Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 27, 2012

Free Fall Friday – John Cusick

I want to thank Agent John Cusick from the Scott Treimel Agency for sharing his expertise with us this month. Below is the picture prompt for April and the four first pages that John read from what was submitted. You will find his comments for each.

Mountain Surrender by Don Nelson

“Can you see the top?” Robbie asked his friend.

“I can barely see it,” Gabriel answered, slipping the binoculars into his backpack.

The large white flag, whipping about on the mountaintop, was today’s objective.

“Come on Robbie, let’s keep climbing. One more mile and we should be on top.”

Scrambling over fallen trees, thick brush and boulders, Robbie followed Gabriel as they zigzagged up the steep mountain. A dark shadow, galloping up the valley, overtook the boys and blotted out the sun.

A hundred yards from the summit, Robbie stopped and bent over. With both hands on his knees and gasping for air, he called out. “Gabe! Can we rest for a minute?”

The wind gobbled up Robbie’s words and his friend kept climbing. Minute’s latter, with distant voices echoing off the mountain’s rock face, Gabriel stopped. He thought to himself, it’s now or never. Suddenly, hearing a noise from behind, he spun around.

“Last one to the top is a slacker,” Robbie yelled scrambling past him.

“No you don’t,” Gabriel spit out and bolted after him.

Crawling on hands and knees, the boys popped over the mountains edge. They stood up. It was gone. The white flag had disappeared. Had it surrendered to the storm or . . .

Here is John Cusick:

I love kicking things off in the middle of the action: two boys with an objective, scrambling up the mountainside to reach the white flag. I was a little unclear what to make of the phrase, “today’s objective.” Do Robbie and Gabriel climb regularly, with a different goal for each climb? Does the white flag mark the next summit on a multi-day hike? Is this a recreational climb, or do they have a larger goal? I was also thrown by the“dark shadow.” I half expected our heroes to be overtaken by a flying dragon! But instead the shadow passes and is never explained. These questions could certainly be answered in the following pages, but I would like a stronger footing (har har), to begin with. On the language level: we typically don’t use our friends’ names when addressing them, so “Come on Robbie,” feels forced. Also, avoid italicized internal monologue. In this case, we know Gabriel is eager to reach the top, so eager he’s nearly forgotten about his friend. His “it’s now or never,” doesn’t add much. Finally, “surrendered to the storm” feels a little off-voice, too poetic for this otherwise straight-forward narration.


The Extraordinary Surprise by Doris Stone

Garrett grabbed his binoculars. “Bye Mom. I’m going exploring.”

“Wait! Take Andy along, he needs some fresh air.”

Garrett scowled at his brother, “You’d better be quiet. I need to find something REALLY, REALLY EXTRAORDINARY for my science report. It’s due Monday.“

Andy looked up and smiled, “I help?”

“All right,” Garrett sighed before leading Andy to the end of the yard. “Shhhhh! Sit and be still! There’s a crow.”

Garrett brought the binoculars up to his eyes, then down. A moment later he crouched on the ground, slowly creeping toward the bird. Unnoticed by the crow, he slipped behind the giant prickly tree.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” Came a call from the top of the tree.

Silently, Garrett reached up, grabbed a branch and started to climb, branch by branch.

Andy became restless and let out a loud, annoyed, “YAWN!”

“CAAAAW!” The crow screeched and it flew away.

“Thanks! Thanks a lot!” Garrett said jumping to the ground.

Andy dropped his head, “I sorry.”

“Now what am I going to do?” Garrett grumbled, then froze. “Look! There’s a nest! I can do a report on the crow’s nest!” At once he started to climb again, moving quicker than the time before. High up, almost to the top of the tree, Garrett reached for the nest, just as Andy let out a scream.


Garrett lurched; his hand hit the branch and the nest crashed to the ground.

“I scared.” Andy said pointing at the ground. “I seed a snake.”

Here’s John:

I like the relationship between the brothers here, and Garrett’s clear motivation: he’s looking for something extraordinary for his science report, and is forced to bring along his annoying younger brother. This feels like a nice set-up for a character driven middle-grade, probably one with a good sense of humor. A few points:

1.    Watch out for expositional dialog, which can feel forced. “I need to find something really, really extraordinary for my science report. It’s due Monday.” This information might be better relayed through narration.

2.    Andy’s baby talk doesn’t feel true. “I help?” is a little too cutesy. For the most part, you can stick to simple, complete sentences for a young child’s dialog.

3.    “Garrett brought the binoculars up to his eyes, then down” – this is wordy, where “Garret looked through the binoculars”might suffice. Phrases like “a moment later” can typically be struck as well. We know time is passing, and these connecting phrases usually don’t add much.

4.    I was confused as to the crow’s location. As Garrett crawls along the ground, it seems the crow is on the ground with him, but as he climbs the tree, I wasn’t sure whether he was climbing to reach the crow on a high branch.

5.    If Andy yawns, that tells us everything to know about his level of enthusiasm. We don’t need “became restless” or “annoyed.”

6.    Finally, I did wonder why Garrett is pursing a crow at all—a crow doesn’t seem too extraordinary, even to a young child. Also, was his intention to capture it for his science project? That feels unlikely.


Untitled Middle Grade by Marty Preston

Shay McKeon is at it again. In the month since being sent to live in our town, she’s done nothing but cause trouble, if you ask my parents. But if you ask me and Curtis, she’s done nothing but the impossible: she’s made Northford fun.

On our walk home, Curtis and I look up to the clouds at Shay’s latest project. Curtis pulls out his binoculars─he says it’s a birdwatcher’s duty to carry them all the time. There’s not a bird in sight at the moment, but I’m glad he has the binoculars. “Hand ’em over,” I say.

“Geez, Ted. Just wait a minute,” Curtis says. “How’d she do that?”

“No clue. Gimme those so I can figure it out.”

After he gives them to me, I still can’t figure it out. “Maybe it’s an optical illusion?”

“Nah,” Curtis says. “It looks real.”

Sometimes I think Shay is an optical illusion, this curly-haired girl from Brooklyn who has landed in rural nowhere to finish eighth grade.

“How come you moved away without your parents?” I asked when we first met her. Curtis gave me a big-brother thwack, I guess because I’m always blurting out things that I shouldn’t.

But Shay didn’t mind. “They travel nonstop for work, so Aunt Leah and Uncle Fred volunteered to home-school me. Besides…” Shay lowered her voice and half-covered her mouth, like she was telling a secret. “I wasn’t doing so well in school.”

“I don’t do well in school either,” I said. It’s true─partly because I blurt out things there too. “I have homework issues. I object to the concept of it. Was that your problem?”

“Not quite.” Shay laughed. “My teachers said I needed ‘a different kind of learning.'”

We didn’t get what she meant at first, but after a month of knowing her, we understand. Her  teachers should’ve just admitted that they weren’t smart enough to teach Shay. And the proof of that, right now, is floating above us in the Pennsylvania sky.

Here’s John:

This is fun. I love the notion of a wild outsider coming to town and shaking up life for two brothers. By the end of the first page I was dying to know what Shay’s project was! There’s also some wonderfully economical storytelling here: I get a great picture of Shay with Ted’s line “Her teacher’s should’ve just admitted that they weren’t smart enough to teach Shay.” Shay is intelligent, bold, an iconoclast, and what’s more, Ted idolizes her. All that form one line! There’s also a great deal conveyed by the phrase, “He says it’s a birdwatcher’s duty to carry them all the time.” Not only is Curtis an amateur bird-watcher, he’s a bit anal, a bit formal, and I would wager he’ll be the one to balk at Shay’s crazy plans while Ted will be gung-ho from the start.

In terms of structure, the first paragraph reads more like a pitch or jacket copy than in-story narration. Better to start with paragraph two, “On our walk home…” which drops us right in the middle of the action. Also, I’m not sure you want to take us into a flashback so quickly. We’ve only had nine lines with Ted and Curtis before we jump back to their first meeting with Shay. It’s a little disorientating, and maybe better held for the second or third page. On the language level: we typically don’t say the names of the persons we’re addressing, so I’m not sure Curtis would say “Geeze, Ted,” and not just “Geeze, just wait a minute!” I would also strike “but I’m glad he has the binoculars.” We can infer this from Ted’s eagerness to use them.


Untitled by Jennifer Reinharz

“Whoa!  Joe it’s a UFO!”

“Let me see.  That can’t be a UFO.  It’s the middle of the day in Michigan.  Aliens are too clever to visit when the sun’s out.  Besides, they like to explore interesting places…like New Jersey.”

“Ok, fine.  Maybe it’s a giant mutant pelican!”

“David, it’s definitely not a bird.  First of all pelicans are black and white, not greenish purple plus they don’t sparkle.  Second of all the Doodad’s not flying, just hovering behind the clouds.”

“Let’s get a closer look.  It’ll be fun!”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.  It seems awfully far away and we need to get home.”

“Joe, Mom said that when she was a teenager she used to follow spotlights at night all the time.  Tracking a Doodad is practically the same thing.  She’ll understand.”

“Well, you have a point.  But let’s leave our backpacks here.  Mine’s heavy.”

“Don’t you read books?  A backpack always comes in handy on an adventure.  What do you have in there anyway?”

“My rock collection, a basketball, and some soup.  Ugh…David, what’s that stench coming from yours?”

“A worm garden and my tuna sandwich.  SniffSniff.  I don’t know about you but I smell popcorn.  Do you think the aliens are having a popcorn party?”

“It’s not a UFO!”

“Could the mutant pelican be watching a movie?”

“It’s not a bird!”

“Ok smarty pants, if you say so.  Last one over the bridge is a rotten egg!”

Here’s John:

“Whoa! Joe it’s a UFO!” ….

I love strong dialog, and I think a spoken line is a great way to open a story. However, with onlydialog, I don’t have an immediate bearing on who’s speaking, where they’re standing, or what’s going on. It also creates a rapid back-and-forth feeling that’s disorienting. I want to shout, “Whoa guys! Slow down! What’s going on here?” as if I’m not in on the story, just overhearing their conversation. Avoid expositional dialog, which can feel forced and untrue. For instance: “It’s the middle of the day in Michigan.” Does the character really need to point out what state he is standing in, or is this a device for letting the reader know where our story takes place? For the same reason, avoid using character names in dialog; we rarely say aloud the name of the person we are addressing. Also, some of this dialog feels a little tinny. I’m not sure I can hear a real child using the phrases, “Well, you have a point,” “A backpack always comes in handy on an adventure,” or “smarty pants.” The first feels too adult, and the other two a little cutsey.

You can see John at the NJSCBWI June Conference, so don’t miss out.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Very useful. Thank you. 🙂


  2. In “Mountain Surrender”, I disagree with Mr. Cusick … Finally, “surrendered to the storm” feels a little off-voice ….

    The reason being, when I think of a white flag, I think of surrender. It seemed like a reasonable question, and I thought it fit with the story. Otherwise, I felt Mr. Cusick offered a lot of great advice and insight. I hope to keep his evaluation in mind in my own writings. Another fine post, Kathy. As always, thanks for the share. 🙂 Marcy


  3. What a great idea, Kathy! It is so cool to get an agent’s take on actual writing.


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