A novice writer asked me the other day what makes a fantasy novel setting bad. My response? I said it's simple. The same thing that makes any setting bad: unbelievability. If the reader can't envision a setting clearly in his mind, he's not going to buy into the the overall concept—and might even be turned off the book altogether. Everything boils down to using creative imagery effectively. And, doing that can be reduced to two elements:
- Visualization. Can you, as the writer, see the image clearly in your mind? Can you envision the setting, hear the sounds of everyday life, smell the scent on the breeze, taste the dew in the air, feel the emotions of the people around you, sense the magic of it all?
- Description. Can you describe all those things in such a way that the reader can also get a clear sensory image in his mind?
If you answered "no" to either of those questions, your setting is in trouble.
You see, readers don't experience writing by reading words. They experience writing by reading rich, indelible, memorable imagery, words that paint a picture of what the author intends to convey. If the writer can't see that imagery in his mind, he can't possibly convey it to others. Until the writer sees a clear mental picture of a setting, it doesn't exist. And, if it doesn't exist, his readers can't see it.
So, the tough part about all this imagery stuff isn't knowing what you need to do; it's knowing how to do it. Yes, boys and girls, that's what sets the small fry apart from the big guys (my regrets to Joe Biden). It's the difference between being a writer and trying to be a writer. It's the difference between saying it and showing it. To wit:
- The rain came down hard.
- The rain pounded us like a small ship in a vicious monsoon.
See the difference? Good. Now, that brings up the next question: How do you learn to write with rich imagery? The answer: It's easy. You practice. And practice. And practice some more. You practice until your fingers are ready to fall off and your head is about to explode. You create one setting in your head, and then you create another. You keep creating settings until doing so becomes second nature. Then, finally, once you have committed a powerful image to ink, put your writing aside for a day or two (longer if necessary), and, go back to read it out loud. Doing that will allow your ears to pick up any weaknesses and let you know if it needs more work. You have to take some time off before your evaluation, of course, so your mind gets cleansed of all the stuff you've been squeezing through it and reset itself to be able to hear and objectively evaluate your writing. You need to approach your work with a "clean slate." Got that? Good.
But, you ask (you're just full of questions today, aren't you?), what do you do if you just can't tell a good image-filled setting from a bad one? What if they all sound good? Or bad?
That's when it's time for you to reach out for professional help. You need to find someone who's skilled at teaching creative writing--a published writer as well as an effective teacher. Notice I said "as well as" and not "or." You need someone with experience in both disciplines. That means you're going to have to enroll in a college workshop or hire someone who fills those two requirements and is willing to work with you privately.
Of the two, I prefer the workshop setting because that will expose you to more writing examples than if you were going along privately. Also, getting feedback from a number of different sources (the other students) under the skilled eye and ear of a trained professional will help you to hone your own work more quickly and efficiently.
I apologize for being so long-winded with this response. I suspect you were looking for a shorter course of action to take. Sadly, there is none. At least none that's guaranteed to work. Either do it on your own, relying upon your skills, talents, and "ear" to guide you along, or do it under the watch of a skilled instructor. Either way should work out fine in the end. Before long, you'll be envisioning those fantasy settings like a pro. And writing about them so your readers can envivion them, too.
Until then ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack. It's free; it's entertaining; it's informative, and it runs weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)