Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writing Wednesdays-Setting



Ahem. Last week's Writing Wednesday took off like a bag of bricks. People weren't biting.

I'm trying again, anyway. I'll talk a little bit about writing, give a prompt, and share an example. If you like, you can respond in the comments with your own example, post an example on your blog or as a Facebook note, or email me your example.

Or don't. No pressure. Truly.

(But it would be fun.)

Writing Wednesday: Setting

When I was in school, my teachers told me that setting was 1) Time and 2) Place. And yes, it is that, but it serves a more important purpose. Setting is a gateway to character.

It was always frustrating to me when a teacher would make us describe something from nature. Inevitably, living in Arizona, I was forced to write long, purple-prose ridden odes to the Mighty Saguaro or the Majestic Cactus Wren. My paragraphs would be slashed with red, with the maddening phrase, "Elaborate!" scrawled into the margins.

Good grief, woman, how much can be said about a spiky, green tree?

One of my favorite writers, Sarah Vowell, says, "Even writers need relief from words." Amen, sister.

Setting is another tool in your arsenal. Description, of any sort, for any reason, must add something to tone, character, or plot or else it is just noise.

The Prompt:

1) Select a room in your house. I'm going to choose my kitchen.

2) Select three or four specific details of that room. I'm going to include them as photographs, because this is a blog, which is a visual format. You don't have to do this unless this helps you.

As you can see, I've selected my black toenails, a bottle of 409, a diaper box, and the stickers adorning my silverware drawer.

3) Study these objects and determine either A) the tone you're attempting to develop or B) what these objects reveal about your character. I think that I'm going to use these objects to reveal the general undercurrent of worry that so often runs through my mind.

4) Draft. Let it rest. Play with it. Show it to friends. Get feedback. Publish. (Or skip some of these steps, if that floats your boat. I admit it: I'm going to write this and publish it right away. Possibly, I'll edit it once or twice if something alarming jumps out at me. That's how I tend to roll.)

The Example:

Her boys are upstairs, finally, thankfully. One is sleeping in his crib, while the other is in his room, reading his Thomas and Diego books. In theory, he will do this quietly. In theory.

She scans the floor, once again littered with cereal, toy cars, puzzle pieces. What choking hazards crept out from the shadows this time? A toy car wheel? An errant kernel from last night's popcorn? What small mercies saved her son today?

She picks up the butter knife, and looks at an empty diaper box. Like all boxes, this was liberated from the recycle bin to become a washing machine, or a car, or a train. Yet, she cannot help but notice that her son, vigorously and deliberately, hollowed out the eyes and mouth of the smiling model baby. The baby is in a green field, resplendent in his diapers, but his face is hollow, broken, permanently damaged. This probably means nothing, she thinks. Or does it?

The 409 bottle stands guard, as always, on the counter. It is the first line of attack against the ants, the front row of the phalanx. Yet, despite the spraying and the poisons, the relentless cleaning and scrubbing, the ants continue their slow, trickling assault. They track up and down the windowpane, into the rice, the fruit, the baby's bottles. Slowly, they are wearing her house down. She must crush them, or they will conquer.

She sits down at the kitchen table, resting her feet upon the chair. She considers turning on the news, but stops: She cannot hear one more word about Swine Flu. Not when her babies rest upstairs, the bacteria from the playground still lingering on their soft, unwrinkled hands. No.

Instead, she looks at her feet. She got a pedicure, and chose black polish because she wanted a bit of edginess to combat her staid, stay-at-home-mom-ness. She stares at her toes, and wishes, more than she can admit, that she had something rosy to look at instead of that unrelenting darkness.

Well. That was darker than I intended. I'm fine--this is just what the writing presented for me today. Perhaps my subconscious needed to sort something out.

I'm not sure that I'm in love with it. The third-person ("she") point-of-view was a new risk, which made my sentences more passive than I normally like. You'll notice that I skipped the stickers image--it just didn't seem to fit once I started writing. Also, the choking hazards and Swine Flu things came from nowhere---except that they are both things I worry about quite a bit.

I hope that you give this exercise a shot. Looking forward to seeing your work!


Paul said...

Fine. You asked for it. Perhaps you'll think better of such requests in the future!

Corrie Howe said...

Nancy, I like Writing Wednesdays. I love Barry Lane too. I picked up one of his books hoping it would help me with Jonathan. When I complain about the school system (which I will try not to do on the blog), I also have equal or more praises. Last year Jonathan's writing grade dropped from an 'A' to 'B' to 'C.' I went in to talk to the vice principal, I was dissatisfied with the lack of solutions or resources from the meeting. So I went out to the library and bookstores to find help.

I know the teacher and staff were trying to encourage me and be helpful, but they really made me mad. The teacher said, "Remember last summer you were concerned about Jonathan's reading level. This year he's doing great. He turned the corner, just like I said he would. He'll do the same with his writing."

Believe me, Jonathan didn't "just turn a corner" with his reading. The staff at the Southern branch of the library know me by name, face, child and grade! The owner of Second Looks Books knows me by face and genre. I fought the "the person who invented reading should be hauled out to the middle of the street and shot" argument with Jonathan everyday that I made him read at least 30 minutes. I bribed him with PS2 games, McDonald's, Wii games, etc. (I got suckered into buying him a $45 used game for reading an entire series of books (Weird School Daze). It turned out I paid him $2 a book. If he'd presented me a proposal of paying him two dollars a read book, I'd decline.)

"Turn the corner?" "TURN THE CORNER?" I wish it were that easy.

Now that I got that diatribe off my chest. I plan to take you up on your offer. But I also promised myself I'd be in bed before 3 a.m. (When my husband is out of town, it is so easy to revert to the natural night owl within me. The problem is that I still have children who have to be up, fed, dressed and on a bus way too early for night owl habits.

Melani said...

I want in on the fun! I will try to remember this week for Writing Wednesdays. Yours was so interesting, I am not sure mine would be, LOL But I will try!