Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

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Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

No piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become overwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Women Heroes, Part 2: How Brienne of Tarth Saved “Game of Thrones”

brienne of tarth-valar morghulisI’ve been following the insanely popular—yet excruciatingly brutal—Game of Thrones for several seasons now. I must confess, partly because I don’t own or watch TV, that I am a little behind. I’m currently watching Season Four, while still metaphorically shaking in the violent wake of the shocking and brutal Red Wedding episode of Season Three. As the Internet buzz revealed, this was an extremely difficult show to watch for everyone. What was the purpose of its graphical brutality? Who needs to see that level of violence? I am reminded of an introductory scene in the show in which character John Snow counsels his little brother Bran to not avert his eyes when his father executes a deserter, by chopping off his head—an act that foreshadows his own decapitation later in the series. It is as though the producers of the show are counselling us in the same way as they subject us to grisly scene after grisly scene. Many cheap and gratuitous, as far as I am concerned.

The Red Wedding scene, in which several beloved characters are brutally slaughtered set into play a new set of rules for audience engagement: that of total distrust. Distrust in the storytellers (primarily in the producers of the show, whose scripts, I’m told, have deviated from the novels in some important ways). Distrust that creates an uneasy tension. Distrust that precipitates a panicked wish for clairvoyance. This is because we have no concept of fairness in the story; yet we’ve so invested in the characters. That is the storyteller’s worst act of cruelty: to hold us hostage to the characters. The rules of fair play in story have been broken. We’re stuck in a kind of free fall, desperately hoping that our beloved characters will make it through the night intact, if not unscathed. And when they don’t, its like watching our children die, as we stand powerless by.

Good fiction—as opposed to reality—tells a purposeful story. A story with fictional characters, who play a purposeful role. All good stories make a promise in the beginning; a promise they keep in the end. They create a covenant with their audience to participate in a fulfilling journey. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. And that must involve victory of sorts—and hope—whether it is through redemption, acceptance, enlightenment, or some change that gives us “more”—not less; something that allows us to prevail alongside.

If I feel that I am simply witnessing a cesspool of meaningless chaos and brutality, dominated by ruthless and insane people, in which heroes are equally powerless victims as they are true agents of change—with no rhyme or reason to tell the difference—then I must ask myself the question: why am I watching this? What does this story mean to me? I start to feel like a misanthropic voyeur, as perverse as Joffrey or Littlefinger as I watch people get tortured, flayed alive, dismembered, and worse… with no recourse. This is NOT entertainment and it certainly isn’t of any value to me. For such an offence to the senses to have value, there must be an element of—or at least a grain of hope of—prevailing and movement.

By Season Three end, both the series and I are feeling a little tired. And for good reason; most of the characters—the women particularly—are trapped in an incessant pattern of simple endurance. That seems to be all they are able to do: endure. Certainly they manage to act and create within their limited sphere of influence; but mostly to colour their position, not change it. So, we endure alongside; and we can endure only so much.

Then enter Brienne of Tarth. Also known as Maid of Truth.

And with her, a breath of much needed fresh air.brienne of tarth-close

When Brienne was first introduced in “What is Dead May Never Die” in Season Two, she brought with her the anachronistic romanticism of a true knight. We first see her besting favored champion Ser Loras Tyrell (Knight of Flowers) in a tournament. When she presents herself to King Renly Baratheon and removes her helm, the crowd hushes in surprise. To his offer of prize, Brienne requests a place in his Kingsguard, which he gladly grants, despite her gender and lack of formal stature as a knight.

Brienne is the iconic knight of the chivalric sagas: noble, virtuous, compassionate and brave. Singularly honest and loyal. So much so that her contemporaries deride her as simple, naïve and stupid. As though embracing such virtues is outmoded, foolish and weak. That she is a woman—albeit tall, ungainly and considered unfeminine—makes her virtues all the more powerful and refreshing.

BrienneoftarthWhen King Renly is assassinated, Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn Stark and becomes her sworn sword. Catelyn charges Brienne to return her captive Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing to exchange him for her two daughters held hostage there. Their journey provides some of the best scenes of the TV series and some of the most fulfilling interactions. Throughout Jaime’s insufferable taunts about her appearance and likely dismal history with the opposite sex, Brienne remains stoically silent. Except when she speaks:

“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”—Brienne to Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

Essayist Brent Hartinger suggests that Brienne’s character is a well-written departure from fantasy novels where the main characters are commonly “the slender… average-heighted, the conventionally abled and traditionally gendered.”

Essayist Caroline Spector describes Brienne as a “study in heartbreaking contradictions. She embraces the romantic ideals of her culture, both emotionally and through her actions, but is continually betrayed by the real world simply because she cannot turn herself into the woman the Westerosi legends tell her she should be.”

By upholding her ideals of integrity, Brienne refuses to conform to the established cultural expectations. Her very nature—from physique to comportment to idealism—defies the notion in Westeros that women are to be taken or coerced, and meant to endure their lot; not be agents of their own change. Spector describes Brienne as a woman who has “taken for herself most of the attributes of male power.” She embodies “how women who dare to take male power for their own are judged and treated not only in Westeros but in all conventionally patriarchal societies.”brienne-jaime-GoT

The journey of Brienne and Jaime is a fine tale of initial antagonism, discovery, surprising tenderness and ultimate friendship, based on honour and mutual respect. Throughout, Brienne defends and encourages a flagging Jaime and he, in turn, saves her on several occasions, culminating in his return to rescue her from a brutal death in the bearpit.

What makes “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—or any other scene in which Brienne and Jaime appear—so pleasing? We witness in the interactions between them an evolution in character, great opportunities for learning and redemption, and finally the development of an iconic friendship based on respect and equality—something normally reserved for individuals of the same sex—that neither had previously enjoyed. Like two souls missing something, each is a gift to the other. And though delivered differently, it is the same for both: honour, self-respect and faith in humanity. And neither is the same for their interaction.

brienne-jaime-swords“The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.”—George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Brienne is the catalyst hero. She gives us hope. She gives us hope to save the world. She does this through her influence on others. By shear strength of her genuine goodness, Brienne transforms, challenges, and supports. She is über-strong, yet vulnerable; which Jaime recognizes and appreciates as something truly beautiful. The reason he returns to save her in the bear pit.

“I am grateful, but… you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.—George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Jaime slides back to his scoundrel-self once returned safely to King’s Landing and out of Brienne’s sphere of influence—and beneath the shadow of his overbearing father. He is a chameleon, a shape shifter, who struggles to lift himself out from the shadow of his soulless father. Despite some continued reprehensible behavior (particularly to do with his sister, with whom he had formed a perverse relationship), Brienne’s light of honour appears to burn inside him in some form. His actions—tasking her to find and secure Sansa’s safety and giving her his own sword—maintains their honour-bond. When he gives her his longsword, forged of Valyrian steel, he asks her to name it; showing the cooperative respect between the two. She chooses the name Oathkeeper, fulfilling again her role in their story.

In fact, Brienne’s story follows a more traditionally male narrative. Her quest is to save the beautiful maiden (Sansa), but not to marry her or benefit from the quest; it is simply to secure her safety. Feminist writer Rihannon tells us that this is a storyline that “the mother, the young girl and the shieldmaiden are all given equal weight and worth…She uses her strength and her skill to respect and help other women in ways that most men in Westeros would never even think to attempt, because she understands, more than any other knight, that women are truly worth something as individuals.”

Are other women of Westeros poised to rise as true agents of change and takebrienne-of-tarth command not only of their lives but to save the world? Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon mother, liberates slaves; courage and a sense of justice animates the independent Arya. And we’ll see what becomes of Brienne…and Jaime.

I will continue to watch this series with uneasy anticipation.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

From Pocketbook to Tablet … What’s Next?

aldus manutius bookThe recent exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” reminded me that the pocket-sized book was invented some five hundred years ago.

The pocket book revolutionized not only how we read but who and what we read.

In a recent talk I gave to the Editors Association of Canada about the changing face of publishing, I defined two milestones in the publishing industry.

First Milestone…

The first milestone came in two stages, beginning with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenburg in 1452. Up to then,

…Books were a work of art… And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.

Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time couldn’t read and had no interest in books. Besides, books were not written in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.

In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.

The printing press had opened a gate of opportunity for secular expression to a greater audience. Whenever an opportunity is created, a corresponding need is identified. The need to connect a literate lay public with scholars and storytellers was resolved fifty years later by Aldus Manutius.

Until then, books, albeit printed in the language of the people, remained large, heavy and cumbersome. In 1502, Aldus Manutius invented the portable pocketsize book—the small format libelli portatiles (portable little books)—effectively creating “the mobile phone of his day,” according to Bilton.

Bound in vellum, these long, narrow libelli portatiles, easily transported in a pocket or a satchel, “could be held in the hand and learned by heart by everyone,” wrote Manutius. aldine press book

Manutius founded The Aldine Press in 1495 in Venice. His printing company proudly bore the logo of dolphin entwining an anchor—taken from the term festina lente (hasten slowly), a motto Manutius took from a Roman coin—and Aldine books quickly gained a reputation for their clean design, excellence in typography and inexpensive and accessible price. The Aldine press emphasized Greek and Latin lexicons and grammar manuals, with the first printed edition of Aristotle in 1495. Manutius was also the first to print Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles and other Greek philosophers. “He was possibly the first printer to compare manuscripts to arrive at the most reliable text,” adds Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times (February 27, 2015).

Manutius was the first to use italic type, mimicking the handwriting of that time, and the first to use the semicolon in its modern sense. In 1501, Manutius released Virgil’s Opera as the first of his octavo editions of the classics and the first book to use italic print. It was produced in higher-than-normal print runs (1,000 rather than the usual 200 to 500 copies).

The octavo format book is created from one or more full sheets of paper on which 16 pages of text are printed; the sheet is folded three times to produce eight leaves. Each leaf of an octavo book represents one-eighth the size of the original sheet. The actual size of the book depends on the original size of the full sheet of paper on which it is printed. These varied according to place and time. A sixteenth century octavo printed in France or Italy was about the size of a modern paperback; an eighteenth-century octavo printed in England was larger, about the size of a modern hardcover novel.

Second Milestone…

The second milestone I talked about is, of course, the worldwide use of the Internet. Like the Guttenberg printing press, the Internet and associated World Wide Web has created a gate of opportunity that has identified a need. That need is currently being satisfied by ebook publishing, mobile phone communication and the Indie/self-publishing model.

In my September 6, 2014 article “How We Will Tell Stories in the Future” I describe the effect of the Internet and use of digital devices as agents of change and empowerment in storytelling and publishing.

The first email was delivered in 1971 and in 1989 Cern gave us the WorldWide Web. The Internet wasn’t commercialized until 1995. The first web log (blog) was published in the late 1990s and Facebook was launched in 2004. A few years later smart communication devices were created and mass marketed with multi-touch interface (e.g., the iPhone). By 2013, over 2 billion people were using the Internet and social media via computer, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, e-readers and music players. Over 156 million blogs were identified and over 1 billion files were uploaded daily to Dropbox.

While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices: computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.

The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.

WardIsland wall in forest

Ward Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the Internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has totally enabled the individual.  No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.

From paperbacks to digital phones and tablets, we are embracing the shifting zeitgeist of an entire world. The future belongs to the storyteller, from pocketbook to tablet. What’s next?

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Rejection, Part 2: The Evolution of Rejection

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Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Enduring and surviving rejection is part of every writer’s successful career. Rejection letters can be part of a writer’s toolkit to success. This comes from objectively perceiving them as opportunities in a long process of relationship-building and the business of writing and publishing.

Writers often witness an evolution in rejection letters as they learn more about their craft and about their markets. The ability to recognize the evolutionary steps can be useful in determining your next move in that particular market.

Below I describe one sequence of a manuscript’s evolutionary path. These don’t necessarily follow a chronological path for any particular manuscript; nor am I suggesting that your personal writer’s path will follow this particular pattern. Take these for what they may represent to you for any particular manuscript’s journey to success.

  • Lowest form: the form-letter, with no name or signature—you get no information from this except that they’re probably swamped with submissions. File the letter and try them again with another story; you can even play a game of it to see how many submissions it takes to get “recognized”. Meantime send the rejected story elsewhere.
  • Next lowest form: Personalized form letter with your name on it and a name and signature on it. Congratulations! You are now a person. And you will likely be remembered when you submit another story here.
  • Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a form letter that includes a personalized note about your work and why it was rejected (often with an added comment about the story or your writing). You have made a mark. Try them again!
  • Even Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a personalized letter that explains why your story was rejected—this says as much about the editor as it does about how they felt about your story; that they are taking the time to write to you and give you suggests means you are worth their valuable time. You have an opportunity to begin a relationship with this editor. Play fair.
  • Highest on the Path: a personalized, perhaps even handwritten, note that specifies why they rejected your piece with suggestions for revision (and resubmission) or invitation to submit another piece. Congratulations! This is the beginning of a relationship. Revise and resubmit.

What Rejection Letters Look Like 

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve received a lot of rejection letters in the many years of my writing career. They’ve ranged from the short card form letter with no signature to the handwritten, per-sonalized letter with inviting comments.

Zeotrope-rejectionRejection letters will vary as much as the magazine and book market varies. The larger, busier companies that receive many more submissions over a given time period are more likely to go with the form letter. I’ve heard some agents and edit-ors go this route simply because it is safer for them. One magazine editor lamented to me not long ago that after she had provided a writer whose work she’d rejected with sev-eral paragraphs of explanation, the said writer had responded with an irascible diatribe of her skills as an editor.

Take heart: receiving a form letter like the one above from Zoetrope is very common, particularly from a large publisher. And take it for what it is, a letter that gives you very little infor-mation other than they rejected your story. File the letter and send the story elsewhere. challening destiny-rejection

Some publishers and agents use a checklist, which can provide you with very good feedback (see example below from Challenging Destiny for my short story, Arc of Time which found a home in several places after this rejection).

The next letter that rejected my short story Angel of Chaos (which later turned into Butterfly in Peking) provided enough insight to why they didn’t choose it that I could have gone one of two ways: 1) I could have left the story as it was and submitted elsewhere; or 2) I could have emailed them with a suggestion that I’d be willing to revise if they would reconsider a revision according to their specifications. I’ve done this in the past and published. This time I decided not to because I liked the story the way it was. space & time rejection

One magazine I submitted to gives your story to two independent readers whose comments they include along with their rejection or acceptance. This is great feedback for you! What I found frus-tratingly amusing was that the accolades of the reviewers didn’t guarantee the acceptance of my story. While my story Arc of Time generated very positive comments from both reviewers, the magazine still decided against publishing and the rejection letter gave no reason (see reviewer’s comments below):

Reviewer #1:I love the way this story is set up, switching back and forth from the different points of view. The “trippiness” is very appealing and works well with the modern/fantastical contrast.”

Reviewer #2:This was an intriguing and extraordinary clever story. I didn’t have a clue about the jape at the end until I got to the last page. And then it unfolded beautifully. The theological tie-ins were smart and fun and showed either some Mormon extrapolative thought or extreme knowledge of Biblical lore.” talebones rejection

You’d have thought, eh? But they rejected anyway. Below is an example of a form letter with a handwritten comment added along with signature and an invite to try them again. When this happens, by all means, try them again!

Make Rejection Work for You

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I sub-mitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webI ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me. Now, ask me if this worked. D*** right! Soon after adopting this process, I started selling. I think several things were happening and galvanizing into sales: publishers were getting to know me; I got more and more familiar with the market and my professionalism paid off.

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Rejection, Part 1: How to Accept Rejection

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Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’ve all suffered rejection and disappointment. Perhaps that job you coveted or someone you loved who might have even led you on before dropping you. It hurts. But you move on. And it does get better. Eventually. It does, trust me. It helps by starting with knowing that we don’t always get what we want, but we always get what we need…

Being a published writer involves accepting rejection. It’s part of the job description. Think of rejection as an integral part of your road to success. If you have never been rejected then you haven’t really tried, have you? There are several ways that you can gain a good perspective on your rejection letters and even make them work to your advantage.

Adopt a Healthy Perspective

One way is to adopt a realistic, objective and healthy viewpoint on your story’s rejection:

  • View selling manuscripts as a “cold call” business: When you view it this way, you will treat it that way. Until you establish a relationship with your market, selling becomes a numbers game. The more you send, the more likely you are to get a hit. It’s all in the statistics.
  • View rejections as an opportunity. Rejections can provide you with the opportunity to learn and re-evaluate, usually of appropriate market and publisher subjectivity rather than writing quality.
  • View rejections as the beginning of a relationship. Not all rejections are final; in fact most aren’t. Most rejections by a publisher or magazine editor stem from story redundancy, lack of space or editorial requirements. Many rejection letters will reflect this (e.g., “Thanks, but this isn’t a match for us…do try us again.” They mean it. It just means that the story wasn’t right—they may have run something too similar to it already or it didn’t fit with the other pieces or theme or whatever.)
  • View rejections as part of your success journey. Rejection is a given in the writing business and a necessary aspect of your journey as a soon-to-be and published writer (you don’t stop getting rejections once you’re published!). Often a story may be considered “before its time”; too different, a risk and is therefore harder to place. This is often why a book that was rejected so many times becomes a great hit once it is published. The very quality that made it hard for a publisher to accept made it a success with the readership: its refreshing yet topical originality.
  • View rejections as your first step to success. Take heart in the fact that you reached this stage in your writing career. Getting that first rejection in the mail is a great affirmation that you have taken that first significant step to becoming a serious writer. It means that you’ve completed a work and had the courage to enter it into the world.

Acceptance begins with rejection.

Make Rejection Work for You

You can maintain a more objective view on your rejections by keeping an objective view on your submissions. This can be accomplished by submitting a lot and submitting often. Treat your submissions—and rejections—like a business. The best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. The critical part of this process is to always have a contingency ready for each story submitted: once a story is returned, you have a place to send it already. Most professional writers will recommend that you do not revise the story before resending it out. This is because many rejections occur not on account of poor writing, but because of poor or unlucky marketing.

Remember that You’re in Great Company

Virtually every writer of merit who has published has had their work rejected several times. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down so many times that she initially self-published. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life was rejected sixteen times before a publisher finally picked it up and sold about twenty-five million copies. Not bad for a story that was passed off as “a long, dull novel about an artist.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull was turned down twenty-three times and Dune twenty-one times. There are a bazillion examples; I’ve just picked a few. Go check J.K. Rowling’s track record for rejections before getting her Harry Potter published…

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webI’ll be talking more about how to read a rejection letter, how to recognize their sub-text messages, and how to make the most out of them in Part 2, the evolution of rejection letters.

 

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Art and Magic of Storytelling: Part 1, Sparking the Premise

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcover copyFrom where do we get our stories?

This is a question I am asked time and again. My readers, friends and colleagues alike marvel at my imagination, and ask me how I create these fantastical worlds and situations. Cornered in a moment of inarticulate bliss (this often happens to me), I shrug and blather off some ridiculously obscure tale of luciferous logolepsy.

The simple of it is that it always comes as a spark. Followed by inspiration. And from there, a story emerges. Premise to dramatization. So, let me tell you a story about how my 2012 historical fantasy The Last Summoner —about a medieval time traveler who must save the past from the future—came to be.

It all began with the Battle of Grunwald and the Fate of the Teutonic Knights—that is, when I stumbled upon it during an Internet ramble. But, in fact, it started before that—the spark, that is.

My part in this piece of history really began sometime in 2008 with the vision of an incredible image by Croatian artist Tomislav Tikulin (who had done the cover art for a previous novel Darwin’s Paradox). On Tikulin’s website I glimpsed the image of a magnificent knight, standing in a war-littered mire and gazing up, questioning, at the vaulted ceiling of a drowned cathedral. A great light shone upon the knight in streams of white gold. It sent my imagination soaring with thoughts of chivalry, adventure and intrigue.

Who was this knight standing in the mire?…

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With that image imprinted inside me, the next nexus moment came when I stumbled across a significant but little-known battle in the medieval Baltic, the Battle of Grunwald. It would turn out to be the defining battle for what are now the countries of Poland and Lithuania. On June 14th 1410, they were still part of Prussia and tyrannized by the Teutonic Order, who were Christianizing the pagan Baltic on behalf of the Pope. In truth, the Order had been for centuries gathering wealth and land for colonizing Germans in their drang nach osten; they built sturdy castles (many of which still stand today) and a force of monk warriors, feared for their cunning strategy and treacherous combat abilities.

 

The Battle of Grunwald was, in fact, an upset in history. The Teutonic Order was powerful, intimidating and extremely capable. They should have won; but the peasant armies of Prussia slaughtered the Order, killing most of its knights. Historians debate that the hochmeister’s arrogance—indeed, the arrogance of the entire Order—precipitated their downfall. They underestimated their adversaries and got sloppy. After the Polish and Lithuanian armies outsmarted the Order and slayed their hochmeister, along with many of their knights, the Order’s own peasant slaves finished the job using clubs, pitchforks and stones.

Intrigued by this little known order of religious crusaders and their bizarre fate in an upset battle with a peasant army, I pursued the premise of an alternative consequence: what if the Teutonic Knights had NOT underestimated their enemy and won the Battle of Grunwald? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of North-east Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have continued their catastrophic sweep of north- east Europe into Russia and beyond? Would they have claimed the whole for Germany’s expansionist lebensraum movement, fueled by its sonderweg, a dialectic that would ultimately lead to the killing fields of the Holocaust? What if the success of the Teutonic Order helped consolidate a united fascist elite, ambitious to conquer the world? And what if, as a result, Nazism sprang up 100 years earlier?

The Last Summoner, arose from this premise. Enter our heroine, young 14-year old Vivianne Schoen, Baroness von Grunwald, a self-centered romantic who dreams that her ritter (her knight) will rescue her from an arranged marriage to some foreign  warrior. As a result of an impetuous choice, she makes the startling discovery that she can alter history—but not before she’s branded a witch and must flee through a time-space tear into an alternate present-day France ruled by fascists. There, she learns that every choice has its price.

Warrior Woman Silhouette

Spanning from medieval Poland to present day Paris, France, The Last Summoner explores the sweeping consequences of our “subtle” choices. From the smallest grab to the most sweeping gesture, we are accountable for the world we’ve made. During her 600-year journey to save the world and undo the history she authored, Vivianne learns wisdom and humility. Through the paradox of history, she learns that what might have seemed the right choice for an immediate future, turns out to be disastrous for a distant future. To win is also to lose; to save oneself one must surrender oneself; and to save the world one need only save a single soul.

knight-cameoThe knight standing in the mire is Vivianne.

The Last Summoner, published by Starfire World Syndicate, was released in 2012 and remained a Canadian bestseller on Amazon for several months. It represents my first historical fantasy in an otherwise repertoire of hard science fiction. The Polish and Lithuanians celebrate June 14th with pride, erecting mock-ups of the battle annually. Some day I hope to participate.

The cover art for The Last Summoner is that very image that inspired my story. The Universe gifted me with the chance to acquire the image from Mr. Tikulin and a publisher willing to purchase it. I’d entered my own dream.

 

 

p.s. definition for luciferous logolepsy: “an illuminating obsession with words”

 

This article first appeared on Warpworld on Nov. 30, 2013.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver

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Winter in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A great story opening arouses, delays and rewards. Constructing a compelling beginning—often called a hook—is a common challenge for even established writers, and one of the most important parts of a story.

The opening should sweep the reader into the story like a tidal wave. It doesn’t need to be wild action. It just needs to compel the reader to want to know more. This is accomplished by engaging the reader with “intrigue”. In his article “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked” in the April 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest, Joe Cardillo suggested that the three elements of hooking a reader resemble the steps he uses to train his Samoyed puppy: 1) arouse interest; 2) delay, then 3) reward.

The writer arouses interest in the reader by providing enough detail to get the reader to ask questions. Now they want something. You tease them with the delay; that keeps them reading and turning the pages. It also gives them the chance to try to come up with the answers themselves. The reward comes in stages. Don’t answer all their questions at once. That’s what the book—the story—is for. The reward, parceled out in stages, lets the reader know that you can deliver and will ultimately provide them with a fulfilling story at the end. The beginning of your book sets up a covenant between you and the reader, a covenant for a journey you will take together toward resolution.

There is no beginning without an end. In her book The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit (Revised Edition, Perigee Trade, 2002) Elizabeth Lyon suggested that the beginning of a novel should “reflect the entire book. There should be a tie-in [between] the beginning and the end”. This is sometimes called “framing” a story, where the principal thematic problem is given in the beginning and then resolved in the end. In his book, A Story is a Promise (Blue Heron Publishing, 2000) Bill Johnson describes it as a promise to the reader.

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Toronto streetcar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Dramatic story-issues revolve around issues of human need,” says Johnson. “The need to be loved. To have control of one’s fate. To feel a sense of purpose. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life’s wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life.” He warns that “if you can’t name the issue at the heart of your story [the theme], it risks being unclear to your audience.” And this needs to be identified, at least intuitively for the reader, at the beginning of the story. You do this through intrigue in the beginning and pointing out through scene what is at stake or at issue in your story.

Additional things to consider in openings include:

  • Avoid starting your story at “the beginning”: instead, start mid-way, when something is already happening—preferably to someone important in your story and at the pivotal point when you provide the “story promise” pertinent to the theme.
  • Quell the urge to put in a lot of information about setting, character and situation: get things in motion first, then reveal here and there. Let the details unfold with the story like a flowing piece of artwork.
  • Trust your reader: novice writers have not yet gained the confidence to trust that they won’t lose the reader in the beginning if they don’t tell them everything right away. The key is to choose just enough to whet their appetite for more. And, yes, it is critical what you choose. What you choose should relate to your story’s theme and its story promise: the problem.

A great opening is a seductive tease, deliciously delivered; it promises an exotic ride that only you can fulfill.

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

Recommended Reading:Beaches-snow01

  • Cardillo, Joe. 2001. “Three Ways to Keep Your Readers Hooked”. Writer’s Digest, April, 2001, volume 81, no. 4.
  • Johnson, Bill. 2000. A Story Is a Promise. Blue Heron Publishing. Portland, Oregon. 187pp.
  • Lyon, Elizabeth. 2002. The Sell Your Novel Took Kit. Revised Edition. Perigee Trade. 320pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 264pp.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story

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The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Your story lives and breathes through your characters. Through them your premise, idea and your plot come alive. Characters give your story meaning; they draw in the reader who lives the journey through them. Without them you wouldn’t have a story—you’d have a treatise.

Here are some questions you need to ask each of your characters:

  1. Will the story fall apart or be significantly diminished if you disappear? If not, you don’t need to be there; you aren’t fulfilling a role in the book. Hugo award winning author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job”: they tell a story. In real life, people may act through no apparent motivation, be confusing, incoherent and make pointless statements or actions. Story characters show more clear motivations, coherence, and consistency. They don’t clutter your story with muddle and confusion like real people do. They fit into your story like a major puzzle piece.
  2. What is your role? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.). Each character fulfills a dramatic function in your story. You can’t just be there because you’re cute. Well, ok, maybe. But even being cute can and should provide a dramatic function in the story by exploring how that quality is viewed and treated by others. As with setting, which serves a similar purpose as character in story, every aspect of both minor and major characters interact with and illuminate story theme, premise and plot.
  3. What archetype do you fulfill? In the “hero’s journey” plot approach, each character fulfills one to several archetypes, which help define how they service the plot and theme of the story. The mentor archetype, for instance, generally believes in and enables the hero on his journey. The threshold guardian, on the other hand does not have faith in the hero and obstructs him on his journey. The hero archetype, usually on a quest (for truth, forgiveness, home, victory, faith, etc.), must negotiate her world of archetypes to reach her destination.
  4. How do you contribute to the major or minor theme of the book? This is particularly relevant for all major characters and their associated sub-plots. Sawyer stresses that “your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.” All other characters, in turn, either help reflect the main character’s journey or the overall story premise and theme. If your book is about forgiveness, each character helps illuminate your exploration of this theme.
  5. Are you unique? If the reader can’t distinguish you from other characters, chances are you need to be eliminated because of point number 1 anyway. In order to contribute to story, characters must provide a sufficiently distinguishable feature, complete with sub-plot, on the story landscape. The more varied and rich the landscape is, the more interesting it will be. Fictional characters achieve distinction through individual traits that readers recognize and empathize with. Authors use vernacular and body language to achieve colorful fictional characters.
  6. Are you interesting? If you aren’t interesting to the reader, you won’t do your job. Readers need to notice you, distinguish you and find something about you that will keep their interest—even if it’s something annoying. Just remember to be consistent—unless inconsistency is part of your character.
  7. What is your story arc? Do you develop, change, and learn something by the end? If not, you will be two-dimensional and less interesting. This is just as true for minor characters as for main characters. The more characters the author imbues with the depth to develop, the more multi-layered the story will become. This is because each character and her associated arc provides her own perspective to the theme. This is what is truly meant by “richness” — not the richness of infinite detail, like a baroque painting, but of infinite meaning like an impressionist work. Choose your minor characters as you choose your major characters.
  8. What major obstacle(s) must you overcome? You need these to struggle and “grow” and change; otherwise there is no tension in the story, no development and movement and no story arc. Your character will be like a still-life with no movement, no direction and no interest. The more your character changes over a story, the more she will be noticed and remembered.
  9. What’s at stake for you (theme), and for the world (plot), and how do these tie together? If a writer is unable to tie these together in story, the story will fail to evoke emotional involvement and empathy. It will lack cohesiveness and will not give the reader a fulfilling conclusion with ultimate satisfaction through the character’s journey related to theme (the hero’s journey, essentially).
  10. Do you change from beginning to end? If you don’t develop throughout the story, then you aren’t growing as a result of the thematic elements and plot issues presented in the story. In other words, you haven’t learned your lesson. While it’s ok for some characters not to develop (e.g., to be one note or flat or plain old stubbornly the same) this is disastrous for any of your main characters. Just ensure that the changes you make your character go through are warranted and relevant to the theme.

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2Characters help the writer achieve empathy and commitment from the reader. Characters are really why readers keep reading. If the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, she won’t really care what happens next. It is important to be mindful of the emotional and narrative weight of a character and achieve balance between characters. For instance, the foil of the protagonist should carry equal weight; otherwise the reader won’t believe the match-up. Equally, a large cast—often used in epic fantasies or historical pieces—can be used successfully, but only if each character is given a clearly distinguishable personality and role.

References:

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Using the Subtext of Body Language in Storytelling

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Sugar maple leans over the Little Rouge River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Kinesics is the study of “body language”, which explores how movements and gestures project a person’s hidden thoughts. Blushing is an obvious reaction. But more subtle ones can be used. When body language contradicts verbal expression, tension, conflict and interesting scenarios increase. This is a great opportunity for writers.

According to Janet Lee Carey, author of Dragon’s Keep, body language:

  • Shows the subtle undercurrent of communications between characters (of which either may not be consciously aware).
  • Shows the comic or tragic elements behind the dialogue.
  • Reveals the character’s true feelings (regardless of what he or she is saying).

In order to accomplish this, the writer must learn to accurately interpret the subtle signals of body language and translate them into the written form. One way is to look at yourself. Ask yourself: what do you do when you’re nervous? Excited? Thrilled? Sad? Angry? How do you do housework when you’re angry? When you’re happy? It helps to look at the same action under different moods to distill out the finer nuances of gesture and movement.

Pay attention to your own body, suggests Carey. “How do you sit? How do you move? How do you breathe?” Pay attention to your moods and what your body does then. For instance, what do you do with your hands when you’re nervous? How do you speak when you’re impatient? How do you cook when you’re happy? How about when you’re mad?

Carey lists the areas of the body where emotions can be detected by other characters. These include: skin, breathing (swallowing), eyes, eyebrows, ears, lips, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, sexual organs, legs and feet. On the other hand, physical areas where a character may feel an emotion but not show it is: pain in the body, skin, tongue, throat, heart, stomach, sexual organs, and pulse.

You can use body language imaginatively in several ways. Here are a few:

  • Amplification and contradiction: use body movements and facial expressions to either enhance or contradict the verbal expression
  • Reactions to invasion of personal space: show signs of restlessness, such as hunching of the shoulders, tucking in of the chin, backing up
  • Masking: this is when a character defends personal spac by showing indifference or confidence while masking their true feelings (e.g., remember when Like faced the Emperor in that last battle aboard the Deathstar? Despite his quiet show of confidence, he swallowed [his fear]).

Body language can either amplify or contradict what is said between two characters. The latter, of course, is usually more interesting, because it sets up tension and underlying conflict.

The following is an example of amplification:

“So, what happened?” Jenny asked, leaning forward and gazing directly at Mark.

Jenny’s body language matches her dialogue, amplifying her genuine concern. Here’s an example of contradiction:

“Hey, great to see you,” Dave said, crossing his arms and edging back to slouch against the wall.

Tom wandered to the fridge and opened it to look inside. “Can I have a beer?”

Dave fixed a hard smile at Tom. “Sure.”

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIt’s obvious that Dave isn’t happy to see Tom, and his body language contradicts what he said. This makes for compelling reading. Subtext (beneath the surface of dialogue) adds interest and intrigue, particularly when it contradicts or complicates the verbal message.

 

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Importance of Setting in a Novel

I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

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Mountain cabin in Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

Setting as Character

EcologyOfStorySettings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webUse similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now! and will be the main theme of my upcoming writing guidebook Ecology of Story: World as Character.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.