Scene-Setting

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Scene-Setting: The often overlooked
powerhouse in every writer’s arsenal.

You’ve heard this before from me, and now you shall hear it again: Rule #5: Continually scene-set, character-build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Need a refresher? Look Here.

For fledgling and action-oriented novelists, scene-setting is often the most overlooked of these three essential fictive components. Yet proper scene-setting is imperative. One cannot simply rely on plot momentum and character development alone. (At least, not when writing a novel.*) But many novelists have trouble adequately grounding readers, largely because scene-setting can be radically misunderstood. Do realize that proper scene-setting is a far more complex concept than simply pointing out a big red barn or a hazy afternoon.

Since ‘scene-setting’ is typically considered an all-inclusive term incorporating all five senses, and optionally including how and when, grounding a reader can refer to a multitude of possible sensory enhancements necessary to fully develop a scene. Scene-setting can (and should) provide powerful imagery—colors, motions, sounds, feelings, fragrances—that add more than a vague or occasional embellishment to your plot and characters, or to their environs.

For instance:

Johnny Rocco was led through the prison yard by his guards toward freedom.

VS.

Johnny Rocco lumbered through the prison yard, his wrists and ankles shackled, with twenty pounds of tempered steel chain wrapped around his waist for good measure. The six guards surrounding Rocco had been hand-picked by the warden, each man heavily armed, and each secretly hoping that Rocco might make some stupid move, a twitch or a smirk, resulting in a particularly bloody demise before the man made it past the yawning front gates to freedom.

I have absolutely no problem with minimalism, and yet if Johnny Rocco’s walk toward freedom is the first line of a new scene or chapter, I do have issues with the opening’s lack of emotional depth and visual stimulation. The latter of these two examples feels far more expressive, and better grounds the reader immediately in this new scene.

Very often when we sit down to begin a new scene or chapter, our brains are already overflowing with stimulating visual momentum; our thoughts crowded with profound, dramatic intent. Just remember that readers cannot see into our mind’s eye! We may visualize quick, fragmented glimpses of a basic setting as we write, but we’re here to tell a story, damn it, and tell our story we will! So we hustle off…

But wait a sec. Exactly where are we again? We may intuit every step that our characters take, but realize that readers need sufficient sensory information (note I didn’t simply say visual information) to accompany our journey.

So how important is scene-setting? It’s crucial enough to be considered a new rule. Rule#17: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers.

Another example:

Jane awoke in a haze, lying on a bare cot in a small, unfamiliar gray room. She found herself unable to remember how she’d gotten here—nor much of anything of the last 48 hours, her recent memories vague, her thoughts fragmented. Attempting to move her arms, Jane discovered that her wrists were bound to the cot with thick leather ties.

Shaking her head, she felt a sharp stab of pain. A concussion, perhaps. Had she been knocked unconscious? Jane couldn’t remember. For a long moment she remained still, quiet, warily inspecting her surroundings. A single, wooden door stood across the room. Closed and presumably locked. To her left, Jane observed a solitary window. Worn, muslin curtains swayed in a light breeze, the widow open, revealing a faint hint of rosemary and sage. Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.

A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention… (and here comes the plot.)

But before any action begins in earnest, our stage is now set. Perhaps not fully set—but sufficient information has been given readers to ground them in the moment. We can further fill in blanks or add nuance in later scenes or a subsequent chapter. Yet because we mention a door, a window, a distant mountain; most readers will intuit that these items are (or will likely become) necessary elements in our story in some significant—or perhaps insignificant but insightful—way.

So, in our haste, if we write:

Jane awoke in a small room, tied to a cot. She couldn’t remember her name. Suddenly a noise outside the door startled her….

…we’re cheating our readers with by withholding ambiance that can greatly enhance the experience that we’re providing. It’s like serving dinner guests bread and butter on paper plates when we’ve promised them Filet Mignon on fine china. Maybe they won’t go away hungry, but they certainly won’t go away happy. Without sufficient scene-setting techniques, our writing can feel dry and emotionally vacant, lacking any sense of style and color and flavor. Realize that all sense of dramatic nuance, of stylistic intent, is easily lost behind a too swiftly moving plot.

Here’s a suggestion: Each time you begin a new scene or chapter, think of yourself as a Broadway set director (a.k.a.; set designer), confronting a bare and empty stage. Your first step? Visualize what’s necessary for the performers. What physical elements will the actors need to fully tell their story, both in terms of location and stage props? The next step? Ask yourself what conditions have changed since the last act? A new local? A new time? New characters? Mood swings? Because all these changes should be sufficiently revealed before (or very soon after) any forward plot momentum continues. What elements do readers require to believe the reality you’re presenting?

For instance, if this particular act in your stage play takes place in a large living room, the director (also you, BTW, but wearing a different hat) may have characters entering from stage left and stage right simultaneously. Meaning that you, wearing your set designer’s hat, will need to implement two doorways in the set. If you—writing the scene on a page—reveal only to readers one doorway when first describing the room, you’ll confuse readers. Your later self may balk—and you’ll find yourself begrudgingly adding or deleting numerous pages to make the scene work properly.

Understand, that many of us (me, included) often skip a great deal of scene-setting (and character development as well) until a second or third draft. So when working on a first draft—then, yes!—by all means focus solely on the plot. For the moment, the color commentary can wait.

Meaning it’s okay for our story to remain temporarily incomplete, because the process of writing is fluid, and still very much in motion. At this stage, the writer has room to maneuver. My own first drafts are filled with gaping holes and unfinished thoughts, even random notes to myself—and God help anyone who tries to decipher my intent if they come upon the incomplete manuscript. I make notations in red (I draft everything on-screen, not paper) and rely on red ink to mark my unfinished thoughts. Thus, my first drafts commonly look something like:

Jane awoke [in a fog? Or is she coherent? Naked? If so, why?], lying on a in a small [describe] room. She found himself unable to remember how she’d gotten here [why? Concussion? Amnesia? Drugs?] She observes her surroundings and… yadda, yadda.

Because sometimes it’s far easier to return and fully embellish a scene once the skeletal frame of the story is already in place.

Okay, so how much detail is too much? Scene-setting is, of course, a matter of personal preference—but also a question of our ability in gauging how much or how little grounding is necessary to properly immerse a reader in any given scene. As novelists, we can spend paragraphs or even pages attempting to properly scene-set in great detail—although I advise writers not filling pages to such an extent that one loses sight of maintaining plot momentum. In the above example, Jane’s waking confusion—plot momentum—is still our primary focus. So a writer must constantly compromise, juggling plot momentum, character development and sufficient (if temporarily incomplete) scene-setting.

One noteworthy caution: When scene-setting, beware of the dreaded red herring. Jane may notice, for instance, a set of sterling salt and pepper shakers on a table beneath the window. If such items are glimpsed in passing, fine. But if Jane dwells for any reason or spends any perceptible time noting their presence—take heed. Because unless that table and those shakers are somehow necessary to the story, I’d suggest brevity. Take too long to establish a minor character, a clue or a prop that will have no relevant bearing later in your story, (such unintended misdirection being the aforementioned red herring) and some readers may be miffed. Sure, it’s okay to tease readers with deliberately misleading clues—Detective Plum believes Mrs. Peacock to be the killer, for instance, only to have Mrs. Peacock die in the next scene—is perfectly okay in a murder mystery. Such intended misdirection is simply a dramatic invention that furthers the plot. But don’t dwell on the unnecessary.

Sense Descriptors

Let’s look at those variables available to create a fully developed scene or chapter. Your options include one or more of the numerous sense descriptors available to more fully inform readers:

• Sight (Visual cues)
This one’s a gimme. A slam-dunk. Either the writer observes (omniscient narration) or a character observes (POV) the various, necessary visuals that ground the reader in a particular reality. The vast majority of novels are primarily visual descriptions. For instance: A castle on the hillside. Belinda’s skin glistening in the moonlight. The zombie’s fiery red eyes. A flock of geese heading south overhead. John arguing with Mary.

Even dialogue, while not directly a visual cue, is typically written as an observable exchange, as experienced between two or more people. So even though we may hear John arguing with Mary, we also see them arguing. The exasperated expressions, the flowing tears, the pouty lips, all combine for a definitive visualization. An adept writer will weave together both visual and auditory cues for the reader to best grasp the situation.

Most adept writers will find ways to weave snippets of scene-setting with  character development and/or plot momentum. For instance:

Riding behind Sir Reginald’s ambling horse, Lady Rockbottom noticed the distant ruins of a castle high atop a granite cliff, towering above the chilly evening’s encroaching fog. Exactly the type of place where the dastardly Sir Evilson would lay in wait for them. The castle, its old walls glowing a ghastly reddish orange beneath the setting sun, appeared little more than a devilish apparition. She feared the elderly Reginald would not stand a chance of defeating the younger, more powerful knight.

• Sound
As a species, we’re inherently drawn to ambient sounds—whether the strains of a finely-played violin or the gentle, distant crash of an ocean surf. We’re also instantly wary of the sound of thunder, of an explosion, or some hapless animal howling in the dead of night. Of two men cursing and arguing loudly in a shadowed alley. Even background chatter—people mumbling, an occasional burst of laughter, glasses clinking—can signify a cocktail party, a single sentence that offers readers a clear perception of location, without having to intricately describe a room filled with inconsequential characters.

Or perhaps little Wanda June is lost in the woods as as soft rain falls. But how the scene might change if she hears a crash of approaching thunder? Or Maurice awakens to the creak of a floorboard long after midnight. Even more subtle ambient sounds—crickets chirping at sunset, the wind rustling autumn leaves—can provide subtle emotional cues to your readers. So don’t lose the occasional opportunity to use sound as a viable grounding tool.

• Touch.
Have you ever written a scene where a character wakes suddenly in the night—the surrounding darkness pitch black and foreboding? So, yes, touch matters. However, for the most part, touch relates to important sensual clues that can better define a condition or observation. For instance; the metal floor felt ice cold beneath James’ bare feet, or Mary awoke to the prickle of countless fat, hairy spiders scrambling over her bare flesh. Sure, Mary can simply observe the spiders—but how much more dramatic if you allow readers to feel the tickle of their hairy little paws as well.

And yes, spiders have paws.

• Smell.
While not as common as the above descriptors, the ability to reveal scents and fragrances (both exquisite and putrefying) can leave an indelible impact to readers as well. So the next time you’re confronted with a plucky resistance leader chased into the underground sewer system by the evil prince’s guards—take a chance to share the full experience with your readers. Or as my old granny used to say, “When you’re covered in shit, you can’t smell the wine.” I suppose the more common, less offensive adage (as taught in Advertising 101) would be: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. In fiction, the same rules apply.

• Taste.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. So are these ‘lesser’ sense descriptors. Again, Taste—like Smell and Touch—can cut through 1000 words of carefully worded narration in a single sentence. To famished little Wanda June, the sliver of chocolate cake tasted like heaven. Simple enough. Profound enough. There’s not a reader in the world who won’t feel the girl’s joy.

• How and Why.
Occasionally there may come a time when specific mechanics of a story scene must be revealed to readers, for clarity’s sake. In Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Andy Dufresne escapes by crawling through Shawshank’s lengthy sewer system to freedom. A long and particularly gross escape (in both book and film), his friend Red narrates Andy’s escape for the reader. Rather than simply stating that Andy escaped through the sewer, Red’s colorfully grotesque commentary gives readers a delightfully gruesome moment to consider Andy’s trek through a hundred yards of putrid prison poop. Readers get a little sensual ride (visual and olfactory) along with the How of Andy’s getaway. And that’s how it’s done!

Here’s another example. Let’s return to Jane for a moment, from where we left off.

Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.
. . . . A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention. A moment later the door swung open and a man appeared, small and haggard, his head shaven. The man wore a black cloak and smelled faintly of formaldehyde.
…..“Ah, Miss Cooper, I see that you are finally awake.” The bald man offered Jane a shriveled little smile. “I have an important question, my dear. Are you listening closely? How did you learn of Dr. Desparado’s whereabouts? Answer that single question and you will be free to leave. However, if you choose to remain silent—ahh, but I can only assure you that you’ll live long enough to regret your decision.”

The bald man’s entrance—even if his character appears in this one and only scene—is to provide the Why of Jane’s presence in this room, in this scene. Reading on, readers will likely discover the How in a page or two. (A little Rohypnol spritzed in her morning coffee, perhaps?) At the moment, the bald man’s question is sufficient for the scene (and plot) to move forward. Thus, via dialogue, you’re revealing a snippet of information that readers should find grounding enough to infer Jane’s troubles. She stumbled, intentionally or not, upon a snippet of information that was, for whatever reason, private.

Fail to reveal this information to readers—Jane’s presence here and the reason behind it—and you’ll find yourself with what we editors refer to, in hushed, shaky whispers, as: a big fat plothole.

• Time (and time’s passing).
When we write, we write in a strictly linear fashion. That happened then. This is happening now. What’s gonna happen in the future? (It’s that pesky time/space continuum thing.) One doesn’t usually pause to contemplate the profundity of such potential directional challenges (unless, of course, one’s writing in the Time Traveling arena). Flashbacks and flash-forwards are linear extracts—that is, scenes or chapters pulled out of an orderly timeline, and yet then told in a similar, precise order. Then, now, later. If a writer gets it wrong—for instance, doesn’t fully reveal to readers that a character’s ‘back in the then’ or ‘gone to the later’, those readers may become hopelessly lost. And, no, many won’t forgive you. So allow for the proper segue, which can be as simple as a few establishing words:

Several years ago, as I recall, when your Uncle Teddy was in the army…

Or,

Two minutes later, when Stephani warily opened the golden orb’s glowing hatch, nothing of her world appeared remotely the same. The old, asphalt road had been transformed into a carpet of tall grass. The little sapling that she had planted in the yard last month had morphed into an enormous, gnarled Oak. Her mother’s house, the tidy home she’d known all her life, had disappeared, replaced by a tall, spindly structure that glistening of polished metals and hummed gently under a blazing ocher sun…

Keeping readers aware of time’s passing—whether a few moments, a few hours or even a few centuries—can be instrumental in properly grounding readers in a story. And time changes can be tricky. For instance, if your last scene or chapter ended at high noon and this scene/chapter begins after sundown—and all other variables being identical—be sure to inform readers of the shift ASAP. If I’ve left the previous scene under the midday sun and suddenly I’m reading about the twinkling stars or glowing streetlights 3 or 4 pages into a new scene, and without any previous indication of the time change…well, consider that taboo. The solution is to simply keep the reader advised, as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Jane awoke from a deep sleep with a start. Her wrists remained tightly bound. She stared at the ceiling for a long moment, trying to recall the bald man’s words. Had he been an apparition? His appearance merely a dream? For the hundredth time she tried furtively to remember her name. Beyond the room’s little window, she could see the horizon beginning to darken. Night would be upon her soon, meaning she’d spent an entire day locked in this miserable little place...

• Moods/feelings/emotions.
Can moods and emotions help set a scene? Absolutely. Typically, we need not make any special effort to establish a character’s mood. (“Hello, I’m John, your new neighbor! I’m usually a cranky, cantankerous sort!”) Astute writing will usually reveal your character’s mood. But a terse gaze, a taut smile, a little hand-wringing or the drop of a tear can reveal much about the tenor of the scene. Thus, if a character is secretly angry or relieved or nervous—those snippets of info can help readers understand the scene’s ultimate intention.

Without properly establishing mood settings for your characters (when and if appropriate), you may as well be writing a telephone directory. The three examples below should aptly illustrate the simplicity (and necessity) of this rationale:

“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene said, laughing hysterically.
“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene cried out in alarm.
Don’t do it, Madeline,” Rene whispered, a furious whisper in the dead of night.

Important information. Revealed discreetly.
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In a nutshell: When beginning to write or plot a new scene or chapter, stop to evaluate what’s different. What’s changed? How does this scene vary from the last scene? If three days have passed between the last scene and this one, and you don’t tell readers—that’s a blunder. If a new character has entered the room, and the writer fails to reveal his presence, and your character beings conversing with this unseen dude three pages in—that’s a blunder. If your evil faerie godmother’s been dressed in black robes for several chapters—and in this scene you’ve draped her in red velvet, but forget to tell us for several pages—that’s a blunder. Why? Because you’ve cheated readers into believing in various specifics (the time of day, who’s in the scene, even a wardrobe change) that are presently untrue. For readers, those omissions can be quite off-putting. Or outright confusing. So, when confronting a new scene, make a checklist, mental or otherwise, of what might be new, different or worth mentioning. And then mention it.
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*Can’t seem to get the hang of scene-setting after many attempts at failures at writing a novel? Is detailed world-building not your forte? Perhaps consider writing a screenplay. Seriously. Script writing is basically dialogue (really great dialogue, mind you) accompanied by the barest bones—a suggestion, really—of visual composition. Even plotting is written with a bare-bones simplicity. The trick is, of course, that a screenwriter must accurately describe the necessary components as quickly, and bluntly, as possible.

However, unlike a completed novel, a screenplay is merely the first step in a multi-leveled project where you (the screenwriter) have little-to-no say in the project once the script is complete. Subsequent writers, script doctors, producers and the director may tear your original script to shreds before the camera’s begin to roll. The finished product (a.k.a. a major motion picture) may look little or nothing like your original idea. On the other hand, successful screenwriters are paid increasingly and delightfully robust fees for their efforts and can afford to grin and bear it, whilst driving their Bentley’s to Beverly Hills Savings & Loan, their pockets laden with golden faerie dust. But I digress. Suffice it to say, screenwriting can be a viable option.

For instance:

EXT. (exterior) . . . FARMHOUSE — DAY
Old ANGIE (68) is sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch. Young farmhand HANK is standing in the dirt driveway. Overhead, storm clouds are threatening.

ANGIE.
You get that back field plowed yet, boy?

HANK
No, ma’am. Water pump gave out again. I gotta run into town,
get some new parts.

ANGIE
Storm’s comin’. That ol’ tractor’s gonna rust, if’n a downpour comes.

HANK
(Frustrated)
Not a dang thing in the world I can do about the rain, Miss Angie.

ANGIE
Well, for one, y’all can stop wastin’ time by jawin’ with me an’ git a move on.

Basically, your scene-setting needs are as simple as expressing: A farmhouse. A brewing storm. A bit of anger. It’s up to the director or set director to work out the minutia. As a script writer, you’re working on dialogue and character development, with the merest hint of location setting.
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If I can suggest only one book to curious, wannabe script writers, it’s William Goldman’s (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) Adventures in the Screen Trade. The book is as much a homage to Hollywood as it is a glimpse into what it might take to write a successful script. It’s a light, breezy and fun read…and yet contains a great deal of valuable info and advice.
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Balancing Humanity

FINDING BALANCE

Excerpted from Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
by Eileen Workman

BELOVED, I invite you to notice the large number of men who are embracing their feminine qualities at this time. Notice too, how many women are embracing their masculine qualities. What good news this is! Know that this internal re-balancing of human energy will enable you to trust and work more intimately and cooperatively with all others, even as your species draws upon the vast and potent powers of creation. The divine masculine power of creation, when channeled through the divine feminine energy of love, produces a strong enough foundation to support, affirm, and perpetually advance the whole of the living reality.

Know that everything you have experienced prior to this moment, including any feelings of division or mistrust that arose between your masculine and feminine aspects, has unfolded perfectly and was necessary for your own inner growth. However, the time has arrived for you to focus on calling forth much more of the loving power of the divine feminine, so that your divine masculine powers of creation can finally mature. In this way you will become fully integrated, self-actualized, and free to create—from a stance of love—all that your passions, skills, and capacities are inspiring you to deliver into the world.

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)

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Confronting criticism

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Confronting criticism is an essential right of passage that every writer faces along that bumpy road toward publication. Whether you accept or dismiss critical feedback may be crucial to who you are and how you will function as a serious writer.

Okay, so let’s keep this simple. Others may disagree but, for me—as both fiction writer and content editor—only two types of criticism exist. Sooner or later, intentionally or not, most writers will confront either constructive criticism or counterproductive criticism. And knowing the difference—accepting/incorporating what may work, dismissing/ignoring what will not work—could determine our book’s success. If our intention is publication, sooner or later we will face a beta reader (non-professional editor) or a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. The secret is learning to accept (and potentially use) constructive criticism, treating such feedback as another essential tool in your creative toolbox.

How important is constructive criticism? Time for a new rule. Rule #99: Only two types of criticism exist: constructive and/or counterproductive criticism. As writers, we must allow ourselves sufficient head space to consider—meaning accept or dismiss—criticism that can improve the integrity of our work, and also to jettison advice which can detract or derail our story. Seeking credible criticism should not be about collecting accolades or kudos, but rather about improving our work.

When confronting criticism, one word of advice: Leave your dark and stormy writer’s ego outside the door, with your galoshes (…look it up!), mittens and wet umbrella.

It’s crucial to understand the difference between constructive criticism and positive feedback. An easy mistake is confusing positive criticism as constructive criticism and negative criticism as counterproductive criticism because—nope—that’s not how it works. In fact, the opposite is usually true.

The Casual Critique.
(See The Professional Critique below.)

Early on, most writers are hungry for feedback. Lacking a legion of professional editors, agents and publishers hanging outside the window to help us along, a writer’s left with friends and family and, if we’re lucky, an intimate little writer’s group. (More about that in a moment.) And, sure, there’s nothing wrong with asking the guy next door, a distant cousin who writes greeting card jingles, or our Great Aunt Isabel, for advice. If we trust their intellect and our own instincts, certainly we can enlist their support. However, I suggest treating any familial feedback with cautious optimism.

Do be wary of a friend or family member’s beaming critique: Your book is positively stunning. Your writing is poetic, your voice angelic, and your plot absolutely breathtaking.” Such accolades can be the worst possible feedback a writer can receive, should they be spoken to placate or motivate (or politely ditch) you. Pleasant words to hear, sure—but ultimately, if spoken without integrity, the joke’s on the writer.

A better choice? Seek out a beta reader—a non-relational, non-professional fiction reader—someone who reads and critiques simply for the love of reading. And, yes, a well-read friend can serve as a beta reader, but again—seeking criticism shouldn’t be about collecting accolades or kudos. (Signing a publisher’s contract and aggressive book sales will deliver that particular message.) As writers, we’re looking for helpful criticism that identifies overlooked or illogical flaws that weaken or confuse or obscure our writing and/or our message. We’re seeking ways to improve our efforts, and that occurs through occasionally hard-hitting feedback that identifies flaws and, if we’re lucky, offers potential solutions as well.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. Your protagonist is a disgruntled private investigator. The feedback: “Your protagonist does stupid things” isn’t remotely helpful. However, a thoughtful critique such as; “Your protagonist seems to get by on lucky or coincidental occurrences, but never through logic or cunning or self-reliant sleuthing. I think your protagonist needs to be more proactive in solving the mystery” is pretty good advice. Whether or not you’re able to accept such (potentially) constructive feedback depends upon your ability to free your mind, silence your ego, and consider creative alternatives to your preconceived notions. And writers must trust their own instincts in determining whether or not solicited criticism is valid and useful.

By the way, I know more than a few writers who are loathe to accept any sort of feedback. These writers (some who are struggling with their efforts) abhor suggestions and/or possible solutions to potential problems. They assume—incorrectly—that a novel must be a solitary effort, and that any outside advice somehow diminishes and/or voids the author’s ‘ownership’ of the story. My response is a resounding, “Bogus!” Even if you accept feedback that ultimately forces you to rewrite your entire novel—the book is unquestionable yours and yours alone. Every word that is either axed or that remains resolutely in place (and in what precise order) is ultimately your decision. That’s your call. It’s your book. Period.

A word about writer’s groups and workshops.

I’m aware that some writers are skeptical (or outright afraid) to join or begin a writer’s group. For years I was one of those writers. Me? I didn’t need to join no stinkin’ writer’s group—until, on the advice of a writing friend, I joined one. For several years thereafter, the six (sometimes 7 or 8) of us, all fledgling, earnest but unpublished wannabes, gathered weekly for three grueling hours and learned the fine art of proactive listening.* We also learned to trust one another and, week by week, traded a multitude of beneficial writing suggestions and solutions.

A writer’s group can also train you to not only receive, but to offer, constructive criticism. A group/workshop can motivate you to choose words more precisely and write more consistently, and can harden that notoriously fragile, creative psyche—because sooner or later, somebody’s going to hate your book and will delight in telling you so. And when they do, my advice is this: Don’t take it personally. Collecting rejections and weathering disgruntled readers comes with the territory. Just that those of us who’ve already dealt with critical voices are far more immune to the prattle of strangers.

Whenever somebody tells me that they couldn’t get through a book of mine, I simply smile and offer my condolences. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully my next effort will be more to your liking.” And, for the more fearless among us: I’m sorry to hear that. I’d love to know what you found lacking. Would you care to elaborate? Hey, can I buy you a beer?” Because why not turn a close encounter into a learning experience? You’ll seldom receive a more heartfelt critique.

Learning to ignore toxic or misguided criticism—“You’re stupid! You’re ugly! Your mother dresses you funny!” Or, “Your book sucks doggie balls!”—really is a valuable life lesson. If and when you eventually learn to shrug off such mindless or insincere criticism—an exquisite, clarifying, joyous occasion, by the way—you’ll find yourself a much happier writer. And certainly a happier person.

But I digress. Personally speaking, I used my experience in a local writer’s group to eventually attune my brain to hear every criticism about my style, my plot, my characters (good or bad) with an open mind, to evaluate —sometimes for moments, sometimes for weeks—specific bits of feedback that I considered potentially important. I once jettisoned my entire first act—118 pages—because of my group’s near unanimous advice that my story “really starts on page 119.” Seriously. I gutted one hundred and eighteen pages because my laborious introduction (and way too many secondary characters) did not directly relate to the story that would eventually emerge. I reworked Act I from the ground up and managed to fit my essential introductions into a far more dramatically paced 25 pages, then reworked another dozen or so pages into a feasible segue that blended seamlessly (one could assume) with the remainder of the story. But I spent almost three months pondering the edit before I pulled the trigger and began the rewrites. Still, I don’t regret it for an instant.

One word of advice. If you do find yourself deleting pages, keep a backup copy of your original work. I make constant back-up copies in Dropbox (cloud storage app), because every once in a while I follow some crazy urge, change or kill a dozen pages, only to realize ‘nope—stupid move.’ So keep multiple back ups, just in case.

If you’ve been seeking a local writer’s group and can’t find one, consider starting your own. If you have choices—meaning there are several existing groups in your area—perhaps you can locate other writers in your genre. It’s not necessary of course, just a little icing on the cake. Personally, I think intimate groups of 4-8 can work nicely. Fewer than four opinions and you may find yourself lacking sufficient commentary. With more than 7 or 8 active members, you may discover insufficient reading and critiquing time for each writer. (My weekly group typically ran for 3+ hours. Then tedium begins to creep in. Constructive criticism requires sharp minds and keen observations. So keep it short, keep it sharp.)

With the advent of online forums, writer chats and aggregate communities (such as Reddit’s s/writing) one can find numerous opportunities to meet fellow writers, without even getting out of your ‘jammies. If you can find a few like-minded souls, see if you can branch off into a more exclusive, reliable digital network. The internet—for better or for worse—has negated the need for face-to-face interaction. With the right connections, online interactions can prove just as valuable. Personally, however, I do recommend face-to-face interaction. Writers are hermetic enough. And, like I said, confronting constructive criticism face-to-face builds character.

Writing workshops—those all-day, weekend or weekly events, can provide powerful motivation. Can wield tremendous influence. Can provide a safe haven and a soothing sense of camaraderie. Because, no, you’re not in this alone. But, yes, you’ll pay for the experience, and a week long event (including room and board) can run a thousand bucks or more. Worth the price of admission? Established workshops aren’t for all of us, but for many writers, they can provide a perfect environment to unpack all those tucked away emotions. Because nothing can mess with one’s head more than the isolation of spending three or six or twelve months confronting a manuscript, while everyone else in the world (or so it seems) parties their nights away. Your best revenge is by adding your name to their crowded bookshelves.

I’ve found longer workshops (a week or more) to provide the motivation to keep one writing. You’re ditching reality and jumping down the rabbit hole—spending days in what I consider a sort of cerebral surreality that feels almost psychedelic in it’s intensity, and with the ability to strip the mundanity of everyday existence from your psyche. You’ll eat, sleep and live writing. You’ll bond with other writers, make some nice connections and you’ll even find a few lifelong friends. I found my wife. So, yeah, I highly recommend it.

The bottom line? Sooner or later, every writer can use a good set of alternative eyes. Stephen King had Tabitha. Leo Tolstoy had Sophia, Harper Lee had Truman Capote, and history wonders if Stephen, Leo and Harper would even be published today without the help of some pretty loyal and brilliantly opinionated company.**

Sooner or later, every published writer is expected to expose her/his work, warts and all, to public scrutiny. My suggestion is, the sooner you develop the crucial social skill of accepting criticism, the better. Don’t let your own critical fears (rational or not!) dissuade you from a second opinion. Every writer’s ultimate goal is to be seen by millions. If you can’t imagine your work being exposed to a beta reader or two, I suspect coping with the potentially soul-crushing reality of mass public scrutiny will be far more difficult to endure. (So start small and work your way up!)

Critiquing Etiquette

A brief note regarding soliciting criticism:

Don’t offer a potential beta reader an incomplete manuscript in rough draft mode. If your novel’s in pieces, unfinished and unwieldy, you’re likely to receive feedback in the same piecemeal, uncertain, unwieldy manner. How can a critic give any sort of credible advice if the work is raw, unfinished and merely pending? This sort of symbiotic relationship is ultimately worthless, a waste of time for both you and the reader. If your book’s half done, you’re essentially asking someone to test-drive a new car without wheels or an engine.

If you’re lost in the middle of a novel and seeking advice on how to continue, instead of offering a half-baked manuscript riddled with blank patches and unfinished thoughts, provide a concise summary in outline form—as comprehensive and detailed a plot-line as you’re able. You’re not looking for polishing or line-editing, you’re seeking basic story options—and, technically, not really criticism at all. You’re seeking help in developing a fictional roadmap from A to Z. You’re still constructing the puzzle. Seeking viable ideas. So, as my old Granny used to tell me, “Don’t worry about the wedding date if you haven’t found a girl yet.”

If you’re lost in the beginning of a story—you’ve written 5 or 10 pages of an impending novel and get stuck—stop writing the novel. Seriously. If you like what you’ve written but don’t know how to proceed, change gears! See if you can finish the work as a short story. Give yourself the opportunity to write 10-20 pages with a definitive middle and end. If you find the idea of writing 300-400 pages too daunting, break it down into more manageable pieces. Think of yourself as writing a series of integrated short stories instead of chapters—and worry not about subsequent chapters you intend to write. (See Rule #16: Focus On The Now.) If you find yourself with a complete story, maybe you’re on your way to writing a collection. However, if you find yourself with more to say on the matter—keep writing, one page at a time.

By the way, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction, a short story, even a cover letter to an editor, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting “what now?” advice. More than once (a great deal more) I’ve run into a brick wall and, directed toward anyone within earshot, I’ve lamented, Where should I go from here? Typically, a writer will have various options (and boundaries) in mind: Should the new schoolmarm, Becky Sue, marry Sheriff Bob—or should she be skeptical of his smarmy, big-city ways? Should she marry Bob in Act I, and have them confront Black Bart together? Or should she confront the conniving Bart alone, and bring in Sheriff Bob for a daring, Act III rescue?

Two totally different stories, right? Both potentially interesting. Both viable novels. But if you’re having trouble deciphering Becky Sue’s intentions (i.e.; plot motivation and/or direction), you need not push ahead, trying to polish a final draft that ‘doesn’t feel right.’ When in doubt, it’s quite alright to ask important “what if?” questions, weigh your options and, if necessary, plot a new course.

Conversely, don’t offer friends and/or family—even if it’s your mom!—a complete 300 or 400 page manuscript and expect an overnight perusal. Proactive reading (that is, comprehensive understanding and the resulting rational feedback) is a lengthy, intense and often laborious process.

Better yet: If you’re looking for erstwhile advice, ask a friend or family member if they’d read the first 10 or 20 pages of your manuscript. It’s a far less obtrusive and demanding request. Shorter excerpts will prompt more in-depth feedback. If you like the resulting comments, and your reader(s) enjoy the assistance, either ask if they’ll read another 20 (or more!) pages, or wait for them to offer. If you have a friend who’s good at editing and is willing to take on the whole novel, awesome! But consider a bottle of wine or even a cash payment ($100-$200 if you can afford it) in return, or offer a return of services if you’re both writers.

The Professional Critique

If a literary agent or a commercial publisher accepts you or your manuscript, (congrats!) your options are truncated. Both agents and publishers are risking that you (and your manuscript) will be successful and profitable, and once they sign a writer as a client, each will strive to produce the best possible book possible. With rare exception, that success will be predicated upon your level of assistance.

Neither editor nor reputable publisher*** has the same visceral connection as the writer to a finished manuscript—and yet both parties have invested interests. A publisher has intrinsic knowledge about producing and marketing books, and if you find yourself in that enviable position of being a contracted writer, keep in mind that their opinions count. A freelance editor’s reputation depends upon delivering (to a publisher) a pristine, professional work of fiction. A legit publisher’s in-house editor has a paycheck to earn. A commercial publisher will drop upwards of $10K simply producing both a printed book (and cover), and an ebook for publication. Mainstream publishers may even risk additional tens of thousands on marketing, PR and in branding you as a viable—meaning capable of producing multiple profit-making or even best-selling books—author.

Agents and publishers who see the value of your work are typically happy to work with you, if rewrites are advised. Your input can be invaluable. And, sure, you can usually negotiate certain issues. But realize that you, as author, are no longer in charge. Working with a professional who’s intent on helping you publish a book can be both exasperating and blissful, but the fine art of compromise is essential. If you’re a writer loathe to cut a word, to rewrite a scene or take erstwhile advice…it’s time for a reality check, because usually their opinions will take precedence. So my best advice? Go with the flow.

I can’t speak for other publishers, editors or agents, but at MHP, we’ll sign a new author only with the contractual provision that the publisher has final say in all matters of publication. Meaning that we’ll spend days, weeks and sometimes months, helping you hone your manuscript. Listening to you. Dozens or hundreds of man-hours helping you to “get it right.” But the final say belongs to MHP, and hopefully (usually!) with the writer’s full blessing.

There may come a time, however, when neither the writer nor publisher is willing to budge on an issue. In such a case, the final option is yours. Are you willing to break your contract over the issue? Are you willing to seek publication elsewhere—or even self-publication—to ostensibly maintain your precise vision?

S’up to you.

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*Active listening vs. Proactive listening: Active listening is the fine art of fully engaging (listening or reading) and comprehending without judgement. Proactive listening requires a full measure of active listening and subsequently offering constructive criticism as well. And what is criticism, after all, but judgement? However, constructive criticism should consist of a fair and accurate assessment—a far more complex and difficult social skill.

**If you’re into films about writing/writers, check out The Last Station (2009, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren). A mesmerizing, dramatic late-life biography of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy.

Also, since we’re here, check out Genius (2016, Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman), a worthwhile biopic of Scribner’s book editor Max Perkins, who shredded (for the best) works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

***What’s reputable? Agents and publishers who charge a service fee or fee-based services, reputable as they might seem (or actually be!), rely on a writer’s money to stay in business. Many such agents and indie publishers (including in-house editors) can indeed improve the quality of your work. But their professional existence (not your book’s success) is largely based on your bank account, and occasionally on your life’s savings. An unwary writer can spend tens of thousands or more, spend years rewriting based on a bevy of ‘professional opinions’—and still be no closer to selling a commercially viable book. Before signing a contract, ensure that you’re not obliged to pay any up-front fees to ‘ensure potential publication.’
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Loving Anna

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SHORT FICTION
by Eileen Workman

• • •

Author’s bio follows the story

• • •

SCHOOL MUST BE OVER. I hear the front door slam mid-afternoon, followed by the stomp of footsteps as Anna seeks me out. Unfortunately, the odor of melting spray starch leaves me all too easy to find.
. . . . .”I hate my nose,” Anna declares, having followed it straight to my ironing board in the den. Sullen, silent, she waits.
. . . . .My hand pauses high in the air and my lungs grow tight. How like my daughter to opt for war before homework. The silence between us lengthens while I hang up a shirt to postpone the inevitable. Stiff fingers struggle to fasten the collar button. Meanwhile, Anna hovers at the edge of my personal space, a tempest in jeans and a faded Billabong T-shirt. I hear the muffled tapping of her toes on the carpet, sense her folded arms, and feel the heat from her gaze scorching my shoulders. All five feet seven inches of this Amazon girl-child are now daring me to respond. Thin and fierce, Anna is primed for combat.
. . . . . I’m not yet ready to engage her.
. . . . . My Anna has only begun to bud. As yet, her gawkiness hides her classic beauty. Gumby limbs divert the attention of the less experienced boys, but grown men see Anna more clearly. I watch them watch her walk at times, feeling proud, amazed, and more than a little afraid for this child who will soon be a woman. Anna has my eyes, except hers blaze with an intensity mine long ago learned to hide from the outer world. Her hair—another genetic donation from me—spills across her shoulders; soft and thick, it gleams like polished wood. Last week she hated her hair as much as she hates her nose today. She begged me to allow her to dye it purple and shave it above her ears. I am still learning to ride out these sudden shifts in Anna’s emotions; to sidestep the whirlpools she constantly swirls in my path.
. . . . .Today it seems clear that Anna feels a need to unload some emotional energy onto someone—anyone, most likely. I just happen to be her favored, and handiest, target whenever this impulse begins to arise. I know this logically; sense I ‘should’ be able to ride out her moods with internal equanimity. Yet knowing and feeling are very different things.
. . . . .”I want a nose job,” she announces, voice tight and hammer hard.
. . . . .I manage to fasten the button at last. A smile tugs at the corners of my lips. Life with Anna has taught me to savor successes, no matter how small. I set aside the neatly hung shirt and consider this fresh Anna problem, silently examining and discarding my various options. Finally, I settle on what I believe is the safest ground upon which to rest.
. . . . .”What matters isn’t your nose,” I offer, “it’s how you feel about yourself on the inside.” Not condescending, but not committing to rhinoplasty either. Let her mull that a bit. With luck I’ve offered her nothing firm to attack.
. . . . .I wait, watching closely as she absorbs my words, then the skin on her forehead starts twitching. My heart sinks. Her expression tells me that—somewhere inside my vague non-answer—Anna has spotted a weakness.
. . . . .”That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Here Mom…just look at it.” She scrunches her face and thrusts it aggressively into my own, as if to blind me with the proximity of the all-offending organ. I struggle to uncross my eyes and stare at the straight fine lines of her nose—which looks perfect to me, except for the criss-cross of wrinkles now etched in its Romanesque bridge. It’s the type of nose no respectable surgeon would touch.
. . . . .In truth, Anna’s is the nose I tried to purchase for myself a few years earlier, but after three thousand dollars and two weeks of pain, success eludes me still. Internal scar tissue pulls my nose rather far to the right of center, but I’ve chosen not to endure more pain to correct this brand-new problem. Anna knows this; I made the mistake of confessing my envy last year, in those more peaceful days before she learned to turn my words into weapons against me. The mere memory of those days brings grief, and I feel my back become stiff with reactive anger. So then; let the battle begin.
. . . . .”Fine,” I say, sounding sharper than I had intended. “You can save your money and get it fixed once you can afford to pay for it. It’s your face, after all.” I realize I’ve tossed her a clip of fresh ammunition, but it’s too late now to withdraw. I close my eyes and steady myself for the fury I know she’ll unleash.
. . . . .”You’re so unfair,” she hollers back at me, manufacturing wounded tears. “When Jason asked for a car last year, you bought him a brand-new Mustang. A nose job’s less than half the price of a car, but you don’t care if I’m happy.”
. . . . .I step back warily, letting Anna occupy the high ground she’s claimed for her own. No point in reminding her that Jason needed a car to commute to college, or that the Mustang was our high school graduation gift to our eldest son. Anna doesn’t see shades of gray these days. Only black, and white—and apparently, Mustang red.
. . . . .The tears come so easily to her. I, who seem to have lost my power to weep, marvel at the way she holds them, just so, inside her lids, not allowing them to spill. Their falling would break the spell of rage, and Anna is nowhere near ready to release me. I can feel her creeping toward me, ever so intently, along a murderous tightrope that spans my internal chasms of guilt and pity, yet she doesn’t stumble. Her sense of balance leaves me breathless, makes me ache for her in some deep and primal place.
. . . . .”That’s not true,” I say, still fighting to recover my calm. I am, after all, the adult in this new passion play. I should be able to maintain some self-control. “I care about your happiness a great deal.” Hesitation; then I hear myself add…”Although sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”
. . . . .Damn. I’ve done it now. Pushed her even closer to her own internal abyss.
. . . . .Tears spill then, as fury breaks loose like a fire in Anna’s eyes. “I hate you!” she screams at me, stabbing my heart with her words. “You’ll never understand me at all.”
. . . . .She speaks the truth, I realize, but there’s a limit to what a mother should have to endure. I’m sliding past mine very swiftly.
. . . . .”Go to your room!” I order, feeling myself becoming, in that moment, the sternly unyielding woman she loves to detest. “And don’t come out until you’ve figured out how to be civil.” That last part gets wasted. Anna’s door clips the end of my sentence like a gunshot.
. . . . .I finish my ironing, but my movements are mechanical and my thoughts flit to other things. How, I wonder, did my daughter and I reach this point? I recall fondly her chubby infant fingers pulling hungrily at my breasts. I see the squealing toddler who ran to me in urgent need of a hug after every tumble. I can still remember the pinafore-dressed, plucky first grader who hesitated in the doorway of room seven and gave me a shaky thumbs-up before heading inside. When had all those sundresses and sandals given way to ripped jeans and Doc Martins? When did her hands—the very ones that used to cling to me with such neediness and trust—start choosing her own hips instead? It occurs to me then that it must have been about the same time that my hands began balling in fury instead of reaching out to soothe and summon.
. . . . .I feel trapped inside my own painful thoughts as I unplug the iron. I fold up my board and re-cap the spray starch can. The cupboard where these things belong stands invitingly near Anna’s bedroom; after stowing them, I can’t resist the urge to knock on her door. Though she barges into my private space at the most inopportune times (seeking razors, shampoo, and lately even a tampon) I don’t dare invade her space in that same way. Anna demands her privacy, considers it a badge of adulthood; to grant her the illusion costs me nothing.
. . . . .”What do you want?” The quiver in her voice informs me that her tides have already shifted. I do know my daughter well enough to realize that her highly compressed, adolescent world has been shaken in some profound way—by something that likely has nothing to do with me. Her anger with me she will hold for hours, perhaps even days or weeks. It is only with great reluctance that she lets it go. This current, bleak mood is therefore not of my doing.
. . . . .”May I come in?” I ask.
. . . . .She meets me with lengthy silence. Then I hear a terse, “I guess so.”
. . . . .I enter to see her crying again, only this time the tears look real. They gloss her cheeks and paint dark, wet stripes down her tee shirt. Liquid anguish. I stand there in stillness and watch her weep, feeling powerless in the face of so much emotion.
. . . . .”What is it?” I ask her gently. I fear she’ll tell me; yet feel strangely panicked she won’t. “What’s really going on here, sweetheart?”
. . . . .Anna flings her slender body, face-down, across the full length her bed. Through uncontrolled sobs, she eventually whimpers, “Heather told all of our friends that they shouldn’t like me anymore.”
. . . . .I stare at her, not comprehending this as a crisis. “And…?”
. . . . .”And since everyone likes Heather the best, they just do whatever she says. She’s the most popular girl in our class, mom.”
. . . . .Anna shares this fact as if she’s been given a death sentence. And I realize that, yes—to her—perhaps that feels so.
. . . . .The dark ravine carved out by our twenty-three years of distance yaws wider between us. Did I ever feel such utter desolation? Ancient memories dart like bats through the hidden rooms of my thoughts. I remember the terrible trauma of two-faced friends; the inconstancy of groping boys; the endless insecurities triggered by body, and feelings, and acne, and life in general…
. . . . .In that instant, I want—I actually ache—to reach for Anna. But it is a risk that carries a price tag. Fear of yet another rejection weights my limbs like winter ice. It holds me back from melting into my daughter. Yet her pain feels so real, it’s as if another person has usurped the space between us her room. I take a deep, deciding breath and push beyond it to sit down beside her on her bed. Then I stretch out my arms.
. . . . .”Come here,” I say gently, not believing for an instant she will. “Let me hold you, my love. I’m right here.”
. . . . .With a tiny cry, she dives for my arms and then folds herself, pelican-like, until she nestles against me. I pull her face to my chest with tenderness and slowly stroke her hair, planting gentle, butterfly kisses along the entire crest of her scalp. Strange to realize she no longer fits me as snugly as she once did, but her scent remains the same. I would know my own daughter anywhere just by that scent.
. . . . .Time unravels. The chasm between us dissolves of its own accord. With sudden insight, I realize in that moment my that daughter isn’t ready to become a woman quite just yet. She needs me still, if only for these small moments. A wavering smile tilts the corners of my mouth once again as I relax and allow myself this victory.
. . . . .In this moment, at least, I succeeded in loving Anna.
. . . . .


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Eileen Workman spent sixteen years working in the financial service industry, as Vice President of Investments with Smith Barney. The author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life (2011) and Raindrops of Love For A Thirsty World (2017) she is currently working on Cultivating Grace, a book about using love to guide one’s actions through the world. She lives in N. California with her husband, novelist Dave Workman.

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A Test Post

Testing out this new section, here. So far it looks like it’s working. I mean, if you’re seeing it, it must be working, right? Or maybe I’m the only one seeing it. But there’s no one here to ask…I’m so lonely.

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