Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives

This is a throwback post, originally published about a year ago. 

Gasp. What?! What about all of those writing workshops where we stuffed one hundred adjectives into every sentence?

I am not saying there is no value in learning how to be descriptive and expand your vocabulary. But you can describe every single detail of a scene and still lose your reader. Why is that?

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Is Your Story Written Backwards or Forwards?

If you’ve researched writing at all, or read any of the many writing tutorial blogs out there, you’ve probably read that you have to write your novel backwards from the ending.

This isn’t a post to disagree or agree with that advice, but rather to explore it. Because this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. And I think there is another question closely tied to it:

Is your story a vegetable plant in a garden or a meal at a restaurant?

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Who Are You Writing For?

One of my best friends just finished “Into the Void.” She texted me saying, “Never stop writing, even if you are just writing for me.” She got it. That validated hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours of work.

It’s a huge accomplishment just to finish a novel. It is. But the market can be deadly. For a time, I queried my first book over and over to agent after agent–all with the same response. That’s when you start to feel crazy. Maybe this book is worthless drivel and I am deceiving myself. But that’s the thing…I know that it is not! I have (sadly) read several books that are worthless drivel and yet somehow they got an agent and a publisher.

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Popularized Emotional Dysfunction

Like most lies, its chief danger lies in its subtlety. What am I talking about? I am talking about how popular media propagates the message that emotional dysfunctional people are more interesting (among other things)than well adjusted people. Now, for the purpose of this short post I am defining emotionally dysfunctional people as people who express their emotions in unhealthy/immature ways. An extreme example would be a grown man throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. But (you say) surely the media isn’t glorifying the man throwing the tantrum; maybe they’re just portraying the way things are. Maybe. I’m not against portraying an honest picture of humanity, if it’s done well. But I want to explain some of the problems I have with what I call “irresponsible storytelling.”

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Stupid Decisions vs. Bad Decisions

There is a difference. And let me tell you a secret…there may be a few readers out there who enjoy watching the protagonist make stupid decisions and have to face the consequences, but most of us do not. It will drive your smart readers crazy!

Now, this doesn’t mean your protagonist has to make good decisions all the time. In fact, they can make stupid decisions on things that don’t matter (like naively getting cheated out of their money by a used car salesman). Sometimes those things make the character endearing. But if they make stupid decisions at plot critical moments, I am likely to start rooting for the antagonist.

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Why Life is Not Made of Magical Moments

I am not saying that magical moments don’t happen, or that they aren’t wonderful and worth holding onto. But they shouldn’t be what you live for.

Unfortunately, this is too often what films sell us. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that every film should hit us with the grim reality of life. I don’t have much taste for those films, either. And if you’ve read my blog at all you’ll know I am an advocate for using storyteller to instill hope in people. I love inspirational stories. But there is a difference between telling an inspirational story and telling a fluffy tale full of silver linings that gives people unrealistic expectations and makes them discontent with what they have.

Maybe I am the only one who’s struggled with this, but I used to think life was all about magical moments. Granted, there were some valleys in between those mountain tops, but they were just puddles to get through before experiencing LIFE. I have learned since that those puddles are life, too. And even though they can be hard and messy, they shouldn’t be despised.

There may be people out there whose lives really are a series of mountain tops. Congratulations, you are a rare species of unicorn. And I imagine you don’t want to waste much time watching movies because your life is so much more interesting. But for the rest of you out there I have a message for you:

There is beauty in the puddles, too. And to be clear I’m not talking about those artificial moments where the girl with the perfect hair, whose main problem in life is to choose between two beautiful men, has a moment of self-realization in the rain, accompanied by nostalgic music. That is only a shadow of true brokenness, and in truth it is still a magic movie moment. Because two minutes later she gets her happy ending. Real puddle moments are when you sob alone in a stairwell (and wipe your snot on your jeans because you don’t have tissues) and no one ever sees you. And then you stop crying, wipe your eyes, and keep going with life because that’s what has to be done. There is no hero music. And there is no one to rescue you.

Believe it or not, when I experienced those moments, I used to say to myself: if I can only get through this, I bet there is a magical moment coming soon. It can’t all be bad, right? But sometimes you go through years of nonstop bad and at the end there is no magical rainbow that makes it all okay, instead there is only “less-bad.”

So here’s my personal resolution: I am going to fight for the things that are important to me and live every day to the full, even if it is a puddle day. Then, if I happen to stumble upon a magical mountaintop moment, I will appreciate it all the more because it wasn’t expected. My life is not on pause, waiting for good things to happen. My life is happening right now in the messy, painful, but beautiful struggles of everyday life. Nobody may see them, and they may not be romantic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning.

 

Context and Why It’s Important

My parents’ bedroom and my father’s office are situated side by side at the end of the hall in the back of their house. Sometimes you can catch them having conversations around the corner. The other day I was sitting just down the hall when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Can I trust you? I would like to, but I just don’t think I can.”

Now I have heard my parents argue and I have heard my mother’s voice when it is under stress. This was different. It didn’t sound like a voice she would use with my dad, but who else would she be talking to in the back of the house? It sounded like she was repeating the lines from some soap opera.

A few minutes later I went into my parents’ room to ask a question. Everything became clear. She had two dresses (freshly dry cleaned) hanging from the bed frame and over on the windowsill was our black cat Max. (And no, he should not be trusted alone in a room with two dresses exposed. To him they might as well be the stairway to heaven.)

If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, that whole situation could have played out very differently. Here’s the truth about people though: a lot of them do tend to jump to conclusions. I tend to come from a rare breed–the ones who want to gather all the information they can before making a conclusion. I know it must be rare because people comment on it all the time.

I don’t think I need to explain to you how you can use context in your story. Some of the most infamous pieces of literature are centered around characters taking things out of context, or miscommunication.

Now, to be honest, stories about miscommunication can be infuriating. But as a writer, I have to recognize that people take things out of context all the time. It’s human nature. (Yes, even I do it.) One of the coolest things about human beings is that we can take information, process it, find patterns, and come to conclusions. Our brains are pretty neat. But no one is omnipotent. And we like for things to be wrapped up neatly. So, even if we don’t have all the information, we try to wrap up what we do know and that’s where we get into trouble.

Misunderstanding is part of life and it can be really fun to play with as an author (as long as you don’t torment your reader. Please don’t do that). In fact, I think there is nothing that can so powerfully show the different backgrounds of two people then how they may understand the same statement in two completely different ways. That’s the kind of misunderstanding I want to play with: the kind that reveals more about my characters.

How Seasons Have Made Me a Better Writer

I grew up with two seasons: rainy and more rainy. Then later on in southern California it was hot and dry and then chilly and dry. The first time I experienced winter was after my parents moved to Idaho. But I was only visiting for Christmas and only had to put up with it for a few weeks. My first full winter was a trying experience. I used to think cabin fever was a weird dance from “Muppet Treasure Island.” But it’s real, folks.

Now, I embrace the seasons (mainly because resistance is futile- if the Borg were talking about winter they’d have it just about right). They have taught me a heck of a lot about life and about writing–and no, I’m not just talking about learning to describe nature.

Spring. No one ever told me that some trees and bushes bloom yellow before turning green. When the air is crisp and fresh there are moments when spring and fall look almost exactly identical. Only spring is fall in rewind. Patterns are good and sometimes it’s okay for your character to face the same circumstances twice because the outcome will be different. 

Spring. As much as I love Francis Ford Coppola, his gorgeous spring montages in “The Secret Garden” gave me the impression that everything blooms at once. Well, if not all at once, at least within two weeks of each other, right? Wrong. I did not realize that spring comes in waves. The daffodils bloom while most things are still dead. And they in turn, have faded and died by the time the irises peek their purple heads out. It is rare to have all good things come at once. In real life, even the purest joy is tempered by struggle and sadness close by. But that only strengthens the beauty of that joy. 

Summer. No matter how many seasons we’ve been through, humans often have a tendency to think the one they are in at present will last forever. And summer heat has a way of melting winter from your mind. But the human heart doesn’t always heal as fast as the earth. And just because everything looks green and warm, doesn’t mean there is real life beneath. While winter may be cold and harsh, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It is brutally honest. There is something about summer that can too easily spread a thick, warm glaze of fake over any imperfections.

Fall. Just as spring is a painfully slow awakening, fall is a drawn out death. Sometimes the best seasons in life are not the easy, breezy summers, but the melancholy days of struggle marked off by the sound of dripping leaves. There is something beautiful about watching a town prepare for winter. You see it in advertisements, closed up doors, jackets and raincoats, but you also hear it in the change of conversation. And you see it in peoples’ faces: “Here come the snows again. We will survive.” There is beauty in patient resignation to difficult circumstances. 

Winter. I have so much to say about winter. Some of it I have already said, and some of it I will say again. Humans have a remarkable ability to endure, and the life under pressure is one of the most worth examining. I suppose there are people out there who only endure a handful of “winters” in the span of their lifetime. But the rest of us go through periods of “winter” on a regular basis. Some of us live at the North Pole. And although it is not fun to live winter, stories about winter are some of the best stories to read because they speak to your very soul.

What is a “Literary MVP” and Why Do I Love Them?

I have been thinking a lot about genres–partly because I am asked to clearly define the genre of each book I write, partly because as an author genre partially defines me, and partly because I do a lot of writing research.

You may or may not find it surprising that it is difficult for me to categorize my work. Yes, it falls within the bounds of science fiction or fantasy. But I always find myself wanting to add explanations: “it’s not just science fiction.”

The truth is that genres sometimes remind me of high school stereotypes. Do you remember how in high school as soon as you told someone you were in band, or on the football team they immediately stereotyped you? That’s how it is with genres sometimes. People like to categorize books by content and not by whether they are good or not. And as an author starting out you are told to pick your genre and stick with it.

Here’s the problem: I’ve never been good at staying in boxes (shoutout to Pelangi, who knows this better than anyone!). Growing up between two cultures probably had a lot to do with this. I’m not a fan of blanket statements, I don’t like black and white thinking, and moderation and balance are two of my favorite words.

In thinking about genres, I came to two realizations: a lot of authors fully embrace and lean heavily into their genres; but I am not one of those authors. I came to this realization while contemplating the problem with the vast majority of romance novels: they miss the forest for the trees. I think I’ve shared that quote about endings being hard because they are false. Well, your typical romance novel focuses entirely on just that: a romance between two people. It’s almost as if the lives of these people before they met didn’t matter, nor will their lives after matter. I realized that the only romance I will write will be part of a bigger story. It will be a bigger story about life in general in which people fall in love. Because like it or not, life is not centered around romance. (Now, I am not saying that there are no good romance novels out there. I’m sure there are. I just think the market is flooded with bad ones, and I also think that I will never write one.)

What I want to write is the “Literary MVP.” Can you guess what I mean by that? In any sport you have your specialists and then you have your all-around players. Now technically a specialist can win most valuable player. But at least in my mind, the MVP was the player that carries the team because the coach can put her in anywhere. That’s what I’m talking about.

My favorite books transcend genres. Yes, they can be technically categorized, but they always appeal to a wider audience because they strike a common chord. They take a piece of human existence and insert it into their genre. But their work breaks down stereotypes.

I want my works to be strong in all areas. I want them to be quick on their feet, with spiderweb fingers, able to block if necessary, and able to punt when necessary. I don’t want to settle for being strong in one area. It takes a lot of work and training to be an all-around athlete. It’s no different for us all-around writers.

I’m well aware that at present I probably fall short in several categories–that is I haven’t reached champion status in all categories. I am okay with that. I will continue to aim high until I hit my target.

 

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be a powerful tool, and I’m not even just talking about “little did he know.” (Stranger Than Fiction anyone? lol) There is the obvious foreshadowing that is thrown in the reader’s face to intentionally cause suspense, anticipation, and make the fulfillment more climactic.

But then there is another form of foreshadowing. It is the subtle planting of seeds that will eventually grow into plants. These are the moments that seem like everyday coincidences or trivial details, but they give the reader a foothold to understand the plot development or character journey. Over the last two years I have discovered their power and been learning to wield it. I see it like priming a canvas. The first layer appears subtle and pointless at times, but it gives depth and quality to the painting.

One of the biggest areas of growth for me has been with characters. I used to add characters with carefree abandonment. After all, aren’t there 7 billion people in the world? In real life you have dozens of people come in and out of your life, even in the span of a year: family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances. And yes, that can be distracting for a reader. But what I really found was that if they weren’t memorable and had no purpose they simply faded. That’s what happens in real life too isn’t it? How many of you can name your classmates from sixth grade? I found that a quick way to give characters more unction was to combine them.

Now, this isn’t necessarily considered foreshadowing. I guess I am just talking generally about things (whether themes, characters, or events) that recur in your novel. Some of it is foreshadowing and some of it is just good plot structure. However. I got so excited about weaving these intricate connections that I forgot that sometimes it is good to not have them.

Now, some people like to just blindside their reader by pulling things out of left field at the last minute. Yes, it can make for a big shocking reveal and all, but I’m not a big fan of that. As authors we have a remarkable amount of power. We decide how much information the reader will receive, and I think it’s a bit unfair to purposely hide important information and then pummel them on the head with it. I’m thinking of “Ocean’s 12.” As a viewer, I wanted to be part of the team’s plan and to help figure it out, but they were withholding information. At the grand reveal at the end I felt cheated.

My point is this: you should give your reader clues to help figure out your climax. But that doesn’t mean you have to give them everything. There are times when you should bring in surprises–as long as they fit well within the circumstances and characters you have established.

In other words, put some things in there for your reader to guess (they will feel like they are part of the process) and put in some things that your reader would never have guessed (because they do like to be surprised sometimes).

For example, I recently strengthened a character’s involvement in the climax. Up until this point the character had been marginalized. Their existence was well known to the reader and even vital to plot progression, but they weren’t taking part in much of the action. Weaving them into the climax in their own way made perfect sense, but would catch the reader off guard. I considered going back and adding more scenes for this character, putting in more background and foreshadowing. But I realized that I didn’t have to. My narration is mostly third person limited-omniscient. Although I throw in outside scenes to flesh out characters and give the reader more information, the story is still very much centered on my protagonist and how she witnesses events and reacts to them. That being said, I thought it was even more fitting to let the reader experience the surprise alongside of the protagonist.