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 Rebecca Petruck
Rebecca is the author of the middle grade novels Steering Toward Normal (ABRAMS/Amulet, 2014) and Will Nolan Eats Bugs (ABRAMS/Amulet, Fall 2017). Steering Toward Normal is a Blue Ribbon winner as a Best Book of 2014 by the BCCB, an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection, as well as a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood dubbed it a “book we’d like to see made into a film,” and the L.A. Times included Steering Toward Normal in its Summer Books Preview.
Rebecca is a Minnesota girl, though she also has lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, England, Connecticut and, currently, North Carolina. A former member of 4-H, she was also a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from UNC Wilmington, and is represented by Kate Testerman of kt literary.
The 500 Word Critique . . .
Middle Grade Adventure
[This is identified as MG adventure, yet the tone feels YA.
My sense is the adventure part will happen in the snowy woods during the ski trip (and perhaps involve foiling robbers). (Jessica’s external issue)
Jessica’s internal/emotional issue seems to be coping with her father’s continuing grief for his lost wife while Jessica is ready to move on. I think this could complement an adventure story because her decisions/actions/reactions will be different from her peers who have not experienced death as closely as Jessica has. She is also likely to hesitate at a key moment, thinking, “Dad can’t lose me, too.”
There are two levels of Setting in every story: the literal Place, and the situational Set Up.
All I know of this Place is that it’s snowy and perhaps has unpredictable and stranding squalls? I do wonder why a group of MGers are more interested in cross-country than downhill skiing. Downhill is fast and fun and they can see lots of other people (including boys! 🙂 on the slopes. Cross-country is scenic, not the first thing I think of as an interest for a group of MGers, unless they have a cool/semi-forbidden destination in mind? If the story adventure is during the ski trip, it will help readers to have a bit more set-up about the place. It can’t be that isolated or remote, or no parents would have agreed to let their kids go. One assumes there are marked trails that loop back to the lodge (one of the reasons everyone’s parents have agreed to let them go; they’re going somewhere Jessica can rent skis), but I’m not certain how much outdoor experience this group is expected to have. Will they have some local smarts that out-of-state robbers won’t? It seems like I’m asking for a lot of detail, but much of this can be accomplished in only a few sentences and in context with thoughts/dialogue. If the adventure is an outdoor skiing adventure, which would be super cool, then it’s totally appropriate to spend some time in your first chapter establishing the area and some of Jessica’s skill set.
(Note from Brenda: For the setting workshops, writers picked a scene they needed help with, not necessary the first 500 words of the manuscript. This may have gotten confused here and the mentor most likely thought this was the opening pages. If it’s not the opening, please use the mentor’s wonderful advice about openings as needed.)
The situational Set Up is missing what home is like now, since Mom’s death. In these pages Jessica is reacting to having seriously rocked the boat, but since I haven’t seen the boat, I can’t appreciate/feel the impact of what she’s done.
First I need to know what “normal” looks like. Then I will understand the Change that’s coming and what it means for Jessica and her family. I only need a short scene of “normal” because this is MG adventure so I want to get to some elements of the adventure pretty quickly. What if? We see Jessica sneak out for the ski trip. The stakes would be heightened if she does have cross-country skis and has to sneak out all her gear, too. That establishes character quickly (feels like she must escape home, has the pluck/know-how to sneak out with a ton of gear), gives readers a high-tension mini-adventure very quickly, and lets us know this will be an outdoor adventure in the snow.
I think a snowy MG adventure could do well. I’ve definitely seen more contemporary, environment stories selling lately. Happy writing!]
I won’t feel guilty. At least—not now. Today I get to live. [Literally live, or live it up? This is identified as MG adventure. MG readers typically don’t yet have an existential fear of not having lived life to its fullest, and literally live feels unlikely since the situational drama is about a ski trip (for now).]
Jessica Kidd stared at the kitchen clock and waited for friends to pick her up [Implies her friends can drive; again, not MG]. Seven-fifty [In the morning? It’s Black Friday, so are they fielding the mall to shop? If what she said was so bad, why is her dad letting her have an outing with her friends the very next day? OR, is she going on the ski trip anyway? If she feels so guilty about what she said, the last thing she’d let herself do is go on the trip that made her behave like a jerk to her family. If she’s rationalized to herself going after all, I need to understand her train of thought so I can understand her and not dislike her. If she’s disobeying her father, she’s not waiting ten minutes in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. where she’s may run into him. (If he’s not around the morning after Thanksgiving, I need to know why not.) Disobeying a parent and sneaking away to someplace ALL DAY is a big deal in MG. I’d want more set up before she makes this decision so I can appreciate/feel how big the decision is. It feels like it could be the Inciting Incident (which typically starts at the end of chapter 1).]. She had ten long minutes to think. And to regret. [She just said she won’t feel guilty, yet this is pretty intense/heavy-handed language about how terrible she feels…as she heads off to the mall/ski trip.]
Last night at her grandma’s, she said something awful, right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner [What if? The pages started before this dinner? We could see a bit of the MC before: hear her “normal” Voice; understand where she’s coming from with this desire; get a hint as to what happened with Mom so we understand that Jessica knows why her dad is likely to say no and her reasons for why her need right now is more important than his feelings; and have a crisp changeover to after, presumably when the adventure is about to begin. NOTE: For an MG adventure, beginning with Thanksgiving may put too much emphasis on the internal struggle. Major holidays tend to be very difficult emotionally after a death in the family, especially of a parent. Is Jessica frantic to get away and ski because she’s trying to avoid her feelings and grief for her mother at this very emotionally-charged time of year?]. As soon as the words left her lips, she wished she could take them back. Her dad looked like part of him had died. Her grandma and grandpa froze, as if her words had stopped time. [These are extreme reactions. If appropriate reactions, then reading about her waiting to go to the mall/ski trip rather than try to make up for what she did makes her unlikeable. If she just needed to get out of the house to regroup, I can understand that, but her first words are “I get to live,” like she hasn’t been allowed to—yet has a boyfriend, friends to pick her up, opportunities for ski trips…this is not a kid who hasn’t been living. If even with a boyfriend, friends, and chances to ski she feels like she is not living, that establishes an important character trait, but I’m not sure it’s a likable one, especially considering her mother appears to have died somewhat recently.]
What was I thinking? That’s it. I wasn’t. I didn’t care what I said, as long as I got my way. [If she’s emotionally mature enough to understand this, it’s likely she understands what it means that she’s still leaving the house today.]
Going on this six hour ski trip with Chris and her friends seemed more important than anything else in the world. [Why? Because since her mother’s death Jessica hasn’t felt alive? Because she’s finally beginning to lift out of the grief and wants a little bit of normalcy back? I don’t have any context to understand why this trip is so important other than the superficial reasons of not wanting to be left out socially.]
Chris. Christopher H. Connor, an eighth grader [So is Jessica only 7th grade? Is that why his being in 8th grade is special?], with his green eyes and his silly grin. Her very best friend. If he went skiing, so was I. Period.
She shook her head. If only Dad would quit treating me like a ten year old. I’m thirteen years old with a boyfriend. Geez.
During dinner, Grandpa teased her. “Full moon. New snow. I think I heard the wolves howling last night. Did you hear them, little one?”
“Those were coyotes, Grandpa, and they won’t bother us on a cross-country ski trip.”
“Oh, you kids. You grow up too fast.” He gave her a wink and a smile.
Jessica smiled at him and turned to her dad. “Please, let me go.” She wanted an answer so she could tell Chris. Plus she needed to rent the ski equipment. Her downhill skis wouldn’t work for cross country.
“It’s too dangerous with robberies in town [What do robberies in town have to do with a day of skiing with a group of friends, presumably on semi-marked trails, during the day, near a lodge where Jessica can rent skis?]. Plus a new storm could blow in [Could check the weather easily enough, which she would have done to shore up her case, unless the area is notorious for unexpected squalls; I don’t know where we are]. Kids shouldn’t to go anywhere without an adult,” her dad said. [Jessica is in 7th/8th grade; she can’t get anywhere without an adult to drive her unless this is an area with a good bus/subway system.]
A chaperon! Jessica groaned. She knew where he was headed. He meant no ski getaway with her friends.
“Geez, Dad, get over it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you think you can protect me all the time, but you can’t. You thought you could protect Mom. It didn’t happen. For once, just let me live.” [This dialogue feels forced. How long ago did something happen to the mom? What has it been like in the house? Without context, Jessica’s desire for a ski trip compared with a mother’s death and verbal wounding of her father, makes her unlikeable. I can understand that she’s snapped because the house is stifling now, has felt like a gilded cage since the loss of her mom, because she longs for a sense of normalcy, but I haven’t seen any of that yet.]
She’d never forget the look on her dad’s face. She wished she could hide.
After a moment, which seemed like an eternity, Grandpa got up and poured Grandma a refill of iced tea.
“This is not the time or place, Jessica Marie,” her dad said. He didn’t look at her, but she knew his expression of anger and pain.
Great. I’m grounded. [She’s just said something terrible to her remaining parent and knows it, so the fact her first reaction is upset for getting grounded makes her unlikeable. She’s telling me she’s remorseful yet not seeming to be remorseful. Instead, her first reaction after her terrible words is to be ticked she’s grounded…and then go out to the mall/skiing the next day (so she wasn’t grounded—or she’s sneaking out, which I don’t know yet).]
With dinner finished [After her comment, how was the dinner finished? In tense silence? Did anyone even eat any more? Did a grandparent try to pretend everything was fine? Where are the mom’s parents on a major holiday without their dead daughter?], she slipped into the spare bedroom to text Chris on her cell phone. Tears ran down her face [Implies she’s crying because she can’t ski, rather than because she has said something horrible to her widowed father about Jess’s dead mother and ruined an important family holiday.] as she texted her message.
Can’t go skiing. messed up everything
Chris texted back.
Hey It can’t be that bad. Call me
Jessica called his number and he answered with “I’m your man. I am. I am. I can fix anything.”
He brought a smile to her face. His voice came across like a big bear hug. [Nice!]
Thank you, Rebecca, 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.