Sunday, June 21, 2015


Entry Nickname: Guilt by Association
Title: Skeleton Key
Word Count: 80,000
Genre: Adult Mystery


As the daughter of a safecracker and burglar, Foley Munion is used to police scrutiny, but this time she’s their prime suspect. For the second time, robbers have hit a bank where Foley helped install the security system. During the first bank heist, Foley’s business partner was taken hostage, her charred remains found months later.

With her locksmith shop already on the brink of failure, this police investigation could be the blow that closes her doors, ruining the company she’s spent years establishing. To make matters worse, her felon father has broken out of prison. Though he claims he’s escaped to find out who’s framing her for the bank jobs, Foley suspects he’s really after one last score.

While the authorities focus on linking her to the robberies and her partner’s death, Foley hunts for the real perpetrator. The more she digs, the more she questions what she’s being told by the police, FBI, and her father. By the time Foley uncovers who’s setting her up, her father’s been trapped by the killer. Foley’s lock-picking skills come in handy during her rescue attempt but, once freed, her father refuses to abandon his quest for the stolen money. If Foley helps him, she becomes the thief some already assume she is, putting both her career and life at risk. If she doesn’t, her father may end up dead.
First 250:

Foley Munion glared at the name on the window: Manley and Munion Lock and Key. The last time she had the plate glass replaced, she should’ve told the painter to leave off Allison’s name. Even if it still brought in the occasional customer. Foley opened the door and sighed. The way business was going, the point could be moot by the end of the month.

The small lobby was colder than the parking lot. Foley nudged up the thermostat then lifted the walk-through section of counter. Metal shavings from the key grinder sparkled on the worn linoleum. Inside the back room, she froze, the nape of her neck prickling. 

The heater whooshed on. Foley flinched, then took a slow turn. The bins of wire and alarm components sat undisturbed. But something was off. Hurrying to the safe, she crouched and spun the dial. When the lock clicked, she yanked the handle and pawed through the contents. Money untouched. Schematics secure. She leaned forward to sniff the locking mechanism. No tell-tale odor of oil or graphite. So why the heebie-jeebies?Standing, she closed her eyes and breathed deep.

Oh no. That smell. Soft, but with a slight edge. Partagas.

Her dad’s favorite cigar. A faint scuff came from the left. Her eyes popped open. Unlit cigar in hand, he stepped from the storeroom.

“Dad.” Foley’s right eyelid twitched while she did parole math. Even with good behavior, he shouldn’t be out yet. “Tell me you didn’t escape again.”


Entry Nickname: A Girl and Her Serial Killer
Title: The Confidant
Word count: 62k
Genre: NA Thriller


18-year-old Stella Stokes has a secret: Gideon, a dashing English serial killer in the novels she writes, actually talks to her. He’s been by her side, offering somewhat twisted peanut gallery commentary, advice, and affection for every pathetic turn in her adolescent life. Sure, some of his darker suggestions scare her, she’s never been worried about his presence. After all, she’s the only one who can interact with him; he can’t really kill anyone.

The summer following high school graduation, Stella and her best friend, supernatural-obsessed, trans-man Quinn, decide to take a few weeks to explore California. However, their first stop at an idyllic beach town isn’t quite as calming as they would’ve hoped: a local’s prank gone horribly wrong leaves Quinn and Stella standing dumbstruck over four dead bodies. As they clean up the mess and flee town, Stella can’t help but notice Gideon’s signature all over the murders.

Now, Stella has no choice but figure out what Gideon is: ghost, demon, byproduct of mental illness, or something else entirely. Because if Gideon is more than an imaginary friend, not only could he really begin a murder spree, but maybe he really could force her to kill with him. As bodies stack up around them, Stella has to keep one step ahead of the authorities, keep Quinn safe, and most importantly, prove that the writer is more powerful than the creation.

First 250 words:

"You're barmy if you don't think a paid professional screwing up your haircut is enough reason to kill them.”

I open my drawer and snatch the first two pieces of water-friendly fabric I see. The unsolicited advice comes from Gideon, who lies on my bed tossing a dragon figurine from hand to hand. We’ve been talking for five minutes, and I’m so done.

“No, Gideon, you’re…whatever you just said if you think I'm going to murder someone because she cut my hair too short,” I say. “Besides, you’re English. Your people would rather suffer in silence than complain about a subpar haircut. Turn around.”

Gideon rolls his eyes and turns his back to me. I slip into my bikini.

“This figurine is a good density. An ideal bludgeoning weapon—”

“Don’t change the subject.”

I reach for my cover-up, but stop as Gideon wraps his arms around my waist.

“C’mon, poppet. Have I steered you wrong before?”

I resist a smile as he presses his lips to my throat. The moment almost lasts, but a thunk from inside my bathroom brings me back to reality: my best friend Quinn is changing in there, and when he comes out, he won’t be able to see Gideon. 

After all, I'm the only person who can interact with him. 

I pull away and return my figurine to the shelf, hoping Gideon gets the message. His words roll around my mind, and my eyes linger on the golden dragon.

It is dense.


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

    1. Guilt by Association: I don't know what to say. I want to read this. Awesome job with the query. My primary suggestion is to take out the passive voice in the second sentence. There's really good voice and atmosphere here.

      Serial Killer: I wish I knew what Giddeon is. I suspect this is part of building the mystery, but I wonder if it would help to make up a query that says and try to see what happens. Overall, I love the premise and this is really well done.

      This is insanely subjective, but this comes down 100% to me still being grossed out by the idea of a main character having a relationship with a figment of her imagination, who is also a serial killer. I'm sorry. I'm sure it's my issue, not yours (but it could help to ease the reader in). VICTORY TO GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

    2. GUILT BY ASSOCIATION – This query has improved a lot since I last saw it. Very clear premise and stakes. Your writing in the 250 is tight. I can’t find any fault with either. Nicely done.

      A GIRL AND HER SERIAL KILLER – I’m totally hooked with this story. I think you’re missing an “although” after “Sure” in your third sentence. Otherwise, you have a comma splice. But that’s the only thing I can even find to nitpick about this. Stakes are clear. The premise is imaginative. And with the 250, I’m already in love with Gideon. Knowing he’s a figment, I laughed that the MC didn’t know the words he was using. I’d love to keep reading.

      This is a totally subjective vote because both of these entries are top notch.


    3. I like this matchup of two thriller pieces:
      Guilt by Association has a premise that, although not terribly novel, serves the purpose of dropping us right into a tense situation: a do-gooder whose heritage combined with recent events falls under suspicion. I did feel that the backstory hogs a bit too much of the query synopsis, and it stands out because it's in past tense.
      A Girl and Her Serial Killer offers a very intriguing premise, and though the initial plot direction feels predictable, the query's neat structure tells me that I'll stay interested. Better yet, the opening scene is exactly what I wanted: a conversation between the MC and her made-up character.

      Victory to: A Girl and Her Serial Killer

    4. I'm struggling with this matchup because I see (what I consider to be) significant issues with both queries. Thus, I think it's going to have to come down to writing samples and premises overall.

      Guilt by Association, the second half of your query starts to read like a synopsis. Tell me LESS about what happens with Foley and Dad, in less detail. I want stakes, not precise plot. I felt almost a bit spoilered... Also, as an aside? I read daughter of "safecracker and burglar" as "whoa, mom and dad are BOTH criminals!" and it made my little, evil hard go pitter-pat. And then I figured out that Dad must be both a safecracker and burglar. Ah, well. Is it too late to make Foley the prodigal daughter of TWO felons? Man, I'd read the hell out of that. The father/daughter drama is an angle I find particularly appealing, as well. Love those unresolved family issues!

      A Girl and Her Serial Killer's query goes off the rails for me in the middle of paragraph two. I'm not sure why Quinn matters in this query, why we need to know it's California they go to, etc. Can we cut to the chase of "on summer vacation with a friend..." and then bad stuff? I wouldn't belabor the point of what Gideon might be able to do in the conclusion of the query, either. Make him present ONE CLEAR KIND OF DANGER, something very bad for our main character, and save the conjecture.

      The attention to detail (smell, sound, temperature) in Guilt by Association's writing sample was fabulous. I was drawn in immediately, and loved the worlds of life history told in Foley's need to do "parole math" on the spot. The bickering banter between Gideon and the MC in A Girl and Her Serial Killer is fun, to a point, but I found the detail of Gideon suggesting arbitrary deaths with household objects problematic.... Okay, is that a stupid observation? Yes, killing people is bad, and that's the nature of the conflict in this ms. Here's what I really mean: serial killers are highly methodical by nature. They don't get mad about small stuff and then decide to kill someone for it on the spot (like, say, with a heavy statuette). They mull. They ritualize. They mind-F*** around. They engineer stage shows and presentations for their crimes, to varying degrees of complexity, that have common, traceable elements and common, unifying patterns in victims chosen. I found Gideon's arbitrary drive to kill disappointing, because it seems to deprive him of the sinister mental element that makes a serial killer so disturbing. I thought, "Oh. He's just a malicious, vicious person with rage issues. Never mind." I'm not sure if this is a pattern that follows throughout the ms, but taking this as an indication, I felt a little bait-and-switch, or at least questioned whether the author is playing too fast and loose with the concept of what defines a "serial killer" and thus selling her MC and reader short in terms of maximum dramatic potential.


    5. Princess of LlamasJune 22, 2015 at 7:44 PM

      Chiming in because this one's close.

      GUILT: This is a much better query and 250 than before. My only thing is that the query does cross over to synopsis territory the further it goes along. The reason that's problematic is because it sucks out all the voice. I like the 250, though it did occur to me by her saying he escaped, "again," that it's been more than once, which would make it less likely she'd really have to do parole math. I love the parole math description--it just doesn't seem to logically follow if he's always breaking out. To me, the first thing she'd think about is that he's escaped again.

      SERIAL KILLER: I've liked this query and 250 from the start, and I really like the 250 now that you've revised to get rid of the MC's talking to the reader. I actually like the "is he or isn't he real" dichotomy you have going here, and that it makes the MC a possibly unreliable narrator only adds to the interest. Some people are going to be freaked out by this concept, but other people will love it. You're just going to have to accept that when querying.

      These are two great queries and 250s, and GUILT really gives SERIAL KILLER a run for its money this time (for me, at least!). But based on the sort of synopsy (yes, that's a word) feel and the fact that I don't love the concept as much, victory to SERIAL KILLER.

    6. I really just want to abstain from this one all together.


      I agree with WonderPig, regarding the query, which while getting closer still isn't quite there. However, I love the 250 of this, and I feel there's a confidence in the writing that makes me want to read on. It feels salable to me. Plus the immediacy of it all is very well done.


      I hadn't seen this entry yet, but it's easy to see how it's gotten this far. It's a fascinating premise, and executed well. I'm interested to see where you're going with this.

      As with WonderPig, the vote for me comes down to the writing of the 250. Although both are excellent, I was especially drawn in by GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.


    7. GUILT: Wow. This is the first time I read this and it really has it all, from memorable characters to stakes and conflict. All in the query and 250. Janet Evanovich should watch her back...

      GIRL AND HER SERIAL KILLER: I think the query and 250 are even better than in the last round. I still have a few questions about Gideon as a character that I can't answer throught the query and 250. But overall, I think the revisions are great. Great job!

      But only one can win...and this is only based on which one I think is closer to being query ready.


    8. Dr. T.J. EckleburgJune 22, 2015 at 10:45 PM

      Guilt by Association:

      I thought your query was pretty good up until the last paragraph. Then you start devolving into a play-by-play laundry list of events that bogs down the query and actually shortchanges your stakes. Don't tell us dad's captured by the killer just to say he's rescued in the next sentence. It's anticlimactic and kills your tension. Also, just an FYI: "Dad in clutches of serial killer" makes for more exciting stakes then "Do I help Dad find stolen loot or not?"

      Additionally, there's a bit of a disconnect in focus between the beginning and ending of the query. Up until the last paragraph, it seemed like the focus of the story was--find out who's framing her, clear her name, & get justice for Allison. But in the last paragraph, the focus abruptly shifts into--Dealing with Dad. Do I help him find the stolen loot or not? What happened to clearing her name and getting justice for her partner? So I think you need to work on the last paragraph some more.

      I do think your 250 is great. Good starting point, loved the "parole math" line. I like how we're getting straight into the story.

      Girl & Her Serial Killer:

      Great concept--I love this "imaginary friend psychological killer" premise. My first thought after reading the first paragraph of your query was: "Ooh, creepy!" And I mean that in a good way. A couple things. The line about a local prank putting them over the bodies makes it sound like the prank caused the deaths. So it was weird when she ascribed it to Gideon. Maybe you can reword to avoid that implication. Also, by "clean up mess"--are you saying they hid the bodies or something?!! I think this is a really important point to be clear on.

      "but maybe he really could force..." This phrasing is awkward and wishy-washy. Do yourself a favor and reword. Also this begs what, IMHO, is an important question, which is: Why does she think he can force her to kill? Has she been tempted to kill in the past based on his suggestions? We need something in the query to show just why she thinks he can force her to kill.

      Great 250. What really makes it work for me is the last line--It is dense.

      This is a really tough one to call. Your 250's are dead even for me. However, I do think the serial killer query has the edge, mainly because the ending is so much clearer and enunciates the stakes so much better than guilt's. So VICTORY to GIRL & HER SERIAL KILLER

    9. Guilt by Association: I agree with most of what’s been said already. The query has a synopsis feel, although I like the premise and would look at the pages.

      The first 250: I like where you started and feel like I learned a lot without having it shoved down my throat. Love the last line, BTW.

      A Girl and Her Serial Killer:

      This sounds like a fun read, and I like the set up. I was a bit confused about why she thinks Gideon is going to make her kill with him. How could he force her? I’d like some clarity there. Also, why is Quinn at risk of being killed?

      First 250: I like the set up and want to read more. Drop Dead Fred meets Dexter.

      Victory goes to: A GIRL AND HER SERIAL KILLER

    10. Whoa. I almost wish I hadn't seen Michelle's request for votes. This is a tough match up. You both have solid queries and intriguing first pages.

      Guilt by Association: Fantastic query. No advice. Great job on making this easy to follow and full of intrigue. On your first page, watch out for giving us too many body movements/directions. Some things can be inferred by the reader and adding every movement slows down the story and makes your reader work too hard to get to the important information. (For example, we probably don't need to know explicitly that she opened the door to the shop. Similarly, I don't think we need the step by step on opening the safe.)

      Serial Killer (Can I just call you Serial Killer? I feel like we're old friends by now.): Nice changes to your query and to your opening line. I still think you'd be better off opening with something other than dialogue, but I won't rehash the reasons. (Something with the line about only talking for 5 minutes would be good, IMO. "I've only been talking to Gideon for five minutes but already I'm so done. The unsolicited advice keeps coming as he lies on my bed and tosses..." Then move into his actual advice.)

      Victory to Guilt by Association.

    11. Guilt By Association

      Overall I think this is a really solid query. Here are a few of my nitpicks. First paragraph, last sentence—I’d almost prefer to see this as two sentences or reworded somehow. It broke up the flow for me as I was reading it. Your last paragraph—I’m wondering if you have included too much information. There’s a whole lot thrown in there, and I almost expected the query to wrap up after the second sentence with maybe a last stakes sentence.

      As for your 250, I like it but I don’t love it. I like the image of her looking at the name with her dead partner’s name still on it, but I wonder if she might have tried to chip it off herself? There’s not too much to comment on here because it is well-written, but I don’t feel as though the voice is really out and grabbing me.

      A Girl and Her Serial Killer

      I love how much this entry has grown since I saw it in the first round, bravo. Here are some small comments on it. First paragraph, third sentence—should there be a “but” after the comma? I feel like there should. Last paragraph—I’m getting tripped up on the wording “murder spree.” Should it be “be on a murder spree”? Or “murdering spree”? I’m honestly not entirely sure. Last paragraph, last sentence—you use the word “keep” twice. Maybe try changing the first one to “stay one step.”

      In regards to the 250, I love the voice here and the overall creepy tone. I’m not in love with the first line. It is a little long for my taste. Is there any way you can break it up or shorten it? A little further down, “After all, I’m the…with him.” I’d suggest cutting “interact with him.” I think the line reads better without it, plus, you used the same wording in your query. Other than that I don’t have much to say.



    12. Just a quick flyby judging to tiebreak - VICTORY TO A GIRL AND HER SERIAL KILLER.

    13. Guilt: This is so well written. Your query has a clear goal and stakes. And, I'm there with Foley in the shop when she smells the unlit cigar. Excellent job.

      Serial Killer: I still think your query is a little awkward. Try reading it out loud for pacing. Your 250 is deliciously creepy in a Dexter kind of way. And your premise is very unique. You've raised questions, but if I was an agent, I'd request just to see how you pulled this off.

      But I'm here to vote. I hoped I wouldn't have to choose one of these two entries because I love them both. But, (big sigh that lasts at least 10 minutes) VICTORY TO SERIAL KILLER (for the unique premise).

  2. Wow. These are both new to me and amazing. Crap.

    Guilt by Association:

    Very intriguing, pot-boiling premise for a mystery. My dad is a reader of this kind of story and would love it. Well done. I like the sense of foreboding you've managed in the first 250.

    Girl and Her Serial Killer:

    Concept blows it out of the park. Excellent. And the interaction between Stella and her imaginary friend at the beginning is excellent. I'm a little concerned about your word count: it's awfully low, even for an NA.

    I hated having to judge these. I'd like to read them both, and am almost tempted to offer my CP services just so I can.


    I love this query, it's intriguing and makes me want to read the pages. I love mysteries and would read this.
    It sets up your main character well. The only problem I have with it is the smell of the cigar. Wouldn't she smell when she first walks in the room? Usually cigar smoke is very strong. Maybe find a way to switch this up. Maybe he doesn't light it right away and she notices the glowing tip of his cigar instead of the smell first. Just a thought.


    I'm confused about this query. What is Gideon? How can a voice in her head be a serial killer unless Stella is the one doing the killing? The trip to California also confused me and what is a trans-man? Do you mean transgendered? If so, use that term. Trans-man makes the best friend sound like a cyborg.

    I don't see how an imaginary friend or a voice can put their arms around a human. If Gideon is real, we need to see him. I get that you don't want to reveal too much in your first pages but it feels like this should be more of a fantasy if he's a demon or ghost and if he's a voice in her head she wouldn't be able to feel his arms around her.

    Because of the clarity of the query and first pages, VICTORY TO GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

    1. Typo in my first line. OOPS. It should read: shouldn't she be able to smell it...

  4. Guilt: I love mysteries and the premise here rocked for me.

    Serial Killer: A fascinating take on the genre. Unique is always good.

    Glad I'm not a judge.

  5. Ooh, entries I haven't read yet! And they're both so awesome!

    Guilt By Association: Intriguing premise. I think the final paragraph of the query turns into a bit of a synopsis, listing events, which detracts a bit from the awesome premise. Do we really need that blow-by-blow to understand the stakes?

    The 250 is great. Really great.

    A Girl and Her Serial Killer: I think the concept here is so cool and creepy. I love horror and unreliable narrators, so this is right up my alley. (I realize this has been labeled a thriller, but the query presents some horror elements). I wasn't quite as excited by the 250, though. I didn't get the sense of tension or dread that I was really hoping for--Giddeon was talking about beating someone to death, but something about it felt flippant enough to me that I almost didn't believe it. Maybe that was the point? But if I was supposed to be frightened of him, I'm not there yet (although I am slightly disturbed by the narrator).