Wednesday, June 15, 2016

QK Round 2: Southern Gothic Secret vs. Ticket to Ride

Title: Jimmer
Entry NicknameSouthern Gothic Secrets
Word count: 68K
Genre: YA Historical/Southern Gothic


Sixteen-year-old Jimmer Stark passes for white in an intolerant southern town. She aspires to become a nurse and leave the Mississippi backwoods in the summer of 1920, but her father steals her school savings. Guided only by the spirits of her Choctaw ancestors, she must find a way to fund her education. An offer of a fake engagement with a judge’s son and payment for the ruse seems the simple solution until a racist schoolmate’s obsession with her threatens her family due to their black and Choctaw connections. Jimmer must sacrifice a chance at love and contemplate murder to save her sister from a KKK lynching.
Risking everything for her sister’s life will likely end Jimmer’s dream, but the process may free her from the oppression that has gripped her family for generations and help her forge a new life.

First 250 words:

Jimmer lifted her shotgun. Pinkish-white petals fluttered downward in the apple orchard like confetti tossed at a wedding.

A fox squirrel scampered along an apple branch. Carefully, she sighted it and squeezed the trigger. The blast of the shot was followed by a thump.

"Fetch, Little Bit."                                                            

Her coonhound raced through the tangled underbrush.

"A gal who can hunt like that will catch a fine husband." The thread of pride in Pa's voice was unmistakable. He spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt.

Jimmer ignored his praise. Pa'd spent her college money, her hard-earned ten dollars, without a word. He'd swiped it from the jar under her bed and gone to the harness races. Words piled up against her teeth, wanting to break out, but she clenched her jaw shut. Only careful words would keep Pa under control. He hadn't been himself for so long, and she wondered if he ever would be.

"Still mad about that money?" Pa gave her shoulder a rough shake. "Hell, college isn't for you, gal. Focus on your hope chest like your sister Eddie Lee. You ain't ugly. Who knows what beau you'll land?"

She fixed her eyes on the combed over bald spot on Pa's head. He was a little man. She'd passed him in height at twelve years old and now, at sixteen, towered over him.

"I'm not Eddie Lee."

"Not by half. Now, run that squirrel home for your grandmother to stew.”


Entry Nickname: Ticket to Ride
Word count: 78K
Genre: YA contemporary


Seventeen-year-old Jack wants to escape his narrow-minded Appalachian hometown more than anything. His family’s welfare checks pay for little more than food on the table, his mom’s pastor won’t stop lecturing him about the sinfulness of lust, and the rumors about his sexuality floating around school make him feel unsafe at every turn. The only thing worth looking forward to is the full-ride scholarship with his name on it—his one-way ticket to a better life.

But his plans hadn’t involved falling for Casey, the boy from the trailer park down the road who understands him in ways no one else in their town can. With the countdown to college ticking away, there’s only a limited amount of time to make the most out of their relationship. And unfortunately for Jack, using his scholarship means leaving Casey behind.

Then, right before college starts, his mother tries to commit suicide, blaming her attempt on her son’s sexual orientation. Overwhelmed with guilt, Jack finds his mental state heading in the same direction as his mom’s. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t slept since she kicked him out of her room at the psychiatric clinic, or that Casey hasn’t returned any of his calls since the incident. Now, Jack must learn to balance the life he’s been dealt and the life he wants before he can patch up the situation with his mom and win back the guy he loves.

First 250:

Jack snapped his head around the instant he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

What was different? Had the shower curtain moved? He swiped a hand over his face to clear away the soapy water, then jerked his attention to each corner of the shower stall. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. The only thing within reach was his tiny bottle of shampoo.


Jack turned to the bar above the curtain and saw it: Nothing. No clothes hanging over it, no towel, even though they’d been there just moments before.


He rotated the lever until the water stopped flowing. Surely this couldn’t be happening. His towel must’ve fallen off the curtain rod. His clothes, too. Because there was no way someone had taken them. Right?

Jack placed a hand on the shower curtain, ready to pull it back. Then he noticed the real source of the problem: the noise level in the locker room also fell into the “nothing” category. He heard no talking, no footsteps, no lockers slamming. Had he lost track of time? Had he been so focused on his thoughts—what was he thinking about, again?—that he’d missed when the entire gym class left?

With a turn of his wrist, he peeled back the edge of the shower curtain. His gaze landed on the bare floor, the empty bench, and the vacated shower stalls. The only sound prickling his ears was his own breathing.

Everyone was gone. And they’d taken his clothes on their way out.


  1. Replies
      In the query, I will venture to say that there is too much going on. Although intriguing, I'm not exactly sure what the main plot-line is. Or what each element that you've included has to do with the other elements. I get the feeling that several sub-plots are included. If this is not the case, I'd work to streamline the query so you are focused in on the main character from start to finish. The way it reads now, I’ve got the mc, her father, her sister, the town she’s raised in, the judge’s son, the Choctow and black elements, her dream of going to school…it’s a lot crammed in there. I also would like to know that this takes place in 1920 in the first line. As it is now, I started out with my mind more in recent times until I read 1920 and then, I had to go back and reread the beginning with the time period in mind. You won't want to make agents reread since you may only get 10-20 seconds of their time to hook them. To be honest, there wasn't anything in this query that made me say, "Wow! I want to know more!" I think I was more confused than anything.

      As for the writing, I love it! You paint a great opening picture and begin to characterize both her and her father immediately. There are a couple of places I would be nit-picky and suggest adding/deleting a word such as adding 'again' to the end of 'wondered if he ever would be.' I would also consider if you absolutely need this in this first 250: "Pa'd spent her college money, her hard-earned ten dollars, without a word. He'd swiped it from the jar under her bed and gone to the harness races." It is telling and backstory. I almost think it would be more powerful not to spell it out right away. Show us the tension and then bring it up in a more organic way if possible.

      The query is well-written and clear aside from this line: "It doesn’t help that he hasn’t slept since she kicked him out of her room at the psychiatric clinic." I had to stop and reread it several times and go back a few sentences to get it. Maybe it's just me, but that one really tripped me up/wasn't clear. Also, my one hesitation with the query is that it seems kind of angsty and maybe a bit stereotypical--ie. the bible-thumping preacher I want to know what really sets this thwarted love story different from others and that it's not just the same old love story dressed in LGBT and mental-illness themes. I hope that makes sense.

      The scene you've set up for the beginning is very compelling and emotional. But I do think the wording needs to be reworked a bit. Consider not using 'nothing' so much. And, as an example, this could be reworded for clarity: "Nothing. No clothes hanging over it," because 'it' refers back to 'nothing' but what you really mean 'it' to refer to is the bar. Because of the way that sentence is worded, it made me go back and reread to realize what 'it' was referring to. Also, I think this sentence: "He rotated the lever until the water stopped flowing." is distracting and not needed. I had already assumed the water was off. Plus, it's such a mundane detail that it really breaks up the immediacy of what he is experiencing. And heads snapping/spinning around always conjure in my mind a cartoon character's head spinning 360 degrees, so I would suggest playing around with a stronger first sentence.

      Southern Gothic Secrets

    2. Southern Gothic Secrets: Your query raises more questions than answers, which unfortunately left me feeling confused. The good news is, this query was very slim, so you have plenty of room to expand in word count. First of all: focus on strong, clear stakes. What choice does your MC have to make? Also, this is supposed to be a Southern Gothic, yet your query makes no mention of any paranormal/supernatural elements whatsoever. What makes this a Southern Gothic? You should mention those elements in the query so we get a sense of your genre. Lastly, we need a sense for your MC's voice--which I know from your first 250 is beautiful!

      Your first 250 were so polished! I loved your writing and got a sense for your MC right away. I wanted to keep reading!

      Ticket to Ride: Your query was clear throughout and set up the stakes well! Good job here. Subjectively, it also does read as very angst-ridden and I hope there's a positive outcome for poor Jack at the end of this one.

      Your 250 were full of questions, so I didn't get a strong sense for Jack as a character; I was too jarred by all the questioning and repetition (ie: nothing, nothing...). Engage us with more emotion and sensory detail, and try removing some of the questions from the narrative so we aren't distracted as we try to get to know your MC.


    3. Southern Gothic Secrets

      This one could definitely be longer, and at the very least should probably answer the following questions: Why is her sister in danger? Who might she have to murder? How exactly does risking everything for her sister end her dream? Why does the judge’s son need a fake engagement? Who does she love (is it the judge’s son? If so, why the fake engagement then? Why not a real one)? Without this information it feels vague.

      First 250 Words:
      Solid opening. Maybe drop “Jimmer ignored his praise.” Contextually it’s unnecessary. Also, there may be a few missed opportunities to show her animosity, such as how she feels when he shakes her shoulder, etc.

      Ticket to Ride

      A clear query overall. I think the voice could be a bit stronger, though, especially since the story feels fairly familiar. Phrases like “who understands him in ways no one else in their town can” sound cliché. And I’m not quite sure how to interpret “Jack finds his mental state heading in the same direction as his mom’s.” Is it meaning to say he’s now questioning his sexuality?

      First 250 Words:
      While I think starting with a guy stuck in the shower with his clothes stolen is a great opening, I’m not sure the technique of asking lots of question from a first person POV grabs the reader’s attention the way it should. The problem is, every time the POV character asks a question, they ask it of the reader as well, but at the beginning of a story the reader has zero context in which to consider those questions, and so it simply doesn’t hook.

      While I do think Ticket to Ride has a stronger and much clearer query, based on the strength of the writing sample (and my hope that the premise holds up once it gets fleshed out a bit more) I’m declaring victory to SOUTHERN GOTHIC SECRETS!

    4. Gothic Secrets

      I normally chide authors on giving me too much plot, but this one….I’m very confused by. Each snippet of plot provided seems to lack connection the previous one. By way of example, Jimmer is pondering a fake engagement, but then later she is being asked to “sacrifice a chance at love.” Did she fall for the Judge’s son? Why was the engagement fake? My assumption was the Judge’s son was gay? Furthermore we don’t hear about this sister in peril until the final sentence of the first paragraph The author does not need to tell us MORE of the plot but the author does need to connect the dots for us. Other than that, I like that there is a lot of intrigue and the stakes certainly seem high for Jimmer. On a side note, the last name “Stark” might benefit from change. It’s hard to rebrand it after Game of Thrones.

      First 250 words:

      I’m not a gun expert (I hate them), but I’m pretty sure a shotgun isn’t exactly a fire arm known for accuracy. If she was hunting a bird, this makes more sense, but for a squirrel that seems like an odd weapon. The choice of firearm really can tell a reader a lot about the character. Here, I think the choice actually works, but I want to be sure the author did so on purpose.

      I really love this. I’m from the South (FTR I’ve never eaten squirrel or shot a gun), and I know people that still talk like this. I like that it is not overly done, just a nice hint at a dialect. My only big question is, if 10 dollars is a lot of money, what year are we in?


      Ticket to Ride

      This is how to write a query. I’ve got a perfect idea of what this novel is. The stakes are excellently laid out. I’d like a bit more to hint at whether Jack’s had mental breakdowns before, since he is headed for one. However, I’m not sure that’s even necessary here. I honestly just lack anything to nitpick on this one. FABULOUS job.

      First 250 words:
      I love this. It makes Jack instantly sympathetic. Knowing the story from the query, this feels so easily earned by the author. I also liked that despite him starting off naked, the author didn’t instantly tell us how sexy Jack’s body is. This gives me so much hope for this novel!

      I love these both, but have to choose one.

      Victory goes to: “Ticket to Ride”

      *** Should “Ticket to Ride” be knocked out (at any time, though at present it seems I’m the only vote for it?) I’m happy to give this a deeper look. The author should feel free to contact me if he/she wants, once Judge Identities are revealed.


      I have several issues with this query, many of which the other judges have already articulated, so I’m not going to reiterate them here. I will also point out that the KKK generally did not lynch women (to the best of my knowledge). I could be very wrong about that, but from what I know of the South, most lynchings involved men and was always dictated by race (either Jewish or Black). Women were usually raped and beaten, which might be uglier than you want to explore in a YA novel, so Jimmer wanting to save her sister from a KKK lynching fell flat with me.


      I loved this query and story the first time I read it. You’ve cleaned it up beautifully. I can’t say anything more.


    6. SOUTHERN GOTHIC SECRET: I saw this in the first round, and enjoyed it then. You’ve made some helpful changes – congrats! The query feels much more focused, and that’s great. I feel like it now is a bit like a recitation of the plot – the fourth sentence, especially. Would you consider breaking that up a bit and making it a little less rushed? The 250 read well. You made some good changes there.

      TICKET TO RIDE: You’ve made some good changes since the first round! I hope you feel good about them, because the query is much clearer and cleaner. Congrats. The 250 are also very enjoyable and well done. Congrats.

      Victory to TICKET TO RIDE

    7. Southern Gothic Secret

      Query: I saw this entry in the first round, and if I’m remembering correctly, the issue was that there was too much going on in the query which made it confusing. Honestly right now, I think the opposite is happening. A typical query lands (usually) between 250-350 words and this is less than half of that at only 140. There’s a lot of interesting things happening in the query but it’s hard to connect them and see how they fit together. Also, it’s not entirely clear how this fits as Southern Gothic as-is. My suggestion is to really hone down what details are needed, what sub-plots are not, and then put all the words your allowed to really give us a clear picture of what this story is about.

      250: This 250 is great, strong, clear. I really enjoyed it. One suggestion would be to cut the part about her Pa spending her money. It’s very “tell-y” and doesn’t seem to happen organically. I think you can show us her anger toward him without telling us this yet. The “she wondered if he ever would be” is a little vague too. Down in the seventh paragraph, I’m wondering if a question mark is right for that last sentence? Also, and I know I said this last time, but I’m still worried the shotgun is the right choice her. Especially if they’re planning to eat the squirrel.

      Ticket to Ride

      Query: I love the changes you’ve made to this. The query is really strong, completely solid. I’d still really love a hint at what’s going on and why Casey, if they’re in love, would just bail on him like that. But, not sure it’s critical to the query.

      250: While I really love this too, it’s not as strong as I want it to be. The situation is great, but you’ve got a lot of repetition and questions happening right off the bat. I’d like to get to know Jack a little more up front. Also, I struggled with the opening sentence. Honestly, it felt like I was dropped in the middle of a scene rather than at the beginning of one.

      These are two really great entries, both with strong 250s, but for me, victory has to go to TICKET TO RIDE!

    8. Two excellent entries. Both so well written, I'd read well into the night to finish. Congratulations to you both.

      SOUTHERN GOTHIC SECRETS: Your voice in your 250 pretty much blows me away it's so fantastic. But I think your query reads a little like a synopsis and it lacks the voice that makes your 250 so wonderful. Consider rephrasing your query so the information is delivered from Jimmer's voice.

      TICKET TO RIDE: Your query and 250 work very well, and the voice is excellent. I can feel the tension as he wonders what has happened to his stuff.

      This is truly a difficult choice. As a YA PW mentor, I'd be thrilled to see either of your entries in my inbox.

      But, since this is Query Kombat, I have to choose, so . . .


    9. Congrats to both for getting to round two!

      Southern Gothic Secrets

      First off, I found this query much too short. Short can be fine, and there was nothing badly-written about this, but it conveys a tremendous amount of information in less than 150 words. Basically, you have this distilled to all of the important points, so I’d recommend fleshing out some of these points.

      In particular, the fourth sentence is wordy and also contains multiple plot points (a fake engagement and payment for the ruse - okay, sounds interesting and who thought of that?; how would a schoolmate’s obsession with her create a race issue?; “sacrificing a chance at love “- love with who? The obsessive schoolmate?; and “contemplate murder” - whose murder? If the sister is being lynched by the KKK, how would murdering one person stop that?). It’s a heck of a lot of information in one sentence, and while you don’t want to give away too much/want to leave a reader wanting more, you also don’t want to confuse anyone).

      Then, with the hook, the first mention of the sister is the last clause of the last sentence of the prior paragraph. It seemed like a big disconnect from the content of the query up to that point. I also don’t understand why the sister is getting lynched and why that particular event is the big ticket item here, especially given all of the other drama that’s been presented.

      The first pages are written very well, and I don’t have much to offer by way of criticism. As someone from the south, though, I’d just say to watch for dialogue - if this is 1920 in Mississippi, “little” becomes “lil,” “and” is “’n,” “isn’t” is “aint” and so on and so forth.

      Ticket to Ride

      I love everything about this query but the last sentence! It sets up the plot extremely well, makes me empathize with Jack and his plight, and in general promises a very interesting read. You build up great conflict and tension. . . and then the last sentence falls flat because it makes the stakes seem like less than they are (always avoid the word “balance” because it’s simply not very dramatic!). I’d just work on that last line and you’re all set.

      Great opening scene.
      I really liked these pages, and I only have two nit-picky comments. First. I’d delete “the instant he” from the first sentence and substitute “when” (“Jack snapped his head around when he saw. . .”). Also, I was unclear as to why he mentioned only the tiny bottle of shampoo was in reach. At first I thought he was looking for something to defend himself; then I thought it was because he was thinking, “I need my clothes/towel and this is the only thing around.”


  2. Southern Gothic Secrets: There's a lot happening in your first paragraph, enough that when we get to the risk posed to Jimmer's sister, my first thought is why is the truth coming out about Jimmer puts HER at risk? You have word count left in this query to make the connection between A and B a little clearer, and it would only take a sentence to do so. I felt similarly about the declaration of the stakes: she can give up on love AND be a murderer or achieve some kind of victory over the establishment that keeps her family in metaphorical chains. Framed this way, the risk/reward don’t seem "equal" to one another, because one thing is too conceptual for me to believe it's possible, and the other is SO specific, I think "that escalated quickly!" I need to understand why Jimmer murdering someone else first is the only way out she can see, because that's a huge turning point.
    The first page sets tone and establishes conflict within Jimmer’s family vividly. I have a weird, perhaps kind of dumb nitpick: I own a coonhound, and she's utterly useless for fetch, which is true for many in the breed, because they're harrier hunters. They chase prey up a tree, whereupon their accompanying hunter can blast it down with a shotgun, not get/fetch inert prey. Would it harm anything for her dog to be a different breed? I can tell your eye is on attention to detail and verisimilitude, so I thought that factoid might matter to you.
    Breaking Down Glass Doors: The query was strong right up to the point where we're told about Jack's mother's attempted suicide. I didn't like being TOLD that she blamed the feeling that she "should" on Jack's identity -- it felt too sudden, and nothing in the query prior let me suspect that Jack's own mother is a source of pain for him (we only hear about her pastor, who she might or might not agree with, and might allow to harangue her son, either way, out of moral weakness – but that’s all inference). If you can plant the seed that Jack's mother constantly finds ways to show her disapproval, or even sics her pastor ON Jack, then we could be primed to see things blow up in this way.
    Similar to Southern Gothic, my reaction to your 250 is based on a personal nit-pick, but I think it's worth considering (and actually would really appreciate other people from the contest weighing in on, to see if this is just me): Kids almost NEVER take showers after hs gym classes.
    I've worked with hs-aged students for nearly twenty years, involved in sporting clubs, and aide work, and as a teacher, and in that time have literally never seen or heard of a kid using the shower facilities after a gym class. After a major sporting competition, and if it's their home locker room in their home school, and they’re well-liked? MAYBE. But the fear among American hs kids about being seen in the buff (especially in a cell camera world) and having this stuff happen is so acute, most would sooner just change out of their gym uniform and put on deodorant as a mitigating measure. If you're certain that this shower scene is the right opening for Jack's story, that's fine, but you'll need to justify why he's doing something so risky when he has cause to believe others at school won't treat him kindly. When I read this opening, I was distracted wondering if this is a sign that the author isn't aware of current hs locker room culture, and soon I was far, far away from thinking about the story at all. Again, other readers' mileage may vary, but this was an opening that simply didn't jive with reality as I know it -- not because of the cruelty (that, sadly, is accurate) but because Jack's choice to shower in the first place is so out of the ordinary.
    I found the first page of SOUTHERN GOTHIC SECRETS doing more complex things with character, setting, and stakes from the start, and so VICTORY TO SOUTHERN GOTHIC SECRETS!

  3. Southern Gothic Secrets

    There’s a lot of information in the query – and it didn’t always add up. The ‘chance of love’ line threw me – since the previous line is about a fake engagement. Also, the potential loss of love seemed to hold equal stature with her dreams of an education. Though she may have more than one goal, I think focusing on the main goal (or stakes) will make the query clearer.

    You quickly establish the setting and tone in the first 250 and the prose is lovely. I adored the phrase ‘words piled up against her teeth…’ There were a few lines which I thought could be trimmed back a tad. (e.g., ‘carefully, she sighted (it) and squeezed…’) You bring Jimmer and her world to life.

    Ticket to Ride

    While you’ve included a lot of information in the query, that second line in the first paragraph is 41 words. Perhaps trim or divide to make it easier to read? To give me a better sense of what Jack’s like, I would’ve liked to know if his was an academic or (and/or?) athletic scholarship. Great wrap-up of the stakes in the final paragraph.

    Wonderful opening. It immediately pulled me into Jack’s world by showing how he’s singled out for cruelty. The way you convey his jumpiness leads the reader to suspect he’s constantly on guard – and that this isn’t his first time as a target. Elegantly done.

    Winner: Ticket to Ride

  4. Southern Gothic Secrets:
    An interesting premise! I would try to get 1920s in the first sentence if you can. I honestly got a little lost in the second half of the first paragraph. We are learning a lot of info so quickly. I would split that long sentence (An offer etc.) into two ideas. Also, who is her love interest? The judge’s son? Someone else? I would clarify that. If the judge’s son isn’t her love interest, I might remove him from the query and just say an offer of a fake engagement. Also, who is she contemplating murdering- her racist classmate? Her love interest? I would love a couple of additional details here.

    I LOVE your first page and the sense of place that you establish so quickly. A nitpicky thing: I was a bit confused about the dad saying “Not by half.” Is that an insult or more praise? Overall, great work!

    Ticket to Ride:
    Great query. I am sure this is a formatting thing but just in case: “full-ride scholarship.” Is Jack’s decision to attend college ever in doubt? I couldn’t tell from your third paragraph whether attending college or not was part of the stakes/Jack’s decision. College was presented as an awesome light at the end of the tunnel/escape in the first paragraph. Is that still true at the end of the query?

    I think your first page is strong. I would make your first sentence snappier—I think there are one too many prepositional phrases going on there. I think you get the same punch from the “instant he saw the movement.” Or even better: “Jack snapped his head around. What was different?” I would also look at “jerked his attention.” It is a bit awkward to see the verb jerk not describing a physical thing.

  5. Southern Gothic Secrets

    Intriguing premise and the query sets up a lot of conflicts. I think you could definitely stretch your query a bit longer to address some of the questions that the judges asked. Your first 250 is great. I like what Martian said about adding some small but powerful details to show her seething resentment toward her Pa. Maybe she thinks something angry when he tells her she can catch a fine husband, like Oh. A fine man like you? and says nothing, or leans away when he shakes her.

    Ticket to Ride

    Strong query and 250. The judges and other commenters came up with some great suggestions for refining it. The opening scene could be intensified by adding a detail or two, such as his heart speeding up when he realizes they've taken his clothes. Just a balance between his thoughts as he's trying to puzzle out what's happening and then the emotion when it sinks in

    Both of these entries sound powerful and complex and I'm glad I don't have to judge. Congratulations!


    I love the 250! I think the only thing that might give me pause with it, might be the dialogue and how there are no tags. But for this first 250, I think the dialogue works fine without them.

    For the query, I feel like there’s too much going on in that first paragraph. And the sentence that starts “An offer…” is complicated. It could at least be separated into two or more sentences/ideas, or just simplified. Just feels like every sentence is a new plot thread and they don’t quite gel together. But with a little work, I think it will be awesome.


    QUERY: I think the query is solid, and I’m rooting for the MC. The stakes are also clear. I think you might also point out something that sets the novel apart (makes it unique) and more than a love story.

    250: This is a strong 250. I really like the tension in the voice, and I would definitely request more pages after finishing this. I love his paranoia, his trying to figure out why his stuff was gone, the silence, and the pulling back of the curtain. Really good writing!