TitleDead Parents Camp
Entry Nickname: The Half-Orphan’s Handbook
Word count: 62K
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

After her father’s suicide, Lila Cunningham writes a two-rule handbook to protect herself from experiencing any more pain. One: Love no one. Two: Avoid liars like her dad. Lila’s solution: barricade herself from all relationships – romantic, friendly, or otherwise. Easy enough, until her mother forgets Lila’s sixteenth birthday and over-compensates for it in a major way. Lila’s unwanted gift is a summer away at Camp Bonaventure, a grief camp founded after 9/11. A place where self-isolation equals impossible.
The last thing Lila wants to do is bunk with a handful of other half-orphans tucked far from cell phone service in the woods of Maine. Then, a friendly hazing incident leaves Lila clad in a soaking wet camp-legacy leotard just in time for a meeting with the gorgeous “other new kid” at camp – Noah Kitteridge. To her surprise, someplace between swimming and s’mores, Lila discovers Noah understands her pain. She risks her handbook’s number-one rule and opens up to Noah, sharing intimate details of her father’s lifetime of family deceit. For the first time since death darkened her world, Lila feels lighter – especially once she ditches her weighty handbook and lets herself fall for Noah.
But then Noah vanishes from camp without word, ripping Lila from the tenuous emotional balance she’s struck. Frantic, Lila searches for him – and what she finds crumbles the remnants of the protective wall she’s built. Noah’s not at camp for the same reason Lila is. He’s not even half-orphaned. He’s a liar. Now, Lila must decide between the lesser of two evils: forgive Noah’s deception and risk vulnerability for a chance to experience happiness, or return to the rules and close herself off from everyone again.
First 250:
My mother would have spent less money on my sixteenth birthday present if she had remembered the occasion in the first place. It wasn’t her fault, though. My birthday came and went on June 1st, when the air was hot and green-smelling, the sun was strong, and my father had been dead exactly one month.
Since Dad chose to check out of Hotel Life on a permanent basis, Mom had been preoccupied with the whole widowhood thing. So she flipped over her calendar page one day late. And cried.
Because she missed my birthday, that “mom guilt” she always wrote about for online magazines compelled her to call my school counselor Dr. Barbash (whom my entire family referred to as Call-Me-Connie). That was how I came home from school on June 2nd, dumped my bag on the counter, and discovered Call-Me-Connie blabbed to my mother about Camp Bonaventure.
And — with a pause for emphasis — my mother was going to spring for it as a belated birthday present.
“I’m not going,” I said, opening the kitchen cabinet.
The hope on her face fizzled. “Call-Me-Connie says it’s amazing, Lila.”
My familiar friend, Panic, stomped into my chest, settling her curvaceous hips into my sternum. “She also says Madonna is talentless. Plus, Call-Me-Connie is a close talker.” My mother would consider the Madonna statement blasphemy, and close talkers skeeve her out.
“Call-Me-Connie’s lack of musical taste — and social violation of personal space — hardly affect her ability to judge what might help you.”
“This won’t.”  
Title: Paper Seeds
Entry Nickname: Book Boys
Gone Wild!
Word count: 109k
Genre: YA Contemporary
When seventeen-year-old
Harlow Jackson gets dumped at her grandma Minny’s wake, she’s devastated,
pissed as hell, and without an escort for the debutante season starting the
very next day. But then Harlow finds something Minny left her: paper seeds.
Minny always told her that if you place a magical paper seed in a book, and
plant it in the ground, you can grow anything you desire from its pages.
In a fit of desperation,
revenge, and, okay fine, a little too much funeral punch, Harlow grows teenage
versions of Mr. Knightley, Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray, and Dracula (Drake),
to be her and her friends’ debutante escorts. Because everyone knows there’s
only one thing better than a handsome, well-groomed, drawling Southern beau…
an English gentleman. Harlow is tired of feeling second rate in her small,
Southern town, and vows to use the boys to beat her ex, and the mean-girl
debutantes, at their own game. Frankly, she’d love to burn their perfect curls
off their pretty little heads, but that would just be gravy. Instead, she’ll
settle for winning the debutante crown and the accompanying cash scholarship
prize, which she badly needs.
Harlow passes the boys off
as four rather eccentric foreign exchange students, and everything goes
according to plan until the book-boys discover their own origins and run amok.
At the same time, the town witch, Madame LeRoux, comes after Harlow for the
paper seeds, claiming that planting them will have dark consequences for Harlow
and the people she loves. Harlow must uncover the origin and twisted history of
the paper seeds to discover a way to undo what she’s grown. But as generations
of town secrets and lies begin to unravel, Harlow discovers someone she loves
has been hiding the biggest, ugliest secret of them all.
First 250:
If I hadn’t been standing in
the middle of my grandmother Minny’s wake, I would have whacked that boy in the
man parts so hard, people would be looking at pictures of his children in years
to come and say—see the funny ear that kid has? Harlow Jackson did that.
But Jonathan took my hand
and squeezed it, like he was bestowing some sort of warm comfort on me. He wore
the gray shirt I’d saved up a week’s wages for, the one that was the exact
color of his eyes.
Now, I wanted to rip it off
And not in a good way.
I took a deep breath and
tried to be civil. “Your parents will get used to the idea of us. I have a way
of winning people over, you know.” I smiled my most becoming smile and flashed
my dimple. Jonathan loved my dimple. Everyone loved my dimple.
He closed his eyes. “It’s
not that, Harlow.”
“Then what is it?” I said,
too loud.
Madison Pace cocked her ear
in our direction as she scooped bean dip onto her plate at the food table.
Nosey was not an adjective in this town, it was a given.
I tugged Jonathan’s hand,
and he followed me out onto the front porch. The sky was gray, just waiting to
burst open, the air heavy and thick. October in Georgia was not a cool, crisp
autumn. It was more like standing over a pot of boiling pasta. Or maybe it was
more like being the pasta.

Posted in Blog and tagged .


    • These are both really strong entries, and I hardly have any constructive FB for either!

      Half Orphan's Handbook:

      -LOVE the concept; quite unique! Love the voice. Your do a great job in the query of laying out the plot while still exhibiting voice. Hard to do!
      -First 250 are great and leave me dying to read more. Truly no constructive FB.

      Book Boys Gone Wild:

      -Love the magical seeds concept and can't wait to see it unfold.
      -Your query is clear and intriguing. I might suggest letting readers know how the uncovering of the secret might affect Harlow–just to exhibit the stakes a bit more. But this is just a suggestion. Your query is great as-is.
      -First 250: I really love your intro. I would only suggest emphasizing the pain of the wake a bit more in order to not let that fade into the tension between Harlow and Jonathan.

      Tough choice! But the victory goes to Half Orphan's Handbook.

    • The Half-Orphan's Handbook:
      Query: The pitch ultimately had me interested, but it would pack a lot more punch with a little judicious streamlining. For example, in the first paragraph, the info about the camp being a late birthday present distracted me from the primary setup and could easily be left out. Similarly, I'm not sure you need to include a lot of detail about how she meets Noah. (Also, is her rulebook really "weighty" with only two rules? That tripped me up momentarily.) The final paragraph is where all the juicy meat of this pitch is for me, so I would focus on having the first two paragraphs move more quickly toward the conflict and complications.
      1st 250: "My birthday came and went on June 1st…" is a killer sentence! You might even start with that as your first sentence. Your narrator has a clear first-person voice in this section with lots of fun teen snark—though I'd be wary of too much snark, which might distract from the story action. From time to time I found myself thinking about the jokes instead of the character or the story. A little more focus on Lila and her emotional inner life would strengthen the first page; I felt like I came out of it knowing her mother a bit more than Lila herself. The writing was strong and witty, though, and promises an interesting story to follow.

      Book Boys Gone Wild!:
      Query: What an awesome premise! I was immediately drawn in by the idea of the paper seeds, and you do a nice job of making it clear that the genre is Southern Gothic with plenty of humor. The plot is daring and attention-grabbing with a good sense of rising action, and you infused the query with a strong sense of voice. Bravo!
      1st 250: I cracked up at the first paragraph, I have to admit. I wasn't entirely clear (from this section, anyway) on why Harlow was so mad at Jonathan in that moment—I'm guessing we're mid-dump, but if he's still holding her hand, maybe it's pre-dump? As long as it's made clear pretty quickly, I think this is fine, though. Again, the voice really shines, and I can vividly hear the narrator in my head as well as picture her Southern surroundings.

      Victory to Book Boys Gone Wild!

    • The Half-Orphan’s Handbook—

      Query: I really enjoyed this—it’s beautifully written and sets the story up in a compelling way. My only tiny note is when you say she ditches her weighty handbook, my first thought was that the handbook is only two rules—how can it be weighty? I understand it’s metaphorical, but the conflicting image of a weighty handbook full of only two rules pulled me out of the query a bit.

      First 250: I love the opening paragraph—the atmosphere, set in contrast with the fact that her father is dead. Masterful. And the voice throughout the rest of the 250 is excellent. One teeny, tiny note–In the last line of the third paragraph, I’d insert the word “that” right before “Call-me-Connie” and “had” right after to clarify that Call-me-Connie isn’t actually standing in the room with them. On first reading, it sounded like Lila had walked into the room and discovered Call-me-connie there. Also, the imagery of Panic stomping into her chest seems a bit off. Maybe try “swooped” instead?
      Overall great job on this!

      Book Boys Gone Wild—

      Query: You had me at Mr. Knightley!! What a clever hook—I want to crawl into this story and get me some paper seeds of my own! I love everything about this query, and the premise of these fictional hotties running amok. So much fun!
      I am wondering why she needs the scholarship cash so badly. You kind of throw that out there and then don’t go back to it. If it’s not a big part of what motivates her, don’t include it in the query. If it is, try expanding it just a touch so we get a sense of why she needs the cash so badly. I think your stakes are high enough without the cash, so you could get away with cutting it from the query. Just end that line with “She’ll settle for winning the debutante crown.”

      First 250: I love this so much! The voice, the atmosphere, the humor. It’s great.

      Why, oh why are these two up against each other??? I want to read them both, right now! Two of my favorites, by far. But, since I have to pick …

      Victory to Book Boys Gone Wild!

    • The Half-Orphan's Handbook

      Query: I want to know more about why Noah’s there and why he lied. Does he continue to be a love interest? Does he have his own issues to deal with? That section in the query feels too vague; however, the stakes are good and the plot compelling.

      First 250: You do a great job providing info quick and clean at the start. Great voice! Something that jumped out at me: Call-Me-Connie is used 5 times in the first 250.

      Book Boys Gone Wild!

      Query: Great query and I love the way the voice is infused. "Okay fine, a little too much funeral punch” made me laugh. The plot has the making for fun tension-filled chaos and I’m intrigued. I do wish that the ending had more—who does she love? What kind of secrets?

      First 250:

      The voice is good and I get the impression he’s about to break up with her. Would like to know a little more but it’s enough to make me want to keep going

      Both queries are strong and the voices are fabulous—this is so hard!! I’m going to play the subjectivity card and go with the one that I’d be more inclined to pick up at the store.

      Victory: Book Boys Gone Wild

    • Half-Orphan’s Handbook
      Your query does a good job of presenting the stakes and plot. But I wish I could see a little more of Lila’s humor that you show so well in the first 250 words. Lila has such a distinctive voice. I would love to see more of it in the query itself. As for your first 250 words, I wish I could see a little more of Lila’s feelings concerning her father’s death. It’s only been a month, and she barely even seems fazed by it.

      Book Boys Gone Wild!
      I really adore the voice in your query and first 250 words. You maintain the same voice throughout the two texts, which is difficult to do and an accomplishment in itself. I think the idea of magical seeds and book boyfriends is such a great, refreshing concept, and I love the southern charm you’ve got going in your first 250 words! One thing that strikes me as unusual in your first 250 words is that there is only one mention of her grandmother’s wake, and besides that, she doesn’t seem to care that much that her grandmother just died. But I imagine we’ll get deeper into her head and thought process as the chapter goes on.

    • Half- Orphan's Handbook

      Strong hook. I like the premise and the voice. I'm confused though as to why Noah is there, why he's a liar, and why he randomly disappeared from camp. I'm also curious as to why her mom would make a grief camp her birthday present? It seems more of a necessity than a gift. I think it takes a bit too long to get to the meat of the query where we find out Noah is a liar. I also feel like the stakes are a bit vague. A lot of novels have 'risk vulnerability or close self off' as the stakes. So what's different about this one?

      First 250:

      Nice first paragraph. Gives us the problem and a little backstory without info dumping. I really don't feel like we need "Call-Me-Connie" said five times. It's a bit overkill. I still don't see why a grief camp would be a birthday gift. Especially if it's one she doesn't want. Maybe something her mom does because of the whole birthday situation, but I don't know, the gift thing seems odd. Otherwise, it's well written and has a great voice.


      Book Boys Gone Wild


      I like the lore in the first paragraph. It's intriguing and fun. That continuesou through out the query, and I love the idea of growing book boyfriends. I think it's really strong until the last paragraph. Then it feels rushed. When there's "secrets" involved in the query, generally I find it to be too vague when applied to the stakes. Which, is the case here. Someone she loves hasn't been mentioned in this query at all, so I'm wondering what they have to do with anything. Smoothing out the last paragraph is going to go a long way, but over all, I'd request.

      First 250:
      You've done a great job with voice, characterization, and using a 1st person POV without overusing 'I'. We've got multiple problems going on, and the tension is there. My only thought is she seems more concerned with the boy than the wake. I feel like there should be at least some thought going on of the grief she feels while dealing with this.


      Book Boys Gone Wild


      A well constructed query. My only quibble is the first paragraph, which could be condensed a little. There's some redundancy in there in terms of content. Also, you have three sentences in a row that use colons, which is off. But it's effective.

      I like the voice in the 250, but (and this is not something I say very much) I almost feel it's moving a little fast. Maybe a bit like you're racing to hit your marks? Just an impression. In terms of constructive notes, I think the Call-Me-Connie bit would work better if you wait explain it after it comes up in dialogue. It would feel more organic and less telling. Just attribute her as Dr. Barbash initially, and spare the parenthetical for now.

      Overall I think it's very well put together.


      Speaking of killing parentheticals, I'd lose the (Drake) in this entry. This entry is exceptionally well done, and I find myself struggling to offer much in the way of criticism. It knows what it wants to be, and it is that. I'm half inclined to look at the judges to see what they so I can copy off their criticism! I got nuthin'. Although I can't imagine how much punch I would have to drink before I decided that Dorian Gray and Dracula would make good boyfriends.


  1. Half-orphan's handbook

    You did a good job in shortening this.

    I suggest you rephrase this: [Easy enough, until her mother forgets Lila’s sixteenth birthday and over-compensates for it in a major way. Lila’s unwanted gift is a summer away at Camp Bonaventure, a grief camp founded after 9/11. A place where self-isolation equals impossible.] to:

    Easy enough, until her mother forgets Lila’s sixteenth birthday and over-compensates for it with an unwanted gift. A summer away at Bonaventure, a grief camp founded after 9/11. A place where self-isolation equals impossible.

    I really like the changes you made to your last paragraph. It leaves a lot of mystery, and a lot of reasons to read the book.

    Book Boys Gone Wild

    I'm very glad you made it to the second round. I read your previous query and loved it (even though it was very long) Teenage versions of Sherlock, Mr Knightly and Dracula. I have to read this.

    Suggested change for the ending of your second paragraph:

    Harlow is tired of feeling second rate in her small, Southern town, and vows to use the boys to beat her ex and win the debutante crown, as well as the accompanying cash scholarship prize, which she badly needs. [You don't need to mention the other mean girls]

    Good luck to you both!

  2. Another Kombatant here!
    Query: I remember reading this before and I think you've made positive changes. The only thing tripping me up is the handbook thing. She has only two rules, yet later in the query, you refer to the handbook as "weighty." That took me out of it because my first instinct in reading a "weighty handbook" is go go literal and assume there are hundreds of rules in it. You might mean a more figurative "weight" (Because that would totally fit those two rules. They're big ones.) I, personally, would choose a different descriptor or explain a little more about how it's weighty.
    I say all that to say, it might just be that I'm too literal.

    250: I really enjoyed your opening and couldn't find anything to change. Well done!

    Query: I'm uncertain about the line referring to her beating her ex and mean-girl debutantes at their own game. What game is that? Are they cheating to win the crown/cash? Is her ex in on this? Or are you referring to beating the ex for one reason totally separate from the mean girls? I'm not sure what you're going for. Also, the part about her burning the curls off their heads, while very voicey, seems like SHE might be the mean girl. But your last paragraph is very strong and I definitely want to read this!

    250: I'm a little confused because it's clear that she's angry at Jonathan (ripping off the shirt in a not good way, trying to be civil.) but then she tries to convince him not to break up with her? That's a very quick turn-around. I get there are probably tons of emotions in her head about this, rightfully so. (Break up at funeral? DIRTBAG!) But without a little more internal emotional lines, I don't know how she's really feeling. This might be fine, so see what other ppl say. It just tugged at me a little as I was reading this. The voice in this is great though!

    Good luck to you both!

    This query makes me imagine "Wet Hot American Summer" and I love it! I think it's super intriguing and really wish I could read what this little devil Noah is hiding! I followed every line of this query as it deepened and I have no suggestions. I think it's very fun and leaves me with questions I wanted answered when I read.

    The prose is a bit too info-dumpy for me — like it needs to expel this info and get to the real story. I do understand the voice, that she's sarcastic and snippy (in good ways), but it feels rushed. It sort-of reads like the narrative intro to a movie and then we open on the scene of her mother on the phone. I wish (as an intrigued reader from the query!) that it opened with Lila's voice, with Lila digging into what's going on with her internally, rather than the scene she's sitting in and for which she's setting us up. Ugh, so hard to comment fully with only 250 words!, but these are just initial reactions of a reader who loves an MC's interiority!

    Your query is very intriguing!, though I wish I'd known its setting right away, since it clearly plays an important role in the storyline. But while the idea is exciting, I'm not 100% sure who the antagonist is and whether the stakes are personal or simply public. I kinda wish for more direct personal stakes to Harlow – perhaps something to tie her to her grandmother.

    Your prose delights me! So funny! I "lol"ed after the first paragraph and immediately wanted to hang out with Harlow, just to see what she'd say next. Wish I could!, because then I think I'd have the answer to why she's so angry with this gray-shirted kid. =)

  4. The Half-Orphan’s Handbook


    I love your concept!

    Mostly, I think you could tighten your query a little. For instance, in this sentence, “One: Love no one. Two: Avoid liars like her dad. Lila’s solution: barricade herself from all relationships – romantic, friendly, or otherwise,” I think you could take out the words after the em-dash. Those are implied. In the first sentence of paragraph two, I think you could cut the words “a handful of.” I think you can lose the words “clad” and “weighty.” I also think you can take out “He’s a liar” toward the end. The two sentences before and the one after imply that.

    But other than that, you’ve got a great query with all the info we need.

    First 250:

    Great voice. I have no suggestions here.

    Book Boys Gone Wild


    Can I just say that I have major book envy? I’m obsessed with this story idea and I can’t wait to buy it one day. I have no suggestions for your query. Great job!

    First 250:

    And your first 250 deliver on the query. Great voice. Amazing first line. I love it!

  5. I feel like this is going to be a close round… I liked both of these entries a lot!

    The Half-Orphan’s Handbook

    Query: I thought the query was great, but it is a little long. You could perhaps shorten it by taking out some details? Like, I don’t think it’s relevant for the query that Camp Bonaventure was founded after 9/11.

    First 250: Do you describe Camp Bonaveture soon after the First 250? If not, I would insert something quickly explaining that it’s a grief camp when you first introduce it.

    Book Boys Gone Wild

    Query: I would take out the “(Drake)”—this isn’t needed for the query and took away from the flow for me.

    First 250: I like the pasta bit ☺


    Okay, so this query feels long and reads more like a synopsis. It gives away SOOOOOO much. I really think if you went off the logline method, it would help. So, like loglines are this.

    You can build off that since it summarises everything in a super simple matter, and helps you keep from bogging everything down. As it's written now, it's okay. I'd read the first chapter likely, but if you pull back on the reins a bit, it'll help.

    Love the voice! I'm a little confused about Call-Me-Connie. The way some stuff is worded just feels off this go around. Enjoyed the action you put into this and ADORED the line about Panic and her curvaceous hips. This is much stronger this go around.

    OH MY FUCKING GOD! Just NEED. It's like hilarious and funny. And SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO damn Southern it just kills me–in a "Yep, that's how it is in a small town. I totally relate," kind of way. My biggest issue is why a teenager would be choosing those characters rather than like Edward, Four, Peta, and Harry Potter, characters who are, you know, actual teenagers, but I'm guessing that is due to public domain, but it would be something to consider.

    Strong voice. Some of the wording tripped me up, but that's only on the first read-through. Maybe change the end a bit to mention the humidity so we know for sure that's what she means about being the spaghetti.

  7. Half-Orphan’s Handbook

    I’m charmed by your query. I love romance stories that take place between strangers on vacation, at camp, etc. Maine is so magical, too. My heart smiled while reading your query. I love the idea of starting with “My birthday came and went…” like Brimful of Asha suggested. That’s a cool first line! The line about Panic in her chest is awesome, too. Great voice overall, but I do wish for more emotion from Lila and less explaining to the reader what has already happened.

    Book Boys Gone Wild

    I need this book right now!!! I’m already wondering which of the book boys Halrow is going to fall for. (If you wanna know who I want it to be, it’s Dracula!)I’m traumatized that she might have to undo what she did, and where will the book boys go??? What a fantastic premise. I don’t have a critique for your query because, as you can tell, it completely hooked me. I like the voice in your first 250, but I was confused a little. It seems like Harlow hates Jonathan, but later it seems she trying to talk him into not breaking up with her.

    These concepts are so different, the judges have a tough job. Good luck to you both!

  8. Sorry for the late comment:

    Query: I liked the query’s structure and how clearly it sets up the character and conflicts. My only note is that I felt like you could tighten it up a bit. For example, in the first paragraph, the sentence starting “Lila’s solution” feels like it’s restating rule 1 that was stated before.
    First 250: I love the first paragraph. “Call-Me-Connie” is great nickname and feels real. Good voice.

    Query: First line, if I’m nitpicking, “devastated” and “pissed as hell” feel like close-enough cousins that using them together feels repetitive. I like how the query sets up the conflict and stakes, and I thought it was very intriguing.
    First 250: I thought this was good. You get us right into the character. Nice job in the second paragraph telling us about the week’s wages.

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