Friday, June 2, 2017

QK Round 1: Pitt Bull Seeks Custody vs. From Gutters to Galleries

Title: Pitt Bull Seeks Custody
Nickname: Pitt Bull Seeks Custody
Word Count: 93K
Genre: Adult Mainstream


Homeless, like his father, David Taylor will never be. He'd rather use his balls for stew than turn into that man. To prove he's successfully left his past behind, David's family doesn't live an average life despite him earning an average wage. Society won't judge him a product of his upbringing. He's made sure of that. So when his daughter dies in a plane crash and he finds his wife floating in the bathtub, David struggles with a sense of abandonment he hasn't felt since the age of eight.  

Consumed with bitterness, David fails to see his teenage son, Tom, drowning in survivor guilt and the heavy burden of doubting his mother loved him. But there is one person watching; David's pit bull of a sister-in-law, Jen.

Jen hates David with the same intensity that she loves Tom. Unable to have children, Tom is the only family she has left, and she won't lose him. She files for custody of Tom and knows she'll win. She has someone in her corner David can't refute. Tom's biological father.

Faced with Tom discovering his secret in court, David tells Tom the truth; no drop of blood could make him any less his son. But all Tom sees is a man who has lied to him all his life and he runs away. While searching for Tom, David realises he's built his life on the fear of the past. When Tom returns, David vows to change. Tom vows to change too. He moves out and lives with Jen, cutting David from his life.

To win Tom back, David knows he must do something he swore he never would. He walks away from his son. The difference between David and his father is David realises it's not that a life without family isn't worth living, it's that with a family, life is worth fighting for. Everything David once held in regard, a house, a fancy school, a powerful career, he leaves behind and fights for Tom's forgiveness. And for the first time in his life, David feels as if he's winning.

First 250: 

The train hurtles through Melbourne suburbs and for three stops my wife's face fills the screen of my phone. I flick her photo back and forth so the screen won't go black, sliding her face as far left as possible before letting the image bounce back into place. Kaitlyn is smiling, but with each slide her eyes take on the look of a creature going insane from repeated routines and a tortured life. The screen goes black, so I press the button and her face appears, smiling, her eyes squinting. No hint of crazy.

Black. Slide. Smiling. Black. Slide. Smiling.

Maybe I'm going crazy.

I lift my glasses, close my eyes and rub my brow. Kaitlyn might understand my decision to stay. Sophie and Tom, at the ages of eight and thirteen, won't. I push my glasses down and stare at the reflection in the wet window of a man with dark hair cut too short, thinning his face, beard stubble failing to add a sense of youth or edge. A spunk rat Kaitlyn called me on our fourth date. Now, more rat than spunk. I look past my has-been image and watch weeds, fast-moving graffiti, and the ass-ends of buildings flash by. Houses no bigger than LEGO pieces link along the track, each vulnerable to vandals and squatters and stray dogs pissing on walls. 

Dogs with no masters, no rules, no straps clamped over their mouths, just wandering the streets pissing on whatever and whoever they choose.


Title: Only When I Fall
Entry Nickname: From Gutters to Galleries
Word count: 80K
Genre: Upmarket Fiction


Tris, a homeless heroin addict tormented by the voice of Vincent van Gogh, struggles to survive on the streets of Boston. A one time graffiti artist, Tris escapes his harsh reality by immersing himself in his inner world of sketches and classical painting. But he can't hide in his art forever. When Mia, his drug dealer and ex-girlfriend, secretly enters one of his paintings into an online art contest, the image goes viral, sparking a widespread search for a troubled loner with a singular gift.

But not everyone searching for Tris means him well. A posh art dealer with a trail of disappearing protégés and his sights set on his next mark, a social network moderator obsessed with the anonymous contest entry, and a groundskeeper required to evict the homeless are all closing in on the abandoned utility room under a Charles River bridge where Tris has been staying.

Unaware of the ripple effect his mysterious painting has had on the people who've seen it, Tris battles his addiction with the hopes of getting clean and reconciling with Mia, who fights to save the man she wishes she didn't love. As the circle grows tighter, Tris must shake the pursuers on his heels, the voice in his head, and the heroin in his veins, or risk losing not only his life's work and the person he loves, but the very life to which he clings.

First 250:

The Museum of Fine Arts was humming. Patrons clopped around on marble tile toward the new Vermeer exhibit, loners sketched landscapes in their spiral pads, and tour guides directed groups between potted ferns from the European galleries to the Americas. An odd tang of coffee and parmesan wafted from the café on the first floor.

Mia Clarke wiped down table five, the edge of her full-sleeve tattoos peeking out from beneath the black uniform shirt cuffs buttoned at her wrists. Peering out through her purple glasses, she brushed a strand of pink hair behind her ear. As she rushed to take an order from a customer at the next table over, a different kind of customer stepped into the café.

She saw Tris out of the corner of her eye. He was hard to miss.

His dirty blonde hair was matted and fell past his shoulders like a neglected houseplant, its tendrils winding their way through his overgrown beard. Glancing around the room, he found an empty chair and slid into it. Their eyes met and she raised a finger for him to give her a minute.

Finishing up with her customer, Mia approached.

"Hey, Tris. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

He sat hunched over the table, his eyes unreadable. "No thanks. Just a fruit cup."

A thin sigh escaped her lips. "How about a muffin or something?"

"Not today."

She knew he didn't care about the fruit. He came for the heroin she slipped inside.


  1. Judges can reply with their feedback and vote here.

    1. Pitt Bull:
      There are too many named characters in this query. simply take out the names of anyone but David and refer to everyone else as son, daughter, sister-in-law, etc. There is also a lot going on in this story in terms of plot. I understand that there are probably a lot of great plot points that you want to hit on, but it comes across as too much info packed into a small space. Try to focus on the most important conflict in the MS and leave the rest for the reader to enjoy once they request to read your manuscript.
      The 250 is excellent. It is one of the best 250s I've read so far so if you can work on making the query more concise, you will have an excellent entry.

      Excellent query, excellent 250. There is nothing I would change in either.

      Both have some of the strongest 250s I've read in the whole kompetition, but one has a better query. Normally I put more weight on the 250 than the query, but since they are both on par with each other, I have to go with the better query: Victory to GUTTERS!

    2. Thoughts on Pit Bull:

      - The first sentence is super-awkward. You could lose a reader right there.
      - The entire first paragraph, actually, doesn’t flow for me. There’s a lot about his father and then his family is suddenly dead? I’m confused.
      - There are entirely too many people named in this query. I’m having a hard time figuring out what this is about because it’s got so much going on. I would strongly recommend paring it down to the hook/stakes and building back up.
      - The 250 is fine. It doesn’t suck me in, but it doesn’t turn me off either.
      - Is this the right place to start? There’s a lot of description, but I don’t really learn much about your main character or what’s going on.

      Thoughts on Gutters:

      - I’m curious about Tris already after a few sentences.
      - Why would a drug dealer enter a client into an art contest? Are they still involved so Mia would have access to Tris’ art?
      - Is the painting anonymous because Tris is homeless and no one knows where he is? Because I would assume Mia would’ve put his name on the entry and that she probably knows where he is…
      - The mention of the groundskeeper seems unnecessary for the query.
      - Is this dual POV? I’m wondering how the reader knows what’s going in behind the scenes with the painting while Tris does not.
      - I like the 250, would definitely read more.
      - My only concern is that it appears, from the opening, that Mia is the MC, and in the query, it seems like it’s Tris. Clarify.

      With a few tweaks, my vote goes for the story that grabbed me more and that is much closer to being ready to move forward – victory to GUTTERS!

    3. This is a really tough match up!

      For Pit Bull: The query to me reads much more like a short synopsis. I think there's just too much going on. I would definitely urge some revision, maybe sticking to the Character, Conflict, Cost format. I thought the first page was excellent.

      For Gutters: I like both the query and the first page. However, I definitely agree with the other judges in that it seems like Tris is the MC from the query while Mia is the MC on the first page. If Mia is the MS or if the book is dual POV, I would recommend bringing that out in the query.

      Both entries are awesome but victory to GUTTERS!

    4. Critique:
      Query: Pitt Bull Seeks Custody
      This Query is unbelievably rough. It’s overly long, and is essentially a poorly disguised plot synopsis and it does nothing to make me want to read this story. Honestly, the plot is convoluted, and the description of the motivation of the characters is confusing. The first sentence is also very poorly drafted, I had to read it twice to even understand what it was saying. It’s not grammatically incorrect, but in terms of how one might express that idea, it’s far from the best way. I’d recommend scrapping this query entirely and starting over. You need to explain who the characters are, the stakes of the story (something about two people vying for custody and both seemingly having good reasons to truly fight?) and what makes your story interesting/stand out. This does none of those, except that is stands out for all the wrong reasons.

      I hope this doesn’t seem overly harsh, and if it does, please know that when I wrote my first query it had all of these issues. I ultimately sold my novel once I rewrote my query (and the first few chapters) and I’m certain you can too. However, you really need to put in some work to get it there. Read successful queries, and focus on the major points I’ve stated above.

      First 250 words:
      There is some nice stuff here, but it too seems to be taking forever to get to the point. Your first page needs to essentially give the reader some idea of the entire story, and here, I’m mainly getting setting and backstory. You’d likely do better to rewrite this.

      Critique: From Gutters to Galleries
      I love this whole setup, and you do a decent job of explaining the stakes. It seems a little odd the posh art dealer has a string of protégés that are going missing and no one seems to connect those dots, but given the strength of the rest I’m willing to accept that the novel explains it. You’ve earned the trust and interest of the reader, so good job. I do think you might want to sprinkle in Mia a bit more, or possible less. I had a lot of questions about her:
      Why did they break up?
      Why did she enter him?
      What does she wish she didn’t love him, even after getting sober?
      First 250 words:
      Pretty good, though you could likely cut some stuff. You get to the point and you give us the premise. So overall you’ve got good marks here. The only bit that really took me out was:

      “Finishing up with her customer, Mia approached.”

      It seemed odd since she’d essentially signaled “1 minute” to him in the previous paragraph. I assumed “her customer” was who was was approaching. I’m not sure how to fix it as written, aside from scrapping it entirely and finding a simple way to connect the two moments, or simply not adding this beat at all (I’m not sure it adds much.)

      Verdict: This one, there is no question. From Gutters to Galleries is the clear winner
      WINNER GOES TO: From Gutters to Galleries

    5. Pitt Bull Seeks Custody

      This sounds like a story with some real emotional depth, and that’s bound to pull readers in. Having said that, the query is too long by at least 100 words (average query target range is 200–250 words) and not as clear as it needs to be (and also quite repetitive in places). Cut away the clutter and give a lean, clear account of the stakes. And what exactly is the final hook? Why does David have to choose between the rest of his life (house, career, etc.) and his son? The choice needs a proper setup for the hook to work, so we need to know these details.

      First 250 Words:
      Strong opening. I would suggest dropping the line “Maybe I'm going crazy.” Since it doesn’t seem to fit and in any case is a bit too telling. Also, consider starting a new paragraph at “I look past my has-been image and watch weeds…”

      From Gutters to Galleries

      An intriguing premise with a lot of complexity. I would suggest moving everything after “When Mia” to the second paragraph for more logical sections. Question: If Tris is unaware of the effect his art has had on people, how does he know there are people after him? Also, the hook at the end mentions four different things he must do or risk losing his life, but not all of those things will kill him. I would clarify the stakes and narrow down the final hook to the most essential.

      First 250 Words:
      This opening does a nice job of introducing the setting and characters. But while the writing is functioning well on the descriptive level, I think it needs more voice to really catch a reader’s attention. If Mia is the POV character here, we should get a sense of her personality, how she views the world. Right now the narrative is informative, but not really personal. Minor note: I would suggest dropping the name from this line: “She saw Tris out of the corner of her eye.” To allow the mystery of the identify to build more. She says his name a few lines down anyway.


      I would say the query for the second entry is the clearer of the two, but I find the voice in the first much stronger, so I’m declaring victory to PITT BULL SEEKS CUSTODY!


      The voice in your 250 is super good. Totally unique and I would gladly read more of that.

      The query itself reads a little awkward. Could be your sentence structure, or even the way your wording lands. You could benefit by shortening your sentences, really finding your plot in there, and then making that your sole focus. I also really think you've got way too many a) character names in there and b) plot lines. Just give us the key points.

      Stick a fork in me, I'm done. STELLAR query.
      I'd like to see the first 250 focus more on your Tris though, because I didn't get a clear picture of why I like him or why I SHOULD like him. This is upmarket fic though, so maybe I WON'T like him at all. I DO, however, need to care enough to keep reading, so give us what we need to focus on.


  2. These both seem very interesting.

    In Pit Bull Seeks Custody, I found myself a little confused by the phrasing in the final paragraph concerning David walking away from his son. I think more elaboration is needed about how David can simultaneously walk away from Tom, but also fight for his forgiveness. I think the premise is very intriguing and the first 250 are good. A few tweaks to the query seems to be all that's needed.

    In From Gutters to Galleries, I felt the query and first 250 were clear, interesting, and very unique. Great job!

    Victory goes to From Gutters to Galleries!

  3. From LisaR: Pit Bull Seeks Custody, this is a great premise, a custody battle for David after all that he has already lost. I feel that if you eliminate the first four backstory sentences and begin the query with his wife and daughter's death and his not noticing the pain his son is in, you will have a strong punch to open with.

    From LisaR: From Gutters to Galleries, this is an intriguing and well layered plot. My only comment is that the query makes Tris seem like the MC, but the first 250 words are from Mia's pov which threw me a bit.

  4. Pit Bull: I'd rephrase the first sentence--the reverse-order makes it a bit confusing. I love your second sentence; "balls for stew" is a great line. However, I wasn't sure what "average life" refers too--do you mean they're living outside their means? The premise later hooked me, this sounds like a good story. 250: Like in the query, the sentence "A spunk rat Kaitlyn called me on our fourth date" is flipped around in a confusing way.

    Gutters: Interesting premise and very strong closing line. 250: This might somewhat be a matter of opinion, but the second paragraph dropped several little bits of description and no full description. I kind of wanted one or the other: either a full description of Mia, or only one hint.

  5. Pit Bull:

    Query: I may be in the minority here, but this sounds more like a synopsis than a query. What happens after he walks away from his son? That seems like the end of the story to me. Can you revise it so that it ends on a question of whether or not he'll leave his son? The wording is confusing in the first sentence, but I feel like you can fix that later on.

    It's a sad, somber start, but I like it. I'm not a fan of the description of him looking in the window (a bit cliche), but everything else looks good!


    Excellent query! I really can't find anything wrong with it. Great job :D

    Not a big fan of all the description of the characters on the very first page. As Katherine suggested, I'd say pick one character to describe and you can work in the other details later. Amazing closing line, and I can already tell Mia cares for him in her own way. One thing that is more of an observation than a critique: the pages seem to suggest Mia is the MC, not Tris. I'm not sure if that changes later, but it threw me off a bit. Great job!

    Good luck to both entries!

  6. Pit Bull:
    The first lines of the query confused me a bit. I think the query overall could be tighter and jump sooner to the upheaval in David's life of losing his wife and daughter--and feeling that, despite all his efforts, he's failed them? I'd suggest keeping the query focused more on David as well. The bouncing back and forth between David, Jen, and Tom's motives and emotions made it hard to ground into any of them. (Is this a multiple POV novel?) I think the query might give away too much of the story as well, and I'm a little confused how walking away from his son constitutes David fighting for his family and Tom's forgiveness.

    I'm intrigued! Love the tension here, and the promise of an unconventional manhunt hinted at the in the query. I'm a little confused why/how Mia enters her ex-lover's art in a contest, but I'm supposing this is connected her to wanting to save the man she wishes she didn't love. (Again, great layering of the tension.)

    Good luck to both!

  7. Pit Bull- As others have said, the first sentence of the query was a bit confusing. At first I thought it meant David was homeless. I was also confused as to why he'd be walking away from Tom. Otherwise, it seems like a strong premise with lots of tension. I liked the mood of the 250, especially the descriptions of the buildings and dogs. Seeing his own reflection seems cliche to me. You could probably give us an impression of his disheveled state without a full physical description.

    Galleries- I love the premise. The query lays out a lot of necessary information clearly. As for the 250- describing two characters in one page feels like a lot to me. Maybe trim some of the description.

  8. Pitt Bull Seeks Custody

    In your query, I don’t feel like the first paragraph adds much to the overall picture of David. You mention his father and their fancy life later, which covers his past just fine. I think the idea of the custody battel is very interesting and the next few paragraphs cover the struggle well. The last paragraph seemed to end with very little stakes. It seems like in the end he gives his son space and everything is working out. Maybe the stakes are whether the son will return? I just feel it could be worded better.

    I liked the first 250, especially the part with him looking at his wife’s picture on the phone. I’m not quite sure if this is before or after her death though. I think maybe before, since he talks about his family understanding his decision to stay. The imagery is good when describing the scene from the train. I think the question of what his “decision to stay” means propels the story forward with the reader wanting to know more.

    From Gutters to Galleries

    Great query! I think it is good as is.

    In your first 250, I would just echo the sentiments of the others and not describe two characters. I would focus on Tris, since he is the one we are most interested in based on the query. The last line was perfect.

  9. Pitt Bull, I'm surprised by your query. It feels more like a summary than back jacket blurb, which is what I've heard is the goal. Your first line gets David's strength across, but I think that end phrase, "will never be", weakens the voice, which can't be good in a first line.

    Pitt Bull, I'm intrigued by David's thoughts of crazy and viewing the photo of his wife in your first 250, though I was confused about what it meant by "decision to stay". I wasn't sure if that meant he was leaving her and the kids by staying somewhere else... I also wasn't sure why she'd understand, since she might be crazy.

    Gutters, your query letter left me with a nagging question about the characters' relationship. I know it's complicated, but I had some trouble accepting the idea that Mia fights for the man she loves by being his drug dealer. Also, when I read the query, I assumed she was a drug dealer by occupation, though after reading the 250 I assume she is only in it to supply him. Also, I'm confused about whether Tris is the main character, which seemed the case in the query, or if Mia is, which seemed the case in the first 250.

    Gutters, my main reaction to your 250 was surprise that she passed on the heroin while at work. I liked how the first paragraph starts with a wide-angle, the museum, the patrons, before zooming in on Mia. I didn't mind the description of both characters. If you have to cut any about her, I think the pink hair is worth keeping because of the movement and it is perhaps telling, but maybe the purple glasses might not be as natural a thing for Mia to mention.

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  11. Pitt Bull Seeks Custody

    -I stumbled over the first sentence, but I understood it once I read the second sentence. I'm not sure if you need to changing anything here, but I thought you should know!
    -I'd change that semicolon in the second paragraph to a colon.
    -This is just personal preference, but I'm not a fan of comparing that woman to a pitt bull; it's a pretty big disservice to pitt bulls, and makes me hesitant about what other comparisons you might make in the story.
    -The fourth paragraph feels rather stiff to me. It's a lot of "this happens, then this happens" without really connecting with the reader or showing us how/why these things matter.
    -I like the final paragraph. The stakes are clear and I want to root for David!

    First 250:
    -Good opening and voice!
    -I'm not a fan of the cliche "observing himself in a reflection" thing. Is there a more unique way to show us how he looks? Or could you move this later into the story?
    -In the final sentence, I'm pretty sure "whoever" should be "whomever".

    From Gutters to Galleries

    -This sounds very interesting. I like the premise here!
    -The second paragraph seems to clash with the first sentence of the third paragraph. You explain all the people looking for Tris and why, but then you say that Tris is unaware of the effect his painting has on the people who've seen it. I'm not sure if this means he's unaware WHY people are looking for him, or if he is just unaware of how the painting touches other people. Could you clarify this?

    First 250:
    -I can see from the first 250 that this story isn't only from Tris's POV, so I do think that clears up some of the confusion I had above. Maybe that could be made clearer in the query?
    -Intriguing opening, and great final line.

  12. Pit Bull Seeks Custody

    Query – You’ve got a strong voice, but I’m lost in the first paragraph. It needs to be trimmed and sharpened. If I understand right, David lives beyond his means to prove he’s better than his loser dad, yes? What does that have to do with feeling abandoned when his daughter and wife die? (I assume “floating in the bathtub” refers to suicide.) I also don’t get why walking away from his son is somehow fighting for his family. Overall, I think you could do with really simplifying and telling the story in a more straightforward way.

    250 – Again, this is more convoluted than it needs to be. Can’t David just open his phone and look at the picture? Why does he have to keep sliding it? This whole section doesn’t tell me anything about David or his wife. If he were focused on staring at her picture and looking for hidden clues that something was wrong, that would make sense, be poignant, and tell me something about him.
    I think the way David describes the scenery in the next section does a good job of showing his personality or at least his current state of mind. The problem is, it’s not portraying a character I want to spend much time with. Is he supposed to be so unsympathetic?

    From Gutters to Galleries

    Query – I like this query. It paints a clear picture of a man whose life is a mess but who hasn’t given up hope. I’m interested in the ways the success of his art contest entry could actually go badly for him. I did get confused in the last paragraph. If Tris is unaware of the ripple effect of his painting, how does he know there are pursuers he needs to shake off? Does he know people are searching for him because of the painting or not? But even with that bit of confusion, it sounds like a great story.

    250 – Is this first page in Mia’s POV? That surprised me, considering the whole query was from Tris’s perspective. Also, it struck me as weird that Mia seems so worried about Tris’s health. Are drug dealers usually concerned with what their clients eat? And she’s dealing heroin in the museum where she works? That seems…risky. Overall, the first page didn’t quite live up to the tension that the query promised. Is there a more interesting moment to start?

  13. Replying as Chief Doodler:

    Pit Bull:

    There are few things going on with this query that are hindering it from truly shining. First, there is a lot of information coming across all at once, too many characters, and too much of what happens in the story.
    A query is a brief glimpse into what the story is about. You don't need to put it too much too hook the reader. I would strongly encourage following the three paragraph rule of thumb.
    The first paragraph should introduce the main character and what they want. Their big desire, the force driving them onward. Then you should mention what's standing in their way. In the second paragraph, highlight the inciting incident. What happens where everything changes for your main character? What's the big event that catapults the story? This is a great place to introduce the antagonist, or significant secondary character (and as a rule of thumb, only have two naked characters in your query). The third paragraph is all about the stakes. What happens to David, should the worst happen? What will he lose?
    I loved the voice in the 250 word sample! After reading it, I was a bit bummed to have not seen that in the Query. I think it will make it so much stronger!


    Interesting query—my only gripe is the second paragraph! It's a beast of a sentence, and in general, the best Queries stand out by using shorter and punchier sentence structure.
    I liked the writing sample, however I was completely thrown to be in Mia's head. I thought Tris was the main character given the query. I'd rework the query in Mia's point of view if she is in fact the main character.

    Winner goes to GUTTERS!

  14. Wow, so much human interest in both of these entries!

    Pit Bull: This is a story that seems so true to me, lifted from the drama of real life. So many families break apart in this way, and the well-meaning aunt seeking custody to fill her own void echoes reality in an uncanny way. Stellar query, gold star pages. It's true, the first-chapter-reflection-study is cliche, so be careful of that, but it was so well done and natural, I didn't mind. And the voice of your main character! I didn't think I could identify and care so much for a middle-aged male protagonist. And the redemption story here is irresistible, since so many families split apart, but are never pieced together by a father who truly accepts responsibility and seeks the forgiveness of those he has hurt.


    I can tell Mia is going to be a really controversial character, here (LOVE?HATE?) because even from the query she's evoking strong feelings. I hope you continue on as you have in the first page - painting a complex, flawed character who is destroying the MC even though she's trying to help him. And who wouldn't be rooting for him? The one thing I would change, would be to emphasize why Mia and Tris should be together. Most readers aren't going to be on board with them reconciling, since it seems like it would be better for them both to break it off and seek help (MEGA-TOXIC relationship!!). You're going to need a strong selling point to convince us that their relationship is worth fighting for.