Pay Attention to Setting

September 30, 2014

Characters are memorable. Plots are captivating. But we don’t talk much about setting. It’s time we pay more attention to where things are happening in our writing–both fiction and nonfiction.

Setting brings life to your story. We’re enjoying the most beautiful fall season we’ve had in years here in Minnesota. Placing a story in the midst of an explosion of reds, oranges, and yellows mixed within the pine trees creates a breath-taking stage for a reader’s imagination.

Here are some tips for improving your writing using setting.

  • Be observant of your world. Bring a notebook with you the next time you take a walk, drive through a small town, shop in a mall, attend a sporting event, or simply look out your window. Write down what you see.
  • Be specific. When you’re writing down what you see, be specific about what you’re observing. Are the trees maples? Elms? Oaks? Are the bees flying around the flowers? Have the birds flown south? How many businesses are closed in the small town? Are their signs still up? Why types of businesses were they? How many mall shoppers have packages? Where are the packages from? How many are simply window shopping? Socializing? Seem harried? Appear to be enjoying themselves? You get the idea.
  • Make lists. What’s in the store window display? Why do you suppose the owner thought those items would tempt customers? What do people’s yards say about them? Are the yards pristine or cluttered? Do they require a lot of attention (weeding, mowing, etc.) or not much? Are the leaves raked or piling up? What items are visible? Any junk? Any art?
  • Use active verbs. Does one person flail his arms around when talking to another? Do food wrappers cartwheel end over end in the March wind? Do deer scamper across the road in front of your car at dusk?
  • Be sure your setting fits your story. It doesn’t matter how intriguing your setting is if it doesn’t complement your story. Setting adds to the story. If it’s not doing that, rework it or replace it.

Pay attention to setting and see how your writing comes to life. Happy writing!

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Research, Interpret, Write, Publish

September 11, 2014

It’s not uncommon for aspiring writers to think all they have to do is affix their thoughts to paper and they’ll be published. It doesn’t work that way, however.  I was first published in 1976, so have some experience.

Here are some tips worth considering if you’re interested in getting published.

  • Research what interests you. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you’ll want to connect with your reader at some level. A good way to do that is to understand as much about life as possible. It doesn’t matter if you like science, art, history, sports, hobbies, or whatever. What matters is that you understand what you’re writing about because your reader will.
  • Interpret what you feel or observe. Regarding feeling, here’s an example: Everyone enjoys a pity party on occasion. But most people don’t write down how the experience feels. Pity parties aren’t permanent, which means the feeling goes away, but if you capture it in words while you’re feeling it, you’ll be able to use those feelings of failure or despair in your writing at some point. Regarding observation, here’s an example: Life offers us constant stimuli to engage our brains. When you see the person with a full cart in the checkout lane, do you seize the opportunity to watch the person unload the cart and try to figure out what each item says about that person’s life or do you scurry off in search of another line you can get through faster? If you do the former, you’re allowing yourself to observe and interpret. If you do the latter, you’re missing an opportunity to enrich your writing.
  • Write. During the years I taught my Writing for Fun and Profit series at two colleges, I encouraged my students to write something every day. I didn’t require a specific amount of writing in terms of number of pages or time spent, but I did tell them, “Writers write–and sometimes get published. However, you cannot get published unless you write.”
  • Publish. I can’t think of a more opportune time in history than we’re experiencing today for getting published. Getting paid is another matter. If you intend to become a professional (meaning paid) writer, you’ll need to do what every professional in a given career field does and that’s practice, improve, work at, and deliver what you say you can deliver.

How much do you love writing? Do you love it enough to work at it? To do your research? To interpret life as you see and experience it? To practice your craft? To persist in offering your work to those who will pay for it? Or do you want to write for the pure enjoyment of writing? There’s nothing wrong with writing for the sake of writing as long as you are honest with you about it. And there’s nothing wrong with writing to get published as long as you are honest about that too. Either way, remember that only you can write in your voice and say what you’re going to say. Happy writing!