Tuesday, May 28, 2013

QK Round 1: Sway Me Buble versus Penny Lane Grows Up

Entry Nickname: Sway Me Buble
Title: Sway Me Buble
Word count: 92,000
Genre: Adult Women's Fiction


When Ava Elliot was nineteen, she broke off her engagement to Eric Wentworth, her high school sweetheart, and fled to New York, leaving both fiancĂ© and pretentious family behind. Eight years later, armed with a Master’s degree from Juilliard but no job, she has returned home to the twisted symphony that is her new life: her dad has lost their Hollywood Hills mansion and Eric has gone from struggling musician to successful jazz singer.

Eric is also back in LA after a sold-out tour. He doesn’t want to see Ava, but it’s hard to avoid each other when they share the same friends. Despite Eric’s spiteful songs, Ava goes out of her way to prove that she’s long over him. It’s okay when he starts dating her sister’s best friend because she’s met someone new, too—Gage, a handsome actor with sweet words and chocolate kisses.

But no matter how perfect Gage seems, long-buried feelings for Eric are starting to replay like notes from her favorite sonata. Ava is forced to face the truths about herself that she has long avoided. If she can’t forgive and forget the mistakes of her past once and for all, Ava will never be able to fight for another shot at a future that could-have-been.

First 250 words:
The cab inched its way up the twisting road. Royal Empress trees blocked the view of our final destination. The wind blew through the open window, twirling my hair around my face, tickling my cheeks. I listened to the leaves rustling, the sound like a flute transposed to a lower octave. I took a breath and exhaled slowly. It wasn’t that I was nervous exactly, more unsure. Unsure of my reception. Unsure of my feelings.

“We’re here,” the cab driver said, stopping the car.

Slinging my bag over one shoulder, I exited the cab and stared at Kellynch Mansion—my childhood home. The camel-colored stucco, stretched windows, even the ridiculous marble fountain were all ingrained in my very being. It’s been so long, and yet it feels like I never left. What a clichĂ©. I dropped my gaze. The cab driver had pulled my suitcases out of the trunk and was waiting patiently.

“Do you want me to help you bring them up?” he asked, eyeing the staircase leading to the oak front door.

“No, that’s okay.” I slipped him some cash and waited for him to drive away. Leaving my luggage at the foot of the stairs, I headed up, finger-combing my hair and adjusting my blouse.

I pushed the doorbell. Weird—ringing the doorbell to my own house. Peering through the windows, it took a few minutes before a shape appeared, distorted by the etched glass.

The door opened and Aunt Rose stood over the threshold. Her pale gray linen suit looked fresh off the Chanel runway, she had slicked her hair back into a low bun, and the pearls around her neck were as familiar to me as my own name.


Entry Nickname: Penny Lane Grows Up
Title: Somebody That I Used To Know
Word count: 95,000
Genre: Women's Fiction


Ali Fisher was a fan of rocker Matt Hartley in her teens, but at 27, her high school fantasy is grown-up reality. It’s been five years since he asked for her number after a show, since she fell in love with the real Matt. Her friends are climbing career ladders and buying properties, but Ali’s in no hurry.

Then she meets the 19-year-old who claims to be Matt’s lover from the road. Shameful parallels between them spotlight how much Ali sacrificed to be a songwriter’s muse, and no personalized power ballad can make up for that now.

Stuck in a sterile admin job and an apartment on the corner of Nearly 30 and Nowhere, Ali seeks who she might’ve been had her wildest dream never come true. Growing envy of her friends’ figured-out lives threatens to maroon her. Visiting Britain was a goal long before Matt, so when her boss needs artwork for a new building, Ali volunteers her rusty painting skills for a commission to fund her trip. London’s streets, the Cornish coast, and the Scottish Highlands reawaken her artistic ambition—as does British bassist Thom. Then in an English gallery, she stumbles across her own neglected muse. Ali must decide when to let go of impractical dreams, and which are really impractical. She faces a choice: pursue stability while she still has time, or risk it for what her unreliable heart wants. But which will close out her twenties with hope, and not regret?

First 250 words:

Ali Fisher’s got it all. That’s what friends say when introducing me, or what my sister says with a shake of her head. Never mind that I’m still renting at twenty-seven, or that I’m assistant to a threesome-loving Trump-wannabe. If you ever dreamed of talking with a beloved personal hero—be it a musician, writer, or actor—and that they’d listen and love you back, then you’ll be interested to know that it does indeed happen.

No matter how underground or mainstream, if there’s someone who inspires you with their talent and passion and ability to share it, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. This isn’t about leaving him on a pedestal. You’ve got to be realistic; PR whitewashes 80% of his screw-ups, after all. I’m talking about stumbling into his world and peeling back his layers like an artichoke to get to the good stuff. The real stuff. The part where you can make a difference.

Tonight, I’m celebrating that difference with my best friend Val. The band has outdone themselves but now I’m restless, waiting for the encore. Teasing Val about the drummer’s newborn, cradled by its mother nearby, is my chosen distraction.

The truth is, a lot of babies look like Phil Collins. This one’s a doozy. I think it’s the perfectly round head, the stubborn wisps of hair, and an awareness out of place if your age is still tallied in months. The resemblance makes me cringe at Val’s guilty obsession.


  1. This comment is reserved for the judges' votes

    1. Victory to Penny Lane Grows Up

      To Penny Lane: I absolutely love the voice and premise of your entry. Each words drives me into the next flawlessly. Though I'm not a HUGE fan of women's fiction, I would definitely keep reading. And you made me laugh with the Phil Collins bit so major points to you.

      To Sway Me Buble: I love the way you weave musical terminology throughout your query. It adds so much life and vibrancy to your words. Well done. I didn't choose you entry because of minor quips. The first sentence of your query is too long IMO. You have great information there, but all that in one sentence is too much. Keep an eye out for helping verbs. Omit them if you can.

    2. Victory to Penny Lane Grows up.

      This was really hard for me. I enjoyed both entries. When it came down to it, I felt I connected with Penny Lane's voice best and I was intrigued with the query's promise of travel. To Sway Me Buble, I feel like you do a good job building up your query, but then the stakes just didn't seem high enough to me in the end. Maybe reword?

      Well done!

    3. Victory to Penny Lane Grows Up ~ Storm

      This was like comparing apples to oranges for me. Both word counts seem too high to me. In the end, I had to choose which one I would want to read more, and Penny Lane Grows Up's premise and its promise of adventure abroad won it for me. I do have to say I dislike the use of numbers for the ages instead of spelling them out. Love the title for Penny Lane Grows Up, by the way.

      Also, there was some beautifully written prose in Sway Me Bulbe, and I love the music references, but the conflict isn't strong enough for me.

      Great job to both!

    4. Victory to Penny Lane Grows Up - Ultraviolet
      This one was tough for me, but I will almost always vote for a story which is not simply about getting a boyfriend or getting a boyfriend back. It seemed to me that Sway Me Buble's stakes were will she/won't she end up with her old flame. There is no indication that the MC, despite her master's degree, has bigger dreams than that, which is why Penny Lane Grows Up appealed to me more. Having said that, I did enjoy the musical references, though I think more restraint with that might have made it seem less obvious. I also enjoyed the sense of place in Sway Me Buble's opening 250 though I'd have preferred not being told what breathing in and exhaling slowly "means". I will also say that Penny Lane's first two paragraphs (in the 250) came across sounding an awful lot like backstory which is generally not the best way to begin a book. I think that could be more skillfully woven into the first scene.

    5. Victory to: Sway Me Buble

      Sway Me Buble: I LOVE LOVE LOVE this. The use of musical terms in the query was wonderfully done. Voice in both query and page are brilliant, and lovely. I was drawn in by just that, but the setting of backstage-workings of the music/jazz/theater industry is very intriguing. Not to mention the writing feels vivid and clean. I totally want to read more. Also, I love the title. Fantastic.

      Penny Lane Grows Up: From the query I got the feeling that she loves Matt and is very content with her current life, (before the affair is revealed, of course) but the page made her sound bitter and unhappy. Honestly, I didn't like her much. And the page confused me a lot. I felt pulled from one subject to the next very abruptly.

      (Just goes to show how subjective publishing is, guys.)

    6. Victory to Penny Lane Grows Up

      I love the first 250 of Penny Lane. What is interesting is how different the voice is in the query and the first 250. The query has a subdued nostalgic quality while the first 250 were more immediate.

      I liked Sway me Bubble's query better because the musical theme is actively represented throughout the query, but the first 250 made me think the story begins in the wrong place. That it might be more impactful to start after she's has entered the home. Still what is written is evocative.

      In the end, I had to go with the story I would most want to read.

    7. Victory to Sway

      While I think Penny Lane's story might be the more relatable one, I think the voice in the 250 is trying too hard.

      Conversely, I think the query for Sway is trying too hard with all the musical allusions, but that the writing is more solid.

    8. Very close, but Victory to Sway Me Buble because of a more active first page.

      Sway Me Buble: This first paragraph of your query suggests a world of possibilities for the direction, but then the remaining paragraphs all sound like a romance instead of woman’s fiction. I was disappointed that you don’t return to her family’s situation or her talents, but focus on romantic elements.

      Penny Lane Grows Up: A nice query, though I’d reorder the last sentence to make it a statement instead of a question. I was a little confused about how her sterile administrative job suddenly opens up possibilities of a trip to Britain. To me, your first page included a lot of back story and setup telling. I wanted to be shown something about the main character.

    9. Victory to Sway Me Buble because I love your writing and evocative syntax (but please, tighten it up!) and because I can feel the emotion.

      Sway Me Buble—This sounds like a tremendous Women’s Fiction book, almost everything the genre entitles is here. Only problem is that this might not be unique enough to stand out with the cast array of Women’s Fiction. In the 250, the first paragraph is a lot of description. I love the soft, lengthy prose you have—very emotional, almost. But try tightening some of it and sticking to the essential sentences. Some of it can be cut (and bring down the 92k word count as well).

      Penny Lane—I love the relationships that your query hints at and Ali seems like an amazing protagonist. But the third paragraph felt almost like a laundry list of plot events. Try tightening the prose and sticking to the essentials. Your 250 is where you shine—your voice and style is incredible. And I love the premise of following her dreams (when, really, I can tell from the query that it’ll be so hard). I kind of feel your query’s voice and 250’s voice don’t match-up, though.

    10. Victory to Penny Lane

      This one was close for me.

      I think both entries could strengthen up their pitches, and 250. Sway has a beautiful writing style, but it felt very heavy in both pitch and 250.

      For Penny, I think the story is stellar and I love the voice, but I would recommend tightening up the 250 and pitch.

  2. Sway Me Buble
    Why is this women’s fiction and not romance? The query reads straight out romance. (Nothing wrong with that but it confuses the reader.)

    My first thought is that eight years at Julliard ($55,000 a year) and NYC living expenses bankrupted the family, which gives me sympathy for the family—not her.

    I’d like to know more about the lesson she will learn. Why did she and Eric part ways? I take it that his family had something to do with it but I am unsure. I’d like to know what truths about herself that she will be facing. I assume this is the crux of the story. My only guess from context is that she is a spoiled socialite.

    The lyrical references are just right in the query but get a bit overdone in the first 250. Especially if you are going to keep it up for the whole book. Good job and good luck.

    Penny Lane Grows Up:
    I like the voice in your query. Intriguing setup but I immediately dislike her swapping one boy for another. Again, I don’t see how this is women’s fiction and not romance. I guess if she chooses neither boy, it would get closer to women’s fiction.

    This sentence is very convoluted. “Ali must decide when to let go of impractical dreams, and which are really impractical.” Not sure how volunteering rusty skills gets her a paid-for trip. Be a bit more clear.

    The first 250 seems too lecture-ish. I’d rather see how she is disillusioned by this false world she has been involved in since her teens. Pull the curtain back and show us the dirty truth. Good job and good luck.

  3. I love how both of these entries have music incorporated into both. How crazy are these matchups? Some are just so cool!

    Right off the bat, Penny Lane sounds like something I would definitely read! I LOVE your voice in the first 250, I would try to incorporate a little more of that into the query and I think it would be golden.

    Sway Me is another one I'd grab off the shelf. I'm a sucker for someone who lives in the past, dwells on an old flame (check out my entry: Nostalgic Dreamer).

    I envy the judges, I think these are both Victory worthy! Good luck to you both!!!

  4. I love the set-up for both. Both entries offer something very similar, not just with the music but with the MCs having to face decisions they made in the past to be able to move on. Penny Lane just seems more up my alley, and the query grabbed me more because what girl hasn't wished her favorite rock star would fall for her. My suggestion, though, is for the first 250 to offer more action compared to exposition. I do love the Phil Collins joke as well. Sway Me Buble, your first 250 starts in scene, and I really like that. I guess I'm just more connected to the rocker/fangirl fantasy-turned-reality. Good luck to both of you. Great pitches!

  5. Sway Me Bubble,

    I can really relate to the hard part of coming home after college and maybe not being the person you wanted to be yet. I also really like your voice in the first 250, but I can see that there are some concerns about your query. I agree with Nicole in that I'm not certain why this is Women Fic and not romance, and that's something that should probably come out in the query. Other than that, it's really great.

    Penny Lane,

    I love the sense of adventure that your query shows us. Who wouldn't want to go find their muse in distant lands? (like for real, sign me up!) And I've been on the corner of nearly 30 and nowhere, so your query and premise really spoke to me. I'm having a hard time coming up with something to say for the sake of improvement. I think you might be able to tighten up some of your writing in the query letter so that we don't trip on words and concepts (i.e., edit for flow of words), but this is a very minor thing. Great job!

    And good luck to you both. I'm really sad someone isn't going to make it to the next round.

  6. Victory: Penny Lane Grows Up from Judge Hedgehog

    Sway Me Buble: This reads as a romance to me versus women's fiction since the romance is presented as the central plot point. I really like how you used a lot of wordplay with musical terms in the query, but some of the phrasings struck me as very cliche. I won't lie- I'm a huge fan of romance but I gagged a little on the phrase chocolate kisses:) Some of the writing in the first 250 had that as well. Im assuming this is just a formatting thing, but should the line "It’s been so long, and yet it feels like I never left" be italics to indicate an internal thought? If not, it's in the wrong tense. Overall, the premise is fun but I think the query should hint at higher stakes unless this is a straight-out romance.

    Penny Lane
    I like the premise of this a lot and the hints that this story will be about Ali coming into her own as an individual versus riding along on someone else's journey- I think that really reflects late twenties mentality, especially when friends might be hitting career, marriage, babies milestones faster. The query does a nice job presenting the story, though I think you can lose this line since you state the same thing in the first paragraph: Growing envy of her friends’ figured-out lives threatens to maroon her. Also, in the first 250, a baby would be a "his" or 'her" not an "its" :) Nicely done though- I'd read on!!

  7. Victory to Penny Lane Grows up from Judge Interrobang.

    Sway Me Buble has an opening sentence that left me untangling it, rather than being hooked. Also, the opening 250 has way too much description to get my attention.

    Penny Lane has a strong query, and an interesting premise - who doesn't want to know more about landing that star crush, even if the reality is less than stellar? The opening 250 are a bit clunky as far as craft, but there's voice there.


    The only choice presented in this query is Ava deciding between two men, and one of them doesn’t want her. This is a fine premise for romance but not for women’s fiction. However, I suspect that with coming home and her music degree that there might be more, but it’ll need to be explored more in the query. The first 250 words were very good and show a mastery of your craft. While I wouldn’t want to read the book based on the query since I don’t read romance, the first page was written well enough that I would read the second, and if every page thereafter continued to tell a compelling story, there’s no doubt I would finish it.


    First off, I love the song, so I also love this title. As to the query letter, it’s well written, but the third paragraph made me wonder if the first two were back story or if you’re giving us a synopsis. I suspect that the meat of your novel starts with the third paragraph. If so, then you might want to give just a snippet of back story. I’m seeing the same problem in your first page. I read through two paragraphs of set-up before getting to the point where the story starts, which is probably the third paragraph, maybe the second. Overall, the storyline sounds intriguing, and I like that you put the character arc right into your query.

  9. Sway Me Buble -

    You swayed me at first with the concept of a modern retelling of Persuasion, but at the end of the query, I was left wondering whether this update brings anything new to the story. And is borrowing the original characters' names a little too referential?

    Your first 250 were well-written, but just didn't grab me. I don't mind slow openings, but I need something more, in terms of voice, character, or internal conflict, to hold my attention when the only action is someone getting out of a cab. Perhaps instead of spending so much time telling us how long it's been since she was home, you could give a clue as to where she came from, or what has brought her back.

    Penny Lane -

    The query was great. The plot is clear and I could relate, personally, to the MC's sense of being left behind as her friends grow up (exactly where I was at 27). The first 250 was less compelling for me. If I hadn't read the query, I would have had no idea who or what Ali was talking about in the second paragraph. As others have said, I think your story really starts in the third paragraph.

    Good luck!

  10. Penny Lane - The query was wonderful and lays the story out nicely. I can relate to the MC and maybe that's why I'm partial to your story. The first 250 didn't grab me as much as the query did however, but I'd still definitely read on. It's hard to judge those first 250.

    Sway Me Buble - I liked your first 250, but in your query I didn't feel anything for your MC.

    Bottom Line both are amazing stories I would read. I'd hate to be a judge.

  11. Haha, I totally messed up, but the actual title is NOT Sway Me Buble, it's just Sway. Whoops. :p

    And thanks for all the great crits! I've got some work ahead to make this query shine.

  12. Penny Lane, here. Thank you all for commenting, judges & Kontestants alike, and thanks to Sway Me Buble for great competition!

    I have to be perfectly honest - I've been dreading reading these comments because I attended a workshop the DAY after I submitted my entry, and then worked with an editor a few days afterwards, so it's been *very* difficult knowing that work I'd changed around completely was going live in this contest. I wanted to wait until the end before reading through it, to see if the feedback matched up at all with what I'd already done.

    Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart for your kind words and your thoughtful, helpful criticism. Everyone involved in this contest from you 3 awesome hosts to the judges and all the writers behind the entries has been so supportive and given feedback in a way that will help.

    Many thanks for taking to comment!