Friday, June 2, 2017

QK Round 1: Evil Spirit Goes AWOL vs. Girl of Your Nightmares

Title: Near-Life Experiences
Entry Nickname: Evil Spirit Goes AWOL
Word count: 97K
Genre: Young Adult Speculative


Diffident spirit-being Asher would have been happy working on his plant and animal prototype assignments—small pieces of the intricate Earth project—for all of eternity. But he and his peers have learned all they can in their present form. Earth will be a place they can finally acquire a mortal physical body and practice the theories they've learned for choosing joy and victory over sorrow and despair. If Asher successfully navigates the obstacles of mortality, he will be immortal and have the powers of a god. But if he stumbles, he could condemn himself and his friends.

Fearing pain and failure, Asher abandons his friends to follow malicious fellow-spirits who promise all the rewards of mortality without any risk. But far from the promised utopia, Asher is banished to Earth with the other rebels, cursed to wander forever as a bodiless spirit, unable to appreciate the world he helped create in a physical body of his own.

Trying to make the best of the near-life he's chosen, Asher joins his fellow outcasts' organization. But he soon realizes that he doesn't fit in; these spirits desire only power over others through manipulation and destruction. The friends Asher left behind will be born onto Earth soon, and he'll do anything to protect them from his evil comrades, even if he must pretend to enjoy his part in the plan to destroy the mortals.

When he finds out he's been used to prepare an attack on a mortal he loves, he must choose. He could keep his hard-earned position and attempt to deflect the attack from the inside. Or, he could defect and defend his friend from a powerful evil with nothing but second-hand experience with good. He will lose his insider advantage, but he may gain some unexpected help and a chance for that which he's come to desire most: a real Earth life in a body of his own.

First 250:

My life was over before it ever started.

Meira’s entire being glittered like the new seas of our emerging planet. “Tell me you’re not still thinking about joining the Air Creatures Council. Wasn’t that unbelievably amazing?” She beamed as we exited the presentation for Sea Creatures. We were still made up of pure energy at that point, and our emotions shone right through us. Depending on our mood, we blazed like living stars, or smoldered like dying embers.

It was amazing. Everything about the entire Earth Project filled me with awe. I loved every project I took on, creating and learning as much as I could about the world upon which we would live a new and fascinating mortal life. Earth was where we would finally put into practice the well-studied theories of light and darkness, good and evil, joy and misery, right and wrong. But I had not decided on my Phase Five project yet.

“I am still debating,” I said. “I mean, fish will swim. Mortal humans will swim and walk. But birds will swim, walk, and fly. Air creatures will have an escape when they feel overwhelmed or cornered in.”

But not me. All I ever did was follow. I was already deep underneath an ocean of information, worry, and impending decisions. It was Phase Five. Mortal life was only one Phase away, and I was far from ready for that moment of immense commitment.

Meira widened her bright, colorless eyes expectantly at me, so I finished my thoughts out loud.


Title: Lucid
Entry Nickname: Girl of Your Nightmares
Word Count: 93K
Genre: YA Psychological Suspense (ownvoices)


All Marlowe wants is control. Of herself, of her environment, and most importantly, of the people around her. When an attempt to prove the strength of her self-control through sleep deprivation lands Marlowe in the infirmary of The Diana Banesbury School for Exceptional Young Women, she crosses paths with Gwyn, Sloane, and Ellie. Gwyn, who developed major depression after the death of her brother, wants closure she’ll never get. Sloane, recovering from a black eye, wants an adventure to save her from the monotony of her daily life. Ellie, a student volunteer who recently transferred from her small hometown to the exclusive girl’s boarding school, just wants friends to make the adjustment easier. 

When Ellie offers lucid dreaming—the ability to control one’s dreams—as an unconventional solution to each of their problems, Marlowe sees a better opportunity. Under the pretext of a club for learning lucid dreaming, Marlowe convinces the girls to move to an abandoned classroom in the woods around the school, aiming to gain control by gaslighting and manipulating them until they’re incapable of differentiating reality from dream. As Gwyn, Sloane, and Ellie question their identities, realities, and the lies Marlowe has bound them with, they must find a way to wake themselves from her influence before they reach the end of a path leading to psychological destruction and death. 

LUCID is a 93,000 word #ownvoices YA contemporary psychological suspense, featuring a diverse LGBT cast and a protagonist struggling with major depression. 

First 250:

People didn’t tend to believe that insects had free will, but Marlowe never doubted. If something had free will, she could control it. The fly was no exception.

Marlowe was halfway through the second day of her vigil when the fly landed on the bulb of the green shaded lamp on her bedside table. The rest of the girls in the dormitory were asleep, which left Marlowe alone with the dark, the quiet, and the long wooden room with its vaulted ceilings and double rows of beds. She was wearing her favorite silk pajamas and doing fairly well considering it’d been nearly three days since she last slept.

She watched the fly intently, the way its filmy wings shuddered, how it threaded its spindly, segmented arms back and forth through its proboscis whenever it took a break from its paces along the surface of the hot glass. Once they’d been properly acquainted, Marlowe devoted her thin morning hours to mentally coaxing it in one direction or the other, “Come here,” “Go there,” over and over again.

Most of the time, it wouldn’t. But on the rare occasion that its movements aligned with her mental command, she became re-energized by the illusion that her will had been so strong that the insect had been unable to resist, that the sheer force of her own thoughts had pushed it back onto the glass bulb when it wandered off. She indulged in the fantasy that this small, fragile thing would burn itself alive if she wanted it.


  1. Thoughts on Evil Spirit:

    - The very first word in the query “diffident spirit-being” throws me off and I had to read it a few times. Maybe that’s just me. I would recommend finding something that more clearly states what he is.
    - As I keep reading, I have no idea what this story is about, truly, until the very last sentence. The word-building, which I am guessing is much more clear in the actual novel, is very muddy in the query. I’d suggest paring it all down to a hook—the stakes—and build back up. We probably don’t need quite so many details.
    - In the 250, I love the first sentence but for me, it doesn’t connect with the conversation that follows.
    - There’s a lot of telling, instead of showing. I think the dialogue is a good framework to go from, but show me they glow, don’t tell me. If he’s filled with awe, show me what that looks like.
    - I think the idea of their project going to the next phase is interesting—but I want more excitement and urgency from the main character.

    Thoughts on Lucid:

    - I am curious how Marlowe would define control. There’s a little bit of a leap between wanting control to landing in the hospital—what’s the missing piece?
    - This is a fascinating concept to me, start to finish. Would definitely read.
    - I like that you’re telling it from the POV of the villain. I think?
    - 93K seems pretty long – I’d probably look to trim this a bit.
    - The 250 – I think I understand what the goal of this scene with the fly is, but you lose me right away. I’m wondering if there’s a more interesting, action-y way to begin. What’s the next scene?

    Based on concept and my belief that the full novel is more than it’s 250, victory to LUCID!

  2. Evil Spirit Goes AWOL- I love the concept. It's clear from the query that they'll be some heavy themes involving good and evil, right and wrong, etc. As for the first 250, the hook and the first long paragraph drew me in. I felt the second paragraph could be slowed down, with more showing through dialogue and visuals of their emotions as emanations.

    Lucid- I get the impression from the query that the main character is the villain. If this is true, maybe bring this up early in the query.

    I loved the first 250. As someone who's been severely sleep deprived due to children, I recognized her mental state. I also liked that it showed her as being not the best at determining her own efficacy. She seems like a profoundly interesting character. I would definitely read this book.

  3. Evil spirit: I think "Diffident" is an unusual enough adjective that you don't want to begin with it, although it would be fine if used later. I don't have much else to add--it was a really interesting and original query. It sounds totally different from any book I've read before, which I like. The first 250 were definitely interesting, thrusting me into a completely new world, but we spent a lot time inside the main character's head. It would have been nice to see thoughts balanced out with description and action.

    Girl: Is the protagonist Gwyn or Marlowe? I thought it was Marlowe from the query, but you end by saying the main character has depression, which sounds like Gwyn. I think that's something to clear up. It would be pretty original to have a villain protagonist. The first 250 is intriguing: Marlowe is established right away as a really creepy character.

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  5. Also, minor point to Evil Spirit: you might try to narrow down your genre a bit more than "speculative." I'm sure this story is hard to classify. It seems like fantasy to me.


    Query: This is a pretty unique and interesting setup. I like that Asher chooses the easy path and ends up suffering the consequences for it. I don't get a strong sense of setting for where this is taking place though, other than "earth," nor do I know who this mortal is that he's risking all to save. If he or she is that crucial to Asher, I think getting some introduction of who they are and how they get to know Asher as a disembodied spirit is kind of crucial. The two possible choices given set up nice stakes, and the last bit about possibly getting a body of his own is a great note to end on.

    First 250: I really like the sense of wonder and scientific inspiration in Asher's voice here. As a fellow scientist, it makes him feel very endearing to me. I also really like the image it strikes of these floating energy beings attending classes and discussing Earth like a lab project. It's a really unique visual. I don't think it ends on the strongest note, though, and you could probably rearrange things or find a stronger sentence to finish your 250 on.


    Query: This sounds like the setup to a Lifetime Thriller, in the best possible way. I love the setup of this control-freak gaslighting these vulnerable girls to get the thrill of power over others. It's classic sociopathic behavior, and given that I'm reading a book on sociopathy right now, I really wish I had this on my bookshelf to read asap. Great stakes and description, and a great and very personal antagonist.

    First 250: This has such great, chilling voice. This is a perfect introduction to Marlowe, and the descriptions you use of the fly are so precise and anatomical as to give a very creepy, unsettling image. " She indulged in the fantasy that this small, fragile thing would burn itself alive if she wanted it" is a masterful line to end on that both repulses and draws you in. More please!

  7. Evil Spirit Goes AWOL: I felt a bit confused in the query. Perhaps having a fantasy setting requires some extra clarity since the reader can’t make as many assumptions. I was confused by “he could condemn himself and his friends.” That seemed vague. And “all the rewards of mortality without any risk.” If this is mortality as opposed to being a god, I think the risk is dying, right? In the first 250, I enjoyed the balance of completely exotic creatures on some other plane of existence who then have schedules and meetings and five-phase plans.
    Girl of Your Nightmares: Sloane is recovering from a black eye, but black eyes aren’t all that serious. You really just go about your day with a black eye. Is that important enough to put into the query? It seems that Gwyn is the protagonist, but I had originally assumed it would be Marlowe. Good first 250! The setting is atmospheric, and Marlowe is clearly malevolent and creepy.
    Good luck to both of you.

  8. Evil Spirit:
    Query: There’s too much setup here. Take your first two paragraphs and put them together and cut out as much as possible. All we need to know in that first paragraph is who/what Asher is, where he is, and a little bit about how he got there. Then in the new second paragraph (your third) give us the conflict as concisely as possible. If you can trim this down and get rid of all your repetitive language, you’ll have an intriguing query. Right now it’s too wordy and too repetitive which makes me worried about how the writing will be.
    250: I was wrong about the writing. Your 250 is good and not too wordy or repetitive as I feared it would be. The only problems for me are: 1.) the first sentence is great, but doesn’t fit with the rest of the scene. As good as it is, I’d cut it if you can’t tie it into the opening scene. 2.) it is a little telly. It’s far away from being the most telling narrative I’ve read, but it could use some work on showing in place of telling.

    Query: way too many names. Try to keep named characters to one, maybe two, hardly ever three in a query. You have 250ish words to attach us to your MC and if you are jumping between characters that’s nearly impossible to do. Marlowe seems to be the MC so focus on her and leave everyone else out. Instead of saying Ellie offers lucid dreaming, just say After Marlowe discovers lucid dreaming… If you can narrow this down to one character and give us more info about them and why we should care specifically about Marlowe, you will have a great query to match your great concept.
    Also, I’m not sure about the #ownvoices tag. You should definitely make sure it’s known in your query that this is Own Voices, but I just don’t know about the hashtag since this would be in an email. Hopefully someone else will be able to correct me on whether that’s right or not.
    250: I like this opening, but don’t love it. Having her “control” the fly tells us a lot about the character in a way. However, that way is an abstract one that’s (IMO) more suited for a different part of your MS. There’s nothing technically wrong with the writing, but it doesn’t grab you the way an opening should. I think if you were to start in a different place, somewhere where the narrative gives more of the MC, the environment, and/or the action (interaction) the MS is based on, that would be a stronger opening.

    Both have great concepts that could have great queries and both have great writing that, if moved around a bit, could make for a great opening. This is a hard one. I have to go with the 250 that showed the most promise so victory to Evil Spirit

  9. Near-Life Experiences:

    Query: I was confused in the first paragraph until I reached the second. I don’t know if this takes out a lot of the plot, but if you simplified it to something like, “Asher’s one of the key members for a new project: Planet Earth, but he’s impatient for the finish and makes a deal with a malicious fellow-spirit.”

    The writing is strong in this query, but even as I went on, there were just so many new aspects of a world introduced, that I glazed over a bit. Tighten the query for clarity.

    First 250:

    Also dumps a lot of information on the reader too quickly. Maybe more details on the Earth Project before introducing the Phase Five Project?

    From what I think this is about though, I like the premise! Just need to simplify the beginning a little bit to draw the reader in ☺


    Query: I’m intrigued! I would just leave out some of the details though—if you could summarize the friends’ history/reasons for going to the school, I think that would help it flow better, since a reader doesn’t need to know their history at this point, only that they’re at the school too.

    First 250:

    What do you mean by “thin morning hours”? That she doesn’t have a lot of time? I would use a different descriptor.

    Great characterization of Marlowe—definitely want to know more about her.

  10. Fellow Kombatant, here. Not a judge.
    Two more very strong entries.

    Evil Spirit Goes AWOL:
    What an intriguing concept. Very creative. My concern is that because you've got such an unusual set up you're feeling compelled to give a lot of backstory. I felt pretty confused by the end of the query, unfortunately. I know this is incredibly hard advice to follow, but can you take a step back from the story and look at it from an outsider's perspective? What your reader really needs to know is who your main character is, what conflict does he face, what are the repercussions if he fails, who's working against him. Do you absolutely have to have the explanation about spirit bodies and some of the thematic elements like "obstacles of mortality" and "theories they've learned for choosing joy and victory." Those are interesting ideas and I'm sure you've dealt well with them in the book, but they may not be necessary to mention here. Right now I think you need to cut out as much of the world building as you possibly can and introduce some specifics so I, as the reader, can engage with Asher. Good luck with revisions.

    Girl of Your Nightmares:
    I'm really fascinated by Marlowe from the first sentence of your query. It seems clear that she's going to be an anti-hero right away, and I'm always fascinated by that. I also love the name of the school and wonder what exactly "exceptional" means. Is it fantasy, is it something sinisiter, hmm… Exciting. The sentences which follow those about Marlowe, though, where you introduce the other girls, really muddy the waters for me. Four names in one paragraph is a lot. If you've ever read Query Shark, it's what she refers to as name soup. I think your focus really needs to remain on Marlowe (I'm assuming she's the protagonist. If she's not, I'm not sure what to tell you.) I think if you go beyond two named characters in a query it's just going to confuse your reader. The lucid dreaming element is very interesting, and overall the book sounds really compelling. That impression is cemented for me by the first 250 which are creepy and engaging. Already I'm so curious what's happening in Marlowe's head and what damage she's about the unleash. Nice job. Good luck with your revisions.

  11. These are both really strong entries.

    For AWOL, I agree with the other judges in that there's a lot going on here both in the query and first page. On the query, it seems like the inciting incident of the book is Asher's decision to abandon his friends and join the evil spirits. It seems like this should be given more weight somehow. I really enjoyed the 250. I think it could be tightened up a bit in terms of showing versus telling. Right now, for me, the dialogue is the strongest point of the 250.

    For NIGHTMARES, I loved the whole concept of this. I loved the idea of telling the story from what essentially seems like the villains perspective. BUT if this is Marlowe's story, then In the query, it feels off to have the stakes presented in terms of the need for the other girls to defeat Marlowe. I'd compare it to WICKED or something, which doesn't present the stakes in terms of Dorothy's need to defeat the wicked witch. I personally would clarify the #ownvoices aspect of it since right now it isn't clear whether the first hand experience is LGBT, the mental health component or both. I think the first page is great and I'm totally interested to know more.

    A great match up but victory to NIGHTMARES!

  12. Evil Spirit Goes AWOL: I like the concept very much but the query had way too many distracting details. The final paragraph seemed to have the most interesting plot points. These should be expanded upon. By elaborating more on the MC's difficult choice earlier in the query, the stakes will be clearer and more relatable to the reader.

    Lucid: I think the concept for this story is exceptionally unique and exciting. I was impressed with the strength of the query and the first 250 and honestly couldn't find anything wrong. Great job!


  13. The worst thing about voting late is that everyone's already said what I was thinking.

    Evil Spirit:
    I like the concept, but the query lost me. Similarly, the first page's formatting pulled me off. You don't need sentences such as "It was amazing." It's just telling, and the next one SHOWS it.

    Girl of Your Nightmares is a near-flawless entry. I re-iterate Peggy's comment about defining control, but other than that, great job. It's something I'd definitely read.


  14. Replying as Chief Doodler!

    Evil Spirit:

    Right off the bat, I'm concerned with how long the query is. So much information is given at the start that doesn't need to be there. Keep the bare minimum, and center around your main character. What does he want? What stands in his way? What is a diffident being? Where is the MC in this story? A space ship? I didn't get a clear and concise sense of the information I needed in this query to hook me. I found the same to be true in the 250 words. There was a lot of telling and not enough showing.


    I confess I had to reread this a few times to make sure I understood each character and the role they play in the story. First, is this story multiple POV? In general, keeping the character count to two people in a query is the best course. From the query, I get that Marlowe is the main character, som wondering if we need the other characters named in the query? It might read a little less confusing.
    The 250 words didn't grip me as much as I wanted. I wanted more from this opening scene. She can control things! Even a fly! I'd love for this opening scene to start with more action, with more of a stronger hook.

    In this case, I'm going with the concept that intrigued me the most and that's LUCID!

  15. Critique: Evil Spirit Goes AWOL
    “spirit-being” is a bit odd. I had to read it twice to figure out what it meant, which isn’t great for a first sentence. The query itself shows me stakes and character, but the plot seems to kind of double back on itself. It’s a bit unclear, so it’s hard to explain, other than to say that the last 2 paragraphs I read twice and still feel a bit lost. Clarify but don’t over explain is easy advice to give, but much harder to realize. So I hate to give it, but over all, I’m intrigued.
    First 250 words:
    I like the world you are making here, but it took me a bit to understand who Meira was. Other than that, I liked it a lot, it’s setting things up. I think it does a good job of masking the info dump, by showing us more how Asher feels/reacts to it. So good job on that!

    Critique: Girl of Your Nightmares
    I’m interested. It’s like FoxFire meets Girl Interrupted. However, what you’ve done is establish characters, the plot, the stakes, and what makes your novel special. You did this while being especially concise so great job!
    First 250 words:
    All good info, and since it’s night time and dark and she’s sleep deprived, I can forgive a lot. Ultimately though, I think you’d want to start ratcheting up the drama a bit faster. Remember you need to start at the inciting incident. If the next two pages involves whatever happens to land her in the The Diana Banesbury School for Exceptional Young Women, then you are good to go, but I wish I was seeing that here. However, you query is polished enough that I’m willing to take it on faith.

    Verdict: Girl of Your Nightmares grabs victory solely based on the polish of the query and the fact that I’m more interested in the story.
    WINNER GOES TO: Girl of Your Nightmares

    Posting for Silent Siren

  16. coming down to the wire here, so I'm going to vote and *IF YOURS IS THE ENTRY THAT DOESN'T MAKE IT THROUGH* and you want/need more feedback aside from what's already been posted - reach out to me via the tag on twitter (tag both my name #sailorsun and #querykombat) and I'll find you. I'd be more than happy to work with you on the query + first chapter.


  17. Evil Spirit Goes AWOL

    This has a strong hook. But I think the stakes need to be set up better. For instance, what exactly is the spirit existence if he needs to become human to experience a mortal life, and needs to do that in order to earn an immortal life (thus suggesting he is something other than either of those options)?

    The query is currently running over 300 words, and I would suggest cropping to bring it down under 250. By doing so, you’ll eliminate some unnecessary detail and streamline the main thrust of the pitch. Also, if there is a central love interest (as the final paragraph seems to suggest) then more should probably be said about it. Finally, it feels slightly more like a synopsis than a query pitch. As you’re revising, think short and snappy and focusing on grabbing the reader’s attention over explaining the entire plot.

    First 250 Words:
    While I really like the overall concept being presented here, the opening page is mostly “telling” (that is, the narrator explaining a bunch of stuff to the reader). Telling is fine as a literary device, but in that case the voice has to absolutely grab the reader’s attention and not let go, and right now it isn’t doing that (at least not for me anyway). More sense of personality from the POV character would strengthen things considerably.

    Girl of Your Nightmares

    Another intriguing premise. Having a main character as a villain is fine so long as it’s handled well. In terms of the query, I think right now it suffers from too many named characters and their descriptions, and needs more description of the stakes and the final hook. Why is Marlowe doing this? What specifically compels her? Details are your best friend in a query. Give your reader explicit details as to what is driving the MC’s actions, and leave them dangling with the choice she has to make (rather than having the hook focus on the three other girls). Also, the final paragraph is unnecessary for the purposes of QK (though do keep it in when you send out the query to agents).

    First 250 Words:
    There’s a lot to like in this opening page. It gives a clear sense of the mind frame of the POV character and her relationship with reality. My main criticism here would be the same with the first entry: Opt for showing vs telling wherever possible (for example, phrases like “She watched” that distance the reader from what’s happening).


    Both queries are going to need some heavy revising if they’re going to make it through the next round, in my opinion. But the 250 for one entry definitely stood out for me. So it’s victory to GIRL OF YOUR NIGHTMARES!