The Journal, Wednesday, 4/5

Hey Folks,

This morning I approved and responded to a comment on my latest ProWriters post over on the big blog.

After I did that, I read over the post. It was a topic from the Journal a couple of years ago. And I noticed that I had quoted some stats:

“Through yesterday, May 9, 2015 (as I write this) 128 days have passed since January 1. During that 128 days, I’ve written 284,100 publishable words of fiction. My daily average thus far this year is 2219.5312 words per day.”

That was two years ago. And that’s why I keep this Daily Journal.

Back to the present.

Through yesterday, April 4, 2017, there have been 94 days in this calendar year. In those 94 days, I’ve written 215,745 publishable words of fiction. My daily average thus far this year (including nonwriting days) is 2295.1595 words per day.”

Wow. On one hand, I need to pick up the pace, eh? By which I mean, 1-Spend more time in the writing chair, and 2-When I’m in that chair, spend more time actually writing.

On the other, is that consistency, or what? (grin)

But today I’ll be copyediting a work for another writer. More on that below. If an idea latches onto me and drags me to the Hovel, I’ll write too. Otherwise this will be a nonwriting day.

Topic: Scene and Chapter Breaks and Hooks

I love this topic, and it’s timely because it’s what I’ve been practicing in my last few WsIP. (grin)

I have a copyediting job that I put on the back burner because I was so close to finishing the novel. I’ll begin that copyedit today.

To see what I mean by “copyedit,” please visit http://harveystanbrough.com/copyediting/.

The writer also requested I check to see whether the scene and chapter breaks “make sense.” I’ll check, but I have no doubt they will. Then again, that led me to this topic for the day.

First, let me define “break” so we’re all on the same page.

In my books, chapter breaks consist either of white space followed by a new chapter head, or a series of five spaced asterisks (in anything I send to Smashwords) followed by white space.

As for scene breaks, in my books, those consist of a series of three spaced asterisks followed by white space. Just my way of doing it.

Some writers use only white space, and that’s fine. But all writers that I’ve encountered thus far use something to clearly mark breaks.

Because the writer asked, I’ll check to be sure those breaks make sense. But I’ll go a step further and check to see whether they hook together from scene to scene and chapter to chapter.

That’s actually a three-step process.

1. I’ll check to see whether there’s a tension-building cliffhanger (physical or emotional) in the few paragraphs before the break.

Yes? Check.

No? I’ll add a comment out to the side, with or without a specific recommendation.

2. I’ll check to see whether there’s a good hook immediately after the break. A good opening sentence or paragraph.

For examples of great opening hooks, see my free book (a $6 value) Writing Great Beginnings on the Free Stuff page of my website at http://harveystanbrough.com/downloads/.

3. As long as I’m looking for a hook, I’ll also check to see whether the writer grounds (or re-grounds) the reader in the opening of the new scene or chapter.

For that, I’ll check the first few paragraphs of the new scene or chapter. That’s where you ground the reader, even amidst ongoing action.

So grounding. Yes? Check.

No? Again, I’ll add a comment out to the side, with or without a specific recommendation.

Okay, so while I’m on the topic, how do you ground or re-ground the reader in a new scene or chapter?

The only way is to allow the reader to sense (see, hear, smell, taste, touch) the setting through the POV character’s senses.

And remember to include the character’s opinions of the setting when appropriate. (When the opinion matters to the scene or illustrates the character of the character.)

One good example that I often use is a room in which the aroma of pipe tobacco lingers. Pretty much any character will notice it (smell).

But for one character it’s an aroma, and for another it’s a stench. For another the air is stuffy. For another it’s wonderful.

For another (or any of the above) perhaps it invokes a memory of the character’s father’s study.

For another (or any of the above) maybe it invokes the taste of cinnamon on toast because the scent of pipe tobacco is tied to that flavor for the character.

You get the idea. A good rule of thumb is to write NOTHING that doesn’t come through the POV character’s senses and opinion. And yes, that will flavor the character’s dialogue as well.

Most importantly, it will pull the reader into the setting and into the POV character’s head.

Today, and Writing

Rolled out at 4. Spent the first two hours with the usual stuff. Then around 6:30 I made a quick trip to the store.

Back at the house, I made and ate breakfast and did a chore or two. Oh, and wrote the stuff above. And just like that, over 4 hours of the day were gone.

Then I added another book to the Free Stuff page on my website (see above), then cross-posted the topic above to the big blog for posting sometime in December.

Around 9 I finally went face down in the copyedit.

Around 1:30 or so I realized I wasn’t going to write today. Edits pick up speed as you go through them. Perhaps I’ll begin writing again tomorrow or the next day.

For now, I’ll go ahead and post this.

Back tomorrow.

Of Interest

Check the comments for The Magic Bakery: Chapter Three (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/the-magic-bakery-chapter-three/#comments) for yet another horror story re contracts.

I enjoyed “Fourth Story Finished Sort of…” (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/fourth-story-finished-sort-of/) because I’m glad to know it isn’t only me. (grin) Very interesting.

Fiction Words: XXXX
Nonfiction Words: 1000 (Journal)
So total words for the day: 1000

Writing of

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… 7189
Total fiction words for the year………… 215745
Total nonfiction words for the month… 2080
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 59420

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 275165

Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

This is a topic of the day from my Daily Journal yesterday. I’m considering moving the Daily Journal over here and posting it to my Pro Writers list every day. If you’re reading this, you’re on that list.

Anyway, here’s a topic of the day for you.

Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

One person asked me in an email yesterday where I get ideas and how I can move from story to story. Apparently because of my flurry of activity recently.

I’m going to answer that in two topics.

First of all, I’ve started only seven new works since May 4 (finished 6). That isn’t a lot. At all. In May, I wrote only two works: a novel and a short story. The short story also became the first chapter of my next novel (so eight works if I counted that twice).

In June, thus far I’ve written one novel and four short stories. Yesterday I started a fifth short story that might be a novel instead. That’s it.

But to story starters —

When I sit down to write a short story, it’s most often on the spur of the moment. So I have to come up with a story starter.

What is a story starter? It’s a character with a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story) in a setting. Period. That’s it. Seriously.

(But where do I get the characters? The problem? The setting? That will be in “Getting Ideas” in tomorrow’s post.)

From that story starter, I write an opening.

To do that, I sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind. Then I write the next sentence, write the next sentence and so on.

The length of the opening varies from writer to writer. For DWS the opening is around 300 – 500 words. For me, the opening is usually 500 – 700 words. By then, I know whether the story will work.

If the opening works, I just keep writing the next sentence. I don’t worry about (or think about) sentence structure, spelling, etc. I just write and keep writing.

I never wonder where the story is going or how the character will solve the problem or any of that. I just write the next sentence.

It really is that simple. It works. It’s how Bradbury wrote. It’s how Stephen King writes. It’s how almost every pulp writer who ever lived wrote. And those of you who have been with me for awhile have seen it first hand.

Do I develop the character?

No, other than knowing his or her “type.” Beyond that, like all humans everywhere, the character develops himself (or herself).

I am constantly surprised by the things my characters say and do. And that’s good. If the characters surprise me, they will also surprise the reader.

If I think them out, plan, plot etc. in advance, I’m playing the Almighty Writer on High. I don’t do that because whatever I can “think up” (conscious mind) the reader can think up. Plotting, planning etc. leads to predictable stories, and predictable stories lead to yawning readers.

Do I agonize over the problem?

Again, no. In my stories, the problem in the opening usually is the “big” problem of the story, but not always. In my openings, the character most often makes decisions and moves toward solving the problem.

What about the setting?

In every opening, I try to invoke all five physical senses. That’s what makes the scene come alive in the reader’s mind. I love writing dialogue and I love writing action (especially Sam Peckinpah style slow motion stuff, sparingly) but none of that happens in a vacuum.

If you don’t provide (through the POV character’s senses) a good description of the setting, any action or dialogue is being delivered against a white background. Not good.

Okay, so come up with a character who has a problem. Drop him (or her) into a setting. Sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind.

And don’t worry about it. You’re just allowing your characters to tell a story. Nothing more earth-shaking than that.

Back soon with “Getting Ideas.” Or you can subscribe to my other blog at HEStanbrough.com  and read it when it comes out tonight. (grin)

Harvey

Chapter 6—Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II

Just a quick announcement—I’m restarting my business as a copyeditor, ebook formatter and cover designer. I’ll take on only a few clients. If you’re interested in any of the above, even if not right at the moment, please let me know that via email. Details to come soon on my website under Writer Services.

Now to continue with Chapter Six. If you missed the previous post or would like a refresher, you can find Chapter Six, Part I on the website under the tab labeled Writing the Character-Driven Story.

The Minor Setting and the Transitional Setting

If the scene takes place in a minor or transitional setting, the description matters a lot less or not at all, depending. On what? In my case, it depends on what my POV character notices that is relevant to the story.

And that’s actually a trick statement. If the POV character notices it, it is relevant to the story. At least the story he’s telling.

Most of the time, in an action scene, the setting will be minor at best, or even transitional.

Perhaps something like this.

Whenever Denny chanced a glance out a side window, buildings and windows and people flashed past, blurred into streaks of black and grey. Dismal.

And that smell. That filthy, stale steam stench that emanates from manhole covers. But maybe that was only his own frustration and fear.

He glanced at the rearview mirror. Damn cops were relentless. His back window flashed eerily, blue, red, blue. The sirens all but punctured his ears.

He shifted his attention back to the front, back to the hope that he would escape.

As if that was going to happen.

He glanced back again and—

And then he moves into another scene. But this one is major so everything matters again. Everything necessarily slows down. And notice that the character focuses more on smaller, tighter, more specific details.

Remember to describe only what the POV character, in his current frame of mind and condition, would notice.

A volcano of massive confusing sounds, and then something hit his jaw and tore it sideways. Did it rip completely off? And in the second half of that instant the top of his head slammed into stars.

And silence.

Only his breathing. Alive. He was alive.

And a quiet hissing. He knew that sound. He frowned. What was it?

That same stale steam still permeated the humid air. Air so thick it was running alongside his face.

He wanted to wipe it away but something. He tugged. Something trapped his right arm.

He reached with his left. Got it. Wiped again.

The stuff was like thin, warm glue. He wanted to taste it but he didn’t want to taste it.

And that hissing. What in the world was that hissing? He knew that sound.

Something familiar. Something real.

The lawnmower. That’s all it was.

Halfway through mowing the yard, the lawnmower sputtered. It was almost out of gas, so he shut it down.

He pushed it to the shed and opened the gas cap. That thing was so stiff. And sharp. The part that stuck up in the center for a screwdriver gouged his palm.

But he had to finish the lawn. He took the cap off the spout, and the can sucked air for a second. Mary left the vent valve closed again.

He put the spout at the opening of the gas tank and turned up the can but it slipped. That’s what it was. And some gas spilled on the hot manifold and—

His eyes grew wide. Oh god no! No! Oh damn! Oh, no, it can’t—

And the world exploded, and a microsecond out, it flashed to black.

So that would be a minor setting slamming into a major setting. Both are in the car, but in the first, the setting is flashing past. In the second, it’s stock still.

In a purely transitional setting, you can get away with very little or no description. Transitional settings can be anywhere. The hallway in the mansion was a transitional setting. If the character is getting out of a car and nothing of note happened in the car, the car is a transitional setting. If the character is crossing a sidewalk or a lobby and nothing happens on the sidewalk or in the lobby, those are transitional settings.

The point is, as your POV character moves from one setting to another, it’s your job as the writer to enable your readers to see, hear, smell, taste and feel what your POV character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling.

As necessary.

Focusing Down to the Unique

Again, the more specific the description of the setting, more engaged your readers will be with the scene.

It’s all right to say of an office that there was a bookshelf in one corner and a desk and chair in another. But if something happened in that office, focus down and describe that part of the office in greater detail.

Is there a body lying on the rug in front of the desk? What does the rug look like? If there’s a wound, what is the pattern of the wound? If there’s blood, what is the pattern of the blood? Is there a pool of blood? Spatter?

If there’s spatter on the desk, what does the front of the desk look like? Is the desk oak? Maple? Does the grain run vertically? Horizontally? Is there a lip where the top overlaps the front?

If your character (detective, perpetrator, maid or butler with a secret) is going to sit down and go through the desk, again, focus down.

What items are on the desk, at least in the vicinity of the character’s hand? Does he open a drawer? What’s the drawer pull look like? Run of the mill round or unique? If unique, how? Does it look like leaves overlapping? Is it brass? Bronze? Wood?

Is the edge of the desk or the edge of a drawer chipped? What if the desk wasn’t broken into? Does a chip on the edge of the drawer still matter? Yes. It focuses the reader down into the scene. It can also provide misdirection.

Notes on Writing the Scene

I originally was going to devote an entire separate chapter to Writing the Scene. But that is not necessary, and doing so would be repetitive.

Chapter 4, Writing the Opening, combined with the Writing Setting part of this chapter and the examples in this chapter, form a crash course on writing the scene. Here are just a few more notes to help you along in that regard.

Remember that the story is the character’s story to tell. The story is broken into scenes.

The scene is centered around a single major event. It is the vehicle by which the characters interact and advance the story from its beginning to its conclusion.

A very short story might have only one scene that moves through only one or two or three major settings.

The Length of Scenes

In his Master Plot Formula, Lester Dent recommended a 90,000 word novel be broken into thirds. Each 30,000 word section would then be divided into five 6,000 word chapters. Each 6,000 word chapter would be divided into four 1500 word scenes.

But the length of the scene is up to you. When students ask me how long a scene should be, I tell them to write until they’ve covered the single event for which that scene exists.For some that will take 800 to 1000 words, about an hour’s work. For others it might take 1500 words or 2000 words. Much depends on what is going on in the scene, how many characters are involved, and whether it contains sub-scenes.

I know one major author who writes one scene per chapter. I know another who writes 10-11 page (2500 to 2750 word) chapters regardless of how many scenes are included. I recommend you apply your own numbers to suit the average length of your scenes.

If it helps, you may treat a scene as a story within a story. For example, in a multiple viewpoint novel, you can switch POV characters at the beginning of a scene. You can also do a cliffhanger or bit of suspense at the end of each scene. Some genres practically require it. Others, not so much.

For me, the most important thing about the scene is that once it begins to unfold, I can “see” pretty much the whole thing in my head. Most of the time it’s all I can do to type fast enough to get it down. And I am eternally grateful for every second of frantic typing.

Summary

This chapter was long, so I thought a summary might be a good idea. Here you go:

  • The setting is the location in which the scene takes place.
  • You must ground the reader in the setting so he can experience the scene with the character.
  • To ground the reader in the setting, allow your character to descend into the setting himself.
  • Major settings, those in which scenes actually take place, need more description.
  • It’s all right to begin with general descriptions in major settings, but it’s important to focus down quickly to the details that matter. Focusing down to those details ground the reader more firmly in the setting.
  • Minor or transitional settings require little or no description.
  • Most writers use only the sense of sight. Use as many of the five senses as possible at the beginning of every scene to ground the reader in the scene and make the story more real.

Next up, Chapter 7—Writing the Ending and the Resolution.

‘Til then, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.—

Chapter 6 — Writing Setting, and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part I

As I mentioned in the Introduction, the setting is the location in which the scene takes place.

Simple, right?

Not really. The inability to write the setting is where a lot of writers lose readers, and even the readers don’t know why. If nothing in the first few hundred words pulls them down into the story, they simply drift away.

Readers must be grounded in the setting. The more firmly they are grounded in the setting, the more invested they are in the story. It’s harder for them to put it down and find something else to do.

To ground your readers in the setting, your characters must exist down in the setting.

As they walk into a new setting, every person (and every character) will sense different things or get a different sensory impression of those things. All of that will depend on his or her baggage, experiences (good and bad), personal beliefs, and so on.

As you describe a scene through the physical senses of your POV character, his or her opinions of that setting will reveal much about who the character is.

And everything you write should be through the senses of your POV character.

Types of Settings

There are varied takes on how much description is too much or too little.

Various genres require more or less description in general. You can find more information than you wanted to know by reading a few books on writing specific genres.

For our purposes, I’ll deal with the level of description I recommend for various types of settings.

The major setting is one in which a scene takes place. This is where characters interact, where the majority of the story is acted out. This one requires, in my opinion, in-depth description. It also requires focusing down with your description to firmly ground the character.

The minor setting is one in which, usually, a partial scene takes place. Perhaps a hit man quickly reviewing information about his target while riding up in an elevator. This might also be a character involved in a high-speed car chase during the brief time leading up to the crash. This one usually has less description and perhaps more hastily and vaguely delivered. The focus here is on the information or the action rather than the description.

The transitional setting is just that. Transitional. You don’t want to have a car pull up to the curb, zero transition, and suddenly the characters who were in the car are in an office suite on the 23rd floor discussing a situation. They have to cross the sidewalk. They have to cross the lobby. They have to ride up in an elevator or take the stairs. Transitional scenes. These require little or no description.

The Major Setting

If the scene is taking place in a major setting—for example, a library where the characters will spend a considerable amount of time during an interview—the description should leave nothing to the reader’s imagination.

Let’s say you currently have three characters. One is Norman Silver, a hapless reporter who can’t believe his own good fortune.

He has asked for and been granted an interview with your second character, Charlie Task, a self-described professional psychopath. In his professional life, Charlie offers Real-Time Solutions to Real-World Situations.

This example is adapted from my novel Confessions of a Professional Psychopath and my short story, “A View to the Curious.”

The butler led me along a hallway. It was lighted, but just dark enough that it was difficult to make out what was in the frames on the walls. Didn’t matter anyway. I just wanted to get to the interview.

We stopped before ornately carved mahogany doors. I tell you, I was some kind of impressed. The butler must’ve seen the look on my face, because he smiled.

“Ah, the doors. Yes. Those came from Milan. Mr. Task had them hand carved there and then shipped to an artist friend in St. Petersburg, Russia. The artist there created those oversized crystal door knobs. They too are one of a kind. Then he shipped them, doors and all, here. Ready, then?”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

He smiled, turned both door knobs and stepped aside as the doors swung open.

I walked though, and he closed the doors behind me. The click was ominous somehow.

The polished hardwood floor was dotted here and there with white fur rugs. The air in the room was slightly warmer than it was in the hallway, and so was the lighting. Thanks to wall sconces evenly spaced on the— Well, they were book shelf sconces I guess. They were attached directly to the front of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves at regular intervals around the room.

The light was almost comforting, but not overpowering either. It wasn’t bright. And there was a light, pleasant scent of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. Nice. A calm, quiet humming came from somewhere. All around me, really. Probably some sort of air circulation device. Maybe humidity control too.

I think I’d never seen so many books in one room. From behind me next to the door frame, they covered all four walls, all the way around, except for a narrow regular door in the left wall and the corner to my left front. That corner was filled with a nice fireplace. No fire, but still.

It was faced with a kind of lava rock or something. You know that sort of black rock? It’s really rugged looking, and it puts off kind of a reddish black sheen. And then a white marble mantle set the whole thing off with a nice contrast.

A broad desk was set several feet to the right of the fireplace, facing me. It looked like mahogany too, maybe, but not rough like the doors. Really polished.

And between me and the desk was a sitting area. Three wingback chairs facing me, then a cast-iron and glass cocktail table, and then what looked like the back on one of those old antique settees. It was that rich green brocade fabric over dark oak. I think it was oak. Very nice.

I glanced at the desk. There was no guest chair, so I assumed maybe we’d do the interview in the sitting area.

I looked at the wingbacks again. Two were upholstered in a fine, light-brown leather. The upholstery on the third was even lighter, and a different texture. It seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my mind around it.

“Welcome,” he said, quietly. Boris Karloff? “Sorry for the slight delay.”

I started a bit, then glanced to my left. Not Boris Karloff. Mr. Task had just come through the narrow door. “Hello, Mr. Task.”

Okay, you’re the reader right now. Are you grounded in the setting? Can you see, feel, hear and smell the setting? Are you living in the scene with the character?

You’ll notice too, the character who was describing the setting offered his opinion of it.

Think about it. If five different characters walked into that library, each one would see, hear, smell and otherwise sense things differently. But only the POV character’s opinion matters.

Note: Remember, these are not YOUR (the writer’s) opinions. They are the opinions of the POV character.

In the scene above, the POV character describes the click of the door closing behind him as “ominous.” The air and the lighting as “warmer” and “comforting.” He describes the “pleasant” scents of leather and cherry pipe tobacco. And he talks about a “calm, quiet” humming.

Some characters wouldn’t notice the click of the latch at all. Some would think the lighting felt cold. Some would believe the smell of any kind of tobacco was a stench, and some would comment negatively about the leather. Some might call the humming sound annoying or even wonder whether something was broken.

The POV character leads the reader through the scene. Everything depends on the POV character.

Using the Five Senses

When describing setting, most writers use only the sense of sight.

To make the scene come alive, and to get your POV character down into the setting, use as many of the character’s five senses as possible, and express those through the character’s opinion.

I recommend using the character’s five senses every time a major setting opens, and definitely every time you begin a new chapter.

You will find The Five Senses Exercise, which I learned from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in Appendix B.

(Note: In these posts, next week will be Part II of this chapter, and the following week will be Appendix B.)

Focusing Down from General to Specific

In a major setting, the description should focus down from general to specific. The more specific the setting, the more grounded your reader is in the scene. (Witness the loose stair board in the popular sitcom Modern Family.)

For instance, as the scene in the library example unfolds, perhaps

Mr. Task invites Mr. Silver to sit, but says he should take one of the darker wingbacks. The lighter one is his favorite chair.

Perhaps during the interview, Mr. Silver is occasionally distracted as Mr. Task traces an particular pattern with his index finger on the right armrest of the chair.

Mr. Silver looks more closely and notices an odd, very shallow ripple in the leather there. Finally he can’t put off his curiosity anymore. “I notice your chair is upholstered slightly differently. If you don’t mind my asking, what sort of leather is that?”

Mr. Task smiles wanly, almost as if a regret is forthcoming. “Human, actually.” He traces the pattern again with his index finger. “This was the last place the whip struck her body.”

I’ll write a little more about this later.

Next up, Chapter 6: Writing Setting and Notes on Writing the Scene: Part II.

‘Til then, happy writing!

Harvey

The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.”

Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

 

The Journal, Monday, 12/14

Hi Folks,

Well, on the second day of my new system of writing during my quiet time, I messed it up. (grin)

On the up side, I limited my waking up time to about ten minutes. On the down side, I spent the next two and a half hours on admin stuff, prepping The Scent of Acacias for layout for print. Sigh. I forgot I hadn’t done that yet.

I already have folks wanting boxed sets of the trade paperbacks. Hard to sell those when I don’t have them prepped yet. (grin)

I need to name my writing computer. Maybe I’ll call him Hal as a nod to 2001: A Space Oddyssey. I’ve always found it disrespectful that Picard barks “Computer” to preface a request to the ship, yet he recognizes the android/robot Data as a viable life form.

The Day

Rolled out right at 3 after a rough night, the first part of which I spent sitting up on the couch. I keep saying I’m gonna get a recliner, but if I do that I might not ever get anything done again. (grin) Little girl cat came in and got me around 11, so I picked her up and we both went to bed. She’s such a good kit. She takes care of me as much as I take care of her. Give that girl opposable thumbs, there’s nothing she couldn’t do.

So email and the first mugga coffee, then the stuff above and then here to start this journal entry. And now it’s almost 5:30 and I’m turning for the first time to my old buddy Hal.

Today’s Writing

Well, Hal and I did all right. We did a little more reconstructive surgery, but mostly just writing off into the dark. I love that. Especially when I have talkative characters, a tense situation, and a desire on the part of one of the “good” characters not to defuse the situation but to nuke the bad guys.

Okay, the scene I’m talking about was a five year old girl and a six year old girl facing down five older kids. So no nukes, but some serious attitude adjustments. Great fun.

Today I worked through three “normal” sessions of about an hour and two shorter ones.

I think I have one more wound to close tomorrow (maybe two), and will do a lot of writing into the dark to cover the patch. After that it’s onward and outward to the end.

Y’know, I enjoy these characters so much, I hope they do somethign I can turn into a true series. (Not a saga, one long story, like the Wes Crowley thing, but an actual series.)

Fiction Words: 3436
Nonfiction Words: 492

Writing of Norval Babineaux
(Words brought forward 5231)
Day 1…… 3059 words. Total words to date…… 8290 words
Day 2…… 3486 words. Total words to date…… 11726 words

Total fiction words for the month……… 36489
Total fiction words for the year………… 640480

Total nonfiction words for the month… 10333
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 52435 (since September 1)

The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two

Hi Folks,

Options_160Okay, here is Part Two of what might be the most valuable post you’ll ever read about writing fiction. Again, I’m not kidding. (Even got the same pic in case you want to share.)

The necessary preliminary stuff was in the previous post, so if you missed that one, I suggest you go back and read it first.

In summary —

To write a story (any length) you need only to write an opening.

To write an opening, you need only a character with a problem in a setting. (This is called an idea.) The problem needn’t be “the” problem of the story. It’s just something to get you to the keyboard and to start your fingers moving on the keys.

From the writer’s perspective, the opening is a test of an idea. Most of the time, the opening will take off and become a short story, novella or novel.

But from the reader’s perspective, the opening is what will determine whether he continues to read or finds something else to do.

To ensure the reader is engaged with your story and continues to read, you want to write a great, focused setting. That will ground him in the story.

I explained all of that in different words in the previous post, then provided an example set in an exotic location: the Amazon rain forest. This time around, I have another, more domestic example. Oddly enough, the character has the same name, but as you will see, he definitely is a different character. (grin) Remember,

the more focused the setting, the more engaged the reader.

Let’s make Steve Zimmer a detective this time instead of a scientist. Let’s put him on the docks on a dark, rainy night. Now, if your character’s down at the docks, that’s pretty vague, isn’t it? We probably need to know what city/country, but not necessarily, and not until the story moves away from the docks.

Let’s see what we can do to focus the reader down in the setting. Here’s your second example:

The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay and was driven flat in the pattering rain.

Sitting in his car, Detective Steven Zimmer turned on the windshield wiper for one swipe. He leaned forward and peered at the warehouse before the rain could accumulate again.

Some distance above the bay door, a weak bulb under a thin, dented metal shade cast a dim light. It was further refracted and diminished as the drizzling rain fell past it. Still, he could just make out the seam where the broad door met the wall.

As he worked the windshield wiper again, he closed his eyes and opened them. He peered through the windshield again.

Typical. Just a sliding bay door, probably padlocked. Standard whitewashed windows set at regular intervals. He hit the wiper switch again, watched it shove the drops into rivulets.

No small entrance door, at least that he could see. Odd.

To the right near the end of the building, a smaller window. Probably the office. The anonymous caller had said to check the office nearest Front Street. Good. He was parked just off Front Street. So the office in the nearest corner.

He opened the car door and swung his left leg out, then remembered the bolt cutters in the passenger floorboard. He leaned back and reached for them, then got out and shut the door behind him.

The rain quietly pattered on the hood of the car. In the distance, somewhere back in the middle of the city, sirens wailed.

He looked at the warehouse again as if to verify the sirens hadn’t changed anything. Finally he stepped around the front of the car and crossed the tarmac to the warehouse door. Rain trickled off the right front brim of his fedora.

He could barely make out the padlock. It was the same corroded non-color as the corrugated steel walls.

He brought up the bolt cutters, leaned close to position them, but paused. The wood frame smelled musty, wet. Maybe he could just pry the hasp out of the frame.

He reached up to tug on the hasp, and half of it turned under his touch. No need to pry it out.

It had already been cut.

Okay, that opening was just under 4oo words.

Although the overall scene took place at the docks in a parking lot near a warehouse, the first actual setting was focused down tightly inside the character’s car. Then the character crossed the larger, more vague part of the setting, but quickly. And then we focused down again on the area of the padlock. And throughout the scene, we invoked the character’s physical senses.

Do you see how if you write an opening, it can take off? In case you’re wondering, I’ll be using both of these examples. One will become a short story or novella, and the other, I believe, will become a series of novels. All from nothing but A Character > With a Problem > In a Setting.

As I wrote last time, I hope you will copy the techniques I used here (invoking the physical senses, using paragraphing to build tension and set pacing, etc.) and apply them to your own opening.

And after you write the opening, what then? Well, as I mentioned last time, you write the next sentence. Then you write the next sentence. Then you write the next sentence until the character(s) lead you to the end of the story.

For a great deal more on writing the next sentence, consider taking my Audio Course on Writing Off Into the Dark. (See Course 12.) It literally will change your life as a writer.

In the meantime, try writing an opening and see where it takes you. (If you already did this, so what? You’re a writer. Do it again.)

Drop a comment in the Comments section below and let me know how it works out for you.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

 

The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part One

Hi Folks,

Options_160This might well be the most valuable post you’ve read about writing fiction. I am not joking. I even put a picture on here so you could share it to Pinterest if you want. (grin)

Okay, first, the necessary preliminary stuff.

To start a story of any length, you have to write an opening. The opening most often will consist of 300 to 500 words.

In the opening, you introduce a character, give him a problem, and drop him into a setting. (This doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It’s just to get you into the opening.)

If the opening works, meaning if the story wants to keep going (most of the time it will), you write the rest of the story. But everything stems from writing that opening.

In this post, I’m going to focus on writing the setting. The character(s) almost certainly will move through several settings during the course of the story. Those settings will vary depending on what’s happening at the moment. And where it’s happening. And sometimes why. But the setting is always important.

In the opening, you’re trying to get and keep the reader’s attention, and the setting has everything to do with that.

The character’s perception and opinion of the setting will not only paint a picture for the reader, it also will tell him a lot about the character. So it’s important to include the character’s physical senses in every scene whenever possible. Any description of the setting should pass through the perceptions of the character.

The first rule of writing a setting is to Focus Down. Don’t be vague. Give the reader something that will ground him in the story. The reader who is well grounded in the setting is engaged in the story. If he isn’t well grounded in the setting, he might leave the story at any time. So again, don’t be vague. Focus down.

For example, if your story opening takes place “on the earth” or “on the moon” that’s pretty vague. If it takes place on the the southern continent, that’s still far too general to draw the reader in. If the opening takes place in the Amazon rain forest, that’s not much better.

But if the setting is a specific, localized area near the Amazon River in the rain forest— well, now you’ve got something.

The more focused the setting, the more engaged the reader.

For example, take a look at this:

Dr. Steven Zimmer ambled along the narrow trail. The Amazon River rumbled quietly along somewhere to his left. He didn’t remember it being this close earlier. Or this humid.

Sweat. Everything was sweat in this place. The Amazon was probably made of sweat. Sweat had soaked his khaki camouflage boonie hat. It had turned his light khaki shirt and pants dark halfway to his knees. And still it trailed down his forehead and temples.

His streaked glasses kept sliding down his nose. He thought the base camp lay in this direction, but apparently not. Still, if he just continued a while longer, this trail might intersect—

He stopped, his eyes wide. He gaped for what seemed like a very long time, then came to his senses and ducked into the brush alongside the trail. He crouched in the heady scent of passion flower vines, sweeping a broad leaf away from his right cheek. The leaf was drenched in sweat too.

Maybe they hadn’t seen him. Maybe the rush of the Amazon hid any noise he had made. Still, his heart was thumping in his chest. He pushed his glasses up his nose.

Several yards ahead of him, a few native males were engaged in some sort of ritual.

And his stupid camera was miles away for all he knew. In the stupid base camp. Wherever that was.

He frowned. Lost or not, he was still a scientist. He still could observe. He leaned slightly forward, and his brow tightened as he strained to listen.

But the language was nothing more than a series of clicks and clacks. What was he thinking? Even if he could hear it plainly, he wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying. He grinned.

But the grin fled when someone gripped his shoulder.

There. In just under 300 words, the reader is fully grounded in the scene. He is crouched in the brush deep in the Amazon rain forest, curious enough to keep reading and hopeful Dr. Zimmer can get himself and the reader home.

Some will say it’s a lot easier to focus down in such an exotic setting. An exotic setting plays to the imagination. After all, how many readers have ever been in the Amazon rain forest? Then again, a LOT of people have felt sweat, humidity, heard a river, and so on. And that’s where the focus of the scene lies: in the physical senses of the character.

But fair enough. In the next post — The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two — I’ll give you another example in a more domestic setting. (grin)

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this example, you can study it and write something similar.

Better yet, copy the techniques (invoking the five senses, using the Return/Enter key to build tension and set pacing, etc.) and apply them to your own openings.

Remember, to begin, all you have to do is create a character, give him a problem, drop him into a setting and write. That’s it. If the opening takes off, go with it. Write the next sentence, then write the next sentence. Keep doing that until the character(s) lead you to the end of the story.

I’ll conclude this with the next post, but there’s no reason you can’t write an opening right now. If you do, feel free to drop a comment in the Comments section below and let me know how it works out for you.

An exciting announcement — I’ve wanted for awhile to turn my personal website back into a writer’s website and let my publisher over at StoneThreadPublishing.com deal with all the other stuff.

If you’re reading this in your email, please stop by HarveyStanbrough.com and visit the My Publisher page. And when you have time, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to drop by StoneThreadPublishing.com as well. There are and will continue to be some pretty sweet deals over there.

By the way, for those of you who enjoy NaNoWriMo, there’s an excellent blog post you need to read over at Dean Wesley Smith’s website. Scroll down to the Topic of the Night. It isn’t long, and if you follow his advice you’ll enjoy NaNo a lot more. (This is what most long-term professional writers do every month.)

Be sure to be back here next time for The Importance of Setting (and How to Write It): Part Two.

‘Til then, happy writing.

Harvey

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

The Journal, Saturday, 9/5

Playing around in Gila National Wilderness or someplace just as wild. No entry today about the day.

Topic: Setting and How to Write It

Okay, to start a story (of any length) you have to begin. You have to write an opening.

In order to write an opening, you have to create a character, give him a problem and drop him into a setting. But what do I mean by “setting”?

First, here I’m talking about the setting of the opening. The character(s) might move through several settings during the course of the story. Those settings will vary depending on what’s happening at the moment. And where it’s happening. And sometimes why.

But in the opening, you’re trying to get and keep the reader’s attention, and the setting has everything to do with that.

I mentioned yesterday that you should include the character’s sense of the setting in the opening. That means including all five senses if possible. (For example, if the character’s blind or in a completely dark room, probably the sense of Sight won’t be involved.)

The character’s perception and opinion of the setting will not only paint a picture for the reader, but also will tell him a lot about the character. So it’s important. Any description of the setting should pass through the perceptions of the character.

But let’s get down to the setting itself. First, it should be as focused as possible.

If your character is on Earth or the moon or a strange planet, that’s pretty vague. If he’s on the the South American continent, that’s a little more focused, but still far too general to draw the reader in. If he’s in the Amazon rain forest, that’s a little better.

But what about this:

Dr. Steven Zimmer slipped into the brush just in time. He crouched among the broad leaves and sweet, heady scent of a passion flower vine. The Amazon was flowing a few yards behind him. Several yards ahead of him, a few local males were engaged in some sort of ritual.

And his stupid camera was miles away in the stupid base camp. Wherever that was. He frowned.

But lost or not, he was still a scientist. He leaned slightly forward. His brow tightened against the whispering of the Amazon as he strained to listen.

The language was nothing more than a series of clicks and clacks. Even if he could hear it plainly, he wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying. The thought brought a grin to his face.

But the grin fled when a hand gripped his shoulder.

Then again, if your character’s down at the docks, that’s too vague, isn’t it? (Yeah, we probably need to know what city/country but not until the story moves away from the docks.) If he’s in a warehouse, that’s better. If he’s in a particular part of the warehouse, that’s a lot better.’

But what about this:

The night was dark, the air heavy. A foghorn sounded in the bay and was driven flat in the pattering rain. In the distance, somewhere back in the middle of the city, sirens wailed.

Carrying bolt cutters, Detective Steven Zimmer approached the warehouse door. A thin rivulet of rain trickled off the right front brim of his fedora.

He brought up the bolt cutters, but paused. He could barely make out the padlock. It was the same corroded non-color as the corrugated steel walls.

Maybe he could just cut the hasp. He leaned closer. The musty wood frame was so damp he probably could just pry the hasp out of it.

But the hasp had already been cut. He looked at it for a moment, then put one palm against the edge of the door. Carefully, he pushed. It slid a few feet to the right with only the slightest grinding in the runner.

The scent of old grease reached his nose as he crouched, placing the bolt cutters on the tarmac. When he straightened again, his .45 caliber Kimber Tactical II was in his right hand.

He took a deep breath. Backup would be good. But you can’t call for backup when you’re working a case on the sly.

He gentled his index finger along the cool metal of the trigger well, then slipped in through the door.

Get the point?

Note that the setting in the second example was external to the warehouse. Still, it was focused down. Everything took place within a man-sized area just outside the warehouse door.

In the first example, the setting was actually larger, encompassing a few yards behind the POV character to several yards ahead of him. In it, as in the second example, the focus was created through the character’s physical senses.

Today’s Writing

No writing today, probably. I’m out in the boonies somewhere refilling my well of experience. And yep, still loving it. (grin)

Fiction Words: XXXX

Writing of Book 9 of the Wes Crowley saga
Day 1…… 3213 words. Total words to date….. 3213 words
Day 2…… 1046 words. Total words to date….. 4259 words
Day 3…… 1858 words. Total words to date….. 6117 words
Day 4…… 1023 words. Total words to date….. 7140 words
Day 5…… 1587 words. Total words to date….. 8327 words
Day 6…… X943 words. Total words to date….. 9270 words
Day 7…… 1084 words. Total words to date….. 10354 words
Day 8…… 1056 words. Total words to date….. 11410 words
Day 9…… XXXX words. Total words to date….. XXXXX words

I’m gonna leave up the numbers for ol’ Wes while my subconscious continues to turn the story over. If it doesn’t perk up and get with it pretty soon though, I’ll send Wes out behind the barn to think about what he’s done while I’m writing some other stuff.

Total fiction words for the month…………… 1590
Total fiction words for the year……………… 466631