Jun 1, 2014

QK Round 1: I Babysit My Mom vs A Burning Dilemma

Entry Nickname: I Babysit My Mom
Title: Redefined
Word Count: 73,000
Genre: YA Contemporary


Cat Tierney, high school senior, has always done The Right Thing. She makes straight A’s, edits the school paper, and stays home on Friday nights to babysit her mother, who suffers from an unpredictable neurological disease. Sure, Cat would like a social life, but she’s not willing to fight with her overprotective father to get one. Until she meets Adam Jordan.

Adam shows up in journalism mid-year and offers to take pictures for the paper. He wows Cat with his photography skill, explains physics until it makes sense, and comes to the rescue when her car refuses to start. Cat finally has a boyfriend who appreciates her mind and makes her laugh, but many things threaten to force her away from Adam, including his father, who drinks too much.

As graduation approaches, Cat’s problems multiply. Her mom’s health deteriorates, her dad tightens his grip, and Adam pressures Cat to stand up for herself. Cat must choose between what she thinks is right and what she knows she wants, and with either choice, she risks losing someone important to her. In the end, she realizes she has a better option than abandoning her family or losing the boy she loves, but it will require all of her strength to pull it off.

First 250:

Most seniors from Keene County High School didn’t stay home on Friday nights to babysit their moms, but I did.

I was chopping tomatoes in the kitchen, helping Billie finish dinner. Dad hired her to take care of Mom during the day, but she also liked to cook for us, a definite bonus. Billie’s cooking tasted almost as good as Mom’s used to. Almost.

Dad called my cell around five o’clock; I didn’t want to answer. When I did, he started talking before I could finish saying “hello.”

“Catherine,” he said. “I’m in the ICU waiting to get some lab results on one of my patients. This could be a long night.”

I held the paring knife in midair. “You’re not coming home.”

“I’m afraid not for awhile.”

“But I wanted to go to the football game tonight.” Deep down, I knew that Dad’s patient was more important than a football game. But why did these crises always happen when I had plans?

“I’m sorry. You need to stay home.”

I glanced at Mom, sitting in her wheelchair in the family room, head dropping to one side. She couldn’t help that she was sick, that she needed me.

“Fine,” I said.

“Thanks hon. Gotta go.”

The line went dead. I shoved my phone into my pocket.

“Dr. Tierney working late?” Billie asked.

“Yes,” I said, chopping tomatoes more violently than normal.

“Well, at least dinner’s almost made. Don’t cut your fingers.”


Entry Nickname: A Burning Dilemma
Title: Burn, Baby
Word count: 62K
Genre: YA Contemporary


The fates must have been laughing their asses off the day Ziggy's crack-head mom poured gas all over his big sister and lit her on fire. Layla's tragedy gave him the life he'd always wished for, and too much guilt to ever enjoy it.       
His mom got thirty to life for attempted murder and now the brother and sister are living with a crazy but cool uncle in the suburbs, far away from the public housing apartments where they grew up. They’re going to a private high school and Ziggy's driving his own car and excelling in kickboxing. Unfortunately, his once kind, smart sister now hates everything, but mostly him, for saving her. 
Until she connects with her poetry teacher, who falls in love with her angry words, and slowly draws her out from her prison of scars.
Ziggy beats the crap out of Mr. Osterman for loving his sister, almost earning himself expulsion. Sure, the guy’s young, just out of college, but it’s wrong for a teacher to go after a student. Layla hates Ziggy even more for chasing off the only man who sees her true beauty, not the scarred monster staring back in her mirror. After Layla tries to kill herself, Mr. Osterman resigns, but he defiantly vows to stay in touch with her until she graduates from college.
Part of Ziggy wants to go after him, scare him off for good, but another part of him wonders if he should let time play this one out. If  Osterman loves her enough to wait all those years, maybe he’s what Layla needs to find her way back to happiness.     

250 Words:

I Wish You Were Dead
By Layla Neilson
What did you expect when you opened up my note?
Did you think I would forgive?
Sixteen years of brute neglect, wiped clean because you wrote?
Words I refused to read, in one moment torn to shreds
They meant nothing, you old bleating goat
How about this, Mom; I wish you were dead

The terror of that night, which eventually destroyed us all in some ways, all started for the sole reason that my sister had the tragic misfortune of growing up beautiful.
Mom obsessed over Layla’s grace, afraid my sister might steal the johns who fed her drug habit. Her obsession turned to paranoia, the paranoia into psychosis, until one Thursday night in March, she sprayed her child with gasoline and lit a match.
Lightning streaked across the Tampa sky, illuminating the cockroaches that feasted on the kitchen counter. Thunder cracked, slow and building until vibrations shuddered the small living room of our crap apartment, where I sat cross legged on the couch. Layla sprawled beside me, reading a book while I watched some dumbass reality show.  
Aside from a couple of mattresses in the bedrooms, that was the extent of our furniture. The Goodwill couch which doubled as my bed, and a junk TV on a milk crate. I held a box of Lucky Charms where Layla could reach, enjoying our family sit-down dinner.
“What’re you reading?”  I asked during a commercial.
The rain messed up the picture, so I fiddled with the rabbit ears, only making things worse.


  1. This space reserved for judge feedback and votes.

    1. I Babysit My Mom: Your query is good and clear, although I wondered what her mother’s ‘unpredictable neurological disease’ was, and thought it might be better to name it. Otherwise you outline the story well. I did feel it lacked a bit of something special to really grab me, but that’s quite possibly subjective as am more of a fantasy than contemporary reader.

      Your opening page is nice and clear, and introduces us to the scene and characters well. (Btw, I think you mean ‘head drooping’, maybe, instead of ‘dropping’?) However, it’s a rather mundane opening, and doesn’t quite hook me. Is there somewhere a bit more exciting you could begin your story instead?

      A Burning Dilemma: Your query is a bit too synopsis-like for me. I don’t think you need all the detail about Ziggy beating up the poetry teacher, and Layla trying to kill herself, since am guessing this all comes later in the story. A query is meant to entice, not give too much away. I’d suggest keeping the first three paras then, instead of the final two paras, just having a line or two, along the lines of ‘But overprotective Ziggy isn’t happy about his sister dating a teacher. Should he try to come between them, or is Mr Osterman – despite the taboo – just what Layla needs to move on with her life?’ I was also thrown by the 2nd para saying ‘the brother and sister’, because I’d presumed Layla had died in the fire, especially with your use of the word tragedy. So I’d make it clear right at the start that she survives. I’d also (again!) like ages for both of them, please. Oh and I think thirty-to-life should probably be hyphenated?

      Opening page: I really like the poem, although I’m not sure it’s the best way to start. I’m less of a fan of the following two paras, which are a rather clunky synopsis of backstory. The scene that follows is fine, and I wonder whether it might not be better to have him look at his sister’s face during that scene and then tell us what’s happened to her as he describes her in passing, or even to keep the information about how she came to be burned for a little later on in the story, and let it come out more naturally and subtly.

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma.

    2. I Babysit My Mom: I have to admit that I had to read this query several times because I kept trying to look for the true conflict in the story. You elude to it, but never really state the stakes. Admittedly, I read a lot of YA Contemporary, and with the market being flooded with these kind of stories, you need to grab the reader right away and show how your story is different from all the other YA Contemps on the shelf. I don't get a sense of that from your query.

      Your first 250 are well done. I immediately get a sense of who Cat is, but I will agree with others that I'm not sure you are starting in the right spot. Ask yourself where does the real conflict begin? When she meets Adam? When she confronts her father about wanting a real life? Think about where and how you can grab the reader right away.

      A Burning Dilemma: I like your premise, but I'm afraid your query reads too much like a synopsis. I think you can still explain the heart of the story without giving away so much detail.

      The poem at the beginning of your first 250 gives a real sense of tone for this story and I like it, but again I would caution against starting with a very mundane beginning. Sitting around watching TV may be a good set-up to build backstory, but it doesn't pull a reader in like it should.

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma

    3. I Babysit My Mom: Congrats on writing a nice, clear query! There wasn't really anything that made me pause as I read through, so I only have a few little nitpicks to offer you: First, I suggest you go ahead and actually tell us what disease your MC's mother has. Second, I felt that your query would be a lot stronger without the final line that starts, "In the end..." I felt like this sentence was vague, and detracted from an otherwise strong finish. I'd be more compelled to read on if the last sentence was the one about risking losing someone important--that line shows your stakes well. Last, one thing to consider overall is this: what makes your story stand out from other YA contemporary novels out there? If there's something super unique to your story that might give it an edge in a crowded market, make sure you add that detail into the query.

      In your first 250, I'm worried you're not starting in the right place. There's no tension in this opening page, though your prose itself is well-written. What's the inciting incident in your story? Where does the action take off? That should be your first page. Also, I felt that you could have given more description in your opening for greater emotional impact (perhaps more details about Cat's mom being in the wheelchair?). And you could have added more action to some of Cat's dialogue so that you're giving the readers a bit of movement in addition to the phone conversation.

      A Burning Dilemma: You have a dark and intriguing premise here, but as others have pointed out, your query is bogged down by too much detail. I think focusing more on Ziggy and his inner conflict, as opposed to telling us many of the events in the story, will still keep readers interested without giving everything away!

      In your first 250, the writing is gorgeous. However, I think you should save the poem for a bit later, once we've spent a little time with Layla and Ziggy. I'd suggest starting with the second section of your opening page. Sure, it's not teeming with action to draw us in, but your prose is beautiful and I'd definitely read on. I really liked OmarComin's suggestion of Ziggy describing his sister's face in your opening scene, too.

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma!

    4. Allusion AssassinJune 2, 2014 at 11:44 AM

      I don't have anything earth shattering to add that hasn't already been said about your query. I echo that it's cleanly written, but seems to be lacking conflict/stakes. You use generic terms "many things threaten to tear them apart" to discuss the conflict, keeping it impersonal and distant. What exactly is trying to keep them apart, what do they have to overcome? Finally, I don't think the last line, about the secret plan to fix things, works. Part of the problem is because so much of the rest of the query is vague that this feels like one more thing you aren't telling us.

      For me, your opening page is okay. Which is the problem. There's nothing exciting about it. I think that's part of the problem with your whole entry - what is fresh here? You may have a different take on this setup, but right now it's not coming through. Everything seems very predictable. I didn't have to finish reading your opening to know what was going to happen. It may seem unfair, but in a crowded market, you have to have a concept that stands out and right now, to me, this doesn't.

      Also, one final thought, is this really contemporary? It feels more like romance or chick lit. I think you need to adjust your query either way.

      I really liked the opening premise of this, but then it kind of took a strange turn with the love affair with the teacher. Not the topic per se, but because the query starts with Zig having to deal with this horrible act and his guilt then this addition completely takes a focus away from him. It becomes all about his sister and her relationship with the teacher instead of her relationship with her brother. I felt like he got lost in the shuffle at the end of this. If he is the MC as described in your query, then what are his stakes? What bad thing happens if he doesn't stop the teacher, what bad things happen if he does, the obstacle obviously being he has to decide what to do. That's what is missing here for me - what's in it for Ziggy.

      Also, agree with others that this query tells too much detail. The job of a query is to pique interest to want to go read the manuscript. This gives away the whole story. I agree with the suggestion that you chop the paragraph about him beating up the teacher and focus more on Ziggy's stakes.

      Agree with the suggestion that Layla's beauty needs to be described in the opening. I liked the poem where it is.

      Final nit - suggest you rethink the title. It doesn't seem to match the intensity of the manuscript.

      To me this pairing almost seems unfair. The quieter chick lit/romance I BABYSIT I think would have a better chance if it were against a more balanced opponent instead of the the high stakes/high energy entry of BURNING DILEMMA.

      Victory to A BURNING DILEMMA

    5. Girl with the Golden PenJune 4, 2014 at 2:13 AM


      The query was clear enough, though I would like to know what the mom's neurological disease is. That's important information for us to know why your MC must babysit her. I also think the detail of Adam's drinking father had much to do with the plot. This is Cat's story so I'd focus on her family. It does seem a little plotless and the main conflict stated in the last paragraph is too vague to really hook me. Work on a few specifics and your query will be a lot stronger

      The first 250- Cat has a nice voice and she faces a dilemma on the very first page. They say that you need to make your MC immediately want something, even a glass of water, and this does this nicely while also establishing her situation. It is strong writing and I enjoyed it.


      There's definitely conflict here but the query does read like a long synopsis. A good guide for a query is to give background on the characters, the inciting incident, how this spurs the conflict, and a hint of what is to come. This focuses too much on what happens after the inciting incident. I also feel almost as if this should be Layla's story. She's the one with the most conflict and emotional arc. Her brother is an outsider to the situation and an observer and I worry this will make him more passive. Obviously this would be a big change but, that would be my worry as an agent from the get go.

      First 250- I love the poem at the beginning and it has punch. The rest of the opening is good too, setting up a nice picture of the main characters and the tension between them. Good voice overall.

      The query for I BABY SIT MY MOM was better written but the stakes were clearer in A BURNING DILEMMA. BURNING DILEMMA therefore sticks a bit more out from the pack. So, victory goes to A BURNING DILEMMA

    6. ghostbuster_extraordinaireJune 4, 2014 at 10:07 AM

      I Babysit My Mom:

      Solid query. I would delete the comma after 'her mother' and use an em dash.

      Smooth opening. I definitely felt a connection with Cat. And you evoked sympathy from me for her. Great work.

      A Burning Dilemma:

      Definitely intrigued by this query. It was a bit long and rambling though. I would tighten it and make sure to include the stakes. What's at risk?

      I wasn't sure about the poem at first since the story is in Ziggy's POV, but it works. I love their brother/sister connection and am intrigued to find out more of their story.

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma

    7. REFINED
      I don't know that I really have anything to add to this one. It's well-written and conflict and stakes stand out. It didn't *WOW* me, but that may just be b/c it's not really a genre I read a lot of.

      BURN, BABY
      Well. The query's opening line definitely grabbed my attention. I don't think it's the kind of story I'd read personally, but it's got a lot of interesting elements that are spelled out clearly (and with great voice) in the query. I think you could cut some of the plot details in the fourth paragraph, and just stick with the overarching conflict -- should he step in to "save" his sister again, even though Mr. Osterman may be the one person who may actually be able to help her?

      Victory to A Burning Dilemma

  2. I Babysit my Mom: Really like Cat's voice and the conflict of the story. A huge dilemma for a teen. After reading the query twice I felt like I knew the direction of the story, but wished for a few more specifics: how is Adam's father's drinking forcing them apart? Is her father's grip tightening on her, or her time, or what? But there's great stuff in there, too, especially the first paragraph.

    I like your 250 a lot. I get a good feel of where she is and what her home is like from this brief glimpse. I like the phone conversation and the description of what's happening at the time. I would definitely read on! One nitpick - there should be a comma in "Thanks, hon." great job and good luck!

    A Burning Dilemma: Great first sentence of the query. Hooked me right away! A really interesting story idea. The query itself feels a bit piece-mealed, if that makes sense? A little of this, a little of that. I'd like a little more of Ziggy's inner turmoil rather than all the details. I hope that makes sense, because I really do love your idea.

    I think your first 250 are really, really great. I would absolutely read this book.

  3. I Babysit My Mom:
    I think your query is strong, although I felt like tossing in that Adam's dad drinks wasn't as significant as the rest of the conflicts and could have been left out. Your opening scene is well-written, but doesn't pop. It's an ok scene. While I instantly sympathize with Cat, the opening didn't blow me away.

    A Burning Dilemma:
    I feel like your query is too long. There's info that could be saved for the book. I might skip the majority of that second to last paragraph. Maybe just leave in the last sentence. There are little details in your 250 that I really liked, such as fidgeting with the rabbit ears. However, I feel like it might be a stronger beginning if you show, instead of tell, exactly what happened to Layla. You might save it for later in the story, but given how important it is to the entire plot, I feel like opening with it would be powerful, and would draw the reader in faster and deeper than the opening here. That being said, I love the idea and would totally read this book.

    Good luck to both of you!

  4. Hi. Fellow Kombatant here.

    I Babysit My Mom: Your query seems just right; a good length and a perfect amount of plot revealed. I like the first line of your 250, too. Maybe you could add a bit more description to your first page; maybe about the smell of the dinner they're making or what the kitchen looks like, etc.

    A Burning Dilemma: I'm afraid that I have to agree that the query seems a bit too long. But I liked the description in the first page; I really can picture that room.

    Nice job to both!

  5. Congratulations Kombatants on some compelling storylines.

    I Babysat Mom: Strong query. In your 250, the dialogue is well done, but I feel like I want a bit more information given, which is difficult to do with first person. Maybe a bit more of internal dialogue. Great opening.

    A Burning Dilemma: Your query gives away too much of the plot. Great voice in your 250. I am troubled by the placement of the poem as the opening lines. I feel like we need a little buildup first. Maybe the person opening the paper to read it or discovering it to lead into the events of "that night".

  6. Wow - I can definitely see why your two stories were matched up. Some tragic/heart-wrenching stuff here. So hard for teenagers to have to go through...

    I Babysat Mom: I found this really compelling. I can only imagine how hard it would be to be the perfect daughter, who deserves to be awarded for this goodness in some way, but feels such obligation. Moms and daughters (usually) have such a great bond - this situation of Cat's makes me instantly sympathize with her. The query was clear about the story and intrigued me about how she'd make it all work. Your first 250 is well done, but a bit more of her emotion/frustration coming out could really strengthen it, imho. Good luck with this!

    A Burning Dilemma: I cannot even imagine knowing a mother who would do this to their own child. Blows me away. So, right off, you've got a gripping, compelling hook. And the teacher/student romance intrigues me as well. But, Ziggy was almost too antagonistic/bitter for my taste and made him a bit unlikeable - in the query and the 1st 250. Although, the imagery in your first page really painted the picture of their living arrangements. In the query, you say that they move in with an Uncle. I'm assuming that the scene you paint is pre-accident, right? If that's the case - I'm not sure I love the placement of the poem or what comes afterwards. If you're recounting the night it all happened, the poem and reflection about it up front kind of cheats me of the shock value later...torn about that. But - really interesting premise and start. Best of luck with this!!


    Your query reads very well. It's straightforward and I get an excellent sense of the MC and her dilemma. However, I feel like it could have some more spunk (i.e. "voice"). For example, "who drinks too much" could become something like "who prefers the bottle to his son."

    A subjective note, but the line "until she meets Adam Jordan" could be its own paragraph. It would create a stronger contrast to the MC's life up to that moment, and would add some of variety to your paragraph structures.

    Also, I feel that the last line is a bit too telling and seems more like synopsis type material. I'd cut it and emphasize only the choice between Adam and her parents. Her family vs her first love? At 17, this is a big deal! I want to see this fleshed out a bit more so I really feel it.


    Love the voice here. It comes through well in both your query and 250. However, I agree with the others that your query seems more like a synopsis. Personally, I'd cut everything after the line "until she connects with her poetry teacher..." Then I'd emphasize the choice: Ziggy can put his kickboxing skills to use and scare the creep off, or let it play out and make his sister happy.

    As for the 250, I enjoyed the poem by Layla, but felt that the story starts with the line "lightening streaked across the counter". Everything before it felt like a prologue, which had me skimming. Everything after that, however, was superb. You painted the scene well, added in some excellent details, and left me wanting more.

  8. I Babysit My Mom
    The query feels solid. My only comment is that it first presents her father as overprotective, and then as drinking too much. It leaves me wondering which one is the main obstacle for Cat. Even if both are part of his character in the story, I think it would give the query more focus if you stuck with one or the other.

    I also enjoyed the voice in the 250, but was left confused on one point. Both the query and the opening line led me to believe that Cat stays home every Friday night to look after her mother. Yet the rest of the 250 makes it sound like this isn’t the case. If this is a special instance (i.e., they had made some arrangement for this week only so she could go to the game), then I think that needs to be made clearer. Other than that minor point, it reads very well.

    A Burning Dilemma
    The first half of the query zings. Pulled me in for sure. The second half feels more unfocused, oscillating as it does between Ziggy and his sister. I’d recommend sticking with Ziggy as the focus and mention his sister only as her plight relates to his (that is, presuming he’s the main character, which I do based on the first half of the query).

    The 250 is well written, but I found it odd that the opening few lines would more or less give away what’s about to happen. I think it takes some of the punch out of the following scene. It’s well written, but I think showing us the horrible incident that’s about to come and letting it unfold on its own would be more powerful without the “telling” introduction.

    Good luck to both entries!

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  10. Thank you judges and fellow kombatants, for your great feedback. I have my query and entry polished for the next round. That being said, I can't decide if I should leave the poem or not! Every chapter starts with a poem, so I'm thinking I must leave it.