Jun 1, 2016

QK Round 1: What's Luck Gotta Do With It vs. T-Blocked

Title: Big Town
Entry Nick Name: What's Luck Gotta Do With It?
Word Count: 77,000
Genre: Adult Fantasy


Lena Huertas grew up believing only the dead were welcome in Big Town…

Hidden within the frosted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the prosperous city stands in isolation, protected by a marksman of considerable skill. However, those unfit for burial are shipped across the border for an unknown purpose. On the day her late father is set to make the journey, Lena aims to follow with blood pumping through her veins.

It doesn’t matter that the road for the living is drowned in mud, or that to secure passage across the harsh frontier she must first steal funds from a bandit cousin, and best a local gang leader in a game of poker. Lena, like another wayward soul in 1879, has nothing left to lose, and she’s desperate to free herself from the thousands of Forty-Niner’s who flooded California, claimed her family and her heritage and left her wandering the streets in search of scraps.

She boosts her chances with the help of a pair of mysterious golden dice, capable of granting favor to those who need it most – along with the charity of Big Town’s one-eyed sheriff.

But what she doesn’t know is that the sheriff’s false-eye allows him to enter minds. As he learns about the dice, Lena discovers the secret to the city’s fabled success may tie her magic luck to their desire for corpses. Probing deeper, new enemies unlike anyone she’s ever outsmarted emerge along with the truth, and she quickly realizes that to survive in her new home, she’ll have to wager her own unbroken spirit, because among a populace who take their wealth for granted, control over the future is worth more than gold, and only the dead are welcome to leave.

First 250:

Three coffins rested near the railroad beneath a sky as gray as a weathered barn. Sealed with rusty nails, the wooden boxes carried the stains of anyone from Skidmore who’d ever dropped dead, or was murdered, and had no kin to give them proper burial.

Or for those who, like Lena Huertas, had nary a penny in their pocket.

The young woman’s dry hair was bunched under her father’s Stetson. She sat in a ticket booth that was boarded up on one side and gutted open on the other, and watched a beetle scuttle between her boots across a cracked stone platform. The bandana covering her face helped shield her from the dirt and mud that swallowed everything else, including most of the sign welcoming would-be passengers of Skiddy’s Wagon to her quaint mining town.

She folded her arms on her knees and ignored the bumps on her skin from the mosquitoes. A wind cut through the ticket booth, making her shiver and hug her knees tighter. The pale afterglow of the sun peeking up over the walls of the Sierra Nevada was fading, but she’d yet to find the courage to step closer to the railroad, put her hand on her pa’s box, and bid a last farewell.

She was surprised and grateful no one ever tampered with the coffins. They were usually left on the platform for days awaiting their journey. She supposed superstitions got the better of folk. No chance it was out of respect.


Title: A Girl in the Boys' School
Entry Nickname: T-Blocked
Word Count: 79,000
Genre: Adult Speculative Fiction


As humanity faces self-extinction in a male-dominated world at war, a fearless Sisterhood plans for survival. Their plan is complex and nonviolent. It is also deceptive. It relies on both hormonal control of males and a forged gospel chemically dated to A.D. 80. In an odyssey spanning centuries, the story begins with female scientists willing to sacrifice half the human population to save the rest, and evolves to a future world segregated by gender.

In 2072, biochemist Lorelei doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of her. She only wants to protect humanity from obliteration. She develops techniques to control men by reducing their hormone levels to make them more tame, less violent, and more like women. No lab confines this researcher; Lorelei collects her male specimens in the wild. She doses them with testosterone blockers. With a needle. In the neck.

Hundreds of years later, archeologist Maya reveals the Aidan Documents, the gospel of an unknown female disciple, forged and buried by Lorelei’s colleagues as a seed to help humanity heal. But all has not gone as the Sisterhood planned. Males may be corralled, but they will not be controlled. And healing can only succeed with their help.

First 250:

They marched into the square in a ragged, slow line. Some women. Mostly men. Hands tied. Roped together like cattle. I watched these parades every day at sunset, looking for colleagues and sisters. Hoping.

A toddler clenched her mother’s legs, and she wailed to be lifted into the woman’s tied arms. The mother hissed, “Run, Emma. Run to the trees.” I watched from those trees, hidden but close enough to hear, ready to take the girl if her mother could convince Emma to get away. But the child wouldn’t leave the security a mother is supposed to provide. She was too young to know the danger was surest and sharpest at her mother’s side. They died with the other hundred souls in the daily roundup.

These are the remnants of our world under male control.

Somehow, I slept deeply, exhausted, under bushes or in graveyards, always hidden, through the roar of helicopters, gunfire, and screams. I’d wake to a voice, a child crying, a dog barking. Rainfall. Or a smell, like smoke or feces. Loud noises never woke me. They were the background of the anger and the hate.

He slithered in silently while I slept, but I smelled his unwashed body. He reached for my throat. I slashed his wrist, watched him howl, kicked his head, and knocked him out. I watched him bleed dry. And I felt nothing.

Numb and broken, I pocketed his gun. But what can I do with a gun but become one of them? 


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

    1. LUCK:
      Nice and creepy query! It does read a little long. I think it could be trimmed down which would make it even more tense. For instance, I’m not sure you need all the details about the bandits and her cousin. You also want to avoid statements that are vague like “new enemies unlike those she’s ever outsmarted.” When in doubt, be as specific as possible.
      The 250 is really well done. I’d consider adding some of the fantasy elements/mystery right up front though, if you can. It’s what elevates it from another western-themed historical fiction and I’d love your MS to stand out right away.

      T Blocked
      Whoa. I love the premise. It’s almost like a reverse Handmaid’s Tale. I do think the first paragraph of the query should be rewritten/woven into Lorelei’s paragraph. We don’t need all the world building up front. I think by focusing on characters, conflict, and stakes, we’ll get the story. I want to know what both Lorelei and Maya have at stake and what they will have to choose/decide.
      The first 250 is great, very tense and disturbing, laying out the danger very well. It was a little unclear to me why women and men were both being rounded up, but I’m sure it’s explained later.

      This was a really hard choice since they are both great, for different reasons. I hope the hosts will save you both 
      I don’t want to choose, but I think I’m going to have to say VICTORY to LUCK because I haven’t seen anything like it before.

    2. What's Luck Gotta Do With It?


      You have a wonderfully layered world, with extensive world-building, fantastical characters, and a mystery to solve. This part is awesome! However, I was a bit confused due to how much information you’re attempting to convey in query. As a result, the plot seems very vague. Maybe trim it down and explain the character’s motivation for following her father. What does she hope to achieve? What are the stakes if she wins or fails?

      First 250

      I loved the imagery in your first 250, especially the beetle :). You’ve crafted a very layered world. The tone feels very much like a western. I’m curious what would happen next, so nice job setting this up.



      Nice. You laid out the stakes in the first paragraph. I didn’t have any questions about what was going on. The second paragraph reflected the voice of the character. I like Lorelei. She sounds spunky. You’ve laid out what she wants to do and why. In the third paragraph, you show what has gone wrong and what needs to happen in the story for the characters to achieve success. I’m intrigued.

      First 250

      Wow! Nice 250. The only problem I had is that I have no idea who is narrating this section. Is it a man or woman? Is it Lorelei or Maya? I’d keep reading to find out. Nice tension.

      I would love to be able to read both of these books. Both have worlds and cultures I would love to explore right along with the characters. It was really difficult to choose, but VICTORY to T-Blocked because I was hooked in the query's second paragraph. Good luck to both of you!

    3. Both of these entries are super intriguing. …and both confused me a little.

      In LUCK, that first query line led me to believe that Lena would be trying to get to Big Town, but by the end of the query, I’m thinking she’s trying to leave Big Town. But I’m not sure.

      The first page flowed beautifully. The first line set the perfect tone, and I enjoyed the voice. At the end of this 250, I was definitely looking for more words.

      In the T-BLOCKED query, I got the impression that this is a two-part story with two protagonists from two different times. But I had no idea which story I was reading on the first page.

      The first page of T-BLOCKED seemed to be two separate parts of a story, where everything north of “These are the remnants of our world” seemed to be an introduction. Everything after that seems to be the start of Chapter One. I liked the writing, but I had no idea which protagonist I was reading—Lorelei or Maya. And since those ladies seem to have completely separate stories, separated by hundreds of years, I really couldn’t get my feet on the ground with just one page. I thoroughly enjoyed the Schindler’s List feel of this, but I just didn’t like how this first page unfolds.

      Victory to WHAT’S LUCK GOT TO DO WITH IT

    4. LUCK:

      Query - Maybe I’ve missed it, but why is she making the journey? Is her father unfit for burial? I don’t understand why going to the city of the dead will help her reclaim her heritage. I think this sounds like a lot of fun and the setting and magical elements feel fresh to me, but I’m missing the WHY. Why should I root for Lena?
      250 - Same concern as the query—either I’m totally blind or something important is missing. Is she dead? Can she not pay for her father’s burial? This line “…..carried the stains of anyone from Skidmore who’d ever dropped dead, or was murdered, and had no kin to give them proper burial.” confuses me because it basically says all dead people and I’m not sure that’s what you mean. Otherwise, the descriptions here are beautiful. Very gritty—the overall tone is really nice.


      Query - I am fully intrigued. I think there needs to be some kind of transition showing a bigger link between Lorelei and Maya though. Are they both narrating? Also, “But all has not gone as the Sisterhood planned” is too vague. Can you hint at what the conflict is without giving away all the details? It will help clarify what the stakes are.
      250 - This feels like two different scenes stuck together with no transition between them. I like both, actually, but I need more fluidity. The voice is lovely but as others have pointed out, who the narrator is isn’t clear.

      I'm going with the one that jumped out at me as a reader - Victory to T-BLOCKED.

      Query: This is one of my favorite entries so far. You have an incredible query, and you begin with a killer hook. If I were an agent, from the query alone, I would demand more pages. Just from Lena’s desire to follow her dead father, I sympathize with her. I want to see where her journey takes her. The fact that this is a historical novel makes it even more interesting. I would like to know how old Lena is. You introduce her as a young woman in the first 250 and if not for the genre label, I would have thought that the query was for a young adult novel.
      First 250: Your descriptions are beautiful, and they really ground me in the setting. I feel like I’m right there.

      Query: You have this really fascinating story here, with strong female characters and a compelling plot. But I feel like it can benefit from some clarification. I want to know a little more about what is causing humanity’s self-extinction. When I first read your query, I thought that the first paragraph took place in the “present,” not in Lorelei’s time. I want to know what the current situation is like.
      First 250:
      I love your first 250. It begins with such a horrific scene, that I find myself wondering how the world came to this. The only problem I have is how can she hear the mother hiss to the daughter? I feel like her fight with the man can be a little more fleshed out, too.

      I love both of these entries, but LUCK’s slightly more polished. If it was up to me, you would both progress onto the next round.

      Victory to WHAT’S LUCK GOTTA DO WITH IT?

    6. Congratulations to these authors of adult SF/F for making the cut!

      The first 250 words of WHAT'S LUCK open the story with a compelling image that sets the tone for the entire book. The prose is crisp, and I love the "nary a penny" line. There's clearly a compelling book here, though I feel the query doesn't quite live up to it. The hook line doesn't grab me. It gives us the character name and tells us something she believed growing up. Ho hum. Tell us about the golden dice or the one-eyed sheriff in that hook!

      Another missing element is the question of WHY Lena wants to travel to this place. The second paragraph hints at a desire to escape, but I need more: does she need to know where her father will end up, or does she want revenge? Or simply a better life, and if so, why would a town of corpses promise such?

      The "like another wayward soul" seems a heavy-handed attempt to set the time period, and marks the start of a run-on sentence. Clarifying Lena's driving purpose may address this. The last paragraph is the most problematic, IMO. The one-eyed sheriff is interesting, but it's unclear if he's an ally or an enemy. After that, we wander into vagueness (secret, new enemies and wagering a soul). The final sentence has some good stuff in it, but is far too long (and has a subject issue, i.e. "new enemies" are apparently "probing deeper"). The last two clauses of it ("Control over the future is worth more than gold, and only the dead are welcome to leave.") are delightful, and on their own might be the perfect ending-hook to wrap up the query.

      T-BLOCKED offers a compelling and unique premise reminiscent of Frank Herbert's DUNE. The first 250 hint at an inviting voice, though I find myself wanting to be closer to the protagonist right from the start. Show us her crouching in the trees, watching the procession.

      The query, while well-written, has three different perspectives that feel disjointed when jammed together. It's not clear to me if the main character is the biochemist or the archaeologist. We open with a long description of the sisterhood, but their relationship to the two characters is unclear. I would advise the author to rewrite this query from one character's perspective, establishing a clear goal and stakes.

      I can't help but sense an undercurrent of misandry that I hope is only a misconception on my part. The idea that testosterone-fueled men drive global conflict seems either naive or offensive, unless there's a deeper speculative element at play (e.g. male testosterone levels have inexplicably increased to unsafe levels in the world population). If that were the case, and made evident in the query, I'd be doubly intrigued.

      Victory to WHAT'S LUCK


    Query: Excellent opening. If I were an agent, after reading the first line of this query, I’d immediately skip to the pages to see if the writing holds up to the high expectations I already have. Since I’m not an agent, I did continue on with the query and it holds up to what I was hoping for. The writing and world building and intrigue is all there. The only downfall is it seems a little long, while your manuscript seems a little short. I think the sweet spot for adult fantasy is 90-110K, sometimes longer. You might get some pushback on the word count.

    250: The writing here is good, but I wish you’d have ended on a more exciting note. You have excellent descriptions of the character and surroundings, but there isn’t a lot else going on. You might want to consider opening in a different place.


    Query: Wow – interesting concept. You did a good job introducing voice into your query, however, I’m a little confused by it. I see that the book is spanning over what looks like it could be three different ages, the past, present, and the one they made up, but it might do your query good to focus on one. It’s hard when you have multiple MCs or multiple settings because you want to talk about them all, but for the purpose of getting it down in a query, you need to focus on the primary one which sounds like it might be Maya’s?

    250: fantastic rhythm in your writing. Your sentences flow beautifully. The only thing I had a problem with was really knowing who the MC is. Because you set it up as separate storylines in a similar world, you need to do a better job rooting us in the character that is speaking right now. A simple heading at the top of the section could do this. I know they said not to include chapter headings, but when it is integral to the story, I think it needs to be there.

  3. What's Luck Gotta Do with It: Love this alternate fantasy historical vibe! Very cool. For the first sentence of your query, I wouldn't end with an ellipsis, just a period. I would find a way to include the date of 1879 in your first paragraph, because I had to reorient my perception of the story once I realized it took place in a certain time in our world (or a version of our world). The last sentence of your query is a run-on sentence; you could easily split it up into as many as three or four separate sentences. I would split it into at least two, maybe even three.

    T-Blocked: Love this concept, and I would read this book immediately if I could! For your query, I would rearrange your paragraphs, moving the first paragraph to the end and tweaking them all as necessary. Starting with a world-building paragraph isn't super hooky or catching - it's better to begin by getting the reader invested in a character. Absolutely love your first 250. Easy to read, pulled me into the story and the world quickly, and left me hungry for more!

  4. What's Luck: This is an interesting concept of a western/magical/zombie? mashup. I think it has promise.

    The second paragraph of the query confused me. Does the marksman keep anyone from coming or going? Are people trapped there? The third paragraph makes me think we're in the US during the gold rush but the next two paragraphs mention multiple magical devices so I'm thinking maybe this is an alternate universe where magic is common but the world still isn't that different from our own. You may want to try to clarify and simplify these paragraphs. It might be worthwhile to try to shorten your query as well.

    The first 250 were well written but there were a couple of things that made me pause - is 'stains' a common term for corpses in this world? Same thing with the term "Skiddy's Wagon". Is that the train or the hearse bearing corpses? Also, the query indicated her father died in Big Town - is Skidmore the same place - didn't sound like it.

    T-Blocked: I like a good gender battle sci-fi story so the concept works for me. The first paragraph of the query is both very wordy and while I got the idea it was a chore to read. Maybe explain briefly that the world is in desperate shape because of violent men, then go on to talk about Lorelei's effort to bring about peace. The time jump could be an issue, Maya sounds less exciting than Lorelei, maybe you could describe the conflict in that era more instead of the 'seed to help humanity heal'.

    The first 250 were nicely written until the paragraph where she smells someone, knocks him out, and watches him die. That seemed very rushed for this early in the book. I think it might be better to build a little more suspense and describe this battle in more detail.

    Good luck to both of you.

  5. What's Luck. I love the atmosphere of the query. I agree with above it seems a touch too long. It's spooky, mysterious and a western. That is just awesome! On the 250, all love here for Lena. You say a lot through your setting. Impressive!
    T-Blocked I'm a fangirl of epic, jumping the centuries, sci-fi awesomeness. In the query, the elements that confuse me--the forged gospel (does what?) Men corralled vs. controlled (not sure this fits the hormone control), the lack of connection between the archaeologist and the biochemist.. On the 250, full of action, great atmosphere. I really wanted to spend some more time with the rounded up men, women, and children.

  6. What's Luck Gotta Do With It?

    Some sentences in the query struck me as runing long. I find the query intriguing but found myself wanting for certain key bits of information (e.g., What make the dead unfit for burial?) Phrases like "blood pumping through her veins" and "nothing left to lose" sounded cliche to me. Stealing funds from a bandit and besting the gang leader at poker are both tall orders--is there something you can show us from Lena's background which suggests she's up to the tasks? If that's her "magic luck" coming into play, I would have liked to have known that earlier. I sense she's risking her own existence for what she wants, but I'm not quite sure what that is. Lena displays a great and accommodating voice in the first 250, inviting the reader to "set a spell" and take in her tale.


    The Sisterhood, Lorelei and Maya all sound interesting in the query, but I'm not sure how they're all related. Is Maya the main character? Lorelei sounds so creepy and interesting, though. So if Maya is the main character, what is it that she's doing and why? What dog does she have in this fight? Wow, imagery in these first 250! A very stark setting indeed. Interesting, tragically wounded and world-weary character, though I would have liked to have known which one (Lorelei? Maya?)

  7. What's Luck Got to Do With It: The writing in the query and the 250 hoked me right away. Great tone and voice in both. I agree with others that the query ran a little long. I read it straight through and didn't stop, but if there was some place to cut or condense, it would be even stronger. Where does most of the plot take place? Is there back story you can cut there? Love the last line of the 250. Captured the whole world.

    T-Blocked: I was also a bit confused about whether Lorelei or Maya was the protagonist--but I think my confusion came from the timeline. Is this a dual timeline? If not, which timeline does the book take place in and could most of the query be focused there? (My impression was that it was Maya's timeline that would be the focus in the book) Also in the query, I got the impression that the first two paragraphs overlapped in time--if so, could they could be combined somehow?

  8. I am super late to the critique party and I know this is a close match-up, so good luck to both of you! Such great concepts. These are just a few thoughts as you move forward.

    LUCK: I can tell this is going to be a really cool story, fun to read, and different than the usual adult fantasy. Kind of steampunk in the wild west which is a great idea. For the query, I love the first paragraph, especially the 'marksman of considerable skill'. It's the second paragraph where I start getting lost. I don't understand the part about 'like another wayward soul in 1879'. Are you talking about Lena or someone else? Does Lena live in 1879 or the other person. I think it's the use of the word 'another'. Also, I think this is where you're laying out the stakes for the novel and if that's the case, the sentence is long and confusing and loses some of the tension. Also, I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma-- you could put one after 'heritage'.

    So the next two paragraphs is where the story really gets fun. But it's confusing. Maybe play around with the paragraph about the sheriff and the dice. I see why you end the paragraph with the sheriff (because it leads into the next paragraph), but it would read better if you mentioned him first, then the dice. Anyway-- something to consider.

    So, the last sentence of the query is 60 words long. I think if you can break it up into 3 sentences, it will make a lot more sense. You have some great stuff in there, but it gets lost in all the clauses.

    First 250: Really, really good. A couple things could get a little tighter. "stains of anyone from Skidmore who'd ever dropped dead, or was murdered, and had no kin... or nary a penny in their pocket" reads kind of like an algorithm. Too many conditions. There could be a leaner way to say all this.

    I love the description and mood of the third paragraph. Scuttling beetles and cracked stone- awesome. You use the word 'that' twice and it's one of those words (that) you don't need but type anyway. I do it constantly and then delete 99% of them. I'm not saying to take these out, just food for thought. In the next paragraph, 'the bumps on her skin form the mosquitos' is a pretty long way to say mosquito bites. As for the rest of the 250-- I LOVE it. I would absolutely read this book.

    1. Heh, it's supposed to be any other wayward soul. Thanks for catching the mistake.

      Also thanks for taking the time to break down some good feedback, I really appreciate it.

  9. (Sorry for the two posts-- this is why my book is >100,000 words)

    Also a very fun idea. I would read this book based on the idea alone, but the query and first 250 could use some clarification. I'll just go paragraph by paragraph.
    1st paragraph: 'self-extinction and male-dominated' I would take out 'self'. I'm actually okay with the forged gospel, but for the purposes of the query, I don't really care whether it's chemically dated or not. "In an odyssey spanning centuries" is a very grand and fabulous line. The entire sentence is great. I know there have been some comments about whether it's a dual timeline or not and I think you could address that here if it is. If not, never mind :)

    2nd paragraph: Using 'to control' and 'to make' in the same sentence felt sort of clunky to me. Otherwise I think this is one of the most memorable paragraphs in all queries kombatting! I love the irony of making men less violent and more like women by having a woman jam needles in their necks. It's great. Lorelei is definitely a character I want to read more about.

    3rd paragraph: Maybe say the year instead of 'hundreds of years later'. Also, is the gospel in this paragraph the same as the one from the first paragraph? I start to get very confused here. I think it's because I still don't know whether it's a dual timeline or not. While I'm positive this becomes clear quickly in the book, the query is not conveying it. I'm also confused by who Maya is in relation to the Sisterhood and what she wants. While Lorelei's motivation is very clear in the last paragraph, Maya remains nebulous in this one. 'Males may be corralled, but they will not be controlled. And healing can only succeed with their help.' Whose help? I don't understand these two sentences, especially as they relate to Maya. If Maya's introduction were as strong as Lorelei's I think this query would be greatly strengthened.

    First 250: I like the voice. A lot. But it was pretty disjointed. I think someone earlier mentioned that it needs chapter headings. It might give a better sense of place and time.

    I don't understand the sentence "These are the remnants of our world under male control." Is the world still under male control? I'm confused. In the next paragraph, I'm still confused. Who is this person? Is this the same day? Are these all her days? 'They were the background of the anger and the hate'. The noises are? I think I get what you're trying to say here, but maybe there is a better way to say it.

    The last two paragraphs are fantastic. I still don't really understand what's happening or whom it's happening to, but it's super visual, intense and very moody. I love it. Even though I was unclear about several things in the query and first 250, I would keep reading. You have a strong, distinct voice, and I think you're building great characters and a cool world.

    I do not envy this match-up. Best of luck to you both!

    1. Robert, This is incredible feedback. Thank you for your help. Laura

  10. Woot, adult SFF! Thanks for sharing!

    What's Luck Gotta Do With It?: You may want to consider classing this as Historical Fantasy. (Query) I found this query to be confusing. I had to read it a couple times to figure out what was going on. I think I would focus more on Lena's attempt to get into Big Town and less on the later elements, as it sounds like there is enough going on there to draw someone in. This would also give you more space to include the awesome details from your third paragraph without making them crammed. Also I wasn't a fan of the ellipsis sentence to start with, just my personal taste. Sounds like you have a really unique story here! (250) I love your opening pages. You have a really strong voice and sense of place--I get a clear Western vibe. Really great writing.

    T-Blocked: Speculative Fiction is really broad, I would try to narrow it down a little bit. (Query) The first sentence made me think this was secondary world, but then the reference to A.D. makes me think it's Earth. Is the book set in both time periods? I assume both Lorelei and Maya are the main characters. Your query sets out a very unique and intriguing premise, but I felt like it didn't go much further than that and I am not really sure what the story you are telling is. (250) I am not sure what this scene is showing. The first couple paragraphs are table setting, but then the scene shifts and so there is no payoff from those. There are a lot of super short sentences, which makes it feel choppy. These were in the query too, so it felt like a lot. Loved the last paragraph.

  11. Thanks for commenting everyone. I'll work hard to make improvements based on the advice!

  12. Congratulations to Randy and good luck in the next round.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. (typo)

      Thank you Laura, when I first read your query I knew it was going to be a tough fight. I wish you the best on your awesome project.