Tag Archives: Bill and Vera Cleaver

Sexy Sense of Place

“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like the back of his hand.” Robert Louis Stevenson

When my first editor, the amazing Mary Cash, bought my first book KELLY AND ME, one of the things she said was, “We need more sense of place.”

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“Read,” she said.

And so I did. I found lots of books that painted worlds for me. But the authors I learned the most from for that writing exercise were Bill and Vera Cleaver. They wrote WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Newbery winner). All their books (yes, I read them all) were so beautifully detailed that I fell in love. I’m STILL in love with their writing.

A Few Facts about Sense of Place

  1. If well done, setting can become a character (what one reviewer said about KELLY AND ME).
  2. Not just fantasy novels need world building–ALL books do.
  3. If you feel like the book you’re reading is a desert (when it’s not!), that’s because the author has failed in making the world real and visible. The author is your eye.
  4. When your main character talks about place, remember he will speak only about what he notices. YOU have to make him notice what allows the reader to believe they are there.
  5. Use all five sense when you write. At this moment I can hear the baby and, across the street, a lawn edger going. I can feel the cool air blowing in around my feet from the open window. Outside my window there are two trees, one with leaves the color of an almost-ripe lemon. The smells coming from the bathroom? Let’s just say the wintergreen smelly thing ain’t helping a lot. And then, of course, there are the keys under my fingers. All of this is part of my sense of place–of the world I am in right now.
  6. Don’t use all sense at once, like I did above. After you build a place, it’s your job to remind the reader where they are. And I don’t think it’s a bad idea to do that two or three times a page.
  7. The amazing Tim Wynne-Jones gave a great talk when I was at school at VC, about the emotion sense of place can give a book–how it can forecast doom or help readers feel joy. There’s a name for this, and try as I might, I can’t remember what it is. When I do, I’ll add it.


#32 Rewrite your book opening using sense of place.

#32.5 Do what Mary Cask said: Read for setting. How does the writer do it successfully?



Filed under Editors, Exercises, Setting, Voice, writing process

And So We Continue–Questions to Ask Yourself as You Revise (11-20)

Our revision discussion was interrupted last week with a Note to My Girls Because I Knew There Would be Many Tears of Sadness and There Were. We’ll pick up where we left off the week before. 🙂

11. Is every word moving you toward the end of the novel? My mom used to ask her creative writing students “Would you use so many words if you had to pay a dollar for each one?” It’s a good question. What words can you do without? Do any slow the story down? Do you need all the adjectives? All the adverbs?

12. Is your punctuation right? Yes, this is something that a line editor will help you with, but don’t forget that I just read a book (I mean it! Don’t forget that *I* read a book) where there were tense problems all over the book. So you want to get your novel the best it can be. And whatever you do, do NOT think that this is what an editor is for and send in a manuscript with typos all over the place. Said editor will just dismiss you with a vote of thanks.

13. Can your “ly” words be replaced with stronger verbs? Adverbs mean a weak verb. So think of words (in revision–otherwise you will slow yourself down) that you can use that will replace your adverbs. “He walked slowly” can become “He meandered.” And let me tell you what–I ALWAYS have characters meandering.

14. Do you have a plot? We character driven novelists are always wondering this! Hahaha! “Do I have a plot? Ann Dee, what do you think? Do I have a plot in this one?”  “I don’t know, Carol. I like your characters. Ally? What do you think?” Ally (too kind to say anything negative) avoids eye contact.

15. Can your “was –ing words” be replaced with one word? I was walking becomes I walked. This makes the story more immediate and you lose extra words, and that’s always good because it means  you save a buck.

16. Does the reader feel the main character’s emotion? If you want to connect to your reader you can do so through emotion. Let us feel what the character feels and we will care. That’s the way it goes, mister. Be careful, though, to not tell the reader how the character was feeling. Man, was he scared! And when you show, make sure that you are not using cliched writing. She was so embarrassed her face was as red as a tomato. Be original and your story will be remembered. (If you don’t think so just remember back to that scene from Throw Momma from the Train that Kyra posted on Friday. His guts oozed nice like a melted malted . . . )

17. Are you giving too many points of view? When you change voices or points of view you need to keep each strong and distinct. Each character must sound different. Each must sound real. The more points of view you have to deal with, the more you have to create, keep original and individual. Whenever I write from a boy’s point of view the boy sounds like a girl. Why? I know girls. And I think boys have cooties. So I always have to be very careful when writing the male voice.

18. Are you consistent with your POV character or are you getting into the heads of too many people? Please, I’m begging you. Your main character–unless she can read minds–can only feel her own emotions. She might be able to see a look of sadness on another’s face and interpret it as such, but she doesn’t know how the other person feels. Period.

19. Is there good sense of place? One way to connect with your readers is to make a scene feel real. This happens by writing a strong sense of place. Use all five senses when you are creating place. Some think that only fantasy or dysptopian novels need world building, but the truth is all books should make the reader feel grounded in place. My first letter from editor Mary Cash told me I needed to develop more of a sense of place for KELLY AND ME. I wasn’t sure how to do that and went to other books to see how the authors created their worlds. I loved Bill and Vera Cleaver (WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM) who told beautiful stories where the place was almost a character itself. Place is quite strong in Ally Condie’s novel MATCHED.

20. How is your pacing? A book that moves too fast or too slow will leave the reader feeling gypped, bored or both. Make sure you pace your novel so that you’re not giving too many details (details that don’t move the story forward) and to make sure that you aren’t leaping over important parts of your book.

Remember that everyone has their own way of revising–but if you never complete a manuscript, you’ll never have anything to revise. So get a draft done so you can start the fun part of writing. Well, I think revision is fun. What about the rest of you?

Also, and I mean this, books–well-written and otherwise–can you teach you so much. In fact, books were my first creative writing teachers. So what am I saying? READ! READREADREAD!


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