We received a free copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s TheUrban Settings Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces in exchange for an honest review. Since we’re fans of their Emotion Thesaurus as well as their thesauri of positive and negative character trains, we were excited to dive in. (See our review of the other bookshere.)
The Urban Setting Thesaurus is a wonderful resource for a fiction writer! The bulk of this book and its sister craft book, TheRural Settings Thesaurus, is comprised of two-page entries describing dozens of settings that could pop up in any fiction genre — from a police car to an emergency room, the stands of a sporting event to an art gallery. Each entry provides a wealth of sensory words describing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize that setting.
In the recording studio entry, you find sights like vocalists warming up, cords running from instruments to outlets and recording equipment, and the “recording” light to let you know to keep quiet. You hear humming or instruments being played, smell takeout Chinese food or coffee, and feel the snug fit of headphones over your ears. If your scene takes place in a setting you’ve never been to, this thesaurus can help you craft the experience your characters will encounter in a way that will make your story feel more real to your reader.
Not sure where a scene should take place? A flip through entries listed in the table of contents could help you brainstorm. Perhaps your protagonist is mulling over whether to confront her antagonist…she could do that anywhere. But what she sees, hears and touches as she weighs her decision could more vividly show her mood and emotions. What backdrop would carry the most emotional impact? Would highlight her fears and the challenges she’ll need to face?
In addition to the setting entries, there is a wealth of information in the first chapters of The Urban Setting Thesaurus on how to use setting to convey your story with the most impact. These chapters discuss how to use setting to create a mood, to characterize a room full of primary and secondary characters, and to heighten tension. They also illustrate using all the senses to pull the reader into your scene.
I’m sure I’ll turn to this helpful resource again and again.
For more on using The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus, see Laurel’s post here!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.
LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.
I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.
The story’s good, but the start…meh.
With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.
Can I get to great?
Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.
What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:
starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
just after her life changed,
a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
the first confrontation with the bully, and
the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.
I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”
What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.
“No action,” said the critique partners.
“Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
“What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”
I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?
I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.
At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.
1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.
I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.
2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.
Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.
3. Get Fresh Eyes.
I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?
I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.
4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.
I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.
Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.
So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.
Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.
Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.
DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.
A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.
Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?
To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of March, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.
If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!
Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to ourFacebook pageand find our post about the March Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!
Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on March 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!
Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.
Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.
The Mouse and the Mustang Middle Grade Animal Adventure
The Mustang’s rusty fenders moaned as a gust of icy March wind whipped across the car lot. Inside the car’s trunk, carpeted in a nest of woven hay, Kenny forced himself into his teacup-size bed. He tucked his nose under his tail in hopes that he could sleep tight. Outside, the distant tow truck’s engine roared by. Clatter, clang, slam. He shivered as another car was dumped into the lot of tired, broken cars.
He snuggled deeper. Maw always kept his bed tidy, a perfect fit. But so much smaller than his siblings’. He peeked at the large white mounds of his brothers and sisters settling into their hay craters.
“Head down, Kenny,” Paw said. “You need to sleep to grow.”
Kenny tucked his head under his arm, one eye peeking out. When Paw turned away, Kenny wrinkled his pink nose upward to breathe in the scrumptious scents of dawn and the rising sun that melted the night’s frost.
Drats!I’m missing another sunny day.
Maw’s bedtime kisses always started with Kenny, the youngest of her litter of five.
“But I’m not growing,” Kenny whispered.
She touched her nose to his and pecked his lips. “Patience.” Sniffing a few stray blades of hay, she tucked them into place around the rim of Kenny’s bed.
Patience. Kenny clenched his white paws. The word made him want to jump out of his pure white fur. It made him want to pop out of that rusty hole, high in the trunk’s corner, and run loops around the tires and strewn metal parts. A little daytime playtime would be a nice change from Paw’s supervised nighttime outings.
“Why do we have to sleep all day?” Kenny asked Maw.
Her answer was always the same. “It’s when mice sleep.” Maw turned to tend to his twin sisters.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why waste perfectly good sunlight sleeping?
Even when Paw took them out at night, they all had to stick together, only allowed to go three boring cars in each direction. Except Denny, Kenny’s oldest brother. Paw had taken him all the way to the edge of the lot to teach him how to dig for seeds by the chain link fence. Two whole times.
Kenny couldn’t stop thinking about the other night when he’d spotted a group of mice scampering away in the distance. It wasn’t the first time.
Michelle: Bravo on pulling us in with your setting description. I feel like I’m in the junkyard with Kenny! You’ve done an excellent job with setting up the conflict and building sympathy for Kenny. This sentence threw me off: “He tucked his nose under his tail in hopes that he could sleep tight.” Kenny doesn’t want to sleep tight, does he? I think you should make this clear up front. Maybe something like, “He went through the bedtime motions of tucking his nose under his tail despite having no interest in sleep.” Overall, this is a great start. Good luck and keep in touch with us!
Halli: Wonderful use of senses in your setting descriptions starting with the first line and the Mustang’s fenders moaning. You make the junkyard come to life! My other comment is the line where Kenny says he’s not growing. I am guessing that this will be central to the story, but the line seems to come out of nowhere and after a short response by his maw, he changes the subject. If this is in fact an important part of the story, I would like to see just a little bit more about it in these first few pages. Great job and beautiful writing.
Rebecca: I agree! Your sensory details pull me into the story and help me visualize the little trunk-nest in the junk yard. Well Done! I only have nitpiks. “…scrumptious scents of dawn and the rising sun that melted the night’s frost.” I might imagine the warming air of dawn has a scent, but the rest of the sentence makes it sound like the rising sun has a scent. Something like, “He visualized the rising sun…” to transition us to sight from smell would fit better. The gap between “You need to sleep to grow” and Kenny’s comment on growing threw me. If you gave that line to Maw, it would flow more smoothly, I think. Lastly, the “white” describing his paws then his fur are close together. Could you change one to a different adjective? All the best of luck with your story!
Kristi: I really fell in love with all the details here! You’ve paced this all so, so well. To be honest, I find your writing lovely, my main comment would be concerning your title. The Mouse and the Mustang sounds like a picture book. Look, titles really aren’t the most important thing to be concerned about at this stage, but I’d still think of something “older” so an agent doesn’t think you don’t know the difference between PB & MG. And one last thing, I’d second Halli’s comment to highlight the main thread early on– even if it is a small phrase, just to give us a hint as to where this is going. Great job!
And a bonus critique!
Karin: I think Kenny definitely deserves some “daytime playtime”! You’re so good at capturing mood and voice that I think you could do more with this important line, “Drats!I’m missing another sunny day.” Every night Kenny goes to bed he must think the same thing. Why is this night different? If you tweak this line with a little more of that feeling then it will become more believable. Finally, I’m very curious about the group of mice he spots while on a night outing, but I have no idea how he feels about them, so would like an adjective or phrase, letting us know if they looked friendly, not friendly or up to no good or if it was unusual to see other mice. Finally, if referring just to the smell and not Kenny visualizing the sunrise then you could clarify by saying, “…Kenny wrinkled his pink nose upward to breathe in the scrumptious scents of dawn as the rising sun melted the night’s frost.” Well done!
Over the holidays, my father-in-law mentioned that a friend had just written a book, his memoirs about the Vietnam War. Since my father-in-law knows I write, I felt like I should offer to help his friend, but I write middle grade and young adult stories. What useful advice would I have?
Then I asked if his friend was on Twitter. He wasn’t. That opened up a wealth of information and connections that could help him revise his manuscript, find an agent, or self-publish his story. I thought we might have a few Twitter newbies following the blog, or others who got the “my friend wrote a book” prompt over the holidays, so I decided it was worth a post.
The Twitter writing community is awesome, a great resource at all stages of the writing process. While you’re writing, it can be the water cooler, the place to chat for a few minutes between projects. It’s also a great source ofcraft advice. Once you’ve finished a manuscript, it’s a source of advice on revising your project to make it the best story it can be. You can also find critique partners to exchange your work with and get feedback from. When you’re ready to get your work out into the world, Twitter can help you learn about literary agents or participate in writing contests. Or if your plan is to self-publish, you can find out how and connect with professionals who specialize in packaging books. And it doesn’t take much time on Twitter to see that it’s an avenue for book promotion.
Where can a writer go on Twitter to dig into these topics?
Writing is a solitary process. But Twitter can help you find like-minded folks who’ll inspire you to get your butt out of bed at 5:00 am to get some words written before work, or someone to chat with when taking a few minutes off from banging on your keyboard. Great hashtags for finding writing folks are:
#5amwritersclub #AmWriting #1linewed
Look for people writing in your age category or genre, or whose stories interest you. Follow them and over time you’ll carve out “your people” in the Twitter writing community.
There’s always more to learn – story structure, character development, how to write those darn kissing scenes. I don’t even know what aspects of craft might be important to a memoir…but I know someone on Twitter does. I frequent #kidlit, but found a bunch of hashtags for different genres in just a couple minutes.
Writing hashtags will help you find experts who tweet about helpful topics, frequently with links to blog posts with even more info. I like:
@writerunboxed @ayaplit (Adventures in Young Adult Publishing) @nerdybookclub
And, of course, @WingedPen!
Once you’ve got a draft of your story, or at least the first few chapters, you need some critique partners to help you refine your story – identify what’s working well, what’s not clear and what’s just plain boring (erm…I mean…the pacing’s off). Find them through the community of writers you’re building or on critique partner match-ups hosted from-time-to-time by bloggers. #amrevising is a good hashtag for connecting with other writers trying to fix their words and for advice on wrangling your hot-mess of a first draft into something great.
If you’ve chosen the traditional publishing route and are looking for a literary agent, many have an active presence on Twitter. You can follow them to get a sense of their personality and taste in books. Their Twitter profile should have a link to their website where you can find submissions guidelines. #askagent has querying tips, or try #10queries if you like advice without any sugar-coating.
You can also find writing contests and pitching opportunities on Twitter. The rules for writing contests vary. Some, like our 4 on 400 contest or Adventures in YA Publishing’s First Five Pages workshop, are focused on feedback. Others are selective and aim to refine your work and get it in front of agents. Selective contests include #sunvssnow, #pitchmad, #pitchwars, and many others.
Pitch contests allow you to pitch your story in a 140-word tweet. This is no easy feat! See our post here on writing a killer Twitter pitch. Pitch contests include #pitmad, #pitchmas and #sffpit.
If you’re going the self-publishing route, you’ll need things like cover art, a cover designer, and an editor to give your words a final polish. Tons of advice is available over on:
If you’ve checked out any of these hashtags, you probably found that there’s lots of book promotion happening on Twitter. #amreading is a good place to start.
The bottom line is there’s a mountain of information out there to help you no matter what point you’re at in your writing journey. But don’t forget to turn off your internet and get back to writing!
What are your favorite spots for hanging out with the Twitter writing community and getting writerly questions answered? Let us know in the comments! And if you have any tips for my father-in-law’s friend writing memoir, please let me know that too!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.