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Day 4 of June Setting Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentor Fiona McLaren

Monday, 6 June 2016  |  Posted by Nikki Roberti


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 Fiona McLaren


Twitter | Blog

Who am I?Fiona is a freelance writer and scriptwriter, currently working on a feature length animation for children with an independent production company. She has ghost written novels, created over 100 childrens books for a international childrens charity, published in excess of 100 articles, short stories and features. In addition, she has written DVD narrations, interned at two literary agencies and works as a long-term content and copywriter with a marketing firm. However, the most important things in her heart are her two brightest stars in the sky, Hugo and Harry, and her light on earth, Roger.

The 500 Word Critique . . .

Middle Grade Mystery


“We are the unnoticed. Rarely acknowledged, or seen. The ones in the periphery. Floating along as ghosts.” – The Blur Society Believe it or not, this actually is an oblique way of hinting at your setting/atmosphere, which is very nice. It sets the reader up for a whimsical, slightly creepy vibe, so we know what we’re getting into. Atmosphere and setting go hand in hand so this works well.


Fighting off alligators is not at all unusual in this foul swamp. The extraordinary size of this particular beast, however, is. Hastily scouring the area for any weaponry nature can supply, Irwin rips a vine from a tree, cracking it like a whip. – By using specific details as opposed to general ones, you will be able to paint a more vivid scene. The key to great descriptions are the unique details. These are what make the scene come alive.

For example, look at the bolded words here: “Hastily scouring the marsh for any weaponry the cattails and black alder might be hiding, Irwin rips a vine wrapped around a cypress tree, cracking it like a whip.” The wicked snap enlightens the reptile to his presence, turning its attention away from the girl trapped behind a wall of gnarly cypress knees. Do you mean trees? Retrieving her hand, Irwin notices the bite. The blood. The fear. – You can use these places to inject more setting/atmosphere. Sometimes, setting isn’t just what you see and smell/hear/touch/etc. Sometimes it is what you experience in that setting that gives the emotional filter through which your character relates to the setting, and that brings it to life. For example:

Retrieving her hand, Irwin’s stomach rolls. The bite – wicked and deep. The girl’s fear rolling in like storm clouds.

“Rolling in like storm clouds” forms part of your atmosphere, and thus can link obliquely into your setting. Yet he cannot make out her face. Why is it blurry? Obstructed like identity protection in an undercover video. – This detail sticks out as detrimental to the tone and atmosphere you have created, and thus your setting in turn. You have created a swampy, tense scene, but here you have a clinical, completely unrelated detail. Now, if this connects to the overall story (say this is a novel about identity protection, etc) then this is fine and makes a good foreshadow and point of interest (a nice contrast, so to speak). However, if it’s not, then it breaks the tone of your setting for no discernible reason or need.

Lost in confusion, Irwin has revealed a vulnerability his fiendish foe promptly takes advantage of.

Wretched gator breath and a flash of spiky teeth jolts Irwin Finkleapps awake as flickering light streaming first through brightly colored leaves, then a fingerprinted, smudgy window, rests on his face. Think about the result of combining the description of “a fingerprinted window” with the earlier “identity protection” – you have actually, accidentally, created a world that leans almost towards the spy setting. This isn’t what you have intended, I don’t think. And if it is, you need to be clearer about this.

Also, I’ve read on and seen that this is a dream. There are two issues here – while this detail might turn up in a dream (after all, dreams don’t always make sense), fiction is not like reality. There should be even oblique links to each element he sees in his dream (does it link to his feelings of being trapped or watched? How can you show the feelings related to the setting in order to show this?)

Secondly, if this dream isn’t essential to the overall plot, then what is its purpose? What is the purpose of creating a setting that builds up the feel of the world and character’s perceptions of it, if it is not going to be used as the real world he lives in? It sways the reader in the wrong direction if it is not vital to the plot and the setup of the world. Because when the dream ends, they will be yanked into a different setting that is at odds with the world you began to establish. Slowly reopening his eyes, he gazes around with a haziness he could only imagine his grandfather sees when feeling around in search of his rather thick spectacles. Blinking and rubbing his eyes to clear his vision and the crunchiness so like the inevitable fate of those red hued leaves once winter’s chill takes hold, he focuses on a plate of food neatly set atop his dresser by the door. There is a little bit of an overload here. There are at least 3 points of focus – the vision and spectacles, the crunch of red leaves, and the dresser with the food. Also, how does vision connect with “crunchiness so like the inevitable fate of those red hued leaves once winter’s chill takes hold”? You are technically still explaining vision here, so this “crunch” doesn’t connect. Also, the sentence about the leaves is a little long and cumbersome. You should be sure that you are not getting too off track and explanatory. You are working in MG and there needs to be clear, defined setting details (and writing in general) so that they can instantly see the scenes. If you make it too hard to decipher the sentences, they will be tempted to skip. Or stop.

Was that really a dream? It felt so live. So real. Even the air still reeks of vile reptilian breath. – I’d be wary of starting a book with a dream. You can, but it is very hard to pull off, as it disconnects the reader from the scene and world setting you have placed them in when they are taken away from it to somewhere different and not as active. There is the issue of creating a world right at the start which features swamps and scary creatures and scared girls…and then it is taken away and replaced by the humdrum of normal life. This leaves the reader disappointed (after all, battling alligators is much more fun than getting out of bed). You must always think about what will appeal to your reader most, and for setting, the first one wins out by a long way. Even if your book is about dreams, it must start with your character’s real life, in a very strong and engaging setting.

Or is it simply because he forgot to brush his teeth the night before? This would not be the first time something like this had happened and came to real life later. Just not something quite as scary as this. More like visions of seemingly unimportant things that would later really happen to people close to him.

Shaking off the eerie feeling and quietly rejoicing to have not become gator food, Irwin bounds from bed, straight into a perfectly placed pair of heavily worn (and slightly smelly), yet cozy slippers.

“Toaster grilled cheese with cayenne and tomatoes, my almost favorite,” – Nice specific detail here; it gives a specific hint as to who he is and what he likes, and it gives us the hint of a sensory detail (not quite but it’s close enough to work, as the description makes you almost taste it, as we all know that grilled cheese tastes like). Irwin says as he scarfs down the sandwich. “Aww, no tomatoes this time,” spoken with a mouthful. “Oh well, still good.”

Stuffing the remaining bite in his mouth, he wipes his buttery, crumby hands on his faded striped pajamas Be aware of too many adjectives and adverbs in general., then walks to his closet and stands motionless while he courses through thoughts of what a usual day consists of. Parents gone to work. Kids too cool to acknowledge his existence. No friends to share time with. A flood of insignificance begins to overwhelm. – You could use your setting to reveal these things. Either you can show what is in his environment that speaks to these details of his life, or put him into an active scene to show it in a new setting. For example, using the setting in his room, you can do something like this:

“His backpack sits discarded in the corner, no pen drawings on its canvas front, no i-pod hanging out the side, no pencils or pens borrowed from friends. After all, you couldn’t borrow pens from friends you didn’t have.”

With heartrate rising, the anxiety attempts to overload his consciousness. Somehow, somewhere, he finds the courage to confront the rush of feelings and remain standing although his knees shudder in frailty.

Parking the vulnerable thoughts in the furthest back lot of his brain, Irwin starts perusing through his clothes. “Why should it matter? Nobody sees me anyway,” he says pulling down a stained purple shirt and mossy green corduroy pants. – Be wary of too many qualifiers. Pick one important one, or work them in a way that is more subtle. For example:

He tugs on his pants. Why his mom insisted on buying grandpa-green he’d never know. No wonder everyone avoided him like the plague.

Turning to the mirror, he nods in approval trying to convince himself this warped sense of style is passable in a trendy world. Too much focus is placed on outer appearance anyhow, right? Closing his eyes in meditation, he seeks the courage to face another day of school.

This narrative has some great setting highlights – the swamp, the alligator – that are ripe for deepening and enriching. Kids will love immersing themselves in such a compelling setting. However, stopping it with a dream breaks your setting apart and will disconnect a middle grade reader. You must use your settings, scenes and atmosphere to grab them at every step, and by nixing your wonderful, dramatic starting setting, you take away that need to read. A great start though, and definitely has potential.

Thank you, Fiona, 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.

Filed: Workshops

  • Trick Wayne says:

    Thank you Fiona! I feel honored to have someone of your caliber critiquing my work. I am also in animation and close to producing my first 3D animated feature film so the match couldn’t have been more perfect.

    I completely agree about the dream beginning with how it breaks the setting. This dream is actually a vision as slightly explained by saying ‘something like this had happened and came to real life later’, but I really need to go into that more to keep the momentum from the dream going and the fear it has put into him that this will later come true (which it does and there is quite a bit of adventure and danger in the story). The girls face is blurred because he is not allowed to see the actual people in his visions so I may need to explain that in a different way. This girl is the Swamp Ninja and can’t be revealed that early, and he does save her from the gator ;).

    I will be doing some major editing using your great comments. So happy top have been chosen for this workshop!

  • Chris Bailey says:

    Please address how to properly handle the confusion that resulted here from introducing a term that is part of the character’s world, but is unfamiliar to the reader. “Cypress knees” are gnarled roots that stick up out of the water in a grove of cypress trees.

    This sort of misunderstanding of world or voice has happened to me, and I’d love to know what to do in this situation. Write the longer description on first reference, and then shortcut to cypress knees?

    Thanks so much–I’m really enjoying this mentoring series!

  • Laurie says:

    I’m really enjoying following these posts, and while most of the suggestions are great ones, there’s one that’s not grammatically correct, yet it pops up so often in articles, books, blogs, etc. “Retrieving her hand, Irwin’s stomach rolls.” This is a classic example of a dangling modifier. The noun following the comma should pair with the -ing verb that starts the sentence, yet Irwin’s stomach isn’t what retrieves her hand. It’s Irwin. This sentence would need to be reworked so that the two agree. Maybe something simple like, “As Irwin retrieved her hand, his stomach rolled.” I was guilty of the dangling modifier quite often in my first years of writing, so I tend to spot it whenever I’m reading someone else’s work. Hope it’s okay I pointed it out here.


  • Earl G. Fisher says:

    I don’t believe every word in a story needs to be explained. Anyone familiar with cypress trees knows they have knees. The problem in this story is that the author used both words in close order–“trees” and then, “knees.” This, I admit, might cause some confusion, though in my case, I read them and understood them as used. All cypress knees, of course, are not gnarly–many, if not most, are gorgeous. I have several polished “knees” in my home. My advice would be to use “cypresses” for “cypress trees,” and then use “cypress knees.”

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