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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 Ted—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed—none 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.


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.


Ted sends the first chapter for Sallying Forth. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Kate Ingram shivered. She wasn’t cold; she was scared, and hoping no one noticed that Serendipity was getting underway from the Kent Island marina.

The only people up this early were a boatyard worker preparing to paint a dinghy, an elderly man with snow-white hair on another sailboat, the Wanderer, assisted by a younger woman in preparing to get underway. As Serendipity came abeam, the woman said something to the man. He looked up, and then they both waved. Kate returned the wave, scrutinized the waterfront, and then relaxed a little. No one else was about.

It was early on a sunny Wednesday morning in June; the sun had peeked over the horizon about fifteen minutes ago. The breeze blew Kate’s long dark brown hair across her face, and she realized she would have to get a ribbon to tie it back. There was a nip in the air. In a couple of hours, it would be hot, but pleasant as long as the wind kept blowing. The forecast was for a high of seventy-five with light winds in the morning, squalls in the afternoon, and a nighttime low of forty. It would be chilly standing watches tonight.

Retrieving the bow dock line, Kate made sure it was properly stowed, ready to use if needed. Remembering the adage, ‘one hand for yourself, and one for the ship’, she moved aft holding onto a handrail to where her little sister, Kayla, had just coiled a spring line. She leaned over to whisper in Kayla’s ear.

Were you compelled to turn Ted's first page?

It’s good that Ted is thinking about and visualizing the scene thoroughly, but the space it takes up to do that robs this first page of story elements that create tension—and a page-turn. We are told that she is scared, but not what of nor how serious it is. And I’d rather be shown that she was scared than told. The shivering is good, but maybe she should hide her face when the man waves instead of waving back, fearing something, and so on. For me, this didn’t compel. And the reason she’s scared still isn’t revealed by chapter’s end, giving the reader little reason to care about this character and read on. I think you need to start later when something happens to force her to do something. What she wants here is to not be noticed. When that’s blocked by the couple, she does nothing to deal with it. I think we need more of what’s at stake here. Notes:

Kate Ingram shivered. She wasn’t cold; she was scared, and hoping no one noticed that Serendipity was getting underway from the Kent Island marina. Scared of what? Could be anything, including something as non-threatening as being seasick.

The only people up this early were a boatyard worker preparing to paint a dinghy, an elderly man with snow-white hair on another sailboat, the Wanderer, assisted by a younger woman in preparing to get underway. As Serendipity came abeam, the woman said something to the man. He looked up, and then they both waved. Kate returned the wave, scrutinized the waterfront, and then relaxed a little. No one else was about. Unless it matters to story later that the couple saw them, this whole paragraph isn’t needed.

It was early on a sunny Wednesday morning in June; the sun had peeked over the horizon about fifteen minutes ago. The breeze blew Kate’s long dark brown hair across her face, and she realized she would have to get a ribbon to tie it back. There was a nip in the air. In a couple of hours, it would be hot, but pleasant as long as the wind kept blowing. The forecast was for a high of seventy-five with light winds in the morning, squalls in the afternoon, and a nighttime low of forty. It would be chilly standing watches tonight. Point of view shift: she wouldn’t think of her hair as “long dark brown,” she would just think of hair in her face. This is the author intruding to dump info. The color and length of her hair doesn’t impact story here, so it’s not needed. Maybe it’s because I’m from Texas, but seventy-five degrees seems far from “hot” to me. The use of “she realized” is using a filter that distances us from the experience. And how does it impact the story for her to be thinking about tying her hair back when she’s supposed to be scared? Not much of this setup stuff seems to me to matter to the story.

Retrieving the bow dock line, Kate made sure it was properly stowed, ready to use if needed. Remembering the adage, ‘one hand for yourself, and one for the ship’, she moved aft holding onto a handrail to where her little sister, Kayla, had just coiled a spring line. She leaned over to whisper in Kayla’s ear. The sailing adage reference adds to the world and character, but it doesn’t seem to me to be vital for the story opening at this point.

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 Ted

 

Continued

“Here we go, ‘Sallying Forth’; I think we’re okay so far.”

Kayla had pulled her light brown hair back into a ponytail and tied it with a blue ribbon, making her look even younger. She touched Kate’s arm and looked up at her. “Kate, I’m so scared.”

Kate didn’t dare let Kayla know how scared she was herself. Running for your life was scary for anyone, but it had to be even worse for Kayla who was only fourteen. Kate needed to try to make this journey an adventure that Kayla would enjoy. She knew that people would notice if one of them was unhappy, drawing attention they didn’t need.

Kate gave her a quick hug. “I don’t know why, but Dad wanted us to go ‘Sallying Forth’ right away.”

“I know, Kate, but I’m worried about him, and Mom.”

Kate gave her a gentle shove towards the stern. “See if Tom needs help with the sails.”

Kayla moved aft and called out, “Tom, what do you need me to do?”

“Nothing until we clear the point, Kayla. Checkout the rigging and get ready to set the sails.”

Several minutes later, as they reached the open waters of the Chesapeake and found more wind, Tom signaled for sails. When they were set, he killed the diesel. Kate and Kayla returned to the cockpit to join him. Tom smiled at Kayla.

“Kayla, trim her for this heading? We should be able to hold it for an hour.” Kayla didn’t reply but expertly trimmed the sails for maximum wind effect.

Kate sat on the high side. When Serendipity caught the wind, she heeled over slightly, her bow sloshing through the water. The cries of the gulls circling in her wake were the only other noise. Kate loved the serenity of sailing and the smell of saltwater. It was going to be a wonderful day for a sail. They were lucky Tom had known that Mr. Stone was looking for a crew to help him move Serendipity, his sailing yacht, a Morgan Out Island 41, to Norfolk, Virginia.

Everyone had been eager to get underway. Mr. Stone wanted to catch the breeze and meet his friends in Norfolk so they could start their trip to Bermuda. Kate, Kayla, and Tom just wanted to disappear quickly and luckily Norfolk fit into their plan. Mr. Stone was below in the galley preparing breakfast which he had promised would be a gourmet meal. A few minutes later, he called up to them.

“Chow’s ready!”

Tom said, “Kayla, how about bring breakfast up for us. After breakfast, why don’t you take a nap since you didn’t sleep well last night?”

“Sounds good,” Kayla said as she hurried below.

Kate scanned the horizon astern to see if anyone was following and said, “No one seemed to pay any attention to us as we got underway.”

Tom didn’t reply.

* * * * *

A man with a gruff voice spoke hurriedly; “We checked all of the Annapolis marinas. No luck. The chopper flew over all of the local creeks and marinas here and other side of the bay. They spotted a pink sail cover. We checked. It was the girls’ boat. No sign of the girls.”

“Where was it?”

“Queenstown, other side of the bay.”

“Queenstown? I wonder why there.”

“I don’t know.”

“Check around for an Aunt Sally over there. Check all of the marinas to see if they are going out with someone else. Check the bus station, the car rentals. Get on it. I want one of them today!”

“Already in progress.”

“I’m trying to find Ingram, but he’s sly. We need to get his attention. Once he knows we have one of them, he’ll keep quiet.”

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2. The appeal of apocalyptic fiction

I came across an article about why apocalyptic fiction and movies appeal so much to the YA audience. The writer, Tommy Wallach, author of We All Looked Up, expands the notion to include science fiction as well. See “The Lasting Power of End-of-the-World stories here.

On a related note, I enjoyed “What I Learned from Watching ‘Insurgent’ with My Mom” by Maddie Crum for an inter-generational look at YA apocalyptic stories and their broader appeal. I haven’t seen Insurgent yet, but hope to get there this week. It’ll be very interesting to see what they do with the third novel, considering what happens to Tris, the protagonist, in the end.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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3. Flogometer for Rachel—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed--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?

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.


Rachel sends the first chapter for an untitled novel. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Some people thrive under pressure. I’m not one of them.

‘What do you mean, you can’t do it? You’re not stupid.’

Mum pushes me out of the way and stands in front of the door. 

‘Let me do it.’

She glances at the list of numbers on the panel. A perfectly manicured nail (French manicured, anything else is tarty) flies across the buttons. Five seconds later, the intercom buzzes.

Mum fixes me with a must-try-harder frown.

‘Honestly, Martha.’ 

‘Neurology department. How can I help?’ says a voice.

‘You can start by opening the door,’ replies Mum.

‘Do you have an appointment?’

‘Professor Hopkins to see Doctor Randall at 1.30pm.’

Mum checks her watch. It’s now 1.25pm. Mum is the type of person who gets somewhere ten minutes early and waits on the doorstep for nine minutes and 59 seconds before she rings the bell. A buzzer sounds as the metal door springs open. Mum ushers me in with a don’t-dare-dawdle stare.

Were you compelled to turn Rachel's first page?

Lovely writing and voice in this chapter, and at the end the protagonist, Martha, is faced with a terrifying prospect. But will a reader get there? There’s low-level tension between mother and daughter here but, for me, no story questions are raised. What’s going to happen next? They’re going into a building for an appointment. An appointment for what? We have no idea. It turns out that Mum has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. If there were some sort of hint, perhaps a page turn would be warranted—Here we are, ready to learn if Mum is losing her mind in a most terrible way. That would raise a strong enough story question to get me to the real story question raised at the end of the chapter.

The chapter continues with well-done characterization. I enjoyed Martha—but, for me, the process of getting to the appointment and the description of the waiting room and its occupants, while interesting, do nothing to propel the story forward. Even though Rachel uses the chapter to set up and define the characters, I urge her to get much closer to the inciting events, which are the diagnosis for Mum and the fact that Martha has a fifty-fifty chance of, as she refers to it at chapter end, the time bomb in her brain going off some day. That was a compelling sentence for me, and if the first page could get there I’d be on board. You can characterize Mum and Dad as they deal with this rather than before the big story questions are raised. I’d like to read this novel, I think, but I’m not sure a lot of readers would get to the chapter’s end. See what you think after the rest of the chapter.

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 Rachel

Continued

I step into the hallway and check the board of names on the wall. Mum likes me to figure things out for myself. I shouldn’t rely on other people, not at my age.

She tugs down her jacket and brushes an invisible fleck from her skirt as we wait for Dad to shuffle across the carpark, a carrier bag in each hand. Mum bought him a leather satchel but he says it’s too nice to use. Not that there’s anything important in the bags. He just likes carrying stuff around.

‘Sorry darling, didn’t have the right change for the meter,’ puffs Dad, wiping at his bald head.

He shakes the plastic bags and a splatter of rain drops flies in every direction. Drying his glasses on the edge of his shirt, he gives me a rueful smile. Mum rolls her eyes. We now have three minutes to find the right department.

‘Which floor, Martha?’ demands Mum.

‘Third,’ I say.

Mum checks the board and runs a laser-focused eye down the names.

‘Lead the way, then.’

Reluctantly, I climb the stairs. Mum knows I don’t like going into a room first. She also knows I don’t like speaking to people I don’t know. The more I do it, the easier it will get, she says. It doesn’t.

When I get to the third floor I crouch down and pretend to do up my laces. Today I’m lucky. Mum has more important things on her mind than my social incompetence and her patent-leather shoes click-clack right past me. She presents herself at the reception desk with a flick of her long black hair. Sometimes I swear her heels actually click together.

The receptionist, a plump woman with eyebrows plucked out of existence, waits a few moments before looking up.

‘If you’d like to take a seat, Doctor Randall will be with you shortly.’

Her lips twitch upwards in a gesture not to be confused with a smile. She’s met Mum’s type before. Full of self-importance, these professor types. Never a please or thank you. She looks at me quizzically. I pat down my hair. Perhaps it’s sticking up from the rain. She turns her attention to Dad who flattens his non-existent hair. Then I see the cause of her curiosity: two brown lines have been drawn on her face just above where her eyebrows should be. The result is a face that’s permanently surprised.

Mum answers with a perfunctory nod and sets trajectory for the seating area. Self-doubt isn’t in Mum’s genetic code. Besides which, her hair wouldn’t dare be out of place.

As I pass, the receptionist flashes me a pity smile - the kind she reserves for teenagers with overbearing mothers. Or ones about to be diagnosed with a brain tumour.   

I keep my head down and follow Mum into the waiting room. With its beige walls and brown carpet it couldn’t be any more dismal. A fish tank bubbles away in the corner: a single clown fish bobbing near the surface. Presumably it’s soothing for the patients. Poor Nemo’s been soothed to a watery grave.

Thankfully Mum sits a safe distance from the other nine people waiting. (I always count how many people are in a room.) I take a seat next to Mum and pull Dad down next to me. I’ve always been a stranger-magnet. And they nearly always smell weird and want to tell me their life story.
Aside from the hum of the fish tank, the occasional cough and the ticking of the clock, the room is quiet.
Tick tock. Tick tock.

The longer we wait, the louder it gets.

Do they make clocks with extra loud ticks just for waiting rooms? I bet someone did a study and found that hospitals with loudly-ticking clocks have the shortest waiting times. People would rather stick their head in a fish tank than be driven slowly mad. 

I glance at Mum. Sitting bolt upright with her eyes wide open, anyone would think she is daydreaming. Anyone who doesn’t know her, that is. Mum never switches off. She’s always analysing, judging, problem solving. Right now, she’s probably working on a cure for cancer. Or about to give the receptionist something to really be surprised about.         

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Just when the ticking can’t get any more annoying, Dad takes waiting-room torture to Jack Bauer level. It’s called Emotional Freedom Therapy and is meant to help with his nerves. Basically, he taps two fingers of one hand on the wrist of the other. If he’s not tapping, Dad is tuning into the mother ship: twiddling with a tiny needle sticking out of his earlobe. It’s an acupuncture thing. For anxiety. Jumpy Joe Mum calls him, on account of his fidgeting. Right now Jumpy Joe could out-run the Duracell bunny.

I pick up a copy of Celebrity Sizzle and am about to find out what happens When boob jobs go bad when Mum snatches it off me and shoves National Geographic in my hand.

Every day you don’t learn something new is an opportunity wasted,’ she whispers. 

Mum turns her attention to Dad next. I can almost see the red dot hovering between his eyes. An Aviation magazine almost lands on his lap, until Mum spots: Worst air disasters in history, and sends it flying back to the table.

Bereft of reading material, Dad’s eyes jump from one public information poster to the next. He wraps a hand around his throat and feels for an imaginary lump under his armpit as he reads: ‘Influenza can kill’ and ‘Don’t ignore the lump in your breast, it could be cancer.’ You know it’s bad when he cracks open the Rescue Remedy. It’s a wonder his ears don’t spring a leak.

Luckily, I don’t have to feign interest in the ancient civilizations of Antarctica for long, as just then the receptionist appears. Twelve pairs of desperate eyes swivel in her direction, hoping that she will utter the winning syllables of their name. When she calls Petra Hopkins, it feels as if we’ve won a prize. I’m not sure who looks more surprised – us or her.

*

Mum pushes open the door to the consultant’s office. Doctor Randall is young with a soft face and dimples. He stands and smiles hopefully. I don’t have to look at Mum to know what she’s thinking. The boy is barely old enough to shave, how can he be: driving a car/getting married/a brain surgeon [insert as appropriate]. Perhaps that’s why he keeps his credentials on the wall.

‘Hello Petra,’ says Doctor Randall, stretching out a hand to my mother.

The way she glares at it, you would think she’d been offered a snake to hold.

‘Professor Hopkins to you.’ 

A patch of red flushes across the doctor’s face. Apologising, he blusters swiftly on. 

‘And you must be Mister Hopkins.’

‘Joe, please,’ replies Dad, shaking the doctor’s hand. 

I stare at the floor. Thankfully, the doctor’s hand snakes its way back to his hip. 

‘Please, do take a seat.’

The three of us sit in unison, like performers in a well-rehearsed play.

The doctor pauses a moment and clears his throat before launching into the speech. He’s reviewed the scans, read the notes and conferred with a senior specialist, and there is no doubt in his mind. Mum is presenting with early onset dementia. He realises that this must come as quite a shock and we must have questions and he will do his best to answer them.

The three of us stare at him blankly.

Early onset dementia.

He must be talking to the wrong family. Mum is 45. Old, but not old enough for dementia.

Dementia.

The word rolls around my head like a marble – perhaps I am losing mine too?

‘Familial Alzheimer's disease is called that because it’s passed down the family via a faulty gene,’ explains the doctor, as if using small words is going to make the monster he’s just unleashed into the room any easier to wrestle into a corner.

Mum frowns and says: ‘Mutations to the amyloid beta A4 precursor protein located on the long arm of chromosome 21.’

‘Yes,’ says Doctor Randall in surprise.

He scans his notes. Obviously they don’t mention the fact that Mum is a world-leading geneticist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine five years ago. And anyway, surely statements like this prove that Mum can’t be losing her mind? 

Finally, the jigsaw piece falls into place on his face.

‘You’re not the Professor Hopkins?’

Dad nods wearily. He’s been the husband of the Professor Hopkins for twenty years but still hasn’t got used to it. Professor Hopkins casts a long shadow, and I should know. Next to her, I’m a pale imitation. Mum is as beautiful as she is smart: tall and slender with olive skin, almond-shaped eyes and long, black hair. As luck would have it, I didn’t inherited her brains or her beauty. 

Doctor Randall sits a little straighter in his chair before continuing: ‘It usually strikes between the ages of 30 and 60 years of age but can be earlier. Even as young as 16.’

He looks at me with this last bit. 

Dad glances nervously at Mum, who is now standing up and peering at the doctor’s framed certificates on the wall.

‘What can we expect to happen?’ asks Dad.

‘Rates of deterioration are usually slow. In your wife’s case, however, it’s occurring very quickly. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before.’

Mum turns around and looks bizarrely pleased. Even when it comes to losing her mind, she has to do it better than anyone else. 

‘It really is quite remarkable,’ says Doctor Randall, shuffling through some MRI scans on his desk and waving one in our direction.

Dad looks like a man who’s just been offered a dirty magazine in church. No, he does not want to see his wife’s remarkably diseased brain, thank you very much. Mum takes the scan and sits back down. Whatever she sees, her face is a blank.

Dad groans and twiddles with the needle in his ear. If he were the one with the rare brain disease, Mum would develop a new drug to slow down its progress. Mum has a brilliant mind – which is why it’s inconceivable to think she might be losing it.

‘What can we expect to happen?’ asks Dad, leaning forward and pinching the bridge of his nose.

He’s way beyond Rescue Remedy. We’re across the border and heading for panic attack city. 

‘Breathe slowly, Dad,’ I say, resting a hand on his back.
Before the doctor can explain, Mum cuts in.

‘Patients with Alzheimer’s experience memory loss, have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before. They lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may forget where they are or how they got there. They forget words they once knew and –.’

The three of us watch her in amazement. The way she lists things so matter-of-factly, she could be describing things that are going to happen to someone else, not her.

‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ asks Mum. ‘I was just answering the question.’

Mum goes back to staring at the doctor’s certificates. She’s often distracted when she’s focused on her work but there’s something different about the way she looks lately. Vacant almost. A shiver runs down my back. I can’t believe she has dementia but I can’t pretend everything is normal either. 

Doctor Randall interrupts the silence: ‘There’s something else. I’m sorry to have to tell you that most people with the disease have a life expectancy that is - .’

‘How long?’ asks Dad.

‘Five, eight years at most.’

The doctor pauses for us to absorb this latest body blow.

‘We have a specialist nurse who can run through what to expect and the support options available. Though, as I say, the speed of deterioration is unusual, so it’s difficult to put a timeline on things.’

‘And what about me?’ I whisper, feeling instantly selfish for asking.

The doctor shoots a worried look at Dad.

‘There is a fifty-fifty chance that you carry the same gene. Genetic counselling can be made available to you once you’re eighteen,’ says the doctor.

I stare at him blankly.

‘Genetic counselling is a chance for you to decide whether or not you want to take the test. It’s a big decision to make.’

Dad and I instinctively look at Mum. Professor Hopkins makes the big decisions in our house - but right now Professor Hopkins is lost in another dimension.

‘And if Martha has the same gene?’ asks Dad.

‘I’m afraid there are no treatment options available.’

‘There must be something?’ asks Dad. ‘A research programme, a new drugs trial, something?’

‘I don’t want to give you false hope,’ says Doctor Randall, glancing at the framed certificates on his wall.

Dad, who doesn’t have any certificates on his wall, looks as if he would happily shake the hand of false hope right now. He’d hug it to him like a drowning man clings to a life buoy.

‘Martha will take the test as soon as she turns eighteen,’ says Mum, snapping back into wakefulness.

I listen in amazement as I’m relegated to the spectator bench of my own life. It’s better to know so that I can prepare. Apparently. How do you prepare for losing your mind? Write Post It notes to remind yourself where you left your keys? Write a memoir while you still can?

It’s my life! I want to shout but I know there’s no point. I am sixteen-and-a-half. Eighteen months is plenty of time for Mum to change her mind. Or for me to write a million Post It notes.

‘That’s something for Martha to think about,’ says Doctor Randall, closing the notes on his desk with an air of that-concludes-business-for-the-day.

The three of us stare at him. This man with a soft, cheerful face, who has turned our world inside out.

‘I am available if you have any further questions.’

I take Dad’s hand, then reach out a hand to Mum. They look as vacant as each other. I stand up slowly, my legs heavy as if they belong to someone else. Slowly, we make our way back into the waiting room. 

Tick. Tock. Tick Tock.

The ticking is louder than ever, only this time it’s not the clock. It’s the time bomb in my brain.

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4. Flogometer for Michelle—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?

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.


Michelle sends the first chapter for Desperate Tolerance. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Minnie scanned the room hoping for someone new. The same old married couples and the same desperate singles she’d known for years gathered in groups, chatting and drinking. It was as if she’d walked in on a funeral wake mourning death rather than a party to celebrate Karen’s birthday. She grabbed a glass of wine off the kitchen counter and found a quiet spot out the back. Releasing a long sigh of frustrated boredom, Minnie wished she were anywhere else but there.

“Let’s get out of here.” A stranger held his hand out to her. “You look as bored as I am. You wanna go to a real party?”

Tall, dark and shockingly handsome, Minnie felt the tug of the stranger’s mysterious magnetism. She didn’t stand a chance against the sparkle in his crystal blue eyes promising excitement and fun. Putting her wine glass on the table, she held out her hand to him. Entwining her fingers with his, he led her along the side of the house and through the front gate.

On the street, he opened the passenger door of a black BMW and Minnie got in. Now watching him walk round the front of the car to the driver’s side, she wondered if she was taking too big a risk. Sliding into the driver’s seat, the stranger looked at her and smiled, his boyish innocence calming her. There was still a chance for Minnie to get out of the car and go back to the safety of the party, but she felt glued to the seat and fixated on the stranger.

Were you compelled to turn Michelle's first page?

This opening passes the writing hurdle pretty well, but I had issues. One was with visualization of what’s happening. She goes “out back” but we don’t see what that entails. She puts her glass on a table that we don’t know is there. The action is compressed “telling,” and I don’t get much a feel for this character other than that she is incredibly reckless. In today’s world, what young woman would just go off with a “stranger” without knowing a name and no conversation to get to know him? For me, what happens here just wasn’t credible.

There is a story question, but for me it boiled down to what kind of trouble can this level of foolhardiness get her into, and I didn’t really care enough to want to know. At the least, I feel that this character needs to be fleshed out and properly motivated, and I didn’t think boredom rose to that level. Give us more of her and why she takes this chance. It seems to me that the stakes of blithely going off with a stranger brings risks of rape, assault, and kidnapping, to name a few that she, it appears, ignores or isn’t aware of. Those are some serious stakes that would make an interesting story if she were conscious of them and motivated to take them, but that’s not in this page.

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 Michelle

 

Continued

Giving her one last chance to change her mind, he rested his hand on her knee and asked, “Ready to go?”

Minnie nodded. She didn’t ask where they were going. They didn’t talk during the short drive through the suburban streets and onto the expressway into the city. All that mattered was that they’d escaped the dull party and were now on an adventure together. In the city centre, he turned into the basement carpark of the Metro Towers luxury apartment complex and silently escorted Minnie to the penthouse on the 30th floor. City nightlights shone spectacularly through the floor to ceiling windows.

He took her hand in his and she followed him into the bedroom. She knew she was supposed to say no on the first night, but the force propelling her to him was irresistible. She wasn’t even drunk this time. Minnie was fully aware of what she was doing and what was about to happen. Undressing her and himself, the stranger placed her delicately on the soft quilted king-sized bed. Taking powerful control of her, she could feel the knotted tension in her overburdened mind and body untangle and dissolve. He rolled off, reached for the remote on the bedside table and clicked off the light. Laying on his side, he nudged her to nestle into him. Minnie fell asleep safely wrapped in the arms of her stranger. She didn’t even know his name.

In the morning, she woke to his smiling face looking down at her. When she sat up, he bent over and kissed her on the forehead.

“I have to go,” he said.

Minnie wondered where he was going impeccably dressed in an expensive looking suit so early on a Sunday morning, but she knew it was better not to ask.

“Get dressed and I’ll take you home,” he said, and left the room.

Needing to pee and freshen up, she found the bathroom. In the mirror, she saw that her cheeks were flushed pink, her lips blooded red, her eyes clear. She looked alive. Reborn. Prepared to face him, she found the stranger sitting on the couch in the lounge room, hunched over a laptop on the coffee table.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Where do you live?”

“Not far from Karen’s place,” she said.

“Karen who?”

Minnie’s brow frowned in confusion. “It was Karen’s party we were at last night. Don’t you know her?”

“Oh that Karen! Yes, of course I know her. Come on. Let’s go. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

This time, Minnie felt awkward on the silent drive out of the city and to her home. She knew she should say something to the man she had sex with so recently, but she couldn’t find the right words. He asked directions and when he stopped outside her house, Minnie waited for him to ask her phone number – to ask if he could see her again. Silence.

“As I said, I’m in a hurry.” He reached over and clicked opened the door. “I’ll call you when I’m not so busy.”

“But you don’t have my number,” she said.

“I have your number. Don’t worry, Minnie. I’ll call you.”

“How do you know my name? I never told you.”

“There’s no time to explain now. I have to go.”

She got out of the car and watched him drive away until he reached the end of her street and turned the corner.

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5. Can I interest you in a writing workshop?

I’ve been doing workshops at writers conferences for 10 years now, and I love doing them, primarily for the joy of helping writers further their craft. I now teach 5 different workshops, and the places have ranged from Massachusetts to Mexico, with most of them in the Pacific Northwest area.

A favor. If you know of a writers conference that might be interested, would you introduce me to it? You could just let me know the name of the conference and where it is and I’ll follow up by asking them how to submit proposals. Better yet would be a personal introduction if you know someone in the organization.

These are the workshops I offer. There’s are links for PDFs of each proposal, and this link will take you to the page on my website where they can all be found.

1. In Crafting a Killer First Page (PDF), writers learn about:

  • the storytelling issues that will stop a professional reader from turning the page
  • how to analyze and recognize storytelling and craft problems
  • how to apply their learning and new analysis skills to their own writing with fresh eyes

2. 3 Keys to Killer Storytelling (PDF) focuses on the “how-to” of:

  • Hooking readers on the first page
  • Creating and building story tension
  • Creating characters that engage readers

3. The Killer Covers for Less than $50 (PDF) is packed with information about and examples of (if you have some design talent) creating impactful book covers for very low cost. I cover:

  • Creative goals for your book cover
  • Where to go for free and low-cost creative resources, including free sophisticated graphics software
  • Insights on how to modify and combine images
  • Insights on how to utilize layers to build a cover
  • Insights on how to make sure titles and author names are clear and legible in thumbnail sizes

4. Crafting Killer Description & Dialogue Scenes (PDF) concentrates on two of the most powerful craft areas for strong storytelling when I cover:

  • how to add dimension and characterization to description of scenes and characters
  • how to utilize beats in dialogue to add depth, move story, characterize
  • how to better create the experience of the story in a reader’s mind

5. And here’s a new one, Tips & Techniques for Successful Self-editing (PDF):

  • how to identify and correct weak language
  • how to spot and strengthen weak technique
  • how to create and maintain a crisp narrative flow and pace

Please spread the word about these. I’d very much appreciate it.

Mastering front 100WshadowWhat about online workshops? I’m also interested in creating online workshops, so please contact me directly if you have an interest in taking part in one of these online for a small fee. If enough writers are interested in a particular one, I’ll work out how to do it online for the best personal instruction and coaching. I'm thinking of including a free Kindle copy of the new book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, with a workshop. Let me know.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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6. Flogometer for Tony—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.


Tony sends the first chapter for Lights Out. The rest of the chapter after the break.

It was more than the conviction in Dr. Payson's voice that made Danny squirm against the red vinyl upholstery. More than just the way Payson kept his eyes leveled at Danny as he spoke—completely oblivious to the carnival of light and sound bursting from the dozens of flat screens that were plastered across the walls of The Fours Bar & Grill. And it was more than the casual description that Payson gave, between sips of his dirty martini, of the satanic ritual he planned to perform for Danny's benefit.

More than any of that, it was the goddamned look on Payson's wrinkled face. Danny couldn't decide if the guy was bat-shit crazy or just plain dangerous, but either way one thing was clear; Richard Payson truly believed every word he said. And that, more than anything else, was what made Danny uneasy.

Danny sloshed around the last of his bottle of Sam Adams, turned it up, and took a swig to steady his nerves. His fingers tingled so badly that he could barely hold the bottle. He chose his next words carefully. “You’re saying you can bring me back from the dead?”

“Most of what will happen depends greatly on you." Payson drained his glass. “But I don’t believe it will come to that.”

“And if it does?"

“There are precautions we can take." Payson propped his elbows on the table and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Tony's first page?

Tony has a voice I like and good, clean writing. The scene is well set, something is happening, and there are good, strong story questions, especially the line about being brought back from the dead. Spoiler alert: that’s not literally what this is about--I think. Caveat: "back from the dead" doesn't seem to be what might happen from what's in this chapter, but I don't know what happens later. I take the "dead" he refers to as about bringing back his career as a pitcher from being moribund because he can't pitch anymore. If so, the reference to coming back from the dead is a bit of bait-and-switch, and I don’t think misleading the reader is a good idea. Tony, let us know if I got this wrong. A few notes:

It was more than the conviction in Dr. Payson's voice that made Danny squirm against the red vinyl upholstery. More than just the way Payson kept his eyes leveled at Danny as he spoke—completely oblivious to the carnival of light and sound bursting from the dozens of flat screens that were plastered across the walls of The Fours Bar & Grill. And it was more than the casual description that Payson gave, between sips of his dirty martini, of the satanic ritual he planned to perform for Danny's benefit. A strong opening paragraph with the mention of the satanic ritual.

More than any of that, it was the goddamned look on Payson's wrinkled face. Danny couldn't decide if the guy was bat-shit crazy or just plain dangerous, but either way one thing was clear; Richard Payson truly believed every word he said. And that, more than anything else, was what made Danny uneasy. Later I got the idea that it is what he says that gives Danny trouble, not in his belief in what he says. Isn’t Danny’s trouble that he’s afraid of what it means if what the Dr. says is true? So is this statement accurate?

Danny sloshed around the last of his bottle of Sam Adams, turned it up, and took a swig to steady his nerves. His fingers tingled so badly that he could barely hold the bottle. He chose his next words carefully. “You’re saying you can bring me back from the dead?” I think there’s a missed opportunity to help the reader understand more about Danny—how about a little more on the fingers? For example: The fingers of his pitching hand tingled so badly that he could barely hold the bottle—or a baseball. On the “back from the dead” line—rather than promise something that the narrative doesn’t deliver, maybe there is something equally intriguing. For example, bring in the mention of the demon here, maybe the idea of a demon as his savior?

“Most of what will happen depends greatly on you." Payson drained his glass. “But I don’t believe it will come to that.” This refers to being brought back from the dead, but I didn’t see anything in the first chapter that suggests he will become dead. If that happens in a later chapter, then disregard this concern.

“And if it does?"

“There are precautions we can take." Payson propped his elbows on the table and (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 Tony

 

Continued

. . . steepled his fingers. "But understand, what I propose will require your full commitment. If you give yourself over fully then we can control it, harness its power. But once the demon has been summoned if you fight against it, it will fight back and you will lose.”

The outside door swung open, allowing a flood of afternoon sunlight to momentarily pour in off of Canal Street. With it the barely tolerable humidity, that was the fingerprint of a July Bermuda High in Boston, followed close behind. Danny's head snapped around at the movement and froze. A trio of beer-bellied guys wearing Red Sox jerseys spilled in from the street. The cigarette smoke that wafted in with them made Danny's nose twitch. Danny doubted that they could see him, but wasn't taking the chance. He turned towards the wall and pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt to hide his face, anyway. He had to get out of there before someone recognized him. “Okay.” Danny nodded his head and slid to the edge of the booth. “I'm pulling the ripcord, this is not what I came for.” He dug in his pocket, peeled off a twenty, and tossed it on the table. “Thanks for the drink.”

“What did you come here for?”

"Not this," Danny scoffed. "This is insane."

A flicker of anger flashed across Payson's otherwise emotionless eyes, then passed just as quickly. He sat stone-faced. "You don't believe me?”

Danny motioned toward the vodka. "I think you've had one too many."

"Fine." He reached into the inner pocket of his sports jacket, fished out a pen, and scribbled on a cocktail napkin. "Here."

"What's this?"

"A contact of mine at a laboratory in the Bay Area."

"For what?"

"He specializes in a more traditional method of performance enhancement."

Danny Hamil waved him off. It wasn’t the first time in his career that someone had offered him a performance enhancer, and his answer was always the same. "No drugs."

"It won't be nearly as effective and I can't guarantee the results," he said. “In fact, it probably won't help you at all. Not in your condition."

Danny’s tone sharpened. "My condition?"

Payson ignored the question. “Besides, at the rate players have been caught testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, you'll probably be suspended before you even see any meager benefits from using.”

"I told you, no drugs.”

“You aren’t leaving me many options.”

“So, that’s it? That’s all you got?” Danny flexed his pitching hand. It was ice cold and clammy—not good. "The Haitian said you could help me."

“That is precisely what I am trying to do.”

“No, you’re wasting my time.”

“You came to me.”

“For a real solution.”

“I’m offering you a real solution.”

“You call this real? Satanic rituals? Demonic possession? That’s real to you?”

“And why do you think the Haitian sent you to see me?"

The jumbo flat screen mounted directly behind him boomed with the sound of two ESPN talking heads jabbering about the top ten current Boston athletes; a list Danny didn’t belong on anymore. Danny searched Payson’s face for a glimpse of the truth behind the lie, but there was nothing in his eyes that betrayed his words. Not a damn thing. "I thought you were a doctor."

“And I thought that someone in your position wouldn’t slap away a helping hand.”

“Someone in my position?” Danny crossed his arms and leaned back, rigid against the booth. “You think I want this? You think I want any of this? You don’t know me,” he said. “You don't know anything about me.”

“Oh, I know a great deal about you,” Payson said. “I know you're on the last year of your contract. I know your fastball velocity has dropped and your ERA has risen every year for the last five years. I know that you’re one bad game away from being released. I know there’s a limited market for a pitcher your age." The old man leaned forward and eyed Danny's right hand. His ring finger was a bluish white. “And I know you wouldn't be here if you weren't completely out of options.”

“What do you want from me?”

“To take your situation a little more seriously, for starters.”

“You don't think I'm taking this seriously?”

“I think you're letting fear cloud your judgment.”

Danny settled back into their padded corner booth and let Paysons' words sink in. The booth was less comfortable then he remembered, but apart from that, the place looked much like it did the last time he'd been there—although it must have been at least ten years. The red-tin vintage Ted Williams Moxie Beer sign still hung proudly on the wall by the entrance. Flat screens covered the walls at every imaginable angle. Two of them bookended the Fenway panoramic that loomed over the bar. Everywhere else, photos covered nearly every inch of the taupe-painted walls. And hidden in the corner, nestled between a Wade Boggs poster and an autographed Clemens jersey, hung a familiar, faded photo of a young red Sox rookie sensation that fizzled out too soon.

One of the obnoxious Sox fans left the table and walked past Danny towards the men's room. Danny pulled the drawstring of his hood tighter and buried his head in a menu.

Payson raised his empty glass and waved at the waitress for another round. "It must be difficult being such a hated man in such a passionate sports town,” he said. "You just might be the most hated man in Boston."

Danny sneered. "I hadn't noticed."

“You’re quite unpopular on sports radio, these days, as well. Fans calling in to WEEI want your head on a platter. It’s been going on for weeks, months even. They say you’re everything that’s wrong with the Red Sox, right now. Or have you not noticed that, either?" Richard Payson seemed to relish his own words. "Everyone on sports radio says you’re washed up, and there’s one overnight host in particular seems to be hell-bent on running you out of town. How does that make you feel?"

"Like I should watch more T.V."

"It doesn’t bother you at all?"

“That’s a good answer, let’s stick with that.”

A pretty brunette waitress in a slinky black top brought the next round of drinks and a basket of buffalo wings. The tang of spicy chicken filled the air. “On the house, boys.” She dropped the check and smiled at Danny. She touched his hand and winked. “We take care of our own here, especially one as cute as you.”

Danny probably would’ve flirted back if his attention hadn’t been drawn to one of the TV’s across the room by the bar. A breaking news report about the Red Sox manager, Art Coley, being under investigation by major league baseball for allegedly betting on games interrupted the top-ten show. Danny strained to hear the report. It couldn’t be true, had to be a mistake. Coley had his problems, but that was years ago, and Danny had helped him through it. Sure, he was known for blowing a few bucks on the ponies, back then. But betting on baseball? That wasn’t like him. And why wouldn’t Coley come to him if he needed help? He pulled out his cell phone and looked at the time. He needed to find out what the hell was going on. He forced a smile, muttered an absent thank you to the waitress, and turned to Payson. “It’s late,” he said. “Gotta get to the ballpark.”

Payson raked his fingers through his scraggly beard and held Danny’s gaze. “I can help you if you let me.”

“I don’t think so. The kind of help you’re offering,” Danny said. “I don't need."

"Then why are you here?"

It had been more than three months since Danny had first felt his pitching hand go numb. Three months since the Haitian had given Danny the talisman. Three months since the voodoo blessing that was supposed to save his career. Three months, and still nothing had changed. Instead, things were only getting worse. He never really believed in what the Haitian had said, but times were desperate, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. He scooped up the fresh bottle and raised it to take a much needed drink, but stopped. In the cold mirror of the brown glass he saw his reflection, and he couldn’t put the bottle down fast enough. Danny stepped away from the table. "Have my reasons."

Payton nodded. “I’m surprised you’re not more open to the possibility of the paranormal.”

“Been in this game long time,” Danny snapped. “Seen a lot of strange shit.”

“And still you don't believe?

“If I can’t see it, I don’t believe it.”

“Some things need to be believed to be seen,” Payson said. “Besides, I thought ballplayers were superstitious.”

"Not all of us.”

"Superstition is just as much a part of the game as hitting and fielding, is it not?"

"Just like it’s a part of witchcraft, voodoo, cults—"

 “You mean that in all your years in uniform, you’ve never once appealed to a higher power for help during a cold streak, or relied on a good luck charm to get you through a slump?”

"What do you want me to say?"

“How about the truth?”

“Look,” Danny said. “Superstitions are one thing, but what you're talking about… that’s something else."

“You can't deny that those superstitions make players better.”

”Some guys will believe anything.”

“But not you?”

“That's what the game does to us. We're all screwed up,” Danny said. “But I ain't screwed up enough to believe this.”

“That’s your problem, you don’t believe,” Payson said. “And that’s why you'll fail.”

"Fine.” Danny leaned over the table, pounded his fist on the table, and jabbed a finger at Payson. "You know what I believe? Superstitions are a waste of time. Yeah, some guys rely on it. But that’s what the game does to you. It’s cruel and it’s hard and it screws with you. Makes you desperate. Makes you try anything to avoid offending the baseball gods. But it's not about hocus-pocus, it’s about preparation. And it’s not about lucky charms. It’s about routine, concentration, staying on the field, and finding a way to cope with the shit-load of pressure we face on a day by day, inning by inning, pitch by pitch basis.”

Danny's face reddened and he fell back into his seat. His outburst was drawing attention from the folks at nearby tables, but he didn't notice. “You know why players cling so desperately to our superstitions? Confidence. Because we have so fucking little of it, and what little we do have can vanish in a second. So yeah, we do our rituals and stick to our routines to feel like we’re in control,” he said. “But we’re not.”

"Let’s talk about the powers you’ll gain when—"

"And you're going to sit there with a straight face and tell me that you can solve all my problems and all I have to do is pull an Ozzy, bite the head off a bat, dial up Satan on the oujia board, sell my soul to the devil and poof? I get magical powers that will make me an all-star pitcher again?! And all I have to do is believe? I don't think you realize how truly full of shit you are."

Danny leaned back and glared at Payson. "Seven hundred fifty five major leaguers and they all got their own superstitions and routines. They all believe.”

Danny clenched his jaw. “When I played with Todd Helton, he'd shave off his beard whenever he took an o-fer. Wade Boggs ate chicken before every single game. Turk Wendell pitched without socks and chewed licorice between innings. Guy I played with in Detroit pulled out the Mr. Bubble and cleaned his shoes between innings if there was a speck of dirt on them. I’ve seen guys wear two-month-old socks, shit at the same time every day, wear the same dirty underwear for weeks, avoid stepping on foul lines… Hell, I’ve even seen guys piss on their hands before the game for luck—because they believe."

Danny slipped his hand into his hoodie pocket, cradled the talisman that the Haitian had given him. He stared into the distance, took a deep breath, and exhaled. The edge left his voice. “I used to believe. I worked hard. Played the game right way. Trusted in my ability. Even had my superstitions.”

Danny pulled out the talisman and set it on the table. “Kept this in my back pocket when I pitched.” He traced his finger over the charred bones strung together by mottled twine. The crudely carved orange skull wore a look of perpetual surprise. The hollow bones rattled in his hand. “I still do." 

Payson raised an eyebrow at it but kept any thoughts he had to himself.

“Thought it helped me concentrate; took my mind off the game. Made me feel like I wasn’t alone out there, for a while—like it wasn’t all on my shoulders." He tossed the talisman on the table. Then the surgeries robbed the life from my fastball, age stole what little ability I had left...” Danny picked at the label of his brown bottle. “Didn’t help that I burned a lot bridges."

"Who needs bridges when you can walk on water?” His silvery baritone was almost comforting.

“C’mon,” Danny said. “There are no magic trinkets or secret rituals that can fix things. I’ve made that mistake before. None of those superstitions made a difference. None of it was real," he said. "Truth is, the hits aren’t in the gum. The strikeouts aren’t in the chicken. None of it changes anything, or guarantees you’ll get that hit in the ninth, or strike out the cleanup guy with the bases loaded. None of it helps." Danny shook his head. "Not really. Doesn’t help you, doesn’t help the ball club, and it sure as hell doesn’t help the people who count on you the most. No, my problem isn’t that I don't believe. Problem is that I did—for way too long, and now look where it got me.”

Payson cleared his throat and nodded. Then he smiled, stood, and buttoned his sports jacket. "I understand. You’re not ready,” he said. “You don’t believe. It’s alright,” Payson placed a reassuring hand on Danny shoulder. “There are others who will.” He handed Danny a business card. “If you change your mind, that’s where you'll find me."

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7. Flogometer for Shanda—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.


Shanda sends the first chapter for Cappuccino Dreams. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Life was good. Early on a cold, clear February morning Kat Beck padded down the concrete ramp from the marina gate onto the main dock, enjoying the smooth wood on her callused soles. Theria, her father's sailboat, was just out of dry dock, and Kat expected a potential buyer to come look at her later today.

She reached the dog-leg right onto the finger docks before the whiff of an odor she'd almost forgotten, from a time in her life she wanted to forget, stopped her mid-stride. The emotions of a hunter closing in on its prey buffeted her and she gagged on the synesthetic scent of raw meat. A surge of adrenaline later, the sound of a child's laughter and the slapping of bare feet on wood held her motionless. Something wasn't right. There were no children among the live-aboards. As she squinted into the sun in the direction of the noises, the bloody scented emotion dissipated without a trace.

She closed her eyes and opened her senses to the odors of the marina: briny decay from a fish head left lying on the dock, the sweet brown licorice of tar wrapped around aluminum and wood, sulfur released from sea gull droppings drying in the sun. Naked Pete, one of her favorite people in the marina, stood on the foredeck of his sailboat, MyGuru, in the midst of his sun salutations, broadcasting the sweet lavender smell of serenity. Nothing out of the ordinary, now.

She continued down the dock toward Theria, her father's boat,more slowly, alert for any (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Shanda's first page?

Good, strong writing and voice, and the scene is nicely set. But, for this reader, there were clarity and comprehension issues, and (for me) a strong-enough story question wasn’t raised. I think you’re doing a good job of working to deliver the character’s experience, but for me there wasn’t adequate information to understand it—you’ll see what I mean in the notes. There was an opportunity to create tension with the intrusion of the hunter emotions, but that isn’t capitalized on and quickly fades. I think there’s a lot of promise here, but I think the way things work for her need to be “unpacked” a little at this introductory stage. Notes:

Life was good. Early on a cold, clear February morning, Kat Beck padded down the concrete ramp from the marina gate onto the main dock, enjoying the smooth wood on her callused soles. Theria, her father's sailboat, was just out of dry dock, and Kat expected a potential buyer to come look at her later today.

She reached the dog-leg right onto the finger docks before the A whiff of an odor she'd almost forgotten, a scent from a time in her life she wanted to forget, stopped her mid-stride. The emotions of a hunter closing in on its prey buffeted her and she gagged on the synesthetic scent of raw meat. A surge of adrenaline later, the sound of a child's laughter and the slapping of bare feet on wood held her motionless. Something wasn't right. There were no children among the live-aboards. As she squinted into the sun in the direction of the noises, the bloody scented emotion dissipated without a trace. The opening phrase is a bit of overwriting and isn’t needed, just slows the narrative. More important is  a clarity issue that I stumbled over in the remaining narrative, perhaps because it’s not adequately explained/shown here, where Kat experiences emotions as odors. The use of “synesthetic scent” just wasn’t adequate for me, and it’s not really delivering the experience of the character. More than that, I think we need to know here that she’s an empath. And there needs to be a hint of danger—you mention a surge of adrenalin, but why? If it comes as a defense against attack (wouldn’t she also react physically, maybe crouch, close her fists?), which signals danger, that would help.

She closed her eyes and opened her senses to the odors of the marina: briny decay from a fish head left lying on the dock, the sweet brown licorice of tar wrapped around aluminum and wood, sulfur released from sea gull droppings drying in the sun. Naked Pete, one of her favorite people in the marina, stood on the foredeck of his sailboat, MyGuru, in the midst of his sun salutations, broadcasting the sweet lavender smell of serenity. Nothing out of the ordinary, now. Once again I’m confused. We take the word “senses” to mean those that we ordinarily have, and we can’t ordinarily smell emotions. If you had her open her empath or empathetic sense, or opened herself to the synesthetic odors of emotions, that would make sense, but here the scents of physical things such as decay and tar are mixed with the synesthetic “scent’ of serenity. I found this really confusing. I think you should keep them separate, or at lease identify them. In the later chapter, this mixing of what is mental and physical also confused me when she fights the pain in her mind and then the narrative has a chuck of brain and bone ripped from her body . . . but is it? I ended up not knowing what was happening to her.

She continued down the dock toward Theria, her father's boat,more slowly, alert for any (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 Shanda

Continued

. . . new disturbance.

Just past C dock she saw him, a tow-headed boy of four or five sitting back against an equipment locker with his bare legs crossed and a chocolate ice cream cone dripping down his shirt. It was way too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. She always went barefoot, but even she had her North Face jacket zipped all the way up. Was someone hunting this child? She was more curious than worried as she approached him, automatically reinforcing her mental shield to deal with what was likely a less than adequately shielded mind. Children were not born with shields or filters. It was why she usually avoided them. They developed mental defenses as they acquired the other trappings of adulthood.

The young boy met her gaze. His mind wasn't less than adequately shielded, it was completely unshielded. He was broadcasting a barrage of emotions that triggered tantalizing smells, compelling even muted by her morning caffeine hit. His was a child's potpourri with the mischief of burnt marshmallow and easy warmth of caramel leavened by the sophisticated serenity of lavender and the anticipation of sweet mint. A sundae-like treat for an adult palate that invited her in.

As she dropped down to sit next to him, her own shield softened in response, even as she tried to respect his privacy--Kat's Rules for Empaths #1 was Never enter a mind uninvited. But he was making it damn hard.

"Hey, you're new around here." She smiled and tried pushing a friendliness nudge out through her shield.

He maintained eye contact but did not smile back and was apparently too busy staying ahead of the drips to speak.

"Are your folks visiting one of the boats?"

He raised a hand and pointed over her right shoulder into the sun. She twisted to see where he was pointing before standing and turning to face that direction. That was a new disturbance. A man emerged from below deck on Theria and stood silhouetted in the cockpit. Behind her, the boy's enthusiastic wave shivered through the dock.

Rules be damned. No one belonged on her father's boat. She reached out empathically and felt the man's presence an instant before a a murderous smell choked her. Blood and decay exposed the intent of a hunter with long-held grievances. It was out of place in this place and beyond potent. Her reflexes kicked in, slamming her shield shut and breaking her tenuous connection with the boy's father. She whirled around to face the boy.

He was gone.

She swiveled full circle, his scent still strong in her brain. And there he was, standing in front of her after all. As she watched, the ice cream cone disappeared, his hands flew apart, and his eyes rolled up into his head. She grabbed him by his elbows.

Her hands fused to his flesh as a blaze of heat flashed up her arms and converged at the base of her skull, exposing her to the source of his fear--a mind in the throes of a jealous rage.

It had felt like a lightning strike...if lightning had a purpose. An inhuman whimper, the sound of a dog beaten by its master, came from the boy. A spark flared within her, answering his pain and confusion with a determination to protect him.

She pulled him to her and tried to expand her mental shield, trying to cover them both if such a thing were possible. The thing turned, and now she was the one whimpering. The jealousy was a living thing, snaking its way through her brain. It seemed to recognize her, or rather realize that it didn't recognize her, and it hesitated--uncertain if the target of its despair remained in its grasp. She felt it rooting around and closed down every connection she had to the outside world. This thing could not be allowed to travel farther.

She cast about for a way to fight it, and a fleeting image of Chudo inspired her.

She imagined the dog sinking its teeth into an enormous snake, yanking it out and slamming it to the dock so she could stomp on it and break its back. In response the snake clamped its jaws around her head and did not let go...taking a chunk of brain and bone with it as it was ripped free of her body. Pain blossomed into an explosion inside her head. Expecting to feel blood and brain, she flattened her palms against the base of her skull as a stab of pain cramped her midsection. She curled into a ball and crumpled onto the dock.

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8. A shout-out for Heavy Weather

Heavy weatherMy client, Normandie Fischer, has published Heavy Weather, a Carolina coast novel. I can testify that it’s a good read because I edited it, and you know how picky I am. Normandie is a skilled writer and she tells a gripping tale with very real characters that I ended up caring about. A summary from Goodreads:

Death, life, family, domestic abuse--Heavy Weather explores all these themes in a memorable and compelling narrative. When Annie Mac's life explodes like a storm at sea, she is helpless to fight back. Left for dead, her two children targeted by her abuser, her life appears to be over. The people who help her show her how to weather a storm that she cannot control.

Here’s the description from Amazon, where it’s available in print and Kindle formats:

It takes a town to save a child. That town is Beaufort, North Carolina.

Annie Mac’s estranged husband vows that nothing will stop him from getting his baby girl. Not Annie Mac and certainly not that boy of hers.

Only four blocks away, Hannah Morgan lives in comfort with her husband and dog, making pottery and waiting for her best friend to come home. When she discovers the two children cowering in the bushes and their mama left for dead, it doesn’t take her long to set her coterie of do-gooders to some extra-strength do-gooding. Add in Clay, a lonely police lieutenant yanked out of his comfort zone and into the heart of this small family, and who knows what will happen?

I urge you to give it a look.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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9. Flogometer for Kelsey—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.


Kelsey sends a rewrite of the first chapter for Blood Walkers. The previous version is here. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Bryn crept out of the confines of her coven’s caves in the dead of night, cloaked by a moonless sky. She wandered in and out of trees toward the dense heart of the forest at the peak of midnight, the start of the witching hours. She heard a rustle in the undergrowth. The padding of paws and scratching of claws on the ground moved toward her.

A bear as black as the night around her emerged and Bryn froze. The bear charged as Bryn darted to her right. She fiddled with the animal bones in her bag and clasped onto a bear claw. She hid behind an oak tree and drew her athane from her waist. She could hear the bear sniffing; getting closer and closer.

Bryn lurched from behind the tree and grazed the bear’s leg with her athane. It came away with the faintest glint of blood. She smeared the blood onto the claw and chanted a deter spell over and over as fast as she could. The bear lunged, scratching the back of her hand down to the tendon before its anger subsided.

 The bear sniffed the air and walked away. Bryn fell to her knees. She healed the wound on her hand as much as she could but it was a hack job. Her power was drained and she didn’t know how long it would take to recharge, or if it ever would now.

The skin had barely pulled over the tendon and she could see it clearly under the raw, pink skin. She ripped off some fabric from the bottom of her cloak with her athane, how her (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Kelsey's first page?

This rewrite begins with some nice writing and mood, but for this reader things were missing. I believe that she’s running away, but that isn’t included here. Perhaps there’s too much of a rush to get to the action with the bear. I think the time would be better spent engaging us with the character.

Let us not only know that she’s running away but why. What is her goal here, what is her desire? That's an item from the checklist above that's missing here. What are the consequences she will suffer if she doesn’t run away? They need to be pretty serious, I would think. What does she fear that is strong enough for her to leave the safety of her home? Get us involved  with the character and the troubles she’s dealing with, not the bear.

For me, the struggle with the bear was over way too quickly—not enough time to build up “what will happen?” tension. On the writing side, I think you need to think about the verbs you’re using, as you’ll see in the notes. I talk about “writing for effect” in my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, and you can read that piece in this free PDF excerpt.

Bryn crept out of the confines of her coven’s caves in the dead of night, cloaked by a moonless sky. She wandered in and out of trees toward the dense heart of the forest at the peak of midnight, the start of the witching hours. She heard a rustle in the undergrowth. The padding of paws and scratching of claws on the ground moved toward her. For me, “wandered” denotes aimless, yet she is on a mission. She could weave through the trees, looking back to see if she’s followed, etc.

A bear as black as the night around her emerged and Bryn froze. The bear charged, as Bryn darted to her right. She fiddled with the animal bones in her bag and clasped onto a bear claw. She hid behind an oak tree and drew her athane from her waist. She could hear the bear sniffing; getting closer and closer. Another verb opportunity missed, I think—fiddled is leisurely, not an urgent action, and detracts from any urgency. Maybe she clawed through the animal bones and grabbed (not “clasped,” a soft sort of gripping) the bone. “She could hear” is a filter; go directly to the experience of the character, eg. The bear sniffed, closer and closer. On the “athane,” I’m guessing it’s a wand of some sort, but it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a bear’s thick, fur-covered hide. Show it to us.

Bryn lurched from behind the tree and grazed the bear’s leg with her athane. It came away with the faintest glint of blood. She smeared the blood onto the claw and chanted a deter spell over and over as fast as she could. The bear lunged, scratching the back of her hand down to the tendon before its anger subsided. Would she lurch, or wouldn’t she lunge? Also, for me, a “scratch” doesn’t suggest much force or danger. How about “ripped” the back of hand etc.

 The bear sniffed the air and walked away. Bryn fell to her knees. She healed the wound on her hand as much as she could but it was a hack job. Her power was drained and she didn’t know how long it would take to recharge, or if it ever would now. I suggest you do more with the healing. It’s covered here in a brief sentence. Show us. Is there pain? What’s the healing process? Does she focus mentally? Where, the edges of the wound or deep into the tissue? Does she say a spell or draw power from . . . where? Within?

The skin had barely pulled over the tendon and she could see it clearly under the raw, pink skin flesh. She ripped off some fabric from the bottom of her cloak with her athane, how her (snip) avoid the echo of “skin” with an alternative such as “flesh” Again, the athane seems as if it must have some aspects of a blade. Show it to us earlier so we can “see” what’s happening.

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 Kelsey

 

Continued

. . . mother would have chided her for mishandling such a sacred tool, and wrapped it around her hand to protect the new skin.

Bryn curled up at the edge of an ancient circle of stone ruins before dawn could peak above the trees. She knew only snatches of sleep would be caught over the next fortnight as she moved beyond the coven’s farthest grasp.

She was walking through a shadow world. Smoke rose where she stepped but the air was cool. Smoke started rising from all around her, amber eyes glowed in the distance. She heard herself scream and a bear lurched at her and its claws grazed her throat. She tried to grab at the wound but it was too slick. The blood kept pouring despite all her efforts to staunch it. The world went dark.

Bryn woke up panting in a cold sweat and rubbed her throat. She whipped her head around in all directions but didn’t see another bear. The sun was just peaking over the horizon, the pale blue light illuminating the boney trees.

“Hello?” A voice said.

Bryn’s breath caught in her throat. A few meters away stood a gangly blonde boy about her age.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” He cocked his head to the side.

Bryn pulled herself up and brushed dead leaves off her robes. “I’m Bryn,” she said ignoring his second question, unwilling to delve into such delicate details with a stranger.

“I saw you defend yourself from the bear,” the boy said.

Bryn’s stomach clenched. If he was human she would have to kill him, but in her current state she wasn’t sure she could take him on. She recalled the failed spell she had performed the day before her escape. She’d skimmed her fingertips across a bowl a blood and muttered an incantation. Wherever she’d touched the blood it had turned black. When the entire surface shone like midnight, she’d dumped it over another bowl filled with flowers. The flowers withered but did not completely shrivel into themselves like the previous time. They were supposed to turn to dust.

“Don’t worry,” he said, his eyes meeting her worried gaze. “I’m like you, in a way.”

“What’s your name?” Bryn asked.

“Carver.”

“Alright Carver, how are you like me?”

“You’re a blood maker and I’m a bone maker,” he said calmly, as though he was stating she was a girl and he way a boy.

A necromancer, Bryn thought. That’s even worse than a human. Blood and bone had only such a slight alliance to defend themselves from w’ere and human attacks, but now there had been peace for the last century the alliance seemed to be needed less and less. It was more of a formality and a nuisance than the precious necessity it had once been.

“How long have you been following me?” Bryn asked. “I was attacked by the bear hours ago.”

“I was tracking the bear,” Carver explained. “I had no idea it would lead me to a witch.”

“It’s incredible that witches can heal themselves,” he said. “One of the perks of being a witch over a necromancer I suppose.”

“It’s an incredibly useful skill,” said Bryn tersely as she tried to hide her bandaged hand in the folds of her cloak.

“Although I told myself I should check and ensure you were alright,” Carver said, stepping closer.

Bryn took a step back in response, perching on the balls of her feet.

“I also stayed because I need to ask for your help,” he said.

“My help?” Bryn said. “Why?”

“I’m trying to unite blood and bone once and for all.”

“How do you imagine to break thousands of years of tradition like that?” Bryn exclaimed. “The alliance has only been here for a century and it’s barely holding!”

“I’ve been doing my research but my people only have half of what I need,” he said, “I need a witch to help me with the rest.”

“I don’t have access to my coven’s libraries right now,” Bryn said quietly.

“I have other items on my list you can help with.”

“I agree,” said Bryn.

Bryn followed Carver through the forest to his tribe. The fading sunlight lent a golden cast to the dead leaves and half dead trees. The recently shed oak leaves curled and crunched beneath their feet. Once the sunlight had slipped away and the world grew so cold the promise of day seemed an impossible dream. Carver stopped and leaned against a tree.

“We will have to sneak in, thank goodness the moon will be nearly finished waning tonight.”

“Do you have help on the inside?” Bryn asked.

Carver nodded.  He entered the walls of the palisade first to arrange for Bryn’s cover.

While waiting, Bryn’s lack of sleep crept up on her and sealed her eyes shut like wax on a letter despite the roughness of the rocky ground and the chill of the air. She found herself being shaken awake by an irritated Carver.

“I do not think falling asleep was the wisest decision,” he said.

“My eyes decided for me,” Bryn said sleepily. Tendrils of light slipped through wispy grey clouds.

“We have to go, now.”

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10. Flogometer for Isaiah—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.


Isaiah sends the prologue and first chapter for A Shadow Among Light.

Prologue

Spots of light danced across Justin’s vision as he lay on the hard ground in the darkness, momentarily stunned. A lightarrow had crashed down just beside him, sending off a massive shockwave that set off a pile of explosives nearby. Distantly, he heard Mara, his partner, shouting.

“Justin! Justin, come on! We have to keep moving!” A triplet of Maras leaned over Justin, helping him to his feet.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Justin exclaimed, brushing off his tight tunic and trying to ignore the ringing in his ears. “We’d better find some cover and come up with a strategy to stop this whole thing before it’s too late.”

“If we can,” Mara muttered doubtfully, her blonde hair rippling as she shook her head slightly. “The enemy has never been big on being stopped.”

“True, true,” Justin replied. “But this whole fiasco will have to end sometime.”

“If only they had a leader…” Mara muttered.

“But they don’t,” Justin retorted. They had been over that before. “If they did, we would have won by now.”

“But they have to have a head of some sort! They can’t be following the orders of no one!”

Were you compelled to turn Isaiah's first page?

Chapter One

Kavin spun and drew a lightbow, feeling the familiar vibration as the bow sent a charge into the arrow. The wiry fibers of the bowstring slid smoothly off of his gloved fingers as he released. Streaming wisps of white light, the arrow flew, screaming through the air. It smashed into a robotic sentry, and the bot vanished in a flash of burning plasma. Dropping to the ground and sliding, Kavin barreled into another sentry, stabbing it with a knife that pulsed with white light and destroyed the sentry as it fell. Springing up, he spun and cast a small grenade into an approaching Manta. The creature was vaporized in an instant.

“Getting better,” a deep, refined voice said.

Kavin held back ten thousand burning retorts that leaped to the tip of his tongue, turning with a blank face to look at his supervisor.

“Hait,” he said, slapping his fist to his chest in a salute. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me until you hear me say that I’m impressed, or that you’ve done well, or that you are the best you can be,” snorted Hait. He began to walk toward Kavin, his black uniform standing in stark contrast against the glistening white floor of the training room. The man had an obsession with darkness; he wore black, his eyes were black, his short hair and goatee were black. Even his weapons – when he was bold enough to even fight – were black.

Too obsessed with black, Kavin thought.

Were you compelled to turn this first page?

You know me, the first determinant of a page turn is the raising of a compelling story question, followed immediately by a well-written narrative that moves forward.  The prologue works at creating a tense situation and raising story questions with some dramatic action, but fell short on a couple of counts for me. The scene isn’t clear, and that may be because it isn’t in the writer’s mind. There is an explosion that sends the protagonist to the ground and sets off nearby explosives—yet, it turns out, they’re in a room and go into a hallway. “Ground” generally means dirt outdoors. There’s some overwriting that doesn’t bode well, too. At the end of the page, rather than moving on with the action, the characters get into a discussion of the “As you know, Bob . . .” kind. This in the middle of life-threatening action. It slows the narrative and detours the path of the story.

The chapter starts with interesting action and world features, but then quickly devolves into a non-threatening training situation where, one assumes, the character won’t be harmed. So there is no jeopardy and no compelling story question raised. There are signs of a good story here, but the narrative needs to focus more on a couple of things—setting the scenes in a quick, accurate way and action or dialogue that makes us wonder what will happen next. Some notes on the text:

Prologue

Spots of light danced across Justin’s vision as he lay on the hard ground in the darkness, momentarily stunned. A lightarrow had crashed down just beside him, sending off a massive shockwave that set off a pile of explosives nearby. Distantly, he heard Mara, his partner, shouting. Good opening paragraph, though where this is isn’t clear. It reads as if outside, but later in the chapter they’re inside.

“Justin! Justin, come on! We have to keep moving!” A triplet of Maras leaned over Justin, helping him to his feet.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Justin brushed exclaimed, brushing off his tight tunic and tried trying to ignore the ringing in his ears. “We’d better find some cover and come up with a strategy to stop this whole thing before it’s too late.”

“If we can,” Mara muttered doubtfully, her blonde hair rippling as she shook her head slightly. “The enemy has never been big on being stopped.” No need for weak adverb to describe the dialogue, what she says expresses doubt just fine, the reader doesn’t need this. The rest about her blonde hair rippling and head-shaking that’s “slightly” is a bit overwritten and not a smooth effort to include description. What makes it overwriting is that none of it affects the story, it just takes up space.

“True, true,” Justin replied. “But this whole fiasco will have to end sometime.”

“If only they had a leader…” Mara muttered. Here she is muttering again. Avoid the close echo of a word used before.

“But they don’t,” Justin retorted. They had been over that before. “If they did, we would have won by now.” Dialogue tag issues are showing up. Instead of “said,” so far we have exclaimed, muttered, replied, muttered again, and retorted. With the exception of the first muttered, they can all be “said” or written out. This is also where the narrative diverges from what’s happening into exposition trying to set things up. Didn’t work for me.

“But they have to have a head of some sort! They can’t be following the orders of no one!”

Chapter One

Kavin spun and drew a lightbow, feeling the familiar vibration as the bow sent a charge into the arrow. The wiry fibers of the bowstring slid smoothly off of his gloved fingers as he released. Streaming wisps of white light, the arrow flew, screaming through the air. It smashed into a robotic sentry, and the bot vanished in a flash of burning plasma. Dropping to the ground and sliding, Kavin barreled into another sentry, stabbing it with a knife that pulsed with white light and destroyed the sentry as it fell. Springing up, he spun and cast a small grenade into an approaching Manta. The creature was vaporized in an instant. This is just fine as an action opening nice writing. However, we don’t know where we are. Perhaps that should follow.

“Getting better,” a deep, refined voice said.

Kavin held back ten thousand burning retorts that leaped to the tip of his tongue, turning with a blank face to look at his supervisor. Here’s where the steam starts to leak out of this opening page. Similar to opening with a dream sequence, we’ve been subjected to a little bait-and-switch: there’s really no danger at all. As we soon learn, it’s training.

“Hait,” he said, slapping his fist to his chest in a salute. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me until you hear me say that I’m impressed, or that you’ve done well, or that you are the best you can be,” snorted Hait. He began to walk toward Kavin, his black uniform standing in stark contrast against the glistening white floor of the training room. The man had an obsession with darkness; he wore black, his eyes were black, his short hair and goatee were black. Even his weapons – when he was bold enough to even fight – were black.

Too obsessed with black, Kavin thought. This opinion of his supervisor’s appearance falls far short of contributing to a strong story question. The tension falls right out of the narrative for me here.

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 Isaiah

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11. Writing women

ElliotBy “writing women” I don’t mean women who write but creating a narrative about, as Kate Elliot says in her article titled Writing Women Characters as Human Beings, “believable female characters while avoiding clichés, especially in fantasy novels where the expectations and settings may be seen to be different from our modern world.”

She has written a lengthy and informative essay with three pieces of advice—following are just the titles of each; the exploration and explanation of them is well worth your time. The cover shown is for her first YA fantasy, coming out this August.

1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.

She makes the point that women and girls talk to each other A LOT. As a person of the male persuasion, I had never really tuned into this, and for me it’s a very helpful insight.

2. Filling in tertiary characters with women, even if they have little dialogue or no major impact on plot, changes the background dynamic in unexpected ways.

This makes sense to me—male characters with mostly males in the background would, it seems to me, behave differently if there were mostly—or at least many—women in the background of the story. The very world they inhabit would be different, one from the other, and that should impact the characters and what they do.

3. Set women characters into the plot as energetic participants in the plot, whether as primary or secondary or tertiary characters and whether in public or private roles within the setting. Have your female characters exist for themselves, not merely as passive adjuncts whose sole function is to serve as a mirror or a motivator or a victim in relationship to the male.

This is, perhaps, a corollary to her more general piece of advice:

Assume every character you write is a full human being just as you take yourself to be, with no more or less mystery than you feel for your own self.

Lastly, I want to add my thanks to Tony DiMeo for telling me about this article.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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12. Flogometer for Linzmarie—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.


Linzmarie sends the first chapter of Command the Ocean. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

The sun was blinding off the Patapsco River where Corey Esham Scarborough worked in the oyster beds. She tucked her shoulder-length coffee brown hair back into her cap. It was growing out from where she had cut it completely off to sell and now she felt it stuck out in weird places. With winter coming, she was glad it had now fallen past her shoulders.

“Girl!” the foreman called out. “Girl,” is what they always called her despite having stolen men’s clothing from a between buildings clothing line back in New York State during her first winter on the mainland.  Many more days out in the hot sun and they’d be calling her “woman” for all the wrinkles and spots the sun gave her. It’s what came from working in the wretched bays of the Chesapeake from lantern light to lantern light. “Girl, go in the Eleanor Nesbitt and help with the tonging.” Corey gave her bag over to another worker and left the shallow bed where she had been collecting oyster shells by hand. She hoped in the tonging boat without a hand up from anyone. The men treated her differently than they did ladies on the street but Corey was glad for it. She preferred it best when they left her alone to do her work.

The Eleanor Nesbitt was a log canoe rigged with handtongs for collecting the oysters. Corey would lower the basket into the water and rake it along the ground to pick up the oysters. Hand over hand, she’d pull up the heavy basket full of water and oysters until she could swing the basket aboard. It was unwieldy to do in the best of weather let alone a storm picking up as it (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Linzmarie's first page?

There’s some interesting stuff here, but the narrative isn’t, to me, ready for prime time yet. There’s a fair amount of backstory and exposition that slows the story. More than that, what’s happening here? A girl is working. There’s no jeopardy in sight, nor a notion of what the story is about. There’s a later mention of working in stormy weather, but it’s not stormy on the first page. I suggest you consider reading the chapter out loud. It may help you see where things become confusing and/or drags due to information being loaded in. Keep at it, though, it sounds like a gritty and tough world. A few notes:

The sun was blinding off the Patapsco River where Corey Esham Scarborough worked in the oyster beds. She tucked her shoulder-length coffee brown hair back into her cap. It was growing out from where she had cut it completely off to sell and now she felt it stuck out in weird places. With winter coming, she was glad it had now fallen past her shoulders. I wouldn’t clutter up the narrative with all of her names. Corey is fine. POV slip—she wouldn’t be thinking of her hair as “shoulder-length coffee brown”—she would just tuck her hair back in to her cap. Since the hair is now past her shoulders, the information dump about having cut it off isn’t helpful. Having sold it is interesting, but I’d find a later place to include that, if necessary.

“Girl!” the foreman called out. “Girl,” is what they always called her despite having stolen men’s clothing from a between buildings clothing line back in New York State during her first winter on the mainland. Many more days out in the hot sun and they’d be calling her “woman” for all the wrinkles and spots the sun gave her. It’s what came from working in the wretched bays of the Chesapeake from lantern light to lantern light. “Girl, go in the Eleanor Nesbitt and help with the tonging.” Corey gave her bag over to another worker and left the shallow bed where she had been collecting oyster shells by hand. She hoped hopped in the tonging boat without a hand up from anyone. The men treated her differently than they did ladies on the street but Corey was glad for it. She preferred it best when they left her alone to do her work. I don’t understand what having stolen men’s clothing some time ago has to do with her being called “girl.”

            The Eleanor Nesbitt was a log canoe rigged with handtongs for collecting the oysters. Corey would lower the basket into the water and rake it along the ground to pick up the oysters. Hand over hand, she’d pull up the heavy basket full of water and oysters until she could swing the basket aboard. It was unwieldy to do in the best of weather let alone a storm picking up as it (snip) Rather than tell us about the tongs, basket, etc., just show her using them, which is what she has just been told to do.

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 Linzmarie

 

Continued

was threatening to do. Working in the tonging boat during a storm was a surefire way to get seriously injured or even die. But Corey needed the money and tongers made more than she would in the shallow beds. Being a woman helped her keep her balance the boat but hindered her leverage to swing up the baskets. She worked with a partner using her skill set and their strength if they didn’t find working with a woman to be objectionable. There weren’t many of them willing to go out in a stormy weather. She knew most of the men who worked in oysters, including the foremen thought her expendable. If anything she made demonstration of their shortcomings and there were those who resented her for it.

It was fall now with autumn speckling the trees with an amber hue. There was a crispness in the air and a frigidness to the deeper parts of the water. She had worked the summer as she always had these past four years, in the cannery canning fruit. That type of work was all women, some of them wives of the men in the beds, others immigrants or just poor gals looking for an honest wage. Corey’s Elizabethan Outer Banks accent went largely unnoticed in the diaspora of Eastern Europeans who worked alongside her, most who could barely speak English.  It was only white women on Cove Street. The canneries of eastern Maryland, like all other places, were segregated. All the colored women worked down at Crisfield except for one Leocadia Jackson who worked as a man in secret alongside Corey in the oyster beds in the winter. Corey had caught her one day reliving herself and swore not to tell. A white woman is one thing, a Negro however light skinned another, but a Negro woman was held little higher than a dog in Baltimore.

Corey worked on the Eleanor Nesbitt until the boat was completely full. The storm had come up quick and even she felt nearly sick with the swaying back and forth. One man had been pitched overboard. With Corey’s quick thinking they had managed to find him in the heaving waves by her continuing to point at him until they could throw a rope out. No one else could spot him until they followed her finger.  They seemed to be the only boat still out there. Usually Leocadia would brave the storms to work as well.  

When they finally pulled the boat into the pier, cold and sodden from the rain, they noticed a crowd had gathered. On the wooden planks lay the blue-lipped figure of Leocadia Jackson stripped down to her knees, pert, dark nipples standing at attention Her leg was turn up underneath her in an unnatural way. They said her foot had gotten caught in the tonging rope and drug her overboard in the storm. She had come up under the boat and hit her head. She drowned before they could get her up again. Her large black eyes stared off into some foreign distance, pupils large and rounded, never to focus again.

Corey felt the vomit come up into her throat. A pair of cruel stuck a stick up Leocadia and sodomized her dead body until the foreman saw them and made them stop. He sent word to a Negro preacher to collect her. He came glancing down at the stick protruding from her. Without a word, he covered her, laid her in the back of a cart and took her over to the Negro cemetery to be buried. Corey wanted to call after him, tell him Leocadia’s real name but she stayed still and mute knowing it best not to draw attention to herself. She left when it was time, glad to have the harbor at her back as she walked in the rain toward home.

Corey stayed home the day after that and the next, the revulsion and sadness rising to her throat anytime she thought of leaving.  Finally, she dropped off her daughter with a woman downstairs she had met canning fruit during the summer and ventured down to the docks to find work. She arrived on Cove Street passing the gusting smell of steamed oysters emanating from one of the hundred oyster packing houses in the city and saw the foreman on the dock where Leocadia’s body had lay. Corey stepped gingerly onto the planks subtly skirting the exact area she had seen her friend sodomized.

“There’s no need for you, girl,” said the foreman.

“What do you mean?” Corey asked.

“It’s not good to have women mixing with the men keeps their mind of their work.”

“I’ve been working for them for a year. You know I can pick a bed faster than anyone you’ve got working.”

“That may be so but I’ve got no place for you girl.”

“But...I’ll do anything. I’ll work in the shallow beds, tong or go out in the skipjacks for dredging.”

“I’ll tell you we don’t need you now get on. I’m trying to protect you.  It’s for your own good,” the man shoved Corey away. She tried all the other boats and beds in Baltimore harbor, day after day but they would all have none of her. Begrudgingly she went down to one of the packinghouses and asked to put on the line steaming oyster and slicing them free of their shells. She worked for 16 hours and only received a fourth of what she would have made in the beds. She and her daughter would starve at this rate. “Put her in the workhouse,” they said, the women at the cannery, all of whom had children in the various mills around Baltimore. “Make her earn her keep.” Whitney was four and tiny fingers were useful. Corey wouldn’t hear of it.

That night she listened to her daughter breathe, imagining her with the cotton cough that came from unventilated workrooms and tried to think what was best to do. She needled her fingers together. There was a thought, she had, that kept swimming around inside of her for the past year and a half that now pounded frightfully inside her the more dire their situation became. “Go home to Anson.” She was still in love with her husband she had left almost four years ago.  It hurt to think about it. The regret and longing she felt was a pain that made her knees go.

Whitney was her husband’s child. Corey was pregnant when she left Ocracoke Island, a tiny dot of sand off the coast of North Carolina frequented by fishermen and sailors along with their families.  She had thought mistakenly that it was the stress of travel that made her bleeding stop until she went into labor one morning when working in the frigid water of New York harbor. She had been brought into the cannery and gave birth in the foreman’s kitchen. The foreman’s wife, a midwife, had suggested the name “Whitney” meaning white island. That would have been the time to turn back, go back home, that time away she could have explained. Some hatching frock bit of madness drove her to do it. But Corey hadn’t gone back. She had stayed and fought for their livelihood, whether it was pride or stupidity that kept her going.  Her and her tiny baby had survived together. It was the coldest winter Corey had ever experienced but they had made it through on Corey’s savings and what she earned their first year on the mainland.

Now the money she had brought with her from Ocracoke was long gone. All she had was what she made working every day. There was no safety net only a sharp free fall. A glass bottle slammed outside against a brick wall. Corey peeked out the window hiding behind the threadbare curtains that failed to keep the cold out of the single-paned iced glass. Nothing though she knew the broken amber light from the streetlamps might be concealing something.

All of a sudden their doorknob started furiously rattling. Corey raced across the small room and threw her weight against the fragile door. She realized, kicking herself, that the oyster shucking knife she had taken home from the cannery was under the pillow. The drunks who lived in her building would check her doorknob from time to time to see if this was the night the woman had forgotten the lock.

Eventually whoever it was gave up the fight and shuffled off.  There was another person that came up later, lighter steps, almost as if they walked on their toes. He seemed to hesitate at her door. Corey braced herself against the cool, wooden door but they moved on, the footfalls disappearing into the din. She fell asleep beside the door, wondering if the light of foot fellow would come back and woke in the early morning light. Rubbing her eyes with one hand, she set the other hand beside her. When she did she felt crumpled paper. A note had been slid under the door. “Girl,” it started in curvy, slated writing. “Girl, the oysters are running out in the Chesapeake.” Corey knew that much was true. It was the quiet truth that was rippling the tides from New York to Norfolk. The beds were overharvested. There was talk that distributors were taking oysters from further south and selling them in the north to unsuspecting meat markets as Chesapeake Oysters.

“They won’t let you back into the beds in Maryland,” the note continued. That was true as well. “Come with me to the south. Meet me at the Sailor’s Arms at 10 o’clock this morning.” Corey stared at the loopy handwriting. The Sailor’s Arms was on the edge of the river in an area only frequented mainly by river laborers. There would be some oystermen there, not many but some enough that two more oystermen would not be curious sights enough to raise suspicion. She tried to think whom she had heard mention the Sailor’s Arms in the tonguing boat but couldn’t come up with anyone.

Corey pushed herself up, walking across the cold, creaking, hard floor to the even harder bed where her daughter lay sleeping.  The mattress felt cold to the touch. She tucked the blanket in tighter around her daughter and curled up around her. Was life about living or simply enduring, she wondered as she looked at her daughter’s innocent features. She had prayed for some answer to her plight perhaps this could be it, this mysterious note. She knew she couldn’t keep them here like this. One or both of them would die if she tried.

It was 10 o’clock on the dot that Corey arrived at Sailors Arms her stolen hat pulled low over her face as she heard a church bell chiming in the distance. She hung out near the bar for the better part of an hour with no approach from anyone save a drunken handsy man. She had just gotten up to leave when she heard someone call out, “Girl,” in a quiet, scratchy voice. Corey turned. It was the Frenchman. She had worked with him only once on the tonging log canoe but he usually went out with the dredgers in the skipjack for the larger hauls.

It seemed odd he had been in her tenement building, left her the note. As she sat at his table and listened to what he said and what he didn’t say, Corey began to understand him further. When he said to go south for the oysters he meant the ones they were selling northward as Chesapeake ones. When he said that she could make more than she had made working in Baltimore, he meant that they would steal them.

She didn’t know if he knew what she was ashamed to admit. She had robbed oyster beds before. Not like he was talking about still enough to get her hung or at least a hand chopped off. Whitney had fallen sick and it was the only way she would be able to pay a doctor. She had gone out into the beds further north where no one knew her and collected oysters in the dead of night with naught but a thief’s lantern with the sides smudged out to guide her. It had been easy, too easy. The beds were regularly watched.  But the guard was easily swayed by perfume. And the hookers knew it and took advantage. One of the hookers had helped babysit Whitney when she was only a baby and would have done anything to help. But oysters were more plentiful then and the demand lower. Now there were less oysters and the industry had risen to four million dollars a year in the Chesapeake alone. That was money worth killing for.

Since it had been so easy, she had robbed the bed again. And again another time still when she had difficulty making rent. She had only stopped when the harbor police caught an oyster pirate and hung him in the city square for all to see. Wretches had scrambled over his corpse when they finally brought him down to get a piece of his noose from around his neck. A piece of rope from a hanging was supposed to ward against their own hanging, the knot of the noose being the luckiest part. Corey tied the frayed rope around her wrist and promised herself that day she would never rob another bed. It felt rough and scratchy around her skin as the Frenchman talk as though it was reminding her where it had come from.

 “North Carolina,” he said.

Corey looked up at the name of her home state.

“They’ve been trying to get a cannon to fight the oyster pirates but no one will give it to them on account of their bad credit from the war. But Virginia’s going to agree to give them one.”

“How do you know?” Corey asked.

“Those oysters are claimed for Chesapeake now. They don’t want them going elsewhere. They won’t let you back into the beds with what happened to that Negro woman. They don’t want to work with women. You don’t make enough in the cannery having no husband. No one makes enough to live there. They just keep you going until you can’t take it anymore. Your child will end up in the workhouse. And what for her then, her little fingers cut off from the cotton machine or worse her apron or dress gets caught and then she’s pulled inside and chopped to bits. No one cares about poor children dying save their parents.”

“Did you know I was from North Carolina?”

“I might have asked Leocadia before she died. She was going to be my first choice, now that she’s gone; I thought you’d welcome someone paying for you to get home.” He subtly slid money enough for two train fares across the table.

“I haven’t agreed to do anything,” Corey said.

“Keep the money then. It’s likely the most money you’ll ever have again in your life.”

He left her there at the table.  Corey slid the money into her lap and subtly tucked it into her pocket, her eyes on the other patrons and who might have seen their transaction. It was no used getting robbed before she knew what she was going to do with the money. After finishing her drink, careful to slurp it down like a man.  She walked home to the sound of bells ringing again in the background.  This time they seemed to signal something else. This time they seemed to signal goodbye to the Chesapeake Bay. Is life about living or just enduring, she asked herself again.

Her feet turned against her own accord and she found herself at the train station. Before she could think about it further she bought two train tickets for Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Stepping away from the ticket desk she undid the frayed rope on her wrist and let it fall to the cobblestones. There was no trinket one could buy or steal to ward against death by cannon.

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13. Flogometer for Jacob—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.


Jacob sends the first chapter of The Freerunners. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

Noah’s luck had finally run out. Normally, his charm, good looks and quick wit was enough to get him out of trouble. He definitely had an undeniable way with people, a sly con man making a living through the efforts of those around him. Which made it all the more interesting when he had the ‘accident’ with Willy Butler. Of course, no one else saw it as an accident. It certainly wasn’t easy for Noah to explain either, considering how difficult it is to grind a skateboard backwards along a 10-meter handrail.

And he never had any intention of tumbling off the end into a very upset Miss Castello. Whilst this in itself might not have been so bad, it unfortunately led to Miss Castello spilling her microwaved tomato soup all over the person she happened to be talking with. That, of course, is where our good lad Willy comes in. You know, your typical schoolyard big fella, 6 foot 6, dad owns the local gym kinda guy. Not someone you wanna mess with. Willy looked across at the culprit, his shirt stained like a bloody wound had sprouted from his chest, a dark gleam in his eye. Nope. Definitely not someone you wanna mess with.

“Come ‘ere, ya bloomin’ tosser,” Willy’s coarse vocabulary rumbled across the dead quiet courtyard. He made a desperate lunge for Noah, but he wasn’t quick enough to dodge the boot that collided with his front teeth. And that is where Cody Blackwood is introduced, Noah’s brother and best friend. Often mixed up with his bloodline, he too shared his brother’s blonde (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Jacob's first page?

Well, it seems that conflict is on the way, but there were craft issues that stopped me. There’s some sort of omniscient narrator who steps in to introduce characters, and there were clarity issues as well—see the notes for the boot and the teeth part. The narrator seems to go away in the rest of the chapter. I think whatever it is you are trying for with this narrator isn’t working as well as you’d like it to. I suggest you just deal with what’s happening. Notes:

Noah’s luck had finally run out. Normally, his charm, good looks and quick wit was were enough to get him out of trouble. He definitely had an undeniable way with people, a sly con man making a living through the efforts of those around him. Which made it all the more interesting when he had the ‘accident’ with Willy Butler. Of course, no one else saw it as an accident. It certainly wasn’t easy for Noah to explain either, considering how difficult it is to grind a skateboard backwards along a 10-meter handrail. I wouldn’t say “con man” as it leads to thinking of the character as a man, not a boy. Con artist would work. The logic of the last couple of sentences eludes me. If it is difficult to grind the skateboard, then it would be difficult to control, which would make what follows more likely to be an accident than not.

And he never had any intention of tumbling off the end into a very upset Miss Castello. Whilst this in itself might not have been so bad, it unfortunately led to Miss Castello spilling her microwaved tomato soup all over the person she happened to be talking with. That, of course, is where our good lad Willy comes in. You know, your typical schoolyard big fella, 6 foot 6, dad owns the local gym kinda guy. Not someone you wanna mess with. Willy looked across at the culprit, his shirt stained like a bloody wound had sprouted from his chest, a dark gleam in his eye. Nope. Definitely not someone you wanna mess with. I’m a little confused about who or what or where the narrator is. It seems to be an omniscient someone who knows what’s going on and would decide to say”that is where. . . our good lad Willy comes in.” This is not Noah or, as nearly as I can tell, anyone present at the scene.

“Come ‘ere, ya bloomin’ tosser,” Willy’s coarse vocabulary rumbled across the dead quiet courtyard. He made a desperate lunge for Noah, but he wasn’t quick enough to dodge the boot that collided with his front teeth. And that is where Cody Blackwood is introduced, Noah’s brother and best friend. Often mixed up with his bloodline, he too shared his brother’s blonde (snip) Some confusion here about the front teeth—the pronoun in “but he wasn’t quick enough” could refer to Noah, the last person named, or perhaps Will. Unclear. Even more unclear is where a boot colliding with teeth comes from. It’s that narrator again, who goes on to say “where Cody Blackwood is introduced.” Why not just show the action? I can’t see a reason to tell us that Cody is being introduced. And to whom? I guess the reader, since it seems clear from later narrative that Will would know the brother of Noah. This technique took this reader out of the story. Lastly, what does "often mixed up with his bloodline" mean in reference to a brother? Clarity issues.

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 Jacob

Continued

hair and tanned skin. Unfortunately, aside from an impressive talent for troublemaking, that’s about as far as the similarities went for Cody and Noah. Confident and daring, he was one of the coolest guys around, having an easygoing nature with a daredevil’s spirit. A natural athlete, Cody spent more time running from police then on any track race at school. That’s the way things went in Groveville. Known as the Slums by locals to the area, Groveville used to be the pinnacle of civilization, before the war that ruined a once glorious city. Now it was just a breeding place for thugs like the Butlers.

“Come get some you muppet!” Cody and Noah had to think fast. Looking across the schoolyard, students were already making way, looking forward to the chase that was sure to ensue. Stuff like this went down in school legend, and no one wanted to miss out. After knowingly looking at each other, the two brothers tore off to cheers from the crowd, Willy in wild pursuit. A teacher tried to stop the chase, but the wave of students had already swallowed them up.

“Hey Mum,” there was Cody on the phone. “Yeah, nothing too major but you might wanna come down as soon as you can.” Cody hung up the phone and looked across at Noah. “She’s gonna be here ASAP,” he panted between breaths. ‘You are done mate!” they heard the catcalls from their fellow students. Noah glanced back; Andre’s was already hounding him down, his face contorted with pure rage. “I’m not sure ASAP is gonna be soon enough.”

Hurdling like madmen, Cody and Noah dashed across the school towards the carpark. This was not the first time they had been chased before, and so they leapt over ledges and across staircases with relative ease. Willy, however, was not nearly as smooth as Noah or Cody at traversing the busy school, resorting to a battering ram style method in order to keep pace with the two brothers. He gnashed his teeth like a lion in anticipation of an upcoming kill, hunting its prey with merciless abandon.

As they sped through the corridors, Noah realised they were soon running out of options. He knew this hallway was a dead end, and Willy seemed to know it to, increasing his pace to a level quite unexpected for a person of his height. The panic started to set in for Noah. He’d never been in so much trouble, not too mention the beating he’d have to endure from Willy and his cronies. Cody would always have his back, but even he wouldn’t be able to protect his brother from Willy’s gang. No one else would lift a finger of course, not even teachers. That’s the way things went in Groveville. Noah looked across at his brother, expecting to see a similar frown of concern. “It’s over mate,” Noah said, slowing down as he came to terms with the situation. It surprised him then, to see a crafty smile sprout from his face. Cody looked back at his brother, his smile ever increasing. And amidst all the chaos, the shouting and the abuse, he whispered “Look up.”

Noah’s jaw dropped. Any one could have been standing inside that window. A friendly teacher, a fireman, perhaps even a cop. Yet no other then his very own mother, Saline, stood above him, a rope snaked around her arms. He blinked a few times, trying to come to terms with this new reality. He should have expected it really, considering Cody had called her earlier. He just couldn’t believe that she had actually come through for them. Her dark hair was still up in a bun, her hands dirty from hours slaving away on the farm. It was unfortunate it had to be like that since Noah and Cody’s father had died in the war, and they had tried to convince her many times that school was not important and that they would quit to help her manage the land. She would have none of it, however, telling them they would be the first Blackwoods to get an education. “You wanna spend your life toiling away in the soil,” she often said to them, her hardened yet delicate hands caressing their heads. She looked worried as she gazed down from her vantage point, before throwing the rope out of window. At first Noah was a bit confused, but Cody took the hint and launched himself upwards, climbing it with extreme speed and precision. Noah turned around. Willy was only 20 metres away, parting students left right and centre. “Come on!” the shout came down from Cody, peering over the window, its open doors swaying to the tune of the breeze.

Not wasting any time, Noah hauled himself up the rope, which was made twice as hard due to his grazed hands from his earlier stack. He didn’t want to look weak however; there were still tonnes of people watching on, so he drove on through the pain, gritting his teeth as he pushed his muscles harder. With a final lunge for safety, he just managed to grab the windowsill, using the rope to balance himself whilst Saline’s strong arms wrapped around him. He could have stayed in her embrace forever, memories of his childhood flooding over him as he remembered back before the war, and all the rubbish that came with it, when his mother used to hold him like that. It didn’t last though, as he was heaved back to his senses when a foreign hand gripped ruthlessly around his foot. He stumbled, losing grip of the windowsill as Willy managed to get another hand bound around his ankles. Now only Saline’s dwindling reserves of strength kept him alive. A drop from there could be fatal, with roughly 6 metres separating him from the embrace of the merciless concrete floor. Noah looked up at his mother, her eyes swelling with tears. He wished he could say something to comfort her, as she had done so many times. Nothing came out though. All he could do was smile as he let go of her loving arms…

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14. “Great resource for writing compelling stories”

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

5 stars A Must Read

"Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling" is the only writing book -- and I own quite a few -- that I've highlighted. Concepts that I've struggled to understand make more sense, and my writing strengths are further improved. The section on "weak, wasted, and wrong words" is one of the many sections to reread when writing/rewriting a novel, short story, or any prose.

"This is now my go-to book when I'm writing or rewriting a story.

"Story/plot has always been something I struggled with, as far as understanding how to construct a good one. This book has been a big "aha" for me and was, within the first handful of pages, improving my storytelling.

"Definitely a must read for writers of all experience levels."

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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15. Book review: Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents

Herman bookJeff Herman, a long-time literary agent, has published his guide to the publishing industry for more than 20 years. I’ve used it a number of times to research publishers, agents, and editors. It could be quite useful for you to save time, target your efforts, and avoid missteps.

He opens the book with articles with information on the publishing industry and its processes. There are good insider insights that could help you in your quest. In this 2015 edition I found an idea I like: can’t get an agent? Then become one yourself. If you do this, then the sections on book publishers and their editors become your guide to pitching.

If you’re looking for a literary agent, he asks them a number of questions that can help guide and focus your queries (he also discusses how to write query letters and book proposals). There’s personal information that could help you connect with an agent (not all agents answer all questions, but their answers are helpful nonetheless). The questions he asks include:

  • Describe what you like to represent and what you won’t represent
  • What are the best ways for writers to pitch you?
  • When and where were you born?
  • Do you charge fees?
  • Describe your education and career history
  • Why and how did you become an agent?
  • Would you do it over again, or something else?
  • List some representative titles you have placed
  • Describe yourself as a person
  • Do you miss the way the business “used to be”?
  • How would you describe the proverbial “client from hell,” and what are the warning signs?
  • Describe your job and what you like and don’t like about it

If you’re working on getting your book traditionally published, I think Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents could well give you an edge in opening that door. Highly recommended.

For what it’s worth,

Ray

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16. Flogometer for Christopher—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.


Christopher sends a revision of the first chapter of an untitled YA fantasy. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

The front door crashed open, waking me up way before it was time to get ready for my morning lessons.

“Bring him in,” my mother yelled from outside.

Footfalls rushed into the house and from the handful of hurried voices, I only recognized two: my mother’s and Daylan’s. My parents had been above ground defending two supply shipments from Tormelin. The villages waiting for these supplies had already lost their first wagons of goods to thieves. A group calling themselves the Underground claimed responsibility for the thefts and my parents had gone personally to make sure the supplies safely reached their destinations.

I sat up, listening for my father’s voice, but I couldn’t hear him amongst the others. Since my father didn’t send his generals to defend the shipments, I knew the Underground was a bigger threat than they were telling me.

I still couldn’t hear him. Something was wrong. Footsteps raced past my door toward my parents’ bedchamber. Guessing he’d been attacked, I jumped out of bed. My clothes from yesterday were still on the floor. I threw them on and ran out.

My mother wrenched her chamber doors open and two people I’d never seen carried my father into the room. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving.

Were you compelled to turn Christopher's first page?

This opening cooks up good story questions with a good voice. I’m going to turn the page, but first a few notes—I think the narrative could be a little crisper. We do, however, get a good deal of information woven in with what’s happening in an economical way. Caution, Christopher—there are typos and errors in the chapter such as “firs” instead of “furs” and “you’re” instead of “your” that should not have been sent out.

The front door crashed open, waking me up way before it was time to get ready for my morning lessons.

“Bring him in,” my mother yelled from outside.

Footfalls rushed into the house and, from the handful of the hurried voices, I only recognized two: my mother’s and Daylan’s. My parents had been above ground defending two supply shipments from Tormelin. The villages waiting for these supplies them had already lost their first wagons of goods to thieves. A group calling themselves the Underground claimed responsibility for the thefts and my parents had gone personally to make sure the supplies safely reached their destinations.

I sat up, listening listened for my father’s voice, but I couldn’t hear him amongst the others. Since he my father didn’t send hadn’t sent his generals to defend the shipments, I knew the Underground was a bigger threat than they were telling me.

I still couldn’t hear him. Something was wrong. Footsteps raced past my door toward my parents’ bedchamber. Guessing he’d been attacked, I jumped out of bed. My clothes from yesterday were still on the floor--I threw them on and ran out. You’re doing a little “telling” here (something was wrong). You don’t have to include speculation and getting out of bed, just stay with the action and show the reader that something is wrong—he clearly thinks that or he wouldn’t dress and run out the door.

My mother wrenched her chamber doors open and two people I’d never seen carried my father into the room. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. Good strong hook. Trimming the above will allow more of the action on the first page.

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 Christopher

Continued

“What’s wrong?” I said racing toward my mother. I scanned my father for wounds, blood on his clothes—any clue that would tell what happened—but I couldn’t find anything. My mother held her hand out in front of me and I stopped.

“Sarella,” she said behind her back to the two carrying my father, “please, lay him on the bed. Daylan,” she called toward the front door, “bring all of the healers in Al’Shar. I don’t care about their reputations, just get them here now!”

So my father was still alive. If she wanted the healers, he was probably poisoned, and if she wanted them all, it must have been bad. I wanted to push past her, but watched and waited.

Daylan bowed and disappeared.

My mother walked into the bedroom and I followed while the two rushed my father into the bed. The woman was tall and muscular like my mother, except she had dark skin like my father and me; her hair was twisted into long, coarse braids. The man had a dark olive complexion, he wasn’t as tall, and had a shaved head. I ran over to pull the firs away. When they laid him on the bed, I covered him.

Once my father was under the furs, I could see him breathe. He started moaning and my mother led us out of the room and closed the door.

“Sarella and Trian, we’re forever in your debt,” she said, hugging them both before taking my hand. “I meant what I said about living in Al’Shar. If you wish, you’re family is welcome.”

The two looked at each other, nodding in unison. “We’re sorry about your husband,” Sarella said, “and we don’t mean to be so happy at a time like this, but we gratefully accept your offer. We only have one daughter,” she looked at me and smiled, “the same age as your son. Thank you.”

The two bowed before my mother and me. I watched quietly, wanting them to leave so my mother could explain what happened.

“I’ll have our Blood-Guard escort you home to collect your daughter. Don’t bring anything that isn’t personal; everything you could possibly want is provided in Al’Shar. By the time you return your home will be ready.”

“Galtoria, thank you,” Sarella said, kissing her on the cheek.

“Thank you,” Trian repeated, shaking my mother’s hand and then mine. 

“Your daughter will have the same lessons as my son,” my mother said, squeezing my shoulder. She’ll train alongside him and the children of the oldest, most powerful families in the Kraelmar kingdom. You saved your king and are one of us now. Welcome.” My mother gave them a slight bow, “I would speak to my son alone, and then I’ll send for the guard to take you above ground.”

The two bowed once more and left.

“Fenon,” my mother said wrapping her arm around my shoulder, “come with me.”

We returned to my parents’ bedchamber, a room much larger than anything they’d ever needed—to the left was their bed, large enough to sleep four, was surrounded by tall, wooden posts, and loosely wrapped around those posts was a large draping of white, crystal-silk, the softest fabric in our kingdom. It’s glittering weave hung loosely and at the ends, tassels of sparkling gems glittered on the floor. The rest of the room was sparsely filled for its size: wooden dressers, one for each of them, and a few sitting chairs and sofas never used in my time. Sweat beaded on my father’s head and my mother hurried to the doorway at the back of the chamber, leading to a washroom. I grabbed two the chairs and hurried them over to my father’s bedside while my mother came out with a bowl of cool water and a rag. We sat. She rested the bowl on the bed next to him and placed her hand on his forehead.

“He’s burning up,” she said.

“What happened?”

Holding the side of his face with one hand, she squeezed the rag and laid it across his brow. “After getting the wagons safely to Grem and Fedrin,” she said, “your father and I met up with our warriors in Holdingar to reassign them before returning to Al’Shar. On our way home, with only a few guards, we were attacked. Your father and I had to split up because strategically, we’re not to be in the same place during a battle. Your father raced after a group of the Underground deep into the forest and when he caught up with them, but there were more waiting. It was a trap,” My mother gently wiped his sweat away before dipping the rag back into the water. She smiled briefly. “You know your father. They didn’t stand a chance against him.”

I did know my father. When he was a few years older than me he took the Rite of Ghem’Rel, a rite everyone in my bloodline takes at the age of thirteen to determine what special trait they’d inherited. When my father passed the rite, he discovered he had hearing more sensitive than any human in these lands. My father sword trains by fighting a small army of our best warriors all at once. He uses his Rite-ability to hear every sword swing, footstep, and breath of a warrior that comes near. He always knew what was going on around him whether he could see it or not. A handful of thieves wouldn’t stand a chance against him. “If they didn’t attack him, how did he get sick?” I asked.

“It was the blight that poisoned your father,” she said. “Until now we thought it only diseased plants, but we were wrong about a lot of things. This blight hasn’t died off on its own as Nordan and The Council predicted. In fact it has spread well beyond the cursed wood of the Velryn and is now sickening the forests outside of Holdingar. During his fight with the Underground, your father touched the blight and succumbed to its poison. Sarella said that although he writhed in terrible pain, he stayed conscious long enough to hold off his attackers until she and Trian found him. Because of your father’s bravery,” she clasped her hand with my father’s, raising it and resting the back of his hand against her cheek, “we were able to capture a few members of the Underground, but your father’s sickness,” she sighed heavily, setting his hand on top of the furs, “was the sacrifice he paid.”

The blight was described to me as a shiny, tar-like ooze that seeped out from the Velryn Forest—a cursed place where evil creatures roamed the twisted branches and spidery brush, where those who walked in never came out—no one dared to go near that forest. Until my father, I hadn’t heard of anyone touching the blight or anything that came from the Velryn. “There’s no cure is there?” I asked my mother. 

She shook her head as my father mumbled incoherently, stirring in a poisoned dream. She dipped the rag in the water and blotted the sweat off of his arms. “If I’d had known this was a blight to humans as well, I’d have taken the army and burned the Velryn Forest to the ground myself, Nordan and his Council be damned.”

Although I knew my mother didn’t like Nordan and The Council, I’d never heard her speak out against them like that before. I was in the Hall of Thrones with my parents the day Nordan came to warn us about the blight. It was the first time I’d met him: a short, older man with piercing green eyes and frosted blond hair that looked as if it could turn white at any moment. He told us that nothing like this had ever survived outside of the Velryn before. At that time it hadn’t spread to our outermost farmlands. I remember my mother telling him to burn any diseased plants and the Velryn along with it. She wanted to act swift before the blight had a chance to root itself into our lands. Nordan politely dismissed my mother’s suggestion, telling us The Council believed that the blight would die out on its own.  When he spoke however, he only looked at my father and me. He wasn’t outright rude to my mother, but his ignoring her made me uncomfortable. When he’d look at me, I would turn my head to watch her, hoping he would notice and address her as well. He didn’t. I was curious what had happened between the two of them, but finding a way to heal my father was more important at the moment.

“So what are we going to do now? Is he going to die?” I said.

“Just because The Council says there’s no cure doesn’t mean there isn’t one,” my mother said, trying to reassure me. “We just have to find it.”

I didn’t have much hope though. It was The Council’s responsibility to make sure we had enough food and other supplies in our lands, and that included medicines—everything. If they didn’t have a cure for our king, who would?

 “I won’t leave your father’s side until every healer in Al’Shar has had their chance to cure him. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go above ground and find it myself. Fenon, look at me,” for the first time she moved away from my father and grabbed my hands, hers were still hot from attending to my father. “I will find his cure.”

I watched my father’s chest rise and fall as he struggled to breathe, a hypnotic movement somewhere between survival and nightmares. I was with him right before he and my mother went above ground. We were in the Emril Caverns. It was just the two of us and we were sparring in the pool beneath the only waterfall in Al’Shar. Waist deep in water, we drew our swords and fought while he told me the great legends of humans fighting for their freedom against Wood Witches. His eyes were so deep and excited; he always smiled when he told those stories. Of course neither one of us believed them, but they made what could have been tedious sparring lessons, fun. The times I’d spent in those caverns with him were the best of my life.

My father erupted into a fit of sleeping cough, waking me out of my daydream. Now, all I could see of my father’s eyes were white slits beneath trembling lids. What if he never woke up? What if this was the way I’d remember him from now on? Sniffing, I looked away, wiping my nose on my shoulder.  

I caught my mother watching me and I tried to toughen up, but my eyes burned red from the tears that gave me away.

She set the rag down and reached for my hand. “It’s not time to worry yet,” she said, “We don’t know enough about the blight or its poison. Your father could wake up and be fine tomorrow.”

I nodded, afraid that if I said anything I’d cry. I knew she was trying to keep me hopeful, but she was wrong.There was a lot to worry about. For example, why did the Underground go after my father? What did they want if they left the supplies alone? And the biggest question on my mind: why hadn’t she already told me what they wanted. There was one thing about my mother I could always depend on: like all Kraelmar warriors, she respected acts of strength and bravery. If I could show her that I was strong, that I could handle my father lying there with the possibility of never waking up, she would tell me what she knew. “If my father dies,” I said, forcing myself not to choke on the words, “then I’ll be the last of my line. I need to know what’s going on with the Underground. Why did they attack him instead of stealing the supplies?”

My mother’s face turned grey and ashen. She looked away and I knew there was something she didn’t want me to know.

“Fenon, our ability to divert food and supplies across our lands is what keeps the peace and it’s what makes us so powerful. If a blizzard destroyed the food supplies in the northern lands, we could easily send them grain and livestock from the South. Until now, we’ve been able to keep everyone in our kingdom fed and satiated because of our supply system. Of course not everyone is happy with it, but there’s no such thing as a perfect system.”

My father started moaning and struggling again; he was sweating so much my mother took the firs off. I got up and grabbed a lightly woven sheet from a wooden shelf. I helped her drape it over him. His sweat soaked it almost instantly and I had to replace it with another. He quieted and my mother grabbed a fresh rag and bowl of water. We both sat down. This time she placed the soaked rag over his lips, hoping he would drink. His mouth remained closed.

I watched my father twisting and turning beneath the sheet as if he were fighting for his life. That’s when I began to understand the complexity and danger of this disease. “If this blight spreads throughout the lands,” I said watching him with focused eyes, “we’ll lose our ability to divert food. Everyone will starve, or end up like...” I couldn’t finish saying the words.

She set the bowl on the bed, and turned, moving closer toward me. “When your father and I first heard about the Underground, we thought they were nothing more than a common group of unorganized thieves. But they’re not. They’re using the blight to create fear throughout the kingdom and are using that fear to recruit our people to their cause.”

She paused for a moment, turning to attend to my father again, but he seemed to be cooling off, calming down. “When we fought against the Underground,” she continued, “I saw some of their weapons. They weren’t just fashioned bows and arrows, or spears made from sharpened rocks and metal. Some of them had Kraelmar swords. They knew when we’d be in Holdingar and they knew that if they attacked the supplies of important cities, cities where families of the Council lived, your father would come to protect those cities personally.Fenon,” she said, grabbing my hands and staring right into my eyes. In that brief moment I forgot my father was in the room. “The Underground wasn’t after the supplies. They wanted to draw your father out of Al’Shar so they could kill him. I’m certain they have spies in Tormelin and maybe even Trel’Nor. They’re not a bunch of disgruntled people using the blight to try and get more supplies. They’re well organized, have Kraelmar warriors joined to their cause, and live in small factions in the forests and even high in the Storgekull Mountains. They’re after the Royal Line and they’re trying to destroy the kingdom. What we don’t know is why.”

I stared at her, my mouth agape. If they were after my line, not only were they trying to kill my father, they wanted me dead too. I felt my chest turn to ice as if my heart had been covered by cold steel. I looked at my father; was this the Underground’s first attempt? Did he really successfully fight them off or was it their intention to poison him with the blight all along? They almost succeeded by the look of him: eyes closed, barely breathing now except for his once in a while gasps.

My mother must have seen the worry on my face. “Right now both you and your father are safe. If the Underground had spies in Al’Shar, they wouldn’t have tried drawing your father to Holdingar, they would have gone after him here. Daylan and the Blood-Guard are from families sworn to die for the Royal Line—It’s a bond more sacred than loyalty. They are trained to protect you wherever you go, and they know about the Underground. You and your father are safer in Al’Shar than the Council members are in Trel’Nor.”        

I could tell my mother thought she was reassuring me, but with the Blood-Guard shadowing me all the time, how was I supposed to know who was guarding me and who was trying to kill me? There were more things spinning through my mind than I could handle: My father dying and if he did, what would that mean? Not only would I grow up without him, I’d be expected to become him at the age of thirteen. Would I have to take the Rite of Ghem’Rel? It was the responsibility of the Royal Line to administer the Rite. If my father died, I’d have no one to test me. Would that mean I was no longer the next leader? What if I never figured out what my Rite-Ability was? Some of my ancestors knew their ability before they even took the Rite, so the test didn’t matter for them, but I was already ten years old and I had no clue what I was good at.

And what would happen if I did pass and become the next king? I would be expected to lead a starving and blight-sickened kingdom where an Underground force was trying to kill me just like they tried to, and maybe succeeded, in killing my father? All of a sudden the room felt like it was getting smaller. The ceiling was slowly moving down, the walls were closing in on me. I started breathing faster and faster but couldn’t get enough air. The room was stale and moist, full of sick. “I have to go,” I told my mother. “I’ll be in the Emril.” I jumped up, unable to look at either of them. Right now I couldn’t be in this house of sickness.

Without protest from my mother, I ran out and didn’t stop until I heard the echoing crash of water from the falls in the Emril caverns. I sat at the bank, threw my shoes off and stuck my feet in the cool water. Elbows resting on my thighs and hands cupping my chin, I watched the endless ripples as they tumbled into my shins on their way toward the bank.

I lied back, my feet still in the water. How was I supposed to think about life without my father? What kind of life would that be for me? I stared up at the stalactite ceiling, with a slit of blue light in the center, my only porthole to the outside world. I tried to numb my racing mind by listening to the falls and watching as the small piece of sky turned gold, to purple, and finally black. I tried imagining what it would be like, actually laying on a field of green grass and seeing nothing above me but the sky. Although I couldn’t go above ground, we studied it in our lessons. The sky seemed a lot like a vast ocean, spanning into an endless beyond—nothing but blue, and when the sun went down, both sky and water turned black. The thought of something so open, so reflective, was scary, like I’d fall into it and lose myself, drowning into a vast nothing. It wasn’t until I saw a single star shine through the mouth above that I finally stood up and walked home.

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17. Flogometer for Anikó—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.


Anikó sends a revision of the first chapter of The Water Still Rules . The first version is here. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

Sweaty hands catch my wrist, and I curse myself for taking the easy way and coming to the market. The crowd is ideal for getting lost in after bumping into my victims, and vanishing with whatever their pockets hold, but the merchants - like the one holding on to me - do tend to get nosy. A man passes me by, carrying an ugly-faced barracuda bigger than my upper body thrown over his shoulder and waves at the merchant holding on to me. I flinch as the smell of the fish reaches my nostrils.

A raspy voice calls from behind, “What’s the hurry, girl?”

I sigh, one last look at the forest that I was going to vanish into, and pull the hood of my cape lower into my face to turn back towards the merchant. I can barely see for a second with the sun right behind him, but I narrow my eyes, so I can make out his perfectly pale face. He smiles, revealing his yellow teeth, and I tug on my hand one last time in vain. His meaty fingers hold me tight. My eyes fall on the girl standing behind him with chains on her neck and wrists. Her copper skin stained with sweat and dirt is identical to mine. One look at her reminds me why I have to hide day after day, and I pull my cape with my free hand even tighter.

I painted my face and hands white, but my craft leaves something to be desired, and with the sun burning through my dark cape, I must have sweated most of it off. I don’t want to (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Anikó's first page?

Once again I like the writing and voice here. For me, this opening page is considerably stronger than Anikó’s first version. While there is enough of a hint of trouble to come for me to turn the page, it was a close call—for me, there was too much time spent on ambiance and not enough on things happening to the character. To that end, following the notes that follow is an alternate opening crafted from the initial narrative with some editorial work. See what you think—there’s another poll, and your comments are welcome.

One note of advice to Anikó: after reading through the chapter, I think you should take a look at my post on filters; you have a habit of using them, and they slow your narrative and distance the reader. That post is here, and it’s based on a chapter from Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

Sweaty hands catch my wrist, and I curse myself for taking the easy way and coming to the market. The crowd is ideal for getting lost in after bumping into my victims, and vanishing with whatever their pockets hold, but the merchants - like the one holding on to me - do tend to get nosy. A man passes me by, carrying an ugly-faced barracuda bigger than my upper body thrown over his shoulder and waves at the merchant holding on to me. I flinch as the smell of the fish reaches my nostrils. The fish etc. just isn’t needed and has no impact on the story.

A raspy voice calls from behind, “What’s the hurry, girl?”

I sigh, one last look at the forest that I was going to vanish into, and pull the hood of my cape lower into my face to turn back towards to the merchant. I can barely see for a second with the sun right behind him, but I narrow my eyes, so I can make out his perfectly pale face. He smiles, revealing his yellow teeth in a perfectly pale face, and I tug on my hand one last time in vain. His meaty fingers hold me tight. My eyes fall on the girl standing A girl stands behind him with chains on her neck and wrists. Her copper skin, stained with sweat and dirt, is identical to mine. One look at her reminds me why I have to hide day after day, and I pull the hood of my cape tighter with my free hand even tighter. The use of “my eyes” in this way is what I call a “body part” filter that not only has a body part getting in the way of showing the character’s experience.

I had painted my face and hands white, but, my craft leaves something to be desired, and with the sun burning through my dark cape, I must have sweated most of it off. I don’t want to (snip)

Here’s an alternative, followed by a new poll:

Sweaty hands catch my wrist, and I curse myself for taking the easy way and coming to the market. The crowd is ideal for getting lost in after bumping into my victims and vanishing with whatever their pockets hold, but the merchants do tend to get nosy.

A raspy voice calls from behind, “What’s the hurry, girl?”

I sigh, one last look at the forest that I was going to vanish into, and turn to the merchant. He smiles, revealing yellow teeth in a perfectly pale face. His meaty fingers hold me tight. A girl stands behind him with chains on her neck and wrists. Her copper skin, stained with sweat and dirt, is identical to mine. One look at her reminds me why I have to hide day after day, and I pull the hood of my cape tighter with my free hand. I had painted my face and hands white but, with the sun burning through my dark cape, I must have sweated most of it off.

 “Please let me go, sir,” I plead in a small voice. I don’t have much experience in sounding like a desperate little girl, but I hope he’ll buy my act. “My mother is sick, she needs her medicine.” I show the small bag in my right hand containing the harvest of today’s pickpocket spree, and hope for his sake that he doesn’t insist on opening it. He narrows his eyes at me, and I put the bag back into my pocket to have a hand free to slide over the small knife strapped onto my thigh.

Were you more likely to turn the page with this as the opening?

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 Anikó

Continued

cause a scene with so many people around, but if he tugs on my cape a little longer, I’ll have no other choice.

“Please let me go, sir,” I plead in a small voice. I don’t have much experience in sounding like a desperate little girl, but I hope he’ll buy my act. “My mother is sick, she needs her medicine.” I show up the small bag in my right hand containing the harvest of today’s pickpocket spree, and hope for his sake that he doesn’t insist on opening it. He narrows his eyes at me, and I put the bag back into my pocket to have a free hand to slide over the small knife strapped onto my thigh.

My fingers clench around the tilt of it, and I feel the vein throbbing in my neck, but just before I could act, the merchant lets go of my arm, and a stone rolls off my shoulder. “Just a half-wit,” he mumbles to the slave girl, and my palm awfully itches after my knife again. I force a smile though, and turn back towards the forest.

The temperature drops, and I sigh in relief as I reach the trees, casting a shadow over my heated body. I feel the merchant’s eyes following me when the ground slips from under my feet. My cape twists around my body, trapping me inside, and my fingers curve, scratching the earth under me.

Coldness rushes inside me despite the heat, and the scent of spices and fish is replaced by the smell of iron and wine. I slip into my vision, losing contact with the market, and the sound of the market’s bustle 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. He’s looking down, his dirty blond hair falling into his face. Judging by the sturdy, bronze breastplate and the long, shiny sword by his side, he is a soldier. And not just a common one, but someone of high rank.

“We need to find them. It’s an embarrassment to all Marasans that they managed to escape as long as they have.” he says, and his voice becomes clearer with each word. My heart rate picks up as he points his fingers at a huge map folded across the table right at the area where our hut is located. His neatly kept beard has streaks of white in it, and his eyes are so cold, he could freeze me with his glance. “We need to search the forest again. They’re hiding there, I can feel it.”

“Your…assumptions have cost me more so far than keeping my slaves fed for a month,” a younger voice says. He seems a bit older than I am, but he must not have seen twenty floods yet. One leg dropped over the other, he looks comfortable in his massive, wooden chair. His brown dress is decorated with fine needlework. Something I could never pay for unless I rob the whole market. His strong jaw, covered in a neatly kept short beard, moves as he’s chewing something, and with his dark hair combed back and those ruby green eyes, he reminds me of a prince. Royalty is a thing of the past, though, and since this man is pale, free and young, he probably only heard tales of the Verasian era. Not like I’ve been alive back then, unfortunately. I was still in my mother’s belly when our whole world has been turned upside down, and the Marasans took over. No Verasian escaped free, except for my family. Part of it, anyway.

“I hope you don’t expect me to pay for this trip just based on your feelings.” The younger man leans on the table, reaches into a bowl and pops a grape in his mouth.

Impatience flickers in Gaillar’s eyes, but his voice is steady. “Yes, Saro.” He taps his fingers on the map. “But I know they’re here. There are just too many rumors. And where else could they be hiding a tree huge like that if not in a forest?”

I snort, not even trying to hold it back, knowing that they can’t see or hear me. If only it was true that my Soultree is so huge I needed a whole forest to cover it.

Saro knocks his cup twice on the table and waits as a young girl pours wine it. “Rumors…” He snorts, and gulps into his cup. Lifting his eyes back on Gaillar again, he smiles. “Fine. Have it your way. But if you come back to me empty handed again, I’ll make sure to make space for you among my slaves. We all know how fond they are in the arena of such fine soldiers as yourself. Bring one of them alive.” He stands, considering something. “No, bring the girl. And I want the tree. I give you ten men. You are dismissed.”

My eyes fly open, and I gasp for air, breathing the scents of the market again. Two pairs of surprised eyes look back at me, and I realize that my hood has fallen off. The bottom of my cape slipped up reveals the dark skin on my legs. For a second, it looks like no one will say anything, but then the merchant opens his mouth, and yells for guards, grabbing my ankle. I tear the knife off my leg, and bury it in his hand. He screams and lets go, and I look back into the confused face of the slave girl. Surprise drops from her face, and she motions me to run. I freeze, but she nudges me with her elbow, while bending over the merchant, inspecting the injured hand. I’m stunned for a second that she would risk her life for me, but I have no time to thank her. I get up, and break into a sprint before the guards could get a good look at me.

I finally reach the forest, but I can’t slow down. I know how to lose the guards that decide to follow me, and I need to get back to the hut to warn my brother. Last time I had a vision, it took them an hour to find us, and only my brother and I managed to flee. The rest of my family died that night. I might only have seconds now. Sweat trickles down the small of my back, and humidity pushes down on me like a thick blanket making it hard to breathe.

I stumble in a huge root, and a tree catches me as I stumble. The raspy surface of the trunk barks the skin on my shoulder as I hit it. I run until I’m out of breath, and then I run some more.

I finally get within sight of our cottage and hide. I can’t see inside from so far away, so I wait for any suspicious signs, but everything is silent and calm. I feel the knot in my chest tighten up a little and make my way closer until I can see inside. I look through the window and my blood freezes. I am late. They’ve found us.

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18. What makes a story “high-concept?”

In an article titled Write Better: The 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories, Jeff Lyons, a story editor, outlines the aspects that help a story fit the notion of “high-concept” whether for film or a book. The qualities he lists are:

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal

Check out what he means with each of these things here.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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19. Flogometer for Dai—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.


Dai sends the first chapter of Goblin Realm, a science fiction story. As the first chapter is just a few lines long, we’ll carry on into chapter two for the rest of the “first” pate. The remainder of the second chapter is after the break.

Chapter 00 — Eyeballs

Topping a rise, they took their guide from a plume of light smoke, possibly a fire set by the ship's propulsion. They were well down the incline when…

"Hey! People there."

"I think they're women!"

"You hope!"

But didn't they all hope that?

A bit closer, and…

"They're Girl Scouts, for crying out loud. Girl Scouts!"

Chapter 01 — Indoctrination

Two days previous:

They kept track with a pencil on the jeep's fender, the point merely skidding on the walls of the spaceship's barren compartment.

Half asleep in the unchanging environment, they were roused by the BS screen, as they chose to call it, coming back into action—the view swooping down toward a small group standing in a sparsely-treed savannah. Women—voluptuous, scantily clad, almost identifiable.

The scene altered to show the horizon as the women looked over their shoulders. Over the peak of (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Dai's first page?

I do enjoy Dai’s writing—colorful with a strong voice. And, though I would have liked more scene-setting, especially in the first “chapter,” there were enough story questions raised to keep me going. Things I’d look at working with, however, including changing the anonymous “they” to whoever it actually is. It’s hard to imagine an abstract “they.” How many is it? Two? Five? Forty?

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

a low hill figures appeared—scrambling down the slope, leaping and capering, waving… could it be weapons? The women began to run, the spindly figures to pursue—gaining rapidly as the women became frantic.

The view pulled back to reveal three new figures in the foreground—men wearing green clothes and helmets, carrying weapons that blasted gouts of flame from the muzzles. The pursuing figures began to fall but many came on, approaching closely enough to show some features before the remnant turned and fled.

The women embraced their saviors, and the final scene showed the six paired off, disappearing beneath the camera's view.

Reardon was the first to speak.

"What in hell was that?"

Baugher and Reardon went at it together. "The way they were dressed!" "That sarong—looked like Lamour, didn't she?" "The redhead's Lucille Ball, I'll bet." "Rhonda Fleming." "And Grable—Lana Turner?" "Nah! They're past it—Kelly."

"Wait a minute," Kemp broke in. "How could either of you tell any of that?"

True. The figures had a cartoonish quality to them. But before the discussion went further the film played again. And continued to play every few minutes for several performances.

Hours later another film was shown. This time the women, still in sarong and bathing suits, were captured—the three rescuers arriving after the captives had been led beyond sight. Not too late, however, to slaughter a few dozen of the… Of the what—savages, perhaps? They were again subjected to several repetitions.

The third film won their personal Oscar.

It opened with themselves—for they had decoded the theme on initial viewing—slipping through a heavily-wooded area. A large clearing appeared, flanked on two sides by what might have been thatched long-houses. A vast number of the same almost naked and poorly-delineated wretches—all seemingly of one indeterminate sex— filled the central portion of the clearing, surrounding three large stakes against which were tied the women, now naked.

The shooting commenced, with grayish bodies soon strewing the open area. The three in green advanced, firing with weapons containing unlimited ammunition—never missing, never reloading. As they passed the stakes one stayed to succor the women, the other two continuing to shoot their way to the far end. Back they came, somehow managing to avoid tripping over a multitude of corpses, shooting inside each of the houses.

The last scene showed them paired again, the women now back in beach attire. Behind rose billows of smoke, the long-houses leveled to the ground.

Reardon looked to Kemp after the initial viewing of the epic.

"Well, now we know what we're supposed to do."

"Great training films, huh?"

"Propaganda," Baugher said. "We're being conditioned to hate the aborigines."

Reardon said,"Looked like monkeys, didn't they? Those spider monks."

"Apes." Baugher had noticed a lack of tails.

"Goblins."

Kemp's description was accepted as definitive.

"I dunno, though—people who've been subjected to the amount of advertising we have—how can they think we're so stupid, so easy to convince? Maybe they're hinting at how we appear to them—like lesser animals." He nodded toward Baugher. "Kinda shoots down your idea they can read minds, or they'd never try this on us."

Reardon saw an opening. "Maybe we're gonna be actors, and they've snagged those babes to star with us."

The other two guffawed.

"Keep dreaming, Jack," Kemp said.

But Reardon turned thoughtful.

"Didja notice, though? They had no hair—the women." He gestured. "Down here, I mean."

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20. The book categories that grew and shrank in 2014

While it is true that we should not write for the market but for ourselves, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to know what readers want to see these days. If you’re in a hot-selling category, that could be reassuring. If not, it just means make your story the best it can be—books sell even in declining categories.

An article titled “The Hottest (and Coldest) Book Categories of 2014" reports that the self-help and graphic novels categories had the fastest print growth among adults. The juvenile segment performed much better overall than adult, and the winning category there was science fiction/fantasy/magic category.

It’s enlightening. check it out.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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21. Flogometer for Daniel—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.


Daniel sends the first chapter of I Am Not a Jellyfish!, a middle grade story. The remainder of the chapter is after the break. Note: British spelling/world.

Why don’t you just run, Trent? I asked myself.Somewhere, anywhere! The boys toilet seemed like the best destination. Heavens knows, I needed it! There had been a sickly churning in my gut ever since I arrived at school that morning. The butterflies in my tummy must have been earning excellent money because they were certainly working overtime. I didn’t want to go into Mr Graham’s class. I couldn’t face it. Why couldn’t it be the weekend already? If it had been a Saturday, I would still be in my Superman pyjamas with a bowl of Chocco Pops, staring in amazement as the milk turned all brown and chocolatey. And I wouldn’t have had to face the torture of a morning in Mr Graham’s class.

I knew that everyone else was there, waiting outside class, but I kept to myself. My head was going fuzzy and the lights were beginning to blur. I could feel my skin getting clammy. It started with the palms of my hands - moist but cold. Then it was the armpits. I silently prayed that none of the girls would notice my damp shirt. It was only 8:57 and my armpits were wet through already. I also prayed that the sweat wouldn’t stink. The last thing I needed was a reputation as the smelly kid in school. My back was sweaty too… and my bum! As if Mr Graham’s class wasn’t going to be bad enough - I now had wet pants!

“Good morning, Trent!” said Kayden Oliver, disturbing my train of panic. “You ok, squire?”

Were you compelled to turn Daniel's first page?

The writing is clean and the voice fine. There is certainly tension in the character, sweaty gobs of it—but, at the end of the page, there wasn’t much in me. There’s a story question—why does he not want to go to class, and I there are consequences and stakes (looking foolish) but I didn’t find learning what he feared from a class wasn’t a compelling question for me. It might be for a child, but I wonder.

It turns out that he fears being called upon to read aloud from a Harry Potter novel, which he hates. Now, if that had been on the first page, I think I would have been more motivated. I would be curious why a school boy would hate Harry Potter. I would spend less time with the sweating and getting to a good story question.

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 Daniel

Continued

Kayden was my second best friend in the whole world and I sat next to him in every lesson. He may not have been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree - he’d once thought that a profiterole was a kind of move in gymnastics - but I could actually have conversations with Kayden about interesting topics. And I loved how he called everyone “squire”.

“Not talking this morning, squire?” he asked, as we waited outside Mr Graham’s classroom.

“Sorry,” I squeaked, my voice trembling. “Got sweaty butterflies in my armpits.”

My mind was all over the place before I realised that my sentence hadn’t come out properly.

“Sweaty butterflies?” said Kayden. “In your armpits? Are you alright, squire? You look a bit peaky.”

I felt more than a bit peaky. Mr Graham was going to show up at any minute and stomach was flipping. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be sick or make a mess in my pants. Just as I was about to rush off to the little boys’ room, I saw the sight that made my heart change from beating mode to rapid vibration. I thought I was having a heart attack! Waltzing around the corner, with a stupid grin on his face, was Mr Graham. My breath had shortened and my heart continued to race. This was the moment I’d been dreading.

“Have no fear,” smirked Mr Graham. “Your superstar teacher is here.”

I weighed up my options. Could I still run? The problem was that everyone had seen me so if I ran away now, I’d be in a heap of trouble. Pretend to be ill? I was feeling sick after all. I was a terrible actor though. I’d probably just say something that made me look like a liar. I should’ve skipped school and spent the day in the park.

As I took my seat next to Kayden, I spotted the dreaded books on Mr Graham’s desk. Once Mr Graham had taken the register, he passed the horrible, evil books around the class. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.We’d started reading the book about a week ago and I’d quickly grown to hate it. Harry Potter had become my living nightmare. Before he’d even spoken, I knew precisely what Mr Graham was going to say. It made me want to vomit.

“Trent, it’s your turn to read today. We’re at the top of page twenty eight.”

Nothing sent an icy shiver down my spine quite like the idea of having to read in front of the entire class. As soon as I saw the page - filled with a dancing jig of words - in front of me, a fog seemed to fill my eyes, clouding my vision. I could see the words but they’d stopped making any sense to me. As I looked at the page, it felt like some of the words were moving, dancing around. Honestly. The words would split themselves in half or squeeze themselves together (depending on how the little critters felt).

The top of page twenty eight. I looked at the first line. I found out later that the sentence read: It was not a mistake.But that was not how it looked to me. Like I said, the words moved around, I swear. The end of the word was squeezed itself closer to word not.

I started to read aloud. “It was... snot?”

Snot? I knew that snot wasn’t correct but snot was all I could see. I heard a few people on another table sniggering. I tried again.

“It was.. snot?”

All I could see was snot! Everyone in the class was giggling now. Then, trying to figure it out, I just kept stupidly repeating the word.

“Snot,” I said. “Snot… snot… snot…”

Everyone was now pointing at me and cackling their little heads off. Even Mr Graham thought it was hilarious. My face was burning so hot with embarrassment, you could have fried an egg on my cheeks.

“Perhaps somebody else should read instead of Trent,” laughed Mr Graham. And that made me feel even worse. He didn’t even trust me to finish one lousy sentence.

In Mr Graham’s class, we were made to sit on tables that showed how clever we were (according to Mr Graham). Each table was named after a creature in the sea. The supposedly smart kids, like Felicity Smith and Jeremiah Sitwell, sat on the “Dolphin” table, named after one of the most intelligent animals on Earth. Then there was the “Turtle” table and the “Clownfish” table. But I didn’t sit on any of those. I was stuck (like always had been) alongside Kayden Oliver on the “Jellyfish” table. Yes, that’s right, our table was named after a creature that DOESN’T HAVE A BRAIN! I suppose it was quite appropriate for the rest of the table. There was Nora Stanley (who ate her own bogies), Kyle McAllister (who ate glue sticks), Jacob Buntin (who ate dog food) and Kayden Oliver (who thought that Michael Jackson was the first president of the USA). 

I didn’t belong on that table! I knew that I was actually smarter than everyone in that class - even the Dolphins - but on occasions like this, Mr Graham always made me look stupid. Well, I’d had enough! Things didn’t always need to stay the same and it was time to make a change! I am not a Jellyfish, I told myself. Before the summer holidays arrived, I vowed to escape the Jellyfish table, torpedo past the Clownfish and the Turtles and, by July, I would be sitting on that Dolphin table. The question was; HOW? Mr Graham had always said that I couldn’t read and I’d just proved him right. Some way, somehow, I was going to make everyone see how smart I was. I just needed a plan.

Add a Comment
22. Flogometer for A.J.—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.


A.J. sends the first chapter of The Aurora . The remainder of the chapter is after the break. Note: British spelling/world.

The slums of N’Kori City were all but abandoned. A few months ago, a particularly nasty strain of the Qintom Flu had killed most of the residents that hadn’t been able to flee and those that remained didn’t seem much better off than the dead. Kyros hated to see it. N’Qaen had been one of the first worlds his people had colonized after they left the home-world. Traces of ornate Albyrian architecture could still be spotted under the clumsy repairs on the buildings. They kept them standing - mostly - but they did nothing to improve the scenery. The rest of N’Qaen wasn’t this bad, of course. Some of the planet was downright opulent and even the outlying parts of N’Kori City were pleasant, but Kyros rarely seemed to find himself in those sorts of places.

To his left, Dr. Ila Tesni shivered and moved closer to him. “I’m cold,” she whispered, glaring up at him with her vibrant gold and green eyes. As a Syadyr, Ila had difficulty regulating her body temperature in colder climates, and late autumn nights in N’Kori got very cold.

“Sorry,” Kyros murmured, letting her lean on him and attempt to steal his warmth. “Do you want my jacket?”

Ila glanced at his worn leather jacket with a thoughtful look on her face. “No thanks,” she said after a moment. “If I wanted a coat, I’d have worn my own. Just gets in the way of my work.”

“Then stop whining,” Caeto said from Ila’s left. The small hacker glanced at Ila and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn A.J.'s first page?

The writing is sound enough but, for me, not much in the way of a story question came up. While science fiction does need to build a world, spending so much time on it in the first paragraph didn’t help me--and I'm a science fiction fan. Set the scene, sure, but just letting us know that we were in a slum on a non-Earth world would have done it. I also had a problem with so many names and terms being thrown at me—N’Kori City, Qintom Flu, Kyros, N’Qaen, Albyrian, Ila Tesni, Syadyr, and Caeto. Too much too soon. Simplify. Keep the story focused on what’s happening to the primary character. You have a team of people, but slow down the introduction of the members. And, if it’s possible, get rid of some of them. How many do you need?

There is some cool stuff that happens later, but I wouldn’t have gotten to it because, in this opening, the only thing that happens is that a character muses on the state of the city and another character is cold. I am reading a book about storytelling right now and the author said this: you don’t have a story until something goes wrong. In this opening, there’s no hint of the possibility of a problem ahead.

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 A.J.

 

Continued

offered her a small half-smile.

“Why do I have to be here anyway?” Ila asked, Kyros, ignoring Caeto in favor of glancing around the small alley they were waiting in. Piles of garbage littered the ground; junk that even the impoverished that had once lived in the tenements on either side of the alley couldn’t be bothered with. “Caeto’s your hacker.”

“Yes,” Kyros said, his focus returning to the only lit window on the building in front of him. “But Caeto and I would have to clear the building from the ground up to reach that light on the seventh floor. You can take a more direct route.”

Ila scoffed and Kyros glanced down at her. The flickering light from the streetlamp at the end of the alley cast a blue tinge on her silvery hair and made her naturally pale-green skin seem almost turquoise.

“Hey, if I could scale walls like you, I would,” Caeto grumbled from Ila’s left.

“Your species should have thought of that when you were evolving,” Ila teased, waving her long-fingered hands at Caeto.

“Um, don’t think evolution works that way,” Caeto responded.

“You don’t say? Huh, you’d think, as a biologist, I would know that,” Ila shot back.

“You are cold, aren’t you?” Caeto said, another small smile on his thin lips. “You always get testy when you’re cold.”

Ila shrugged and went back to scanning the alley. Her “w” shaped pupils contracting and expanding as she searched the shadows. Syadyr couldn’t see color - a fact that Kyros always thought was a shame, considering their vibrant coloring – but they could perceive contrasts that humans couldn’t even begin to imagine. It was just another reason that Kyros had insisted she come with him tonight. Waiting in a rubbish-filled alley in one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas on N’Qaen was a very stupid idea if you didn’t have a Syadyr on watch.

Kyros,” Xylia’s voice crackled in his ear, they really should update their transmitters soon. “Anzo and I are in position, are you ready?

Kyros glanced to the left, arching an eyebrow at his companions to see if they’d heard. Caeto’s dark eyes widened and he nodded, biting at the ring in his lower lip as his fingers began dancing over the tattoos on his right forearm. The tattoos, thin lines that paralleled each other in an elegant mockery of a circuit board, were connected to a tiny device in Caeto's skin that transmitted signals to the H-FPCs imbedded in the left eye of every member of Kyros' crew. Kyros blinked rapidly as his Hands-Free Perception Changer flickered to life; the first few seconds were always difficult. The Human mind was simply not designed to compile images from so many different viewpoints. For a moment, Kyros was treated to flashes of scenes from the other four members of his crew until Caeto finished his command and the H-FPC focused on Ila's viewpoint.

Damnit, Caeto,” Xylia's voice crackled trough their transmitters. “Anzo and I need both our eyes to play lookout right now.

Caeto grimaced, altering the motions of his fingers even as he apologized. “Force of habit.”

A half-laugh, half-sigh was Xylia's only reply and Caeto shrugged, his left eye squeezed shut. For some people, Caeto included, it took a lot of effort to focus on one image or the other but Kyros had been lucky, adapting quickly to switch between views as needed.

Ila sighed as she removed her shoes and let her long toes unwind. Syadyr feet were weird. There was no other way that Kyros could think to describe them, though he had the common sense not to say that aloud. They reminded him of the feet of some of the tropical bird species back on the home-world, with two toes pointed forward and two pointed back. Each toe had an extra joint, just like the fingers on her hands and the bones in her hands and feet were immensely strong.

“Do not lose these,” Ila said, handing him her shoes. “They’re my favorite pair.”

Kyros nodded, taking the platforms without a word. They were lighter than he expected; the majority of the platform was hollow, allowing Ila to curl her toes comfortably inside.

“Okay, Xyl, we’re ready here,” Kyros said tapping the small tattoo on his wrist to activate his transmitter to his sister.

About time,” Xylia said.

“Hey, if everything goes well, you just get to sit there watching for reinforcements, so stop whining.”

Nothing ever just ‘goes well’,” Xylia said.

“Yeah, well, at least you’re not surrounded by trash.”

Xylia laughed. “Don’t talk about our crew-mates like that!

Kyros rolled his eyes but couldn’t suppress a laugh of his own. “Just stay focused.”

Aye, aye, Captain.

“Okay Ila,” Kyros said, turning to the doctor. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Ila smiled slightly and Kyros felt a chill run up his spine. Ila was a biologist, when they’d found her she’d been working at an animal reserve; she loved fluffy things and sugar and got manicures every chance she got. But every once in a while, she’d smile like that and all Kyros could see was a predator, more dangerous than any of the animals she’d ever worked with.

Without a word, Ila used the shredded remains of a couch to launch herself into the air, just managing to catch the rail of a broken fire-escape on the building behind Kyros. She pulled herself up easily, fingers and toes wrapping around each rung until she was a story higher. Caeto gasped as she flung herself away from the fire-escape, turning in midair and latching on to the iron bars of a window. She peered inside, and thanks to the H-FPC, Kyros could see a darkened room littered with broken bottles and a battered mattress. A body was sprawled over the bed, arms and legs spread-eagled. Thanks to Ila’s polarized vision, Kyros could clearly make out the dark stain under the corpse and his jaw clenched. Ila moved away before Kyros could tell anything else about the scene but he made a mental note of which apartment it was. There wasn’t likely anything he could do about it, the dead were past caring anyway, but it was something to note, regardless.

Ila continued up the wall, catching the ragged edges of metal patches or the crumbling remains of cinderblock that hadn’t yet been reinforced. How she managed to hold on to the often jagged ends without cutting herself, Kyros wasn’t sure but she continued upwards without pause. The next three windows she passed were broken, shards of glass littering the floors of the rooms within. There were no other corpses, though there was a pile of rubbish in the far corner of the second room that was large enough to hide a couple of bodies.

“Circuits,” Caeto cursed as Ila peeked into another window and found the interior charred. “This is horrible.”

“I wish I could say it was probably better before the flu but I doubt it was,” Kyros responded, his eyes focused on Ila.

“I hate slums,” Caeto murmured.

Kyros nodded, not bothering to ask whether Caeto hated that slums existed of if he just hated being reminded of them. Caeto was a good man but like most of the good men that Kyros had ever met, they didn’t worry about problems until they were forced to face them.

Above them, Ila had reached her destination and was hanging from the broken window by her fingertips. She stayed there a moment, looking toward the light and letting her – and Kyros and Caeto’s – eyes adjust before slowly pulling herself up and peeking into the room. For a moment, Kyros was stunned. He had expected the room to be similar to the rest of the tenement; probably a bit cleaner, and obviously with working lights, but he wasn’t at all expecting to see the mass of technology lining the walls. It looked like one of the higher-budget war rooms he’d seen. In one chair, a tall Human sat watching a bank of monitors; each displaying what looked like a different room in the building. There were people in some of the rooms, milling around aimlessly or sitting against a wall, staring at the camera. By the door was another Human and Kyros felt his breath catch in his throat as he realized the man was staring directly at Ila; his mouth slightly ajar in surprise. As Caeto cursed beside him, Ila pulled herself fully onto the windowsill and drew the small pistol from her belt; aiming and firing a shot into his throat before the man had a chance to get over his surprise. The Human at the console jumped from his chair and spun to face the window just in time to get a bullet lodged in his right eye.

“Does that ever worry you?” Caeto asked as Ila slid into the room and walked calmly toward the dying man by the door.

“No,” Kyros said with a shrug. “The gun has a silencer; I doubt anyone outside the room heard it.”

“I meant how simple all that just was for her. That doesn’t make you at all uneasy?”

“As long as I keep her shoes safe, no,” Kyros responded with a small smile. Beside him, Caeto jerked as Ila shot the dying man in the head. Now that she was closer, Kyros could see the signs of Tsodo habitation. Thin lines covered the whites of the man’s eyes and the blood that poured from his neck and head was darker than Kyros would expect, more dull.

“I’m just saying,” Caeto continued as Ila walked back to the window and threw down a length of rope. “It’s kind of creepy how good she is at that.”

“All Syadyr are skilled acrobats,” Kyros said with another shrug.

“But they aren’t all assassins.”

“Neither is she.” Kyros tied Ila’s shoes to the end of the rope before grabbing the line and pulling himself toward the window, using his feet against the wall to steady himself.

“Right,” Caeto muttered behind him. “We don’t get paid to kill people; she just does it for fun.”

“Drop it, Caeto,” Kyro said, glancing over his shoulder at the wiry young man climbing awkwardly after him.

“Sorry, I don’t mean anything by it.”

“I know.” Kyros shot him a half-grin as they continued climbing. “If you did, she’d kill you.”

Caeto made a choking sound behind him and Kyros laughed softly.

“Something funny?” Ila asked as Kyros pulled himself through the window and turned around to help Caeto.

“Just looking forward to collecting the bounty on this information,” Kyros answered, nodding Caeto toward the servers as he moved toward the body by the door. After she’d cleared the room, Ila had deactivated her H-FPC and now Kyros did the same. It was different seeing the room in color; the burnt-orange blood gathering under the body made Kyros’ stomach turn.

“This one is Tsodo No’le too,” Ila said, crouching over the other body. “I just don’t understand why someone would volunteer for something like this.”

“Not everyone makes the same decisions as you,” Caeto said as he transferred the data on the servers to one of his personal drives.

“Clearly,” Ila said, moving away from the body and toward Kyros. “This entire building is filled with them,” she nodded from the body at his feet to the screens on the wall.

“Good thing we had you come up first,” Kyros said. “Do you think they’re all controlled by the same Tsodo?”

“I doubt it,” Caeto said, glancing toward the monitors. “It’d take way too much effort to control that many subjects. And it wouldn’t make sense to keep them all in this building anyway.”

Kyros nodded, moving away from the body and toward Caeto, his attention focused on the images. “Something seems wrong about this.”

“More wrong than people letting themselves be used as puppets for another species?” Ila asked, a look of contempt on her face as she looked down at the corpse at her feet.

Kyros shot her a warning look and she shrugged, looking away. “Get that data as quickly as you can, Caeto, I want to take a look around the building.”

“Wait, didn’t we bring Ila specifically so we didn’t have to run around shooting things?” Caeto asked, not bothering to glance up from his work.

“Yes,” Kyros said. “But now I’m curious.”

“And we’re all to die for your curiosity?” Ila asked, the smile on her lips betraying her willingness to follow him.

“Or you could stay with Caeto,” Kyros said with a shrug.

“And let one of these creatures turn you into one of them?” Ila asked, arching a pale-gold eyebrow at him. “Your sister would kill me.”

“It’s illegal for a Tsodo to take an unwilling host,” Caeto muttered.

“Plenty of things are illegal, Caeto,” Ila said as she glanced over the monitors. “That just tends to make them more tempting.”

“Didn’t you used to work for the government?” Caeto asked, exasperation clear in his voice.

“Only technically,” Ila responded. “And don’t even try to tell me that government officials never break-”

“Okay,” Kyros interrupted. “You two can finish this debate on your own time; we’ve got things to do.” He tapped the tattoo on his inner-wrist before the two could respond and opened the connection to his sister’s transmitter. “Xylia? Caeto is extracting the data. Ila and I are going to do a quick sweep of the building, something isn’t right here.”

Seriously?” Xylia’s voice crackled in his ear. “Why can’t we just have one easy job?

“Your part’s still easy, bring the MTV around and have Anzo meet us in front of the building.”

Fine.” Kyros could easily picture the look of irritation on his sister’s face, the way her dark eyes would look skyward as if seeking divine intervention. “But at least make sure that we get the data the client wants.

“Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

Xylia didn’t respond and Kyros grinned; as much as she was complaining now, Xylia complicated things just as often – if not more often – than Kyros did.

“All right, Caeto, the room’s yours. Get the data then get back to the alley. Anzo will be waiting out front.” Kyros nodded to the hacker before turning to Ila with a smile. “Shall we?”

Ila nodded, moving past him to open the door to the room.

“Have fun storming the building,” Caeto muttered over his shoulder as Kyros and Ila disappeared into the hall and shut the door behind them.

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23. A communication question for you

The other day I was listening to a news item on the radio and this number was cited: 500 million. It struck me that “1/2 billion” was the same.

But is it? Do they communicate the same thing?

For me, one expression “feels” like a larger amount even though, mathematically speaking, they are identical. What about you? Give your answer in the poll.

Do you have a similar communication issue that you can mention in comments?

Which feels larger, if either?

My answer: because a “billion” is a hugely larger number than a “million,” for some reason ½ billion feels like the larger of the two.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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24. Flogometer for Christine—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.


Christine sends the first chapter of Echoes in the Rain. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

"Do you hate him; do you sometimes wish he was dead?” At first, my daughter’s eyes were elusive, but then her eyes locked in and she looked deeply into mine, waiting for a response.

 Those words kept playing in my head. How am I supposed to respond to that question? Yes, I wanted to scream out loud, "Yes! I wish he was out of my life and that we had never met. I knew better than to unload on my daughter like that.

Why did she ask that question today - of all days? Every February, we take a day off to attend the Québec City Winter Carnival, Carnaval D ’hiver de Québec. This would be our last time because Céleste would be graduating from high school this year.

“Céleste, be careful,” I cautioned. The streets in the Old Champlain quarter were covered with ice. In my thirty-nine years living here I never tired of the old city and its ambiance which always transported me back in time. Echoes of old Europe, or at least my image of it. Québec is one of the few cities in North America that still boasts of the old wall fortifications that originally surrounded the city. “Ma chérie, you are going too fast! It is slippery” I warned again. Visions of her 5’2” frame falling flat on the ice haunted me. Being a hovering mother was my downfall; one in which I would probably never overcome. I’ll would never stop protecting her.

Were you compelled to turn Christine's first page?

For this reader, the first page is not the place to narrate feelings about a city (unless they bear on what happens, and it doesn’t). While this opening does establish the characters and their relationship, what it doesn’t do is make me wonder what will  happen next. The opening paragraph is a pretty good hook, but then we detour off into musing. No real story question, no jeopardy ahead. One little note—it’s not a good idea to send your work out into the world with a grammatical error such as “I’ll would” in it. Proofread mercilessly.

Much of what follows in the chapter is setup. We finally get to a violent scene and the story picks up. But still there’s a lot of setup. So I took what I felt was truly dramatic, story-raising stuff toward the end of the chapter and edited it down to create what might be a stronger opening page. It needs work, but see what you think and give a vote. The rest of the original chapter follows the fold.

Celeste was curled up in a fetal position at the corner of her bed. It broke my heart to see my child in such anguish. “Céleste! Get those suitcases out and fill them as quick as you can. We are going to leave tonight.”

Her expression was a collage of fear, hurt and anger. She opened the closet door and pulled out the suitcases.

 “Going somewhere?” I froze when I heard his voice behind me.

 I straightened and faced him. “We are leaving you! You are an animal. What kind of a savage behaves the way you do? It will be over my dead body that you hurt Céleste again.”

He pounded his fist against the wall. “I call the shots around here.” His voice filled with splinters. “You don’t leave unless I say so…and I don’t say so. You belong to me!”

He had something in his other hand. How pathetic was he, not able to bear being without his precious beer. But it was not a beer. I wanted so desperately for it to be a beer. It was a gun!

A scream choked in my throat. All I could think was that I had to get Céleste out of there. I spread my arms to shield her. I edged her towards the door.

“Get out of here!” I begged Céleste. “Just get out of here.”

Her father wrapped his fingers around the trigger of the gun and took aim at me. “If I can’t have you, no one will.” The gun went off.

Were you compelled turn the page with this as the opening?

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 Christine

Continued

I had to laugh at Céleste. She did not let the 20°F (6° C) weather stop her from enjoying this day. Her pace did not slow as we climbed the mounds of snow that had accumulated from the snowstorm the night before. Undaunted by the ice that slicked the alleyways, Céleste saw them as her personal dance floor. She twirled around as her crazy black mane of hair danced in the air. Her lack of inhibition was my envy. Self-conscious of my own lackluster locks, I tucked some grey strands into my bun. My hair was wild and curly like hers years ago. I was quite attractive in my younger years. Time and stress have not treated me favourably, my looks have eroded. I’m still the same person, just downgraded. We continued our trek towards Rue Grande Allée to grab something to eat.

 Walking to the pastry shop, we entered the arched entrance of the walled in city.

 “Butter and cinnamon and don’t hold back on the maple syrup s’il vous plaît.” She ordered one the famous French Canadien pastries – the Beaver Tail.

“You know that is my favourite” Céleste said.

“Want one, maman? Céleste yelled. “You know you do, come on maman, live a little.”

 I had to chuckle to myself. Papa and I started that tradition. We came to this very same shop to buy pastries. My favourite was the strawberry and whipped cream.

 Céleste already knew how I would respond. It is the same every year. “Non, ma chérie, none for me” I yelled back. Even though these pastries were delicious, I could not afford the calories. Ever since her father commented on my weight gain, desire for those pastries eluded me.

 Céleste had a strength that I used to know. She ignored what others thought, or at least that was the persona she projected. She licked the maple syrup running down her face like an eager child, paying testimony to my theory.

 “Shh maman, be quiet” Céleste ordered as we sat at the café table. “There is that golden oldie song you love on the radio, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Isn’t that from the 60’s something about raining, gardens and roses or whatever?”

 “Yes, I smirked,” that is one of those ancient songs.”

“What’s up with that? Why do you love it? Every time that song plays, which isn’t often thank God, it reminds me of you.”

Hesitation set in as I tried to formulate an acceptable reply. “It is not really that I love the song so much; it is more that it was relatable.” Pausing, I struggled for an adequate response. Then another side of me poured out, the part of me that wanted to be understood.

 “I thought when I met your father we’d have the perfect life, complete with the white picket fence and a beautiful rose garden”. I regretted saying it. The words sounded immature, desperate but it was the truth. Still my daughter didn’t have to hear her mother complain about a life unfulfilled. I paused, reminding myself to choose my next words carefully.

Sometimes I feel a little cheated - no roses just rain.” “Things happen to us that we are not in control of. Life is like a garden, weeds grow, our hands become dirty and plants die. So, the song reminds me that no one promised me roses and I better get used to the rain.”

 “That’s it - that is why you like that song?” Céleste mocked. “Maman, you’re such a downer,” she patted my head with a patronizing tap. “Not on my watch,” she directed. “We have to pick another song, something more positive. What about ‘I Don't Want To Miss A Thing’ by Aerosmith?”

 “Arrowroot”, I queried, “don’t they make cookies?”

 “Argg, you really need to get with the times. No, they don’t make cookies. They are a band.” She grabbed the maple syrup bottle mimicking a microphone and started to sing the words.

 “Okay, ma chérie” I said with an inward smile, not sure if Céleste could see the crinkle in the corner of my eyes. Of course I knew Aerosmith was a band; I was just perpetuating the archaic maman role.

Grabbing her hand I stared into her eyes. “Céleste, I hope you know you’re ma chérie, my reason for living.”

Céleste stopped singing and paused for a moment, recognizing the external punctuation in my eyes. She clutched my hands in hers. “Maman there is something I want to ask you…. Do you hate him?” her eyes searched for an answer “Do you sometimes wish he was dead?”

I tucked her locks behind her one ear. “I love it when you wear your hair back, it shows your beautiful eyes, each one a different colour, accentuating your pretty face”

“Mom, you are avoiding my question.” she accused while unhooking the hair from behind her ear.

“Non, ma chérie, it is not hate, it is pity. Why are you asking?”

“Maman, I know something is going on. Suitcases are hidden in the back of my closet. I know you have something set up because yesterday some guy called saying the security system you asked to have installed could not be done for a few weeks.”

“Merde!” I swore, angered at my sloppiness. Suddenly forgetting how to breathe, fear gripped me.

 Céleste continued, “He said not to worry and assured me that it would be ready in time for when we moved in.”

You I-d-i-o-t I chanted to myself. What if her father had answered that call?

“What did you say to your father?” I pleaded.

 “Chill mom, dad doesn’t know. I wanted to talk to you first. Maman, what was he talking about? Are we moving?”

She paused. It all clicked - she understood. Her rhetorical question hung in the air, but she wanted an answer anyway.

“Maman, don’t lie to me, whatever you’re doing, affects me too”.

I knew this day would come. Wiping my glasses, I stalled, not trusting my voice. My words carefully curated. I believed that if my words were well manicured they could withstand the tightrope, the delicate balance between telling the truth and still acknowledging he was her father. I wanted to respect the fact that she loved him.

 “When two people fall out of love….”

Céleste hushed me, “the truth….” Her injured eyes convinced me to abandon my practiced spiel. Truth was spoken with a few omissions and compressions.

 “Your father and I are not right for each other.” My voice tightened as I twisted my ring around my finger. “He has some demons in his life, demons that are bigger than him. Bigger than you and me. He needs help before…” I did not want to articulate the words that screamed in my head. “Instead of facing his fears, he has chosen different ways of coping. Alcohol and drugs are his love. You should know, your father’s drunken rage has been a part of our daily life. Your father has abused me for years, which I allowed to happen, thinking I deserved it. I tried to hide as much as possible. I know now you saw too much. His abuse is worsening. I’m afraid it will extend to you. We need to get out of that house. For the past year, I have been secretly putting money aside for an apartment. I finally put a deposit down for one the other day.”

Céleste leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand, understanding the seriousness of my words.

 “The apartment is near the Université. It should be ready in a few weeks. I stayed this long, petrified to be on my own and poor, like my maman.” My hands were shaking; I was like a nervous seamstress stitching my words together without a pattern. “I wanted to love your father and make it work. How can one love someone they fear?” I felt so exposed, shifting my thoughts into words. “Sometimes we have to give up on people, not because we don’t care, but because they don’t. Céleste, you have always been my reason to stay, now you are my reason to leave.” She sat quietly processing my words.

Her despondency revealed she already knew all this, and had for a while. My silence helped her deny its existence. Now it was real. I was prepared for a long discussion. Whatever Céleste felt was distilled to this question, “I sort of know what you mean” her lips quivered, “Is it possible to love and hate someone at the same time?"

I was silent. I did not know the answer. I wish I had been stronger for my daughter.

The silence was broken as we neared the cemetery. “Ready ma chérie?’” I asked. It was tradition to visit my papa’s tombstone on the way home on our special day. “Put your hood up, the rain is coming down.” Quickening our pace we walked up Taché Boulevard. The rusted gate was wide open. Céleste had never met my papa. He died in a motorcycle accident long before she was born. Papa’s memory lived on in my stories. She knew papa had been my rock, my best friend.

Céleste had the sensitivity to give me a few private moments with my papa, sensing my inward journey. The gravel bit at my knees as I knelt down by his headstone. Pain was inconsequential and I was numb and soaked with failure. “Je t’amie papa. I love you”, I whispered as my hand caressed the top of his tombstone. Touching his memorial somehow made me feel closer to him. Here today, love had a way of bringing us together even if death kept us apart. I surveyed the sky desperately wanting to believe that he had found a way to see me, to listen, love and still protect me.

“Don’t know if you can hear me papa,” I whispered. “My heart aches for you and I miss you. I find it hard trying to navigate this life, to understand it. Give me the strength to do what is right for Céleste; to offer her a life that holds promise and security. I want to give Céleste the life I always wanted”.

After a while I motioned for Céleste to join me. Resting her hand on my shoulder, she gently brushed some tears from my face. The enormity of the moment revealed itself in the tiniest of gestures. Then suddenly out of the corner of my I eye I saw a hummingbird. I was in complete awe of the intangible, ephemeral blur; this tiny creature hovered over papa’s tombstone.

“What is that hummingbird doing here?” Céleste asked. “It is too cold hummingbirds to be flitting at this time of the year.”

An inward smiled formed as I remembered in my younger years when papa shared the legend of the hummingbird. Papa told me, when a person dies a part of them continues to live on earth in the hearts of those that love them. The other part becomes a hummingbird. In the afterlife, the hummingbird feeds on the nectar of the flowers in the gardens of paradise. The hummingbird angel watches over their loved one on earth and if the loved one seems troubled, the hummingbird sneaks back to earth, like a messenger. Then it injects sweet nectar from the afterlife, into their hearts, reminding them they are loved. That is why the hummingbird is so small and its wings flap so fast. So they can fly between the afterlife and earth so easily.

Skepticism filled me when I first heard the legend. Glancing upward now; I knew why that beautiful wisp of a creature was here. Papa was sending me a message. He was with me.

“Céleste, I could try to give you a scientific answer that would probably not be correct. I will give you the answer in my heart. Céleste turned in my direction, her face hungry with curiosity.

 “The hummingbird is considered a messenger, and symbol of devotion and protection. Papa is sending me a message. I believe he is here with us now and somehow everything will work out.” Uncertainty filled me as I did not know if Celeste understood the power of the moment. I did. “‘Merci papa,” I whispered as the hummingbird flew away.

Rain poured down hard but I was undaunted because I felt a comforting warmth at this moment. We headed back home.

 Turning a corner Céleste noticed a kitty near a garbage can wet and shivering. “Look maman, a kitty. It looks lost. Can we bring it home?” Céleste pleaded.

“No, Céleste. Your father does not do well with animals. He would not approve and it would upset him.”

 Her eyes begged.

“Its fur is all tattered and it is skin and bones. You can tell the kitty has not eaten for a while. Please… What if we just take the kitty home for tonight and in the morning take it to a shelter?”

“Okay, but your father must not see the animal. You’ll have to hide it in your room until morning. Then we take it to the shelter first thing – agreed?”

 “Yes, sweet victory” she sang, pumping her fist in the air.

 She cuddled the little kitty in her arms. She was already in love. We headed home.

♦♦♦

“Where the fuck were you?” her father demanded, his large hockey hands gripping the door frame. Her father had the looks of Brad Pitt but the heart of O.J.Simpson.

 “We were out for our mother/daughter day. I left you a note.” I stammered. “Sorry if you did not see it.”

“Your note said you would be home in time for supper. You’re late,” he slurred. He could hardly keep his six foot, husky athletic frame upright.

 “Sorry, it was raining hard and we stopped by the cemetery to see papa.”

 “It has been more than twenty years for fucks sake, you should be over him by now.” I cringed at his callousness. “I come home after working all day and there is no dinner,” he complained even though we both knew he had been at the bar for hours.

 I immediately realized this was a warm up to a fight and I did not want to get into the second act. I waved Céleste past me and motioned for her to hide the kitty in her room.

“Sorry.” I left some spaghetti in the fridge. I’ll get it for you.” I pacified.

“This is shit,” he bellowed, and flipped his hand up in the air knocking the dish out of my hand causing spaghetti to spill all over the floor. “You know I hate leftovers.”

I manufactured a smile. “I’ll make something else. What would you like?” His usual liquid appetizer of choice had already been consumed.

Awaiting his response, I noticed he froze mid-sentence, concentrating on something in the hallway. My insides twisted. I knew what held his attention, even before turning around. Céleste didn’t close the door of her room, the kitty was now wobbling into the kitchen.

“What the hell is that?” he demanded, his voice threaded with hooks.

 “It is a kitty,” Céleste responded as she mouthed to me that she was sorry the kitten escaped from her room.

 “Who gave you permission to have a kitty?” he demanded.

 “Maman”… Céleste started to say but her father did not give her a chance to finish.

“Who the hell are you to give her permission to have a kitty?” he spit moving closer to me, pinning me up against the cupboard. “It is me who makes the decisions around here. I bring home the money,” he hissed in my ear. You live a sweet life. Do you know how many women would love a piece of this?” he crooned slicking back his full head of blond hair while pointing at himself.

 Zero, ran through my head, actually negative zero. I did not have the courage to correct him. It was my salary that paid the bills now. He has not held a steady job since his own father fired him from the company. I just glared at him with a blank state, loathing the sight of him. His mouth twitched and I could see the frustration seeping through his pores. His grip tightened as he started to twist my arm. Céleste’s father hated that I was not being the obedient wife he had cultivated. His grip twisted my arm further. Was he trying to break me again? Does he not see that I’m already broken? I felt detached from his threatening violence, knowing I would soon be free of him. My escape plan was set in place. Céleste and I would soon leave this house, and never return. He would not be able to hurt me anymore. His nails dug into me, but did not get the desired reaction. He became more agitated. Yanking the kitty out of Céleste’s arms, he gripped it tightly, his frenetic energy intense.

Céleste cried out, “Dad, you are hurting the kitty!”

 Her father held the kitten high in the air, as if an offering to the gods and then flung the kitty with all his might, hard against the wall. The tiny body crushed on impact and its lifeless frame slid down the side of the wall.

I felt raw and my eyes were spiked with shock. Blindsided, how could I have known he was capable of hurting - no killing an innocent kitten. I started to hyperventilate. For all these years I was his punching bag, but now his locus of control had ruptured. I knew what had to be done, for remaining in this house was no longer an option. We had to leave tonight!

“I hate you!” Céleste’s words came out like thunder. “How could you do that? You’re evil.” Her revulsion ricocheted around the room as her lips trembled.

There was an eeriness in her father’s eyes. A potential I could not decipher. Placating the barbarian was my next move. Then I could retreat to the bedroom and sneak Céleste out.

 “Let me get your supper, I offered meekly. “I know how much you love French toast. What if I make that?”

Céleste’s eyes furrowed as she sneered at me; disgusted at my groveling. She could not understand how I could kowtow to such a monster. She headed to her room feeling betrayed.

“See what you did? Filling her with lies about me and turning her against me.” He rationalized and twisted the version of events. A greasy sheen on his face gleaned as he leaned into me. He kissed me hard; and seemed turned on by this nightmare. Finally, his heavy breathing stopped and he pushed me aside.

 “Sorry she spoke to you like that,” I placated while refilling his beer. “Eat your dinner. I will go speak to her about it.” Backing away from him as one backs away from a poisonous snake, I quickly turned and ran to Céleste.

“Céleste!” I ordered in a frantic voice. She was curled up in a fetal position at the corner of her bed. It broke my heart to see her in such anguish. “Get those suitcases out and fill them as quick as you can. We are going to leave tonight.”

Céleste’s expression was a collage of fear, hurt and anger. She opened the closet door and pulled out the suitcases.

We wildly grabbed whatever we could and shoved it into the suitcase. “I refreshed your father’s beer, so that should occupy him for a little time. This is our chance to leave.”

“Going somewhere?” My body froze with fear when I heard his voice behind me.

 “Just straightening up,” I whimpered as my eyes moved slowly trying to locate Céleste.

“Doesn’t appear that way to me,” his neck veins throbbed.

 At that very moment in time I knew that this was the point of no return. The smell of fear darted back and forth between me and Céleste. I knew we could not go through anymore of this. Courage pierced my spine and there was shift in the air.

 I straightened my body, repositioned my shoulders and faced him eye to eye. “We are leaving you! You are an animal who needs help. What kind of a savage behaves the way you do? For too long abuse has been your tool of persuasion. You’ve worsened and now cannot be contained. It will be over my dead body that you hurt Céleste again. We are leaving you, for our own safety!”

In one quick explosive thud he pounded his fist against the wall. “I call the shots around here,” his voice filled with splinters. “You don’t leave unless I say so…and I don’t say so. You’re not going anywhere. You belong to me!”

The room pulsated. I noticed he had something in his other hand. How pathetic is he not able to bear being without his precious drink in his hand. My body shuddered upon closer examination I could see it was not a beer. I can’t believe I am saying this, but I wanted so desperately for it to be a beer. It was not a beer. It was a gun!

The reality of the moment swirled around me and a scream choked in my throat. All I could think was that I had to get Céleste out of there. Cautiously, I made my way to Céleste and spread my arms in an attempt to shield her. Slowly I edged her towards the door.

“Get out of here!” I begged Céleste. “Just get out of here.”

“….But maman…” Céleste cried.

“DO as I say…get out N-O-W!”

I turned back to look at her father. As if possessed, his face had a melded look of hate and conquest. I could see a fire in his eyes as they pierced mine. Slowly, he raised his hands, wrapped his fingers around the trigger of the gun and took aim at me. “If I can’t have you, no one will.” The gun went off.

In his drunken state he missed and shattered a framed handprint picture Céleste and I made in her preschool class. I finally realized it. He won; I was never going to get out of this nightmare. This whole marriage was a slow death with painful interruptions. My courage left me. One would think I would have bolted out of the room, but I didn’t. I could never escape. Resignation took over. I watched with submission as he steadied himself again, took aim and shot. This time he did not miss his target - me.

 A stillness surrounded me as a few last thoughts made their final escape. If only I had made better choices. If only I had the strength sooner. If only I could rewrite my past…

As my heart started to gasp, I think I heard another gun shot. I could feel a shallowness in my breath and knew it was fading in a slow steady sequence. Please God, tell me Céleste got out in time. Breath… then pause…breath… then pause… then just pause…

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25. Flogometer for Joe—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted. Only 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?

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.


Joe sends the first chapter of The Door in the River , a middle grade fantasy. The remainder of the chapter is after the break.

The dark storage loft on the top floor of the old apartment building didn’t want him there, and it was doing everything it could to betray him. A loose floorboard groaned under his foot. Oscar cringed. Any louder would wake the dead. And if Aunt Lill found out where he was, he would probably be joining them. He didn’t want to go behind her back, but he had to find the small cloth bag that had belonged to his mom. Maybe then the dreams would finally stop.

He kept the flashlight clamped between his teeth, silently prying open each cardboard moving box. He stopped when he came to one labeled: Diane’s things – do not throw away. The bag would be in there. But there would be memories too. Memories he didn’t want. He bit his lip. It didn’t matter. He had come too far.

The bag was wedged between his mom’s jewelry case and the photos she had kept on her dresser. He made sure he didn’t look at the pictures.

“Who’s up there?” a voice shouted from below.

Oscar froze. He fumbled for the flashlight button. The voice sounded like Mr. McToabert, the building supervisor.

Oscar waited in the dark, holding his breath. Getting caught now would be worse than if he hadn’t found the courage to come up here in the first place.

Were you compelled to turn Joe's first page?

Good writing, clear voice, and story questions raised. But do they rise to the level of compelling? Not being a middle-grade reader, I’m not sure if it would be for him or her. For me it was an “almost.” Perhaps it’s the lack of stakes or lack of a clear problem—but I’m sure that can be dealt with. Later in the chapter a boy’s face appears through an unusual window, and then something threatening appears. If possible, I’d get to that sooner. Perhaps right after he finds the bag he sees the window and things start happening. Trim a little of this opening page and see if it’s possible—you can skip a lot of the later description about the floor in the storage space, etc. Notes:

The dark storage loft on the top floor of the old apartment building didn’t want him there, and it was doing everything it could to betray him. A loose floorboard groaned under his foot. Oscar cringed. Any louder would wake the dead. And if Aunt Lill found out where he was, he would probably be joining them. He didn’t want to go behind her back, but But he had to find the small cloth bag that had belonged to his mom. Maybe then the dreams would finally stop. It’s implied that the dreams are not pleasant, otherwise why would he want them to stop. But, as it is, this vague reference is a waste of words—knowing nothing about the dreams renders the reference meaningless. I suggest you add something that clues us in as to either the nature of the dreams or the effect they have on Oscar. Give us a little character meat to chew on.

He kept the flashlight clamped between his teeth, silently prying open each cardboard moving box. He stopped when he came to one labeled: Diane’s things – do not throw away. The bag would be in there. But there would be memories, too. Memories he didn’t want. He bit his lip. It didn’t matter. He had come too far.

The bag was wedged between his mom’s jewelry case and the photos she had kept on her dresser. He made sure he didn’t look at the pictures.

“Who’s up there?” a voice shouted from below.

Oscar froze. He fumbled for the flashlight button. The voice sounded like Mr. McToabert, the building supervisor.

Oscar waited in the dark, holding his breath. Getting caught now would be worse than if he hadn’t found the courage to come up here in the first place. Why would it be worse? This is an opportunity to add some consequences to his actions and increase tension. What would happen to him? Is it bad? Or just some form of punishment?

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 Joe

Continued

 The old man muttered something about calling an exterminator in the morning. Then came the sound of the lower stairwell door swinging shut. 

Oscar’s heart started back up. He thumbed the flashlight. His breath drifted past the beam of light, but despite the cold, he had to wipe a thin layer of sweat from his forehead. His ball cap accidently shifted.

He quickly pulled it back down.

No one else was around but experience had taught him it was better to be safe than sorry when it came to keeping his hair under wraps.

He held up the small cloth bag, twirling it in his hand. It was about the size of a marble pouch, tied at the top with a simple leather strap.

“Why did you want me to find this, Mom?”

Did he really think asking the question out loud would help him make sense of the dreams? Or that it would somehow change what he already knew was in the bag? But his mom had seemed so real and she had been so insistent. It had to mean something. What if there was more in the bag than he remembered? What it held answers?

He set the flashlight down and pulled open the drawstring.

A couple ounces of dull grey dust looked back at him. He shook his head. Who was he kidding. His answers weren’t in here. He was an idiot for thinking this would change anything. Dreams were just dreams. And his hair was just his hair.

He was about to close the bag back up, when he caught the light scent of lilac. That, more than anything, was her. Memories rushed up to greet him. He was five years old again and curled up in her arms. He had felt so safe. His knee was hurt. He couldn’t remember how he hurt it or even which knee. But the lilac. He closed his eyes. The lilac was her.

He knew it was wrong to blame her for dying; for leaving him alone. But deep down he couldn’t let go of the feeling that somehow it was all her fault. Or maybe it was all his fault.

He sniffled and then pulled the drawstring shut. That was eight years ago. Everything was different now. But it felt good to be connected to his mom, even in a small way. He shoved the bag in his front pants pocket. If nothing else, hopefully having it would at least get him a decent night’s sleep.

He began the process of picking his way out of the debris-strewn storage loft. It was a minefield of rusty nails and torn up boards. In many places, there were large gaps in the floor that a thirteen-year-old boy could easily slip through. Mr. McToabert was still in the early stages of refinishing it. All of the tenant’s belongings were shoved into one corner and covered with a giant plastic sheet. Everywhere else though, dust and bits of plaster blanketed the room.

He was so focused on navigating a safe path, he didn’t see the triangular window until it was right in front of him. He narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t noticed it when he came in. Even in the dark, the oddly shaped window should have stood out. The smooth glass was spotless, not a single streak anywhere. But it was impossible to see anything on the other side, the pane acting like a glossy black mirror, reflecting the star-shaped beam of Oscar’s flashlight back at him. He leaned in closer, peering into the darkness.

A boy’s face suddenly popped into the widow.

Oscar stifled a scream as he lurched back, tripping over a loose board. “You almost gave me a heart attack,” he said, still trying to catch his breath.

If the boy heard him, he didn’t show it. Bright red hair framed the pale skin of his freckled face. A pair of light green eyes sat on either side of his thin flat tipped nose. He looked like he was about Oscar’s age.

The boy tilted his head and craned his neck, his face screwed up into a puzzled expression.

Oscar held up his flashlight, waving it over the window. “Hey? Did you hear me?” he asked, a little louder this time.

Again, no response. Instead, the red-haired boy furrowed his brow. He tapped his finger on the window. The glass must have been pretty thick because Oscar didn’t hear any sound. He didn’t recognize the boy, although that wasn’t really a surprise since they hadn’t been in the area for long.  

Oscar tried to remember if there was a balcony or exterior stairway on that side of the building. He was sure there was a balcony, but he couldn’t decide where.

He was about to try tapping on the window himself, but pulled up short. The glass wasn’t as clear as before. A thick, black smoke rolled across the flawless surface, swallowing the image of the red-haired boy. The smoke churned violently, curling in and around on itself like it was a living thing. The air in the storage attic was suddenly frigid against Oscar’s skin.

The boy was completely blotted out now, lost somewhere in the dark smoke. Oscar took a step backward; something else was in there. Something he could feel, but couldn’t see.

It was watching him.

Fear gripped his chest. Smoke didn’t act like that. And whatever was hiding in there was dangerous. And it was angry. It wanted something. Oscar shuddered.

It wanted him. 

From deep within the black smoke, a pair of burning white eyes flashed to life. There were no pupils, just cold, hard whiteness. Oscar’s throat tightened.

He wasn’t alone anymore.

He stumbled backward. “Who’s there?”

A deep, gravelly voice reached out from the darkness. “You belong to me.”

Terror stabbed at him. He wrenched himself away and darted for the doorway.

He didn’t care about the loud complaining of the boards under his feet or the crashing of the boxes as he shoved them out of the way. The only thing that mattered was escaping from those burning white eyes.

He jumped two open gaps in the floor, his foot slipping as he cleared the second one. He nearly toppled into the open space.

Breathlessly, he recovered himself and burst through the doorway.

He was shocked to be outside the building. The balcony. Too late, he realized his mistake.

“No, no, no….” He crashed into the stack of paint cans and tarps piled up along the railing. He took part of the rail with him as he went cartwheeling over the edge.

He clawed desperately for a handhold; for anything.

A small bunch of tarp balled up in his grasp. He jerked to a stop, his whole body dangling in open air.

Panic shot through him.

His whole world became that tiny handful of tarp clutched in his fist.

Then it shifted. Oscar shrieked.

The tarp was wrapped around a pile of lumber. But his weight was pulling on it, sliding it closer to the edge. He imagined what it would be like lying on the cold ground, buried under all those boards.

It shifted again.

The lumber teetered on the brink now. He stared up at it. Was it ash or oak?

Then the tarp slipped loose from the pile of boards.

In a single terrifying instant Oscar’s entire body seized into a knot. He plummeted downward, every nerve in his being vibrating with fear at once. His eyes went wide as the concrete walkway rushed up at him. He found his voice and screamed.

Surprisingly though, all he could think about was how mad Aunt Lill was going to be. She had warned him over and over. He winced his eyes shut against the inevitable impact and prepared for the glowing light at the end of the tunnel, or the singing angels, or whatever else was supposed to happen in the afterlife.

But it never came. No jarring crash. No painful concrete face-plant. Nothing. Maybe this whole being dead thing wasn't going to be that bad after all. He cautiously opened one eye.

He was hanging upside down. That made even less sense than glowing lights and singing angels. His left leg was caught firmly in the gnarled branches of an old oak tree. The oak grew in the small park that bordered the back of the apartment building. He was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed to be very much alive.

“I’m not dead.” Oscar said it like he was trying to convince himself more than anything else. He patted his chest and sides, checking to make sure he was really all there. “A tree. I fell into a tree.” He had the sudden urge to shout out loud, but didn’t. He stared at the ugly twisted limbs of the oak, bent almost to the point of breaking under his weight. At that moment, he had never seen anything so beautiful as those gnarled branches. “I could kiss you, you gorgeous old thing.”

Then he remembered Aunt Lill. His eyes darted from one corner of the park to the other. He didn’t see anyone. He didn’t hear anyone. It was late and at this time of night, no one would be out walking. And it would be impossible for anyone to have seen him from the blackened apartment windows. True, he had been screaming his head off, but even that might be mistaken for teenagers out messing around.

Maybe the whole thing had gone unnoticed. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He might have just caught the break he needed.

A loud crash, followed by what sounded like a tree house exploding, tore through the silence of the night. Oscar winced. The pile of lumber must have finally toppled over the edge.

Lights flicked on in several windows and there were a few startled shouts.

Hanging upside down, he searched for his apartment window. He held his breath, praying it was far enough up.

The light in the window winked to life. Oscar groaned. He closed his eyes and silently began wishing the old oak tree hadn’t been there after all.

  •  

“Don’t think that just because he’s a kid, I won’t have the police down here. Boys like that could use a little jail time to straighten them up.”

Oscar nudged his bedroom door open a little further. He could see Mr. McToabert standing in their kitchen, one hand planted firmly on his hip. He wasn’t a tall man, but even so he had to look down at Aunt Lill as he waggled a finger at her. His bald head and round face were already a beet red. He looked like an angry toad, holding his breath. 

“When I was growing up,” he said, “I knew better than to pull something like this. And if I ever did, the police were the least of my worries. I had respect for other people’s property. And if I forgot that, my father and his leather belt were around as a reminder. A dad makes all the difference. That’s a big part of that boy’s problem right there if you ask me.”

Oscar’s shoulders tightened. It wasn’t his fault his dad was gone. People die. It happens.

Aunt Lill calmly ran her fingers through her grey hair. “I’m sure your father was a fine man. And I’m just as upset with Oscar as you are. I’ll deal with his punishment. He won’t be going up to the storage room and disturbing your things again, Mr. McToabert.”

“Well who’s going to pay for all the damages? Do you have any idea how much lumber I’ve got laying all over the ground now?”

“You can add a few dollars to our rent until it’s paid off. But not too much though. I’m afraid we’re just scraping by as it is. And you said yourself a lot of the boards were still fine.”

Mr. McToabert snorted. “I can maybe save some. But they’re five stories down from where I need them. Do you know what it costs to have lumber like that hauled up steps? Most of it won’t fit in the elevator. The labor alone is going to be more than your rent.”

“I’m sure we can work out some kind of payment plan. I’ll pay for it all, no matter how long as it takes.”

“Winter’s coming. I don’t have that kind of time. I could have you evicted for something like this. The lease clearly states that damages to the facilities are grounds for eviction.”

Oscar didn’t want to move again. They had moved enough already. Usually it wasn’t for something like this though. Usually it was the other reason. He pulled his red ball cap down further.

Mr. McToabert’s voice was rising. “You’ve only been here two weeks. And I told you when you moved in I won’t put up with vandals and hoodlums. That boy’s trouble. Always wandering around in the woods over by Cullvert creek. What’s he up to back there anyway? I don’t trust kids with too much time on their hands. And that nonsense he told us tonight about some magic window. We all went up and looked. You saw for yourself; there’s nothing there. He’s a liar and a bad egg. Plain and simple.”

Aunt Lill rocked back on her stumpy legs. She was a short woman with narrow shoulders and a rather round body; not exactly an imposing figure. But when her neck went stiff like that Oscar knew what was coming.

“He made a mistake, Mr. McToabert. I already told you, I’ll take care of the damages and his grounding. He doesn’t need to be in jail and he certainly doesn’t need a leather belt. He could have been seriously injured tonight. Or worse. Did you ever think about that?”

Oscar pursed his lips. Sure Aunt Lill could be tough on him sometimes, but he knew how much she really cared. He was lucky to have her in his life.

Mr. McToabert took a step back. Apparently, he hadn’t expected to have a fight on his hands. But his face was redder than ever. “The storage loft is clearly marked with construction signs and a barrier. Everything is right up to letter of the city safety code. There’s no negligence on my part, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m the victim here. If you can’t pay, I’m perfectly within my rights to have you both out on the street.”

Aunt Lill leaned back, widening her stance. A sure sign she was digging in for round two.

Oscar pushed the door open. “It was my fault. I’ll help clean it up.”

His aunt sucked in a breath. “That’s nonsense, Oscar. You’re not old enough for that kind of work. And besides, school starts tomorrow.”

“I can carry lumber up steps. And it’s just the first week of school. They never give us much in the beginning anyway. I’ll get my homework done before.”

Mr. McToabert pulled his hand over his bald head. “I was paying my nephew, Butchy to help. He’s about your age. Course he’s not all spindly like you. But he’s as lazy as they come. His mother babies him too much.”

“I’m not lazy, sir. And you don’t have to pay me anything.”

“I don’t know about this,” Aunt Lill said.

Mr. McToabert rubbed his fat chin “Little hard work might be just the thing for him.”

Oscar could see the man figuring out in his head how much money he would save with a worker who couldn’t complain and never got paid.

“Okay, then,” Mr. McToabert said. “I’ll even let him wait until this weekend to get started. It’ll take that long for the new drywall to come in anyway. But you’ll work whatever hours I tell you to. No belly-aching.”

Oscar nodded.

Mr. McToabert grunted a final time. He even sounded like a toad. He left without saying another word.

Aunt Lill folded her hands in front of her. “You didn’t have to do that, Oscar. We could have paid.”

Oscar knew that was a lie.

“You told me to stay out of the loft. I should have listened.”

“What were you doing up there anyway?”

“Nothing. Just curious I guess.” He didn’t want to tell her about the small cloth bag. Especially after the disappearance of the strange window. It was impossible, but it was gone when they went back and looked.

 His aunt rolled her shoulders. “Well, you’ve set yourself up for a tough week.”

“A little hard work will be good for me, right? Old McToady even said so?”

Aunt Lill frowned. “Oscar Whitowick. You of all people should know better than to make fun of people’s appearances. Mr. McToabert is not a toad. He’s just a little upset right now. And besides, it’s not the peel of the fruit that counts –”

“I know, I know. It’s what’s inside that matters most. Mom used to say the same corny thing to me all the time.”

“Yeah, well don’t think volunteering for lumber duty gets you off the hook. You really scared me, tonight. What would have happened if you didn’t get caught up in that tree?” She held out a stubby finger. “One week. No TV and no electronics.”

Oscar closed his eyes and nodded. It was a light sentence. She was taking pity on him.

“All right,” Aunt Lill said. “It’s late. Get to bed before I come to my senses and realize a leather belt really is the best thing for you.” She tried to make it sound serious, but Oscar caught the small smile on her face as she turned away.

“Thanks, Aunt Lill. Love you. Good night.”

A window at the end of the hall looked out over the courtyard. He stared at the gnarled old oak tree. It had to be at least 25 feet to the nearest branches. It was hard to believe he fell that far out.

He shook his head.

One thing was for sure though. It would be a big day for him tomorrow. He had plenty of experience with first days at new schools. They could either make you or break you. He sat down on his bed and pulled open the nightstand drawer. Inside lay the small cloth bag of dust.

He missed her so much.

He fell asleep that night wondering if he would dream about his mom and the bag of dust again. But he didn’t. Instead, he dreamed he was standing in the middle of his new classroom wearing nothing but his underwear and his red ball cap. As it turned out though, things would actually be much worse than that.

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