Writing about Writing

Archive for January, 2014

Setting and Details

Two important components of any novel are the setting and the details.  Today I wanted to talk about them and how I approach these things in my writing.

When I say setting, I’m referring to location and atmosphere.  This could refer to a city and the general feeling around it, or it could be something small like a back alley within that city – how do these things look, sound, smell, and feel?  My novel takes place in Vancouver.  This seems like an easy choice because I live in Vancouver, making location research much easier than anywhere else.  But initially I was going to set the story in a sort of nameless New York.

Why was I going to do that?  Because I liked the idea of a large, nameless city.  That way it would be easier for people to identify with what’s happening and envision it as their own city.  So I used New York as a template, but never used the name.  I researched ambulances run by the fire department vs hospitals, local restaurants and even mapped out streets.

But the more I got into it, the more I disliked the idea.  Google maps, street view, and images are amazing tools, but it’s still hard to describe a place if I haven’t really experienced it.  So I switched to Vancouver and rewrote all of the sections that were too obviously based on New York.  I think it was one of the best changes I could have made, because it made writing the rest of the book a lot easier and opened up more possibilities to develop immersive scenes.

Details are a part of the setting, the two are intrinsically linked, but they encompass much more.  What makes them so important is they can make or break the suspension of belief in a novel.  It’s like the glue that holds the narrative together.  If I wrote a novel about programming, but couldn’t describe the difference between Java and Objective C, readers would get frustrated and not bother reading the rest, let alone recommend it to any of their friends.

One of my characters is a paramedic, so on a few occasions I need to write scenes where he’s doing paramedic-y things.  Aside from watching episodes of Third Watch and searching Google, I needed to learn how to write these scenes with at least a passable degree of realism.  So I got help.  Fortunately, I have a friend who knows everything I needed to know and was willing to help (Thanks Alina!).  With her assistance, I’ve been able to design two scenes that should come off as medically realistic.  One of them is already written, the other is coming up.

There is also, in my opinion, a line that needs to be walked when it comes to incorporating these aspects in the writing.  A few years ago I read a fantasy novel by an author who had a primary job making maps.  The writing reflected his interest in geography with pages of extensive geographic descriptions.  This, in my opinion, bogged down the narrative to an almost intolerable degree.  The story itself was fine, but there was just too much description.

So, obviously, I don’t want to go overboard.  But I also need to make sure I don’t go too far in the other direction.  Sights, sounds, and smells are the little things that help pull a reader into a setting.  A novel without description becomes barren and lifeless.  So where does mine land?  Hopefully right in the middle between too much and too little.

Setting a Goal

A new year has arrived!

Without going into too much detail, 2013 was definitely an interesting year that seemed to go by way too fast.  It started with the loss of my job and ended with the near completion of renovations on our new home, a great trip out to Saskatchewan to visit family, and working on my first real attempt at writing a novel.  I certainly can’t complain about where I’m at and I’m very hopeful about where I’m going.

Thus far, I’ve avoided setting concrete goals on where I expect the book to be at a specific time.  I didn’t want it to feel like one of the various papers I wrote in University where I crammed and blasted out the whole thing the night before the due date with minimal regard for quality.  Sure, most of those papers were good enough, but in this case, I don’t want to settle for good enough.  I want the project to feel like it’s moving along organically, without external pressures.

But as I move into the final stages of writing my first draft, I feel like I’m at a stage where I can say to myself, “this is the date I want to have this done by”.  Maybe I’m being ambitious, but for the first time since I started I feel like I can see the finish line, and it’s given me renewed energy and excitement.

So I’m putting it out there today – February 28th is my goal.  That gives me two months to write the last five chapters (roughly 10-15,000 words).  It’s taken me about 8 months to get to where I am now, at 65,000 words.  But I’m coming into the first sustained stretch of time without distractions (like trips, guests, buying and renovating a new place) since I started, and I plan to take advantage of it.

That doesn’t mean the book is going to be done.  I’ll still have to spend a lot of time doing edits and rewrites, not to mention figuring out the process of self-publishing.  These are things I’ve never worked through, so I have no real expectation of how long it should take.

But finishing that first draft is going to be a huge victory, and I can’t wait for it to happen.  So February 28th, watch out!  I’m coming for you!