Setting Description in Writing

As I remodel my room at the glacial pace of an AOL dial-up, examining closet doors, crown molding, and the proper plywood to build bookcases from scratch (I’m so excited for this last), I’ve been thinking a lot about description in stories, and how one balances narrative with exposition.

Today’s Daily Post prompt, interior, is related, for in many cases I’m describing the interior of a building. Only so many ways exist to explain what a window looks like or the general configuration of a room or that the ceilings are vaulted before those summaries become white noise in the background of the general plot. I’m in favor of arranging description so that the reader is lost in the action of the story, sucking in visual clues without thinking about them, but unless those descriptions are embedded in the action, they can easily become the focus of a reader’s attention–and therefore lose the reader’s attention.

Writing is a lot like Latin grammar: the exception is the rule. But in my case, unless my purpose is to explore the setting for my own, non-readership use, spending more than a couple of paragraphs detailing a scene–and especially when I’m only detailing a scene–isn’t necessary unless the setting is important to the plot narrative. That can mean that it influences how the characters act, i.e. when my rustic MC enters the Versailles-like royal palace, she is not only awed, but has to overcome a base urge to pocket a gold-gilt clock. The clock isn’t just sitting on a table in the hallway, it’s evoking a response in the MC, one that reveals her inner character, upbringing, or experience.

I tend, however, to get too detail-oriented with my descriptions. I won’t stop with a quick sketch or impression of a setting. Before I know it, I’m explaining the crown molding is as wide as a tree, hand-carved into friezes depicting scenes from the kingdom’s prevailing religion, and brushed along the edges with gold, and then, in a series of several more paragraphs, describing in magnified detail everything else in the room, from the bust of an old diplomat carved from marble to the hand-purled rug imported from the country in the north threatening war, et cetera, et cetera.

These details, couched in narrative (i.e. I picked up a blue-veined marble bust of an indubitably important nobleman with the facial hairstyle of my grandfather and shook it like a discipline stick at Louis. “Don’t get any ideas.”) can work to great effect in evincing a more holistic cultural experience of the story and its environment. Characters should not just move through the story in empty space, but should interact with their surroundings, so that their surroundings become part of the story, or are at least portrayed as being a natural extension of the action. The reader gets a picture in his head without it being included in the wordsketch of a still-life.

But listed as part of a series of articles, one static and generic prop among many others, the details become boring to read about. This, I think, is where point of view comes into play. A reader should experience the setting as a character does. My MC is not going to mentally catalogue every luxurious thing she sees in the palace–that is, unless her intent is to capture the picture as a painting or to spell out the decadence of the place to her less fortunate best friend. If this isn’t immediately noted–and I don’t think even in those cases that we as readers need to know every little piece–I stop paying attention and start scanning for the next dialogue quotation marks.

I have a long way to go before I’ve balanced the pacing of my description, action, and character reflection, but my hope is that identifying my weak areas will save me the trouble of struggling through them too long before I catch them. How do you balance action with description, or narrative with exposition?

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Year

It was her first year.

Granted, it was her thirtieth first year. Every such year was new and exciting, a change from the last, an adventure to be experienced, a open invitation to travel the realms of life. Her favorite places to visit were Metropportunity  and the Steppes of New Skills, but she veered toward the Old Friends Crossroads as if it were her home in Tradition.

Like every new year, she, too, was new, built by self-reflection, the wisdom of past experience, the advice of static and passing acquaintances. It was inevitable that she would spend a breath or two upon the Setback Plateaus, but only a breath, for spreading out before her, glimmering in the sun of Hope, was the great Ocean of Possibility. And every year the journey was different, and she began as someone else: someone braver, someone better, someone filled with renewed determination and every potentiality imaginable.

Because this was her year, like every year was her year: a gift, a promise, a blessing.

via Daily Prompt: Year

Hopeful

Happy New Year, everyone!

After a year of incredible volatility and change in so many facets of life, 2016 is coming to an “explosive” (if the pyrotechnical tendencies of my neighbors are to be considered) close.

For me, 2017 offers a continuation of a great many opportunities that came to me in 2016. I’ve outlined several of them already, so you will see a little redundancy, but, more for my own use than for anyone else’s, I thought I would be unique* on this of all nights and list them comprehensively here. It’s always entertaining to compare new year goals to what I have accomplished throughout that year, and while I’m not a “New Year’s Resolutionist,” I do enjoy using this time as an excuse to regroup and reevaluate where I’m at. I’m not going to beat myself up over failing to achieve any of them. Things always happen for a reason, and while I’m not going to let 2017 run me over, I’m also going to be adaptable where necessary.

*/sarc

Things I would like to accomplish this year, AKA my annual bucket list:

  1. Pass my certification exam for financial planning (already discussed)
  2. Finish current draft of, edit, beta-read test, and polish Cursed (AD)
  3. Lose final ten pounds, eat for nutrition, and exercise four times a week (AD)
  4. Read a chapter of the Bible every day
  5. Pray for ten minutes (five in the morning, five at night) every day
  6. Journal once a week
  7. Go to bed by 10:30PM every night
  8. Finish remodeling my room
  9. Begin and finish curb appeal project
  10. Take self-defense classes
  11. Buy a violin/take violin lessons
  12. Double my current savings rate
  13. Travel somewhere I have never been
  14. Read one nonfiction book per month
  15. Read one fiction book per month

My best to all in your sundry endeavors this year. Remain ever hopeful, remain ever strong, remain ever visionary, remain ever determined. Own your actions. Own your words. Own your life. God bless!

 

via Daily Prompt: Hopeful

2016 Reflections

A festive evergreen-and-cinnamon simmer pot bubbles quietly on the stove, spreading the scent of home and good cheer. The tree is dressed, surrounded by an audience of enthusiastic presents, while the stereo casts out the lilting strains of a haunting Christmas melody. In the kitchen, pies bake. Last-minute arrangements are made to impress visiting relatives with over-cleaned floors and counters. Cookies are snagged as mid-afternoon treats, and in the evenings crystalline lights along the roof edges twinkle in the darkness.

Merry Christmas, all!

While 2016 has thus far offered, as everyone knows, more content for assessment than is the scope of this blog to cover, I’m going to concentrate less on the external and more on the internal.

When first I conceived the notion for 2016’s personal challenges (writing 2000 words per day, reading for 15 minutes per day, and editing for 15 minutes per day), I knew I was setting a high standard. For those unaware, during the course of 2016 I worked full time, went to school part time, and took on freelance jobs here and there. During 2015, I struggled with the challenge of writing 2000 words per day, without any other specific goals or challenges claiming my time—at least in any official capacity—and without the urgent demands of schooling. My reasoning for increasing my challenge goals for 2016 after a year of (successful) struggling was the refusal to step backwards. I already knew I could write 2000 words a day. I wanted to see if I could do more.

But each year comes with its own costs, distractions, and idiosyncrasies, and I was faced with several expected, unexpected, and should-have-been-expected stakes on my limited schedule. I struggled. I really struggled. I gave myself a few days off twice this year for fear of burnout. I took days off work for the express purpose of reordering my routine to better equip myself moving forward. And, as long as I was moving forward, I was okay with lowering my goal from 2000 words to 500 in July and scrapping (after an obsessive reading binge at the beginning of the year) my editing and reading goals.

I’ve related some of my struggles on this blog already, and some of my successes, too, so I’m not going to waste time and space reiterating them. Each year, however, I consider a one-word holistic theme that describes the year. In 2013, that theme was endurance. In 2014, it was patience. 2015’s theme was learning.

I bandied about several ideas for 2016, depending on how I felt at a given moment. Stress was on the list for a while, but I thought it tended too much toward the negative, and I don’t like basing anything on emotion. A leader for a long time was organization.

But I think the word that best sums up the year is prioritization. I had my hubris handed back to me on a brass platter (the situations weren’t elegant enough to justify silver) on several different occasions. My moments of idleness became not just moments of weakness, but moments of destruction. In my mad rush to do the things I needed to do after having procrastinated, I split my concentration between too many tasks, which left me not only exhausted and frustrated, but confused, defeated, and compromised. My studies suffered. My writing suffered. What energy I had I poured into work, as it was there my contractual obligation lie.

Don’t misconstrue my words; I enjoyed 2016. I cannot pick any event out about which I can complain except those I brought on myself, and on those instances I lose any right to gripe. I love where I work. I had my ups and downs with my stories, but I would wager significantly fewer downs than in previous years. While I didn’t improve as much this year as I would have wanted, I know I did improve. I’m content with that.

The trick for me this year has been to establish the priorities of my life and learn how to balance them. For the longest time, I ran off of a list of daily to-dos, most of which were impossibilities no matter how conscientious I was with my time. Then I would grow annoyed because I had “failed” to finish my list. Somehow, I always placed the blame on my liberal lack of discipline, or the distractions of a hundred other tasks. That’s not to say that discipline wouldn’t have solved the issues at hand, but lack of discipline, I have discovered, is really just a symptom of a larger weakness: lack of focus.

And so I look toward 2017. I fix my gaze on a more realistic prize, one still measured by numbers (500 words per day, continued), but measured, more importantly, by consistent balance. Following the guidance of various advisers, I have narrowed my concentration to three priorities:

  • Finish draft of, edit, beta-reader test, and polish Cursed
  • Take and pass the financial planning exam and, once passed, climb the hierarchy of Bloom’s Taxonomy through real-life and simulated application
  • Improve health by losing final ten pounds alternating a regimen of cardio, weightlifting, and stretching; maintaining a healthy diet; and retiring to sleep before 10PM

Broken down even more, they come to three active verbs: write, study, condition.

Of course, I still have other adventures I want to go on and tasks I want to finish and skills I want to learn. There will still be times when distraction or tiredness reigns. But I’m going to do my best to keep those goal-killers at bay. Instead of waiting until the end of 2017 to affix a theme to the year, I’m starting off with a theme I choose in foresight, not one I merely find in hindsight. It is an attribute that stands not only as a generic theme, but as a goal, a reminder, an admonition, an encouragement: focus.

A Book You Want to Read

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison

Have you ever just really wanted to read a certain book, but it doesn’t exist?

One of the driving forces behind my writing is the fact that my stories intrigue me. I don’t mean just interest me, the way that watching an aerial show or listening to Christmas music during the holidays (and at other times) do. I mean they are ideas that compel me to search online and in bookstores for a version already committed to paper, colored by the ideas and experiences of another author.

Sometimes I find something similar enough to take the edge off my impatience. But sometimes, even if I find something similar, I don’t care for the execution of it, or I would do it differently. Other times, I can’t find anything close enough to temper my desire for such a story.

I’ve discovered that there are a lot of “books” I want to read that don’t exist yet. It’s up to me to write them myself, if I want them to see the light of the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m a huge proponent of the idea of writing for yourself. You have to enjoy your own work before anyone else can (though I can admit, as an artist, I always find room for improvement and am never 100% satisfied with my work). Part of this is innate joy in the subject matter, but sometimes it’s mind-trickery: keeping yourself interested in your own work by adding certain aspects to it or developing characters and plot elements that you know you enjoy.

Some ways that I have accomplished this in the past:

  • Make a list of the things you love. They don’t have to be things you know, things you’ve experienced, or even things you expect in or relate to literature. My list includes mountains, sailing, bicycles, noblesse oblige, myth and mythology, and the click of heels on tile.
  • Inhabit the shoes of your characters. Many readers use fiction as a vehicle for vicarious experiences, and to maintain their interest, a writer should make a character relatable and enjoyable to be around, even when that character is not Miss Sunshine. If you can enjoy living the story with the character, chances are, readers will, too.
  • In a similar vein, give your characters unique–but not annoying–voices. Readers (I’m speaking as one) will love you for it. Become friends with the people populating your story, and readers will follow suit. Take fanfiction, for example: Readers have become attached to the characters and develop more adventures to enjoy with them.
  • Make the story uniquely yours. I have always loved the story of Cinderella. As a reader, this is great. As a writer, this can pose a problem. A story can only be told so many ways, right? Wrong! Make it yours and own it. Feeling a sense of possession and pride in your own idea can help you to focus on the story at hand and enjoy the spin you put on the basic conflict-resolution arc.

The only downside to this, for me, is being inclined to read what I’ve written of the story already just for fun, which precludes further development!

What are some of your favorite elements of a story? How have you made them yours?

“Not My Best”

On the rare times I share a work, whether it’s a story or music or a painting–anything creative–I usually present it with the caveat “it’s not my best.” Sometimes I say that out loud to the person to whom I’m presenting it. Other times, it’s a given in my head, a silent reassurance to myself that I can do better.

But, more often than not, I find myself using it as a defense mechanism.

I preface my presentation of a work with the line because the blow of any subsequent criticism or dislike is cushioned by my personal acknowledgment that, no, it’s not my best, so they’re not really judging the full me or the extent of my skills, just a mediocre or satisfactory part of me. And I’m my own worst critic, so anything they have to say is kitten purrs compared to my own narrow-eyed frustration with my work.

Before learning that I had won honorable mention (fourth prize) in my writing group’s annual short story contest earlier this week, I explained to a fellow writer, while we were talking about the contest, that my submission was “not my best work.” To be fair, it wasn’t. The prompt teased, laughed at, and finally turned its back on me, so that the story I had been trying to manufacture in the two months we had to write it fell apart the day before it was due. After an hour of painful brainstorming and rearrangement, I selected a different story to write, which I submitted about an hour before it was due after only a cursory editing glance. So, not my best.

But my use of the line made me think. What is my best? The works of which I have been somewhat proud have all been critiqued one way or another, always found lacking in something–hey, I’m not perfect, and don’t expect that any of my stories will find a universal audience. Nonetheless, I continue to tell myself, even when these stories are picked (or ripped) apart, it’s not my best effort. I can do better. They just haven’t seen my best yet.

That, consequently, sent me into a spiral of despair. What was this mysterious, elusive “best” piece I had in my portfolio? What shining weapon of cutting prose did I keep in my arsenal? Why was it so good? What made it my best? The answer came to me like a thunderclap: It doesn’t exist yet.

My work will never be “my best” because my best is hiding somewhere in the future, and it may not ever actually be written. My best work is not necessarily my best possible effort–the full potential with which I have been gifted. I may never reach a point when I utilize it in its entirety. And that’s okay, because I’m always improving. With deliberate practice, I work hard to get better. That means that the short story I wrote last year looks ridiculous to me now, because between then and now, I’m a different writer, with new perspectives, aesthetic tastes, and priorities. My interests remain the same, but my approach to them shifts over time as new understandings and new influences alter my writing style.

So, while no work may ever be my “best work” at any given time, I can stop hiding behind that line, which is little more than an excuse for material not up to par. My best work lay out there somewhere. But more importantly, I think, than even my phantom best work is my better work, because each improvement is a step closer to best. The ultimate destination of where “best” lies is up to critics and readers, if ever I make it that far, but I can rest assured knowing that I am and will continue improving. I want to own my work, best or not, with all its faults and failures.

Post-NaNoWriMo Reflections 2016

The word for this year has been distraction. I’ve been pulled in about seven thousand different directions (give or take a couple), and that didn’t change just because NaNo16 started up. In the months leading up to it, I knew that I wasn’t going to reach the astral heights of which I dreamed at the conclusion of NaNo15, and as the start date stalked ever nearer, I even had to resign myself to the unlikelihood that I would much surpass even my “minimum” goal.

Then, during the actual competition, I lost focus. Rather, I never had focus to begin with as I tried to juggle the responsibilities of everyday life. As I have before observed, my time management skills require more practice. Going “back to school” while working full time, doing freelance projects for clients, and writing every day continues to test me beyond anything I have ever before experienced, and with NaNo pushing me to write even more, I found myself struggling to keep my head above water.

Through it all, however, I managed to write. It didn’t matter how late at night it was. It didn’t matter if I was disenchanted with the scene I worked on. It didn’t matter if I simply didn’t feel like writing. I sat down, thought, and typed. I can use this experience–this difficult NaNo–as evidence that I can work through even the toughest moments, that intrepidity can pay off, and that I am still, above all else, a storyteller.

So while this NaNo was not my best, and though I’m walking away with only one completed project (but, hey, it’s a completed rewritten second draft!), I can, with relief, assert to myself that next year will be different. Even if I’m ten times busier than I was this year, I now know that lack of focus is a hurdle for me, and I can prepare for it with greater deliberation and better time management, both of which I can work on in the next eleven months before NaNo17.

NaNoWriMo Day 30

Sighs of relief, a grimace of sadness, the focus of life shifting away from competition and toward the indefatigable determination to keep moving forward–all indications that this year’s NaNoWriMo challenge is complete.

This was a rough year for a hundred thousand reasons, but instead of lamenting what could have been, I’m celebrating the accomplishment of my goal in what was a very challenging, time-management-oriented NaNo that may not have broken records, but which tested me in enlightening ways. On top of that, this marks the end of my ten-year NaNo-versary, and my ninth win!

Some stats:

  • Total words written: 104,327
  • Most words in a day: 7,042 (11/1)
  • Fewest words in a day: 586 (11/22)
  • Daily average: 3,477
  • Strangest writing place: On my laptop, the screen to which won’t close and hangs open at a 165 degree angle
  • Number of words past original goal (100,000): 4,327
  • Number of words past previous best (425,524): -321,197
  • Total NaNo word count: 1,415,130
  • Average hours of sleep/day: 5.5
  • Painkiller of choice: Aleve
  • Total deaths: Indeterminable
  • Total MC/SC deaths: 1
  • Cried for characters: 1 time
  • Projects worked on: 3
  • Weight lost: 6 lbs.

1nano

I will continue to write at least 500 words per day for the next month, and will reevaluate, come the end of December, my constraints in order to determine my challenge for next year.

If you’re still wrapping up NaNo, may you finish strong, happy, confident, and blessed!

NaNoWriMo Day 29

Way past midnight here. Exhausted. I’m up to 99,200 words, stopped on purpose before reaching 100K (I have to leave it a little suspenseful, right?).

Come on, everyone! One more day! Make it great!