Last night's South Bay Writers meeting featured a great speaker, Tanya Egan Gibson. She's the author of HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING, which I have bought (the novel, not the love of reading), and she talked to our club about world-building and setting.
This topic is of particular interest to me because it's an area I need to focus on in my next draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE. Maybe you thought I was going to say "because my NaNoWriMo novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future." It is, and I'm having a heck of the time with the world-building for that novel, but there I'm dealing with such big, broad questions that it's as rudimentary as throwing paint at a wall, and Gibson offered advice for the detail work of filling all the spots around the windows. (You can see why I avoid similes in my work. Also painting rooms.)
When I wrote the second version of DAMAGE (based on, but vastly superior to, the NaNoWriMo first draft), I deliberately didn't worry too much about fleshing out the setting and description. I left those for the still-to-come third draft, anticipating that details of the world would be my main priority then, since plot and characters would be almost perfected. Well, plot and characters turn out to be rather far from perfected, but along with fixing those problems, I do need to turn my attention to world-building.
THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is set in the real city of San Jose, California, during three different time periods: 1963-1965, 1995-1998, and 2026. That means I have a lot of work to do. I have to learn about and understand the culture of the early 1960s and research what this area was like at that time. I have to remember and research a time period that I lived through but that's already alarmingly far in the past. And I have to speculate and guess at what will be different in the future. I've already done a lot of this work, so it's not quite as terrifying as it sounds, but so far I haven't shown much of the work in the novel.
I don't intend to fill the book with long passages of description that prove what I know. I'm not a big fan of description, and as a result, my work tends to contain so little of it that readers point it out as a problem. In this novel in particular, I agree that much more setting detail is required, because the place and the times are supposed to be an important backdrop for the story. It's not arbitrary that San Jose is the setting, and I want readers to have a sense of when and where the characters are and to appreciate how their world changes.
At the meeting last night, Gibson discussed how if your characters exist in a full, detailed world, whether it's real or one you invented, the story can emerge organically. Know the world, and you won't have to keep inventing new details that might seem random and forced into the story needs of the moment. The setting itself, when chosen well, can incite the characters to action, producing necessary conflict and revealing personalities by how they respond. Gibson pointed out that when a real location presents inconvenient restrictions that you might be tempted to circumvent by making something up, that's also an excellent opportunity to make the characters deal with another obstacle. I'm going to be thinking about all these ideas as I revise.
Books with a strongly conveyed real settings often get reviews like "the city itself is a character." I'm not sure that I'll ever go from "too little description" to that, but it's the direction I'm aiming in.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ No-longer-literary-agent-but-still-extraordinaire Nathan Bransford offers Five Writing Tips From Reading J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER.
→ Farhad Manjoo at Slate discusses "the anxiety over what to call 'writing that lives on the Web'" in an analysis of the differences and similarities between blogs and online magazines. (Thanks, The Millions!)