Setting Coordinates

From the series Breathing Life

“And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of the land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel (Tigris): that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.” – Genesis 2:10-14

public-domain-images-free-stock-photos-high-quality-resolution-downloads-public-domain-archive-7Was that a wordy set of directions? Did you skim over it? It doesn’t mean much to me because I don’t know these places. They aren’t giving me a picture in my mind of the setting, but I love that aside Moses gives them. “…Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of the land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.” Like any wealth-loving humans, you know their ears perked up at that. (“Oh, yeah! That Havilah!”)

Maybe the river Pison doesn’t relate to you, but what if I told you about a Native American girl living in the 1800s?

“Talula and her tribe never explored the Grand Canyon to the west or went beyond the Mississippi River to the east. One year, her tribe migrated as far as South Dakota, so she may have been near Mount Rushmore — you know, where our four presidents are inscribed in stone today. When she and her Chahta family returned south, they settled in the marshlands near the Gulf of Mexico.”

Now that I’ve given you U.S.-savvy readers some boundaries, is it easier to map it out in your mind’s eye? This is what Moses was doing. He was using current-day names and locations so the children of Israel would know the general area where the first man and woman lived. It wasn’t some legendary Atlantis.

Eden was a land in the Israelites’ memory, as well. We call it the Garden of Eden because that’s how Moses described where it was to the people; it was in the land of Eden. But it was just a garden on earth for Adam and Eve. It was only when they and their descendants began to walk the earth that places started getting named. And don’t we humans love to name things after ourselves? (Because of this, Oregon residents are probably still getting flack about that town, Boring.)

Recap: When setting your setting, remember readers need coordinates that are relevant to their interests.

Naming gets serious next time.

*Featured image by Keriography. Used by permission.

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To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Been There, Done That – Being Original

Part 8 of The Fan Fiction Experiment

My taste is so bad! I just begin to realize it, and I am feeling my ‘growing pains,’ like Gwendolen in ‘Daniel Deronda.’ I admired the stained glass in the Lincoln Cathedral the other day, especially the Nuremberg window. I thought Mr. Copley looked pained, but he said nothing. When I went to my room, I consulted a book and found that all the glass in that cathedral is very modern and very bad, and the Nuremberg window is the worst of all. Aunt Celia says she hopes that it will be a warning to me to read before I speak; but Mr. Copley says no, that the world would lose more in one way than it would gain in the other.

A Cathedral Courtship by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Every writer has to start somewhere, and the journey from that somewhere is strewn with embarrassing moments where we realized what we thought was good writing fell miserably short. I think it’s because writers tend to take writing advice quite literally. It can result in an avalanche of same-sounding, soulless stories. It’s good to follow the Writer’s Golden Rule on this one:

“Don’t bore others by emulating the things that bore you.”

Duplicating what’s already on the shelves doesn’t help a story to resonate. There are bazillions of blogs that advise writers to try new techniques and methods. Remember the tip about describing your character through traits of a specific animal, like a cat, snake, or bird? I’ve noticed an influx of this in stories lately. Overused techniques are bullets aimed at a writer’s foot. Readers like variety; so when I read about a new approach, I ask myself, “Is this something that will fit my style naturally? Can I make it distinctively my own?” If not, I chuck it. There’s a fine line between mimicking and capturing. One isn’t really me, and the other becomes part of my style. In the long run, this will help me retain my originality because thousands of other writers read the same advice.

Social networks have made trending and trend-following much simpler, which means the time frame for a trend can peter out much faster. Fanfiction allows writers to filter through the trends, making it a great way to track what’s still catching your reader’s eye and what everyone is over and done with.

Grumpy cat
Grumpy cat (Photo credit: Adrian Serghie)

It’s a useful sieve for stale dialogue tags. I think of dialogue tags being like photo memes. Take Grumpy Cat for an example. A common reaction is shared among viewers when they see this “I’m not amused,” crusty, frowning cat. Phrases and words can trigger the same reaction, describing the character’s state succinctly for the reader. Once readers connect to a commonly used tag, it’s golden. For a time at least.

Here are some dialogue tags that connect with readers:

Shifting Strands of Hair

She curled her knees to her chest, pushed back a loose strand of hair, and waited.

and

“You don’t know, do you?” Charlie said with an amused expression. He reached up and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. She met his eyes as the realization of what he meant crept over her.

Moving strands of hair away from the face denotes an emotionally charged moment. It can be an act of vulnerability, frustration, or a display of tenderness.

To Clench or Ball the Hands

Carmen laughed as she tore my flyer in two. “Who’d vote for you, Schizoid?” she said, tossing the pieces at me and prancing into the classroom. I stood in the hallway, my hands clenched tightly, not sure whether I wanted to scream or cry.

Making fists with one’s hands means the person is trying to keep control in the midst of strong feelings, usually negative ones.

Here are two more tags that are somewhat overused:

“She bit her lip.”

“His jaw tightened.”

What do these tags mean to you?

Board meeting room
Board meeting room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Common phrases and words used in everyday conversation, or in blogs, can make it into the thoughts of fanfic characters. Remember ‘I digress?’ How about reading ‘ebullition’ and ‘pedantic?’ Those were tripping up easy-read blogs a couple of years ago. I’ve been tempted to use ‘pablum’ and ‘caveat.’ It’s my theory that most of these words come from the workday environment—because sales pitches at business meetings aren’t complete without digging up a seldom-used word to redefine in commercial terms. I imagine there’s some Words With Friends designer using Tipping Point strategies to highlight one word per season. He/she muses over things like, “Hey, I wonder how many people I can get to use the word ‘ycleped?’”

A manuscript can be edited for dialogue and wording, but what if the story is based on something most readers don’t want to read about anymore? It would be good to know that in advance, since the story might not be given a chance by a publisher. I might poll readers to ask them what subjects they are tired of seeing on the shelves, but I think it’s better to observe what they flock to and what they avoid. As a fanfic reader and writer, I can tell you what I’ve grown tired of and what I’ve avoided writing. And I thank you for asking.

Vampires. Top of the list. I won’t make any of my characters vampires. I will find some other way to denote his/her charismatic personality and deadly intents.

Pouty Princesses. This includes pouting teens who don’t know they are princesses and learn it later in the story. I will give my heroine value and recognition without the bejeweled crown, and without the puckered lower lip.

Snarky Sorcerers. (Yes, I mean witches and wizards, but I like the catchy alliteration.) I will leave the spells at home and help my character explore new ways to exert power or influence over others and learn self-control.

Also, there’s some serious oversnarkensation going on in children’s and young adult literature. (That portmanteau is supposed to remind you of ‘overcompensation.’ Get it? Heh.) Snarky dialogue is like lemon juice. It can give a story zest in small doses.

Zombified and Angsty Dead People. Okay, what is this obsession with having died a few hundred times? I’m not saying I wouldn’t be angsty if I were dying over and over, too, but what was once supposed to be gruesome is quickly becoming old and stale. Kinda like zombies. Has anyone noticed that zombies are vampires without the magnetic charm?

Skimming the current fanfics to find out what everyone else is writing about ad nauseam can help you avoid these pitfalls. Conversely, if you’re not nauseated by it, and still interested in reading it, it could mean others are still interested in more books on that topic, too. So, say you have a manuscript already written about a snarky zombie who learns he’s actually an emperor of wizards. Do you hold on to it for a bit? Should you wait for readers to forget about zombies and wizards so they can be all surprised and thrilled at its reentry? Or is now the time to introduce “Fitz Mulroony, Magic’s Really Rotten Royalty”?

Bottom line: Trends come and go. I’m going to love my book for itself. I won’t be embarrassed to introduce it without tricking it out in the latest look or painting it over in the season’s hottest colors. I’ll glory in its quirks. Didn’t I labor over it and call it names and throw terrible fits and tell it I never wanted to see it again? My book and I have come a long way together. Both of us can just be ourselves now.

Friday’s last post in this series will focus on what a writer can learn from supporting other fanfic writers.

(Disclaimer: My opinions on vampires, princesses, and zombies are purely my opinions. You might still enjoy reading about them. No, of course I’m not rolling my eyes! Well, yeah, my fingers could have been crossed while I denied that.)

What Not To Write

While editing Dragonfly Prince, I’ve taken a few breaks to read free online novels. I found a couple of good reads, but there were things that caused me to stop reading. Here are a few:

  • Confused verb tenses

She walks through the door and saw him.

  • Boring dialogue

“Hey, Mom.”

“Hello, my daughter of twelve years. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mom. I am going to do my homework now.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, sweetie. I am glad you are such a good student.”

  • Narrative and dialogue redundancy

I went to the kitchen to make breakfast.

“I’m going to make breakfast now,” I said.

  • Forced and/or connotatively incompatible descriptions

The night sky was a sea of fire. A heavy purple ribbon ran, like a puckered bruise, along the horizon.

A purple streak across a red sky is beautiful; a bruise is not.

  • Backstory, backstory, backstory

It all began with Hugo’s great-grandfather, who wore white leather gloves, lived in a house with five rooms – the living room, the music room, the kitchen/dining room combo, the daffodil-themed bedroom, and a 16-square-foot bathroom – and had an old dog with rheumatoid arthritis named Fear…

I don’t even know Hugo. Why would I want to read all of that about his great-grandfather? By this time, I’ve left the story before knowing what it was even about.

  • Introspective Babble

“Carson, there’s no one here,” Trish told him, sizing up the abandoned building.

Carson wasn’t listening. He had a habit of that with Trish. It stemmed from the many fights they’d had as kids. Trish was two years younger, but she had a way of making him feel like he was the younger one.

He stepped out of the car, but she grabbed the arm of his jacket. “You can’t be serious! You’re not going into that old place!”

He resented the tone in her voice. She always used that tone when she thought he wasn’t doing what she thought he should do…

Introspective babble is kind of like angst, only with more whininess.

As a reader, do you sometimes run into droughts, searching for a good story without success? For me, that’s when the urge to write becomes the strongest.