Writing Shortcuts (Part 2): Getting Setting Right the First Time

Attention! This post was graciously sponsored by Grammarly. (Thanks Grammarly!!)¬†I use Grammarly for¬†proofreading because, as I’m sure all the zombies in the crowd will agree, two sets of eyeballs are better than one! (Is anyone else as excited for Halloween as I am?!)

Now, onto our regularly scheduled program: writing shortcuts, first drafts, and setting.

This map of Philadelphia State Hospital campus (the first photo that appears in my book) served as a basis for my fictional setting.

By now, I’m pretty confident you’re all aware of the existence of my first book. I’ve talked about it once or twice. It’s a book defined by place, about a place. Set broadly in America, on the outskirts of a major northern city, more specifically on a 1,165-acre property with 124 buildings, the place served as the focus, the setting, and the main character rolled all into one. Place and setting defined every word that appeared in the narrative. If a photograph wasn’t taken of the place or on the place, then the photograph didn’t need to appear in the story.

So what does this have to do with writing the first draft of a fiction manuscript? With fiction-writing shortcuts and nailing the setting the first time around?

A lot actually.

After spending eight months researching and reading and sorting through hundreds of photographs from hundreds of angles and time periods, I knew that place inside and out. I was intimate with its secret hallways, underground passages, the mundane chores that occurred behind every single closed door. The world was pre-built, so to speak, and my imagination was free to run wild through it.

As a result, little fragments started popping into my head, all set in the same place, on those same hospital grounds: It was a collection of what ifs? and characters and love stories and dark secrets and complicated family trees. Once I turned in the non-fiction manuscript on deadline, I dove head-first into this new story that was a product of my own imagination.

Except for the setting. The setting already existed. It was real and solid and the perfect base for all the action that was happening on its surface, in its forest, on its rooftops.

The setting gave birth to the stories, the characters, the plotlines that started to creep across the page. It defined the characters’ personalities, their fears, their actions, their memories.

In manuscripts I’ve attempted before this, setting was an afterthought, overshadowed by the characters and the plotline. It was something I defined in only the broadest of strokes: City or the country? Year? Season? Done.

This thoughtless method developed landscapes with random trees and floating rooms that didn’t connect to a house and roads wandering around in my fictional world, unconnected, unclear, confusing. Sometimes, reading through these drafts I would end up pulling my hair, wanting to scream “WHERE ARE WE?!” and “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!” and “Now the fireplace is in the MIDDLE of the room?! In the last scene it was by the DOOR!”

Remember those books you read growing up that had maps? Fantasy books with brand new worlds and countries and mysterious dark places? I love those and I think every single story needs them. They might not need them printed on the endpapers, but every author needs that cheat-sheet map during the drafting process. When writing the first draft of my manuscript, I ended up getting a chapter in and then stopping to draw down a map, to make sure the things always stayed in the same place, consistently from scene to scene, to have a master reference instead of making it up as I went along. (I was thinking about sharing my own hand-drawn map, but it’s so egregious, I’m not sure you’d even recognize what a tree was…so I’m refraining. Also, I’m not quite ready to share my fictional world or story yet. For now, it’s all mine.)

The map got more detailed, more crowded, more filled in, as the story progressed because new things needed to exist for new scenes. I got to know the setting as I drafted, just like I got to know the characters better. But already having the basics of the setting down before writing the story made it so much easier. And when I rewrote the entire manuscript for Draft #2, it was a relief that setting wasn’t one of the things I needed to completely overhaul.

So, thankfully, setting was one thing I got right before the first draft–this time around, at least. But pacing certainly wasn’t so smooth in that first draft! Tune in next week for the next post in this writing shortcuts mini-series.

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Writing Shortcuts (Part 1): Things I Wish I Had Learned Before Draft #1

For the past five months I’ve been plowing my way through what I thought was going to be a revision of my WIP but morphed into a complete rewrite. Though I kept pieces of Draft #1, and used it as a loose outline of the chronological events that occur in the plot, ultimately I cut 33,000+ words out of 54,000 and ended up with a completely rewritten Draft #2 clocking in at roughly 66,000 words. I guess that was to be expected, because as I was reading through I was adding comments like “add whole new day here” and “add another day here,” “delete this whole chapter,” and “add scene, add scene, add scene.”

This draft was a huge learning experience for me. Not only did I learn so much about my characters, but I also learned a lot about the actual mechanics of storytelling, the functioning parts of a scene, creating backstory, and I learned a lot about generating conflict (I hate doing mean things to my characters! It’s so hard to do to the ones I like, and the ones who remind me of myself!).

Now that I’m back and gearing up–finally–for the heavy revision process, I thought I’d share a few writing shortcuts I’ve learned that I’ll definitely be using in future drafting processes (which will be really soon with NaNoWriMo 2013 nearly upon us! I have a great story idea I’m dying to get onto a page this November. Are you joining me this year??), shortcuts that would have made Draft #1 a whole lot less of a pile of crap (not that a draft can ever be anything but, but it can at least be a little less). I’m trying tell myself that spending another five months writing Draft #2 after #1 wasn’t a complete waste of time. It was an experience. Ah, novel writing. The frustrations.

I went at Draft #1 in a sort-of pantsing method and Draft #2 involved a lot more strategic planning. Though I don’t think I’ll ever become a full-blown plot outliner, it would be useful to utilize some of these planning tools in the future, to make pantsing Draft #1 a lot more cohesive and consistent.

Having been out of the blogging game for more than a month now, I figured I’d ease back into the habit by making this a mini series, one post a week. Also, this will allow me an abundance of time each week to still dedicate to the revision! I want to get this manuscript DONE and OUT of my hard drive and INTO my beta readers’ inboxes!

So, in future posts in future weeks, you can look forward to discussions of writing shortcuts on the topics of:

1. Setting

2. Pacing

3. Character sketches

4. Scene outlines

Build Your Dream Home (in Your Novel)

I wouldn’t mind moving here… (Sunset Key, Key West)

While walking to my neighborhood gym in the dark the other night, I crossed a bridge over a tiny creek that cuts through my backyard in the winter, a rush of freezing water, and dries up to non-existence in the summer months. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear the gurgle and it had an instantly relaxing effect on me. I love water–ocean waves, running rivers, calm lakes, farm ponds–and living near it is really important to me. This tiny little creek was actually one of the bonus points when I was house hunting this time last year (I can’t believed I’ve lived here an entire year already!) and touring the prospective condo and neighborhood. I was bitterly disappointed when summer, my favorite season, came round and there was nothing but a dried up creek bed left behind.

It got me thinking about people who really love those shows like House Hunters, and the actual act of house hunting, even if it’s just fantasy house hunting, like when you drive into a neighborhood and point out the houses you’d love to live in, pulling “that wraparound porch” and “that house” and relocating them from their currently less-than-ideal highway location to the more ideal beach front property in your mind. (Wait, what? You don’t do that? I thought everybody does…) Even if you don’t Frankenstein together your dream home in your daydreams, you might have a Pinterest account with boards dedicated to the patchwork image of your dream home, or dream kitchen, or dream backyard. (Pool and tea gardens, anyone?)

While walking past that creek, I thought about all the things I’d love to have cramped into a square mile radius of my home–waterfall hiking trails, beach, boardwalk, all my closest friends and relatives–and it popped into my mind how nice it would be if there was a river in my current WIP. Or, even better, the ocean. I love to swim and I love all the activities associated with pool days and creek days or beach days and I think writing scenes where my characters get to engage in those activities would be a lot of fun.

And I realized…why hadn’t I thought to put those kinds of setting features into my story before? I’m writing FICTION where I’m entitled to make up everything, limited only by my imagination! Why am I denying myself, denying my characters, the fun it is to have all my favorite things put together in one place?

You all might have figured out that you can put everything you could possibly want into your fiction, but I really struggle with the limitations of reality in my stories, even if they’re set in made-up places. Like, right now I’m writing a post-apocalyptic type story sort of in the outskirts of Philadelphia. I really wanted certain geographic features, but I kept denying myself that river I really wanted, because there’s no river there in real life.

Uh, hello! It’s a post-apocalyptic world! Not only that, it’s MY post-apocalyptic world! Anything I want could be there!

It’s disappointing to say that my imagination is actually a little limiting, sometimes, but I’m working on it!

I think one of the best examples of all the best stuff being in the same place (on a small scale) is Neverland, in Peter Pan. First of all, they’re on an island: Bonus Point #1. It’s also a warm, tropical island, with a Neverwood full of adventures and a lagoon: Bonus Point #2. The Lost Boys get to go down custom-made tree trunk entrances to their cozy Home Underground: Bonus Points #3 and #4, respectively. And the neighborhood? There are fairies, pirates, Indians, AND mermaids, bonus points x10000.

Do you let your characters live in your dream house? Are there any fictional settings that have you ready to pack your bags and move in?

(Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/102143. Dale M. McDonald Collection)

Books Set in NYC: Tried and True, or Tired and Trite?

Have you ever noticed the sheer number of books that are set in New York City? The Princess Diaries series, the Insatiable series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rules of Civility, P. S. I Love You, Sex and the City, The Nanny Diaries, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Out of Time (a Caroline Cooney Time Travelers Quartet book), The History of Love, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Eloise, The Cricket in Times Square, Harriet the Spy, just to name a few, and, let us not forget, according to Marvel comics, NYC is the most superhero-dense city on earth (Spiderman anyone?)

Now, I understand that New York has a lot of people and therefore a lot of stories worth telling in its long history. It has geographical elements that stories are attracted to like magnets: Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, the Met, the subway, Broadway, Times Square, and the offices of nearly every major publishing house and magazine in American history.

Many of these books have a sense of place so infused in them that they couldn’t properly be set anywhere else. Where else could Spiderman travel with such ease than through the network of tall buildings that is Manhattan? What would the lovely Holly Golightly be without Tiffany’s? And the children from the Mixed-Up Files without the Met? As in many good books, the setting is so important in these plot lines that the city becomes a character in its own right.

There’s nothing wrong about writing a book set in New York, but the overwhelming number of them makes me want to ask: What’s wrong with writing local?

Nothing’s wrong with it, some of you might answer. Maybe you’ve never been tempted to write a story set in New York. In fact, a lot of you probably write stories set in entirely different places. But, if you’re from a small town, a boring state, or a less-than-mainstream and popular country, do you set them there, in those places with which you are most familiar? Or do you try to set them someplace you consider more interesting, more exciting, wholly more appropriate for a good story? Maybe not New York, but perhaps some other metropolitan area: Washington, DC, Savannah, Boston, Paris, London, or Los Angeles. Do you set your stories there because the characters belong there, or because you feel pressured to set it somewhere more populous and well-known?

When I was working on my book, I struggled to find the sense of place. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and in the first draft it was just easier to allow the book–even though I was morally opposed to having it set there–occur in the same place. But when I went back to edit it, I wanted to pack up all the characters and move them. Who wants to read something set in my lame region? I figured. So I struggled. I kept moving them around, jumping them from place to place, but none of them felt right. I tried New York, I tried the New Jersey coast; I considered islands and I considered a more rural location. Nothing worked.

Reluctantly, I let them move back to the Philadelphia suburbs. And it works so much better. The whole read local movement–local authors and regionally-set stories–made me realize that there is a huge amount of readers who are proud of their hometowns and would love to read about them in print. After living in New York this summer, I wasn’t interested in reading more books set in the city. Books set in small towns, far-flung regions, and places I’d never been before were refreshing reading. For a brief moment, New York lost its glamor and the self-conceived idea that all good books are set there–admittedly, there are a lot of them–evaporated. I learned to stop being ashamed of where my book really wants to be set, and embraced writing local.

(Image, No Copyright, Library of Congress)