to writers who are actually trying to integrate "art-making with functional lives."  

The other article, also from Lit Hub, is by the coordinator of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Samantha Lan Chang.  It's taken from a talk she gave at the One Story Debutante Ball.  It's all about protecting your writing life from such fantasies.  

I find the fantasy of the writing life both sad and scary.  How many of us writers are still waiting to be "discovered" and propelled towards fame and fortune without effort on our part?  Kind of a take-off on the Cinderella story, we hope for an agent or publisher who will truly get what we're trying to do and help us shape it.  I find it sad because rare is the writer who finds that in today's publishing world, but also because it abdicates much of the value of the years of work it usually takes to learn and practice our craft.  

I disavow writers of fantasy constantly, never an easy thing to suggest not quitting a day job to write full time when skills aren't strong enough to fuel growth, or to remind a first-time memoirist that memoir can take an average of seven years to write, according to a friend's MFA advisers.  Fantasies interrupt the reality on purpose; it's more fun to dream of being rescued from the work that writing takes.

Around this time of year, I like to revisit one of my favorite creative resources:  Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic.  I listen to it as I drive.  I crave her honesty when the fantasy of someone else's more beautiful writing life threatens to derail me from my own.

Your weekly writing exercise to is to read one or both of these articles--each worthwhile in its own right.  If you can't access the links, search at for either author's name.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Your Writing Life: The Benefits of an End-of-Year Review

Last year, I coached a business owner who was writing a book about his years as a wildly successful entrepreneur.  He attributed much of that success to his practice of regularly stepping back to review of how he was doing.  He did this weekly, taking an hour or so to write down what he'd accomplished or realized or changed in his business procedures, how he worked with employees or clients, what he'd learned along the way, as well as the next week's priorities.  

I was intrigued.  I'd always enjoyed setting goals but rarely did I take time to acknowledge where I'd been.  So I began testing out this practice.  For one year, I chose an hour each weekend to list what I'd realized about my writing life.  

Friday, December 14, 2018

Writing through Trauma: Two Published Memoirists Share Their Experiences with Writing and Finishing Their Books

Two of my past students released new books this year.  Katherine Dering, of New York, launched her second memoir, Aftermath, and Judith Mattison, of Minnesota, published her first, I Will Not Break.  Both write about trauma, Katherine about grave mental illness and loss and Judie about abuse.  Not easy subjects, so this week I interviewed each of them about their journey through writing these books, how they mined their difficult subjects, and how they took care of themselves during the process. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Facing Writer's Block: Words of Wisdom from George Saunders

Some writers don't believe in writer's block--that stall out, mind- and spirit-numbing experience that occasionally visits us when we're plowing ahead on a book deadline or trying to bring a new character to life.  But I do.  I've had it, I've coached dozens of writers through it, and it's a real phenomenon.  

Recently, I read a wonderful interview in Lit Hub on the writer George Saunders.  You might be a great fan of Saunders, as I am (his collection of stories, Tenth of December, is some of the quirkiest, most amazing writing I've ever read), or his fiction might be new to you.  His opinion about writer's block is equally inspiring.  It's a bar set too high, he says.  It's about the writer, not the writing.  Always.

Ira Glass, the well-known host and producer of "This American Life," speaks of it as the distance between our taste and our abilities:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Slow Writing: The Pros and Cons of Writing by Hand

A reader sent me this link, a brief article by award-winning writer Annie Proulx on her five rules for good writing.  Even if you don't agree, the website (Writer's Write) is worth a visit.  But I like Proulx's work and I read her counsel, hoping for some inspiration for my current project.  It's always helpful to look into a respected writer's progress.

Of her five rules, two were about writing by hand.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Writing about People You Know: Do You Need to Get Permission?

A reader from Connecticut is finishing up her new novel this month, getting ready to send it out to agents.  She sent me a good question that often plagues writers right before their work goes out into the world. 

"I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver who said she sends her finished manuscripts to family for final approval," this writer wrote.  "If there's anything there that offends them she takes it out.  Since there are a few true intimate details in my novel that helped develop my fictionalized characters who were originally based on real people, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that."

Friday, November 9, 2018

When One of Your Characters Is an Institution: Writing about Racism, Politics, and Other Large Subjects

Tom is writing a novel about a fellow physician, but one of another race who lived in a time of great political and personal challenge.  He attended my weeklong retreat last January in Tucson and we worked together on building the storyboard for his book.  He has plenty of events to make the book tense and full of action (lynchings, KKK threats, and more), but one of his biggest concerns has nothing to do with any of the outer story.  He sent me a great question this week about racism and how to depict it in his story.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Famous Writers' Favorite Tips

I'm just back from a marathon teaching trip so this week's post will be short and sweet:  a wonderful article from the newsletter, BrainPickings, on famous writers' favorite writing tips, compiled by The Guardian.  (Thanks to reader Mary K. for the link.)  Enjoy!  

(If the link doesn't work, go to and search for Jeanette Winterson.)