This weekend I attended the first of Clarion West’s one day writing workshops. This first one was titled “Alive in the World” and focused on the interaction between character and setting. It was taught by Molly Gloss, who I hadn’t heard of before, but others in the class were familiar with her work. I think this more a sign of how spotty my SF/F reading experience often is. I felt like the class was pretty good. I offer up my thoughts for you on the subject.
The class was predominately female. Of the approximately 12 students, only three were male. There was a vast range of experience at the table, from someone who is just starting to try and write seriously to someone who used to be an editor for Locus Magazine, with a few Clarion West alumni scattered in between. The class ran from 10 AM to 4 PM with a half hour break for lunch.
The first part of the class, which ran from 10 to about 12:30, involved a talk by Gloss with plenty of examples. We opened with introducing ourselves. In addition to our names, we were whether or not we wrote speculative fiction (I think that was all but one person) and the first house we can remember living in.
The best I can summarize from notes is that Gloss felt that with there was an increasing loss of distinctiveness when it comes to “place,” both in real life and in literature. If you go to a mall anywhere in the US, you’re going to see the same assortment of shops. In writing how-to books, setting is downplayed and is a distant third to character and plot. Even then, the emphasis for setting involves the objects that a character chooses in order to describe the character.
Landscape, on the other hand, is overlooked because we can’t control the outside world. Using her own writing as an example, she commented that in her writing setting is important, but you then risk becoming labled as a “regional writer.” (Which brings to mind a conversation I had with Nate and Torrey at type-and-gripe a few months ago, where an editor thought that someone was making a mistake by setting their book specifically in Seattle because “no one in New York would read it.”) Gloss argued that specificity in place made the story more universal than less and highlighted several classic authors that were very tied to time and place, including Tolstoy, Austen and Hemingway.
Through the examples, Gloss emphasized how what you focus on shapes point-of-view. In one example, drawn from Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, she points out that somethings are described very specifically whereas other things are not. The POV identifies the sort of cattle the character passes (because this is cattle country) but not what sort of birds are flying nearby. Because in cattle country the cattle are something the characters are going to know something about, the birds less so.
Gloss stated that she couldn’t write a novel until she had a sense of where it was. For her, plot and theme arise from the interaction between character and setting. In addition to providing a stage and set dressing, the setting adds an emotional and atmospheric element. You can set a story in one room, but the location changes the atmosphere in the room. This change can be implied without outright stating it. In fact, the lack of naming is very important.
How a character responds to the environment can say something about their state of mind. First she used examples from Annie Dillard’s The Living and Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms. Then she highlighted that the emotional resonance can also be a hook to bring up a bit of background through the evocation of memory, as she showed through her own book The Hearts of Horses. Then she used a couple examples to show how a character can look at the same setting and react differently depending on their state of mind. For this she used passages from her book, Wild Life, as well as passages from Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. (Gloss highly recommends this book, feeling that it is one of the greatest novels from the 20th century.)
She talked a bit about sentence length and how long to spend on descriptions. Gloss emphasized that as long as you have a reason for it, then you can leave it in. You have to describe the horribleness of a thunderstorm to later sell a character’s anger over losing an umbrella. Tied into this she used an eample from Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle. A simple scene where one character sees someone off in the distance and walks towards him is dragged out in heavy detail. Without context, it seems like a weird focus. But in the book this builds up the emotional weight that the scene needs.
There are two final comments that stand alone in my notes from this part of the workshop. The first was Gloss commenting that she couldn’t stand it when authors take things through to the end. Which I believe was directed at the idea of authors used things, especially setting, without thinking of the consequences those elements would probably have. She also felt that setting was not something you could easily work back into a manuscript. It had to be something you think about in the formative stages.
After this we did some exercises. First we were asked to write down a list of the first five places where we’ve been that jump to mind. Then we did a pair of writing exercises, which we could read aloud should we so choose. In each we had the choice of one of two exercises to do.The first one we did there was the choice between writing about someone walking through a fictional place, what they see and how they react to it; or writing about one of the fictional places and using that to create an emotional hook where we offer a glimpse into an underlying story.
In the second one, our choices between writing about a person relocated through time to someplace before or after their lifespan, or writing about someone doing a mundane task after something extraordinary has occurred (won the lottery, found out their wife has been murdered) without saying what the extraordinary thing is.
I felt like I learned a good deal from the class. If nothing else, I got a better sense of where my weaknesses are. I felt more than a little out of my depths with most of the other participants they all seemed much more insightful and technically skilled than I. I was also more than a little anxious about making a good first impression with all the Clarion West folks. My default conversational mode is “smart ass one liners,” so I’ve become more reserved when I meet people for the first time until I get a sense for them.
But I did eventually warm up to the group and feel comfortable joining in on the discussion. It’s funny how different a room can feel when you stop feeling like they are strangers and start feeling like they are people you know.