Thursday, July 20, 2017

Setting and Place

Setting and Place

For me, one of the worst things in writing is talking heads syndrome. Its where a writer hasn’t described where the characters are, or what is happening around them, so the reader has a sense of heads just talking at one and other in a void.

It’s important to anchor your readers in the setting, so they can develop a clearer picture of your story in their mind. However, setting isn’t just a backdrop for your characters to talk and move in. Setting tells a story. Setting can be a fantastic way to feed people information without dialogue or exposition. Setting sets the tone, adds to the wonder or tension and brings the story alive.

Settings Create Atmosphere

The setting helps greatly with the atmosphere of the scene. It can change the make readers feel safe or tense, prepare them for what is coming or give them vital information about the location and characters in it.

Every time you don’t use setting description to its potential, you are wasting an opportunity to immerse your reader. That’s not to say every scene needs a long description of the setting. However, take these three examples, all describing the same room:

There were candles burning in the den. There were two couches, a bookshelf and large TV.

This tells us what furniture is in the room. There is no atmosphere or emotion. Its rather boring, and contributes nothing but giving us very basic information.

Safe and exciting:
The den was lit with cheery, jumping candlelight. Two overstuffed leather couches would be perfect for reading in on cold winter days. The bookshelf was overflowing with titles, new and old, and the TV was so big, it took up half the wall, almost as good as a movie theatre.

In this version, most people reading will feel happy or inspired. They will want to be in the room, because most readers love a good reading space. Most people love a big TV too. The rooms sounds luxurious and like something we all inspire to have one day.

The den was cold and sallow in the flickering candlelight. Two overstuffed couches stood hulking on opposite sides of the room, like sagging, bloated monsters about to fight. The dusty bookshelf, spilled over with books, both forgotten and abandoned. The TV was the worst of all, a vast yawning blackness that took up almost the entire wall.

Same furniture, same room, very different feel. Instead of being happy and inspired, we feel tense. We don’t want to go near the TV or the couches. We certainly don’t want to curl up and read in there. The language here is telling us this is a bad place and something is probably going to go down.

When your characters enter a new location, ask yourself what the primary emotion of the scene is. Let your description of the scene lend to that. How you describe a setting should tell readers how they are going to feel and what they can expect. Priming the audience this way makes the final emotional impact of the scene much deeper.

Revealing Character 

When we go into a character’s personal space, their bedroom, their office, their car, we get to learn a lot about them, based on what we find there.

Take the following room description:

The child-sized chest of drawers was blue, and decorated with stickers of superheroes and trucks. Tiny army men and plastic dinosaurs were locked in a deadly dioramic battle on top, though many had spilled onto the floor, amid race-car tracks, soccer balls and dirty clothes that had missed the hamper. Lego and muddy sneakers peeped out from under the bed, along with one lone Barbie-doll, her hair shorn, her face half melted by a firecracker.

This could be the bedroom of a very average little boy—probably one with a sister who is going to scream the house down when she sees her doll.

What if we found out this was a little girl’s room? What would you know about her from her room? At the very least, she is a Tomboy. She likes boy’s things and if the Barbie doll is any indication, has a distain for girl’s things. Maybe she has brothers. Maybe she is trans and will later transition.

What if it was a forty-year-old man’s room instead? Is he mentally handicapped? What if everything was dusty and the door had been closed for a long time, the rest of the house inhabited only by a middle-aged couple who rarely talked or smiled?

What story are you telling when you describe your setting?

Giving Places A Sense Of Past And Future

A great tip for making your world seem more permanent, is to include details that give a setting a past and a future, a sense that they existed before the scene took place and will continue to exist after it is done.

For example, a flyer on a bulletin board that says: “Yoga Classes Start Next Tuesday” implies that there will be a Tuesday in the future. Chips in the surface of a table imply that it was used in the past, thus it must have a past.

There are thousands of ways to imply both past and future in scenes. Flowers not yet blooming, rust, wear and tear, mentioning what the setting is like in different seasons, or what it will be like when something transpires in the future. Juxtaposition between old and new, faded things, gaps were things are expected to be.

And little snippets of detail like this imply further detail. If a reader ‘sees’ one small detail, like dead flies on the windowsill, their brain will tell them there would be more details if they looked, which gives the world a sense of being fleshed out and real.

I hope this post has helped you see descriptions and settings in a new light. Remember, if you would like notifications when I update this blog, it’s a great idea to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Imposter Syndrome

Let’s talk about Imposter Syndrome.

Most of us have read the Neil Gaiman’s comments on imposter syndrome in response to a question by a fan:

The best help I can offer is to point you to Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence. She talks about Imposter Syndrome (and interviews me in it) and offers helpful insight.

The second best help might be in the form of an anecdote. Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.


It would seem to suggest that most people, no matter how talented, suffer from imposter syndrome in some capacity. The feeling that we are not worthy to stand among our peers, that their work is valid and real and that ours is somehow false. That one day we are going to be recognised for the fraud we are.

I’d like to address why we feel this way, in the hope understanding the feeling will give us all the ability to move past it. It’s not enough to know that everyone else feels the same way, that won’t seem real until you understand why.

Many years ago I did a blog post on how success can often look like failure. The original blog post was shared on livejournal and while I don’t remember the exact date, it was at least ten years ago now. You can read it here:

It discusses the idea that success is often failure after failure, because that is the process of learning. So what can look, from the outside, like repeated failure, is actually successful learning.

The problem is, that most failure and learning is done in private. It’s simular to the social media effect, where people only post good news and exciting events and makes their lives all seem good and successful. You compare that to your own life and you seem less happy, less social and less successful in comparison. Because you have 20-100 people all posting good news stories all the time, it seems like all of those 20-100 people are doing those sort of thing every week. Whereas if you looked at individual statistics, you would probably see people are socialising and having nice things happen about as often as you. This can be particularly bad if you don’t post all of your beach trips on facebook, so you assume the ones you see on social media are a fraction of the total. But in truth, they probably aren’t.

When it comes to success and achievements, you are only ever seeing the end result. The fantastic book, the amazing painting, the awards, the celebration. You’re never seeing the bits between. You’re never seeing the hard work, the hundreds and hundreds of failures that go into each success, the times that person was depressed and hated themselves and their work. Their public image is happy and generous and friendly and it gives the impression it was effortless.

I suspect a lot of people view my high word counts that way. I often say how much I enjoy writing, how it is a joy for me. I’m not sitting hunched in a back room, grimly forcing myself to write 2000 words every day like someone is holding a gun to my head. And that’s all true.

However because of my health, sometimes I write and edit while extremely sick. I edited an entire novel on my bathroom floor because I was too sick to leave the toilet. It took a month. I get 2000 words a day, but sometimes I am too sick to stand up for long periods and might go three days without a shower. Or even speaking out loud because I am too sound sensitive. Sometimes people say: “I wish I had your word count.” And I think: “Yeah, well, I wish I left the house in the past ten days, but we can’t all have what we want.”

Your favourite author, whoever they are, the writer you think is perfect and infallible and awesome, has almost definitely considered giving up. They’ve hated their work. They’ve struggled and failed and been sick with fear to open their laptop and face the page. Probably not once, but many times. Because they see their favourite author being effortless and skilled and charming and they feel like a fraud too.

I have been lucky enough to observe some of my favourite authors in close quarters and see their processes. One, to help other writers overcome their own insecurities, even shared excepts from their journal in which they berated themselves for their lack of talent and confessed a desire to give up.

It read rather like some of my own journal entries.

It’s important we all know these moments of doubt are normal. Feeling like an imposter, at times, is normal. However you shouldn’t wallow in it. Acknowledge it, realise it is untrue, and move on. Slathering yourself in it and rolling around like you are tarring and feathering yourself with depression and angst is not healthy or productive.

Your successes were all hard won. Be proud.