Sunday, June 15, 2014

QK Round 2: A Burning Dilemma versus Trailer Trap

Entry Nickname: A Burning Dilemma
Title: Burn, Baby
Word count: 62K
Genre: YA Contemporary


The fates must have been laughing their asses off the day sixteen-year-old Ziggy's crack-head mom poured gas all over his sister and lit her on fire. The tragedy that wrecked Layla's future gave him the life he'd always wished for, and too much guilt to ever enjoy it.       

His mom got thirty-to-life for attempted murder and now the brother and sister are living with a crazy but cool uncle in the suburbs, far away from the public housing apartments where they grew up. They’re going to a private high school and Ziggy's driving his own car and excelling in kickboxing. Unfortunately, his once kind, smart sister now hates everything, but mostly she hates him, for saving her. 

Until she connects with her poetry teacher, who falls in love with her angry words, and slowly draws her out from her prison of scars. But Ziggy isn’t happy about eighteen-year-old Layla dating a teacher. Should he try to come between them, or wait to see if Mr. Osterman – despite the taboo – is just what his sister needs to move on with her life? And will Layla's forgiveness allow Ziggy to finally let go of his guilt?

250 Words:

Lightning streaked across the Tampa sky, illuminating the cockroaches that feasted on the kitchen counter. Thunder cracked, slow and building until vibrations shuddered the tiny living room of our crap apartment, where I sat cross legged on the couch. My sister sprawled beside me, reading a book while I watched some dumbass reality show, pretending not to listen for Mom’s john on the stairs with his twenty bucks and baggie of meth. 

Aside from a couple of mattresses in the bedrooms, that was the extent of our furniture. A Goodwill couch which doubled as my bed and a junk TV on a milk crate. I held a box of Lucky Charms where Layla could reach, enjoying our family sit-down dinner.

“What’re you reading?” I asked during a commercial.

The rain messed up the picture, so I fiddled with the rabbit ears, only making things worse. Frustrated, I flopped back down beside her, catching the cereal box before it bounced to the floor.

She looked up, her fake scowl only highlighting her anomalous beauty. Freckled apple cheeks and gorgeous blue eyes that turned heads wherever we went. I know that’s weird for a brother to notice, but I was counting on that face to end up in magazines or on TV, and thereby financing our escape from the crack smoking gorgon who used curses and fists to turn her kids to stone.

Layla waved the cover of some teen romance in my face. “A book. You should try it sometime.”


Entry Nickname:  Trailer Trap
Title:  Experiment in Progress
Word Count:  40,000
Genre:  MG Contemporary
Alexis Reed is going to make her school sorry for sticking her in a trailer. Thanks to overcrowding, her fifth-grade class has been assigned to a portable classroom with defective air conditioning and a cockroach problem. She’s stranded across the soccer field from her quirky little brother, who tends to wander out of classrooms and hide in storage closets. When she can’t stay close to him, it’s a lot harder to keep Lucas from getting himself expelled.

Determined to get back in the main building, Alexis designs an experiment for her school science fair to prove that the trailer is dangerous. She and her partner Jaelynn demolish a model of the trailer with a leaf blower to show what would happen if a tornado hit Glenwood Elementary. The project wins the girls a third-place ribbon, an appearance on the local T.V. news, and an invitation to speak at the next school board meeting. Alexis thinks she’s won—until she learns that the school board plans to empty the trailer by transferring a busload of kids out of Glenwood. A busload made up of low-income students from the “wrong” side of town. A busload that includes Jaelynn.

Caught between her brother and her friend, Alexis must decide if she still wants out of the trailer at any cost.
First 250 Words:
If you ever run across one of the newspaper stories about my science project, don’t believe a word of it. Every single reporter got the story wrong.
Take The Canlaston Chronicle. The article said, “Jaelynn Moore asked her rebellious classmate Alexis Reed to help with a controversial experiment for the fifth grade science fair.” That’s completely backwards. I asked Jaelynn to be my partner, not the other way around. Besides, I wasn’t rebellious or controversial back then. That came later.
I told the reporter the real story, but he didn't listen. The truth is, I asked Jaelynn to be my partner because of a boy band. Normally, I would have teamed up with my best friend, Olivia. We’d been doing school projects together since kindergarten. But on September 15, the day the experiment was assigned, Olivia brought The Ultimate D.A.Z.E. Photo Journal for us to read at recess. She shoved it at me as we walked to the playground. I tried not to groan. “I think you showed me this already.”
“Nuh-uh. It’s new.”
“But we looked at it after swim practice, remember?”
Olivia sighed at my cluelessness. “That was The D.A.Z.E. Craze Behind-the-Scenes Fan Guide. Totally different.”
Olivia’s books all look the same to me. So do the posters on her bedroom wall, no matter whether they’re showing Damian, Alan, Zack, or Edward. Songs by D.A.Z.E. always sound alike, too. But I’d never dare say any of that to Olivia. “Oh, right. Totally different.”


  1. Judges, reply here with your comment and vote.

    1. BURNING
      I think you did a good job incorporating a ton of feedback and reworking this query. The opening two paragraphs are much tighter. I don't think questions work in queries, so recommend you change. Maybe a better approach would be to come at it from the rescue angel. He rescued her the first time and she hates him. If he tries to rescue her again, there may be no salvaging their relationship.

      Also, I'm still struggling with what's in it for Ziggy. It doesn't seem like there's enough of his own story line for this to be written from his POV.

      Your 250 update is spot on. Good job.

      As I mentioned in the last round, I think you have a real plot issue with your query with the way it is constructed. You tell us the school board takes her experiment seriously and is going to bus Jaylen. Then you make the stakes Alexis having to decide if she still wants out of the trailer. But in the previous paragraph you've said it's resolved. What can Alexis do? That needs to be in your query if you're going to go that far into your story.

      That said, I think you should stop your query BEFORE you tell us about them winning 3rd prize and the school board decision and wrap it up with some stakes - she thought it was the perfect plan, but getting the attention she craved may cost her her best friend.

      On your 250 you did take care of the ambiguity issues. I'd have to read further to say if it totally works, since I really liked the original focus on "the newspapers all got it wrong" if it keeps going down that road, I think it's a good rewrite. If you divert from there, I'd recommend you pull some of it back in, as that was a really strong open.

      I think pitting a light MG book against this intense YA isn't the best match up, but that's just how the entries worked out, I guess. It does make judging harder. It feels more apples to oranges.

      To me, the plot for Alexis as an MC spoke more to me than Ziggy.

      Victory to TRAILER TRAP

    2. NOTE: Since I focused on queries in round 1, this time I'm focusing on the first 250 words.

      BURN, BABY
      Ack! The opening sentence definitely caught my attention. Cockroaches - yuck!

      "Thunder cracked..." - thunder "cracking" would be sudden, not "slow and building"

      "john" - Am I the only one that read this as saying that he was waiting to hear the toilet and wondering why it was on the stairs? Maybe just me.

      "fiddled with the rabbit ears" - he can do that while laying on the couch?

      "flopped back down" - Oh, so he did get up at some point?

      The voice definitely comes through, and you give us a good introduction to the characters and their overarching problem.

      I like the opening sentence. It grabs my attention and makes me think that what follows is going to be newsworthy, interesting, maybe even controversial.

      Oh, boy bands. I can relate to Alexis' dilemma. Because of that, I'd probably keep reading.

      Victory to TRAILER TRAP

      I like the query and how we find out in stages what became of Layla. I’m expecting an intense and emotional read, so I would definitely give it a try. I would modify the ending a bit, especially because with the last question you give away that Layla will forgive Ziggy for saving her, right? So maybe lose the questions and try something different. I feel it would also help if you explicitly point out that Ziggy is the younger of the two. That makes his concern for his sister more endearing, since otherwise he would be the baby everyone would worry about. The first 250 are evocative. I feel the connection between the siblings and those first paragraphs definitely made me want to keep going.

      I love the voice in the first 250. It is funny and I think MG readers would get sucked right into it. However, my concern from then on, based on the query, is how the story would hold up based on the premise. It seems so unlikely that Alexis would have any influence in such a situation. And maybe, after reading the entire story, it would all make sense, but I can’t be certain from what I see here. Is there something you could pull out of the manuscript to bring into the query that could help with that? Is there an emotional appeal Alexis presents to the Board? Are there outside factors that she can influence somehow? Something? Anything to give me confidence when reading the query that the story will hold up?

      Having these 2 queries against each other makes it very hard to decide. They are so different! Still, I
      must decide on the first one based on my feeling that the plot in that novel will hold a bit better.

      Victory to . . . A BURNING DILEMA

    4. BURN, BABY --
      This pretty tight and sets up an intriguing storyline. I feel that it sidelines the MC a bit, though. It seems to focus on the sister in the 3rd paragraph, and I don't quite get the stakes for Ziggy. His sister may hate him more, sure, but... does he stand to lose anything else? Could his sister's forbidden romance jeopardize their new life with the uncle?
      Also -- I would try to avoid questions in a query. Maybe you can reword to get the same ideas across without making the last sentences questions.
      First 250 Words:
      This is powerful stuff, and certainly grabs the reader's attention. I agree that you might want to indicate Ziggy getting up (or mention that he is standing) before he fiddles with the TV rabbit ears. Also, this sentence feels a bit off -- "I know that’s weird for a brother to notice, but I was counting on that face to end up in magazines or on TV, and thereby financing our escape from the crack smoking gorgon who used curses and fists to turn her kids to stone." It seems a little formal compared to the rest of the page, and if you are going to say this, I think it reads better as --"that face ending up..." because the "to" throws the rhythm off every time I read it. In addition -- "and thereby financing" is way to formal for this narrator, IMHO. Maybe just say "enabling" ? Final note -- would Ziggy know what a Gorgon is if he is not a reader? They don't really teach mythology in public school anymore. You might want to consider a more pop reference here. Just an idea.
      This tells us about the story, but really has little voice. I don't get much sense of the MC's personality from the query. You also have some extraneous words -- you don't need "himself" in this phrase: "getting himself expelled", and you can cut "that" before "the trailer". The whole query is a little wordy, especially for MG. Maybe consider bringing the stakes forward -- Alexis wants out of the trailer, but her experiment has unintended consequences. That seems to be the true conflict, not whether her experiment wins a prize, etc. Play up the friend vs family loyalty conflict, as I think that is more compelling.
      First 250 Words:
      Good opening, and natural dialogue. (I get a much better sense of voice in the first 250 words than in the query, BTW). I think you did a good job with this, although I wonder about that "newspaper quote". Doesn't sound like something a reporter would write to me, especially with the use of "rebellious" -- most newspapers would not characterize a young person that way in a story, because it could considered breaking their "neutral reporting" code. They would be esp. careful, I think, in talking about a minor, not to "lead" the readers in forming an opinion of the person's character. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen that type of usage in most newspaper articles.
      Another very tough choice. I think I just have to go with the query and 250 that caught my attention a bit more, so --


      Query: This sounds so good! I love how both of the characters are flawed and we get a good sense of what each of them will be facing. The stakes are clearly laid out and I kept being surprised with each new piece of information that was given. A few of the other judges mentioned losing the last question in the query and I agree with them. I don’t mind the first but the second one does seem like overkill. I’d consider rephrasing. Other than that, I think this is in great shape!

      First 250: This. Is. So. Good! I want to read more. I love Ziggy’s voice here. Even starting with the weather didn’t bother me because he has such a strong presence. I also like that we get to see Ziggy and Layla’s relationship before they go through tragedy so we will understand what Ziggy is missing later on. I wish I could offer some sort of critique here but I think this is excellent.


      Query: I like this quite a lot! I think the stakes are very clear here and I love that Alexis has several problems to figure out. This is such a great example of choosing between a bad and worse option. I don’t get a great sense of who Alexis is but I don’t think that is such a bad thing. There is enough of her in there. I just thought it was something worth mentioning.

      First 250: I love the voice here and I really identify with Alexis because I was the girl at school who just didn’t get boy bands. I almost wish we’d get a little more of this confident voice in the query because it is great! The only thing I got a little confused about was the vagueness of Alexis asking Jaelynn to be her partner over a boy band. For some reason, I got it in my head that Alexis would like the boy band which made the rest of the excerpt confusing for me. Maybe consider adding in something to let the reader know Alexis doesn’t like the band right away? That would clear up any confusion. Otherwise, this is a lovely entry and I’d definitely keep reading!


    6. Strapped for time, voting, will offer feedback afterwards.

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma

    Query - The query is very strong and powerful, with a chilling premise. It's well written, and clearly spells out the emotional stakes for Ziggy. My only issue is whether Ziggy has another storyline of his own. It seems more like he's an observer and that the real action of the story concerns his sister. All you need is maybe one line in the last paragraph to give us a sense of what else Ziggy is doing besides worrying about his sister.

    First 250 - The opening page is excellent. The details you've given, such as the cockroaches, the Goodwill couch, and the rabbit ears on the TV, paint a strong picture of the setting. Right away, we know Ziggy and his sister are in a terrible situation, but that they have a close bond. The line about the storm in the opening sentence gave me a sinister vibe, as though something terrible is going to happen, which I suspect it is. Overall, I have nothing else to add because the writing is so good.

    Query - The query is well written, with a unique story and clear goals for the main character, but it left me with questions. Even if Alexis is in a regular classroom, I can't see how she'd be able to watch over her quirky little brother. Wouldn't they be in different classrooms? Whether or not she's in a regular classroom or in a trailer, how would she be able to leave and search for her brother in a storage closet? And if he's really in danger of being expelled, it seems like an issue for the parents to deal with. I like the science fair angle and I can actually believe that Alexis would be asked to talk in front of the school board. However, I feel like the last line of the query is throwing me off. If the school board has stepped in, would Alexis be able to influence what happens with the trailer. It seems more like she'd have to try to stop the forced bussing of the low-income kids.

    First 250 - Cute opening paragraph, with a nice sense of voice. I'm curious to see how the boy band photo book influenced Alexis' decision to partner with Jaelynn, so I'd keep reading. I don't have a lot to add here, because I think it reads well.

    For both entries, I thought the first 250 pages were stronger than the queries. Great writing! However, because of the great details and immediate sense of danger, I connected more strongly with A Burning Dilemma.



    Query: I really like this. It flows, it has voice, and I'm sympathetic to poor Layla already. Only problem is, I don't quite understand Ziggy. I don't get a sense of their relationship beyond her anger and his traditional big-brotherly jealousy.

    I have suggestions for words you can trim. "thirty-to-life for attempted murder" can be shortened to "thirty-to-life". "Once kind, smart sister" can cut "smart" since this phrasing implies she is no longer smart. You can cut "to move on with her life" also; "just what his sister needs" is the important part.

    Couple punctuation nitpicks: "once kind" should be "once-kind"; you have so many hyphens already that it's a bit distracting, so I would change "crack-head" to "crackhead"; no comma after "angry words".

    Finally, the double rhetorical question at the end is risky. I think the second one can be easily converted into a declarative statement.

    250: Great first paragraph. Breaks the "no weather" rule with style.

    Second paragraph has a grammar issue. "That" in the first sentence is unclear, and the following sentence is a fragment. I would suggest rearranging them like this: "Aside from a couple of mattresses in the bedrooms, the Goodwill couch and the TV on its milk crate were the extent of our furniture. The couch doubled as my bed."

    I laughed at the sit-down dinner.

    I think it would be a good idea to swap paragraphs 3 and 4. As it stands now, Layla doesn't respond to his question until after he gets up, fiddles with rabbit ears, then flops back down. That's a long enough delay that it seems weird and rude, especially combined with her "fake" scowl.

    Ziggy's tone becomes suddenly erudite in paragraph 5. "Anomalous," "thereby financing," and "gorgon" stand out for me. Considering Layla's comment that he doesn't read much, it doesn't seem to me like you're using those words to tell us that he is a studious sort who uses SAT words and drops Greek mythology references in his own inner monologue; it feels more like your own excellent vocabulary slipping in. "Turn her kids to stone" IS darn cool so I don't blame you for wanting to keep it.

    Small nitpick with word choice: you used "some" as a modifier twice (some dumbass reality show and some teen romance). I'd change or cut one.

    Great work, tons of voice.


    Query: Gets off to a great start. I love Alexis' determination and proactivity. I do get hung up on "quirky", though. "Quirkiness" doesn't make people run off and hide in a dark, confined space. That's a mental illness red flag.

    I start to get confused at the end of paragraph two. I don't understand why the busload of kids being transferred is a disaster. Alexis' desire to keep her brother from being expelled is compelling because expulsion is a serious consequence, but being transferred is not--unless the new school is awful. I assume that it is, but I don't think it's safe to count on assumptions.

    Then the single-sentence third paragraph feels like a tacked-on attempt to answer the question "What choices must the protagonist make?"

    I think you can fix both those problems by elaborating on the transfer issue in paragraph three. I would also see if you can find another way to phrase it than "Alexis must decide."

    First 250: Awesome opener. I'm immediately intrigued.

    I enjoyed the interaction with Olivia, too. I think we've all been in the position of talking to an expert in a field we could not possibly care less about.

    I really like this premise. It feels fresh and original, and the difficult moral choices Alexis is going to have to make are both compelling and worthy.

  4. A Burning Dilemma
    I like the changes to the query. It’s shorter and snappier, but still feels like it covers all the bases. I think my only comment this time around (and it’s story level comment) is I wonder about the plot of a student becoming involved with a teacher. Even though Layla is eighteen and therefore technically an adult, the whole student/teacher premise could definitely make for a harder sell.

    Trailer Trap
    Although I liked the original 250, I think this one works well too. It introduces us to the actual characters early in the going, giving the readers someone to connect with.

    I still think the stakes could be made a little clearer in the query by explaining what “transferring a busload of kids out of Glenwood” entails. Are they going to an even worse situation? Because as much as it would be painful to lose a friend, if Jaelynn going to another school would actually get her out of the trailer and improve her situation, overall that might be considered a good thing.

    Best of luck to both entries!

  5. A Burning Dilemma: I was confused in the first paragraph as to who was Layla--the mother or the sister. I also didn't quite get why the fates would be laughing. I understand the connection you were trying to make with the rest of the paragraph, but it felt awkward to me. Also the image of the girl on fire made me instantly think she's dead, so then when it talks about a sister in the next paragraph, I was confused who she was until the third paragraph when I read the reference to her scars. Also, the first paragraph seems to be from the POV of the main character, but then the second paragraph is more omniscient. So tighten up the consistency of how the query's narrative is presented. I'm left not truly knowing whose story this is. I liked your 250, which is clearly Ziggy's story (so make the query Ziggy's as well).

    Trailer Trap: The query to me is too word-dense and not emotional enough. I suspect what is at the heart of the story is the relationship between these kids, but that emotion doesn't ring through the query. We get a sense of it in the 250 (which I liked), but you need to better convey the emotional aspect of your story, not just all of the stuff about the trailer. Remember, sometimes all we are allowed to send to an agent/editor is a query--we don't always have the opportunity to win them over with the sample. The query must stand on its own merits.

    Victory to a Burning Dilemma

    1. Burning Delema

      I like this concept a lot and really don't have much critique to offer. I did think his sister was dead also but it wasn't too much of a jump when you told us she wouldn't forgive him for saving her. I do wonder if she's scarred from the fire though.

      Trailer Trap
      Also a cute concept and unlike the others I don't see any problem with the plot line. I buy it. But it does seem a bit "over" once the school board makes its decision. How will she change their mind? I'd at least like a hint at what she plans to do to fix her problem.

      Victory goes to Burning Delema just because it stuck with me more.

    2. Ha. I meant to fix the spelling of Dilemma and instead ended up using the same wrong spelling twice. That's what I get for rushing ;)

  6. A BURNING DILEMMA: Your writing, both in the query and the opening pages, has a great flow and voice to it. I agree that you might want to lose the rhetorical questions at the end of the query because 1) a lot of agents hate them, and 2) I think there's probably a stronger way to phrase it that gets your stakes across more cleanly. I don't really have any criticisms of your opener. I'd definitely read on.

    TRAILER TRAP: I loved your opening page. Loved Alexis' voice and her interaction with Jaelynn. I can already tell this book is going to be funny. As for the query, I think you could tighten it up a bit, probably cut a lot of extraneous wording, but the plot seems well laid out. Maybe a bit more playing up of the stakes and what Alexis stands to lose, but that's just nitpicking.

    Also, it's funny that you both mention cockroaches in two very dissimilar plots :)

    Best of luck to both of you.


    I like what you've done here from last time. Overall, I'm impressed with the query but the last paragraph makes me want something more. I want to see the stakes emphasized and the taboo element of the relationship drawn out more, but maybe that's just me. (I adore star-crossed *they-shouldn't-be-lovers* lovers). Also, I agree with some of the other commenters that the questions at the very end of the query aren't quite working.

    Love the first 250. I prefer this start to your previous one. Though it was good too, I think this works better. Well done.


    Love the concept here and voice. For some reason, the first line of your query didn't resonate with me the way I think it was supposed to. It seemed to make Alexis unlikeable (but she is completely likeable later on). Since it isn't clear she wants to be back in the main building for her brother's sake until the third sentence, I thought she was being selfish. Personally, I'd rework this to focus more on how she needs to get back and less about getting revenge on the school.

    I got completely wrapped up in your first 250, where I didn't even realize I was reading until I got to the end and was mad there wasn't more. I don't think it gets better than that. Great voice here.