Monday, June 1, 2015

QK Round 1: Father vs Friend v. Grandma Guardians

Nickname: Father vs. Friends
Title: Listen to Me
Word Count: 40,000
Genre: MG contemporary


When her dad is arrested for a DUI, twelve-year-old Serena O’Hara—a solitary girl whose emotional outlet is singing to her rabbit—must overcome her fear of humiliation or stay locked in a shell of loneliness.

Twelve-year-old Serena’s beer-guzzling dad drowns her in shame, passing out most days. In his underwear. Friends? No way. Better to be a loner than risk mortification. Then smart, eccentric Katie breaks through her barriers—just before Serena’s drunken father nearly runs the girls over. Soon afterward he’s hauled off to a work release program.

Serena is devastated, but Katie keeps her dad’s problems a secret. The unthinkable is now possible: making friends, talking to a boy, or helping with a class project. She even risks joining chorus as her confidence grows. However nothing can replace her father, or fix her family’s problems and Serena is loaded with guilt. Guilt that makes her grades tank, and prevents her from tattling when she catches her underage brother with a beer. Her overworked mother is stressed enough.

When her dad comes home sober, he asks Serena to trust him. But gossip puts her shame about her dad in the spotlight while her dad teeters on the edge of a relapse. Her upcoming solo at the chorus concert could be the perfect place for him to complete her public humiliation. Haunted by that possibility, Serena must choose to overcome her fears about how his behavior reflects on her, or revert to the lonely, safe life of a hermit.


The red hand of the clock ticks off the last seconds of the school day. Almost time to avoid the ever friendly Katie Bell. My leg jiggles double time as though I’m speeding through the halls already. I wipe clammy hands on my shorts, clumsy in my fight to stuff my social studies book in my bag.

Not that I don’t like Katie. I do. She has peaceful blue eyes. Plus she’s very smart, something I should be grateful for in a partner for the dreaded oral history reports. But I’m sure she’ll want to spend hours making sure we are way over-prepared.

Katie moved into my neighborhood over the summer. What if she expects to meet outside of school? For a second my heart sputters, ready to bolt. We can’t. Not at my house.

I take a deep breath. Relax. There’s no need for her to meet Dad.

Bing! Bing!

I race toward the door.

“Serena, wait up!”

I’m tempted to pretend I don’t hear her, but that would be rude. I look back.

Big mistake. I smack against the doorway and my backpack tips, showering old assignments like parade confetti. Why didn’t I zip the dumb zipper? I squat and start gathering papers into a pile.

“Need some help?” The question startles me, and topples my balance. I land with a grunt.

As if falling on my butt isn’t embarrassing enough, it is Sam Flores helping me. Cute, kind, popular Sam. I am. An. Idiot.


Entry Nickname:
Grandma Guardians
Title: Wings, Wrinkles, and Wrappers
Word count: 41K
Genre: Middle Grade paranormal


It's been six months and twenty-three days since the sadness sunk down so deep in the eyes of Kate's Dad that he left and never came back. Seventeen days since she last spoke to her once-best friend Sophia. And an entire lifetime of eleven years without praying. But when Kate accidentally asks God for help she ends up stuck with two old ladies who happen to be her long-dead grandmothers. They provide more caustic or silly commentary than actual assistance and Kate wants them gone. But getting back to heaven isn't so simple. First they must fulfill their mission and help Kate.

From knitting to winning back a best friend with a chain of gum wrappers, Kate goes along with her grandmothers' "lessons" in hopes that they'll hurry up and leave, until she realizes their stories hold the key to finding her Dad and maybe even bringing him home. But when their rescue plan backfires and only drives him further away Kate has to learn the biggest lesson of all: when to love and when to let go.

First 250:

To Sophia:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Write a poem in this notebook,
To say I like you.

Dear Dad, Here’s a hat. Love, Kate

Thanks for the hats.

You missed my birthday party last year. I know that’s probably not the best way to start off a letter but it’s true and it was the first thing I thought about when I saw this notebook laying on your doorstep with a note in it and everything.

July 21st, remember?

I was sure last year when I turned eleven that you would be at my party. You’d only been gone for ten days then and I guess I thought maybe you were just kind of taking a vacation. And if you were coming back soon, my birthday would have been the perfect day. It would have been like a surprise party, but not really a surprise because I knew all along that you wouldn't miss my birthday.

I woke up super early and cleaned up the whole house. Then I blew up the air mattress and checked all the cupboards for yummy treats and made a list for mom of what else we’d need. It was a sleepover party with Sophia, just like always.

That was our birthday tradition, remember? And I was sure that just like always on my birthday tradition you’d make my special ice cream cake. So I made sure to add vanilla ice cream and Kool Whip to the list in case you couldn't stop by the store on your way over.


  1. Judges - hit 'reply' to this comment to cast your votes. Thank you!

    1. Father Vs. Friends

      This is a a very realistic predicament that a lot of kids go through and I think the query captures Serena's plight very well. You mentioned she was twelve in the hook, so need to reiterate that. You do a very good job of making the reader sympathize with Serena just from the query.

      The first 250 are well written, but I feel like there's a line or two out of place. Specifically the mention of Katie moving in over the summer. It doesn't flow into the next sentence well, because I don't see why that specifically would lead into meeting outside of school.

      For the most part, it's pretty solid.

      Grandma Guardians

      A lot of this is subjected, but I don't like when Queries start with stuff that happened in the past. I want to know what's happening now. However long it's been since she talked to someone, I assume I'll find out in the story. The second paragraph is much stronger than the first, but over all I like the concept. Fairly Odd Parents meet Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Despite the beginning, I would want to request this just because it sounds so much fun.

      For the first 250, I was thrown by the letter. It definitely conveys how she's disappointed in her father, but other than that, not much is happening. That makes it slow down for me. Your characters voice is clear, and comes across as her own person. You're definitely a talented writer, but the 250 need more to pick up the pace and draw me in.

      Victory to FATHER VS. FRIENDS

    2. While Father vs. Friend portrays a real predicament, I'm not quite sure where the plot of the story is until the last paragraph. The key may be to bring the stakes up higher and show from the very start what Serena has to lose if her family's secret is discovered. There are also elements in the query that are inferred that I think you can cut, for example..."beer guzzling" dad because you've already told us he's been arrested for DUI.

      In the first 250 I like how we start where the action seems to take place. We learn right away that Serena is hiding something and her actions prove she is nervous. I will admit though that on my first read-through I felt like the voice sounded much younger than a 12 year old.

      Grandma Guardians,

      Having the grandmothers come back to help is a great idea and one I think is perfect for MG. The query is good, but I think you're missing an opportunity with your hook. Having the grandmothers come back from the dead is the key to this story, and I would recommend getting that into your first sentence instead of giving the reader backstory to start.

      The trouble with sharing only the first 250 is grabbing the reader in such a short amount of time and I think this will be an issue for you. By describing a note sent to her father, all I'm learning about is backstory. You need to come right out of the chute with where the character is now and what they are facing. Then weave into your later chapters what happened when the dad missed her 11th birthday.

      After much deliberation I have to vote...

      Victory to Grandma Guardians

    3. Father v. Friends:
      There’s a lot going on in this query, and I think you could tighten it up to make it read faster without losing the gist. Do be extra careful about your use of commas (or lack thereof) as it can be highly distracting to encounter more than a few errors of this nature. I loved the last line of your 250 (nice little Dr. Seuss reference), but overall, I’m wondering if this starts in the right place. It isn’t pulling me in as much as you might like. There’s a lot of talk of her fear of humiliation in the query that might make a more effective way to draw in the reader – showing her struggling with a dark moment, rather than just showing her being shy (passive).
      Grandma Guardians:
      Also watch commas. I loved the voice and the little details in your query. You manage to put a lot into very few words, which I think is an advantage if you can pull it off. And you do. It’s also a very cute premise with obviously emotional stakes. I confess the start of your 250 confuses me. The explanation comes in the letter, but then it reads as exposition, which throws me out of your world and into the “I see what the author did there” mind set. It makes the rest of the letter feel very expository to me, even though all of it is well-written and has great voice.
      Good job on both of these. They both have a lot of merit, but my vote is going to the entry I felt was a little cleaner and tighter. Victory: Grandma Guardians.


      QUERY: What a heartbreaking situation Serena is in. I can’t imagine anyone would read this and not have sympathy for her. That said, I think you can still gain that sympathy with less backstory at the front of the query. “When twelve-year-old Serena’s beer-guzzling father is hauled away, all sorts of things she had never considered become possible.” (Not a great example, but you get the idea.) Then you can move into the stakes when Dad returns and her secrets are out.

      FIRST 250: This was pretty good. We get a sense of her voice immediately. Some of it is a little choppy, for example, the description of Katie could be smoothed out, who she is, why Serena is avoiding her. I can’t tell if she actually likes her and is nervous about her wanting to come over, or if she’s annoyed by her. I was also confused when Sam showed up, since I assumed it would be Katie. However, that might be explained a little further in. 250 words is sometimes difficult to judge!


      QUERY: I really love this query. My only beef is this sentence: “They provide more caustic or silly commentary than actual assistance and Kate wants them gone.” This could be expanded more. Also, “caustic” doesn’t seem like a very MG word, so be careful of that.

      FIRST 250: This is so hard because I like the idea of the letter, but it feels like so much TELLING. I would have loved to read what Kate was doing while writing the letter. Her body language. Scribbling out lines. Biting the end of the pencil. Maybe some wadded up rough drafts. We’re left without a sense of place, just floating through the beginning of the book, which can work sometimes for older audiences, but I think is rough for MG. The voice is so awesome though, and this book sounds hysterical. The little details you add even to the letter she’s writing are just fantastic.

      Victory to GRANDMA GUARDIANS

    5. FATHER VS. FRIENDS: Your voice seems suited to MG. So great job there! However, my main concern with your query is that I didn't get a strong sense for the plot until nearly the end. You gave a lot of back story about Serena's family troubles up front, which I think could be trimmed. In fact, I think your query would benefit from tightening overall, and giving us the stakes closer to the beginning so we can sympathize with Serena even more throughout.

      With your first 250, it's well-written, but I didn't feel super compelled to keep reading. I don't necessarily think you're starting in the wrong spot, but how about having Katie actually approach Serena, and Serena having to dodge her somehow? Then we've got some action going on, and more tension, rather than just being in Serena's head and hearing about how she wants to avoid Katie. Hope that makes sense!

      GRANDMA GUARDIANS: Okay, I LOVE your concept. Probably because I'm very close with both my grandmothers, but still. I've never heard of anything like this, and I was smiling as I read your query. As another judge already suggested, my only comment for your query would be to have a hook about the grandmothers up-front, because it'll really set this apart and draw in the agents. Love your stakes, too. You've conveyed a lot with few words, and that takes skill!

      I'll admit though, your first 250 confused me. I had to re-read several times. I don't know that starting with notes is the best idea. Start us off with some action, please!

      These are both strong entries, so my decision comes down to the premise that (subjectively) hooked me more.

      Victory to...GRANDMA GUARDIANS!

    6. Note: For round 1 since there's so many entries, I'm judging based on the query only!


      Wow, sounds really intense! And kudos to you for tackling such a tough topic.

      Your "hook" doesn't really hook me; I think that jumping right into your current paragraph 2 would show more voice right away.

      Also, there are parts that seem a bit unfocused -- for instance, Katie is mentioned early on in the query, but then kind of 'disappears.'



      Love the premise of this one, and the idea of a couple guardian angel grandmothers looking over the MC's shoulder. I also really liked the opening of your query.

      You've got words to spare, and the part about the grandmothers providing "more caustic or silly commentary than actual assistance" could be a great opportunity for some specifics.

      Also, "Kate's Dad" and "her Dad" don't need capitalized!

      Victory to... GRANDMA GUARDIANS!

    7. Hey Judge Sally Sparrow! Thank you so SO SO much for judging 11 match-ups (11!) even though you weren't assigned this round. The query feedback will help tons. We won't be able to count your vote because of the lack of 250 consideration, but seriously, thank you thank you. The writers will appreciate it tons.

  2. Father vs. Friend/ Listen to Me

    Wow, this is a very deep and powerful topic. Kudos to you for handling it so beautifully.

    I'm not partial to the logline in your query, it leaves me with more questions than intrigue. Personally (and this is just my opinion), I think the query is stronger without it as the first paragraph is killer. In the last paragraph, I would suggest rewording the second sentence to remove the double up of "her dad".

    In the 250, which has a great voice for MG btw, I like that Katie is introduced right away since she's a big part of the query, helps me feel grounded in the story. I'd be careful with your use of adverbs/ adjectives, as they slow the pace of reading. They're okay sparingly but I wouldn't recommend having any in the first 250. Also, keep a keen eye out for repeat words. In the last sentence of the second paragraph you used "sure" twice. Perfect place to end the sample though, it definitely left me wanting more.

    Overall, this is a great entry. I love the fun spirit of your voice and think it will complement the heaviness of this topic nicely.

    Good job and good luck!

    Grandma Guardians/ Wings, Wrinkles, and Wrappers

    What a cool, fun concept. Fairy ghost grandmothers, love it. I like the start-off of your query, had an ooh moment. I do feel like the second and third sentences should be combined, for improved flow. I would recommend watching how many sentences you begin with and/ but, as I've heard many agents/editors don't like this.

    The beginning of your 250 was a bit disorienting for me. Perhaps if you started with some scene direction to let the reader know where Kate is and what she's doing it wouldn't be so jarring. Is she reading old notes that she wanted to send to her dad, or is she writing one right now?

    Overall, this is a great idea and it's gonna be a tough choice for the judges.

    Good luck!

  3. Since I'm first of the random commenters -- I hope I'm commenting in the right box!

    Father v Friends -
    I like the idea of the mc finding a friend who will help keep her secrets -- especially those types of family secrets which the MC isn't equipped to deal with. I think you can trim and fold the opening paragraph of the query into the 2nd paragraph to cut some repetition. MG isn't my category, but the stakes seemed clear and age-appropriate.

    Grandma Guardians -
    I love this idea but wanted more spelled out in the query. After dad leaves, who does Kate live with? Her mom? Or? In the first 250, I wasn't sure if the redacted lines were a typo or part of the story. The hat note also didn't work for me. Perhaps if you added dates to the various entries, it would help ground the reader and provide a timeline?

  4. Father vs Friend: I love the concept here. As a lonely child, my sadness due to abuse, I understand. I like your query, but think your 250 could be much stronger. Particularly in regards to starting so many sentences with 'I'. It put me out of the story because I was counting I's and found it jarring. But, if you switch some things around, I think it would be much stronger. :)

    Grandma Guardians: I love the idea of this so much, because I know my own Gran is watching over me! :) I have no advice on your query. I think it's great, as is. And I'm a big fan of switching up format, love reading books that begin out of the norm. I like the notebook entries. It could be really cool when formatted into a book. Great voice, too.

    Best of luck to you both!

  5. Father vs Friend: I love the concept here. As a lonely child, my sadness due to abuse, I understand. I like your query, but think your 250 could be much stronger. Particularly in regards to starting so many sentences with 'I'. It put me out of the story because I was counting I's and found it jarring. But, if you switch some things around, I think it would be much stronger. :)

    Grandma Guardians: I love the idea of this so much, because I know my own Gran is watching over me! :) I have no advice on your query. I think it's great, as is. And I'm a big fan of switching up format, love reading books that begin out of the norm. I like the notebook entries. It could be really cool when formatted into a book. Great voice, too.

    Best of luck to you both!

  6. Super Flynn (fellow contestant)June 1, 2015 at 6:55 PM

    Father vs Friend: I love the idea of this topic for this age range, but the father feels like a bit too much of a stereotype to me currently. Is there a way of working in a redeeming quality, a sign of his love for his daughter despite his struggle or vice versa? I'd be more engaged if so.

    Grandma Guardians: I fine your premise fun and promising, but I struggle a bit with the idea that the MC wants her grandmothers gone. Wouldn't a child be delighted to have them back? I get they're not giving her the advice she needs, but still. Could you make them grandmotherly figures but not her actual gmas? Then I'd be more with you. Or if not, help me understand your MC's POV better.

  7. Father v Friend - I really like the premise of this. I don't think I've really seen a topic like abuse tackled in a MG novel recently, and not with the feel ( ie not overwhelmingly depressing) you've got going on. I thought your query did a good job of explaining what was going on in the book. It did feel a little long to me though. Maybe go through and trim a bit? As for the 250, I found that it was very...well, ordinary. If you really wanted to do any rewrites, maybe start with a unique moment, like MC dealing directly with her dad's drunkenness.

    Grandma Guardians: This is sooo unique as a premise, and I love that. I found the query was pretty good, but I agree with the poster who mentioned that it was odd that your MC wanted her grandmothers to leave. Maybe reword the stakes, like maybe the grandmas want to go to heaven but need to do this, or something like that. Your 250 was a sweet way of opening, and the letter format is interesting. I'd be curious to know if it's all written like that.

  8. Father vs. Friends
    - Great MC torturing, and very apt for YA. And the voice in wonderful.

    Grandma Guardians
    - This is a fun concept. Also, nice use of epistolary style to introduce the story.

  9. Father - You have a great premise, with the potential for some heart-wrenching scenes. The only feedback I can give is to tighten up your sentences. For example, in the query, "But gossip puts her shame about her dad in the spotlight" could just as easily be "But gossip puts her shame in the spotlight" We already know it's about her dad. In the 250, "Plus she’s very smart, something I should be grateful for in a partner for the dreaded oral history reports." This would probably be better as two sentences. Overall, sounds like a good story.

    Grandma - I LOVE this story. I like how you introduced Kate's age in the query - creative. It seems crazy that this is MG. It sounds like there are a lot of adult themes. I love the way the 250 starts - it's not boring, and it's engaging. Kate's heart oozes off the page. Personally, I would keep it, but then again, I'm huge fan of Literary fiction and uncommon formats.

  10. Father vs. Friends
    Twelve-year-old listed twice.

    I've taken criticism on this myself, so I'd suggest not telling the entire story with the query. It's okay to tease the story out without going too far into the description.

    Typos: ever-friendly

    Otherwise, I like the 250. I was surprised it was Sam helping her. I expected Katie from the set-up, but it's still fine.

    Grandma Guardians

    Typos: help, she
    Need a comma here.

    away, Kate

    First sentence, second paragraph is a bit long. I'd break it up.

    I like this and don't have much to add. It's a sad start, thinking of this little girl with her missing father. I like it.

  11. Grandma


    I wonder if agents have the patience to read through a list of time elements in the first sentence. I would be annoyed, but I would think that the character is math-inclined, which could be interesting.

    I love the grandmother angle. I read a book a long time ago about a dead grandma giving advice from the beyond and she was physically in the room at the time. Funny.

    Agent Marietta Zacker told an SCBWI audience once that she does not like know-it-all grandmothers, such as the one in the Peck books that take place in southern Illinois. She doesn't think they resonate with today's readers, and she cautioned writers to recall how old, or not old, grandmothers seem today.

    I pay attention to the grandmother thing because I have one in my work, too.

    First 250:

    The opening compels me to feel the character's desperation. But if I were a kid, I would not continue reading. I was a light-hearted kid.

    I do love the use of the word "remember." It brings anyone right back to childhood. Someone was always asking someone to "remember." But I fear it might skew a little young for your character. Still, it might work if her circumstance has stunted her emotional growth, which is more than likely true. I would be interested to read on to learn if this girl is stuck at a younger age, when things were good, and what that was like.

    Hope this helps.

    Good luck.

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  13. Father

    Query: Singing to a rabbit is just plain odd. It stops me for a second, and I don't know if that's good or bad. I think, however, that the overall query is emotionally resonant.

    The only other thing that trips me up is when you say, "However nothing can replace her father, or fix her family’s problems and Serena is loaded with guilt." Why isn't her father replaceable, besides the obvious answer? Nothing about his behavior in the query sets up that line. He is a drunken jerk only and deserves his fate, in the query so far.

    250: Your writing shines in your first words. Relax a little more with your query, and I think you will be golden.

    A few small things: "Bing! Bing!" does not sound like a class bell; "parade confetti" can just be "confetti," unless I am supposed to think of WW II; and" Why didn’t I zip the dumb zipper?" is a redundant verb/noun combo.

    Also, this construction is overused: "I am. An. Idiot."

    A telling detail her is her unwillingness to be rude. Nice touch, but maybe you need a little more at the start to define the character emotionally rather than just transactionally? I would read on to learn that. I am sure it's there.

    I hope these comments help. Good luck.

  14. Father vs. Friends -
    I like the query. I think it gives a good sense of the appeal of the book. I'm not sure if the first paragraph is necessary. The 250 flows nicely, for the most part. I love the line "She has peaceful blue eyes." Not sure about "Bing, bing" - it made me think of a doorbell. I also was a little thrown by Sam. I thought Katie said, "Need some help." Maybe Serena could be startled by the male voice, or new voice.

    Grandma Guardians -
    Did something happen to make her dad sad, or did his depression come out of nowhere (or maybe a history of struggle)? At first I thought whatever made her dad sad was going to be the focus of the story. Love the idea of the grandmas. I was distracted by the statement "They provide more caustic or silly commentary than actual assistance and Kate wants them gone." It's great except I think it would flow better if you replaced "caustic or silly" with one word.

    I found the 250 a little hard to get into. I didn't really understand why the poem was crossed out. At first I thought it was from her father, but then I realized it was addressed to Sophia. I'm not sure why Sophia is referenced so quickly before we know who she is in the narrative (I saw someone bring up the point that not everyone reads queries first). I agree with other people who want to see more of when and why Kate is writing the new letter. If you really want to keep the current format, can you make the poem from her father? That would flow better for me.

  15. Father vs. Friends:
    Your query is very intriguing, but one line seemed a bit "off" to me: Serena is devastated, but Katie keeps her dad’s problems a secret. I had to read it twice, the meaning is clear but "her dad's" seemed like Katie's dad. A tweak might be: Serena is devastated, but Katie keeps her friend's problem dad / drunken dad a secret. I really enjoyed the lively, compelling voice in the 250, but there were a lot of characters introduced or mentioned in a very short span: the mc, her dad, Katie, and the crush. I think you can keep the scene centered more solidly at school and delete the reference to the dad. You plant the seed nicely with "Not at my house." Let it be a tease/foreshadowing, and then later in the chapter you could bring the reason to light by saying she doesn't want Katie to come over because of the embarrassing dad.

    Grandma Guardian:
    I loved this query. The premise is wonderful, that God answers her prayer by sending the grandmas! It is both funny and resonantly sad, and I found myself with emotional chill bumps when I finished reading it. The 250 was a little hard to follow at first. I did not understand the poem that was crossed out for "Sophia" when the notebook came from Kate's dad, and so far we only know about Kate and her dad, so Sophia was a mystery. The letter itself is great, but I wondered about a notebook being left...just brainstorming, but it might work really well as an email exchange. Your story might open with your mc inside her room or saying goodbye to her friend Sophia and then rushing upstairs to check her email for some non-dad reason. When she opens her email, up pops an unfamiliar email address, but the subject line is clearly from her dad, and then she writes the letter. Or if you stick with the notebook, it seems like her dad would need to establish the writing to each other pattern. Maybe he says in the notebook that he's sorry he's so depressed, just needs to be away, but she can write in the notebook and he will read it, etc. Then she writes back. The premise of this story is fantastic, deeply moving with moments of hilarity. I would buy it.

  16. These are two juicy story ideas with strong appeal.

    Father v Friends: I like the relatable nature of your story. Readers will be able to connect with the struggles of families and friends. But your query needs to be clearer. Omit redundancies like mentioning Serena’s age twice and that her dad is a drunk. Really look for ways you can convey the heart of the story and nothing else. Maybe look at back covers and jacket flaps for inspiration. Your first 250 for me were also relatable and easy to envision, but the voice does sound a bit too old for MG, so that may be something to ponder. I do love the last line when she runs into Sam…really felt authentic to me. Best of luck!

    Grandma: Your query rocks! Love how concise and intriguing it was. The only thing that threw me was the first sentence. I had to read it twice, as it felt like it was dad’s story instead of Kate’s. I think u can ditch it and still convey what this is about. Your first 250 worked in that I love your voice. It feels authentic and right on point with the age range of your MC. The only thing was the scratched out poem/notebook approach. I love it and it made me want to keep reading, but I think you need a bit of character exposition first. I want to know more about Kate personally before I see what unfolds in notebook entries…maybe just a few clues to how she feels as she opens the notebook (a scene where she sees it??). And I liked the scratched out poem, but that seemed out of place here and maybe fits later on in the first chapter? Good luck!