Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 27, 2012

Free Fall Friday – Sean McCarthy

Agent Sean McCarthy was nice enough to read five of the first page prompts sent in for review. I thank him and I hope some of you take the time to thank Sean, too. He was very generous with his time.  It’s easy to see that Sean is someone who really cares about improving the quality of children’s books.

As a reminder the illustration on the left done by Brian Bowes was the picture prompt for this month.

Here are the first pages and Sean’s comments:

COPERNICA by Lauri Meyers 

            I banged my foot on the side of the blaster to put out the fire.  Old One-Eye got too close that time.  Good thing I didn’t skip the fire retardant dip today or I would have been toast. My brother would have been mad if he had to tell mom I got fried to a crisp getting birthday cake.

            Mom was still going to be steamed when she figured out we made the supply run.   I hoped she would ease up when our little brother got to taste chocolate cake for the first time.  Mom told me I had a chocolate cake when I turned four.  I think it was sweet and maybe a little spicy.  I would remember it this time.  Everything tastes sweeter when you battle a dragon for it.

            “On your left!” Alistar yelled before a swift turn right.

            “Whoa where did the second dragon come from?” I said adjusting my hold.  It was one thing to die getting cake.  It was another thing to die because you are daydreaming about cake.  I checked my supply bag.  The cake was safe. The medical supplies we picked up were good too.  The magazine in my pants was poking me in the ribs after the quick move.  Alistar would lecture me if he knew I had extra cargo. I would have to hide it from my friends too.  I didn’t want to get it back with crumpled pages, circled outfits, and drool on the pictures of stars.  I was going to know 10 years ago styles better than anyone.

            One crazy scientist and a dragon egg was enough to seriously disrupt the fashion industry.  Who knew dragons didn’t need a mate to reproduce? One became hundreds in a few years. We are pretty safe in the country, but London is lost.  I don’t know if the dragons figured out how to cross the ocean, but there hadn’t been yankee doodle rescue attempts in a few years.

            “Hold on, Nic!” Alistar shouted before dropping under the bridge.  I tightened my grip.  No one called me Copernica anymore.  You don’t want to get chomped because someone politely used your full name before getting to the part about the fire-breathing dragon standing behind you. 

Here’s Sean:

With dystopian manuscripts, it’s crucial to immediately establish how the character’s world is different from the current landscape, and to set the manuscript apart from other books within the genre. I liked that you took chocolate cake and fashion magazines, and transformed them into something exotic. This, along w/ the dragon references, let’s the reader know what kind of story to expect. 

With that being said, the amount of information that’s being presented to the reader may come across as overwhelming. In addition to Copernica’s task of ferrying the cake to her younger brother, we also learn that there are hundreds of dragons (including one that’s chasing Copernica) and that London has fallen.

I think the best opening chapters feature a task or a theme that will act as a stand-in for the rest of the novel. For example, in THE HUNGER GAMES, we first meet Katniss as she’s hunting for food to provide for her family. Although some of the horrors to come are hinted at, the initial emphasis is really on Katniss’ inner strength and will to survive. You may want to likewise narrow the focus when we first meet Copernica, and allow one aspect of her character to speak for the novel to come.


The wind tore the boy’s words from his mouth.

                “If we don’t run out of photons, I think we can make it to the finish line.”

                Brandon had taken an enormous risk picking up a hitchhiker in the middle of the biggest race of his life. What else could he have done, the girl would have died.

                “Hang on Zoe, I’ve saved my best trick for last.”

                Clutching her suitcase tightly, the girl looked back to see the flying creature closing in on them.

                “Does that thing eat people?” She screamed over the roar of the solar-powered photon cycle.

                “Are you kidding girl, it’s doesn’t even have teeth.”

                The floating finish line was fast approaching.

                “Hang on kid, I’ve only done this once.”

                The Angelsaurus watched the boy step on the clutch, kill the photon engine and hit the after-burner switch.

                Zoe screamed as she slipped off the back of the cycle, tumbling towards the screaming crowd below. Brandon blew through the virtual finish line, killed the after-burner and coasted back to where Zoe had fallen off. The Angelsaurus was holding onto her. Brandon hadn’t been worried about her safety because he never raced without his guardian Angelsaurus at his side.

Here’s Sean: 

I think it’s a good idea to let the reader know right away what’s at stake for your character. By the end of the first few chapters, I’m hoping to have a strong sense of the novel’s central conflict, so I was pleased to see some dangerous, dramatic elements (the biggest race of Brandon’s life; Zoe’s near-death experience) introduced right away. Strong characters will draw readers into your story, but a compelling and expertly paced plot will keep them invested in your work.  

Brandon’s use of “girl” and “kid” while addressing Zoe was bit jarring for me, because it made him seem more like Zoe’s parent than her peer. Kids tend to have their own unique way of interacting with each other, and I think there’s an opportunity here to play around w/ language. How do kids with guardian creatures and rocket races talk to each other? The rhythm to their voices should feel familiar, but you have a chance here to inject personality into their voices.  

I also noticed that there was some word repetition (photons are used three times, and Zoe screams twice) within the first few paragraphs, and it took me out of Brandon’s and Zoe’s story. You may want to give the reader more details and description about the world they’re about to enter.

WAR, HUMANS AND DRAGONS by Veronica Taylor

                The year is 3060 and change has been coming, for many years, that will decide who is the dominant species on our planet, humans or dragons. So this predawn finds my friend, Tony B. and I, Sheila Aimsley, making an early delivery. One, of the utmost importance, to Sir Alec Reynolds, a secret missive, Intel on the progress of the war between humans and dragons.

                “Hurry, Tony, the dragon is gaining on us,” Sheila yells as the dragon locks his fierce blue eyes on her, moments before fire streams from his mouth, a scorching blast that just misses her.

                Smoke comes out of Tony’s mini-rocket car, and they both cough, gag before Tony replies, “I’ve got it, Sheila, just chill!”

                “Maybe, if you were back here,” she mutters, then shrieks, as a wind draft shoots them up, high above the dragon.

                “I see Sir Reynolds stronghold, Tony! Get your remote control gadget out, and give it to me. I’ll press the button to make the invisible shield blink, a moment, so we can  get through,” Sheila yells.

                Just as Tony passes Sheila the remote control, the dragons wing, slams against her shoulder. She watches, in horror, as the remote control rockets to the ground. “Get it Tony! Without that we cannot breach the invisible shield.”

                Tony turns the rocket sharply, they pass the dragon, and Sheila catches the remote as they swoop down, just below it, and she presses the button, just as they reach the shield. The dragon, again shoots a blast of fire at Sheila and instantly she’s a human torch.

                She rips her jacket of, and watches it sail away, just as the shield closes behind them. “Ah,” Sheila mutters, “The human race, safe again, for now”.

Here’s Sean: 

Action sequences are often some of the toughest scenes to write, because the impulse is to rush the reader through the events. I thought you did a good job of pulling back from the action and allowing the chase and near-disaster of the falling remote to unfold naturally, and in doing so you’re able to create and maintain tension. I also enjoyed Sheila’s sarcastic asides (although be careful w/ repeating “mutters”) and thought it was an effective technique for Sheila’s character to stand out.  

I realize this is a writer’s prompt exercise and so this isn’t exactly fair, but there’s a lot of information that is presented to the reader in the first couple of paragraphs. Speaking to a more general point, this may be information that you as the writer NEED to know, but that may not need to be revealed to the reader. For example, the year and the narrator’s name are not essential information, and there may be a more organic way (e.g. through dialog) to present these facts in the narrative.

NO TITLE by Patricia Alcaro 

                You’ve got to be kidding me! What’s with the green monster, and what makes this guy think I need rescuing. I realize now how impulsive I can be. Why do I never consider the consequences? How is it that I now find myself on this rocket ship driven by this weirdo?

                Why did she have to suggest we do this, and why didn’t I question her.  At first it had sounded intriguing. And, boy, did my life need a diversion.

                My day began with Mom and Dad arguing. They seem to be doing a lot of that lately.  Today’s argument was over my clothing.  Dad thinks I dress like someone who buys her clothes in a rag store.  Does such a place exist? Mom says I am seeking my own style. Whatever!!

                When Shari arrived, I fled. No need to ask her where we were going.  I was willing to go anywhere and do anything, to get away from Mom, Dad, and fighting. Dad’s last shouting words were,  “Get back here now.” (Whoa, Dad should see me now…)

                Shari and I rushed to her convertible, top down, and drove away from my house as quickly as we could. I asked her what our plans were for today, but she just smiled and said it was a surprise. Shortly, we arrived at a park. We put the top up on the car and proceeded down a narrow path surrounded by shrubs and trees. 

                “Keep your eyes down and try to find a red rock.  When you do, be sure to step on it.  You are in for an amazing adventure, “were the last words I heard from Shari. It was at that moment that I experienced a flash of light and a whirling sensation followed by nausea. I was instantly transplanted to the middle of a city. There was something about this place that seemed familiar.  But where was Shari and what happened to the park?

Here’s Sean:

I liked the setup of being thrust into a potentially terrifying situation, and then backtracking to what seems like a perfectly ordinary day. There is some danger in revealing too much to the reader and thus completely sapping the tension out of the first half of the novel, but I thought you did a good job of walking that line. 

Self-reflecting questions can be an effective device to point the reader towards larger themes in the work, and to gain insight into a character’s mind (I love that the narrator is freaked out as much by the green monster as she is about her wardrobe). However, too many questions can make the narrator seem passive and indecisive, and that may be happening here.

This is going to sound super nitpicky, and it absolutely is, but I did notice an extra exclamation point next to “Whatever” and a misplaced quotation mark (next to “amazing adventure”) in the last paragraph. I would never pass on a query/sample chapters solely due to a typo, but they can draw me out of the story. When you’re submitting your work, make sure that the first 5 pages are grammatically flawless.

THE DRAGONLING by Donna Taylor

“I’m not sure she understands!” I yelled loudly, though doubted Joe could hear me. I could barely hear myself above the screams of the engine and wind as we raced past the towers high above the main thoroughfare of the old city. Joe was the most decorated pilot in the fleet, but we were low on gas and the only things securing me to the FlyBike were my thighs gripping its sides and my left arm cinching his waist. My right clutched the satchel of precious cargo.

            Far below, pedestrians were noticing the surreal sight soaring above them. I could see their quizzical expressions, trying to discern what looked like a manned rocket with a dragon-like creature serving as Wingman . They were clueless to the grave reality of what must appear to them to be a scene from an action film, which is exactly what we’d report to the newspapers if we survive. They didn’t know flying serpents still existed, nor did they know of the slayers determined to rid the world of the last pair, believing they were demonic beings. We carried what was the very last dragonling; its mother stayed close, determined to see it to safety.

            I was uncertain if she understood we were trying to save her hatchling, not finish the job the slayers started. We’d left the father to continue the battle, not knowing if he’d been slain. There was no stirring from within the satchel. Was my tourniquet holding up? As if Joe could hear my thoughts, his words wafted past me, garbled in the wind. “Shel, we’re almost there!”

            “Hurry! Please hurry!” The fear in my voice reached the mother’s ears and I could see she now understood I was a friend. Just then, the FlyBike lurched and sputtered. Instinctually, the mother positioned herself beneath us. We were maybe fifty feet above the street.

            “You have to jump!” Joe said as he turned to look me in the eye. “That’s an order!” He said it as if I had a parachute on my back; as if there was no risk. I flipped my leg over, hugged the satchel to my chest and leapt as the engine died. I was able to grip her neck and look up in time to see Joe jump and disappear behind the flames of the bike as it exploded on the pavement.

Here’s Sean:

I was pleased to see your own invented slang (e.g. FlyBike, Wingman, Dragonling) in the manuscript. Using contemporary slang can be problematic because by the time a book is published (usually 2 – 3 years after it’s been sold), the slang might be outdated, but you can avoid this issue completely by creating your own language. It also will help w/ world-building, which is particularly important for sci-fi/dystopian stories. 

I liked that the reader is thrust into the action right away, but I had some questions about the logistics of Shel’s ride above the city. If her left arm is holding on to Joe, is it her “right” arm or hand holding on to the satchel? If Shel is soaring above the city and racing past the towers, how could she see the faces of the people below her? These are admittedly minor points, but they will sometimes distract me from jumping further into the story.

Thanks to everyone who submitted something and Thanks again to Sean for sharing his expertise with us.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. You know, this is always so much fun! Of course, I read the comments on my story first, but just finished reading everyone else’s. It’s always so interesting to me to read the different directions everyone’s imaginations go when looking at the same picture. These were all so imaginative, I think, and I’m sure the readers of the blog learned a lot from Sean’s expert critiques. I know I did 🙂

    What I see for mine is that I should learn to follow my instincts more because the things Sean points out are things I considered while writing the page, about the logistics. Not as excuses, but I spent about an hour on it, from beginning to end, and didn’t want to spend more than that, to be honest. There’s always the confines of the page where, when typing to revise, changing one word or adding one extra letter can shift the whole document to a second page, so even though things could be worded differently to be clearer or better—you can’t. It’s SO frustrating! lol

    Anyway, in the first paragraph I did mention her “right” arm though didn’t repeat the word “arm” ’cause I didn’t want to be repetitious and thought it was obvious. Maybe not though!

    In my mind I was imagining them flying high, but not so high that they couldn’t see people’s faces. In rereading it, perhaps a few simple changes would help. In the first paragraph simply removing the word “high” in the sentence “…as we raced past the towers high above the main thoroughfare…” and deleting the words “Far below” at the beginning of the next paragraph would’ve allowed for that? Opinions anyone?

    Also, since it’s been a few weeks since I actually wrote this, I see something that should be changed, too, also to do with logistics: in the very last sentence (I was able to grip her neck and look up in time to see Joe jump and disappear behind the flames of the bike as it exploded on the pavement.) I should’ve written “down” instead of “up” for it to make sense. It’s actually the thing I love about revision, is the tweaking and clarifying. It’s ALways good to be removed from the work for a while, to get that proverbial “fresh eye” going 🙂

    Thanks for encouraging me to do this, Kathy. It’s such good exercise! And thank you, Sean, for taking the time out for all of us to do this! It’s wonderful! 🙂


  2. My family was pretty surprised when I jumped out of bed with a flourish this morning rather than my usual slow extraction from the covers. Hooray, Copernica! Why am I the only one who thinks dragons are scary?

    Thank you Sean for taking the time to critique. Thank you Kathy for offering the prompt every month which has been great practice. Usually I work on picture books, so the prompts make for interval training.

    First page prompts are tricky. Sometimes only a paragraph peeks out and other times several pages explode from the picture. Where do you start and stop the first page?


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