Sunday, June 21, 2015


Entry Nickname: Life Sucks—I’m Stuck in Podunk
Title: Middle of Knowhere
Word count: 70K
Genre: YA Contemporary


Truck-driving, tobacco-chewing rednecks. That’s what seventeen-year-old Hailey Nelson pictures when her dad decides to up and relocate their family from vibrant Chicago to the middle of God-Knows-Where. She plans to hate this small, rural three-stoplight town. But what she doesn’t anticipate is falling in love with a Pepto-Bismol colored antiques store and the quirky woman who runs it. A woman who shows her more love and affection than Hailey's always absent, TV journalist mother.

Misery does love company, and when Hailey finds out her parents are getting divorced, anti-social Ryker Evans—a local teen outcast and bearer of hideous posture—is surprisingly supportive and understanding. Probably because his family is even more messed up than hers. When Hailey gets a glimpse of what Ryker could look like with a little TLC, Project Ryker is on. Only she doesn’t expect Ryker to be hot with a capital “H.” Or sweet and fun, writing her songs and taking her dumpster diving for donuts. Now she has more to worry about than her parents’ divorce and her mother’s abandonment. She has her own stupid feelings for Ryker to work through too.

But falling for Ryker could present a whole new set of problems. Because ever since his mother took her own life, Ryker has blamed himself. And if Hailey tries to find out the truth of what happened that day, she could lose him forever.

First 250:

This is what hell looks like.

I stare out the window of Dad’s Ford Explorer. Along the curvy road, dilapidated double-wide trailers that look like they belong in some independent film version of a horror flick, litter the sparse lawns. An old couch, unused tires, and even a rust-stained toilet lay strewn next to one particularly neglected trailer.

“Please tell me no one lives there,” I mutter.

Dad glances in my direction, his mouth set in a firm, disapproving line. “Now, Hailey, try to remember that these people aren’t as fortunate as you and I.” His eyes grind into me, like a pestle trying to turn me into bits of shame. “They do the best they can.”

I sigh and turn back to the window as another trailer comes into view, this one even more unkempt. Amazingly enough, one of the occupants is sitting on the sagging porch steps blowing a cloud of smoke into the humid summer air. The man is grease personified. Like if someone wrung him out, they’d have an entire vat of frying oil. I wrinkle my nose and look down when I make eye contact with him. Suddenly, my nails are desperate for attention.

“How long until Mom joins us?” I ask, digging at one particularly bothersome cuticle.

Mom’s been gone for weeks now. As a broadcast journalist, she jet sets around the world while Dad acts as homemaker extraordinaire. Not that I’m knocking my dad’s skills. He can make a mean BLT.


Entry Nickname: Forget You, Stalin, We're Outta Here
Title: Night Witch
Word Count: 115,000
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction


While the summer sun shines down in 1941, the Nazi war machine quickly swallows up vast areas of the Soviet Union, and millions of her men. Nadya Vasiltseva’s brother is one of them. Nadya refuses to cave to grief, and instead joins the elite “Night Witches”, an air regiment made up almost entirely of women, as a navigator. For the next four years, coping with the devastating losses of her comrades, two things keep her alive: her skills in the air, and her love for Nikolai, factory worker turned front-line soldier.

Nadya is married – but her husband is Peter, a functionary in Stalin’s Communist Party. Deemed “too important” by the government to risk at the front line, he spends the war years far away from any danger. As Nadya, Nikolai and countless others throw their lives into driving the Nazis back to the Rhine, Peter is anonymously – falsely – denouncing his fellow Soviets to the secret police, sending an untold number to the firing squads.

When Nadya finds out, it is clear what Peter would do to Nikolai, and to her, in retaliation for their affair. Their service to the Motherland offers no protection. In fact, now they’re targets of Stalin’s twisted paranoia: that the evil capitalist West has brainwashed all veterans who fought in Germany. Having escaped Peter for good, Nadya and her new husband Nikolai now battle terror, oppression and famine. If they stay in the Soviet Union, they’ll starve. But if they try to leave, they too could face the firing squad…along with their two children.    

First 250 Words:  
Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. September 1940

"I’m terribly sorry, Comrade. I seem to have two left feet today.”

I looked into the face of a tall man wearing a beige overcoat, who was trying to jostle his way to a place near a pole on the metro. The expression on his face was wide-eyed contrition. Very different from the usual response in this sort of situation, which was “Get out of my way, you clumsy oaf,” with ear-burning cursing that only Russians are immune to.

I tucked my feet under my seat so that he could move past without stepping on me again, and smiled at him as he stuffed himself between two men. Both of their doughy faces (Party men, surely, to be that well-fed) melted into looks of bitter resentment aimed at him. The smell of unwashed body contrasted sharply with the elegant station platform I saw out the window, lit with sparkling chandeliers. It was a sight I saw every afternoon on my way home from the flight navigation school where I took classes. It barely registered amidst my floating thoughts about the day’s occurrences, the loveless marriage I was stuck in, and which of my fellow metro riders were listening to conversations, compiling denunciations for the secret police while pretending to read Pravda.

I caught the eye of the tall man again. He was quite handsome, in his clean and pressed coat and tie; I couldn’t reconcile the body-odour stink with him. When he returned my smile, I noticed his eyes. 


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

    1. This one is so tough, because we're got some pretty different books. And at the end of the day, one is a genre I read and the other isn't. (I know! I'm sorry!!)

      I really love the changes to STUCK IN PODUNK's query. I've seen the entry twice, and the improvement is steady. Love the voice in the first 250, and I'd absolutely keep reading this.


      Wow. I've actually skipped this entry before because I'm not really into historical fiction set in WWII. But this query is fantastic. If I were an agent, I'd request in a heartbeat.

      Each of your paragraphs on the first page starts with "I". You've also got some filtering like "I noticed," "I looked," etc. There are some "that"s which also would be better removed. Cutting that stuff on the main page lets you get to the action sooner. That makes me worry that the entire novel isn't as polished as it needs to be.

      Victory to LIFE SUCKS - I'M SUCK IN PODUNK.

    2. LIFE SUCKS; I’M STUCK IN PODUNK – Holy voice batman. I love the premise on this so much, but I feel like you snuck the stakes in on your query just under the wire. Up until that last sentence, I couldn’t picture any stakes other than her own heartbreak. The second paragraph sets up why Hailey’s falling for Ryker, but not at all why it’s a problem. And while you’ve hinted at Ryker having family issues, the mom’s suicide comes out of left field. It isn’t at all clear why Hailey would lose Ryker by digging into his history, or if that’s the case, why she’s compelled to dig. So for me, the stakes are a little loose on this still, but the writing is engaging and fun. And I’m a sucker for a good Not to Hot makeover romance.

      The 250 is heavy on exposition and lean on inciting incident. I enjoyed the descriptions from your MC’s POV though. Your writing pulls me straight through.

      FORGET YOU STALIN, WE’RE OUT OF HERE – This is an impressive, ambitious story. Your query is tight, and the stakes are abundantly clear. Your writing in your 250 is elegant and lovely, but it’s all interior to your MC and I’m not quite sure where you’re going with it. Like with your competition, it feels more expository than inciting. Maybe the man who entered the subway is Nikolai? It feels like a very quiet place to start your story which promises so much intrigue and action.

      I don’t even want to vote on this because both are incredibly well done, and I commend you both on your beautiful writing. This is coming down to subjectivity and what I’d more likely pick up to read based on my own interests (totally unfair I know).


    3. PODUNK:

      Great voice in the query. The stakes seem buried because if it's about Ryker's history and why his mother committed suicide, this needs to be brought in sooner.

      Good strong writing but be careful with words like I sighed. With a sigh...


      This has a very Doctor Zhivago feel to it and I love Russian stories. The only part that confused me was Nadya's married to Peter but falls in love with Nikolai. The sentence is awkward. Is the POV Nadya's? If it is, then how would she know her husband is in the secret police?

      Love the writing and the setting. You captured the atmosphere.

      Since I love anything Russian and the writing was so lovely: VICTORY TO: FORGET YOU STALIN, WE'RE OUT OF HERE

    4. This is a great bout: two very strong entries with hilarious nicknames.

      Life Sucks—I’m Stuck in Podunk has an outstanding query that establishes voice and gives us just enough story to hook us. I'm a bit confused why the MC takes on Project Ryker without realizing his charms, but I'm intrigued enough by the setup to want to read the rest.

      Forget You, Stalin, We're Outta Here offers a fascinating perspective on an era that helped define the world of today. I've heard "night witches" mentioned a few times in recent months and think that's a great backdrop for this novel. Yet the scope of the story as presented here is fairly broad: I know I don't have to worry about the MC surviving the war or getting away from the husband, which deflates a bit of the tension. Given the solid word count, I wonder if there are two books here instead of one.

      I think the queries are well-matched, so it comes down to the first 250 for me. I think that "Life Sucks—I’m Stuck in Podunk" has an edge, perhaps due to a better balance of dialogue and exposition to get the story going.

      VICTORY TO: Life Sucks—I’m Stuck in Podunk

    5. Errrrrghhh... Apples and oranges here.

      There's a lot of growth in Stuck in Podunk's query versus round one, where I confess I wasn't really it's biggest fan. However, it might be good to consider how many of your sentences in this query are fragments (5) and how many start with And, Because, and other conjunctive terms (6). I'm a big fan of artful and strategic use of natural English inflection in writing, but this is enough that it could stand out in the wrong way. If I were you, I would tone that down a bit and show a few more complete, standard sentences. It's not as if you have no other way to convey voice, given the strength of your writing overall.

      Forget You, Stalin has a solid query, but I found myself less than engaged in the first 250. I'm not sure I would read on, and that's not a criticism of the writing quality. It's only a statement of taste.


    6. Dr. T.J. EckleburgJune 22, 2015 at 8:18 PM

      Stuck in Podunk:

      Great query, nice voice! I get a really good sense of the characters and setting from this. The problem is that I don't get any sense of conflict. The last paragraph you finally hint at some conflict with her boyfriend's past, but it's too little, too late for me. So you really need to work on bringing conflict into the body of the query. Also, the transition "misery does love company" doesn't work, IMHO, because you just got done telling us how much she loves the antiques and the quirky lady. Try to find a better start to paragraph two.

      First 250 is good. Not a lot happening, but you do a great job giving us some setting, voice, and context. And since they're in the car, I'm assuming they're arriving at the new town, so I like that you're getting right into the move.

      Forget You Stalin:

      Nice query. Your mention of Night Witches and being an air navigator interested me from the get go. The first hiccup was when you mention her love of Nicolai...and then turned around and said she was married to someone else. It was strange, because we have no context for why she loves one man, but is married to another. So that threw me a bit.

      The third paragraph bugged me because it felt like you were throwing multiple conflicts on top of each other. First, the threat of Peter going after Nadya & Nicolai for their affair. Then the threat of Stalin's paranoia. (Not sure how that manifests itself exactly. Is he actively imprisoning/disappearing people who fought in Germany?) Then vague threats of terror, oppression, famine. Also, turning around and then saying they escaped Peter after posing him as a threat is anticlimactic, and doesn't work well.

      Ultimately, the problem is that there are so many irons in the fire, I'm not entirely sure what your main story is. After the first paragraph, I thought it was about being a Night Witch. After the second, I thought it was more of a political spy/star-crossed lovers thriller type. The third implies a survival story. So I think you need to determine what the main story is, and really focus on that without bogging the query down with too many side plots.

      First 250 is fine. There's nothing wrong with it; however, I'm not particularly compelled by it either. I do get the sense that something significant will happen with her and the man very soon, so that's good.

      This is a tough one, as these two are so different. I think the voice is stronger in the first one, though, which is really important when querying, so I'm giving VICTORY to STUCK IN PODUNK.

    7. I love the improvements on both entries. As far as I'm concerned, you are both winners for that alone. Your entries are in really, really good shape.

      That said, I still think there is a little work that can be done to make the Night Witch query a little more streamlined and as compelling as the 250.

      So for the fabulous voice, I have to say...


    8. Life Sucks—I’m Stuck in Podunk:

      I love the voice in your query (still a big fan of the Pepto-Bismol colored antiques store) and would jump right into the pages. Great changes, BTW.

      The first 250: Great imagery. I’d keep reading.

      Forget You, Stalin, We're Outta Here:

      This is not the type of book I usually gravitate toward, but I was intrigued. However, there’s a lot going on in this query. Not sure if that will help or hurt you.

      First 250: Nothing against your writing, I just wasn’t pulled in. Subjectivity.

      Victory goes to: LIFE SUCKS

    9. Such wonderful improvements to each of these queries! You guys have each done a great job of taking feedback, and you will find your receptiveness to criticism a valuable trait when you are each agented and signed with a publisher. :-)

      But enough of the flattery. Time for the hard part. I liked both of these queries, but I found the writing in Podunk more compelling. It's entirely subjective but it simply comes to that.

      Victory to: STUCK IN PODUNK

  2. Podunk:
    The query is beautiful. I love how clearly it sets up the characters, the setting, the conflict. The first 250 gets across the voice: clear, wryly funny, and a little snarky.

    The query sets it up, but is a little long. I had to read it a couple of times. I'd try to cut a little out.

    Again. Purely subjective. So much of book choice is, and even though I knew that when I was querying, it didn't make it any easier. It's never easier. But because I have to choose,

  3. Podunk:
    Query: Good

    250: I don’t know why it’s amazing that someone is sitting outside of their house. Is it heat, is she shocked someone really lives there?

    Query: Haven’t read this one before—good!

    250: Also good.

  4. Podunk: The voice is strong. Love the first line of the 250. At this stage, I am unsure what to say as both seem strong. The moved from the city to the country trope has been used a lot but you've given it its own twist.

    Stalin: The query and 250 are good. At this stage it's all preferences. I don't read historical so I'm more drawn to Podunk.

  5. Okay, I'm low-key upset because you guys are some of my favorite entries. :( You both better get published.

    Query: I definitely feel the more concise version of the query, but I'm also really happy that said some of my favorite phrases like "bearer of bad posture" and the donut dumpster diving. Everything I've always loved about both the query and the 250 are still here - really fun elements pulled together, a nice, voice-y narrator, and a bit of intrigue.

    Query: I definitely feel like the clarity has improved in the query.
    250: I loove the changes you made to the 250. I feel like it really sets up the setting as its own character while still establishing the main characters, and that's awesome. But, you still maintained the voice and great writing, so solid work.

    Seriously, the best of luck to you both!

  6. PODUNK: Your query is looking great! I’ve commented before that I think you could cut a few words from the query by simplifying ” She plans to hate this small, rural three-stoplight town” to just “She plans to hate this three-stoplight town” since you’ve already made a couple of references to it. I love that they go dumpster diving – seems like a fun story! I also like your first 250 but still think you could strengthen the visual imagery in the first full paragraph; a couch and tires in the front yard is pretty standard fare. I found her reactions to what she sees very honest, and I love your description of the dad’s stare: “His eyes grind into me, like a pestle trying to turn me into bits of shame.” Great job!

    STALIN: Wow! You’ve done a wonderful job cleaning up the query. It reads so smoothly and I understand the stakes much better now. Your first 250 are great as well! Nice job adding in some visual details. You may have already done this, but if not you may want to check that the “two left feet” line is something a Russian would say. Also, when you said “The smell of unwashed body contrasted sharply” I didn’t realize until the next paragraph that you’re referring to the man who stepped on her feet. It’d be interesting for her to muse as to why he smells; is it related to a particular job? Does it bring anything up for her, remind her of anyone else? Is she repulsed by it or intrigued?

  7. PODUNK:
    Great query. Love the bit about dumpster-diving and your vivid, juicy descriptions. Well-done. The stakes are fantastic. Not to mention that the “bearer of bad posture” reminds me of Jordan Catalano from My So Called Life. Lol
    The voice in your 250 words is perfect, nothing to add here.

    Love your new opening. It creates dark, ominous mood, foreshadowing ugly things to come. A few notes: I’d cut “coping with the devastating losses of her comrades” in the last sentence of your first paragraph and add “forbidden” before “love.” For the next four years two things keep her alive: her skills in the air, and her forbidden love for Nikolai, factory worker turned front-line soldier.
    Also, I’d tweak the first sentence in your second paragraph: Nadya is married – but her husband Peter is a functionary in Stalin’s Communist Party and an informer.
    250: Love it. I thought it might be more dramatic if he actually stomped on her toes, but I’m so intrigued by the setup (and compelled by your lovely writing), I’d keep reading. Great job!

    Best of luck!!