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Day 19 (Part 2) of the Pitch Wars Mentor Workshops with Ren Hutchings

Wednesday, 16 September 2020  |  Posted by Stephanie Scott

Welcome to the Pitch Wars Workshops with some of our amazing past and 2020 mentors. From a lottery drawing, we selected writers to receive a query and first page critique from one of our mentors. We’ll be posting some of the critiques leading up to the Pitch Wars submission window. Our hope is that these samples will help you in shining up your query and first page.

We appreciate our mentors for generously dedicating their time to do the critiques. If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. Our comments are set to moderate, and we will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones before approving them.

Next up we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Ren Hutchings

Ren Hutchings

Ren is an SF writer and postgraduate Publishing student who currently lives in Ontario, Canada. She has spent most of the past few years working in game dev while plotting twisty space novels. Ren has previously worked as a creative producer and managed communications for a non-profit arts council. She graduated with a BA in History before completing a year of grad school in archaeology, indulging her lifelong passion for nerding out about the past just as much as the future. She loves weird mysteries, pop science, elaborate book playlists, and pondering about alternate universes. In 2020, she’s been surprised to discover how much she misses reading on public transit.

Website | Twitter

Ren’s critique

Category: Adult Fantasy

Query:

Dear [AGENT],

The hipster Asian fusion restaurant that opened up across the street didn’t worry Luke Ito too much at first. [I would lead with Luke in this sentence: “Luke Ito isn’t too worried about the hipster Asian fusion restaurant that opened across the street.”] He’s managed to keep his gyoza stall—part of an unassuming NYC street market—running for the last seven years, outlasting more than one restaurant that advertised its Instagram handle on a chalkboard sidewalk sign. [This description is fantastic, and immediately conveys such a vivid image of what his competing restaurant is like. I might just tighten up the first part of the sentence to make it punchier: “After all, he’s been running a successful gyoza stall in an unassuming NYC street market for seven years, outlasting more than…”] He had to learn fast, inheriting the stall as an eighteen-year-old after his mom died. [This sentence pulls us out of the present moment, since learning fast and inheriting the stall happened seven years ago. I would suggest deleting this sentence and mentioning his mom’s death later. We will be introduced to his mom in the next sentence, when we learn he’s keeping her life’s work alive.] And, sure, his only friend is a septuagenarian shopkeeper and he only vaguely recalls the concept of a hobby, but that’s a fair trade for keeping his mom’s life’s work alive. [This sentence has great voice that matches the voice in your opening page! It’s fantastic when your query can channel some of your MC’s personality and the tone of your work like this.]

It helps that his dipping sauce has a secret ingredient [Here’s where you could add the connection to his mom, who presumably was the one to pass on the secret of the Wilds to him. Maybe something like “Before she died, Luke’s mom revealed that her dipping sauce had a secret ingredient”]: chili peppers picked from the Wilds, a place [Can you be more specific than “a place,” to hint at the nature of the location that houses the Wilds? Is it an alternate dimension? A hidden realm?] concealed under the street market[,] where fireflies can rearrange the stars and starlight drips from trees. The street market’s shopkeepers have long relied on the Wilds to provide a pinch of magic to their dishes.

Then, while Luke is helping his friend harvest potatoes in the Wilds, the ground shakes and the potatoes explode into ash above their heads, chasing them out. When the fireflies go dark, it’s clear that something or someone has disturbed the Wilds, [I feel you can condense these two sentences into one and start off with the most dramatic image: “But when an explosion shocks Luke and his friend during a harvest, and the fireflies go dark, it’s clear that someone or something has disturbed the Wilds.”] and it is reacting by lashing out at anybody who enters. [Can you clarify what you mean here — who or what is reacting / lashing out? Do you want us to get a sense that the Wilds as a place is sentient? Is it the magic itself reacting? Is there some kind of guardian in the Wilds who may be angry? I think you can expand this into its own sentence and build up our impression of the Wilds a little more.]

With access to the ingredients of the Wilds in jeopardy [shorten to “With access to the magic ingredients in jeopardy”] and the number of customers poached by the new hipster restaurant increasing [reword to make this less passive: “and more customers deserting him for the new restaurant”], Luke must figure out what’s caused the disturbance in the Wilds to keep the gyoza stall—and his closest link to his mom—afloat.

 [I like that we end on a recap of the stakes and what’s on the line for Luke: his stall’s financial success, as well as the potential loss of a connection to his mom and her legacy. However, I think you also have room to work in the stakes for the street market as a whole in this final paragraph. It feels like the shopkeepers all rely on the Wilds, and they keep this secret together. So, will Luke have to band together with other shopkeepers to solve the mystery? What about his friend? If you want to touch on how Luke relates to other characters, and/or mention another important relationship to give us a broader sense of what his story arc will be, you can do that here.]

 TITLE is a 90,000 word contemporary fantasy/magical realism novel. It is #ownvoices for the queer, Asian-American MC. [You may want to add some comparative titles here — choose a couple of recent books that you think would sit nicely next to your book in terms of style, theme or tone. Even a simple “This book will appeal to fans of A or B” will help to show agents that you know your story’s audience.] 

First page:

One hundred and eighteen thousand three hundred and forty-four. That was the scallion body count that Luke Ito had accumulated in the last [delete “the last”] seven years of gyoza making at his cramped street market stall. Not that he was precisely aware of that. If you asked him, he’d probably low ball it. Twenty thousand, he might guess with a shrug and without a second thought. [I think you can condense and punch up these early sentences to remove some redundant phrases — for example, you don’t need both “with a shrug” and “without a second thought.” As a stylistic choice, you could also consider using brackets for the “asides” when we get the omniscient voice — for example, I might add an opening parenthesis before “Not that he was precisely aware…” and close it when the aside finishes.] Some number that would really do a disservice to the mountains of pork and vegetable dumplings that Luke had set loose in the stomachs of New York City over the better part of a decade. [The phrase “set loose in the stomachs” sounds a bit negative, I think this could read like his food is causing indigestion or something. Perhaps you could use a more clearly positive phrase here, like “the mountains of dumplings that had tantalized the tastebuds of New York City”]

As it was, on this day, Luke’s knife was rifling through seven scallions. [You can trim extra words from the opening of this sentence. I would link this to the previous mentions of his scallion count by starting this paragraph with “Luke’s knife sliced through another seven scallions.”] Of course, he wasn’t precise aware of that number either. [I’d delete the preceding sentence.] As his hands autopiloted through chopping, then scraping, then mixing, then forming, his thoughts wandered between Is this much humidity even legal? and Do I need to grab more chili oil from the storeroom? (The answer to both was,[change this comma to an em-dash] unfortunately for Luke,[change comma to em-dash] yes. And he couldn’t even do anything about the humidity bit.) [Here’s a great example of what I meant up there with putting an aside in brackets! I love this as a stylistic choice.]

He scooped balls of filling onto circular gyoza wrappers, in three neat rows spread out across his stall’s work surface. He crimped and sealed the wrappers with the finesse and speed that would constitute an impressive party trick, if only [delete “only”] he ever found himself at a party with dumpling wrappers that needed to be sealed. Or, really, if only he ever found himself at a party. [I suggest changing to: “If he ever found himself at a party in the first place.”] A few squeezes of vegetable oil and three practiced motions later, and eighteen gyoza were sizzling in even rows on the griddle, accompanied by a chorus of staccato pops and crackles. [I think this paragraph does a wonderful job of describing the task Luke is doing, while simultaneously giving us an impression of his thoughts in his own voice. Also, the staccato pops and crackles are a really vivid description!]

Futilely attempting to stem the tide of sweat beading up on the back of his neck [How? I think you can give us some added physicality here — in addition to moving away from the heat, is he also wiping at the back of his neck with a hand towel? Reaching over to grab a napkin from the holder?], Luke retreated the five and a half feet from the heat of the griddle to the front of his stall. [I’d delete “the five and a half feet” — I think the repetition of numbers and measures in the first paragraphs worked because it was giving us the scale of Luke’s operation and that neat precision of his process: seven scallions, eighteen gyoza, three motions, etc. It had the energy of a recipe, which is delightful for a cooking scene! But in this paragraph, I think you can cut out the numerical precision and just tell us that he moved “the short distance” to the front of his stall.]

He took stock of the two customers who were seated at opposite ends of the stall, which confirmed for him that neither were sociopaths. [Could you pick a different word here? I’m not sure “sociopaths” conveys what you’re trying to get across. People who sit right next to a stranger would be overfamiliar, chatty, etc. — can you think of something that conveys that? This might also be a good place to give us an early sense of how Luke interacts with his customers — does he want them to chat with him or each other, or leave him alone? Is he glancing over at the customers to see if either of them is a regular?] He distrusted anyone who didn’t leave an empty stool.

[Overall, I really liked how well the voice came through in the query and first page! The tone in your query matched well with your opening. We immediately get a sense that Luke is very practiced at his job, but also that he doesn’t have time to do much else. Luke’s personality, and his wry inner monologue, will be key to hooking a reader’s attention early, and injecting as much voice as possible into your first pages is really important. Thanks so much for sharing your work with me and with the PW blog — good luck!]

Thank you, Ren, for the critique! We are showcasing three mentor critiques each day leading up to the Pitch Wars 2020 submission window, so make sure to read the other two critiques for today and come back tomorrow for more. 

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