Friday, May 25, 2012

Setting As Character

What I'm Reading Now: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

At the conference in April, I had the privilege of listening to agent/author Donald Maass speak on strong point-of-view characterization with setting. I've already bragged up and down about Donald Maass and how much his book The Breakout Novelist has helped me, so I'll spare you my fangirl raving. But I will tell you the man can speak, and his workshop at the conference was one of the most powerful. This is what I took away from his lecture.

What is setting as character?
Authors spend hours, days, years developing characters and bringing them to life. Everyone's process is different (I'm one of those 'WHO NEEDS A MAP? DRIVE!' writers), but when all's said and done, you've got a character with experiences and feelings that make them unique from everyone else. Why should setting be any different? A setting is just as alive as the people within it, as the memories surrounding it. As Mr. Maass says (and I love this): the silence in a sleeping child's bedroom is much different than the silence in a deserted subway at 2 AM.

Generic description is what readers skim most. Makes sense--I don't really care how many candles are in the chandelier or if the carpet's blue or purple. I do care if the chandelier once fell and lit the building on fire. I care even more if the character knew someone who died in the accident.

Let's put it to practice. How many words do you read of this before you start skimming?

It was a bright room, with a domed ceiling and little holes set at intervals where the sunlight filtered in. A wooden table stood in the center. A few trinkets glistened upon the red tablecloth, forks and plates and a gold chalice. A turkey steamed on the one side. A man sat in a chair at the other.

"Aren't you going to eat?" he asked.


Sunlight burned through holes in the dome's ceiling like a hundred prying eyes. The room was too open. Too bare. It held nothing but a table, and even the scarlet tablecloth (red, of course it's red, because if it were anything else I could leave) didn't drop far enough to hide beneath. The place settings glistened like surgeon's tools. I ignored the steaming turkey and stared at the man in the chair, whose scent wafted more tempting than anything set for the feast.

"Aren't you going to eat?" he asked.

Quite a different feel to the same room, no? And maybe that's not a great example. I'm still learning myself, of course, but hopefully I've conveyed a general idea of what Mr. Maass is talking about. The first paragraph could have been written by any character, could appear in any book. It's generic. Detached. But I could rewrite any number of second paragraph examples using different characters. Imagine how much it would change if the person was an interior decorator, or she knew the man, or had an obsession with turkey, or ... you get the point. Strong point-of-view description tells you about the character as much as it does the environment.

Now, is it always appropriate? Mr. Maass says, not always. Sometimes the setting is interesting enough on its own, and for anything with action in it--a chase scene, say--the last thing you want is your character pausing to think about that empty Coke bottle. Then again, a rushed description of what's flying by could still be considered part of setting as character. Maybe your character -does- notice little details even on the run, or maybe he just barrels through and trips on things because he's so oblivious.

This isn't easy. It's still something I'm working on in my current manuscript, and it eats a lot of brain cells. But it adds a whole new dimension to your characters and can shift the mood for a scene from 'eh' to 'MORE PLS.' If you've got generic description, customize it for your point-of-view character. I think you'll like where it takes you.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Editing Process, Round 1

What I'm Reading Now: Breaking Beautiful, by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

Despite all the blog-stalking I did to answer the question "what is a developmental edit, really?", I was still apprehensive when the much-awaited email from my editor arrived. "She hates it!" I worried; "She's going to tell me, 'This was an amusing first try. Better luck next time.'" (I won't lie when I tell you my conference experience is mostly to blame for that.)

Buuuut... Ms. Jamie Chavez kept her promise that she's just as much cheerleader as critic.

If you have an editor like Ms. Chavez, you'll receive two documents when she's completed the initial edit: one with notes on Big Picture issues like plot, point-of-view, characterization, world building, miscellaneous loose ends, and one that's your actual manuscript with comments in the margins. My favorite section is the beginning of the first doc, a couple pages of "things that worked!" And there are things that need work, of course, but none of her suggestions make me feel like it's not my story anymore.

And I figured out just why you need an editor:
  • Someway, somehow, Jamie pulled more out of one month/two read-throughs of my manuscript than myself and five+ beta readers over a year/dozens of read-throughs
  • Her attention to detail is scary-good (how, HOW she keeps track of all these little things, I will never know)
  • She can speak into the construction of the book, something I've never really thought about while reading. The proper use of multiple point of views, moving the inciting incident to the first six pages, challenging whether the right protagonist is front-and-center.
  • Her encouragement is invaluable. Hearing "This is great!" from your best friend or your mom is cool, but it's another thing entirely when an industry professional says, "You've done so many things right here."

There are big changes. I'll be rewriting/chopping the first few chapters. I'll be rewriting/chopping the ending. I'll be switching from multiple points of view to a single third person perspective. But with Jamie's helpful notes and suggestions, some very interesting things are already in motion. For instance, you'd think forcing multiple perspectives into a single would obscure the antagonist's motivations, right? If you're not in the bad guy's head and you don't have a, "Before I kill you, Mr. Bond," moment, how do you justify his actions throughout the book? But despite this, somehow I've gone from a 'muahaha' antagonist to someone I can sympathize with, to someone I feel sorry for, because that's how my protagonist perceives her. Just hope I can pull it off.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. So for anyone asking the question "Should I invest in a developmental edit before I query agents?", I'm going to tell you yes, yes you should.

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