Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Soup-pot Settings

Contest judges are trained to look at things an editor might find important, right?

Hook, opening, dialogue, characterization, timing, setting. A great hook won’t
save hokey, overdone characters or thin, ‘I could read my newspaper through ‘em’ characters.

We talked about that a few Ruthy posts back, and how important it is to flesh out those characters, make ‘em real, not only your hero/heroine but the supporting cast as well. So vital to a well-layered story.

And we’ve talked about dialogue, keeping it sharp, to the point, having each character’s dialogue reflect the person, avoiding talking heads (now that doesn’t mean two people can’t have a conversation. You know that, right? It just means the back-and-forth needs to have a point, a purpose, not be a page filler to gain 10,000 words because that’s what the publisher requires.)

Let’s talk setting. I think setting is huge, but maybe that’s me and the kind of books I like to read and write. I’m sure some of my favorite authors would get smacked by erstwhile contest judges for having ‘purple prose’.

Sheesh. Since when did the use of adjectival phrases become purple prose???? I don’t even pretend to know what purple prose is, but that’s probably because the concept annoys me a little. Where would Emily Dickinson be in today’s contests? Jane Austen? Charles Dickens???? You can’t get much prosier than our favorite nineteenth century British novelist, now can you?

All right, I can hear you all the way up here in WNY, you’re saying: ‘But Ruthy, you snarky tyrant, we’re not writing Dickensonian prose, we’re writing romance! Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, problems pop up, girl dumps boy, boy hops on white charger (or climbs in torch red Thunderbird, dual cams) goes after girl, she meets him halfway, voila! They fall in love and live happily ever after. Period. Done. End of story.’

You’re right, of course, but the depth of your story comes through like tiny points of light that build the pixel image on a 50-inch plasma screen. Good storytelling needs each one of those tiny glimmers to shine its brightest, otherwise the story falls short of wonderful and ends up ‘good’. Or ‘okay’.

I’m borrowing this from Lisa Wingate’s “Over the Moon at the Big Lizard Diner”:
“I took out a biscuit. It was warm and soft in my hands, the scent comforting in a way I couldn’t explain. It tasted impossibly good, and I realized I was starving. Taking another bite, I chewed slowly, savoring, relaxing, falling into the rhythm of clinking pans, the low hum of voices, and the rich, golden warmth of sunlight streaming in the window. The sounds conjured images of my mother, working in the kitchen years ago…”

I love a strong setting, words that evoke a full-bodied image of place and time, phrases that tie characters and setting together. It’s like a little kids’ jigsaw puzzle, you know, the twenty-four piece kind. Because the pieces are big, one missing piece sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t matter that twenty-three pieces have found their assigned and oh-so-perfect spots. Nosireee Bub.

What your eye is drawn to is that one missing piece, that open space, empty and yawning, staring blankly at you despite the twenty-three pieces surrounding it.

Writing is like that. Fall down on one piece, one aspect, and you’ve snipped a vital thread of what could be a great story.

What would soup be without the salt? Or broth? Sure you’ve got to have veggies and meat, maybe noodles or rice, possibly a handful of barley tossed in for old-time flavor.

But leave out the salt or the broth and you don’t have soup. You’ve got something, but it ain’t gonna ever be called soup, and it’s probably not gonna be a family favorite. Two basics that set the tone for your finished product. That’s how I see ‘setting’. It’s writer-style soup base. Too much spice and you give people indigestion. Too bland and your story makes ‘em yawn, wondering what’s for dessert.

Whaddya think? Are your settings to-die-for wonderful or do they need work? Go ahead and tell me here, let us save you a buck or two so you can polish, polish, polish before you enter the huge foray of spring contests.

Ruthy (Who really IS a tyrant, just so you know)


  1. Great post, Ruthy, on the importance of setting. I find it easy to use the weather to underscore the mood or the struggle the characters are in, but your wonderful example proves how simple details can enrich our stories. When writing category as I do, I must keep an eye on word count and use nuggets, not large passages of setting. Even a few well-placed words can heighten setting and elicit strong emotion in our readers.

    Thanks for the reminder, Ruthy!


  2. And yet there is much to be said for personal taste. I love a good tomato basil and you might go for the Italian wedding soup.

    I read the Lisa Wingate line and was transported. Another would say cut the introspection.

    I prefer minimalist writing which others scorn. I really liked How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper because he got me in to it fast and kept me rolling. No languishing at all.

    I am slowly getting through another read --six months later. The author lingers on the turn of phrase. It is lovely but I admit I am a victim of my lifestyle.

    No time, no time.

    And yes I often read the last page first just to be sure the 'soup' is going to be worth it.

  3. When I'm writing my story, unless the story directly relates to the setting, I sometimes forget about setting altogether. I don't like to read long passages of description (some people do, I'm finding out. It's those people who like their historicals with a little story to go along with the history). And I don't like to write long passages of description. But I think I need to be more descriptive, and make sure I'm describing things through my POV characters, as they would react to the setting and as they see it. Camy shows how to do this extremely well in her post today (Story Sensei) on writing in deep POV, which is another thing I'm really weak in and am still learning about.

  4. For me the key to balancing setting with the flow of the story is to make sure that my descriptions of setting (whether spread out or in a block) further either the plot, characterization or theme. My description has to MEAN something; it can't just be pretty. The setting can mirror the character's emotional state or contrast it. It can change the mood or illustrate the theme. On a large scale, it can become its own character in the story.

    For me setting is one of the most rewarding things to fiddle around with, because it is hard for the reader to pin down. It's subtle, insidious. There's just SOMETHING about that passage, or that scene, or that book that they loved... What was it?

  5. Lori, well said. No one ever compliments the broth or the salt, they just love the soup as a whole!

    And Janet, you're absolutely right, shortened word count doesn't allow us to wax poetic. My theory is that the right words don't need to grow into long, tedious descriptive phrases, but just enough to patch us into another realm.

    And Mel, thanks for plugging Camy's blog, LOL! We're Three Musketeers Seekers, here. All for one, one for all!

    And Tina, you and I have discussed the personal taste issue. It affects judging, contests, readership. We know how important it is to realize that no one writer will satisfy all people. How boring would that be????

    A sample of this, a smidge of that. A veritable banquet of writers helps round out the bookstore shelves.


  6. I have to agree, setting details really enhance my reading experience--but only when used with discretion. A skilled writer knows how and when to weave in appropriate details in measured doses--just enough to be evocative without slowing the action.

    And, as in the Lisa Wingate example, description can also set the mood and/or adjust the pacing. Again, a skilled writer has a solid sense of when such attention to detail will be most effective.

    Thought-provoking discussion, Ruthy! Good points all around!

  7. I love setting. Wait a second, lemme think about that comment.

    It's not setting that I love. It's the details that add dimension to the fictional dream transporting me to another place where I can taste the soup, feel the chilly afternoon breeze, experience the heroine's nervousness when the hero stands a little too close.

    I'm not a big fan of turn-of-the-century stories, so when I got home and read the back of Julie Lessman's A PASSION MOST PURE, I thought, "1913?! Oh dear." But since I'd heard so many wonderful things about Julie's story, I figured, "Gina, you have to at least give the time period a chance."

    I wish I could remember what page I got to when I realized the year setting didn't matter.

    Now if Julie had layered in any more historical blech about the political, social, economic situations at the time, I would have stopped reading regardless of how interesting the story lines were. Of course, if she had done any less, then I think she would have done a disservice to the reader who needs setting details to create a fictional dream.

    Of course, I think I've crossed the cynical line regarding being published because while publishers say they want something fresh, what they really seem to mean is they want something that written just like what they publish only it has one little thing that makes it different.

    Oh, I was going to end there, but I thought of something. I'm not overly particular about what category I judge in a contest. Thus over the last 5-ish years, I've judged historical, LC, SC, women's fiction, single title, chick lit, inspirational, and paranormal. Mabye I should have said I've judged every category but erotica.

    Anyway, one thing I've notice is that when a ms is either a LC or a SC, it tends to have the least amount of setting, character, and sensory details of all the other genres I've judged. I wonder why that is? My guess is word count. But I get to wondering if nugget writing (as Janet called it) is what causes judges to comment that the non-category-targeted entry had a "category sound." And could this be a factor on why some category writers struggle with breaking into the Single Title market?

    No offense intended toward anyone. I'm just wondering out loud.

  8. I'm an voracious reader, but I've also been writing for years. I was always instructed to "show" and not "tell" things in the story, so I think the scene in your post about the biscuit was a perfect blend of evoking a vision by telling us what the person was doing. To me, that makes for a good read...I want the character's actions to show me the setting. It sure keeps me glued to the book when things are moving along!

    These are great teaching posts!


  9. Setting is one of those things I consider a weakness for myself (one of those 85 things!)
    Because I like action and dialogue. I think those are my strengths. So I can have a fairly good action scene with a lot of back and forth between characters. But am I inside or outside?
    So I keep a check list...well, a metaphorical check list...of things to look for on revisions.
    Where are they?
    What are they wearing?
    What's the weather like?
    What season is it?

    There are lots of others, but as I do revisions I try to focus on my weaknesses and be aware of the world around my characters.

    And the real knack to this is to choose (Ruthy, who really IS a tyrant, already said this)
    To choose your words perfectly, to say a lot but don't go on a long time.
    Mary' Who spends most of her spare time protecting the other Seekers from Ruthy' Connealy

    P.S. And now I'll protect all of you too.

  10. I hadn't thought about settings but will be watching for them as I read so I can get a better feel for how they are implemented into the story. I have had nothing published or gone under a judge's eye but am working toward that some day. I appreciate all the thoughts and opinions given. Thanks bunches.

  11. Ah, setting!! The stepchild of prose (mine, anyway) -- not as interesting as my favorite child, "Dialogue," and not as introspective as my 2nd favorite, "Internal Monologue," but a good kid nonetheless who, if thrown a bone at the get-go, will leave you alone to fawn over the other two without making a stink.

    To me, setting is important enough to get the reader THERE where you want them (seeing the story in their mind), then yank 'em into the character's minds/world through thoughts/dialogue. As a reader, I personally need only so much setting before I am off and running in my mind, and anymore than the modicum of description it takes has me Evelyn-Wood-ing to the bottom of the paragraph.

    And, YIKES, Gina, glad you gave me a chance on A Passion Most Pure! Thanks for the compliment that I layered in just enough historical "blech" (totally agree with you, by the way! I am a romance writer first, historical by accident only!). :)

    Fun topic, Tyrant!

  12. Kim, welcome aboard! You said:

    These are great teaching posts...

    You have now become my favorite person. Compliments and chocolate are always welcome. As you can guess, Mary is a little short on distributing both. She wounds me, calls me names, casts aspersions on my character.

    All true, of course, but does she HAVE to tell everyone???? They'd find out for themselves. Eventually.

    A paycheck would be nice, too, but that will come in time.

    Mary, you did a wonderful job of setting the tone in the opening to Petticoat Ranch. A vividly written scene that I still recall details of at this moment, and it's been months since I read PJ in its published version.

    Same thing in China Doll (soon to be renamed and released, um,... well. Sometime this decade) I have no trouble envisioning Mary's hero and heroine, the task that befalls them, the crowd, the moments, the scenery, the noise.

    When a scene evokes that kind of staying power, ya gotta know you've got something.

    Of course, an excellent story wants that kind of attention all the way through, requiring the writer to take the critiques he or she has accumulated and then continue revising the rest of the book to meet the contest/editor expectations of the opening.

    Editors comment that a common reason for rejection is that the writing level downgrades after the opening chapters. That tells me we need to weave the magic of a strong opening throughout our work, take those contest comments and edit, edit, edit. Clean, snip, chop, dice,... Very much like making a salad.

    Soup and salad today, courtesy of Ruthy. Not a bad lunch, y'all.



  13. I don't WANT to wound you, Ruthy. It's my JOB. I HAVE TO.

    Ah, China Doll, bless your little heart, Ruthy darlin' you read that, what? Three years ago? And you still remember it?
    I am so beyond honored.
    It's got a release date now. I don't know for sure when...I'm thinking August 2009? That's not so long now, is it?
    The first of a NEW three book series.

    And you're right about me not disbursing Chocolate. I was traumatized by a horrible...mailing chocolate in 100degree temperate experience that resulted in a UPS driver nearly ending up as a Chocolate Covered Civil Servant exhibit at the Iowa State Fair... The legal action is still pending.

    Of course it's minus four here today. So instead you'd get little Whitman Sampler Ice Cubes.

    So not much chocolate mailing for Mary. I am getting hungry though.

  14. Congratulations, Mary, on China Doll and the new series. That's awesome.

    And congrats to Julie Lessman. Her book is the March selection for the ACFW Book Club. (Whew! I can finally announce that--again.) We'll discuss it during the month of March and then Julie will talk with us in a live chat the first Monday night in April. Won't that be fun? I know you guys will come over and support her.

  15. Okay, Melanie, I'm not joking here ... where do I send the check?

    I already KNOW where to send the chocolate ...


  16. Jules, that's totally awesome news! Is that why I registered for the book club under seven different names, kid?

    If so, it was well worth it.

    Joking, ACFWers. Really. I registered once. Voted once. Well, twice, if you count the runoff ballot.

    Jules, so proud of you. We'll have fun with Master Collin and Miss Faith.

    And, ummm....

    I'll keep my eye out for the chocolate, honey-cakes.


  17. a couple have mentioned to much setting can put you off. Thats one reason i could never read Christy I know most love it and i did love the tv show and movies but i could never get past the first chapter or two cos it was too descriptive.

    Mary I loved the beginning of Petticoat Ranch.

    One book that hooked me really quick was Death Watch. we had a book of first chapters to promote books and i read the first chapter but i was hooked after the first few paragraphs.

    Congrats Julie, I found out your book arrives in australia early march. So i will have to find someone in America to send it to me.

    as i said before i really do like getting an insite in to writers. (not sure how much more i will be on til next week depends if i canget access while im here)

  18. Great post, Ruthy. I like enough setting (seasoning?) to set the tone so that I don't forget I'm in the middle of the Arizona desert vs. Manhantan, but I don't want to read pages and pages about it. It's thread that's vital, but shouldn't overwhelm the characters and the plot.

    Also, like Janet said, always keep the elements (one of my parents favorite words!) as an option to shake things up a bit. I had a scene on a porch that was going nowhere fast. I added drizzly rain and the scene worked much, much better. Hot, broiling sun; Mary's -6 degrees - shudder!; cutting wind. It can add a lot of texture to an otherwise bland scene.

  19. Goodness, Ruthy's got me talking in soup-pot metaphors....

    That reminds me...those of you who haven't read A Soldier's Promise by Cheryl Wyatt...take note of the neat way she uses para-rescue metaphors and action verbs that evoke images of parachuting, etc. Great stuff!!!

  20. Very interesting the different takes. I never thought there might be writers out there who keep books on their Keeper Shelf because they fall in love with and become lost in the period, the setting, the nuance of phrase.

    I'm serious here!

    I keep books soley because I fall in love with character. Character driven plots with good use of deep POV.

    Years later I can tell you the heroine or hero of all my favorite stories, but not really much about the setting.

    Sam Donovan, Jaine Bright-Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

    Jane Darlingon, Cal Bonner--Nobody's Baby But Mine by SEP

    Samantha Elliot, Michael Taggert-Sweet Liar by Jude Deveraux

    and on and on and on....

  21. I tend to skim over description if it goes long at all. And it's one of my weaknesses in writing. I've had more than one contest entry where a judge asked, "What color is her/his hair? What does she look like? What season is it?" So I've had to learn to try to add that in on revisions--bits here and there.

    I tend to have a picture in my head, but I sometimes fail to get it on the paper. It's something I'm working on!


  22. next book i read i will have to see what i actually take notice off.
    I dont always take notice of things. You have me really thinking what i do look for in a book.
    some of my favourites are cos of the setting i will admit.
    I fell in love with canada and Mounties after reading Janette Okes Canadian West series and have to say i didn't find a mountie when i visited in Sept.
    Where as Gilbert Morris's Appomotax saga (sorry not sure of the spelling) its the ear and subject. but also the way he writes fact with fiction. So i guess the setting is part of what i like. which is probably why christy had way to much and i couldn't get past it. Anne of Green Gables was the same (and i was to young when i first tried it)
    Once again thanks for these post they really do make me think more about what goes into a book.

    On a side note Mary I got so excited in the bookshop when i found Golden days on the back shelf. I even said a Oh wow a bit loud and looked around to see who was looking at me! I had already checked the novel section and it wasn't there.

  23. Excellent analogy, Ruthy-babe! Food, I love it any form, especially polish sausage. Can't get enough : )

    Okay, let's go to seasoning. I can't agree with you more about the little bit of this and that until the broth is just right. Much like our settings, sometimes it takes taste testing almost until time to serve before you figure out it's the oregano you forgot.

    Great thing about contests, there are some mighty good chefs out there that just might be cooking on all their burners when they evaluate your entry. They might just be holding that bottle of ah-ha you've been searching for.

    And the judges who don't score our work as the masterpieces we see them to be? No, no, no. Don't think *well, they just don't get it.* Maybe we never thought of adding garlic to the mix. . .maybe taking our broth of a novel from good to great is all in the taste test of the interested bypasser who sips the first chapter, plugs in a pinch of essence and a dollop of background noise, and Voila! You have an awesome main course on your hands!!!

    Thanks, Ruthy. I think I've blown my diet for the day with your eloquent suggestions : )

  24. Hey Ruthy, I subscribe to "A.Word.A.Day" and guess what today's word was? Purple prose!! Here's the history on it:

    "Two synonyms of the term are 'purple passage' and 'purple patch'. The idea comes from Latin pannus purpureus (purple patch), a phrase used by the poet Horace in his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) to suggest a patch of royal fabric on an ordinary cloth, a brilliant piece of writing in an overall dull work. Purple was the color of choice by the royalty as the purple dye was the most rare and hence most expensive."

    Mmm ... "a brilliant piece of writing" ... I always liked the color purple!

    Audra, hey girl, how are you doing??? Great analogy with contest judges as cooks ... I've definitely had my goose cooked by more than a few of them ...

    And Ausjenny, I hear shipping to Australia is a killer, but I'll bite the bullet if you forward your address to gsus@charter.net. For the cause, you know ... :)

  25. I know absolutely nothing about writing and how it's "supposed" to be done. If I wrote a book, I'd be like the girl on American Idol who "knew" she wasn't going to be one of the people being laughed at because she "knew" she could sing. Uh, yah, she was laughed at. I'd probably write a book thinking it was the best ever and 3 editors sitting at a table would say, "uh, yah, no thanks!" Thank you so much for the setting advice. I need to go read more of your blog spots to find out what kind of a tyrant you are!


  26. Jenny — that's the second "Anne of Green Gables" reminder I've had in two days. I started reading L.M. Montgomery at 10 and I'm afraid she shaped my writing for years.

    As for setting, is anyone else out there a Charles Martin fan? I've fallen in love with his work and joke that he's who I want to be when I'm a "grown up writer." Although, at 35, I'm pretty grown up.

    Martin's books are set in the contemporary South, and I believe I can feel the damp sweat on the back of my neck after reading an outdoors passage even if it's the dead of winter where I am.

    I love detail so much, being transported into the time and place, that I was shocked when my sister gave up after one book. "Too much detail."

    As much as I love reading about setting, I'm finding it a chore to write it. I'm such a coward about ending my book that I'm going back through and adding these details when I should finish then make changes in the draft.

    I have a few Mark Twain quotes over my desk, one of which reminds me of purple prose:
    "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
    - Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880


    You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
    - Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878

    They're good reminders.

  27. Great post oh Seeker Tyrant you...

    I love when an author puts me in the setting so I feel like I'm there...like Mary C taking us back to the past and life on a ranch.

    I when I read a contest entry once by Janet Dean...I really felt like I was THERE watching the apple get stolen from the cart...

    And Missy Tippens book...what I've read so far...made me feel like I was smack in the middle of Mel's diner...remember that show?

    Debby Guisti's outside settings in her suspense made me also feel like I was there...and made me scared to walk through a forest by myself. LOL!

    Camy Tang's books take me deep into Asian food and culture and my tummy growls every time I read her stuff. LOL!

    Can't wait to read the rest of the Seekers' books...and the Seeker readership's books.

    Pam...thank you for noticing my plot-specific and character career-specific metaphors, etc. Glad you liked them. Wink.

    Cheryl Wyatt