Wednesday, June 15, 2016

QK Round 2: Cuddles and Coups vs. Irish in America

Title: The Dictator’s Wife
Entry Nickname: Cuddles and Coups
Word count: 82K
Genre: Adult Dark Romantic Suspense


A military dictatorship governs Britain, led by the First Lord of the Treasury, Julien St John Helmsley. Julien is charming, charismatic, and utterly ruthless, particularly towards the resistance group known as the Treaty. 

Melanie Bonham, a member of the Treaty and enemy of the state, accepts her commanding officer’s orders for a deadly last stand. She must become the First Lord’s mistress, learn his secrets, and then assassinate him. Failure would mean torture, death, and vicious retaliation against the rebels, but success could restore democracy.

But Melanie has a secret. Before she faked her death and fled to the Treaty in disguise, she was Julien’s beloved but equally merciless wife. Instead of sneaking into the Regime’s stronghold as the Treaty expects, she makes a triumphant return as the long-lost First Lady, claiming the rebels have held her prisoner for years.

In love with the man she’s meant to kill and tempted by absolute power, “Melanie” must choose between freeing the country and breaking her heart or ruling at Julien’s side and losing her soul – before both sides seek to execute her as a traitor.
Alternating chapters jump backwards and forwards in time to tell the story of the idealistic build-up to the military coup and the brutal realities of its aftermath and to reveal why our rather unreliable narrator really left, why she’s really returned and where her true loyalties lie.
 First 250:

I became a triple-agent on the eighth anniversary of Britain’s military coup.

That morning, I strode into the Treaty’s underground control room and pushed through the crowd until I reached the resistance leader.

“Good of you to finally join us, Melanie.” Without another word, David set our hacked CCTV feed to show Somerset House. The elegant arches and columns of the Regime’s London headquarters formed a stark contrast to this utilitarian network of abandoned mines. I studied the soldiers guarding the archway and the helicopters hovering above the courtyard, but the larger-than-life portraits covering the façade demanded my attention.

Honour the First Lord ordered the painting on the left, which depicted a striking man in replica nineteenth-century military uniform. Remember the Eternal Blessed First Lady mourned its companion. My co-conspirators considered its subject a she-devil in life and their most high-profile victim in death.

“The Regime bombed Derby last week for supporting our cause. Yesterday, they wiped out an entire platoon. We need to stop the First Lord once and for all.” Years of outdoor living had given David muscles and a hearty glow. When he spoke, people listened.

I ignored him.

My eyes lingered on the second portrait until I was content the so-called Eternal Blessed First Lady’s curves, red lips and Dior gown bore no resemblance to my soldier’s body and weather-beaten face. Besides, the dictator’s wife had been famous for her Rapunzel curls, and I’d cropped my hair to the skull five years ago when I’d fled to the Treaty.


Title: Donovan
Entry Nickname: Irish in America
Word Count: 100,000
Genre: Adult Historical Romance


When Jesse Travers' father and brother die, they leave her with two things: a crumbling ranch and a deep well of distrust.

Shunned by the village for her outlaw brother's deeds, Jesse is not sorry to hear he's been killed while robbing a bank. Strangely enough it is Adam Donovan, the man who shot her brother, who brings the news. Even more strange, considering his reputation as a gunfighter, is the Irish immigrant's willingness to help put her ranch back on solid footing.

The Arizona Territory of the 1880s was never kind to a woman alone, and Jesse's experiences with her neighbors have left her jaded. But love for her canyon home overcomes her trepidation, and she accepts Donovan's help. He seems gentle and empathetic, a far cry from her brother, whose relentless abuse drove her to the brink of despair, or her father, who would never believe the things Jesse told him about her brother.

As they work together, Jesse begins to let down her guard, and feels the first stirrings of love–an experience she's never known before. On the verge of believing she might be worthy of happiness, Jesse discovers that hermongrel brother's treachery has consequences that reach beyond the grave,and they might rip the new life she's building to shreds.

If the truth comes out, Jesse knows the villagers will blame her for her brother's crimes–they've done it all along. Her only recourse is to confide in Donovan and hope he'll stand with her. But if she's wrong about him, she's doomed to a lifetime of solitude and shame.

First 250:
Jesse Travers stood in the cabin door, willing her hands to unclench, her jaw to relax. The old man who sat wrapped in a blanket by the fire was being more querulous than usual. He can’t help it, she told herself, any more than he can help being old. Or crippled. But God help us if this day doesn’t end soon.

The clearing where the cabin stood was too quiet. No breeze stirred the aspen leaves. No birds trilled, no squirrels scampered. Even the brook ran silently today. 

The only restful thing was the occasional glimpse of buckskin in the sycamores. The old man always told her that 
wild animals knew where there was danger and would run away. So maybe it’s nothing–maybe it’s just too hot for April. Maybe that’s what makes me feel so sick. 

Then the utter silence yielded to 
the faint clip-clop of horse’s hooves.

No one should be coming. No one ever came. She tasted the sharp metal of fear. As the hoofbeats close
d in, she took up an old Sharps rifle and moved out onto the sagging porch, into the shadows of its roof.

Round the edge of the cottonwood grove, the horse 
ambled into sight. Its rider had dark hair, dark clothes, a dark gun sitting low on his left hip.There isn’t anyone in the Territory who doesn’t know who he is. And where he comes from. Squaring her shoulders and raising the rifle, she took a single step into the light. 


  1. Replies
    1. Cuddles and Coups: First thing I'm wondering about is your genre. This sounds to me like alternate history or dystopian, not romantic suspense, even if there is romance involved. I'd urge you to consider relabeling your genre accordingly.

      Otherwise, you set up your stakes really well! I'm not sure you need the final paragraph about alternating chapters and an unreliable narrator--a comp to other books with unreliable narrators would let agents know what to expect in that regard. Anyway, well done!

      Your first 250 was a bit hard for me to follow because of the many names and terms given (the Regime, the Blessed First Lady, the Treaty)- which we have no context for on page 1. Also, while we are seeing through Melanie's eyes, I got absolutely no emotion from her here, and therefore couldn't connect with her.

      Irish in America: Love the hook in your query! Your stakes were nice and clear. My only suggestion is to make the setting clearer when you mention her village--call out that we're in the American West somehow. Otherwise, this is great!

      Regarding your first 250, your writing is gorgeous, and I immediately got a sense for Jesse's character. Very well done! Clarifying that the old man is her father (if that's the case, as I'm assuming), and clarifying the line about 'there isn't anyone in the Territory who doesn't know who he is' are my only suggestions for you here. With the latter, I'm assuming Jesse recognizes the rider after describing him for us, so what's missing is a line where she has a flash of recognition before the thought about knowing who he is. Anyway, I would definitely read on!!

      Victory to...IRISH IN AMERICA!

    2. C and C: I have one tiny nitpick for the query, and one glaring question. The nitpick is simple. Why is Melanie's name in air-quotes toward the end of the query? (Presumably because this is an assumed name, part of her new identity, but since you never gave any other name for her, it's a little jarring.) Consider dropping her true name as part of the reveal that she is, in fact, the long-believed-dead First Lady.

      Here's the question: why is "Melanie" still in love with the dictator who was/is her husband? It's not clear to me in this query if she's always been purely opportunistic in her fealty to the rebels, if she actually sympathizes with their cause, but feels conflicted... or what. Indeed, it was easy for me to believe the reason she allowed herself to appear dead was so that she could flee from the dictator, but then I'm told she's actually in love with him... Or with his power? I think SOME sense of Melanie's true ambitions and feelings is important here, however tricksy and unreliable she may be. As an aside, you should be prepared for some agents to reject your book because of the flash forward/back structure you mention here. It's good that you share it, as a way of making things clearer as they read, but it's not everyone's cup of tea (please excuse the lame British joke there). The 250 were stronger for me than the query, because I'm inside Melanie's mind, which felt more distant and difficult to understand in the query. If you can borrow some of the techniques you use in first person and adapt them to a third person voice, you can inject your query with the sense of Cersei Lannister gonna eff some stuff up that's building in the first page.

      Irish in America: The truth that could come out about Jesse was a surprise to me, specifically because you've coupled it with the claim that it would cement suspicions about her and links to her brother's crimes people have already had. This is the first moment in the query where you've suggested that the community considers HER at fault for her brother's crimes. That feels REALLY important, like the sword of Damocles that should be hanging over all her struggles to get by and her need to rely only on herself at the query's opening. Then, whatever this vague truth is that might come out, we will recognize that it's the realization of all Jesse's worst fears, and the confirmation of ideas people have used as an excuse to harm her.

      The first page is sharp and full of voice, though that voice goes a little melodramatic in the final paragraph, where "There isn't anyone in the Territory who doesn't know who he is. And where he comes from." appears. The two, italicized thoughts felt like two dramatic chords in a row, laying it on very thick. I much prefer your use of Jesse's action, stepping out into the open with her rifle ready, as an indication of her wariness and awareness.

      This was a tough one for me, but because I have a much clearer sense of what the MC wants and what she might or might not do to get it in "Irish in America,"...

      Victory to Irish in America!

    3. Cuddles and Coups

      The final paragraph of the query could be cut, but other than that I think it’s a solid premise with a gripping hook. For it to have full impact, however, I would suggest adding in the detail of why Melanie left in the first place.

      First 250 Words:
      Strong opening. My one comment would be that I think the reveal near the end could be a bit more punctuated (in other words, IMO it gives it away a bit too early).

      Irish in America

      An interesting premise, but the query itself seems to flip back and forth. For example, the opening line grabs, but whereas the second paragraph seems to forge ahead, the third paragraph takes a step back with details that perhaps should have come earlier. Thus I would suggest working on the logic of the overall flow. Also, a few specifics: “If the truth comes out” doesn’t grab if we don’t know what the truth is. And why do they blame her for her brother’s misdeeds? And why does she think she might be wrong about Donovan? These details are important for hooking the reader in.

      First 250 Words:
      Solid writing overall, although I think the first paragraph could be stronger. For example, it describes the old man (whoever he is) as “querulous” but he never actually says anything. We’re also not given the time of day (which might not seem important at first, but my gut feeling is that it’s night, mostly because she talks about the day ending, but then how can she make out the details of a dark rider in dark clothes so well if it’s already night? And if it is night, what light is she stepping into if the only light source (the fire) is behind her in the cabin?). I also think the first line could present a stronger hook into the story.

      Honest-to-goodness, this one was almost a coin toss. These are two of the strongest entries I’ve read so far, both in terms of premise and writing, and I’m equally intrigued by both. But I have to choose, and so because I think one entry is slightly closer to where it needs to be in terms of overall polish, I’m giving victory to CUDDLES AND COUPS!

    4. Cuddles and Coups
      Loved this entry last round.
      I’d personally remove that last paragraph. You’ve shown us enough of this in the query already.

      It’s bugging me more this go-round that I’ve no hint of the MC’s motivations for fleeing to the Treaty in the first place, if she’s still in love with her husband and tempted by absolute power…but I’m willing to read the book to find out. A hint of her motivations in the query would help me, though.


      “…larger-than-life portraits covering the façade demanded my attention.” I’d change it to “were what held my attention.”

      I would put the last paragraph after the 4th, where she’s examining the portrait. That will emphasize the contrast between the first lady then and now, and make us more curious to know what brought about the change. It will also allow you to tighten the second paragraph a little, because a lot of those concepts are still in our heads, not having been interrupted by the intervening paragraphs.

      Great story!

      Irish in America


      Good first line.
      “even more strange” – I’d say “even stranger”.

      Instead of “jaded” here I might use “mistrustful of others’ motives”. To me that makes the flow of ideas clearer.

      I might shorten the part where you talk about her brother’s abuse and father’s dismissiveness. This feels like TMI for a query. I would definitely mention the brother’s abuse, because I want to see why she’d be hard enough to be glad he’s dead (him being a criminal isn’t enough for me), but I’d take out the part about the dad. I don’t need this to be intrigued by the story.


      “Then the utter silence yielded to the faint clip-clop of horse’s hooves.” I’d remove the “then”.
      “shadows of its roof.” I’d use “shadow” singular.

      “There isn’t anyone in the Territory who doesn’t know who he is. And where he comes from.” I’d combine these sentences: “…he is, and where…”

      Good beginning. I NEED to read on.

      These are both GREAT entries. The only reason I’m giving VICTORY TO IRISH IN AMERICA is I’m a great fan of Westerns. Completely subjective choice here.

      For as intriguing as this sounds, I did have to reread the query a few times in different places to make sense of it. I think it’s a bit confusing, but could probably be cleared up easily with some rewording/reordering of events. My main confusion was that it seemed that Julien wasn’t supposed to recognize Melanie when it came up that she was his previous wife. So, I wondered how that was going to happen. But then it was cleared up when you said she would return as if she’d been held hostage. But then, wouldn’t everyone in the Treaty have known who she was to begin with? I’m just not sure how her identity is disguised throughout. Also, I wouldn’t mention that it goes back and forward in time. Just back in time is sufficient. Going forward is implied and stating so seems excessive or redundant. I also wonder what time period this is set in?

      As for the writing, I like the first line a lot! In the second, I couldn’t picture this well: “I strode into the Treaty’s underground control room and pushed through the crowd.” An underground control room doesn’t seem the place for a crowd to be. In the second paragraph, there is so much going on in terms of setting that I’m quite disoriented and really cannot picture what is going on. However, now I do know that this is set in present times. This line, “had given David muscles,” is odd because, of course, he had muscles—we all do. How about saying, “had toned David’s muscles,” or something more descriptive. I do like where she says that she ignored him and then how she compares herself to her portrait…which also answers the question I had in the query about how she had disguised herself. I would recommend adding a hint about that in the query so that the agent doesn’t trip over that missing fact and then not read on. Even though I’m a bit confused in general, I would definitely read on.

      The query is really clearly written and there are well-placed tidbits that pulled me in more and more as I read that made me care about the characters. I do feel like some of it is vague. I could consider being more specific about why Donovan wants to help her. What is his motivation? Is he after something? Attracted to her? Working off his debt of guilt? Also, what ‘consequences that reach beyond the grave’ and why would they blame her for her brother’s crimes? And just watch for a couple of typos. Otherwise, you’re well on your way!

      This opening is great for the most part. You paint a really clear picture. I would suggest some small line-by-line revision of wording. I’ll just give you a couple that I’d suggest: 1. “No birds trilled, no squirrels scampered.” This is a comma splice. 2. “glimpse of buckskin in the sycamores.” Maybe change to, ‘glimpse of buckskin fleeing through the sycamores,’ since, in the next line, you talk about them running away if there’s danger. 3. “Maybe that’s what makes me feel so sick.” This line confused me. I don’t get what it refers to. 4. “No one should be coming.” Either italicize this as with the other times she is thinking, or say, “No one should have been coming,” to put it into 3rd person. 5. When you say, “into the shadows of its roof” I was confused because she would already have been standing in the even darker shadow of the doorway. So, saying that she moved into the shadows reads odd, because she would actually be moving into a lighter area. At least that is how I see it in my mind’s eye with the way it is written. Otherwise, I like this piece and actually wish I could read more right now!


    6. Cuddles and Coups

      Clear concise statement of stakes in the query along with the promise of an interesting setting and situation. I like that the conflict Melanie will face is both internal and external. Suggest cutting ‘rather’ from the last paragraph as it weakens the sentence.

      In the first 250, suggest reordering the opening so the first sentence lands on the ‘triple agent’ (e.g.: ‘On the eight anniversary of Britain’s military coup, I became a triple-agent.) In the 5th paragraph, it wasn’t clear initially who was speaking. At first I thought “The Regime bombed…” line was being played on the CCTV feed. Perhaps add in a speech tag at the end of that sentence? When I read the query, I didn’t question Melanie being ordered to go undercover and try to become the First Lord’s mistress, but when I read the description of her ‘weather-beaten face’ in the first 250, it stopped me and made me question why she’d been selected. (Assuming the First Lord likes pretty ladies.) I suspect the line is more about explaining away why her fellow soldiers failed to recognize her as their hated former ruler – but maybe there’s a different way to do this?

      Irish in America

      Lovely opening line for the query, providing both back story and character details. Suggest reordering the following: ‘…and they might rip to shreds/shred the new life she’s building (to shreds).

      The opening paragraph of the first 250 pulled me right in. The details are folded in beautifully and gave a strong sense of time and place. Great way to show us Jesse’s character with her raising her rifle before stepping into the light. You’ve definitely piqued my curiosity; I want to know more about Jesse’s relationship with ‘the old man’ and how the story will unfold with the newcomer, Donovan.

      Victory: Irish in America

    7. Cuddles and Coups


      I assume this takes place in some sort of future. The first sentence in the first 250 words appears to confirm this (unless I missed some big news!) However, the query does not. The query does a lot of things right, it doesn’t get bogged down in plot too much, and gives us a strong concept of the stakes. My only real confusion is, if Melanie was married Julien and faked her death, wouldn’t he be suspicious of her return? Or is he blinded by love? Also, knowing up front that the chapters skip around in time, is a real bummer for me, but that is a personal preference. The right agent and audience will probably love that.

      I wish we got a strong infusion of “Melanie”’s voice, and something that helps really sell this novel. As it is now, the query is competently written. That is certainly an achievement, but I wish there was more here to make this stand out.

      First 250 words:
      I like the first 250 words a lot. For my taste it is a little detail heavy, but I think that many people enjoy that kind of thing. Overall it is strong. I wish we had a bit more of this voice in the query.

      Irish in America

      The query is decent. It could have a little less plot synopsis and a bit more voice. I’m confused what on earth Jesse discovers about her brother’s treachery that reaches beyond the grave, so it’s unclear whether her fear in confiding is valid or not. The stakes in this seem very low, which is concerning.

      First 250 Words:
      I’m not an expert in the genre, but I believe most readers enjoy this much detail and prose. I personally had to power through it. I wish we had a stronger sense of who Jesse is. Given the word count, I assume this novel is a slow burn, and we get everything we need, but I think character development strongly outweighs ornamentation.


      Both queries and 250 words have their ups and downs. However, for me:

      Victory goes to: Cuddles and Coups

    8. Before I say anything, I want you both to know that is the first time I’ve had to waffle over which query to pick. I really liked BOTH of these stories, and if I was an agent, I would definitely be hard pressed to choose just one, but that is my job here today, so here we go:

      Genre: Adult Dark Romantic Suspense

      I would tell you to bill this as an alternative history, because that automatically tells the reader the story encompasses adult themes. I’m not sure about adding the romance into the genre. Do a little research here and see if you can find some stories like yours to see how they are categorized. You indicate it is a dystopia in your query, so you can leave out DARK.


      Lose would/could and replace with: Failure means torture, death, and vicious retaliation against the rebels. Success will restore democracy.

      I’m ambivalent about this: “Alternating chapters jump backwards and forwards in time to tell the story of the idealistic build-up to the military coup and the brutal realities of its aftermath and to reveal why our rather unreliable narrator really left, why she’s really returned and where her true loyalties lie.”

      On the one hand, I like the fact that you set me up for an unreliable narrator, but on the other, I would kind of like to find out myself. Also, alternating chapters can be a tricky, said the author who has tried this in the past. Handled well, it can be brilliant. If it’s botched, you can wind up with a messy story that is hard to follow.

      And I’m not saying this is a bad idea for your story. I’m just not sure if I would cue the agent about these facts in the query.

      No problems with the first 250. You’ve hooked me on the story in the query, so I’m willing to read on to see the world that you’ve developed.


      I hate to say this, but I’ve got nothing for you. I loved this query and story the first time I saw it, and I love it again here. You’ve done a much better job setting up both the brother and the father, and I love how her brother can cause her problems from beyond the grave. The conflict is clear and palpable.

      I think the thing with IRISH IN AMERICA is the assurance of the writing style. It is apparent the author has a firm grip on both characterization and story. I’m also a sucker for historical romance and a western.


  2. Cuddles and Coups

    Amazing revisions! I read your piece in the first round, and remember being a bit muddled. I found this newest version of your query engaging, well-written, and absolutely intriguing. Loved the first line. Loved the rhythm of your language. The premise is really interesting, especially the implication that neither side is all villain or all hero. I would consider taking out one of the mantras in the fourth paragraph. I found that one a bit confusing. Well done and fab revisions!

    Irish in America: Fab hook in the query, like, wow. In that first sentence you give us so much - setting, characterization, and conflict. Great, heartbreaking query - I absolutely sympathize with Jesse. In just a few words, you have me rooting for her, for a chance to heal her past and find a better future. Well done.

    250. Great voice! Love your weaving in and out of short, punching phrases and longer, more lyrical description. Get a real sense of foreboding. I'm hooked!

    Well done, both of you! They were a pleasure to read!

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

    The Dictator’s Wife

    This query in general is well-written. I think it’s almost there, with just a few tweaks. First off, the last paragraph is not necessary and should be deleted (and agent will see how a book is written once they request pages).

    As I understand it, Melanie is given a mission, but she instead comes to Julien and regains her role as her wife. And from there, she has to decide between love (as she presumably still loves him) and doing what she thinks is right politically? This raises some logistics questions, such as how the rebels wouldn’t have known who she is (and trusted her) and why Julien would have taken her back. I feel that these would need to be addressed to understand the stakes. The query is fairly short as is, so you have some word count yet to flesh that out.

    The pages instantly draw the reader in and establish voice. I was a bit confused as to what a “façade” is, but that may be just me! Great opening line.

    Irish in America

    The opening line for this query is great. With the second paragraph, I wondered why her brother’s killer would be delivering the news. Also, if he’s a love interest, that could be alluded to in that paragraph.

    In general, this is well-written and it flows, but the stakes don’t seem high enough. It’s not enough that it’s merely hard for a single woman in Arizona, or that in general the neighbors don’t trust her because of her brother’s reputation. Also, it’s unclear why she’d be doomed to a lifetime of solitude and shame if Donovan doesn’t stand by her.

    And why wouldn’t he, considering he was willing to not only deliver the news about her brother and help rebuild the ranch? This is a matter of honing those stakes and showing more clearly what Jesse stands to lose. It’s almost there!

    The first pages are very well-done, and I’m assuming these begin with the news that the brother is dead. It establishes setting and the character, and I don’t have much by way of substantive comments save for the need to tweak the line in italics (last paragraph). This could be revised to remove the italics, because there’s a lot of internal dialogue.

    This is only the first page, but I was wondering about voice. Someone living on a ranch in Arizona in the 1880s probably says “don’t” instead of “doesn’t” and “ain’t” instead of “isn’t. Just a thought.

    This was a close one. Based on premise, I leaned toward The Dictator’s Wife but ultimately due to execution. . .


  4. The Dictator's wife: I love it. Would so read this. But I'm left wondering one thing: will I like the hero? He's a ruthless dictator, and for me to read a romance, I have to, alongside the heroine, want the hero. A few words about him would help. Unless, David ends up being the hero?

    First 250: I like the last paragraph a lot. The rest, I'd like more than just a description of what she sees. Maybe something more sensory, so I feel like i'm in her shoes.

    Irish in America:

    Love the first page. I feel like I'm there.
    In the query, I lost a little interest in the fourth and last paragraph. I wonder if there isn't a more enticing way to phrase this. After all, this is a romance.

    Fantastic job, both kombatants. Would buy both books in a heartbeat.

  5. Cuddles and Coups: I think this story sounds fascinating, but I was a little confused when I first read your 250 words after the query. The query made me feel like this was a historic romance for some reason--maybe I've read too much Robin Hood or something--so the mention of CCTV made me think "Oh! Must be dystopian." I would suggest making that clearer in your query somehow. I really like the voice in your 250, especially the "when he spoke, people listened" followed immediately by "I ignored him." I feel like you give us a really clear idea of who your character is and what she is like in those two lines alone. Great job!

    Irish in America: I think your query starts out really strong, but it seems to spend more time talking about her family than about Jesse herself. I think it would be more enticing to know more about her as a character, and am especially curious why the villages will blame her? Your first 250 are fabulous; I get a wonderful sense of place and can feel her stress and tension.