Friday, June 04, 2010

Setting Porn

I have been diligently working on my intense dislike of writing setting by purposely studying how other genre writers do it, trying writing exercises to develop my focus on it, and otherwise forcing myself to deal with it like an adult instead of a whiny toddler. So far I've done okay. I'll probably always think characters are way more interesting to write, but I'm slowly getting away from wishing every novel took place in a featureless void.

During this process I've noticed a couple of things about how a lot of genre novelists deal with setting:

1. Most of it is largely glorious. Largely. Nine out of ten setting-intensive novels I read have drop-dead gorgeous settings in them that sound like the deserted island you should be living on, preferably half-naked, along with a nubile young sex-crazed adoring partner who wanders around after you all day asking in a sexy European accent if it's time to make love yet.

2. No unsightly neighborhoods. Trailer parks, slums, crack houses and other undesirable properties evidently do not exist in these worlds. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a little crab grass in these parts.

3. Everyone can comfortably afford to live in these settings. I don't know what these writers have done with the poor, the unemployed and the homeless, but they're not in these settings. I'm kind of wondering if they've been secretly rounded up and auctioned off to the literary writers.

4. Nothing ever goes wrong in these places. The weather is beautiful, the neighbors are nice, non-gun-toting folks and there aren't any bugs, snakes, wasps, rats, mold, mildew, dust motes, etc. No one has a water pipe burst or a stove blow up, no drug dealers hang sneakers from the telephone wires, and Wal-Mart never builds a superstore directly across the street.

5. Invisible cleaners secretly arrive to tidy up while everyone is sleeping or making love. Go ahead, laugh, then you give me a reasonable explanation as to why no one in the story ever does any housework and still the places remain 100% immaculate. I'm still waiting to see just one time someone produce a Swiffer or a vacuum or even a Handy-Wipe. No, it seems in these settings dirty dishes and laundry do themselves. Garbage spontaneously disintegrates before it can be identified as garbage. Toilets are never scrubbed, disinfected or even flushed.

I know the fiction world is supposed to be a big fantasy place where we can escape, but any setting that is too perfect just doesn't ring true to me. Maybe it's all technicolor adjectives and superb nouns affecting my vision, but sometimes it reads so fake I feel like I'm watching porn. So how do we keep our settings escape-worthy without turning them into over-idealized, utterly unbelievable porn sets?

I think part of it is in the small details. When I go on a research trip, I try to see as much of a location as I can -- but I don't just focus on the pretty parts; I try to see all of it. Visiting pre-Katrina New Orleans, I went to meet my editor at a fancy French Quarter restaurant, dodging empty go-cups that had been dropped on the sidewalks (which explained why the air smelled like a bar on ladies night) and spotting broken strands of sun-faded Mardi-Gras beads still hanging from some railings and tree branches. I spied hundred-year-old rotting wood door frames squeezed between glittery new gift shops and tired-looking cafes; I noticed some used heroin syringes in the gutter not two feet away from the entrance of that fancy restaurant.

Using senses other than vision can also bring out more realism in setting. The air in downtown Pittsburgh during a hot summer day has an acid tinge to its usual dank industrial waste stench. The old historic buildings in Philadelphia have some wood in them that has been touched so many times over the centuries it feels like glass. People passing you on the street in Miami smell of sweat, suntan oil, or too much perfume. I've heard more car horns blare simultaneously and smelled more urine in New York City than in any other spot on the planet. Every outdoor surface that had not been regularly swept or cleaned in Chicago has this dark grit on it, like finely-ground gun powder. Visit any small town in Central Florida in early spring and you'll almost get drunk on the heavy scent of orange blossoms. Sometimes in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale (around three a.m.) if you listen closely you can hear the waves hitting the beach.

Every location has its own feel to it. I used to compare one spot in Colorado to Disney World; incredibly clean, filled with colorful characters, but at the end of the day, all facade and way too expensive. In another town I lived everyone was so nice and polite I wondered if they were dumping Prozac in the water supply (the happiness in that place was so relentless it was creepy.)

I'm still figuring it out. In the meantime, I will keep working on not only how I write setting, but also what I think should go into setting to keep it realistic without dispelling all the fantasy/escapism for the reader.

Now it's your turn: what do you think needs to go into setting to prevent it from morphing into porn? Or would you rather have the porn? Let us know in comments.

19 comments:

  1. #3 completely cracked me up.

    Clearly, I hadn't been writing setting porn -- a pipe has burst in book one, my main character lives in a trailer and confronts all of those poor that were leftover from the literary auction and made their way into my world.

    I want to read specifics that are real to that place--like the syringes on the ground just outside the expensive restaurant. I want to know that world, in that place and time. Not some overly sanitized and Disney-ized version. I feel like setting is an extension of character--these people, in order to be real, have to be grounded in the real details, or else they're fluff, air, nothing worth remembering. Setting itself ought to be a character--as flawed and interesting as the characters themselves, with moments of decadence and moments of utter brutality--inconsistent and contradictory at times. Most of all, setting needs to be useful--it creates for the read the very visual world that the story takes place and if done well, enhances the story on a visceral level that renders the scene vivid and permanent.

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  2. I must read higher quality books than you... or lower quality depending on how you look at it, because I can't think of a book I read that had a perfect setting. Almost perfect maybe.

    And then there was that one book I read with the character that worked as a gong farmer... you know what that is right?

    And yes they had to write about a day at his job cleaning the royal gong out... in somewhat graphic detail...

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  3. I heard the Internet is for porn. o_o

    I think obvious and ambiguous sounds help describe settings. Sounds are lacking in a lot of books I've read. Very few authors inject sounds into the settings of their books. I understand why they wouldn't. Reading is a sight sense, not a sound sense. Still, I think descriptive sounds would be great. If done well you can actually invoke the sense of sound. Your read can hear the sound while forming the mental scene.

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  4. I like realism in my settings, but I also think how a writer chooses to handle setting reflects voice. I'd rather have whatever authentically reflects the way the writer wants to tell me the story and what details he/she thinks is important enough to include.

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  5. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Oh! What an interesting post and great observations in the comments. I see a real backlash against setting in some people's writing and in many "advice" blogs, and I think that many people take the idea of limiting details too far and omit a great opportunity.

    I love writers who know what to do with setting. I love putting down a book and realizing I've been to another place mentally. Joshilyn Jackson is one example, in fact, the setting is actually a vital piece of her narratives. And, your examples of New Orleans, so true. And those details are really important. I'm reading a book now, and just last night I realized I'd gotten confused, and thought the characters were in New York, when they were in California. Perhaps it was me. When the characters were in Beijing I was fine and enjoyed the few details of that area, but the US part of the story seems oddly adrift in space.

    One of the problems I notice with setting writing is when the author focuses on furniture names and styles that I think will eventually date their book. Another is relying solely on visual cues. I don't disagree that shey could, or even should be the primary cues. But it's a waste of 4 perfectly good senses to leave those out. :)

    JulieB


    PS You are so correct about Chicago. It is gritty, and something I remember from my very _earliest_ of memories, and something I notice every time. Should I be scared to look up Xander's gong farming reference?? Somehow I doubt it will be a musical reference....

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  6. "I'm kind of wondering if they've been secretly rounded up and auctioned off to the literary writers."
    I think you are right!
    Hmmm, I do have as run-down mini-mall and a run-down graveyard.
    The graveyard doesn't count though--people prefer them derelict, so that would be setting porn. On the other hand there is a neat cemetery as well, so in a perverse way that is not porn.

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  7. This post made me think of my first and second trips to Toronto. The first time, everything was perfect and beautiful. The streets were clean, the air was fresh and everyone was happy. The second time, the air was hazy with pollution, there was trash on the streets and the homeless and the street kids weren't quite so happy anymore. It's something I try to keep in mind when I'm writing settings.

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  8. Great post!

    I must have a dystopian soul because when I write, the more uninviting the setting the more I love to describe it. And I totally agree, it's the little details that add the most, especially the scents and sounds and strange textures. They force the reader's mind into corners they might not have noticed before and really put them in the scene.

    I just have to say how much I've been enjoying your blog since I found it, but for some reason, I've never been able to log in and comment before. Here's hoping this one takes!

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  9. Description and settings are the two main reasons I'm not ready to submit yet. It's so difficult deciding just where that line between "setting porn" (great phrase!) and "floating story" is.

    When I'm reading a category romance set in some exotic local, I'll admit, I want the porn. I don't want to hear about trash on the ground or broken water mains or annoying construction (unless it gets in the way of the hero/heroine's meeting). I want to hear how absolutely gorgeous and romance-worthy it is. Because it's an ultimate escape.

    If I'm reading just about anything else, I want reality, but only enough to ground me. The truth is as a reader, "a street in New Orleans" gives me enough of an anchor to keep moving through the story - my mind automatically adds dirt & leaves in the gutter, a paper cup blowing by, old buildings and lampposts. I think that's why I have such a hard time writing it...I don't need much as a reader before my imagination takes over.

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  10. The only time I see "setting porn" like you've described is in many of the historical romances I've read. I don't often hear about stink, grime and general dirt in historical settings. Usually its a beautiful mansion or well kept castle.

    But with fantasy fiction/urban fantasy I've found it has all the grit and grime and stinks very well done in their settings.

    In Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, Sookie is forever cleaning the house, doing dishes and weeding in the yard. It helps make the fantasy story more believable.

    Patricia Brigg's heroine Mercy Thompson lives in a tiny rundown trailer with a rusted out junk car in the yard and she's an automechanic who can never really get the grease out from under her fingernails.

    I love when authors bring the not so nice details to the story, makes it real, believable and more enjoyable for me.

    :o)

    MsM

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  11. This sounds like comment bait to me, if I didn't know you better (or maybe I don't :)

    "Genre" novels encompass such a wide range that it appears easy to challenge.

    For example, a lot of detective novels take place in less salubrious surroundings. In a way, it's a form of reverse porn, because you want to show how tough your detective hero is by putting them in horrible surroundings.

    Since I've read some Phillips, Crusie and Weiner, I've run across some less-than-perfect heroines, sloppy lovemaking ("Bet Me" had a great example of that), and even some housecleaning.

    No Wal-Marts, yet, but maybe I haven't read enough.

    But if I was a betting man, I'd suspect you're right, just because that's part of the draw. Do I read Hemingway because I love despair and ennui? Or is it because he sets his stories in Paris and Spain? Tough decision.

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  12. Keita Haruka2:26 PM

    To write real settings, you have to know reality. I've read books that had slums in them, but they fell flat because clearly the author had never been to one. Either that, or they just lack all sense of empathy because they failed to capture the feel of it. To create a real setting, you have to take the elements that make a reader FEEL it. It's not in an overabundance of detail, but in describing those things that touch the heart, that defines that place and makes it distinct from all others. It can be objects in the setting, inhabitants, colours, sounds, smells...things that show the reader what it's like to be in that place, at that time.

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  13. Huh. The only settings I can think of that are as immaculate as you describe are in sleek SF, usually taking place on some very advanced spaceship, where it's implied that robots or automatic systems do the cleaning anyway. Maybe I just don't read anything too utopian, but I have noticed a trend toward adding more grit to settings in recent years.

    I think your point about using senses other than sight is a good one, though (although your visual descriptions in your examples were excellent). Occasionally we get sound, but it's rare to read descriptions relying on taste or smell or touch.

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  14. From your descriptions of places you've lived, I think you've got a good feel for place. As for myself, I read a lot of pulp and there is a lot of hard scrabble detail in the depression era popular fiction. I my stories, I try to touch on the food, smells, and textures of the places my characters go.

    In my reading and writing, I don't need so much place that I have forgotten who the characters are.

    Lastly, I finally found a copy of Beyond Varallan and put it at the top of the reading stack.

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  15. Setting porn is particularly prevalent in epic fantasy, where it sometimes seems that at least fifty percent of a very big book (from a cycle of three to twelve very big books) consists of descriptions of the fabulous landscapes through which the characters go questing. In recent times, there is also reverse setting porn in New Weird or Steampunk fantasies, where you get highly detailed descriptions of fantastic and usually decaying cities. China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer are good examples of this.

    Crime fiction and urban fantasy are usually pretty good at describing the downsides as well as the upsides of a given setting.

    Indeed, the perfectly beautiful setting seems to be a specialty of certain kinds of romance novels (though you do have romance novels with marvelously evocative settings). For example, some lines of category romances tend to be set in tropical islands or romantic European cities which make it very clear that the author has never seen more than a travel broshure of the place she describes. For example, you get a romantic rendezvous atop the Eiffel Tower (miraculously deserted), yet no description of how crowded with tourists it is, how you have to push your way through sweaty bodies, how in order to get to the Eiffel Tower you have to cross the Champ de Mars dodging picknickers, kissing couples in the grass and African immigrants hawking cheap jewelery and toys.

    I'm not particularly good at writing setting myself, but I think a well described setting can add a lot of atmosphere to a book. I have read books which made me feel I was there, even though I had never visited the place in question. There have been books which made me google particular landmarks and which made me want to visit the place in question. However, none of those were sanitized settings, because sanitized settings feel just dead to me.

    In my own writing, I try to include the grit and the telling details. The internet makes it a lot easier to find out about unfamiliar places, but if the setting is a real existing place, I still find it very helpful to visit, if that's at all possible. Because seeing a place with your own eyes can give you all those little realistic details that you won't find on the internet, such as the honking steam locomotive passing right below the apartment building you've picked as a home for your hero and regularly sending plumes of black stinking smoke up to his balcony or the bar with the too loud music and the sex toy vending machines in the restrooms which advertise their wares with really bad poetry (I stole the poetry, too).

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  16. It's not the setting I begrudge, it's having to describe to it. I didn't grow up with Crayola, but Rose Art (yes, those are such horrible crayons) so my color palette is limited. It's either dark brown or tan. It's either that plush carpet I love to wiggle my toes in or hard floor (tile, linoleum, wood). I take note of a house that is very neat or it's feels lived in. But that's about it.

    So when I have to take a paragraph (or a line or two) to describe in detail what the character sees I have to do research. It's frustrating and I'd rather say how the environment makes the character feel--at home or not.

    So I'm with ya with the whiny toddler deal.

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  17. I'm probably the world's worst when it comes to including lots of details in my setting. I'm more bare bones when it comes to things like that. I can only think it comes from the novels I've read in the past where the settings and other details were so intricate and described in such minutia that my eyes glazed over and I lost the real gist of the story.

    I try to include "real" when I describe a setting including the trash or rotting trees if there are any, but my readers don't get much. Just basics.

    However, that said...I think auctioning off the less affluent characters is a great idea! ;)

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  18. Ugh, I have a horrible time describing settings that I'm not interested in. I mean, it's one thing to go hog-wild describing the pirate-themed minigolf course. It's quite another to wrack my brains to give even the most basic details of the house the characters will spend the most time in.

    The one flows naturally because I want to see it myself. The other...meh. I usually have to go back and try to work in details like that, because to me, character and action are so much more interesting than four walls, a floor, and a ceiling.

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  19. I was initially thinking that I hadn't read a book with completely "perfect" settings until I was organizing all my books today. Lo' and behold: NUMEROUS perfect settings! I guess it never really stood out to me before, possibly because the setting was just a backdrop and the characters were center-stage (as they should be), but I understand the incredulity of such circumstances.

    Sometimes, I just go with it...like when people go to watch action films expecting great plot instead of just entertainment. It's all for entertainment.

    I do enjoy books that explore different settings within the book--it creates more opportunity for the character and relationship to grow and develop. :)

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