Setting in fiction

Writing question of the day: How important is setting in a fiction manuscript?

Recommended reading: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve already discussed about setting in non-fiction and poetic works for children, and its importance still reigns in a regular good-ole fiction book. The story can revolve around a main character and those who surround the main character, and it can revolve around the plot, but the setting provides the visceral layer to the story.

Setting is what allows the reader to walk the same streets as the main character. This happened in Thirteen Reasons Why as Clay Jensen walked Hannah Baker’s streets. Sure, he could have just been sitting thinking about the different places, but if he did not actually go to them, and feel what Hannah felt when she was there, it would not have affected him as much. In this story, we actually have two settings, Clay’s setting and Hannah’s setting. It is the intertwining of the two that makes such a beautiful story.

Setting is not just “a desk was here,” “my house is there,” “I go to school here.” It is a part of the character and of the character’s story. If the main setting changes, the story changes. Imagine The Catcher in The Rye not in New York City, or The Chronicles of Narnia not in Narnia, or Harry Potter not in England, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not in the South. It changes the story – maybe not wholly, but substantially. Location is more than a physical world, it is history, culture, stereotypes, and pre-set notions.

Those are examples of longer reads, but even in a picture book the setting is important. You may not know the city or the exact place, but the sights and sounds of the main character need to become the sights and sounds of the reader as well. One of my favorite picture books is The Snowy Day. I don’t know what city it is in, but the setting of the snow-covered outside Peter traipsed through is integral to the story.

Think about setting in your own story. Does it matter? If you changed the setting, how much would it change the story? Drastically? Somewhat? Not at all? Try it in another setting. Not then whole work, but a scene or two. If you are writing a book set in Nevada, put it in Connecticut instead. Or if a scene takes place in a school gym, try it at the doctor’s office and see what you think.

Consider the nuances of setting too. Speech is a huge part of setting. It’s not just formed by where someone lives, but by what they are experiencing as well. If it is extreme weather, your characters will not just act but speak differently whether it is sweltering hot or freezing cold. Dialect is of course another form of speech setting. I am from the South, and in my own writing I have been told to take out or rephrase certain words or phrases because they don’t make sense. Hmmmph. That never makes me happy to read, but it’s something we need to consider when writing. The first is that will everyone understand what you are saying if you are using regional language. The second (and more important to me) is will those from the area feel like you have represented them correctly. If not, you could have bigger challenges.

Good reading, and good writing.



Setting and plot/character in poetry

Writing question of the day: Is setting in poetry, especially YA poetry, as important as setting in either fiction or non-fiction?

Just as setting in non-fiction and fiction, setting in poetry has a purpose and importance. However, the difference, especially in YA poetry or novels in verse, is the focus on the main character’s thoughts and feelings and less so on the setting surrounding them. The setting plays a part, of course, but it is not an equal to the part of the thoughts and feelings and needs of the main character. This leads to a greater emphasis on plot and character.

I recommend reading Far From You by Lisa Schroeder as an example of YA poetry setting. There was plenty of setting shared, but the words used to describe it were carefully chosen. Yet you felt as strongly to the car and woods they were stuck in, the stepmother’s parent’s house, and the record store where boyfriend Blaze worked and hotel they went to that they did not feel any less important. It’s not pages and pages of prose, but it’s letting you into the character’s mind to show how they felt about the setting to make it stronger with less words.

But what there was more of in Far From You was plot (a very strong plot) and character development. The plot, which focused on a teenage girl dealing with a new stepmother and stepsister after the death of her mother, was very strong. Yes, this book had the dead mother syndrome. But it added with the impending crisis of being stuck in the woods.

The same goes for character development. There was a strong main character whose voice was heard throughout. I felt her pain and her denial and her acting out as it happened. Main character Alice had her own wants, needs, and issues she needed to work through during the story.

There were also very strong supporting characters – her best friend, her boyfriend, her stepmother. However, although her father was a very important figure in her life, as a character I felt he was extremely underdeveloped. Perhaps this was purposeful.

I most equate YA poetry with YA fiction. You need to have a strong character and a strong plot to really pull the manuscript along. You probably even need your MC to have a stronger voice than usual, especially if they are the narrator of their lyrical poem.

Setting in non-fiction

Writing question of the day: do you think setting is more or less important in non-fiction than it is in fiction?

I don’t think setting in non-fiction is more or less important than setting in fiction, but that it plays a different purpose.

In a fiction work, the setting becomes an integral part of the story as it is part of the world in which your created characters live. You create the setting just as you would create the character; as a writer you have the ability to do with the setting the same as you would do for a character and create their world.

In a non-fiction work, especially in a biography, you are given what the setting is based on who your character is. You don’t have the ability to make the character and setting fit each other, but rather have to explain how the setting is important to your character, and what they did while in that setting. How much setting information you provide is based on your intended audience. In a biography about Abraham Lincoln for young readers, you could describe his birthplace as a log cabin in Kentucky. In the same biography for an older reader, you would go into more detail such as the actual county, how big the log cabin was, what it looked like, and what was happening elsewhere in the country and how that affected his family life in Kentucky. The basic setting (log cabin in Kentucky) is the same but the circumstances around it may be presented differently based on the audience.

For examples of effective setting in non-fiction, read Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor by Russell Freedman. In just a few words the setting is so clear to the reader – I can see and feel “humid lint-filled air” and hear and see “the stifling dust of the coal breakers” and it makes me interested in the story. If this were just presented as “bad work conditions for children” it would not be as effective. None of that language is about the main character, Lewis Hine, but it shows what was happening around him to make him take the actions he did. The setting was extremely important in his case.


Character & Plot in Fiction

Writing question of the day: Regarding character and plot in your story, which one do you start writing first?

In my own writing, I have done both. I don’t think one is better than the other, but the important thing to realize is that both work in different ways.

I study children’s books, and I study adult books, and I find that either plot, or character, or in really great works, both, carry the work. I think of the children’s books I have loved, and there are ones on my Top 10 list that I remember more for plot (Bridge to Terabithia) or more for character (Charlotte’s Web, Ramona stories, Baby Sitters Club stories). Then there are the rare few that knock it out of the park in both (To Kill a Mockingbird).

It seems books based on plot are more likely one-and-done type books, where those based on character have the potential for creating future works (a la Harry Potter). But I don’t think that is necessarily always the case or most certainly should not be a deciding factor in how to proceed on your own work.

I have two current works in progress, and each has started differently. The picture book I am working on is based on true happenings from my childhood. It features me, a family friend, and his chickens. Those are the characters. It has a starting plot, but as I have been writing I find that I need to expand on it to fit the model of threes for picture books. The YA novel in verse has a character I have been developing in several different forms, and this one seems to fit him best. Now I have to develop the plot around him but with different settings than I have done previously.

What works for you?

UCLA Writers’ Program

I just finished another writing class through the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. I actually took two at the same time. One focused on discovering your muse and writing through her; I found that Polyhymnia called most strongly to me. And the other was about children’s writing, taught by published author Catherine Ipcizade.

I could never say enough great things about the Writer’s Program. They have taught many students who have gone on to become published authors of books, articles, and screenplays.

I had wanted to take another class for the summer session, but the end date was just three days prior to my wedding. So I’m going to wait until the fall semester to alleviate some of that stress. That doesn’t mean I’m putting my writing on hold though. No, instead of a class I signed up for a four day intensive writer’s conference out here in Los Angeles.

To prepare for the conference I want to get more of my YA novel in progress written, so I can talk about it intelligently during any networking opportunities. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading countless agent and editor blogs, it’s “don’t get someone excited about a project that isn’t anywhere near done.” You never know when you may be the one picked to send off a sample to someone.

If all goes well with this conference, I will consider going to the winter conference in New York City. But I think the group has their planning all wrong – the summer session should be in New York and the winter session in Los Angeles! You have to be uber-dedicated to make the trek to NYC in the middle of January. You don’t even have the pull of Christmas decorations to make it better.

What we’ll be discussing

Welcome! I’m Amy and I’m a developing children’s book author. My current project is a young adult book of verse for boys.

At least once a week I’ll be on here talking about the different ways I am learning about the YA genre. One way is reading a ton of author, literary agent and editor blogs. Another is reading YA books (minus Twilight). And yet another is attending classes and conferences.

I just completed a UCLA Extension class on children’s writing, have joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and will be attending their conference this summer in Los Angeles. Woo hoo! Luckily I’m just behind the orange curtain so the travel to the conference doesn’t have me shelling out any more money!

SCBWI Conference

I am officially signed up to attend the SCBWI Summer Conference from July 30 – August 2 in Los Angeles. SCBWI is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and is THE trade organization for children’s book authors.

Good news – first major writing conference, no travel necessary, should be a great experience

Heart pulsing news – so much to do to prepare!

I read some great highlights from the SCBWI on how to prepare for your first conference. One was having business cards to hand out when you are networking. I ordered mine today. Of course, I have work ones, but I don’t know that they are necessarily looking for the “corporate communications” version of me for creativity in children’s writing. My new ones just have my name, the title of Writer, and my contact information, including the blog.

Another highlight was to have a pitch for your near completed or completed material in the event that lightning strikes for you and pages are requested. I have a completed picture book manuscript (but have some revisions to put in first) and am working on my YA novel, which is the one that I think would generate the most interest if I am pitch perfect.

Oh, plus there’s the general life stuff to get done before then, including the big one, continuing to work on wedding planning for the big day on September 4.

Lots going on, but all so worth it!