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 J.R. Yates
J. R. Yates is a word nerd through and through. When she isn’t writing or reading, she practices as a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP) and herds her three bilingual children. She often jokes that she spends all day at work trying to get kids to talk, and the rest of her time at home trying to get her kids to stop! Married to the love of her life, her favorite moments are quiet evenings with her husband sharing a nice glass of wine at their home in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Time alone, hiding out in a café, writing about sexy heroes that shred her heart is her bliss.
She is represented by Stacey Donaghy with Donaghy Literary Group.
The 500 Word Critique . . .
I slip into the cramped room. This would be much stronger if you show us that it’s cramped, rather than tell. You could do something like: I slip into the postage stamp sized room, overflowing with… Also, is it a church? A community hall? I don’t have a sense of this until they pull their Bibles out later. Small groups of women sit in foldable chairs around rectangular tables. This is another nice opportunity to show how cramped it is. Are their knees touching? Tables bookended? When showing the setting, choose descriptors that add to what you’re trying to show us; in this case that the room is cramped. Their voices blend together into a murmur of unintelligible words. I take a seat [when your character is interacting with the setting, these are your best opportunities to show the setting. e.g., I pull out a rickety metal chair, the legs uneven…] at an adjoining table and pull a Bible from my bag [messenger bag? Purse? Again, while your character is interacting with the environment, add texture and other small details to fill in the gaps. Ground us in the setting]. The space is dim with outdated wood panels, stained commercial carpet, and heavy red drapes. [Instead of describing this, show. This would have worked better for me if it had been prior to her sitting. When your character made her way to the table, you could show the setting by having her walk across the dated commercial carpet.] The air conditioner rattles [Can she hear this over the voices mentioned above? If so, that would have been a good point to add this detail.] because even though it’s fall, Sacramento evenings are still warm. The air feels heavy and smells hot.
A woman [this is a better moment to add a small descriptor about the woman. Show us here that she has dark hair and glasses. Do something here to show us her age. E.g., with smooth skin and brown hair…] slides into the seat next to mine and her leg bumps against the [add a detail about the table here] table. I like the detail about bumping the table. Despite looking younger than 55 [Avoid words like “look” when describing. It distances the reader. You could simply say, The middle-aged woman’s hands tremble as she hooks a cane with small painted flowers onto the table’s edge.
Her dark hair is cut in a bob and she wears glasses. She wears a purple tee and jean capris on her pear-shaped body. [It’s preferable to add details about characters as they interact with others. You want to avoid listing details. This would be stronger if you showed us what she’s wearing by having her adjust her purple T-shirt over her pear-shaped body, instead of listing her clothing.] “Carole” is scrawled in shaky handwriting on the cover of her Bible and I wonder if that’s her name. [The focus is on setting but I will say that you showed that this woman is likely “Carole”, trust your reader to fill this in.]
A voice interrupts my observations. [Where is this voice coming from? Across the room? Over a loud speaker? This feels telling the way it is written. If you had, “A voice booms over the loud speaker” we would know that it interrupted her observations and you wouldn’t need to tell us. In addition, a statement about the voice, either quality or where it’s coming from grounds us in the setting.] “Are there any prayer requests before we get started?”
Carole hesitates and then raises her hand. Her words quiver [nice detail] as she speaks. She tells us about things that have been pent up inside [This is head hopping. Our narrator doesn’t know this. Try something like, “Her words rush out of her like a river breaching a dam.” Or something of that nature. Show, don’t tell.] so long that no dam can hold her river of words back.
“I’d like prayers for my daughter, Ruth, and her unborn baby.” Most prayer requests would end here, but Carole’s continues. “Ruth met David, the baby’s father, after she got out of rehab.”
Carole pauses and takes a deep breath. Her lip quivers and her eyes fill with tears.
“David’s in prison and Ruth is living with his family… They’re meth dealers.” She fiddles with the cover of her [worn? Infuse some detail.] Bible and continues. “Ruth is a few months along but she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. I’ve offered to drive her but she keeps cancelling.” She pauses, tears rolling down her [plump? Sallow?] cheeks. I pass her a box of tissues. Lips shaking, she takes one, mouths “thank you,” and wipes her [pointy? Pink?]nose.
When the Bible study is over, I approach Carole. “My son, Eli, is outgrowing a lot of his things. Would you like them for the baby?”
A small smile tugs at Carole’s lips. “Oh, yes, I would.”
Payton is born May 22, 2007. Carole assists Ruth during labor and delivery. David is still in prison.
We run into each other at church a week later. Carole is standing in the vestibule next to a petite, dark-haired young woman holding an infant carrier. [I like how you show Ruth here, but I wonder if you can give us less generic details. Is her hair greasy? Unkempt? Are their dark circles under her eyes? Ruth is coping with a lot. I’m guessing she may be tired. Show us that. Also, being an underage girl and former addict, maybe she’s holding a worn or dated baby carrier? Show us what this girl is dealing with in the small details.] “Ruth, honey, I want you to meet Lynn. She’s the one who gave us all the baby things.”
Ruth doesn’t look at me [Good opportunity to show us a detail here. e.g., Ruth’s hollow gaze…or unfocused brown eyes, or blood shot eyes, etc.]. “Thanks.”
I wait for Ruth to show me her baby but she stares off into space. An awkward silence lingers in the air until I ask to see Payton.
“Oh. Yeah.” She swings the infant carrier to face me, holding it limply. I crouch down to say hello. Payton is as bald as an old man in need of Rogaine [cute!]. She lies buried beneath a fuzzy [Nice detail. Instead, if the blanket is tattered or worn that would help show that this girl’s situation is not great], pink blanket, snoozing peacefully.
Thank your for sharing this. You have some nice details here. Infusing descriptors as characters interact with each other, the environment, or simply act, are great opportunities to ground the reader in the setting or show characters’ appearance, rather than listing.
Thank you, J.R., 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.