Friday, February 26, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom - Snow Day

This blog originally appeared at The Romance Studio on February 12, 2010.

Like everyone and everything else in my corner of the globe, I'm going to take time out from the daily writing routine for a snow day. But in doing so, I'm still giving you would-be novelists out there an extremely important tip: don't neglect your setting in writing your story. More than anyone I know, I am guilty of this sin. I confess that I was a teenaged drama geek - you know, active in the drama and glee clubs and moping around in my all-black wardrobe while quoting various literary geniuses about the meaninglessness of our existence. My goal was to become a playwright, and I still write first drafts like a playwright - lots of blocks of dialogue with only minimal stage direction. They are in her apartment. The car hits a wall. Scene in an airport hangar. Later, I go back and I flesh out those directions with more detailed description of the setting. It still doesn't come easily to me, though.

"White Room Syndrome" is a common problem for beginning novelists. You see the scene so clearly in your head, that you're surprised to discover everyone else doesn't see it too. You dash off one sentence: "Mary and Fred came into the kitchen," for example. And then off you go, telling us about Mary and Fred's argument. Or their hot sex on the kitchen table. Or the dead body they find. But you tell us almost nothing about where this happens. To the reader, it feels like being trapped in an all-white room, hence the name.

I just finished judging some manuscripts for a writing contest, and five of the six I judged were all prime examples of White Room Syndrome. It takes a lot of effort to overcome this disease, and I myself still struggle with it every day. But you can beat it, if you make a conscious effort. The best training I know is to just read, read, read. Read lots of books that are full of vivid descriptive detail.

And that brings me back to Snow Day. Trapped in my house almost around the clock since last Thursday, I started thinking about the power of the snow. How quickly all our modern conveniences become useless, how deadly a few feet of frozen water can be, how fast we are thrown back on our own mental resources. (And how few are those mental resources for someone from my son's generation, who is lost when the power goes out and he loses all Google capability. But that's a rant for another blog.)

Snow can take the White Room Syndrome and turn it right on its head. Because in the whiteness of the snow, you have a powerful setting for your story. What follows is my list of some of the best examples I know of Snow Stories. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

7) Groundhog Day - No, it's not a novel. But watching Bill Murray slogging through the Pennsylvania winter over and over again certainly adds to the fun in this touching romance.

6) The Snowy Day - My favorite book as a child. Beautiful, simple story and illustrations capture the magic of snow through the eyes of a child.

5) The Left Hand of Darkness - By the brilliant Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet called Winter. Need I say more?

4) A Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin's tale of master thief Peter Lake, his flying horse, and his great love for the consumptive Beverly. A lyrical and magnificent depiction of New York at the last turn of the century.

3) To Build A Fire - Jack London's truly haunting short story about a man caught in a snowstorm and trying to build a fire and keep it alight. It does not go well.

2) The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard's vivid nonfiction account of his experiences with Scott in 1910 in Antarctica. It really does not go well.

1) The Shining - A character every bit as vividly drawn as Jack and Wendy and little Danny, the snow comes down with a vengeance on Page 210 of this masterpiece of terror and suspense, and it does not let up for another 20o or so pages. If you want to know how to make the setting an integral part of your story, read this book. But read it with the lights on. If you still have electricity.

Keep warm if you can, and I'll be back with more writing tips in March. Meanwhile, feel free to post about your favorite winter stories!

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