Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 30, 2012

Free Fall Friday – Karen Chaplin – Critiques

Here are the four winning first page submissions sent in for Editor Karen Chaplin’s review.  If you want to read Karen’s bio and likes and dislikes, you can use this link:

First winner is Janet Wellington:

THE LOOPERS CLUB/Janet Wellington/Middle Grade series

While Dad writes down his carefully numbered goodbye-list on the notepad next to the phone, I pick up Aunt Jess’ latest postcard off the kitchen counter. On the front is a picture of Stonehenge at sunset, and on the back she’s written: Count your blessings not your troubles. Right.

“You can’t leave.” I add Aunt Jess’s postcard to the others on the refrigerator door while Dad finishes his note. He likes to leave detailed lists of instructions when he goes on his secret Navy spy gigs. I stare at him with a particular glare I’m perfecting. I figure it’s something useful to have in your intimidation tool box, handy when things aren’t exactly going the way you want them to. Which, for me, is about every other minute.

“How long are you going for this time?” I ask. Length of deployment is usually the main topic when he leaves. That, and Mom.

“I wrote down your Aunt Jess’ new cell number. She’s in L.A. for a while, so, she’s pretty close, only a couple hours away.”

Just in case. He never says it out loud, though.

“But we just got here.” Which is true. Every wall in our cozy beach cottage glimmers white and there’s that new paint smell no matter where I am in the house.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” he says. “You’ll be fine. Besides, aren’t you happy to be in San Diego?”

Right. He thinks I can handle everything. Which I mostly do. But that’s not the point. And, actually, I’ve already concluded being here is just my regular life with better weather.

“Her meds are working…” He looks at me, then looks away.

I nod even though he’s doesn’t see me. I have to agree with that point. Mom does seem, well, almost normal. Still, much too soon to know if it’s going to last. Besides, truthfully, normal isn’t an option for her. Much as I’d like it to be. Much as I dream it should be.

Here’s Karen:

THE LOOPERS CLUB/Janet Wellington/Middle Grade series

This is a strong first page, filled with wonderful little details and phrases (like “Count your blessings not your troubles” and “Just in case”) that really come together to form a complete picture. We know that the main character’s father is going on some sort of mission, and the main character is being left along with a mentally unstable mom. I love the line of dialogue “Her meds are working…” because up until that point, we don’t know that the mom is in the picture, let along unstable. With this one short line of dialogue, we get so much information! And I’m very curious to read more, because we also get the sense that there is a history of the mom causing problems for the dad and the main character.

One concern I have is the tone of the story—that is, this has more of a YA feel than middle-grade. I don’t know if it’s because the topic of a mentally unstable mom lends itself more to a YA story, or if the main character just sounds a bit older. And this could resolve itself on the second page/going forward. But I’d watch out for tone throughout. Also, we don’t know if the main character is a boy or a girl. Perhaps add in a name (“Everything’s going to be fine, INSERT NAME HERE,”) to clarify. And I’m curious to see how this will become a series.

All in all, this is a strong start!


Darlene Beck Jacobson      CRAZY                           YA novel

“Necessity never made a good bargain.”  Benjamin Franklin – Poor Richard’s Almanac 1733

            What did I want?  I wanted to be left alone.

I once saw this documentary on PBS about a guy who lived all alone in the wilderness of Alaska for thirty years doing everything himself, right down to building his house and fireplace, growing his food and hunting and fishing for the rest.  He’d get a bush plane visit twice a year for basic provisions and mail, but other than that, he was on his own.  He made the film of his life in the wilderness.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that might be like.  Alone.  No parents breathing down my neck about grades, chores, getting a summer job or asking too many personal questions.  No kid sister and her goofy friends following me around and sending me annoying text messages.  No girlfriend to cut my heart open with a dull knife and walk away laughing with the captain of the lacrosse team.  What would I give to live by myself, with no one to hassle me?

I’d give up video games for a year.  No cell phone for a month.  No computer for a…week?   Okay, two weeks.  No green food forever.  That last one was actually not a hardship since I hated the sight – and taste – of green vegetables. Anyway, I think I could tough it out for a few weeks even if it meant sacrificing a few conveniences.

After the crazy school year I had working my ass off to make the Honor Roll, looking for part time work, and trying to keep Ellie Jaspers happy, I just wanted to be left alone.

Ellie and I met last summer at the pool club and hit it off right away.  We’d spent last summer swimming, flirting and hanging out nearly every day at poolside.  Her family had just moved to town and she didn’t have many friends yet, so it was a no brainer for us to be together.

Here’s Karen:

Darlene Beck Jacobson      CRAZY                              YA novel

The first thing I noticed about this page is that it seems to start three times. That is, you have the first line, a quote from Ben Franklin. Then you have a question/answer line. So we know right off the bat that the main character wants to be alone. And then you have this great description of a PBS documentary. I really love this; it draws the reader right in and makes us want to immediately understand how this documentary relates to the main character. And since this is the strongest start, I’m thinking this may be the best way to begin. The other two lines seem almost like false starts.

I would also scale back a bit on some of the exposition about being alone. Paragraph three, “I’d give up video games…” seems a little unnecessary. And I wonder if paragraph two—the fact that he has a sister that annoys him, he’s an honor roll student, and had a girlfriend that broke up with him, etc., could be conveyed in a different way. Maybe try to continue the documentary lead-in in some way. Explain how that spoke to him, how he envisioned himself living alone in the wilderness—not so much in the way that he would live without all the things (like computers and phones) but what he would get out of it, why it would make him happy (maybe even why it would help him to forget about Ellie?).

I definitely want to continue reading, to find out why the reader so desperately wants to be alone, what happened to him that was so traumatic that he wants to be by himself, what this girl did to him that ruined his life. Overall, this is a nice start!


BETTER LIVES by Eric Steinberg  Genre: YA sci fi

When Gil and Lew came to my dorm room with the idea of stealing the physics final, I normally wouldn’t have considered such a dumbass move. It wasn’t that I had any moral objections to cheating or stealing. An “A” in one class, even Jeffrey Taylor’s, just wasn’t worth the risk of being kicked out of prep school. But these were special circumstances. I had opportunity, thanks to Gil and Lew. I had motive, thanks to a shitty semester with Mr. Taylor. And I had an ace-in-the-hole, thanks to hooking up with pretty, but already-getting-on-my-nerves, fifteen year-old Heather in Mr. Taylor’s classroom.
By the time I reached our physics teacher’s small Cape Cod, the no-longer-falling snow had become a problem. Not only was I leaving footprints in the fresh powder, but the annoying white stuff also clung to the branches. Sweetening the already cloying charm of Maple Street’s tidy cottages, it made me want to puke.

After stealing the broom from next door’s porch, I slipped to the back of Mr. Taylor’s house. Gil was waiting for me.
“Door’s locked.” His breath was visible in the cold.
“I’ll open it,” I said.

Gil gave me a classic Gilbert and Lewis dull look. The two of them might as well have been brothers, both with Nordic good looks, several inches over six feet…and not too bright.
“I’ll open it,” I repeated, handing him the broom. I took out my tension wrench and wide-tipped pick.
Gil’s jaw went slack. “I’ve seen this shit on TV, Marc. You’re going to pick it?”
“Yeah, if you shut up and let me concentrate for a minute.”
The doorknob turned loosely in my hand. Broken, so, I’d only the deadbolt to deal with.

Here’s Karen:

BETTER LIVES by Eric Steinberg  Genre: YA sci fi

This is really fundamentally an action-filled first scene, so I’d want this to open with dialogue rather than three paragraphs of exposition. Let’s jump right into the scene, see what the main character, Marc, is doing, follow him along.

You have some very nice description—of the snow, of how cold it is, of how Marc is going to pick a broken lock. You’re painting a strong picture. But I’d also want to see a little more about Marc’s motive for breaking into the teacher’s home. For example, why would hooking up with Heather lead to him stealing a test? I’m not quite making the connection there.  Also, it’s mentioned (above) that this is YA sci-fi, and I’m curious about that, since I’m not getting a sense of a sci-fi element from the first page. (Perhaps that comes in after they break in the house?)

I think, with tweaking this to start with the dialogue, this is a strong first page.


Genre: Contemporary Middle Grade Novel – Wendy Greenly

The rest of the world is asleep.

I know some doctors and police and other people work at night, and they’re out there somewhere, but sitting on my bed, holding my flashlight, I feel like no one else is awake. This is my favorite time of day. Night.

I rule the night, as much as any ten-year old boy can without fangs or claws or any other cool creature-of-the-night superpowers.  As long as I’m quiet, I have the house to myself. Sometimes I watch TV, sometimes I play computer games, but either way I have to turn the volume down so low I can’t really enjoy the crashes and explosions.

When I need to be quiet, I read books and a bunch of stuff online. So far this year I’ve taught myself Klingon and Esperanto, so I’ll be ready in case earth is invaded by space aliens.

Some nights the best entertainment comes from real-life silent movies I watch from my bedroom window. Like tonight, the lady next door is bathing her cat in the kitchen sink. Or trying to. Every time the lady pries one of the cat’s legs off the faucet and puts it in the water, the cat pulls back and wedges itself between the faucet and the wall. Just as I get really into it, betting which will give up first, the cat leaps over the lady’s head and disappears into the darkness. The lights click off. Show’s over.

I get up to stretch my legs. On my way down the hall I stick my head in my brother Webster’s room. He’s asleep, curled up next to his favorite stuffed toy, a long squishy python he named Skeezer. Webster is only five-years-old and he still sleeps four or five hours a night. I can barely remember what that was like.

I zigzag my way downstairs, dodging the squeaky floorboards by memory, heading toward the kitchen. It’ll be breakfast in a couple hours but I’m hungry. Now.

Here’s Karen:

Genre: Contemporary Middle Grade Novel – Wendy Greenly

Nice first sentence! It really elicits a question for the reader—if everyone is asleep, then what is the narrator doing awake? Going on to the next few paragraphs, though, I get a bit lost and don’t quite know where this is going. While you have some strong images here (I particularly like the “real-life silent movies” and “dodging the squeaky floorboards by memory”), I’m wondering if these next few paragraphs are necessary. Do readers need to know everything he does at night? Perhaps condense this information in favor of moving more quickly to the mention of the brother.

I love this introduction of Webster. What strikes me is that he’s “only” five and he “still” sleeps “four to five hours a night.” This is intriguing and gives the reader something to really think about. Something is definitely “off” with these brothers, and I do want to find out what that is! Why doesn’t the main character sleep? And why is his brother able to? And why, at the very end, does the main character need to eat…”Now.” The way this is phrased seems like it is very important, and perhaps it ties in with his lack of sleeping.

All in all, I would definitely read on to find out just what, exactly, is going on.


Thanks Karen for taking the time to share your expertise with us.  It is really appreciated. I hope it helps the writers out there and helps you receive better submissions.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy, I’m finding these first page crits very helpful, comparing my reaction to the page with that of the editor. I hope you will continue doing these.

    Hey Darlene, your first page is very strong and engaging. Congrats.


  2. What a lovely surprise to find my first page one of those critiqued by Karen. Thanks so much for your input and comments, Karen. Thanks Kathy for the opportunity.


  3. All pages entertaining 🙂 All critiques helpful! Thank you, everyone 🙂


  4. I wanted to say thank you to Kathy for providing this opportunity and to Karen for her thoughtful, detailed feedback. It will be helpful in revising my opening. Thanks again!


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