Monday, June 15, 2015

QK Round 2: Greek Gods vs. Forget You, Stalin

Entry Nickname: Greek Gods are the best kind of trouble
Title: Not Set in Stone
Word count: 94K
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy

New York City is a far cry from Medusa Kalypto’s drab ancestral gorgon homeland, the Isle of Stone. Her NYC bursts at the seams with humans and the disenfranchised Greek gods. Here, Zeus is a barista, Hermes is famous for being famous, and Hades is a best-selling poet. And it’s the place where her carefully constructed life begins to unravel on her thirtieth birthday.

For humans, turning thirty involves reevaluating their lives and having mini panic attacks between celebratory margaritas. For Medusa, a gorgon with an all too common name, it entails taking a government-mandated test to determine if she has the gorgon curse. The curse means exile to the Isle, and to her mother, where she’ll spend the rest of her life as a pariah due to her relationships with the gods. A fate worse than death.

At least she thought so until the blood oath she took with her ex-boyfriend Ares resurfaces with an ugly side effect, telepathy. Now she’s bonded to her drama-fueled ex and it’s stirring up dangerous feelings. Sometimes a gorgon can’t catch a break.

Even worse, Medusa discovers the blood oath was illegal, sparking an investigation putting her immigration status at greater risk. With deportation and heartbreak looming in the distance, Medusa must find a way to make peace with the god of war or end up just like her mother, another gorgon statistic.

First 250 words:

I twirled a single snake around my index finger like a long green ribbon. The other snakes on my head annoyingly nipped at the bobbing zipper on the back of my dress. Surrounded by a mass of fellow Brooklynites who rarely blinked at a gorgon on Water Street; I marched down the sidewalk with a nervous focus. Here sidewalks were like a benevolent god to which we bowed our heads. Our sole prayer was to keep moving forward.

But each step forward added to the congregation of rocks in my gut. Especially today, on the birthday I feared the most. Did humans hate turning thirty as much as I did?

Hell, I'd relive the hangover again from Hermes’s summer birthday party last year, then to keep moving forward. Literal and metaphorical deaths lurked ahead. The safest option was to never move at all. Never leave the gorgon homeland, the Isle of Stone, in the first place. Never try to live among humans and the fallen Greek gods. Never attempt to make a life for yourself.

But I was never one to play it safe.

Instead, I made friends with the most flamboyant club hopping, druggie, gods in one of the most expensive cities in the world, thus aiding my foreseeable financial death, aka ruin. Racking up student loan debt in both my undergrad and graduate studies didn’t help either. My gorgon death (or birth, depending on your beliefs) now loomed ahead, blurring in the distance like a somber nightmare.


Entry Nickname:
Forget You, Stalin, We're Outta Here
Title: Night Witch
Word Count: 115,000
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction


Nadya, the diminutive trophy wife to a Communist Party functionary called Peter, learns to navigate aircraft, while navigating a secret relationship with Nikolai. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, an extramarital affair is anti-Communist, and Peter would not hesitate to send Nikolai to the Gulag, if he knew the identity of the man Nadya loves.

While the summer sun shines down in 1941, the Nazi war machine quickly swallows up vast areas of land and millions of men. Nadya’s beloved brother is one of them. Nadya refuses to cave to grief. Instead, she leaves Peter and joins the elite “Night Witches”, an air regiment made up almost entirely of women, as a navigator. For the next four years, coping with loss after devastating loss, two things keep her alive: her skills in the air, and her love for Nikolai, factory worker turned front-line soldier.

After Nadya discovers Peter is an anonymous informer for the secret police, she and Nikolai escape him together. These hardened war veterans have had enough of paranoia, famine, and oppression. Nadya knows that to earn true freedom, she and Nikolai must leave the Motherland altogether. If they cannot evade overzealous border guards and undercover secret police agents, they will die – and their two children will die with them.

First 250 Words:

Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. September 1940

The tall man with the shock of sandy hair apologized for stepping on my foot, when it really hadn’t been more than a bumping of toes. I smiled and assured him it was all right, and took a seat between two dour-faced men on the metro across from him. The smell of unwashed body contrasted sharply with the elegant station platform I saw out the window, lit with sparkling chandeliers. It was a sight I saw every afternoon on my way home from the flight navigation school where I took classes. It barely registered amidst my floating thoughts about my day, the loveless marriage I was stuck in, and which of my fellow metro riders were compiling denunciations for the secret police while pretending to read Pravda.

I caught the eye of the sandy-haired man again. He was quite handsome, I thought, in his tan topcoat and tie; I couldn’t reconcile the body-odour stink with him. When he returned my smile, I noticed his eyes. Bright, gemlike blue, with corners that crinkled upward at me. Something in my chest tightened. My heart sped up, mimicking the clacking of the wheels on the rails. I held his gaze for a moment before looking away and trying not to fuss with the sleeves of my light jacket.

The train slowed; he stood. “I hope I didn’t injure your foot too badly.” His voice was deep, masculine, smooth as silk. A Don Juan, I thought, but not a contemptible one.


  1. Judges, please reply to this comment.

    1. Greek Gods:
      It's a really fun premise. While the query is mostly clear, I think you could tighten it and get it down to three paragraphs. I don't think you need to spell out what "her NYC" is like or get into the fact that her name is common. I think if you focus more on the big conflict and put it in the first paragraph it will make it even better. The voice in the query and 250 is great. I think more could happen in the 250. It reads like almost straight narrative. That said, I would totally read it. It reminds me of Richelle Mead's Succubus series a bit.

      Night Witch: You also have a really compelling subject matter, but it's getting a little lost. I'd like to see upfront that it's about a regiment of female pilots. I think you can also streamline. I don't think you need the brother. I would limit to 2-3 characters tops. Also, the query needs more voice. It reads like a synopsis, not like something on the flap of a book. That said, I think you have a really interesting subject, it just needs to shine through.


    2. GREEK GODS:

      Query: I think your query would be stronger if you jump right into Medusa in paragraph one, rather than using real estate (when you only have approx. 250 words) to describe other characters from your MS. It reads like world building, which might be best left to the story itself. Just naming her as a gorgon living in NYC would be enough of a hook for me, because I love anything Greek Gods.

      First 250: I think you need a comma rather than a semi-colon after Water Street. And a comma after Here, sidewalks . . . The Hell… sentence seems awkwardly worded, so perhaps rework that one. I wonder if walking down the street and the use of “forward” a number of times is the best way to begin your story. I’d rather jump right in with Medusa interacting with her world, than read her telling us about it.


      Query: For me, the most interesting part of your query is her role in the Night Witches. Maybe work to that in the first paragraph if you can, then weave in Nikolai and Peter. That said, this sounds like a story I’d enjoy, filled with excitement and adventure in a war-torn Moscow.

      250: I really enjoyed your 250. It’s well-written, and your descriptions are solid enough I can picture the scene, yet they’re not so heavy they bog down the pace.

      Tough decision, because I love any form of Greek God retelling, but Night Witch pulled me right into the setting in the 250, so I have to give VICTORY TO NIGHT WITCH

    3. First off, both of these are way out of my league of writing and critiquing so please take my comments with a grain of salt. That said, I’ll do my best to give helpful feedback.

      Greek Gods:


      Your query reads great and the voice is wonderful. I was a bit confused on why at the age of thirty do gorgons have to take this test. Also can you elaborate on the blood oath a tad? Maybe hint as to the risks involved with it.

      First 250:

      Ha! I cringed at your first line. I am terrified of snakes. The voice is fantastic and that first line will draw the reader in. Nice job.

      Night Witch:


      Your query is smooth and wonderful but the first line has a lot of characters introduced at once. Are all of them necessary in one sentence? After that first line the rest is amazing. That second paragraph pulled me right in. Nice job!

      First 250:

      I really enjoyed this first 250 and this isn’t even my genre so that says a lot. The descriptions, pacing, and voice are wonderful.

      This is a super tough one and given that neither are my genre, I feel underqualified to make a decision but I must.

      Based on the first 250 I have to give my victory to Night Witch.

    4. Bookalicious MamaJune 16, 2015 at 3:30 PM

      Greek Gods: Your query seemed rather long to me. I think it needs to be condensed a bit, to be honest. And although I love that your voice shines through, I think simplifying your query will be a good thing. My suggestion is right off the bat, cut down on that first sentence. Even removing the word Ancestral helps. I like the line, "Sometimes a gorgon can't catch a break" mainly because it gives character, but to me, it slows the whole thing down. I'd consider also combining the last two paragraphs into one, even. Your 250 is good, but watch for telling. The phrase, for instance: "I marched down the sidewalk with a nervous focus." Doesn't show me her nervousness. Add in shaking hands or add in my eyes jerked back and forth. It's those little things that count.

      Forget You Stalin: The first line of your query is kind of wordy. I'd cut it down, getting rid of words like diminutive and called. The shorter the better. This line: ( These hardened war veterans have had enough of paranoia, famine, and oppression.) doesn't feel as though it should fit with the period that you are writing about for some reason. Feels off in a way. That might just be me, but I'd cut it. Your 250 is off to a great start, but watch those telling words. Don't have her notice things, have her speak of exactly what she's noticing in her head. Take out the word "Thought" too before that, mainly because it's not needed. Watch those things, clean it up a bit, and you will have something great.

      With that being said,

      Victory to: Night Witch

    5. Greek Gods:

      This is a unique and interesting premise.I think one of the most difficult things about writing a query for a fantasy novel is mixing the right blend of worldbuilding with the actual stakes of the story. With that in mind, you've introduced us to your world in this query but it feels a little overwhelming. I'd suggest starting this query with your second paragraph and then trying to add small touches of your world throughout. Right now your first paragraph only lays out the world for us but does not provide any hint of who your MC is and the stakes.

      First 250:

      Love the characterization, but again this feels like set-up. Where does your story really begin? Is it with Medusa's worries about her thirtieth birthday? You allude to this, but as a reader I want to know why this is an issue right away.

      Forget You:

      This is a time of history I love and the Night Witches is a fascinating topic. This query is strong, but it would be more compelling if you cut the first paragraph and got to the specifics of the Night Witches. Also, you may want to cut lines that slow the rhythm of the query ("These hardened war veterans...")

      First 250:

      Instead of telling me about getting her foot stepped on, I'd like to see it. It would give you a great opportunity to show Nadya and Nikolai's characterization right away. I also need a hint of the time period right away. Perhaps a nod to clothing or language.

      Victory to: Forget you

    6. Greek Gods
      Query: Sounds intriguing. And I loved the line about what turning 30 means for humans. A few suggestions: I’d trim the adjectives in the first line—you have three to describe her homeland, which makes the sentence feel too long. I didn’t understand why it’s “Her” NYC. In paragraph two, I don’t understand what her relationship is with the gods. I see them mentioned in paragraph one but don’t understand what her relationship is with them—BFF? Lover? Friend? Enemy? Tax accountant? I’d cut the “fate worse than death line” it’s a cliché and doesn’t tell me anything new about the plot. If you need something to link those paragraphs, find a way to twist the cliché. (Examples: A fate worse than a thousand, bloody deaths. A fate worse than death by spooning. Etc) I found the last line about the “god of war” to be confusing because I’m not very knowledgeable on the Greek gods. I had to Google to find out that is her ex. Unless you’re querying agents who have a significant interest in the Greek gods you may want to make that clear. In the first line of the last paragraph I think you’re missing an “and” “sparking an investigation and putting…”
      First 250: Some really fabulous lines in here. I loved the part about the sidewalks being a benevolent god. In this first paragraph I think you’re overdoing it on naming emotions. Trust the reader a little more. For example, I don’t think we need you to tell us the snakes “annoyingly” nipped, it reads as if it’s a minor annoyance already. Also we get a good sense that she’s nervous in paragraph two, so I don’t think you need to specify that she’s walking with a “nervous” focus. Replace the semicolon with a comma. The beginning of paragraph three confused me—I think it’s something to do with the “then to keep moving forward.” Consider if you really need the “instead” at the beginning of five. I vote no—I think the reader will enjoy making the connection more without it. Check your comma use in this paragraph as well.

      Forget You, Stalin
      Query: This sounds full of tension and intrigue! However, I think you could make it shine with a little more work to the structure of your query. The first paragraph confused me and I couldn’t figure out who was the main character here—Nadya or Peter. I think I’d cut that one altogether and work in the necessary information later in the query. Example:

      While the summer sun shines down in 1941, the Nazi war machine swallows up vast areas of land and millions of men. Nadya [last name]’s beloved brother is one of them. But Nadya refuses to cave to grief, and instead joins the Night Witches—an air regiment of [adjective] women. For the next four years....

      But Nadya is already married, and it isn’t to Nikolai. When she discovers her husband is an informer…

      First 250: I’m a sucker for a good romance—and a good meet cute. This feels like it’s almost there and just needs a little nudge in the right direction. (I’m assuming this man is Nikolai, if not there’s a bigger issue I think.) Is there a way to add something unique to the way they meet? Something that will stand out to the reader? People step on each other all the time. What is it about this day and this guy and this situation that will make us want to keep reading? I think we also have a disconnect between the narrative distance and the writing. You’ve chosen first person as the POV, so naturally we expect to be very close to her personal thoughts, interior emotions, etc. Instead I feel like we’re given a lot of summary and not let in to what’s really happening with your MC. So much summarizing also holds back the voice, and in the first page you really want to let that shine.

      This is a super tough decision. Victory to Greek Gods.

    7. Haley James ScottJune 17, 2015 at 1:31 PM

      Greek Gods Are the Best Kind of Trouble
      The concept of this story is fascinating! Nice work. I think that some of the extras thrown in, like “Her NYC” and her common name are unnecessary. This is just a suggestion, but some people aren’t fully aware of all aspects of Greek mythology so mentions of her mother, the bad history between her relationship to the Gods and (for this story’s purposes) the immigration process could be clarified with a sentence or two. Overall, this sounds like such a fun story!

      First 250:
      The “foreseeable financial death, aka ruin” seems repetitive since financial ruin/death are pretty much the same thing. I’m not sure (since this is only the first 250 words) if the gorgon death concept is mentioned later but like I said with the query, clarification of it could help.

      Forget You, Stalin
      This sounds awesome! Maybe instead of saying “called Peter,” say “named Peter”. Because of the mention of the Communist Party and different terminology used throughout, it helps differentiate between names and organizations. Instead of using a full sentence to describe Nadya’s brother, add it to the previous sentence, so it is brought up as the cause for Nadya’s drive in the Night Witches, but not introduced as a plot storyline. Another thing that stuck out was the “coping with loss after devastating loss”. Some detail here would be helpful so the reader feels more invested in the story. The mention of her of their children also comes out from nowhere, so perhaps moving that up to the second paragraph will help raise the stakes. Overall, great job!

      First 250 words:
      I loved this. It really brought me right into the action. I don’t have much in the line of critique!

      Victory goes to: FORGET YOU, STALIN.

  2. Greek Gods -
    I like the idea of Greek gods and mythical creatures trying to hack it in our world while caught in a web of restrictions from their own world. Humanizing a monster like Medusa is fun, but, if there is more of the mythical status, the urges from the stories, and the pride of her ilk (and a god like Ares) in the story that would provide a level of engagement currently missing from the query.
    The 250 is clear and begins to project the world, but it does not appear to be an important point in the story. Mostly there is narration to set things up, which is somewhat distancing.

    Forget you, Stalin -
    I like that you took a little known aspect of WWII and used it as backdrop of a love triangle that as the extra edge of danger. There are so many opportunities implied here for a rich story. The query might benefit from a touch more of the hidden history over the love story, but it works well as written.
    The 250 includes the wonderful image of subway as people's palace and mixes in enough of what is happening in real time to get me engaged, if not immersed. More is told of the backstory than is necessary, but he moment is right, with the beginning of the affair.

    Good luck to both of you!

  3. Greek Gods - In the query, perhaps trim out what humans do at age 30? Since this is a known thing, taking this out will give more room to focus on what the reader doesn't know about this world. In the opening 250, ultra- picky point -- suggest trimming out 'again' after 'relive' as unnecessary (unless she's relived the incident more than one time?) and trimming out the 'then' before 'to keep moving forward.' I like this twist on Greek mythology with the gods visiting mortals and messing with their lives, to a gorgon who just wants to continue her life in NYC.

    Forget You - I really like this query rewrite -- for me, the story line is much clearer. I still think the setting, time period and the Night Witch storyline are intriguing. The stakes also seem better delineated in this version of the query. The first 250 seem a bit more streamlined and I liked the sensory details you folded in. I feel a bit disconnected from the MC at this point, but I'd keep reading, expecting that connection to grow as the story unfolds.

  4. GREEK GODS - Your query sounds really interesting. Your 250 has great voice. I think after you say, "I was never one to play it safe." There should be some dialogue or action. It just feels like you need that there. Tell us about the ex-boyfriend a little later.

    FORGET STALIN - I was a bit confused with your query. I thought her brother died on the front lines? But then they found him? I also agree that talking about her flying with the Night Witches is a much better hook than having an affair. I'd start with that if you can. Also, watch for cliche emotions (beating hearts) at least on the first page.

  5. Greek Gods - I think I won't be able to provide much more than small bits of feedback, but here we go. With the query, overall, I found it very good and the premise unique. I agree with those that said cut the line about what humans do at 30; it felt like it was too tangential from the plot. I didn't quite understand the connection between the paragraph about Medusa turning 30 and the blood oath, so maybe reword the transitional phrase at the beginning of the third paragraph. As for the 250, overall, I did enjoy it as well. A bit too much narration for my taste, but it did set up a rather unique voice and setting. In the second sentence, I would take out the word "annoyingly" - I think it'd flow better.

    Forget You, Stalin - I thought this query did a good job setting up all the elements of the plot, but I do agree with those who think you should focus more on the Night Witches than on the love triangle. I think it'd put the stakes even higher. With the 250, I agree with Amanda that it might be a better hook to start with the Night Witches or even a scene in flight school. But, this scene does work well, so if you do decide to keep it, I would personally eliminate the "sandy haired" description from the first sentence. It just read as sort of off, and I think it'd be pretty easy to move the physical description to the next time the man is mentioned.

    Overall, two very good entries and I wish the best of luck to you both!

  6. Greek Gods - This is a great query and such a unique concept! But I think you can streamline your query a little more to get rid of unnecessary information. You could remove the first sentence of the second paragraph because I'm assuming it probably isn't necessary to the story. Then you could combine parts of the first and second to read something like this: "For Medusa, a gorgon with an all too common name, turning thirty entails taking a government-mandated test to determine if she has the gorgon curse." For your 250, I love the image of the snakes and I love the term "Brooklynites." It really shows a great voice and that's so important. There were a couple sentences that read a little awkward to me but are an easy fix. For starters, there should be a comma after this following sentence, not a semi-colon: "Surrounded by a mass of fellow Brooklynites who rarely blinked at a gorgon on Water Street". Also, the sentence that starts with "Hell, I'd relive..." I had to reread several times because I think a word is missing. Suggestion for that sentence: "Hell, I'd rather relive the hangover from Hermes’s summer birthday party last year, than keep moving forward." I think you were missing the word "rather" and "relive" implies "again" so I'd remove that, and it should be "than" not "then." Other than that, great job!!

    Night Witch: Another great query and premise! In the query, I don't think you need a comma after "Gulag." Also, this phrase reads funny, "escape him together". Perhaps just "escape together"? I love your 250, especially how you wove in so effortlessly about her routine, the body odor on the train, and her loveless marriage. I really get a sense of what her life is like in the first couple paragraphs. One small suggestion: Perhaps remove the "I thought" from the line where she talks about the man being handsome and after she says he's a Don Juan. It's not needed and it kind of takes away from what she's saying. I already know it's what she's thinking because I'm already in her head. Make sense? Hope that helps...Good luck with this one! I'd love to read it someday!

  7. Greek Gods: I love the concept – I think this would be such a fun book to read! I did find the first paragraph of your query confusing, though. Her NYC? For some reason that kept tripping me up in the second sentence. I think you could start with second paragraph and then just follow with info from first.
    Some punctuation things – side effect: telepathy. And just a comma after Walter Street instead of a semi-colon.
    Witches – What a fascinating time period to explore, and I already want to learn more about the elite Night Witches just from your query! I did think there was lot of info to process in first sentence of your query. If you could slow it down and unpack it some I think the info given would be more digestible. Also, I agree with the other commenters about escaping someone – maybe “help him escape.”
    Both sound like great books!

  8. GODS: Interesting concept! I think your query clearly lays out the stakes. At times it sounded a little YA to me (for example, “Sometimes a gorgon can’t catch a break”).

    250: I don’t think you need a semi-colon in your first paragraph – should be a comma. There are a few other grammatical errors as well; another copyedit would help! I really love the voice in your second and third paragraphs; it wasn’t quite there for me in the first. Also, wouldn’t she be aware that the snakes on her head would nip at a bobbing zipper after 30 years of living with them and as such dress accordingly? Overall I liked the character’s sass. She feels like someone I could root for!

    STALIN: Great changes to your query! You’ve narrowed it down to the essential parts, and it’s a much cleaner read.

    250: Good additions! I get much more of a sense of the setting. In your first paragraph, I think the last sentence doesn’t quite work; it’s a bit dense. I like the comparison of her heart to the train wheels clacking. Nice work!

    Query: I must read this book now!! What a fun concept! I’d probably cut the first sentence of your second paragraph to get to Medusa’s conflict sooner. Very nit-picky, but in your last paragraph I’d rephrase “putting her immigration status at greater risk.” Try something like: Even worse, Medusa discovers the blood oath was illegal, sparking an investigation into her immigration status.
    250: Love the voice, the writing and the stakes. I'd cut "annoyingly" in your second sentence, it feels unnecessary. You echo "sidewalks", so I wonder if you could say: "Surrounded by a mass of fellow Brooklynites who rarely blinked at a gorgon in their midst; I marched down Water Street with a nervous focus. Here sidewalks were like a benevolent god to which we bowed our heads."

    Query: Love your premise. I’m so excited to follow your MC’s transformation from a housewife to a soldier. One tiny note: In your second paragraph, your second and third sentences read a bit choppy. If Nadya’s brother’s disappearance is a catalyst for her action, you could say: When Nadya’s beloved brother perishes, she refuses to cave to grief.
    250: Solid writing, lovely details. In the opening, instead of getting a summary of their meeting, I’d love to see Nikolai step on Nadya’s foot and get her reactions as the incident unravels. I think this will give you an excellent opportunity for character building.

    Wow, such awesome concepts. Good luck to you both!!