Title: The Chess Girl
Entry Nickname: Play Chess Not Checkers
Word count: 66K
Genre: MG Historical Fiction
To win her family’s freedom, Ruchel must play the greatest chess match ever.
As World War 1 begins, 7 year old Ruchel’s father is forced into the Austrian Army just before the Russian Army invades her border town.   To survive, her mother opens a tiny cafe.  Business is terrible until Ruchel challenges and defeats a customer in a chess match.   Soon, the restaurant is packed with people coming to watch her play.
Ruchel hopes to use her newfound celebrity to discover what’s happened to her father, who’s been missing in action since the war began.  Unfortunately, as different armies take turns occupying her hometown, it’s all she can do to help keep her family from starving.
When civil war breaks out and both sides start hunting Jews, Ruchel must beat a Polish chess champion to win her family a chance at a new life in America.  
First 250 Words:
Poland – 1919
Ruchel’s opponent carefully pushed his knight forward then left using the two fingers remaining on his right hand.  He nodded to Ruchel as he pulled the hand back.  The burned side of his face remained frozen, as did the milky white eye sunken within, but the other side of his mouth tried to turn upward.  
Once Ruchel would have felt both pity and horror at his appearance, but she’d seen so many ruined men in the last couple of years.  Besides, the stakes were too high.   The fat constable by the window kept playing with the holster around his waist, grunting every so often in case she hadn’t noticed him.   “Pig,” she mumbled in Yiddish. 
She looked away.  If he realized what she’d said, it wouldn’t matter who won this game.   Fortunately, he was focused on the Jewish shopkeeper across the street struggling to remount his store’s smashed in window frame.  The grin on his face made her say pig again, but this time only to herself.
She looked back at the board, started to reach for a piece then stopped. She liked to play fast to force her opponents into mistakes trying to match her speed, but she wasn’t at home and there would be no second chances.  Whatever the damage to the old soldier’s body, it hadn’t taken his skill.  She’d only played two men this good and been crushed both times.  

She was already down a pawn and the shadow hovering behind her wasn’t helping.
Title: The Windup
Entry Nickname: One-Handed Wonder
Word Count: 40,000
Genre: Upper Middle Grade, Contemporary
Kyle Whalen, a southpaw Little League pitcher, had enjoyed a typical adolescent boyhood until a car crash took his right hand, his twin brother, and his passion for life. Now, three years later, Kyle is fourteen and determined to play ball again in memory of his brother and fulfill the dream they shared: win the Brookhaven Invitational Baseball Tournament, a feat his home team has never accomplished.
Kyle practices hard with his catcher Hailey—the girl he’s crushing on and best friends with—but he struggles to pitch and bat one-handed. Those challenges mount when he discovers she likes a rival ballplayer. Things get worse when his coach and several of his teammates bail, leaving his team ineligible to compete. It’s game on, though, when Kyle convinces his estranged dad to take over as coach and his troublemaker cousin joins the team.
As Kyle leads his ragtag club toward the championship, he grows closer to his father, the man he thought no longer cared—about anything, not since the crash. Encouraged by the enthusiasm and support of his cousin, Kyle begins competing for Hailey’s heart. But when a bully on an opposing team pulls a nasty prank intended to put an end to Kyle’s comeback, suddenly nothing seems sure.
First 250 Words:
I stood atop the pitcher’s mound, baseball in hand. My only hand. Perched over the stub where my right hand used to be was my baseball glove, pocket-down.
“Last one, Kyle. Fire it in here,” Hailey said, punching her catcher’s mitt. She was my age, fourteen, but she could have passed for sixteen.
The two of us had been practicing on the weed-choked Little League field for about two hours. Summer rays warmed the back of my neck. My tired pitching arm sagged at my side like a wet noodle. I dug my cleat into the soft dirt in front of the pitching rubber, wound up, and slung a fastball. After my follow-through, I slipped my hand into my glove, fumbling a bit, and got into fielding position. Mastering the transfer of my glove was the hardest part. I had no doubt teams would test me by hitting comebackers.
“Sick pitch, Kyle,” Hailey said, hopping up. She pulled off her mitt and approached me. “You’re ready for this.”
I shook off my glove. “I hope so.”
It was one thing to practice without a batter standing at home plate. It was another story to pitch in a tournament, which was what I planned to do in just a few days. The last time I laced up for a game was three years ago. Back when my dad was the coach. Back when I had a right hand. Back when I had a twin teammate to double high-five.
Three years.
A lifetime ago.
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    • Play Chess not Checkers:
      Good enough query, though it sort of seems dry, and I’m not feeling the tension. I think a couple more specifics would add color, and maybe help us to know the MC a little better; I can believe a 7-year-old would be a chess prodigy, but I’m having a hard time picturing a little girl navigating WWI politics to find out what happened to her missing father, much less her being responsible for feeding her family and getting them safe passage out of a war zone. So let me know her a bit better, so I can picture it.
      First page: First line. I’d add some commas here and clarify “to the left” because I thought maybe he left the room; I stumbled over this, and first lines are so important. “Ruchel’s opponent carefully pushed his knight forward, then to the left, using the two fingers remaining on his right hand.
      “…his store’s smashed-in window frame.” I’d hyphenate that.
      This is a good opening, and the tension is pretty good…though I think you’ll not have as many MG readers along for the ride here as you’d like—at least not unless they’re into chess. You might want to play up the danger right away, of what might happen if she loses.
      One-handed wonder
      I saw this last round  I like the changes you’ve made. Good world-building in the pages, good emotional impact.
      Fascinating entries. I will give VICTORY TO ONE-HANDED WONDER even though that name makes me giggle-snort-cringe for reasons of brain dirtiness.

    • Play Chess: Query: Well, my Jewish grandparents escaped Poland between the World Wars, and I am very keen on you bringing this kind of story to a whole new generation. I'd love to see more of Ruchel's voice come through in the query. Is 7 an appropriate age for an MG heroine? Seems way too young. Or have several years gone by and she's now older? Suggest checking age ranges for your genre. If she is 7, the way she expresses herself seems off as well. Too old.

      You've laid out the story and the stakes very clearly. I would love to see you strengthen the last line, with some more details that really punch it up.
      Your last line as it now reads: When civil war breaks out and both sides (WHO ARE BOTH SIDES? ALLIES AND AXIS? RUSSIANS AND POLES? GIVE US SPECIFICS HERE) start hunting Jews, Ruchel must beat a Polish chess champion (WITH AN UNBEATEN RECORD? WITH A WELL KNOWN HATRED FOR JEWS? WITH A REPUTATION FOR DIRTY TRICKS? I'M LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO MAKE IT MORE DRAMATIC, BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY SHE'S BEEN WINNING HER MATCHES, SO WHY WOULD THE READER THINK THERE WILL BE ANYTHING DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS ONE? IT DOESN'T HAVE ENOUGH TENSION) to win her family a chance at a new life in America. (What are the stakes if she fails? Are they under threat of losing their home, being sent to prison for being Jewish, what?)
      By the way, I'm curious about how she's keeping her family from starving. Is it just that she's bringing people into the cafe and they are spending money, or is she actually making money on the chess matches or betting? Adding this would also strengthen the query. Also, you don't say anywhere that she is a Jew. We have to infer it from the last paragraph. Can you make that clearer somewhere in the beginning?

      First 250: First sentence is missing some commas which make it unclear, as already pointed out. Third paragraph: After she realizes her mistake muttering the word PIG, I'd like to see a reaction from her. Does she bite her lip? Feel a pit of fear open in her belly? Chastise herself for being so reckless? With a bit more detail and voice and color, this will be a super strong first page. You're very close.

      One-Handed Wonder Query: Amazing first line. Really powerful and attention grabbing. Also a very clear query. My biggest criticism is lack of voice. You've got a teen boy, show us some of his soul and his personality. In the last paragraph, I'd either take out the em dash before about, or add another one after anything. The last phrase, suddenly nothing seems sure, is vague and lacking tension. What did the bully actually do? What will he lose? Hailey? The chance to compete? What? Give it to us as strong as that first line!

      First 250: I like this opening page, but again it feels like it's missing voice. When he mentioned Hailey's age, and that she could pass for 16, that would be a great place to show how he sees her. She was my age, fourteen, but with her curves and her fashion model short haircut, she could have easily passed for sixteen. And when I say curves, I don't mean curve balls, either.
      Something like that. Showing his more personalized reactions to people or places is one way to add more voice. All in all, this promises a powerful story and one that will attract a lot of boys, so kudos!

      Two terrific story ideas with a huge amount of heart. I'm impressed.
      Victory to ONE HANDED WONDER.

    • Yeesh, these are both excellent entries.


      Not to be overdramatic, he said, setting himself ON FIRE, but I think you should throw out this entire query and start anew. What you have gets the job done, and is effective, I suppose, in that limited sense, but it's not inspiring. Look around at the other entries that are advancing. You need zip. You need good turns of phrase. You need to construct the query so that we are intrigued. This feels very book report.

      Start anew and blow me away. That's my advice for the query. And it's clear you're a good enough writer to do it.

      Why is it clear? Because the 250 is AMAZING. I _love_ it. It has all the confidence and the voice that your query lacks. I'm so intrigued about Ruchel's story. It's strong writing, and if you can get this polish into your query, you'll be agented in no time.


      As others have said, this is a strong entry, and the query does not lead a lot of work at this point. Nor does the 250. The few things that snagged for me: I'd be careful with the word 'weed-choked' because my first thought was not of dandelions. My biggest issue was that I felt the "Three Years. / A Lifetime Ago." that ended the query just felt a little maudlin, and ending on that note undid a lot of the good work that you'd enginereed up to that point. I'd be careful with the batman speak; and I'd definitely avoid finishing on that note.

      Yikes, I have to choose between these?

      In my heart, I really want to choose CHECKERS– who is sort of the role-model, as far as I'm concerned, for this kind of contest. Amazing writing, query needs work. And if this were round one, I would.


      But, Checkers, you've really got something. Just get that query into shape!

    • PLAY CHESS NOT CHECKERS: Your first-line hook is fantastic. This is a book I would pick off the shelf based on that alone.

      The stakes of your story are laid out well in the query, as are the basics of the plot, but it all reads a little dry, the language at times choppy and unfocused. I just don't feel like you're quite getting to the heart of this story in your query.

      I'm also having trouble reconciling her age with the idea of her using her celebrity to find out what happened to her dad. Or does she only start the story at Age 7? (Small note: you need to hyphenate to 7-year-old Ruchel…)

      I'm also confused a bit by the last paragraph. Both sides are hunting Jews…but is Ruchel Jewish? That's not clear to me in the query. So how does this development directly affect her and her family?

      I love the voice in your 250, but you definitely need some commas!

      Also, the paragraph where she looks back at the board has some confusing statements. Why would there be second chances in chess if she was home? And she muses about her opponent's skill but we've gotten no sense of this prior to that point. Perhaps just a hint in an earlier paragraph would go a long way.


      Your query is, for the most part, solid and compelling. In the first paragraph you clearly lay out the characters and I get a good sense of the conflict.

      I do feel like your final paragraph lacks tension. Ending with a prank and nothing seeming sure seems anticlimactic after the earlier paragraphs. What does Kyle stand to lose if this doesn't work out? Really spell it out here.

      The first paragraph of your 250 is a killer, and there's great emotional impact throughout. I would just suggest losing the "wet noodle" simile, which is cliched, as well as the "a lifetime" ago line, which is also cliched as well as being a bit of an eye-roller. You're accomplishing what you need to. You don't need to rely on things like that.


      I'm struggling here. These are both amazing entries. But ultimately…


    • Play Chess Not Checkers


      I adore your premise and if I was a kid again, I’d be all over this book. My only suggestion for your query is to try to reword the second paragraph from Ruchel’s pov. How would a kid feel about her father being forced into the army? And how does she know business is terrible at the café? Telling us it’s terrible isn’t the same as saying something like: no customers won’t put bread on the table (less cliché, however). Show us how it’s terrible by sharing the impact on Ruchel.


      Have you considered aging your main character up from 7? She sounds older, and I wonder where the market is for an MG novel where the protag is so young, especially with a 66K word count. But I’ll admit I don’t write MG, so I could be totally wrong. Otherwise, I enjoyed your 250 and would keep reading.

      One-Handed Wonder

      Query: This is the opposite of Chess, in that, in this entry, the word count is shorter, yet the protag sounds more YA to me. But, I also know there’s a push for older MG and this may fit right into that market.

      I’m not sure you need the cousin in the query. He’s presented as conflict, but turns into support and encouragement. I’d love to see where the true conflict in your MS is. I assume the book takes place over a longer period of time than a baseball game, so the stakes of a bully making the game difficult for him fall a little flat form me. Does the bully play a larger role in the book?

      250: I don’t have any suggestions. This works very well.

      Hmm. Another tough choice. Michelle, Mike & Laura have made this SUPER difficult for us. But, I’ll have to trust my gut, and go for the entry I feel is most unique.

      VICTORY TO Play Chess Not Checkers

    • Play Chess Not Checkers

      Query: Very well-written and an intriguing premise. The fact that her father has been missing seems to just be thrown in there as an afterthought to Ruchal’s chess celebrity. I didn’t feel the impact of how that affects the family as much as I would have wanted. Maybe this is my own confusion, but is Ruchal Jewish? Maybe it’s what should be inferred from the query, but it wasn’t clear to me.

      Opening: Love it. The little descriptions thrown in are perfect. The voice is ON. I’d like to see more of that voice in the query! Ruchal is a sassy character and I like her already.

      One-Handed Wonder

      Query: There is A LOT going on in this query, and I’m left with more questions than I’m comfortable with. Why did the coach and teammates bail? The last sentence is super vague and feels incomplete. Nothing seems sure? Did things before? What happens if they don’t win? What will he lose? STAKES.

      Opening: I love this starting at paragraph 3, with the lovely descriptions. I had slight problems with the first two paragraphs. In the first, I think you could take out the “My only hand” sentence and just show it by the next sentence. In the second paragraph, it sounds a little stilted to talk about Hailey’s age like that. Informational, but not story-telling. I would read on here though.


    • Play Chess Not Checkers


      This is a really interesting concept, but the query for me falls a little short, starting with some grammar errors.

      World War I and seven-year-old Ruchel.

      The hook is great, it makes me intrigued, but then I’m not sure what the main plot is. Finding out about her father? Or getting their freedom? Who’s the Polish champion? How is she going to get her freedom through that? Are they going to leave her father behind if they do?

      It’s a very short query, and because of that, you’re missing details that can really amp up the appeal of your story.

      First 250:

      You do a great job introducing the story in a spot where somethings happening. We get to see Ruchel in her element. Watch out again for grammatical errors. There should only be one space at the end of a sentence, not two. I also like how we get to see her bitterness toward the opposing army that invade, and her numbness to the horrors of war.

      I would play around with some syntax for a few sentences though. The first sentence of the second paragraph (Once Ruchel would…) seems incomplete. She’d seen so many ruined men in the last couple of years that what? She’d built a tolerance to the horrors? Something to finish it up.

      Both the third and fourth paragraph start with ‘She looked’ and the last sentence also starts with ‘she’. Try working on varying your sentence structure to get rid of some of the repetition and passiveness.


      One-Handed Wonder

      Oh wow, great hook. Makes me feel for Kyle right off the bat.

      This is very modern day Bad News Bears! Love the concept and the potential for healing. A few things though.

      In the second paragraph, it states ‘those challenges mount’, which somehow implies that by finding out Hailey likes a rival baseball player, he struggles more with the one handed batting and pitching. Reword that a bit so we better understand this is a separate struggle that adds to mounting challenges.

      The last line also throws me. There’s been no mention of a bully before now. If he’s important, he should be mentioned earlier. What’s the prank? What happens to Kyle? The stakes are vague at best. Tell me what happened.

      Ex. When a bully pulls a nasty prank, Kyle nearly loses the one hand he has left, leaving him potentially out of the championship—and unable to fulfill the tribute to his brother.

      The more specific you are, the more an agent will see why your story is different.

      First 250:

      Another good place to start. Gets us right into the action and what’s going on. It’s well written, but my only thing about it, it feels almost technical. Your voice probably comes in as you settle into the novel, but I feel like it’s lacking in the first 250.

      Right now it’s just facts. From Hailey being fourteen to passing for sixteen, to each step of him pitching. It’s all action. I feel distanced from Kyle. Bring the reader in closer and add some voice to the first 250 and I think this is going to be a fantastic beginning.

      Play Chess Not Checkers: The query is lacking and needs more details. You’ve got words to spare, so fill it up with the details to make it shine. The first 250 has great voice, but some grammatical errors that could be cleaned up.

      One-Handed Warrior: The query grips me from the beginning. With a tighter fix on the stakes, I’d request off that alone. The first 250 could use some work in regards to voice and making everything feel a little less step by step. Bring the reader in closer to Kyle and it’s going to pop.


    • Play Chess Not checkers

      I was surprised to see the MC is only 7 – or maybe she’s 7 at the start of the war but older in the story? Seven seems a bit young for MG. For younger MG, the protagonist is usually at least 10 years old. I assume Ruchel’s a prodigy so might seem older, but – if she really is only 7 — unless there’s a strong reason to keep her at that age, perhaps bump her up a few years? I also found the line about her using her fame to find out about her father’s fate a little hard to accept – unless she uses her matches to collect gossip, bits of news. I can’t see an army official answering her questions. Perhaps inject a bit more specificity here?

      In the first 250, the description of her damaged opponent does a great job setting the stage. I admit, I did wonder if the descriptions might be off-putting for a younger MG audience. I suggest rewording ‘…pulled (the) his hand back’ to keep the focus specific. I’d also like something a bit more specific after ‘Besides the stakes were too high’ – how so? Is she playing for food money at this point or for her family’s safety or? Nice hook at the end with the hovering shadow — I’m curious about who is there and whether it’s someone wishing her good or ill.

      One-Handed Wonder

      The story elements are well presented – though the em-dash seems misplaced in the # paragraph of the query. Also, the ending line feels too vague. Since nothing was a sure thing – not the outcome of the championship nor winning Hailey’s heart, ‘nothing seems sure’ didn’t add anything for me. Perhaps inject something specific. What’s the most important thing Kyle’s at risk of losing?

      Strong opening for the first 250 – gives us both setting and important character information. Kyle’s description of Hailey in the 2nd paragraph feels abrupt – not the sort of thing he’d think about someone he’s known a long time. If this is a recent change in her appearance that he’s still coming to terms with, perhaps let us know. Lovely prose as Kyle thinks about the past.

      Winner: One-Handed Wonder

  1. Congratulations on making it to Round 2. Both well-deserved entries with great potential!

    Play Chess:

    You’ve managed a strong query in just a few short paragraphs. Nice job. I like the premise, and the idea of comparing the two types of competition (chess and war). Unique and interesting.

    In your first 250, the first line is a bit confusing. I read it twice before I realized “then left” was the next chess move. The rest of the paragraph presents a vivid image of her opponent, which starts the story out on an interesting note right away. Then you tell us how Ruchel feels about it, which is the perfect follow up to the image and our view into the character right away. You’ve got good tension going right away, and I want to read on to see who wins the game!

    Some picky grammatical things: “smashed-in” should be hyphenated, and it looks like you have 2 spaces after periods, instead of the standard 1.


    You set the internal and external conflict well and right up front in the query. Then the story gets even more complicated, upping the conflict and stakes. Nice. The end of the query leaves me a bit unsure if the bully is at the heart of this story, or if that’s just part of a subplot.

    First 250 has a killer first paragraph. It’s packed with setting, character detail and tension all in those short 3 sentences. Your page ends with more background about the character which makes us care about him right away. There might be a way to make us care even more if you have a brief reaction from him after he lets the pitch go. Did he think the pitch felt good, looked good enough…? Just an inner thought about how he thinks he’s doing.

  2. Play Chess
    The query is clear and concise, although I think there's a bit of a timeline issue that others have already addressed. The concept pulls me in, but I would love more of a sense of character in the query. I want to know what all these circumstances are really doing to Ruchel. I really like the 250. I remember reading this in the first round, and I think your revision is really smart and well done. There's a lot more conflict here, which is great!

    One-Handed Wonder
    The query builds a lot of tension, which is great. I felt a little let down by the last line, though. I didn't really get a good sense of the stakes at the end. It almost felt like there should have been another line, as if something was missing. The 250 is awesome (although I would also drop the 'lifetime ago'). Other than that, I'm hooked!

  3. Wow, these are two great stories!

    Play Chess: The query reads well, but it's missing some of the emotion I can only imagine Ruchel must be feeling during this time period. I’m also confused about how beating a Polish opponent wins her an opportunity in America. Maybe you can expand on that? I loved your opening (I found some of the missing emotion!) I noticed that it's not apparent from the first 250 how old Ruchel is or if she's even a child. The query said she’s seven, but she seems much more mature. That said, this sounds like a fabulous story that I wouldn't want to put down.

    One Hand Wonder: Well thought out query. There are a lot of plot points and characters, but I think you did a good job of keeping it succinct and clear. The only thing that confused me is that you first refer to the cousin as a troublemaker and then praise his support. It pulled me out of the query for a moment to think about when the transformation took place. Maybe it’s something that can be left out? I thought your first page was great. I love the interaction with Hailey. I especially love your first line.

    Both of you have such strong stories and writing. I can't wait to read these books when they are published! Good luck!

  4. As I'm doing these critiques, I realize how tough this must be for the judges! All of the entries are so strong that everything feels like nit-picking at this point.

    With Play Chess, I, too, am having a hard time with the protagonist's age. The voice doesn't sound like a seven-year-old's voice, and I'm not sure how plausible I find it that a seven-year-old would have to go this alone. (Not that it didn't happen… but with fiction, sometimes we have to make concessions.) I also agree with what others have said regarding needing more specific stakes in your query. Dorothy Gale had some great suggestion in that department. It's a strong entry with a great story to tell, and I think changing the age and homing in on the voice will really make that shine!

    With One-Handed Wonder, my only suggestion is for the query. How does his brother's death influence him, other than making him want to win the championship? I would personally like his brother to be more of a presence in the query. It's so important for there to be portrayals of loss in younger literature, and you have a great opportunity here. (As someone who struggled with loss at a young age, it would have been really great for me to see it done well in the books I read.)

    Well done to both of you! 🙂 They're really great entries.

  5. Play Chess Not Checkers: I think you've really tightened your query up but now it seems too brief, almost like it's just stating the facts of the story without relaying any of the underlying emotion. It's such a wonderfully emotional premise, so I think if you are able to infuse any of that into your query it will be truly stellar. I already loved your first 250 words and you've gone and made them even better, so wonderful job! I will read the crap out of this book when it's out. 🙂

    One-Handed Wonder: I love your premise! It seems like a very emotional and exciting story. I think your query does a great job expressing all of that, but then it falls a bit flat at the end; that last sentence feels a little too vague and lacks punch. Other than that, really nice. Great first 250, and I think it ends in a really great place that makes me want to keep reading.

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