Wednesday, June 15, 2016

QK Round 2: Croissants Kill! vs. The Ghost and Ms. Clair

Title: Coded For Murder
Entry nickname: Croissants kill!
Word Count: 73,000
Genre: Adult Mystery


The body hangs from an oak by the frigid mile-wide expanse of the St. Lawrence River. Where the face should be, the wind whips over exposed, acid-etched bone. And a noose of thick rope coils tightly over a red silk tie.

Chief Inspector Derek James of the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal survived the storm at sea that took his wife and infant son, leaving him with a hand that doesn’t work, and a personality that can withstand a hurricane.

Within hours, James has ID’d the faceless victim as a tech startup executive. But with a twelve-year-old as a witness, and CEO Holly, a gay black woman driven to sell the startup, sabotaging his case, James is no closer to finding the murderer. Holly knows what's going on, but she won't willingly confide in him.

Things go from bad to worse. When his car is bombed, James realizes his boss is trying to kill him. Maybe he shouldn’t have slept with his boss’s mistress, but there’s another reason for the attack, best kept under wraps. For now.

Suspects surround James, all of them liars, and one of them the masked assailant who strung up the body from the tree.

With two more attacks within twenty-four hours, he must choose – going by the book, or resorting to coercion – to unearth the killer, to save his twelve-year-old witness, to expose a conspiracy coded for murder.

First 250:

April 2, 6:50 am

Strung up by the river? Without a face?”

Chief Inspector Derek James of the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal spoke more to himself than to the team. He tucked his cold hands into his pockets and looked up. A rope looped over the middle branch of an oak in the urban beach park. Above him hung a body with an exposed skull, framed by sparse hair on top, ears on either side, and a wrinkly neck puckered in a noose. The face was stripped to the bone with eroded teeth set in a perpetual grin as if the skull were enjoying a joke at everyone’s expense.

James’s gut tightened, but he stilled the reaction in an instant, regaining his calm. What did it matter how any of us went?

I’m sure we’re thinking the same thing.” Forensic Pathologist John Seymour’s eyes were bright and keen. “What could this poor guy have done to deserve this?”

James rubbed the short stubble on his jaw. Dawn cast a blue light on the water and snow. It was amazing how the usually peaceful beach park took on a menacing air: the St. Lawrence River choppier than usual, swirls of sand and snow rolling like tumbleweeds, the sky heavy and low. But a children’s playground lay behind the hanging body, and its red swings, bright yellow slide, and empty wading pool offered a marked contrast to the swaying corpse.

What can you tell me, Doctor?”


Title: Donns Hill
Entry NicknameThe Ghost and Ms. Clair
Word count: 83K
Genre: Paranormal Mystery


Mackenzie Clair knew her life would change when her father died, but she wasn’t expecting the grief to give her the ability to talk to the dead, or to end up chasing a murderer through the most haunted town in America.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mac never really figured out what to do with herself. She sleepwalks through her dull desk job every day, tries not to aggravate her controlling boyfriend every night, and relies on her father and their shared love of books and music to hang on to her sanity. When Mac loses her father to cancer and her boyfriend to infidelity all in the same week, she embarks on a mission to reclaim some joy. She abandons the city life and relocates to the place where she’d been happiest in her youth: Donn’s Hill, a small town in Middle America that’s best known for an abundance of paranormal activity, especially the séances at its annual Afterlife Festival.

Mac doesn’t get much time to acclimate to small-town living before an angry poltergeist begins to stalk her, forcing her to quickly come to terms with her newly discovered psychic powers. With the help of the ghost-hunting crew of the nationally televised show Soul Searchers and a spirited tortoiseshell cat named Striker, Mac becomes bold enough to do things she never imagined possible: investigate hauntings, banish poltergeists,and generally feel happy again.

Unfortunately, in the midst of her journey of self-discovery, someone is killing off the town’s residents. Death has followed Mac to Donn’s Hill, and in the weeks leading to the Afterlife Festival, corpses are piling up. Harassed by the ghost of a murdered man, Mac must make a choice: leave town for her own safety, or stay anduse her abilities to identify the killer before she winds up joining the ranks of the spirits who wander the town.

First 250:

Someone was sitting on my bed.

I’d awoken to the thin mattress shifting beneath me when his weight pressed down near my right side. My body wanted to roll toward that lower point, but I held myself in place, not wanting to touch him. He—and I was sure it was a “he,” though I couldn’t say why—smelled foul, like rotting garbage, but hadn’t harmed me. Yet. Too frightened to scream and risk propelling my intruder into motion, I held my breath and strained my ears to hear his breathing.

I heard nothing but the hum of a car passing on the highway.

Questions pinged around inside my skull and crashed into each other. What’s going on? Is he holding his breath too? Are we locked in some kind of silent contest, the loser being the one who passes out? How did he get past the locks?

And the most pressing questions of all, the ones I’d need to move to answer: Who is he? What does he want from me?

It couldn’t be anything good. People who want to do good things usually knock.

Taking a chance, I opened one eye a tiny bit, creating a narrow slit between my eyelids. The motel room was pitch-black, thanks to the ancient heavy curtains and my having unplugged the digital alarm clock. Keeping my arm under the covers, I crept my left hand toward the nightstand.

Slowly, I told myself. Don’t make a sound.

Faster! my lungs screamed at me.


  1. Croissants Kill: I would strongly suggest nixing the first paragraph of your query; it threw me, and I thought the "Chief Inspector Derek James" paragraph is a much stronger lead-in. I was also a bit thrown and confused as to what CEO Holly's race or sexual orientation has to do with her wanting to sabotage the Chief Inspector's case; is that information really pertinent to your query or to her motive? I also felt that James came across as a bit unsympathetic here for some reason--try adding more of his voice to the query, or perhaps share a little more about his tragic family background (the storm at sea was intriguing!) and how that motivates him throughout the story. I also think the stakes could be clarified.

    Your first 250 were great, and so eerie! I found myself wanting to read on. My one suggestion, and this is preference, is to remove the opening line of dialogue and instead just offer us a jarring description of the body right off the bat--kind of like what you were attempting in the query, though I think it would fit much better on your first page! You already do have some description, so move it up and remove the dialogue opening. Again, that's totally subjective advice though!

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair: Great hook in your query! You had me at 'ability to talk to the dead' and 'most haunted town in America.'

    I did have a few questions as I read the query though, which may be some things to address in revision: how does Mac come by these psychic powers? Also, was Donn's Hill where she spent her childhood, or a vacation spot--I wanted a little more on its significance to her. Lastly, I think you could spend a little less time on her 'boring desk job' and former life before moving to Donn's Hill, as that's where your query gets super interesting! Just trim a bit prior to that, is all I'm suggesting!

    Your first 250 words are awesome, and sing with tension. My one nitpick for you there is that I'm not a fan of having a ton of questions in a first-person narrative. Totally subjective, but I'd love you to reword that paragraph with all the questions in it.

    Victory to... THE GHOST AND MS. CLAIR!

  2. Croissants Kill!: I confess I found the first half of your query very hard to follow, partly because it isn't clear that the first paragraph describing the murder victim's body and the second describing the MC are causally or narratively connected. The introduction of secondary characters is awkward, as the character called "CEO Holly" is treated as though "CEO" is her first name, and Holly her surname, and the truth is, I'm not even sure what part of her name "Holly" is. She's gay and she's black... does this matter? Its inclusion here seems be to either for the purpose of Other-izing her ("she's a minority! she's different! she has motives!"), which is potentially offensive, or for the purpose of hitting a diversity scoreboard, which is also problematic. I was very uncomfortable with a treatment of the character that treats these factors as more important than giving me her proper name. If there isn't a reason these pieces of her identity matter to the plot, there's no actual need to highlight them in the query. Just let them be something the text itself will reveal when we meet her, and treat her like all the rest of your cast. The first page has the "look" and feel readers associate with a noir-style mystery, in terms of tone and narrative interiority, but since it's not showing me anything that expands upon the query, it feels like a lost opportunity to build up something more than the shocking visual you already used at the start of that document.

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair: The query wasn't what grabbed me here. It was the first page, which took the idea of "character who can connect to the dead" and treated it in a much more personal, visceral way than the query itself. did. I went from being a little 'meh' on the premise, which feels familiar within the paranormal genre, to excited by the style and voice of the writing. Consider the value of paring down the query so that it tries to capture fewer explicit events (this happens, then this happens, then this, then...) and chooses only those that turn the plot MOST so you can inject the atmosphere of your writing into the query itself and make an agent perk up at first read.

    Victory to The Ghost and Ms. Clair!

  3. Croissants kill!

    While the overall premise feels solid, I think the query could be tightened and streamlined considerably. The current opening paragraph seems more like the opening to the actual book, not a query. Would suggest cutting. The second paragraph, on the other hand, is a great opener. I would then suggest having a paragraph that outlines the first murder and the obstacles James encounters, and then a third paragraph upping the stakes and hooking the reader. And if the young witness is at risk, I would mention it earlier. Also, I would suggest eliminating cliché phrases (“Things go from bad to worse.”) and being too coy with details (there’s another reason for the attack, best kept under wraps).

    First 250 Words:
    A fairly standard mystery opening, it flows well for the most part. Would suggest a stronger first line, as the current one feels too unnatural as dialogue and thus like it’s trying too hard to shock the reader. I also think the rest of the dialogue could be stronger (for example, cutting lines like “I’m sure we’re thinking the same thing.” which is unnecessary). Also, cut down on the “telling” lines (like “It was amazing how the usually peaceful beach park took on a menacing air”) and just show us. I’m also not getting a strong sense of voice, which tends to be key for gripping mystery stories.

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    This one definitely intrigues me. I would suggest it needs tightening (by at least 250 words, mostly from the first and second paragraph since her loss seems mostly like a springboard into he rest of the story and so doesn’t require great detail in the query), and the stakes need to be clearer. It talks about a poltergeist stalking Mac, but it’s not clear she’s in actual danger or that leaving will solve her problem. We need to know these things for the hook to have its full impact. Also, how exactly did she suddenly acquire these powers?

    First 250 Words:
    I enjoyed this 250, although I think it would raise the stakes to know what she’s reaching for. The light? A gun? I also think there’s a missed opportunity in the opening line (Someone was sitting on my bed). “Someone” isn’t necessarily bad. “A stranger” or “An intruder,” however, would immediately set off alarm bells for the reader. Just a thought.

    On the basis of a more focused query and a more gripping 250 (with a stronger voice), I’m giving victory to THE GHOST AND MS. CLAIR!

  4. For the Ghost and Mrs Clair, the Martian asked I edit this to say. I would suggest it needs tightening (by at least 50 words, mostly....


    I love a police procedural, and yours sounds like one with lots of complexities and plot twists. The first paragarph of your query confused me, as it sounded like a quote from the MS. I'd recommend starting out with the detective and maybe adding a few of the details of the corpse to the second or third paragraph. I also found some vague references in the query: “another reason for the attack”; “sabotaging his case”; “from bad to worse”. I think a few more details would pique my interest even more.

    Your 250 sets the stage beautifully, and the contrast between the body and the playground gives me chills. Well done!


    Your 250 also are extremely well done. The silence, the smell, her anxiety – all believable and creating such tension I can feel it.

    I'm not getting the same sense of tension from the query, though the last 2 sentences pack a nice punch. Perhaps you could eliminate some of the details about her past life and concentrate more on her current situation, including how she discovers her psychic powers and what about them makes her so happy.

  6. The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    Good ‘hooky’ opening to the query. It’s a picky point, but suggest trimming out ‘the’ from ‘she wasn’t expecting (the) grief to give her…’ Things get a bit bogged down in the second paragraph. Suggest trimming it back. You need to pack a lot into a small amount of space in a query. I think you could cut the lines about her dull job and her boyfriend and go right to her decision to embark on a mission after her father’s death. Strong closing line.

    In the first 250, I liked the way you used the MC’s senses – feeling the weight on the bed, the horrible smell -- to build the scene. And you do a good job showing us her personality through the tone of her thoughts. I suggest trimming back the description of opening her eyes, e.g., ‘Take a chance, I opened one eye a slit (a tiny bit…eyelids).’

    Croissants Kill

    The query opens like a scene from a book and rather than engaging me, it was disorienting. Suggest starting with paragraph 2, then setting up the conflict and stakes. Also suggest trimming out generic/filler phrases like 'things go from bad to worse'. Paring back nonspecifics will give you more room to share plot points.

    In the first 250, there's a strong sense of scene, though the mention of snow made me wonder if the Chief Inspector felt the cold. Or whether the either man's breath fogged when they spoke. Since the section opens with a line about the body with no face, suggest trimming out one of the following 'with an exposed skull' or 'the face was stripped to the bone' to cut back on repetition.

    Victory to The Ghost and Ms. Clair

  7. Congratulations to both for making it to the second round!

    Croissants Kill

    While this query is well-written and contains a good deal of relevant information, it lacks focus and the general format used for queries. As such, it reads more like a synopsis than a query. I would suggest deleting the first paragraph (because it’s effectively just a visual), and using the second paragraph to present your stakes. You introduce your character, and then say something after that first sentence to the effect of: “but when x happens, y has to do this.”

    I actually preferred these pages to the pages of The Ghost and Miss Clair, though it needs some tightening. The description is great, and beginning with the discovery of the body instantly draws the reader in.

    With the third paragraph, internal dialogue should be italicized and the tense is off. Also, “stilled the reaction in an instant” and “regaining his claim” are redundant. Last, the doctor asks a question (perhaps rhetorical), and the next line of dialogue doesn’t follow.

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    The hook for this one is great. It instantly introduces the main character and sets up the situation. Once we delve into the heart of the query, however, there are some important questions glossed over - why does she encounter the ghost and and how does she come to have psychic abilities, etc? The fact that someone is killing off the town’s residents should be played up more, as ending it (and her unique ability to play a role) appears to be the stakes. More time is spent presenting her background than what she now needs to do.

    With the pages, some cutting could help ease the tension. With the third paragraph, I’d suggest cutting the second and third questions of the internal dialogue, because it downplays the scariness? Also, it isn’t clear that she has her eyes closed until the paragraph where she opens her eyes. Last, lungs don’t scream (though I understand the point you were making with that).

    VICTORY TO: The Ghost and Ms. Clair!

  8. I love a good mystery and both of these are wonderful!

    Croissants Kill: For the query, the first two paragraphs are very literary and descriptive while the rest reads more narrative. Together it didn't flow well for me, but I think re-writing it all in the narrative style will solve that. It definitely sounds like a mystery with plenty of twists to keep readers turning pages. Your 250 were setup nicely. The description of the dead body made me cringe.. Which was probably what you were going for, and the layout of the setting painted a perfect picture for me. Nice job!

    The Ghost and Mrs Clair: You query is well written and gives a clear layout of your story. I might leave out the part about the boyfriend being controlling because by the time you get to the next sentence where you say she loses him to infidelity, I already hate him, and have zero sympathy for that situation. I'd rather see you concentrate more on your feelings for your father. I love your 250. The 1st sentence is so great. My heart was racing reading through this.

    Congrats to both of you for two amazing stories!

  9. Thanks, Monsters R coming. That really helps me. I am struggling with the difference between a query and synopsis. So much of the feedback asks for more info, and so it morphs into a synopsis. I really appreciate your insight, and the corrections to my first page!

  10. I've been watching this match up because I really enjoy mysteries and these sound like fun reads!

    Croissants Kill!

    Excellent description in the first line of the query—I can totally picture the grisly scene, but I agree that the line “Chief Inspector Derek…” is the place to start. I get a great sense of the main character and I’m really interested in his backstory and in what happens to him.

    I love police procedurals especially ones with complicated heroes whose lives get entangled in the crimes they are investigating.

    You say that the boss planted the bomb, but why not play up the mystery a bit more in the query? Especially if it’s a big reveal that his boss wants James dead. When James’s car explodes, it could be the killer he’s chasing who planted the bomb—that was my first thought. Or the lover of the woman he’s sleeping with. This shows how turbulent and messy his personal life is without giving too much away. You don’t even have to say it’s his boss he suspects.

    250: Love the contrast between the playground/swing set and the hanged man. This opening scene is awesome and sets the dark tone. It really draws me in to read more. Well done!

    The Ghost and Mrs. Clair

    Query: Love the hook. I also like how, in just this little capsule, we see how Mac grows from someone who has things done to her, to taking control and having a choice. Great!

    250: Scary opening! We get a lot about what Mac is thinking here. What else is going on? Is her heart beating fast? Is she shaking? Is her breathing fast and shallow? Even though we know from her thoughts she's alarmed, a brief description about her physical reaction would intensify the fear she's feeling.

    Both stories sound fantastic! Congratulations both of you!

  11. Croissants kill!

    The first paragraph is sexy, but it feels more like the first lines of the novel, and less like a query. While not a bad thing, generally queries are more about selling a novel than showing off you can write (that’s what the first 250 words are for.) I’d reduce Derek James title in the query, it is overly long. I feel like the query tells me mainly various plot points. I’d revise the first three paragraphs a bit, and then use the remainder of the query to focus more on the overall plot and a strong statement of the stakes. That being said, the novel sounds like a ton of fun, and has fascinating details.

    250 words:
    As I said before, I’m not sure the entire title of Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal is needed or helpful. If anything it can be used later on, but it is a mouthful, particularly when making a first impression. I think it’d be easier for James to confirm that he was thinking the same thing, than for the Forensic Pathologist to say that he assumes they are. The 3rd sentence in the final paragraph is overly long, and should be revised/rewritten. There is a lot of focus on details, which is good for the genre, but they feel unnecessary and crowd the text.


    The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    I find this query confusing. I can’t tell what is the main plot. The poltergeist aspect or the killer? Presumably they are related, but this query spends so much time on plot that I don’t understand what the book is about nor what the major stakes are. It’s also somewhat confusing. Mac’s boyfriend seems like a jerk, so losing him to infidelity seems like a win. I’m also uncertain if that detail important at all. The boyfriend gets a lot of time, but then seems to be completely pointless except for a possible reason to move to her childhood home. I’d think the death of her father and a crappy boyfriend would be more than enough. It’s also not clear how she gets her powers. Has she always had them? Is it the town? The death of her father? The query needs to be rewritten and focused on giving the reader/agent a stronger concept of the overall story and a stronger voice to demonstrate why it is a standout in the genre.

    First 250 words:
    The first 250 words demonstrate the author is good at creating tension. Given the genre this is a fabulous first 250 word segment. I want to know what happens, so nothing wrong here!

    While The Ghost and Ms. Clair has a stronger first 250 words, the query needs to be fully redone. Croissants kill! Has issues in both the first 250 words and query, but the details have me interested.

    Victory to: Croissants kill!



    I’m not sure you need this here, because you give me this information in the first 250 words: “The body hangs from an oak by the frigid mile-wide expanse of the St. Lawrence River. Where the face should be, the wind whips over exposed, acid-etched bone. And a noose of thick rope coils tightly over a red silk tie.”

    I like this. I can see James very clearly and you’ve given me his personality in a sentence. Bravo: “Chief Inspector Derek James of the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal survived the storm at sea that took his wife and infant son, leaving him with a hand that doesn’t work, and a personality that can withstand a hurricane.”

    Okay, I have a problem with “a gay black woman driven to sell the startup, sabotaging his case” and I’m going to tell you why. You’ve just indicated that your minority character is evil (or mean). If she is the only minority character in your story, then that might not be a good idea. For many reasons, too many for me to go into here; however, I would avoid making the sole minority character (and because she is the ONLY character that you have indicated is different in any way, then I have to assume that the default is white, cis-gendered people), a “bad guy.”

    Frankly, the fact that she is a gay black woman has no bearing on the story, so you could leave it out of your query. I would also suggest looking at some diverse opinions so you avoid clichés and poor representation here. Remember: you want your story to reach as diverse of an audience as possible. You won’t achieve that by singling out a group as the “bad guy.”

    WHOA, WHOA, WHOA … Holly is small-potatoes compared to this: “Things go from bad to worse. When his car is bombed, James realizes his boss is trying to kill him. Maybe he shouldn’t have slept with his boss’s mistress, but there’s another reason for the attack, best kept under wraps. For now.”

    I think you’re a bit scattered here and you need to zoom in on the threat. One protagonist, one antagonist, one threat. He’s on the hunt for the killer, and it’s a mystery, so we know we’ll have a ton of suspects.

    I’m confused here: “With two more attacks within twenty-four hours, he must choose – going by the book, or resorting to coercion – to unearth the killer, to save his twelve-year-old witness, to expose a conspiracy coded for murder.”

    Are there more faceless bodies being strung up, or is James being attacked? And if James is being attacked, how is his witness being threatened?

    The first 250 words are fine, but I think your query needs a bit more work.


    I’m not sure you need this: “Mackenzie Clair knew her life would change when her father died, but she wasn’t expecting the grief to give her the ability to talk to the dead, or to end up chasing a murderer through the most haunted town in America.”

    I loved this query. You could even take out “Twenty-seven-year-old” and just begin it with: “Mac never really figured out what to do with herself …”

    Other than that, I don’t have a lot to recommend to you. The story feels cozy and warm, but definitely not dull. I love the idea of an Afterlife Festival. This is just great and your last paragraph closes it out beautifully and seats me dead (no pun intended, okay, maybe a little one) into the story.

    First 250:

    My only recommendation here is to inser the word he in one place (this is stylistic, but as someone who uses – quite often, you want to make sure you complete the picture for the reader: He—and I was sure it was a “he,” though I couldn’t say why—smelled foul, like rotting garbage, but HE hadn’t harmed me.

    Otherwise, a lovely beginning.


    The query is fairly disjointed and tries to stuff a lot of different elements and writing styles in a small space. Focus on the mc and the plot, along with the setting and stakes.

    For such a gruesome opening, I didn’t feel any emotion, although it is well-written. I would suggest a couple of small tweaks here and there. I do think the long title/place of the inspector is distracting both in the writing and in the query.


    Sometimes an agent or editor will specifically ask for a tagline at the beginning of a query, but typically agents do not want a tagline like you have in yours. However, I do like it, so I’d keep it for future use…just not in your standard query. The rest of your query gets bogged down, I’m afraid. Focus in on the MC and the main plotline along with the stakes, which you do spell out clearly at the end.

    Your second line is a bit confusing without rereading it a couple of times. I also think all of the questions are a bit distracting. It makes me wonder too many things before I’m even invested in the mc or the story.


  14. Croissants kill!

    Query: The first paragraph of this query really threw me for a loop. It sounded like something that should be in the story, not in the query itself. I felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story without context, and it was startling. Something that bothered me was the way you introduce Holly as a gay black woman. I get a little irked when sexuality or race are the first adjectives to describe a character, and, to be honest, I can't see how either of those descriptors are relevant in the query for this minor character. You could leave it at "CEO Holly, a woman driven to sell the startup" without losing any meat from your query.

    250: I really like the writing here! Your introduction to what the body looks like in this opening page further reiterates my initial impression that you don't need to describe the body in the query.

    The Ghost and Ms. Clair

    Query: There's a lot going on in this query, and I'm impressed by how you've handled it. Great job getting all of that information to flow beautifully.

    250: Your writing is fantastic! I'm instantly drawn into this story and the character's dilemma. I LOVE this line: "People who want to do good things usually knock."