I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
Because I’ve moved to a new town and have joined a group in formation, we discussed what the attendees would like to see in the writer’s club.
The discussion reminded me of types of groups:
Critique – feedback on your own and other’s writing
Discussion – can be on a specific topic or writing in general
Lecture/Talk – usually craft focused or inspirational
Write In – a time to work on your own writing
Workshop – craft or marketing focused with some hands-on activity
Both face-to-face groups and online groups can provide any of these services. All can be useful, but it depends what you are looking for.
For me a variety of these groups have worked over the years. I love the chance to learn through lectures and workshops. It’s so great when some piece of craft advice clicks. Or when the “so that how that’s done” aha moment happens. I’ve mostly done in person sessions, especially conferences, but more and more webinars are available from the comfort of your own home. In addition, these events often inspire me, whether it is simply to press on, or with a specific piece of information that makes me avid to jump back into my own work. No matter how many I’ve done these, I discover new tidbits each time I participate.
I’ve found write ins to be very practical. I’ve participated in them in coffee shops, libraries, retreats, etc. Each person focuses on their own project. Just the fact that others are working around me helps me keep my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. I like a weekly schedule. Headphones are helpful in a public place where conversations around me can be distracting. Mostly I’ve formed these with likeminded writers, but sometimes organizations will schedule them too.
Discussion can be fun, especially if it is focused. I’ve been in groups where we shared favorite books by genre, or good first lines, or marketing tips, etc. Having a theme makes the discussion more practical. I’ve found an unfocused group can end up being a gripe session, or can wander completely off writing.
But for me probably the most important group is a critique group. I’ve learned so much by what others have said about my work (the good and bad) and what I’ve seen in their writing, too. We encourage each other to press on. We inspire one another. Our meetings provide a deadline to have pages ready. Not only have we helped improve our writing by consistent meetings, but we’ve become close friends and family because of the time spent together.
How do you find a writer’s group? Check with your local library. Search online for writer’s groups in your area. Research national and international writing organizations. If you’re on Facebook, you can find groups there, too. Join writer list serves which often announce events or groups forming.
Here are some helpful resources, especially if a group doesn’t have established guidelines:
“General Critique Guidelines” by the Writer’s Loft
“10 Tips on How To Find or Form the Critique Group of Your Dreams” by Riki Cleveland
The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine
“How To Find A Writing Group, Because Every Aspiring Author Needs A Support Group”
by Sadie Trombetta
“Writing Groups 101: How to Find Your Perfect Match” by Kristen Pope
“The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups” by Jennie Nash
“The beauty hidden inside a tiny seed can never be discovered until it is planted, until the rains fall and the sun shines down upon it. The process takes time and patience, just as it does when God works in our hearts. When we wait on the Lord, weather the storms, and bask in His light, He takes our lives . . . and turns them into something beautiful.” Julie A. Campbell
Likewise, the beauty of story can never be discovered until we allow the germ of an idea to take root in our minds. When we plant an idea, water it, expose it to sunlight, weed it, prune and shape it, we’re preparing a story for harvest.
The process of growing a story takes time, patience and hard work. Very rarely does a story arrive in our minds in full bloom. And even when it does, the translation to paper usually seems to lose something. Just as some plants thrive best when surrounded by plants of other varieties, story ideas often need the stimulus of other ideas before they can grow.
Here are some questions, we need to ask ourselves, when we have a new idea:
Have I talked to God about my writing lately?
Am I willing to weather the storms of writing?
Is the soil of my mind prepared?
Do I know what I want to grow from this idea?
And finally, is it time to write this now? Is this what He wants me working on?
Sometimes an idea can lay dormant for months and years before it sprouts. Some have to grow many years before they can bloom. Just as we can’t expect immediate results when we plant an apple tree, not all ideas are ready to be written.
Whatever we write, whether it be secular or Christian, should bring glory to God. We should ask the Lord to help us to turn each new idea over to Him, to let Him guide us and lead us, to make each piece of writing into something beautiful.
Now for this very reason
…in your writing…
…apply all diligence
…supply moral excellence
Diligence – steady application to one’s occupation or studies, persistent effort
Excellence – state of going beyond a standard, performing at a higher level
Knowledge – familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study
Self-control – control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will
Perseverance – the holding to a course of action, belief, or purpose without giving way; steadfastness
Godliness – resembling or of the nature of God
Brotherly kindness – being generous, warmhearted, charitable, helpful, showing sympathy or understanding, considerate
Christian love – intense concern for another person
“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful …”
…in using your writing for our Lord Jesus Christ.
SET SOME GOALS
THE ACTUAL WRITING
REVISE AND GET FEEDBACK
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Polotnik
Critiquing and being critiqued can be a stressful activity under the best of circumstances. But sometimes situations arise that are difficult or downright awkward. The following address three of those times.
What do you do when a member of a critique group brings a manuscript you cannot critique? e.g. Is diametrically opposed to your beliefs or you find it offensive.
What do you do when someone doesn’t want to critique your manuscript?
What do you do when you receive an unfair critique?
In any of these cases, a writing mentor, or group leader may have additional suggestions for you. No need to mention names or info that would pointedly indicate the person you are struggling with—we don’t want to turn this into a gossip session—just ask for advice from someone with more critique group experience.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.