Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 29, 2013

Free Fall Friday – Agent Janine Hauber Critiques

maryjogirl w_chicken

This Good Friday Illustration was sent in by MaryJo Scott, a freelance illustrator and mother of three. Besides filling journals with sketches and words, she moonlights as an open mic storyteller and poet. Growing up the youngest of six and working in my parents’ coffee/gift shop, has given me an unending supply of humorous and poignant stories. My favorite things are walking out of a library with an armful of books, hiking, gardening, visiting with my chickens (the girls and one talkative rooster) and looking for salamanders under rocks with my kids.


Leading off the critiques for March is the only one who used the picture prompt. I want to thank everyone for submitting their first pages and thank Janine for taking time out of her busy schedule to critique the four pages and help so many writers in the process.

HE LOVES ME NOT  By Lauri C. Meyers – YA 

       “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me.” Rose said plucking the lily’s purple petals.

“You’re doing it all wrong,” a voice spoke behind her. Rose turned to see a beautiful stranger approaching. Almost too lovely for real life, and certainly too gorgeous for Corning.

“I can show you the correct way, but,” the stranger paused, her eyes gleaming, “you should only try if you’re certain of his love. Though, you wouldn’t be pulling petals if you were sure.”

“I know he loves me deeply. I was merely,” Rose selected her words, “reassuring myself.”

“Delightful. Then you are indeed ready for the test. Escort me to the water.” Though Rose was not in the habit of following strangers, she easily slid her arm in the woman’s elbow when offered.  This woman felt safe, or at least irresistible.

“Water flows all around the world, across the land, down the mountains, into the sky, and through every living thing. Water courses through you right now.  If anyone knew the truth, it would be the water.”  The stranger brushed Rose’s cheek with her supple fingers. The words sounded as true as anything she had ever learned. Certainly, water did know more than anyone.

“Though my pastor says,” Rose attempted to collect the letters floating around her head into the words she heard every Sunday, but the truth was strong. The stranger’s smile dazzled.

“To ask the water, you must be in the water.” Rose didn’t remove her slippers or raise her gown as though entering a carriage, but rather waltzed right into the lake.

“Now say your words. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me.”

“He loves me. He loves me not.  He loves me. He loves me not,”  Rose chanted.

The water rippled around her, and bubbles began to pop around her fingertips. Then the water tugged her under. She didn’t struggle as the liquid filled her mouth; she just let go knowing the answer to the question.

“It seems he loves you not.”  The stranger walked away from the water.

Here is Janine’s critique for HE LOVES ME NOT by Lauri C. Meyers:

I like how this story opens with a familiar action that immediately tells us something about the main character and creates anticipation for both Rose and the reader–will her love be reciprocated? Then the introduction of the stranger with a better solution follows immediately, breaking our expectations and adding a layer of intrigue. I love the description of the stranger as “Almost too lovely for real life, and certainly too gorgeous for Corning” because it tells us not only about the stranger but also about the setting and, in contrast, presumably, about Rose. The description could also allude to some magical or paranormal ability, which the following paragraphs lead me to believe she possesses. Was that intended? If so, I love the use of simple language to work on so many levels.

While Rose’s interactions with the woman seem strange, I’m willing to believe because the author hangs a lantern on it by saying Rose wouldn’t normally follow strangers but this woman feels irresistible. I do wonder, however what it was Rose was saying about her pastor and why she can’t recall it in the woman’s presence. Has the woman (literally or metaphorically) cast a spell on her? This may be explained in the following pages, and in that case, it’s fine to leave the reader wondering at this point. It seems that Rose has some misgivings about the woman’s proposal, but yet they never fully arise, and for some reason, I’m picturing her as Alice following the White Rabbit down the hole, which I really like. The line that I am hung up on, though, is that “the truth was strong”. I don’t know what that means, and maybe that should be made more clear.

When Rose enters the water and chants, I like the images of the water rippling and the bubbles popping around her. Again, there’s something beautiful and mystical about this description. After that I’m not quite sure what actually happens. Does the current pull her under? Is it some supernatural force? And does she come back up?

There’s a wonderfully enchanting mood set in this piece, and I would definitely keep reading to find out what happens. I do feel a bit disconnected from the two characters, though. If Rose (or the mysterious woman) is the main character, how can we learn more about her? And if neither of them is the protagonist, how are they connected to the protagonist in a way that it sets the stage for the rest of the story?

It would also be beneficial to check for common spelling and grammar errors, which can distract readers. Overall, an engaging first page.

YA Novel  BABY  by Kathleen Elken

            “Ain’t no way to come into this world.”

That’s what most people say about me bein born in a Port Authority toilet bowl.  That ain’t how I feel about it though.  Givin birth to me in that dirty, ol’ pot was the second best thing my Mama ever done for me.  The best thing was her leavin me there.  Nobody, not nobody should be with someone who don’t love ‘em.  Least that’s what Nell always said, and she be the one who found me.

Hittin that cold water must a been like the slap most babies get ‘cause Nell said I was bawlin like a banshee when she opened that stall door.  She stuck her hands right in and scooped me out.  Used a ribbon from the flowers she was carryin to cut my cord.  Then she wrapped me tight in her coat and held me close.  Back and forth, back and forth she rocked, waitin on that other lady to bring back help.

Those transit cops, they said I was so blue, so cold, I’d never make it.
“Hush!” Nell said to them.  “Go find this baby girl’s Mama!”

And they did.  Just followed her blood trail out a that bathroom.  Past those statue people, down those steps, all the way past Hudson News, right up to the Greyhound Ticket Counter.  Mama was just gettin off line, grippin a ticket to Pittsburgh.  She must a used up her whole life savins ‘cause they don’t find no other money on her.

It was good the cops had a hold a her by the arms since her knees buckled right then and there.  They ended up takin both a us down to St. Vincent’s.  We was in that hospital a week, and every day the nurses ask her don’t she want to see me.  But she never did…

Here is Janine’s critique for BABY by Kathleen Elken

What’s most intriguing to me about this main character is not her dramatic birth but her unique perspective on it. I think most readers can agree being abandoned in a public toilet is “no way to come into this world”, but the main character holds no grudges and wants no sympathy, finding herself lucky to have at least been given a chance at a life with someone who loved her, which presumably she found in Nell. Immediately, I’m drawn to like this character who sees her own bad fate in the best possible light.

I love the imagery in this first page, from the baby hitting the water like a slap, to the transit cops following the trail of blood “past those statue people…”, to the mother gripping a bus ticket to Pittsburgh. The voice is compelling, and I’d definitely want to keep reading.

As I’ve noted, the story about the main character’s birth is interesting and sweeps me along, and it certainly tells us a lot about the character. However, at the end of this page, I have very little idea what the novel is about. I assume the main character is now a young adult and I wonder what’s going on with this character at present. Perhaps this first page is actually back story that could be worked in later once we’re better grounded in the plot? Or maybe one paragraph could come before the first line to set up why this information is important for us to know right away?

One general thing to keep in mind here is the dialect. While I enjoy the element it adds to the narrator’s voice, I think the level of dialect may be a little intense for some readers. I found it distracting that in some sentences there were multiple words in dialect. It might sound more natural if less dialect were used to greater effect; for example, adding the “g” back in at the end of words ending in “ing” but keeping more impactful expressions like “ol’ pot”.

The first page has great writing and a strong protagonist.

Picture Book   Ants in My Pants by Linda Bozzo

Amy Sue whirled into Room 13 waving a note. “This is from my mom.”
She bounced up and down on her left foot. Then she bounced up and down on her right foot.

Dear Mrs. Diaz,
Amy Sue can’t stay still today. I hope you’ll know what to do.
Mrs. Jitters

Amy Sue plopped down in her desk. Her toes tapped. Tappity, tap, tap. Her hands clapped. Clappity, clap, clap.
The class could not help but notice.

Amy Sue pulled out her book and tried to read. But her backside grew fidgety. Her desk shook. Smack! Amy Sue’s crayons crashed to the floor.

“Amy Sue, why can’t you stay still today?” asked Mrs. Diaz.

“I’ve got ants in my pants and I don’t know what to do.”

“Oh, my!” said Mrs. Diaz. “Be a dear and give this to Mrs. Water and ask her for new crayons.”

Amy Sue zigzagged to the art room. She dashed from one side of the room to the other before she dropped the note on Mrs. Water’s desk.

Dear Mrs. Waters,
Amy Sue needs a new box of crayons. By the way, she can’t stay still today. Can you help?
Mrs. Diaz

“Amy Sue, why can’t you stay still?”

“I have ants in my pants and I don’t know what to do.”

Here is Janine’s critique of ANTS IN MY PANTS by Linda Bozzo:

This story has the potential to be a really fun read aloud. I love the verbs here: whirled, bounced, plopped, tapped, clapped, shook, crashed, zigzagged, dashed… I can see Amy Sue moving and I think young readers would be drawn in by her actions (and perhaps able to relate in not being able to control their fidgets). I would definitely keep reading to find out what else those ants will make Amy do and how she’ll get rid of them.

As engaging as the narration was, I was a little less enthralled with the notes and the dialog, and I found they pulled me away from Amy’s motion that was otherwise propelling the story forward. I wonder if those interactions couldn’t be summed up in the narration? Taking this a step further, as written now, the grownups are trying to solve Amy’s problem, when it might be more interesting to see the main character search for her own solutions. How does she try to control the “ants in her pants” and what other trouble does she cause enroute to succeed?

This is a strong first page. I think if you continue developing the main character and the action, it could be even stronger. Again, I’d read further to find out what happens here.


As I opened the screen door I sensed tension. Something was wrong, but what?   Dad sat at the kitchen table- normal.   He had a cup of coffee- normal.  His head was down like he was reading or deep in thought- normal.  I dropped my backpack onto the floor with a thud. He didn’t look up – UNUSUAL!

“Guess who aced her Algebra test?”  I said, trying to sound cheerful. But for some reason, it felt like cockroaches were gnawing on the insides of my stomach.

“Jilly,” Dad said letting out a mournful sigh.  The tone in his voice stopped me in my tracks.

“Huh?” I said slipping into the chair across from him.  He sucked in a deep breath and whispered. “I have to go.”  His blue eyes looked faded, lifeless and his face taunt. “I got my orders. I’ve been called up.”

For a moment, I couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about.  But then it was clear.  Dad was going to war and I was going to live with Aunt Karen. A sick feeling coiled around me like the tentacles of a massive squid.  My chest hurt. Every bit of life was being squeezed out of me.  It was a panicky feeling I knew all too well.

Dad stood up and walked to the kitchen window. “This isn’t what I planned.”   He looked over the driveway- staring blankly as if somehow- someway the answer to our problems could be found, written in the asphalt.  A few seconds later he walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and said “We’ll be all right. We’ve been through worse.  You and me kid, we always make it through.” But his voice sounded weak.

I needed it strong. What could I say?  No problem.  Everything will be fine.  I don’t mind changing schools again.  Keppler and Cruze will be fine without me. I really wanted to make him feel better.  I wanted to say, everything will be all right. But damn it! Things were different this time.

Here is Janine’s critique for FOURTEEN AND FEELING LIKE POLLYWOG POO by Doris Stone:

I’m torn about this first paragraph. I like what it tells us about Jilly’s relationship with her father: they’re close enough that she can immediately sense her father’s tension, even if she doesn’t know how she knows. It rings true to me that she takes stock of the situation

to try and figure out what’s different. However, the mental checklist format feels a bit unnatural as she would make those observations more quickly and running through it that way gives a bit of a detective feel, which doesn’t seem to fit with the scene that follows.

The author uses great metaphors to show how the main character’s feeling, such as, “A sick feeling coiled around me like the tentacles of a massive squid.” With such a strong sentence, I don’t know if the next two sentences are necessary because they essentially say the same thing but less effectively. I also feel the father’s emotion when he stares out the window and speaks reassuring words in a weak voice. I would be careful to keep the girl’s voice age-appropriate, though. It seems out of character for a young girl to observe “His blue eyes looked faded, lifeless and his face taunt”. What does the father do to show his feelings? What subtle things would the character more likely notice, like in the above example? It also felt out of voice to me later when the character says “damn it” in a way that seems too adult. Most of the things Jilly does, says, and feels seem believable and age appropriate, so I wouldn’t want to pull the reader away from her story with these more adult lines.

I’m intrigued that apparently the father has been deployed (or at least transferred) before but this time things are different. I want to know more about that. What’s different? And just who are Kepler and Cruze? I like that these facts are dropped in, and I’d want to keep reading to find out the answers. However, there are some details I feel need to be filled in sooner. I’m unsure how many times Jilly’s father has been deployed; Jilly doesn’t comprehend what her father means at first, but then she says she knows the feeling all too well and that she’s changed schools before. These statements seem to contradict each other. Additionally, I wonder what worse things the father and daughter have been through before? And has Jilly lived with Aunt Karen in the past or was there a mother (or someone else) in the picture before? When too many of these questions creep in without any answers, I start feeling like I’m observing a private conversation, and I want to be more in the loop so I can feel fully invested in the characters.

As a note, the fourth paragraph should be split into two so you don’t have two characters speaking in one paragraph. Another great first page that would keep me reading!


Remember you can meet Janine Hauber from the Sheldon  Fogelman Agency at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in June. For more details, or to register go to: This is a great opportunity to get to know Janine. Thanks again Janine. It is very appreciated!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. First—I just love MaryJo’s simple, adorable illustration. It made me smile 😀

    I thoroughly enjoyed Lauri’s take on the picture prompt. I loved the whole premise and how it fit with the image. It’s certainly better than the one I was toying with when I considered writing a page (but didn’t). Mine was more gruesome, with an ex-lover and murder! Oh, my! I was only distracted acuple of times, with small things, but for the most part, I loved it. My guess is she didn’t come back up!

    Janine picked up things about Kathleen’s work with dialect that I hadn’t considered. For the most part, I was OK with it. I was engrossed, for sure, and as I read Janine’s critique, was agreeing with everything she said 🙂 Great stuff.

    I thought Linda’s premise for ANTS IN MY PANTS was adorable and original 🙂 I want to know what else she did, too, and how the problem was solved!

    I want to know more about Doris’s story, too. and before I read what Janine said, I had copied and pasted the same sentence: “A sick feeling coiled around me like the tentacles of a massive squid.” That’s so wonderfully descriptive 🙂 I know I can’t resist writing like that!

    Thanks, gals, for submitting all your work for us to enjoy! 🙂 Thanks, Kathy, for posting 🙂


    • Donna- We want to hear about your gruesome murder story too!
      I hadn’t even considered the maiden coming back out of the water, but what a delightful turn of events that would be. She’s alive, but now she knows her beau doesn’t reciprocate. Hmm…

      Janine- Thank you so much for taking the time for the critiques. They were all very helpful.


      • Nah, I couldn’t flesh it out well enough in my mind and then didn’t have time to put the effort in to do so, so I passed again, but I LOVE Kathy’s picture prompts 🙂 I had never gotten into doing that until there was an illustration she put up that I couldn’t resist and was compelled. Though I really need to start concentrating on other work, there are a few of those first pages that still occasionally tug at my shoulder, wanting me to expand! lol Maybe you will, too!

        And forgot to thank Janine for her wonderful critiques that help us all 🙂


  2. Lauri – Great job with the picture prompt. I loved the mysterious but magical mood that you cast. Janine’s comments were so helpful as well!


  3. Janine and Kathy, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I appreciate the opportunity to have FOURTEEN AND FEELING LIKE POLLYWOG POO critiqued. I’m in the beginning stages of writing it so, Janine your insights will guide me through the first draft and beyond. I’m extremely grateful for your help. Kathy, your website is one of my favorites. I look forward to your daily emails and have learned so much from you. The first page critiques are enlightening. To have editors and agents point out the strengths and weakness of works in progress is invaluable . Finally, thanks to my fellow writers for putting your works and comments on the site. It helps to know what others are working on and also that we all have our strengths and weakness. Hugs to everyone.


  4. I know this is a little late, but thank you for the first-page critique. Some great points for me to consider.


    • Linda,

      We enjoyed reading it. Will I see you at the conference this year?



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