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Title: Stars and Reeds
Entry Nickname: There is Stardust in My Eyes
Word count: 81K
Genre: YA Fantasy

Since being sentenced to life imprisonment at a desert work settlement, seventeen-year-old Jameelah has little faith in justice. After all, she had no part in her alleged crime of killing a Star Gazer merchant. But the only way she can clear her name is to perform the spell of mercy using magic granted by the Star Gazers’ capricious gods—who don’t care about a Marsh Dweller like Jameelah, or her little brother growing up without her. So when she learns that her brother is dying of fever, she braves a dangerous escape, desperate to save him. 
Now a fugitive, Jameelah flees to a Star Gazer city for medicinal herbs, but discovers instead that her childhood enemy Rashida is a trained star magician—and the merchant’s real killer. She tracks down Rashida and threatens to expose her crime to the judges unless Rashida helps her master the spell to clear her name … and, one to heal her brother.
Together, the girls trek across the desert in search of a fallen star to invoke the magic. But Rashida, ever the schemer, has her own vision of justice, a plan that would prevent Jameelah from returning home. If Jameelah is to reclaim freedom and save her brother, she’ll have to weave a little magic of her own, including transforming her fury and Rashida’s deceit into an alliance even the gods cannot ignore.
First 250:
Through the narrow door of the weaving shed, I watch the setting sun kiss the work camp wall. Its fierce light stains the rough-hewn rocks with brilliant copper and brass tones. If I were at home, I’d call to my brother across the reeds, luring him back with the promise of fish stew for supper. But I’m trapped in this camp, and a different voice calls instead.
“Move out!” A guard barks. “Prisoners to the sleeping huts.”
My overseer shoves me from my loom and into the crowd of prisoners gathering outside. They stagger from their own work sheds, mud-brick structures squished together like segments of a wasp’s nest along sandy paths that twist toward to the looming wall. With shouts and snarls, guards herd us toward the sleeping huts, marching us past the temple at the camp’s center—four tiers of pure white stone, so tall they prod the sky. Only the priest is permitted within there, gibbering to his star gods on behalf of our lost souls.
Many of the prisoners gaze to that temple as we pass, dipping low and muttering their own pleas and prayers. I, however, stare in the opposite direction, toward the eastern wall where the full moon will soon rise. Tonight, I must sneak there. I must get to my visiting nook. The past three full moons, I’ve failed to reach it. That cannot happen again.
“Move, Marsh Girl!” A guard slams his staff across my back. “Murderer,” he snarls.
Title: The Mortal Coil
Entry Nickname: Hero by Default
Word count: 80K
Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy
When Covington Academy’s basketball team is found comatose during practice, seventeen-year-old Aiden Milligan goes from top of the class to top of the suspect list. With a brilliant mind, extensive disciplinary record, and grudge against the team, he’s marked as both the likely perpetrator and an ideal recruit for The Orphion Circle, the rumored anarchist group the police are investigating. Guilty until proven innocent in the principal’s eyes, Aiden knows he’s one misstep from expulsion and being thrown back into foster care — or worse, a prison cell. Losing his academic future, the one thing that separates him from every other parentless screw-up, is not an option.
Teamwork is torture for Aiden, but classmate Jessie Rivas is his only help in clearing his name. A crackpot conspiracist breaking into the world of journalism, Jessie drags Aiden into a mystifying investigation of mounting coma incidents around the city. When bloody symbols appear at the scene of the attacks, Aiden begins to believe Jessie’s theories about the mysterious Orphion Circle are true — they’re not an anarchist group but a coven of dangerous witches.
Stopping The Circle and clearing his name become one and the same for Aiden. Every move he makes jeopardizes his innocence, and with a detective all too eager to lock Aiden up, salvaging his reputation and his academic future may be impossible. But if he can’t discover the truth behind the mounting coma victims before The Circle silences him, he won’t have a future at all.
First 250:
Aiden Milligan was in the principal’s office. Again. And, for once, he wasn’t sure why.
He hadn’t skipped any classes. This week, anyway. And Ms. Maynard seemed more resigned than mad when he corrected the electron assignment in her molecular formula during Chemistry yesterday.
He sighed and stared down at the infamous Covington hot seat. He’d half-expected his name inscribed on it by now. He craned his neck to glimpse the back of the stiff wooden chair. Nope, no plaque. Shame, really.
“Mr. Milligan.”
Aiden straightened up as Principal Hadley entered the room and sat behind his impenetrable oak desk.
“Sir,” he muttered.
After two years at Covington, Aiden and Principal Hadley had become very familiar with each other  — in the way a lion becomes familiar with a straggling wildebeest. Aiden was a problem that didn’t want to be solved, and Hadley took that as a challenge. The man was determined to churn out the future world changers for which Covington Academy was renowned, like it or not.
Aiden begrudgingly admired that resolve. Or would, if it weren’t laser-focused on him.
Hadley ran a hand through thinning, dirty-blonde hair. “Thank you for coming, Aiden.”
Aiden raised an eyebrow. Like he had a choice?
Give me my slap on the wrist and hollow lecture and set me loose, ’cause you can’t risk losing your highest GPA student. Rinse and repeat.
“To business.” Hadley folded his hands on his desk. “This morning, there was an incident.”
Incident? Oh, damn, not good…
Posted in Blog and tagged .


    • Stars and Reeds:

      Some very nice world building. I’m a little unclear on how magic works in this world. How does the mercy spell work? How can Rashida help her master a spell if Jameelah doesn’t have magic. I’d try to make sure all these details are clear.

      250: I like the contrast been the beautiful sun kissed colors and the prison. You paint a very vivid picture. I like the details about the temple and star gods as well.

      Hero by Default:

      Query: Great voice and set up. I get a real sense of character, conflict, and stakes.

      250: Also terrific voice and I like the little details that give us insight into Aiden, like the fact he corrected a teacher, and the back and forth he usually has with the principal.


    • There Is Stardust In My Eyes

      Query: I really like the premise here of having to team up with her enemy. I think that’ll lead to some interesting dialogue. I’m wondering if it might be better to move the Mercy spell into the second paragraph and focus on her need to escape and her brother in the first. I’d love to hear a little bit more on how the magic in this world works—why she needs to learn it, how the spell will actually work to clear her name—to really understand what’s going on.

      250: Really great writing here, I definitely get a very good image and feel like I’m there. Only at the very end, “tonight, I must…”, seems a bit disjointed and choppy in contrast with the rest of your writing. I’m also not sure what a “visiting nook” is. We see a sense of urgency in her needing to reach it, but as-is I’m missing the why which I think would make this opening more powerful.

      Hero By Default

      Query: Love the premise of this, and you did a really great job with this query. Some suggestions: Consider moving the introduction of the Orphion Circle from the first paragraph. It makes that sentence quite wordy and I had a bit of trouble finding the connection to it. I’m also not sure why this could end up with him back in foster care? I think you might be hinting that he lives at the Academy? Good job on the stakes here!

      250: Loves the voice and the character. You’ve managed to make me like him in a few short paragraphs. I love that he’s both a trouble maker and incredibly smart. It’s a pairing you don’t usually see together. My only suggestion might be to cut or trim “Hadley ran…” through “Rinse and repeat.” By that point it feels as though it’s getting a little repetitive and I’m eager for the story to keep going.

      Another really tough match-up but for me VICTORY GOES TO HERO BY DEFAULT!

    • From Catattack:

      Query: The setting, situation and world-building are intriguing with an unjustly accused prisoner who must use her smarts rather than connections to gain her freedom. Suggest cutting ‘But’ from the start of the 3rd sentence and ‘So’ from the start of the 4th sentence. In the 2nd paragraph, perhaps: ’…herbs, (but) and discovers (instead)…’ Strong final paragraph does a good job laying out the stakes.

      250: Great opening with lovely prose and word choices – does a great job setting the scene. Perhaps ‘An (my) overseer shoves me…’ Also, you might want to reword line in the 3rd paragraph – it starts with her being shoved from her loom and the 2nd sentence ends with a path heading to ‘the looming wall.’ You do a great job of letting us see this world through Jameelah’s eyes — the description of the temple and her description of the ‘gibbering’ priest are wonderful details that bring it into focus.

      Query – Great opening with punch prose does an effective job setting out the stakes. Perhaps rephrase: ‘Jessie Rivas is his only help in clearing his name’? Not sure ‘jeopardizes his innocence’ works – unless the moves he’s making are in face illegal. Suggest cutting both ‘But’ and ‘behind the mounting coma victims’ from the last sentence.

      250: Love the opening line – full of voice. I thought there might be a missing word here: ‘He’d half-expected his name inscribed…’ Suggest trimming ‘…straightened (up).’ Thoroughly enjoyed Aiden’s internal dialogue. Loved the comparison to the lion and the straggling wildebeest and how Aiden’s a ‘problem that didn’t want to be solved.’

      This is super-tough; I wish I could vote for both!



      Query: You’ve incorporated the world-building very nicely. There are clear stakes and conflict, and it even tugs at my heartstrings a bit. Excellent job!

      250: The world-building carries through, and it’s just lovely. You’ve painted a vivid picture even with such a small slice.


      Query: I love that Aiden is both brilliant and a troublemaker. I’m curious why he has a grudge against the basketball team and how Jessie successfully drags him into the investigation (Are they friends? Is there a reason he agrees work with her before she convinces him?). But otherwise a great query!

      250: This is hilarious, and I’m chuckling aloud even re-reading.

      This one is so close, and you should both be proud! But I’m going to say:



      The Query:

      The query starts off well. I’m pretty hooked on the protagonist being falsely accused and being at odds with the justice system. It sets up a nice clear conflict with obvious stakes right away. However, then another conflict presents itself and it seems like a big one but throws me off a bit.

      If her brother has no one else, perhaps you should tie that into the reason her initial imprisonment is a terrible problem. You could point out that her being on a desert work settlement is already keeping her away from her family, and that the matter is made only worse because he is now sick. It seems like saving her brother may take precedence over clearing her name, but if both are equally important to Jameelah, maybe tie them together more.

      I really like her having to work with and blackmail the antagonist. There’s a lot to play with there. I’m a bit confused on the last sentence, since I don’t really get how the magic works. How does fury and deceit form an alliance? Also, are the Gods actual characters in your story, or is this more metaphorical? I’m not sure you need to clarify, but I am curious and I want to understand the stakes of the last sentence better.

      Good job. Two characters forced to work together for opposite goals is always fun and I’d definitely keep reading to find out what happens to them both.

      The first 250:

      I really like this. The place feels both beautiful and ugly, so if that’s what you are going for it works really well. And you are giving Jameelah agency right away, which is great! If I had to give any recommendation, I’d say maybe sell that she misses her brother more. In both the query and the first 250, I’d like to know a bit more about their relationship. I want more of a sense of his importance to her motivation.



      Wow, great query. The character of Aiden is set up so well. And the line “from top of his class to top of the suspect list” could be put on a poster. Really nice work. Also “Teamwork is torture for Aiden” is fun alliteration. Like STARDUST, you have a partnership already at odds and I love it. I don’t really have much I would change. It’s a bit unclear WHY he would be prime suspect, so unless this is the heart of the mystery, maybe give at least a stronger hint as to why he’s be a target.

      Also, maybe change the very last bit to “he won’t have ANY future.” To tie it to “academic future”, more strongly and really sell that his very existence is on the line.

      First 250:

      This is just as strong as the query in terms of character. I already love Aiden’s attitude. My main criticism is you tell us how often he’s been in the principal’s office many, many times and the most effective for me is the idea that his name would be on plaque on the “hot seat”. I like the opening line, but you can maybe skip the 7th paragraph. The exposition of their relationship is a bit redundant since prior to this it’s shown pretty clearly and isn’t necessary. Maybe find some other way to express that Aiden admires the principals resolve, as this part is the only new thing we learn from that paragraph.

      You both are killing me with this one. Truly. I’m forced to vote a bit selfishly on this and go with the book I’d be more likely to read.


      -Outer Space Potato Man

      Query: This query hooked me from the start–and I’m not usually a fantasy reader! Some observations: second paragraph, last line of the query after the ellipsis: the wording doesn’t quite work. I’d remove the ellipsis and the word “one”. Otherwise, from the point of view of a non-fantasy reader, I think it works well. There are clear stakes/goals, continuous movement of the story, etc. Nicely done.

      First 250: Great tension built here, with a tiny sprinkle of a backstory hint with the brother–you don't want to over do that because then you risk an info dump. What you've done in the first 250 is great. Again, I was drawn into the story and I don’t normally read this genre! I’m definitely interested in more!

      Query: Oh wow! Another fantasy entry that has me saying, “I’d read that!” and I’m not usually one to pick up fantasy! Great query–stakes are clearly defined, character information is intriguing and the set up has my interest piqued to want to read more. I honestly don’t have any suggestions for your query!

      First 250: First 250: GREAT voice! I’m a sucker for good voice and good dialogue in a novel. The dread Aiden feels about being back in the office, AGAIN, is great. Like your query, I honestly don’t have any feedback for you. My only issue is that there isn’t more to read! Well done.

      This was a hard choice, too! Both had great hooks and drew me right in. But I have to pick one.




      I like how this establishes your MC's personality and history right away, and how it gives us a fair hint of the kind of world we're in. The query is definitely intriguing and shows plot and stakes clearly. My only nitpick would be to maybe establish what differentiates Marsh Dwellers from Star Gazers.

      First 250:

      Lovely imagery and great voice. I also like how you incorporate backstory seamlessly, and how you establish a sense of urgency and of your MC's personality. The only thing that confused me was the mention of a "visiting nook." From the query, I'm expecting her to try to escape and I'm not seeing the connection between her road to freedom and this visiting nook. Of course–for all I know, this is in the next 50 words, so this may be a minor, minor quibble after all.



      I think this is very strong and effective. Tons of voice and personality, and a very clear sense of story structure. I feel like I know Aiden and even Jessie just from the query, and it's not often I get to say that! I don't think I have any useful feedback for you. I wouldn't change a thing. Well, maybe say "juvie" instead of "a prison cell," but that's because I'm desperately looking for something to say here! 🙂

      First 250:

      Fun and fast-paced. Great sense of who the MC is. The only tiny thing that gave me pause was the lion-straggling wildebeest comparison: it made me smile, because it's fresh and funny, but it did make me wonder who's the lion and who's the wildebeest in this scenario… (or would it depend on whether you ask the principal, or Aiden?)

      Another INCREDIBLY tough choice. This picking-ONLY-ONE thing is rattling my nerves!


      Query: Great query! I like the hint of world building you have set up and the fact your MC must work with her enemy to clear her name. I would cut the ellipses in the second paragraph, it muddles the point you're trying to get across. Is there any way to explain (lightly) how Jameelah knows magic and how magic system works? This is something I would love to read!

      First 250: Great imagery and set up! The voice is spot on with rich description. Fantastic job!

      Query: The voice is fantastic and I get the sense of tone as well. And you have clearly laid out Aiden's motivation, conflict and stakes.

      First 250: Aiden's voice really pops off the page! Way to set-up the story and drop the reader right into his life! You weave background info in well, without bogging down the story!

      This matchup is torture for a judge. Both are very strong and I enjoyed both very much!

      Victory to: HERO BY DEFAULT

  1. (Another Kombatant here.)
    STARDUST IN MY EYES: The only thing that tripped me up in the query was exactly how the spells work. Not that it's essential to know everything, but I was thrown off by the name of the first spell and then she wants another one to heal her brother? I would either make the spells generic (She needs a spell to get her out of the settlement), or very specific. (The Mercy spells does this…) I'm intrigued by this and would read it based on the query though.
    I loved the language of your 250. I particularly loved the "gibbering to his star gods on behalf of our lost souls" line. Great voice. You can tell she's "over" the false imprisonment, but at the same time, she can still see the beauty in things. That's nice.

    Um, wow. Your query is great. I was totally hooked by the premise, the character and the stakes of your story. As far as your 250 go, it's got amazing voice. I dig this guy so much already. And bonus points for making the guy with the highest GPA, the "bad boy" who's always in the principal's office. Love that idea a lot because it's unexpected. Well done.

    Best of luck to you both!

  2. Stars and Reeds:
    Query: I think it’s good! A lot of interesting bits all integrated together well; nice and clear for the most part. I do wonder if her brother is with their parents or alone or whatever.

    250: I think this is well written, descriptive, and interesting.

    The Mortal Coil:
    Query: I think you’ve done a great job making this clear and easy to understand. Good stakes too!

    250: You’ve done a great job giving us an idea of who Aiden is. Because he’s such a character, I do kind of wonder what this would be like in first person? Especially with the italicized thoughts you have.

  3. STARDUST: Well done! There are lots of things in the query that make me want to read, especially a story of enemies who have to team up, and the hint that it doesn't go well. My biggest questions are about the magic/spells, but I'm okay with learning that as I read.

    For the 250, I like the pages. I just feel like I've read this opening before: our protagonist inspecting his or her prison on the day they must escape. The language is beautiful, but I don't think the prison is the most unique part about your opening scene. Good luck!

    HERO: So intrigued! Two things were confusing to me in the query. First, that he's an ideal recruit for the Orphian Circle–says who? Does this mean they've tried to recruit him before? Does he already know about them? Also, this sentence tripped me up: " A crackpot conspiracist breaking into the world of journalism…"

    250: Great voice! Like HERO, the principal's office seems like a starting place I've seen before, but the voice makes this opening unique. Good luck!

  4. Stardust
    Query is great! The stakes are set and very solid. The only thing I might change is the ellipsis in paragraph two. The "and" is pause enough. (Nit-picky I know but you did such a great job I don't have anything else! )

    250: Such wonderful descriptions!! I like Jameelah, she comes across as tough and determined. My kind of girl character! I would read this book today if I had it.

    The query is tight! But I am wondering about the "grudge" he has. If it is important enough to put in the query, it should be described a little morr, otherwise take it out.

    250: I laughed at the first line. I am a teacher and every Aiden I've ever had would have spent lots of time in the principal's office, too. 🙂
    This has a great voice! I like Aiden already. You did a wonderful job of bringing these characters to life with so few words.

    Sooo glad I'm not a judge! Great job to both of you. Good Luck!

  5. Fellow Kombatant here. Good luck to you both! Here are my thoughts. 🙂

    There's Stardust in My Eyes


    Holy moly there's a lot going on in your query! That's the hard part with fantasy (I'm dealing with the same thing) — using terms that your reader can't possibly know yet, but hoping to divulge enough info that it makes sense. In this instance, I'm a little weighed down by all the information, yet I'm feeling like I'm missing some key element about the magic. Aside from that, characters working together while trying to accomplish different things is great. Kudos!

    First 250:

    Overall, just lovely descriptions.

    Just a thought — you can probably cut "he snarls" from " 'Move, Marsh Girl!' A guard slams his staff across my back. 'Murderer.' " We already have the action beat, and judging by the slamming, he's probably not talking to her in a soft manner. That's nitpicking, I know, but if you're looking to trim words in your MS, it's a good way to go.

    Hero by Default


    Whoa, the entire team!? Crazy! I'm intrigued. I honestly don't have a lot to say about this query because I really enjoyed it. Fantastic voice and stakes, really easy to follow. Props!

    First 250:

    Seriously, you guys are killin' it. The voice just leaps off the page, and I'm hooked by line one. I'm not really sure I believe him looking for a plaque, but honestly, that's personal preference. Your voice, your world. Also, it took me a minute to catch on that Covington was the school (from the Covington hotseat bit). You could probably nix that and not lose any of the voice you've established and get to the meeting with the principal faster. But seriously, just lovely work.

    Congrats to both of you! These are stellar. This is one of those entries where I'm so happy I'm not a judge.

  6. There's Stardust in My Eyes

    Query: Very well–written, stake are clear, and I love the dynamic of the main character having to work with her old nemesis. I did feel a little lost, only because I don't know how the magic works in this world, so I didn't quite understand what the mc needs to accomplish. But it sounds intriguing!

    250: Again, only nit-picking because you're clearly a great writer. Love the detail about the younger brother and the fish soup. In the last paragraph, I'm curious why she wants to get to that certain spot– I wonder if you couldn't give us just a hint more as to why, so it doens't seem purposefully vague? As this is just the first 250, maybe you don't make us wait that long. Who knows! But I might feel a little more intrigued to keep reading if you ground me with one more detail about why she "must" get there. Great job and good luck!

    Hero By Default

    Query: This query was tight. Either you're a query master, or you've polished it till it shines, and it shows. Intriguing concept. One small thing– when reading I wondered why getting expelled would automatically land him back into foster care? Has he been adopted? If he has, would they really un-adopt him over expulsion? If he's with a set of foster parents, isn't he technically already in foster care? Maybe just clarify that he'd be back in the system/dumped yet again by foster parents? Again– nitpicking here, as we get the gist either way.

    First 250: Love the voice, really well-written. I'd keep reading to follow this character. I wonder if you need the thoughts in italics since you're in close third and you're already giving us his thoughts and feelings through the narration? The italics drew me out a little. I enjoy his thoughts about the principal and the office, but you could condense just a bit if you wanted to get to why he's in trouble a little quicker. For example, you could take out the line where he raises an eyebrow and thinks As if he had a choice. The next thoughts are funnier and get the same message across. Love "Rinse and repeat."

    Good luck to you both!

  7. Stardust:
    Great query, I can't wait to see how the two enemies work together. I love the idea of Rashida's treachery being the catalyst for Jameela's growth as a magician. Like everyone else here, I have to nit-pick to critique, but reading your query I see a bit of what people mean about mine, and probably many other fantasies set in very different worlds to our own. So hard to find a balance between too much world-building and not enough info to make any sense. But I was very intrigued and would read this! The only other nit-picks I can find are that I wasn't sure why the spell was the only way to clear her name if she really was innocent, and then in the 250, I thought the sun kissing and then having fierce light were opposite effects. Great job and good luck!


    Your query was amazing, it flowed right through and left me wanting to start right away into the book. The most intriguing part of the 250 for me was Aiden's respect for the principal. He's not bitter or plotting vengeance, which says a lot about his character and maturity level. I hope this relationship continues throughout the story. Would put this one on my to-read as well! Great work, good luck!

    QUERY: I like the query. It gave a good sense of the world you’re building and the stakes. I liked the set-up of the enemies teaming up, but can’t trust each other.
    FIRST 250: I like the descriptions and the juxtaposition of her calling to her brother against the harsh order of the prison guard. That said, the dialogue, even for prison guards, felt a little stilted to me. Specifically, “the sleeping huts” reads weird as opposed to “your huts” which gives the same idea. The second line, “Move Marsh Girl!” would be fine or “Move, murderer!” but to follow one with the other struck me as overly expository.

    QUERY: Over all, I liked the set-up and the stakes. One nitpick, capitalizing “The” in “The Circle” read odd to me.
    FIRST 250: I liked the first paragraph. Really sets the character up well. One phrase that stood out to me as maybe too much was “impenetrable oak desk.” Oak desk probably does the trick.

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