Jun 1, 2016

QK Round 1: Play Chess Not Checkers vs. The British Are Coming

Title: The Chess Girl
Entry Nickname: Play Chess Not Checkers
Word Count: 66K
Genre: MG Historical Fiction


To win her family’s freedom, Ruchel must play the greatest chess match ever.

As World War 1 begins, Ruchel’s father is forced into the Austrian Army just as the Russian Army invades.   To survive, her mother opens a tiny cafe.  Business is terrible until Ruchel challenges and defeats a customer in a chess match.   Soon, everyone is coming to watch her play.

Ruchel hopes to use her newfound celebrity to discover what’s happened to her father, unheard of since the Austrians took him.  Unfortunately, as different armies take turns occupying her hometown, it’s all she can do to help keep her family from starving.

When civil war breaks out and both sides start hunting Jews, Ruchel must bet everything against immigration papers on beating a Polish chess champion. 

First 250:

Ruchel’s opponent carefully pushed his knight two spaces forward and one space left using the two fingers remaining on his right hand.  He nodded to Ruchel as he pulled the hand back.  The burned side of his face remained frozen, as did the milky white eye contained within, but the other side of his mouth tried to turn upward. 

Once Ruchel would have felt both pity and horror at his appearance, but she’d seen so many ruined men in the last couple of years.  Besides, the stakes were too high.   The fat constable by the window kept playing with the holster around his waist, grunting every so often just in case she hadn’t noticed him.   “Pig,” she mumbled in Yiddish.  She quickly looked away.  If he realized what she’d said, it wouldn’t matter who won this game.   Fortunately, he was focused on the shopkeeper across the street struggling to remount his store’s smashed in window frame.  The smile on his face made her say pig again, but this time, only to herself.

The Assistant Secretary to the Deputy Administrator of the Lwow Voivodship stood impolitely close to the playing table just behind her opponent.  Occasionally he leaned in close, pretending to peer at the board but really just trying to intimidate her.   Even if she did win, would it matter, or would they just be cheated again?  She heard a ‘hmm’ further behind her, the priest from the local Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Rabbi had wisely invited him.  The secretary stepped ever so slightly back.


Title: Two of Us
Word Count: 31,000
Genre: MG HISTORICAL (1964)


Victoria’s thirteen-year-old twin Violet is always dragging her into her schemes. Her latest one? To groove to the new British musical group, The Figworts at a live concert. Only one problem: in Scottsbank, Indiana—a town in the middle of nowhere—she’ll never get the chance to see them in person unless she travels to a big city like Chicago or New York. Like that could happen. Their mom can barely afford Spam.

With no get-rich scheme in sight like selling a million Girl Scout cookies---and neither one are in Girl Scouts---or selling candy bars door-to-door, Violet writes to their manager to beg for a chance to see them. Instead of tickets their manager says that if she can get 25.000 signatures in the next two weeks, the band will play in her town. Now all she has to do is get her friends, and her friend’s friends, and golly, everyone in the whole town to sign a petition, and the band will perform. A task like this is too big for one person so Violet enlists the help of the person she knows will come through. Victoria. Violet’s enthusiasm infects Victoria until she is as excited as Violet to see the British band in person.

After they get the signatures they need, Violet assures Victoria the band is set to show up. The entire town is on board with the idea, even the mayor promises a key to the city on the day of the concert. But when Victoria finds the petitions hidden under Violet’s mattress, she knows something is up. Violet confesses she missed the deadline and The Figworts aren’t coming to play after all. Victoria can’t let her sister down so she comes up with a plan. The two of them will go to New York City and convince the band to come to Scottsbank. Now if only they could convince their mom to drive them.

First 250:

Violet dragged me down the street by the hand. “It’s Saturday, Vic. The new teen magazines came in. Mom gave me two dollars.” She grinned.

I hesitated at the entrance of the soda fountain. A big picture window showed two boys sitting on stools. One of them smiled.

Violet peered in. “Let’s go inside. We’ll pretend we’re British.”

“We’re not British, we’re Americans,” I said.

“Those two cute boys by the counter don’t know that. Come on.”

“No, I can’t do a British accent. They’ll know it’s fake,” I said.

“I can. Come on. You just nod and smile British,” Violet said shoving open the door.

How do you smile British? 

The two boys were cute though. She pulled me to the counter by my sleeve.

“Pardon me,” she said with a perfect British accent. “Can you two blokes help us birds out? We don’t know American currency.” She shoved two dollars at the blond boy.  

He grinned. “Sure, this is two dollars. What do you want to buy?”  

“Oh, something very American.” Only it came out “veddy.” I winced. “Linda?” she asked me. I stared at her. “Linda?” Oh, was that supposed to be my name?  

“What about a hamburger, French fries and Coke?” asked his friend.  

“Oh, we call them chips,” Violet said. “Burger and chips.”  

“Chips are potato chips,” the older boy said. “Not French fries.”  

“Smashing,” she said. “Isn’t it smashing, Linda dear?”

“Smashing,” I said, trying to sound British. Only it came out all slurred. I winced again.  


  1. Judges, please leave votes and comments as a REPLY to this comment.

    1. CHESS:
      Fabulous premise. How old is Ruchel? I would include that detail. Also, where does it take place? A small village near Vienna? Cosmopolitan Salzburg? I think you need that detail as well, especially in historic fiction. I’m not sure what you mean by betting against immigration papers. I’d rewrite that sentence to make it a little stronger and more clearer. Otherwise, I think it’s in excellent shape.
      In the 250, I would recommend trimming down some of the characters and introducing them later. I think by focusing on just the opponent and maybe one other, you would up the tension. You don’t want the reader to get overwhelmed by 6 characters on the first page.
      I’d also like to see you play up the fact that she’s a young girl playing a grown man. Does he underestimate her? What other savvy tactics does she use to beat him?
      Overall, well done!
      I’d try to avoid questions in a query. It’s a pet peeve of a lot of agents. I think you can trim down the query a bit. For instance, girl scouts don’t actually make money on the cookies, so that can go. In the third paragraph, I think you can delete the first couple of sentences and combine the sentences about the petitions. I also think you can focus a little more on the stakes. What will happen if the band doesn’t come or the mom won’t drive them?
      The 250 is cute. I enjoy the relationship between the two girls. I think you could play up the contrast between their personalities even more.
      I enjoyed both these entries, but I’m a tad more intrigued by a feisty chess champ. VICTORY to CHESS

    2. Tough one to call.

      One has a good query with a great hook, SUPER interesting premise (for me) and an interesting but distant first page, which lacks white space and read slow. The other has an okay query, also with a great premise, and a first page that read super-easy and made me chuckle.

      The query for Play Chess Not Checkers opens with this awesome hook and has a great synopsis that describes the plot and MC perfectly. I love the hook at the end as well, and I couldn’t wait to read the first page.

      I like the writing here, but to me, it seems more mature than MG. In fact, I have no idea how old Ruchel is in this story. The POV in the 1st page is distant and I didn’t get a sense of Ruchel’s personality at all. I prefer a closer POV, but that’s just my personal preference. Also, I like more white space on an opening page (that’s completely subjective). In the third paragraph, first sentence, the word “close” is used twice. Maybe tweak that a bit. I’m fascinated by this premise, and having studied German/Austrian history in college, I’m drawn to this despite not falling in love with the first page.

      THE BRITISH ARE COMING plays on one of my favorite times in American history, so I immediately gravitated toward this entry. The query could be far more concise. I think the whole 2nd paragraph can be boiled down to: Violet writes to the band, begging for tickets to a big city show, but the band has a different idea. If Violet can get 25,000 people from her podunk town to sign a petition, the band will come to them.

      The first page opened with a fun scene inside a soda fountain. I love how easily the scene, time, and characters come through. The mood is just plain fun, and I chuckled at the “you’re only job is to smile British.” remark. I feel like this first page is more magnetic than its competitor, and in the end, that's how I choose which book I'll buy.


    3. CHESS:
      Query - I think this is a great time for this story. I’ve heard that historical fiction is poised to take up more space on shelves and this feels like an accessible plot for a middle grade audience. The second full paragraph confuses me and could use some expansion or a transition sentence in the middle. Your stakes are in there, but I’d try to make them firmer and more obvious. What exactly, besides possible death, will happen if she loses?
      250 - I like that you throw us immediately into the action and we know right away that Ruchel is young and she’s playing someone older and important. I do wish the opening passage was something Ruchal does, though, not her opponent.

      Query - This sounds completely adorable and so much fun. I think your query is on the long side and you’ve spent too much time describing getting the signatures. Since the stakes involve correcting the mistake, I’d cut back on paragraph 2 and get right to the conflict. Also, I’m not clear on whose POV this is, since both girls play an important role.
      250 - I laughed out loud. Nice set-up. It immediately shows the relationship between the sisters and teases what’s to come. I would have liked more descriptors though. Use all 5 senses in your writing to fully show us the scene.

      Another tough one, but I'm going with the story I'd like to read just a little bit more. VICTORY TO BRITISH!

    4. Play Chess Not Checkers


      Interesting story. I was hooked by the query. Only two suggestions: discover what’s happened to her “father, unheard of since”--- the way this is written was a bit confusing. Maybe just: He hasn’t been heard from since…


      “Ruchel must bet everything against immigration papers on beating a Polish chess champion.” I wasn’t sure if she’s trying to win immigration papers? It’s just seems to be oddly phrased to me.

      First 250

      Loved your first 250! You set up the stakes right away. You were able to show the danger she is in and bring in the tension. I’m already worried for Ruchel and cheering her on. Nice job!

      The only suggestion is to separate this sentence: Even if she did win, would it matter? Or would they just be cheated again?



      Awesome voice in this query! I think you can cut it down a bit. Like this line: “With no get-rich scheme in sight like selling a million Girl Scout cookies---and neither one are in Girl Scouts---or selling candy bars door-to-door.”

      Maybe just leave it as: With No get-rich scheme in sight, Violet writes… or Selling a million Girl Scout cookies isn’t an option since neither twin is in Girl Scouts, Violet… Maybe condense the information in the last two paragraph as well. It starts to read a bit like a synopsis. You can easily keep your wonderful voice intact. Maybe something like: They get the signatures they need, but Violet misses the deadline. The Figworts aren’t coming to play after all. Victoria can’t let her sister down so she comes up with a plan.

      First 250

      Too cute first 250. I snort laughed twice.

      Okay, this is really hard. I love both of these. I really wish I didn’t have to choose. Both queries drew me in and kept my attention. Same with the first 250. I guess I have to go with the 250 that brought the tension, although I’m usually all about the laughs.

      Victory to Play Chess Not Checkers. The author made me care about what happens to Ruchel and the game has barely started.

    5. Bravo to both entrants for these witty titles.

      THE CHESS GIRL presents some wonderful stakes, and a protagonist with a unique talent that might have the potential to save her family. I did think that the hook could end with stronger specifics: to win her family's freedom, an X-year-old must defeat a Polish chess champion (or similar). My other point of critique concerns the wager: is she betting everything she has FOR immigration papers, or risking immigration papers she already has against something else? Bottom line, it's a solid query with just the right historical tone.

      THE BRITISH ARE COMING... what a spectacular nickname. I appreciate the complexity of the scheme, but the price of that was that the first two paragraphs must be spent delivering background information. If there's a way to condense this into a sentence or two, I'd advise doing so, or at least attempting a lead-in hook that gives us the crux of the story conflict and stakes. As it stands, it sounds like the worst thing that'll happen is the town doesn't get a band to visit, and for me that's small potatoes.

      In the end, it comes down to the stakes, and based on that:

      Query: I’m a fan of historical novels, and if I saw this one in a bookstore, I would pick it up in an instant. One thing that I kept wondering as I read your query is how Ruchel is able to help support her family with her chess games. Is she gambling in exchange for food or money, or is it just because the people who come to watch her also purchase goods at the café? I’m slightly concerned about the word count, since it seems a little long for a MG novel. I’d also like to know how old Ruchel is.
      First 250: Your description of the burnt man pulls me in. You write very eloquently, and although the story begins with a simple game of chess, I want to read more.

      Query: Cool story and epic nickname! I can definitely see two preteens trying to come up with ways to see their favorite band. There’s just a couple things I’d recommend changing. Instead of “Violet writes to their manager” I would put “Violet writes to The Figwort’s manager.” There’s a period in 25.000 where the comma should be.
      First 250: I really enjoyed the voice. Halfway through the page, I began to laugh at their attempts at sounding British. I can tell that this will be a fun book, and that these girls have a whole lot of spunk.

      I’m saddened that I can only vote for one entry, but I feel like CHESS is just slightly stronger. Victory to PLAY CHESS NOT CHECKERS.

  2. Play Chess Not Checkers: Query: I think the query is great. It tells the story well and most importantly it has high stakes. First 250: I love Ruchel is a spunky fire cracker and once she made the pig remark, twice, I will follow her through 300 hundred pages and beyond. I like how you describe her opponent in such a way I can imagine him in my mind vividly. It seems like you are starting with the end of the story because everyone is gathered around, and if that is the case I like a story that begins with the ending. Well Done.

    The British are coming: Query: The Query is fine, but it is lack high intensity stakes. What else threw me off was that they can't afford to go to New York City to go to a concert or even buy spam, but at the end of the query they are going to go to New York to convince the band to come to their small town. Why not go to the concert in New York City while they are there. Also where are they getting the money to go to New York City when before they didn't have any? 250: I think it is heavy on the dialogue and you are telling too much of the story in what they say. It it seems like you MC is not the MC but her sister is because she is calling the shots. One thing, if they live in a small town wouldn't those boys in the soda fountain know them or at least of them. Sorry for being nit picky. I do think you have a good story but I think you need to address the areas to make it more believable.

  3. Two MG Historicals? My 8yo daughter would be in heaven with these! Love that aspect!

    Chess: I write a lot about WWII myself, and the Holocaust, so this captured me in a very specific, gut-churning way. You mention Jews and Yiddish and I'm all in. That said, I did see some areas where the writing could be improved a bit. I think I counted three adverbs and three "just" in the first 250 (plus some in the query). Those are little nitpick words that can hold a story back from being great. They detract from the voice of the story. So just watch those kind of things, but know - topically, I'm ALL IN.

    British: This is cute. Very cute. And I'm willing to bet I'd read the story with a smile on my face! The voice comes through loud and clear in both the query and the first 250. Birds! Chips! So very cute! That said, Violet/Victoria can likely be VERY confusing, and I had to re-read bits of the query several time to understand who was who. Be aware of that, and maybe have a couple friends/family members see if they can keep it straight on the first read. Agents may not give you the benefit of a re-read, you know? Also, yeah, low-isn stakes, but it's MG, so I think that's okay? I mean, not all MG books HAVE to be earth shattering. My daughter still reads Ivy and Bean books, just for fun. I love fun books!

    Good luck to both of you!!!!

  4. Play Chess Not Checkers: Wow! I love this concept. As someone who has read books like NUMBER THE STARS and THE ENDLESS STEPPE dozens of times apiece, you have my attention. Stakes are high and clear; my only suggestion is to include Ruchel's age. Good opening, but I felt like the first sentence had a few too many numbers in it. I get why the number of fingers on her opponents hand stands out, so maybe take out the exact number of spaces he moves the knight?

    The British Are Coming: This query felt a little long-winded to me, but the story and characters are really interesting so I still want to read the book. I was confused at times about which sister was doing what, but with their similar names I'm not sure how you can avoid that. Your first 250 are super strong--so much voice and humor! I would keep reading for sure.

    Great job to both of you!

  5. Play Chess Not Checkers

    Great query. The last line lays out the stakes but I found it a little hard to follow. "Bet everything against" sounds like the immigration papers themselves are the antagonist, not the Polish chess champion. And was Lwów Voivodeship part of Poland or Austria at the time of the story? Or the Ukraine? The opening words portray a sense of drama, a heavy atmosphere, one in which Ruchel verbally assailing the policeman nearby struck me as out of place.


    Love the idea in the query. Character names are confusingly similar though I recognize they are twins. And loved the voice in the first 250, right in the middle of yet another scheme her twin sister is foisting off on our main character. Easy to tell she's less than thrilled.

  6. Play Chess not Checkers: I love your query. The stakes and the setting are very clear. I wish some of Ruchel’s awesome humor we see in the page could be inserted into the query somehow, without undermining the direness of Ruchel’s situation. A few tiny things: It is World War I not World War 1. Also, I was confused by the last line. What does bet everything against immigration papers? Do you mean bet everything she owns to win immigration papers? Or bet her immigration papers to win something else?

    In your first 250, can you narrow the focus on fewer characters? Ruchel, the opponent, and maybe even the constable? On my first read, I started to lose Ruchel and what she was thinking and feeling, especially in the last paragraph when I was trying to sort out who belonged to those many names.

    The British Are Coming: What a fun idea! I would mention the year of the setting in your query (or at least reference the 60s). Since the Figworts aren’t a real band that doesn’t place your query reader anywhere in time, and they might (like me) miss the year in your subject line. The stakes in the query are a little unclear, particularly at the end. What is Violet and Victoria’s problem? How to get to NYC? Why one sister betrayed the other? Getting the band to Indiana? Also, I was confused how the sisters are able to get to NYC at the end and it is impossible at the top of the query. Maybe you could delete the first reference and condense:

    “Victoria’s thirteen-year-old twin Violet is always dragging her into her schemes. Her latest one? To groove to the new British musical group, The Figworts at a live concert. Only one problem: in Scottsbank, Indiana—a town in the middle of nowhere—they’ll never get the chance to see them in person.

    Violet writes to the band’s manager to beg for a chance to see them.”

    Your 250 is very fun! I would try from the top to distinguish the girl’s personalities a bit more (you could also do this in the query!).

  7. Chess:
    Query: I really connected with the setting and premise, and overall the query is really strong. I didn't completely understand the last sentence, but maybe that's just me. Maybe an extra couple of sentences about the stakes would make it more clear.

    250: I really like the setting and atmosphere you're creating. I feel like the POV is a little bit distant for MG. I think I might connect with Ruchel more if it was just a bit closer (Janice Hardy writes amazing blog posts about POV if you're interested!) I really love the section where she insults the officer in Yiddish--it explains a lot in just a few sentences, and it pulls me closer to Ruchel. Also, the phrase 'ever so/every so' pops up a few times, and they make those sentences feel a bit wordy.

    Query: The first and third paragraphs really sell it for me. Clear setting, clear conflict, clear stakes. The second paragraph could maybe be streamlined--I have trouble following the first sentence. I think it would be stronger if it simply read, "With no get-rich scheme in sight, Violet writes...." And I don't think you need 'golly', there's enough voice in here without it, and it feels a bit forced.

    250: I got a really strong sense of both characters--this scene reveals a lot. It might be a bit heavy on dialogue. Maybe mix it up with a bit more internal monologue and description. By the way, I don't think this premise is low-stakes at all. Everyday life can be really high-stakes to a middle-grader, you just have to sell how personally important those stakes are. I think you're really on the right track!

  8. I will start by saying I'm not normally a MG reader; however, I found myself liking both story ideas.
    Chess Not Checkers: I did wonder how old the MC is and the query itself seemed a tad sparse but well-written. First 250, great description of the opponent. The Asst. Sec to the Dep Admin of LWOW Voi-- wha? That kind of lost me. Not enough to get me to not want to continue though :)I liked the varying sentence lengths.

    British query: Gotta love scheming twins. Perhaps 'Grooving' instead of 'To groove', slightly awkward wording had me tripped up a bit. I'd ditch the Girl Scouts as it's superfluous. Besides that, I love the idea! (love those Brit Boy bands myself LOL) 250 words: How small is the town that they don't know the boys? Are they perhaps from somewhere else? Loved that they were trying to sound British!

    I apologize if I'm being too picky; I'm never around children. But both of these are great!

  9. Chess:
    Query- Great premise! Love the fact that she has to beat a chess champion. Great stakes.

    250-There were a lot of characters in the opening paragraphs. (Especially the last one and weird names=very confusing) I'd add some dialogue to the opening scene!

    The British:
    Query-There is a lot of information here. Try shortening/tightening it up a bit and it will shine!

    250- Love the voice in the first 250! It seems like a lot of dialogue though. Maybe cut/rework some if possible. Good luck to you both!!

  10. Thank you to everyone who commented and left feedback! I appreciate your thoughts on how to make my query and first page stronger.

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  12. Thank you to everyone for putting on this event and providing such great feedback. Also, thanks to Kathleen for being such a great opponent.

    I did want to answer a couple of questions various commenters asked. Ruchel goes from 7 to 12 over the course of the novel. The story takes place in what is now part of the Ukraine but at the start of WW1 was a province of the Austro Hungarian Empire. From WW1 to WWII it was part of an independent Poland.