Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 1, 2013

Free Fall Friday – Results

Emily Seife editor at Scholastic Press, critiqued our four winning first pages for October. Thank you Emily for taking time out of your busy schedule to help all of us improve our writing skills.

Emily is especially looking for: Young adult and middle grade fiction: stories with a strong voice and emotional core, contemporary humor, magical realism, mystery. She says she is not a good fit for: high fantasy, paranormal.

DIVERSE, by Carolyn Chambers Clark, YA magical realism

I didn’t start counting everything in a room until I turned four. My parents thought it was cute then. They even thought I was some kind of genius.

They don’t think it’s so cute now, and they certainly don’t think I’m a genius. Especially my dad.  We’re at the breakfast table—that would be me, Dad, my mom, my little sister, and my younger brother.

Everybody else is piling in the cereal and toast, but Dad’s staring at me, a look of disbelief snaking through his bushy eyebrows and carving hollows around his mouth. I guess he doesn’t understand why I’m not a genius anymore. “Jane, you’re a smart girl. I want you to try harder. Apply yourself this year. Okay?”

Dad tries, he does, but he doesn’t understand me—not that anybody really does. What I need here is some kind of magical sign to flash at him and the rest of my family to shake them up so they’ll see who I really am.

But I’m as much to blame, Instead of just blurting this out, I give him a lame, “I will, Dad, I promise.”

I get away from the breakfast table before Mom can add her two cents worth on my “dis-ability,” pick up my books, and head for school. Maybe something magical really will happen and only people with OCD will get admitted to Columbia when I apply. I don’t want this just for myself, but it would be pretty funny to see the faces of all the people who made fun of me when they hear I’ve been admitted. The real reason I want this magical occurrence is because I’d sure hate to disappoint Dad. He has this somebody has to carry on the family tradition and your brother’s not going to thing going on, which I’d love show him I can do.

The worst thing about OCD is I feel this tremendous pressure and guilt.

HERE’S WHAT EMILY HAD TO SAY about DIVERSE by Carolyn Chambers Clark:

Your first line totally grabbed me! It raised a lot of questions, in a good way. What is the narrator counting, and why? What happened when she turned four?

Then, the concept also intrigues me. I think a novel with an OCD narrator could be really interesting. You have a narrator with a very specific perspective, certain limitations, and a different way of viewing and interacting with the world. I think you’ve given yourself a lot to work with, right off the bat.

Also, you’ve begun with a great initial moment. Your narrator’s at the breakfast table, her dad looking at her with disbelief and disappointment. A parent’s judgment is a very powerful emotional note to start on.

However, though you begin an engaging scene, you don’t follow through. Why is dad looking at her with disbelief? What is Jane doing? You’ve captured my interest, but you leave me hanging. Is she acting inappropriately? Allowing her OCD to take over?

Then, toward the end of the page, you move into more general musings about Columbia and college acceptance. Again, I’d rather stay in the moment and learn about the character through her actions and the way she interacts with people.

I also worry that your first page suffers from too much telling. The final line is a great example of that: “The worst thing about OCD is I feel this tremendous pressure and guilt.” Rather than telling the reader about Jane’s emotions, let us get caught up in the action of the story, and have her guilt come through that way. I think that by digging deeper into the breakfast scene with her father, you could very easily produce a scene that shows us Jane’s habits, has her father reacting to them, and then showing us how Jane feels—all without stating any of it outright.

As for Jane’s OCD, there are great, subtle ways that you can get across some of her physical habits, in ways that will tell us a lot about the character. Nora Raleigh Baskin’s ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL comes to mind as a good example of this. Her narrator is an incredibly smart autistic 12-year-old who’s blind to a lot of social norms—and to the way he himself acts in the world. He often reacts to things physically (for example, his hands will fly away from him when he gets nervous) but he’s not aware enough to state that directly. You realize what he’s doing in the reactions of the people around him, subtle clues in his narration, etc.


Bernadette Cortas Golitz   THE JEWELED HOUSE       Middle Grade Mystery

 Chapter One: Aquamarine – provides direction in life and calms ones nerves                        

Ally’s stomach somersaulted into her throat as the plane’s landing gear groaned and shook beneath her seat. Out the window the ground was rising up, faster and faster. Trees grew larger and larger. Their leaves waved wildly as if warning: “Turn back!” She closed her eyes and imagined the headlines of her local newspaper back home.

Favorite Daughter of Streambrook Dies Tragically

Our beloved Alessia (Ally) Josephine Sprite was lost at the age of eleven and a half in a dreadful plane crash this week. She is survived by her guilt-ridden mother, her absent father, and unruly younger brothers, Michael, Joseph and Gio (also know as the Terrible Triplets). Her plane cartwheeled down the runway, as it attempted to land in Chicago on Monday, miles from our small, beloved East Coast town. This horrible calamity could have been avoided if her parents had simply sent Ally to her room as a form of punishment. Instead, they sentenced her to spend the first ten days of her precious summer vacation helping her elderly great-aunt in a city, miles away from her home.

The plane, however, did not crash and instead cruised to an uneventful stop. The other passengers jumped from their seats to a cacophony of clicking seatbelts. Grabbing their bags, they filed out of the plane. Ally’s sense of relief was replaced with “now what?”

She squeezed the amulet she wore around her neck at all times, believing in its power to give her guidance. It was priceless to Ally. Not because it was worth anything. It wasn’t. The necklace had come taped to a book about pony fairies she had ordered in the third grade. That was four years ago now, and the necklace had not let her down yet.

HERE’S WHAT EMILY HAD TO SAY about THE JEWELED HOUSE  by Bernadette Cortas Golitz:

Your instinct is right—you’re clearly aiming to start with a really exciting, gripping first line, something that will grab your reader immediately. However, your exciting start ends up being a bit of a fake-out. While I thought the book was opening with a plane crash, we learn in paragraph three that it was just a regular plane landing. It’s possible that hyperbole and overreaction are key parts of your character’s personality, or that a fear of flying is crucial to the story. If so—great. You’re seeding those things from the very start. But otherwise, I’d avoid that fake-out style opening. It’s all too common for me to see stories start with something very dramatic that turns out to be a dream, or not quite what it seems in some other way, and it’s always a bit disappointing. The reader can feel misled and taken advantage of.

Then, you fall prey to another extremely common issue that writers have with their beginnings—the info dump. You use the fantasy obituary as a very convenient place to stuff all your exposition—telling us about Ally’s age, family, why she’s on the plane, etc—but don’t think I’m not on to you! Although I think you’re aware of the dangers of dumping too much background info on a reader at once, and you’re trying to disguise it, it’s not quite working. The obit still feels a little forced, like you the author are trying to get us up to speed, rather than something that Ally would really think, if she truly were panicking and picturing her imminent death.

You have a lot of good elements here (for example, I’m wondering what Ally did to get sent away! That’s got me interested.), but you need to find the balance between action and exposition. It’s entirely possible that this just isn’t the exact right moment to begin your book.

Especially because I suspect your most interesting elements don’t even come into play at all . . . In fact, it’s not until the very end of the page that you get to the thing that intrigues me most about this beginning—the magical amulet! What is that? How has it worked for Ally? That seems like the key thing here.

I think that if you find a stronger opening scene, one that connects better to the heart of your story, you might have an easier time finding the right balance of action and background info. And if we see our character in action, rather than sitting passively on a plane, we’ll probably get a better sense of her personality, too.


Debbie Dadey/Middle grade/ Confessions of a YouTube Wonder

“Today will be different.  Today will be different.”  I said it from the first moment my Star Trek alarm went off.

“Today will be different,” I said in the shower, even when the shampoo got in my eyes.

I ate the pancakes mom made with the sprinkles on top.  They were exactly like the pancakes she’d made last year on the first day of school, but in my head I chanted, “Today will be different.”

I didn’t even drip toothpaste on my new pants and shirt.  This was going to be my lucky year.  Middle school was going to be so different from elementary school.

I have to admit elementary school wasn’t that great for me.  I mean, what’s great about sitting alone, reading a book at recess?  Don’t get me wrong, I like to read.  But I’d much rather have ran around with the other kids, trying to play kick ball.  So, I read a lot, but I also watched over the top of my book a lot.  I knew the kids that picked the teams and I knew the kids who got picked last.

But this year was going to be different.  Everyone said it, “Middle school is so different.”  The teachers, my parents, and even the school lunch lady on the last day of school.

She winked at me and said, “Good luck kid.  Middle school will be different.”  And I believed them all.  I even had a plan.  This was my time to show the Kids at East Groveland Elementary School, that Edmund McDonald was a force to be reckoned with, just like the Force in the Star Wars movies.  Yep, this was my lucky year.   I could feel it as I walked to my locker. This was my chance to . . .



You are tapping into a very popular genre—the nerd kid middle grade. As a result, you need to be especially concerned with finding ways to distinguish your character and your story. Because the hapless dork narrator has become extremely popular lately, there are many successful spin-offs, and many, many submissions that I see in this genre. So you need to be asking yourself: what makes your story stand out from the pack? And once you know the answer, make sure the reader does too, from the very first page! When the concept is (at first glance, at least) a familiar one, you need to make sure there’s something else that will convince readers to choose your story—whether the voice, the situation, etc.

And I worry that you’re not quite there yet. Too often I see manuscripts that start with the wake-up moment or the first day of school moment, and it can feel a bit generic. “Today will be different” isn’t enough to bring your character to life for me.

You do have some really nice moments and details, though. For example, I love the detail of the Star Trek alarm clock. That definitely clues us in to what kind of person our narrator is! And that THUNK moment at the end of the page has the potential to have a lot of humor. That’s actually the moment where I felt myself really getting interested, really wondering what was coming next.

You can look at the first DIARY OF A WIMPY KID book for a good example of the genre—and of beginnings. That story also starts on the first day of school, but the reader isn’t told that immediately. Instead, we’re sucked right in by the narrator’s voice, as he emphatically states that he’s writing in a journal, not a diary. There, from the very first line, you get the sense that this kid wants to be cooler than he is.

I also wondered why the narrator didn’t join in the kickball game back in elementary school. If that’s what he’d have preferred to reading, why didn’t he join in? Was it because he’s shy? Unathletic? Because the kids wouldn’t let him play? I think there are a lot of possible answers to this question, and depending on the answer, he would be a very different type of character.

There’s also the question of whether that paragraph is necessary (and the one about the lunch lady, too). Taking the reader out of the moment and flashing back to elementary school might not be the best way to get someone engaged in your story. And if you’re using flashbacks on your first page, you might wonder if the moment you’re opening with is, in fact, the right moment.

Perhaps you should start with “thunk!” or some other moment that’s a part of a richer scene.


The Secret of Scaremare Forest – Gayle C. Krause       MG Fantasy

It was midnight in Scaremare Forest. The gnarly roots of the twisted trees made Rollo’s path a tricky one. They curled in front of his paws to trip him, so his precious passenger would fall to the ground, making it easy for the Shadowmen to seize her.

Time was of the essence if Rollo was to get Calpurnia to safety.  She would bring the Shadowmen gold, not with her magical powers, but with the bounty the Dark Queen placed upon her head.

Their hisses filled the night and their foul stench reminded him they were close. He called upon the forest fireflies to lend their light to his path as Calpurnia studied the misshapen, black branches over her head.

Any moment, one of the Shadowmen might pounce upon her from above. She tightened her grip in Rollo’s thick fur as he traveled the rock-strewn path. His den was near and Calpurnia trusted him. After all, he was a mighty polar bear—by night. But by day, he was her little brother. And when the sun came up, its golden rays would slash through the Shadowmen like glistening swords. Only then, the perils would be reversed and it would be Calpurnia’s turn to watch over him. But what could a hummingbird do to protect a human boy from an evil Queen?

“Lean close to my ears,” said Rollo. “It will be harder for them to swipe at your hair.”

Calpurnia threw her arms around the bear’s neck, feeling his rapid heart beat through his thick muscles as he ran toward the cave opening. “We’re almost there.”

Just then, a boulder trundled in front of them, blocking the entrance.  Rollo stopped suddenly and in that instant an army of shadows surrounded them.

From the middle, stepped the Dark Queen. “Now, you’re mine, both of you.”


You’ve definitely captured my interest, and I’m eager to learn more about these characters and this world. I love sibling stories, and the fact that these siblings alternate between human and animal form adds an exciting dimension.

You’ve created a rich world, and a strong atmosphere. I also think you have some lovely writing in here.

However, it feels like you pick up almost at the climax of the action. The Dark Queen seizing Rollo and Calpurnia might be something that we need to build toward, rather than something that happens on the very first page.

You do a pretty good job balancing information and action— but you could probably even give us a little less of both. We’re in the middle of a dramatic chase scene, but you keep pulling back to fill in context. Lines like “She would bring the Shadowmen gold, not with her magical powers, but with the bounty the Dark Queen placed upon her head” draw the reader out of the story, and that information could probably come a little later on. While we’ll want to know why they’re being chased, that question can be answered more naturally as part of the action.

Instead, let us get a bit more clarity on the moment itself, and make sure there’s no confusion on the little things. For example, in the first paragraph I know that Rollo’s making his way down a forest path—but I actually imagined him picking his way fairly carefully, while rushing as best he could. Toward the end of the page I learn he’s actually full-out running. You want to make sure that you’re setting up the moment as clearly as possible. Even if we don’t know all the different magical elements right away, being truly grounded in the moment will allow us to hold on for the ride until all our questions are answered.

Also, you shift POV, moving from Rollo’s perspective in the first few paragraphs, to Calpurnia’s further on down the page. I’d try to stay consistent.

Thanks again, Emily!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow, thank you, everyone, for putting your first pages out there for us! I enjoyed the possibilities of each one, I have to say, and learned so much from Emily’s comments on each. I hope everyone else did, too. Free Fall Fridays are always a pleasurable learning experience. Thanks, Kathy, Emily and authors! 😀


  2. Thanks for the opportunity to get Emily’s feedback. I must say the illustration you posted was a great inspiration. It may just lead to a new MG novel for me. 🙂 Thanks again.

    Gayle 🙂


    • Gayle, I couldn’t remember the illustration! I just read all the first pages without thinking of that lol I need to go back to see what it was 🙂


  3. Thanks so much to Emily and Kathe! Time to get to work.


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