Friday, July 31, 2009

Settings: The Importance of Place

Prong, pavé, channel, bezel — how a diamond is set makes all the difference. It’s the same with the setting of a story. A setting isn’t there to prop up the tale, it’s there to enhance it, like black velvet behind a diamond. If you were showcasing a different stone, onyx or smoky topaz, the jeweler’s cloth would have to change. Otherwise there’s not enough contrast and the stone’s facets recede. Not only is choosing the right setting important, but so is selecting the aspects of it that best reveal your characters, enhance your story and subtly support your theme. Establishing a strong sense of place grounds readers with a feeling of “having been there.” To edit for setting, you need to know the place, but necessarily to have been there. Pulitzer prize winning journalist turned crime novelist John Sandford says settings don’t have to be exact, just “credible for [the] neighborhood.” Without the right details on geography, locale, season and time of day, it’s hard to imbue a piece with depth. Seasons are especially useful, as in spring for renewal, winter for death, summer for the heat of passion and fall for that ominous sense of “something wicked this way comes.”

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Nose Knows: The Most Powerful Sense

A physician friend says the most powerful sense is the sense of smell. I’m not sure whether he’s right. I’ve heard that for women auditory is the strongest sense—hence the tendency to believe a man when he says, “I promise I’ll never do it again.”

But my friend is right about the sense of smell being the most evocative of memory. On Saturdays my mother sometimes brought home from the local grocery a mortadella, a cured type of pork luncheon meat that spared no fat and was laced with black pepper, nutmeg and pistachios. If it sat unwrapped on the counter, when I smelled it my first thought was—Italy. The aromatic smell instantly brought back my grandmother’s small off-white stucco kitchen in the agricultural Marche region of central Italy. Suddenly I was back in that kitchen, with its naked light bulb hanging over the rectangular table where we gathered with my cousins for meals. In those days I hated eating and would rather be playing hide and seek in the hillside grass in the gathering summer evenings.

The powerful sense memory that came form the mortadella was more than food and a recollection of Italy. What I actually thought when I smelled it was—home. That’s the wonder of sensory detail well-used.

To put today’s musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list at the bottom of the page and let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When Words Sing: Editing for Voice and Style

When I read for pleasure I usually choose mysteries, well-written stories like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries, which are set in England in the middle ages. I love the language, have to look up the occasional word (Peters, whose real name is Edith Pargeter, was a language scholar) and lose myself in Peters’ writing and voice. Unfortunately, once the editor, always the editor, at least with other people’s work, and I still find myself making mental changes to the text. But I do it differently than I would another style of writing. Peters’ language is lyrical and needs to stay that way, so the changes need to match her voice and the period in which her stories take place. The example is analogous to music. Jazz, pop, rock and classical are each different, and part of their beauty is their individuality. Any change would need to respect the parameters of the musical style and the composer so as to retain the integrity of the piece. To make the connection to editing, I'm reminded of advice from Revision and Self-Editing, where James Scott Bell says, “A good rule of thumb … is write hot, revise cool.” Write in the moment, not with the editing side of your brain. Then, when the work has cooled (more than a day is good), revise. You’re less likely to hack up what you’ve written or carve it in stone.

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Milestones: Making Moments Count

Over the weekend I met with a local author who reminded me that creating deadlines is key to progress. I’m working on a new novel and had already begun to let the preparations slide. His story about a timeline he created for completing his book and how self-imposed deadlines enabled him to finish writing it were inspirational and a kick in the backside for me to do likewise. It’s not a glamorous approach, but it’s essential. Writing is a discipline best done consistently, and without direction and deadlines, it’s unlikely much will happen, even when there’s time. In The Writer’s Book of Hope, in the chapter on excuses, especially regarding time, Ralph Keyes says, “The very assumption that lots of free time is an asset for writers may be questionable. In some ways part-timers have an edge. Busy people organize their schedules more carefully and make better use of the few hours they do have to write.” So, where’s that schedule?

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list. As always, let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Difference a Conference Makes: Writing for the Market?

The short answer is, don’t do it.

I just got back from the Solstice Summer Writers’ Conference in Massachusetts, and boy did it help me get back on the writing track. Well, the truth is, the conference was the start. I have to credit Betsy Lerner as well. The first chapter in her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers is “The Ambivalent Writer.” I never used to be ambivalent about writing; I didn’t have time. Lately, though, I’ve been spinning my wheels, and after finishing two novels, started three others. The one I decided to finish writing was the most market-driven. After half a dozen chapters, I bogged down. The subject (nuclear waste) was overwhelming and the genre (suspense) stifling. What was the problem? Mostly, that I was writing for the market.

While at the conference, I asked writers whether they wrote for the market. Essentially, the answer was no. Everybody’s aware of the market, and everybody knows there’s no room for schlock. But none of these writers was sitting there saying, hey, what can I write that will sell? There’s a word for that. When I got home and sat down to decide which of the three novels I would commit to, I recalled the chapter from Lerner’s book. When I reread it, here’s what struck me: “People who try to figure out what’s hot and recreate it are as close to delusional as you can get.” I recall laughing when I first read that. I wasn’t laughing now.

There’s no way to really apply this logic, except maybe to bear in mind that writing a novel is a long-term relationship. Integrity is key; so is involving yourself only if you can commit. If you don’t, it won’t work.

How’s it going with you?