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Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Friday Links for Writers: 07.05.13

thailandIf I am late in posting this Friday Links for Writers, can we brag a little about having our feet up, kicked back, reading a book or luxuriating in chance to write uninterrupted because it’s summer?

Not just summer, but 4th of July’s long weekend. Savoring…

On Tuesday, I shared some great experiences I’ve had writing this week (Tuesday Writes). Kudos to a number of my writing friends and readers here who shared their writing milestones (and Twitter wordsprints) this week, too.

As always, each week’s writing includes awesome reading, and here are some of the best articles I’ve read this week. Let me know what resonates with you, what you’d like more of, or share your own links in the comments. Enjoy your weekend!

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4 Types of Freelance Clients to Avoid

This article by Lauren Levine at the Daily Muse is fabulous, especially for anyone considering getting into freelance writing or freelancing part time. No matter how tempting it is to take any client who asks for your services, Levine helps target the kinds of clients best avoided.

The Bridge & the Tunnel

Yeah, tease me: I’ve been tooting Donald Maass’s horn repeatedly the last 2 weeks. Last year I was doing the same over Ann Hood (like, in Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy or this How Internal & External Conflict Build Story). Honestly, by the time you’re writing novel-length, it takes a certain quality of advice to really move your writing forward — to engage at the level of deepening conflict and character and story structure — and Hood and Maass do both of these. So, again, yes: another great resource from Maass. This article on Writers Unboxed addresses novel midpoints — key, as this is the part where so many drafts sag. Some fabulous prompts are included.

Work Alone: Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Twice this week, I wrote about the value of having community support when writing. That said, in the end, it takes time alone to get the work done. Brainpickings is awesome at sharing original texts, and this transcript and recording of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is inspiring.

The Coffeeshop You Meet in Heaven

You don’t work in isolation but in a coffee shop, you say? This essay by Rebecca Makkai (author of The Borrower and several stories in Best American Short Stories, with a 2nd novel in the wings) in Ploughshares is worth a read. It’s Rebecca’s perfect coffee shop for writers.

Literary Culture Clash: Jonathan Lee Interviews Nicole Aragi

I could say Nicole Aragi was my favorite literary agent without actually knowing she existed simply because she has signed and promoted so many authors I admire (Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Aleksander Hemon, and being friends with Colum McCann, earns her bonus points). This interview by Jonathan Lee at Guernica is amazing to read, whether she reps your kind of fiction or not, just for offering a different glimpse inside publishing — one that includes love of good writing. (Thanks to agent Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency for sharing this. @jennybent)

Preditors & Editors

This is an old source I’d forgotten about — until a fellow writer was offered representation this week and the question arose: is the publisher legit? This is a great tool for vetting out legit publishers versus scams.

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends

camp writing

sols_blueI’m antsy today. Got a few things done. Wrote a couple thousand words. Fixed my printer. Waited for my son to be done with my laptop. Shared a friend’s article online. Decided this Irish man on Twitter has amazingly expressive eyes. Debated saving a picture of him onto my Pinterest, thinking of my main character Roonan, then felt a bit stalker so nixed it.

In the middle of that, yes: I wrote a couple thousand words. It’s a good day: I’m busy with revisions and they are going well enough that I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had small breakthroughs at every turn. Big improvement over last week (Novel Revision: Work is Messy, Book May Bite or Revising a Flat Character).

Prompts are Everywhere

When a novel is rabid inside me, it seems prompts are everywhere.

I read the first line of Neil Gaiman’s new book ( The Ocean at the End of the Lane ), which starts, “I wore…” and I’m prompted to start a chapter with a simple sentence, active verb, simple statement. I read the 3-step prompt shared at Tuesday Quick-Write and all I hear is, “Make your character say she has a problem.” I know she does — but make her say it. ITunes flashes a reminder and now the “problem” scene starts with Carinne in the car and The Killers come on the stereo. You can’t ride with armed men, listening to The Killers and not admit you have a problem. So the scene spills out. Carinne’s inner conflict slips into her perception of the external conflict and the readers get hint of what she’s hiding — what would motivate her to go along with these men.  …It raced up in her chest, this anger she’d never owned before. It was a problem.  She would have to face it. No excuse now. No one telling her not to talk. In the night, her mouth close to Roonan’s collarbone, his mouth against her ear saying her name, no one was telling her to stop. No one told her not to talk about Danny. No one said, “Not now. Let it go.”…

Nice (not that little snippet, the whole scene). Twenty minutes of writing and I have one big chunk that weaves an original scene together with Carinne’s newly drafted internal motivation.

So take a break. Notice the Instagram pic of that Irishman with the amazing eyes. Oh, look. His friend posted pic of a silky golden retriever’s head thrusting in a car window. And we’re off again… They’re in a field with sticks of peat stacked 3 by 3 in small pyres every few feet, circling around them, Roonan woken by the nose of a silken retriever, a happy scene yet she reacts with terror…

Enough with Instagram. So, check for friends who registered at the site for Camp NaNoWriMo. Sure, okay, I’ll log on, too. Account asks for a synopsis of my novel. Seriously, do I have time for this? Type-type-type… Next I know… Wasn’t I just saying I was beginning to stress over writing the query? Here it is, nearly done:

Michael Roonan’s best friend would do anything to save him from the man bent on killing him, but Roonan himself thinks death is fair end to the guilt he carries for lives he has ended. Except, facing death, Roonan suddenly sees only beauty in the world. In the moment he meets traveling American, Carinne Browning — herself clearly at odds with her mother or her husband — he sees chance to borrow and recreate what his parents had, the one thing he would have wanted to experience before the end of life: to be in love with a wife. Five years later, after the day she watched Michael Roonan shot down in a Dublin park, Carinne is faced with the question from the child born of that affair: “Is my father dead? Is he buried in the ground?” Tracking down Michael Roonan means unraveling the secrets that led him to a life of violence, as well as the painful mystery that compelled her to bond with such a man. The crossing of their lives unveils how deceptive memory can be, and how life’s biggest choices — even those impacting the outcomes of wars and history — can be born of personal fears and mistaken perceptions.

As much as I tease myself for being antsy today, it’s sometimes just that hyper energy that gets the work written.

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Writing with Friends

All of this is to say, as much as I value all the reclusive time I spend writing alone, there is a powerful value in a circle of writing friends and the interaction that brings.

I decided to join in with some friends who are participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. I’m a camping “rebel” in that I already have a finished novel draft well over the 50,000 word goal (Wake is heavy at 145,000 words right now, with a good 30,000 destined to get chopped) — but I’m among those using the camaraderie of the camp to keep motivated and share mini-milestones as I go. I’ll drop it if it’s a distraction, but will keep cheering on my participating friends.

With the same group of friends (Wordsmith Studio #wschat on Twitter), I’m participating in an online discussion of writing craft July-September, using two books: Donald Maass’s  Writing the Breakout Novel and John Gardner’s classic On Becoming a NovelistWith a different group, I’ve been sharing in daily writing prompts at an online “writing camp” for teachers, called Teachers Write.

I know what I’m doing with my revisions this summer — I’m working through a series of tasks that aren’t in any forums online. They’re what I know needs to be done; I could do it alone.

But there is power in community, and I’m glad to be “camping out” with writing friends this month.

Check out tomorrow’s post: Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

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What About You?

What communities — online, in person or otherwise — do you write with?

Do you have set goals you are working toward? What helps prompt your ideas, or do you wish you had more sources of discipline or inspiration?

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Friday Links for Writers: 06.28.13

air-show-snow-conesSome weeks have a person singing “TGIF” loudly. My earlier posts this week (on the hard work of revision Monday and revising a flat character Tuesday) have confessed how intense writing and novel revision have been on my end. Yesterday’s challenge was the bleary work of comparing prior drafts, line by line. Still not fun, yet.

On the other hand… the kids and I are out of school for the summer. Today we’re off to the pool. Nights, we’ve been repeating my favorite childhood memory of reading mysteries falling asleep, as we’ve been buddy-reading my 11 year-old’s summer reading, And Then There Were None.

Before heading out to swim, it’s time for Friday Links. When writing is intense, I especially appreciate great reading to escape into, and I’ve stumbled across some great pieces this week. I hope you enjoy them – as always, let me know in the comments which links resonate for you, what you’d want more of, or share links to your own posts or links. Enjoy!

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This is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I’m sure lots of you will agree that literary agent Rachelle Gardner shares some of the best advice on her blog.  As I said, I’m in the hard part of writing, and this article is just the right pep talk. Rachelle says to tell yourself, “This is where patience comes in. I can do this.” You knew it was going to be hard; tell yourself, so this is what hard feels like. If you don’t need this inspiration, click to follow her anyway, as her blog is always great.

Are Children’s Books Darker Than They Used to Be?

If you read or write YA, this title probably called to you as much as it did to me. My spontaneous answer to the question was, “No” — have you ever read original fairy tales? They’re dark. In her article, writer Julia Eccleshare at the Guardian evaluates the darkness of current kid lit, and also the thematic needs of young readers that compels that darkness. (But a parent/teacher request to YA writers: not too dark folks. Recent experience with cable-channel movies has me aware of how much we’re desensitizing ourselves from violence. Don’t be dark just to get attention.)

Teachers Write!

If you are a teacher or librarian, this is a really high-energy writing “camp” hosted by 4 young adult authors online. I wrote about Teachers Write! on my teaching blog here, and shared response to a morning prompt here — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are daily prompts, advice, Q & A with authors and feedback — plus the positive camaraderie and feedback from participants. Use the link above for official info and sign-up… or see what’s going on at this Facebook page: Teachers Write! Facebook page. One can jump in to participate at any time.

Is the Key to Becoming a Great Writer Having a Day Job?

On the heels of link for teachers who write is this link, on that perpetual debate: the value or conflict of a day job to earn a living while writing a novel. This piece by Mason Currey in Slate won’t give you modern advice but may reassure of the value of day job as he examines several famous writers from throughout history and evaluates the impact of day jobs on their success.

Querying Agents? Check hashtag #MSWL

Want to find agents who would love to read a manuscript just like yours? Search tweets using the hashtag #MSWL which stands for manuscript wish list. Writers, don’t post your wishes — look for agents to list the kind of manuscript they’d love to get.

A Dozen Reasons Books Are Rejected by Agents, Editors (& Readers)

What’s interesting about this post by Mike Wells on his The Green Water blog is that his examples address that gap between writing a good enough query to interest an agent… but then the manuscript doesn’t follow through on the expectations set.

13 Inspirational TED Talks for Writers

Have you discovered TED Talks yet? I used to roll my eyes a little, they came up so often in “let’s rock the world” conversations — and then I got hooked myself. This is a second great link I’m sharing from Aerogramme, with a range of authors talking about creativity and more.

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Want to Join a Book Discussion on Writing Craft?

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

With fellow writers at Wordsmith Studio, I shared my love of novel writing prompts that literary agent Donald Maass used to tweet. I included 23 of those prompts, plus link to Maass’s site, in this post last March:

Want more? As one of our community resources, Wordsmith Studio hosts quarterly discussion groups including books on writing craft. Starting Monday July 1, we’ll be reading Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel. My copy arrives today. Find discussions on Twitter on Mondays at 9 pm EST July-September — using the hashtag #wschat (this tag is also used for Tuesday discussions of various aspects of writing).

Links for more info:

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