Wednesday, September 5, 2012

CAGI Entry #36

Genre: Psychological Thriller
Word Count: 80,000


Either Kelsey Brooks is being stalked by a dead man, or she’s completely lost her mind.

She should be happy. She has an adoring husband, a beautiful home, and two healthy children with a third on the way. But she also has a few nagging doubts about her marriage, coupled with crippling anxiety attacks and a slight case of OCD. And then there's the fact that she's never told her husband that she used to be engaged, and that she was responsible for the death of her former fiancée.

When she sees a ghost from her past at her son's bus stop, she realizes her mistakes are not going to stay buried. Someone is determined to make her face the pain she’d rather forget. Someone no one else believes exists. When her best friend is murdered,and Kelsey accused of the crime and locked up in a psychiatric facility, she realizes the only person she can rely on is herself. She alone will have to confront the cold-blooded killer who ruined her life twelve years ago. So what if she might be crazy? Sometimes that’s what it takes to stop a madman.

PRICE OF REFUGE will appeal to fans of Gillian Flynn and Harlan Coben. I am a member of Sisters in Crime. My short stories have appeared in various journals such as Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Big Pulp, and Recess Magazine. I was recently awarded the top prize for prose poetry in the Binnacle Eighth Annual Ultra-Short Competition for my short story, "Puddings," which was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

First 250:

It seemed crazy, nearly drowning myself in order to stop feeling like I was going to die, but water had always been the only thing that stopped the panic. I waited until my lungs burned, then lifted my head, took a deep gulp of air, and sank back down into my warm cocoon. I stayed under as long as I could, the contour of the tub cradling my body, keeping me bubble-wrapped and buffered from the distorted sounds of the outside world - the bickering of the kids, the inane early-morning television chatter.

My husband’s scream.

I sat up, coughing and spitting and sucking oxygen through my veil of sopping hair.


I peeled wet curls from my eyelids as I tried to analyze Spencer’s tone. I’m not good at much, but in this one area I’m an expert. Water sloshed over the side of the tub as I strained forward to listen. It was probably just the usual morning chaos of getting the kids ready. No need to assume anything terrible had happened. Spencer wouldn’t let them stick forks in the toaster or turn on the stove.

“Kelsey!” Louder now, and with a hint of panic – an emotion with which I was all too familiar.

It was time to get out. I braced myself with both arms and heaved my pregnant, beached-whale body onto the rug, bumping the vanity and knocking over various tubes and jars of creams and perfume. Only my bottle of Escape stayed upright, mocking me.


  1. I remember seeing your excerpt on another blog (Miss Snark?). The opening is strong -- when she steps out of the tub and we see she's pregnant -- it makes the lungs burning under water more noteworthy. The one thing that stopped me was the husband screaming; I imagine a guy might yell rather than scream; it seems like a scream wouldn't cause someone to pause and take note of tone, you would just run to them. Yelling could be just a mishap with the kids. It just seems she isn't in much of a rush to find out.

    Overall, I think you've already set up that something is up, both with the husband freaking out and her bizarre reaction to it.

  2. I like the opening too - I think you've got a great start. I feel like she doesn't like herself much e.g. 'I'm not good at much' which reveals a lot about her character. Nice set up!

  3. Hi #36! This is your first-round judge comment.

    Comments on your query:

    First line is a great choice—attention-getting without being too gimmicky.

    I feel like the second paragraph needs less setup of what her “normal” life is before the conflict of the story is presented. Especially “She should be happy”—I understand you’re projecting this as what Kelsey probably feels about herself, but I’d leave it out of a query. Her appearing to have a happy married life with 2.5 kids and a house could be summed up in half a sentence before launching into where her life becomes one we want to read about. I really like the second paragraph’s last sentence, so I’d like to get there ASAP; Kelsey having a baby on the way and OCD/anxiety disorders are probably elements that are important to character/story, but just telling us she still carries guilt over the death of her former fiancé is probably enough to add a layer to her.

    In the third paragraph, I couldn’t tell if “a ghost from her past” was literal or not, but if you don’t mind that we’re unsure, keep it. The line about the best friend being murdered needs work (see language notes below). I had trouble following the specifics of the story in this paragraph, because we’re unaware until now that a “cold-blooded killer” was also involved with her previous fiancé’s death since you said Kelsey was responsible. It’s unclear to me how Kelsey was “responsible” for his death if this killer was also involved in ruining her life, though I understand that you’re dancing around telling us who the ghost from her past is for a purpose. I think I’d appreciate a little more clarity, because this sounds like it could be really thrilling except that I can’t quite see the shape of the storyline based on this. I also think you might be able to come up with a tighter final line if you’re going to go this route of pitting “crazy” against “crazy” and suggesting it’s an even match.

    Last paragraph seems fine. Good on you for invoking similar works without comparing yourself to them (which is a mistake lots of authors make).

    Language notes on the query:

    * “Fiancée” is feminine. If she was engaged to a man, it should be “fiancé.”

    * You have a place where “murdered,and” is lacking a space after the comma.

    * “And Kelsey accused of the crime” is missing an “is” (or equivalent).

    * I’d italicize the names of the publications your work has appeared in.

  4. Comments on your first 250:

    Overall, good concept—Kelsey’s trying to drown her panic (sort of literally); her husband is flipping out for some reason we don’t know; and we find out she’s pregnant. It’s a good beginning and I didn’t get turned off by the opening because you do a good job establishing a scenario and connecting us to the person in it. The first-person narration does make me wonder whether you can connect us to her a little better with more specific physical reactions and emotions; I felt a degree or two of distance. Like, you tell us she’s panicking, but I never felt her heartbeat; the whole scene was much more visual than visceral.

    I like that it opens with Kelsey doing her water trick to try to stop her panic. This is a good technique—immediately we know something about Kelsey and we see her in action. I don’t like that it opens with “It seemed crazy.” I think you can find a more graceful way to say this.

    I like that the TV is described as “inane.” That word doesn’t get used enough these days, and it’s great.

    Her husband “screamed.” If you just say “screamed,” I imagine a wordless, shrill, high-pitched wail. But then it’s unclear whether the “scream” is him actually calling her name or whether he “screamed” AND shouted “Kelsey!” If you say he “screamed her name,” that would help, but I can’t actually imagine any variation of wordless “screaming” by a grown man that wouldn’t suggest something terribly wrong. So her sitting in the bathtub trying to figure out whether anything’s really that bad seems odd.

    I like the image of Kelsey trying to breathe through her hair, but I don’t like the use of the word “oxygen” for it.

    “I’m not good at much, but in this one area I’m an expert.”—I’d rather she not narrate to us as though she knows she has an audience. You can probably show us that this is something she’s an expert at without having her explicitly tell us.

    I could do without “It was time to get out.” If she does so, we glean that. If you’d like her to be framing this with her thoughts, you could just have her think something like “Ugh, better get out” in italics (tweaked to match whatever her reaction to her husband’s panic would be).

    When she heaves her “pregnant, beached-whale body” onto the rug, I pictured her actually flopping out of the tub and rolling onto a rug. If you mean that she heaved herself up and then stepped out, this could be clearer.

    “Only my bottle of Escape stayed upright, mocking me.”—Kind of a cool ironic thing for her to notice, and I like how it’s phrased, but what IS “Escape”? Is it a beauty product or fragrance? Maybe tell us.

    Language notes on the first 250:

    * In “water had always been the only thing”—I usually recommend against using the word “thing” whenever possible because there’s usually a more specific word. (Does not apply to dialogue.)

    * “of the outside world - the bickering” / “with a hint of panic – an emotion”—I recommend checking out a usage guide on the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes, and applying what you find globally. (Both of these should involve em dashes. You’ve got a hyphen in one place and an en dash in the other.)

    * I wouldn’t italicize the title of a beauty product, whatever “Escape” is. Just capitalizing it is fine.

    Please feel free to reply or contact me privately if you have any questions about my feedback. I’m honest but I don’t bite. Good luck!

  5. Woah - this is some high-stakes stuff. You did a great job of getting me into your mc's head. You've already got some detailed comments, so I'll just mention the issue that stuck out for me. I was confused about the husband. At first I thought he was screaming because he sees his wife nearly drowning herself. It took me a while to realize he was elsewhere, screaming at somebody else. And was the scream the same as when he said "Kelsey?" And I thought that was the mc's name at first. The word "scream" itself is problematical because it is vague. Perhaps use two or three more descriptive words?

  6. I really enjoyed your first excerpt. I related as a mom, and I thought the line about "Escape" was fantastic :)

  7. I think this is great. The only pause I had was the husband screaming. I wasn't sure if he was in the bathroom, screaming at her cause he was scared she'd drowned. So maybe just make sure to mention the distance/ door shut or something to that effect. But that was minor, and not enough to stop me from reading. I would pick this up and read on in a heartbeat!