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Ray Rhamey is a writer and editor. He has made a living through creativity and words for a few decades now. As a writer and then creative director in advertising, he rose to the top tier of the Chicago advertising scene, then left it to try screenwriting. In Hollywood, he became a writer/story editor at Filmation, one of the top five animation studios. Look for his screenplay credit next time you rent an adaptation of The Little Engine that Could at your local video store. In 2001, he launched editorrr.com, and he has clients from the Pacific Northwest to Lebanon. He is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Northwest Independent Editors Guild, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and the Seattle Writers Association.
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1. Flogometer for Marty—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. . If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn't deal with five of the things in the checklist.


Marty sends the first chapter of Second Life . The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Either her hometown was a cliché or her life was. Erica Mathews feared it was both. She was within months of becoming a partner in her law firm, a position she had nearly killed herself working to obtain. She embodied those stories about associates whose only life was billable hours. She networked at every opportunity. She was on course to be voted the newest partner. Then the phone call came that morning. Now she was headed for Plainton, the town she wanted to escape.

Erica was so focused on the motion she was drafting when her father's doctor called that she barely took in what he was trying to tell her. Her father, the anchor in her life, had suffered a heart attack at his office that morning and did not survive. Stunned by the news, Erica tried to hold her emotions in check as she spent the next hour rescheduling her appointments and assigning work to junior associates. Focusing on everything that needed to be done before she left town was the only way she made it through the morning. She parceled cases out to associates, along with explanations as to immediate matters that needed to be dealt with and client idiosyncrasies.  She then went to her apartment, threw some clothes in a bag, and headed for Plainton, the small town where her father lived and she grew up.

The rush of activity in preparing to leave preempted any thoughts about her father and what she needed to do when she arrived in Plainton.  Once she safely escaped the city traffic, (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Marty's first page?

The writing is straightforward and clean for the most part, though there is a clarity issue: she’s heading for Plainton, so clearly she isn’t there, but it’s the town she wants to escape, and it turns out she lives in another city. Can’t be both. But what really happens here? She received some sad news, but, as far as the narrative shows, that doesn’t hint at trouble ahead for her. And believing her life could be a cliché isn’t a real problem. So, no tension, no page turn. I think you’re starting your story too early, Marty. The rest of the chapter is mostly backstory and setup, and we end it without knowing what the story is about or what kind of problem Erica has to deal with or be hurt in some way. Look for the inciting incident that causes a problem for her.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Marty

 

Continued:

however, she could not avoid thinking about him. He had practiced law in Plainton for 40 years. The law was his first love particularly after his wife, Erica's mother, died from cancer. Erica was not surprised he died at his desk, but she had not expected it to happen so soon.

Plainton was a small town of  almost 40,000 people set in rolling plains surrounded by farmland and cattle ranches. The town worked hard to maintain the status quo, avoiding change. Outsiders had difficulty fitting in.  During her teen years Erica could not wait to leave.  After she finished law school she accepted a position with a growing plaintiff's law firm in Kansas City, a couple of hours from Plainton, even though her father wanted her to practice with him. Erica was not interested in living in Plainton, and even if she were, she was not sure she could work with her father.  Their relationship was always touch and go when she was a teenager even though she knew her father cared deeply for her. The tension between them had eased in recent years, time making them both more tolerant. Erica feared, however, that proximity might exacerbate their differences. For one thing, she was more aggressive in her practice of law, loving litigation, while her father believed conciliation was the best approach.

Erica was 32 years old and ready to move into partnership at her firm. She had worked to develop the skills necessary for litigating large product liability cases, her favorite area of practice. Products liability cases allowed her to hold companies responsible for the safety and quality of their products. Occasionally she was able to create new law in the field raising the standards for products.

Erica was always strong-willed and competitive. After Erica's mother died her father was at a loss as to how to raise a young girl. Erica's father did not fall easily into the role of nurturer. With no mother to help Erica develop social skills or pave the way with other parents, Erica rarely mingled with other children. As a teenager she had no interest in those activities that seemed to dominate teenage girls - clothes, boys, dating and marriage. Erica loved books and sports. Erica was tall, lean, and athletic and enjoyed playing games. She loved debating legal issues and the latest political affair with her father when he made it home in time to have dinner with her. He expected her to be tough and defend her views. He taught her to think through her position and prepare for counterattacks.  The years of debate with him prepared her for law school where she often bested her fellow students in arguing case law.

Erica drove to her father's house after arriving in Plainton. The sight of the two-story white Victorian rekindled the shock she felt at the news of her father's death. She pulled into the driveway but did not get out of the car. She could not imagine never again seeing her father mowing the yard or coming out the front door. She could feel the emptiness of the house from where she sat. A few scraggly tulips edged the front porch, only making the yard look more ragged. Her father was never a gardener, unlike her mother who loved designing flowerbeds and planting new flowers each year. The few flowers scattered about the yard, remnants of those years, only reinforced Erica’s feelings of loss.

Erica chided herself for her sentimentality.  She grabbed the few belongings she had managed to pack and headed up the front steps. When she opened the front door the sight of her father's old sweater on the sofa, the newspapers and law journals strewn about, along with the lingering smell of his pipe tobacco battered her. She sat down on the sofa unable to prevent the tears from flowing.  It took her several minutes to get her emotions under control before she went in search of a phone book to find the phone number for the funeral home which conducted her mother's funeral. 

After arranging for the funeral home to pick up the body once the autopsy was finished, she called her father's office. She was unsurprised that Mrs. Shelby, her father's secretary of many years, answered.  Mrs. Shelby would be stoical in the face of a tornado bearing down on her. Her life was taking care of the office and Erica’s father or so it seemed to Erica. Erica always tread carefully around her, knowing that she could never gain her full approval.

"Erica, where are you?  I am so sorry about your father. It was awful. I went to take him the mail and he was lying there motionless on his desk. I never heard anything. He never called for help. I don't know what happened. It was always so hard to hear anything going on in that office. I called the ambulance but he was gone before they got here."

"How are you doing, Mrs. Shelby?" Erica asked. Mrs. Shelby intimidated her, but then Mrs. Shelby intimidated most of her father's clients. When Erica was young, Erica felt she was besting the troll guarding the bridge to her father's office every time she came for a visit.  Mrs. Shelby did not always agree with Erica’s parenting, a fact that both her father and Erica knew.  Mrs. Shelby believed that young ladies should act like young ladies and not be allowed to wander the town, playing ball with the guys, or raising her voice if she disagreed with an adult.

"I did not know what to do after they took John away. I couldn't leave the office," Mrs. Shelby continued. "I have been trying all afternoon to cancel his appointments and let his clients know what happened and notify the court in the cases where hearings are scheduled. I am not sure what to tell the clients, particularly those he was working with on some project."

"I am sure you handled it just fine," Erica responded.  "I plan to be at the office in the morning.  If you could come in for a few hours, maybe, we could sort through some things, that is if you are feeling up to it. I know this must be a real shock for you. I don't know my way around dad's office and will need your help."

 "I planned to come in anyway. There is so much to deal with, and I know it isn't easy for you either."

"Okay, I should be there by nine tomorrow morning. I need to go by the funeral home and make arrangements, but I will come to the office first," Erica said.

After hanging up Erica sat numbly staring out the window.  Her father had few remaining relatives, leaving her to handle everything. She dreaded the funeral and all the trappings that came with it. Her father was well known, having represented at least half the people in town in some kind of matter over the years, at least it seemed that way to her. There would be a large crowd at the funeral, both old clients and fellow lawyers.  Once people realized Erica was in town she would be bombarded with sympathy calls and casseroles. It would take all of her will power to be civil to some of the more patronizing citizenry.

The chiming of the front doorbell startled her. She dreaded answering it, but finally forced herself to respond when the caller continued ringing the bell. To her surprise Jason Sterling was standing on the front porch. She and Jason grew up together and had remained friends through the years even though they often had different views of life. Jason worked in his father's bank in Plainton, basking in the camaraderie of small town life.  Jason, who knew almost everyone in town by now, was affable and low-key, the opposite of Erica. When they got together these days Erica pointed out that he had become a full-fledged member of the old boys' club. She also pointed out that it was unlikely that club would admit any professional woman.

"Hey Speed. I saw your car in the driveway so I figured you must be here. I heard about your father this afternoon. I am sorry."  Jason started calling her "Speed" in high school because she did her best to pass him in whatever they were doing. She was always more competitive than he was. While he enjoyed athletics, he had no special abilities and always played backup to the star players.  Although he was now approaching middle age, he worked out to stay fit and was as trim as in his younger days. His auburn curly hair was always in need of grooming, but he worked hard to look business-like.

"Jason, you did not need to stop.  I just got here a few minutes ago and I am still overwhelmed by it all. I can't deal with anyone right now."

"Well, I am not just anyone. Besides I want to help. I know you don't have any family in town. I always admired your father. Sometimes I got along with him better than my own father."

Erica sighed and allowed Jason into the house. He followed her into the living room where she slumped on the sofa

"Have you eaten anything today? I can get some take out," Jason offered.

"Still haven't learned to cook?  I'm not hungry right now, although a bottle of wine sounds good."

"How about if I run out for pizza and wine? You can't drink without eating."

"Okay, if you want to do that.  I certainly don't want to go out to eat tonight and I don't know if there is any food in the house.  Why don’t you call ahead and pick up some wine on the way? I need to pick up around here and see if there is anything that needs dealt with immediately."

Add a Comment
2. maybe

I'm out of town with very limited access to the Internet, so don't know when or if I will get a flogging done today, so talk among yourselves.

While we're at it, though, how about using comments to let me know of any writing craft topics that you'd like to see addressed on FtQ.

Thanks,

Ray

Add a Comment
3. Flogometer for Heidi—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. None in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Heidi sends the prologue and first chapter of Absence of Memory. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Prologue

I never wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint ethereal watercolors, drink French wine, and smoke little cigars. I wanted to live near the ocean, make love to mysterious bearded men, grow lavender and roses, and never, never set foot in Othello again.

At least I got out of town, thanks to Jason. We left the moment we married. I was 18. We made it all the way to Calgary. He was going to be a hotshot hockey player and I was going to be his number one fan. We were going to tour the world, and then build a big house and have a bunch of kids. And a dog. Jason wanted the dog. I wanted the big house. Too bad I killed him.

Were you compelled to turn Heidi's first page?

Chapter 1

The first thing on my agenda that Monday morning was a trip to Baxter Street to see Kelly Kincaid. Kelly was well-practiced at avoiding troublesome people in her life, like bill collectors and social workers. All I wanted was for her to lay off the drugs and parent her kid. It seemed simple enough, but she was an elusive little minx, that one.

Before I could I could go anywhere, I had to get past Maggie Battle. This was not a new experience. I’d been tiptoeing past Maggie since childhood. This morning she was in her yard, grey hair bound up in yellow curlers, in a pink flannel nightgown that covered her arms but not her knees, plucking frozen tea towels from her clothesline. I waved to her.

“Hiya,” she chirped. A clothespin bounced between her teeth. “Goin’ ta work?”

It was too early in the day to lie. “Yes,” I said. “Did you forget your laundry last night?”

She spit the clothespin into her basket. “Yep. Must be getting old.” She was old –close to 80. She had a timeless quality about her, a halo of grey hair, when not in curlers, and ice blue eyes that that could pierce armor, and a look that could knock the wind out of an overly enthusiastic kid. She’d been a teacher, as had her mother and grandmother before her. She couldn’t help it. It was genetic. She’d lived next to my parents for 35 years, monitoring my family’s comings and goings with eerie meticulousness.

“You might as well leave it out,” I said, as I picked up a broken rake that had fallen (snip)

Would you turn the page with that as the opening?

Very good writing and voice in both pieces. For me, the story question in the prologue (and its brevity) definitely got me to turn the page. But the chapter opening . . . not so much. No tension there for me. The chapter is equally well written, and I think I know what the story is about, but there was no personal jeopardy for the main character.

The question on this submission is whether or not the tension created with the prologue was enough to carry on to the chapter opening and reading on. For me, it was, but without the prologue I would not have turned the page.

I urge Heidi to start the story closer to the inciting incident, the thing that happens to the protagonist that makes her take action—I don’t think that moment is in the first chapter, though there is good, involving stuff there. I hope you’ll read the chapter and give some

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Heidi

 

(continued)

across my path and tossed it to one side. It landed in my mother’s favorite rosebush. Yard work, my father’s domain, had not been a priority this year. I left the rake where it fell, ignoring the bent branches and the tiny frozen rose bud well past its prime.

Maggie shook her head, curlers clacking. “It’s supposed to start snowing by noon.”

“Great.” I had to drive to Woodstock in the afternoon. That would take me twenty miles down an icy back road and back on old tires. I shifted my briefcase into the other hand, shaking out a cramp. I had to stop bringing work home.

“How’s your dad?” Maggie asked.

“The doctor says he’s doing better.” My father’s stroke was my reason for returning to Othello. My mother couldn’t take care of him by herself. My sister tried to help, but she had a house full of children and a husband whose flights of fancy took precedence over the necessities of family life. Since I had neither husband nor children and was able to transfer my job, it only seemed logical that I should drop what I was doing and return to Othello because I am the queen of self-sacrifice. Just ask my sister.

“Well, you tell him I’m thinking of him.” Maggie pulled the rest of her laundry off the line. “You have a good day, dear. Don’t let the buggers get you down.”

“Never,” I said. They could torture me, stab me, cut out my tongue, but get me down? Never. I’d been down. I’d sworn I’d never go there again.

I pushed on the back gate only to have if fall off the hinge and land with a dull thud in front of me. It lay there in the dirt, looking up at me, taunting me in a dead wood sort of way. I stepped over it, got to my car, and then went back and propped it up against the fence. I saluted. One dead thing to another.

#

Baxter Street was Othello’s “inner city,” even though it was only four blocks. People didn’t go there unless they lived there, or were interested in a little action – you know, the kind of stuff that far too many people insist never happen in their community.

A hundred years ago, back when the coalmine was active, a string of bordellos and gambling hall had lined the street. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the elaborate monsters became rooming houses and apartments until they started to crumble. Throughout my childhood, they sat empty and eerie, a beacon to every kid who longed for a little adventure into dark and unnatural realms. Then about 30 years ago, after Lucy Coil was found murdered in one of them, the old houses were torn down and replaced by a dozen two-story beige duplexes, which supplied the town with its requisite social housing.

 Many of my clients live on Baxter Street. That’s because they’re poor, drug addicted or drug addled, or so dispirited you could hand them the key to Buckingham Palace and they wouldn’t know what to do it or themselves. Most are content to just hunker down. They figure they’ve gone about as far in the world as they were capable. This makes them protective of their domain and not very friendly toward anyone who might threaten the status quo. Like a child welfare worker.

Kelly had a six-year-old daughter, a tiny thing with curly brown hair and weighty brown eyes. Ava had spoken less than a dozen words to me in the month since I’d taken over her file. But those eyes – I saw them at night, staring at me, as I tried to sleep. Haunting. Reproachful. I worried about her and her mother. Kelly was supposedly “in recovery” from an addiction to painkillers and alcohol. On the best of days, she was silent and moody, and disconnected from the rest of the world, including her daughter. She wouldn’t talk about her past, or her present, and that made me nervous. I had no idea where she had come from, or how she ended up in Othello. She held on to her secrets so tightly, they festered inside her, oozing contempt and silent anger.

On this particular morning, nothing seemed unusual as I parked in front of Kelly’s unit. Just another chilly morning in November like all the rest – better spent in bed, with coffee and a good book.

I paused before I rang the doorbell and listened for sounds – voices, televisions, the swishing of switchblades, the cocking of guns. I heard nothing. A cold wind circled my legs and I caught a glimpse of a makeshift curtain rippling across the window in the unit next to Kelly’s. Baxter Street was full of disembodied eyes.

Next, I resorted to pounding. Neighbors and door-to-door peddlers ring the doorbell. Social workers and cops pound. I hate pounding. It’s hard on the knuckles, but it gets the adrenaline running, which is a good alternative to caffeine.

I gave it a rest and shook out my hand. Loose flecks of puke brown paint caught the wind and sailed away, taking a bit of myself with each flake. I wrote a terse “CALL ME” across the top of yet another business card. This time I left out the “please.”

As I turned to leave, the door cracked open. My card fluttered to the ground and tumbled across the dead grass. A woman peered out the opening, her eyes dark and sheltered.

“You’ve missed two appointments,” I said.

“I’ve been busy.” Her voice was hoarse, as if she had spent the night yelling. She didn’t look all that great, not that she ever did. Kelly was only 23, but she looked 50. A hard 50. Like she’d served a life of hard time with no parole.

“Is Ava in school?” I already knew the answer, but I had to ask the question. It was a job expectation.

“No,” she said, thrusting out her bony chest, as if that alone should be enough to get me off her doorstep. “What are you going to do about it? She’s sick.”

“She’s been sick a lot.” Two to three times a week since school started. A kid like Ava needed school. For one thing, they fed her, which kept her alive for one more day.

“Flu season.”

“Can I see her?”

“No. Like I said, she’s sick. You might catch something.” She coughed. She didn’t bother to cover her mouth.

“I suppose you’re sick too?”

“Yeah.” She coughed again, harder. “I’m sick, too.”

“I have to talk to you, Kelly. I need to come in.” I placed a toe in the doorway and leaned against the door.

“Can’t you find someone else to harass?”

 “Nope. Today’s your lucky day.”

She made a great production of sighing – and coughing – and then stepped back. “Fine. Whatever.”

I slid passed her rail thin body, and stepped over a pile of garbage as I shuffled through the narrow hallway. “Where’s Ava?”

“The living room.” Kelly trailed behind me.

I glanced into the kitchen as I passed. Dishes were stacked in the sink and on the counter. Bags of garbage leaned against the wall. Food droppings and bits of stray, greasy paper covered the floor. I was acutely aware of a variety of smells, ranging from rotting meat to stale sweat. I wanted to throw open the windows and pull off the dingy blankets that covered them. Air and sunshine – two essential ingredients of life, according to my mother and our neighbor, Maggie Battle. For once, I agreed with them.

“I was going to clean,” Kelly said, “but then we got sick.”

I didn’t say anything. I had already said everything I could say. I had tried encouragement. I had tried threats. Neither had worked. Kelly was fighting hard to keep her own little corner of status quo. I understood that. I was waging a similar war.

“Sometimes I get so overwhelmed.” Tears ran down her cheeks, which she quickly wiped away. “I feel like putting a match to it.”

“It’s not easy with a child and no help,” I said, which was social-worker speak for “Blah, blah, blah.” Kelly shrugged. She’d heard it before – the fake concern meant to manipulate. She was immune to it.

I tried a different angle. “How’s the job going?” I had persuaded Fran to hire her for a few hours a week at the Café.

“Okay.”

“Just okay?” I guess it was too much to expect her to be overly enthusiastic about clearing tables and washing dishes.

I turned my attention to Ava, who was laying on a lopsided sofa, covered in a threadbare baby blanket that might once have been bright pink. Her head rested on a wad of towels, and she was staring at a tiny television. A soap opera. Lots of static. No sound. No cable in this house. At least the electricity worked.

When Ava saw me, she rolled over, and faced the back of the sofa. Her blanket slid to the floor, landing in a heap. Kelly picked it up, shook it out and laid it over her again, tucking it around her. Ava quivered as her mother’s hand brushed across her shoulder. They reminded me of two little bulls in a tiny china shop, floundering and flailing; demolishing whatever good was around them. How I wished I had something that mattered to give them, but I had nothing. I couldn’t even give them hope because I couldn’t lie to them.

I crouched beside Ava. “Hey,” I said. She wouldn’t look at me. “How are you feeling?” One shoulder gave a slight twitch. “Are you sick?” Another twitch. I put my hand on her forehead. She was hot and dry. She really was sick. I didn’t know much about sick kids, but she clearly was not well.

I turned to Kelly. “How long has she been like this?”

“A couple of days.”

 “Have you taken her to the doctor?”

Her gaze drifted to the spot over Ava’s head. “No.”

“Kelly! You have to take her to the doctor.”

“What for? So he can give her medication that she don’t need? It’s the flu. She’ll get better on her own.” She kicked a plastic lid under the couch.

I stood up sharply. “She might not. You don’t know what’s making her sick. You need to take her to the doctor.” Unbelievable. I didn’t understand this woman at all. Medical care cost her nothing, so it couldn’t be a lack of money. What was holding her back? Sheer laziness? Or had she stopped caring?

“Yeah, fine. Whatever.” She turned away from me.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Something’s bothering you.”

“You’re bothering me.” She walked away from me and went into the kitchen. She banged a few pots and then shoved them into the sink. “I’ll take her this afternoon.”

“You shouldn’t wait. She should go this morning.”

“The clinic is too busy in the morning. I’ll take her after lunch.”

I rocked on my heels. I wanted to believe her. I was sweating in my winter coat, my nose itched, and I really needed coffee. “Fine. Promise me you will take her this afternoon.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

I put my hand on her arm. “Promise me.” Her eyes met mine. There was fear in them, tingled with resentment.

“I promise,” she said, and in that moment, I believed her. I felt the sting of tears crowding my eyes. As a child I had been very ill. An entire year of my childhood vanished, and when it returned, my first memory was of my mother, sitting beside my bed, holding my hand. I saw in Kelly’s eyes what I saw in my mother’s – a protective fierceness that made up for a lot of sins. Kelly loved her daughter. It was me she hated. Me, and my social-worker, do-gooder kin who didn’t have a clue what her life was really like, but felt perfectly justified to tell her how to live it.

And yet, as I watched Ava sleep, clutching her limp stuffed rabbit, her dark hair spread across her pale face, I fought the urge to scoop her up and run. I bolted for the door before I did something stupid. “You will take her to the doctor today, won’t you?”

Kelly folded her arms across her bony chest. “I said I would.” She closed the door behind me. A gust of arctic air picked up a page of an advertising flyer and plastered it against my legs. I stumbled, and then kicked it free. I felt a cold hand on my back, pushing me along. Time to go. Nothing more I could do here.

Liar.

                                                             #

I needed coffee. My head was starting to fold in on itself, so I stopped at Fran’s. I sat at the counter on a red vinyl stool and glanced around to see who else was there. The early morning crowd had cleared out, but a few people remained. In the far corner, two RCMP officers were exchanging war stories.

At the table next to them was Sam Wyatt. Sam had taken over the newspaper when my father got sick. He grew up here, too. He was a year or two older, and I remembered him as quiet and bookish. He was single, as far as I knew, kept to himself, and was good at maneuvering around the politics of a small town. His writing was decent and he took better photographs than my father ever did. He noticed me when I walked and nodded, but otherwise he left me alone, which suited me fine.

Across from him, a couple of middle aged men in overalls sat next to the window, recalling the good ol’ days when you could drink coffee and smoke a cigarette at Fran’s. They looked up when I walked in and turned their backs on me. One of them was Jason’s uncle.

Fran had shown up every day for 40 years, pouring coffee and flirting with the farmers. When we were kids, this was the place my mother took my sister and me for ice cream every Saturday after a morning of grocery shopping. This was the place where Jason and I had our first date. This is where we had hung out with our friends. This was where he had proposed and I, in a rush of girlish fantasy, had said yes. Sometimes, when someone walked in, my pulse would quicken and I’d look up, half expecting to see him.

It didn’t help that Jason’s picture still hung on the wall among all the other hometown mementos. Here, it was easy to remember the Jason in that picture, young, healthy, and whole; decked out in his hockey jersey, full of smiles and promise, bound for the NHL. It didn’t seem to matter that he had injured himself in an accident during training and never played hockey again. You’d have thought he was Wayne Gretsky to the good folks of Othello. I didn’t look at that picture anymore, if I could help it, but I knew it was there, right next to James Baker, mayor (1960-1983), both of them staring down at me, watching me; condemning me.

I ordered one coffee to drink on the spot and one to go, plus one of Fran’s cinnamon buns. The thing was the size of a salad plate. It would last me until supper.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Fran asked, as she topped off my coffee.

“Coffee crisis,” I said.

Fran nodded, grinning. “Thought as much. You have that look.” She wiped the counter the around me and paused to fill the sugar container. “How’s your dad?”

“Better.” I eyed the sugar with longing. I’d given up sugar and cream in my coffee when I hit 37 and the pounds had started to creep up.

Fran turned her attention to the two RCMP officers who came to the counter to pay their bill. One was short, a little paunchy around the middle, maybe 50ish. He had the cop swagger when he walked, the one where the knees flare out and every step bounced. I dismissed him as a city cop doing penance in the sticks. The other one was younger, but not too young. The lines around his eyes crinkled as he traded mild barbs with Fran while the other guy rocked on his heels.

She came back to me when they had left. “Nice,” she said. Fran hadn’t lost her appreciation of fine male anatomy.

I shrugged. “I didn’t really notice.” A slight lie. I’d noticed. I just wasn’t interested.

“Bull hockey,” she said, laughing. “I watched you eyeing them.” She leaned in to whisper. “The short one is Chet Hart. He’s married. His wife works at Anderson’s Insurance. The other one is Jack Elias. Nice guy. And single.”

“Um.” It was hard to be noncommittal with Fran measuring my every breath.

She leaned in closure. “Sam Wyatt is single, but I guess you know that, although I think he has a thing going on with Betsy Fetters.”

“Who?”

“Betsy Ralston. She married John Fetters. Must have been after you left town.”

I remembered Betsy. Not all the bright, a bit of a bully, and blond curls that were the envy of every girl in school. Her father is a judge. I remembered John Fetters, too. Arrogant little prick. He was chief of police now. How he got the job was a mystery. My father said his main qualification was that he could hold his own in bar fight.

I compared him to Jack Elias and wondered how the two managed. The town had its own police force, while the RCMP covered the county. It made for some interesting jurisdiction squabbles now and then. I grinned thinking about it because I was almost certain who would come out on top and I hadn’t even met him yet.

I held out my cup for a refill and changed the subject. “So how is Kelly Kincaid working out?”

Fran’s smile faded. “She’s not.”

The smell of bacon grease and eggs was overwhelming. My stomach turned sideways. “What do you mean?”

 “I don’t want to –“

“I need to know. Besides, I got you to hire her.”

“I don’t want to get her in trouble.” She polished a spot on the counter she had already cleaned. “She’s a nice girl and I really wanted to give her a shot.”

“But?”

“I caught her stealing from the till.” Her voice cracked. A clock with a rooster on its face hung askew behind her. It was four minutes fast. I checked. Two ticks forward. One tock back.

“When was this?”

“Friday.”

Of all the people in town she could steal from, Kelly had to choose the one decent person in town willing to take a chance on her, and I had made it possible for her to do it.

I gave up and added cream to my coffee, and then sugar. I stirred until the liquid in my cup was a caramel colored whirlpool. I watched it spin faster and faster until it sloped over the side of the cup and left a puddle on the counter. I blotted the spilled coffee with my napkin, then wadded it up and cast it aside. Fran topped up my cup again.

 “She said she was going to pay it back,” Fran said quickly. “She said she needed the money for medication for her daughter so I didn’t call the police, but I had to fire her. I haven’t been in business all these years to see everything I’ve worked for trickle out the door, but …I gave her some money. I didn’t want the child to suffer.”

Nobody wants a child to suffer. Not even me. I wasn’t going to tell Fran that Kelly got her medications free. I also wasn’t going to tell her that the money more than likely went for a totally different kind of drug. I couldn’t do that to her. Damn. I was sure Kelly had kicked the drugs. I thought she was doing better. “You have a good heart,” I said.

Add a Comment
4. Flogometer for Marvin—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. None in the queue. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Marvin sends the first chapter of The Wrong Guest at the Banquet. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Visits from a federal prosecutor can go different ways. When Reggie Haskell saw a prosecutor named Lloyd Manthius standing in the snow on the stoop glaring at the front door cameras of Lupaster Investigations LLC, he hesitated. Lupaster himself had authorized Reggie, to use his own judgment at the front door, but Manthius was known to be volatile. Lupaster was practicing in the music room, or Reggie would have checked with him first. Pink blotches on Manthius’ lean cheeks were sending messages.

“Reggie, unlock this door. If I come back with marshals, Lupaster won’t like it.” The blotches were turning red. Reggie dismissed the marshals as prosecutorial chatter. Common sense said wait out the drama and keep the door shut, but drama and a fee was a tempting combination.

Reggie shrugged and opened the door. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois stepped in. His navy blue wool flat cap and a matching trench coat were sprinkled with snow. The cap and coat were heavy enough for January in Chicago, proving that it was January for federal prosecutors as well as the rest of us.

Reggie took the hat and coat and hung them in the entry closet. From the heft and balance, Reggie guessed Manthius had stowed a weapon in his right side pocket. Leaving a garment bearing a weapon in the hands of a flunkey is bad form. While Manthius’ peered into (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Marvin's first page?

Clear writing is good, and there is a little conflict at the opening to create some tension, but that was quickly resolved. What didn’t seem to be there for me was much of a strong story question. Yes, there’s the question of why the prosecutor is there, but that doesn’t seem as if it will impact Reggie all that much in this stage. I felt the overwriting was not a good sign—I wouldn’t want to read a lot more of that. As you’ll see if you read the rest of the chapter, there’s a fine story question raised at the end . . . but would you have gotten there? Notes:

 Visits from a federal prosecutor can go different ways. When Reggie Haskell saw a federal prosecutor named Lloyd Manthius standing in the snow on the stoop glaring at the front door cameras of Lupaster Investigations LLC, he hesitated. Lupaster himself had authorized Reggie, to use his own judgment at the front door, but Manthius was known to be volatile,. Lupaster was practicing in the music room, or Reggie would have checked with him first. P and pink blotches on Manthius’ lean cheeks were sending messages. The first sentence is a form of telling and doesn’t seem necessary to me. There are a lot of names here, which can be confusing, so try to limit them. I cut detail that slows the action. Cut to the chase.

“Reggie, unlock this door. If I come back with marshals, Lupaster won’t like it.” The blotches were turning red. Reggie dismissed the marshals threat as prosecutorial chatter. Common sense said wait out the drama and keep the door shut, but drama and a fee was a tempting combination. Where does the idea of a fee come in? It hasn’t been mentioned. The prosecutor could be there for other reasons.

Reggie shrugged and opened the door. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois stepped in. His navy blue wool flat cap and a matching trench coat were sprinkled with snow. The cap and coat were heavy enough for January in Chicago, proving that it was January for federal prosecutors as well as the rest of us. The first page is the time to hook a reader with story, not commentary. These micro details of clothing are overwriting and do not bear on the story and what happens next. We already know there’s snow outside, so we can figure it’s winter. You can fold in the Chicago element later if needed, we already know we’re in Illinois.

Reggie took the hat and coat and hung the hat and coat them in the entry closet. From the heft and balance, Reggie guessed Manthius had stowed a weapon in his right side pocket. Leaving a garment bearing a weapon in the hands of a flunkey is bad form. While Manthius’ peered into (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Marvin

 

(continued)

the office, Reggie kipped the Walther from Manthius’ pocket.

 “Where’s the blind genius?” Manthius said without even glancing at Reggie.

At that moment, Lupaster was tapping his way down from the music room with his stick.

“Is that Dr. Manthius, Reggie? Invite him into the office,” Lupaster said as he took the final step down to the first floor.

Reggie lead Manthius to the big guest chair that faces Lupaster, then sat down behind his own desk. The mulberry tree outside the office window was bare; its trunk, sooty black.

“I congratulate you, Dr. Manthius,” Lupaster said when he had settled at his desk. Lloyd Manthius had recently been awarded a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the university. The JSD is usually reserved for law professors; practicing attorneys need not apply. Completing a JSD requires originality and diligence, two properties Lupaster admires.

The doctor ignored Lupaster’s compliment. “Chanco, you must be familiar with intellectual property law. I have a dirty IP issue to place in your hands. There is a political side that embarrasses me.”

Not a good way to ask for a favor, Reggie thought. Lupaster does not like to dirty his hands or be embarrassed. He also rarely compliments and he has a good memory for compliments not taken.

 “Socrates ignored politics to his peril,” Lupaster replied. “But I have no legal degrees. My knowledge of intellectual property is not professional.”

 As he spoke, Lupaster stared at the right hand corner of his desk. Reggie knows Lupaster sometimes does the staring thing to annoy people. Manthius knew Lupaster’s habits well enough, but he fell for it. His face twisted into a scowl. Reggie didn’t try to understand either player’s game.

Manthius squeezed out a gruesome half-smile on top of the scowl and shook his head. “Yeah, I’ll bet you don’t know anything about intellectual property, just like you don’t know anything about the Illinois penal code.”

Lupaster had recently purchased a new model of the electronic gadget that scans text and converts it to Braille for him. It’s like a printer. Instead of squirting ink, it raises and lowers dots on a panel for Lupaster to feel. The new model has more than doubled Lupaster’s reading speed. Using it, he read and memorized the entire Illinois penal code and proceeded to needle attorneys he knows with obscure points. Manthius was not one of Lupaster’s victims, but word must have been getting around.

“Get to the point if you will, Dr. Manthius.”

Reggie had seen Manthius explode, but this time his scowl caved and the prosecutor chuckled nervously. Reggie had to revise his analysis of Manthius’ complexion. Some men turn red when they are afraid, not angry.

“Over the past three months, my office has been flooded with intellectual property issues. Instead of ten a month, we get a hundred a day.”

Lupaster yawned. “Do you think any of the complaints are legitimate? I don’t. There are more people who believe their ideas have been stolen than there are ideas.”

“I thought the same thing. I asked one of my assistants to pick out the IP complaints, file them, and forget them. It worked for about two weeks. My assistant is smarter than I thought. She brought in three documents and asked me to read them carefully.”

“And?”

“I read them. She had a point. I told her to set the three aside, keep up the file-and-forget regime, and report back in two weeks.”

“So?”

“The two weeks ended yesterday. She brought six documents in addition to the original three. Five of the six came from sources I can’t ignore.”

“You mean campaign contributors are bullying you,” Lupaster purred.

“I’ll reserve that. I’m appointed, not elected.” The blotches were back.

Lupaster was still looking at the corner of his desk.

“But you intend to run for an office someday. Think, Dr. Manthius. Idea theft has been around since Socrates. Shakespeare stole plots like starlings steal cherries. You aren’t so arrogant as to suggest that the two of us could fix idea theft today. Are you?”

“Arrogant? No. I’ll stipulate that a solution is improbable, but we may be able to defuse this mess.”

“Your mess sounds more like hysteria. Explain the mess please.”

“Important people are scared. They will do rash things. That makes hysteria a mess.”

“Lupaster Investigations finds facts. We do not spin them. Are you sure you don’t need a publicist?”

Manthius sucked in air like he was about to unleash a wagonload of bluster, rethought it and exhaled slowly. If he kept doing that, he would hyperventilate, possibly collapse, make a mess, and Reggie would have to clean it up.

“I admit I am scared. More scared than I was in the infantry in Iraq. I am carrying a side arm for the first time in civilian life.”

 “Alright,” Lupaster said. “Your fear appears to be real, even though I don’t fathom it. Potent supporters are worried: they worry; you worry. But I don’t see that you are personally at risk.” Lupaster took his gaze off the corner of his desk and shifted to a spot on the wall about two feet above Manthius’ head.

“Let’s go a different direction, gather facts.” Lupaster turned toward Reggie as he said this. Usually, when Lupaster turns to Reggie, it means Lupaster’s eyes and hands are about to get a workout and Reggie starts hoping Lupaster will not come up with something impossible for them to do.

“Dr. Manthius, let Reggie read one of the documents while you explain it to me.”

Reggie wished Lupaster had called in Theresa. She enjoys legal paper. But you don’t get to be chief operative by letting someone else do the important work.

“Let’s start here.” Manthius handed two sheets of paper to Reggie.

“The letter is from Samuel Woolley Associates. They provide legal consul to potential patent applicants. Most of their work is corporate. They help applicants draft statements for the patent court. Sam has noticed that several times, an invention description came in that looked like the applicant doesn’t understand his own invention. Then, a few days later, a different applicant sends in a much better description of the same invention. The first application has precedence, but Sam thinks the second application is the real thing.”

“Is that what it says, Reggie?”

“Chanco, I’m the one with the J.S.D. here. You can trust me,” Manthius said.

“Is Dr. Manthius correct, Reggie? I don’t want to take time to scan it yet.”

“There are a lot more words here, but I’d say that was a fair summary. Manthius missed the tone, but he got the content.”

“And what was the tone?”

Manthius’s cheeks were on fire. Fear or rage? He was not accustomed to being ignored or second-guessed.

“Threatened,” Reggie said. “Sam is afraid he has been set up. He would be less afraid if he knew who set him up and what they want.”

Lupaster looked up from the corner of the desk. “Dr. Manthius, is Samuel Woolley easily intimidated?”

Manthius’s consternation turned to incredulity. “Sam Woolley is a member of the bar.”

Reggie called and raised Manthius’s look of incredulity.

Lupaster said, “Dr. Manthius, your admiration for your colleagues is commendable, as is the crocodile’s taste for fish, but that was not my question. Think again and tell me about Samuel Woolley, not his profession.”

Reggie mentally patted Lupaster on the back. Put the prosecutor on the stand.

Manthius put on a trial face.

“Sam Woolley has been a patent specialist for twenty years. He has seen more patent applications and represented more patent litigation than anyone in Chicago. If Sam is rattled by this, it’s not business as usual.”

“Satisfactory. Thank you, Doctor. Now tell me what you would like Lupaster Investigations to do for Mr. Woolley.”

“I suppose you could find out who is behind these shenanigans and their aims.”

“Is that an effort appropriate for a federal prosecutor? I am not aware of a federal statute that applies. Mr. Woolley should come to me himself or hire his own lawyer. A civil infringement suit might result from an investigation. Perhaps that would solve the problem?”

“A civil suit like that would take years. I have days, if I am lucky, perhaps a month.”

“Well, I don’t get that,” Lupaster said. Reggie didn’t get it either. Reggie was inclined to attribute Manthius’ antics to what medical professionals refer to as the high heebie-jeebies.

“I think we ought to look at another letter,” Manthius replied.

Lupaster went over four additional letters in the same way. Manthius warmed to the process as Lupaster gradually pointed his questions more precisely.

“All right. Dr. Manthius, you’ve convinced me that there are hints of conspiracy here. But what’s biting you? I know that coming to me galls you. You didn’t come to clear up paperwork. I’ll stipulate that you feel personally and imminently threatened. But I don’t understand the threat.”

“I talk to a lot of people. Some of them powerful, others not so powerful, but knowledgeable. I’ve told them about this IP thing. Some of them are worried. I don’t know why they are worried, but they told me they are. They’re asking me to fix it. I couldn’t tell them no, even if I wanted to. But this is out of my scope. I do fine at civil rights violations and corrupt aldermen.”

Reggie raised his eyebrows at this, wondering if Dr. Manthius stood for or against civil rights violations and corrupt aldermen.

“It seems to me that the first question is whether each attack is independent, or whether there is a purpose that ties together all the attacks.”

“Someone is behind this. They’ll soon know I’m supposed to stop them. I might have ten minutes to live after they find out.”

“But you can’t tell me what you are supposed to stop? Sam Woolley, Witten Planetary, Alacabra, and Lesthian all were threatened by something tied to intellectual property. That is nowhere near proof of conspiracy. It’s not a credible threat. Come on Dr. Manthius.”

Manthius just shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Lupaster continued.

“I’ll admit I suspect that something is going on. But just a combination of circumstances, a suspicion, an intuition. I might even be able to help you, and I will be glad to do so. But forgive me for saying this, Lupaster Investigations LLC is not a charity. We close our doors if we are not paid,” Lupaster said. Reggie was silently cheering. As Chief Financial Officer of Lupaster Investigations, Reggie paid the bills. Too often, Lupaster was too willing to work pro bono. In principle, Reggie had no issue with that, but bills still arrive for payment.

“My office can hire your firm as consultants.“

“Reggie?” Lupaster threw the ball onto Reggie’s desk.

“A thousand dollars an hour, plus expenses. A billed hour represents an hour of the LLC, not any specific member. No extra hours when more than one representative works simultaneously.”

“Is that satisfactory, Doctor Manthius?” Lupaster said.

“No. A thousand an hour is piracy.”

“Very well. Reggie, get Doctor Manthius’s hat and coat.”

Reggie rose from his desk.

“Wait. Do you guarantee results?”

“No.”

“Give me a break.”

“No.”

Lupaster was back to staring at the corner of his desk. For once, Reggie approved of Lupaster’s apparent indifference toward his client.

Fellman Laveau, Lupaster Investigations LLC’s choice of free-lance operatives, chose that moment to enter the room. He is an out-of-work astrophysicist who looks and weighs in like an NFL tackle. Fellman was wearing a dark brown suit with a red pinstripe and a tie that picked up the red; the expanse of dark broadcloth looked like a mountain with pinstripes.

“Dr. Manthius, meet Fellman Laveau. He will undoubtedly work on your case.”

Fellman and Manthius nodded at each other without speaking. Fellman shifted his weight and the floor creaked audibly.

Manthius drew in his breath sharply and flipped back his head to examine the white painted acanthus bas-relief on the office ceiling.

Reggie looked at his watch, holding his arm up where Manthius could see it.

After twenty-eight seconds, Manthius yawned.

“All right,” he said. “A thousand and expenses. It will take a few days to set up. All reports will be verbal and directly to me. You will need some access to my staff, but every contact must be through me. You will have no letters of introduction. I will help where I can, but you will not be working under the wing of justice department. I’ll send over a contract day after tomorrow. You know the federal billing rigmarole?”

“Better than you, but we would like something on paper today. We should start immediately,” Reggie replied.

“Dr. Manthius, are you saying you had not thought all of this out before you came here?” Lupaster said.

Reggie estimated that the red area of Manthius’ face increased by four square inches.

“Chanco, I don’t know what I was thinking when I came here. I didn’t have time to think.”

“You came up with this plan in twenty-eight seconds,” Reggie said.

“All right. I rephrase. I lacked the composure to think it through.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound. Reggie type up a temporary agreement. Something Dr. Manthius can sign,” Lupaster said.

Reggie set to work. He had done this before.

“Chanco, I can’t see how we could work any differently. I don’t know where the sides are drawn. I don’t know anything. You may bring down my best friends, I don’t know. I have to do something, but anything I do could be a pipe bomb up my trouser leg.”

“A suggestion: Lupaster Investigations must have an operative in your office,” Lupaster said.

“Impossible. Impossible.” Manthius paused. “Who?”

“I don’t think Reggie or Fellman would due. That leaves Theresa.”

“Who’s Theresa?”

Theresa stepped in. “I’m here. Theresa Baton. Pleased to meet you, Dr. Manthius.”

Reggie has occasionally admitted that Theresa is formidable. She has flaming red hair, a strong face, wide spaced green eyes, and she dresses well, just the kind of woman a foolish man might think of as an ornament.

Manthius heaved a sigh and looked relieved. Reggie guessed that Manthius had seriously underestimated Theresa. All the better for Lupaster Investigations. No sense in terrifying clients at a grand per.

“Theresa is skilled with computer data systems. I assume the complaints are all on computer?” Lupaster said without ostensibly noticing that Lupaster Investigations had snagged a fee.

“Yes. Yes of course. We can’t handle them any other way. “

“Good, then you won’t have any trouble giving access to Theresa.”

Manthius shook his head. “I don’t have time to haggle. She will have any access she needs. I give her my username and password.”

Reggie handed him a pad of paper and he scribbled, then he got up.

“Just a minute. The agreement.” Reggie placed a single sheet of paper on the desk.

Manthius read it quickly. Yes. I’ll sign this.” He extracted a pen from his inside breast pocket and signed quickly. Reggie shoved it to Lupaster. Theresa stepped in next to Lupaster and guided his hand to the spot and Lupaster signed. Reggie produced his notary seal and sealed the document. Fellman signed as a witness.

“I can get my own hat and coat,” Manthius said.

Reggie got up anyway and followed him. He helped Manthius with his heavy coat. Then Reggie took Manthius’ Walther from his own side pocket and offered it to him, saying, “Never leave a weapon in an entry hall. You never know who might kip it.”

Instead of a noisy outburst as Reggie hoped, Manthius shook his head. “You keep it. I grabbed it from my desk when I left the office. That was foolish. I’m a lawyer. I fight with words and reason. I’ve forgotten how to use a gun. I’m safer without it.” Manthius’ eyes had no life in them.

Manthius pushed his cap on his head and stomped out the door. Reggie made sure the door latched tight when it closed. Snow had built up on the stoop and Manthius picked his way gingerly. On the last step, he slipped and almost fell, recovering himself by swinging his arms wildly.

A black Lincoln town car with a driver had double-parked outside with the engine running. The driver jumped out to help Manthius. Reggie caught a glimpse of a U.S. Marshal’s star on the driver’s chest. From the dark patch pavement under the car and the snow on the street, the car must have sat there the entire time the prosecutor was inside.

Reggie shook his head and returned to the office, wondering whether he should put Manthius’s grand an hour on the books, or wait for the contract. He decided to enter it. In ink.

Reggie had just completed the entry when they heard the boom. The town car had gotten all the way to the Hyde Park Bank when it went off. There was no pipe bomb in Manthius’ trouser leg. It was under his seat.

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5. Some “rules” to toss out the window

Sense of style coverI came across an article titled “Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice.” It’s derived from this book: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. This could be welcome news.

Pinker, a linguist, brings science to how we construct our verbiage and deflates what he calls “bogus rules” with “a brief but highly liberating list of glorious rule-breaking activities.”  Sprinkled with good examples, I was gratified to see that I already observe these new guidelines both as a writer and an editor. Fun to check out.

Here are some of the subheads:

  • Do split infinitives.
  • Do use the passive voice (at the right times).
  • Do begin sentences with conjunctions.
  • Do end a sentence with a preposition.
  • And yes, Virginia, you can even use the singular "they/their/them."

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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6. Flogometer for Dai—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. None in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Dai sends the first chapter of Wait a Minute!. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

In May of 2002 the central hallway of Gettrick High, lined with battered dark-green metal lockers, echoed to generally pointless conversation as students wasted the few minutes until first bell. Before one of the lockers stood Francesca Trask and her closest confidant, Ashley Sewick, engaged in the most popular subject of recent days, the upcoming Promenade.

The girls were something of a contrast. Frankie resembled her mother, though taller and slightly slimmer—dark-haired, blue-eyed, medium complected. Ashley, a cheerleader, was shorter, pinker and quite trim, with a long blond mane contrasting to dark eyes and brows.

She said, "So who's the lucky guy?"

Frankie laughed. "Caleb, at this point."

"C'mon!"

"The only candidate."

Ashley dropped her voice. "Such a dork!"

"We beggars can't be choosers—and he's nice."

"Yeah? Well I know what the problem is." She darted a look thirty feet down the hall, where on the opposite side a small group of young men gathered, isolated in the midst of the crowd.

"You gotta do something 'bout that, gal."

Frankie acquired a frown. She knew the problem more intimately than Ashley.

Were you compelled to turn Dai's first page?

Good writing and a confident voice, but for this reader this was pretty much a tension-free first page. What happens is that two high-school girls talk about boys. For me, the narrative raises no story questions of the what-happens-next kind. There’s no hint of a problem for either girl, no jeopardy is in sight, nothing has happened to make them need or want something, to cause them to risk something to deal with what’s happening to them. The chapter is nicely written, but I think the story starts after this chapter ends. That part I’d like to see. Notes.

In May of 2002 the central hallway of Gettrick High, lined with battered dark-green metal lockers, echoed to generally pointless conversation as students wasted the few minutes until first bell. Before one of the lockers stood Francesca Trask and her closest confidant, Ashley Sewick, engaged in the most popular subject of recent days, the upcoming Promenade. This is pretty much telling. How about showing us that they are confidants? Seems to me that the dialogue later does that and this isn’t needed.

The girls were something of a contrast. Frankie resembled her mother, though taller and slightly slimmer—dark-haired, blue-eyed, medium complected. Ashley, a cheerleader, was shorter, pinker and quite trim, with a long blond mane contrasting to dark eyes and brows. You’re using a very distant POV here, almost omniscient, then you go to close third person. I suggest trying to give us this information from a close, experiential POV for Frankie. Give us Frankie’s experience, not a report of appearances. For that matter, what does it matter to the story at this point what the girls look like, at least in this amount of detail? Their appearance doesn’t seem to affect what happens.

She said, "So who's the lucky guy?"

Frankie laughed. "Caleb, at this point."

"C'mon!"

"The only candidate."

Ashley dropped her voice. "Such a dork!"

"We beggars can't be choosers—and he's nice."

"Yeah? Well I know what the problem is." She darted a look thirty feet down the hall, where on the opposite side a small group of young men gathered, isolated in the midst of the crowd. Since what “the problem” is isn’t revealed here or on the first page, this amounts to an “information” question—including something that is unknown to the reader. Which has a tendency to make it meaningless as well. How can a reader care about or be hooked by a reference to an unknown problem?

"You gotta do something 'bout that, gal." Who says this? Going by the alternation of dialogue before this, it would be Frankie’s speech, but it doesn’t seem to be. I found it confusing.

Frankie acquired a frown. She knew the problem more intimately than Ashley. The problem? We never do learn what it is. Frustrating.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Dai

 

(continued)

The group of five boys centered on Ryan Porras. Inches over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, Porras was all-county halfback for the Gorgons Football team, second-string in basketball and starting outfielder in baseball.

He was in the process of intimidating one of his satellites—or so it might appear to a silent movie fan. Porras scowled, leaning over the other, his blunt face and muscled stature enforcing an apparent threat. The victim took a half step backwards, flapping his hands. Two other boys grinned like sycophants.

Now Porras fiercely turned toward Chris Jakobsson, the last member of the bunch, a less tall but sturdy lad who refused to quail. They mouthed and gestured at one another, Porras gradually calming while throwing a couple of looks at Frankie. One more look in her direction and they shook hands, Porras slipping something from a pocket to Jakobsson.

·

In 1995 the Gettrick Regional School System gained state school-board permission to create Volson Upshaw Memorial Middle School, taking seventh and eighth grades from Gettrick High School, and the sixth grades from four elementary schools. Upshaw—a renowned local basketball player who became a state all-star and was nearly drafted into professional ranks—could not dedicate the school in person due to premature demise while operating a motor vehicle under influence of a controlled substance.

 Although the system received generous state funding to build the middle school, it had the misfortune of failing to be eligible for a new high school. Nor were citizens of the Region eager to increase real estate taxes.

Thus Francesca Trask spent her final four years of public education in the century-old school on Madison Street suffering varied ranges of temperature from an ancient steam-heating system and poorly-balanced—albeit newer—air conditioning.

Deficiencies included squeaky wooden floors, stair treads worn down by countless feet, dark oaken trim, Vista Green hallways, meager lighting by fixtures hung from high ceilings, and lab benches stained and scarred by the misguided experiments of several generations of budding scientists.

Further, Gettrick High School was built of old-fashioned red brick—two lofty stories plus a half-sunken basement and an attic originally slate-roofed until covered with green metal of a hue to match the Gettrick Gorgons' and Lady Gorgons' (previously known as the Gorgonettes) green and white uniforms. Perhaps the roof had been painted in sympathy with the athletic teams' colors, perhaps green as a school color was chosen to match the roof's predominant shade. History gives conflicting versions.

No one but a few academic martinets ever worried that the mythological Gorgons were female demons, making the name Lady Gorgons redundant.

A simplified gray sandstone entablature surmounted the four sides of the building, continuing across a two-story half-round portico which, supported by four Doric columns, shaded the top step of the main entrance. The entrance steps, and the lintels and sills of windows and doors were of the same sandstone. All in all it was a tribute to neoclassical American architecture, and therefore despised by most community leaders, who much admired the one-story-on-grade Middle School design of undecorated yellow tile walls—inside and out—small apron-style windows, and flat roof.

A later attachment to the original Gettrick High was the gymnasium, site of the upcoming Junior Promenade. Loosely styled in sympathy with the main building, the gymnasium's brick slightly mis-matched in shade and finish, the entablature degenerated to a mere band of concrete, and the piercings showed no relationship.

Every two or three years the gym's flat roof was re-coated, and re-roofed every decade in a vain attempt to prevent leaks from warping the hard-maple gym floor. Its old-fashioned dimensions and erratic floorboards gave a slight home-court advantage to the Gorgon/Lady Gorgon basketball teams, and was therefore appreciated.

But the flaws made dancing an adventure regardless of the amount of wax applied.

The school had its legends, of which the portico took pride of place. It was believed—the reader may judge how seriously—that each succeeding principal had fallen victim to crumbling fragments of cornice striking him squarely on the head—thus accounting, from time to time, for seemingly deranged educational or disciplinary edicts. This story dated from the class of 1938—retaining its vigor across wars, depressions in trade, natural disasters and variations of the social code.

·

"They're talking about you," Ashley said.

"How wonderful." Frankie stood half turned away, giving only an occasional glance from the corner of an eye.

"Why you ever went out with him, Frankie, I don't know—he's not good looking."

Porras sported a broad dark snub-nosed face with low forehead and spiky black hair.

"Who ever saw," Ashley continued, "a teenage kid with five o'clock shadow? And his ears stick out."

Frankie laughed. "He's not Hollywood material…"

"Horror films, maybe."

"…but he has a good build and an unusual way of looking at things. Not too stupid, either."

"Eeww!" was Ashley's response. "I mean, I want to go to the Prom—who wouldn't? But I'd be afraid to latch onto somebody like him."

"Don't worry—two dates was one too many." Frankie changed the subject, wishing to minimize her relationship with Porras. "So it's Drake for you? What's Johnnie feel about that?"

Ashley shrugged. "He's frosted, maybe, but it's the Prom, for gawdsake. I mean, you don't miss the Prom, do you? Thought maybe I'd be less excited than last year, but… Anyhow, he knows Drake is only my accessory."

"You little cynic! Then it's off to the chapel and start poppin' out babies, huh?"

"I have summer work promised at Bullseye, and it's supposed to go permanent. Soon as Johnnie's job looks more secure we'll make things official, and maybe even look at houses."

"But if he's not secure?"

"His father wants him to go on the road in a second rig, but I hate that trucking life—out of town every week. What about you, though? You dumped softball, huh? How'd the Heifer take it?"

"Lecture number five."

The bell rang, giving her no chance to expand. The girls went their separate ways—Ashley to Commercial English, Frankie to Physics. The aforementioned group of boys waited till the last minute, all of them closely observing Frankie as she strode away, not unaware of their attention.

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7. Flogometer for Roz—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. None in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Roz sends the first chapter of The Devil’s Dice from the UK. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

A fun note: Roz did several revisions before deciding to go ahead, and she wrote that she now has a new book idea about a writer who becomes obsessed to the point of madness by trying to craft a perfect first page. Love it!

I accelerated up the rutted lane, tyres skidding in the mud, and prayed to the gods of murder investigations. Please bestow on me the competence to avoid screwing up in my new job, and don't let my phobia kick off.

The gods were silent, but my boss's voice boomed from the hands-free phone. "Meg, can you hear me? ...body found in a cave-house in the woods... smells of almonds." Richard's monologue style of conversation meant he didn't notice the bad phone signal. I wished he wouldn't do this when I was driving to the crime scene – I needed all my brain-power for worrying. I was no multi-tasker. 

"... philosophy book in his arms...suspicious..." The line went dead.

I snapped out of my phone-trance, flicked on the wipers and pictured the autumn drizzle destroying our evidence. The case sounded unnervingly odd. An almond-scented corpse in a cave-house, clutching a philosophy book? Our usual murders were chaotic and drunken, with absolutely no philosophy involved.

The windscreen had steamed up. I was too hot. What if I couldn't do this? I should have been there by now. Why had I pandered to the cat's demands for a second breakfast? I swerved to avoid a pot-hole and knocked my bad hand against the gear lever. Pain shot up my arm. Idiot. It would hurt all day now.

After another bone-shaking half mile, my sat nav announced I'd (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Roz's first page?

Good job on connecting me with an interesting  character through a very likeable voice. I like her already, and her point of view promises some fun. As it goes with mysteries, there are good story questions related to the crime sufficient to get a page turn from me, but the voice and character might well have been enough. Nicely done. Some notes:

I accelerated up the rutted lane, tyres skidding in the mud, and prayed to the gods of murder investigations. Please bestow on me the competence to avoid screwing up in my new job, and don't let my phobia kick off. good story questions raised along with a human connection with the character

The gods were silent, but my boss's voice boomed from the hands-free phone. "Meg, can you hear me? ...body found in a cave-house in the woods... smells of almonds." Richard's monologue style of conversation meant he didn't notice the bad phone signal. I wished he wouldn't do this when I was driving to the crime scene – I needed all my brain-power for worrying. I was no multi-tasker.  like the line about brain power for worrying

"... philosophy book in his arms...suspicious..." The line went dead.

I snapped out of my phone-trance, flicked on the wipers and pictured the autumn drizzle destroying our evidence. The case sounded unnervingly odd. An almond-scented corpse in a cave-house, clutching a philosophy book? Our usual murders were chaotic and drunken, with absolutely no philosophy involved. you don’t need to tell us what is perfectly clear in the next sentence. Might want to include what the scent of almonds means—cyanide poison, right?

The windscreen had steamed up. I was too hot. What if I couldn't do this? I should have been there by now. Why had I pandered to the cat's demands for a second breakfast? I swerved to avoid a pot-hole and knocked my bad hand against the gear lever. Pain shot up my arm. Idiot. It would hurt all day now.

After another bone-shaking half mile, my sat nav announced I'd arrived at my destination. I'd (snip) don’t need the distance she’s driving, just get us there.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Roz

 

(continued)

arrived at my destination. I'd been following the directions mindlessly but now the geography clunked into place in my head. These woods were within the base of the quarry. Uh-oh. A muscle above my eye twitched as I squeezed the car onto the verge next to a police van, uncomfortably close to a ditch.

Blue and white tape stretched between trees, marking a corridor leading into the woods. I levered myself out of the passenger door, slithered into my protective clothing, flashed my card at the uniformed officer and set off. I blocked images of the quarry from my mind. It would probably be fine – an easy body in a shady clearing in the flat bit. 

The day was cool and rain dripped from the trees in fat globules onto my face, but sweat prickled under my armpits as I trudged up the muddy path. My fitness regime clearly needed extending beyond reading articles in New Scientist about the benefits of exercise.  But it wasn't just that. It was becoming increasingly clear this path led to the cliffs. 

The crime scene swarmed with police. The duty sergeant marched over and introduced himself as Gordon Morris.

"DI Meg Dalton," I said, still breathing heavily, and held out my hand. His handshake was cool and dry, but abrupt – Oh God, was I clammy? I recovered my breath as he started explaining the details. But when he told me where the body was, the shot of adrenaline in my stomach reminded me of the time I knocked my sharpest kitchen knife off the counter when I was wearing flip-flops.

I'd thought the cave-house would be underground or at least at ground level, not something hewn into the side of a cliff. I cursed myself. I should have told Richard, even if it had meant piling a phobia on top of the multiple crimes of being female and a psychology graduate on the fast track scheme. Pretending to be normal wasn't working anyway – my new colleagues scuttled out of the tea-room when I showed up, like cockroaches when you switch the light on.

We stood in the shadow of the rock face, surrounded by stunted trees struggling to thrive in the deep shade. The drizzle had turned to rain and SOCO were gathering evidence before the surroundings turned to Derbyshire swampland. Morris enthused about the discovery of the corpse, in a way which was borderline disturbing.

"Fascinating location for a body," he said, squinting upwards and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "We'd never have found it if it wasn't for the dog. Amazing how it navigated those steps. And their sense of smell is truly a marvel." 

Not in the mood to get all dreamy about a Labrador's nose, I nodded and pulled my damp hair out of my eyes while my brain chugged and whirred trying to figure out a way to stay at ground level.

The dog had vomited, which was what I now wanted to do. I felt simultaneously hot and cold and my diaphragm was clenching. I contemplated sneaking into the trees to throw up, but our diligent crime scene team would no doubt discover the evidence later, and that would mark a low point in my career.

"So, the corpse smells of almonds? Cyanide almonds?" I swallowed. Took a slow breath.

"The smell's on the crumbs of cake and the wrapper next to him, although it's very faint. I think you generally only smell it on a corpse when you open up the stomach."

Saliva pooled in my mouth.

"Is the dog OK?" I wasn't sure if it had eaten the suspicious cake or just tucked into a maggoty corpse.           

"I think so. It's at the vet. But you'd be surprised what a Labrador can eat without coming to harm." Morris licked his lips. There was something of the lizard about him – hooded eyes and quick tongue – but I wouldn't hold that against him.

"I know," I said. "My friend Eileen's Lab once ate an entire tray of cat litter and wasn't even put off her supper. It wasn't clean cat litter either." Why did my brain present me with these images? I clenched my teeth. Morris gave me the kind of smile you give your mad aunt Mabel.

"So the man was dead when he was found?" And there it was. A twinge of envy for the corpse. No more work pressures for him. No more pretending to be competent.

"That's right. Although I've seen deader," Morris said.

"Deader than dead? Can you be just a bit dead? Isn't it like being pregnant?" 

"If there are no maggots, you're not that dead."

So he hadn't been dead long, and it probably wasn't decomposing flesh that had made the dog ill. Poison then? If it was a Labrador, it would take more than a pack of stale sandwiches.

"Where exactly is he?"

Morris swept his arm skyward. "Hard to believe but behind all that foliage, there's a house chiselled into the rock. Can you see the opening?"

There was a crack in the rock about twenty feet up, concealed by tendrils of ivy and Virginia Creeper and barely visible from the ground. Morris inched towards the cliff as if he wanted to go up again. "It's quite remarkable," he said. "A whole house cut into the rock. There's a small vein of sandstone just here, even though it's mainly limestone in this area. The sandstone's perfect for making cave-houses."

I nodded vaguely. 

"Actually," he said. "If you're interested, there's a network of tunnels and caves on the other side of the valley, below ground. They call it The Labyrinth. Very few people know about it. It's below that rock formation The Devil's Dice."

Below ground sounded good. Normally I'd have been fascinated by the idea of a secret labyrinth in a Derbyshire hillside, but I was in survival mode.

"Actually it's quite creepy." Morris was in full flow. "Apparently there's a noose in there, trussed from a roof beam deep inside, hard to find, and it's where teenagers go to commit suicide. If you can't find the noose, it's your sign you should live."

Oh Jesus, please don't talk about nooses. Morris wasn't to know but I couldn't cope with this. I turned away from him and tried to shake off my thoughts.

I took a breath and turned back. "So, people actually lived in this cave-house, burrowed into a cliff? I didn't even know it existed."

"I think it's been deserted for fifty odd years. Until our friend here found it. There's no evidence of kids hanging around in there. No fag ends, beer cans, condoms or tortured teenage poetry. It's pristine."

Could you legitimately call a place pristine when there was a dead body in it?

"OK, I'd better have a look." I edged towards the dank rock and reached out to touch it with my right hand. My left hand was throbbing and when I glanced down, the skin seemed even redder than usual. Stress always made it worse and of course I'd bashed it on the gear lever earlier.

 Rough steps were cut into the cliff face, making a path up to the cave-house. I glanced up, then snapped my focus back down. Just some steps, one at a time, don't think too hard. My bowels were feeling ominous.

I took a fortifying breath and put my foot on the first step, feeling my protective clothing rubbing between my thighs. Had I put on weight again? Although I knew there were bigger things in life to be troubled by, and there were people without legs who would be very glad of my thighs, they were a constant source of disappointment to me. At least fretting about my weight was taking my mind off what I was doing. I placed my foot on the next step. 

The vertigo started four steps up. Only a few feet off the ground, for God's sake. I stared at the rock, concentrating on a tiny purple flower sprouting from the stone an inch from my nose. Waited for the world to stabilise, breathing heavily.

"Are you all right?" Morris held his arms out awkwardly as if he wanted to help push me up.

"Mmm, yes," I said, but could feel my throat constricting. 

As I placed my foot on the fifth step, I felt calmer so carried on to the sixth, but then I had the flashback. Saw the rope and the ladder; heard myself screaming. My fingers unclenched from the rock and I swayed backwards and fell, bouncing off Morris and thudding onto the damp ground.

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8. Info on paid book reviews

Book life logoBookLife, a website by Publisher’s Weekly, has an article titled "The Indie Author's Guide to Paid Reviews" that might be useful to you. It includes advice on Pros and Cons, How to Prepare, and The Major Players.

Speaking of reviews, here’s a new unpaid one from Amazon for Mastering the  Craft of Compelling Storytelling:

A new review from Amazon for my new Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling:

5 stars A Writer’s Must Read

Mastering front 100Wshadow

"Thank you Ray Rhamey for putting into one book so much of what we need to know as writers. This book, unlike a number of craft books, is an easy and entertaining read. More importantly, it captures in one place so much great stuff to take your writing from 'meh' to powerful. I found so many answers in my first reading and you can bet I'll be using it as reference in the future."

Signed print copies available here, Kindle edition available here.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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9. Flogometer for Sue—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Just one in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Download a free PDF copy here.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Sue sends the prologue and first chapter of Falling Down the Rabbit Hole, women’s fiction. The two parts (complete) are after the break.

Prologue

By the age of seventeen, I’d planned my wedding in such exquisite detail that the event itself might have been disappointing if not redundant. If I’d managed to pull it off, I expect my wedding pictures would seem comical now---Brian, the groom, looking handsome but ridiculous in a rented baby-blue tux; and me, the bride, looking equally foolish in a dress festooned with daisy appliqués, my stomach the size of a watermelon.

In each of these photographs, I suspect you would have spotted Mother scowling in the background---hiding behind a potted plant or lurking somewhere in the shadows. She’d never approved of Brian Taylor. I imagine she celebrated in private the day he decided he’d rather kill himself than marry me.

To her credit, Mother has tastefully avoided the subject for over a decade. She prefers to keep her eyes fixed on the horizon rather than dwell on ancient history. Ever on the lookout, she’s determined to marry me off while I’m still young enough to be worth the trouble. Over the telephone on Sunday evenings, she’ll drop the name of a potential husband, a rich bachelor on the prowl, or a soon-to-be divorcee who’s coming on the market. It’s difficult to accuse her of meddling; she’s far too craftyfor that.

 “Have you run into Ronald Edmonston lately, darling?” she asked, last time we spoke.

“No,” I told her. Where on earth would I run into Ronald Edmonston?

Were you compelled to turn Sue's first page?

Chapter 1

The first time Brian Taylor pulled up to our house---horn blaring, radio blasting Grand Funk----Mother hid behind our living room drapes and peered out as if  he might be dangerous. “That boy is going to ruin your life,” she predicted. “I know trouble when I see it.” 

“But you haven’t even met him yet! You don’t know anything about him!”

“He’s not going to come in? He’s just going to sit there?”

“No one comes in anymore,” I assured her. It was 1975 not 1875.

When Brian laid on the horn again, she closed her eyes in defeat. “Honestly, Catherine. I give up. I give up. I give up.”

(She’d nevergive up, of course, she was relentless. She’d keep up with her dire predictions, and look smug when one of them happened to come true. But hey, I could have told her, when you worry about everything under the sun, you’re bound to get lucky sooner or later).

I climbed into Brian’s pride and joy----a primer-spotted, 1969 yellow Charger he’d nicknamed Marilyn Monroe. (“Because she’s fast and blonde,” he’d said, when I failed to get the joke). The car had black leather bucket seats, an 8-track player, and a St. Christopher’s medal dangling from the rear view mirror. On the inside, it smelled like a mixture of aftershave and gasoline----an odor so singular it still wafts through my dreams at night.

 “Who loves you baby,” he said, and I about melted. I’d never been a steady girlfriend (snip)

Were you compelled turn the page with this opening?

Let me start with liking the voice, the good, clear writing, and a character I'm interested in. But I’m finding these opening pages a little difficult to evaluate because, well, I’m  of the male persuasion and this is “womens’ fiction.” What I mean by that is that there may be appeals here that don’t work for me but do for women—I hope you women readers will chime in.

As always, I’m looking for tension, story questions, trouble ahead for the protagonist, you know the drill. Trouble is, what may be a powerful story question for a woman reader might not even cause a blip on my radar. In the prologue, the reference to he bridegroom’s suicide might be enough of a story question to compel a page turn for some—but not for me. What does this character want? What happens that causes her to need something in the NOW of the story?

Same goes for the first chapter. I suppose the mother’s prediction of doom ahead could be considered foreshadowing, but it’s not the sort of thing the character should take seriously. The rest of the page launches a date, but no story questions.

For this reader, I would like a sense of what’s at stake for this character in her life if she does . . . what? Or doesn’t do . . . what? There doesn’t seem to be much at stake for this character in terms of how the events and happenings in these pages affect her in her current life. I was about to say “no real trouble,” but then I run into being a male reader again—maybe there’s trouble here that I don’t see but a woman would. In the absence of that, I voted no. But I would definitely like to see a beginning that does give us a hint of trouble ahead for Catherine.

I'm currently editing a novel that the author labels as women's fiction, and it does have a lot more narrative about relationships than I'm accustomed to, but it also has strong story issues and trouble for the women involved, and both add up to a page-turner. I'd love to see a strong, trouble-causing event to start this story off.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Sue

 

All of the two parts:

PROLOGUE

By the age of seventeen, I’d planned my wedding in such exquisite detail that the event itself might have been disappointing if not redundant. If I’d managed to pull it off, I expect my wedding pictures would seem comical now---Brian, the groom, looking handsome but ridiculous in a rented baby-blue tux; and me, the bride, looking equally foolish in a dress festooned with daisy appliqués, my stomach the size of a watermelon.

In each of these photographs, I suspect you would have spotted Mother scowling in the background---hiding behind a potted plant or lurking somewhere in the shadows. She’d never approved of Brian Taylor. I imagine she celebrated in private the day he decided he’d rather kill himself than marry me.

To her credit, Mother has tastefully avoided the subject for over a decade. She prefers to keep her eyes fixed on the horizon rather than dwell on ancient history. Ever on the lookout, she’s determined to marry me off while I’m still young enough to be worth the trouble. Over the telephone on Sunday evenings, she’ll drop the name of a potential husband, a rich bachelor on the prowl, or a soon-to-be divorcee who’s coming on the market. It’s difficult to accuse her of meddling; she’s far too craftyfor that.

 “Have you run into Ronald Edmonston lately, darling?” she asked, last time we spoke.

“No,” I told her. Where on earth would I run into Ronald Edmonston?

“Well according to Jane Crooker, his wife left him for a....”

“Who’s Jane Crooker?”

“You remember Jane, darling, we used to sail with her and Fred on their boat The Golden Scarab…”

I didn’t remember Jane or the boat, but I had a dim memory of Ronald. Some pencil-necked geek who grew up across the street from us, a self-proclaimed genius who used to spy on me from his bedroom window. The moment any of these captains of industry becomes available, Mother is sure to know about it. She and Daddy retired to Florida long ago now, but she’s kept up relations with the San Diego Junior League and the Soledad Mountain Ladies’ Bridge Club.

 “A girl your age could do a lot worse than Ronald Edmonston,” she insisted.

If you’re not too hung up on looks, is what I thought, but would never dare say out loud. She’s already convinced I say horrible things just to punish her, because I refuse to let go of the past. That was once Dr. Bright’s diagnosis, and Mother’s not the sort of woman to question a doctor, not even a psychiatrist.

“Are you still drinking Catherine?” she asked repeatedly. “Still smoking those filthy cigarettes?”

“Marlboro Ultra-Lights,” I reminded her. You can hardly call it smoking. Sucking air through a Marlboro Ultra-Light is probably no more dangerous than breathing regular air. These days, just about everything halfway enjoyable causes cancer. It seems to me that unless you’re willing to live in a biodome, you’re going to die a little earlier than you’d like.

I tell her I’m not drinking whether I am or not. If she has to ask, I reason, then I can’t be drunk, can I? Besides, she’s no teetotaler herself. She and Daddy haven’t missed a cocktail hour since they invented gin and tonic.

During these Sunday night phone calls, I’m tempted to shout “Brian Taylor!” right out of the clear blue as if I’m suffering from Tourette’s---just to see how she’d react. Would she hang up? Keel over in a dead faint? More than likely, she’d politely change the subject.

I have no idea what I’d do if she called me on it. I don’t trust myself enough to risk it. “You effing bitch,” is an accusation I’ve been holding back for years. When it’s midnight and I’m contemplating another glass of Chardonnay, beating her senseless seems almost reasonable. I’ll feel contrite on Monday morning. Hung over and slightly nauseous, I’ll stand under a scalding shower and recall Dr. Bright’s advice the day I was finally released from Mountain View.

“Learn to forgive, Catherine” he said.

I consider this advice, and wonder once again if there’s a ten-year-old girl out there who blames me the way I blame my own mother. I named her Brianna, Bree for short, although I have no idea what she goes by now.

 

CHAPTER ONE  

The first time Brian Taylor pulled up to our house---horn blaring, radio blasting Grand Funk----Mother hid behind our living room drapes and peered out as if  he might be dangerous. “That boy is going to ruin your life,” she predicted. “I know trouble when I see it.” 

“But you haven’t even met him yet! You don’t know anything about him!”

“He’s not going to come in? He’s just going to sit there?”

“No one comes in anymore,” I assured her. It was 1975 not 1875.

When Brian laid on the horn again, she closed her eyes in defeat. “Honestly, Catherine. I give up. I give up. I give up.”

(She’d nevergive up, of course, she was relentless. She’d keep up with her dire predictions, and look smug when one of them happened to come true. But hey, I could have told her, when you worry about everything under the sun, you’re bound to get lucky sooner or later).

I climbed into Brian’s pride and joy----a primer-spotted, 1969 yellow Charger he’d nicknamed Marilyn Monroe. (“Because she’s fast and blonde,” he’d said, when I failed to get the joke). The car had black leather bucket seats, an 8-track player, and a St. Christopher’s medal dangling from the rear view mirror. On the inside, it smelled like a mixture of aftershave and gasoline----an odor so singular it still wafts through my dreams at night.

 “Who loves you baby,” he said, and I about melted. I’d never been a steady girlfriend before, let alone somebody’s baby. “Hey Gear Head,” I said, and then gave me one of his lop-sided grins before he peeled off in a cloud of black exhaust and burnt rubber. I took one backward glance at my mother’s anxious silhouette in the living-room window, and waved like Queen Elizabeth at my creaky next-door neighbor, Mrs. Vogler. Loud cars with primer spots were as rare as mobile homes up on Mt. Soledad. 

At the bottom of the hill, I lit one of Brian’s Marlboro’s, proving that smoking gave us something in common, and that lung cancer was a small price to pay for the privilege of his company. Daddy smoked, but according to Mother, Daddy was old enough to kill himself if he wanted to. At seventeen, I wasn’t.

 

Brian parked away from the street lights down at Mission Bay, and we shared a lukewarm six-pack of Budweiser. The beer and cigarettes made me light-headed, like I could float through air and walk across water. After I kissed him, Brian cleared his throat, suggested we make ourselves more comfortable in the back seat.

“Sure, yeah,” I said. This was our routine. The way we eased into doing it. It was still awkward though; I still couldn’t look at his thing without blushing.

Not long after zipping up his blue jeans, Brian got behind the wheel and fiddled with the 8-track player. “Better get going before Old Doom and Gloom calls out the National Guard,” he said. I crawled into the passenger seat, snickering over “Old Doom and Gloom”. Brian had cleverly avoided meeting either of my parents, but he had a real talent for nicknames. He referred to his own, myopic mother as “Four Eyes”, called Daddy-the-dentist “Old Drill and Bill”. I adored Daddy, but since Brian didn’t have a father of his own to poke fun at, it seemed only fair to let him poke fun at mine.

 On the drive home, I snuck glances at his profile, impressed and terrified by what a hunk he was. I figured it was only a matter of time before he woke up one morning with the sudden realization that a great-looking guy like him could do a lot better than a girl like me. He’d be polite about it, I knew. He’d call to assure me we could still be friends and then I’d have to hang up and strangle myself with the telephone cord. As a teenager, I was no raving beauty.

 

I waved from the curb as Marilyn Monroe peeled off down our street---Credence Clearwater blasting Proud Mary, dual tail pipes belching clouds of black smoke. When the taillights disappeared, I tiptoed up to my front door, praying to God my mother had taken one of her sleeping pills.

She hadn’t. Before I could finish rinsing my panties in the upstairs bathroom, she called out from behind her bedroom door. “Is that you Catherine?”

Yesss,” I answered. Who did she think it was for heaven’s sake? What sort of burglar would break in to do their laundry in the middle of the night?

Old Doom and Gloom could hear an ash floating down our chimney. She could hear a leaf falling off our avocado tree. Part blessing, part curse; between her nerves and her sensitive ears, she barely slept a wink.

 I hung my panties from the shower rod, prepared to explain that a period had caught me off guard again. Mother expected me to keep track on the calendar she gave me every Christmas, but even this small task had proven too much for me.

I laid awake for hours worrying about letting Brian put it all the way in. A few months back, he’d quit asking if I was taking care of things, so I’d quit bullshitting about an appointment with Planned Parenthood.  If I’d had the courage, I would’ve explained how I’d called dozensof times, but every time the lady said, “Welcome to Planned Parenthood, how may I help you?” I’d get a case of the jitters and hang up. My best friend Gorgeous Lily was on the pill, but between the two of us, Lily has always been the brave one. She was the first one to French kiss a boy; the first one to get her period and use a Tampon. In my experience, it’s always the knock-outs like Lily who can afford to be absolutely fearless.

 

The Saturday night Brian drove me over to meet his mother, I was so nauseous I had to hang my head out of the passenger window. I attributed the nausea to a combination of nerves, and the neighborhood itself. Sagging couches sat abandoned on curbs, corroded Christmas lights drooped from eaves, and rusted wrought iron cages protected windows and doors.

Brian’s house was the nicest on the block. It had newish brown paint, and a rose garden even Mother would have appreciated.

Evelyn met us at the screen door. Took her time looking me over. “You know you ain’t exactly what I was expecting,” she said.

Brian introduced us. “Ma, this is Cat,” he said. “Cat, this is Ma.”

Evelyn invited me in, tugged me down a hallway to an eat-in kitchen and poured three glasses of Tang. I gazed around the room like a tourist visiting Graceland.

“Your Avon bottle collection,” I said, pointing at the windowsill. “It makes it all so homey.”

Evelyn snickered. “Oh it’s homey, alright.”

When it came time for the grand tour, I followed her from room to room as obediently as a dog, willing to say or do whatever it took to make her love me. She was the sort of down-to-earth mother I’d always longed for, a cross between the wise-cracking housekeeper on the Brady Bunch and the country singer, Tammy Wynette. The tour ended in the living room, where Evelyn turned on the TV and plunked down in a plaid recliner.

“Time for my program,” she said. “You two lovebirds behave yourselves.”

Brian couldn’t wait to show me what he and his father had done with the downstairs. The year before Roger died in a car wreck, father and son converted the two-car garage into a combination bedroom/rec-room with a half-bath and laundry nook. The construction project----Brian’s “bachelor pad”---came second only to his pride in Marilyn Monroe.

  He pointed out how he and the old man had installed the dark wood paneling, the red shag carpet that crept part way up the walls, and the narrow rectangular window with the built-in window seat below. It was the view that struck me funny. Even with your nose smooshed up against the glass, all you could see was a portion of the house across the street and a few clumps of crab grass.

I gushed over his carpentry skills. My father couldn’t change a light bulb, I joked. My mother had to hire a housekeeper just to operate our washing machine. In my family, the closest my parents came to fixing anything was fiddling with the rabbit ears on our television set whenever lines of static interrupted Wild Kingdom.

While Evelyn sat upstairs shouting out answers to Jeopardy! Brian and I sprawled across his creaky twin bed and listened to records on his stereo system. Grand Funk Railroad was our number one favorite, followed by Golden Earring and Deep Purple. In between dancing to a few of the slow ones, Brian wandered over to the window seat and stared out at the darkness as if he was expecting a taxi.

“Is someone out there?” I kept asking him, but he’d just shake his head and grope for the box of Marlboros in his shirt pocket. An hour later, he lay down on the bed, crossed his ankles, closed his eyes, and acted like I’d already gone home. 

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10. Flogometer for Chelle—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Chelle sends the first chapter of The Ladysmiths. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

“No one is allowed to wear jewelry in the forges,” the Fire Emyete told us in the open area between the buildings a ten-day after I arrived. “Firewylfs love metal. Unless you fancy burning loops in your ears or around your arms, leave it all outside.”

I pulled the protective amulet my father had made me over my neck. It warmed comfortingly in my hand and the taste of iron momentarily overwhelmed that of heat and dust.

“Holding it is as bad as wearing it, Shennafi.”

I flushed. She nodded towards the row of bowls where a collection of rings, necklaces and bracelets glittered in the sun. I set my amulet on top of someone’s bracelet. It sparked green, and a blaze of light surged up my arm. I jerked back as the light swirled and faded.

“What was that, Emyete?”

The Fire Emyete glanced at the jewelry. “The bowls are near enough for the firewylfs to taste the metal, but not to fully possess it.” As if that explained anything.

“I don’t … “I started to say, but she was eyeing Kebbe who wore a betrothal stud in her nose.

“Take it out.”

Kebbe’s eyes widened. "I can’t! Deste won't marry me!"

“What will your Deste think if you come to him with your nose burnt half off? Leave it (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Chelle's first page?

A clear, strong voice, good writing, and an enticing world were just enough to get me to turn the page even though there’s not a lot of tension here. I could have done with a little more scene-setting—what time of day is it, what are the buildings referred to like. There is a hint of danger ahead from the firewylfs, I suppose. Anyway, I wanted to know what happens next. The rest of the chapter introduces us to an interesting and magical fantasy world—but it doesn’t, IMO, introduce any kind of a problem facing Shennafi or raise strong story questions. Rather than spend a chapter on exposition that just sets up the character and world, try for a chapter in which something happens to the protagonist that compels her to take action, risky action, and set up the world while that happens.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Chelle

continued

there beside Shennafi’s amulet.”

Kebbe scowled, but unscrewed the stud. When the other girls were ready, we followed the Fire Emyete into the forge building.

The outer walls were cut away into wide, low arches. Inside was a honeycomb of smaller rooms. Hammers clanged in the fire-washed darkness beyond us. Huge bellows dangled from the ceilings and smaller ones stuck out from the backs of the forges. The roar of wind-fed fires made it sound like the building itself was breathing.

The Fire Emyete stopped by a small brick fire-pit and sprinkled something over the coals. Thin, aromatic smoke curled into the air, tickling the back of my throat.

I edged closer as she murmured something under her breath and began to pump the bellows. The coals brightened, flared, and burst into flame. The air shivered. Fire leapt up, reaching nearly to the low roof. Kebbe’s breath hissed between her teeth and she bent forward a little.

In the flames, shapes curled and danced, changing into form after graceful form. A yearning for something I couldn’t explain tugged me inside out. I couldn’t breathe. The air popped, and the firewylfs dwindled into the coals and vanished. I cried out, then clapped my hand over my mouth, but no one said anything.

The Fire Emyete led us back outside. “You will be taught the prayers and rituals for the summoning when the rains come,” she said. “Until then, attend to your classes well. Now, as it is Mistday, you may do as you wish until Sunset Vigil. Don’t be late.”

“There’s a waterfall over there,” Kebbe said to me. “Have you seen it?” Her voice sounded strained.

“No, I haven’t.” As we turned, I noticed the last of our class - Hetta, I remembered her name was - standing uncertainly by herself. The two girls I hadn’t met were walking away towards the building where we slept and ate.

“Come with us,” I invited.

A shy smile brightened Hetta’s thin face, easing the wariness in her black eyes, and she nodded. We had to hurry to keep up with Kebbe, who was walking fast, hunched over herself. When we got to the waterfall, she yanked her shemma over her head and ran straight into the pool at its base.

Hetta and I looked at each other. I shrugged and pulled my own shemma off, dropping it on the grassy bank. Kebbe was squatting down in the water, holding something on a cord away from her body.

“What are you … Kebbe!” Gold glinted at the end of the cord.

She looked up at me, her eyes laughing. “Don’t wear jewelry around firewylfs.” She stood up, thigh-deep in the pool, and pointed at a spot between her breasts where an angry circle showed in her skin.

Despite the burn, Kebbe was beautiful. I didn’t want to be married. I was going to be the best Ladysmith since Herria called the first firewylfs down from the Sun Queen, and men had no part in my plans. But I wouldn’t have minded looking just a little more like Kebbe. She was plump and curvy, her skin the color of smooth ebony-wood. Her hair fell in glossy black ringlets, the spray from the waterfall adorning it like diamonds. I looked down at myself - frizzy-haired, brown and bony - and sighed.

“You should have told someone!” Hetta said. “What if it doesn’t heal properly?”

“Oh, it will be fine,” Kebbe said. “It didn’t burn very badly.” She grinned at us. “It’s my marriage ring, do you want to see?”

I bent over the ring. It was made of thin wires intertwined, in varying colors of gold, and I could feel the betrothal blessing even without touching it. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

Hetta finally waded into the pool to see, though she didn’t take her shemma off. “Is it a Ladysmith working?” she asked. “It’s lovely.”

Kebbe beamed and began to babble about Deste and how long it had taken him to save up enough money to buy the ring and find a Ladysmith to bless it, and how they would be married as soon as she finished here.

I stopped listening and looked out at the school. I’d never seen anything like it. The cliffs had been carved away, so that walls grew seamlessly from the ground and arched into roofs. Stairways rose as if they had blossomed in place. All the buildings except the temple were round, and the whole was laid out in a circle as was proper for a place dedicated to the Sun Queen. High rock walls curved protectingly around it all.

The sun dipped behind a point of rock, and I shivered. Splashing out of the pool, I grabbed up my shemma and yanked it over my head. “Come on. You can tell us about Deste the Divine and your sixty-three children-to-be later. If we’re late for Vigil, the Fire Emyete will slaughter us.”

We ran to get our white shemmam. I made it to my place just before the sun touched the horizon. Hetta’s spot beside me was still empty. We stood facing N’kete, watching the city’s walls and towers become a silhouette as the sun sank into the desert beyond. The instructors, and those of the students who had learned to imbue light, held tiny, glowing orbs.

Just as Emyete Taeche stepped onto the stone anvil and started to sing, Hetta came running up, but any hope that the slap of her sandals would be masked by the high, sweet song was doomed. The Fire Emyete turned her head, directing a withering glare our direction.

When the sun was fully set, we scurried through the lamp-lit darkness to our rooms to change before eating. I hung my white shemma on its peg and pulled on my every-day one. Until we became Ladysmiths, we could only wear the white ones at Vigil. As I ran downstairs to the dining room, I wondered what the Fire Emyete would do to Hetta for being late.

But when I asked Hetta the next day, she only shrugged. “Nothing. She said to be on time or she might decide I didn’t really want to be a Ladysmith and send me home. That’s all.”

“But don’t you care?”

Hetta looked away. “It doesn’t matter.”

I stared at her. I’d been six years old when I’d first seen a Ladysmith. As tall as the trees, dressed all in white, with tiny flames hissing in her black hair, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. People flowed away from her path like water parting. Being here, becoming a Ladysmith myself, was the best thing in my life. How could Hetta not care? But no matter how I asked, she refused to say anything more.

We went to the outdoor forges this time. We were learning to make brass lamps. That meant making the brass as well as the lamp itself. The bowl for the bottom was easy, thanks to all the hours I’d spent practicing under Papa’s watchful eyes. But the chimney had to flare in the middle, and I was having trouble with the reflector.

“No,” Emyete Konti said again. She lifted my latest attempt from the mold. “It needs to be smooth and flat. Look.” She turned it so it caught the light.

With shadows lying across the brass, I could see where it dimpled instead of laying perfectly flat. “Yes, but I don’t see what I’m doing wrong.”

She frowned at me. “You are impatient and hasty. What is the first rule of the forge?”

“Know your materials, Emyete.”

“And?”

“Brass is the wedding of copper and zinc,” I recited.

She just looked at me, waiting. I searched my memory. “Um, copper is the Sun Queen’s second favorite metal because of its color, even though it’s more sympathetic to the Mist King. And zinc is the color of mist, but its sympathy is air, which is nearer to fire. So they are opposite, but balanced. It should work!”

“Your fire needs to be cooler. The zinc is melting too quickly and weakening the marriage. And the color is too pale. The Sun Queen won’t bless something that is nearer her sister, the Moon Princess, than herself.”

I sighed. The Sun Queen sounded like Elkite who thought she was the prettiest girl in Abhoi, and got mad if anyone admired another girl more.

Emyete Konti laid the reflector back into the crucible. “Add more copper,” she said as she left.

I shut the furnace, and started pumping the hand bellows. The muted roar from air streaming through burning coals made me smile despite my frustration. I loved smithing. I loved the fires, the colors that bled and flared, the moment when metal yielded under my hammer. I even loved the tiny burn speckles anointing my face and forearms where slivers of over-stressed metal had buried themselves when unready workings burst apart.

When the brass was completely melted, I wedded more copper in, then skimmed the dross off into the sand. Pouring the rest into the mold, I set it to cool. Tomorrow, I would see if I had finally gotten it right. Pulling my sweaty shemma away from my skin, I stretched and looked at the sky. There was time still - I could go look at the forges again.

Through a doorway, her figure wavering with the heat-shimmer between us, I recognized Femnnal. She was working the double bellows, using both hands and feet to get the hottest fire possible. Her face was set into a grimace of concentration. Excitement tingled in my stomach. She was calling her firewylfs, I knew it.

I stood very still, but after a few minutes, Femnnal stopped pumping and glared at me.

“They were almost here, and then you made them leave. Go away!”

I slunk out of the forge, confused and ashamed. I made them leave? I couldn’t have. Could I?

Later, I sought her out in her room.

“Yes?” She looked up smiling when I clapped outside her door, but her expression soured at once. “What do you want?”

“I want to apologize. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

She sniffed. “Very well. But stay away from me when I’m smithing, do you hear? I don’t want you messing things up again.”

I flushed. “I said I was sorry.”

“Just keep yourself and your bad spirits away from me!”

I whirled and ran down the hall. Fury at Femmnal’s rudeness mingled with a longing so deep it ached. Why did we have to wait until Sene before learning to summon firewylfs? I didn’t think I could bear it.

The sandstone floor was cold and uneven beneath my bare feet. The walls were several feet thick, even here on the upper floor where the students’ rooms were. On the ground floor, the doors were nearly tunnels. I ran through them, bursting outside into the heat of late afternoon.

What if she was right? What if it wasn’t just that someone was there, distracting her - what if it was me especially that the firewylfs didn’t like?

It was my father’s forge I had always gone to when I was upset at home. It was the forges I found myself outside now. I stopped beneath the archway leading into red-glowing darkness, and took a deep breath. Emotions bled into metal and could ruin a working. A smith should always be calm and serene. I wasn’t very calm, but I went inside anyways. I hadn’t come to work.

I wandered aimlessly, anger fading as awe grew. One room had tiny, delicate knives, and small glass discs I didn’t recognize. Another had bronze hammers with round heads, small enough to hold two or three in one hand. I picked one up. It was no longer than the palm of my hand and balanced easily on a single finger.

By the time I reached the rooms where the most advanced students worked, the stranglehold on my chest had loosened. I stopped to listen to one of the teachers explaining how to set gems into a finger-ring. Nearby, the Fire Emyete herself was teaching two girls to imbue a blessing of love into a marriage ring. As I watched, she finished her explanation and turned away. I snatched at my opportunity.

“Emyete… “

“Yes, Shennafi?” She turned, waiting.

“Um. Ah - the firewylfs - “

“No, you cannot learn to call them now. You will be taught in Sene, when the rains come.”

“I know. I didn’t mean that. It’s just - I was watching Femnnal earlier, and the firewylfs didn’t come for her. She said I … it was because …” I couldn’t say it, as if speaking the words might make them true.

Her face was sympathetic. “You’re worried that there is something in you that repelled the wylfs,” she said.

I nodded, sudden tears stinging my eyes.

She patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s merely a matter of concentration. I daresay Femnnal wasn’t focusing properly, and blamed you for her own failing. You will do fine.”

I closed my eyes and drew in a great breath of hot, metallic air, before smiling at her. “Thank you.” I didn’t tell her how badly I wanted to be a Ladysmith, but she smiled back as if she knew, and left.

Relief made me giddy. Papa hadn’t wanted me to come. “I don’t want you messing around with that sun magic,” he’d said. “It’s frippery stuff. Unreliable. I can teach you all the smithing you need to know.”

It had taken me a long time to convince him to let me go. I couldn’t fail.

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11. Are fiction readers better people?

Before answering that question, though, I really could use submissions for flogging. There are none in the queue, which means you'll just have me blathering about something. Okay, enough pleading . . .

At article titled “Science Shows Something Surprising about People Who Still Read Fiction” announces this conclusion:

They tend to be more empathetic toward others.

Let’s hear it for us! The article reports on the results of scientific studies of readers of fiction and concludes that they are a special breed. For instance, one study concludes that kids who read the Harry Potter series are “better people” because of significant improvement in their perception of stigmatized groups such as immigrants, homosexuals, or refugees.

Another conclusion: fiction readers make great friends as they tend to be more aware of others’ emotions. In a study of “emotional transportation”—how sensitive people are to others feelings—people read a story and were asked how they felt about what happened to the characters. Empathy was only apparent in people who read fiction and were emotionally transported.

Interestingly, people who read literary fiction (versus popular fiction) scored consistently higher on identifying facial emotions solely through the eyes.

Lastly, and I really like this one, because of the psychological processes used to navigate both fiction and real relationships, fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.

Check it out. There are links to studies that support these notions.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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12. Eliminate filters that dilute the reader’s experience

3D cover200WWhile most of my new book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, is updated material from the original and out-of-print Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, there is new material as well. I thought I’d share a new chapter with you on the topic of what are called “filters.” The filters you’ll read about on the Internet are a common problem—I call them action filters—but I think I’ve identified a second kind of filter that can diminish a narrative: body-part filters. See what you think. Then, while you’re at it, treat yourself to a signed print copy of Mastering the Craft here or a Kindle copy here. Happy holidays!


I have always had a problem with “he felt” and steered editing clients away from it, but hadn’t realized that it was just one example of what are called “filters” until a reader on my blog pointed that out. She steered me to Writing Fiction by Jane Burroway. The book cites author/teacher John Gardner:

“. . . the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.” Compare: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting . . .” Generally speaking—though no laws are absolute in fiction—vividness urges that almost every occurrence of phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.”

Burroway points out that when you look at a character rather than through a character, you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene or, as I see it, out of the experience of the story.

Leslie Leigh, who writes the Leslie’s Writing Exercises blog, put it well:

“Filters keep the reader from sinking comfortably into the fictional dream. One moment the reader is hunched over the POV character's shoulder, observing the world as if he is that character, seeing only what the character sees. But stumble across a "filtered observation" and suddenly the reader finds himself looking at the character instead of with the character—watching the character as the character watches something else.”

It turns out that filtering goes beyond things seen—a partial list follows.

Actually, I believe there are two kinds of filters:

1. Action filters—placing a character’s action between the detail you want to present and the reader.

2. Body-part filters—using a body part rather than the character to do the thing you want the reader to experience.

 Action filters

If the scene is clearly in the deep point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. When the “something” appears readers intuitively assume the POV character sees-hears-smells it.

Filters back the reader away from the character’s experience by one step because the focus of the narrative becomes the character’s action rather than the actual thing the character senses or does.

Here’s a narrative example:

 Harvey heard the howl of a coyote. He went to the front door, opened it, and stuck his head out. He shivered when he felt the sting of the winter wind and ducked back inside. Then he noticed a second coyote’s howl join the first. He decided to get the shotgun from above the fireplace mantle and scare them off.

 Same scene without the filters:

A coyote howled outside. Harvey opened the front door and stuck his head out. He shivered when the winter wind stung his face and he ducked back inside. A second coyote’s howl joined the first. He got the shotgun above the fireplace mantle to scare them off.

 Here’s a partial list of common verbs that can create distance between the reader and the story experience:

  • he saw
  • she heard
  • he thought
  • she touched
  • he wondered
  • she realized
  • he watched
  • he looked
  • it seemed
  • she felt or felt like
  • he decided
  • she noticed (a very common one)
  • he noted
  • it sounded or sounded like
  • she was able to
  • he managed
  • she experienced

 Body-part filters

A reader’s mind reacts instantaneously to word stimuli—write “cat” and an image of a cat pops into the mind. Write “cat’s paw” and an image of a cat’s paw appears in a close-up. Therein lies the filter created by using body parts to do things in a story rather than using the character. Like an action filter, this kind of filter has the reader looking at a body part rather than being with the character in experiencing the story.

If you write “eyes,” an image of eyes comes to mind: “His eyes searched wildly for a way out.”

If you use a pronoun or a name, an image of the character comes to mind: “He searched wildly for a way out.”

Literally, it’s not his eyes that are doing the searching, it is the character. If what I write has you visualizing a pair of eyes moving jerkily from side to side, is that as true an image as getting you to visualize a man turning his head rapidly as he scans the area for an escape route?

Which serves the story better? Which delivers the character’s experience? I think it’s the image of the man.

Consider:

 Nervous about meeting Bob, Stephanie cupped her hand and her nose smelled her breath.

OR

Nervous about meeting Bob, Stephanie cupped her hand and smelled her breath.

Another:

Frightened by the kindergarten teacher, little Elsa shrank in her seat and her mouth sucked her thumb.

OR

Frightened by the kindergarten teacher, little Elsa shrank in her seat and sucked her thumb.

Again

His elbow smashed into the monster’s face.

OR

He smashed his elbow into the monster’s face.

A tender moment:

His fingertips caressed her face.

OR

He caressed her face with his fingertips.

Examples from submissions to my blog:

Keith stumbled. His body He pitched forward

Her body She lurched forward and her hands flew up.

His arm He recognized her touch.

Not all body parts in action usages are filters. It’s perfectly okay to have a body part do something that is a part of what the character is experiencing. For example,

Billy buckled his knees when Tom landed a punch on his jaw.

Nawww . . .

Billy’s knees buckled when Tom landed a punch on his jaw.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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13. Flogometer for Carolyn—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for Friday, . If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Carolyn sends an opening piece and the first chapter of Dangerous. It looks to me like a YA detective story.

Intro/prologue (note: the strikeouts are the author's and I assume are intentional):

Top ten reasons why I despise hate don’t get along that well with my sister Cort:

10. She orders me around like a slave maid personal assistant.

 9. When I don’t do what she says, she makes up some outrageous lie story about me and our parents end up giving me the big lecture on why I should do what Cortland says because after all, she is older and wiser and I should benefit from her experience. Hey, she’s only eighteen months older. Look, she does know some things I don’t know, like how to plaster on makeup and mascara and how to get all the cute guys in town. I even agreed with Mom on those two points, causing Cort to say, “If you just used a little makeup, you wouldn’t have those circles under your eyes and your lashes wouldn’t be invisible, like those tribes in Africa and South America we saw on National Geographic before they painted on their face masks.”

 8. Her caustic comments are another reason why we don’t get along. Cort is always saying these kind of mean things about me and my parents don’t even notice, even if they’re in the same room, when she says them. Personally, I think she should ship the extra tons of foundation and mascara she has stashed in the bathroom to those tribes who paint their faces.

7. She is always on the phone in our bedroom when I’m trying to study or something, saying the stupidest things like: “Me, too. What a bummer…. I totally agree with what you (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Carolyn's first page?

Chapter 1

Cort says she didn’t do it to be mean. She says she just freaked when she saw me jump into the river, and that she had to tell Mom and Dad. In case—well, just in case I was trying to hurt myself.

Of course, it never occurred to her that the hammer would fall on my head once she told that to my parents. When I accuse her of over-reacting, misreading, and possibly being paranoid, she just gives me a blank stare, even though she is totally taking Psych 1 in school.

Her excuse is that she’s looking out for my welfare.

Hello. Like she ever looks out for anyone’s welfare but her own, and I would never rat on her, but she did on me, and at dinner that night while my hair was still damp from diving into the river.

Mom cleared her throat and said in her very serious voice. “Now we know that you broke one of the rules around here, Cameo.”

Rules? I stare down at my squash and green beans. “Which rule?” There are so many of them it’s hard to remember.

“That well-bred girls do not jump into rivers or try to hurt themselves on purpose,” Mom says in a tone that reminds me I should never forget that rule, even if I don’t remember any of the others.

Were you compelled turn the page with this opening?

It’s always a pleasure to be treated to good, clean writing and a likeable voice. It’s always good to be treated to tension and story  questions, too, but I didn’t find much of that here. I do believe there’s an interesting story waiting to be told, but that waits for chapter 2 or later—according to the set-up (the first 9 pages, through chapter 1) the protagonist thinks her sister’s boyfriend is a murderer. That’s all well and good, and raises the story question of whether or not he is and whether or not the sister is in any danger, but there’s nothing that puts the protagonist in jeopardy—her only trouble in the opening and first chapter is being scolded for jumping into the river. Look for a later place to start, the place where something happens to Cameo that is a) trouble for her and b) forces her to take action.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Carolyn

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14. Suspense writing tips

Kira P5 tips for writing suspense by Kira Peikoff, author of No Time to Die, on Writer’s Digest gives a quick look at what she has learned about writing suspense. It may be helpful to you. The tips she covers are:

1) Structure Scenes like Mini-Novels

2) Plot Strategically to Avoid the Sagging Middle

3) Alternate Character POVs

4) Obscure POV when useful

5) Raise questions and delay the answers

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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15. Flogometer for Ray—another pass at a first page by me for you to flog

Submissions Wanted. Just one in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Two weeks ago I posted two possible first pages for a sequel to The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. I’m aiming to craft a first page that engages you with story via story questions and to also begin engaging you with a character.

That exercise gave me good food for thought, and I thank you. Of course, giving a writer food for thought produces more thought, so I’m back with a third alternative. I’ll probably stop doing this after you tell me what you think of this—I have a whole rest of the novel to write.

First, though, for those who missed the post a couple of weeks ago or want to refresh themselves on what came before, you can return to those first two first pages by clicking here. But please come on back and critique the new one. Also for those who missed the first round, the rest of the chapter is posted after the break. I could use comments on that, too, if you can spare a minute.

Caveat: for those from the first round, there’s new stuff here but also some holdovers from then--interestingly, the tense changed from past to present. See what you think. A couple of polls follow. Here goes the first page, maybe, of The Hollywood Unmurders . . .

I hate to admit this, but sometimes my basic cat modus operandi—you know, I-am-an-independent-entity-who-doesn’t-give-a-meow-what-you-think—is, er, less than helpful. Like tonight, when Meg opened the door to let me out for a prowl. She ruffled my fur and said, “Be careful, Patch. They say a coyote never met a cat it didn’t like.” I rolled my eyes.

So now, an hour later, I’m hunkered down behind a scrub oak beneath the H in the HOLLYWOOD sign, straining to hear movement from over by the W where I last saw the coyote. I wouldn’t be worried if it was a dog following me—who worries about a creature that devotes eons of evolution to mastering tail-wagging and drooling?

But stalked by a sharp-toothed killer with fillet of cat on its mind? That pretty full moon up above has turned into a spotlight and there’s new meaning to the words “snack attack.”

Oh, I’ll have my revenge if he eats me—noshing on a vampire kitty-cat will give him a terminal case of indigestion. Unfortunately, by then I won’t be in any condition to say gotcha.

Will I end up an immortal lump in his belly after my vee virus turns him into a vampire, thereby giving “hairball” a whole new meaning? Disgusting. Not to mention totally creepy. Y’know, being undead isn’t much of a life, but I’d like to hold onto what little I have.

I slink low, belly to the ground, and peer beneath a branch.

Uh-oh.

Were you compelled to turn Ray's first page?

For those who reviewed the first two versions and this one, please give your thoughts via this poll. The two earlier versions are here. And many thanks!

Which of the three openings did you prefer?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey

 

(continued)

He isn’t under the W anymore.

I scan the rocky chaparral in front of me, a holdout of the old desert in the middle of L.A.’s artificial lushness, and I wish a real, climbable tree has sprung up within the last few minutes. I wonder if my calico colors make as good a camouflage as I hope they do.

Something crackles behind me, like a dry twig being stepped on. I whip around and there he stands, gazing at me from four feet away.

So much for camouflage.

Hoping to look dangerous and too big to mess with, I arch my back and puff up the fur on my spine and tail.

The coyote sits and licks his chops, no doubt considering what part of me to dine on first.

So much for puffery.

I throttle my fur back down and think hard. Maybe the old slow-motion trick will work. You know, the one where a cat moves ve-e-e-e-ry slo-o-o-owly awa-a-a-y so as not to provoke an attack. It works if you’re facing a bigger and nastier cat, but I have serious doubts about a hungry coyote.

Before I can slow-move, though, he stretches his head forward and sniffs. I brace for a run, though I know it’s hopeless against his long legs. I might win the sprint but, with no tree to climb, he’ll catch me in the marathon that stretches between me and the nearest palm tree on the way back to the apartment.

He stands and takes a step closer. I’m beyond tense, only seconds away from incoherent screeching and completely losing it to uncatlike panic. I take a deep breath and focus on looking cool and indifferent, thinking that maybe thinking that will calm me down.

He leans toward me and sniffs again.

I’m not calming down.

I knew what he was picking up—my personal feline aroma plus the coppery scent of blood that we vees emanate. It’s a subtle perfume, that blood smell, but I can spot a vee with my nose in an instant.

Another lick of his chops, languid this time, as if he were relishing the dining experience to come. He tastes my scent again with a deep inhale.

I begin to understand what food feels like.

Good-bye, Meg.

Then his blue eyes twinkle, he winks, and he turns and walks away.

Blue?

Winks?

Walks away?

The wink brings on a severe case of jitters as I scram for home. Has he been toying with me? Is he skulking up ahead, ready to spring? I jump at every sound and shy from every shadow.

Er, it isn’t as if I am afraid, of course. Heh. Just a cat’s hyper-vigilance in action.

The rustle of paws in dirt comes from my left—there he is, pacing me. I veer a little away from him, and he stays with me but comes no closer all the way back home.

He follows me right into the courtyard and past the swimming pool. I’m darned glad that Meg always leaves our door open a crack when I go out so I can nose my back way in. I’m also a little proud that I hadn’t panicked and run right at the last.

When I’m safely inside, I look out. Right on our doorstep, the coyote eyes me. Meg’s footsteps approach behind me, and he lifts his gaze to her. I crouch and brace myself, poised to spring. Despite those gleaming fangs, if he tries to mess with my associate I will—

He turns and trots away, going around the pool and up the stairs to the second level on the other side. The animal knows no fear.

I, however, know great relief.

“Patch!” Meg scoops me up and pushes the door shut with her foot. She strokes my head and says, “You’ve been gone a long time, and I was worried that you’d run into a coyote.”

As if on cue, a coyote howl sounds. Meg says, “See? That sounds like it’s right outside the door.”

Tell me about it.

The burn of bloodlust ignites in my belly—all that exercise and stress, no doubt. I wriggle and Meg sets me down. I trot into the kitchen and aim myself at the refrigerator.

Meg says, “Good idea.” She opens the door and takes out two bottles of V1, the type O negative with the nicely nutty aftertaste. “We’ve got our delivery run to do.”

She has changed into her uniform, a crimson jumpsuit with “Meg” stitched above one pocket and the V1 logo on the other. I’m pleased by the trim appearance my petite associate makes. It’s good to have a companion that compliments one’s own lithe feline body.

She pours one bottle into a bowl and the other into a mug, pops them into the microwave, and soon the metallic aroma of warm blood makes my mouth want to water even though it can’t.

Meg sets my bowl on the floor and then takes a deep swallow from her mug. I can’t tell you how envious I am at times of the human ability to just drink stuff down. When your bloodlust is sending jagged spears of pain through your body, lapping with your tongue is entirely inadequate.

After we fend off our looming bloodlust, we do what we have settled into doing just about every evening since we moved to Los Angeles. She sits on the living-room couch and, of course, creates a lap into which I, of course, immediately curl up. I’m pretty sure that laps are the reason cats first decided to hook up with human beings way back when, you being the only place we can get them.

With the blood enlivening us, she scratches behind my ears. When my purr kicks in, a teensy smile curls the corners of her mouth up. Me, too. If you think a purr sounds good, on the inside it feels like what you hear only ten times stronger.

Then, as always, her fingers lose their warmth until they are room temperature. I do the same, and my skin returns to numb. I still feel her stroking me, but it’s as if from a distance.

Her little smile sinks into no expression at all, her face becomes chill and still. My purr dies out and we are back to being forever undead. You might think that immortality would be compensation enough, but even if we were super-strong (we aren’t), able to fly (we can’t), or could turn into bats, which I could do without anyway (we can’t), it isn’t.

That coyote is still in my mind, licking his chops—and winking. As I contemplate his mysterious behavior, the doorbell rings.

Meg dumps me from her lap and calls, “Coming.” She hurries into the kitchen, snatches up the bowl and mug, and runs water into them at the kitchen sink. Even though the caller is probably one of the vampires we’ve met since we moved here, it’s good to be careful. Vees are still underground in Hollywood, although actors talk about blood-sucking agents in ways that make me wonder.

When she opens the door, a sandy-haired, lanky and lean twenty-something man about Meg’s age, dressed in a rumpled brown suit, looks down at her. He smiles—I wonder if he would do that if he knew he stood just outside a vampire den. Lucky for him we’ve just had our V1—there’s no stopping an attack when the bloodlust frenzy takes you over.

Thinking maybe he was here about the coyote, I join Meg at the door. The man holds out a badge and says, “Los Angeles police, Ma’am, homicide. I’m Detective Rick Champagne. Can I have a minute of your time?”

My hackles rise. Ever since I was tried for murder back in Illinois, I tense up whenever a cop comes calling. But I stifle a hiss. It wouldn’t be smart to draw attention to myself. Besides, I was found not guilty, so what did I have to worry about?

Meg says, “Homicide?” She gazes down at me and arches an eyebrow. “As in murder?”

Will she never let that go? It was self-defense, the judge said so.

Rick the cop looks down at me, too—with twinkly blue eyes that seem to have a knowing smile behind them.

If he winks at me I will—

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16. It's flog a pro time

WU logo 175WToday is the monthly flog of a best-selling author over at Writer Unboxed. See what you think.

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17. Flogometer for Fran—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for Friday, though I will be posting a third pass at a first page for my vampire kitty story then--I hope you'll tune in. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Fran sends a first chapter of Low Flying Dirtbags. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

A coppery metallic smell roused him. He blinked, coughed and gagged. The contents of his stomach churned and rose up his throat. He swallowed the burning bile and willed himself not to vomit. He shivered. He was cold. He tried to lift a hand to his mouth but discovered he couldn't move his arms or legs. He looked down towards his feet. He was naked and appeared to be strapped to a metal table. His legs were raw and oozing a faintly pinkish liquid onto the table. He suddenly felt the pain. His nausea increased. He swallowed rapidly to calm his churning stomach. He closed watery eyes as the fear rose. He quickly wrestled it down. Now was not the time to panic. Was it the middle of the day or night, he couldn't tell? Where was he? What had happened? Think back. Where was he last?

He'd been at his birthday celebration. It had been a glittering, exciting affair, and he'd been happy. There'd been lots of alcohol – so much so, he'd lost count of the number of refills. How had he gone from such a magical moment to this cold, dark place that smelled of copper?

He marked off the evenings events.

Alcohol.

Music.

Singing.

A bite or two of food. Somebody had offered him cocaine, but he'd turned it down, (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Fran's first page?

A scary opening, at least for the protagonist, and story questions are raised. Yet I waffled, which leads to not turning the page. I think the problem is two-fold. First is the good old anonymous pronoun person—why not give a name, which tends to make him more of a human than an object? Secondly, I felt the narrative didn’t deliver the intensity of the moment that the character is experiencing. Terrible things have happened to him yet all is calm and thoughtful. Notes:

A coppery metallic smell roused him. He blinked, coughed and gagged. The contents of his stomach churned and rose up his throat. He swallowed the burning bile and willed himself not to vomit. He shivered. He was cold. He tried to lift a hand to his mouth but discovered he couldn't move his arms or legs. He looked down towards his feet. He was naked and appeared to be strapped to a metal table. His legs were raw and oozing a faintly pinkish liquid onto the table. He suddenly felt the pain. His nausea increased. He swallowed rapidly to calm his churning stomach. He closed watery eyes as the fear rose. He quickly wrestled it down. Now was not the time to panic. Was it the middle of the day or night, he couldn't tell? Where was he? What had happened? Think back. Where was he last? We learn later that his arms and legs have “long, deep cuts and blistered, seared skin.” I don’t find it credible that incredible pain wouldn’t be the first thing he’d feel. If fact, I think it would be the intense pain would be what roused him, not the smell of blood. If it did, I also don’t think thoughts of nausea and bile would then be the first thing on his mind. With the nature of the wounds, I think he would wake screaming. Nor do I think he’d settle right down. He later “tentatively” queries if anyone is there. I think he’d scream it.

He'd been at his birthday celebration. It had been a glittering, exciting affair, and he'd been happy. There'd been lots of alcohol – so much so, he'd lost count of the number of refills. How had he gone from such a magical moment to this cold, dark place that smelled of copper?

He marked off the evenings events.

Alcohol.

Music.

Singing.

A bite or two of food. Somebody had offered him cocaine, but he'd turned it down, (snip) I cut the remainder because a list is hardly compelling content for the first page. Get on with what’s happening, with him dealing with the NOW of what’s happening—I just don’t believe that, with the injuries and pain he has and awakening strapped to a table that he’d begin calmly reconstructing events. Writhing and screaming is mostly what I think he’d do. I’d have the bad guy interrupt the writhing and screaming on the first page and get on with that dialogue. I’d also like just a touch more scene-setting in the opening page as things aren’t clear as to the nature of where he is and what he sees. He can see injury to his legs, so there must be light. Yet later fluorescents are turned on to light the room. So what is it like, what does he see when he awakens?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Fran

 

(continued)

knowing it'd keep him wired too tightly. Had someone slipped him something anyway?

Thoughts blurred. He couldn't cut through the misty memories. All he had was the party and then it was dark. Everything in the middle was gone.

It really didn't matter how he got here. What was important was escaping. If there was one thing he was good at, it was cutting his losses. He needed to get free!

As much as he strained against the straps holding him, he couldn't loosen them. He couldn't see anything either, he couldn't make out the room's details. It was quiet except for the sound of water trickling.

"Hello? Is anyone here?'" He tentatively queried.

No answer.

The panic returned. He turned his head, the room spun, and his stomach threatened to spew. He gulped and forced himself to calm down. Tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. It would be so easy to surrender. No! He'd never been a quitter. Ever!

Summoning his most arrogant tone, he said, "Answer me. I know someone is here."

The shadows remained mutinously silent and unmoved by his practiced sternness. His only answer was the soft trickle of water.

"I shouldn't be here," he said. "This is a mistake. People are expecting me. They'll call the cops if I don't show. I can pay you whatever you want. I'm rich. You don't need to do this. We can make a deal. I demand to know where I am."

A shadow shifted. He caught the slight movement from the corner of his eye.

 "You demand? If I were you, I wouldn't demand, I'd start begging." The whispered words echoed in the dark chamber. He couldn't tell if the voice was male or female.

"What do I need to beg for?"

"Your life would be a good start." The voice remained silky soft and gentle. For a moment, it sounded familiar. Where had he heard the voice before?

"I'm not afraid."

A soft chuckle snaked through the gloom, unsettling him more than a hurled threat.

"You really should be afraid."

"Why?"

"Why? Why are you here? Why what?"

"Why me?"

He heard the clip-clop of shoes on concrete as they moved away. He panicked. Was the person leaving him alone in this awful place strapped naked to this table?

Overhead florescent lights clicked on, flooding the room, forcing him to wince from the burning glare. Carefully he cracked his lids allowing the light to leak into his pupils. When his eyes finally focused on his captor, he saw nothing but a pair of blue eyes looking at him with curiosity. The person had draped itself in a loose-fitting, long sleeved, blue hospital gown. Its face, obscured by a surgical mask and cap covering its brows and hair made it impossible to distinguish any feature or tell if it was male or female. Its hands were encased in surgical gloves. Height average.

"Do I know you?"

"Doesn't matter," the voice whispered.

The lightness of its voice told him it was truly enjoying this moment. "Well, we better get started. We've got work to do."

"Work, what work? Where are we?"

"We are far from anyone who might hear your screams of agony or your pleas for help."

He started to tremble. He couldn't control it.

"Where are we?" he stuttered.

"This is where I do some of my best work, my art."

"What kind of art?"

"Body art…look at you." The gloved hands came up holding a long-bladed straight razor with a bloody blade and a small portable table torch. He realized why his legs burned and looked filleted. Now, as he looked closer, his arms, though strapped down, had long, deep cuts and blistered, seared skin. His face burned too.

"You're demented."

The blue eyes blazed with anger. "To each his own."

"Please don't do this to me."

"Too late now."

"It's never too late. I won't tell anyone."

"Shhh," it whispered. "This won't take long." As the pain scorched through his body, he embraced it. The pain was proof of life. Without the pain, he feared he'd be lost.

"I want to live."

Gently, it smoothed it's fingertips over his forehead. "Shhh…we can't do that." The gentle touch set off an explosion of tremors. His body shook uncontrollably. His tormentor quickly and efficiently duct taped his mouth shut. Daggett wondered why since it had mentioned no one would hear him if he yelled. Daggett struggled harder and watched as it laid the sharp blade against his genitals while lighting the portable torch.

His tormentor watched the panic grow in his eyes. "I wouldn't shake so much if I were you. I might burn more than your sac." It whispered as searing agony shot through his body while the smell of scorched flesh reached his nostrils. It continued, "My blade might accidently slide… like this… and slice right through your manhood. Oops! Look what you've made me do, Daggett!”

The pain was agonizing. Daggett tasted blood as he bit through his tongue. He couldn't scream. All he managed was a muffled sound of agony. It stared at him as if he was some kind of lab experiment to evaluate as it methodically snapped photos of his reaction.

"Almost done... It won't be long now. How are you feeling, Daggett? Can you relate at all to the agony you caused others all these years? Do you feel remorse, any regrets? Nope… doesn't look like it to me. All I see is anger, pleading for a chance to talk yourself out of your current situation. Too bad! So sad!"

Daggett’s tormentor dragged the sharp knife blade over the tender flesh of his neck. The pain was sudden and searing. Warm blood and a renewed coppery smell drained quickly from the wound. He inhaled, but his lungs refused to respond. He tried to pull in another breath. Nothing! Panic exploded as he directed his energy inward towards his lungs.

Breathe! Air!

A gurgling sound rose in his chest as the air already in his lungs seeped out through the wound. More blood began to pool around his shoulders. He struggled to cling to his final hold on life.

His tormentor smoothed its fingers through his hair. "Don't fight this. Fighting only makes it worse. It won't be much longer, it'll be over soon."

Daggett’s vision blurred. His lungs and body burned while gentle fingers continued to stroke his brow.

"So pretty. I think you are my best work yet, Daggett." Delight danced in its blue eyes. The more Daggett struggled to breathe the greater his tormentors’ enjoyment. Blackness leaked into the edges of his vision, and as the seconds counted down, his constricting pupils seeped out more light, leaving only darkness behind. The darkness won.

It stared down at Daggett's empty shell. This killing was a treat, a well-deserved reward. Dirk Daggett had begged in the end. It was always enjoyable to bring the arrogant, know-it-all ones down a peg. It clicked on a portable light and studied Daggett's face. As it gazed at Daggett's remains, it felt no remorse, just unfulfilled. It was tired of living in the shadows, tired of hiding behind someone's protection, tired of wanting things and not being able to have them, weary of denying it's true self. It wanted the cops to know what it could do. It wanted to be feared and to be that terrifying bedtime story the kids told each other when they needed to feel dread.

Soon they would know. Daggett’s tormentor would alter the game and force them to pay attention. Maybe it was foolish to poke a stick at the cops. It had been quietly killing for many years…why the need for attention now? It paced its workroom while considering its sudden need for more. Why was the mutilation no longer satisfying? Why did it need to taunt authority and risk exposure?

The seconds ticked by as it contemplated its options. There was no sense of panic just a residue of excitement. As it paced and moved about the small room, anticipation grew and grew until it overwhelmed the killer completely.

Should it rethink this game plan? No. It needed this. It needed recognition. It had been hiding for too many years. It was always careful. There would be no trace of its presence on Daggett's body, no evidence to link his remains back to the killer. There would be no more hiding in the shadows, no more living in the background. It would forge new ground and become a household name.

The cops, once they found Daggett's empty shell, would eventually put a name and face to the remains. They'd learn what they could about him. They'd ask his family and friends who could have done such a horrible thing. But, in the end… they'd come up empty-handed. No one would link Daggett to its other self. No one had seen them together in a very long time. There were no emails, faxes, or texts exchanged.

It thought about the cops running around in circles like rabid dogs trying to figure out which end was up. They'd growl and foam at the mouth, but in the end they'd find nothing but their own tails. The notion that the detectives assigned would have another unsolved case – another blot on their records – had some appeal. It chuckled deeply while contemplating the consequences of moving forward with this new plan.

Later, it would add Daggett's pictures to the ever-growing album. The stories the album provided were something to reminisce about while sitting in a cozy chair, in front of a warm fire, sipping hot chocolate, on a cold winter's night.

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18. “a brilliant and entertaining resource book on the craft of writing”

Mastering front 100WshadowA new review from Amazon for my new Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling:

5 stars I'll Use It Every Time I Sit Down to Write

You WILL become a better writer by reading this book and implementing the suggestions made by Mr. Rhamey. And they’re not vague or theoretical suggestions, either—they are clear, definitive, concrete, and 100% useful. It’s a brilliant and entertaining resource book on the craft of writing.

In my opinion, the best way to use this book is to first read it cover to cover, pretending it’s an online course or weekend workshop. Gobble it up whole, so the cells of your writer’s brain absorb and integrate the information. Then, as you write and revise, you can go back to refresh yourself on specific skills or techniques as you need them.

Here are three reasons I like and recommend this book:

The style and voice are friendly, engaging, encouraging, and genuine. There’s no huge ego behind the scenes, bestowing rules and regimens. Ray Rhamey is an unassuming guy who really knows his stuff, and his warm teaching style comes through the text beautifully.

Examples abound! By far the best way to improve writing and revising is to see before and after samples, and Rhamey has included a truckload. At every step we’re shown ways to improve word choice, sentence structure, characterization, description, dialogue, opening pages, and more. He draws from published and unpublished novels, other books on the craft, agent blogs, and even his own fiction.

The final section of the book includes the opening paragraphs of eleven stories, submitted to his online critique blog, Flogging the Quill. After reading through the book, critique these excerpts yourself, and see how your comments compare to those Rhamey made. The results are dramatic: do just a few of these and you’ll realize how much you’ve learned. Better yet, you’ll be ready to apply these critical reading skills to the revision of your own work.

Rhamey suggests “there should never be a good place to put your book down.” If you want to write a book that readers can’t put down, then Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling is a resource you can’t afford to be without.!

Signed paperbacks are available on my website (discounted price, free shipping), both Kindle and the paperback are available on Amazon.com.

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19. Flogometer for Anikó—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for Friday. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Anikó sends a first chapter of The Water Still Rules , a YA fantasy. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

I should have taken the signs seriously. The ache in my eyes as the streaks of sunshine found their way through the green blanket of tree leaves, the trembling of my hands, as I entwine them to pray, the numbness creeping up on the sides of my legs. By the time I feel my body jerk back, it’s too late. I hit the ground, my back cracking on a log. I’m having a vision, and I learned early on that visions meant trouble. The first time it happened was on the day I turned twelve. I spent the whole day curled up in fetal position, fighting the urge to vomit. Talk about a fun birthday gift.

I close my eyes, letting the power take over and my fingers clutch, scratching the earth under me. I feel coldness rushing inside of me, numbing the tip of my toes first and lurking its way along my spine, right up to my head.

The scent of the earth and trees is replaced by the smell of iron and wine, and the sound of rustling leaves blends into distant human voices. A heavy, wooden table stands in the middle of the room and behind it a man with his fists propped on it. He’s looking down, his dirty blond hair falling into his face. Sunlight floods in through the huge window, shining back from his torso. Judging by the sturdy, bronze breastplate he is a soldier, and not just a common one, but someone of high rank.

“We have to search the Orphan Forest again,” he says, his voice becoming clearer in (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Anikó's first page?

I definitely like the writing and voice here and we open with an immediate scene with something happening. But I think this opening could be stronger if, instead of reporting the vision, we could get more of a hint of jeopardy, of something the protagonist is going to need to do. Though the writing and voice tempted me to turn the page, I decided to give it an almost and hope that more tension can be created on this page. As it is, there’s not a lot in the way of story questions, especially what this vision means to the protagonist. Notes follow:

I should have taken the signs seriously. The ache in my eyes as the streaks of sunshine found their way through the green blanket of tree leaves, the trembling of my hands, as I entwine them to pray, the numbness creeping up on the sides of my legs. By the time I feel my body jerk back, it’s too late. I hit the ground, my back cracking on a log. I’m having a vision, and I learned early on that visions meant trouble. The first time it happened was on the day I turned twelve. I spent the whole day curled up in fetal position, fighting the urge to vomit. Talk about a fun birthday gift. This is an opportunity to easily let the reader know the age of the protagonist. For example: . . . first time it happened was six years ago, on the day I turned twelve. An opportunity to create some stakes was missed here in a couple of ways. Instead of visions meaning trouble, why not have them mean danger? “Trouble” could refer to a day of wanting to vomit, but I think more is needed here. Rather than the feeling of illness on that first vision, why not, instead, include the trouble/danger that was seen back then. We need a suggestion of jeopardy to come and, for my money, it isn’t on this first page.

I close my eyes, letting the power take over and my fingers clutch, scratching the earth under me. I feel coldness rushing inside of me, numbing the tip of my toes first and lurking its way along my spine, right up to my head.

The scent of the earth and trees is replaced by the smell of iron and wine, and the sound of rustling leaves blends into distant human voices. A heavy, wooden table stands in the middle of the room and behind it a man with his fists propped on it. He’s looking down, his dirty blond hair falling into his face. Sunlight floods in through the huge window, shining back from his torso. Judging by the sturdy, bronze breastplate he is a soldier, and not just a common one, but someone of high rank.

“We have to search the Orphan Forest again,” he says, his voice becoming clearer in (snip)  Later it seems as if these men are searching for the protagonist and her brother, but that isn’t included. Can we have more jeopardy here? Could the line about searching the forest again be more dire? For example: To find the girl and kill her, we have to search the Orphan Forest . . .etc. We need a connection between the vision and the protagonist.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Anikó

 

(continued)

my head with each word. He is pointing his fingers at the huge paper folded across the table .A map. His neatly kept beard has streaks of white in it, and it reminds me of my father. But my father didn’t have cold eyes like he does, and his skin was copper instead of pale. “Would I have a Soultree, this is where I would hide.”

“You heard the innkeeper, Gaillard,” a younger voice says. He seems a bit older than I am, but I don’t think he turned twenty yet. He sits in a massive, wooden chair, one leg dropped over the other, his brown dress is decorated with fine needlework. He must either be someone very important or someone very wealthy. With his dark hair combed back and those ruby green eyes he looks like a prince. His strong jaws are moving, chewing on something. “She knows the forest as well as her own palm. She hasn’t seen anything.” He leans on the table, reaches into a bowl and pops a grape in his mouth.

Impatience flickers in Gaillard’s eyes, but his voice is steady. “Yes, Saro. I don’t think we should give her words too much credit, though. As far as we know, she can be one of them. Skin color doesn’t mean much anymore.”

Saro knocks his cup twice on the table and waits as a young girl pours wine it. “Fine. Have it your way.” He takes a gulp. “But whatever you do, do not come back to me empty handed. I want at least one of them alive, and I want the tree.” He stands up from the table, and turns back before leaving the room. “I give you ten men. You are dismissed.”

 

My eyes fly open, and I gasp for air, breathing the familiar scent of the forest in again. For a second, I think I will be fine, that the quick rush of fresh air into my lungs helps. When the second is over, I bend and empty my stomach next to a fig tree. Tear gathers in my eyes at the bitter taste of vomit.

I get up, sweat trickling down the small of my back, as I put my back against a tree to catch my breath. My back is aching where the log hit it and I massage it to make the pain go away. It still feels hot and humid, even though the sky is low on the sky. Nightfall is close, and I don’t know where the soldiers are right now, but they cannot be far. Last time I had a vision, we had no time to spare, an hour later they broke our door down and only me and my brother managed to flee. We might only have seconds now, I have to get back to our hut to warn him.

Dizziness takes over, and a tree catches me as I stumble. The raspy surface of the trunk barks the skin on my shoulder. I inhale deeply, and risk a couple of steps. Afraid that I’m going to faint, I don’t dare going too fast. There might not be enough time though, and it’s at least thirty minutes to get to my cottage from here. I have to be faster than this.

I know a ginger bush not too far away, and I decide to risk the small detour. When I find it, I start digging deep with my fingers, taking the root out of the earth. Not bothering to clean it, I break it open with my shaky hands. Taking a bite, I get up and start walking again while chewing. It’s pinching my tongue and my throat, but I stuff it down anyway. It won’t help immediately, but it’s better than nothing. The forest is getting darker, and I know I don’t have much time left. I start into a pathetically slow run. I fall, get up and fall again, but I don’t stop. Forcing my body now can mean my life. Or my brother’s.

I finally get within sight of our cottage and hide. I can’t quite see inside from so far away, so I wait for any suspicious signs, but nothing. I feel the knot in my chest tighten up a little and make my way closer. I look inside the window and my blood freezes. They’ve found us.

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20. Reviews are coming in for "Mastering the Craft"

Mastering front 100WshadowReviews are beginning to appear on Amazon for my new Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling The first one:

5 starsEngaging read to make you a better writer.

As a writer who is about to publish my first children's novel, Ray Rhamey's Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling is particularly useful as it gives you great insight on how to self-edit and make the story better.

The section on wordcraft was an excellent way to tackle the good, the bad and the ugly. The chapter on adverbs gave excellent advice on this often debated topic and the remaining chapters addressed those pesky words "without" and "as" that like to creep in and need to be weeded out.

Section 2 on the techniques of storytelling is a first class exercise in showing not telling. Throughout Rhamey uses examples which are illuminating and often humorous. Writers can be neurotic about having their work dissected but Rhamey shows us the humor in the exercise while always aiming to improve the reader's writing - to simply make us better.

My favorite chapter in the last section on storytelling is "Tension in your first sentence" - it made me rethink my opening lines and I believe I have made them better. Thanks Ray!

Signed paperbacks are available on my website (discounted price, free shipping), both Kindle and the paperback are available on Amazon.com.

Add a Comment
21. Flogometer for Ray--two first pages by me for you to flog

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

I’ve recently started writing a sequel to The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles and had crafted a first page that I felt worked the way it should.

Then I attended a workshop by Donald Maass, literary agent, at the Writer Unboxed Unconference. It was about where good manuscripts fall short, especially in the middle. Maass, a literary agent who has read and analyzed hundreds of novels, said that it’s engagement with the protagonist that matters the most in creating a narrative that keeps the pages turning, and a lack of that is usually the first way good manuscripts fail to do enough. He said that he feels engagement with a character is best begun on the first page.

That made sense to me. Since my WIP was much on my mind, that evening I wrote a new first page aimed at more strongly engaging the reader with the protagonist. But did I succeed?

So today I’m asking you to read the original, vote, then the new one, vote again, and then vote on which you prefer. I hope you’ll say why in the comments.

I’ll post the rest of the chapter after the break and would like to hear your thoughts on that, as well.

Here’s the original first page of The Hollywood Unmurders:

Hiding behind a scrub oak beneath the H in the HOLLYWOOD sign, I hadn’t heard any movement from the direction of the W where I’d spotted the coyote. Unluckily, he’d homed in on me when I ducked behind the bush, and the word around Los Angeles was that coyotes never met a cat they didn’t like. If it had been a dog, I wouldn’t have worried—who worries about a creature that has devoted eons of evolution to mastering tail-wagging and drooling?

The full moon I’d been enjoying on my outing now felt like a spotlight, and the scrub oak, three feet tall and about that wide, was no barrier to a determined coyote. Although being undead wasn’t much of a life, I preferred holding on to what little I had.

I’d have my revenge if he ate me—chewing on a vampire kitty-cat would give him a terminal case of indigestion. Unfortunately, by then I wouldn’t be in any condition to say gotcha.

After the vee virus in me turned him into a vampire as he masticated my poor little body, would I end up an immortal lump in his belly, giving “hairball” a whole new meaning? Disgusting. Not to mention really, really creepy.

I slunk low, belly to the ground, and peered beneath a branch.

He wasn’t under the W anymore.

Uh-oh.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

And here’s the new first page of The Hollywood Unmurders (except for one line from the original, it’s all new):

After Meg heated up a late-night snack of V1—the type O negative with the nicely nutty aftertaste—we fended off our looming bloodlust and then did what we had settled into doing just about every evening since we moved to Los Angeles. She sat on the living-room couch and, of course, created a lap into which I, of course, immediately curled up. I’m pretty sure that laps are the reason cats decided to hook up with human beings, you being the only place we can get them.

With the blood enlivening us, she scratched behind my ears. When my purr kicked in, a teensy smile curled the corners of her mouth up. Me, too. If you think a purr sounds good, on the inside it feels like what you hear only ten times stronger.

A coyote howled outside, but we get that a lot here at our Silver Lake apartment house.

Then, as always, her fingers lost their warmth until they were room temperature. I did the same, and my skin returned to numb. I still felt her stroking me, but it was as if from a distance.

Her little smile sank into no expression at all, her face chill and still. My purr died out and we were back to being forever undead. You might think that immortality would be compensation enough, but even if we were super-strong (we aren’t), able to fly (we can’t), or could turn into bats, which I could do without, anyway (we can’t), it wasn’t.

I went to the door and meowed. Meg got up and opened it. “Be careful.” She ruffled my fur. “They say a coyote never met a cat they didn’t like.” I slipped out.

Were you compelled turn the page with this opening?

Okay, now one more vote as to which of the two you prefer, whether or not you found it compelling. My attempt to form a connection with the reader calls upon the technique of showing the character in a relationship even though it was far less action-intensive. Please comment on why you voted for the one you preferred if you have a moment. The rest of the chapter follows the break—it takes up where this second first page leaves off and begins with, essentially, the former first page that gets into the action.

Which of the two openings did you prefer?

Like all the writers who submit to FtQ, I appreciate your time and your thoughts.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey

(continued)

An hour later, I hid behind a scrub oak beneath the H in the HOLLYWOOD sign. I hadn’t heard any movement from the direction of the W where I’d spotted the coyote. Unluckily, he’d homed in on me when I ducked behind the bush. I wouldn’t have worried if it had been a dog—who worries about a creature that has devoted eons of evolution to mastering tail-wagging and drooling?

The full moon I’d been enjoying on my outing now felt like a spotlight, and the scrub oak, three feet tall and about that wide, was no barrier to a determined coyote. Although being undead wasn’t much of a life, I preferred holding on to what little I had.

I’d have my revenge if he ate me—chewing on a vampire kitty-cat would give him a terminal case of indigestion. Unfortunately, by that time I wouldn’t be in any condition to say gotcha.

After the vee virus in me turned him into a vampire as he masticated my body, would I end up an immortal lump in his belly, thereby giving “hairball” a whole new meaning? Disgusting. Not to mention really, really creepy.

I slunk low, belly to the ground, and peered beneath a branch.

He wasn’t under the W anymore.

Uh-oh.

I scanned the rocky chaparral in front of me, a holdout of the old desert in the middle of L.A.’s artificial lushness, and wished a real, climbable tree had sprung up within the last few minutes. I wondered if my calico colors made as good a camouflage as I hoped they did.

Something crackled behind me, like a dry twig being stepped on. I whipped around and there he stood, gazing at me from four feet away.

So much for camouflage.

Hoping to look dangerous and too big to mess with, I arched my back and puffed up the fur on my spine and tail.

The coyote sat and licked his chops, no doubt considering what part of me to dine on first.

So much for puffery.

I throttled my fur back down and thought hard. Maybe the old slow-motion trick would work. You know, the one where a cat moves ve-e-e-e-ry slo-o-o-owly awa-a-a-y so as not to provoke an attack. It works if you’re facing a bigger and nastier cat, but I had serious doubts about a hungry coyote.

Before I could slow-move, though, he stretched his head forward and sniffed. I braced for a run, though I knew it was hopeless against his long legs. I might win the sprint but, with no tree to climb, he’d catch me in the marathon that stretched between me and the nearest palm tree on the way back to the apartment.

He stood and took a step closer. I was beyond tense, only seconds away from incoherent screeching and completely losing it to uncatlike panic. I took a deep breath and focused on looking cool and indifferent, thinking that maybe thinking that would calm me down.

He leaned toward me and sniffed again.

I wasn’t calming down.

I knew what he was picking up—my personal feline aroma plus the coppery scent of blood that we vees emanate. It’s a subtle perfume, the blood smell, but ,,,

Another lick of his chops, languid this time, as if he were relishing the dining experience to come. He tasted my scent again with a deep inhale.

I began to understand what food feels like.

Good-bye, Meg.

Good-bye, scratch behind the ears.

Good-bye purring.

Then his blue eyes twinkled, he winked, and he turned and walked away.

Blue?

Winked?

Walked away?

The wink brought on a severe case of jitters as I scrammed for home. Had he been toying with me? Was he skulking up ahead, ready to spring? I jumped at every sound and shied from every shadow.

Er, it wasn’t as if I was afraid, of course. Just a cat’s hyper vigilance in action.

The rustle of paws in dirt came from my left—there he was, pacing me. I veered a little away from him, and he stayed with me but came no closer all the way back home.

He followed me right into the courtyard and past the swimming pool. I was darned glad that Meg always left our door cracked open when I went out so I could nose my back way in. I was a little proud that I hadn’t panicked and run right at the last.

When I was safely inside, I looked out. Right on our doorstep, the coyote eyed me. Meg’s footsteps approached behind me, and he lifted his gaze to her. I crouched and braced myself, poised to spring. Despite those gleaming fangs, if he tried to mess with my associate I would—

He turned and trotted away, going around the pool and up the stairs to the second level on the other side. The animal knew no fear.

I, however, knew great relief.

“Patch!” Meg scooped me up and pushed the door shut with her foot. She stroked my head and said, “You’ve been gone a long time, and I was worried that you’d run into a coyote.”

As if on cue, a coyote howl sounded. Meg said, “See? That sounds like it’s right outside the door.”

Tell me about it.

The burn of bloodlust ignited in my belly—all that exercise and stress, no doubt. I wriggled and Meg set me down. I trotted into the kitchen and aimed myself at the refrigerator.

Meg said, “Good idea.” She opened the door and took out two bottles of V1. “We’ve got our delivery run to do.” She poured one into a bowl and the other into a mug, popped them into the microwave, and soon the metallic aroma of warm blood made my mouth want to water even though it couldn’t.

Meg set my bowl on the floor and then took a deep swallow from her mug. I can’t tell you how envious I am at times of the human ability to just drink stuff down. When your bloodlust is sending jagged spears of pain through your body, lapping with your tongue is entirely inadequate.

Still, I got the job done. Soon I plumped down on the loveseat and launched a major purr. But that coyote kept licking his chops in my mind—and winking—and my purr faded away. I needed a lap. Just as I hopped down to find my associate and get her to provide one, the doorbell rang.

Meg hurried from the bedroom and called, “Coming.” She snatched up the bowl and mug, and ran water into them at the kitchen sink. Even though the caller was probably one of the vampires we’ve met since we moved here, it was good to be careful. Vees were still underground in Hollywood, although actors talked about blood-sucking agents in ways that made me wonder.

She had changed into her delivery uniform, a crimson jumpsuit with “Meg” stitched above one pocket and the V1 logo on the other. I was pleased by the trim appearance my petite associate made. It’s good to have a companion that compliments one’s own lithe calico body.

When she opened the door, a twenty-something man about Meg’s age and dressed in a rumpled brown suit looked down at her. He smiled—I wondered if he would have done that if he’d known he stood just outside a vampire den. Lucky for him we’d just had our V1—there’s no stopping an attack when the bloodlust frenzy takes you over.

Thinking maybe he was here about the coyote, I joined Meg at the door. The man held out a badge and said, “Los Angeles police, Ma’am, homicide. I’m Detective Rick Champagne. Can I have a minute of your time?”

My hackles rose. Ever since I was tried for murder back in Illinois, I tensed up whenever a cop came calling. But I stifled a hiss. It wouldn’t be smart to draw attention to myself. Besides, I’d been found not guilty, so what did I have to worry about?

Meg said, “Homicide?” She gazed down at me and arched an eyebrow. “As in murder?”

Would she never let that go? It was self-defense, the judge said so.

Rick the cop looked down at me, too—with twinkly blue eyes that seemed to have a knowing smile behind them.

If he winked at me I would—

(end of chapter)

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22. A terrific Christmas gift for a writer you know

3D cover250WYes, I’m plugging my new book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. But, if you believe the reviews by writers who’ve read it, it’s a gift that truly helps writers craft a strong story. And there’s time to order a paperback copy signed for the recipient if you order from my website.

Speaking of reviews, here’s a recent one from Amazon:

4 stars So MUCH great advice!

I've read a lot of books on the craft of writing, and I've come to judge these books based on how many passages I've highlighted or bookmarked. And man ... I marked up this book!

What I loved:

  1. This book contains SO MUCH great advice - from big ideas of storytelling down to little facets of word choice.
  2. His writing style is very easy to read.
  3. He's included practical tips and exercises for the reader to put into immediate practice.

Not only will I recommend this book to all of my writing friends, I will also read this book again and again to master the concepts presented within its pages.

Order now to get a copy in time. A Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

And Merry Storytelling to all!

Ray

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23. Flogometer for Ronald—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Ronald sends a first chapter of The Unnamed Rune. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Everyone I know will die on the same day…at the same time…and that red-eyed demon said it will be my fault. Maybe I just won’t sleep again…ever! Maybe that’s the answer.

The thought had barely entered sixteen-year-old Rucker’s mind when the sword’s dulled edge opened a stinging cut on his neck. He leapt back with almost unnatural speed, stopping to retake a defensive stance only when well outside the sweeping arc of Brogan’s sword.

“Damn and bloody hell…what an idiot!” Rucker cursed, infuriated as well as embarrassed at his momentary ineptness.

The sighing of wind through the pines and the wild hammering of his heartbeat were lost to the fury of his own angry voice. Mortified more than surprised or hurt, he felt a warm trickle of blood flowing down the left side of his sweaty neck. He wanted to wipe at it with his free hand to determine the extent of the wound.

But under the cold critical gaze of his teacher, he didn’t dare.

“Just that quick and you’re a lifeless pile of twitching meat,” Brogan said, “a useless decapitated corpse with a sword in its hand.”

Rucker knew that his teacher’s soft tone and calm demeanor scarcely hinted at the true depth of his disapproval. They almost never did. Most often, it was only the menacing content of his words and the slight darkening of his gray eyes that suggested he was the least bit angry or (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Ronald's first page?

Good strong writing and voice here, plus an active scene and a small measure of conflict . . . but what’s the story question? There’s no real jeopardy here, Brogan is his teacher and he won’t kill his student. For me, this and the rest of the chapter is set-up, and I think the real beginning comes later when something happens to Rucker that makes him take action. Give that a try. Some notes:

Everyone I know will die on the same day…at the same time…and that red-eyed demon said it will be my fault. Maybe I just won’t sleep again…ever! Maybe that’s the answer. You introduce very interesting things in this opening and then abandon them for the rest of the chapter. I don’t think it’s good practice and is unfair to the reader. And it will be forgotten as the chapter goes on and on.

The thought had barely entered sixteen-year-old Rucker’s mind when the sword’s dulled edge opened a stinging cut on his neck. He leapt back with almost unnatural speed, stopping to retake a defensive stance only when well outside the sweeping arc of Brogan’s sword. I think the “sixteen-year-old” info is on the clumsy side and an authorial intrusion that breaks the spell of the narrative. Find a contextual way to include it.

“Damn and bloody hell…what an idiot!” Rucker cursed, infuriated as well as embarrassed at his momentary ineptness.

The sighing of wind through the pines and the wild hammering of his heartbeat were lost to the fury of his own angry voice. Mortified more than surprised or hurt, he felt a warm trickle of blood flowing down the left side of his sweaty neck. He wanted to wipe at it with his free hand to determine the extent of the wound.

But under the cold critical gaze of his teacher, he didn’t dare.

“Just that quick and you’re a lifeless pile of twitching meat,” Brogan said, “a useless decapitated corpse with a sword in its hand.”

Rucker knew that his teacher’s soft tone and calm demeanor scarcely hinted at the true depth of his disapproval. They almost never did. Most often, it was only the menacing content of his words and the slight darkening of his gray eyes that suggested he was the least bit angry or (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Ronald

(continued) disgusted.

“You’d end up as a human roast on the spit of a Quiller’s campfire, and you’d bloody well deserve it. Damn it, Ruck…are you slow witted? Do you really want me to separate your head from your shoulders? Or should I just leave you with an ugly scar so big that you’ll never again forget to keep your full attention on your enemy?”

Rucker cursed himself once more for letting the horrible images from his recurrent nightmare distract him even for the span of one heartbeat. This time he berated himself in silent rage.

How many times had Brogan warned him that any distraction, no matter how fleeting, would be fatal in a real fight? “It’s the momentary loss of focus by young idiot swordsmen that helps keep far too many impoverished undertakers in business between wars.”

His teacher was right, and it aggravated Rucker to admit that he’d made a beginner’s mistake. But what angered him most was failing in his determination that today would be the day he’d finally force a victory from the village weapons-master.

Again, the problem was the same: Brogan didn’t make mistakes. He’d proven it in the thousands of wins he’d tallied against Rucker or anyone else brave enough — or more accurately, foolish enough — to face Brogan one-on-one. The man seemed truly magical with a sword in his hand.

Although Rucker’s beloved teacher had many impressive qualities, he was merciless in his disapproval when a student let him down.

Brogan stood there with the tip of his sword resting on the pine-needle strewn ground, the hilt held in a deceptively casual manner. His expression remained stoic.

“That was pathetic and you know it. Where’s your concentration?” Brogan demanded. “You’re too skilled for such a stupid miscalculation. Have you forgotten the five elements necessary in preventing an enemy from spilling your guts for a pack of back-alley mongrels to feast on?”

When Rucker didn’t respond in a timely manner, Brogan released a long sigh.

“Well I’ll be damned if I’m going to repeat them, because I know you understand what I’m saying. You’re not stupid. But if you want to live long enough to be a great swordmaster, you need to be smarter than this. It’s concentration, boy! Even a momentary distraction can create a dangerous opening an enemy can take great advantage of. How many times do I have to tell you?”

Rucker simply waited as Brogan stared at him in silence. In truth, his teacher’s angry words weren’t necessary. His obvious disappointment was punishment enough.

“It’s as simple as this,” Brogan continued. “Slow hands, slow feet, and a slow mind are responsible for far too many eventual piles of steaming dog shit. And that’s not meant as a joke, boy. It’s the bloody damned truth. By the hairy sack of an Aurocks bull, Rucker, where’s your brain? I might expect this kind of half-assed, daydreaming blunder from Eli or one of my other students, but not from you. What the hell’s the matter with you?”

Embarrassment and anger made it difficult for Rucker to talk. But knowing that Brogan expected an answer, he forced a response. With his head hung low and his gaze fixed on the ground at the tip of Brogan’s sword, he spoke.

“I’m not sure. I guess I focused for a second on what I’d do next, instead of on what I was doing at the moment. I know how stupid and dangerous it was, so it won’t happen again. I promise.”

Of course, he didn’t tell Brogan the real reason for his distraction. How could he? The truth sounded absolutely insane.

“So your excuse is…you’re still nothing more than a novice? How in the name of all the gods could you let yourself fall back into…?”

Then Brogan paused, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Rucker.

Finally, he shook his head. “No! That’s a heaping pile of bullshit and we both know it. You can’t possibly expect me to believe you were anticipating again after all this time. You broke that idiotic habit more than two years ago. It has to be something else. In fact, it better be something else. So, tell me what’s of such importance it could draw your mind away from your training. And you better not lie to me this time.”

Rucker decided that the truth, even a partial truth, was better than lying again. Brogan had an uncanny ability to sense when he was being lied to. Having disappointed his teacher twice in less than five minutes, Rucker knew better than to make a bad situation worse by lying again. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

Instead, he looked Brogan in the eye, took a deep breath, and asked, “Do you believe in demons?”

“What?”

“Demons,” Rucker repeated. “Do you think they’re real? Do you think they exist in the real world?”

“Before I answer…it would help if I knew what the hell you’re talking about.”

“A friend of mine had a nightmare with a monstrous demon in it, and he’s afraid it might have the power to enter the real world. I’m just wondering if such a thing is possible.”

“Who are we talking about…Eli or Selwyn?”

“Not them…it’s someone else.”

“Lilya then.”

“No.”

“Is that what cost you your head just now? Demons?”

Rucker’s brow knuckled at the sting of Brogan’s reproach. The problem was he deserved it. “Well…it’s that, and…” Rucker paused, wondering whether to bring up an older issue — one that had been eating at his soul for more than a year, one that most certainly would anger his teacher.

“And what?”

“And…” Rucker tried, but he couldn’t think of a gentler way to say it, so he cast caution to the wind and hoped for the best, “what’s the point of all this?”

Brogan’s steely gaze hardened. “All this, what…?”

“All this time spent practicing with swords, knives, and axes.” To illustrate his deep frustration, Rucker held up his sword, turning it this way and that as he gazed at it, pretending he didn’t understand its purpose or recognize the protection it provided a skilled user.

“What good is this to me? What good is there in being a true blademaster if I’ll never be able to leave this place? If I live to be ninety, I’ll still be here wasting away like everyone else I know. So what’s the bloody point?”

“Are you saying you want to quit…that you find no value in your lessons? Because if that’s the way you feel, we can stop right now and you can apprentice to the potter or blacksmith.”

This time there was unmistakable anger in Brogan’s voice, which made the hair on Rucker’s neck stand up. Rucker had learned to be very cautious whenever his teacher let the iron mask of his stoicism slip for even a moment. It didn’t happen often, but when Brogan did allow his temper to show, it was a clear sign that a storm was gathering and it was time to take cover. Over the years, Rucker had learned many things about the ways of nature from Edlin Hanafee, the village’s master-of-the-hunt. High on the list — when nature speaks, you listen.

“No…that’s not what I mean at all,” Rucker answered. “I guess I’m just not making myself clear. You know I love our sparring sessions and everything else you’ve taught me over the years. And despite all my grumbling and frustration, in truth, I’d rather be skinned alive, bled out, and hung up to cool like a butchered hog than end our practice. It’s just that…”

“Listen, Rucker. You know the rules…you know why we have them.”

“I do,” Rucker sighed as his shoulders slumped. “But it’s the boredom of this place and the idea it will never end. Don’t you ever long for excitement? Don’t you ever want to experience the rest of the world again? There has to be more to our existence than this, doesn’t there?”

Before continuing, Rucker shook his head and sighed again, exhaling much deeper this time.

“Maybe I’m just too stupid, but I don’t see the sense in hiding in a hole like a scared rabbit instead of fighting to change the law that condemns people like me. Even if I died trying, at least I’d get the chance to stand up and fight for myself and everyone I care about. I can’t help thinking that nothing will ever change if we don’t have the guts to make it happen.”

Rucker paused when he noticed a rare expression of concern on his teacher’s face. Then, holding up his hand to ward off a possible lecture, he pressed on.

“And no…you don’t have to say it…because I already know that challenging the law means the likelihood of a bloody war with the Quiller army. But isn’t it more honorable to face those spiny bastards and die fighting like warriors than to wait for them to come here and slaughter us like a flock of helpless sheep? I just can’t believe that cowardice is our only option. And if it’s not, then it seems we have only one ethical choice…we have to stop the murder of those born with a Blood-Rune. Those of us who were protected and have survived until adulthood can take steps to conceal our birthmarks. But what about all the defenseless babies who aren’t so lucky…those who die by the hundreds every day?”

“I know exactly how you feel, Ruck. Far better than you can imagine. It’s just that in defying the law, tens of thousands…perhaps hundreds of thousands…will die, who wouldn’t otherwise. The question is…is it worth it?”

“That’s impossible to know,” Rucker said, exasperated. “I understand that. Yet, how can we turn a blind eye to the murder of so many innocent babies? Don’t we have a moral obligation to protect the weak and put an end to this savage injustice? I know it sounds crazy, but to achieve that goal, I’d be willing to lay my life on the line a thousand times.

“Besides, if I was lucky enough not to be killed outright, I might even get the chance to test the true depth of my courage against a real enemy. It’s even possible that I could make some sort of difference in the world…maybe even show a little heroism in the process. But where’s the honor in being trapped here forever? There has to be another way, because I refuse to believe this is all there is to my life.”

“First of all, no one is questioning your bravery,” Brogan said. “That’s never been in doubt. Second, I applaud your strong sense of honor. But not all issues can be defined in such naïve and limited terms as good or evil, light or dark, right or wrong. Life is never that simple. It’s not a case of whether something is pure white or pure black. There are endless shades of gray between the two. I should know. Before I came to Bieldburg I lived in a world that was little more than a sooty landscape of vague, shifting grays, where each moral choice led me deeper into the shadowy realms…dark places I never intended to go.”

Brogan paused, his eyes narrowing. “At times, it felt like I might be lost in that darkness forever.”

“What do you mean?” Rucker’s mind whirled as he tried to cover his astonishment. Brogan seldom spoke of his past, and certainly never like this.

Brogan waved the question away while staring silently at the sword in his hand. Then he took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s about the decisions we make and the repercussions from those choices. Even when you try to do what’s right, the result can prove disastrous. I suppose that’s one of the sad cruelties of life…no one makes the right choice every time.”

“But whether we should or shouldn’t protect those who can’t protect themselves seems like an easy decision to make,” Rucker said as he strove to conceal his anger. “There’s no gray to it. It’s simple. If it’s within you’re power to help…you help.”

“It isn’t as if the kingdoms haven’t tried,” Brogan said. “It’s sheer terror that keeps this stinking Blood-Rune law in place. Until that fear subsides…until the kingdoms have hope of victory…until they have a hero to follow…they will not, and I repeat, not risk what happened the last time. Why would they?”

“I don’t really know. It just seems…”

Brogan continued as if he hadn’t heard Rucker. “And as to experiencing the rest of the world, I’ve seen more than my share of it. So I can promise you this…you’ll be sadly disappointed if you’re foolish enough to think you’ll gain vast fame and glory. You won’t. But even if you did achieve some small recognition for being honorable, most people don’t give a damn about that sort of thing. At least, they didn’t when I was part of their world. Unless attitudes have changed dramatically, they still don’t.

“The truth is…there’s rampant treachery damn near everywhere you go…extortion, thievery, rape, murder. And they’re usually perpetrated by the worst assortment of sellswords you could ever imagine, vile scum who are paid by a handful of secret organizations run by greedy, vindictive men who must’ve been born without souls.”

Brogan paused again. When he continued, his gray eyes had softened and the anger in his voice had dissipated. “I hate to admit it, but I’m far from being righteous enough to criticize others. Right or wrong, people can always find justification for what they do. I certainly did. Over the years, I’ve found that justifying one’s own need seems to be just one more dark but substantial part of basic human nature.

“I wish I could say otherwise, but having spent most of my life outside The Basin, I can describe the world only one way…it’s a dark and tragic place. Now…I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. But too often you’ll find yourself slogging knee-deep through a stinking cesspool of inhumanity. And it’s all because brutality rules where mercy is seen as weakness. It’s a cruel, hard fact to accept. Nevertheless, it’s nature’s way…the strong survive.”

Before continuing, he offered Rucker an uncharacteristic half-smile and a slight shrug that hinted at an apology for the way things were.

“I know you’ll never believe me, but you should be thankful for the peacefulness and safety Bieldburg offers. Not everyone is so fortunate.”

Rucker wondered why Brogan seemed so willing to accept the status quo. His teacher was unbeatable with any weapon he wielded, which meant he’d be the perfect person to lead a fight for change. The fact that he seemed disinterested in such a challenge suddenly angered Rucker. For an instant, he wanted to shout at Brogan for being too weak-willed and timid, and to accuse him of being a coward.

But Rucker knew better than that. His teacher always had good reasons for what he believed, what he said, and what he did. Besides, no one was braver than Brogan. That was a simple fact, and nothing — not even his own anger and frustration — could convince Rucker otherwise.

Even as his teacher stood there looking apathetic and distant, Rucker knew the image was a false one. He had once asked Brogan why he never seemed to care about anything, and his response came as a surprise.

“You have a lot to learn about me, boy. My problem has always been that I care too much. But in the business of swordplay, being foolish enough to show your true feelings to an enemy is the same as handing him an invisible weapon he can use against you. A true swordmaster can’t afford to give away such powerful gifts. To do so is a deadly weakness. So I’ve trained myself to keep my emotions hidden. And that training alone has saved my life more than once.”

That had been a lesson in swordsmanship that Rucker really couldn’t dispute. However, in everyday life, Brogan’s aloofness created ongoing problems. After all this time as his student, Rucker still found it all but impossible to plumb the depths of Brogan’s true mental or emotional involvement on most issues.

Despite the fact that Brogan was an enigma to everyone else in the village as well, what cut Rucker deepest was that even with him, Brogan wore stoicism like an emotional shield. And at times such as this — besides causing Rucker heartache — it was absolutely infuriating.

To someone who didn’t know him as well as Rucker did, it might appear that Brogan was focused on their conversation and oblivious to all else. Although he still held his sword, he looked as if he were unaware of it, unaware its tip still rested in the dirt, unaware that he hadn’t sheathed it. In fact, he appeared so distracted and inattentive that it seemed a sudden attack might catch him unprepared.

But Rucker wasn’t foolish enough to make that mistake again. After six years of sparring with Brogan, Rucker accepted one thing for a certainty: his teacher knew where his sword was at all times, and he could bring it into play in half the time it took to blink an eye.

Rucker had learned that truth very early in his training. There was no such thing as Brogan being distracted from his sword, or any other weapon for that matter. In his hands they were all instruments of death; tools of violence created for the specific purposes of breaking bones and spilling the blood of an enemy.

Sword, axe, knife, staff, pike, or bow — they were all the same. They became part of Brogan, almost living, breathing extensions of his arm.

“Hey! I’m still here, Rucker…are you?” Brogan’s abruptness jarred Rucker from his reverie.

“What?” Despite his pretended ignorance, Rucker knew exactly what his teacher was getting at. He wanted the truth — straight and simple. But for Rucker, there was nothing simple about it.

“You know how much I hate playing games. So if this is some sort of guessing game, you can put an end to it right now,” Brogan demanded. “There’s still something else bothering you. I can feel it.”

“I’ve already told you everything,” Rucker said, angry at himself for lying yet again.

For a moment, Brogan just stared at him. “There has to be more to this than your despair at facing a lifetime of boredom. And it’s hard for me to believe that a friend’s ridiculous dream can have you so worried and distracted. There’s something you’re not saying. So let’s hear it.”

“It’s just…I don’t really know. It’s everything, Brogan. It’s the boredom, the nightmare demon, the feeling that I’m destined for something more important than rotting away slowly with nothing to show for my life. Sometimes it’s almost enough to drive me insane.”

Rucker clenched his sword hilt until his knuckles turned white.

“I believe what you said. I do. I believe that the world outside The Basin is dangerous, and I know that the discovery and destruction of everyone here is a constant threat. I’ve heard it all my life. But if secrecy is all that keeps us safe, all that prevents a violent death from becoming a reality for everyone we know, isn’t it just a matter of time before tragedy strikes?”

Brogan shrugged. “All I know for certain is…we don’t ever want to find out the answer to that question. And that’s why we must always be ready. That’s why we practice.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head as if to ask…Now do you understand the point of all this?

With a deep sigh, Rucker nodded. There was little else to be said.

Although it was still early evening, it was late enough that most members of their village had retired peacefully to their cabins. But it was different for Rucker. He dreaded these last hours of daylight. They only reminded him of what was to come.

In fact, avoiding sleep had become a habit for him in the last few weeks. And to that end, he regularly sought any diversion offering a delay to that nightly inevitability. So tonight, despite being fatigued from his hard day’s labor, he had asked Brogan to spar with him until it was too dark to see.

His teacher accepted the invitation and Rucker hadn’t been the slightest bit surprised. He knew that Brogan was as obsessed with improving his sword skill as he was. Even more so, if that was possible. When it came to helping Rucker hone his swordsmanship, Brogan rarely refused one of Rucker’s requests to practice. If anything, he encouraged Rucker’s fanaticism.

Ultimately, it was the combined force of the two dynamics — Rucker’s obsession and Brogan’s constant support — that made Rucker the second best swordsman in the village, next only to Brogan.

“With all this talking, you haven’t answered my question. Do you believe in demons?” Knuckling his brow, Rucker stared at his teacher with a pleading yet determined look that he hoped would elicit a useful response. “I don’t want to sound like an idiot, it’s just that…”

“It’s just…nothing,” Brogan said, not offering the slightest hint of emotion. “Anything is possible, Ruck. I’ve found few absolutes in life. But I do believe a man has two choices…either he’s a warrior and he learns to fight, or he’s a victim and he waits to die. Which one are you?”

Then, without giving him the slightest chance to answer, Brogan’s sword flashed forward, forcing Rucker to defend himself or face a punishment worse than the shallow cut on his neck.

Rucker felt a sudden wash of nausea strike his solar plexus and flood every cell of his body like a massive wave of adrenalin. However, this sudden surge of energy was different from anything he’d experienced before. It was far more powerful.

Whatever it was, Rucker didn’t have time to analyze it. Instead, he reacted instinctively.His sword whipped out to deflect the unexpected attack, turning Brogan’s blade even as his teacher pressed the advantage of surprise.

It took less than a heartbeat for Rucker’s mind to focus completely on the challenge. Every muscle in his body tensed like a coiled mountain-viper preparing to strike. Even though Brogan forced him backward a few defensive steps, Rucker soon recovered from the onslaught enough to end his retreat and hold his ground.

After Rucker successfully parried more than half a dozen additional strokes, Brogan eased off and stepped back a pace. Although it was obvious his teacher remained vigilant, Rucker took advantage of the pause and launched his own attack.

For an instant, it almost seemed like Brogan was surprised by the sudden reversal. But that was absurd. It had to be. He’d never surprised Brogan before.

Stroke after stroke, Brogan parried Rucker’s attack. As always, his teacher remained intensely focused and fluid, not leaving the slightest opening. Even though he hadn’t beaten Brogan, Brogan hadn’t beaten him either. For the first time, their exchange was a tie, a concept Rucker couldn’t quite wrap his mind around. Such a balanced outcome just didn’t seem possible.

But Rucker knew something had changed. He was no longer just Brogan’s best student. Perhaps, after all these years of training, he had become a true swordsman. At the very least, he was now a fighter who must be taken seriously, even by Brogan.

Rucker felt different — larger somehow, more powerful — and the sheer oddness of the sensation left him perplexed.

Then Brogan gave a low whistle, and that subtle, uncharacteristic reaction told Rucker that his teacher hadn’t missed the difference either. Something important had taken place, even if Rucker had no idea what it was.

Unwilling to be distracted again, Rucker ended his attack and disengaged his teacher. But even then, he didn’t let his guard down for the slightest part of a second.

“Now that is why you practice,” Brogan said, surprising Rucker with a wide grin. “You’ve just proven my point.

“Talent is useless unless you hone it. It’s like a dull sword blade…only half of what it could be until the edge is sharp. I’m proud of you, boy. But don’t let a little well-earned praise go to your head. You still have a lot to learn. True swordsmanship is an art that takes long years of dedicated training to show even a modicum of proficiency, and a whole lifetime to master. I certainly haven’t discovered all of its shrouded complexities, and maybe I never will. Maybe it’s the will of the gods that no one person should become so powerful. But like you, all I can do is to continue learning and practicing.”

Rucker experienced a momentary rush of pride, but he didn’t allow it to show. Any display of cockiness or egotism resulted in swift punishment. Brogan never showed any signs of unmanaged ego, and he definitely didn’t tolerate it in his students. He said it was just one more weakness a true swordmaster couldn’t afford.

Nevertheless, Rucker couldn’t avoid the feeling that he had performed with unexpected proficiency, well beyond his already advanced skill level. And Brogan’s uncommon reaction — in both his wide grin and his complimentary words — only proved one thing: whatever had happened to Rucker was real.

In ways he couldn’t begin to explain, he was changing. He felt it viscerally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. He just wished he knew where that change was leading.

Before either of them could resume the action, a voice sounded at the periphery of their sparring circle from a distance well outside any accidental entanglement. Brogan raised his hand in the common gesture used to cease further swordplay. When Rucker nodded, they both relaxed their defenses and turned to see who had interrupted them.

There stood Aldus, one of the older students who studied and practiced various disciplines of magic along with Selwyn and a dozen others in Master Talmage’s classes. “I have an important message, Master Brogan,” Aldus gasped, breathing deeply as if he’d run all the way.

He also seemed anxious as he moved closer. But Rucker couldn’t tell if the anxiety was because of the ferocity of the sparring he had just witnessed or because of the content of the message he brought.

“What is it, lad?”

“Master Talmage would like you to meet him at Orn’s cottage as soon as possible. Said it’s very important.”

Aldus paused, shot a glancing frown at Rucker, and quickly looked away. It happened so fast that Rucker didn’t get the chance to return a frown of his own. Still sounding winded, Aldus took a deep breath and released a long sigh. “He said the sooner the better, sir.”

“Thank you, Aldus. Tell him I’ll be right there.” Brogan sheathed his sword, and Rucker followed suit.

Aldus cast another brief and unfriendly look at Rucker before turning his gaze on the cabin door thirty feet directly behind Rucker.

On the other side of that door, Selwyn and Eli had already settled in for the night, since they no longer felt a rush of excitement while watching Rucker’s sparring matches with Brogan. The first few hundred times — yes. But that was a long time ago.

Unlike Selwyn, Eli still cared enough about improving his swordplay to practice at times, although his current active involvement was more occasional and a bit less fanatic. However, Eli confessed he was most interested when Brogan focused his training on the use of a bow, on the techniques of knife-throwing, or on hand-to-hand dagger-fighting. Over time, Eli’s ability with bow, throwing-knife, and dagger had improved greatly, but his skill rate as a swordsman had slowed. He was still talented with a long-blade, but he could’ve been better.

It pained Rucker to admit, but he missed Eli’s participation — his critique and his encouragement. And, unfairly or not, Eli’s disinterest felt like a betrayal somehow.

Angry and frustrated over the unexpected interruption, Rucker wanted to unleash a flurry of gibes and curses, but with an effort he held his tongue. Instead, he glared daggers at Aldus, who stood staring at the cabin door as if he was trying to decide something. A glance showed Rucker that Brogan was also watching the unwelcome intruder.

When Aldus made no move to leave or make further conversation, Brogan spoke up. “Is there something else, boy? If not, then I suggest you be on your way.”

Brogan’s question seemed to snap Aldus’ attention back to why he was there. Looking startled, Aldus answered in a tone that sounded sheepishly uncertain. “No, sir…that was all.” He nodded at Brogan, and then, with a final frown at Rucker, he turned and hurried away. For a second or two, they watched Aldus retreat into the thinning light of early evening.

“There’s something about that boy I just don’t like,” Brogan said. “I always get the feeling he’s hiding something.”

With that, Brogan walked over to a rough-hewn cedar bench and retrieved his forest cloak. Although it was halfway into the longer days of spring, there was still a definite bite to the night air.

“I guess it’s time to call it an evening anyway,” he said as he pulled the cloak around his shoulders. “But remember what I said. You’re either a warrior or a victim…the choice is yours.” Without another word, he turned and headed in the direction of Orn’s cottage.

“Thanks for the practice session, Brogan,” Rucker called after him, and then added, “and for the advice. I won’t forget it. I promise.”

Without looking back, Brogan waved over his shoulder and soon disappeared into the growing darkness. For a dozen heartbeats, Rucker just stood there frustrated, wishing the sparring session hadn’t ended. All that was left to do now was join Eli and Selwyn in the cabin they shared — then wait for sleep and the nightmare that tortured him.

“Maybe it won’t happen tonight,” he said in a near whisper, as if afraid someone would hear, even though he was the only one there. Then he spoke in his normal tone. “Stop being such a mule’s ass. You’re acting like a frightened child. It hasn’t happened in days…it’s not going to tonight.”

Despite his attempt to talk himself out of his fear, it persisted like a bad dose of poison-vine rash. He had suffered from this fear for weeks now, and it showed no signs of going away. The hideous nightmare had infected him completely and he had no idea how to rid himself of it. What terrified him the most was that it might plague him the rest of his life.

Rucker felt certain it would help ease his mind, at least a little, if he only knew why the bloody damned nightmare returned again and again.

But he didn’t — and he absolutely hated that.

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24. Flogometer for Kevin—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.

A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.

Mastering front 100WshadowBefore you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Kevin sends a first chapter of Insomnia. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Warm blood ran down my fingers as I pressed the lump on the back of my head. I could feel the splinters of a wood floor on my cheek and taste sand in my mouth. Where am I? What just hit me? Eyes cracking open, I could see a black shadowy figure next to the bookcase on the far wall. “Who are you?” I stammered, grabbing hold of the desk and pulling myself to my feet. I seemed to be in some sort of dimly lit office. The shadow in the corner turned and disappeared through the books.

My stomach churned and before I knew what I was doing, my feet were moving, sprinting out the door, down the unfamiliar hallway and into the next room. I didn't know where I was, I didn't know why I was running. I stepped in a bedroom with a double bed and saw the shadow – shaped like a man, but with no face – just dark and transparent. It was standing over a man who had a knife in his chest.

“Chris,” it was my father's pained voice. He was laying on the floor, blood flowing from his chest. “Chris...” My father looked down at the knife inside him. The dark figure moved and I rushed to my father's side. Grabbing his hand I looked into his teary eyes. They looked so familiar, but I could not remember anything about this man. From across the room there was a flash by the dresser and the crackle of flames. I wanted to stay, but my feet started moving after the shadow man. My mind told me I would come back for my father. I jumped over the bed and after the figure.

As I passed the flaming dresser, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. I was younger than I expected – just a teenager. I don't know why I felt older. Long red hair clung to my sweaty face. Eyes (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Kevin's first page?

This opens with dramatic and mysterious action, which is good. The character is confused, which would be okay if the way the narrative spins out hadn't been a bit confusing to this reader. In terms of description and the flow of the narrative, I feel this needs more thought and work—you might try reading it aloud to experience how the narrative moves when you hear it. This does sound like an interesting story, and there are story questions raised but, for me, the writing could be more clear and more crisp. While it's okay for the character to feel disjointed because of his experiences, the narrative feels that way to me as well and it shouldn't.

I think you could slow down and give us more of what the character is experiencing and how he experiences it. What are his inner reactions to what is going on? What question does having sand in his mouth raise (I hope it affects the story later)? What's his reaction to not knowing anything about the man he recognizes as his father? Does he feel nothing for him? Notes:

Warm blood ran down my fingers as I pressed the lump on the back of my head. I could feel the splinters of a wood floor on my cheek and taste sand in my mouth. Where am was I? What had just hit me? Eyes cracking open, I could see a black shadowy figure next to the a bookcase on the far wall. “Who are you?” I stammered, grabbing hold of the desk and pulling myself to my feet. I seemed to be in some sort of a dimly lit office. The shadow in the corner turned and disappeared through the books. I had issues with the description in the second sentence. First, it uses “felt” and “taste” for description, which are filters that distance me from the character’s experience. Second, most wood floors don’t have splinters in them, especially an office. Lastly, I’m not convinced that he would taste the sand rather than feel it—what does sand taste like? Wouldn’t he spit it out? Can you make the description more of his experience than a report? Maybe open his eyes sooner? For example: My eyes cracked open, and I spat sand out of my mouth. I lay on a wood floor in a dimly lit office. On the far wall, a black shadowy figure stood next to a bookcase. More: he doesn’t actually stammer. If you want him to stammer and have the reader experience it, just have him stammer and not tell us. For example: “Wh-wh-who are you?” I grabbed hold of the desk and pulled myself to my feet.

My stomach churned and before I knew what I was doing, my feet were moving, sprinting out the door, down the an unfamiliar hallway and into the next room. I didn't know where I was, I didn't know why I was running. I stepped was in a bedroom with a double bed and saw the shadow was there – shaped like a man, but with no face,just dark and transparent. It was standing stood over a man on the floor who had a knife in his chest. With his feet making an independent choice to run, it sounds as though he isn’t in control of his body. Is that what you intend? And, literally, his feet ran out the door and apparently left him behind. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me when I read what the words actually say. I cut the part about not knowing things because you’ve already made that clear, no need to tell us that.

“Chris,” it was my father's pained voice. He was laying lying on the floor, blood Blood flowed flowing from his chest. “Chris...” My father He looked down at the knife inside him. The dark figure moved away and I rushed to my father's side. Grabbing his hand, I looked into his teary eyes. They looked so familiar, but I could not remember anything about this man. From across Across the room there was a flash by the dresser and the crackle of flames. I wanted to stay, but my feet started moving after the shadow man. My mind told me I would come back for my father. I jumped over the bed and ran after the figure. So he has no control over his body? I find it confusing when parts of a person start doing things independently, here the feet moving and the mind telling him something. And I’m left not understanding what’s going on—is he in control of his body or not? Elements like these suggest a dream sequence, but it doesn’t seem to be one—or is it? Clarity would be nice.

As I passed the flaming dresser, I glimpsed caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. I was younger than I expected – just a teenager. I don't didn’t know why I felt older. Long red hair clung to my sweaty face. Eyes (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Kevin

 

(continued)

wide above a panting mouth, I looked scared and confused. At the end of the room a large bow window took up most of the wall. Through the glass I could see it was night outside.

“Stop!” My voice sounded commanding, not terrified like I really felt.

The shadow-man seemed to melt right through the window, and was on the other side. I wasn't so lucky. Shoulder down, I ploughed through the glass and found myself free falling from the second story of a brown brick townhouse. I pinched my eyes shut as glass shards cascaded around me and braced for the impact.

I landed on mulch between two tulip bulbs, a lot more lightly than I expected. My knee was bleeding from the glass, but I could see the shadow standing to his feet and beginning to move. I wanted to stay. I was scared. I didn't know what he was. But something inside my head caused me to take three steps forward and throw myself at his knees.  As my face drew closer I could see him more closely. He was made of what looked like a dense black fog, but inside I could see the twinkle of a million pin-prick sized stars. I wrapped my arms around his knees football style, but I never felt him come down. The moment my skin touched that fog, my mind was spinning through space and time at a thousand miles an hour.

Images flashed before me. Places, events, emotions. A hospital. Machine gun fire. Falling. Bodies everywhere. A helicopter crashing. Falling. Fire. New York was out of power. Falling. What were these? Memories? Visions? Dreams?

Nightmares.

My eyes flooded open. Smoke was billowing into the air. A lot of time had passed. The whole second story of the house was on fire, black shingles engulfed in the inferno. I could make out a chimney up there. Down below, the white front door with its three glass panes looked picturesque and untouched – an interesting contrast. I looked at the door. I had come in and out of this house a thousand times. This was my front door. I lay on my back in the grass another moment, as the fire made my legs feel like they were being sunburnt. There was our tree behind my head and – so much blood. Blood everywhere. My blood.

A girl's voice was shrieking, “Chris?! Chris?!” So that was my name. I could barely pull myself to my feet. There was a shard of glass in my arm. I hadn't noticed it before. “Where's Dad?” There was a hysteric teenager in my face with skinny jeans, knee high boots and a knit koala bear sweater.

“I think I had a nightmare,” I said.

“What? Have you called the fire department?”

“It got away.”

“Where's your phone?” She was ignoring me. “Give me your phone.”

“Is your name Rebekah?” I wondered out loud.

“What's wrong with you?” There were tears in here eyes. “Give me your phone. Mine is dead.”

It was my sister. She was my sister. “It isn't dead anymore,” I said. I had seen a little green figure slip around the outside of her jacket and sneak into her purse, sparks flying around its head.

She pulled out her phone just as the little sparking man slipped inside the end of it. “One percent,” she muttered, already dialling.

I turned and started stumbling away with nowhere to go. Neighbours were rushing from their homes, looking worried and shouting their concerns. I couldn't remember any of their names. I could remember mine though.

“Christopher Nightwing.” I muttered out loud and then collapsed, face down onto the lawn.

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25. How to write dystopian fiction

I came across an article from Writer’s Digest titled “Writing Dystopian Fiction: 7 Tips.” It’s by Brian Klems. As I’m interested in writing dystopian fiction for the YA market, I took a look. And the insights have generated new thoughts in me that I think will help when I get around to tackling it. Check it out.

Brian’s tips focus on:

  1. Extrapolation of current technology
  2. The central theme
  3. Taking things to an extreme
  4. A “burning fire” message
  5. Uncovering a present truth
  6. Using examples from the past
  7. Coming from current affairs

For what it's worth.

Submissions Wanted. Nothing in the queue for Friday or next week. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

Submitting to the Flogometer:

Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):

  1. your title
  2. your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
  3. Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
  4. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
  5. Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
  6. And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
  7. If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
  8. If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.

Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.

Add a Comment

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