Writing Tip: A Sense of Place

writing desk with keyboard, screen and printer in front of window
My home office

I’m sitting at my writing desk this spring morning in Sydney thinking about the need to ground our writing in a sense of place, whether landscape or cityscape.

How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved:  ‘I felt like I was there.’

Even if you relocate the poodle tied to a fake-cane chair, the sound of a game of tennis, the table of older men after their regular Sunday match at the café overlooking the tennis courts at Cooper Park that you drank a lemongrass and ginger tea at in Sydney into a café in a story in another state and time, the story will have originality and believability.  ‘But that café was in Sydney, I can’t transport it to Adelaide.’  But you can.  You can have flexibility with specific detail.  The mind is able to transport details, but using actual places that you experienced will give your writing authenticity and truthfulness.  It grounds your work in place, giving life and vitality to your writing, rather than a whole lot of exposition that floats in the air.

trees and house seen outside French paneled window
looking out the window from my writing desk

 If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. –  Jerome Stern

Creation of the physical world is as important to your story as action and dialogue.  If your readers can be made to see the hand-knitted socks or the row of vitamins on the kitchen benchtop, the scene becomes alive.  Readers pay attention.  Touch, sound, taste, and smell make readers feel as if their own feet are warm under the cold sheets.

Place situates the story in your reader’s mind.  Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all. –  Jerome Stern

I hope this tip on creating a sense of place is helpful. Do you have any suggestions you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

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3 Parts to the Feedback Sandwich

'The Crystal Ballroom' on bookshelf at bookstore

Yesterday, in the Saturday-afternoon feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing.  We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work.  That is because we are all in it together.  Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance.  Everything you put on the page is acceptable.

Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’  But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring?  Don’t give up your day job?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing.  It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is.  All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.

The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.

hamburger with cheese and two beef patties

As we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:

‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’

First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece.  Where did the writing come alive?  ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said.  ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’   It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it.  ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.

Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness.  It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page.   Keep writing.  Something new will come up.    You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring sentences.

I hope these suggestions are useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.  

Obsession is Essential to Creativity

coffee cup, water, writing pad, pen on wooden table in cafe

Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about.  Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.

It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time.  Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.

Sometimes I get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they can see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours.  After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories.  They have much power.  This is where the juice is for writing.  They are probably driving your life, whether you realise it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away.  And you can come back to them repeatedly.

One of the things I’m always obsessing about is relationships:  relationships in families, relationships with friends, relationships with lovers.  That’s what I tend to write about.  I think to myself, Why not?  Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow.  And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting  itself.

We are driven by our passions.  Am I the only one who thinks this?  For me these compulsions contain the life force energy.  We can exploit that energy.  The same with writing itself.  I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays.  I’m driven.

Not all compulsions are a bad thing.  Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.

quote about obsessions

What about you?  Do you find yourself writing about the same topics over and over again?

Writing Is Not Unlike A Sushi Roll

sushi rolls displayed on wooden platter

by Libby Sommer:

Sometimes there is a person in one of my creative writing classes who is obviously very talented.  I can bring to mind one in particular.  You could sense people holding their breath as he read, and often his hands shook.  The writing process opened him up.  He said he had wanted to write for years.  He was so excited about writing that he straight away wanted to write a book.  I said to him, slow down.  Just practice writing for a while.  Learn what this is all about.

In Japan becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship.  After five years spent working with a master or teacher itamae, the apprentice is given his first important task, the preparation of the sushi rice.

Writing, like becoming a Sushi Chef,  is a life’s work and takes a lot of practice.  The process is slow, and at the start you are not sure what you are making.

Futomaki  (“thick roll” – rice on inside, nori on the outside)

Uramaki   (“inside-out roll” – rice on outside, nori on the inside)

Temaki     (“hand roll” – cone-shaped roll)

It took me 14 years to produce a manuscript that a publisher was prepared to turn into a book.  I am forever grateful to small but prestigious Ginninderra Press for taking me on. Two books so far: My Year With Sammy (2015) and The Crystal Ballroom (2017).

So cut yourself some slack before you head off on a writing marathon.

Writing is like learning to prepare the rice for sushi:  the apprenticeship is long, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a Futomaki, a Uramaki or a Temaki will be the end result.

Connected short stories

exterior State Library of NSW
State Library of New South Wales Sydney

I had a five minute spot last Wednesday at the Society of Women Writers monthly lunch meeting at the State Library of NSW in Sydney. I was given the opportunity to stand up in front of a microphone and speak about my two books. It was a chance to confront my fear of public speaking and tell everyone ‘The Crystal Ballroom’ (Ginninderra Press) had been launched the previous week in Melbourne. I’d only spoken in public twice before, at the two launches. It was a very scary experience. Apparently, most of us fear speaking in front of an audience more than death. So, even though I appeared confident, my hands kept up their shaking for some time after I sat down again. But very pleased with myself for doing it. Those more experienced than me tell me it gets easier every time.

Anyway, the thrust of what I said was that I am transitioning from short story writer to novelist. My debut novel, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is really a novella and ‘The Crystal Ballroom’ a collection of short stories that I’ve linked together with an “I” narrator and the narrator’s friend, Ingrid. The two women get together over a coffee to talk about the dances they go to, who they see there, and who is sleeping with who, and who’s paying the rent 🙂

It was a device I used to turn a collection of short stories into a novel.

What about you? Have you been able to successfully change the form you write in?

 

I Am Not the Stories I Tell

two book covers: 'My Year With Sammy' and 'The Crystal Ballroom'

by Libby Sommer:

Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’. It’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing. I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.

What is your experience? 

The Goal is to Have Motivated Characters — A Writer’s Path

by S. E. White Everyone has heard of the Plotters vs. Pantsers camps for authors. Plotters take their story and attack it with outlines, guidelines, plotlines, and beat sheets. Pansters take it in a more relaxed way, writing as the story flows with plenty of detours as needed. Most writers take elements from each side and […]

via The Goal is to Have Motivated Characters — A Writer’s Path