Jun 21, 2016

QK Round 3: Madam Butterfly vs Irish in America

Title: The Absence of Butterflies
Entry Nickname: Madam Butterfly
Word Count: 80K
Genre: Adult Contemporary Romance


Will Kavanagh is the only one who knows the truth about the drug overdose that killed Christy Talbot. Not that he’s telling. The world famous actress may have starred in the film adaption of his novel, but that doesn’t mean he wants to go to jail for giving her illegal drugs. Troubled by a mounting sense of self-loathing and guilt, Will returns to the only place he has ever felt something other than lost: home. Not that everyone in town is rolling out the red carpet for Cherrington’s prodigal son—especially not his former fiancée, Jessica Locke.

Following the unexpected death of her father, Jessica needs something—anything—to keep herself busy, and fixing up a property for Will’s mother sounds like just the ticket. The only hitch is her ego-fueled ex-fiancé is back—the one who left her in the rear-view mirror on his way to literary fame in NYC. Will is the last person Jessica wants to talk about, let alone see. The trouble is, she never could resist those piercing blue eyes and tortured writer’s soul. It isn’t long before things heat up between them once again.

Each dealing with death in very different ways, Jessica and Will navigate conflicting emotions and their undeniable attraction to find something worth saving. Too bad Will, haunted by the knowledge of how Christy died, isn’t exactly relationship-ready. Neither is Jessica. She knows Will is hiding something and she’s determined to find out what.

Then Will realizes that unless he’s willing to reveal his secret to Jessica, fast, he could lose her trust—and her love—all over again. Because, as it turns out, Will isn't the only one who knows the truth behind Christy’s death.

 First 250:

When Will Kavanagh stepped out of the coffee shop, his eyes were drawn to the bookstore window like a magnet.

Just get back in the damn car, he commanded himself.

But his legs seemed to move of their own volition, taking him over to the book display. He would have recognized those red and gold splashed covers anywhere. Bold black letters at the top of each one proclaimed Now a Major Motion Picture. Underneath was a snapshot of the two main stars. The one on the right gazed back at Will, her full lips curved in a wide smile. His gut twisted into knots of guilt.

As he stood transfixed on the sidewalk, the world around him faded away. He didn’t see Christy Talbot with her arm around her leading man. Instead his mind burned with the image of the actress as she lay sprawled on the floor next to an upended pill bottle, her eyes empty. Those eyes had haunted him every day for the last two months.

“Excuse me.”

The voice made him snap back to the present. A man stood beside him, holding out the bag that contained Will’s bagel. “You dropped this.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”

Will stiffened. “No.”

He strode back to his BMW. With a tightness in his chest, he drove past the downtown stores, this time making damn sure his eyes faced forward. He needed another reminder of Christy like he needed a hole in the head.


Title: Donovan
Entry Nickname: Irish in America
Word Count: 100K
Genre: Adult Historical Romance


In post-Civil War Arizona, Jesse Travers' father and brother die, leaving her with a crumbling ranch and a deep well of distrust.

Shunned by the village for her outlaw brother's deeds, Jesse is not sorry to hear he's been killed while robbing a bank. Strangely enough it is Adam Donovan, the man who shot her brother, who brings the news. Even more strange is the Irish immigrant's willingness to help her put her ranch back on solid footing.

Donovan is known as a man with a fast temper and an even faster gun, and all of Jesse's experiences with her neighbors have left her jaded. But love for her canyon home overcomes her trepidation, and she accepts Donovan's help. Despite his reputation, he seems gentle and empathetic – a far cry from her brother, whose relentless abuse drove her to the brink of despair, or her father, who would never believe the things Jesse told him about her brother.

As they work together, Jesse begins to let down her guard, and feels the first stirrings of love – an experience she's never known before. On the verge of believing she might be worthy of happiness, Jesse discovers that her mongrel brother's treachery has consequences that reach beyond the grave, and they might rip the new life she's building to shreds.

If the truth comes out, Jesse knows the villagers will blame her for her brother's crimes – they've done it all along. She has no recourse but to confide in Donovan and hope he'll stand with her. But Jesse's not sure who she's seeking help from: the temperamental gunfighter or the compassionate man who sings as he works. She only knows that if she's wrong about him, she'll face a lifetime of solitude and shame.

First 250:

Jesse Travers stood in the cabin door, willing her hands to unclench, her jaw to relax. The old man who sat wrapped in a blanket by the fire was being more querulous than usual. He can’t help it, she told herself, any more than he can help being old. Or crippled. But God help us if this day doesn’t end soon.

The clearing where the cabin stood was too quiet. No breeze stirred the aspen leaves. No birds trilled, no squirrels scampered. Even the brook ran silently today.

The only restful thing was the occasional glimpse of buckskin in the sycamores. The old man always told her that wild animals knew where there was danger and would run away. So maybe it’s nothing–maybe it’s just too hot for April. Maybe that’s what makes me feel so sick.

Then the utter silence yielded to the faint clip-clop of horse’s hooves.

No one should be coming. No one ever came. She tasted the sharp metal of fear. As the hoofbeats closed in, she took up an old Sharps rifle and moved out onto the sagging porch, into the shadows of its roof.

Round the edge of the cottonwood grove, the horse ambled into sight. Its rider had dark hair, dark clothes, a dark gun sitting low on his left hip. There isn’t anyone in the Territory who doesn’t know who he is. But what does he want here? Squaring her shoulders and raising the rifle, she took a single step into the light. 


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

    1. Madam Butterfly


      This reads very tight now. Your stakes are clear and I love the opening hook. My only comment would be to try and pare down your backstory more. If you do, we'll get to the conflict sooner and understand how the secrets between Will and Jessica will keep them apart.

      First 250:

      This sets up the conflict right away and I'm drawn immediately into the intrigue of the story. My only comment is that the reference to him "needing a reminder like a hole in the head" is cliche. Maybe you can think of another way to describe his feelings about the situation.

      Irish in America


      Your query is solid. Upfront I understand the conflict and stakes. I think it would read even tighter if you pulled small elements that distract the reader from the true story. Things like her neighbors leaving her jaded and the villager's reaction to her brother's crimes. The real conflict is in how Donovan will react to her secret and what she has to lose if she confides in him.

      First 250:

      Love the setting and the intro of the LI right away. The voice is solid, but I would be careful to keep it consistent. In the latter part of the page it sounds rugged, but earlier on you use the word "querulous" which makes me feel like the MC is way more educated than how you've described her.

      Both intriguing and compelling entries which made this vote very difficult.


    2. (note: fresh judge who hasn't read earlier versions of these entries!)

      I'm having a hard time figuring out why we're supposed to root for Will; from what you've shown us here in the query, he seems like kind of a jerk

      First 250:
      The opening's fine, though maybe a bit melodramatic. How did he manage to drop his bagel without noticing? Also, the needing something "like he needed a hole in the head" is rather cliche; maybe see if you can find a more interesting way to say that.

      I'm not quite following the logical progression of the third paragraph; you might be able to do without the part about her neighbors, since you already pointed out that she's been shunned by them because of her brother. Also, you mention her father a couple times, but he doesn't really seem to play into the story -- you might consider cutting those references out of the query.

      First 250:
      I'd like to know right away who "the old man" is (I'm assuming it's her father?) so we know why Jesse feels how she does about him and why it's important how he's feeling. Otherwise, very nice descriptions.

      Victory to: IRISH IN AMERICA


      This remains one of my favorites! I love the mystery/crime aspect of this alongside the romance, and your stakes are clear here! This query has really improved since the first round (and to be honest, I loved it then too). Voice in the first 250 pops off the page, and while books about writers are (understandably) numerous, Will's particular predicament feels fresh and heart-rending.



      I love the setting and the idea of a heroine who doesn't quite fit the typical ideals of her time. This query feels a little long-winded though, and I wonder if you really need ALL of the details here. I'd look into trimming it down a bit.

      I think I said the same thing in an earlier round, but I want to know who the old man is at the beginning... if this is Jesse's father, I'd say so. If not, I'd say his name so it's clear that he is not her father. I'm not sure why you'd want to be vague here, because we're in Jesse's POV, and SHE obviously knows who he is?


      Both great concepts, but one feels a bit more polished in the query and first 250 for me, so... VICTORY TO: MADAM BUTTERFLY!

    4. Madam Butterfly


      This is very much improved since the last time I saw it. The first two paragraphs are great, but the third I feel isn’t necessarily doing anything to help with the query. We get one line about someone else knowing what happened to Christy, and I’m wondering why there isn’t more of that in there. What’s this person doing to bring strife between Will and Jessica? Is their relationship the only thing at stake?

      The beginning is great, but the end I think still needs a little more work to give me some clearly defined stakes.

      First 250:

      I’m generally not a fan of looking to start a novel. I feel like it’s over done, but in this case, I think it works. You found a good spot to start, drawing the reader in by letting us see Christy dead, letting us feel his guilt. The only thing I’d say is baby get rid of the ‘hole in the head’ line. It’s pretty cliché and I think you’re going to be able to do a stronger comparison.


      Irish In America


      I like the premise, but I feel like the first line isn’t really a hook. It’s a summary. It might be stronger if you try something like:

      When the man who killed her brother shows up on her doorstep offering to help save her ranch, Jesse Travers’ isn’t in a position to say no.

      It gets us right in without giving us the redundancy of her brother being dead. I’m also not quite sure why the village is blaming Jesse. That’s unclear—and I’m not sure what treachery. That whole area is vague. I know she wants Donovan to stand with her, but is that all that’s at stake? Her relationship with him vs. solitude? Or will they drive her out? Will she lose everything? I don’t even know what they’re blaming her for, so I’m just not quite sure about it.

      First 250:

      I like that we get the tension of a stranger coming in off the bat. It’s a good place for the reader to get drawn in and be engaged with the story. I’d prefer not to have so many internal thoughts in such a short space. Show us mannerisms and such instead of just giving us thoughts. It leans toward too much telling.


    5. Great entries!
      Madame Butterfly
      Query: Too many names in here for me. I had to read through it quite a few times to figure out who everyone is. I'd only give the names of the male and female leads.

      This is a good intro, but I think there might be a better place you could start. I feel like I was grounded here because I'd just read the query. I got a good image of the scene and character, I just think there might be a better scene or inciting incident to grab the reader.

      Irish in America - I've seen this before and I still love it :) I actually don't think you need the last paragraph of your query, looking at it now.

      250: I get a great image here, some notion of character, and good tension.

      Both spectacular entries. VICTORY TO IRISH IN AMERICA

      Your query is superb and your first page piques my interest. The only thing I have a slight issue with is that you reveal the twist so late in the query, then don’t tell us what is at stake. Is this other person blackmailing him? Out for revenge?

      You use some beautiful language in your query, and I am glad to see it continue into the first page. This idea seems very fresh and original, and the fact that she falls in love with her brother’s killer just adds another element of intrigue. I want to know what her brother did to her and how his past actions may continue to affect her.

      Both entries are great, but I think IRISH IN AMERICA has just a slightly better query and a first page that really catches my interest.

      Victory to IRISH IN AMERICA.

    7. I've commented on both entries before and agree that at this point, it'd down to personal taste. Both are strong entries and queries.

      Victory: Madame Butterfly

    8. BUTTERFLY: I love this, would read it right now. Stakes are super clear, the query has voice, there is a lot of tension. In the 250, I would recommend cutting the first few sentences and start with the line about recognizing the red book covers. I think it would pack more of a punch.

      IRISH: I think you've crafted a very multi-layered and complicated story, and your query also feels complicated--and thus, crowded. Maybe you've done this, but I'd think about writing the hook and/or elevator pitch and then expanding outward to make sure you're not including too much detail in the query. I also don't get much voice in the query.

      Victory to MADAME BUTTERFLY

    9. You have both done such great revisions here! So much clearer. Wonderful work. Just a couple of comments:

      MADAME BUTTERFLY: The only comment I have is that the phrase "...like he needed a hole in the head" is very cliche. How can you make this uniquely yours?

      IRISH: The first sentence reads a little like a summary, and would be more intriguing if it was more from Jesse's point of view. Also, I mentioned this the first time around - I'm not sure why you aren't identifying the "old man" in your 250, and it's a little distracting. Perhaps you have a reason that would make it clear soon, but for just 250 words it makes it difficult to read and understand.

      Victory to MADAME BUTTERFLY

    10. I've commented on both these entries before, and I'm sad to see them go up against each other because I think both are really strong!

      At this point, everything comes down to personal taste.

      Victory to IRISH IN AMERICA!

    11. First, I'm totally not surprised that you both have made it to round 3!!! As you know since I voted for you both, I loved both of these when I read them in Round 1. I love the changes that were made, especially to Madame Butterfly.

      It really is a hard choice because I clearly want to choose both again but, I'm going to go with the one who I think the changes made it sparkle even more.

      Victory to Madame Butterfly!

    12. FIRST PAGES:

      MADAME BUTTERFLY is superb.

      In IRISH IN AMERICA, I like the contrast between Jesse’s angst and the peaceful surroundings, but I feel like the opening is keeping something from me. I almost want to hear the old man say, “Shhhh, Jesse stop yer yappin, can’t ‘cha hear that?” And then she stops and listens and hears….nothing. Then the old man laughs at her and shakes a finger or something and tells her something like mark my words, something’s coming.” And then have her think: he always said the animals could smell danger and would always run away.

      I just feel like I’m missing the connection between the old man making Jesse angry and the arrival of the horses. Maybe there’s a better segue. The first paragraph doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the scene.

      The other thing that bothered me was the quiet scene in the 2nd paragraph, but in the 3rd paragraph the only restful thing was the buckskin. To me it seemed like EVERYTHING was restful.


      I love the premise and the timeframe of IRISH IN AMERICA. And I love a good western historical romance! The query does a good job with the synopsis, but I want a better hook at the beginning. I do like the hook at the end.

      MADAME BUTTERFLY almost promises an unhappily ever after ending and I LOVE THAT. I love the secrecy and I love that the protagonist isn’t really the good guy. But he’s not bad either. He just killed a girl, that’s all…lol. The query does a good job laying out the main character and the arc of this romantic plot. I love the hook at the end.

      Victory to MADAM BUTTERFLY

    13. I felt both of these entries were fabulous when I saw them in round one and now they are polished up and even better.

      While there are some great comments from the judges in this thread, I do feel like we're getting to a point where personal taste is really going to be the deciding factor.

      I award victory to Madam Butterfly. Out of the two entries I feel it's slightly more effective at immediately immersing the reader in the book's main conflict.

  2. Both great entries! That was the easy part. Here's the hard one.

    Madame Butterfly: Good, clear stakes in the query. I agree with the previous judge that you can pare down some of the back story. I don't think we need to know that Jessica is designing something for Will's mom, for example. If you trim a bit, we'll get to the mystery and stakes sooner which will make it even stronger. I love the 250. It's a great way to set up the story.

    Irish: This is beautifully written, but I think the query could be trimmed down as well. We need to know what's drawing the MC to the love interest and what's keeping them apart. You can get rid of at least one paragraph. For instance, we don't need the back story of the MC's dad. Everything you need is in the query, it's just a matter of deciding on what is the most important 1-2 conflicts and what's really at stake. Everything else is subplot that makes the story richer but doesn't need to be in the query.

    I really like the opening 250. I get a nice sense of the character and her life and that something is about to change.

    Great job!

    Another impossible choice, but I'm going to say VICTORY TO MADAME BUTTERFLY

  3. I've already commented on these two and for me it basically comes down to personal preference. I think these both have a lot of potential and are compelling. Great job to both of you but I have to vote so...


  4. Side note to both authors: no matter who wins this round, you each now have such strong queries that I'm sure lots of agents are going to be making requests from both of you! Good luck to each of you in the future!

    Madam Butterfly: this one just keeps getting better and better! I think the line about Will's mother would feel more connected to the story if you explain in that same sentence that this is what puts her into close proximity with her ex. Love your 250 but "Hole in the head" is a cliche; try re-wording that so it connects more to Will's character. For example, you might try using something that a novelist would never need instead.

    Irish in America: this is another one I've been following every round, and your revisions are excellent. I think you've done a great job addressing the things in earlier versions that didn't feel quite right. Your laugh paragraph in the query is especially compelling. Love your 250-nothing to add there.

  5. Madam

    I like the dual POV in your story, and I can see how the characters’ conflicting positions will make for a tension-filled romance. I like how the query ends with a hint of mystery. Just one nitpicky comment: Maybe delete one of the instances of “Not that” to avoid repetition. I learn a lot about your MC in the first 250. His hesitation, his guilt. Nice. When Will stiffens and says No, I almost want to know more about what he’s feeling. Overall, great entry, and good luck!


    I love your premise. This is exactly the kind of book I’d devour. The query is well done. I like the internal thoughts in your first 250. It tells me so much about your character right away. Then you hit us with this awesome bit of setting, and just in the first two paragraphs, I’m hooked. The rider approaching adds great tension, and I definitely want to read on! Great job, and good luck!