Monday, September 18, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: SOMA

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


For a lab-grown Sri Lankan boy with combustion problems, seventeen-year old Soma is fairly well adjusted. Great hook, I love the humorous voice. Make sure though, that this voice is consistent with the voice in the manuscript itself. Most days, he is too busy scavenging trash spheres and fixing toilets to notice to notice something usually implies discovery, and I'm assuming Soma already knows he's the only human. Perhaps a word change to something like "care?" he is the only human in his colony.

To other humans living in orbit around nuclear-ravaged Earth, the synthetic people who make up Soma’s colony are a disposable workforce. To Soma, they are the only family he’s ever known.

When all the synthetics in Soma’s colony are culled, he is left among the lifeless bodies of his loved ones. Why are they culled? He flees his colony, chased by an enigmatic black ship, Why is he being chased? and is then drawn into an assassination plot Drawn in by whom? against the kleptocrat who rules over human colonies—the ruthless Man of Means.

Soma becomes entangled in escalating acts of synthetic terrorism: a reluctant child soldier in a war with no moral high ground. Strange, when all he wanted was a place to sleep—and maybe galactic peace, so he has time to properly fall in love with the boy who might be an enemy agent.

What you have here is well-written, but the plot pieces are so vague that I have no idea what is actually going to happen in the book, or who else might be in it other than Soma, and the ultimate villain. Get your supporting characters in there - one or two - and illustrate the plot by answering (succinctly) the questions I posed above. Otherwise this comes across as a bit of a mish-mash with no real focus. Also, you mention that he has "combustion problems." Like, a firestarter? how does this play into the plot? Does his ability have a spot in the assassination attempt?

Soma is my first foray into YA fiction. I have a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Calgary. My short stories have appeared in Canadian magazines such as NōD and Dandelion. My short story “Rabbit Control” was nominated for the 2011 Journey Prize. Inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children, this manuscript is 89k words and features an intimately diverse cast probably should give them some space in the query then and an LGBTQ protagonist.

Great bio!

1st Page:

Soma knew he shouldn’t start fires. This one… this one wasn’t his fault.

Still, just in case, he hid under his cot and cradled his blistered fingers while the young doctor gathered up his charred toys and sketches. She whispered a bad word, covered her face with shaking hands, and left him in the char and smoke of his glass room.

That night, the doctor returned—but it wasn’t to give Soma needles before bed. She gave him a cocoa bar instead, bundled him in a gray bed sheet, and smuggled him out. From between the fabric, Soma saw a dozen glaze-eyed children in identical glass cells, each with tubes in their arms and burn scars across their hands. They boarded a ship and pulled out of the orbital compound. Soma bounced in the co-pilot seat, babbling about how much bigger Old Earth looked outside picture books. The doctor listened, brushed silver hair out of her pale eyes, and gave him tight, thin-lipped smiles whenever he paused to breathe.

Two naps and a pee-break later, they arrived at a dirty outer-ring colony that smelled like socks. The doctor stashed Soma in a jagged crack under an Indian take-out restaurant, touched his cheek, and warned, “No matter what happens, little brother, remember. No fire.”

Then she left. Her chrome-and-amber ship drew a long wake.

Soma was a little scared, but mostly excited. He’d never left his glass room before. Or been without artificial gravity, or seen stars. He crawled out of the crevice and stared.

This strange colony was made up of thousands of floating boulders—lunaroids—with nanocables webbed between them. When Soma squinted, he saw that the larger lunaroids had been converted into buildings, hollowed out and framed with aluminum hatches and windows. Occasionally, there were man-made structures—grinding wheels and eccentric factories that looked like animal skulls. Old Earth hung overhead, like an enormous ceiling made of burnt toast, with the inner colony ring a trail of cream across it. Soma grinned, determined to love it all. He crawled back under the restaurant, finished his cocoa bar, and dreamed of loud noises.

This is quite good, but I feel like we need to know Soma's age? The only action we see him taking here is crawling... he could be an infant or a toddler not sure on his feet yet. I realize this probably operates as more of a prologue, since Soma is seventeen in the actual manuscript. Generally speaking, prologues are not a good idea. Yes, it's an interesting jumping in point, and the beginning of Soma's story, but he doesn't have a lot of agency here. He's hiding, being assisted by someone else, then abandoned. The first line of dialogue in a book that is titled with his name doesn't belong to him. I suggest finding a better starting point for this book, with Soma the age he is throughout the text, and working his backstory in. Yes, it's hard -- but so is hooking an agent with a prologue.

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