Using Setting to Create a Three-Dimensional World for Your Story: THE URBAN SETTING THESAURUS

We received a free copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Urban Settings Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces in exchange for an honest review. Since we’re fans of their Emotion Thesaurus as well as their thesauri of positive and negative character trains, we were excited to dive in. (See our review of the other books here.)

The Urban Setting Thesaurus is a wonderful resource for a fiction writer! The bulk of this book and its sister craft book, The Rural Settings Thesaurus, is comprised of two-page entries describing dozens of settings that could pop up in any fiction genre — from a police car to an emergency room, the stands of a sporting event to an art gallery. Each entry provides a wealth of sensory words describing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize that setting.

In the recording studio entry, you find sights like vocalists warming up, cords running from instruments to outlets and recording equipment, and the “recording” light to let you know to keep quiet. You hear humming or instruments being played, smell takeout Chinese food or coffee, and feel the snug fit of headphones over your ears. If your scene takes place in a setting you’ve never been to, this thesaurus can help you craft the experience your characters will encounter in a way that will make your story feel more real to your reader.

Not sure where a scene should take place? A flip through entries listed in the table of contents could help you brainstorm. Perhaps your protagonist is mulling over whether to confront her antagonist…she could do that anywhere. But what she sees, hears and touches as she weighs her decision could more vividly show her mood and emotions. What backdrop would carry the most emotional impact? Would highlight her fears and the challenges she’ll need to face?

In addition to the setting entries, there is a wealth of information in the first chapters of The Urban Setting Thesaurus on how to use setting to convey your story with the most impact. These chapters discuss how to use setting to create a mood, to characterize a room full of primary and secondary characters, and to heighten tension. They also illustrate using all the senses to pull the reader into your scene.

I’m sure I’ll turn to this helpful resource again and again.

You can find The Urban Settings Thesaurus on:

Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

For more on using The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus, see Laurel’s post here!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

 

 

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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Writing Cross-Culturally

Pennies Michelle and Julie meet in real life at last week’s Madcap Retreat

This month, The Winged Pen’s own Michelle Leonard and Julie Artz were lucky enough to attend Madcap RetreatsWriting Cross-Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Not only was it a blast to finally meet up face-to-face, but the long weekend was packed with great information and resources. We’d like to share a peek at what we learned with our readers.

Highlights

We were surrounded by many talented writers of various backgrounds and made many new friends for life. The faculty (pictured below) included Leigh Bardugo, Daniel José Older, Nicola Yoon, Adi Alsaid, Danielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Heidi Heilig, Justina Ireland, Julie Murphy, and Natalie Parker. Dhonielle Clayton

Your characters should have several layers of description that comes through in your story.

  • Outside identity:  race, skin color, physical features, names
  • Belief system:  religion, traditions, sexuality, gender, fears
  • Frame:  family structure, house rules, foods

Cultures are not a monolith. Be as specific as possible about who your character is on the outside, inside, and the frame around them.

When describing skin tone and hair, use make-up and hairstylist hair terminology (google is your friend!) to avoid character description pitfalls like “pale” (pale compared to whom???).

DJ Older

To get past good vs evil, to a more nuanced view of conflict, you have to understand the power dynamics of the characters in your story world.

Some examples of types of power:

  • Institutional power (posse of armed men)
  • Community power
  • Magic – the physicialisation of power
  • Health/ability
  • Spirituality/religion
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Acceptance
  • Beauty
  • Heteronormative/Gender
  • Reproductive
  • Race
  •  Age

The crisis of your book must be determined before you develop your character. The crisis can be anything from your character “needs a hug” to “he’s gonna die.” Ultimately, all stories are about who has the power and how it’s used. Check out DJ’s Buzzfeed article about writing about “other” characters.

Justina Ireland

Microaggressions are indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. They are often transparent to you, but not to others. Microagressions remind outgroups that they are outside the norm or social standard.

Example: A store owner following a customer of color around the store.

How do you prevent microaggressions?

  • Write with savage empathy by seeing the character like an individual.
  • Write for your entire audience.
  • Consider how people from outgroups will consider your depictions.
  • Acknowledge your blind spots and get help from others in writing characters unlike you.

Resource for sensitivity readers and more: Writing in the Margins

Another good resource good on microaggressions (not shared by Justina, but relevant) from The Atlantic.

Tessa Gratton

Metanarratives are an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. Metanarratives are repeated until they seem like facts, but rarely reflect reality or what we want for future generations.

Basic western fantasy coding

  • Good: white, European Christian, pure
  • Evil: black, non-European, non-Christian
  • This comes from history
    • Medieval recreation of West v East (greeks v Persians) by Christian historians
    • Crusader ideology

Because this is the default, you must actively work against this metanarrative.

Nicola Yoon

It’s hard to hate what you understand. Avoid stereotypes because they’re not the truth. They are lazy. (Examples: sassy black woman, nerdy Asian, overbearing Jewish mom, demonization of poverty.)

How to write cross-culturally?

  • Diversify your life. Specificity is the key to building real characters. OK, they’re sassy. And then what?
  • Empathy + craft
  • When you engage in stereotypes, people see it as a moral failing but it’s really a failure at the craft level. You did not inhabit someone else.
  • When you write characters, be specific, write against stereotypes, and do no harm.
  • Use sensitivity readers.

Heidi Heilig

Cultural appropriation is adopting or using the elements of one (usually minority) culture by members of another (usually dominant) culture. Often the original meaning of those elements is lost or distorted, and this is disrespectful and oftentimes harmful to the members of the original culture.

Julie Murphy

Things to avoid in body representation:

  • Applying moral value to food and fat vs. thin.
  • Nobody “feels” fat. It’s not a feeling!
  • Just because you write a fat character in a book doesn’t mean that you need to explain why that character is fat.

Leigh Bardugo

Good worldbuilding:  playing god and not being a jerk about it. You should read work by “marginalized authors to learn how to build worlds that don’t make people feel like shit.”

N.K. Jemisin’s work is an example of excellent worldbuilding with diverse characters.

Adi Alsaid

Start your story as close as possible to the event that throws the main character off footing. Watch this very important TedTalk by Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story.

Book Recommendations

There are so many amazing things happening in kidlit, it’s hard to narrow down a list of recommendations. But here are a few:

Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give

Daniel Jose Older – Shadowshaper

Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

Nicola Yoon – The Sun is Also a Star

Julie Murphy – Dumplin’

Alex Gino – George

Donna Gephart – Lily and Dunkin

Additional Resources

Take Gene Luen Yang’s April Reading Without Walls challenge.
NaNoWriMo’s Preparing to write about diverse characters
Justina Ireland’s blog about writing about people unlike yourself.
WNDB We Need Diverse Books resources for writers
Writing With Color
Intersecting Axes of Privilege
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) statistics on children’s publishing
Disability in Kidlit Tumblr and website

The best part of our weekend–all the amazing friends we made! ❤️

We hope you’ll enjoy a few blogs from our new writing friends so you can see different takeaways from the MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. Please feel free to share any resources or questions you have for writing cross-culturally in the comments!

Aimee Davis’ blogBroken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Anna Jarvis’ blog: The Wonderful World of Writing and Friendship

Jordan Kurella’s blog: We Could Be Heroes, For Every Day

Sarah Viehmann’s blog: Favorite Quotes from MadCap

Carrie Peter’s blog: MadCap Retreat: March 2017

First Pages: My Search for the Un-put-downable Start of a Story

I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.

Sigh.

The story’s good, but the start…meh.

With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.

Can I get to great?

Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.

What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:

  • starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
  • just after her life changed,
  • a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
  • a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
  • the first confrontation with the bully, and
  • the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.

I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”

What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.

  • “No action,” said the critique partners.
  • “Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
  • “What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”

I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?

I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.

At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.

 1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.

I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.

2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.

Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.

3. Get Fresh Eyes.

I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?

I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.

4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.

I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.

Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.

So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.

Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.

Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.

DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

Tame Your Revision: 7 Tips to Finish Your Novel Before Your Battery Dies

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. So many moving parts!! How do you keep from losing your mind?

Never fear, writer friends!

The Winged Pen is here!

Ta daaaa!

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

INVENTORY

  1. Make a scene list.
  2. Timeline
  3. Map of Major Scenes
  4. Draw, Doodle, Diagram, Index Card, Cut up Manuscript, Synopsis, Query Letter, Colored Markers.

SLICE AND LABEL

  1. Duplicate all the scenes you want to revise. (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Cut up into topics and label in Scrivener’s Binder. (“castle burns down” “tea party” “transition to vineyard”)
  3. Put like things together.
  4. Draft connections.

THROW STUFF OUT

  1. Duplicate all the files you want to revise. (If you didn’t already.)
  2. Delete everything that isn’t true.
  3. Cut stuff you don’t want. (Darlings, throat clearing, engine starting, letting characters off the hook.)
  4. Can you see?

FEEDBACK FOLDER

  1. Create feedback folders. (synopsis, draft, query, pitch) (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Label files (reader/chapters/date. Paste in comments from e-mails.
  3. Add a status in Scrivener for “send to crit partners”, “to do”, “done”.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love.
  2. Make a list ranked by size of mess.
  3. Do the big stuff first.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader?
  2. Deliver it.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up?
  4. Set it up.

DESPERATE MEASURES

  1. Find the question first. (See INVENTORY)
  2. Let subconscious work.
    (walks, water, sleep, music, whatever* works!)

*Dark chocolate Lindt truffles.

Happy revising! May your batteries and your Scrivener project targets always shine green!

Need that infographic link again? Here it is:

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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Creating Your Website

Welcome back to my series Basic Marketing for Authors. In the last blog post of this series, Creating Your Brand, I mentioned there are many uses for your brand including social media, promotion material, and websites.

Today we are focusing on websites. A scary, but necessary part of your platform and career-long marketing. (Who am I kidding? It’s all scary!) Okay, you have your brand. How do you use that to create a website?

Step one: take a deep breath. 

Step two: Buy a domain.

What is a domain? It is an easy to remember name that hides the technical IP address for web pages, and the easiest way for people to find you is by using your name. For example: halligomez.com. I am fortunate to have a unique name that was available (that’s the first time I’ve ever said that!) If your name is unavailable, try a similar variation such as gkbyrnebooks.com.

Step three: Decide on which company will host your site.

What is hosting? It is the business of housing, serving, and maintaining files for websites. You rent space on a host computer which assigns an address for files to your domain so anyone can find your website on the Internet.

There are many choices and most have similar features, so it may require a little research to find which products and services best suit you. Keep in mind some products are free and some cost money.

Step four: Choose a template and theme.

What are templates and themes? A template is the layout of your website, or where you put pictures and words (think of it as walls and furniture in a house). A theme is the design of your template/website, the specific colors, pictures, fonts, and words you choose (or paint and decorations).

Before choosing the template and theme, you must decide what your website will be used for. Marketing your books with cover reveals? A calendar of events? Blogging? All three?

All templates and themes have customization options, some offer basic changes while others allow you to be more creative. There are many companies, each offering a dizzying number of templates, so take your time and find the one right for you.

Step five: You have your template and theme, you’ve incorporated your brand, now you have to decide what to put on your website. This is a list for published and unpublished authors, although not everything will apply to both.

  1. Your bio including a professional headshot (Ugh! Painful.)
  2. Links to your social media profiles
  3. A contact form for readers to subscribe to your website and for you to collect emails to send notifications of those very important announcements like your publication date(s).
  4. Book cover images and brief descriptions of your book(s)
  5. Reviews of your book(s)
  6. Links to major online retailers selling your book(s)
  7. Contact information for agent or publicist

Obviously you want your website to be a place for readers to find your books, but until you have some to offer, or before your next one is published, what can you do to engage readers? A few suggestions are promotions, giveaways, writing tips, daily/weekly/monthly inspirational quotes, games, and blog posts.

Which brings us to the question I hear the most when writers are creating a website: to blog or not to blog?

The answer has been consistent throughout the industry. If you are going to blog, you need a new post at least once a month. Once a week is even better, but a lot of writers have other jobs, families, and necessary activities such as breathing and showering (not necessarily in that order). Keeping up with a weekly blog is difficult.

No matter what format you chose for your website, it is important to remember who your audience is and will be. Before you have published books, your audience may be other writers and agents (I’ve heard some agents look for your online presence, including a website, and others do not.) When you have book(s) published, your audience will include readers, parents, teachers, and librarians.

I love to check out writer websites! Please comment and provide a link to yours.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.