Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lesson 1 – Setting

Our first lesson in my writing class is focused on setting. It deals with setting in relation to the general mood of the story, to the plot, and to the theme.

There is also an emphasis on description and how much is too much. They talk about the 2 most common mistakes: over-describing and clumping. Over-describing is basically using too many adjectives, characteristics or metaphors to describe something. It’s like saying when the large, corpulent, double-chinned, behemoth soprano warbles the melodic operatic aria instead of saying when the fat lady sings. Too many of the first type of description can slow down the story.

Clumping is giving the whole description at once – not leaving any information for later. It may not be over-describing but it can stop a story. It’s like taking 3 pages to describe an overstuffed leather sofa by describing where and how it was manufactured, shipped, sold and transported to the site – all in great detail instead of just saying there’s an overstuffed leather sofa in the room.

(Please note that I’m paraphrasing here. This is by no means a complete synopsis of the class. If you want that you need to pay the money and take it yourself.)

We had to read 2 ½ chapters in our book, the online lecture and then complete the assignment which is: write a scene where setting is predominant. There are 14 of us in the class and our work is posted for all of us to see and comment. It’s really interesting to read and now we all await our instructor’s comments on our work. Here is my submission:

“Damn,” she thought, “first one here again. I need to stop being so punctual.”

The wide stone steps, rounded by the thousands of feet scurrying up and down them for the last 150 years, led her into the beautiful old brick building. The fading sunset glowed against the windows casting mischievous shadows inside.

Anne shivered as she unlocked the door. Even after 40 years of attending events here, the darkened interior still gave her the creeps. She was familiar with every inch of the upper two stories and the basement but being alone made her uneasy. As she flipped on the lights, the old place warmed to her presence.

The center was one of the largest buildings in town. Once used exclusively for Masonic groups, due to rising costs it was now rented out to others for meetings and functions. It hadn’t lost its sense of purpose and the rich dark woods and thick brocade curtains created a sense of formality

She turned on the lights in the main floor dining hall and was pleased to see the tables already set with festive decorations for the pre-meeting meal. Red plastic cloths held white dishes and large pink, red and white Styrofoam hearts danced on a sea of curly ribbon in the middle of each table. Crepe paper ribbons and balloons adorned the walls and a sign saying “Happy VD” was taped over the podium. Anne laughed and made a mental note to have the sign changed before some of the older members arrived.

Overhead she heard a floorboard creak. Thinking it odd, she went to the bottom of the stairs and called, “Who’s there? Is someone up there?” There was no response but the big front door opened and Anne was relieved to see Helen and Jean enter.

“Which one of you is responsible for the sign?” she said.

Helen blushed and Jean looked innocently up at the ceiling. “Well whoever did it needs to change it before the rest of the group arrives.”

“You don’t like it?” Helen said.

“I love it, but something tells me a few of our members won’t appreciate your sense of humor.”

The floorboard creaked overhead again and all three women looked at the ceiling.

“Is someone here with you?” said Jean.

“No. I heard that same noise just before you came in, but no one answered when I called. Maybe we should go upstairs and check it out.”

“Not on your life,” said Jean. “The men will be here soon. They can go up there.”

“Don’t be such a sissy,” said Helen. “Let’s go see what’s going on. It’s probably just the old building making noises anyway.”

“Well, you two can go, but I’m staying here,” said Jean.

Anne and Helen started towards the wide old stairs covered with the worn burgundy runners. As they started to ascend, Helen sat down on the third step and said, “Maybe we should wait.”

So, what do you think? Can you visualize this setting? Did I over-describe or clump? Any feedback is welcome.


ChristineEldin said...

I get bored with setting very easily and find myself skipping some parts when I'm reading. But not yours. This is great!
You give us a sense of the character's personality, the building, her history with it, what kind of day she's expecting.
A lot of information in a nicely-paced vignette. The sign (Happy VD) was perfectly timed as well.

(Is this for one of your books? It's very nice. I would keep it.)

ChristineEldin said...

Oh, would you post your instructor's comments?

Bernita said...

I would take out one sentence only, the one beginning "red plastic clothes..."
Otherwise, I think you spaced your description well.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks! It is for one of my books. Not sure if I can post the comments verbatim, but I'll let you know what she says after she posts.

Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it.

Demon Hunter said...

I loved it! Great stuff. :*)

Mary Witzl said...

This works fine for me, too, and you have taken me right back to a few Masonic halls I've spent time in! The only advice I could give you would be to put in the smell of the room as Anne steps through the doors. Old brick buildings have a particular smell -- of floor wax and old wood and coffee grounds and dead cigarettes -- and it is so evocative that I found myself missing it here.

It is good of you to do this, and I know that I will find it particularly helpful. I can't afford a writing course right now in terms of time or money, and while I realize you can't give us the whole thing, I do appreciate your paraphrasing some of the things you're learning. And they say that teaching something is the best way to learn it, so I hope you will profit from your own generosity!

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks! :)

Thanks for the feedback. We had a limited word count and it was hard to get everything in, but you are so right about the smells of those old buildings. Hopefully those will be in the final version.

I'm always happy to share information and hope everyone will find it helpful. Just have to make sure I don't post anything that might be proprietary.

Maddy said...

Ooo I like this vicarious learning, that has to be a good deal! You pay for the course, we benefit!

Yup, you did great. No clumping ofr over descriptiveness and I could visualise it [yes I know too many 'ands' and 'visualise' has a 'z' out here!]

So is this a weekly class?
Well done you.

Trée said...

Mmmm, I'm in trouble. I over metaphor everything and where a metaphor won't do, I've never met a simile I didn't like. :-D

Thank Janus I only write for myself. :-D

AW, thanks for the post--very informative.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks. It's one lesson every 2 weeks for 12 weeks total. They had an accelerated one - 1 lesson every week for 6 weeks, but with all the distractions in my life right now this seemed like a more prudent decision. I'm still tryng to determine how this all works, but I will definitely keep posting about the experience and sharing what I'm learning.

The Anti-Wife said...

You write beautifully and with great emotion. Don't sell yourself short.

cyn said...

AW, well done.
i was there with the character.
you brought the place to life for me. can't wait to hear about your further lessons.

thanks for sharing!

Ello said...

I thought it was great! I agree with Mary about including smells because old houses are musty and such specific old house smells that a line triggering it would immediately place us there.

I thought you did a great job. What happens next?

WriterKat said...

I love this piece. You made the setting come to life by moving it forward with the character. i.e. "shivered as she unlocked the door." " She turned on the lights..." You're letting us see through her body & eyes to the next detail. It's really well done, I didn't get the sense that you were describing the scene as much as me seeing it myself. That's a hard thing to do.

Thanks for sharing your lesson. It sounds like a great class and what you wrote really helped me think about my own writing.