Welcome to June’s Setting Workshop! From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected over thirty writers to participate. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a 500 word sample chosen by the writers from a place he or she felt needed help with setting. We hope that not only you’ll learn a little bit about setting that you can apply to your own writing, but that you’ll also be able to get to know some of our wonderful Pitch Wars mentors and their editing styles. We appreciate our mentors for giving up their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. We will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones.
And now we have …
Pitch Wars Mentor Addie Thorley
Addie Thorley writes Young Adult historical fiction and fantasy. She has a passion for multicultural stories with exotic locales and anything with magic and KISSING! When she’s not writing, Addie works as a professional equestrian and does everything from riding award-winning show horses to training wild mustangs. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and wolf dog and enjoys gallivanting in the woods, running, and eating cookies in her spare time. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
The 500 Word Critique . . .
Middle Grade Steampunk Adventure
Wil inserted the brass key and turned it until the lock clicked. He hesitated. Uncle Henry had never allowed him in the attic. But his uncle was gone and Aunt Edith barely recognized him. He pocketed the key in his loose cotton trousers, pushed open the door and reached for the lantern. Holding it up, he stepped inside and closed the heavy wooden door–well, mostly, leaving it cracked for a quick escape. (This is a great first paragraph! It hooked me right away. I love that we get an insight into Wil’s family situation, and you’ve done a fantastic job setting the scene. Specific details like the brass key, his loose cotton trousers (rather than something more modern/ordinary like jeans), and using a lantern instead of switching on a light or grabbing a flashlight really help to ground us in your world. I also love the sense of mystery/ danger you’ve created with the cracked door.)
The room was larger than he expected with high ceilings. (I think you can push this description harder. This is our first glimpse of the forbidden attic—really dig in and set the scene. Does it have a smell? That’s usually the first thing I notice about attics. How large is “bigger than expected”? Can you compare it to something that would reveal more about this world? Are the ceilings slanted? Dusty? Are they a cobweb of rotting wooden beams?) He shivered from the chilly, fresh damp air, (So many adjectives in a row are kind of clunky and distracting. I would use two maximum.) as if a window had been left open during the afternoon spring rain but that couldn’t be right since no one else had been up here. (What about Uncle Henry?) Boxes filled the eves, spreading outwards reaching for the center. (I think I get what you’re trying to say here, but it feels contradictory to have something spreading outwards and reaching for the center. Reword for clarity.) Wil walked down the center towards what would be the front of the house. Pieces of metal extended up from one carton, wires trailed off from another and toy body parts draped over the edges of a third. It was organized in a strange sort of way that Wil recognized from his uncle’s habits. (Can you tell us a little bit about Uncle Henry’s habits? It’s nice that Wil recognizes the strange organization, but the reader has no clue what that looks like [we know nothing about Uncle Henry, other than the fact that he doesn’t want Wil in the attic] so this is hard to picture.)
Turning and moving to the back of the attic, (So he’s going back the way he just came? In the paragraph above, he moved toward the front of the house, which, to me, would be the back of the attic, so, if he’s continuing toward the back, turning wouldn’t be necessary— unless he’s retreating. Or perhaps he’s going off to one side or the other?) Wil reached an empty table (Technically, it’s not empty—in the next sentence you tell us there’s a box on the table.) with a wooden chair behind it. A large cardboard container with a cord extended from it-otherwise, the wood grain top was exposed. Around the floor of the table, smaller bits and pieces of what could only be described as “stuff” littered the area. (Be more specific. What stuff? I want to see what Wil is seeing. I want to feel like I’m in the attic. Give us more sensory details. What does it smell like? Does he run in fingers over this “stuff”? Is it dusty? Or surprisingly clean, as if someone was recently up there? And what is Wil thinking/feeling while he’s exploring? In the beginning, we got a good sense of his nerves—he left the door cracked for quick escape—but since he’s entered the attic, we haven’t gotten a read on Wil’s emotions or his interpretation of the setting. Just observations, which are nice, but they would be even better if they had some sort of impact on Wil. Is he creeped out? Curious as to why his uncle is saving all this junk? Is there something that makes him shudder or look closer? Does he have any idea as to the purpose of all this stuff? I want some clues as to why Wil’s not allowed in the attic and what Uncle Henry is up to. Right now, it feels like Wil stumbled into any old, abandon attic, which isn’t the most compelling. There’s nothing about this attic, or the boxes of stuff, that would lead me to believe it’s special (and I think that’s what you’re trying to get at.) This can be easily fixed by giving the reader more specific details that, not only describe the place, but show us why it’s interesting/ what Wil thinks about it. ) Wil pulled his goggles down over his eyes to take a closer look. They slid easily over the black leather cap that always covered his bald head. No one he’d asked could explain why he had no hair on his head –only that it happened to some children. And that he was smaller and slower than most boys his age. His mother had insisted that he never leave the house with his head uncovered. (Ok, here we have some interesting world building with the baldness and leather cap, but I think it would be even better if you hinted at why Wil’s mother didn’t want him to leave the house with his head uncovered. Is baldness considered taboo in this society? Would he be beaten or mocked by the other kids? Or maybe the government would take him away to experiment on him? Or is it a sign of some sickness? I’d love a clue as to why this peculiarity matters.)
Most boys wore the goggles in place of glasses or to protect their eyes against the blinding sun and moon. (Ooo! A blinding sun and moon. Very cool. But I hadn’t realized this story wasn’t set in our world until now. I just figured it was a historical period based on the descriptions. I’m thinking it might be helpful if you dropped a hint or two earlier. Like when Wil walks into the attic and smells the cold, damp rain, maybe he could smell or feel something else, something more specific to this world, to let the reader know we’re somewhere different.) Uncle Henry had made Wil a pair to improve his eyesight. The glass magnified his vision for close up and when he switched the glass, he could see farther than most eagles. For now, he looked at the tiny intricate cogs, gears and hooks in one container.
Wil had never been sure what his uncle did most of the time. When he’d asked his Pa, he’d said he was an inventor and collector. His Ma had snorted and said he was a good for nothing shirker. (Love these conflicting opinions, and I also love the idea of a “mad scientist” type tinkering in the attic, BUT I want to see it. Right now, Wil has found nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, there are boxes of stuff, but if Uncle Henry is a secret inventor, maybe Wil could discover remnants of half-finished experiments or complicated pages of instructions. Something to clue us in to the fact that Uncle Henry is more than just a hoarder. The next sentence reiterates that Wil is forbidden to enter this place—show us why. He’d been forbidden to enter the attic when he and his parents had visited. Then, when his parents were taken away by the Dronens, (I’m curious to learn who/what these are and about more about this world beyond the attic!) Wil came to live with his aunt and uncle and a new lock had been added. Uncle Henry seemed to have the distinct idea that twelve year old boys couldn’t help but explore places they were not supposed to.
Overall, your writing is lovely, and your setting is compelling and atmospheric. I was right there with Wil, venturing into the forbidden attic. You’ve done a good job describing the basics of what he finds, but Wil’s observations are largely focused on sight. In order to truly transport the reader, try tapping into other senses as well: add more smells, have him touch and interact with the stuff he finds, mention sounds like creaking floorboards or scurrying mice etc. Also, make sure to follow through with the danger and mystery you’ve promised. Since you played up the forbidden nature of the attic, the reader is expecting Wil to find more than just boxes of junk. Try filtering your descriptions more through Wil’s eyes (show us what he’s thinking/ how he’s interpreting what he finds and give us a few more clues as to what Uncle Henry might be up to) and the scene will really pop. Excellent job, and best of luck with this!
Thank you, Addie, for your critique. Check back every weekday for the rest of our June Setting Workshop. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 20 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 3.