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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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January Challenge Week 4: And Then Plans Changed…

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Anyone who has followed the January Challenge since the beginning knows that it sets out to support all of us in kicking off 2013 goals by spending one week apiece to focus on:

During Week 2, I posted How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing to address how each of these steps is needed to keep a writing career growing — whether as a full time professional, a novelist with a day job, a busy blogger or someone still dreaming of getting a first draft off the ground.

Writers have accepted a profession that seeks unstructured days to have the freedom to write or explore the world. But, truth told, “freedom to work” sometimes takes more discipline and structure than lives yoked into a traditional job. Writers take on responsibility to stoke their own forward momentum so that free hours don’t escape unused.

Beyond that, writing hours need roll-bar-strong discipline to fend off the interruptions that continually threaten to claim a writer’s attention.

Children. Day job. Editing project. New client. Platform building. Broken dryer. Teaching. Deadline. Travel. Blank page. New inspiration. Friends, family. All these quality things vying for attention. For many writers, these distractions increase with success as new demands arise for speaking engagements or teaching or promotional tours.

In posts like 15 Strategies for Finishing Work, I shared some tricks for setting concrete tasks that help create a clear plan for getting the writing done.

And Then Things Change

My own weeks 3 & 4 of the January Challenge became a prime example of why those “roll-bars” are needed.

For Week 2 (“start something”), I set about the steps necessary to begin production of a literary magazine for my students, as planned. Fate laughed, and in a single day my prior job of teaching 3 writing classes and leading the literary magazine was switched entirely to cover a position vacated by a colleague who leaves our school this week.

Which brings us to…

Week 4: (Re)Evaluate and (Re)Plan

It’s easy to take sudden changes in plans or priorities as the latest “derailing” of the writing we planned to get done. How many times does intended writing get back-burnered because of a genuinely justifiable interruption from work or life?

The key to keeping writing moving forward is expecting those interruptions. Change wasn’t a surprise. New demands on our time aren’t a surprise. We know — it’s not our first rodeo — something always comes up.

Whether ending a project and needing a new client, or running into a production snag, or having a new PR issue to address. Whether a writer setting aside your own revisions while teaching others to write, or an agent pitching novel drafts without time to work on your own, or a parent trying to finish a novel with a sick kid, late sports, holidays or packing for a family trip… There’s always something.

As I said in the post about freelancing, this is why I evolved the “finish, begin, improve, and evaluate/plan” cycle, so you can continually dovetail new work in without stopping work on your original goals.

So we take on Week 4 of the challenge: it’s time to (re)evaluate and (re)plan.

Applying Steps of the Challenge as You Evaluate & Plan 

Evaluating and planning really means creating a new to-do list for the coming months, applying many of the steps set out in prior posts.

  • Evaluate what you accomplished in the prior month (or day or week). Reward yourself with check-marks, log word counts in Scrivener, or hours on your calendar. Blog about it. Celebrate.
  • Evaluate where you stand on existing projects. Create a list of tasks for steps that need to be finished, targeting any obstacles that have kept you from moving forward.
  • Evaluate what is going well. What do you want to do to continue this success, or to replicate it on a different project?
  • Measure these successes against your ultimate goal. In celebrating your 10,000 words written last month, will this get you to a finished draft by March? Set new quotas or adjust the ultimate goal, as fits.
  • Sometimes intermediate successes cause new hurdles. New material I wrote on my novel draft last fall requires new revision steps to reach the final version. Since I don’t want to delay finishing, what will I do to add writing hours to fit these revisions in? (I cancelled an optional conference.)
  • Did success in one project prevent work on another? Evaluate if it’s time to reclaim hours for a project pushed to the back-burner.
  • What will you take off your list? Surprises, successes and changes in plans often leave old to-do items irrelevant. Remove things that no longer matter to you.
  • What will you finish this month (or day or week)? Maybe you have a deadline or mandatory project to finish (I need to hand off my prior classes to the new teacher). Otherwise, like in Week 1, pick one thing you’ll just get done.
  • What new goals arose? Add in new goals or things you want to start. For me, this includes starting my new classes. But also planning for a Reading Challenge on this site in March.
  • What needs improvement? I’ve improved linking around my blog, improved how quickly my sons can get out of the house in the morning, repaired my car, cleaned my office. I want to claim more efficient writing time with a computer upgrade: I’ll schedule a laptop upgrade within the month to make the most of working time during the school year. I’ll plan a website upgrade in June, as I’ll have more free hours for tweaking during the summer.
  • What will you delay? It’s not lame to adjust a timeframe if you are still honoring what is most important to you. Don’t quit the goal; just move it to a better time on the calendar. With revisions, this sometimes includes scheduling a break to allow some distance from a piece of work.
  • In a prior post, I mentioned how writers often balance the time-money-credit trifecta. Evaluating your current balance of those 3 things impacts how to prioritize goals in the coming months. This last month brought me increased income and increased street cred to write in one of my subject areas. That means I’ll evaluate and plan where I will steal time back to work on the novel and stories (or when I’ll write pieces to make use of the street cred). This is key in planning my to-do list. For example, the money allows me to pay for 3 tasks which actually free my time or increase my efficiency to work on the book — and I need to make sure that takes place.
  • What resources do you need? Don’t forget to list supplies or knowledge you need to acquire to achieve immediate goals, or have on hand as you reach later steps. Key in this: what experts or peers could you seek out to expand your potential? Don’t overlook delegating or reaching out to a friend.
  • Don’t forget to plan when you will re-evaluate again. Consider the chunks of time/priorities on your calendar, and see how they form natural times for when you will pause and set priorities. I will be evaluating things with my day-job daily over the next week, as it is the transition time for the new job. I’ll have a breather to evaluate during next week’s 3-day weekend, at which time I’ll plan for the weeks until spring break. I can claim some writing during break, and will also use that to spend time with my sons and plan through the end of year.

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Where Are You in Your January Challenge?

write start badgeHopefully your January Challenge didn’t involve as drastic a change as mine did — unless it was a fabulous success that makes your wish list irrelevent!

A few readers who responded said that they wanted to take on the challenge but weren’t sure if they were doing it in the right order or at the right time. Hopefully the post on freelancing or this post make it clear: there is no right order or time. Our mutual challenge is just to get our 2013 goals off and running by recognizing obstacles that keep us from getting started and breaking projects into steps we can tackle.

It would be great to hear from you in the comments (or share link to your post if you blog about it):

What challenges did you take on, whether to finish, start or improve?

What obstacles are you encountering? What strategies helped you move past them, or what encouragement could you use?

What successes have you had?

If you blog about your January Challenge, please include a link back to one of the January Challenge posts here, and then share a link to your post in the comments below. You are welcome to use the January Challenge badge if you want to be festive. There is no time limit — we are working on goals for the whole year, so you are welcome to participate well past the end of the month!

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