Wednesday, June 14, 2017

QK Round 2: Nowhere Land vs. Estella +Ayron

Entry Title:  Nowhere Land
Word Count:  78,000
Genre:  #ownvoices historical YA (MC is biracial w/ black father, white mother)


In 1969, Rett syndrome is unheard of. But come hell or high water, Jackie is determined to discover the reason why her four-year-old sister, Evie, suddenly lost the ability to speak and control her hands.  Her parents accept their small town doctor’s generic diagnosis that Evie was born with physical and mental impairments and will remain “slow” her entire life. Jackie doesn’t buy it. Evie wasn’t born that way; she regressed just before turning two.  So, Jackie spends months secretly mailing letters to various doctors around the country, convinced that if she can find one expert with a possible explanation for Evie’s symptoms, it will force her parents down a path toward determining the cause.

That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen-year-old, though, and no amount of getting drunk with her flower child friends, flirting with a guy who’s caught her eye, or fighting with her June Cleaver-ish mother keeps Evie’s condition from constantly gnawing away at the back of Jackie’s mind. When she finally hears of a doctor in Austria who might have an answer to the riddle that is Evie, Jackie’s world begins to brighten.  But, Evie’s disability becomes too much for her mother and father to handle, and they make plans to institutionalize her in another state.

Disgusted with her parents’ cruel plan, Jackie takes off on a planned trip to the Woodstock music festival with her friends. What they don’t know, however, is that she has no intention of returning with them. If Evie won’t be in Everton, Jackie can’t be either. But, the guilt of leaving weighs heavily on her mind. As Woodstock ends, Jackie must decide to find a new life elsewhere or return home to advocate for her sister and fight her parents in a decision she knows is not hers to make. 

Written as a series of flashbacks during Jackie’s time at Woodstock, FOLLOW THE SUN brings attention to Rett syndrome, a rare and debilitating genetic neurological disorder discovered in 1966 that, as Jackie discovers, has no known cure.  The search for an accurate diagnosis affects every single member of a family.  This is a frustration I know all too well, as my own daughter, originally misdiagnosed with autism, was finally correctly diagnosed with Rett syndrome when she was three. This is also an #ownvoices manuscript, as Jackie and I are both biracial.

First 250:

Woodstock Music & Art Fair, August 1969
Day One – Late Afternoon

I inhale the scents of lost inhibitions disguised as weed and booze. They’re so thick it’s as if I can reach out and touch them; literally get a contact high. After hours of waiting, the music’s finally starting. For most, time has no place here. You simply exist. It is today. The time is now. And it’s all good. But my mind flickers like the flashes of a camera between photos of the before and the after. The past and the present. The agony that brought me to this point and where it might lead me in the future.

Between Evie and this field full of strangers.

The odors surrounding me vanish, replaced by the memory of more comforting aromas: cookies and apple juice. I smile, in spite of myself. But those thoughts angle my mind toward others that curdle my stomach, like Evie at the supper table with my parents, her hands wringing all over themselves. I’m not there as I should be, and she doesn’t understand why. The image of her face in my head makes each beat of my heart push my chest one notch higher on my personal threshold of pain. Like some great chasm has cracked along my sternum, leaking a burning fire through the rest of my body.

I ache to see her, but I can’t go back home. Not after what I found out. Not after what I learned.

I swear I’ll never go back to Everton.


Title: Secrets in the Stone
Entry Nickname: ESTELLA+AYRON
Word Count: 77,000
Genre: YA Historical Fiction


In 1912, eighteen-year-old Estella Ripley would rather study nude portraits in Paris than bow to the conventional duties her vain, judgmental aunt has deemed important. After another argument with her aunt, Estella makes plans to live in Paris, away from the family's eerie island manor that boasts peculiar perspiring stone walls and an ominous underground passage. But Paris is not in her future, because she learns she has inherited her beloved grandfather's estate nearly a decade after his death – and the estate is in financial trouble.

With her plans for Paris now at a halt, Estella grapples with the difficulties of running the large manor on her own. She enlists the help of the estate's enigmatic attorney, Edward Maxwell, whose trustworthy assistance attracts her to him. When Estella discovers that Edward is conspiring with her aunt to usurp Ripley Manor by marriage to Estella, she flees, unable to face the betrayal of the only person she trusted.

Before she can get to Paris, Estella's boat capsizes, and she discovers a secluded glen in the middle of a remote forest where several clans of Irish fugitives have built homes and thrived for nearly a century. Estella befriends the Irish and, through keen insight and her affinity for interloping, they confess the glen's history is directly related to her grandfather. But when Edward Maxwell tracks down Estella to reveal that he, too, has discovered the glen's secrets and will use them to blackmail her into marriage, Estella must decide: yield to a restricted albeit financially stable life with Edward pulling all the strings, or find a way to extinguish his control before he exposes and destroys every precious secret her grandfather left her to protect.


Stabbing someone was a messy endeavor. Still, it got the job done.

Admittedly, the closest Estella Ripley would ever dare come to touching her aunt was in her imagination, where she could plunge the tip of her mechanical pencil into Florence's chest. But since the woman had no heart, this would be rather ineffective. Stabbing her in the stomach would prove futile, as her whalebone corset would likely obstruct any puncture. A pencil to the neck might work—

No, Estella, she scolded herself. You are not her. You are better than Florence.

"Mrs. Allchurch will attend your party tonight," Florence said. They sat for tea in the chilly, stiff drawing room. "We'll have to open the double doors just to enable the entrance of that Clydesdale of a woman."

Estella bit her tongue, as she had for the past ten years in her aunt's presence. She promised herself she would not engage in this game of ignorance; it was too easy to become Florence, too easy to veer toward that clear, spiteful path. Estella must endure just a few months more until she was free of her aunt's hideous lacework of self-righteousness. Vicious daydreaming would only make Estella resemble Florence, which was the last thing Estella wanted.

Yet if her aunt could get away with murder, then so could Estella…

"Thank you for joining me, Niece. I see you so rarely. You're always tucked away somewhere with that pencil drawing God knows what. Sometimes I feel we live in separate residences."

If only, Estella mused.


  1. Judges please respond with your feedback and vote here.

    1. Sorry! Posted in the wrong thread so reposting here.

      AnonymousJune 14, 2017 at 11:37 AM

      Nice hook. I feel like toward the end of the first paragraph things get wordy, and it ultimately reads a tad too long. Nice stakes in the second paragraph. In the third paragraph, you/Evie calling her parents’ plan to institutionalize Evie “cruel” made me wince. I know you have a daughter with Rett syndrome, and so of course you would have opinions about that, but I’d consider dialing it back a little or rewording it so it sounds more like it’s Evie’s opinion, rather than fact, just because I would imagine that every situation is different and some perfectly loving parents have made that choice.
      Overall, your sentences read a tad long and so do the paragraphs. I’d consider cutting some to add a little more punch. Other than that, though, well done. The story sounds heartbreaking and important, the stakes are clear, and we already identify with Evie’s plight. The fact that your daughter has this condition and that you’ve gone through Evie’s search yourself adds so much emotional punch. I just read about the syndrome. Sounds just devastating. I am so sorry about what you and your family went through.

      Nice opening! I like the pun in the second sentence but it feels like a little self-consciously clever, so I’d consider cutting that second part of the phrase or rewording it so you don’t italicize.

      Stories told in flashbacks are risky. I really like this opening, but it does read a bit like a prologue.

      I’d sub another word for “wringing.” Also “I’m not there as I should be,” reads a tad confusing.

      Nice hook. Establishes character and conflict. Using “peculiar” and “perspiring” felt like at least one too many adjectives for me. The fact that her boat capsizes right in the middle of the glen holding a lot of her grandfather’s secrets felt a tad contrived to me, but perhaps there is a magical realism part that I’m not seeing?

      I think my only criticism is that the stakes don’t feel quite high enough for me, but then again, I’m one for exposing secrets of all kinds rather than covering them up, so the last line doesn’t have enough weight for me. I’d consider reworking.
      Nice opening lines! Nice wit. As I’m reading on, wouldn’t the tense be a bit different though, e.g. “Still, it would get the job done” since she’s just daydreaming about it?

      There’s a fair amount of telling here. I wonder if you could cut it a tiny bit more. Nice voice from the dialogue. You’ve intrigued me with the line about her aunt getting away with murder!

      Ugh, this is hard. They are both so different, like apples and oranges, and both really strong. Overall I would say NOWHERE LAND’S query read a little stronger because the stakes were higher and clearer, and both of your 250s were strong. I really love both of these!! However, since I have to choose one, I must award…

      -Molly Millions

    2. Nowhere Land
      Great query, well-written, solid voice and you made me deeply care about Jackie and her sister. The only thing that tripped me up was, “Jackie must decide to find a new life elsewhere or return home to advocate for her sister and fight her parents in a decision she knows is not hers to make.” Why would she want to leave her sister? It goes against everything you’ve presented in the query so far. It raises a red flag for me.

      I really like your opening and your writing style presented in it. Per the art of restraint in writing, I would suggest deleting, “The agony that brought me to this point and where it might lead me in the future.” I think it goes one step too far and overexplains what you’ve already shown so well. It becomes a summary we don’t need. I like the writing but I’m left wondering if the flashback format will really work for this book or if it will become problematic. Is it essential? Is there a way to get across in the query (without “telling”) why it has to be told in this format? It makes me hesitate. I’m wondering if it’s done just to get the most exciting part of the story at the beginning to hook the reader. But I am intrigued and I would read on.

      While your query is well-written, it feels episodic and I venture to guess that you’re going too far into your story with it. You should only be hooking the reader and once you get past her escaping, I don’t feel the tension or urgency of Estella’s journey. Also, the last sentence fall flat to me because I don’t really see it as a hard choice to make. Of course she doesn’t want to stay with Edward. Also, you never mentioned anything about her grandfather’s secrets until the last line, so that feels random.

      The first line, while compelling, feels like it’s done for shock value more than as an authentic opening since Estells hasn’t actually stabbed her aunt. I take it that Estelle is just supremely annoyed with her aunt, but the way it unfolds makes me not invested in Estelle. Make us care about her first before painting her in a negative light (if that’s the kind of character she is).



      The query confuses me a bit. The first two paragraphs set it as a mystery with Jackie trying to solve the mystery of Evie and get her some help, but the last paragraph has her decision being to run away or return to her sister. So, is this a mystery or is this a women’s fiction type YA that focuses on the MC coming to terms with something. I’m more interested in the mystery. Also, I’m not seeing how the parents’ plan is cruel. The decision to send a loved one to an institution is a painful one with the best interests of the loved one in mind. If the parents are doing it for some other selfish reason, I’d include that. Plus, that Jackie is also abandoning Evie to party in Woodstock also seems cruel and inconsistent with her devotion to finding a cure. I think, overall, the query kind of presents two books and I’m not sure which one it is.

      The 250 is well written—not sure on the voice. Seems a tad mature for YA.


      The query reads a bit much too synopsis-y for me. I also do not know what you mean by usurping Ripley Manor or how the glen’s secrets would have anything to do with who can run the manor. I mean, if it’s in the will, it’s in the will, right? Same thing with marriage—just not seeing how it’s all connected. I read again, and I’m still confused, but if no one else comments on it, it’s probably just me!

      I think there might be a better place to start than this 250. The Reader has no idea who Florence is other than the one line about party attendance, so focusing on how much Estella doesn’t want to be Florence from the get-go doesn’t really pull the Reader into Estella’s story. I’d rather get to know Estella outright and then get into her differences with Florence.

      These are two entries that are really on par with each other. I keep going back and forth, but because of the first 250, I’ll go with . . .


    4. Vanellope von SchweetzJune 15, 2017 at 2:03 AM

      Query: Okay, first of all, I LOVE the premise of this one. The sister story sounds heart-breaking. Getting a misdiagnosis is very difficult, and I admire you and your family for weathering through it. Query-wise, it’s pretty good, but you might want to pay some attention to varying the lengths of your sentences. They run too long, which can be hard to read. It’ll also improve your query’s cadence if you vary the sentence structures.

      250: I love your first line. Actually, I love this excerpt. I feel like I’m actually there where your story takes place, and I feel the pain Evie is going through in just 250 words. Great work!
      “For most, time has no place here. You simply exist. It is today. The time is now.” — This is perhaps my favorite line in this excerpt.

      Query: I love the premise! I’m really curious about what those secrets are. However, you might want to watch out for your sentences that run too long. Also, I think you might want to consider finding a different “sizzle” for your query. Maybe it’s just wasn’t clear to me, but I’m left thinking why the last sentence in the last paragraph is a choice. Like, of course she’ll want to protect her grandpa. For us to actually feel that being with Edward is even a viable choice, we need to know what Estella’s set to lose if she doesn’t pick Edward. It’s also a VERY long sentence (almost a paragraph), so you might want to separate them into two sentences instead so it flows better.

      250: That’s a very cool first line. LOVE IT! I actually LOL’d at Estella’s thoughts about her aunt. Her aunt is just so annoying, I totally feel for her. This—“hideous lacework of self-righteousness”—seriously, this line is perfect. It’s like the kind of line you just want to use on somebody annoying the crap out of you. Great start!

      Okay, I really agonized with this decision. Agggggghhhh I want to pick both!!! *Tears* But of course I can’t. *More Tears* So, even if it pains me, I’ll have to choose one: VICTORY TO NOWHERE LAND!

    5. Creature of the SeaJune 16, 2017 at 10:30 AM


      This query is compelling, and the story looks to be heartbreaking, but it gives away way too much information and at times reads more like a synopsis. Paring it down would only make it stronger. Focus in on the bones and heart of the story. I would also suggest moving your first line elsewhere, letting Jackie's determination to solve the mystery of her sister's illness take center stage instead. That it's Rett Syndrome, and that it was unheard of in 1969 seems a fact for later on in the query. Also, I have reservations about the line, "FOLLOW THE SUN brings attention to Rett Syndrome." It may come across too much like an agenda. Stick with story. Your background and experiences with Rett Syndrome are enough to convey that this should be authentic and informative as well as entertaining.

      The style of this first 250 is great. I'm hearing that that flowy sort of 1960s flower child voice. I do think that at times it verges on being overwritten, which is something to watch out for. Sometimes less is more. Also, great job getting the story's hook front and center. Nicely done.


      Someone else mentioned that this query feels episodic, and I agree. I'm not entirely sure what the crux of the story is. I think it's just the sheer amount of details and events chronicled in such a short query. Sometimes less is more. That said, this query has some great elements and a solid hook. You pretty much have everything there. It's just a matter of streamlining and getting to the heart of what's important here.

      This 250 drew me right in. I love the voice, and I already know I'm going to love to hate Florence. My only worry is that this opening makes Estella less than sympathetic, rather than just reflecting on her aunt.

      Another tough one. I think these both have a few issues to be worked out, but I can see so much promise in both. Ultimately, victory to NOWHERE LAND.

      Query: Wow. There’s so much voice and emotion in your query. I have no suggestions for improvement.

      First 250: And the same here. I feel Jackie’s pain; this is so well done.

      Query: You do a great job setting up a goal, stakes and consequences. I have no suggestions to make this better.

      First 150: What a fantastic first line! Well done! But I think you could tighten this up overall. She essentially tells us three times she doesn’t want to be like Florence, and twice hints that Florence has committed murder. But my taste could lean toward a more subtle touch.

      Ugh. I hate having to make a choice. Both of these entries offer something I enjoy. But we have to choose, so I award...


  2. Narratively speaking, these are really different approaches to two stories about family. That makes the judging both easier and harder, in a way. I'll start with critiques and finish with my vote.

    Nowhere Land:
    I'm intrigued by the sister bond in this story, and by the fact that Jackie's no perfect angel character, with her own bad habits and rebellious streak to keep her interesting. The query frames both the story and its stakes and Jackie's dilemma well, though at the expense of treating the parents as characters at all, really, beyond labeling them as "cruel" and "June Cleaver-ish." Is it really that simple? I hope not. That would sell this otherwise rich story concept short.

    The first page shows me that I would not be an ideal reader for this book. I'm not sure why the flashback framework is important or how it will provide you with narrative leverage to crack open the conflict and character growth. What's the value of keeping the reader suspended throughout the book in the moment where Jackie is trying to make her decision and flashing back constantly to the experiences that have formed her thinking? I'm afraid it would kill the action, over time, but it would take more than one page to know for sure.

    Estella + Ayron:

    I'm not sure I understand the query, to be perfectly honest. How does Aunt Florence working with the estate lawyer to arrange a marriage between Estella & him benefit her? The discovery of the Irish community after the shipwreck seems out of left field, and while I'm sure the narrative build makes that make sense, I was thrown by that in the query.

    As for the fist page, Aunt Florence is so on-the-nose hateable (fat-shaming, judgmental, imperious) that we can certainly sympathize with Estella's suppressed murder-urges (even if they're exaggerated for emphasis). But that's much less interesting and less fun than seeing the toxicity of Aunt Florence emerge over a few pages. Being fit with it full in the face makes me wonder, along with Estella: Why do I want to stay here?

    I think both entries have their issues, and it may be simply that I'm not the right reader for them, but I'm giving victory to NOWHERE LAND.

    1. No One Of ConsequenceJune 14, 2017 at 12:13 PM

      Query: This is a really long query. I think your bio paragraph is perfect, which accounts for some of the length. So it might be okay. But if you can cut, you should.

      The issues are with the rest of the query. From the query, it’s unclear to me whether Jackie’s journey is to find a cure or more about her growing up and dealing with her sister being institutionalized. It almost reads like it’s a YA version of Women’s Fiction, which is fine, if that’s what you’re trying to do. But it needs to be clearer that that’s what you’re trying to do. I need to be clear about what the conflict is, and I’m not.
      First 250: Your writing is lovely. I wonder if maybe you’ve reworked your first 250 a bit too much to try to make it fit this type of contest. It feels like you’re looking for that ending line too hard…the never go back to Everton line. Like it’s rushed, to get it in there, when the natural pace of your writing would probably have it somewhere later. I get why you’d do that.
      This might be a controversial take. I’m not sure this is YA. I get that the *character* is a teen. Teens could certainly read it. But your style feels like it might be more at home in the adult market, even with the 17 year old main character. Obviously it’s impossible for me to know that after one page, and the coming of age aspects that I expect you hit probably fit with YA. But I wanted to throw that out here as a thought, just in case nobody else does.

      My first question…what country are they in? She wants to run to Paris, but from where? Where is the manor? In a historical, I think that’s a pretty big piece of the setting, and until you mention Irish fugitives in the third paragraph, it’s unclear even what continent we’re on, as one could travel to Paris from anywhere. Because it’s set in 1912, I immediately thought she was in the US (though I’m likely a decade off of when Americans artists/writers went to Paris)

      In your third paragraph, don’t use ‘decide’ as your critical action. It’s a weak action, and it’s not really a decision. We know which one she’s going to decide…wouldn’t be much of a story if she didn’t fight it. Instead focus on the conflict itself. What does she have to do in order to overcome her Aunt and her scheme? What’s the price if she fails?

      First 250: Not sure the whole stabbing thing works as an opening. It sets your main character into a pretty harsh light. And her scolding herself for the thought makes it seem even more real…that she would actually consider stabbing someone. You can write an unlikeable heroine. I’m all for it. But I’m not sure I’d jump into it with both feet like that.

      On the strength of the writing, Victory to NOWHERE LAND

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  4. Kombatant thoughts here.
    Query: I think you're taking something away from this story by stating the Rett Syndrome in the first line. The first two paragraphs center around Jackie determining what's wrong with Evie, yet you've already told us what it is. I think it would be better if the diagnosis comes in the 2nd paragraph after she discovers the doctor. I'm not sure you need all the detail in the first two paragraphs, though, if the ultimate conflict for Jackie is to decide to go home or not.
    250: Great writing. Very vivid and descriptive. I feel some anger in the ending of this, which is fine bc I'm guessing she's angry about her parents sending Evie away? Hard to tell because we get so few words! But I think this is a unique premise and intriguing. I'd def keep reading.

    Query:First of all, I'm wondering who the heck Ayron is. But that's only because it's your QK title. Is he an Irish hottie she meets in the glen? I ask because if you had not used the "eighteen-year-old" in your query, I would've sworn this was Adult fiction. it has a very mature voice. Now, that might fit your character exactly, but I kept waiting for something young adult to be mentioned, and it never was. Keep in mind: I don't read a lot of historical fiction though.
    Love the imagery. The line about the aunt getting away with murder hooked me. It made the whole thing more intriguing.

    Best wishes to you both!

  5. Fellow Kombatent here!
    Nowhere land
    Query: Great query. I love the idea of writing a story about a rare genetic disorder. I also have a commonly misunderstood genetic condition and have been toying with the idea of writing a book about it, so this is nice to see. The stakes are clear and the character really comes out in the query. Good job.
    First 250: Love the setting of Woodstock in the sixties. I do wonder if her thoughts would be so often drifting to her sister while she is at a concert which would have been very overwhelming for all her senses. But it does give readers indication of how devoted to her sister Jackie is. Well done, and good luck!
    Query: Oh, a lot is happening in this one. I am curious of time frame in this book. The query seems a little long, and is missing a bit of voice. I would shorten some of the sentences, especially in the beginning. That might make it flow better. The concept is interesting.
    First 250: There’s humour in this opening. I would try to inject some of it into the query. This is very well written, and I love the scene setting. You have captured the time period well. Your first line is stellar. Well done and good luck!

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    I really like the historical and personal basis for this story. And I also like that Jackie takes the initiative to find a true diagnosis for her sister. However, the Woodstock trip seems like a diversion from the situation at hand. I don't really believe choosing between taking off and returning to advocate for her sister is a real decision. I'm also not sure why the story is written as flashbacks instead of in the present. I think Jackie's conflict in advocating for her sister's diagnosis is motivating enough to want me to read more.


    I like your voice, and the memories of Evie feel visceral when mixed with the present chaos of Woodstock. The choice that didn't seem like a real choice in the query (it seems obvious she'll go back for her sister) feels more tangible here.



    I think the setup here sounds pretty interesting, but all the talk of Paris seems unnecessary. I think you could start right away with Estella getting a sudden inheritance and the difficulties involved, then move into Maxwell's plan to grab it. I also question why, when faced with an attempt to usurp the manor, Estella outright abandons it.

    While I like the setup a lot, the twist of the Irish glen definitely throws me for a loop. It somehow ties into her grandfather, but I can't really see how or why that would force her into accepting Maxwell's marriage proposal. I understand the need for keeping some secrets and twists (I struggle with this as well), I think the vagueness and sudden introduction of an unexpected element in the last paragraph might work against you.


    Your first line makes it sound like Estella has done it, but the second line makes it obvious she hasn't, which is a bit off-putting. I had to double check, since I didn't think mechanical pencils existed back then, but apparently they did. I would suggest making it just "pencil" anyway, since that might draw people out of the moment anyway.

    At first, it seems like Estella's violent thoughts to her aunt as disproportionate to anything we see. Then you drop the line about her aunt getting away with murder. Is that in reference to Estella's grandfather? Is that just conjecture on Estella's part at this point, or does she know somehow? I think that's a big bomb to drop without any clarification.