Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 30, 2012

Free Fall Friday – March Critiqued

I would like to thank everyone who submitted first pages this month. If your first page was not critiqued, please do not think it was due to your writing. The committment with Leila was to critique four first pages and there were many more than that submitted. It was very generous of editor Leila Sales of Viking Books for taking the time out of her busy schedule to read and critique the March First Page Picture Prompts. I also want to thank Kris Aro McLeod for providing the picture inspiration this month.

Falling Stars by Eileen Balesteri

The flashing red lights outside the old, abandoned building made Lena’s heart sink. The structure had always been an eyesore in the neighborhood, but over the past few weeks, it had served as a shelter to Lena and her little sister, Evie.

Lately, more and more houses on their once, cheerful street were turning from happy homes to foreclosed prototypes of broken dreams.

Squatting in an abandoned building had not been part of Lena’s life plan. But, everything changed the night her RA knocked on her dorm room door with the emergency call about her parents.

From that day on, Evie would be her responsibility.

She turned and looked down the block to the dark house with the “bank-owned” sign that used to be theirs–and then forward to the burning building that was their present home.

As she watched the flames lick the outside of the chimney, all she could do was hope that the others got out okay. They must have run, because she didn’t see any of them around. Not even Terrence…which was strange, since he always took charge when things got scary. Maybe he’d gone looking for them.

She gripped her little sister’s hand, grateful they had not been inside when it started.

“What’s going on, Lena? I’m tired. You said I could sleep when we got back from the dumpsters!”

“Just let me think for a minute, Evie.”

The blankets she had put out to air on the fence behind the building should still be there. If she could just get around the police and fire trucks to the back yard, they’d at least have something to keep them warm for the night.

“Evie. Follow me, and don’t say a word. Just copy everything I do.”

Squatting down to keep out of sight, they inched along the fence behind the overgrown shrubs and tall, dead weeds leading to the back.


The author does a good job quickly and unobtrusively telling us who Lena and Evie are, how old Lena is, and what the girls’ relationship is. There’s some immediate suspense from wondering 1) what happened toLena’s parents? 2) who are Terrence and “the others,” and what is their connection toLena? 3) how did this building catch on fire? The reader will want to keep going to find out the answers to these questions.

There’s some overwriting here that would be funny if this were a humorous story, but in a serious story it comes off as melodramatic. For example: “Lately, more and more houses on their once, cheerful street were turning from happy homes to foreclosed prototypes of broken dreams.”

My immediate response to the premise is that I have trouble believing a girl could go from college to homeless so quickly. I would expect Lena and Evie to have family and friends from their old life, when their parents were alive, who would be looking out for them in some way. But, as an editor, I would keep reading this story to see if Lena’s quick slide into poverty was done in a believable way or not.


NO TITLE – Yvonne Ventresca

Two more blocks until we’d escape the grayness of Haskell, Kansas. If only Celia would hurry. She dawdled like her usual six-year-old self, but we didn’t have time.

“Tell me again why I had to drop my teddy bear in the store,” she said.

I pulled Celia along as daylight waned, her mittened hand warm against my thin glove. “It’s part of the Distraction Game, remember? We see how many seconds you can keep a grown-up busy. You did great today.”

My pickpocket scheme at the local Value Mart had gone almost as planned. Celia created a scene and when a well-dressed man bent to assist, I slipped the wallet from his pocket, making a silent promise to return the money someday. But as we snuck out, the cashier noticed us. The way he pressed his lips into a mean, hard line worried me.

She hugged the ratty stuffed animal to her chest. “But Cass, the floor made him dirty.” The bear was all she owned from our old life, besides clothes and a curled photo of Mom.

“We’ll clean him once we’re on the bus. We’re almost there.” My pickpocket victim had been carrying a wad of cash, enough for dollar-menu fast food and two tickets home. I imagined the welcome blast of heat as we boarded. We’d sit in the back, two anonymous kids safely on their way to San Francisco.

A police siren pierced my daydream. I tugged at Celia. “Let’s play a new game,” I said in my fun-big-sister voice. “It’s called Running Race. I bet you can’t beat me to the station. Ready, set—”

“No.” She planted both feet in the snowy road. “You can’t make me.”

I considered dropping her hand, sprinting away by myself. The cops would take her to Family Services and a wealthy childless couple would probably adopt her. Unlike me, they’d embrace the responsibility of raising her. Celia would be happier, wouldn’t she?


I really like the last paragraph of this page. It’s so revealing that Cass would consider abandoning her sister to the police… because that would give Celia a shot at a better life. That this is Cass’s thought process tells us a great deal about her.

The author does a good job of introducing a lot of information quickly and without being overly expository: the protagonist’s name is Cass (we know because that’s what Celia calls her); Cass and Celia are sisters (we know from the reference to “a photo of Mom”); they’re fromSan Francisco.

I like the idea of the Distraction Game. I’d be interested to see how it would play out again throughout the course of this story, in a variety of different instances. However, Celia’s request that Cass remind her why she had to drop her teddy bear felt too much like the author wanted a reason to explain to the reader what the Distraction Game was. I didn’t buy that Celia had actually forgotten the rules of their game.


A POT OF FORTUNE by Sally Phillips

“Do you hear that sweet one?” asked Mama staring at the flannel gray skies. Stray wisps of hair whipped around her face. “It’s like the sky is groaning through the trees.”

“Is it a storm?” asked Amaya clutching Cubby.

“Don’t worry, Amaya. Come on, let’s race home,” she said cradling a sack in her arms.

The sounds of their breaths were the only sounds Amaya heard. Where did everyone go? she wondered.

“Papa!” Amaya called as she burst through the front door. She tossed her backpack onto the couch.

Mama picked up a scrap of paper on the kitchen table. She frowned and shook her head.

“Where’s Papa?” Amaya’s eyes began to fill with hot tears.

Mama gently wiped her tears away. “Everything will be okay. Papa’s at the town meeting house.”


Mama grabbed the phone. “Yes?” she answered, “Yes, it’s in the bag. We’re on our way.”

“What’s in the bag Mama?” asked Amaya.

“You’ll see, sweet one,” she said as she stepped outside into the icy wind.

Amaya shivered and was glad they didn’t have to go far. She pulled her scarf over her nose.

They finally got to the meeting house. The old, oak doors creaked open and they stepped inside. Mama marched up to the front. She frowned as she handed Papa the bag.

“I’ve called you all together this evening to tell you an amazing thing,” said Papa smiling. “My dear wife found this in growing in our garden yesterday. Papa reached into the bag and pulled out a beautiful flower in a clay pot. It’s petals were as red as the evening sky with a buttery yellow center. “We believe this to be a magic flower.”

A loud gasp burst from the neighbors gathered there. Some people even laughed. Amaya squirmed in her hard wooden seat.


The first three lines start out with the same construct (“asked Mama staring at the flannel gray skies,” “asked Amaya clutching Cubby,” “she said cradling a sack in her arms”). The sentence structures could use more variety. Similarly, in sentences like this one, “The sounds of their breaths were the only sounds Amaya heard,” try rephrasing to avoid word echoes. The story’s content is interesting, but that’s not enough; the word usage needs to be interesting, as well.

The note that Mama reads is a good addition, because there’s immediate suspense about what the note says. By the time we finish this first page, we already know what the phone call was asking, but we don’t yet know what the note said, and we would keep reading in order to answer that mystery.


IF ONLY by Veronica Taylor

Willa Jones watches thick, gray clouds, harbinger’s of a coming blizzard, as they travel slowly across the sky. Her feet grow heavier, and she can’t feel her fingers anymore. As she walks down the sidewalk, it seems to grow narrower, coming to a point, before disappearing from view. As she stares at the sky, her boss man’s unwanted words, from yesterday, plays back in her mind.

“Listen up, everyone, if we get the blizzard they’re calling for, Steel Industries will be closed until a big part of that ice and snow is gone.”

Willa looks at the boarded windows, on the sagging houses she passes by. Rusty vehicles missing tires, much like her own car. She grips her small daughter’s hand tighter, as her stomach

clenches painfully. She prays her check, from freelance writing, would be in the mail soon. A small voice pipes up and she looks down at her small daughter, who tugs at her gloved hand.

“Mommy? Why are you so sad? Don’t you like Bitsy anymore? Tiny gloved hands, hold up a mewling puppy for Willa’s inspection.

“Oh Tina, of course, Bitsy is so cute, and I’m fine. Get that worry right out of your pretty little head,” Willa said, forcing a smile.

Willa stops Tina at the entrance to their driveway, just before her mailbox. Slowly, she opens the mailbox. “If only…please let it be there.” A stack of bills greet her, which she swiftly sorts through.

”Mommy, mommy it’s snowing!” Tina squeals in delight.

As snowflakes drift softly towards the ground, they lightly kiss Willa and Tina’s face, before twirling onto the driveway. Willa’s hands almost drop the mail when she finds the check she’s been waiting for. Tears fill her eyes, as she shouts a blissful “Yes!” towards the sky.

She smiles down at Tina. They’ll be fine now. Bring on the snow! Willa and Tina stick their tongues out and giggle as the snowflakes land gently on their tongues.


Beware of unnecessary adjectives. For example, in the sentence, “Tears fill her eyes, as she shouts a blissful “Yes!” towards the sky,” we don’t need to be told that her “yes!” is “blissful”; we can infer that from her actions. Tina doesn’t need to twice be referred to as “small daughter”—once is sufficient, and, in fact, you could get away with never calling Tina “small” and let the reader just understand, from Tiny’s baby-talk, that she is a young child.

The suspense about whether the check will be in the mail is a good one, and establishing Willa as a freelance writer informs her character nicely. One logical gap that’s missing here is the idea that because Willa is poor, she doesn’t want there to be snowstorm. While this may make sense to an adult reader (“If there’s a snowstorm, then Willa’s work is closed, and then she can’t make money, and then her daughter will go hungry”), that logic isn’t immediately there for a child reader. Mostly they just hear, “Work is cancelled, and there will be enough snow to go sledding!” That sounds like a good thing, so you need to explain more clearly to the young reader why it’s not.


If you attend the New Jersey SCBWI’s Annual Summer Conference on June 8th to 10th you will have an opportunity to meet Leila Sales and pick up a signed copy of MOSTLY GOOD GIRLS and/or PAST PERFECT.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thank you so much Leila!

    I’m very grateful for both your valuable insight and time. I try to absorb every piece of advice I can get through reading all of the critques.

    So often, I wonder if I’m on the right track or if I need to cut something. It’s funny that you mentioned the melodramatic part, because it just wasn’t sitting right with me, either.

    I debated on whether to cut that line or the last sentence for space and decided to step outside of my comfort zone and go for it. LOL! I should have listened to my inner voice! You were absolutely right!

    Thank you, too, Kathy, for offering us so many wonderful opportunities to be the best writers we can be! ❤


    • Eileen,

      Enjoyed your first page and Leila’s comments. And I liked your title.

      See you soon,



  2. Thank you for the feedback, Leila. Much appreciated!

    I loved the artwork from Kris Aro McLeod this month — it offered inspiration and a good starting point.

    Thanks for coordinating, Kathy, as always. :>


    • Yvonne,

      Good job on the first page.

      See you soon,



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