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 Michael Mammay
Michael Mammay serves in the army and lives in the southeast. In his spare time he writes adult science fiction and fantasy, usually with explosions. He’s represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary.
You can follow him on Twitter @michaelmammay
The 500 Word Critique . . .
Adult Historical Romance
From the moment Grace Savoy stepped off the covered wagon, she was certain this was all a mistake. She clutched the hands of her twin daughters, Olive and Helen, as a man dragged their trunks through the mud in front of them. Her lady’s maid followed behind them clutching her bag of personal items she wanted guarded at all times. Had Henry received her letter announcing their arrival?
She immediately regretted her decision to wear her best boots as she forcefully pulled each foot through the thick mud. An unsavory stench filled the air and she subconsciously reached for the rosary in her pouch for strength. A single curl of auburn hair fell to her cheek as beads of sweat began to form on her forehead.
I like the setting here—it gives a good picture. A couple of minor points: you mention the mud, twice. It’s okay, if the mud is that pervasive, but done once with a little more feeling might carry more impact. You could use setting here—the mud—to help characterize your MC’s feelings on the place. Perhaps try to convey what she’s feeling as she is forced to try to pull each foot from the mud. Is she wearing the right footwear, or is she unprepared? Regarding the unsavory stench—that’s an example of where telling is probably not your best option. You could make that a lot stronger by describing it. What does it smell like? Garbage? Rotting meat? How does MC react to the smell? Does she fight not to retch? Tying the setting to the character and her reactions will bring it to life a bit more.
Not related to setting, I’d watch the use of a rhetorical question this early in your story (Had Henry received her letter?) A rhetorical question leaves it to the reader to decide what the character is feeling. Better to impress upon the reader what you want them to know. Example: Grace scanned the street looking for Henry, hoping he’d received her letter announcing their arrival. She didn’t see him among the sea of hard-looking men. (I don’t know that there are hard-looking men, but I added that as a means to add some tension to the search for Henry. You could add tension any way that fit.)
Her body stiffened at the sight of a sea of canvas tents, not one solid house in sight. The sound of pickaxes hitting stone and chatter among the town’s people echoed around them. Off in the distance, she could make out three larger structures that appeared to be storefronts. A short, stout man stood on the makeshift porch and shouted into the crowd the day’s sales.
The man who dragged their trunks veered off the main path and stopped in front of a larger tent. He dropped the trunks abruptly, splashing mud all over her black silk mourning dress.
“This is where he sleeps.” The man nodded to the tent that was raised up out of the mud on a wooden platform.
This was a far cry from the Manhattan brownstone she had shared with her husband Oscar. She hadn’t imagined Henry living in these conditions over the years. He’d written infrequently, and Oscar had always managed to keep Henry’s letters from her.
“Henry!” Her voice quivered as she shouted toward the door.
The last image she had of him crossed her mind as she closed her eyes. He had been down on one knee, asking her to marry him. Now all she could do was hope that he had forgiven her.
Her body stiffening is good. That’s exactly what I meant about relating the setting to the character’s perception of what she’s seeing. There’s a touch of confusion for me with the scope of the setting. You mention storefronts in the distance, but then talk about a short, stout man on the makeshift porch. To be able to describe the man, it brings into question how distant the storefronts are. Also, veering off the main path. I pictured more of an open area, where her cart or wagon or coach arrived. Like a square. Not sure why I got that picture, but when you said path it changed that. Another thing I’m having trouble picturing is the crowd. Are there bodies pressed around her? Is the crowd distant or right there? What’s the crowd look like, from a composition standpoint? I’m not looking for pages and pages of description. But a few well-placed words embedded in the action. For example, do they have to avoid people as they’re walking? You could build that right into an action line.
“He ain’t in there. He’s down in the canyon. Said he be back tonight.” The man nodded for her to open the door.
She prepared herself mentally as she stepped in front of the children and her lady’s maid and opened the muddy flap door to their future.
Inside the tent there was a single cot, a small table with one chair, some kitchenware, and a trunk. Everything they would need was in this single room, and taking in her new surroundings she strangely felt at ease for the first time since Oscar’s death.
She waved to everyone to come inside and the man followed with their trunks.
“I’ll leave you to get settled. Henry left some food under the cloth on the table and the chamber pot is under the bed.” He looked at her sympathetically. She guessed he was aware of their circumstances.
“He’s aware of our arrival?”
“Not yet, but he figured you’d arrive shortly.”
“Thank you for your help.” She offered him a smile and nod. He tipped his hat to her and left them to settle in.
Her feeling at ease seems out of place. Everything I’m seeing screams that she’s out of place. So for her to arrive and suddenly feel at ease is kind of an abrupt switch in the mental state I’d expect from her.
Overall I think you’ve got a nice start here. Setting is especially important in a historical, and I think you have a definite picture you’re conveying. To take it to the next level, I think you want to tie the setting into the story. I wouldn’t mind seeing this scene expanded to 3 or even 4 pages, with the setting elements impacting Grace. Creating a reaction in her. You have a beautiful (ugly) place that should drive a lot of emotions and help really give us a good feel for your character.
Thank you, Michael, 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.