November 10, 2010

Talking About Setting

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!)


Anonymous said...

When I read the line about waiting until the third draft to really put in the sentence, I started to form a comment in my head, but it turned out to be something along the lines of your penultimate paragraph.

I was thinking of it as analogous to game-writing: ideally, in a game with narrative (like an rpg or computer story-based game, but it's true for board games too), you want the mechanics to be an integral part of the story, not just tacked on. Same for the universe. The characters should be interacting with stuff in the universe and the mechanics of how stuff can be done, and obstacles and solutions should be at least partially made out of those things.

If you could just as easily change all the "paint" and keep the identical plot and characters, then you're not getting much good out of the setting. It should be not only interesting, but plot-relevant, that we're in San Jose and not Haiti. (Think of good SF/F, where the tech or the magic or whatever it is drives the plot.)

(Now it's highly ironic for me to be saying this, as I am horrible at setting and write all my characters in a vacuum and then torture myself trying to write a setting around my plot constraints. Do as I say, not as I do. :) )

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, I would definitely be in trouble if I'd waited until the third draft to have any idea where the story takes place or what that world is like. My situation is that I know this stuff in my head, but I haven't put much of it onto the page. It's still not an ideal situation, and I already have some problems where details I've been vague or wrong about mean that the plot has to change.

Your analogy with game-writing is perfect. In all these cases, it's possible to have a decent game or story with a setting tacked on, but the experience is so much richer when the setting is integral.

Henri Picciotto said...

One novel where the world is completely essential to the story and characters is Michael Chabon's _The Yiddish Policemen's Union_, which takes place in an alternate-history Jewish state of sorts in Alaska. He won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for it.

Which reminds me of other Nebula/Hugo winning novels (by Ursula LeGuin): _The Dispossessed_, and _The Left Hand of Darkness_ -- in those too the worlds are key and unforgettable. (All these years later, I remember the worlds, but not so much the stories!)

I went to hear her give a talk on the topic of world building at Mills College, more than 30 years ago. To my surprise, what she talked about was the California that had been built --a world-- by destroying the world that was here before. I remember being quite taken by her argument, but I don't remember if or how it applied to her novel-writing. I wonder if she ever turned the talk into an essay.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Searching around for Le Guin essays that might be connected to that talk, I found this one with the intriguing title A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be.

Henri Picciotto said...

Thanks for finding that! (Though I must have the book it is taken from.) Yes, this definitely overlaps with the talk I heard. And while it does not give pointers to novelists, those ideas are beneath all the worlds LeGuin has built.

It almost seems as if the world is really the starting point, the foundation of her novels.

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