YA Thriller First Page and Query Critique


Earlier this month, I posted about giving a few critiques away in exchange for donations to charity. All three slots for this round have been taken, but you can follow me or Sounding Sea on Twitter to be the first to find out when I do another round! You can also sign up to get email alerts via Sounding Sea here (don’t worry, they’re infrequent!).

This week, I have feedback for writer Suja Sukumar, who generously donated to the White Helmets, a neutral organization rescuing Syrian civilians.

My line notes are in bold and brackets, and I have overall thoughts below.

Dear ___,

After being orphaned a decade ago, seventeen-year-old Indian-American Tanvi Nair is determined to put her past behind her [Is her past being orphaned or something else? You may want to substitute something more specific here or skip the “past behind her” part.] and take care of her aunt who suffers from depression. [You might need an adjective here to clarify depression. Plenty of people are depressed and don’t need a caretaker—what is different about her aunt’s depression?] Every [Oops, just “ever!”] since her [Tanvi’s cousin? You may want to use the name instead of the pronoun, otherwise it could be the aunt’s cousin.] cousin, Mimi, ran away five years ago, her aunt has resorted to praying [This could be simply: “her aunt has prayed.”] to every deity in the Hindu pantheon, hoping her daughter would return. Tanvi hopes so, too, though she has no memory of what happened the day Mimi ran away. [Meaning she blacked out or she was too young? You may want to clarify.]

Then one day [This transition makes the plot seem episodic (this happened, then that happened, rather than the character did this, therefore that happened). Is this just an accident, or does the plot pick up here? If the latter, you may want to start your query with Tanvi finding this girl.] Tanvi spots a girl with a scarred face across the street. The girl’s mannerisms and voice is [are] exactly like her missing cousin’s. [So she does remember her cousin, just not the day she disappeared?] She also seems aware of [How so?] Tanvi’s past, like her dad’s murder and her mom’s involvement with dark magic rituals from India. [Ah ha! Tanvi is not just your typical orphan…I think you can still get rid of “dark past” earlier in the query and have it hit here.]

But her attempt to approach the girl is met with hostility. [So then how does she know all of that stuff about the girl? Maybe “approach” is not the right word here?] After getting her to admit she is Mimi, [How? I’m curious about how Tanvi worked her way into the girl’s good graces.] Tanvi tries to take her home, but the girl attacks her with a knife and flees after Tanvi disarms her. Then a local bully at school is found stabbed with that same knife with Tanvi’s fingerprints on it.

Now Tanvi has to convince the police of her innocence. And she has to track Mimi down since no one else believes her cousin is back. But tracking Mimi down will require piecing together the events of the day Mimi vanished, the day that is missing from Tanvi’s memory. Failing to do so could cost Tanvi her sanity, if not her freedom.

HIDE ME AWAY might appeal to readers of Megan Miranda and Gail Giles’s thrillers. I am an Indian immigrant [Is Tanvi also an immigrant or second/third/etc-generation? You may want to clarify. Simply “like Tanvi, I am” would work. I would also consider putting the word count, genre, comps, and a logline at the beginning of the query, and keeping your bio separate, at the end.] settled in Michigan where my 62,000 word psychological thriller is set. I am also a member of SCBWI.

Overall thoughts

There is so much to love here! Tanvi’s character seems sweet and hardworking—someone you’d immediately want to root for. However, the beginning and end of the query almost sounded like two different stories. My preference is to get a quick logline about the book with all of the relevant information up front. That way, the agent doesn’t have to scan all the way to the bottom to make sure you’ve done your research and are sending a book in the right genre. Having a logline up front could also help with some of my confusion in the first part of the query. It seems like the real hook of the story is that Tanvi’s disappeared cousin has showed back up and framed her for murder, but we don’t find that out until a long way into the query.

First page:

Ever since my cousin’s disappearance, Auntie and I followed a pattern. A routine. It made for predictability, for safety, and prevented shit like psychiatric lockdowns and therapy. [My personal preference is for beginnings to give us an idea of the setting, character, and stakes, but the voice is really working here, so I’m torn. In the next line, you might want to consider giving something more specific than “So here I was”—maybe let us know she’s in a classroom?] 

So here I was, at three-fifteen sharp, texting my standard message to Auntie—school’s done. Smiley face. Home soon. An action that had become second nature, as familiar as getting dressed or brushing my teeth. Or breathing. [Very subtly sinister note with “or breathing”—love it!]

After sending the text, I left the classroom and joined the swarm of bodies in the school hallway, swerving out of the way of a ginormous backpack before it could flatten my face. The stampede to exit school on Friday afternoons often reminded me of the crush at the temple we had been to in India when I was six. The first and the last time I had stepped foot in my parents’ country. Ten years later, the memory was still pretty [I’d cut “pretty”—it seems out of her voice. Also, it’s odd to hear that the memory was fresh but not get another line about the memory, the sights, the sounds, the look on her mother or father’s face.] fresh.

I battled my way through a crowd of freshmen and spotted my target down the hallway. Bright green eyes under tangled black hair, and then the rest of Drake. Long, lean, draped in a sweatshirt and jeans, and leaning [Now you’ve got lean twice in this sentence. I’d cut the first.] against my locker. My pulse sped up, a reaction that happened anytime Drake came within a yard of me [We don’t need the second part of this sentence—or you may want to consider something more specific overall. In the next sentence, you mention her expression but don’t say what it looks like. Maybe go there—what happens to her face? Blush? Goofy smile?]. Talking it down hadn’t helped in the past, so I schooled my expression to match that of best friend and not besotted crush. Drake had no clue of [This should be “about.”] my feelings and I worked hard to keep it that way. Besides, with his hot looks and easy grin, [You could probably cut the beginning of this sentence, or at least cut “hot looks,” as it’s not very specific.] he had half the girls at Orin High pursuing him already. I didn’t need to add to the list.

Once I was close enough to be heard over the clamor of conversation and laughter around me, I said, “hey.” [What could she say that’s more specific to their relationship than “hey”?]

He looked up from his phone, then straightened. “I got your message. What happened? I thought you were going to come for the game tonight?”

“I was planning to.” After opening my locker, I dragged out my books. “But I have to stay with Auntie tonight.”

“Of course. I mean, your aunt needs you, that’s fine with me.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I could come by after the game then?”

Overall thoughts:

The voice in this opening page is really fun, and I automatically like Tanvi for being so dedicated to her aunt. The first line shows us right away that Tanvi’s missing cousin is going to be a big deal! You may run into some issues with her aunt coming off as a burden due to her mental illness—if you haven’t had sensitivity readers/personal experience with depression, you probably should investigate that. I’m not an expert in this area, but it’s something I would think about in your book. You could also work on making Tanvi’s attraction to Drake a little more specific through tightening the language.

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