I should probably be ashamed of myself…

I haven’t blogged in a real long time, but January disappeared into a whirlpool of responsibilities (note to self: don’t take a month off ever again) and then I didn’t really have anything to say. I get quite bored of talking about my writing, so I assume everyone else will feel likewise listening to it, especially because it will be just more of the same rollercoaster nonsense I go on with: “I’m a God!” “I’m a sod!” For those who do want to know, I’m 35000 words into “The Garden of the Mad King” and my agent has read it so far and loves it.

But it’s not all about me. Unbelievable, I know!

For the last year I’ve been writing a regular writing advice column for Writing Queensland, the Queensland Writers Centre’s monthly magazine. I’m going to start posting a few of those columns here so that those who aren’t members can access them. Some of them, you’ll see, started out as ideas on this very blog. So, without further ado, I introduce the first in my Quick Tips series below.

Orient and anchor

One of the biggest problems people have with setting their scenes is the right amount of description. Is there too much? Is there too little? The first (too much) is an easy prospect to fix:
1. Check your descriptions. Remove all repetitions, and break up all chunks longer than four sentences. You want to avoid setting up with a long, detailed description (like a backdrop) then moving into the action (like a foreground): that feels stagey and not real.
2. Consider your genre: a historical novel thrives on rich detail; a thriller can be sparser; a fantasy novel needs to explain things enough to get a picture.
3. Consider whom the description is serving: you or the reader? You should aim to serve the reader. We have a word in the Australian vernacular for people who please themselves (Note: the word is “wanker”. See, I couldn’t put that in the magazine).

Most writers actually give us too little description, especially when it’s an exotic or unusual setting such as a fantasy world or historical era. It creates that annoying problem we call “white space”. Action and dialogue are happening, but they seem detached from the surroundings. The reader can’t visualise the scene, and so it loses its impact and invites skimming.Two words that can really help you here are orient and anchor. In each scene, you should aim to orient the reader quickly, then anchor the setting securely in their imagination.
1. Within the first two paragraphs of a scene, earlier if possible, you should orient the reader. Where are we? Is it day or night? Inside or outside? Are there crowds of people around, or nobody? And, of course, whose head are we in (see my earlier article on point of view)?
2. Within one double-spaced page, earlier if possible, you should put in a set of anchor points using specific images: cobbled street, brightly painted shutters, noisy market stalls; tall gum trees, muddy creek, churning storm clouds; polished mahogany desk, white leather armchair, sombre-coloured roman blinds. It’s okay to cluster them tightly together, but do it with a light touch. These anchor points begin to map the white space for your reader: already they are starting to see and feel the setting.
3. How much you add now depends on your genre. Start evoking the other senses in little beats: the smell of lemons and rosemary from the fruit stall; the sticky blanket of humidity; the expectant ticking of a clock. These beats are spread throughout the action, are part of the narrative rather than standing outside it. A little here, a little there.
4. Now make sure these evocative beats are attached to a viewpoint character. You are recording the effect of the setting on somebody’s senses and somebody’s thoughts. Then it feels more real for the reader.
5. Hey, presto! You’ve set a scene!

6 responses to “I should probably be ashamed of myself…

  1. Pretty new picture up in the banner.

    Is this a re-vamp of the site (have I not been paying attention).

    January is a sneaky month. You see it coming then bam, it’s gone before you know.

  2. What a great post and excellent, practical advice. (Now I know one of the reasons I skimmed some of the historical novel I just finished reading – I wasn’t oriented enough).
    By the way, I like the knew look😀

  3. Oops! That just shows you should proofread EVERYTHING!

    (‘new’ look, not ‘knew’ look (she said ‘knew-ingly’ – haha)

  4. Like the new look of your blog, Kim. I’d read this piece in QW, so it is really good to have it in a handy place online as well. Thanks for the great advice, especially re anchoring and white space. Glad to hear that you are 35K into ‘The Garden of the Mad King’ and that your agent loves it. All good. Joanna :))

  5. Hey Kim, I found your blog! Yipee! This is good advice, but do you think it applies equally to short stories? I mean, you’ve got a lot more room to move in novels. I suppose in principle the orient and anchor thing is needed for short pieces, but I find in short pieces (writing and reading them) that I don’t like to get “anchored” and don’t really want to either because I think a good short story tends to encourage more of a willingness to fill in the white spaces yourself.

    • Hey, Matt. I think it still applies but as with everything short-storyish, you have to be economical. This is why I don’t write them. I still maintain it only takes a few choice words to create a setting, otherwise the story can seem as though it’s taking place in a white room. Of course, sometimes that might be just the effect you’re after!

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