Jun 1, 2016

QK Round 1: Three keep Secret vs. And I Feel Fine

Title: Always Gray in Winter
Word count: 72K
Genre: Adult paranormal sci-fi thriller


The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents.  My 72,000-word adult paranormal sci-fi thriller novel ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER features werecat twins Pawly and her brother Tommy, devastated after a violent manifestation of their kind's Affliction leaves their father dead and uncle missing.  Desperate to find him--and a cure--the twins' family courts a rising Eastern power bent on possessing their preternatural fighting talent and supernatural senses.  But the US government, having helped their clan flee communist Poland for an ethnic Chicago neighborhood a generation ago, isn't about to let that happen. 

A seemingly chance encounter with werecat rivals during a routine sea patrol off the coast of Iran leaves Tommy paralyzed and Pawly's lover Lenny in a coma.  Overcome by guilt and shame, Pawly goes underground to protect Lenny when their Navy commanders conspire to frame him for their mission's failure.  After months in recovery Lenny encounters Pawly while on the trail of a stolen experimental device, one she knows can quell the Affliction's feral bloodlust.  But their bittersweet reunion is cut short when their opponents stir up her estranged kin living within Eastern Europe's old growth forests.  A makeshift truce sets up Pawly's loved ones for a shipside ambush when their attackers make a play to use the device as a biological weapon.  Her daunting choice:  keep her family secret and risk Lenny's life or chance her Affliction driving him away forever.

First 250:

The speed and precision of the two combatants surpassed even the human race's best martial artists and white arms experts.  Mawro stared up at the footage rolling for the seventh time, scrutinizing their fight on the flat-panel display above.  With a growl he leaned back in his rickety roller chair and rested one boot atop the other beside his console.  Uneasiness grew in his stomach as his mind winnowed down the list of possible explanations for this spectacle.  The probable ones no longer seemed so far-fetched.

He followed his operative's movements to and fro across the desertscape.  Hana executed one technique after another, monolid eyes trained on target while her bobbed hair bounced about.  With neither misstep nor hesitation the young woman landed every strike exactly where he expected.  Exactly as he had taught her. 

Her hands moved so fast their surveillance equipment captured only an orange-and-white blur.  Now and again the camera locked on a frame for a split second but would lose tracking right away.  Black stripes on her exposed forearms left artifacts behind, reminding Mawro of speed lines following Hong Kong Phooey from the Saturday morning cartoons of his childhood.

Hana's opponent captivated and chilled him at the same time.  The digital camo pattern of her uniform confirmed his Revolutionary Guard contact's assertion.  She resembled scores of US Navy sailors sent to guard the Irani beachhead for Coalition supply lines into Afghanistan, but for being covered in silver-gray fur with long white ruffs lining her neck on either side.


Title: Starborn
Entry Nickname: And I Feel Fine
Word Count: 85,500
Genre: NA Science Fiction


Cold and heartless but the Enders Agency’s finest, 24-year-old Sherman Logan has saved every life but his own. He’s damn good at pelting in from between galaxies and rescuing as many people off their dying planets as possible. Again and again. When Sherman’s last real friend and comrade goes “starborn” – or dies on the job – to save a brave and beautiful young woman; Bennett, and her suicidal father from Earth, Sherman falls hard.  She wakes him up - but waking means feeling the horror of every victim he didn't save. Soon, he realizes, the carnage won't end at his faraway deployments - Armageddon is about to hit right at home.

On Potnik, Sherman's resident planet, a poltergeist ruler struggles to retake the podium from beyond the grave at the same time mysterious Ender disappearances begin to occur. With the help of Bennett, Sherman must confront the dictator-poltergeist and the root of these vanishings on top of the incomprehensible death that haunts his everyday life. He'll have to venture deeper into his crashing universe – and himself – than he could have ever imagined.

But hey, apocalypse doesn’t faze him. It’s his job.

First 250:

The vehicle jumps and knocks my hand off the wheel.

I slam it back. Sarge says keep on the wheel. Don’t let go of the wheel.

Fuck that. Sarge ain’t here. The grey leather jerks in my grip and I keep my foot hard against the pedal. My eyes are dead ahead as the blizzard pushes us aside before I can jolt the wheel steady. But the bridge is falling apart beneath us; concrete crumbling from our tires into the steel colored ocean below. Hail flashes like daggers off the headlights.

I glance into the overhead mirror at the huddled children in the backseat. Siblings. They always give those to me for some reason.

Sherm!” The mic attached to my shoulder buzzes.

Instinctively, I look out the driver’s window, expecting to see someone cruising next to me. Unc’s two lanes over, looking asleep again. His wrinkly old hand holds the wheel and his eyes droop, but nothing stirs, no emotion when his car jostles past a pothole at ninety miles per hour. More concrete railing sinks into the sea far below.

Wasn’t Unc. Of course. I know the voice.

I scrunch up my shoulder and speak into the mic, keeping my eyes on the road as we finally peak at the bridge’s arch and head for the descent. “Talk, Grant.”

Fuzz. Heavy breathing as Grant messes with his shoulder sleeve to speak.

“What’re we gonna do if this thing blows?”

“I’m gonna die. What’re you going to do?”
Always freaks him out.


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

    1. Three:
      I’d start the query with the characters, not telling the plot. I.e. Werecat twins Pawley and Tommy are among the last of their kind, destined to X, Y, and Z, after etc. etc. etc.
      I’m unclear about what the affliction is, and how it relates to the militaries and everything else. Honestly, my best advice is to focus the main conflict and maybe one additional complication and how the characters have to face them and make choices. You also want to only focus on 2-3 characters. I.e. is the uncle that important? How about rival werecats? What/who is the biggest obstacle? I’d focus on that rather than tell the whole story about the Navy, the cure, the communists etc. Once you pare it down I think there will be more than enough there to make for an intriguing query.
      First 250: The writing is strong and descriptive, but I would start with the main character(s) not Kong Phooey, Hana, and Mawrow. You want to draw the reader into the story and then build the world around them, which is hard to do if you introduce a whole lot of other characters first.
      And I feel fine:
      I think you can streamline just a little. I.e. I’m not sure you need Bennett’s dad or Sherman’s fallen comrade in the query. I’d also take one more look at the first sentence of your query. It’s all there, but a little awkward. I’d try a few different versions and read them out loud. I think you can clarify the stakes a little, too. What is his specific choice? Otherwise, it’s looking really good. You’re almost there.
      The 250 is great. I think you may be able to come up with a more “hooky” first sentence that makes the reader want to find out what happens. For me, the place I was hooked was the line about siblings. It intrigued me and made me want to know more, but it took a few paragraphs to get there.
      I think the blend of tension, action, and dialogue work really well. Great job!
      Victory to I FEEL FINE

    2. This is a rare instance where neither query really blew my skirt up, but one 1st page really stood out.

      The query for THREE KEEP SECRET includes too many details for me to keep track of, and I felt a little overwhelmed going in to the sample. Maybe pare down a little there? For example: But their bittersweet reunion is cut short when their opponents stir up her estranged kin living within Eastern Europe's old growth forests. <-- I might suggest cutting this. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the main plot. Also, I wasn’t sure whose POV to expect. I thought it would be Pawly and maybe Tommy in a dual POV story, but then in the query, this sentence made me thing there might be a 3rd POV: After months in recovery Lenny encounters Pawly while on the trail of a stolen experimental device, one she knows can quell the Affliction's feral bloodlust. <-- If it’s still Pawly’s POV, I might change this to “Pawly encounters Lenny”

      In the first page of THREE KEEP SECRET, I’m not sure whose POV I have. And I don’t know who Hana is. This made me feel grumpy.

      AND I FEEL FINE has a great opening query line, and I got a good sense of the voice there as well. The plot is intriguing, and I already like this Sherman guy going in to the 1st page. The last line of the query made me chuckle.

      On the first page, the third paragraph made me grumble. “ Sarge says keep on the wheel. Don’t let go of the wheel. Fuck that. Sarge ain’t here.” <-- But he’s keeping hold of the wheel, so why the heck is this line here? Also, my first thought was that Sarge was in the truck with him, so this kinda confused me. I would expect him to let go after a line like that. Or was this Sarge speaking into his earpiece? Maybe just tweak that a little: “I slam it back. My earpiece crackles. Sarge says keep on the wheel. Don’t let go of the wheel. Fuck that. As if I’d let go.” Also, why would his mic attached to his shoulder buzz? Should it be his earpiece buzzing? I chucked at the last line. I do like the voice here. I love the character, and I’m a complete character person when it comes to reading. Even though I don’t really gravitate to SciFi, this character and the voice in the writing might coax me to buy this book.

      Victory to AND I FEEL FINE



      Intriguing concept! The query is a bit dense with information in the beginning. Maybe narrow the focus of the query a bit. You mentioned several different subplots, which are interesting for the story. However, it makes the query a bit confusing. What I’m curious about is the affliction. What is it? Why is it the driving force for the characters? How does the search for a cure affect the character’s goals? If this the main conflict, then narrow it to specifics.

      First 250

      The first 250 is written well. However, I think the story might be more engaging if you introduced the main character. Maybe from Pawly’s (Is she the main character? I have no idea.) point-of-view. Rather than having the fight filtered through Mawro, stick us smack in the middle of the action.

      And I Feel Fine


      I was drawn into the plot. You laid out the character in the first paragraph and described his motivation in the second.

      First 250

      Loved the character’s voice. I got a good sense of who Sherman is in this 250. I’m intrigued enough to care about what will happen to Sherman. My only confusion was this line about Sarge: Fuck that. Sarge ain’t here.

      Yeah, so I expected him to “fuck that” and let go of the wheel, but he didn’t. It’s a great way to show Sherman’s mindset, if his internal monologue matches up with his reaction to the thought. Otherwise, it’s confusing. So maybe explain why he doesn’t let go of the wheel. Ex: Training makes me hold onto the wheel… or something.
      Victory to And I Feel Fine

    4. I adore the titles for both of these entries. Well done.

      THREE KEEP SECRET has developed a paranormal setting with an extremely complex plot. The stakes are huge, and the query itself points to a lot of intrigue which I dig. I do think the author makes a mistake in talking about the book "My book... features X and Y. " As we're already in the midst of learning about the story, this line feels jarring. The rule of thumb is don't talk about the book, tell us the story from the point of view of the main character.

      STARBORN has me hooked at the genre line. I love that the word itself means death on the job, and the setup of the story -- the MC losing his last close friend -- is just the right place to start. That said, I think the query trips over itself to explain everything and offer names where the author might streamline: his friend is dead, and he falls for the babe. She'll help him uncover the mystery of his home planet and possibly a deeper conflict in the universe. I think perhaps this query errs on the side of too many specifics: too many places and people become hard to remember. Ground these things with familiarity: if you say "home planet" you don't have to tell us the planet's name. That's just another unnecessary pronoun.

      I'm on the fence about the ending line. It deflates our sense of danger and the looming consequences because we begin to think that this MC is all set, no struggle ahead. But it's just so damn voicey I can't tell the author to drop it completely.


      Query: Werecats! That’s a new one. I’m glad you chose werecats-in my opinion, being attacked by a lion or tiger sounds a lot scarier than being attacked by a wolf. I want to know more about what the “Affliction” is. I got the impression that it was a contagion of some sort that drives werecats feral. I feel like you have some really exciting plot points in your query, but there’s almost too much going on.
      First 250: Since the query is about Pawsy, I wish that you would begin the story from her viewpoint. However, I also really like this outsider’s view of the werecats’ destructive power. The one line I had trouble with was “Black stripes on her exposed forearms left artifacts behind…” I suspect that means he can discern the black stripes (as in tiger markings? Tattoos?) more easily than her lighter fur?

      Query: Another unique idea! I’m curious to why Sherman feels obligated to save lives. His description as “cold and heartless” does not seem to match up with his actions, or the guilt he feels when he fails in his mission. How does he know that there’s trouble on his home planet? If Bennett’s father plays a part in the story, I want to know about it.
      First 250: I love stories that start off with action, and what’s more suspenseful than driving across a bridge that’s collapsing beneath you? If I were an agent, I would continue reading just to find out more.

      Victory to THREE KEPT SECRET

  2. Three Keep Secret: Regarding the query, it could be just me, but I’m a bit confused about what’s going on with the story. I think the crux of where I get lost is in trying to decipher what the goal of the main character is: Is the story about Pawly finding her uncle and getting the cure, or is it about her decision to keep her family secret versus risking her lover’s life? I could just be reading it wrong, but for some reason I got confused on that matter. Love the concept of a modern-day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats and how the military is entwined with that, though. Regarding the 250, “uneasiness” is a telling word. Is he nauseous or something else that is visceral? The phrase “would lose” should be “lost.” I think it’s a strong start, though, with a nice grabber to end the page.

    And I Feel Fine: Regarding the query, I’m not so sure about that last sentence. I think it takes some of the stakes and punchiness out of the query. I think it’s trying to be “voicey,” but winds up making the whole story feel like “Eh—at the end of the day it’s really no biggie”, when you really want to make the reader wonder how Sherman’s going to get out of this rough predicament. I’m also uncertain about why or how Bennett “wakes up” Sherman, and why he needs her help specifically to get rid of this poltergeist. Maybe a bit more of fleshing out in those areas? In the first 250, if Sherman is thinking Fuck that. Sarge ain’t here” regarding keeping his hand on the wheel, then why does he slam his hand back onto the wheel when he loses grip?

    Overall, I enjoyed both entries—concept-wise and writing-wise. Good luck, guys!

  3. Three Keep Secrets: I think the first paragraph of your query is really strong. It could almost stand alone, if you added a few details to it, such as what the Affliction is. The second paragraph felt like too much information for me to keep track of, so I would suggest taking only the most critical parts of that second paragraph and working them into your first. The werecat concept is fascinating to me though, and I really like that you've got these fantastic creatures blended with what seems to be real-world politics and military. Great action in the first 250!

    And I Feel Fine: You did a great job laying out the stakes and the setting so clearly. I sort of feel like the second paragraph took me in a sudden left turn, where instead of spacey sci-fi I am now confronted by ghost politics, but the blending of the two concepts feels very interesting and I still want to read the book. Very strong voice in your first 250!

    Well done, both of you!

  4. And I Feel Fine: This concept is unique and awesome, and I know just from the first 250 words I'm going to love going on rescue missions with Sherman. I love how the story starts right when everything's going to pieces and so you're holding your breath right away to see if they make it off the planet before it blows--as a reader you feel like you're right there riding shotgun in the car. I can also already tell a lot about this cocky, live life on the edge guy in just this snapshot. The last line of the query works for me and mirrors the voice in the sample. I want to read the whole story!

    Three Keep Secret: what I like about this story is the promise of lots of action taking place in different parts of the world. I'm intrigued by the werecat culture and the sibling relationship and who Hana's mystery opponent is. My only suggestion would be in the paragraph where you describe how fast Hana's moving and how the camera can't keep up and the movements are blurred. I think the three lines together actually slow down movement that you want to appear unnaturally fast, so maybe choose the strongest one? for me that was the first line, or the idea that the video showed a sort of time lapse effect because it couldn't track the movement. Something like that. Great effort!

    Congrats on being chosen round 1 and good luck!!

  5. SECRET:

    Query - There is SO much going on here. I had to read several times and I’m not completely sure I caught everything. It seems like YOU know your world really well, but my fear is you may lose an agent who has to read twice. I’d look for places you can simplify. Other judges have made good suggestions about how to get started.

    250 - Your strength is your descriptions. I can see the scene clearly. I do wonder if this is the right place to begin, since he’s just watching tape. I don’t feel like I learned much about the stakes here and without that, you risk losing the reader.


    Query - Your strength here is that you’ve managed to share the complex details of the plot AND you’ve done it with Sherman’s voice. Well done. I’d recommend proofing to make sure your punctuation is correct everywhere but overall, I get the stakes. It does feel like the romance (it is a romance, right?) with Bennett takes a backseat to saving the universe, and rightfully so, but maybe you need less mention of her in the query?

    250 - Right into the action is always a good place to start. I’d like more clues to what they’re doing and who Unc and Grant are though. Voice is strong.

    I am the last person you want reading science fiction, so I'm going with the one where the voice jumped out at me more. Victory to FEEL FINE!

  6. Three Kept Secrets The query does a good job of revealing this is an epic story spanning the globe. The twins Tommy and Pawly seemed to be the central characters of this story. This query uncovers several things that these two werecats want but I wanted one plot point to rise. Think about what most important and make that shine out more. 250. This page was fine but Tommy and Pawly were missing here. I have no set up for the characters on the page from the query. I would like something.

    I Feel Fine

    Love my science fiction and this is intriguing to me. I do have a few questions. Is Sherman a human? What does it mean for Sherman to wake up? What does Sherman want above all things? I think it is cool that there is an intergalactic National Guard out there saving folks from disastrous planetary apocalypses, nice hook. On the 250, I love Sherman's voice and the gritty action in the scene. I wanted a line of grounding about how they were to deployed to xyz planet and had xyz minutes to get out before the coming apocalypse.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Query: There's a LOT going on here. I love how intricate the world and plot feel, and I'm sure I'd love the novel, but so much detail makes the query feel bloated and confusing to me. I'm not sure what to focus on, or where the real conflict is. I'd recommend honing in on the basics: who is the main character, what do they want, and why can't they have it. The setting and political climate are interesting, but they're obscuring the meat of the story.
    250: I liked the writing and worldbuilding here. One thing that may seem silly is that I'm not 100% sure what werecats look like. I assume they look like regular people except for the one day they change, like werewolves? But I found myself unsure of what to picture for the two combatants.

    Query: There's some great voice here. I did get a little muddled in the details with this query as well. It started strong, but gradually I felt like things were piling up--lots of characters, lots of new concepts. I'm not sure how Sherman does what he does--does he have a space ship? a wormhole? exist in another dimension and phase in and out where he wants to go? I kept getting stuck on this point because all the different possibilities make it hard to pin down what exactly dying on the job might entail, or how all this came about.
    250: Tons of voice here. I found myself a bit confused once we hit the dialogue over the buzzers, particularly with Unc vs Grant and I wasn't sure what was going on or what the MC was talking about. I'm guessing Unc and Grant are both his colleagues, and they're all working to save these people from certain doom, but I could use a touch more information to ground me.

  9. And I Feel Fine
    I actually liked the last line of your query. It gave a taste of Sherman's character: confident, cocky, capable--a hero who takes terrifying things in stride. Maybe a little more of his voice and attitude earlier would make it even better.

    This sentence needs revision: When Sherman’s last real friend and comrade goes “starborn” – or dies on the job – to save a brave and beautiful young woman; Bennett, and her suicidal father from Earth, Sherman falls hard.
    How about this: When Sherman’s last real friend and comrade goes starborn (aka dies on the job) to save a brave beautiful young Earthling named Bennett and her suicidal father, Sherman falls hard.

    I love the first 250. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I want to read the next page. Now, please.

  10. Three Keep Secrets

    Query – It has conflict, but I got a little confused. It has character, though I’m a little confused here too. It has Stakes. It could use a bit more voice.
    I’m confused by the terms “violent manifestation of their kind’s Affliction.” Here’s why. It sounds like their Affliction is being a werecat. If not, that should be clarified. If so, would they look at that as an affliction? To them, it would be who they are, wouldn’t it, if it’s been in their blood for centuries? So that makes me think it’s only about the violent manifestation, but what does that look like? Is violence something you can cure? This bloodlust – is it something that can be put on someone? I think you’re getting at the fact that the military is causing it, but you don’t say that. As for the characters, I’m not sure why they’re working with the military in the first place? Do they have to? Are they compelled somehow? I’d like to understand their motivations; I think that would clear up my confusion.

    250 – Good opening. Sets the stage for a unique world and interesting setting. I wouldn’t change much here. I would like to go deeper into his head and know what he thinks about what he’s seeing, but that’s all I’d add.

    And I Feel Fine

    Query – It has Conflict, but I have questions. It has Character. It has Stakes, but just barely. It has a bit of voice.

    This is an interesting concept. I was intrigued by the whole galaxy jumping bit but then you went and added in poltergeists and whoa. My questions are mostly about conflict and stakes. It’s probably just assumed, but in such a far out type book, what’s the problem with the poltergeist taking the podium? Okay, people are disappearing, but to what end? Are they dying? Are they joining his team? Now, because you have poltergeists, I’m really questioning these lives that are haunting the main character. Are they literally haunting them or is it just a mental haunting, as in I’m haunted by my past kind of thing? What will happen to the MC if he fails to stop the poltergeist and prevent the hauntings?

    250 – first line had me imagining a car with legs slapping his hand off the wheel. Haha. From there on out, you had me. Great descriptions and good intensity of action. Love it. Awesome opening.

    Good luck, Kombatants and congrats for getting here!

  11. Thank you so much for all the careful attention and also for pairing me with such an elegant and talented match who is now a delightful new friend. Thanks, guys. :)

  12. ‎Thank you judges and fellow Kombatants for sharing your wisdom and insight. Though bested by my opponent I've still won, coming away with her among my new friends. I wish all of you well on your journey forward to publication, whether within QueryKombat and without.