How to Tackle Setting

Setting-WritingAdvice

So I’m looking into various articles and blogs about setting. I think I talked about this in an earlier blog, but setting is one of the last things I take on when I’m writing a piece. If you want to take a look at that blog, go here.

But what are the gifts of setting? Why is it so necessary? Personally, when I get bogged down in all the details of a room, I space out and skim and get straight to the action. That said, there is no doubt that it’s uncomfortable and perhaps even unpleasant to read about characters talking and acting in empty space. Setting grounds the story to a particular time and place that the reader can connect to. So there’s no getting away from it.

As I said in that blog, for anybody who is reluctant to tackle setting:

Tip #1 Write setting as a character and describe its personality. That is very liberating. I’d even say it’s fun, especially if you write about a place here in the real world that you hate. At least that’s how it worked for me.

“Happiness is very important there (Orlando, Florida). After all, it matches the weather.”

That piece about the place where I grew up from Margaret Grossman’s writing class is long lost, but I do remember the last lines. I was proud of it, and she praised it to the skies, which made my week.

Tip #2 Exaggerate the details. Extravagance can come in really handy when it comes to writing about place. Going over the top about the details of a place, or even a feature can free one up and thaw one out to go to town on setting because like making setting a character, it’s more fun to write. Here’s an example from a piece I’m writing right now out of “The Shepherd and the Courtesan.”

How in the devil did I come here?

That’s what I wondered as I encountered again the cavernous entry into the home of the most legendary Courtesan the Capital City had ever known. All I could think about was that afternoon when the Wanderer and I first stepped inside the Courtesan’s Casa.

The atrium had soaring ceilings with pale pink satin lining the walls, while mottled pink marble stretched along the floor and up the steps of the sweeping staircase in the middle. Maybe even the ceiling was pink. It was impossible to tell because the massive chandelier hanging in the space between the ceiling and the floor reflected pink everywhere. Hundreds of candles and thousands of crystal droplets married fire and ice when the tiny flames coupled with the glimmering teardrops, then flickered along the marble floor, the stairs, and the walls. Such a pairing had cast rosy radiance throughout the foyer to render everybody inside timeless and ageless.

The procession of servants and protégées lined up and waiting were the most gorgeous household I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it when the men bowed! Even the strongmen actually bent at the waist, after they had pulled me and the Wanderer out of the rioting mob. They may have saved our lives! Yet here they were, bowing to us like royalty, while the women curtsied. The courtesan protégées made quite a vision as they fanned their sumptuous skirts. Even the most junior maids held their plain skirts wide. Their timing was impeccable. The Courtesan’s staff moved in flawless unison, but how could they have rehearsed that moment?

My friend, the Wanderer had enjoyed many grand adventures in his life. Yet his black eyes were wide in his face. He appeared as stunned as I with this spectacle. None of it seemed real, especially with the hard coldness of pink marble penetrating my boots to chill my feet.

So those are my tips about taking on setting from the spirit of reluctance, along with an excerpt. 

Given that I struggle with setting, I can commiserate with another’s frustrations with it. That may not make me the best teacher. So here are some gorgeous and thorough articles offering practical and detailed instruction on creating gorgeous and memorable settings. Check them out here and here.

Why Do We Write?

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Why do we write?

I ask myself this question all the time for all kinds of reasons. I ask myself why did I want to be a writer when I procrastinate for far longer than I actually spend typing, when I’m frozen on a scene, or when I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the story nuggets that have yet to be the rough drafts, rewrites, revisions, and edits of gold mines. Writing is so much work with very few tangible, immediate rewards. It is not a “fun job.” It keeps me in my head. It keeps me solitary, sometimes even isolated. There is no way to be a writer without being a watcher. That role of observation keeps me out of the active participation of life far more often than I would like.

A perfect example of this watcher/player dynamic can be found amongst the Beat Generation of writers and poets. “On the Road” was not about Jack Kerouac so much as it was about Neal Cassady, a friend Kerouac found fascinating. Apparently, Neal Cassady also had a talent for writing. A “Joan Anderson letter” written to Kerouac from Cassady featured the stream-of-consciousness writing which inspired Kerouac, and he write “On The Road” in that style, this book that made him famous. What Cassady did not have was the discipline or the drive to become a great writer himself. He was too busy playing on the stage of life, being a muse, an inspiration, the Holy Fool who lived on the edge until he self destructed right before his 42nd birthday. He died alone on a railroad track in Mexico from exposure, after mixing powerful drugs and alcohol.

Kerouac wrote his story down. Allen Ginsburg probably enjoyed a lot of inspiration from Cassady as well. Ken Kesey further immortalized him in the Merry Pranksters as the manic bus driver of “Further.” In the lives of these writers, they were both players and watchers; but ultimately, they had to be watchers to sit down, reflect, and write it all down. It’s hard work. It’s painstaking. Writing needs a lot of patience. And in my case, writing comes slowly.

I had so many dreams. Why did this one stick? It would have been so much more exciting to have a dream of dancing or skydiving or mountaineering or snowboarding. I’ve done a bit of all of these, some more than others. But these were passionate hobbies, not callings. Even being a geologist or biologist would have left some room.

Writing is an exacting taskmaster. So why do we do it?

In my case, I suppose I write because I’m called to. When I don’t, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing. When I do, I feel at peace.

Writing does help me sort out my thoughts and ideas. Writing can upset me, but it can also bring me clarity. When I write a piece I can feel in my bones is special and just right, sweet gratification follows.

As far as the stage of Life is concerned, I’ve sought out unusual and extreme experiences, knowing that there would be a story in there somewhere. So oddly enough, writing goaded me into being a player on plenty of occasions – even if I watched the entire time.

I must admit I like playing God. Writing stories and novels makes that role inevitable. So when I finally arrive to that sense of finish – knowing I’ve done all I can do for this novel and this world I created without an editor – and write “THE END” on the last line, it feels f*cking great!

The anticipation of that satisfaction keeps me going. What works for you?

The Long Absence From Writing

Writer'sBlock

It’s intimidating to get back into a project after a long absence from writing. In my last post, I mentioned the relief I felt finishing the rough draft of “The Shepherd and the Courtesan,” because I’d had writer’s block for years. If you want to read it, you can find that blog here.

That rough draft was difficult because my writing muscles had atrophied, and my abilities had gotten weak. It hurt to write when what I was writing wasn’t good; and for a long time, I didn’t have any faith that eventually, it would be good. But I kept it up and finishing that godawful mess of a rough draft about a year ago was likely the most magnificent achievement of the last five years.

More than twenty years ago, I discovered that I can’t write when I’m in pain. This was the year when my mother suddenly collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage. She almost died, and if my brother, Robert, hadn’t been at the house to do CPR, she would have. I was journaling every day at that time, and I remember opening up my notebook, putting pen to paper to write about it, and I froze. I made nothing more than dot on that page that day because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. When somebody suggested I write about the pain, I argued that I could do that from a place of remembrance. At the time, it was all I could do to live through it. I couldn’t bear to reflect on it.

Over the years, things happen. Things like betrayal, heartbreak, abandonment, death, and grief, and every time I would take a long absence from writing. I envy those writers who can produce even while they suffer, even when they wake up with anguish and go to bed with despair. I’m sure their writing is very powerful and deeply moving. But to date, I simply can’t do it. For me, suffering blocks productivity. Maybe that will change some day; maybe I will find solace in the fictional story that has nothing to do with what is current in my life, and that will give me an escape.

I have no advice on what to do when things are bad and the writing is blocked, but I can offer some ideas on what to do to shift your energy away from the inertia that grief often brings. Several months ago, I did a blog about changing your habits, which is pretty much how I became productive again. You can read about it here if you like.

But it really comes down to meditation and exercise. If you must choose one over the other, I suggest exercise that has a meditative quality, like walking, running, and swimming – especially swimming. Exercise pulls you out of apathy quickly, and meditation brings you to the inner stillness and peace I believe are necessary for productive creativity.

Then write. Make yourself write even if your writing sucks. You have to do something to get back your momentum. Eventually, your writing will be good again.

The Sweetest High Ever!

Indie.Author.Fantasy

“Artists are envied by millionaires.”

I don’t remember the book where I read this, but I do remember that claim and how gratifying it felt to read that. All flattery aside, this makes sense. Artists are creative and to be creative is to play God. Who wouldn’t envy that?

Personally speaking, I believe everybody is born with creativity. Yet few grow that quality or have that part of themselves nourished enough to have that creative strength throughout their lives.

Creativity is powerful. It is also overwhelming. Because I have found that a deep creative groove carves many paths, one detours to another, which then segues into another…and before one knows it, what was supposed to a straight road has become a labyrinth of various creative pursuits.

How heady is that? And how easy is it to get carried away and get lost and very possibly be left with a plethora of unfinished projects? Way too easy.  

For example, I write original fables and fairy tales. I also enjoy the art of oral storytelling, my own stuff, as well as other people’s, and of course, the myths and folk tales from all over the world. Those two pursuits are very compatible, but I still have to stop writing to practice storytelling, even with my own stuff. Storytelling is not the same thing as reading from a book. It’s a performance, and that alone takes time and energy and repetition before a piece is polished enough to present to an audience. In other words, the path of writing segued into performance art.

When I was on the road with my collection of fables, I stopped in Santa Cruz for six months and came across flamenco dance. I even lived with my flamenco teacher and her husband for most of the time I was there, and was blessed to learn from excellent Gypsy teachers who came to California from Spain. Several months later, I wrote a lyrical piece, “Snowboarding for Flamencos” when I was torn between a flamenco workshop in Santa Cruz and the best snow season in SE Alaska where I lived at the time. Winter was intoxicating, and snowboarding won over flamenco. But the conflict was such that I wrote that piece and recorded, doing flamenco dance steps in a wide variety of footwear, including my snowboarding boots. So that is writing, spoken word, dance, and even music, because I made the cadences of my dance steps into as hypnotic a rhythm that would match the lyrics of “Snowboarding for Flamencos.” This short lyrical piece that was only two minutes long was doable, and very joyful when I finished it. I also used flamenco with another piece I wrote about an ecstatic experience I had on the Oregon Coast while on magic mushrooms. Again, performance art, choreography, dance, and live spoken word. That took at least 2 weeks for me to put together and practice, and if I did it again now, the rhythms would be different because I didn’t film or record it. Again, it’s doable. But I also fantasize about doing that as a book on tape for AN ENTIRE NOVEL. That would likely take a decade. That’s not doable.

So yes, creativity is overwhelming. But what a glory it is when all those segues and paths come together and something gorgeous is created!

That is the sweetest high ever!