Jun 20, 2017

QK Round 3: From Gutters to Galleries vs Mother of All Custody Battles

Title: Only When I Fall
Entry Nickname: From Gutters to Galleries
Word Count: 80K
Genre: Upmarket Fiction


If she could find a better paying job than the Museum of Fine Arts café, Mia Clarke wouldn't have to keep selling heroin. As a single mom, it kills her to contribute to people's afflictions—especially Tris, her former partner in both love and graffiti art. When he stops by the café for a couple of grams and accidentally leaves behind a gorgeous painting, Mia anonymously enters it into an online art contest hoping to help him turn his life around.

Soon, the image goes viral, sparking a widespread search for a troubled loner with a singular gift. But not everyone searching for Tris means him well. A posh art dealer with a trail of disappearing protégés, a social network moderator obsessed with the anonymous contest entry, and a groundskeeper required to evict the homeless are all closing in on the abandoned utility room under a Charles River bridge where Tris has been staying.

Unaware of the pursuers closing in, Tris must shake the heroin in his veins and leave his old life behind or risk losing not only his life's work and the person he loves, but the very life to which he clings. While Mia, weighed down by her guilt over being both Tris's dealer and the one person who can help him find the recognition his talent deserves, vows to quit selling drugs and to fight to save the man she wishes she didn't love—for herself, for him, and for the daughter he never knew he had.

First 250:

The Museum of Fine Arts was humming. Patrons clopped around on marble tile toward the new Vermeer exhibit, loners sketched landscapes in their spiral pads, and tour guides directed groups between potted ferns from the European galleries to the Americas. An odd tang of coffee and parmesan wafted from the café on the first floor.

Mia Clarke wiped down table five, the edge of her full-sleeve tattoos peeking out from beneath the black uniform shirt cuffs buttoned at her wrists. She brushed a strand of pink hair behind her ear. As she rushed to take an order from a customer at the next table over, a different kind of customer stepped into the café.

She saw him out of the corner of her eye. He was hard to miss.

His dirty blonde hair was matted and fell past his shoulders like a neglected houseplant, its tendrils winding their way through his overgrown beard. Glancing around the room, he found an empty chair and slid into it. Their eyes met.

Finishing up with her customer, Mia closed her pad and wound her way through the maze of tables before stopping at his.

"Hey, Tris. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

He sat hunched over the table, his eyes unreadable. "No thanks. Just a fruit cup."

A thin sigh escaped her lips. "How about a muffin or something?"

"Not today."

She knew he didn't care about the fruit. He came for the heroin she slipped inside.


Entry Nickname: Mother of All Custody Battles
Word Count: 73K
Genre: Women’s Fiction


Lola Bishop has been to the end of her rope so many times she’s not sure she has enough antidepressants to keep her from tying it into a noose and slipping it around her neck. All she wants is to have a baby and raise a family with her husband, Paul. But their premature son doesn’t make it, and an emergency hysterectomy kills any future dreams of motherhood. More dark days follow in the form of depression and divorce papers. Then she discovers not only has Paul moved in with his young girlfriend, Iris, they’re also expecting a baby – a little boy they name Seth.

But Lola’s got to pull her act together when a car crash kills Paul and Iris and orphans Seth – now a toddler. Iris’s will has some glaring holes, but Paul’s will clearly names Lola as Seth’s guardian. At the same time Iris’s dad, who’s been caring for Seth since the accident, starts building his legal case to contest Paul’s will, Lola ponders whether she’s strong enough to raise the child her ex-husband had with his girlfriend. Steeling her heart, Lola jumps into the legal ring as she and Isaac try to outmaneuver each other in the mother of all custody battles.

First 250:

It was the receptionist at my gynecologist’s office who clued me in that something major was afoot. Not that she said anything in particular – of course she can’t say anything. Medical privacy laws and all. But there’s no privacy law that prohibits a weird, high-pitched tone when calling my name, or an uncomfortable shiftiness palpable across the sliding glass divider.

No, there was no one in the office who said anything during my checkup. But my nurse gave me several odd, sideways glances. And Dr. Marta, the obstetrician who’d walked me through days darker than death, made a telling comment on my way out of the office. As she put her cool, clinical hand on my shoulder, she held it a beat longer than normal and asked: “How’s your friend Brenda these days?”

Brenda Gillis – one of my dearest friends on earth, despite all the crap I’ve put her through – has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what’s going on in the lives of everyone in Glenhaven without being a busybody. While she flirts with the line of being a gossip, there’s no malice in her methods. Less paparazzi, more society columnist.

I called her immediately from my car. “Where are you?” I asked. “I just left Dr. Marta’s. Her whole staff was acting weird.”

Brenda sighed on the other end. “I’m taking the kiddos to Noodles before their piano lessons,” she said. “Do you want to meet me there? We need to talk.”


  1. Judges, please leave your comments and votes as a reply to this comment. Thanks!

    1. From Gutters to Galleries
      A good entry. I'm still not 100% clear on the stakes though. For example, what happens if Mia stops dealing? What happens if Tris loses his place of lodging. That sort of thing. Note: Repetition of "closing in"; maybe try to change one?

      Mother of All Custody Battles
      I think the query could use some more detail. For example, why can't Lola and Isaac work out some sort of custody agreement? Why would Paul divorce her and then name her as a guardian for his son? The 250 is well written, but loses me a little. Why all the discussion about privacy if she's the patient and Marta is her doctor (unless this is about someone else; the problems with only having the first 250 :)?

      Because I feel the query is a little more polished on the first entry, I'm going with victory to From Gutters to Galleries!

    2. Oh man. These two. Wow. I've commented on FROM GUTTERS TO GALLERIES before and I loved it, but then I read the query for FINDING SETH and it blew me away. Okay: I'm going to work out the nitty gritty stuff while I figure out who to pick.

      GUTTERS: all around wonderful 250. You start with some amazing imagery and end with the perfect line to make me want to keep reading. The query is good too, however, opening with the paragraph about Mia makes it look like she's the one this book is about.

      SETH: the query is good, but the idea is just fantastic. I love this concept and I think it has so much potential. The 250, wasn't as clean as I'd like it. For instance, you have "that" twice in the first paragraph. Go through your whole manuscript and get rid of these types of words. That being said, I think the tone of the 250 is perfect. You start out with just the right amount of tension and leave at a great place to ensure we keep reading.

      So which one? I really like Gutter's concept, but I think I like Seth's a little more. However, I like the writing in Gutters a little more than the writing in Seth. This is so hard. For me, the 250 always wins so... Victory to GUTTERS!

    3. Both very strong entries. Congrats to you both!

      SETH: While the revision of the query makes this a lot clearer, I think you may have lost a little of the voice that made it so strong in the previous rounds. If you went back and tried to add the voice, I think it would be even better.

      GUTTERS: Really great imagery in the 250. I agree with the previous comments about opening the query with Mia. It takes a while to get to the central conflict. I wonder if the query could be tightened with just one question about the morality of selling drugs.

      That said, while I love both entries, I'm especially intrigued by one. VICTORY TO GUTTERS

    4. From CatAttack


      Wow. Intriguing opening line. I love the milieu -- and the looming threat of an art dealer 'with a trail of disappearing art proteges'. Suggest either trimming back or breaking into two sentences the last line of the query, i.e.,'(While) Mia, weighed down...over being (both) Tris' dealer (and), is the one person...deserves(,). She vows to quit...and (to) fight to save...' The opening paragraph of the first 250 does a great job setting the scene. Suggest trimming back the following: 'As she rushed to take an order from (a customer at) the next table over, a different...' Engaging read.


      The stakes are clear here. Picky point - suggest trimming back here: '(At the same time) Iris's dad, who's been caring...will(,). Lola...' Also, though you tell us Lola steels her heart, I wanted a better sense of how Lola feels about the prospect of raising her ex-husband's child. The opening 250's very effective -- I can see the scene. In the dialogue at the end, suggest a more natural back and forth. If Lola's going to start the conversation with "Where are you?" I'd expect her to wait for an answer. But, I also thought -- since Brenda's her best friend -- is this really the first thing she'd say -- rather than starting with "I just left Dr. Marta's"? I already feel for Lola.

      Another really tough call -- these are both strong entries.


    5. Replying as Chief Doodler!

      Gutters to Galleries:
      I don't think I've ever read anything quite like what this story is about. It's a really intriguing premise, and I'm a sucker for morally grey stories. I think you've set up the tension up super well, however I do think we need some clarifying. Mia is selling Heroin and hating it, and the line "if only she could find a better job," might not be necessary since it raises the question: why does she do it? She could work anywhere (barista, waitress, anything to do the thing she hates to do). It almost feels like a disconnect, unless you give us a strong motivator. Is it the money that keeps her selling? I think I'd like to understand her a bit more and what is motivating her.

      Custody Battle:
      This one is also an interesting premise, and though you've given lots of great backstory into the main character, I'm wanting a bit more from her. How does she feel about the idea of raising Seth, her ex's son? If we have a clear sense that she WANTS Seth, it will set up your conflict well. That way we understand what's driving her in the fight for custody.

      This one is a hard one....!!!



      Whoa, I really like this premise! There are a couple places in the query where the sentences run a bit long—I would break them into a couple sentences to help with the rhythm. I do agree with one of the comments regarding the stakes. What will happen if she stops selling drugs? Why keep her daughter from her father? And the 250! The last line really pops!


      Again, the voice in the query is great. The only thing I would add is maybe why Paul named Lola as Seth's guardian. That may clear up why she's so determined to win the custody battle. The 250 reads well, though now I think a punchier first line would really make it stand out.

      Really, great entries here!

    7. These are both so wonderful and I would read both of them. However, I agree with those who have asked questions about MOTHER and how long it takes to get to the main conflict. There's also something about GUTTERS that intrigues me and I think it's a story that could crossover to readers of other genres.

      Victory to GUTTERS!


      Query: Overall I think this is a really strong query, so great job! In the second and third paragraph, you use “closing in” so I’d recommend changing one to avoid the repetition. I’m curious if this book is dual POV? Originally I didn’t get that sense but in the last paragraph we seem to flip to Tris. If it is dual, I’d have the second paragraph focus more on Tris. If it isn’t dual, then I think the focus in the last paragraph needs to be more on Mia. As for the stakes, I’m curious why he thinks he’ll lose Mia if he doesn’t cut his addiction when she’s his dealer? And why is Mia the only one who can get him recognition? Hasn’t the contest done that or proved that more people than her are interested in his art? I think if you can clear up the stakes just a tad this would be right where it needs to be.

      250: I’m really enjoying this opening. I think you’re missing “it” on the end of your very last sentence. Other than that I think this is really strong. My only curiosity is how old these characters are? I don’t see what Category this is supposed to be, but I’m guessing adult? It’s hard to say from this small sample, but the characters seem a bit young, I’d guess early twenties. If they’re not, maybe in your description of Tris, just add something to age him up a little?


      Query: “But their premature son…” seems to come a bit out of the blue. I think we need a little transition into this. The first paragraph has a bit of a synopsis feel, rather than a back cover blurb. Since this is all background information, I wonder if there’s a way you can streamline it a bit. I’m assuming you’ve researched the legalities of dual wills, so I won’t touch on that though it does make me question how that would actually work. My main question still remains as to why Lola would want to raise Seth? A child she doesn’t know, that belongs to her ex and the woman he replaced her with, and who has been in the care of a blood relative? I don’t really understand her motivation.

      250: I really enjoy this opening. The odd, awkwardness in the doctor’s office. I can completely picture it. Because the query has a bunch of background information, the opening doesn’t quite match the query and leaves me wondering how long we have until we hit the meat of the story—the accident and the custody battle—since I’m guessing the news is that her ex’s new wife is pregnant here.



      Lots to like in your query. I like the pacing and rhythm, and how we get a sense of your protagonists right away. I did stumble a bit when you switch POVs and wonder if there's a way you could keep it all to a single POV. You can still talk about what's at stake for Tris, but maybe approach it from Mia's POV for consistency with your opening.

      I've no useful feedback to offer your first 250, though! I think that opening works really well, with each sentence pushing me to read on, to find out what happens next. Well done!


      I think you've done a very good job of tweaking your query and your first paragraph is very strong as a result. My only issue there is that we jump from miscarriage and hysterectomy, to divorce papers and Paul moving in with his girlfriend--I think you need a bit of a better segue there. I also think your second paragraph could benefit from some more tightening (and I'm not sure who Isaac is? Iris's dad?). I'm afraid I'm not getting a clear sense of why Lola would want to jump into this mother of custody battles, I think you need to show us more than her personal need to be a mum to Paul's kid: maybe there's something about little Seth that connects with her, that gives her that extra motivation to get into an ugly court battle for him. This may be my personal preference, but I do feel like I need to understand Lola better to buy that she would actually do anything to gain custody of Seth.

      As for your first 250... GREAT job on your tweaks! Everything flows a little more naturally now and it's clearer and tighter. Well done!


    10. Critique: From Gutters to Galleries
      I judged this in round 1. This continues to be strong, and I like most of the changes. That being said…Mia doesn’t feel like the protagonist in this story. Tris does. If the story is more about Mia, we need more of her in the query and less about Tris. If the story is them together, that’s fine, but maybe make your query more about them and less about each of them individually?
      First 250 words:
      This appears to be the same as round 1. I find the “ a different kind of customer” a bit odd, namely because he seems to come by a lot and she knows him. So why pretend this is not the case? I think that can be revised and made stronger.
      Thanks for fixing the bit where she finished with her current customer. The slight change does a lot of good!
      Critique: Mother of All Custody Battles
      I like this. I’d remove “But” from the start of the 2nd paragraph. You could likely even cut some of the top and end the first paragraph with the accident. The accident is the inciting incident for your story, the backstory isn’t necessary in the query and hopefully is not at the front of the novel, but, rather sprinkled throughout the story.
      First 250 words:
      This feels a bit jumbled. Who is calling her name? The receptionist? What is making her uncomfortable? Wouldn’t the issue, whatever it is, have been revealed by the doctor? Or is because she has a certain reputation?
      The fact I’ve got this many questions, isn’t a great sign.

      I think you’ve got a good story here, but you seem to be starting it off a bit slow. Your query is pretty good, and while I don’t really care for stories about custody, yours seems earnest and genuine, and I actually want to read it. So you’ve got my attention, but your first 250 words are watery, and you lose me.

      Verdict: I like both, but From Gutters to Galleries is more polished and more compelling. This is annoying to me because I think Mother of All Custody Battles has real promise. I think the query can be tweaked a bit, and be fine, but the first 250 words has me struggling. Remember a first page needs to be compelling and strong, they aren’t easy to write, but when you’ve got a story you love, you have to work very hard to make your introduction a page turner.
      WINNER GOES TO: From Gutters to Galleries

  2. Not a judge .. and super glad about that! These are both books I want to read.

    From Gutters to Galleries:

    I haven't read this one yet - so coming with fresh eyes. My first thought is Yay! I love art (my WIP is an MG art story) so subjectively speaking, this is one I'd grab right away. I love the concept. A couple of things that I learned in my writing group: Try to eliminate negative words in your query (i.e. wouldn't in the first sentence.) Try: "Mia Clarke hated selling heroin. If only she could find a better job than ...". Also, you can add a punch of action in your 250 first sentence if you change it from "was humming" to "hummed."

    Mother of All Custody Battles

    I love first line of your query! Nice job revising. One question I still have - why is it so important for her to raise Seth? Why not just let his biological grandfather raise him or share custody? Is there some pressing reason other than she wants a child of her own?

    The 250 sets a curious tone -I'd definitely want to read more to see what's going on!

    Best of luck to both of you!

  3. GUTTERS - This comes across as really polished. I think the stakes are pretty clear, even the unstated one about Tris and Mia and this kid he doesn't know about. So many layers!

    MOTHER - I have so much sympathy for Lola. I think you could ratchet that up even more by saying that the breakup with her ex was very painful and more about the fertility issue than a personal one--ie., he still loves her. I think that's the reason he names her as guardian. A couple of extra details like his being an only child or something would strengthen the case.

    You've both got such strong submissions, I know you're going to do well here and beyond!

  4. I really like the premise behind both stories. For Gutters, I do agree with the above comment that opening the query with the paragraph about Mia gives off the impression that the story is about her.

    For Seth, your query is nearly flawless. However, I think adding an extra line or two about Lola's motivations for taking on the care of Seth and what her personal stakes are could be really poignant. Why does she need to pull her act together? Why does she even care enough to fight to raise a child that her ex-husband had with his girlfriend?

    My vote: Gutters!

  5. OK...feedback! Just a Kontestant here.

    GUTTERS: This is actually the first time I've read your entry. Sounds like an interesting concept, but I was a bit thrown when the query started off talking about Mia but then switched to talking a lot about Tris. I thought it might be dual-POV, which it might. In the first 250, just a couple of little things I noticed - you used the word "was" a couple times, which I know is necessary sometimes, but I try to avoid it as much as possible. You also used the word "customer" several times.

    Definitely sounds like a good concept, though, and I'm sure I can't add much on that you haven't already heard!

    SEAN: I gave feedback for this one in round one. I loved it then, and I still do. As a mother, this story pulled me right in. I also have a particular attraction to the name Paul, so ya know, that got my attention, too. The only tiny thing that tripped me up in your query is that, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out who Isaac was! I finally figured it was Seth's grandpa, but it took me a second.

    I still adore your first 250. Just the fact that you used her coming out of the gynecologist's office is so real-life, I love it. I think you have a seamless way of weaving so much inferential information without just coming out and telling it. I'd definitely keep reading.

    Can't wait to see this one on the shelves! I'll pick it up, for sure!

    Good luck to you both!