Friday, June 25, 2010

Writing Tips from Loonyland - Setting

So yesterday, I briefly mentioned how I outline all my settings in my Quest to Decrease the Suck (which is now the official title for my writing process). And Valerie asked how I did that.

Valerie will soon regret this question.

Here's the thing. My settings always suck extra hard. Because really, how can I be worried about the contents of the room when there are cute boys for my MC to kiss? And pesky younger brothers with pseudo swords and a hero complex? And ZOMBIES?!?

But once I got the MC, and the cute boy, and the pesky younger brother, and the ZOMBIES to all behave the way I want them to, I eventually realized (with the help of my editor) that maybe five scenes set in the car isn't exactly the best choice. I've found the driving thing to be one of the biggest problems with writing a thriller type book in which all the action happens in a couple of days. The characters are rushing around to get the zombies/mutant grasshoppers/rampaging politicians, and there's usually a lot of driving. And they need to talk, so why not let them talk in the car? Easy, right? Unfortunately, when the answer is easy, that usually means it's not the best answer. So I start outlining.

I use Excel for this, because I like being able to move scenes around, sort them, and so on. So each scene gets a line. And then I fill in the following info:

ACTION: What happens in the scene? Do I have a nice balance of high and lo action scenes? Do they progress naturally and build to a climax?

CHAPTER: Makes it easier to navigate the manuscript.

NUMBER OF PAGES: If my character is hanging around in the lab for 20 pages straight (and I'm ashamed to admit that she did in an earlier draft), I want to know about it.

DAY: Again, because the calendar of events is so important in my books, I keep track of the days. The book starts on day 1 and then after my MC goes to sleep, I call it Day 2 because I'm creative like that. This also helps me to manage time of day. It can't be morning if I've had six lengthy scenes already that day.

SETTING: Again, I'm looking for variety. If I see a lot of school scenes, I start brainstorming for more interesting locations. Zombies at school are fun, but what about zombies at a carnival? Or at a beach? Too bad my book wasn't set in the summertime, because I totally would have used these.

MAJOR CHARACTERS: To make sure my major characters don't disappear for a hundred pages and then reappear after my readers have forgotten who they are (or conversely, overstayed their welcome), I list them off and keep track of who is in which scene.

PHONE CALL/TEXT: Again, this is another issue in short time frame books. Yes, your characters need to stay in touch when they are separated and fighting the zombie hordes (or those pesky politicians). No, we don't need to see them dial every time.

CAR: I already mentioned this short time frame issue, but I'll say it again. Yes, they may need to drive a lot of places. But using them as filler scenes slows down the pace of your book. And especially as you're building to the climax, you don't want to do that.

Once the outline is done, I start looking for weak points. I count the number of scenes in school and see if I have too many. I look at the 20 pages of lab talkery and try to move or condense or (gulp) delete. And so on. I try my best to keep showing my readers something new instead of circling back on myself (again, guilty of that!).

So that's how I deal with settings and pacing and such. How do you do it?


Stephanie Faris said...

Great idea! I'm going to have to try this. My biggest problem is timeline. God forbid I get to a point in the book where a character has to say, "Just a few days ago" or "Just last week" because I can't keep track of how much time has passed since Chapter 1!

Lacey J Edwards said...

I have the same problem, Stephanie. Great post, Carrie! You've given me a setting idea. I have two or three short car scenes I could probably change or spice up.

Lacey J Edwards said...

Ooh, does this mean Valerie is now a member of the (Semi) Secret Order of the Blog Ninja?

storyqueen said...

This was very cool to read....I'm off to go decrease some suck myself!


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Dang that suckage. Well, you've given me some useful tips while keeping me laughing--that's a skill, for sure.

Candyland said...

WHOA! Holy headache. *Bows down to the master*

Tere Kirkland said...

Yeah, these are all things I need to keep track of, particularly when cleaning up my final draft. Thanks for putting it all into a convenient list for me! ;)

lora96 said...

I'm good on setting, mostly. It's character descriptions that blow. Like, um, I didn't even MENTION what my mc looked like until page 73. Inquiring minds wanted to know. Only the female readers though, the guys didn't care. So I made the major concession of describing her on page twentysomething.

Pacing is a major goblin.
As in, just because it's a fantasy novel doesn't mean they should spend sixty-eight pages traveling. I like to write about ponies. And scenery. And I like to put off the hard part of writing the confrontation scene, SO LET'S WALK SLOWLY.

Carolyn V. said...

Ohhh, I love these! I have to plot everything out. Everything. Then once that's done I can get to the writing and feel like the pacing is okay. =)

Claire Dawn said...

I tried the whole outlining thing once and was not a fan. :(

I have to admit, unfortunately that I am guilty of that MAJOR CHARACTERS problem. I had a subplot hijack my story for 20,000 words! I got so caught up in it, I only realised on my first edit. :(

K. M. Walton said...

Wow, Carrie, that is a serious spreadsheet. I love a good spreadsheet as much as the next organized human, but I've never used excel with my writing. Bills, yes. Writing, no.

I am impressed with your mad skills, as usual.

Valerie Kemp said...

Wow! Thanks for answering my question Carrie! My mind is sort of exploding right now but this is really good info!

In my WIP things happen in a short amount of time and there are important dates so I've been labeling the days in the ms. I try to keep track of when there's tons of stuff happening in one day and not much in another but you've given me some good ideas on how to better do that. Thanks!

Jonathon Arntson said...

Carrie, you're at the heart of two things I am exploring: fellow Michigan writers and Zombie-lit. Both are so unknown to me, but mostly the former. Thanks for adding me on Goodreads!

Keri Mikulski said...

No wonder I love your writing - I'm dealing with the same issues.. :)

It's a work in progress.. Pacing usually isn't a problem, stopping to describe is. :)

Happy Monday!

Perri said...

Thanks so much! I love this technique. I'll use it in my own "quest to decrease the suck".