Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #14: Strengthening the Setting

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Setting is an element of fiction that many aspiring novelists overlook. This is especially true if their setting is a modern day city or town rather than an elaborate science fiction creation. But the setting is actually a vital part of the story no matter what sort of novel you’re writing. It can do everything from build atmosphere to create conflicts.

If you haven’t put any time or thought into your setting, you’re missing out on a major element of your novel.

The Setting Should Feel Purposeful

Wherever your novel is set, there needs to be a reason it’s set there. It should feel important (vital even) to the plot of the novel.

Why set a novel in the arctic if cold weather never affects the plot? Why set your YA in a high school if the conflict is irrelevant to the character’s school? And why set your novel in a bland/blank city when there are so many more interesting possibilities?

The sections below will help get you thinking about why you might choose a particular setting and/or how you can best utilize the setting you’ve already got.

Use the Setting to Create Conflict

Setting is so much more than just a location, it can cause or intensify all sorts of conflicts. Remember that “man vs. nature” thing you learned about in high school? Nature can be quite a compelling antagonistic force.

Floods, tornadoes, tidal waves, thunder storms, earthquakes, drought, thorn bushes, quicksand, raging rivers, poison berries, wild animals, freezing conditions – the setting can really kick the bajeezus out of your characters.

When inventing challenges for your characters to overcome, don’t overlook those that come from the natural world around them.

Use the Setting to Reflect or Intensify Internal Conflict

One way to make setting feel purposeful and integrated into the story is to use it to reflect or intensify the character’s internal emotional state.

If your character is thrown into a frightening situation with a bunch of characters she doesn’t know, you can amp up the volume by stuffing them into close quarters, like an underground bunker. The cramped space forces them to be in close contact and prevents the protagonist from being able to get away.

If your character has been forced to leave the comforts of home for the first time, sticking him in a dilapidated old house full of bugs and bats (okay, I kind of have a bat thing right now because of the bat that was in my office), will emphasis how unpleasant it is to be away from home.

Even something as simple as the claustrophobia created by a heavy snow storm or long winter can help amplify the character’s internal conflict.

Use the Setting to Say Something About Your Characters

Where the characters live and the places they visit can provide the reader with a strong impression of who they. For example, a character whose house is filthy will be very different from a character whose house is so clean you can eat off the floor. Likewise, a character who lives in an upscale neighborhood is going to be very different from the one who lives in a crummy apartment.

The setting can say a lot about your character’s lifestyle without you having to lift a finger. See, setting can even save you from too much telling!

Describe the Setting with Purpose

Anytime you describe the setting, it needs to be with a purpose. Sometimes writers feel that long descriptions of the setting are a requirement, but this is far from the truth. Long irrelevant descriptions (of anything) will slow your novel down!

Describe the setting with purpose. Whenever you include a description, think critically about why you’re including it – what is it conveying about the character? Why is the information important?

Don’t describe the layout of a city just because you can see it in your mind. And don’t spend a page describing the weather if your character never goes outside. Be strategic.

Engage the Five Senses

Creating an environment that is rich and interesting requires that you engage the reader’s senses. It’s easy to stop at what the setting looks like, but what about what it smells like? Do the city streets smell like wild flowers from the urban gardens or like the sewage the neighbors are throwing in the street?

What about sounds? Is the countryside silent or loud with wild animals and insects? Do the dry reeds crackle in the breeze? Can the sound of waves be heard crashing in the distance?

And don’t forget the little tactile details. Are the handrails smooth chrome or gritty and rusted? Is there gum stuck under them? And what about inside the house, does sand blow under the doors? Is it so humid that the walls sweat and the furniture feels damp? What does it feel like to live in this world?

Homework: Strengthening Your Setting

Here are some questions and activities to give your setting the push it needs:

  • Did you choose your novel’s setting for a reason? If not, brainstorm ways that your setting could create or enhance the conflict of your novel and/or tie in with your character’s internal conflict OR brainstorm an alternative setting that creates more depth for your novel.
  • If you’re happy with your current setting, brainstorm new ways the setting can affect the events of the novel. These don’t have to be big. They can be tiny moments that add richness to the story.
  • Write an essay about your setting and how it appeals (or doesn’t appeal) to each of the five senses. You could easily write an essay on each sense if you really let your imagination run wild.

These activities will help you enrich your setting so that it becomes a memorable and significant part of your novel.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

The Top 5 Mistakes Amateur Writers Make

What are the biggest mistakes amateur writers make? Here’s a summary of the video as well as some additional resources:

1. Not Understanding Point of View

Point of view issues can take a long time to fix, which means that agents and editors will likely be scared off by issues in the POV. Here are some articles that can help:

Developing a Solid Third Person Point of View (Omniscient & Third Limited)

What is the Difference Between Omniscient Point of View & Head Hopping?

2. Too Much Voice

Are you trying to imitate a famous writer’s style? Are you trying too hard to sound writerly or poetic? Are you using too many analogies? You could have too much voice in your writing. Sometimes less is more. It shouldn’t be laborious to read your work, and your writing shouldn’t be difficult to understand.

3. Not Enough Voice

This is when the writing seems bland and unoriginal. Make sure that you’re writing in your own voice, not trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what a writer is supposed to sound like. Also, keep your character’s voice in mind as you write (if writing third limited or omniscient). Sticking close to your character can help your voice sound interesting and unique.

4. Too much Telling (Not Enough Showing)

Everybody knows you’re supposed to show instead of tell. Telling can really hold your novel back from shining. Here are some articles that will help:

How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing

How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping

5. Not Enough Conflict

Sometimes writers forget that conflict is what makes a story interesting. Without conflict, the reader has nothing to latch onto or find interesting. Though this video focuses on plotting, it’s with an eye towards conflict and connecting scenes so that the story has a continuous (and captivating) flow:

How to Plot a Novel

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Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace

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Once you’ve perfected your plot and polished up your prose, there’s a quick way to add an extra layer of shine to your novel: Find and Replace.

The “Find and Replace” feature (sometimes called “Search and Replace”) is an easy way to get rid of bad writing habits that you might not notice when reading straight through your novel.

Here are some things to search for and eliminate from your book:

Began & Started

Find: Begin, begins, began, beginning, start, starts, started, starting

Replace these words with active verbs. We don’t need to know that the character started doing something, we just need to know that they’re doing it. “Start” and “began” make the action feel less active so consequently, the reader is less engaged.

Example: He started to run.

Change to: He ran.

Adverbs

Find: ly (this can be a bit tedious, but if you have a love affair with adverbs it will be well worth the time.)

Replace words ending in “ly” (AKA adverbs) with stronger verbs or cut them out entirely. Adverbs weaken the action rather than strengthen it, and they are often a sign of lazy writing.

Example: He quickly ran across the park.

Change to: He darted across the park.

Verbs Ending in “ing”

Find: ing (again, this can be pretty tedious, but it’s worth it.)

Replace verbs ending in “ing” with verbs ending in “ed” whenever it is proceeded by “was,” “were,” or “is.” This sort of “ing” verb makes the action less active and if you use it a lot, it can also raise your word count.

Sometimes, however, this sentence structure makes sense if an ongoing action is being described, but think critically about whether it makes a difference if the action was ongoing or immediate. If it doesn’t matter, go with “ed,” as in the example below.

Example: I turned and Mary was glaring at me.

Change to: I turned and Mary glared.

Time-Based Adverbs

Find: when, then, suddenly, immediately, always, often, already, finally

Replace these time-based adverbs with stronger descriptions that show the suddenness, frequency, etc., or eliminate them entirely. I wrote a post about time-based adverbs here. But here’s the gist: more words take longer to read and make the action feel less immediate, not more immediate.

Example: I immediately ran through the door.

Change to: I ran through the door.

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How to Get People to Take Your Self-Published Novel Seriously

6752495881_13a7149697Getting people to take their work seriously is a challenge for all self-published authors.

When readers have to sieve through hundreds, even thousands, of poorly written self-published books, it can be very difficult to stand out as one of the good ones.  But there are things you can do to get your self-published novel taken more seriously.

Excellent Cover Art

You can pout all you want that people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but they do.  Covert art is not an area to scrimp on money or time.

Invest in a great cover that adequately represents the genre and story.  Provide suggestions to whoever you hire to create your cover, but also respect their expertise.  Make sure the designer has a good track record and solid examples of covers in your genre.

Quality Editing

If you want a book to sell to more than just your close friends and family, then you absolutely must hire an editor.  Not a proofreader, but an editor, someone to find plot holes, character inconsistencies, point of view errors, etc.

There are lots of good and lots of not so good editors.  Make sure whoever you choose (*cough cough* pick me) has a proven track record, testimonials, and can provide a sample.  You want a developmental editor (also known as a content or substantive editor), NOT a copy editor (that comes later).

Competent Proofreading or Copy Editing

In the majority of cases, proofreading and copy editing are essentially the same thing so choosing either is fine.  This is just a check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and correct word usage.  Readers will tolerate a handful of errors across an entire book, but if there are typos on the first page, they’re unlikely to read past Amazon’s free preview.

These are not real reviewers.

These are not real reviewers.

Real Reviews

This is absolutely vital: NEVER EVER have friends or family members write reviews for your book.  NEVER EVER pay for a book review.  Readers are smart.  They’re savvy.  They can absolutely tell when the reviews on your book are not authentic.

There are hundreds of blogs that will review self-published books.  You can also give your book away for free for a period of time in order to (hopefully) get a flood of reviews.  There are lots of tactics to use, but stuffing your Amazon or Goodreads page with fake reviews (I consider friend and relative reviews to be “fake” too) is not one of them!

6188273990_fed79f91faProfessional Presentation

Nobody is going to take your book seriously if the presentation is not professional.  Check over your book blurb/synopsis as well as your author bio and make sure they read as professional and error free.  Read through some traditionally-published book blurbs and author bios to get an idea of what to include.

Posting a professional looking author photo is also an absolute must.  If your Amazon author page has a pic of you on the sofa in your basement, readers will not take you seriously.

Conclusion

Readers have plenty of reasons not to take self-published books seriously.  Some of it is based in stigma and some of it is based in fact.  The bottom line is that readers will only take you as seriously as you take yourself. If you’re willing to invest in your book, readers will be willing to as well.

Crappy cover art, poor editing, typos, fake reviews, and an unprofessional presentation show readers that you don’t think your book is worth investing time and money into.  If it’s not worth it to you, why would they want to invest time or money into your book?

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Writers, Stop Repeating Yourselves!

3814788814_092e85e104You know that feeling when someone is telling you something they’ve already told you?  It  makes your palms sweat and fingers twitch.  It takes all the self control you possess to not scream in their face, “You told me this already! I know, I know, shut up!”  (maybe that’s just me?)

A lot of writers create this irritation in their readers without even knowing it.

This repetition takes many forms:

Repeated Emotions/Motivations

This is when a character feels a certain way about something and we hear about it over and over and over. Often it’s related to the character’s motivation or what they’re trying to accomplish.

For example, maybe a character really wants a boyfriend. That’s all fine and good, but if the narration of every single scene features something along the lines of “She wished she had a boyfriend,” it gets very old, very quickly.  Establish motivation early on, then let it go.  Readers can remember your character’s motivation without constant reminders.

Scenes with the Same Purpose

Say you want to show that Abby has a crush on Bill.  You write a scene where Abby watches him from the back of the classroom.  Okay, no problem, that introduces her motivation, it pushes the story forward.  But then you write another scene, where she doodles his name in her notebook.  Okay, we get it, she likes him.  Then you write another scene in which Abby writes him a love letter that she doesn’t send.  Alright already! We get it!  She likes him!

There would be nothing wrong with these scenes IF something else happened in them (she writes a love letter and gets caught; she doodles his name in her notebook and loses it).  A scene must have conflict and must move the plot forward. You can’t use scene after scene just to establish character motivation. You can test whether a scene is repetitive/redundant by taking it out of your story – does the story still make sense?  If so, cut it out!  It’s useless!  I wrote more about this here.

Sentences with the Same Meaning

Nearly every writer does this, and it is much harder to catch in your own work than in others.  This is when two sentences appear relatively close together (within a page or two, but often they’re back to back) that carry the exact same meaning. For example:

The couch was dark red.  She dropped into it with a sigh. It was the color of blood.

See how the first and third sentences are saying the exact same thing?

Writers should avoid repetition at all costs!  It makes the story grow stale and it can irritate readers (even if they don’t know why they feel irritated).

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Make Sure the Dialog in Your Novel Makes Sense!

LandscapeWriters often create conversations between their characters that don’t make sense.  Usually this is because dialog tags and narration create so much space between what one character says and what another character responds with that it’s easy to forget what the conversation was about in the first place. This most often happens with questions.  For example:

“When do you want to eat?” Oscar asked, running his hands through his hair. He seemed distracted, probably wondering if I still wanted to eat at our usual restaurant after everything that had happened.

“Let’s eat at the burger joint,” I said.

At first read through, you may not notice that her response doesn’t answer Oscar’s question.  Sure she might have some motivation for not answering it, but in this conversation, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  And if that is the case, it’s the author’s responsibility to make that clear.

I see an issue like this one in just about every single novel I edit.  You can solve this problem easily by reading through your dialog without tags or narration. Read it like a normal, natural conversation (this is also useful for creating good flow).

“When do you want to eat?”

“Let’s eat at the burger joint.”

Now it’s easy to see that her response doesn’t make sense.

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Don’t Let Your Novel’s Characters be Crybabies

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A lot of writers attempt to increase the drama of a scene by having their characters cry.  This can work (sometimes) if we know the character really well and truly empathize with them. But waterworks should be used sparingly in your novel, very sparingly.  If everything is a 10 out of 10, then nothing has any intensity at all.

Besides, who wants to read about a blubbering crybaby, anyway?  The last thing you want are readers rolling their eyes at your character’s melodrama, silently urging them to pull up their big kid pants.

The other reason to keep tears to a minimum is that tears release tension, and a novel should build tension. So if something bad happens and your character cries, that crying is like a catharsis, washing away the fear, excitement, or sadness.

The other, other reason to avoid crying is that most people find resisting tears much more touching than falling into a blubbering heap.  Consider the following examples:

“I hate you,” he spat.

She burst into sobs, tears streaming down her face.

Versus:

“I hate you,” he spat.

Her lip trembled, but she swallowed hard, turning away.

See how much more powerful the second example is?

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