Wednesday, June 1, 2016

QK Round 1: Partners-in-Magic vs. An Irritating Bacterium

Title: Spellbinders
Entry Nickname: Partners-in-Magic
Word count: 75K
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy


Twelve-year-old Sam doesn’t remember much about her life before age eight, when an accident knocked every trace of magic out of her memories. But when she heals a dying cat with her bare hands, the truth about Sam’s magical past begins to unfold. 

And the truth knocks everything topsy-turvy. Sam hasn’t always been a nerdy loner. She used to have a best friend: a snarky elf named Gabe. When Gabe appears, Sam can’t figure out why she ever liked this smirking, rude boy, but she is stuck with him. Spellbinders need to hold hands with a partner to perform most spells, and Gabe is Sam’s partner for life.

Before Sam can adjust to magic, memories, and long-lost best friends, the Spellbinder world becomes even more confusing, not to mention dangerous. Elf dummies are found hanging in trees, and Spellbinders are disappearing. When Sam’s oddball Aunt Jo teaches her a forbidden spell to “keep her safe,” Sam realizes the rumors are true: war is coming.

When unknown agents capture Aunt Jo, Sam and Gabe find themselves on the run with only a moldy, old magic book to guide them. They set out to rescue Aunt Jo, dodging kidnappers, ancient monsters, and the war sprouting up around them. Through their misadventures and Sam’s recovered memories, Sam and Gabe realize if they can save Aunt Jo, they could change the course of the war.

First 250:

Unlike most twelve-year-olds, Samantha Jacobson had a stalker. He was small, grey and white, and quite possibly the most irritating stray in cat history. He watched Sam every morning as she tried to tame her straggly mane of hair into a ponytail. He watched her every evening as she kissed a photograph of her mother goodnight. No matter where she was, what she was doing, or how many locked doors stood between them, the stalker cat would find his way to her side and stare. For obvious reasons, she called the cat Creep.

It was week 4 of Creep-gate, and Sam felt like a prisoner in her own house (complete with her own furry prison guard). It was also the last day of 6th grade, which meant her problem was about to get a lot worse. Sam would soon have to endure eight more hours of disapproving cat-stares each day.

While her teachers talked about summer assignments, Sam huddled over her notebook writing a long plea to Aunt Jo for help with her “Creep problem.” This was a desperate move and Sam knew it. Aunt Jo loved cats and had a particular soft spot for mangy strays like Creep. All the strays in upstate New York had free rein on their property. At least six of them had colonized the sprawling vegetable gardens outside Sam’s window. 

Sam fiddled with her glasses and bit her lip. Hopefully, Aunt Jo wasn’t kidding when she said she appreciated a well-reasoned argument.


Title: Picket Town
Entry Nickname: An Irritating Bacterium
Word count: 50,000
Genre: MG Science Fiction


Twelve-year-old Amanda is a vibrant spot in a boring town, thanks to her vivid imagination and adventuresome spirit. Too bad the only thing remotely interesting—and kind of creepy—about her town is the mysterious bacterium infecting kids, giving them cold-like symptoms and a ring of purple sores on their foreheads. Even more disturbing, none of the infected have returned from the hospital.

But while exploring the woods by her house with her wimpy friend Sam, Amanda discovers what appears to be a giant spaceship. The kids then spaz out as every grownup in town, including their parents, fly out of the ship Superman-style. They’re even more frightened when the school nurse carries the bacterium’s latest, unconscious victim into the ship.

Amanda and Sam put two and two together—aliens must have replaced all the adults in town and are testing the bacterium on the kids before using it for global domination. They race to alert the authorities in the next town, but the aliens are one step ahead. And now that Amanda and Sam are exhibiting signs of the debilitating bacterial infection, they’re running out of time not just to save themselves, but all of mankind.

First 250:

Mr. Garrison strode to the front of the class, placed his briefcase on his desk, and drilled everyone with a gaze way more piercing than usual. I shivered at my desk in the third row, a layer of ice sprouting on my spine.

I knew that look. He had news, all right. Big news. And I was pretty sure I already knew what it was.

“Good morning, everyone," he said in his calm, smooth voice. Kind of ironic considering how intense his face looked, though he always talked like that no matter what mood he was in. His tall, thin figure leaned over the class like a narrow tsunami about to crash on it.

“’Morning,” a couple kids said. Others just grunted.

Mr. Garrison adjusted his thick-framed glasses on his nose. “Before we begin, I would like to announce that Zack Goldman has come down with the purple circle, and, therefore, has been transferred to Sedgwick Hospital for treatment.”

Yep. Just as I’d thought. A series of chills rippled through my body, a numb feeling settling deep inside me. Coldness sifted into my stomach and threatened to spread to my other internal organs.

Not that Mr. Garrison’s news was all that much of a surprise, though. Zack had been coughing and sniffling ever since homeroom. And his symptoms kept getting worse. By lunch his face even looked like it belonged in a wax museum, his eyes all red and puffy.

Yeah, he’d definitely been coming down with something.


  1. Replies
    1. Partners-In-Magic:

      I like your MC from the query--healing a dying cat, there's a point for heroism, and having to get along with the sake of an annoying boy because he's her magical partner... nice mix of a real, relatable conflict that kids really have to deal with, and an interesting fantasy situation. Your query does raise a couple of questions... is Sam a Spellbinder? (I assume yes, but you might want to say so directly.) Is Aunt Jo? Is Gabe a Spellbinder too, or are Spellbinders only human? Who is the war against or between? I'd love to see at least some of that answered, even with one- or two-word additions.

      The first 250 are great... especially knowing that she saves the cat (who I assume is Creep) eventually, it's interesting to see that Sam doesn't like him at first. The voice here feels very true to the MG category and "sounds" like a 12-year-old, and I would be interested to read more!


      An Irritating Bacterium:

      This sounds like a great premise. The query is especially strong toward the end... stakes could not be clearer, and I love that your characters are facing both personal and worldwide stakes here. My biggest issue with the query is the first sentence. While it's true that a query shouldn't REALLY be from the character's POV, per se, you need to state the situation and problem AS THE CHARACTER SEES IT. Is Amanda actively concerned about the fact that she is bright and wonderful, and her town is boring? It sounds like you're praising your own character, and since we know nothing else about her, it feels like empty praise. Tell me what makes Amanda UNIQUE... the query inbox is full of awesome characters, but the agents want to know what makes your MC stand out from the others.

      I like your opening scene here. There's a very ominous tone to it, and you do a good job of setting up this illness as a threat, and showing that the kids are already aware of it and somewhat resigned to it... scary stuff! I did feel that the voice was a little old for MG. Your narrator reads more like a YA or even adult voice, and I'm not sure that younger readers are going to connect with this character as quickly as you'd hope. Maybe work a little more on choosing vocabulary and sentence structure that are a LITTLE more in that MG character range.


      While both entries look like a lot of fun, one concept and voice really stood out as likely to appeal to the target audience.

      Victory to.... PARTNERS-IN-MAGIC!

    2. Partners-In-Magic: Love your voice in your query! You’ve done a fantastic job setting up your character’s world! The ending fell weak, is there a way to make those stakes stronger and really jump off the page?

      Love your opening! The voice, the ease of introduction to Sam’s world, the comedy! All are excellent. It calmed down a bit near the end, but without reading more, I have no way of knowing if that’s a concern or not, either way, I want to keep reading!

      An Irritating Bacterium: Nice query and interesting concept. I felt like it was missing something. I’m not sure what, some level of connection to Amanda, I think. Perhaps more of her feelings and less of the plot might help bring this to the next level.

      In your 250, I felt there were too many references to coldness, or ice. Couple that with the tsunami reference and I was pulled out of the story. Switch up a mention or two to be more based in Amanda’s present world, and that will fix this issue. Other than that, this looks like a great start!

      Victory to Partners-In-Magic!

    3. Aww! Both of these sound so awesome!

      I’ll talk about the 250 first, because I thought they were basically perfect. I love this 12 year-old and think Sam’s perspective on Creep cat is so funny/poignant and I was taken with the idea of her sitting in class writing letters to her odd aunt. You totally hooked me. For me, the query just felt like a lot – sort of like it had everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. I personally felt that including the war might be one big element too many, particularly as you could sustain the query just with the magical coming of age story and the need to rescue Aunt Jo.

      An Irritating Bacterium
      This is such a cool idea! On the query, for me the first paragraph was a little rough. The description of the town and everyone in it being a boring, was a problem because I need to care about this town in order to root for Amanda to save it. It gets going in paragraphs two and three with an awesome, high concept that I really want to read more about. The first 250 - what they do so well is establish Amanda’s ordinary world while at the same time creating a tone that is a bit foreboding and spooky. I’m kind of with Mallory here in that some of the word choices feel YA. I think part of the issue is that you have a first person POV, and so I’m asking myself if middle graders think about chills rippling through their bodies, ice sprouting on their spines etc. But the last couple of paragraphs have a perfect, funny MG tone.

      Nice work all around but my vote goes to Partners-in-Magic.

    4. Partners-in-Magic

      I think the query does a great job of explaining the story, setting up both the character and stakes. I didn’t have a few questions though. What’s the world? Is it a world where magic is the norm or is it our world? I also wanted to know who they are going to war against? I love the opening line but I was also a bit confused about the cat. So there is a cat in her house? He isn’t just staring through the windows from the bushes (like all good stalkers do?) I also wanted a hint right away about why she thinks Aunt Jo can help with the problem.

      An Irritating Bacterium

      I love the idea of these two kids who have the save the world from aliens. Who needs Tom Cruise? My issues with the query were the tone/voice varied from sentence to sentence. For instance the way this line was written felt out of place: “The kids then spaz out as every grownup in town, including their parents, fly out of the ship Superman-style.” In terms of pages, I do agree that some of the word choice felt too grown for MG but I think that’s an easy fix. I do like how you drop us right into the story by setting up her world and purple circle.

      As has become way too common this round, I kept going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth on this…

      Victory: An Irritating Bacterium

    5. Partners-in-Magic

      Your first 250 were excellent! Great MG voice, lots of helpful details dropped in without being distracting (MC's appearance, age, etc.), and you've done a good job setting up the initial antagonism with the stray, which will lead to unlocking Sam's magic. I definitely want to read more! On the query, it reads to me more like a summary/synopsis, and the summary is a bit confusing. When exactly does Gabe reappear? If she can't remember anything from her magic days, does she remember him? Needs to be tightened up to remove extraneous detail and drill down on Sam, her internal and external conflicts, and the stakes to her.

      An Irritating Bacterium

      Interesting concept and the query does a good job setting out the basics while not going into too much detail. But, as other judges have noted, the voice is inconsistent. The "spaz" line and the image of flying parents threw me out of the ominous mood you had going and it was hard for me to get back there. Then in the first 250, while doing a great job again of setting the dire circumstances in what is otherwise an ordinary world, the word choices and voice feel more YA/Adult than MG and the descriptions/metaphors get a bit distracting.

      Victory to Partners-in-Magic!


      I fear you might have too much going on in your query. There’s a lot to take in between her having lost her magic, getting it back, Gabe, elves, Aunt Jo, Spellbinders, etc. I’d simplify – maybe keep it about saving family versus offering so many details about the world she has to do it in.?

      For the 250, while it’s written well, I’m not pulled in as much as I’d like to be. What do you think about switching the first and second paras? “It was week 4 of Creep-gate, and Samantha Jacobsen felt like a prisoner in her own house.” THAT is a great line, very strong, and very intriguing, and I’m thinking it’d be a great draw in! Then, from there you can describe the Creep-y situation. “For four weeks, the small, grey and white stray cat had watched her every move . . .” Then go into the details from the first para., and then you bring up the school.


      I like this idea a lot—I think your query is in need of a little more punch, maybe some interesting tidbits to liven it up a bit. You say Sam is wimpy, but maybe, “ . . . and the only person she has helping her is Sam, the kid who won’t even walk the low balance beam at school” (or whatever it is). Same thing with Amanda—a little more about her, her personality would go a long way into making us interested in the story.

      The 250 shows you can write so the voice shines through. I like it a lot. Watch for words you can cut, like “just” before “just grunted” and “on it” after “crash.” It will read crisper.

      These are two solid entries. With a little bit of revision, both will definitely be ready to unleash upon the world. For the purpose of this contest, I’m going with the query, 250, and premise that drew me in a bit more . . .


  2. Partners-In-Magic: Love the idea of having to hold hands and cast spells! Your query makes your story sounds very adventurous and exciting. The timeline in the 2nd paragraph of your query confused me a bit, and I had to read through it a few times to feel like I understood that Gabe re-appears *after* she remembers about magic, and isn't at all like she remembered? Also not sure why Gabe is her only choice; is he the only other spellbinder around? Overall very interesting and I would love to read the book!

    An Irritating Bacterium: I think your query letter does a great job setting the scene and the stakes. Feels very exciting; love that their own infection means Amanda and Sam are on a tight timeline. I also think your sample is really strong. My only suggestion is that the voice in your sample feels a little bit older than 12 to me, so maybe set up Amanda as being especially well-read in the query letter?

  3. Sams! Same everywhere! I love Sams! My puppy's name is Sam! Thus I love these entries.


    Partners-In-Magic: This entry made me giggle a couple times - the stalker cat about killed me (as my own stalker cat just came into my room to stare at me). I liked that it begins with a Frozen-ish scenario, turned on it's side. If I had to improve the query, I'd say: pare it down a bit. This isn't a synopsis, it's a query, and I feel like I know everything that happens in the story, and I found myself sort of waving my hand while reading it...c'mon, get to the stakes! Get to the stakes! Make sense? That said, the writing is totally solid, and I very much enjoyed the opening 250. Well done.

    Bacterium: Oh man! The old school sci-fi girl in me adores this, and it would have my vote just because of that clearly subjective fact! I LOVE old sci-fi movies, and this reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Tommyknockers meets Animorphs. Very fun trope that you seem to be using in a new way. To nitpick: I don't love when people describe characters in such plain ways. The teacher is tall/thin? Yeah. You can do better. The comparison to a tsunami is odd, and yeah. I know you can do better. :D

    Seriously, though - very fun to read both of these! Good luck!

  4. Partners in Magic

    Query: Your stakes are clear. I’m finding myself wishing for a bit more of *Sam’s* voice, though, to be honest. And the query feels a bit long. Is there anyway to condense and focus?
    Questions I feel like should have been answered in the query: what world is this—a totally made up one or an alternate Earth? Who could be threatening the elves and Spellbinders—I mean they gotta have some natural enemies at the least. Why does she *have* to work with Gabe? Are there no other elves?

    Omg “Creep-gate”! I love it!

    An Irritating Bacterium

    Query: I kind of wish you’d use the town name just because the word repetition throughout is irksome. “The kids then spaz out” made me read a few times over, I wasn’t sure you meant all the kids in town or just Amanda and Sam. Lost the comma after ‘latest’. Honestly, not sure that 2+2=world domination, I was a bit confused as to how they reached that conclusion. Aside from that one part, the whole last paragraph is great! Your stakes make me wanna read on!

    “like a narrow tsunami” looove this
    I think you should capitalize the name, even slang term, of the sickness ~The Purple Circle

  5. Partners-in-Magic: Wow, amazing query! Great job. First 250: In the second paragraph, instead of ‘Sam would soon…”, I think you can change it to: ‘She would soon.” Great voice in the 250, but instead of telling us about the cat, perhaps you could open with a scene that shows the cat hanging around her.

    An Irritating Bacterium: A clear and concise query and I love the premise! First 250: A great setup, but I do agree that you can tone down the references to ice and coldness. I would definitely keep reading this!

    Good luck to both of you!

  6. Partners-In-Magic: I love how we can see the hook right away in the first paragraph of the query, but then we learn more about Sam & delve deeper into the story in the second paragraph. I think you might be able to remove the “topsy-turvy” sentence, since what comes after shows this topsy-turvy-ness anyway. I think your query does a good job of laying out the various conflicts and plot. Your query really leaves me wondering who Aunt Jo is. I’m not sure if you need to do this, but it might be helpful to include a word or two that gives us a hint of her importance. Right now, we just see her as an oddball aunt. Why would someone want to kidnap her and how could saving her change the course of the war? As for your first 250, I think you did a terrific job of setting up the story and giving the reader of sense of who your character is: her age, how she looks, where she lives—so important in making the reader want to know more. In reading the first paragraph, I thought maybe she had her stalker for her whole life, but then in paragraph two, we see it’s only been for 4 weeks, so maybe incorporate how new this stalking is right from the start. Overall, I think you did a really great job here & I’d love to read more!

    An Irritating Bacterium: This is a really interesting concept. I love how kids become superheroes who have the power to save the universe. I think kids would really be interested in this story. I also love how your character’s voice shines throughout your query & first 250. The only comment I can make on your first 250 would be to maybe have something happen that’s more dramatic than Mr. Garrison’s gaze. Maybe an action that sends chills that’s more than just a look. (I’m really reaching here for something to critique, by the way). Overall, I think the first 250 really draws the reader in immediately and sets us up for what’s to come. (I especially love how you mention that Zack had come down with something—not a common cold). Really well done!

    Great job, writers! It would be hard to choose between the two of you! Best of luck!

  7. MAGIC: I like fantasy and this one seems interesting. I was a bit confused at the beginning of the query though. Maybe start with the reason why Sam is being followed? Your first 250 is also interesting but does it start in the right place? I'm not sure it does.
    BACTERIUM: Love this premise and that adults are flying out of the spaceship "Superman style." The query is strong but start your story with the spaceship not in school. Good job, both of you!

  8. Partners in Magic: Query: I love your concept and query. it sounds like a fun novel. 250: As much as I loved your concept and query, the pages were even better. I love the cat and only from the query do I think it is her little elf partner stalking her. I think your voice is spot on and I would love to read on.

    Bacterium: Query: I said this in another post, I don't like when the stakes are to save mankind or the human race. It is too broad. I want something I can root for that is more realistic. How come only middle-grade kids can save mankind when all the brilliant scientist in the world can't? 250: I think your first 250 words are good. You have great descriptions, maybe the best describing the situation that I have read so far and I like how they talk about the purple circles so nonchalantly. (Side note: If purple circles was going around my kid's school, I would home school.)

    Good luck to both of you.

  9. Sorry if I repeat other's comments. I didn't read them first because I did not want to be influenced.

    Partners in Magic
    Q: Sounds like a fun adventure with lots of room for lightness because of the snarky sidekick. I was confused on term Spellbinder. Are they both spellbinders? Is she the spellbinder, he just an elf? Might be good to be a bit more clear. I've been reading LOTS of lately. She suggests that a query should only entice, not give too much away. I wondered how far into the book this query letter takes us? Personally, I'd more details on fewer plot elements. As long as you continue to end with the stakes.
    250: Love these pages. I'm such a cat lover, it was fun to see someone who wants nothing to do with the cat. I didn't think phrase "For obvious reasons" was needed. And "creep-gate" made me wonder what time period this was set in. Present day, I'm guessing from that phrase... I would definitely keep reading. I'm curious to meet Gabe. (And I hope that mangy cats hangs around and causes trouble ;-)

    Irritating Bacterium
    Q: Cool plot. The query set up the story well. I did notice the voice shifted a few times. Sometimes it sounds very adult, "None of the infected have returned home" vs. a very kid sounding "the kids spaz out". I'd suggest going with one or the other. I also wondered at the phrase "kinda creepy". Id say a bacteria that puts kids in the hospital never to be seen again is very creepy. The title seems understated too. Irritating? A fly is irritating in my mind. This bacteria is downright deadly.
    250: Lots of great intrigue built into the first page. I would definitely turn to the next page in your book!
    A few times, the images pulled me away from the story. Does ice sprout? Like a narrow tsunami? The narrow stopped me, made me think what would a narrow tsunami look like. A column of water? Anyway it pulled me away from your story. You might be able to just remove the word narrow? Perhaps you could pare down some descriptions. "A series of chills rippled through my body, a numb feeling settling deep inside me. Coldness sifted into my stomach and threatened to spread to my other internal organs." I'm not sure we need all three. Maybe pick one and make it really vivid? But these are just picky things. It was a really intriguing first page. I want to know what happens next.

    Don't know how the judges will choose. Both excellent! Good luck.

  10. Partners-in-Magic

    Way to hook me early in the query! And it kept my interest throughout. Well done! I am wondering though how Sam and Gabe feel toward one another and how it changes through the course of the story. Hah! "Creep." Cute. I believe you ought to spell out the number "4". 6th grade spelling out may be a judgement call. Oh, they're in upstate New York? Billing this as "fantasy" made me think otherwordly, not a place I've been to. I'd like to get a sense of how common magic users and elves are then, because the query as written suggested to me they're "normal".

    An Irritating Bacterium

    There is some great voice right from the get-go in the query, which makes "debilitating bacterial infection" stand out as something a twelve-year old wouldn't say. And what symptoms are they experiencing? Those would provide some interesting challenges to overcome. "about to crash on it" Perhaps "crash ashore"? Unless the classroom is at sea level, it would be difficult for a tsunami to crash on it! "threatened to spread to my other internal organs" Not sure a twelve-year old would use verbiage like this, but might talk about their guts knotting up. When did Zach start experiencing symptoms? The day before? I gathered such given the teacher addresses the class with "good morning", suggesting the school day was starting. Would have been nice to know for sure, though.