Introducing Setting: Writing Tips

room-setting

You need to find balance. Too much detail and your reader gets bored. Too little, and they have no idea what’s going on. I am, of course, talking about setting. Introducing it can sometimes seem impossible, but I have a handy trick for you. You just need to think from the reader’s perspective.

Where am I?

It’s one of the first things your reader will ask. The only picture she’ll get of your story is the one you describe. And the way you describe it will make a big difference. At this early stage, it needs to be relevant. Describing the entire town and its inhabitants as they go about their business is rarely relevant to the very beginning of your story (though it might be later). Your main character’s immediate location (their bedroom, their prison cell, in a fishing boat) probably is.

Tips:

  • zoom in on your character (nine times out of ten, it’s him that we care about)
  • little details give lots of info (a barred door says ‘prison’ without you having to)
  • use all of the senses to engage your reader (or more than just sight, anyway)

When is this happening?

Your reader needs to know if this is a story set in the present day, a historical on the streets of Victorian London or set in the distant future. The good news is, you don’t have to come right out and say it. A hint is all you need — and later on, you can fill her in on all the relevant history.

Tips:

  • sneak in an easy time identifier (an iphone says modern day, a sword says medieval, a hologram says future)
  • avoid summarising current events or relevant history (that’ll come later, if you need it)

village-setting

What kind of story is this?

Your setting is the background music for your story. It sets the tone, creates an atmosphere. If you start your story somewhere dark and threatening, then your reader will think this is a dark and threatening sort of story. If you start it somewhere hectic and energetic, your reader will think this is an energetic story. If you start it somewhere boring and everyday — well, you get the picture.

  • use little details to hint at something more (it looks like a normal school library, but there is a corner at the back that is always in shadow)
  • don’t go with traditional tone setters (maybe other people like it to be stormy for a scary story, but you can go with dry desert heat or turbulent wind)

What does this tell me about the character?

Setting can be much more than just a backdrop. It can be a reflection of your character, or a contrast to them. It can raise questions that will keep your reader reading. A bedroom full of computer parts, a blood-stained wall and a knife in your character’s hand, if your character is just standing and basking in the rain — setting can be a powerful tool when combined with character, especially in those crucial moments at the start of your story.

Tips:

  • have a setting that either complements or contrasts your character
  • have a setting that raises questions (why is there a badger skull on the doorstep, what is a girl in a dress that expensive doing in this part of town)
  • make it a hook (raising questions can do this)

If it seems if there’s a lot to think about just to introduce setting right in the very beginning, don’t panic. You don’t necessarily need to fit all of this in. The take-away lesson is: your reader needs to know where your character is, so you might as well use it for other things, too.

And since introducing setting relies on key details rather than heavy description, you’ll find you can do quite a lot with just a few words.

What are your tips for introducing setting? Tell us in the comments!

 

The images in this post are used under Creative Commons licensing. In order of appearance, credit to: 1. Giuseppe Moscato (licence) 2. Riccardo Cuppini (licence).

 

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Active and Passive Voice: Grammar Tips

Hello to all you word smiths and writers! Because grammar is fascinating, I’ve decided to revive an old grammar post.

active and passive voice

Active and Passive Voice

Now, this is something that a LOT of writers tear their hair out over. How many times has someone told you ‘there’s a problem with passive voice’ or ‘your style is too passive’ and then failed to explain it? In the vast majority of instances, active and passive voice are actually very simple.

Active and passive voice rely on knowledge of sentence structure, specifically subject and object

The subject is what the sentence is about. The subject acts.

The object is the other thing in the sentence. The object is acted upon.

In an active sentence the subject comes first.

In a passive sentence, the object comes first.

So, here’s an example.

Sarah pets the fox.

This one’s pretty obvious. Sarah, who is acting, is the subject. The fox, who is acted upon, is the object.

This sentence is ACTIVE.

But it can easily be swapped around while retaining the same meaning.

The fox is pet by Sarah.

So now the fox and Sarah have been swapped around. But it is still Sarah who acts (making her the subject) and the fox who is acted upon (making it the object).

This sentence is PASSIVE.

And it works with more complex sentences, too.

ACTIVE

Sarah was walking along the town high street when she stopped to cuddle someone’s pet fox.

PASSIVE

The pet fox was cuddled by Sarah, who was walking along the town high street.

Both of these sentences have two objects and a lot more information than our original examples, and yet you can still identify Sarah as the subject, because she is who the sentence is really about. So you can still tell whether the sentence is active or passive based on where Sarah appears in that sentence.

QUICK TIP: the word ‘by’ will often identify a sentence as passive (The fox was pet BY Sarah).

Why is the passive voice so terrible?

Well… it isn’t. A lot of these hard-and-fast writing rules are not really that hard. Passive voice, like any grammatical tool, serves a purpose. If you want to obscure or hide the subject, passive is ideal. But ultimately, that’s the reason why passive is rarely used; it’s unclear.

Active sentences have more energy, are clearer and easier to follow. And that is never to be sniffed at in writing. So when you’re looking over your sentences, consider whether a sentence would be better off rewritten into active voice.

The image in this post was used under Creative Commons licensing. Credit to Tom Lee (licence).

writing

(Update) Writing a Serial: Beginning

cereal-bowl-2Yes, I am the kind of person who will make the same pun twice. I will make it many times!

So, as you know, I’m writing a serial. I got most of the early planning out of the way and have even started drafting the opening. I have something of a structure in place, too.

Basically, instead of books, I will have seasons and instead of chapters, I will have episodes, with one episode releasing every week (or such is the plan). I want to have each episode as a short story contributing to a wider arc, following the same characters in a fairly straight-forward timeline. So, not unlike a children’s TV series. I’d like each episode to equate with TV episodes in both structure and time spent. Perhaps this is a strange way to brand a serially-released story, but this is a passion project and therefore I can do WHATEVER I LIKE! *cue maniacal laughter*

I’m feeling pretty confident of my episode-by-episode plans, and the wider arc is shaping up nicely. At the moment, the main thing I’m struggling with is the opening.

writing a serial

This story is taking shape rather quickly, and so I haven’t spent the months I usually do just toying with characters and concepts. Consequently, I think a lot of what I’m writing now is just ‘getting to know’ my characters, and will probably be cut once I get into this episode in earnest. This doesn’t really bother me — I don’t think there’s any substitute for writing characters when getting to grips with their characterisation — but nonetheless, it takes time. I’m trying not to rush this. To make it easier on myself later on, I’d like to write several episodes before I even think about publishing this to Wattpad, both so that I have a backlog of work ready should I need it and to get an idea of whether an episode a week is feasible.

But I’m excited. I’m really, really excited. It’s great to be working on something new.

 

The images in this post are used under Creative Commons licensing. In order of appearance, credit to: 1. Michael Verhoef (licence) 2. jeffrey james pacre (licence).

 

writing

Wii Fit: (Cheap!) Exercise for Geeks

exercise for geeks

I hate exercise. I find it sweaty, tedious and unrewarding. In spite of many assurances that I would come to enjoy it after several weeks of commitment, I never found this to be the case. With the exception of martial arts (which I adore), I resist all activities which might require me to change my clothes or drink additional water.

However, I do love video games. I didn’t want to miss the chance that I could enjoy exercise by appealing to my inner-gamer. And since the Wii is now a last generation console (and significantly cheaper because of it), I thought I would give it a go.

I started by borrowing my mother’s console, to see how I got on with it before investing any money in it. I’d seen other people playing on it: since it was just the fitness game (Wii Fit Plus) that I was looking at, it didn’t seem like it would be much fun.

Then … the crunch of dirt under foot. Wind whistling through the mountain pass. The whooshing in and out of the tide. Wii Fit could even make jogging fun. Friends and family would jog past, waving and smiling. You’d get to jog through a wind farm, beside underground rivers, through the courtyard of a castle and a quaint coastal town. And at the end of it, you’d get time taken, calories burned, and a ‘burn rate’: a score for how steadily you ran.

That score. That score is everything to me. I’m not a competitive person: I recognise that the only thing I have control over is myself. So the opportunity to compete with myself, to better my own score, is irresistible.

exercise for geeks

There’s not only jogging. There are a huge amount of mini games for balance, rhythm and weight-loss, as well as ones for strength-training and muscle toning (push-ups and yoga being particularly exhausting). I’ve become obsessed with perfecting Step Basics, a game where you step on and off the fit balance board in time with other characters. I don’t think I’ll let myself move onto the next stage until I consistently score perfectly.

Wii Fit makes exercising a game. There’s nobody watching you or judging you, no subscription fees, no problems with weather or temperature or terrain. It’s in your own home and it constantly encourages you to better yourself, to exercise more regularly, more frequently, for longer. It makes you accountable by weighing you daily — and asking you to report why you gained weight if you did (my answer is usually ‘all of the above’). Needless to say, I now own my own.

It’s a lot of fun. It’s cheap. And the cheerful virtual reality makes it the perfect exercise for geeks.

What gets you exercising? Tell me in the comments!

 

The images in this post are used under Creative Commons licensing. In order of appearance, credit to 1. HelloMokona (license) 2. Tscherno (license).

 

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I’m Planning To Write A Serial

writing a serialNo, not that kind of cereal. (Okay, okay! I won’t pun any more, just stop throwing things!)

I’ve been intrigued these last few months by the possibility of writing a serial. Not a serially released novel, but a serial in its own right; each episode a self-contained story, but part of a larger arc. More continuous than a series of short stories, but less invested than a novel. And I’m actually going to do it.

I didn’t originally intend to. It was one of those ‘one day’ things. I’m already quite busy writing and editing novels (not to mention work, life, and everything else), so while this idea I had for writing and releasing a serial was interesting, I wasn’t particularly invested in it.

But the interest persisted. I like serials in most other medias. I enjoy watching a series of videos. I enjoy web-comics. And fiction serials have a long history in magazines as well as a big following in fanfiction. I couldn’t help but be excited about the possibilities of writing in this manner: smaller chunks, instant feedback and an exciting new narrative structure that looks so different from the novel structures I’m used to. (New narrative structures! Be still, my beating heart!)

Still, I got on with my life and my writing. The serial remained a theoretical, not a goal.

November rolled around and one of the sponsors for National Novel Writing Month was something called Jukepop Serials. And the concept is pretty cool: authors release their works serially, and the most successful (those that receive the most votes from readers) are funded by Jukepop.

writing a serial

As a funding platform, I’m not entirely convinced. With platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, it’s easier than ever for creators to crowdfund their projects. The competitive aspect of Jukepop seems inefficient to me, and even the top rated serials don’t seem to earn very much. It seems to me that Jukepop is a natural space for things to get political (‘you vote for me and I’ll vote for you’), where the artists with the biggest networks rather than the biggest following will rise to the top. I much prefer to see funding that comes straight from the fans.

Nonetheless, I was very excited to see that serials might be a thing. So I considered other possibilities, and decided to look into Wattpad, which I knew to be a platform for releasing free-to-read stories. And on looking into it, I got pretty excited.

writing a serial

It seems perfect. There’s no competition or need to bully your way up a ranking table, it’s unfunded, so you can just release things for free and fund whatever way you choose.

There’s also a huge community. I mean HUGE. 35 million is a lot of users even if we assume a large percentage are inactive. What a great place to find readers!

And it has the option to release serially. In fact, many Wattpad writers do.

This is the part where you imagine me as an anime girl with big throbbing heart-eyes.

writing a serialAnd before I knew it, I was running through concepts in my head, wondering which would lend themselves to a serial format. Then I was scribbling notes and dedicating notebooks to it, and now I find myself with the synopses for the first two episodes and ideas for more to come.

I’m planning to write a serial. Stay tuned for updates, because I’m really excited about this.

Images are either of my own making or used under Creative Commons licensing. In order of appearance, credit to: 1. musicfanatic29 (licence) 2. myself 3. myself 4. Jenny S (licence).

writing

Cats: Tragic Loners

Musings on the tragedy of cats

cat-sadI own the cuddliest, most idiotic ginger cat. He’s fat, he’s lazy: I’m pretty sure he’d kill for some lasagna. If we’d named him Garfield, it would not have been a stretch. It takes work to envision him as tragic.

And yet, I do. And it’s not because of his backstory. It’s because of what he is. It’s because I believe that to be a cat is to be a tragic loner.

To give a little background: I studied animal behaviour at Lackham College and got my Certificate in Animal Behaviour & Welfare from the University of Bristol. I have been thoroughly trained not to anthropomorphise animals and I suspect all of my former teachers would face-palm as they read this title.

But I’m also a cat owner, and to have a pet cat is to see a tiny, furry person (if not human) living in your home. And above all else, I am a writer: I see narrative everywhere. Story is how I see the world.

So, with all this in mind: why are cats tragic loners?

You can’t go through life as a cat owner and not pick up on their strange quirks. On a walk around the local neighbourhood, a friendly ‘hello’ will see a cat charge at you, ready to bowl you over with tiny but insistent head-butts. At home, all but the most feral of cats will hunt your attention with the single-minded focus of a lion on a zebra’s trail. They sit in our laps, twine about our legs, roll luxuriantly on beds and sofas; a clear invitation for cuddling. Cats adore human affection.

cat-sleepingBut cats are not like this with other cats. I have always known this, but it was the BBC’s documentary Cat Watch 2014 that really got me thinking. This intensive study of the habits of urban and farm cats showed something very clearly: cats can barely tolerate other cats. On the street, they divide up their territories by time and space, and fight viciously on the borders. In the home, they do the same in microcosm, dividing up rooms of the house and even places on the bed. They may not always fight, but they conflict: a cat might sit at the bottom of the stairs in order to prevent another cat from passing, or sit by the catflap in order to take a good swipe at any who dare to pass through.

Cats do not like other cats. And while there are exceptions to this, particularly cats from the same family group when food is plentiful, it is a given that if you introduce a new cat to an established territory, there is going to be conflict.

cats-fightingIn the wild, cats are solitary. In the home, they’d rather be left alone. Even mating is a violent and unpleasant affair for cats, and it might breed kittens but it breeds no affection. Motherly affection is short-lived: as soon as kittens are old enough they are booted out, sometimes with claws.

So why do they love humans so much? Food is an easy answer, but there is more to it than that. Cats are, somehow, domesticated, but they don’t fit the profile of domesticated species. They don’t live in social groups and don’t have a fluid social structure. They certainly benefit from association with us, but most species would. We cat owners might look at them and see people, but they aren’t really like humans at all. So why did they start living with us?

I think difference is really the answer. Humans are unusual in that we have an extremely fluid social structure, adopting other humans and even animals into our families. We raise our children for many, many years, and the parental bond doesn’t sever when they start their own families. Our cats, our dogs, our gerbils: we extend them the same treatment. Our cats are given love, affection, care and shelter forever, not just until they can fend for themselves.

I think cats are lonely, but that cats are such vicious and territorial creatures that they cannot stand to be around other cats. But humans, who are tolerant and affectionate to cats: we fulfil something in them. A cat isn’t happy in a family of cats, but in a family of humans, they are content.

And, little by little, we are rubbing off on them. Maybe the cats of the future won’t be lonely at all.

cats-together

This post is just me inserting narrative onto scientific facts, which means it’s not scientific at all. Please don’t quote me as a behaviourist. But it’s certainly an interesting story, and one that prompts us to be kind and affectionate to animals.

All images in this post are used under the Creative Commons Licence for non-commercial use. In order of appearance: 1. credit to Olga Filonenko 2. credit to Trish Hamme 3. credit to Gordon Flood  4. credit to Charles Huss.

Tell me what you think in the comments!

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