Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Giving her the heebie-jeebies #amwriting #mystery

The unit I’m working on in my writing class has to do with setting, how it can become more than just a backdrop or stage for the story. The words you use to describe the setting also contribute to the atmosphere or “feel” of the story. Think Edgar Allan Poe. When you read his stuff, notice the descriptive words he uses. For example, here are the first few sentences of “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

Β DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was –but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

No sunshine and rainbows and unicorns there. Just that little bit will call clouds to rain on a parade. For comparison, I use the first page of Where the Crawdads Sing, which I’m almost finished with. I like it, but it’s a bit slow. The descriptions are really some of the best parts of the book. Delia Owens makes the marsh a character in the story:

capture-where-the-crawdads-sing

There is so much atmosphere here that the reader has the sense of standing out in the marsh and experiencing some sort of transcendence. And notice the personification of the swamp. The setting should get co-star billing in this.

Back to my homework. My current assignment (*aside to my writing teacher*Β yes, I am working on it πŸ˜€ ) is to take a character and put them into a setting that makes them uncomfortable. And they can’t leave the setting during the scene.

See where the heebie-jeebies comes in? Part of the task is to decide whether to use a scene that’s already written, or write a new scene. I haven’t quite hit the part of the story where this comes into play.

It’s one thing to put a character into someplace unfamiliar; that’s almost like cheating, because any unfamiliar place can make a person uncomfortable. Discomfort can range anywhere from that lost feeling one can get in a huge parking ramp at the airport to the goose-pimply spooky feeling when you wander into an old house at night to get out of the rain … and the door slams shut behind you (and yes, for all those Supernatural fans, I’m counting the days until the last season premiere!).

But that’s too easy, right? Okay, how about the ol’ “fish out of water” trick? Take a yuppie and drop her in the woods miles from civilization (and you know she’s wearing heels, because they always do), or take the farm-raised nature kid and make them find their way through Times Square at rush hour.

Eh, still too easy. The point of taking the class, besides to get my butt in gear on Book 2, is to exercise my author muscles and build a great story. So, if anyone has read my book, you know that my main character had a stalker about six years before the book starts. She’s worked hard to overcome that visceral fear of being followed, and she’s conquered that fear.

Or has she? *rubs hands together and cackles*. So I will put her in a place where she learned to be comfortable again once her stalker was put in prison. And make sure she thinks someone is following her. That’ll make her squirm.

Think about a place you are comfortable, like the library, or the gym, or the coffee shop. Now, think about being in that place when a massive storm moves in, and there’s a weird creepy guy who has been staring at you for the past hour. The lights go out! Thunder crashes. Something brushes against you. In the next flash of lightning the creepy guy isn’t where he was–he’s gone. And you can’t leave. Mwahahahahaha!

Yes, this example is dripping with cliche, and I now have a scary movie script started πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ It’s all about using the setting to affect the character in a way that bumps up the tension in the story.

I’ll be trying to catch up on reading blogs and doing my homework this weekend. Hope you get some writing time in, too!

zoey chair

Hey, you’re not taking my picture, are you?

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About a Book, Writing, and a Dragon

Hi! I’m back! Hope you all had a fun holiday weekend, or at least got some reading and writing done.

Oh, you are wondering about the dragon, aren’t you? I finally saw the third How to Train Your Dragon movie. If you haven’t seen any of the movies, you should. The third one was as good as the others–better, because what’s better than one Night Fury? A Night Fury and a Light Fury! Anyway, my daughter–who is supposed to be saving her money for college but somehow missed the memo–brought me my very own Night Fury.

It even lights up and roars. You’ll have to watch the third movie to really get that.

Another fun thing that happened this week is the latest issue of InD’tale Magazine came out. It’s a magazine about books for writers and readers, focusing on books published by small presses. If you want to go directly to the fun part, click here. If you want to check out the whole magazine, you can find it here. My review is on page 109.

I suppose I should post something about writing, since this is some sort of a writing blog, right? I’m progressing on Book 2, slowly but surely. This week (since I’m, like, two weeks behind on reading blog posts) I read a post on Janice Hardy’s blog (BTW, if you don’t follow Janice Hardy, you’re missing out on a treasure trove of writing tips) about purple prose. I also started listening to the audiobook version of Where the Crawdads Sing. If you have read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The descriptions in the book are rich. She describes the marsh, the swamp, the sand, the weather. Reading it as a writer, I wonder how someone comes up with prose like that. But also as a writer, after reading a post on purple prose, I have to wonder where to draw the line. So, here’s a screenshot of the prologue of the novel courtesy of Amazon’s look inside feature.

Prologue of Where the Crawdads Sing

So, is this purple prose or not? The descriptions build the atmosphere of the story, and they are wonderfully fluid. I think genre has a part in determining where the line is drawn. Literary books have more “flowery” description, I think, and the readers accept it. A murder mystery, on the other hand (yes, I know the book is a murder mystery, but it’s more literary than a police procedural or crime novel. I don’t think Catherine Coulter would get away with descriptions like this in her FBI books (in fact, one reason I don’t read her books is the stark lack of “atmosphere”, in my opinion. Your mileage may vary)).

So, how does a writer determine whether s/he is crossing that line between good description and overdone description? That is one of the values of critique partner(s) and/or a writing group. They should be able to tell you if you’re overdoing it, or if you aren’t doing enough. The key is to give the reader enough so they can feel like they are in the setting. If they are in a funeral home, the smell of flowers would be something a character would notice. If it’s winter, the reader should be able to feel the biting wind. And if the setting is Georgia in August, the character would probably be swimming in sweat, barely able to breathe air so humid it could put out a fire all by itself.

So, there’s my contribution to writing wisdom for the week πŸ˜€

So, have a great week. Do some writing. Do some reading. Do some weeding–wait, that’s my to-do list. Enjoy your weekend!

Must be nice to be a cat!


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Blueprint to a book

I took a chance last weekend and planted the garden during the two nice days we had in a series of rainy ones. Needless to say, the very next day we got 2+ inches of rain. Not sure yet how much I’ll have to replant, and of course I forgot to take pictures. That’s on the agenda for next week’s post. Besides, maybe some stuff will start coming up by then (provided the seeds didn’t get washed away. Sigh.)

So I thought I’d give you a look-see into my class. Because of the trouble I’ve been having with Book 2, I decided to take an online course to both hold me accountable (since it’s being taught by my writing teacher and I don’t want to disappoint her πŸ™‚ ) and lead me through the process.

I’ve been doing pretty well with my process–which has evolved somewhat–since I started drafting novels in earnest. I’m not counting the two I did before I seriously aimed at getting published. But Book 2 has been giving me fits for a long time. Part of it is because I wasn’t getting the story quite right, and part of it, I think, is because I would really like to work on something else (which I just figured out. Yeah, I know, it takes me a bit, but I think my Muse has been getting frustrated and just wants me to write something.)

The online class is called “Write Your Novel Fast and Sure”. Perfect! It walks you through the process of building and shaping a novel, from the famous (infamous?) core problem that the protagonist has to solve, to the “promise” you as a writer makes to your reader, to the plot points of the story.

It’s a blueprint, breaking the project down into manageable pieces. Honestly, I’ve never broken a story down like this at this stage (I’ve done it once the story is written in order to make sure it hits the important stuff). I usually “write” the story in my head, then put together a “story bible” with specifics like character bios, setting details, and a rough summary/timeline of events. Breaking this story down reveals some of the things I was getting hung up on, like having a big conflict between Sierra and Quinn. Stepping back, that won’t work because of the characters themselves, the type of people they are. They might get frustrated with each other, but a major conflict needs a major flashpoint between them, and there isn’t one of those in this story.

First, the core problem of the story, or as I’ve heard it said, the story “goal”. What does the main character have to do? That ties in with the “promise” to the reader, which goes back to what a reader expects from the genre. Since this is a mystery, the goal is to find out who killed the victim and why. The promise to the reader is that there will be at least one dead body, and someone will figure out what happened. Wrapped into this is stuff that is part of the “story bible” (and in case you are wondering, there is a nice post about story bibles over at Story Empire), like characters, setting, and timeframe.

Then on to your character’s journey through the story, making sure they hit the “plot points” along the way. There are about as many interpretations of plot points as there are writing craft books about plotting, but they all hit on the same ideas: the inciting incident, things start going wrong, the midpoint crisis when the character thinks about giving up, more things go wrong, the good guy and the bad guy have it out (aka the climax), and the wind-down (aka resolution).

I’m at the first five pages assignment, and struggling with the setup. Since this is only book 2, I have to anticipate readers who have not read book 1 (if this was book 10, I wouldn’t have to reintroduce everyone again). So, trying to introduce the main character, the primary costars, the victim and what he means to the main character, the timeframe, and the setting, all in the first five pages, is bogging me down. I have more characters to introduce in those first pages than I did with book 1, so that’s a challenge. Do I describe the costars? How much? Can I wait to give those details until later? How do I establish that the story takes place in 1993? Am I really starting at the right place?

Ugh. It’s a draft. If I keep reminding myself it’s a draft and I’ll be changing it later, it helps. A little.

This novel-writing stuff seems harder now than it used to be, since I learned more about story structure. I feel like I have to analyze everything to make sure it hits all the specs on the “template”.

Maybe it’s time for a little ditty about Jack and Diane–no, wait, I mean Alex(andra) and Kieran. Or Kenna and Shaw. Or Erinne and Sean. Or a scene or two for the elusive urban fantasy my Muse keeps tossing my way. Just to take a break from Sierra and Quinn.

It feels like summer is here. The gnats are out. Flowers are blooming. The grass needs to be cut. The kids are home for the summer; well, my daughter is home, my son is home for the weekend. To all those who have been in the path of Mother Nature’s not-so-nice weather, stay safe!

Enjoy your weekend!