Hey, one of the things my teachers are always telling me I need to improve on in my writing is setting. Even in this simple question, you can note the complete absence of any indications of time and space. Seeing as my teachers are all incompetent, you got any tips that could help me?
Setting is very important. Without setting, your characters would float helplessly in a formless void. I definitely recommend setting your story somewhere, so that they can move about and order coffees.
I’m not a big setting guy. You probably knew that. Probably I am half your problem, since you think my opinion worth writing in for. Maybe you should stop reading books like mine. But if we’re separating stories out into their constituent parts (which kills them, but anyway), setting ranks very low. Here’s a list of some things that might be in a scene or story, from most to least important, according to me:
Someone wants something
One person says something that the other person can’t think of a good reply to
The feeling that something bad is going to happen soon
Guess what, something wasn’t like you thought
The feeling that something good is going to happen soon
Where everybody is
How old they are
What they’re wearing
But setting is important. A good setting makes everything more believable. It’s just something I tend to leave until last, once everything else is working. Because no-one loves a book for its setting, and it’s relatively easily changed. This isn’t a film where you have to rebuild the sets. You can do it with a sentence here and there. Small details, implying larger ones. Like if we’re in a hospital, you don’t want to describe the walls, or the color of the uniforms, or say how many rooms there are. We’ve all seen plenty of hospitals; that stage is prebuilt in our heads. But you can mention an old guy shuffling by in urine-soaked pajama pants, or a woman sitting up doing her lipstick in her bed, or the bucket catching leaks behind the nurses’ desk. Something different and suggestive like that.
Hey Max, what are you angry about today?
My newspaper offered a “life hack” for better storage of food in zip-lock bags: Put your germ-laden lips on the bag and suck the remaining air out. They had a video of a woman doing her best not to exhale a mouth full of bacteria into a bag, to demonstrate. That really enraged me. I’m no doctor but I’ll take my chances with regular air over sealing in the escaped vestiges of whatever just crawled back out of your lungs. Really, it’s the label “life hack” that put it over the top. Like they think it’s so clever. Why don’t you go save some snakebite victims by suckling at their open wounds, you barbarians.
hey buddy are you workin on anything new? i’m on the toilet right now at work and can think of no one i’d rather have in here with me.
Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. Later, when I answer my own call of nature, I will think of you, too.
Yes, I’m always working on something new. The funny thing about novels is the enormous lag time to publication. I cycle like this:
Stage 1: New novel is not working and everything is terrible. But my previous one was just published so people think I’m industrious and productive.
Stage 2: Several abandoned creative detours later, I’m still struggling to animate the stitched-together corpse of the new book. But the previous book is coming out in paperback so there’s still no pressure.
Stage 3: BWAHAHAHA. It’s alive. Progress is made. People ask me when the new book will be out because it’s been a while, dude.
Stage 4: OH MY GOD MAX WHERE IS YOUR NEW BOOK. I have a first draft, so am tempted to say, “Oh it’s basically done,” even though I know in reality there is a year of rewrites looming.
Stage 5: It has a publication date, so I can point to that. This is my laziest time creatively because it’s so tempting to polish up the thing that’s already fully formed, or work on its promotion, rather than pick up the shovel and head down to the cemetery to start sifting through body parts for the next book. And I can totally get away with it because no-one will say, “Hey, Max, I know the new book isn’t even out yet, but it’s time to start collecting body parts.”
Which dystopian horrors you’ve imagined have actually come true so far?
ALL OF THEM. Sometimes I think, “Well, at least THIS hasn’t happened,” then BAM, here’s Trump’s first TV ad. That thing is really something. It reminds me of why I got out of satire. I can’t do anything with that. It’s already a parody.
My favorite part is where it says we should ban Muslims from the US until we figure out a reason. Because at face value, there’s no reason to tack on that last part. If you were at a party and trying to make the argument for closing the borders, you would never say that, because it makes you look dumb. Instead, you would trot out some vague reason and hope you didn’t get called on it. Right? Explicitly saying “until I figure out why” calls attention to the fact that you don’t actually have a reason.
But the ad does this on purpose! It explicitly validates the idea that we don’t need to waste time identifying problems, but can skip on ahead to the part where we take action against people we never liked anyway. And this is smart, in a thoroughly amoral, civilization-eroding kind of way, because it’s so hard to logically justify racism. Xenophobia is a feeling, not a philosophy. You can’t really mount a solid, racist case for anything. But it’s a real feeling, so what you really want to hear, if you have that feeling, is that you’re completely right and don’t need to worry about why. We can just go ahead and ban Muslims. Until we figure out a reason.
And then the other side completely ignores all that and gets excited because the ad maybe unfairly implies that some footage from Morocco is Mexico.
Who in tarnation is Owen, and what in the world did he ever do to you to get cursed two Christmas-times in a row?
I don’t see what the big mystery is. I have blogged about Owen before. It was ten years ago, but still. Keep up, people.
Owen is my arch-nemesis because:
I liked a girl in high school and Owen sat with her under a tree during lunch a couple times. I don’t think they did anything but it’s the principle of the thing.
Later, a different girl I liked said she liked Owen. This was also a different Owen.
Owen’s surname—the first Owen, I mean—is Berryman, which is too similar to mine. People sometimes get my name wrong and call me Max Berry, so it’s like he’s laughing at me.
Children of Men is one of my all-time favorite films but it has Clive Owen in it, who I don’t like, so that’s annoying. The reason I don’t like Clive Owen is mainly that his surname is Owen. Similarly, I can’t enjoy Owen Wilson movies.
There’s this dude in my neighborhood who I cross paths with sometimes and he’s always doing something stupid, like looking the other way when I’m trying to get past. I bet his name is Owen.
So now you’re up to speed.
P.S. I just found that old blog post and his name was actually Scott. But I think that’s beside the point. It’s a little late to stop hating him now. I’m pretty sure the second Owen was really an Owen, and that’s good enough for me.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a hypothetical human being that, hypothetically, dabbles in writing short stories on Google Drive to kill the mindless boredom of hypothetical math classes. You need a snappy one-liner to kick off your short. Since your writing MO seems to include some pretty good starting sentences, what are your thoughts on how to achieve the perfect opening hook for a story?
I appreciate you saying my first sentences are “pretty good,” Fish. I can see why you came to me. I, too, seek wisdom from people who perform slightly above average. Some people say you should shoot for the stars, but I prefer to aim at about hat-height.
I believe in starting books from the front. When writing them, that is. Actually, reading, too. It’s important both times. But I mean I’d rather have a good first sentence and figure out the idea later than the other way around. An idea by itself isn’t much good. I have ideas for books all the time. They will be amazing, if I can ever get them onto paper, which I won’t, because they only sound good. Good-sounding ideas are actually terrible because they have no character and no heart.
An idea only becomes good with execution. A book can be anything, before you start, but by the end of the first sentence, it can only belong to a specific set of things. By then you have a sense of whether anybody is likely to die in it, or use the word “parsimonious,” or if it’s going to be funny, or have wizards. There is probably a tense and point of view and setting and timeframe. There’s still a world of possibility, of course, but you started with infinity, so this is smaller.
Anyway. I don’t have any tricks. I just think about it and see what tickles me. I like short first sentences. I try to write books that are interesting because things happen in them, not because I am an enthralling carpenter of words, so I think the first sentence should advertise that by getting to the point.
Here are my opening lines so far, just in case you don’t know them by heart:
I want to be famous.
Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water cooler.
Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.
As a boy, I wanted to be a train.
“He’s coming around.”
And a few from novels that may never be published:
When Jason Hackman was four years old, he broke both arms falling out a second-storey window.
I want to help you.
So it’s 1346 and I’m hacking some guy’s arm off.
I’ll be honest: I did a bad thing.
Our job was simple.
Diego once killed a man by digging a hole.
When she was five, she was allowed to go to school.
I like those kinds of sentences because they make me want to read the next one. Or write it. That’s really all I’m looking for.