Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 6 - First 500 - YA Sci Fi

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words (as these can get quite long).
When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it
And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.
I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).
Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL:

Hills of green and a sky of blue streaked outside the monorail’s windows, but Sol forced herself to stare at the gritty floor instead. That was the price of drawing the short straw. Some enjoyed the fresh air– and wild grass while others tried to ignore the incessant tapping of fingers on a screen.

She was surprised the man across the aisle hadn’t punched a hole through his tablet already. Ten minutes ago, he’d boarded from a tiny town and nestled himself diagonally from her. Every second since, he furiously tapped on the screen while streams of letters and numbers whizzed by. The only time he’d broken focus was to wipe gold-rimmed glasses or adjust his ill-fitted bowler hat.

Sol scanned the room. A man in a brown uniform smirked as he glanced to Bowler Hat as if to say, Can you believe this guy? She rolled her eyes in return and made an obscene gesture behind her seat. The man laughed and turned back to the window. Sol looked down to study the grit beneath her fingernails. Dirt, grease, and a bit of gunpowder made the half-moons of her nails black.
“Um, excuse me,” Bowler Hat said as a train attendant stepped into the cabin. “My stomach is q-quite rattled. Per-perhaps I could have a cup of tea?”
“Of course.” She turned to shuffle away.
“Jasmine, if you don’t mind.”
Jasmine. Sol snorted and stood, barely hunching her shoulders to avoid hitting the overhead compartment. She shuffled to the back of the cart and took the time to glance outside again. Hills of green faded into rock and stone. Mountains crested in the distance. Tiny to the train barreling along the desert, but their formidable spires clawed at the low hanging clouds. This was the kind of land she expected of the mining planet. Barren. Treacherous.
A man to her left cleared his throat and she glanced down. Mustached, dirty uniform, and weary gray eyes said he was the person she was looking for.
“I wouldn’t go much farther,” he said with a glance behind him.
Several soldiers filled the back rows, their bodies rigid and hands clenched around rifles.
“Mind if I sit? Money bags up there is drivin’ me nuts.”
With a glance forward, the man scooted over and patted the seat. “Damn rich folk. Surprised they didn’t get him a cabin all to himself and make us sit in the luggage cart.”
“That’s all we’re good for to them.” Sol tossed her head, indicating the guards. “Since when do they come armed to the teeth on a rail?”
“Since they sunk their claws in this hunk of rock.”
Sol risked a glance to the gray and blue suits hovering just behind them. The Coalition’s reach extended more and more each day. The farther they stretched, the more finesse her job required.
Up ahead, Bowler Hat received his tea only to stop the girl again. “W-would it be a b-bother to get some sugar?”
“Not at all.” Her tone suggested she would rather drown him in the tea instead.


CRITIQUE (My words in red font)

Hills of green and a sky of blue streaked outside the monorail’s windows, but Sol forced herself to stare at the gritty floor instead. That was the price of drawing the short straw. Some enjoyed the fresh air– and wild grass while others tried to ignore the incessant tapping of fingers on a screen.
She was surprised the man across the aisle hadn’t punched a hole through his tablet already. Ten minutes ago, he’d boarded from a tiny town and nestled himself diagonally from her. Every second since, he furiously tapped on the screen while streams of letters and numbers whizzed by. The only time he’d broken focus was to wipe gold-rimmed glasses or adjust his ill-fitted bowler hat.

Great set up. I can see where she is, and I can see the man across from her clearly. Well done.

Sol scanned the room. A man in a brown uniform smirked as he glanced to Bowler Hat as if to say, Can you believe this guy? She rolled her eyes in return and made an obscene gesture behind her seat.

That seems a bit of an odd response to a guy she’s connecting with, even for a moment. The rolled eyes work. But the rude gesture just feels like you’re trying to be edgy at a point where it isn’t organic (to me). Also, if it’s behind her seat, how can the man, who can meet eyes with her, also see the gesture behind her seat?

The man laughed and turned back to the window. Sol looked down to study the grit beneath her fingernails. Dirt, grease, and a bit of gunpowder made the half-moons of her nails black.

Very good detail. Grounds us in her skin.

“Um, excuse me,” Bowler Hat said as a train attendant stepped into the cabin. “My stomach is q-quite rattled. Per-perhaps I could have a cup of tea?”
“Of course.” She turned to shuffle away.
“Jasmine, if you don’t mind.”
Jasmine. Sol snorted and stood, barely hunching her shoulders to avoid hitting the overhead compartment. She shuffled to the back of the cart and took the time to glance outside again. Hills of green faded into rock and stone. Mountains crested in the distance. Tiny to the train barreling along the desert, but their formidable spires clawed at the low hanging clouds. This was the kind of land she expected of the mining planet. Barren. Treacherous.

Ah, a hint of where we are! I think you need maybe one small detail prior to this, while you’re grounding the world so well, that gives just a hint that we aren’t on earth, or an earth-esque setting. I like the way you dropped this reference in, but because you’d done a good job of grounding me already, it was a little jarring.

A man to her left cleared his throat and she glanced down. Mustached, dirty uniform, and weary gray eyes said he was the person she was looking for.
“I wouldn’t go much farther,” he said with a glance behind him.
Several soldiers filled the back rows, their bodies rigid and hands clenched around rifles.
“Mind if I sit? Money bags up there is drivin’ me nuts.”

The contracted “drivin’” is jarring also. Even though people do actually speak this way, seeing it written makes your brain process it, which can throw you out of the read. Depending on how much you intend to use this, it might be worth just using the full word. Calling Bowler Hat “moneybags” already gives a good hint about Sol (or at least, about the fa├žade she’s putting forward), so we don’t need her to have inflected speech to accept that she might have an impoverished background or low education.

With a glance forward, the man scooted over and patted the seat. “Damn rich folk. Surprised they didn’t get him a cabin all to himself and make us sit in the luggage cart.”
“That’s all we’re good for to them.” Sol tossed her head, indicating the guards. “Since when do they come armed to the teeth on a rail?”
“Since they sunk their claws in this hunk of rock.”
Sol risked a glance to the gray and blue suits hovering just behind them. The Coalition’s reach extended more and more each day. The farther they stretched, the more finesse her job required.


Good, intriguing moment where I wonder exactly what she’s up to, and get a hint of the danger and mystery. Well done.


SUMMARY:

Overall, a very strong beginning. Your writing is concise, you aren’t throwing in unnecessary backstory too early, and you choose your details well.
To help the reader really fall into the read, I’d hint at the sci-fi element just once, earlier, so there’s no, “Wait, what?” moment for the reader. It doesn’t need to be stated outright until the place where you’ve already included it. But some kind of a hint (technology, weapon, an other-worldly language she has to try and read on a sign) right up front would help the reader know subconsciously that we aren’t on earth, so there’s no reshuffling of our initial impressions.
But, I say this with all seriousness, you’ve got great opening pages. Your writing is strong and if the concept is what an agent is looking for, I’m confident you’ll get requests.
As a mentor, the writing is strong enough for me to consider requesting pages if I feel like the concept is something I want to work on. So well done!

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