Sunday, February 28, 2010

Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories

Author Annie Kelleher sent me a great question about setting in her upcoming mystery (she’s a well-published writer) set in the Florida Keys.

“I’ve tried to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere,” she wrote me, “to heighten the sense of being in Key West, but one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar they seemed, how much like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in: the landscape, marshy and swampy and 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 said, “and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike. How do I give the reader a sense of Key West while showing that, for my character, it feels so familiar?"

Setting Brings Out the Emotion

Setting is what brings emotion to the reader. Dramatic action creates momentum, makes your book a page turner. Good characters well depicted and vivid on the page, linger in our memories long after the book is finished. But setting, the way you frame your story in physical time and space, generates the emotion. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But it's true. Just check it out in one of your favorite books--notice where the setting it, and what emotion is conveyed there.

Even if you know a setting well, your reader won't. Even if the character knows the setting, from growing up there or visiting, your reader won't. So place us in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Place us in the intense greens of summer or the black-and-white landscape of winter. Place us in the time of day, letting us experience the light slanting across the floor or the way the night wind rattles the windows.

You can even mention the familiarity of it to the character, let us into that aspect. But we haven’t been there. Just like we’re not inside the writer’s head, we’re not yet inside the character’s either. So place us there, via how the character notices where she is, how it impacts her, what she sees and what she ignores.

You can’t skip this step. Or else we won’t feel your story.

Why Setting Delivers Emotion

I worked for several years with a promising new novelist who was coming from a nonfiction background and trying to learn setting. In nonfiction, setting is used effectively in the anecdotes that illustrate ideas, theories, or methods—you’ve probably noticed the small stories that accompany a diet book or a book on repairing communication in your relationship.

But setting is not primary in nonfiction. In fiction it is.

This new novelist was stumped with setting. At first he thought it was just plug and play: rather stiff (his words) descriptions of breezes, sunlight, and birds injected into a scene willy-nilly. I asked him why these setting details were placed just then in his scene, and he couldn’t tell me. He was just trying to check “setting” off his writerly to do list.

I explained that setting details must make sense with the moment when they are used. When his character, Jules, was struggling with a big decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored uncertainty. Not the clich├ęd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he’s talking to. Or shoes scattered in the front hall. A smoking pan on the stove.

The idea was to use the setting to echo the character’s emotion.

If Jules just thinks about his decision, it stays in his mind—and doesn’t reach the reader’s gut. If the setting, an objective part of the story, reflects Jules's indecision, the setting emphasizes what we’re supposed to be receiving from the scene.

A small example. It really helped the writer.

When Is Setting Too Much

You choose your placement of setting details. Nobody rushing to a hospital will notice many setting details. Maybe two or three short bursts pass by, but not long paragraphs of it.

Keep setting to where there’s a turning point, emotionally. Keep outer drama where you need momentum.

Setting slows, drama speeds the pace.

This Week’s Writing Exercise

Use the following checklist to help yourself enhance setting in a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Choose three items and slip them in—not long sections but short (five to ten words) phrases.

1. What does the narrator smell at this moment?

2. What does the narrator feel on their skin at this moment? (air temperature, etc.)

3. What does the narrator hear close up? In the distance?

4. What three objects are in the room?

5. What’s the time of day—morning, afternoon, late evening, night? How can the narrator tell via the setting (without a clock)?

PS Be sure to visit Annie Kelleher's blog at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Let Me Know What You Think!

Visit a chapter-in-progress from my forthcoming writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, at

Monday, February 15, 2010

Envision, Think, Dream, Refine: The Four Steps to Manifesting

The process of manifesting a published book, whether seen from the starting gate or halfway to the finish line, demands a lot of trust. We often don't know how to get over the blocks and open stretches ahead of us. We hope that we are good enough writers with a good enough idea to make it to publication.

What if you knew there were four measurable steps that successful book writers pass through? Four steps that are far from magic, that don't demand unusual talent, that only ask for your belief and persistence to follow them. And if followed, result in a finished manuscript?

I came across these four steps by trial and error. And desperation. And getting lost and frustrated and overwhelmed by my book projects time and again.

But I'm a systems lover (as well as a creative person). And after successfully publishing thirteen books in three genres, I suspected a system might exist that could help book writers overcome the overwhelm.

I began looking for anything that dependably brought a book to the finish line. Looking in my own writing notebooks to see what I'd done with my own books, interviewing other published writers, reading writing articles and craft guides. What actually made the book journey successful? Was there any common experience between book writers, in any genre, who published their dreams?

Successful Book Writers Use Visioning
Most writers said they spent a lot of time, before they wrote much, just visioning the book. For some this didn't take place on paper. Others took notes while musing over their book idea, jotting down ideas and images that came through the creative right brain. Others discussed their ideas with friends and writing buddies, testing the waters (and this worked as long as the energy was not dissipated by the talking).

But more than just jotting notes or talking, writers who succeeded with this step actually "saw" the book in their imaginations. Some said they saw the book as a completed manuscript, a stack of papers on their desk. Others saw it in published form, on a bookshelf. In this step, the successful writers infused the journey ahead with confidence and belief in their project.

It's an ancient principle: As above, so below. As you vision, so shall it be. It's the basis for visualization, used in professions from sports to business.

No surprise that successful book writers use it too.

I love the visioning step of manifesting a book because it's so intensely internal and delightfully creative. I spend time visiting bookstores, seeing what else is out there, imagining my book and how it will be different and unique and speak to the readers' need. I also love drafting a mock cover of my book--complete with wished-for testimonials by famous writers. Collage is great in this step (scroll down to see book collages from other writers in my post two weeks ago). I also love writing a visioning statement for my book, asking myself, What's this book about?

Step Two: Thinking It Out
Successful authors often move directly from a solid vision to the action step of thinking. Once the book is alive and breathing inside, then it's time to plan the journey.

Planning feels very "uncreative" to many writers. But books take planning, because they are so large. Many writers spoke about planning including their research tasks, character sketches, drafts of scenes (also called "islands" or "freewrites"), or interviews.

For me, a writing notebook is necessary now. I use it to freewrite often, get deep into the idea of the book, try out ideas on paper. While visioning can be done completely internally, planning begins to externalize the process of manifesting a book. My goal during the planning step is to get my book thought out on paper, and create as much written material as possible so I have plenty of choices later.

This step can take months, even years, depending on how much time a writer devotes to the book.

Dreaming the Form
There's a moment when the material grows so plentiful, it must become organized or insanity might result! When a writer has so much written, then dreaming the form takes over. This is a fun step, as the book starts to look like a real manuscript.

I use storyboarding now, to pick and place, arrange and rearrange, until I have a good structure and can use that to cut and paste together a first draft. I'm looking for something that is still rough, but something that looks a bit like a book--it flows, it makes me proud or at least hopeful.

Few published writers omit this step. Many note that it's the place where manuscripts can feel like impossible journeys. Sometimes this third step feels like slogging through thick sand. But if the writer is persistant, the manuscript comes together.

Dreaming is about structuring, accepting the need to organize the material you've generated so that it makes sense to someone outside your writing world. The reader is very important in the dreaming stage--that's why I call it "dreaming." It's as if you are finally creating a world that can be entered fully and populated with witnesses who are also able to enjoy your story.

Finally, Refining
Many published writers love this last step, refining. I think it's the make-or-break moment for books. If a writer has no love, skill, or tolerance for refining, the book doesn't usually make it to publication.

Because refining can take up to 50 percent of the book journey, it helps to reach out for help during this step. I get feedback from writing colleagues and good readers, even hired editors, to help me see with fresh eyes.

Working as a Whole
These four steps are not separate from each other. Often, they weave together as the writer journeys forward. For instance, we revisit our visioning as the book shifts, as new ideas are explored midway through. It's normal that creative work doesn't travel a straight path. But it's also helpful to know approximately where you are in the journey at any one time.

That way you have a sort of map which can orient you if you get overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain lost.

This week, take a look at your manuscript or writing project as a whole. Think about where you are with these four steps.

If you'd like, get out your writing notebook and dialogue with your book on paper. Ask it where it thinks you are. Write some notes to yourself about your next steps.

PS If you live in the Minneapolis-St Paul area, I'll be teaching this four-part process at my workshop, "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." It's a two-day, very hands-on event held in the beautiful writing classrooms of the Loft Literary Center on Friday and Saturday, March 26-27. For more information, visit or my website (look under Writing Classes) at

Receptive Listening--How to Get to Know Your "Players"

We stand with our players, the souls who populate our writing, and we think we know them pretty well as we write our books. But do we? What if we're not really listening deeply enough to know the story behind their stories?

A reader from New York sent this wonderful comment:

"I was reading about one of my favorite subjects, something called Narrative Medicine. This is where doctors learn to listen receptively to their patients and frame their illnesses like a story. That means going beyond the clinical and getting into the whole person.

"And it struck me as curious that the techniques used in attentive listening, that docs are supposed to use to uncover their patients' stories, work because [these techniques] uncover what patients usually don't tell their docs. Thus the idea.... why not apply that to fiction?

"Listen receptively to your characters to learn what they haven't told you. Receptive listening leads to the truth."

Learning to Be a Better Listener to Be a Better Writer
How do you listen better in real life?

How do you use the same skills to listen better in your writing?

In real life, a good listener puts all attention on the person speaking, looks the person in the eyes, reads body language for what's not being said, even repeats back to them what's being said so they know we're listening well.

Most importantly, a good listener lets go of what they think they already know about this person--to be delightfully surprised, to let the speaker have the freedom to change.

In writing, we use similar skills. Full attention, repeating back, looking deeply. But most importantly, getting past our own reactions or beliefs about our stories and the players in those stories.

A challenge for many of us writers. We know who these people are--maybe we grew up with them, if we're writing memoir. We can predict every eyebrow twitch.

Fiction writers get equally stubborn about "knowing" their characters. "She'd never do that!" my students exclaim, when I ask about an idea to up the stakes in their novels.

But our current view is often limited, gives the person no freedom to change, and occupies only one perspective. So this week, try opening your perspective on your players, using the simple question I wonder...

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Pick somebody in your writing you'd like to get to know better.
2. Make a list of 10 things this person would never do.
3. Pick one item on the list. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. Begin writing to answer this question: I wonder what would happen if this person did this? Let receptive listening begin.

Remember this is just an exercise; you don't have to include this in your story. In fact, you may not for many reasons. But it will very likely let you get a new perspective on the player who has been hiding behind what you think you already know about him or her, and you'll hopefully be surprised at what you hear.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Remedies for Writer's Block--How I've Been Using My Storyboard to Break Through

How you open your book determines whether it's read. What's opening your story right now? Is it compelling? Exciting, like a flower about to burst into bloom?

This week my on-going book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, are working on this question. We're studying Act 1 of our books, asking ourselves if the opening chapter of Act 1 is strong enough.

I like working with the three-act structure in books, because it makes the hugely unweildy manuscript more manageable. But it means doing a storyboard. If you've been reading this blog for the past weeks, you know my love-hate affair with storyboards. They force a writer to structure the story, to know what it's about. And the opening chapter stares you straight in the face.

But the beauty of a storyboard is this: It is fluid, compared to an outline. Parts move around as you learn. Writers in my classes will bring in their storyboards this week and we'll rearrange stuff. Maybe chapter 5 will become chapter 1. Maybe the other way around.

Inner Story Comes Through in a Storyboard
Storyboards also reveal that serendipitous inner story. Inner story is the surprise element that emerges when we're not looking, and it's directly responsible for theme, voice, and elegance of manuscript--those memorable bits that delight both writer and reader. Inner story explores meaning versus event. Inner story can't be forced, and in my experience, outlines tend to make the book's structure rigid and hard to change, much as we want to.

Storyboards are very successful because they are organic. They evolve. But you still have to decide what you're really writing about. That's the other beautiful aspect of storyboards. They make us choose.

Choosing Act 1 Elements
Your storyboard of Act 1 should contain certain elements. If you look at three-act plays, at books that use a three-part structure, you'll see some very important elements in these opening chapters. From my study of Act 1, I've compiled a little list:

1. Act 1 needs an opening that's strong enough to launch the rest of the book. It delivers the main question or quest of your book and make us want to read on.

2. Act 1 also benefits from some parallel action or discussion or moment in its final chapter (say, chapter 7 or chapter 18). In other words, whatever you start in chapter 1 gets echoed in the final chapter of Act 1. This creates a very satisfying loop for the reader: we believe the writer is truly on the ball, because we recap what we've covered so far. Not in obvious ways, just as a parallel moment. For instance, letters received in chapter 1 of Act 1 could be revisited and then burned in the final chapter of Act 1.

3. This final chapter of Act 1 must launch more trouble, a bigger question, to propel us to Act 2.

4. It's helpful, especially if the book has multiple locations, time periods, or points of view in Act 1, to create a strong thread that runs through all of these, to hold all the chapters together. For instance, a recurring object in all chapters, or a metaphor or symbol.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Line up seven Post-It notes on your desk. Close your eyes and drift into the creative imagination. Of all the ideas you have for your book so far, what's the strongest possible opening? Jot it on the first Post-It. Close your eyes and consider what possible ending for Act 1 would echo that first chapter idea. Jot it on the last Post-It.

Now go back to your outline, storyboard, or book notes. Compare what you just came up with and the ideas you originally had for opening your book. Which is strongest?

See if you can fill in the remaining Post-Its. Add more if needed. Then look at your storyboard. Sometimes this exercise results in surprising openings. And the storyboard changes. Make those changes--see how they feel this week. Do new doors open for you? Does writer's block disappear?