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 Susan Bishop Crispell
I am the author of the forthcoming women’s fiction novels THE SECRET INGREDIENT OF WISHES (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2016), and THE PROBABILITY OF FATE (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2017). I have a B.F.A. in creative writing from The University of North Carolina – Wilmington. I live and write near Wilmington, NC with my husband, Mark, and our two literary-named cats.
Aside from writing, I obsess over swoony fictional boys and baked goods and watch quirky TV shows, most of which canceled way before their time (and I have a wax lion to prove it!).
The 500 Word Critique . . .
Adult Historical Fiction
The town of Welch, West Virginia was not large by any stretch of the imagination. [Instead of telling us the town is small, describe it in a way that shows some of William’s personality (e.g., The town of Welch, West Virginia could have fit in William’s Army-issued rucksack with room to spare.).] William knew that before he went off to war, but while he was in Europe it must have shrunk. [Nice.] Of all of those blocks he had walked in Paris, just the path from the hospital to his favorite park bench [I like this idea, but it needs more context to help the reader see it. How far is the park? Across the street from the hospital or two corners over?] would have taken him from one side of his hometown to the other. When he stepped off the train onto the platform he could see the northern and southern edges of town [What marks the edges of town? Do the buildings stop and trees or flat road take over? Is there a landmark that signals the beginning of the town (water tower, flag pole, etc?)] from where he stood just by turning his head. Above the roof of the train station, houses peaked at him from the hillside that penned in the town from the east. Behind him the Tug Fork flowed on the other side of the tracks before the land rose again into yet another mountain ridge to the west. [There is some great detail in these sentences, but maybe it’s too much for the opening? I would suggest keeping it simple to start. (e.g., “Mountains that cast the town in shadow for half the day penned it in on two sides. The Northern and Southern edges of Welch were more loosely defined by the sudden lack of buildings.”) And then weave some of this other detail (the look of the houses on the mountainside, maybe the state of the trees of the hillside (lush and green of spring/summer or colorful or bare of fall/winter) to help set the time of year, and the look/sound of the river) in below.]
“It’s like being in one big trench,” he thought and felt his stomach threaten to come up in his throat. [Nice. I love how this ties into his emotion state.]
Better a trench than No Man’s Land, Billy.
He redoubled his grip on his duffel and turned to head off the platform. [Are there other people getting off the train or is it just him? Does the station feel alive with people’s energy or deserted?] Standing at the edge waiting, just as William supposed he would be, was William Sr. He stood alike in form to William, just as Mrs. Flanders had said, except of course for the lack of glasses and the two functional eyes. As he walked over, his father puffed up at the sight of his boy.
“Welcome home, son.”
His father offered his hand and William shook it. His father’s eyes glided over him, appraising his new appearance. William’s chest tightened again, but his father gave a slow nod and released his hand.
“It’s an absolute marvel, Junior, how they could get a likeness of your face like that. Absolutely amazing. Can I get your bag?”
[Maybe add in a detail of setting here to show that William is nervous/self-conscious and wants to look at anything but his father.] William glanced at his father’s softening belly and rounded shoulders and straightened himself, feeling a re-surging pride in the uniform on his back.
“No, I’ve got it.”
“Well, come on then. Let’s get you home and settled in.”
They stepped off the platform and walked up into the town.[Maybe this is where you can add the river in (does the sound of the water seem to be following them even as they get farther away from it? Does it have a fishy smell or a maybe metallic scent from minerals that seep into it from the ground?). Also, are there cars on the street or signs in shop windows or people waving to William to welcome him home? Include small details to show the time period and hint at the state of mind of the people living there.] By the time they went the few blocks to where the court house and the First Baptist Church were on Wyoming Street they were already climbing into the foot of the mountain. Their house was built just past the church on Court Street, a new two story brick bungalow [Are there any decorations to welcome him home? Are the shutters on the windows his mother’s favorite color? What details about the house could he notice to draw some emotional response from him?] that matched the church. The slope of the land made its front porch almost level with the church’s second story.
All of it was still new to him. They had lived there only a few months before the war broke out. His father had been hired to oversee the building of First Baptist and moved his family to Welsh from the nearby city of Bluefield. Their house wasn’t the only new structure in town. The population was booming for a little mountain town thanks to the ever increasing coal mines nearby. Money flowed through the place. Construction was never ending, even when the nation was preparing for war.
You’ve got some really great details in this scene that give a great picture of the town. And I love the way you tie it to William’s experiences overseas. As mentioned above, I think you can spread those descriptions across the first few paragraphs to weave the details in with the action to help get the story’s momentum going a little faster. Then once the action is going, the setting descriptions can be used to elicit an emotional response from William, letting the reader get deeper into his mindset and therefore caring about him from the start. Also, add in colors and smells and sounds where appropriate to make the visuals pop. Using these other senses will help the reader feel the town as well as see it and can help set the time period too. Since this is a historical novel, giving a few additional details about the time period will help ground the reader in the world immediately.
Thank you, Susan 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.