Sunday, June 21, 2015


Entry Nickname: Elephants Never Forget
Word Count: 72K
Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy


Only two are yet remaining,
Precious magic ever waning . . .

That’s just part of the mysterious message 16-yr-old Chessie receives when she’s forced to visit her great-grandmother for the summer. Bad enough Gram lives in middle-of-nowhere, Kenya. But when Chessie’s contacted by the spirit of Jhelani, an eons-dead elephant, things take a total left turn toward weird. Communicating with cryptic songs and strange symbols, Jhelani’s message slowly emerges: if someone cannot save the last of her once-immortal tribe, the Earth may pay an unknown price. Freaked out and overwhelmed, Chessie shuts down, breaks communication, and refuses to help.

Meanwhile, Kenyan teen Daniel can’t feed his family when his crops fail. Desperate for work, he’s coerced into a gang of poachers with their sights set on a huge payday: the remaining elephants of Jhelani’s tribe. Just this one job, he swears. Then he’ll find honest work. Hold his head up again.

Chessie finally comes to a decision. She wants to be the kind of person who, as Gram would say, “grabs life by the tusks.” But by the time she finds the missing elephants, the poachers are closing in. With elephants charging and bullets flying, Chessie’s taken prisoner and her world and Daniel’s collide. To survive, Chessie must conquer her fears and seize a dangerous opportunity to escape. And Daniel must decide where he’ll draw the line: thief, poacher, or accessory to murder.

First 250

When your family falls apart, I suppose you shouldn’t expect anything to be the same again. Not even your mother’s smile.

Mom’s goofy I-love-my-life smile hadn’t been seen in months, and I’d become all too familiar with the distant impostor that had replaced it. But the smile she wore right now? Pretty sure I’d never seen that one before. Like something you’d grab at the mall without stopping to try it on, it was too tight and way too bright.

And she was cooking, for the first time in months. “Mom? What’s going on?” I dropped into a kitchen chair and watched her pull something from the oven.

“Roast chicken? Dibs on the drumstick,” Bent shouted, slamming his scrawny ten-year-old frame into the chair nearest the chicken. He leaned across the table, freckled nose practically up the bird’s butt, and took a deep sniff. “Look, Chessie, mac-n-cheese, too.”

Mom set a tray of steaming cornbread on the table and sat down, still beaming. “Your great-gram has invited us to visit her. In Africa.”

I paused, forkful of mac-n-cheese halfway to my mouth. My stomach felt hollow. I had the feeling no amount of mac-n-cheese was going to fill it, not even one with four gourmet cheeses and a crispy crumb topping. “Can you get enough time off for a trip like that?”

Her smile flickered like the lights during a thunderstorm, right before the power went out for good. “I . . . I can’t go. But you two will go without me.”


Entry Nickname: Fake Heirs Do It Better
Title: The First Law of Loyalty
Word Count: 97k
Genre: YA Fantasy


Every night, seventeen-year-old Arun climbs above the muddy streets into the grand hotels of the foreign district to steal the foreigners’ treasures. Her gang is her family, and serving one’s family is more important than any laws.

When her cousin, Jaruk, is kidnapped by a lord, her loyalties are torn. Although gang rules forbid her from meddling with politics, she can’t abandon him to the lord’s schemes. Jaruk and a few other boys his age are being tortured to learn how to recreate the dead royal family’s magic. The lord plans to put a fake prince he can control on the empty throne and needs this magic to prove the boy's legitimacy.

Arun breaks Jaruk out from behind the walls of the lord's home, but there will be nowhere to hide when the lord’s new “prince” controls the country. To protect Jaruk, Arun must outwit the lord and discredit his prince by creating her own more convincing fake heir. If she fails, not just Jaruk, but the entire country will suffer at the hands of the lord's fake prince. But to succeed in pulling off such a high-profile con, she must break all of the gang’s rules, turn her back on the life she thought she wanted, and betray those she considered family.

First 250 Words:

Through the smoky haze clouding the dockside inn, I stole glances at the two foreign sailors who’d made the poor decision to stand next to me. My first marks of the night. They watched my accomplice, Petch, move three cards in circles on our table. Their thick, hairy arms folded across their chests gave them an intimidating edge, but their wide blue eyes and vapid expressions said they were suitably ignorant.

Petch stopped shuffling the cards. "Which one is the phoenix?" he shouted. The din of the off-key piano and men bellowing along to the foreign tune nearly swallowed his words. I placed a silver coin on the middle card. He flipped it, showing me the multi-colored bird, the symbol of our queen, her virtuousness and her power, gone perhaps forever from our land. Black smudged the curling, peacock-like tail. I sent a silent apology for Petch shoving her into the grime like that.

I turned to the sailors. "You look intrigued." I spoke their language for them and tried to make my voice feathery and cute—not so easy with all the noise. The stench of booze and sweat strangled me, the pressing heat like chains.

One grunted. The other ignored me. What I wouldn’t have given to be with my brothers, slinking through the darkness, instead.

Petch pushed me two silver coins. Now came the part where I persuaded these sailors to throw their money at the game, thus convincing Boss Suttirat I wasn't a completely incompetent con artist.


  1. Judges, reply to this comment with your vote!

    1. Elephants: I still adore this concept. I don't love starting the query with the actual contents of the letter, but if you cut that, the rest is good.

      In the first page, I still feel like you're starting in the wrong place. You tweeted that this page is needed to set up an important subplot, but the first page isn't where you do that. The first page is where you drop the reader into the action. Subplots don't deserve prime first-page real estate. The writing is GOOD, don't get me wrong, but opening the story here isn't the best choice.

      Fake Heirs:
      You had me until "dead royal family..." I feel like maybe it would help to give a few more details of the world earlier in the query. You know the entire book, but as someone who doesn't have the slightest clue with that book is about, I'm very confused about your world.

      The writing in your first page is great. You could tighten in a few places - there are extra words like "for them." Not sure we need so much about the queen right away. The voice is good, though, and I like being dropped into the action.

      I hate having to make these types of decisions. This is entirely subjective. My vote primary comes down to the fact that I prefer lighter fantasy. VICTORY TO ELEPHANTS.

    2. Mergh – another impossible matchup.

      ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET - I love that you’re tackling such an important topic in this story. The snippets of the mysterious message in your query work for me, but I’m not sure about the first sentence following that. I’d consider rearranging it to read more “16 year-old Chessie receives a mysterious message…” so it doesn’t start with the weaker “That’s.” Also, I’m not sure you need to go into Chessie’s indecision about helping It feels more like a synopsis there – probably important in the story, but not really critical to the query, in my opinion.

      The 250 is strong. You set up some of the family dynamics with the inciting event of the announcement about moving to Africa. I can’t seem to find anything to critique, so good job.

      FAKE HEIRS DO BETTER – This sounds like an Oceans 11 meets political intrigue kind of complicated story. Very compelling premise. I’m getting a little lost in the query trying to understand what’s going on with the royal family’s magic and how Arun would know this was the ultimate goal of the unnamed villain lord.

      Your writing is lovely in the 250, and you show us a bit of Arun’s life on the street with hints of a bigger world of corruption. I’d read on if this were a book. However, this feels more like a slice of life scene for world- and character-building. I can't tell from this how close we are to an inciting event that will get the story moving. And while plenty of fantasies start out in this way, I'd still like to see the first page give more of a bang.

      Voting on this is painful. I’m going to go with the one where I think the 250 gets one foot closer to the action of the book as depicted in the query.



      I like the premise but the query seemed a bit confusing. I'd cut the first two lines and start with Sixteen-year-old...(spell out numbers).

      The writing is good. I like the way you ease us into the family dynamics. No issues with it.


      I feel like I've seen this premise before but you do a good job of setting it up.

      The writing is fine, I like the idea of a con right away. Maybe show us the con instead of telling us what she's going to do.

      I felt the writing was stronger so: VICTORY TO ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET

    4. Dr. T.J. EckleburgJune 22, 2015 at 10:29 AM

      Elephants Never Forget:

      For the most part, I like your query a lot. The story is fairly easy to follow, and I love the unique Africa setting and the dual POV. I do think you were a little too vague about Jhelani's behest in paragraph two. What is the danger to the elephants, and moreover, what is Chessie expected to do about it?

      Also, I didn't get any real sense of Chessie's character arc. Daniel's arc is clear--struggling with the morality issues of feeding his family--but not Chessie's. How does she develop on a personal level through the story? You mention facing fears, but fears of what? Without a sense of her arc as a person, the query blurb comes off as a little lacking in depth, like it's simply an adventure story about poachers with no real character work.

      I thought your first 250 was great. The first couple paragraphs drew me in--nice simile with the smile--and I like how you got to the announcement of the Africa trip right away. It connected me to the query and makes me think you're getting right into the story.

      Fake Heirs:

      You completely lost me on your query. All I had were questions while I read: Who is this vague, unnamed "lord" you keep mentioning? What does torturing street kids have to do with the royal family's magic? What happened to the royal family, and why's the throne empty? Etc. It's clearly a story that deals strongly with politics, but I don't even know who the political players are. Nor did I know it was fantasy until you mentioned magic in the 2nd paragraph. Until then, it could have been any genre--historical, contemporary...

      In a nutshell, I think your problem is that while you're telling us what happens, you're not giving us the context we need to understand the story. So you need to set up your world right from the get-go, and establish the necessary context for us to understand your fantasy world and how these events fit into that context.

      The 250 was written well, and I liked the detail about the card. It gave a nice sense of your unique world. I do think that the "tavern scene" is probably one of the biggest cliches in fantasy, so I can't help cringing every time I read a fantasy story that opens in a tavern. Whether this tavern scene is relevant to the plot, or simply a place to start, I can't tell without reading more. However, you might want to consider ditching it if you can.

      Due to a much better query and a strong 250, easy VICTORY to ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET

    5. Elephants: Great concept with very clear characters, conflict, and stakes! I agree that you don't want to start with the message. Also, I'm not sure I would call it a contemporary fantasy at all. It almost sounds like magical realism to me. The query is a little long. If I were you I would start in Kenya already.

      Fake Heir: I'd love to see the dead royal family and stolen boys at the top and trim the first paragraph. We don't need as much about her family and what she steals. Something along the lines of "Seventeen year old Arun is a petty thief, but.." I feel like you have a great premise and some of the strength is getting a little lost. Make us feel for your main character right away. Add some more voice to the query and you'll be golden.


    6. My apologies to the writers if this response is a little brusque-seeming. I wrote a longer one earlier and it seems to have been irretrievably eaten by the interwebs. Stupid interwebs.

      Okay, so.

      Elephants, I'm not a huge fan of starting with this excerpt of cryptic rhyme. I want your characters, not your poesy, if I'm an interested agent. I'm much more engaged by Chessie and who she is than two, acontextual lines. The 250 is solid and starts us off with a sense of tension.

      Fake Heir, I'm struggling with your query for some of the same reasons named by others. I don't understand why kidnapping and torturing teens should have anything to do with bringing lost magical powers back. I'm also (highly nit-picky here, but it's a thing) thrown by the fact that Arun is a real name -- a male name -- from India. And yet your Arun is a female character. I've known many Arun's and this was a problem for me trying to get your character straight in my head. As for the 250, a game of three-card-monty (which seems to be what's afoot here) isn't actually a con job. It's a sleight of hand trick, a form of visual deception. A con job (confidence job) relies on long-term planning and insight into the mark's psychology, exploitation of personal weaknesses, and usually plays out over several stages in a long term arrangement made under false pretenses. If I'm an agent wanting to read about a shifty, criminal character from the underside of her world, I want to know that you have full command of the codes and cant of that world and what it entails. This makes me wonder if you're either framing the situation unclearly or if you're using the terminology of larceny a little too loosely.


    7. Elephants Never Forget:

      This story is really unique, and I feel like you’ve made some great changes to the query, but I don’t like that it starts with the lines from the letter. I feel Daniel’s section of the query is stronger. Also, I love the last line in the query.

      The first 250: This is much better, and I like how it ended, however the first line felt like it was lacking something.

      Fake Heirs Do It Better:

      I have the same sentiments as the other judges. Too many questions. I feel like the voice didn’t come through as well it did in the 250.

      The first 250: You did a fine job setting up the scene, and we immediately have a sense of Arun’s life.

      Victory goes to: ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET

    8. Congrats to both Kombatants on making it this far!

      ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET offers a fascinating setting for a YA contemporary piece, as well as the promise of showing us more than the journalistic point of view of the ivory poaching crisis in Africa. I like that. The query, however, is vague where it should be precise ("unknown price") and makes it seem like the MC sits around most of the book before deciding to save the elephants. Daniel comes off as a more proactive character, which I'm guessing was not the intent.
      The first 250 words are fine, but I worry that the logical place to start this story might not be the most exciting one. You get one chance to start a book. If it were up to me, I'd open right in the Kenyan forest-savanna with elephants and poachers all around.

      FAKE HEIRS DO IT BETTER had me very excited at the start: good voicey opening with promises of a criminal underworld and con artistry. I'm so in! Unfortunately, my interest waned as the query went on. We have a nameless lord who's doing some unsavory things, but that plot point is already resolved in the query so I'm not worried about the cousin at all. If it were my query, I'd shorten and simplify with good, vivid detail on the big con, the players involved, and what it's going to take to pull off a puppet coup d'etat. I also hope that a YA fantasy will give a *little* taste of an alluring secondary world, even in the query.

      This one is close, but the action tips the scale for me.

      Victory to: FAKE HEIRS DO IT BETTER

    9. Princess of LlamasJune 23, 2015 at 7:53 PM

      I know this one isn't close, but I had a couple suggestions, so thought I'd comment anyway:

      ELEPHANTS: This is my first time reading your query and 250. For the query, I don't think you need the first two lines for a couple of reasons. Not only does it flow better starting with paragraph one, but from your query there's a lot more going on here than a book about "magic" and I'd hate to have you lose an agent's interest with those two lines, as it sounds like a medieval fantasy until you read the rest of the query. The 250 shows great voice. I'd read on.

      FAKE HEIRS: I've judged this one a few times, and I like the improvements with the query. My question concerns the 250: where did your awesome first line go??? I loved your previous opening sentence because it was filled with so much of your MC's voice. I think now the opening 250 is a little more dry and could use some personality because you do a lot of description here. Just my two cents.

      Because my vote won't matter, I will send both these authors best wishes. Victory to FAKE ELEPHANTS NEVER FORGET THEIR HEIRS!!

  2. Elephants:
    This book has a terrific set-up. Setting is going to be amazing, and I would imagine the agents would eat this one up. No real complaints.

    Fake Heirs:
    In the query, I get the sense that I'm in another world of princes and lords, but I don't know where. In some cases that wouldn't matter, but I think in yours it does. Can you clarify it any?

    Because of the setting, and the clear stakes in the query, and the commerciality of it,

  3. Elephants:
    Query: Is this dual POV? If not I’d reword that paragraph about Daniel. If it is, I feel like it needs to be expanded on a bit.

    250: Don’t love the “I suppose” in the first paragraph, it weakens a little bit. Don’t love the italics for “And” either. Otherwise love it.

    Fake Heirs:
    Query: I see all the improvements and like! But wait. Is Jaruk magic?

    250: “You look intrigued” seems like a weird line for running a con. “Oh yay that sure was easy money” or something seems better (clearly not those words).

  4. Elephants: We're at the stage in the competition where all I can do is nitpic typos. These entries are both strong.

    Fake Heirs: Seriously, glad I'm not a judge.

  5. Elephants: I'd cut the first two lines in the query. They are distracting and have little relevance for those who've not read the story. The concept is interesting, and the voice is good. I'd also cut that I Suppose in the first line of the 250.

    Heirs: I really like this and can't find anything to crit. Great job on the query, I love the darkness and thievery of it all. Great setting and concept.

    Good luck to you both!

  6. Elephants Never Forget

    Such a great concept, I’m jealous of it (in a good way). I do agree with the other commenters about taking out the first lines of the clue. If you want to emphasize the role of clues in the story, explain that Jhelani speaks them when you explain who she is. I’ve also realized on this read through that I’ve never known why it’s a burden for Chessie to go to Kenya. Has she been to Kenya before and knows its going to be boring? Is she afraid? Does she have a relationship back home so she doesn’t want to be away all summer? Without that knowledge, the line about “middle-of-nowhere” Kenya doesn’t quite feel earned yet. I think simply saying that Chessie’s been sent to Kenya to visit her great-grandmother (while her mom gets her life together?) tells enough about the situation.

    I really like the first 250, there’s some great stuff in there, particularly the descriptions of Chessie’s mom’s stressed-out smile. The problem is that, given the promise of the query, a reader gets whiplash, i.e. “I was promised an Elephant matriarch and a boy named Daniel, where are they?” It’s a crisis brought on by quality and having a grand vision.

    Fake Heirs do it Better

    I was really struck by what a great job you’ve done revising the query; it reads so much more clearly and smoothly now. Given the comments above, you might want to explain the setting in one sentence in the word count and genre paragraph of the query. I didn’t have a problem with it though, comes from reading too much Diana Wynne Jones.

    The revised 250 is much smoother too. The atmosphere in the tavern is perfectly evoked and I understand the cards and reference to the queen much better now. I did have trouble with the "You look intrigued” line, as some other commenters did, because it confuses me as to whether the sailors know Arun is affiliated with Petch or not. If they don’t know, then what she said doesn’t quite make sense. She’d be acting genuinely surprised that she won rather than coquettish.

    Overall, goodness these are both so good!

  7. WOW! I commented on both of these in the first round, and they have both improved! Excellent work.

    Elephants Never Forget

    Your query is much tighter, and I love the changes to the 250. I’m still debating how I feel about the new query opening line, but I definitely like it more than the original. The opening of the 250 is still gut-wrenching!

    Fake Heirs Do It Better

    I can see where you changed the second paragraph to include some explanation of the torture, but I might try to rework or combine the last two sentences to make it feel less like exposition. Your 250 only got stronger! I would still read this in a heartbeat. ☺

  8. ELEPHANTS: Wow! You’ve really cleaned this query up nicely! It reads so smoothly. Great job! I’ve always loved your first 250 and I still do. Such a lovely entry point into a great story!

    FAKE HEIRS: Interesting concept! This is my first time reading your entry, and I had to go through the query a few times to make sure I got it. You’ve got a complex story, and if you can simplify the query and cut a few words, I think you’ll get better responses from agents. Your first 250 are great! I find myself wondering how & why the protagonist got into this line of work, which I know is coming later…but if you can slip in some hint of why – perhaps in the second paragraph from the bottom – it would help carry the reader along.