Tuesday, May 28, 2013

QK Round 1: Mississippi Crazypants versus Tall Ships and Magic

Entry Nickname: Mississippi Crazypants
Title: This Side of Crazy
Word Count: 86,000
Genre: Women's Fiction


Cissy Pickering swears that shooting her daddy in the back was the smartest thing she’s ever done. After surviving more than eight years of his abuse, she had to prevent him from having a secret with her two baby sisters. What she didn’t count on was being sent to the Greater Mississippi State Hospital instead of prison.

When a caring, yet unorthodox, hospital psychiatrist tries to unlock the family secrets that led to Cissy’s crime, the 16-year-old retreats to a world of make-believe and compulsive counting. Meanwhile, three generations of women struggle to understand and forgive Cissy while coming to terms with the loss of their son, husband and father. Only her maternal grandmother offers unconditional love and support.

When the psychiatrist digs too deep, Grandmother takes drastic action to ensure Cissy’s emotional and physical survival – even if it means breaking the law. Their tender relationship and an unearthed secret from Grandmother’s past force Cissy to make her most courageous decision yet.

First 250 words:

My sisters and I had already consumed an impressive stack of books since school let out, reading long into the sticky June nights, even under threat of punishment. We’d needled Mama until she finally agreed to take the three of us to the Biloxi library, although grudgingly. Her chief argument against getting more books – and a flimsy one at that – was that we read too fast and the books we had should have lasted all summer. I ignored her complaining because that’s one of my special talents.

In my room, I slipped into a plaid cotton sundress and my pink plastic sandals that squeaked when I walked and rubbed blisters on my little toes. The sound irritated Mama just enough to make those blisters worthwhile. Some might call this childish behavior for a 16-year-old but I took fun wherever I could find it.

Jessie, already dressed and downstairs in the kitchen, whined that we’d run out of her favorite cereal. Mama told her in the sternest voice that plain old Corn Flakes would have to do. When our housekeeper Bess offered to make pancakes, Mama shushed her, too. She was forever telling Bess that she spoiled us and that spoiled children grew up into spoiled adults.

The excitement of selecting new reading material sent my stomach into flip-flops, akin to the type experienced on Christmas morning. I rushed out of my room and down the hall toward the bathroom to brush my teeth. What I saw stopped me short, the plastic of my shoes sticking fast to the wood floor.


Entry Nickname: Tall Ships and Magic
Title: HMS Invisible
Word count: 106,000
Genre: Adult Historical Fantasy


What if the Master and Commander had met Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? Like Naomi Novak's Temeraire series, HMS Invisible imagines an alternate history in which tall ships contend with the practicalities of magic while fighting a desperate war for survival.

In England of 1803, magic isn't forbidden—it's just lower-class. Gentlemen do not care to associate with vulgar enchanters, but the Royal Navy is fighting a desperate battle against Napoleon's forces, and cannot afford such nice compunctions. Shields of air, broadsides of flame, and swirling water currents are becoming part of the arsenal of His Majesty's fighting ships, while Catholic chaplains struggle to suppress the powers of enemy enchanters. Duty, discipline, and skilled ship-handling are still what make the difference between glorious victory and life inside a French prison.

Mr. Midshipman Nicholas Mitchell is training to command the sailors, gunners, enchanters, and Marines crammed aboard the towering ships of the line—until the stress of battle brings out powers unprecedented in an officer and a gentleman. His Navy career uncertain, young Mitchell accepts a commission into the King's Own Service, a shadowy organization founded soon after the Act of Tolerance made magic legal in the United Kingdom. Soon he will discover that the same powers excluding him from polite society permit him to slip unseen into French harbours and bring back information that may just affect the course of the war.

First 250 Words:

Shiphandling would win this battle—not cannonfire, and not the magic of the enchanter's mates belowdecks. HMS Steadfast was a long way from the French three-decker, but the two ships seemed to be heading for the same point. The moment the enemy had been spotted, the captain, the master, and the first Lieutenant had shot to the rail with their sextants and slates, and begun a veritable frenzy of observation and calculation which had not yet ceased.

Mr. Midshipman Nicholas Mitchell had never seen any behaviour to top it, though he'd been in the Navy for nearly two years: the captain had since gone himself aloft with a telescope, but the other two were still back and forth to the rail, scribbling on their slates and muttering to each other. Word had gone around the ship in urgent whispers: neck and neck. The two ships were still miles apart on opposite tacks, and were apparently heading for the same point in the ocean—neither one headreaching on the other. Mitchell stood at his post by the signal locker, holding himself erect as an officer was expected to do, and waiting for orders.

He couldn't predict which ship would be first to the meeting point, but he did know there would be a battle there—and it would be brief and violent. The first ship to arrive would cross the bows of the other and rake her horribly, but then it would settle down to a pounding match. With the two ships close together it would be brutal.


  1. This comment is reserved for the judges' votes

    1. Gosh, both are fantastic entries. I think both would get requests from agents. I had to leave this entry for a few hours to think about it, coming back, the one that stuck with me most was Mississippi Crazypants. I definitely want to see where the story is going. I nearly didn't pick it because, honestly, it seems more YA than Women's fiction. But the writing and premise are so strong. I'd want to read it.

      To Tall Ships and Magic, I don't have any suggestions. You did great. I just ended up going with my gut on this one. I can't express how hard this match up was for me. I wish I could vote for you both.

      SO Victory to Mississippi CrazyPants!

    2. Victory to Mississippi CrazyPants!

      Here's why ... you really hooked me and left me hanging at the end of your opening page. I'm curious about the secrets. With that said, I think you could show us the conversation instead of tell us. Try interspersing the narration with dialogue and action to bring your reader deeper into the story.

      Tall Ships and Magic, I love this premise, I write fantasy so I was so leaning toward picking this, but the question at the beginning paused and the opening page, while interesting, was too slow for me.

      Both entries could liven up the openings with more active scenes, and this was such a tough call - love them both! Wonderful job!

    3. This is a very tough decision. Both entries are very good in their own right. Both have unique premises and pretty solid writing. While Mississippi Crazypants hold more intrigue in the query and pages (I'm dying to know everything about your story and you leave off with such a cliffhanger) I'm going to give...

      Victory to Tall Ships and Magic.

      I love history and I love magic. This story seems to combine both flawlessly. Admittedly, I don't like the first paragraph of your query, but your premise was enough for me to overlook that.

      Crazypants: There is nothing wrong with your entry. I love the voice and I really enjoyed getting to know your MC in the first page. The age of your MC may pose a problem, ( I don't usually read women's fiction so I don't know for sure) but I don't have an issue with it.

    4. Victory to Tall Ships and Magic

      Both were awesome, but I felt like this was kind of an unfair pairing because of such different genres. I don't envy the organizers the job of setting these up though, so I won't complain. Honestly, I went with the one I personally would prefer to read.

      Mississippi: Your query took me a couple reads to catch everything. It felt rushed and like a lot was shoved in there. Instead of: Grandma "takes drastic action," can you be more specific? I love Cissy's attitude, though. And the dynamic of her mother, grandmother, etc all trying to forgive her for killing her father sounds like an awesome Women's Fic premise. Well done!

      Tall Ships: I want more in your query. I love the setting, I love everything you've given, but I want MOAR. Mostly, I didn't get a sense of the choice. So he's shunned from high society and becomes a spy for the king. What does he DO with it? Does the information he brings back really affect the war or not? How? In your pages, you've got information repeated, and I'm not quite as hooked as I'd like to be. Could you maybe start DURING the battle instead of before it? Or maybe RIGHT before it, so we see the first shot?

      Good luck to both!

    5. Victory to Mississippi Crazypants: I love the voice in the query. The first 250 have a hint of the Southern flavor and spice, but not as much as in the first paragraph of the query. This left me disappointed and wishing for that spark of Cissy to shine through all of the exposition. It would be nice to see the conversation between Mama and Jessie, rather than being told it. Dialogue would break up the heaviness of the introductory paragraphs and let us get a glimpse of these characters personalities through their interaction.

      Tall Ships and Magic: The query felt heavy due to the world building elements you included in the very beginning. I know nothing of Midshipman Nicholas or his goals and motivations. I’m curious how his new powers affect him. I’d like to know more about the King’s Own Service. I think the order of the paragraphs needs to be arranged with the MC being the lead which the query revolves around. The first 250 are solid and believable. I loved the voice and was drawn in and ready for battle.

      Both of these stories have intriguing premises which made it so hard to choose.

      Good luck to you both.

    6. Victory to Mississippi Crazypants

      THIS SIDE OF CRAZY has a strong query and 250. The only suggestion I have for the query is to give more of a hint as to what Grandmother's drastic action is. Maybe even explicitly tying together her secret and Cissy's. I love the 250. Great voice. I'm picturing a 16-yo with maybe the mental abilities of a 10- or 12-yo.

      I found much to like about TALL SHIPS AND MAGIC, but I think for the query that paragraphs 2 and 3 could be combined and condensed, and then the new P3 could introduce the main conflict, which seems to be missing. He slips unseen into harbor and brings back info and the war is won that easily, right? That seems to be what the query tells us. As for the 250, I read it twice and both times I kept wanting to move it out of past perfect and put it into more immediate regular past tense. That would make it more exciting, I think. Plus there's a lot of redundancy around the point that the ships are tied in a race for their intersection. P1 has "seemed to be heading for the same point" and P2 "apparently heading for the same point." The ships are "neck and neck" and "neither one headreaching on the other."

    7. Victory to Mississippi.

      Mississippi—alright. Awesome query. Really. That’s kind of amazing and I want to read it! Maybe a few more concrete details in the last paragraph, other than “courageous decision” and “unearthed secret” (both kind of clich├ęs). The 250, however, is a bit slow. I’m not sure if any of it is necessary, and the last sentence should be bumped up a lot higher so we get the tension.

      Tall Ships—The query, although with a great premise and very interesting idea, is a bit bland. Inject some voice into it. Make us want to read more and we don’t know why. That’s what voice does. Also, I think there should be more focus on Nicholas. The 250 is a bit slow as well. Maybe more voice?

    8. Toughest choice so far for me- I badly want both of these to continue!! Slightest victory to Mississippi.

      Mississippi- Love the name Cissy and how she seems to contrast strongly with the meaning of "sissy". Query is clear and has a great voice. In first 250, you can lose the grudgingly (always try to cut out as many adjectives and adverbs as possible!) because we know from the word "needled" that Mama didn't want to do it in the first place. Also, you should spell out sixteen. Christmas morning analogy is too cliche to be in with this fantastic writing! Love that you leave us on a cliffhanger.

      Tall Ships- The first sentence lost me right away because I don't know who Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are. That said, when I read the second paragraph I got hooked and loved your query. I might suggest moving you first paragraph to the end of the query and losing the question format (HMS Invisible can be described as Master and Commander meets Jonathan...) In the second paragraph of the 250, I would split into two sentences so you aren't using colons in back to back sentences. Otherwise, the writing is really stellar!

    9. Mississippi Crazypants: I love your first line of your query and the part about the flip-flops. That's a wonderful detail.

      Tall Ships and Magic: I’m a big fan of the Master and Commander series. I own all the books. What a sweet idea putting magic aboard the magnificent ships!

      These were two excellent queries and great first pages. Tall Ships and Magic had one or two awkwardly written phrases. “Had since gone himself aloft” just struck me as better worded with ‘himself’ moved to another spot.

      I'm sitting here unable to decide. Victory to Tall Ships!

  2. I'm not typically into Historical, but HMS Invisible would top my list of one to read. I love the fantasy element and both the query and 250 are enticing.

  3. This side of crazy - the query is intriguing and I'm not much for Women's Fic. Liked that you used the term "daddy" in the first line, that really set the voice for me (I was born in the south and Mama and Daddy always ring true for me). My only criticism for your first 250 words is that third paragraph. I would have loved to read all that as actual dialogue and heard the characters speak for themselves, rather than Cissy telling me.

    HMS Invisible - My main crit would be to delete that first hypothetical question. Just start with that second line. Hypothetical questions are weak, you don't want to start your query that way and I really like that second line, it intrigued me. The rest of your query is strong and the action and suspense in your first 250 is good!

  4. Mississippi Crazypants: Well, I love your nickname. It drew me right into your entry. And the first line of your query is ah-mazing. You capture both the voice of the MC and the inciting incident (very inciting, indeed). Child abuse is a tough subject to even think about, but I’m impressed by how you positioned the conflict of the story, focusing on Cissy’s emotional survival and the family coming to terms with what happened. I would also like to hear the dialogue (especially since it seems like you might have some great dialects) instead of Cissy just telling the reader what happened. This is nitpicky, but since you mentioned plastic sandals, when you wrote, “sent my stomach into flip-flops” I thought her stomach literally turned into plastic sandals. Is there another way you can describe her stomach being queasy?

    HMS Invisible: Tall ships, magic, AND a French prison? You have me hooked, I’m in! I want to read this! I love the line, “In England of 1803, magic isn't forbidden—it's just lower-class.” That should absolutely be the opening line of your query. It sets up the world, genre, and a bit of conflict – all in one (that is tough to do). While it is obvious you’ve done a ton of research and world building, I do see some repetition of sentence structure. Lots of “a, b, and c” used in both the query and the first 250 words. Switching up sentence structure might help with easing the reader’s eyes into your story. Also, you used “heading for the same point” in both opening paragraphs of your first 250. Is there another way you can describe what the ships are doing?

    Great job, both contestants!

  5. Victory to Tall Ships and Magic - Ultraviolet
    M.Crazypants - I loved the first line of your query and was looking for that strength of voice throughout your first 250 and didn't really find it. Though I enjoyed the little bits about how the MC annoys her mother, the overall narration didn't feel particularly Southern to me. I'm also a bit confused about a story that seems to have a 16yo MC being pitched as Women's Fiction. I did enjoy your writing style and you definitely have ability.
    Tall Ships - I agree the query would be enhanced by removal of that first paragraph. What I liked about your entry was the concept which promised suspense and an unusual mashup of subject matter, as well as the voice and tension that came through in the 250 (though there was some repetition of ideas/images that should be addressed).

  6. My preference here is purely an issue of taste.

    Crazypants: I was truly disappointed when the 250 words ended. I wanted to know what stopped Cissy in her tracks! I would totally read more of this. However, I do wonder at the classification of 'womens fiction'.

    Tall Ships: I love Naomi Novik somethin' fierce, but that's despite the jargon that goes with navigating and running a ship. I think your opening is strong, but I'd cut the question from your query.

  7. Victory to Mississippi Crazypants from Judge Interrobang.

    Totally sold on the concept because of the query, and while the voice was very strong in the 250, it could use some polishing. However, the concept and query were strong enough to win my vote.

    Tall Ships: Opening with a question for the hook totally turned me off, and the first 250 was very technical for an opening that needs to grab.

  8. Miss Crazy Pants - As I read your query I worried that your story would be too dark for me. But then I laughed out loud in the first paragraph of your 250. Well written and in a clear and compelling voice! (BTW...what made her stop in her tracks? I must know.)

    Tall Ships: Holy crap you know a lot about ship handling! I found myself enjoying your premise and wanting to learn more about the wartime engagement and addition of magic to maritime actions. From your query and 250, I believe that you will deliver a solid story and expect it to treat us to the grand adventures of Mr. Mitchell.

  9. Mississippi - very nice and that certainly was a great cut off point. We all want to know what Cissi sees. The second line of your query is a tiny bit obtuse....for me anyway! The first one is so good you need to match it perfectly. Graet images, the cotton dress, the pink sandals.

    Tall Ships - as Rob says you sure know a lot about ships. make sure to keep your information and weave it slowly in. I think someone might have said start with the second par. I'd agree - in both the query and the 250. I do so like that magic is lower class!

  10. Mississippi Crazypants--The only nitpick I have with your query is that your last sentence is vague/borderline cliche ("unearthed secret" and "most courageous decision yet" don't tell me much), which stood out to me because the rest of your query does such a great job with detail. Even so, I was hooked!

    I don't share previous posters' concerns that your first 250 doesn't read like women's fiction because I assume from your query that Cissy's mother and grandmother (and maybe the psychiatrist, too?) will also be viewpoint characters. You have great voice in your 250, but it feels much younger than 16 to me, especially in the first two paragraphs.

    Tall Ships--Ooh, I love the Temeraire series! I really liked your first 250, and although I agree that the rhetorical question should go, your query is clear and well-written.

    That said (there's always a but, isn't there? I'm sorry), I think your comparison title is hurting you, not helping you. Here's what I'm getting from the story description in your query:

    "A British Naval officer is forced to abandon his Navy career and enlist in a different, much-disdained, alternate-history-fantasy branch of the military, where he discovers he may be the key to stopping Napoleon."

    Did I just describe HMS Invisible, or His Majesty's Dragon? Even your opening and Novik's are strikingly similar (protagonist is on a ship, in the midst of battle). Any agent looking for alt-history fantasy will be familiar with the Temeraire series, and the last thing you want is for them to think your novel is just a minimally-altered rehash of Naomi Novik's. Instead of focusing on comparing your work to Temeraire, you would probably do better to focus on the details of how your story differs.

    Good luck to both of you!

  11. Mississippi Crazy Pants--Fantastic voice in both your query and your first 250. I read a lot of YA, and if this is Cissy's story, it sounds more YA to me. However, the mention of the multiple generations of women is probably what puts it in the WF category, but we just aren't there yet. That first 250 ends on a great cliffhanger. I want to know what she sees.

    Tall Ships--This sounds very well thought out. I love the combination of history and magic. The query draws me in. The first 250 gets a little more technical, though. Yes, you know your ships and battles, which is great. But I feel less connected in the first 250 than I do in the query.

    Both of you are extremely strong writers. Best of luck to you!

  12. Mississippi- Women's Fic is not a genre I read in, and...after reading your query alone, I wanted to go out and get this book! The voice and writing in your 250 are beautiful. No suggestions on any changes here!

    Tall Ships- My advice for your query would be to delete the question at the beginning. Otherwise, I found the concept very intriguing! And your first 250 were amazing.

    The judges seem divided on this one, and I can see why... these both seem wonderful! Great writing!

  13. Mississippi - The query was great and i really liked your first 250. My only comment would be that the voice felt a touch young for 16. Also, I live your name!

    Tall ships - as most above, Questions aren't the best way to start a query. Mine used to and after quite a bit of feedback, I changed it and I think it's become much stronger.

    This is a tough match up, but I think my favorite is Mississippi.

  14. Mississippi: I'm sold on your concept and your 250. This book is right up my alley. I adore the bit about ignoring her complaining and also the bit about the blisters.(Though I wondered from the 250 why it's not YA? I'm guessing maybe it's multi-POV or the MC grows up during the novel?) If I'm really critical, I'd say there are a few phrases in the query that could be a bit more original, like the Grandma's "unconditional love and support." And also I wish Grandma's drastic action was just spelled out rather than kept a secret. I think sometimes trying to create mystery actually hurts the tension in a query.

    Tall ships: I feel like your concept is one of the most original in the competition, and your writing in the opening page is just lovely. I guess my only real criticism is that your query felt a tad wordy, and like the others suggested, I'd try to find a way around the question at the front. Don't give them any reason to reject! I'm not a big reader of historical or fantasy, but I really want to read this.

  15. Mississippi: Ok, when is this coming out? I loved your query and your first 250. The query was perfect in that it got everything necessary out there without sounding like a synopsis. I could so see that as a blurb on a back of a book (that I would read). The first 250 was also great. You write so well; eloquent. And just in the short little sample I get a sense of you main character and her defiance and her relationship with her mother. Great job!! Good luck.

    Tall ships: I don't usually read Historic or Fantasy so this was tough for me, but not because you're not a great writer. I think the premise sounds really really interesting. I agree though about the question in the query. I originally had one as my opening line and took it out after a few people told me it usually doesn't work. I think you have something great here with very strong writing! Good luck to you!!

  16. Hi everyone, this is Mississippi Crazypants. Thanks to all for the most helpful feedback I've received on any query! This has been priceless. For those who question women's fiction vs. YA.The book is told from multiple points of view. One comparable title might be Secret Life of Bees whose MC is 14 years old; the setting is 1964. Perhaps upmarket fiction or literary YA crossover would be better than women's fiction?

    And kudos to Tall Ships for his (her?) outstanding entry. The voting angst among judges shows you how incredibly strong your writing and concept are. Good luck in your publishing journey.

  17. Congrats to you, Crazypants! I'm delighted to come second place to such a strong entry. I'm looking forward to adjusting the query based on all the excellent feedback received here—I never liked starting with a comparison to other books, and am actually relieved that so many people didn't like it.

    And the first 250 has already changed based on all this feedback. It's funny how much you see in your mind—which dissolves when the readers say they don't see it yet. Not only great advice but great re-invigoration stimulus to shape the rewrites. SO valuable everyone; thanks!