Monday, June 1, 2015

QK Round 1: Teenagers Make Poor James Bond v. Over a Beryl

[removed per author request]


Entry Nickname: Over a Beryl
Word Count: 69K
Genre: YA Thriller


Fifteen-year-old Beryl Sisken and her three brothers are prisoners in their own home. Their tyrannical, abusive father operates a shady family business in which Beryl knows she and her brothers will be forced to work once they graduate.Beryl’s father, who the kids refer to as “the bastard,” only allows them to leave the house to attend the private school where he is the biggest donor. The Sisken kids have never been anywhere else – not to a movie theater, a restaurant, or even a grocery store. So, Beryl is shocked when her father sends her on a slew of mysterious errands to the local bird market.

But not as shocked as when her dead brother, B.J., appears in one of the market stalls.

On each trip to the bird market, B.J. gives Beryl cryptic clues to solve his own murder while helping her develop a plan for her and her brothers to escape their terrifying father. Beryl knows that following B.J.’s instructions is dangerous, but that ignoring them would prove far more costly. With the help of B.J.’s two top-secret items and Beryl’s three reluctant brothers, she sets out to free them all from the family business and the accompanying deadly fate.

Complete at 69,000 words, THE BIRD MARKET is a YA thriller with elements of magical realism.

First 250 words:

I was fourteen and a half years old when my brother B.J. died. I was fifteen when I saw him for the last time. Even now, it’s difficult to fathom how a simple errand changed my destiny. If my father had never sent me to the bird market, I would probably be dead right now. That first trip seems like it happened yesterday and a decade ago all at once, as if time expanded and contracted so that I could understand the beauty of how everything fell into place without being crushed by its complexity.

On that brisk March day, birds screeched at ear-piercing decibels and slammed their desperate wings against the cages so hard I was sure their delicate bones would break. The scents of fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetables at the farmers’ stalls did nothing to mask the ripe smell of hundreds of caged fowl. The putrid odor assaulted my nose, decimating my appetite. My head pounded and my ears throbbed as I looked side to side and slowly passed each stall. For such a cool day, I was uncomfortably warm as I made my way through the crowd of the Hillendale Bird Market. I unzipped my jacket and pulled at the collar of my t-shirt, hoping the fresh air would dry the sweat soaking through my bra and clinging to my skin.

I realize that, to most people, a live bird market sounds like a storybook destination. But as with most things in life, anticipation and reality never quite intersect.


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


      Great premise. After your query, I'm eager to read pages. Well done.

      Query: I was a little confused after reading the first paragraph, because I wasn’t sure what was “too much to ask”. To trust himself? I believe that’s what you mean, but I wonder if you want to start your story’s introduction with something an agent has to reread to understand.

      In the last paragraph, you lose Tyler’s voice when you list the things he’ll encounter, i.e., “free a girl from her psychological servitude”. Since I don’t know what this means in the story, and you don’t have words to tell us, it minimizes what could be a difficult task for him by making a laundry list.


      I love the hook of waking in a stranger’s bed in clothing that isn’t his, but you lose me a little with “gotten into either”. I wonder if it would be stronger to end with “how he had gotten there”.

      You could tighten this up by changing “was standing” to “stood”; “was wearing” to “wore”. Be aware, in the first sentence, you say he’s in bed, but in the second, he’s standing in front of mirror in a bathroom. I’m more intrigued by him being in a stranger’s bed, because I wonder if the stranger is in bed with him  Mirror scenes can be problematic, since they’re considered cliché. Maybe hold off his physical description until later.

      That said, I love the imagery of shards bristling like teeth, giving him a fragmented impression. Excellent job.


      Query: I love your first sentence; I’m definitely hooked! There are places in your query where adding information could up your stakes. For example, what is the family business? What are the two top-secret items? Why are the brothers reluctant to help when they call the father “the bastard”? For me, this is a case where withholding information leaves me scratching my head rather than intrigued.

      250: For me, your story starts with your second paragraph. The first comes across like back story that can be filtered in as the story progresses. From the query, I know Beryl encounters her dead brother at the Bird Market. When he appears, you could insert a line about him being dead which would create questions to hook a reader. Laying it out for us right away takes away the mystery.

      Lovely descriptions of the bird market. I can picture the birds, the smell, the sweat clinging to her skin. Great job.

      The Winner: This is a tough one, because I enjoyed both entries. I think the query is stronger for Pandora, but the 250 hooked me more for Bird Market.

      So, Victory to: THE BIRD MARKET

    2. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes:

      Your query sets up the premise and stakes nicely. I actually said “Yikes” when I got to your last line. So bravo. The only think I’m not clear on is what jobs Tyler is doing and why Pantheon chose him. At seventeen, he’s too young to be inside the government. So is he an assassin? Can you spare a few words to situate your MC a little more? I realized after reading the first page that maybe even Tyler doesn’t know. Still, I want to know. Your 250 is great. You did a wonderful job of capturing the flash of understanding and the confusion of trying to make sense of all the clues.

      Over a Beryl:

      The premise sounds interesting, but your query is far too vague. You have details like the nickname of the father, but not details like what business he’s in that’s so shady. You’re erring so far on the side of mystery, that I’m not seeing how this stands out from any other stories. Things like “top-secret items” don’t tell me anything. The stakes need to be more clear as well. You don’t want to give away everything, but what you share should be specific and evocative. The writing in your 250 is fine, but you’re going to get dinged for starting with a prologue. I don’t dislike a prologue for the sake of it, but it has to have a very good reason to exist. In this case, what you seem to be trying to do is tease forward the entire crux of your story to pull in the reader. You shouldn’t need to do this if you start your story in the right place. More often than not, a prologue that tells me foreshadowed events will turn me off because I no longer have a reason to read.

      Judgment: Another tough matchup. Congrats and best of luck to both of you. For me...



      QUERY: What an interesting concept! Your opening is good, but I think you could tighten it even a little more. For example. “…order him to do anything. Even murder.” The rest is implied without all the extra words. I’m not sure the “learn to have faith in others” fits the tone of the rest of the query, or the voice you’re trying to convey. Even “put his trust in others” would fit better, or something similar. Is there more truth to Pantheon beyond the fact that they brainwash teenagers to be assassins? That was a little unclear. I love the last line. Perfect amount of punch to end the query.

      FIRST 250: This is really good. There are some places where you could smooth it out a little. Instead of “There was a gun on the counter. He picked it up,” you could connect those sentences and add to the next paragraph, which wouldn’t change the tone, but would make it less choppy. All in all very solid excerpt.


      QUERY: The first part of this query drew me in immediately. The idea of this family that is so sheltered in some ways, but completely not in others was intriguing. I was a little confused at first by the brother. I thought that maybe he hadn’t really died, and had faked his death and escaped instead. But I think no? He’s actually dead but has come back to help Beryl (because magical realism)? I’m still unsure to be honest. Also, what sort of errands is her father sending her on? I want that explained more, otherwise it sounds like a plot device that is just a tad too convenient.

      FIRST 250: The first line of this is fantastic. Just the right amount of WTF did that just say what I think it said? The next few lines seem a bit superfluous and telling. Draw us into the story, and then SHOW us how the trip changed her destiny, how she might have been dead without that trip to the market. It is beautiful writing, but a bit purpley. I would jump straight from the first line to the second paragraph. You do a fantastic job of setting the scene there. The sounds, the smells (ew), all the physical things Beryl is feeling are done really really well. The last line veers toward the purple prose again, though not as much as the first paragraph. The excerpt was easy to read, but needs a little tightening and smoothing.


    4. PANDORA: Great query; the premise reminds me of the Bourne Identity (I hope you used this as a comp title!), and you've got your stakes laid out nicely. If anything, since this query is a little on the thin side, you could elaborate a bit more on your MC's back story--in other words, why did Pantheon choose him? What's Pantheon's end game? Other than that, I think this is a strong query!

      In your first 250, you continued to hold my interest. I love that Tyler wakes up in someone else's bed; how eerie! My only issue with your opening was the cliche of describing himself by looking at his reflection in the mirror--but then, I'm rather torn about you keeping it, because the imagery you give us in that paragraph is awesome. You're a strong writer, and it shows from this brief excerpt; I wish I could read more!

      BERYL: I love your title! However, I think your query could benefit from more information. What's the family business? What sorts of errands is Beryl running for her father, who we're told is shady? Give us more information, and make the stakes abundantly clear so that we'll want to read on!

      Your first 250 were also tough for me because you seem to be starting with a prologue or back story. It didn't pull me in because it was clear we weren't in the here-and-now, but listening to your MC's recollections. I will say though, the imagery in your second paragraph is lovely! Consider starting with action/with the moment of initial conflict so that your readers are gripped from the very first line.


    5. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes

      I love this nickname. It's AWESOME. I just wanted to mention that.

      Query: This is well written, but I almost feel like it's out of order. I think the second paragraph should be your hook. That's like, holy crap you've got my attention! The last paragraph has a lot going on. I don't need to know each step of his journey, but I do need to know the main conflict. Which, I'm guessing it's trying to deal with the Pantheon. If that's your main conflict build on that. Don't get me wrong, I still want to read this, but I'm giving you my best critiques that will hopefully help you make it better.

      250 - While I like the idea of this, I think there's too much description for the first 250. I want to be engaged in the plot and tons of description in the beginning doesn't do that. I think if you cut some of that out or minimize it, you'll be able to get that bit of action needed to make it flow better. I'd still request based on both query and 250.

      Over a Beryl

      Query - I feel like there's a lot of back story in your query. Things they've never been allowed to do. You might find yourself better off getting rid of that and using the hook to engage in what's going on. I think there's too many unimportant details and not enough important ones. Like what is the family business? Knowing this and why they are prisoners will help build your conflict and raise the stakes.

      250 - This reads like a prologue. It's not a great idea to start with the past, as it's usually an info dump or not pertinent to what's happening now. Back story should be sprinkled through out, not layered in heavy waves from the beginning. If the story starts with her at the market, then start the story there so that the readers are engaged in what's happening in the story now.


    6. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes,

      This is an interesting query, but I found myself confused and asking a lot of questions. Why pick Tyler for Pantheon? Who is he killing? I think this query would benefit from giving us some strong, concrete details and stakes. Right now this query does a great job of setting up the world, but not telling us enough about the main character and what he has to lose.

      First 250: I feel the intensity from the first line which I love, but I think your first paragraph could benefit from showing the reader a lot more. What do the clothes look like? What about the bathroom? Put us in that spot visually and you'll draw us in.

      And yes, I'm sure I'm not the only one to say this, but having him look in the mirror to describe himself is cliche. Think about adding action to describe what he looks like. Maybe blood tinges his blonde hair turning it pink. Work the details into the story more organically.

      Over a Beryl,

      This query too has an ominous feel, but again it could benefit from concrete details. Tell us what Dad's business is and that in turn will let the reader know how perilous the situation is for Beryl. Also, what are the mysterious errands? By sharing these details you're not only worldbuilding for the reader, but creating stakes.

      First 250: Your introduction is all backstory. Where does your narrative really begin? If it's discovering her brother at the bird market, don't tell us about it, take us there. Other details about how old she is, and what she's experienced in her short life can be weaved into the story as it unfolds.

      Two very interesting stories here that I would love to read!

      My vote goes to...


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


      Cool premise! I'm intrigued!

      And wow, I really can't think of anything I'd change in this query. Clear, concise, and intriguing. Best of luck!



      Definitely an interesting premise. It sounds terrifying!

      I think I'd like more specificity in the query; there's some important elements that are kind of vague. For instance, what's the family business? Do Beryl and the others know what it is? Or are they in the dark about that? You've also got "mysterious errands," "cryptic clues," "top-secret items," and a "deadly fate" -- a lot of things that you're hiding from the reader.

      Also, you mention that it has elements of magic realism, but the query doesn't address that.


    8. Jackie Jormp-JompJune 4, 2015 at 2:52 AM

      The query is really solid and I immediately get a sense of the action and danger the MC might face in the story. The only sentence I might cut or change is “In the process, he will battle inner demons and brainwashed assassins, free a girl from her psychological servitude, and learn to have faith in others.” It feels more like a synopsis than a teaser, and it might be better to hint at these things without telling us the eventual outcome – keep the reader intrigued and wanting to find out what happens.

      I think the first 250 are excellent and I love the cinematic style of prose. I would agree with other commenters that you could use more active verbs (wore versus was wearing) but the short clipped sentences and crisp description really let us experience the moment-to-moment confusion along with Tyler. Nice job!


      I’m very intrigued by this concept, but I’m a little unclear about where and when it takes place, and that took me out of the story a bit. I think the query really gets to the core of the character’s problem, although I think the stakes and consequences could be more specific. I also think the whole last sentence of the third paragraph is a bit repetitive and you might consider cutting it and ending the paragraph with “costly.” Finally, with a 15-year-old narrator and no romance element (as far as I can tell from this query) would this book be more suited to middle grade readers? Just something to think about – I feel like that’s a question an agent or editor might ask.

      I’m not in love with the first paragraph of the first 250. The omniscient narration is a slow start and doesn’t really add to the action of the story. Things really get cooking in the second paragraph. Also, the description of the bird market is very well written and visceral, but it’s a bit dense. Could it be spread out a bit and interspersed with more action?

      Victory to TEENAGERS

    9. 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. Pandora from the Clay--

    In that second paragraph, I feel like you could change the murder/suicide line to give it even more stakes--life or death, holds peoples lives in his hand; even his own, something. You know what...I actually wonder if, given this story, you could reverse the query order? Like it starts with him becoming aware and he has to unravel what happened.

    Once upon a time, I started reading a YA book that began with an amnesiac. And I didn't care for the character at all so I quit that book, fast. Recently, I read a similar book (Revive by Tracey Martin) and immediately cared. I was on the edge of my seat, I cared, I wanted that person to live and figure out who they were. Starting with the MC looking into the mirror is not that way. Also, most agents say that the whole looking into the mirror and describing oneself is not how they want a book to begin.


    You spend a lot of time setting up that dad is a terrible person in that query and then it feels like a big jump to the dead brother. Unless dad killed the brother? And a market of birds? I'm interested to see where it's going but wonder if it could maybe start with her that day in the bird market and leave off the first paragraph.

  3. Over a Beryl-

    Wow! Great work! I am really interested to see where you will take the setting. It sounds like it could be amazing! I'm also not sure if we should know about the dead brother sooner? As you said there were three brothers, I thought maybe one of the three died, but that may not be the case? Did the dad keep them prisoner in their own home after the death of her brother or is there another reason for this? Where's the mom? I would also like to see a little more of there living situation from the query as some things contradict each other in the first paragraph, because the father runs a shady business and yet they are sent to a nice private school where he is the largest donor? Lastly, when she sees her dead brother, does that mean she sees his ghost or is he alive and they just all thought he was murdered? Sorry for all the questions! I love your premise here!

    Jenna-Lynne Duncan
    "A Pirate's Life for Me"

  4. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes...

    Absolutely loved your query! Unique concept with high stakes and a great voice. Well done! And your first 250 give me a great intro to the action. Definitely hooked! This might just be my favorite entry I've read so far.

    Over a Beryl... Really clever premise, but the query itself lacked some of the intensity and grit I would have expected from the premise. Let that voice shine through!

    The opening two sentences of the 250 are great! Really intriguing way to begin your story. I wish that pace had continued through the rest of the 250. The description of setting and weather feel too mundane for such a fascinating premise.

    Good luck to you both!

    James Tilton
    Fun Friday My Ass (

  5. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes
    This sounds like it will be action packed. I enjoyed the description. Overall, it reminded me of Bourne Identity, which obviously was a huge hit. I'd love to know what makes it truly was he brainwashed...what are more of the stakes?

    Over a Beryl
    This premise sounds really interesting and the dynamic of the dead brother is really intriguing. I really enjoyed your voice in your 250, there's some good description there!

  6. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes,

    Oddly enough, I've actually read a book with a similar premise before (I'd give you a title, but I can't remember what it's called!). Because of that personal bias, your query didn't particularly hook me (obviously not true for everyone else, so listen to them!). Like others before me, I'd like to see a hint of what Pantheon does, and why it selected your MC so that I can see what really sets your novel apart.

    Regardless, what really stood out for me was your first 250. Your writing is gorgeous. Though the mirror description is, admittedly, cliche and not recommended, you did it very well, especially with the twist of a broken mirror that not only explains your characters looks, but sets a mood. Maybe, as was suggested earlier, this is something you can keep for later, but not necessarily open directly with? In other news, I love the sort of 'double narrative' thing you've got going, where your MC knows things, but doesn't understand how he knows him. Like both the MC and the brainwashed version of him are characters. Beautifully done.

    Over a Beryl,

    I'll admit to being a little bit offset by the query starting straight with an abusive father, just because I've seen that done poorly so many times (cardboard character?). The returned-from-the-dead brother is much more drawing for me, though having read other people's comments, I see what they mean about his character being unclear. I automatically assumed at first that the kid was living, and presumed to be dead. However, since this story has magical elements, I wouldn't be surprised if he were a ghost. I'd like that defined in the query, however, and as has been mentioned by others, I'd also like to know a little more about the father's business since knowing what he's running would help define (make unique) his character.

    I'll agree with others, once again, in saying that I don't think your first paragraph is necessary. It comes across a little as "summary" that takes away the magic of the book I'm about to read. Your second paragraph is where your strength shines. It was absolutely gorgeous with descriptions that left me feeling like I was there. It draws me right in to your world. I love how your bird market gives a unique spin to your world.

    Good luck!

  7. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes
    - This has a good Bourne vibe. And the beginning is harrowing.
    Over a Beryl
    - I love the twists here and the way the MC is boxed in. The setting comes across with a gruesome inversion that draws the reader in.

  8. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes:
    Wow, this reads like a movie! Very compelling. One small suggestion for the query would be a more specific visual image than "psychological servitude." Is she being blackmailed by Pantheon? Is she a beautiful girl/brilliant girl (implies a love interest, etc.) The first 250 is very strong, except for a slight overuse of -ing words. The passive construction works when he first finds himself in a strange place and in unfamiliar clothing, but it crops up again later. Tiny tweaks, such as "He was wearing black nylon gloves," could be "He stared at his hands. Black nylon gloves," etc. Maybe not that exactly, but watch for -ings and vary when you can, especially Was + ing.

    The Bird Market:
    This is very intriguing! The writing is just gorgeous. The one thing that I wish the query said is What is the family business and What is the accompanying deadly fate? More specific descriptions, without running too long, would make the stakes much more vivid and compelling. The 250 is amazing, I loved the metaphor of the birds slamming their desperate wings against the cages so hard ... powerful writing! One thing to think about is how chatty do you want the mc to be with the reader? If you would like her to be slightly less direct, then "I realize that" could be deleted from the last sentence, since we are already looking through her pov and re-stating pov can sometimes slow things down: To most people, a live bird market sounds like a storybook destination vs I realize that, to most people, a live bird market sounds like a storybook destination. I really loved the writing in this entry, beautiful and evocative.

  9. Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes/ Pandora from the Clay

    When I read the first paragraph of your query I was like, yes! I love this concept. In my opinion, you nailed the query letter. I didn't see any major faults with it. I just don't get why it is labeled psychological thriller. Psych thrillers usually involve the aspect that the MC's mentality is unstable. That he’s delusional and his situations may or may not be happening in reality. With the whole government and brainwashing thing, it sounds more like a techno-thriller.

    I like the starting point in your 250, Tyler's confusion and the description of his surroundings. The overuse of the word “was” did slow my pace of reading. Almost every other sentence has the word was. Overuse of what I like to call filler words (i.e. was, had, as) is not only a clear sign that the narrator is telling instead of showing but also a distraction to the reader, due to their repetition. I would suggest restructuring as many sentences containing “was” as possible, kill those darlings.

    Overall, I love the premise and good job on the query letter.

    Good luck!

    Over a Beryl/ The Bird Market

    This story sounds interesting. I like the first line of your query, and the concept is very unique. I would've liked to see a bit more detail on the family business and perhaps a mention of a dead brother before he just pops up in the query.

    The voice in your 250 seems a bit intense for YA, especially for a fifteen-year-old MC. When I choose to read a YA novel it's because I'm in the mood for a fun and playful narrative, but this is just my own preference. In your first sentence, if you strike "years old" I think it would flow better. So just:

    I was fourteen and a half when my brother B.J. died.

    The second sentence doesn't feel right, cause in the query you state that Beryl sees her brother over and over again. Maybe you could say something like:

    I was fifteen when I saw him alive again.

    Other than that, the writing seems fine and it's definitely a cool concept.

    Good luck!

  10. Teenagers: I almost wish the mc wasn't a foster child. It seems as though there are a lot of teenage foster children in YA books. It would resonate a bit more with me if this kid came from a normal family - think Apt Pupil by Stephen King. Besides that? Your query gave me *chills*. Very, very well written.

    The chills continue with your first 250. Love that it begins immediately with suspense - what is he going to do with that gun? Where is he, why is he there, and how is it that he doesn't know those answers himself? I don't normally read YA thrillers (I'm a historical fiction girl, myself!) but I'd read this one.

    Beryl: Great query! It flows nicely. The only tightening up I would suggest is to take "who the kids refer to as" out of this sentence: "Beryl’s father, who the kids refer to as “the bastard,” only allows them to leave the house to attend the private school where he is the biggest donor.". I am intrigued as to what the "family business" is, why it involves a bird market of all things, and whether or not BJ is actually dead...!

    In your first 250, I feel like the story really begins in the second paragraph - the first doesn't flow into the second, and doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. The last line switches to present tense, and without the context of the rest of the story, I'm not sure why - perhaps it's supposed to.

    Best of luck to both entrants!

  11. I would like to thank everyone who commented on my entry "Teenagers Make Poor James Bond Substitutes." Even if I don't make it through the later rounds, I am so grateful. Your advice has been unbelievably helpful and has helped me polish up my first 250 words and query.