Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 27, 2012

Free Fall Friday – Dianne Ochiltree

Our Guest Critiquer for January is Author Dianne Ochiltree. She is the author of nine published children’s books and does freelance editorial work.

Some readers—especially members of NJ-SCBWI—may already know today’s guest. Dianne has been a faculty member for chapter conferences several times, presenting writing workshops on a variety of topics related to children’s publishing as well as providing one-on-one critiques. Her books have appeared on several recommended reading lists nationwide, including the Bank Street College Children’s Book Committee ‘year’s best’, and the Dollywood Foundation’s national childhood literacy program, ‘imagination library’.

Dianne Ochiltree has a new book coming out this fall titled, MOLLY, BY GOLLY! It is being published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press. It is a re-telling of the legend of Molly Williams, America’s first female firefighter, and is illustrated by Kathleen Kemly and was edited by Carolyn Yoder.

Blue Apple Books aquired a counting picture book for the very young, written by Dianne titled, GOODNIGHT, FIREFLY, illustrated by Betsy Snyder. The release date has not been set.

You can visit Dianne at:

We only have two first Pages this month.  Again, I received more, but all the rest did not use the picture prompts.  Here is the first one.


Under my wool sweater, beads of sweat trickled as I drove my short legs to match my father’s stride, fitting my booted feet in his vast footprints, making the crystals of snow squeak.  My breath condensed in frozen pellets on my scarf, wrapped tightly around my nose and mouth.  As dark shadows stretched out their fingers, the woods exhaled cool and deep air which stung my eyes and numbed my fingers.  I beat my gloved fingers against my thighs and curled them back in my sleeves.  The tramp and squeak of booted feet treading the snow was the only sound.  The rector and the altar guild crossed the street and bent their steps into the deeper snow under the trees and off the path, where the shadows deepened.  I had never been allowed out to cut the evergreen boughs in the woods during advent.

The baby and my mother remained at home in the light and safety of the kitchen.  Now, no doubt, my mother was sifting flour into her favorite glass bowl as the butter slowly melted on the stove.  My little brother slid the chunk of butter around, spearing the diminishing block with a fork, around and around again.  But I strode on in the cold and the dark.  The procession drew ahead of me.  I paused, pressing my cold fingers against my neck as I drew first one and then the other hand from my frozen gloves.  As the lights receded, I felt as though I were in a cave watching the miner’s light bob and shrink as the darkness, an active force, pressed round me.  I roughly forced my reddened hands back in my gloves, and, half running lurched after my father.   The men had halted in the grove of fir trees.  The rector intoned the familiar words of the prayers.  I pressed against my father’s side, finding comfort in his sturdy bulk.  I gazed up through branches to the night sky above.  The vast bowl opened up, the stars wheeling in their slow march across the sky.  My father’s arm circled my shoulder pulling me close.  When I tilted my head up, I could see the cloud of his breath.  “Well done my little one” he whispered.

Critique highlights:

The first page sets a time and place very well.  The author has put sensory details such as ‘my breath condensed in frozen pellets on my scarf’ and ‘the tramp and squeak of booted feet” to good use throughout.  The reader is immersed in a complete, yet mysterious, setting.  The woods, in fact, are as much like a character as the narrator, as its dark shadows ‘stretched out like fingers…and exhaled cool and deep air…”  The author uses  many such bits of poetic prose throughout the page to set the scene, and the mood.  The language used here is well done but not overdone.

The characters are introduced in adequate detail to get the story going but not too much to stop the reader from wanting to read on to find out the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the story to come.  There are questions that readers will want to turn the page to find out—for example, if the narrator is so young/small that his booted feet could fit inside the father’s vast footprints, why is he going out with the men to cut evergreen boughs now?

The page ends with the narrator’s father whispering, “Well done, my little one” which adds another question to spur on a page turn:  what action did the narrator complete to earn this praise?  It is not evident in the action described earlier in the narrative, nor hinted at.  My suggestion would be to plant some sort of hint as to what the young child is doing that is extraordinary on that night march, so this statement doesn’t appear to come out of the blue.  Just enough to foreshadow but not so much that it will give away the surprise later on in the story.

The first page also contains two sentences of back-story which, while not at all inappropriate to mention here—it helps the narrator drive home the point that he/she is not where he/she would usually be on this night but instead is part of this woodsy adventure—needs a transition phrase to help it flow better within the first-person narrative and make it clear that these are inner musings of the main character as he or she is marching along.

My suggestion is to add a preface to the seventh line, on the order of, ” I thought of the baby and my mother (who) remained at home in the light and safety of the kitchen.  Now, no doubt, my mother was sifting flour…”  The eighth sentence,”My little brother…” needs to switch ‘slid’ to  ‘was sliding’ to match the sentence preceeding it.  Another thought would be to indicate that this was an inner thought of the narrator by saying that “My mother would be sifting flour” and “my little brother would be sliding the chunk of butter around”.

All easy fixes.

Rilla’s Resolution by Cathy Mealy

The day that she both longed for and loathed was fast approaching. The Seaside Festival brought finned fairies and winged fairies together for one day of celebration each year. Rilla adored spending time with her land and air-dwelling cousins, but each brief visit intensified her deep desire and growing envy of their wondrousworld.

Last year Rilla perchedon the smooth beach rocks as the sun dried her wet locks into silky, shining auburn curls. “Oh Rilla! You’re gorgeous!” gushed the twins, Zenna and Lu. They had flown to a meadow- whatever that was- and returned with armfuls of sweetly scented wildflowers. The twins gently wove the delicate blooms into Rilla’s hair so she could inhale their perfume simply by tossing her head. Nothing under the sea smelled aslovely and fresh, or even smelled at all. When Rilla returned to her watery home, the tiny flowers rinsed away andher soft, springy curls became a hopelessly tangled mop once again.

For several weeks Rillahad prepared for this year’s Festival by prying open reluctant oysters and plucking their pearls to give to her friends as gifts. She rattled the lustrous spheres inside an empty nautilus shell. The rhythmic sloshing sound could not compare to the lilting harp flute melodies that filled the air during the Festival. Rilla insistently hummed a fairy tune to herself, trying to block out the humpbacks’ constant booming moans and guttural squeaks.

When her stomach growled and pinched, Rilla swam to the bottom and yanked a puckered sea cucumber from the sand. She slowly chewed the slimy, tasteless plant. In just a few days, she would be savoring juicy red strawberries, licking sticky clover honey from her fingers,and crunching on crisp golden fairy biscuits. How she loved crunchy, crispy food! The memory of such gustatory delights made the sea cucumber even more unpalatable. Rilla released it in disgust, and watched it float upward toward the surface. At that very moment she resolved to herself,“This will be the year that I do it. I am never coming back to Atlantis.”

Critique highlights:

This first page does a great job of setting a scene, which is not easy considering that the story is taking place in a fantasy world of fairies. It introduces an intriguing concept of underwater fairies with fins, and earthly fairies with wings, and the festival which brings them together for one day a year. This makes the reader want to read on, to find out how this is possible, why they have the ritual and what conflicts/alliances have come of it. Most of all, the author has established the primary need of the character’s heart, the problem for the main character to solve: becoming a part of the
‘other world’. Whatever turns of the plot to come, readers know that important changes will come and want to flip the page to find out.

The author doesn’t just tell the reader this is what the character wants. The reader is shown the Rilla’s discontent with the gummy, tasteless sea cucumber and the humpback whales’ constant noise. The dreams of Rilla for life in the air is punctuated by lively images and language, such as ‘juicy red strawberries’ and ‘lilting harp flute melodies’. The five senses are engaged in this narrative.

The ending sentence, “I am never going back to Atlantis.” is an excellent page-turner. It sets up the action in the plot to follow. It is also a good piece of characterization. We knew in paragraphs before what Rilla dreamed of and wished for, but now we also know she is an MS determined to get the job done.

My only suggestion would be to strengthen the transition of the first paragraph to the second paragraph in a way that made it seem less an abrupt flashback and more a real-time inner musing of Rilla’s as she prepares for the upcoming Seaside Festival, something on the order of “Rilla’s thoughts swam to last year’s festival, remembering herself perched on the smooth beach rocks…” The back-story information here is important but it needs to be woven more seamlessly into the opening scene.

Thanks Dianne. You are a good friend to share your expertise with our writers.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I have to say I really enjoyed BOTH first pages 🙂 I was “inmmersed” in both, for sure, and was curious where these stories could go. I also learn more, every time I hear such wonderfully-done, professional critiques. It helps me with what to pay attention to in revision.

    Thanks to everyone for putting this here for us 🙂


    • sorry for the typo…I meant “immersed” 🙂


  2. Thank you so much Dianne for your helpful feedback on “Rilla’s Resolution.” I am very grateful to have your expert editorial eye peruse my submission and help guide future revisions!

    Thank you Kathy for another fun picture prompt challenge. I don’t know how you were able to find time for this as well as all you are doing to pull together the NJ SCBWI conference. That legendary conference is definitely on my bucket list!


  3. Cathy, what a positive and meaningful critique. Diane is very thorough in her critique not skipping a beat in reviewing every aspect of your story. I lked your story and felt it was very well written, character-driven with a strong want and plot. But to have a professional give you such glowing feedback. You must be floating. What a tribute to all of your hard work. I hope you do something more with this story, as the fantasy would interest me. Good for you! – Pat


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