Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 2, 2011

Free Fall Friday with Susan O’Keefe

Here is Susan’s thoughts on three of the First Page Prompts sent in for review.  You will find her comments in red.

Before we start, please understand that we’re mixing apples and oranges—which is okay, as long as we’re willing to have fruit salad.

What comes out of a writing prompt isn’t a true first page. For sharing writing prompts, I imagine a warm fuzzy environment with everyone drinking hot cocoa and fellow writers nodding in encouragement as we each read out loud what we’ve just written. The purpose, the best value, of a writing prompt is in simply doing it. Writing prompts are like practicing musical scales. They help you keep your creative fingers limber so it’s easier to write on command when you’re working on a specific piece. Just by responding to a prompt, you’ve done it right, even if a recipe pops out. There shouldn’t be criticism of it, whereas first pages often get a good deal of that. And while any of these, or the result of any prompt at all, can end up being a “real” first page, that’s not their purpose here.

But, having said all that and finding no cocoa in the house, I’ll react to these as if they’re “real” first pages.

Comments are scattered throughout each piece, then a general reaction afterward.

* * *

           Teresina paused.  I can’t say why, but I love this first sentence.  With each step, the forest had grown darker, colder, and yet even more beautiful. A harsh beauty, though, like that of a falcon’s cry as it pierces the sky. Great description. Here in the forest, all was still, nearly silent. Even Teresina’s footsteps made no noise as she glided over the smooth icy ground.

            The reflection of Her flaming hair, her skin – warm as the fuzz of a peach in the summer sun, just picked from the tree – glowed in the ice beneath her feet and the meager gleam of light from above. The hot and cold mix is confusing because I’m not sure which are visual references and which are references to actual temperature. She would have shivered, were she fully human. Oh yeah.

           Instead, Delete the cool grey light illuminated her way, reminding her of the silvery skies before snow arrives. But no snow had come this year, nothing more than a crisp chill at night, and Teresina’s mother grew weary, exhausted with her efforts.  This is confusing. I’d just delete it. Fall was supposed to be a short season, and Mama was made for sprinting, not the slow trudge this year’s fall had become.  good description

Where was Bruma? The earth needed rest. Mama needed rest. Teresina stood, gazing down the avenue of trees. Bruma
might be late, but always, always, she appeared, glittering and chill needs different word, adjective, not noun to take the
world from Mama’s hands in her turn and give the earth its solemn, shrouded winter. Very very nice. Just as night fell and day retreated, so the seasons each took their turn, keeping the world in its course.

Teresina clutched the opaline bag in her hand a little tighter. Maybe the bribe would convince Bruma to wake and do her duty?

Maybe Bruma wouldn’t think of it as a bribe. Maybe she thought of it as are turn. Misspelling? Missing words? Teresina hadn’t thought she would miss just one snowflake. This confuses me because wouldn’t the snow have to come from Bruma? And why would snow be a bribe for Winter? 

The writing is just lovely, very sure voice, perfect match between mood and subject.  The ending is confusing though. I understand that Teresina has brought some sort of bribe with her in order to induce Bruma to get to work, and that what she’s chosen for an inducement will end up making things worse and thus creating the major conflict of the book. But as I said above, snowflakes being the bribe loses me.

* * *

Grandpa Jim’s warning haunted Rae. Strong beginning. She and her sister, Mindy, had walked over two hours and could talk of little else. Her heart was heavy with the image of his tearful farewell, a bit cliché-ish, standing helplessly in the doorway, wondering if they’d ever see each other again. He said he (add, otherwise it’s a shift in pov) felt sure someone wouldn’t survive, whether it be his dying daughter who lay in the bed behind him, or at least one precious granddaughter. His dying daughter would be Rae’s mother, never mentioned, but it’s the biggest emotional factor here. It can’t be ignored.

The girls, each with a satchel of food and water, decided it would be Rae to take the chance; she was the older and stronger-willed of the two. But first they had to get there. Grandpa assured them if they stayed on course, due south through the woods, they would find it. He said once they were close, the place itself would find them. Really good hook.

He warned them not to underestimate its power—that saving someone’s life often came at a price. The Glass Forest and its “Waters of Wonder” were legendary, though not myth. Quotation marks aren’t necessary, also Glass Forest is so strong, I’d delete Waters of Wonder. Grandpa, as a boy, had been there. His glassy eyes would shift madly and his face would glaze over with horror whenever he spoke of it. “My best friend, Greg, Don’t need was standing several yards within the blue tunnel of trees and tossed the filled bottle to me. ‘Jim,’ he said, ‘get this to my father as quick as you can. I must go in.’ I begged him not to, for as long as I thought he could hear me. I never saw my friend again.”

Though the sisters were deep into the forest, the blazing heat of summer was relentless; even the earth was unusually dry and hard. Rae was comfortable among the trees having spent so much time adventuring through these woods, though neither girl had ever traveled this far in. They noticed the ground was now softened and damp when an unexpected, very cool breeze swirled around them, drawing their eyes to the left. Through the trunks they could see icy blue fog. As if encased by the breeze, it swiftly pulled them toward the mysterious mist. Moments later it freed them and there they stood, at the entrance of a tunnel of towering trees with trunks and leaves made of blue glass. Mindy touched the bark.

“It’s like ice,” she said as they looked at each other, awestruck. Don’t need.

The path, covered with shallow water, looked infinite. Without hesitation Rae splashed forward, pulled an empty bottle from her satchel, and filled it. As she replaced the cork, an icy gust pulled her to her feet. Mindy had fear in her eyes as Rae looked up and tossed the bottle to her. Grandpa’s words passed through Mindy’s lips. “Don’t go in!”

Rae slipped off her shoes. “You know what to do, Mindy. I’m sorry, but—I must go in…” Stop the chapter here. The reader will definitely turn the page.

This would make a good prologue or very short chapter one, then chapter two can have both current action and whatever back story is needed—while of course still meeting the same first-page needs.

Some overall things: First, it’s the mother of the girls who is dying and that needs to be addressed. Not lots of details about what’s wrong, etc., just the emotion wallop that compels Rae to take the risk, and that she’ll then struggle with at the end. She has to go into the forest—But will the water work? Will her mother live?—But she has to go in!

 Second, the page goes back and forth between a contemporary feel and one that reflects the overwhelming age of the forest that seems to call more for a feeling of timelessness. I’m not sure which the author wants—at this early stage maybe he or she doesn’t even know, which is fine. Lots of writers are pantsers, and what works works. Once the author knows which, just a few little changes in language will tip it either way. For example, Grandpa Jim and Mindy have a very contemporary feel. Grandfather and a less-modern name for the sister would emphasis the older feel of the legend. Satchel of food emphasizes the older, while sandwiches in their backpacks would be contemporary.

* * *

I look down the dark icy path trying to decide how I got here.  The frosty air sends shivers down my arms and the wind blows the hair off my neck.  When I grab to pull my coat over my shoulders, I realize I’m not wearing a coat.
Questions race through my mind.  I can’t remember anything.  My heart stops and when it starts up again it feels like a drummer in a rock band is practicing inside my chest.  It dawns on me, I have no idea where I am.  or who I am.

How did I end up in a frozen forest in summer clothes?

            And who am I? I want to run, but where would I be running?

Delete all the bolded phrases and move the “who am I” phrase to the last of the questions. I also re-paragraphed for rhythm.

The strap across my back slips making me aware of the shoulder bag I’m carrying. Maybe there is something inside that will hint at who I am?  My hands shake.  That’s when I notice the paper bag in my other hand.  The wind picks up, making it hard to open the paper bag.  Ice crystals shatter to the ground. From where? Crystals on the paper bag?  I reach for the closest tree to steady myself, but the instant my finger touches the tree’s icy coat, my finger sticks. It would be more than just one finger she’d use to steady herself, no? When I pull away, my skin rips.  Blood drips down the trunk.  I tear off the corner of the bag and wrap the paper around my finger.  After a few shaky attempts, I manage to open the bag and look inside.  That’s a lot of blood, much more than the corner of a paper bag can staunch.

A piece of folded fabric fills the bag.  Two big eyes are printed on the material.  The wind unfurls the cloth and almost whips right out of my hands when I lift it out.  After a few minutes of wrestling with natures forces, needs better phrase I see it is a map; a map with a demarcation of a Frozen Forest.  But what about the eyes? An arrow points north.  Since I feel like my fingers and toes are about to shatter and fall off, I place the paper bag over my one hand hoping for some warmth.

I’m just about to open up the shoulder bag to see if there is anything I can use to help stave off the cold for my
other hand, when I hear a low guttural growl from behind me and the crunch of ice.  Feet don’t fail me now.  Bad cliché under any circumstances, and here you need super-sharp emotional description. I run and slip.  Slide and twist. Nice staccato rhythm. Wrap the map around my head, tie it under my chin and accelerate. This didn’t work for me—not so much the language, but the very idea image of her tying the map on like a scarf. The crunch grows faster and the growling multiplies.

This is a grabbing start that with a few adjustments can be much stronger. An opening like this needs utmost immediacy. Phrases like “trying to decide” and “it dawns on me” create distance, and even more so, in the last paragraph, the long opening of, “I’m just about to….” As much as possible, this should be immediate, sensory, maybe even all sensory, all emotion, and move the questions just a bit further down before the character realizes she doesn’t know who she is. The physical cold and pain are extreme enough that not thinking about anything else for a while seems perfectly natural. And by delaying the character’s realization by even just a few sentences, the writer can increase the impact when the character—and the reader—makes that discovery at the same time.

Three cautions:

First, it seems like too much to have both a shoulder bag and a paper bag with unknown contents. The scene needs to be very tight and even just the mention of the other seems to break the pace. Are both needed?

Second, great care needs to be taken with the action. Would she really steady herself with just one finger? Would she really tie a scarf on, no matter how cold she is, while running from…whatever? Sometimes it’s good to physically act out scenes like these to better see what works and what doesn’t.

Third, while the setup grabs readers with the character’s amnesia and with her only being able to react to the present, that can’t be sustained for long. Maybe another paragraph or two, probably no more. The reader will then want something
from the character as a character. Not necessarily back story, since the character doesn’t have one to tell us, but something.

A big challenge!

Thank you Susan for such great insight.  Lots of valuable information that others can use, too.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow, I was really looking forward to hearing the critique on my first page! Thank you so much, Susan! I was thinking to respond to the comments, too, thinking it would be even more beneficial to anyone who may be reading these.

    I definitely agree with the “bit cliche-ish” assessment (I should’ve put more effort to be original there) and certainly to add “he said” to clear up the POV. Thank you!

    I didn’t blatantly state that it was the girls’ mother since I thought it was obvious with him being their grandfather. You feel strongly about it not being made more clear, so I would have to re-examine it to see how to reword that sentence or add another (though I had to cut other things to keep all the valid info within the one page). I occasionally forget to include certain information to make the scene clearer in the reader’s mind because I’M seeing it clearly and forget that I hadn’t mentioned it! In this case, I never mentioned they were walking in the forest and realized it after about the 4th or 5th read. In the sentence “Grandpa assured them if they stayed on course, due south, they would find it,” I went back and added “through the woods.”

    I wasn’t sure about the quotation marks and it seems that every time I double-check in my grammar books, there are a few things that I consider “iffy” and not explained well enough. I’m glad you cleared that up! lol Thank you!

    Also, I felt it was very important to mention the Waters of Wonder; otherwise the reader wouldn’t know that it was the healing power of the water itself that drew them there to take the risk in the first place, just as it had drawn Grandpa Jim’s best friend and countless others.

    You made a really good point about the “contemporary vs. timeless” feel. Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about it. In my mind it was present day, but the forest was ancient. I wasn’t considering their names in that way so much either, as far as what time period they were in. Rae’s name was originally Meg, but I was somehow thinking that “Meg and Mindy” sounded sort of cliche or more ordinary and common and wanted the main character’s name to be “different.” I probably should’ve kept it as Meg lol I used “Grandpa” since I wasn’t going for a “formal” relationship. Using “Grandfather” sounds formal to me. I wasn’t relating it to “time,” but the point is a really good one! Also, since I was following what the illustration contained, her bag looks more like a satchel, so I didn’t think to say “backpack,” though “bag” would’ve worked just as well, I think, and is more “neutral” when considering a contemporary vs. timeless feel. Do you agree?

    Susan, this was so helpful! Thank you, Susan, Betsy and Kathy!!!! Such fun!


    • Donna, your points are well taken, even though we may have to have a thumb-wrestling cage match about the mother!

      The word “pantser.” There are two types of writing styles, though of course with a million gradations between them. One writer may be a plotter (not to be confused with a plodder). A plotter plots, uses outlines, summarizes scenes before writing them, etc. Another writer may be a pantser, that is, he flies by the seat of his pants.

      Neither style is wrong, which is why I said what works works. Both styles produce wonderful books, and both styles have their strengths and weaknesses.


      • Nah, Susan, we wouldn’t be wrestling over the mother! lol I just thought it was obvious, but it’s an “easy fix.”

        And thanks for the “pantser” definition! Yes, I would say that, for the times I’ve written a first page for a writing prompt, I would be a pantser. Very little time is spent fleshing out the backstory and character/s; in this case, the reason this girl was standing in this Dark Glass Forest with a bottle (it looked like a bottle to me) in her hand. I much prefer plotting and then, while writing, loosen the reins on the pantser 🙂

        I must say that two of the times I’ve done the prompts, I’ve toyed with wanting to write more and really make them something. It’s a valuable exercise, I think, in spurring the imagination and flexing one’s writing muscles. Hopefully others found value in it, too. For sure, I found great value in your comments and REALLY appreciate the time you took doing them 🙂


  2. Oh! I was so caught up in addressing my own critique, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed the other two first pages! It never ceases to amaze me how different each writer’s take is!


  3. Love this post! So much to enjoy & learn. Thank you Kathy and Susan!


  4. Question for Susan (or anyone who might know): what is a “pantser?” The only definition I found had to do with metal. Unless you meant a “patzer” like in chess? lol I’d really like to know! Thanks 🙂


    • Donna Marie, I believe it refers to people who write “by the seat of their pants”–i.e., winging it as they go, as opposed to outlining carefully in advance.



  5. Thanks, Leslie 🙂 Susan said that, too, only in all the years I’ve been reading about writing, I never remember hearing that phrase! lol I’ll never forget it now! 🙂


  6. Also, a pantser is a person who whips down another’s pants in public. I know this because my sister is one (and urban 🙂


  7. LOL! Well, for sure, I’m not one of THOSE! lol


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