Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Seagull Rising
GENRE: Contemporary YA

Give me a well-sharpened knife. I can devein a shrimp in less than five seconds, and fly through a stalk of jiucai, piling it in a mound of green shards, as if it's gone through a food processor. But when I drop the knife and face my life, I wish I were as good with a needle: as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart.

Ayi and I stand elbow-to-elbow at the kitchen counter making jiaozi, Chinese dumplings. Looking at us, anyone would think this was a regular day, because making dinner is something we've always done together. Ayi talks as she rolls out small rounds of dumpling dough with a short rolling pin. Her flour-coated hands work to a rhythm. I nod to the sound of her voice, to the familiar rise and fall of her speech, the tones that make the Mandarin language sound like a song. What the casual observer can't see is how my smile is stretched, how Ayi has to keep blinking to keep tears from her eyes. This is not a normal day. I am reminded with every stroke of my knife, with every pump of my heart. The knowledge hangs over my head like a guillotine ready to fall.

This is my last night in China.

15 comments:

Jaye said...

Your writing has a lovely rhythm and I would definitely read on. I want to know who Ayi is and why the MC has to leave China. Your emotions are lovely. I did get the tiniest bit stuck on the unfamiliar foods, jiucai and jiuzai (though you explained the latter) and I wonder, particularly in the first paragraph, if substituting a commonly known vegetable might make it flow. Minor and it wouldn't stop me reading further, but I did have to reread that sentence.

Holly Bodger said...

The only bump here for me is this part, "But when I drop the knife and face my life, I wish I were as good with a needle: as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart." I really like this line but it feels like it doesn't flow properly. You are talking about deveining shrimp and then you transition to a comment about facing life. This would be an excellent transition if you then continued on to discuss a situation where she is facing her life (or cutting or repairing it) but this is not what you do. You go on to discuss making dumplings and that is jarring. We need something--even just one line--to bring us back to the dumplings.

YA writer said...

Some beautiful description, but it's mostly telling. Also you mention Ayl's voice, but don't show it. I'd like to hear her speak.

To a rhythm - to me this implies something is setting the pace. Maybe in response to her own grunts? to the Chinese melody coming over the intercom? something else?

the cutting repairing part seems to just be dropped in with nothing to pin it to. Suggest either giving us a bit more of a hint or bringing it in later.

Which brings me to...what is the dilemma the MC is facing? Maybe put this in the first sentence?

Great work, though. Keep tweaking...

Also, I was thrown out of the story with the mention of unfamiliar words. Suggest deleting jiucai or telling us what it is so we don't have to wonder instead of being drawn into the story

Oh, and deveining a shrimp in five seconds sounds too fast, or maybe I haven't practiced enough, but there's always a little bit of intestinal grunge that sticks...

YA writer said...

Some beautiful description, but it's mostly telling. Also you mention Ayl's voice, but don't show it. I'd like to hear her speak.

To a rhythm - to me this implies something is setting the pace. Maybe in response to her own grunts? to the Chinese melody coming over the intercom? something else?

the cutting repairing part seems to just be dropped in with nothing to pin it to. Suggest either giving us a bit more of a hint or bringing it in later.

Which brings me to...what is the dilemma the MC is facing? Maybe put this in the first sentence?

Great work, though. Keep tweaking...

Also, I was thrown out of the story with the mention of unfamiliar words. Suggest either explaining what what juicai is or deleting it.

Great work, though. Keep tweaking...

Kate Larkindale said...

I really like this. The unfamiliar words didn't bother me; in fact they made it better in a way, because I knew right away we were somewhere else, in another culture.

The line about being good with a needle came out of nowhere, and then just disappeared. I don't think you can drop a bomb like that without following up on it. You can't just go back to making jiaozi. Have her think about why she can't repair things while she makes the dumplings.

I'd definitely read on!

Rose Green said...

Nice emotion in this one--great punch at the end.

Never having been to China, I can't tell if Ayi is a given name of a same-age friend, or if it's some kind of family name, like a grandmother. So I might make it a little clearer at the beginning who exactly your MC is leaving. But--very nice writing!

Girl Friday said...

Great first line. I like your writing, clear and fresh.

The bit about the needle threw me a bit, because everything else is about food: 'But when I drop the knife and face my life, I wish I were as good with a needle: as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart.' I'd suggest taking it out, perhaps: 'But when I look at my life, I wish I were as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart.'

I'd read on for a few more paras, but I'm not really hooked yet. I think it's because I know nothing about the MC apart from her being a chef, nor why she has to leave China - so without that I don't feel as sad about it as she obviously does.

Krista V. said...

Just chiming in to say that I liked the reference to juicai. As Kate pointed out, it put us immediately in a different place and culture, and I think phrases like "stalk" and "mound of green shards" give us a good enough picture of what it is. (I'm picturing something like a leek.) Also, I thought it gave the narrator instant credibility, because she clearly knows things about cooking, especially Chinese cooking, that I don't.

I agree with those who've pointed out that the last sentence of the first paragraph is a little jarring. The needle image is a nice one, but it seems a little out of place, like you were trying too hard to make that first paragraph end on a point of conflict.

On the whole, the voice is strong and the rhythm of the writing effortless. I'd read on.

Barbara said...

I liked this, and I liked the line about wishing she was as good at reapiring as she was at cutting things apart. And I liked the needle image, too. I thought it was a portent of things to come. By the end of the story, I'm betting she's going to know how to use that needle. But it would work even better if you had a needle image in there, if perhaps she was working on the food and Ayi was doing something with a needle. They could even be used as symbols of who the two of them are (if you want to go there)

I didn't have a problem with the unfamiliar words. I thought they added texture to the piece and I got to learn two new things.

It is a lot of telling and could be even stronger if you showed her cutting and we heard her and Ayi speaking, if we heard the stutter in Ayi's voice. It may be somethng to play with.

But overall, I liked it. I'd read more.

Sara J. Henry said...

Some beautiful writing here.

Here's what threw me: But when I drop the knife and face my life, I wish I were as good with a needle: as good at repairing as I am at cutting apart. I'd leave out the "drop the knife" and just go with But when I face my life, I wish ... Or leave out this sentence, because it may not quite work - the knife is literal, but the needle she's talking about is metaphorical, and that's a reach.

Laura said...

This is gorgeous, and I'm very impressed. I think this is the first one I've read where I wouldn't change a single word. Nice pacing, great characterization, beautiful prose, and good tension at the end to pull the reader on. Good luck!

Sarah Erber said...

While I read, I thought I wouldn't like this, but the last sentence intrigued me. I think it's because it's set in another country.

I'd keep reading. :)

M. G. King said...

Loved the language! You have captured the understated emotion of Asian culture so beautifully:

"hands work to a rhythm. I nod to the sound of her voice, to the familiar rise and fall of her speech, the tones that make the Mandarin language sound like a song. What the casual observer can't see is how my smile is stretched, how Ayi has to keep blinking to keep tears from her eyes."

The only word I would change in the whole thing is "guillotine" because it is such a thoroughly French word that it feels misplaced here.

And yes, I've known women who are capable of deveining shrimp in 5 seconds!

Escape Artist said...

I remember reading this before and I remembered the comments then about the time it takes deveining a shrimp! I still find it funny the great discussions over it and I see here the discussion continues! :)
Well done and good luck!

Secret Agent said...

What I liked: Very strong writing, very nice rhythm to the writing, great descriptions. I didn’t mind the “telling,” because it feels stylized and purposeful in a “here’s how things appear, and here’s how they really are.” I felt this writer had great command of the language, and great control in this short sample.

What needed work: Tiny, tiny note, but when I read the title as SEAGULL RISING and then saw the word “fly” in the first sentence, for a moment I thought the main character would be a seagull, which would be very strange for YA. Glad that wasn’t the case ☺

Would I read on? Absolutely. I’m dying to know more about these characters.