It's feedback reveal time for Pass or Pages, the query contest run at here Operation Awesome. We hope you'll find tips to benefit your own work and query letters. Copious thanks to our agent panel for taking the time to critique these entries. Our gratitude to all authors, especially those who participated in this round of Pass or Pages. The only path to success is by trying. Bravo to those entered.
Entry 5: The Untouchable
I am writing [KP1] to you because of your request for diverse YA retellings. My novel The Untouchable [KP2] is a contemporary YA fantasy and retelling of India’s most famous epic, The Ramayana. It is complete at 76,000 words and was one of the winners in the PNWA 2017 writing contest. [WJ1]
[WJ2] In India, Hindus and Muslims aren’t supposed to get along, but a Hindu teen and his Muslim best friend are about to face the King of Rakshasas. Only the strength of their friendship can prevent the destruction of everything they love. [KP3]
Vikram is an eighteen-year-old Hindu boy who hears strange voices and is in love with a girl from a higher caste. The only person who understands and accepts him is his best friend Aziz, a six-foot-tall, Star Wars-obsessed Muslim.
Vikram is an untouchable, a caste so reviled their very touch is considered spiritually polluting. But Aziz is a Muslim and doesn’t give a damn. Vikram isn’t even allowed near the girl he loves. It’s the way India works—caste, religion, and money define you.
[WJ3] As Vikram scours the trash for parts to put together a bicycle for his little sister, [KP4] he learns his village is about to be flooded to make a new dam. They will all become refugees. While praying to save his sister and the girl he loves, he hears a voice. The goddess of the river is willing to give Vikram the power to stop the dam from being built, but he’ll have to pay a high price. The power will turn him into a true untouchable—an invisible shell will grow around him making him at once invulnerable and someone who can’t be loved. No one will be able to touch him or embrace him again. Yet Vikram accepts this and enlists Aziz to help him save the village. [KP5]
Stopping the dam proves to be more difficult than Vikram ever imagined. Standing against him is Sanjay Kapoor, India’s most prominent corporate giant, who turns out to be Ravana King of Rakshasas. Vikram finds that India doesn’t only have a million gods, it also has a million hidden demons, and they’re all on Kapoor’s side, fighting to flood Vikram’s world entirely.
Now to save his sister and rescue the girl he loves, Vikram must rely on the friendship of his Muslim friend [KP6] and open himself to the voices he’s struggled to silence.
[WJ4] Readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire will appreciate The Untouchable for the exploration of contemporary India and its rich traditions of gods and legends come to life. [KP7]
My previous publications include short fiction in The Penmen Review and the nonfiction book The Top 30 Problems in Emergency Medicine [WJ5]. I was born in India and grew up in Milwaukee. I still remember the time I spent in my father’s village in India, and this is where the novel is set. My best friend growing up was a Muslim kid down the street, and that friendship helped form me. Thank you for your time. [SH1]
Kelly Peterson's Notes:
[KP1] - I just looked at the length of this query and am a bit worried that it will deter quite a few agents.
[KP7] - Combine with biography paragraph after it.
Saritza Hernandez's Notes:
[SH1] - This is a fantastic query, if a little on the long side. Definitely intriguing premise and I love that it’s #OwnVoices.
Weronika Janczuk's Notes:
[WJ1] - Rephrase this paragraph for ease of reading. Suggestion: My 76,000-word contemporary YA fantasy, THE UNTOUCHABLE, retells India’s most famous epic, The Ramayana. The manuscript won the PNWA 2017 contest.
[WJ2] - Cut this paragraph
[WJ3] - The next three paragraphs have too much detail. You need to find a way to sum up all of this, with a clear tension/plot arc, in one paragraph—as short and compact as possible. The purpose of the query is to incite a thirst in the reader to learn more after an introduction conceptually; this weighs with too much detail and context, which a writer reserves for the novel itself to build out.
[WJ4] - Rephrase this paragraph. Suggestion: With its exploration of contemporary India and rich traditions of gods and legends, THE UNTOUCHABLES is Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS meets Slumdog Millionaire.
[WJ5] - From which publisher? What year?
First 250 words
As if you were on fire from within. The moon lives in the lining of your skin.
I was supposed to hate Aziz like a mongoose hates a snake, circling with teeth bared, trapped in an endless staredown. And that’s how it would have been, if Aziz hadn’t told me to stick gum in my ears and I hadn’t been stupid enough to do it.
“Nothing will keep things quiet like gum,” Aziz said. At ten, [KP1] he was a mess of curly hair and sharp-eyed intensity. He took a pre-chewed piece out of his mouth and handed it over. “Make sure to stick it in deep.” We were the same age, but Aziz already towered over me, and had more confidence than he had a right to. [WJ1]
I rolled the minty-smelling mess in my fingers. “You’re sure this will work?” I asked, trying to push past my hesitation. In India, Hindus and Muslims kick the hell out of each other or at least glare across the village and dream about it. But I was tired of being hunted, and would take even a Muslim’s advice to escape. India has millions of gods. [KP2] I didn’t want their voices in my head any longer.
We’d come out to the riverbank as the sun rose so no one would see us together, but the world was awake early. A thousand birds called in the trees, and the chant of women’s prayers in the temple reached us. [WJ2] [WJ3] [SH1]
Kelly Peterson's Notes:
[KP1] - Is this a flashback or is this the age for the story?
Saritza Hernandez's Notes:
[SH1] - Love this sample! I would definitely request more pages of this one.
Weronika Janczuk's Notes:
[WJ1] - These first two paragraphs are all v. good and tight, and I love the voice and promise of humor here. I think the scene structure breaks a little bit, problematically, after this excerpt; see my comments on the remainder of this below.
[WJ2] - Following from my comments above: You start the scene building out one particular tension arc, which reads well—I am curious to know now what will happen with the gum stuck in ears. Then you launch into a mention of the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and veer off onto another conversation—the direct link to which isn’t clear to me. Why this detail, now? What does the gum have to do with escaping? And then you backtrack into the history of this scene without doing anything to follow-up on the tension established in the first part, and your tension entirely breaks. As a reader, I am annoyed. This could use work, but you have a great starting point at the top of the scene.
Be thinking about plot and pacing, especially with regards to scene structure--the way that you begin, move through, and end individual scenes: https://bit.ly/2x38n55. A huge part of the journey to publication, as well as career-building, requires a constant perfection of one's craft.
Also be thinking about the compactness of your query and your pages: https://bit.ly/2QnD4u4.
Kelly Peterson: PASS I like this concept, but I think your beginning needs to change a bit, andyour story arc needs to be a bit clearer and condensed in your query. For your beginning, establish your character and who they are NOW, then dive into more of a flashback. This way your readers are grounded in your character first so that they don’t feel quite as lost and know exactly when you’re flashing back to tell a story. If you want to edit, I’d be happy to take a look again, though!
Saritza Hernandez: PAGES
Weronika Janczuk: PAGES