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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 Jacob—would you pay to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Jacob sends the first chapter of The Freerunners

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I’m trying a new poll approach. It occurred to me that asking if a narrative is “compelling” is a bit abstract. A sterner test is to ask if you would pay good money for to turn the page. With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So that’s the question: would you pay that much to read the rest of the chapter? I won’t charge you, of course, but that’s the hurdle. Don't let genre/content affect your vote, decide on the basis of storytelling strength.

Please tell me in comments if you like/don't like this approach. Now for the first page:

It was the screaming next door that woke Caleb in the middle of the night. His eyes were wide open in an instant. The shriek was coming from barely metres away, its brutal pain seeping through the shabby walls around him. Caleb strained to sit upright; all the feeling in his arms and legs had disappeared. His heartbeat had erupted into a gallop, thumping like a caged animal beneath his chest. Any moment he expected someone to burst through the door and put him out of his misery.

That’s just the way things went in Groveville.

Then the scream turned to a sob, and Caleb could just make out a baby weeping. A man in the hallway was shouting in a foreign language, and much crashing and smashing could be heard. Swiftly the voice was cut off. Caleb was tempted to go out and see what was going on, but the action came to him first. He opened his door, gripping the handle very tight, and a bearded man named Rodriguez who lived across the hall was standing there to greet him.

Caleb raised his hands in defence, but there was something unnatural about the situation. Rodriguez made no attempt to move inside, and simply stood there with empty eyes and an awkward frown. Only when Caleb looked down did he see the end of a machete protruding through the man’s chest, blood seeping out in the dim light. Caleb stepped back, shock painted on his face, and Rodriguez toppled forward, face planting against the carpet. Caleb looked up, (snip)

If you could, would you pay 30 cents to read the rest of this chapter?

Well, talk about story questions! This opening did a fine job for this reader in provoking a need to know more about what the heck is going on here (even though there is a clarity issue to be resolved). I think the narrative could be crisper, too, but there are easy fixes. Notes:

It was the sScreaming next door that woke Caleb in the middle of the night. His eyes were wide open in an instant. The shriek was coming came from barely metres away, its brutal pain seeping through the shabby walls around him. Caleb strained to sit upright; all the feeling in his arms and legs had disappeared. His heartbeat had erupted into a gallop, thumping like a caged animal beneath his chest. Any moment he expected someone to burst through the door and put him out of his misery. Doesn’t seem like a shriek with brutal pain would “seep” through a wall. Wouldn’t it, for example, knife or stab through?

That’s just the way things went in Groveville.

Then the scream turned to a sob, and Caleb could just make out a baby weeping. A man in the hallway was shouting shouted in a foreign language, and much crashing and smashing could be heard. Swiftly the voice was cut off. Caleb was tempted to go out and see what was going on, but the action came to him first. He opened his door, gripping the handle very tight, and a bearded man named Rodriguez who lived across the hall was standing there to greet him. How can he be opening the door when his arms and legs have no feeling in them? Seems it would be really tough to walk and open a door.

Caleb raised his hands in defence, but there was something unnatural about the situation. Rodriguez made no attempt to move inside, and simply stood there with empty eyes and an awkward frown. Only when Caleb looked down did he see the end of a machete protruding through the man’s chest, blood seeping out in the dim light. Caleb stepped back, shock painted on his face, and Rodriguez toppled forward, face-planting against the carpet. Caleb looked up, (snip) Point of view slip in the “shock painted on his face” line—he can’t see what his face looks like if we’re in close third person POV.

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:

. . . his hands shaking. The masked killer in front of him yanked out the bloodied machete.

He stood before Caleb and cleaned his weapon of gore, not proud or ashamed of the murder just committed. He was simply doing his job, and the bearded man had gotten in the way. Now with the threat safely removed, he whispered to Caleb in a raspy voice, “The Growlers hunt tonight. You’d best get back to bed.” All Caleb could do was nod, and the Growler pulled the body outside before closing the door.

For a moment, confusion struck Caleb, but then he understood what had happened, and relief flooded his weary bones; he was going to be all right. The Growlers might be one of the harsher gangs in the city, but they were fair if you kept cool and minded your own business. The reprieve quickly turned cold and cruel though, the woman’s quavering voice next-door bringing him back to reality, “No! Take me instead!” There was a dull thud, and the plea was replaced with a monotonous moaning.

The baby’s crying picked up again, and now there was running in the hallway, the child’s sobbing moving further and further away until it was no more. Suddenly it was all very silent, the apartment residents contemplating what had happened: this wasn’t the first midnight abduction they had witnessed. That didn’t stop Caleb’s eyes from welling up though; he felt devastated for that poor woman.

The Growlers didn’t hunt for fun, only for profit in the form of manpower.

That meant the tearful woman next door would never see her child again. If she did, it would only be on the unfortunate end of a gun or knife.

That’s just the way things went in Groveville.

 

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2. What, exactly, is a “high-concept” story?

MountainWhat the heck do literary agents mean when they specify wanting “high-concept” stories? I used to work in the film biz in Los Angeles and even I don’t know what it means. Luckily, an article titled “Writer Better: the 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories” by Jeff Lyons is here to educate.

This is the list, but I suggest digging into the article for greater understanding. Interestingly, he says that you don’t have to hit every point to still “qualify.” Check it out.

  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 (to a broad general audience, or a large niche market).

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

Add a Comment
3. Flogometer for Georgia—would you pay to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Georgia sends the first chapter of Sex, Love, Knife, Spoons

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I’m trying a new poll approach. It occurred to me that asking if a narrative is “compelling” is a bit abstract. A sterner test is to ask if you would pay good money for to turn the page. With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So that’s the question: would you pay that much to read the rest of the chapter? I won’t charge you, of course, but that’s the hurdle. Don't let genre/content affect your vote, decide on the basis of storytelling strength.

Please tell me in comments if you like/don't like this approach. Now for the first page:

Valerie saw herself as one of the fun moms, and it was a lot of pressure. On school mornings, she served up caterpillar ice cream sundaes with gummy worm antennae. She ordered improbable toys from midnight infomercials. She kept a bubblegum machine decorated like a Christmas tree in the living room. When summer vacation came, she and the only object for her endless self-reflection, Anna, slathered themselves in baby oil and sat on beach chairs in the front yard, drinking chilled Slim Fast.

“You never know when love might come along,” she told her daughter, smiling at the meter inspector as he disappeared around the side of the house. Anna put aside Farmer Budd's Seed and Flower Catalogue and watched her mom transform into someone magnetic and interesting, though she had her doubts about the meter man. She reached over and adjusted her mom's hat so it sat at a perky angle.

When Anna grew up and came home with not a first-mistake boyfriend (preferably a young man with a penchant for Wranglers, cowboy boots, and honky-tonks on the turnpike), but a child-sized excellence award from her woodworking class, Valerie tried to recall actually giving birth to her daughter and remembered nothing but cherry popsicles and no-skid socks.

For years she examined Anna, searching for signs she belonged to someone much (snip)

If you could, would you pay 30 cents to read the rest of this chapter?

The voice is likeable and the writing clean, always good to see here at FtQ. But I had issues. The point of view was confusing—we seem to be in Valerie’s pov at first, but then it shifts to Anna’s (she watches her mom) and then back to Valerie. A bit of head-hopping on the first page isn’t a strong invitation to proceed. Beyond that, though, there’s not much in the way of story questions here, nor a sign of a story. It serves as setup wrought with some charm, but that’s about it. Anna later goes off to France to attend a cooking school, and I’m guessing that’s where the story is. But it doesn’t seem to be on the first page. Think about it, Georgia, and start your story where something happens to Anna that forces her to react and take some kind of risk to set things right.

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 Georgia

 

Continued

. . . more mundane than herself. “I'm probably living a television mini-series in the making,” she whispered to a friend one night as they watched Anna fix the kitchen sink, reeking of marijuana. “I mean, they could have given me the wrong one. Lord knows I never would have noticed.”

“I love you, too, Mom,” Anna called from under the sink.

“Thank you, beloved. I mean it in the best way possible.”

When Anna turned twenty and took a part-time job at a furniture upholstery shop run by two lesbians and their overweight pit bull, Valerie all but gave up.

“Without so much as a sneeze in a higher educational direction,” Valerie said to the beauty parlor at large, surrounded by soothing sights and sounds. She spent most of her days either in the beauty parlor or ruminating on her next trip. “Now, I know God only gives us challenges we're equal to. But sometimes when I think of that girl I worry what His plan is exactly.”

Betty, Anna's best friend, nodded sympathetically, holding her hands still as planks on the manicure table. “I'm sure she's not as happy as she seems to be.”

“Single people are never happy. Trust me.” Valerie sighed. In spite of life's challenges, she knew she was blessed. Not everybody had her knack for shouldering the weight of the world.

While her mom and Betty fretted, Anna was sitting on an antique daybed in her garage, staring at a practically demolished nineteenth century ottoman. An older gentleman with a friendly handshake had brought it into the furniture repair shop the previous week, and Anna had taken it on as a pity case. A few electric fans whined in near harmony, blowing humid air over her half-finished whiskey sour. She wiped her face with her sleeve and aimed her power drill at the ottoman, pressing the trigger encouragingly.

“We'll get you fixed up in no time,” she reassured the ottoman. “Just you wait and see.”

Her phone rang. She set down the drill.

“Is this Anna Reynolds?” a British-sounding voice asked.

Anna straightened. British people always seemed so much more official than American ones. “This is she.”

 “This is Juliette Gardner. I'm sorry to call out of the blue like this, but I've got some terribly sad news.” The woman took a deep breath. It gave Anna just enough time to be entirely gripped by dread. “Your uncle, Benjamin Reynolds, has passed away.”

“What?” Anna stared into space, concentrating with all her attention on the voice at the other end of the line.

“Six months ago.”

“Six months ago?” Anna picked up her drink, went inside and wedged herself into her couch pillows. She pulled a cushion to her chest. The living room was heavy with the smell of the microwaved bacon she had eaten for lunch.

“In a plane crash. In Kenya. Well, somewhere south of Kenya. East of Burundi, at least. Definitely west of Zanzibar.”

There was a pause. Anna didn't know what to say.

The woman called Juliette spoke. “I'm very sorry.”

“It's alright,” Anna said, feeling shocked and vaguely guilty. She downed her whiskey sour and spoke through the ice cubes. “I haven't seen him in years.”

“In any case,” Juliette continued, “I was going back through his files when I found something for you.” She cleared her throat. “You know your uncle was a fine chef.”

“Mm,” Anna said. All she knew about her Uncle Benji was from his postcards, which usually featured pictures of inappropriately clad Europeans. Her mom kept them taped to the inside of the liquor cabinet door for when she needed a good laugh.

“And he also taught classes at Hubert de Challes.” There was a pregnant pause. Juliette seemed to be waiting for some kind of response, so Anna obliged.

“Aha,” she said.

“Do you know about Hubert de Challes?”

Anna was one-hundred-percent positive she'd never met anyone by that name. “Maybe?”

Juliette sniffed. “Not to worry, dear. It's just the most famous cooking school in the world.”

Anna eyed the box of toaster pastries in the kitchen. All this chef-talk was making her hungry.

You're supposed to feel sad, she told herself. Not hungry.

“Your uncle wanted to give you this at your high school graduation.” Anna heard Juliette flip a page. “It's terrible he didn't live long enough.”

“At my graduation?”

“Just one minute, dear.” Anna heard further flipping of pages. “It was supposed to be some sort of gap year present.”

“I graduated from high school two years ago.” Anna got up and considered not making a second whiskey sour. She always tried to at least consider it, for the sake of her liver's mental well-being.

“Goodness. Two years ago. Righty-o then.” Juliette cleared her throat. “Your uncle has left you a fully paid tuition to Hubert de Challes. The cooking school you've never heard of. And a small allowance. For nine months of cuisine training.”

“I'm sorry?”

“And it's in France.”

“In France?” As in France, the country? It had been at least a decade since Anna had thought about France. The last time it had crossed her mind she'd been in tenth grade, listening to Mr. Thomas rant about the price of respectable cheese. Mr. Thomas wore pleated khaki pants and always stood with one leg propped on a chair, his pants-bulge looming in some unfortunate student's face. Anna had taken a silent oath to despise anything Mr. Thomas showed even a fleeting interest in. France had been one of those things.

Juliette sounded amused. “It's not a prison sentence, dear. It's an exclusive education. Sought after by thousands, dreamt of by, well, tens of thousands. At least that many. You'll study classic French cuisine with some of the world's finest living chefs.”

Even though Anna was young, she knew that just because something was sought after by tens of thousands didn't make the thing worth having. After all, tens of thousands sought after things like face tattoos and blonde hair. “Would I have to go right away?”

“Yes, dear. Tuition has been paid in full for the fall semester, which starts in a month. Next year it goes up another five thousand, so unless you'd like to pay the difference I suggest you get your American bottom across the pond. I'll give you some time to think about it. Talk to you in a week.”

When Anna hung up the phone, she unhooked her overall strap and yanked absentmindedly. Cooking school? France? The land of respectable cheese? It was the type of thing people did when they got divorced. Or fired. Or had a midnight yearning of the soul.

Anna wasn't experiencing any of those things. Not even close.

“Uncle Benji died,” she told her toaster. “And he thinks I should go to cooking school.” She gave in and made a second whiskey sour and shuffled to her bedroom. After a moment sprawled on the bed, she phoned her best friend Betty for emergency daiquiris at Saint Michael's, the smoky pub down the street. They were installed at their favorite duct-tape table within half an hour.

“You can't just move to France,” Betty said, adjusting her skirt. Anna could smell Betty's hairspray from across the table. “You'd move and never come back to start college.”

“It's okay,” Anna said, sipping her strawberry daiquiri, her head pounding to the beat of scream-core. Sunday night at Saint Michael's was always a bit of an event. “I don't really care about getting a degree.”

“Yes you do. I promise.”

“Betty, you know why I've avoided college. It's not my fault.”

Betty sighed. “I know you think you're just a cog in the scholastic machine, Annie, but you're not. You should go to college because you love entrepreneurship and want to study business models and move to New York.”

Anna smiled and patted Betty's hand. “That's what they want me to think.”

Betty rolled her eyes. “Not everything is a capitalist plot, Annie.”

A woman wearing a nose ring stomped past. Anna stared absentmindedly at the woman's neck tattoo, which featured a can of something called WHOOP ASS. There she goes, Anna thought. Another one of the tens of thousands. “Maybe I should go to cooking school.”

“Annie, you're not miserable enough to go abroad,” Betty said in an exasperated voice. “You broke up with Tony nine months ago. And stopped thinking about him eight months ago. You have a perfectly nice job at the furniture shop. You're going to get your degree. Someday. For your mother's sake if not your own.”

“And?”

“And people who drop everything to go off and find themselves are desperate, Annie! They're not normal, friendly people who are perfectly comfortable with themselves!”

“Good point.” Anna ordered another round of daiquiris, and Betty tried not to look too pleased with her own logic.

After an epic journey home, during which Anna and Betty wrapped their blistered feet in five dollar bills peed in the university fountain while singing Patsy Cline's Sweet Dreams of You, Anna woke up to a handful of days that ticked past like a stack of cards being shuffled. Summer settled over Atlanta. The pavement went soft and even the love bugs looked thirsty.

A few mornings after drinks with Betty, Anna fixed herself two packets of toaster pastries and a cup of hazelnut coffee. On the way to meet her mom at the beauty parlor she hummed along to the Weekly Top 40, congratulating herself on having made the adult decision.

“If it ain't broke, don't move to France,” she muttered to herself, patiently waving a group of Jehovah's witnesses across the intersection. They looked very hot in their black suits.

Once inside the beauty parlor, Anna stopped breathing. At least, she tried. She avoided her mom's plastic-wrapped head as she swooped in.

“Watch my nails, beloved,” Valerie said, holding out her arms and bumping her chest against Anna's stomach.

“I can't believe Uncle Benji's dead,” Anna said, hugging her mom. They sat on a laminated couch and Valerie placed her hands very gently against her thighs. The fumes of hair bleach and nail polish remover swooped through the air, and Anna found herself wondering if a lifelong exposure to beauty parlors meant her offspring would come out with three arms and fifteen toes.

“Of course he's dead. He's been on his ninth life for fifteen years, Annie. And then he goes dabbling in tribal hallucinogens. And decides he can fly a plane. Please.”

“Poor thing.”

Valerie harrumphed. “Poor thing, gallivanting off to France. Poor thing, becoming a top chef. Poor thing, leaving all his money to charity.” She said it as though leaving money to charity was the same as leaving money to a black magic cult.

The stylist waved Valerie off to the wash sink. Anna considered whether or not to tell her mom about Juliette's offer.

Nah, she thought. Don't want her to feel left out.

She picked up a magazine from the stack spread over the table. She flipped past “Handy Tips for a Helluvah Hand-job” and “Mini Cupcakes in a Hot Minute!” to an article titled “How to be French.”

“What serendipity,” Anna muttered. She looked at the laughably long list of books a French girl was supposed to have read while splitting her time between searching for the perfect doorknob (Never too old, never too new) or learning to drink wine and remain articulate (hardly one of Anna's strong points).

A real French girl remembers to always be fuckable, even at the grocery store. You never know who might be watching!

“Good god.” It sounded like a smutty version of her mother. With mixed feelings, Anna turned the page.

A real French girl always embraces her faults. If she abhors the sight of her naked derrière, she simply walks sideways into the room. A real French girl relishes her differences! Vive la difference!

Feeling confused, Anna flipped to the front of the magazine. It all seemed earnest enough. She turned back to the article.

A French girl's boyfriend, who's never too muscular but always holding a heavy book, is a bad boy. Remember, forgiveness is a woman's best quality, no matter her nationality!

Anna shuddered. She looked at the photo of the French girl (who looked both incredibly hungry and perfectly smug). She scanned the rest of the article, her distaste growing.

“Dodged that bullet,” she said firmly, closing the magazine with a sniff and shoving it as far underneath the flurry of magazines as she could.

Her mom dropped into the chair next to her, thrumming with the delight of the newly transformed. She struck a pose. “What do you think? It's called Magenta Madness.”

“That kind of off-purple looks great on you, Mom.”

“Thank you, sweetheart. Goes with my nails, too. Isn't that nice?” Valerie held out her hands, then yanked a magazine from the pile and squinted at a photo of older stars in bathing suits. She held out the spread and pointed at a pair of suspiciously perky breasts. “Small is the new gazumba, Annie. I'm giving serious thought to following the crowd.”

 

After the terrifying article about French people, Anna was even happier with her decision. She spent the rest of the afternoon reupholstering the antique ottoman with the television on for company. She'd almost lost track of time itself when she heard shouting.

“You bloody idiot!” came from the television. “You call that a rump roast? I call that a $!§&@ of a bloody &$*!!”

Anna glanced up just in time to see a chef throw an entire suckling pig at one of his employees. It missed the man's head and bashed a hole in the kitchen wall.

“Good lord,” she said, changing the channel. “Poor little pig.”

On the screen, a woman in a sparkling clean pair of jeans crouched next to a sparkling clean chicken coop. Anna immediately forgot all about the upholstery project. “In order to discourage fox infiltration, a chicken coop must be securely screened. We suggest following the Meyers-Higgenson method of encapsulation...”

The following Sunday, Anna sat at her kitchen table with a chilled whiskey sour, looking over courses for the following semester. She was just deliberating which course sounded most unappealing (AMH2000: Genius, God, or Jackass? and FM2029: Self-Analysis in Short Shorts) when the phone rang.

“Hi, Anna. Juliette here, how are you?”

“I'm doing great, and yourself?”

“On deadline. So. When are you coming to Paris?”

Anna circled AMH2000. It was definitely the most obnoxious-sounding. There was nothing like a course register to make you never want to go to college. “I've thought about the offer, and decided that I can't move to France.”

“Hm.” Juliette sniffed. “Anna, you're the last item on my list before I clear this executor business off my plate. In that light, you and I are going to do an exercise. I want you to close your eyes. Now, imagine yourself in fifty years. Concentrate. What do you see?”

Anna closed her eyes and tried to think about her life from an objective, far-seeing perspective. “The same thing,” she said, “but with wrinkles?”

“Well, I see a woman who wasn't afraid to tempt fate.”

“You do?” Anna took a sip of her drink and let that idea settle in. She'd never really thought of herself as having a fate, much less as being the kind of person to tempt one.

“Alright, I might be seeing a vision of myself, but either way one thing is true, Anna.”

“What's that?”

“Nobody in the history of mankind has regretted going to Paris.”

Anna hoisted herself onto the kitchen counter. She put her feet in the sink. She could think of many people who probably regretted going to Paris (illegal immigrants, people with severe allergies to pollution, nineteenth-century aristocrats.) For a few long seconds, she mulled over her general aversion to moving to France, trying to give form to specific reasons why this was so. She settled on one rather inexorable point. “I can't cook.”

“What better way to learn than by going to cooking school?”

Anna reached into the cabinet and pulled out a cigar box. She unleashed another excellent point. “I don't speak French.”

“You're American, my dear. Nobody expects you to.”

Although Anna wasn't much for speed, one thing she could do very quickly and very well was roll a nice joint. She licked the seam and sparked her lighter. She took a deep breath, held it, and turned on the kitchen faucet, letting the water run until her feet were covered.

“Are you taking a bath?” Juliette asked.

Anna exhaled, her voice smoky and slightly asphyxiated. “I'm thinking.”

“Don't think. Just say yes. I'm looking at your ticket for the Other Woman. Nestled beside my manuscript. In an air-mail envelope, ready to be posted.”

Anna took another delicious puff, her head swimming pleasantly. In spite of herself, she liked talking to this Juliette person. She had such an efficient aura. “What's the Other Woman?”

Juliette gave a sigh that sounded almost reminiscent. “The Other Woman, my dear, is a cargo ship. A ship that crosses the Atlantic Ocean. Your uncle wanted you to have an adventure.”

Anna turned off the faucet. She wriggled her toes. She took a long, thoughtful drag. Never in her life had she encountered someone with such a bewitching voice. And cooking school was one thing, but a cargo ship? Full of sailors and boxes of mysterious objects bound for mysterious destinations? She exhaled, the smoke drizzling through her lips.

“I can hear the 'yes' forming in your mouth,” Juliette said. “Just let it free. Say you'll come. I'll pick you up at the train station in my converted milk truck.”

Juliette's seductive British voice made Anna completely forget all of her good reasons for not moving to France, and the terrifying article about real French girls, and the horrible cooking show with the poor little pig. She smiled and considered her joint in all its beauty. It was really one of her finest talents. “Okay.”

“Is that a yes?”

Anna took a deep drag and held it. “It's a yes.”

When she hung up, her leg muscles twitched as though she'd gone for a long jog.

“Did I just do that?” she asked the room at large. “I think I just did.” She laid the roach to one side and clambered out of the sink, feet still wet and slippery. She went to the garage, stood in front of the ottoman that would never be finished, sat down on the spilling stuffing, and about died laughing.

The idea that she could (easy as a snap!) pack her bags and catch a cargo ship bound for cooking school in France—it was hysterically funny. It seemed like something that would happen on television. Or like something that might happen if she woke up as a completely different person. Someone who knew how to cook, for example.

After forming new abdominal muscles from all the laughter, Anna suddenly felt far too sober. She went inside and climbed back into the sink. She lit the roach between a pair of tweezers and inhaled, looking for the buzz that had been killed. But the longer she sat on the counter, staring into space, the more she felt the pressure of inanimate presences that would have to be dealt with. She waved at her toaster, sensing its judgment. It was about the only cooking utensil she knew how to use. “Don't worry,” she said. “I'm not leaving you behind.”

The toaster looked at her pointedly.

She picked up the phone.

“But she bribed me,” she told Betty, running more cool water into the sink. “I am a victim here. Cooking school in France I can resist—but a trip across the Atlantic on a cargo ship?”

“You are so weird.”

“Am not.”

Betty paused, considering. “No, you're not. Not really. But you're also not tortured, Annie, and that's my point. You don't need to go off to foreign parts. Sure, your uncle died, but it might as well have been my uncle.”

“Hey, I loved Uncle Benji.”

“What's his middle name?”

Anna wriggled her toes.

“What's his favorite animal?”

Anna stared accusingly at her broken window unit and waved air across her sticky face. “People don't have favorite animals, Betty. Not unless they're five.”

“My favorite animal—”

“Is a double-breasted cormorant, I know. My point exactly.” Anna sat up straight. “Betty, I'm going to cross the Atlantic on a cargo ship. Full of cargo. It's going to be absolutely amazing.”

Betty sighed. “Alright. Fine. You win. But I'm going to the store. To buy you a jumbo pack of Dramamine. You'll thank me later when you're puking your guts up for ten weeks.”

“This isn't 1785,” Anna said. “It doesn't take ten weeks to cross the Atlantic, it takes ten days. I'm also not going to die of Lyme disease or get wooed by a captain with one leg.”

“Annie, you've never crossed the state line. What do you know about crossing oceans?”

It was a valid point.

 

At her mom's house, the sun was setting across the azalea bushes, tinting the fuzzy leaves with gold. The heat pressed on the house, promising rain. The dishes from Sunday dinner waited in the sink, forgotten.

“You're leaving.” Her mom held up a roll of rose-scented trash bags. “That's what you want these for?”

“Yes.”

Valerie shoved the bags back under the sink. “I told you something was wrong. You've been acting like a prisoner at her last meal all night long.”

Anna sighed. “It's only nine months.”

“I've got to think this over. Give myself some time to digest. I want you to have some fun, but cargo ships? Sailors? France?”

“It sounds pretty fun, doesn't it?”

“Beloved, it's your decision. My opinion is just my opinion.”

This was categorically untrue, and Anna knew it well. She tried to block the burgeoning lecture with compliments.

“You're the best, Mom. And your hair looks just as good as it did in the parlor.” Anna retrieved the trash bags and put them in her purse.

Valerie froze in the middle of the kitchen, her house slippers bright pink against the linoleum. “Annie, why would you want to move someplace where they don't speak English? Is that what I brought you up for? To be surrounded by people who have no idea what you're talking about?”

As usual, Anna responded to her mom's rapid-fire guilt trip by exiting the room. She went to the back porch and sat on the wicker couch she'd reupholstered when she was sixteen. The crickets competed with the frogs to see who could make the most racket. She slapped a mosquito that had landed on her face and thought about her dad. Much like Uncle Benji, he was more of a photo on a bedroom table than an actual person who had once been alive. She wondered what he would think about the whole thing.

“I've got a bad feeling about this,” her mom said, settling into her rocking chair. “In my stomach. Feels like a big rock.”

“Mom, you're going to be fine.”

Her mom nodded in the dark. “It's probably just ulcerative colitis.”

 

“Goodbye, toaster,” Anna said, plunking her toaster into a cardboard box, pretending she hadn't once promised she'd take it with her to France. “Goodbye, spoon.” She tossed her sole wooden cooking spoon next to her toaster.

“Well.” She looked for something else to pack and realized she had finished.

Around her feet, the contents of her life waited like various breeds of dog headed for a kennel. She could feel the resentment.

“Alright, guys,” she said, sitting on a cardboard box half-full of clothes. It collapsed. She sat, bottom entrenched, and stared at her kitchen. “I'm going to miss you,” she told the room at large. “I really am. But you'll survive without me.”

Her mom knocked on the door. Anna glanced at the clock. It was very unlike her mom to be on time. Anna hoped the early arrival wasn't a bad omen.

Valerie waited at the door, wearing a suspiciously large pair of sunglasses. “You're driving,” she told Anna. “I am in no shape to be behind the wheel.”

All the way to the airport, Anna played 'Teach Your Children' on repeat. Her mom didn't notice. At the McDonald's drive-through, Anna rolled down her window and didn't roll it back up, hoping the noise of the highway might drown out anything her mom might regret saying.

Valerie munched on her nuggets. “You know I love a good meal as much as the next person, Annie. But cooking school is a lot of money to spend on something you could just do at home. All I'm saying is, did you really need to sell your car? And quit your job?”

Anna didn't reply. Her mom had suddenly started treating Anna's job as thought it was not a dead-end black hole of pointlessness (as she usually did) but some golden parachute that Anna had just proceeded to stab a bunch of holes in.

“You know I'm a very positive person,” her mom said, “but let's face it. You just auctioned away your life and now you're jumping off a cliff.”

“Mom, you're going to be fine.” Anna thought about the five beautifully rolled joints taped to the inside of her underwear. She really should have left one un-taped for emergencies.

“Easy for you to say. You're the one who's leaving.”

Most of the time, Anna felt like talking to her mom was like talking to the opposite of a shrink. Instead of each feeling under discussion being turned into a space for investigation, with her mom there were no questions or feelings, only life according to Valerie. It was, on occasion, endearing. Anna leaned over and kissed her mom on the temple.

“Watch the road, watch the road,” her mom said, grabbing the steering wheel.

In the airport parking lot, Anna's mom dug a pair of high heels from her purse and put them in her lap. “Call me as soon as you get to New Orleans. Before you get on an oil rig full of,” she put a fluttering hand over her heart and took a steadying breath, “sailors.”

“The Other Woman,” Anna corrected. “A cargo ship. Full of oranges.”

Valerie waved her hand distractedly, eyes closed behind the sunglasses. “Should I cry now or wait until later?”

Anna got out of the car, walked around, and opened the passenger door. She crouched down and hugged her mom. While pretending not to cry, Valerie gulped air and changed her shoes.

“I don't like you driving home like this,” Anna told her. She patted her mom on the head.

“Well, I don't like you moving to France.” Valerie kissed her on the cheek and burped. “Damn hiccups.”

While her mom trailed behind, torn between admiration for the airport's shopping center and utter misery, Anna decided that airports were really strange. She passed a line of high leather chairs where white men reading newspapers got their shoes polished by black men. Flight attendants, traveling in flocks, wore masks of enameled lipstick and waterproof eyeliner. Their high heels clicked like a baseball card caught in a bicycle spoke. Being in an airport was like being magically transported to the 1960s. Anna looked forward to her very first liftoff.

“Maybe you'll meet that someone special,” her mom said as Anna checked in her luggage. This was the same thing she had said to persuade Anna to go to college, because in Valerie's world the only point in opening a book was if it lead to matrimony. “Maybe he'll be French.” Her tone implied that this would be similar to meeting and falling in love with a surprisingly friendly prison guard with four teeth and no middle name, but that beggars couldn't be choosers.

“Maybe,” Anna said absently.

“That's what happens, you know,” her mom said, her voice a warning laced with envy. “I've been reading up on it. When you go to a foreign country, you fall straight in love with some adulterer on a scooter.” She pulled out a packet of band-aids and indicated a bench just before security. “Mind if we pull over? These shoes are ripping my heels to shreds.”

They sat. Valerie set the world record for longest band-aid application. Anna rested her head on her mom's shoulder, her muddled emotions quietly being overtaken by excitement. Finally, Valerie let loose the waterworks.

“I don't think you should go,” she said, blowing her nose and dabbing under her sunglasses. “I think this is a really bad idea.”

“I know you do.” Anna snorted and wiped her face on her sleeve.

“Manners, Annie,” her mom said, holding out her used handkerchief.

Anna blew her nose properly and handed back the hankie. “I love you, Mom.”

This was when Valerie lost the ability to speak entirely. She spent the next twenty minutes waving and mouthing silent advice as she watched Anna disappear past security.

Within an hour Anna was buckled into seat 23A, which hovered above the state of Georgia by the pure force of mystery. She ordered tomato juice and accidentally received a Bloody Mary that was so good she decided to order another one, without even a second's hesitation. When they landed in New Orleans, she was ready for anything.

The docks were hot, flat, and smelled like fish that had been left out on a windowsill. Up close, the cargo ship looked like a city block stacked with box houses. The dark grey hull seemed to stretch past the sunset.

“Holy mackerel,” she said, looking up into the distance. “That's a lot of boat.”

A nice young man from Indonesia met her on the dock and directed her to a small cabin, which was lined in pale wood. She dropped her bag, checked out the bathroom (which had a full-size tub), and headed out to explore.

Inside the belly of the ship, men in colorful jumpsuits cleaned floors and scrubbed equipment. As Anna passed they nodded at her shoes, looking slightly hostile and very underwhelmed. One of them directed her to the captain's deck, which was up a flight of spiral stairs.

It was there, looking over the Gulf of Mexico, standing next to the control area (which had been entirely laminated with soft pornography), thinking about the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean, that she met him.

His name was Francisco. He was short, tan, smelled like chili powder and spoke five languages. In the ten days aboard the Other Woman, they shared a lifetime's worth of feelings. Maybe it was being on a ship on an endless ocean, with the sun and the salt and the enormous, mysterious tubes running through the galleys like intestines, but everything carried a tone of fleeting sensuality, of the here, of the now, of the this-won't-last-so-get-it-while-it's-hot.

Maybe it was simply that Francisco was a chain-smoking sailor. Or Peruvian. Or a total babe. Whatever it was, Anna crossed the ocean in a dreamy daze and left the ship brimming with goodwill for the world, for the French, for the future.

They landed in a port town called Le Havre, which was located across the Channel from England and a few hours northwest of Paris. Anna approached the city armed with a hotel reservation, a newly replenished stash of joints, and Juliette's British evaluation of the city itself.

“Most of the French love to hate Le Havre,” she'd told Anna. “It was bombed during the war, rebuilt by a man whose architectural slogan was 'concrete is beautiful', and named a UNESCO world heritage site for their cultural center that looks like a dirty white volcano. It's full of sailors, French tourists, and reasonably priced rum. It's possibly my favorite town in France, outside of Paris.”

After a car ride from the docks to a hotel named Voltaire where everything was yellow, Anna checked in and headed for the beach. She passed a church that looked like the Empire State building, found a boardwalk full of half-naked French people in expensive sandals, and decided to stop at one of the collapsible summer-only restaurants for her first cold beer in France. (“Beer,” Juliette had advised her, “is the same in most languages.”)

With her feet propped up on the sidewalk, sitting in a wooden lounge chair, under the hazy sun with a frosty beverage in hand, Anna thought about her voyage across the Atlantic. She watched the cargo ships burrow into the Le Havre harbor. She ordered a plate of french fries.

During her boat ride, she hadn't had much time to think about cooking school, or to wonder if kitchens would be as life-threatening as they were on reality TV. She had been much too busy getting her groove on. Of course, she wasn't the type of person to dwell on imminent doom and gloom while sitting in the sunshine, drinking a beer, so she decided not to think about whether her life was in mortal danger and let herself be distracted by the fat old men in speedos opposite the boardwalk who were playing a game that involved heavy metal balls and a magnet on a string.

The afternoon passed, and by the time deep shadows drew across the water and the clouds turned a vibrant golden pink, Anna was fully awake and ready for action. She went for a stroll and wound up in a tiki bar, where a Brazilian merchant marine who'd been aboard the Other Woman recognized her and decided to be madly in love with her for one night only. So Anna put on the proffered clown wig and danced all night to 1970s French disco, which was even worse than American disco (if such a thing were possible.) Shots of rum half-filled with cane sugar arrived at regular intervals on bamboo trays, bought by Anna didn't care who. The bar closed their front entrance and opened the back.

Just before sunrise, the Brazilian had vowed to marry her should she ever find herself in São Paulo and Anna decided that it was high time she catch her train to Paris. She grabbed her suitcase, checked out, and fell asleep while zooming through the Normandy countryside (full of cows.)

Add a Comment
4. Flogometer for Harris—would you pay to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Harris sends the first chapter of Graveling Fownd, a a supernatural/historical novel. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I’m trying a new poll approach. It occurred to me that asking if a narrative is “compelling” is a bit abstract. A sterner test is to ask if you would pay good money for to turn the page. With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So that’s the question: would you pay that much to read the rest of the chapter? I won’t charge you, of course, but that’s the hurdle. Don't let genre/content affect your vote, decide on the basis of storytelling strength.

Please tell me in comments if you like/don't like this approach. Now for the first page:

The louts were on my scent, aching for my blood, my filthy, abominable, devilish blood. But I was crafty as they come, as an imp of Satan should be.

I slipped beneath the jetty and crawled inside the mud-hole, sat like a gargoyle and cocked my head. Ears pricked, dismissing the rumble of carts, the hum of London’s Dock, the rush of the Thames River returning on the tide, I detected something more sinister – the sound of feet squelching across the mud-bank, growing louder.

If only I was invisible, wispy as a fog-spirit. If only I had wings...

A shadow darkened the mud-hole.

“You in there, Redbreast?” Ralph said, reaching inside. “Won’t hurt a bit, I promise.”

His fingers probed the sticky muck, brushed against my breeches. Shying away from the grubby things, I spotted something else, a creature creeping from the darkness. Sinuous and twitchy, the rat inched towards Ralph’s hand, sniffed his loutish scent. Pouncing like a cutthroat, it sank its teeth into loutish flesh.

Ralph shrieked, snatched his hand away. “Something bit me.”

His minions squealed, their voices young, highly pitched.

“Was it the Redbreast devil?”

“A mud-spirit?”

If you could, would you pay 25 cents to read the rest of this chapter?

An opening sentence that promises trouble ahead drew me quickly into this narrative, and I wasn’t disappointed. Strong voice, clean writing, and good story questions did the job for me. Not much in the way of notes, though I would delete the following: Shying away from the grubby things, I spotted something else, a creature creeping from the darkness. Good show. The remainder follows, and it holds up well, IMO. Thanks, Harris.

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 Harris

 

Continued:

Ralph grunted. “A rat, probably.”

“Don’t care for rats,” a tiny voice said. “Don’t care to stay neither.”

“But he’s here somewhere,” Ralph muttered, “somewhere close...”

“Can’t we get him later?”

“Can’t we get him when we ain’t starving?

Ralph sighed. “I suppose, but next time he gets the kiss.”

The others giggled.

“Kiss, kiss.”

“Smack, smack.”

Their voices trailed away, their sloppy footsteps diminished.

I poked my head outside, glanced about, crawled from the mud-hole and scrambled up. About to take off, I hesitated.

The rat had followed me out.

“You scared them proper,” I said, dropping to my haunches.

The rat rose up, sat on its hindquarters. Snout twitching and eyes blacker than poison, it reached out as if inquisitive, as if recognising me somehow.

I fished a stale bread sop from my shirt, handed it over and watched the creature sup. Tickled to see a blemish on its greasy coat, a shock of white on one foreleg, I grinned.

Perhaps we were alike, even a sort of kin. After all, were we both not vermin foraging amid the half-light? And were we both not malformed, our limbs marred by a defect that singled us out?

Straightening up, I left the rat in peace, trudged through the mud and mounted the abandoned jetty. After clattering along the planks, I reached the wooden fence.

Someone coughed. “Devils on your tail?”

He stood in shadow, leaning against the fence, his whiskers white and his clothes baggy, like sailors’ slops. In his hand, a fat pasty looked tempting.

“City’s overrun by devils,” he went on, biting into the crust. “Needs thinning out...”

I licked my lips.

“Even old Queen Bess,” he said. “Ain’t she reigned long enough? Ain’t she fit for the grave already? Should be dead and gone, I reckon, like the old century.”

I nodded towards the pasty. “That your supper?”

He almost smiled. “Fresh from the oven.”

I edged closer, aiming to grab it and run. When he broke the pasty in two and offered me half, I peered through the twilight, tried to examine his eyes but failed.

“Better not be a sneaky trick,” I said.

“You want it or not?”

I snatched the pasty and backed away, stuffed it into my mouth and scrambled over the fence. On solid ground, wolfing down my supper, I sped past the warehouses and up the Hangman’s Steps, slithered onto London’s Dock and melted into the crowd. Nimble as a night-spirit, a tomcat of the ether, I wove between wagons and porters with their carts, linkboys with their torches and traders jabbering, haggling over nonsense. On the hunt for foodstuffs, I came to the Crooked Tavern and paused. Beside the doorway, her lips crimson and her cheeks whitewashed, her skirts woollen and her bonnet feathered, a lady-strumpet loitered with a seaman.

I ducked behind a barrel, eyed the fruit basket by her feet.

Easy as pudding pie.

“So here’s the little Redbreast.”

Ralph’s club whistled past my ear, thudded against the barrel. Before he could swing again, I leapt up and fled, snaked between the barrels and whirled around a crane. Glancing back to find Ralph close, too close, I vaulted a mooring post and kicked my heels, flew like shot and almost reached the Tower Steps. Distracted by a beast beneath a burning torch, I faltered.

The beast was a goat, a humble white goat. Yet the way its coat glowed like a spectre... the way it stirred something long buried...

...seeded by Beelzebub...

I staggered, reeling from a blow to my back.

“Bonebreaker’s lonesome,” Ralph said, stroking his fearsome club. “Wants another kiss.”

I stumbled backwards, blundered into a fishing-net, tugged myself free but skidded on slimy fish innards. Balance lost and wailing like a harpy, I plunged headlong over the quay.

Yet I failed to fall, to die a muddy death. Confused, dangling like a kitten and staring down at the riverbed, I rose upwards, found myself plucked from oblivion and dumped back onto the dock.

Someone had me by the breeches.

“Let me go,” I said, wriggling.

The stranger released me. “Demands, from a tiddler?”

I bristled. “Ain’t no tiddler.”

“Then you’ve no need of help.”

I stared at Ralph, at the handful of minions catching up. Heads adorned with spindly twigs, they looked odd, like antlered forest sprites.

“They want me killed dead,” I muttered.

The gentleman seemed unmoved. “Because you’re a thief?”

I lifted my sleeve, revealed my withered arm. “’Cause I ain’t fit to live.”

“An abomination indeed...”

I looked him over, sized-up his topcoat and fine lavender ruff. Convinced he was no smelly sailor, I forced my lip to tremble. “Might you help?”

The gentleman inclined his head, stroked his beard as if considering. But then, abandoning me to fate, he wagged a finger and walked away.

Dock-folk skirted around us, averted their eyes.

“Nobody cares,” Ralph said, tapping his club. “All alone, little Redbreast.”

His minions flicked their tongues, hissed like vipers.

Ralph approached.

I stepped back, checked myself and stood tall. Was I not tough as pigskin and contemptuous of everything, including orphaned louts.

“You’re mine,” Ralph said.

I lifted my chin.  “Don’t belong to no one.”

He raised the club…

A phantom sprang from the shadows, moving fast, reached for the club and snatched it from Ralph’s hand. Amid a flurry of movement, the club swung back, cracked against the lout’s own skull. As Ralph buckled and dropped to his knees, the phantom flung the club away, whipped out a knife and pressed it to the lout’s throat.

I spied the lavender ruff.

“A maggot’s life is brief,” the gentleman said, scanning the waifs in turn. “The lives of a maggot’s followers are briefer.”

Astonished when he then took Ralph by the hair, hauled him to his feet, booted his backside and sent him and his pack scarpering, I gawped like an idiot.

“Does the little sprat have a name?” the gentleman asked, sauntering back.

I flustered, unable to believe a stranger had saved my skin twice, all within a matter of moments. “Some folks say... some folks call me cursed.”

He pocketed the blade and pulled out a handkerchief, folded something inside that resembled strands of hair – Ralph’s hair. “Do you work?”

“Don’t reckon I is able.”

“Yet the law says otherwise.”

My eyes narrowed. “You one of them constable men?”

“Is the little sprat afraid?”

“Ain’t afraid of nothing,” I said, straightening up.

“Not even if I were a hangman rounding up strays?”

I kept my nerve.

“Have faith,” he continued, his smile crooked. “Perhaps I’ve come as a saviour, if you would only bow down.”

“What’s that mean?”

He pointed towards a package, a cloth bundle on the deck. “If you’re able to carry that, I promise you dominion over the world. Or at least a roof over your head.”

I dashed to the bundle, curled my fingers around the twine, heaved the thing onto my back and grinned.

“Is my roof so desirable?” he asked.

Was it soppy to admit to daydreaming, to admit a home was too extraordinary to consider? “Don’t know, never had one.”

I followed behind like a servant, across the dock and up Tower Hill. Once alongside London’s Tower, its monstrous walls oppressive, even in daylight, the gentleman disappeared beneath an arch.

I approached and peeked inside, found a courtyard that was dark, enclosed, home to three houses so ancient the walls leaned, the timbers sloped. Ideal for murder, the place made me cautious.

“No dawdling,” the gentleman said.

I nipped across lumpy cobbles, reached the front step and looked up. Unable to read a painted sign above the door, I saw a dead rat by the step and leaned over, prodding it with my boot. Intrigued to find its belly open and innards gone, I stepped across the threshold and kicked the door shut, abandoned the bundle and crept along a corridor. Still wary, heading towards a light, I arrived at an open chamber.

Inside, the gentleman stood by a fireplace, fiddling with a pot suspended over glowing logs. When he dragged a golden basin from a closet, I got ready to run.

“Out of those rags,” he said.

“What for?”

“Because you reek.”

I shuffled over, peeled everything off, waited an eternity until the water began to simmer, until the air grew moist. Worried when the gentleman emptied the pot into the basin, added some scented stuff and threw a cloth at me, I knew the end was coming.

“Scrub everything,” he said.

I stared over the basin’s rim, cheeks flushed by evil steam. “Don’t like it one bit.”

“Neither does dirt.”

Still reluctant, clambering over the side, I plonked my feet into warm water and stood proud, like a soldier.

“The spirits are trembling,” he said, forcing me onto my behind. “But if you still smell like a dung-heap when you’re done, you won’t be sleeping there.”

Beside the fireplace, a box-like contraption made my heart leap. “A proper bed?”

“Even a straw mattress.”

I beamed, scrubbed until my flesh was raw and the water murky. Hoping I smelled sweet, I climbed from the basin and patted myself dry.

The gentleman grabbed my wrist.

I resisted.

“Suspicious of everything?” he said, showing me a tiny pot. “Even ointment?”

“If it’s wicked ointment.”

He shook his head, dabbed the ointment over my bruises. “Have you seen eight summers yet?”

I tried to think. “I seen a very great number.”

“Seven I suspect, hardly more than a hatchling.”

“But I ain’t no silly hatchling.”

“Then why no name?”

“’Cause my mother was a goat. And they don’t know nothing about names.”

“Your mother was a goat?”

I hung my head. “Means I got the Devil in me...”

He finished with the ointment and stepped towards a chest, lifted the lid and began rummaging inside. Naked, oozing leafy scent, I sat on the hearth and toasted my bones, glanced at the bed to my right, at the beamed ceiling above my head, at the shuttered window on one wall and the simple table and stools. Behind me, its brick surround fitted with an oven, the fireplace seemed alive, the chamber’s warm and fiery heart. Overwhelmed by such wonders, I also inspected the stranger who had sent my enemies scurrying, the saviour who had welcomed me into his home.

He was unnerving, at least for a saviour, his frame lean and his limbs willowy, his skin bloodless but his wrinkles few. His eyes were black and his nose sharp, his hair straight and his whiskers sparse, unable to mask lips that appeared thin, a mouth that appeared crooked. With shoulders stooped like those of a scribbler, fingers stained and clothing dusty, he seemed mysterious, a peculiar sort with a taste for dyed ruffs.

I shrugged, even if he did give me the shivers. After all, born ungodly and unaccustomed to kindness, should I not welcome his charity, embrace my good fortune? Determined to believe he was above-board and respectable – nothing like a crow eyeing up a carcass – I dismissed my doubts.

“My name is Graveling Fownd,” he said, flinging a shirt towards me. “You will fetch meals from taverns and water from the conduit. You will also answer the door and run errands. And you will do your best to keep the house tidy.”

I wriggled into the long shirt, tugged it below my knees. Patched and years past its best, the shirt was warm, far better than my rags.

“A warning,” he added, still rummaging in the chest. “You’re allowed everywhere but the cellar.”

“What’s in the cellar?”

He tossed a pair of shoes my way, items large enough to be his own. While I slipped them on and struggled with the laces, he dashed from the kitchen and returned with a square box, its wood polished, fitted with a leather strap. Placing the box on the table, he knelt by the hearth and lit something in a dish, a stone that burned with the bluest flame I ever saw. In defiance of nature the stone also bled, dripped a remarkable liquid that looked dense, blood-like. More offensive was the smoke, vapours that smelled worse than a thousand farts.

“Time to leave,” he said, extinguishing the fire. “And no straying or you’ll end up butchered and sold to a pie-maker.”

“Where we off to?”

He wrapped a cloak around my shoulders and secured the neck. “A place where death lurks in every doorway.”

“Somewhere abroad?”

He slung the box over his shoulder and headed for the door.

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5. Which is better: argue with a critique or analyze it? A case in point.

We write a sentence, a paragraph, a page, crafting them to do what we want them to do. Maybe we even polish a bit to make them do the job even better. We’re happy.

Then someone criticizes what we’ve written. The natural reaction is to defend the work—after all, it’s doing what we want it to.

At least we think it is. But, in many years as a creative in advertising (copywriter, creative director), I received daily critiques of my work from colleagues, bosses, and clients. I learned early on that it doesn’t work to argue. In fact, it can work against you.

The way I see it, if someone points out what they believe is a shortcoming, there’s at least a 50-50 chance that they’re right. If they’re experienced in the area the writing concerns, the odds are even more in favor of them being right. If you argue instead of considering the validity of the criticism, you lose an opportunity to make your work even better.

So I learned early on to stifle the defense and rethink everything. If, after analysis, I felt it was still right, then I’d argue. If not, I'd rewrite, and always ended up with a stronger way to do the job.

A case in point

Here's the opening line of a page a talented writer submitted to FtQ for a flogging:

His father was raging again.

In the critique, I suggested deleting the sentence and I labeled it “telling.” The writer argued with my opinion, both in a comment and then in emails to me. Satisfied with their belief, this writer won't be doing anything to strengthen what I saw as a weak line.

So, okay, let’s analyze that opening line for what it actually does, and then we’ll examine its merits.

Keep in mind that I come at this from the point of view that you need to make every word count, especially on your opening page.

First, what is “showing?” It is providing the reader with story elements in a scene that they see, or hear, or maybe even smell. “Show” means literally that—description of action, something happening; picturing what is seen; delivering the sounds in the scene.

“Tell” means to inform, to deliver information. A typical use of telling in fiction is to summarize scenes or actions or dialogue. Whenever you see summary, it’s telling. And there are many times in a novel or memoir where “telling” is exactly the right thing to do.

For more thoughts on showing and telling, here’s a chapter from my book on the topic.

So what about that opening line? Showing or telling? A poll is coming.

The first clue that this sentence is “telling” is the word “again.” Interestingly, the writer says in their comment that “again” SHOWS that the man is repeating his raging. Really? Do we see him rage and then rage again? That would be showing. No, “again” tells us that this has happened before.

What about “was raging?” Is that showing us rage? Here are things that come to my mind if I want to show rage:

  • spittle flying from a mouth
  • a mouth that’s yelling, loudly
  • bared teeth
  • a flushed face
  • clenched fists, waving arms, pacing, or all of those things
  • sweat beading a face
  • a swollen vein in a forehead
  • glaring eyes, bulging eyes
  • gestures such as pointing, threatening with a fist

If you want to show me rage, you show me those kinds of things. “Was raging” is, in essence, a summary of all those things that go to make up (show) rage.

So here’s a poll: do you think “His father was raging again.” is “showing” or “telling?” Come back after the poll.

Is "His father was raging again." showing or telling?

But wait, there’s more!

The sentence starts with “His,” a personal pronoun. The thing about pronouns, with the frequent exception of “it,” is that they have antecedents—or should have. It is the antecedent that gives the pronoun meaning. Using “his” in this way gives no clue as to the person to whom it refers. We can understand, vaguely, that there is a male involved. But that’s it.

Here's a quick illustration from an article on antecedents by Robin L. Simmons (you should check it out, it's an excellent discussion of all kinds of pronouns and how to best use them).

If you hear a friend say, "She is beautiful," you know your friend is referring to a singular, feminine being or object, but with just the pronoun she, you don't know if the discussion concerns a woman, a cheetah, or an automobile. You cannot picture the she (emphasis mine) until you know the antecedent, the word that this pronoun refers to or replaces.

In essence, the use of “His” in the opening line under discussion is virtually meaningless. The reader pictures nothing, imagines nothing, gets almost nothing from “him.”

So how often do you think you should have meaningless words in your narrative?

That vague “his” robbed the opening line of people power

Research into what images have the most stopping power in a magazine or newspaper ad studied what things were most likely to make a reader pause at an ad, or even stop to look more closely.

The answer was faces. Guaranteed best way to arrest a reader. We human beings are most interested in people. In a story, we are interested in what happens to them. For me, that’s a powerful argument for launching your story with an immediate scene that brings a person or persons to life and shows them doing something that raises compelling story questions.

In this case, the "his" was a boy who was being treated badly by his father. I would have been much more engaged if that opening sentence served to lead the way into what he was experiencing. At some point I could still be "told" that this was happening again, but later in the page would have served just fine.

That’s not to say this is the only way to successfully start a story. On the other hand, if you can start a story that way and hook a reader, why not?

For what it's worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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6. What’s the idea behind the turn-the-page test of Flogging the Quill? A rant.

I've recently learned that some people don’t seem to grasp sufficiently the purpose of the flogging challenge of creating a page that compels you to turn it. A recent submittee lashed out at me after a flogging, erroneously misrepresenting cherry-picked sentences from my book to justify their attack, and then, after reading Amazon’s “look” feature and a chapter that I offered to be helpful, accusing me and my book of advising “overstatement,” which this writer says they would NEVER seek to do.

When I responded that the writer was judging my whole book on a few samples, they responded with “Is that not exactly the point you make every day in every way on your blog? Turn the page or shut the book?”

Well, yes, that IS the point for fiction and memoir. With non-fiction, it's entirely possible that the reader will decide to go no further because of the content, and that's legitimate. I still worked hard to craft as compelling a first page as possible even though it was non-fiction. (I'm referring to my Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.)

The point is to create a first page in a novel or memoir as tightly and evocatively and effectively as possible, maximizing the impact of every word and every sentence to engage a reader in the experience of the story on the first page. Why the first page? Here is a small sample of what I have found to be the case with  professionals in the business:

Veteran literary agent Lori Perkins says, “Your novel has to grab me by the first page, which is why I can reject you on page one.”

Dan Conaway, an editor turned literary agent at Writers House, says, “I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and a half.”

Chuck Adams, Executive Editor of Algonquin Books, puts it this way: “You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you’re going to get hooked.”

Jim Hess, a writing competition judge, says, “If you don’t hook my attention and hold it in the first twenty-five to fifty words, you probably won’t.”

Donald Maass says in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, “To hold our attention, a novel’s action needs to compel us to read every word.”

As for readers, the people you need to engage with that first page, one more tidbit: Sol Stein, publisher-editor-author-playwright, writes in Stein on Writing of his observations in a bookstore:

“In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book’s jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting it down and picking up another to sample.”

You don’t have to take my comments as gospel—I never suggest that’s what they are. You don’t have to take the votes by FtQ readers as indicators of the appeal of your page. But both are objective reactions to what’s on that first page (yes, all reading is subjective, but these reactions are made without the coloring or filters of knowing the writer, the hype of blurbs, the fame of an author).

It seems logical to me that if some aspect, or several aspects, of the narrative on your first page stops a reader (especially a professional one) from turning the page, it's worth giving serious thought to the notion that perhaps there's a better way to do what you're trying to do. That would be the mark of, well, a professional approach to writing fiction.

As I said to the disgruntled writer, take it or leave it. I offer my views in order to help writers, and I’m not going to stop doing that.

If you have found what you read on FtQ to be helpful, please let me know via comments. Similarly, if you find that I’m preaching “overstatement,” then let me know that, too.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Veronica sends the first chapter of Pearl by Pearl, a time travel fantasy. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

The first time a painting spoke to me I was three. That was in 1990, when I was still Delphi Sharpe. 

The view from the orphanage window was a watercolor blur of blue and green as the first spatter of spring rain tapped hello, lightly on the glass. I waved at a robin hopping over the lawn, trying to dodge the raindrops. As I giggled and pressed my nose against the window, a woman’s voice called out behind me, “My brother loved birds too.”

It came from a book on Renaissance Art.

 

“Delphi, come away from that window.”

Old Sister Theresa thumped a stack of picture books on the table behind me and groaned into a low chair. “Let’s look at these shall we? Which one would you like?” She fanned them into a rainbow with her arthritic fingers. 

A lady’s face on one of the covers gazed lovingly at me, and I drew it out like a card from a magician’s trick. 

 

Like all ‘gifted’ children that first memory was indelible. Brightness suffused my robin vision and zapped the grey sky into a peak moment of cloudless blue which is why I thought the sky (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

For me, this opening page illustrates the power of first-person narrative to ignore the guidelines I suggest and still captivate a reader. The very first paragraph raised story questions that I wanted answers to—why and how did paintings speak to her, and what does she mean by “was still Delphi Sharpe.” Wanting to know these things, and the confident voice, carried me through the relatively tensionless moments after the opening paragraph because, as she should, Veronica created tension in me, the reader.

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 Veronica

 

Continued:

. . . was home and birds were my lost family, and why I wanted to fly home. The voice had come from the portrait of a woman who called me her dear child and hummed me a lullaby.

Naturally, I believed she was my mother, although it took another ‘moonbeam girl’ to tell me she was the ‘Mona Lisa’ and that her brother was the artist Leonardo da Vinci – a man with an affinity for birds and flight... and so I adopted him too.

 

Most of the time I felt like I’d drifted down from a previous life – a mute feather from a phoenix’s tail, reborn in the wrong body in the wrong place at the wrong time. I woke with a mission, caught between loneliness and shame in a world where my clairvoyant state of mind was considered a liability. Almost an infection to be feared. In some ways this pleased me. I hated being touched. It was safer to hide openly, so I deliberately grew up as a perpetual child.

I was a loose strand of DNA who functioned somewhere to the absolute north of autism. Naturally, without a mother or father watching my back, it was inevitable I would be misplaced.

 

I drifted in neutral on planet Delphi while a neurologist diagnosed me an autistic savant before I could walk. Specialists shone lights in the distant ‘cast’ of my eyes which had become the focus of much speculation. I stared through each probing inquisitor, unresponsive to snapping fingers and puffs of air. My blink reflex was off the charts, and I unscrambled every Rubik’s cube they placed in my baby hands which set me at ‘phenomenon’ on the wunderkind scale, early.

I was pronounced unadoptable even though when it came to parade time I was lumped in with the children who were. For that inconsideration, I played moonbeam games. Once in a while, to be precious, I made eye-contact with a desperate woman keen to own an angel.

 

Misdiagnosed is a hollow term to define what happened in my first year of life. I was ‘labeled’ autistic and it was only partly true. To the world I was a mind ‘touched by moonbeams,’ or at best, overly stubborn. Who was I to deny myself a way to function in a world alien to the one I vaguely remembered as a bird sanctuary? I communicated in thought patterns and my state of mind strayed into non-local time zones which meant it was everywhere and nowhere, although I broadcast on a narrow beam, charged with a mission of utmost importance. I didn’t have time for being a child. But in a headstrong way that’s all I could be.

I processed the nuances of the spoken word in my head from listening to paintings and speed-reading whole pages of text at a glance, but what I had to say was lost in the real world and so I remained silent during what was euphemistically referred to as my formative years. But there again, language fails to convey the enormities of being odd.

Children make extraordinary claims all the time. But I lived an alternate mystery that never wavered. I had my share of imaginary friends growing up, and pictures in books whispered secrets, but I was considered peculiar because my eyes fixated on faraway and I only spoke to birds. There was a strange beauty to my eccentric kinship with birds.

 

By my third institution, I was a wary teenager. Visiting ghosts populated the country of my bedroom and roamed the grounds where I lived in captivity. I kept to myself and took refuge in their dimension. And I fell in love with a boy in a painting.

 

Cecco was the portrait of a fourteen-year-old boy who had been dead five-hundred years. We had thirteen years together before I died. The peacocks that roamed the grounds were our allies. I loved to hear them shriek because they heralded his visits.

I met my guardian angel, Sphinx, the week before Cecco. I was fourteen. Her coming had been foretold to me by an oracle who befriended me in the mental hospital, my second institution. When you leave here, she said, the voice of your sphinx will be louder. 

At first Sphinx was a slight buzzing in my ear, but her whispers became a distinct inner voice. I welcomed her companionship and relied upon her ever-present wisdom. She taught me to think beyond the cast in my eyes and to believe in myself. I was worthy, she said, chosen for a special mission that would reveal itself in time.  

I harbored dreams of leaving PIAT with Cecco and Sphinx, and I was cunning in my way, but I never plotted an escape, except the once.

Victoria, Vancouver Island

October, 2014

 I’d completed the last three weeks ‘up-island’ at PIAT, restoring a Vermeer. It had taken the better part of a year to complete. Partly because every second month I insisted on my official time off, granted to me by the child welfare courts. Even though I was officially of age, much to PIAT’s irritation, they had closely-monitored my experimental transition to independent life for six years.

PIAT was obligated to provide me with private accommodation in Victoria, six-hundred miles from their compound where I could retreat to gradually familiarize myself with city life. I was given a suite of rooms in a turn of the century house converted to cozy apartments.

The summer review board was so pleased with my stability, that at the end of the year, if all went well, I would be a free agent. PIAT would be obliged to offer me a formal position with pay if they wanted to keep me. Until then, as a ward of the court, I was granted extra time off to spend in the city to discuss my options with doctors and career counsellors. I could attend the university, they said. I was to please myself, a concept foreign to me. It was a time of dizzying new prospects, and PIAT baited their promise of a trip around the art galleries of the world, representing their interests. Their biggest mistake was wrapping such a prize in guilt laid on with a trowel.  

In the meantime, I’d earned a month’s leave and I relished time alone in my little haven. My apartment was my first real home, and as always, I intended to revel in my freedom there every moment I could. Relaxation was a great reward but I had decisions to make and secrets to keep. PIAT had no idea of my intentions to never return.

There was a grand storm brewing off the Juan de Fuca Strait that stood in nicely for the sense of unrest in my immediate future, but wild weather cleared my head, and despite being warned against it, I’d faced it eagerly. I headed for my favorite place in Beacon Hill Park. I had music and hot chocolate and the anticipation of heading for Paris, things I held close about me as treasures.

My cat Brillo had his travel papers. My bags were packed. My little car waited with a full gas tank. I crossed my fingers that tomorrow’s ferry would leave for the mainland even if the water remained choppy.

Sphinx was nervous, hovering and fussing, kissing my cheek every five minutes. I wished I could see her but she said it was against the angel rules.

2066

 I woke up scared to death, shivering and crying, after the accident. My hospital room was glacial. Rogue flakes of snow swirled in the room from an open window. I’d been walking in an Autumn storm. I remembered paramedics, now I was awake in the bleakest midwinter, lying on a hard pallet. A loud ticking gave the impression of being inside a clock.

Once my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I searched for a light switch. A blue light like a sapphire at the end of a cord gave enough light to guide me to a monitor beside my bed. I held out my arms groping for a call button. To my horror my hands were transparent. I stood up too fast and had to sit back down, dizzy from the medication which accounted for my dissociative state. But my thirst was no hallucination.

I surveyed the room for a water pitcher. No joy, but a tall dark patch on the far wall loomed like a sentry box that promised to be a door. I progressed, hand-over-hand to the bottom of the bed and made it to the nearest wall where I inched towards it, hugging the wall, but each handprint turned to ice at the touch of my fingers. My meds were strong. 

“My name is Cherry White,” a voice said. “It occurred to me you might enjoy destroying your abductors.”

“Sphinx,” I shouted. “Are you here? Someone is in here. I can hear you.”

My hands met a warm draught. I smelled sweet peas. The way out wasn’t a door, it was an arch.

 

I was alone and not alone, a jumble of questions boxed in by frosted glass. Somewhere ahead and above me, I sensed the presence of a woman.

“Sphinx, is that you? Speak to me. Where are you?”

“I’m here Goldilocks.”

“What’s happening? Where am I? Who is Cherry White? How long have I been here?”

“It’s April. You died fifty-two years ago.” Sphinx said. “This isn’t a hospital unless you want it to be. Cherry White is a new friend.”

The truth slammed into me from every direction. I couldn’t breathe because I was dead. “I can’t be dead. Oh god. What about Paris! Is this hell or a nightmare brought on by medication?”

“The labyrinth after death is neither of those things and so much more,” Sphinx assured me. “It’s an immortal state of mind. You’re in cold storage. Paris is still there.”

The phrase cold as the tomb sent me into a panic. Hoar frost lined the walls and my breath failed to fog the nightmarish half-light.

Sphinx waited a long time while I absorbed the horrifying truth of waking up dead. When she spoke, it was with calm authority.

“There have been... changes. Life is not the patchwork quilt it seems once it’s over. Time continues to refresh itself.”

As she spoke, the frost melted, exposing the leaves of a box hedge and an archway of laurel.

“What do you see child?”

“There’s a string of blue wool, leading into a green tunnel, but I’m afraid to follow it.”

“The truest paths are the width of an angel hair,” she said. “Time is a blue river – a journey traced on a map.”  

I felt a sense of relief. “Then Cecco is at the end of this journey? He’s still waiting? He’s in the labyrinth with my mother?”

“The labyrinth IS you. It’s your life. Answers to your questions lie at its heart. Cherry White is a different you already at the center trying to get out. The two of you must pass each other on your journeys. It’s a race against time.”

“I’m too tired. I need to sleep.”

    “One torch, Goldilocks. Let it go. I won’t let you fall.”

“You already let me die.”

“You asked to see me,” she said. “The empress wears no clothes. Who do you see?”

“I see a dark tunnel.”

“Proceed, baby bear. Wake up. Do not fear the Minotaur. The maze is a symbol.”

 I didn’t understand but then I never did at first. “I’ve lost my purpose,” I said to Sphinx. “I betrayed Leonardo. I betrayed Cecco. My mother has forsaken me. I’m so ashamed.”

“You will be free when you forgive yourself. Change the magic letter to find your way. Follow the river.”

“Dear Sphinx, I love you but I have no time for your puzzles. Please let me sleep.”

“You are correct. You have NO time.”

“Please!”

Sphinx’s gentle manner turned strict as a headmistress, like the times I’d been stubborn and moody. She couldn’t abide whining. “Goldilocks, your special mission is here. Rejoice. We will proceed together. The magic letter is ‘t.’ String becomes spring. Follow the string, yes... but follow the seasons. Follow the spring. I will meet you there. Follow the robin.” 

The room felt warmer as the sun rose, and the green tunnel pulsated with reflected light. I heard the chirping of birds from far away. “And Cecco?”

Sphinx brushed my question aside. “You’re a teacher now, she said. “If you do your job well, your student MUST surpass you. Do you understand?”

“And this will redeem me?”

Her voice came from inside the maze, now. “Nothing can do that.”

“But Cecco... what about my life’s thread?”

“Let go of the past,” she called. “You’re no longer the thread. You are the needle.”

“I’ll fight her,” I called back. “I won’t give him up. There’s something... Did I read it in Dante? The way is not lost.”

“Then fight to lose,” she said, beside me again. “The greater the love, the bigger the sacrifice. This is not the real world. It’s creative fantasy, but pay attention. No symbol shows itself without a reason. Reasons dignify themselves with significance. This is who you are.”

“I want my life back. Or is it lives?”

Turning back time is impossible but all’s fair in love and war if you decide to win,” she said.

And then I saw the robin.

 

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8. Flogometer for Lyn—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Lyn sends the first chapter of The Officer’s Code . The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

His father was raving again. Back and forth he paced behind the desk, clutching that letter like a sword in his hand. Lean pointed face, clipped Edwardian beard, gunmetal-blue eyes like bullets ready to fire. He was dressed for church. The desk clock said eleven minutes after ten. They would be late for Easter services.

Eric stood before the desk, barefoot and in his nightshirt, with the walls closing down about his head. Summoned out of a deep sleep, only half awake even now, he let his father’s thunder blast past his ears. There was no point in answering. Or even in listening. He glimpsed a King’s College crest on the letter, “Truth and usefulness”, the college motto ingrained into every King’s student. Truth and usefulness.

The room went abruptly quiet. His father sat down in his captain’s chair and turned the paper over, as if something extra might be found on its blank side. In the long, frozen silence he did not look up.

Then…

“Where were you last night?”

The question startled Eric rigid. Where was he last night? What had last night to do with this letter from King’s—?

“Well?”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The writing is good and certainly there's tension in the room, but were there strong enough story questions to turn the page? Yes, what will the angry father do is a question—but we know of no stakes, so it’s not all that compelling. Where was Eric the night before? While we hate to see a child berated by a father, again there don’t seem to be any consequences for being wherever he was the night before.

For me, there are some continuity questions in the opening, too, and it could be briefer. More than that, though, here’s another story that starts too soon, that starts out with setup and backstory. Eric is going to be sent to a school in Germany because of his transgressions, and I’m going to assume that the real story starts there. Find that inciting incident at the new school where he has to do something risky to deal with a problem that has arisen and start as close as you can come to that. All this stuff can be woven in as things happen—if, that is, it is needed at all. I’d be willing to bet that not much of it is. Some notes:

His father was raving again. Back and forth he Eric’s father paced behind the desk, clutching a that letter like a sword in his hand. Lean, pointed face, clipped Edwardian beard, gunmetal-blue eyes like bullets ready to fire. He was dressed for church. The desk clock said eleven minutes after ten. They would be late for Easter services. The first sentence is “telling”—show us that he’s raving. I felt that the sentence fragment of description would have served better as a sentence, maybe something like: his gunmetal-blue eyes firing bullets at Eric.

Eric stood before the desk, barefoot and in his nightshirt, with the walls closing down about his head. Summoned out of a deep sleep, only half awake even now, he let his father’s thunder blast past his ears. There was no point in answering. Or even in listening. He glimpsed a King’s College crest on the letter, “Truth and usefulness”, the college motto ingrained into every King’s student. Truth and usefulness. There’s a continuity issue here—it’s already time to leave for church yet Eric is in his nightclothes, having just been awakened. Shouldn’t he be dressed and ready to go? He could just be in trouble for being late to church as far as we know.

The room went abruptly quiet. His father sat down in his captain’s chair and turned the paper over, as if something extra might be found on its blank side. In the long, frozen silence he did not look up. The room went quiet from what? We’ve been told that his father was raving but given no words, no dialogue to show us that he’s being loud. This is a bit more “telling.”

Then…

“Where were you last night?”

The question startled Eric rigid. Where was he last night? What had last night to do with this letter from King’s—?

“Well?”

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 Lyn

 

Continued:

“We went to the dance over at St. James Pavilion—”

“We? Who are ‘we’?”

“Gordon and Ruth and—”

“And Jenny Henshaw?”

“Yes sir.” Eric didn’t know why he was drowning in quicksand.

“Jenny Henshaw’s mother rang me this morning, said she was up all night, said she was desperate when Jenny didn’t come home after the dance. Said she trusted the chaperones. Trusted you! So in return, you and this silly girl decided to compromise yourselves and in the same stroke to destroy both your reputations. And mine as well, by the way. Is that it?”

“Nothing like that happened, sir.”

“But it’s the appearance that counts, damn it. Can you not get that through your head?”

“But nothing happened, sir.” Now he was mumbling. He took a sharp breath. “I borrowed Gordon’s motorcycle and took her for a ride out along—”

“And this ride lasted six or seven hours?”

“No sir, no sir, um… Yes sir, a few hours. But I mean, not the actual ride itself—”

“Ah, so you stopped, did you! Ran out of petrol? In a public place, I do hope?”

Swift image of skidding on gravel in the darkness into a country ditch, landing in a heap together in the dew-drenched grass, giggling in the cool spring night—

“Well?” his father pressed.

“We had a bit of an accident, sir. We had to walk home.”

“Can I believe you?”

“You could ask Gordon, sir. The handlebars were bent off line, I couldn’t drive it like that, I had to push it all the way from—”

“Oh, no doubt your friend Gordon will back you up on this. That’s what friends do, do they not?” He studied the paper, intent and frowning. “What am I to do with you, Eric? I’m a judge. Reputation! Do you understand me? London’s a country village when it comes to gossip. And off you go, never a thought for family, gadding about with horses-and-hounds, motors and yachts, and who knows what other bloody falderal? This Henshaw girl, it won’t stop there, mark my words. I have enemies enough eager to make use of this sort of rubbish.” He crumpled the paper in his fist. His voice crumpled with the paper. “And now this.”

Eric’s feet were cold on the hardwood. Draughts wafted relentlessly through the house in all seasons, never quite sealed out by closing doors and windows. This was Easter holiday. A time for escaping the endless books and papers, every week another paper, another test. Ten days for simple fun. A break in the drudgery.

And now, this.

He knew what was on that paper. It represented tome after tome of common law, of dates and legal decisions and famous jurors’ biographies, mindless memorisation that he hadn’t caught inside his skull long enough to spew back in the orals.

It was as if his father read his mind. “You came tripping home for the holiday knowing full well you’re being sent down, and you did not trouble yourself to tell me.” Those bullet eyes.

“Sorry sir.”

“Answer me then.”

“Was it a question, sir?”

“Damn it you young whelp, do not presume to be impudent with me.”

“Sorry, sir.” He felt his face flush red. He stood immobile and awaited judgment.

“This is quite the end, Eric.” His father folded his hands on the desk, a signal that the subject was closed. “I’ve been up since that woman called, five o’clock this morning, been up with your mother talking it over. This must change. Your mother agrees with me. For once, concerning you, she agrees.”

Eric stood mute, staring at his father’s Winchester tie.

“Your don told me that you’re not likely to go on next term without reviewing the very stuff I sent you up to do. Said you’ve made no effort. Pity is, you can be so bloody brilliant. If you try. When it pleases you. So, here’s the thing. You’ll leave King’s and hie yourself over to your mother’s alma mater at Heidelberg, my God, the thought of it.”

“I hardly think—”

“That’s right! Please do not presume to think at this late hour. We must get you right out of the country, out of reach of this… this… bourgeois woman and her ambitious daughter.” He leaned a little forward, his image reflected in the gleaming wood of the tidy desk. “Do you realise the Henshaw woman wants a wedding? To justify your bloody nonsense?”

“Father, it wasn’t in the least like that—”

“You’re not even nineteen years old! My God! I was thirty, settled in my profession, a partner in The Office before I married your mother. No boy at eighteen knows what in God’s name he’s fit for, never mind with whom he’ll marry and in what circumstances!”

“It isn’t that way!”

The room went silent with the shock of Eric shouting.

His father stared at him.

“It was just a ride on a motorcycle.” His voice trailed off. No use, no use

“It’s all decided. You may thank your mother for this. She’s convinced me that Heidelberg may provide the incentive you need to apply yourself. I agree that removing you from your current circle of pals may be half the battle. I’ll arrange your admission and reserve your courses, starting at once. There, you’ll prepare for The Law once again. I’ll give you a year, my boy. If by then you have not pulled up your socks, we shall consider a different path.”

Different path?

“I only hope your German is adequate, God help us if it’s not.”

“I can probably—”

“I’m selling Spats. You’ll not need a horse at Heidelberg. Put your nose in your books my boy, and do not look round until next spring. Are we quite clear?”

“Yes sir.” He wondered numbly what Spats had to do with it. The punishment, he mused wryly, for walking Jennie Henshaw safely home.

*

Mid-evening, the house quiet, the sounds of the city distant. His father was in the study poring over a court case. Out of sight, out of trouble.

Eric lay sprawled across his mother’s bed while she lounged in her chaise by the window. The gauzy curtains fluttered in a light breeze. This was their special time. Ever since he could remember they had spent the last hour in her bedroom, talking over his day.

“I don’t understand,” he said again. “ Is there nothing else in life but Law?” They spoke in German, their secret language.

“Ah, you understand well enough, Eric. Don’t be stubborn about this.”

“But Germany! I can’t come home on the weekends.”

“Heidelberg is a wonderful university, Schätzel. I was there only a few months, a history course, but I saw enough to love it. I wanted to study at the Sorbonne, you know, where women can study for a baccalaureate…” Her voice drifted off into the memory. She gazed past the billowing curtains.

In the lamplight he studied her face, made smooth with powder. Emphatic chin, long noble nose. Chestnut curls framed the faraway eyes. Always this edge of sadness when she spoke of Heidelberg, as if her dreams were behind her.

“Why don’t you go back to it?” He sat upright with this new idea. “Cambridge? King’s College? Wouldn’t that be a joke? Mother and son in the same college?”

“With my terrible English?” She smiled. “You’re so young. Life is so hopeful. While at Heidelberg be a good boy, na? Do as your father says. Please? Promise me?”

“Why Heidelberg? If your family’s in Stettin.”

“Stettin is too far, Heidelberg is only two days away.”

He mused on it.

“And because,” she added, “you know my family wants nothing of… wants nothing of me.” She smiled quickly. “We don’t need them.”

He sank back down on her pillow. He wanted to bury his face in its pervasive scent of rosewater. Vaguely uncomfortable, he shifted back upright against the headboard.

She smiled across at him. “If my family met you they would know you at first sight. You have those Schellendorf eyes, my darling, straight and true. And the curly stiff hair, you know the girls love it, they want to put their fingers through it, they want to tame it.” She grew serious. “I want you to be more careful of the girls, Eric. Too easy is it to fall into traps.”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m a pal, Mutti, they don’t find me so attractive.”

“Yes, but already they do. Some day… put a little muscle on your skinny bones… you will be such a lady-killer.”

He laughed. He felt his ears go red.

“But be serious,” she said. “In Heidelberg you must work. Is it so terrible that he wants you in The Office? To carry on the tradition? You know a judge cannot associate with his own office. He needs you, Eric. Do you see that?”

“Why won’t he let Colin do it?”

“Ach, Colin!” She threw up her hands as if any argument were pointless.

“Father puts all the responsibility on me, and Colin can do anything he pleases… Which,” he muttered in English, “is bugger all that I can see.”

“You’re the elder.”

“Why is it important? Colin would die for his approval, he’d dig a hole in the moon for half the attention Father puts on me.”

“Colin is not a very bright boy, Eric. He has no capacity. Be realistic.”

He subsided.

“This girl, Jenny…?”

He shrugged. “She’s a nice girl, Mutti. She’s a pal. She makes no claim on me.”

“Yes, good.”

*

They stood in a knot beside the first class carriage of the Continental Express. Passengers gathered along the platform, steam hissed, baggage carts rattled, carriage doors banged, all in a chorus of noise echoing off high metal girders. The locomotive chuffed quietly on the track ahead.

His mother was crying again. “Hear me, my darling,” she said to Eric in German. “Be a good boy and make the best use of your time exactly as your father wishes. And when all is over, you’ll have a fine education, and then you’re a man, my darling, free to make your own decisions. Only a few more years—”

“Come now!” said his father. “Speak English, you two, you’re in public here.”

Amidst the press of travellers James and Gordon stood to one side, waiting to say goodbye. Colin hung behind Mutti, somehow alone. Colin always seemed alone.

Gordon had forgiven the bent handlebars, easily fixed with the proper spanner. But nobody believed Eric had merely walked Jenny home. Among her friends at school she was said to enjoy new distinction as a femme fatale, before her family had spirited her off to Switzerland.

“Now do get on,” said his father brusquely. “Where’s your letter of credit?”

Eric patted his breast pocket.

“Don’t trust foreigners, guard your money, keep a sharp eye out for thieves. Work hard, son. Don’t let your mother down, this is her idea, you know.”

He nodded, unconvinced. He turned to Colin, who hung behind staring down at his shoes. Poor helpless little brother who never seemed to know what time the bell rang, or if it had rung at all. Eric went to him and reached out to shake his hand.

“Don’t go.” Colin wouldn’t look up. “I shan’t get on without you.”

“No choice, old man. You know Father when he’s got the wind up.”

“Promise you’ll come home for the holidays. Promise.”

“No promises. I’ll be working through.” He grasped Colin’s hand and shook it, and clapped him roughly on the arm. “But I’ll try.”

Colin didn’t look up. Wordlessly he turned away.

His mother gathered Eric into a tearful embrace. She brushed fingers through his stiff, sandy hair, as if she saw him still a child. “Be cautious,” she said in English, “to know vell who are the true friends.” After twenty years in England her w’s still came out as v’s and her r’s still rolled in the back of her throat. She released him, and he broke away to his two best chums. Awkwardly he shook hands with them, and they promised to exchange letters and get together over the holidays, conscious of his father’s disapproval. Especially Gordon, rolling his eyes and grinning.

The train hooted. On the platform a guard swung his lantern. “Close all doors please!” Eric climbed into the compartment where a porter had tucked his bags. He lowered the window to lean out. Doors slammed and the guard’s whistle shrilled and a blast of steam burst from between the carriage wheels. The train jolted gently forward with a gliding, swaying, accelerating click… click… click… and he waved out the window and they all smiled and waved after him, Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

One year.

No sailing, no fox hunting, no polo.

No Jenny, no Gordon…

No Father.

A whole year without Father.

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9. An unsuspected roadblock for female authors

Male name imageI found this article titled “Homme de Plume: What I learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name” by Catherine Nichols, and was amazed to learn of what appears to be a bias against female authors—at least, at female author names.

I won’t tell you the whole story here, but she tried querying a manuscript under a man’s name rather than her own, using the same pitch. In short, she got lots more acceptances when querying under a man’s name.

Check it out, it’s definitely worth reading. The graphic image came from the article on Jezebel.com.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Cristina sends the first chapter of a young adult story, Sui Generis. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed the car behind me was gaining. The thought that it was going too fast flashed through my mind, and just as I decided to move out of the way it rear-ended me. I felt the jolt down to my bones and as I was thrown forward, my foot pressed down on the accelerator. My fingers tightened around the steering wheel, whitening my knuckles. A cold sweat broke out all over my body and my heart picked up its beat, driving the blood into my eardrums, muffling the crunching and squealing of the two cars fighting for control. I reached the curve on the road and crashed through the guardrail and into the ravine. As the windshield gave way, the glass cut into my face and arms as I went flying through it and….

I jolted up in bed, a thin film of sweat covering my skin. The sheets tangled in my feet as I tried to swing my legs off the bed. Rubbing my hand across my face, I tried to get the dream out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’d been woken up by the dream. Ever since my mother had been killed in a car accident when I was ten years old, six years ago, it had become part of my nightly repertoire of dreams, although, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had the dream in at least three weeks.

Taking a deep breath I looked around for my comforter and noticed my hand was shaking. I closed my eyes and clenched my hands into fists at my side. There was no way I was gonna be able to go back to sleep. I was too amped from the dream, still feeling the glass cutting (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Ah, the dream opening. I’m sure there are FtQ readers ready to nay-say that, and I’m among them. While brief, and that’s a good thing, this dream snippet only serves as an entry into backstory and setup, which is what the remainder of the chapter is. There’s musing about the mother’s death that I think I could do without.

There is one juicy bit relegated to the second page by all this dream stuff that had the potential to hook me. It is this:

I’m being taught by my father to follow in his footsteps. My father is, for lack of any other term, a hit man, although, I like to think of him as a conflict resolution specialist. In fact, that’s what I tell people when they ask about my father’s job.

But then we leave that for more about the dream, the dead mom, etc. I think this story starts too soon—it needs to find the point where the character (I think it’s a boy named Jake, but am not certain) has his life interrupted by something that forces him to react, that creates a need in him that he cannot deny. In other words, the inciting incident. Start as close to that as you can and weave in this material as needed when it is necessary for understanding what’s going on. The tidbit posted above, about his father, might make a good opening paragraph if the narrative then went immediately to a problem related to his training as a hit man. A boy being trained by his father to kill people promises an interesting story—get to it, please!

On the writing side, it's clean, but for me the narrative could be crisper and there are lots of filters that it would be nice to do without. Notes:

I glanced in the rearview mirror--and noticed the car behind me was gaining. The thought that it was going too fast flashed through my mind, and just as I decided to move out of the way it rear-ended me. I felt the jolt down to my bones and as I was thrown forward, my foot pressed down on the accelerator. My fingers tightened around the steering wheel, whitening my knuckles. A cold sweat broke out all over my body and my heart picked up its beat, driving the blood into my eardrums, muffling the crunching and squealing of the two cars fighting for control. I reached the curve on the road and crashed through the guardrail and into the ravine. As the windshield gave way, the glass cut into my face and arms as I went flying through it and….For me, this takes too long to develop. It’s basically an action sequence, and a dangerous one. Do we need all the internal stuff about sweat and muffled sounds and white knuckles? And some of the scene is missing—is it day or night, for example. How can the driver move out of the way unless it’s on a four-lane highway—is it? The highlighted parts are action and “body part” filters that can distance the reader from the character’s experience. Also, modern windshields don’t usually shatter into pieces—they hold together in a web of cracked glass. However, if his head is going through the windshield, then jagged edges could cut him--that needs to be clear. If you’re going to do this, make it “hotter” and quicker. For example: A car raced up behind me and rammed my car. I was thrown forward and my foot jammed the gas pedal to the floor. Out of control, I swerved across two lanes of traffic toward a ravine. I crashed through the guard rail, the windshield gave way, glass cut my face as I flew . . .

I jolted up in bed, covered with sweat a thin film of sweat covering my skin. The sheets tangled in my feet as I tried to swing my legs off the bed. Rubbing I rubbed my hand across my face and, I tried to get the dream out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’d been woken up by the dream. Ever since my mother had been was killed in a car accident when I was ten years old, six years ago, it had become part of my nightly repertoire of dreams, although, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had the dream in at least three weeks. A little info-dumping here. It’s never easy to work in the age of a character, but this felt a little clunky.

Taking a deep breath, I looked around for my comforter and noticed my hand was shaking. I closed my eyes and clenched my hands into fists at my side. There was no way I was gonna be able to go back to sleep. I was too amped from the dream, still feeling the glass cutting (snip) “noticed” is another filter. Just have his hand shake.

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 Cristina

 

Continued:

. . . into me, and the weightlessness as I flew through the air. I was going to deal with this, take the edge off, the only way I knew how. Physical exertion. Running in the dark to hone the skills my father had been teaching me for five years now.

I’m not your typical sixteen-year old. Sure I do typical teenage activities like go on dates, attend parties thrown in houses with absentee parents, greatly dislike school and the authority figures that reside there, and come up with ways to annoy my younger siblings and older brother. Where I differ from my peers is in my after school activities. I’m not involved in any of the numerous athletic teams the school supports, nor am I a part of the drama club or into school politics. I don’t have to rush to a menial job in a fast food restaurant or at a movie theater. I’m being taught by my father to follow in his footsteps. My father is, for lack of any other term, a hit man, although, I like to think of him as a conflict resolution specialist. In fact, that’s what I tell people when they ask about my father’s job.

My education began a year after my mother’s death, when I was eleven. After my father had managed to drag himself out of the bottomless pit of self-despair he had fallen into, he had seen the wreck I had become and decided to do something about it. He took me under his wing and began teaching me about his business. A way to deal with my grief is how he had explained it to my older brother, Michael.

I was eleven years old the first time I killed somebody, actually, two somebodies. My father asked me later that night how it had made me feel and the answer I gave made him cringe. I liked it. I like it still. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a psycho, itching to kill anyone that crosses my path. At the time, it made me feel in control and for the first time since my mother’s death, calm. Now, it gives me a purpose in life. Sure, I feel guilty that I took someone’s life, that I ended their dreams and hopes and they probably have someone out there that will miss them, but they shouldn’t have become involved with the wrong people. My father has always told me that I didn’t need to worry about any of that, that our job wasn’t to judge, that had already been done. Our job was to just do the deed and move on, but sometimes that’s hard to do when I have a voice in my head that sounds suspiciously like my mother’s telling me that what I’m doing is wrong.

Since that first time so long ago, I have been involved in many more jobs and seen many more gruesome things. So it surprised me that a dream about a car accident would leave me feeling so queasy. If I really wanted to, I could think about it, analyze it, as Theresa, the family therapist my Uncle Jesse had recommended, liked to say. ‘Analyze your dreams Jake, they’ll give you the answers you’re looking for.’ I can hear her now, trying to get into my head and help me, all the good that did. Each and every time after a session with her, the dreams are worse.

I can feel myself lose control of everything when the car crashes through the railing and be at peace only to be jolted awake by the harsh landing of the car. Sometimes I’m the one in the car behind, pushing my mother to her death. And while I scream at her to move out of the way, plead with her to try a little harder, my foot just pushes down on the accelerator and pounds into the rear of the car, sending my mother to her death. I wake up bathed in sweat and tears, the overwhelming feeling of guilt over killing my own mother, taking root in my heart.

I know it’s ridiculous, it’s only a dream and besides, there’s nothing I could have done to stop it. I wasn’t even in the car. But knowing that doesn’t keep me from feeling responsible for my mother being killed. Theresa has insisted that until I stop blaming myself I’m going to continue having these dreams. I sighed as I dressed in my dark sweat pants and t-shirt and pulled on my running shoes. I know she’s right but it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. So, for now my daily early morning runs will have to be enough.

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11. Flogometer for Sophie—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Sophie sends the first chapter of a young adult fantasy, The Raven Stones. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Grip’s stomach squeezed in protest. The heady smell of roasting meat drifted across the street, taunting him. He stood on the rim of the fountain, with its three stone birds, carefully balanced. A strange, taut, thin figure. His jacket was buttoned right to his throat, his collar pulled up about his neck despite the heat. He had just enough extra height to see over the heads of the people and there he stood deciding which one to go for next.

There – a middle-aged man. Well-dressed, rounded, his left pocket bulging. He was animated, talking to a stall holder. Nicely distracted. Customers crowded round, two women vying for service. The younger tugged at her child. The little girl had a doll stuffed under her arm, ignoring her mother as her small fingers dug into the bright pink flesh of a melon.

Grip ducked under the crowd, bobbing up just a couple of feet behind the man. He pushed into the older woman and neatly elbowed the mother, pulling on the child’s doll. The girl wailed as she saw her doll thrust across the street. The mother turned sharply. A crate tipped over, melons crashing down. They caught the old woman on the leg and she screeched in rage. The two women turned on each other and the stall holder started to swear.

Unseen, Grip slid his hand into the man’s pocket. He felt the purse. With a precise flick it slipped out. He turned to run. But his path was blocked.

It was a burly, bald-headed man. “Got ya – red-handed!”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good writing, an immediate scene in a different kind of world, and ending with a strong story question, this page got a turn from me.  I like the voice, as well. However, I remain a picky, picky editor and I do see places where I think the writing could be more clear and, in places, trimmed. Notes:

Grip’s stomach squeezed in protest. The heady smell of roasting meat drifted across the street, taunting him. He stood on the rim of the fountain, with its three stone birds, carefully balanced. A strange, taut, thin figure. His jacket was buttoned right to his throat, his collar pulled up about his neck despite the heat. He had The fountain gave him just enough extra height to see over the heads of the people and there as he decided stood deciding which one to go for next. A couple of things about this paragraph. It would be good to know where the fountain is—is it at the center of a crowded market square, for example? Are there crowds of people surging past booths and stalls? The reference to a thin figure is a break in point of view—we’re clearly in very close pov if we know his stomach is squeezing, so he would not be thinking of what a figure he cut.

There – a middle-aged man. Well-dressed, rounded, his left pocket bulging. He was animated, talking to a stall holder. Nicely distracted. Customers crowded round, two women vying for service. The younger tugged at her child. The little girl had a doll stuffed under her arm, ignoring her mother as her small fingers dug into the bright pink flesh of a melon. What kind of stall? Is it the same melon stall the little girl is messing with? Make this clear. I also think this could be trimmed a little—do we need the women vying for service? Is it a detail that could go away and give room for more of what happens to Grip? See if you can trim this down.

Grip ducked under the crowd, bobbing up just a couple of feet behind the man. He pushed into the older woman and neatly elbowed the mother, pulling on the child’s doll. The girl wailed as she saw her doll thrust across the street. The mother turned sharply. A crate tipped over, melons crashing down. They caught the old woman on the leg and she screeched in rage. The two women turned on each other and the stall holder sworestarted to swear. For me, the notion of ducking under a crowd doesn’t seem feasible. Slipping through does, but under? Think about what these words suggest visually. And I cut a bit of action overwriting that doesn’t really contribute enough to warrant being there.

Unseen, Grip slid his hand into the man’s pocket. He felt the purse. With a precise flick it slipped out. He turned to run. But his path was blocked.

It was a burly, bald-headed man. “Got ya – red-handed!” Great time to raise a story question with jeopardy for the hero.

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 Sophie

 

Continued:

The man reached out to clamp a hand on Grip’s arm. Grip lifted his right foot, neatly planting a kick onto the man’s left knee cap. He twisted his body round, throwing one arm up and ducking. Emerging the other side of the man he pushed forward into the crowd. Picking up speed, he circuited the fountain and made for a side street.

“Stop that boy! Thief!” Already the man had recovered, yelling over the crowd. The two ladies had turned round, shouting too. Then it seemed the whole street was after Grip. He bobbed and weaved his way through the market. The shouts echoed in his ears, hands reaching out for him, grabbing at his clothes, his arms, his legs.

Someone caught the scruff of his shirt. Enough to slow him down. Another hand circled his arm. Grip was cornered. 

“That’s the scoundrel!”

“Let me have him. He’s the lad been working this market for years.”

“String him up!”

The burly man caught up, pushing his way to the front. He lifted the back of his hand and brought it swinging down on to Grip’s face. The blow sent him reeling into the rabble. He sprawled backwards, falling to the ground as the people backed off, leaving him exposed and surrounded.

His attacker stepped forward. Arms folded, he stared down at Grip. He had an angry snarl for a face. A large scar split the bottom of his right cheek from ear to chin, flushed red from exertion. He wore a scruffy scarf about his neck, twisted like a snake. He clearly knew the boy.

“Grip Eikenhaal – now there’s a surprise.” Buckerman Bedworth grinned with satisfaction. He rolled the spittle about his mouth and spat it to one side. “I’ve been tracking you, how long now? Hmmm – ten years isn’t it? Ever since you started thieving for your dad as a little squirt.”

“I never stole for my dad!” Grip was trying to pick himself up, but Buckerman kicked out with his booted foot. It caught Grip on the chin so that he collapsed again. Blood gushed from his lip.

“Your father was nothing but a self-pitying drunkard! He couldn’t feed himself, let alone his son. With your mother gone he sneaked off into the woods with his tail between his legs, now didn’t he? With his little rat of a boy!” Buckerman spat again, this time over Grip.

Grip rolled over to his front, starting to lift himself on to his hands. Buckerman kicked him again, in the stomach. Grip groaned in pain as he fell back on to his side.

“Well, this time you’re a dead rat. This time we’re going to hang yer!” 

Buckerman nodded at two of his men. They stepped forward. The crowd surged behind. Someone had got Grip’s leg, someone else the other, and each arm. Grip felt himself being hoisted over the heads of the crowd, now hooting with glee as he was carried towards the square.

 

The tree dominated the skyline. Embattled by the wind, only its strongest branches remained. Bold and black, it reached towards the clouds, a tangled, throbbing beast swaying in the wind. A lost whisper sighed from its branches. The breeze was gone, leaving the tree dark and unmoving, reaching out across the fading line of the road.

 

Grip was being inexorably carried forward, hands tight about his body, riding across the market place. Until the crowd gave way. He was roughly brought back to street level, a dozen hands fixing him into place as he was pushed forward and down. In front, three men stood on a raised platform beneath the shelter of the trees. 

It was the Lord Master of Justice, Lord Carnaston and his two Heads of Correction, Master Riddle and Master Gunthorpe.

Carnaston stood, legs wide apart, a grey, full-length coat hanging to the ground. Black trousers were tucked into brightly polished boots and his belly bulged beneath buttons that didn’t quite reach. He looked over-pleased with himself, leaning back on his heels to make a show of his red satin sash. Riddle and Gunthorpe peered over his shoulders as a grotesque grin spread across his face.

“Grip Eikenhaal – there’s a surprise!” There were guffaws of laughter from Riddle and Gunthorpe. “You’ve been trouble since the day you were born. And you just couldn’t stay clear of the town, could you?”

“He was caught right in the act, my Lord.” It was Buckerman Bedworth. “I have a dozen witnesses this time!” He turned to the crowd – the middle-aged mark was there, the two ladies and a host more, all nodding in agreement.

“Had his hand in my pocket. Stole my purse, he did!”

“Show me!” said Lord Carnaston.

Buckerman dragged Grip forwards, pushing an ugly hand into Grip’s waistcoat, pulling out the purse hidden snugly beside his ribs. Buckerman waggled it gleefully.

There was a wave of angry mutterings through the crowd.  Carnaston seemed to puff out his chest in satisfaction. There was a glint in his eye.

“Well then, there’s no doubt. You all know the price for thievery. I pronounce this boy guilty! Sentence will be carried out immediately. Grip Eikenhaal – you will be taken to the Dool Tree to be gibbeted alive. There you will hang, trapped in the gibbet until you die, a lesson to all those who would defy the law.”

There was a whoop of anticipation from the crowd. They surged forward, sweeping Grip into their grasp. He swore and bit, wriggling and twisting his body, but he could do nothing to stop them. Once more the crowd bore its prize aloft, baying for his blood.

 

At the top of the tree perched two huge, black birds. Their feathers were folded smoothly one over the other. Each bird pushed up with its bill, clacking as the one clashed with the other. They fought on, clack, clacking, taking vicious swipes with their beaks. Neither was prepared to give way to the other.

Beneath them was a cage. Rusted iron, it was woven into the shape of a bell. It hung still, suspended in the air as the ravens argued and bickered. The first bird screeched and whatever was in its mouth slipped out. A piece of flesh. Perfectly round and solid. It dangled by a glutinous thread. The second bird slid forward along the branch, reaching out with its beak. It snatched at the prize, flapping its wings to keep balance. Squawking, screeching, it opened its beak to swallow the thing whole. Its beady eyes glinted, a white eyelid sweeping across as it cocked its head to one side. Fixing its rival with a stare, the bird quickly swallowed again, and the prize was gone.

 

Grip was struggling once more, revived by desperation as he saw the Dool Tree. With all his strength he kicked out with his legs, biting, twisting and turning.  It was useless. He fell limp, and the crowd pulled him inexorably onwards, through the gate and up the hill. 

The Dool Tree loomed ahead, high on the hill. It was in bloom, its flat supple leaves whispering quietly in the breeze.  At its heart the gibbet swayed, creaking and groaning. Its open door swung to and fro, crashing against the main body of the thing, then back open. Grip could see the shackles screwed to the framework within. He knew what was coming – once they got him fastened inside, that would be it, he could do nothing. He had no friends, no family who would help. Besides, it was death to anyone who defied the rule of the Lord Master of Justice. No one would dare free him once sentence had been carried out. Grip renewed his struggles with even more vigour.

Finally they reached the tree. Someone loosened the ropes of the gibbet. It was lowered to the ground, the door fully opened. Grip tried to use his feet to stop them pushing him inside, but Buckerman swung his fist again. Grip was temporarily floored by the blow. In that moment they fixed him in place, wrist and leg irons cold about his limbs. The door was slammed shut and padlocked.

Two men pulled on the ropes. Grip felt himself being hoisted into the tree. A jubilant cry roared from the crowd. People began to throw stones and clumps of earth at him. Dogs barked, children jeered, until...

“Enough!” Lord Carnaston held up his hand. The crowd was silenced. “Sentence has been passed. The punishment dealt. May his body rot and the birds feast upon his flesh and that will be an end to Grip Eikenhaal!”

A cry of approval rose from the crowd. They turned away, adults gathering their children, dogs running at their feet. The officials and their strongmen led the way back to the town. A merry cavalcade of laughter and spite as they turned their backs on the pitiful, blood-soaked body of the boy left hanging in the gibbet.

 

Finally the birds were quiet. They sat there in the tree. Side by side, beak to beak, two black shadows frozen to the tree. Then one of them moved. It shuffled its feathers, shifted onto one leg, and pushed. Something dropped. A smooth, round object fell to the ground. Then another.

The two objects bounced onto the grass below. Rolling once, they came to a stop. And there they sat, half hidden. Gleaming wet and black in the gathering gloom. Waiting beneath the Dool Tree.

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12. A celebration of introverts

I’ve often read that most writers are introverts, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that was true. I am a lifelong introvert, always have been, though writers who attend my workshops might not think that’s actually true. They see an outgoing, friendly guy because, over the years, I’ve been able to bring my innate liking for people to the surface and overcome the shyness that still affects me when I’m with strangers. It helps that I really enjoy teaching and talking with other writers.

So, in celebration of introversion, I want to share “10 Comics that Perfectly Sum Up What It’s Like to Be an Introvert” from an article by Lindsay Holmes, cartoons by Aaron Caycedo-Kimura.

Here’s one of my favorites—check out the rest.

Introvert toon

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Mary sends the first chapter of women’s fiction, Ten Years Between. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

It was 1:45 that afternoon when the call came in - just fifteen minutes before the end of their shift. It was the call that started the whole awful thing in motion, and it took me months to piece it all together… to find out the exact details of that horrible day. And after I did, of course, I wish I didn’t know.

“Attention officers in the vicinity of the riverfront, please be advised, 10-16 at 743 Wicker Street.”

“Hi Lily,” Charlie Keppler responded through the cop radio. “I’m a few blocks away. I’ll take it.”

“Copy that, 512. Car 500, are you available for backup?”

“10-4, this is car 500,” said Scott Zan, the only other officer patrolling the city that day, “on my way.”

The dispatcher settled back in her chair. 10-16 was a standard call - domestic violence - and it was as usual of an occurrence as any if you were a cop in Blue Tide, Michigan.

Officer Keppler pulled in front of the house on Wicker Street first, closely followed by Officer Zan. Charlie Keppler knew the neighborhood well. He had been called to Wicker Street many years ago for an entirely different reason – an older woman named Margaret White had asked for help to banish the alien intruders in her TV. He smiled a bit when he thought of her and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

There are virtues to this opening, primarily the voice and writing. But how does it do in raising story questions? And clarity? The first-person opening tries to foreshadow dire happenings ahead and hopes to get us to wonder what made it a horrible day.

But then it shifts into third-person omniscient point of view, and I spent several paragraphs wondering if officer Keppler was the pov person, and it turns out that he really isn’t, otherwise the narrative would continue in first person. So we’re left wondering who the narrator is and what he/she has to do with the story. For me, those are not story questions but “information” questions that withhold information from the reader. So the opening produced a clarity issue and information questions.

The narrative then goes to lots of cop talk on the radio, which, while it lends authenticity, it also isn’t story as it needs to be translated for the reader to understand what a “10-16” is. Those paragraphs don’t contribute to tension-building.

So I’ve cobbled together an alternative opening from this text and that which follows, editing out parts to try to make the first page more compelling.

Officer Keppler pulled in front of the house on Wicker Street first, closely followed by Officer Zan. As the officers exited their patrol cars, a teenage girl - gangly and dirty and no older than fourteen - flew down the stairs of the house.

“You gotta help me,” she begged, swiping her lanky yellow hair behind her ears. The girl was dressed in cut-off shorts and a filthy tank top. She was too skinny and her teeth were crowded in her mouth, discolored and crooked.

“What’s the problem, miss?” Officer Keppler asked.

“Those two Laird brothers on my case. I use ta like Bernie but he got too mean so now I wit Ted and Bernie pissed. They fightin’ all morning, grabbin’ at me, punchin’ each other.”

“Have they hurt you?”

“Bernie try to make me go to his house and he grab me and I hollered and he said to shut the fuck up. And then Ted come in and slap me and then he start beatin’ on Bernie.”

“Where are they now?”

She pointed across the street at a single-story, white clapboard house with peeling paint. 

“Bernie in there. Dunno where Ted at. This,” she swept her hand behind her, “is Ted’ house.”

“Ok, why don’t you go back in and we’ll go pay Bernie a visit?” Charlie Keppler told (snip)

What do you think?

Were you more likely to turn this page?

As it turns out, this chapter is pretty much all setup and doesn’t involved the protagonist/storyteller at all in terms of what happens in the narrative. I think the story needs to start later, at the point something happens to the protagonist to compel her to act and whatever is needed of the horrible day should be woven in then.

I know it seems that what happens here is an inciting incident, but an inciting incident needs to directly affect the protagonist’s life in a way that makes her act. In a sense, the aftermath of this horrible day becomes a part of the protagonist’s life-as-it-is and may not be the inciting incident.

Good writing and the scene flows nicely, but I’d like to start later and see what happens to the narrator, not other folks. The rest of the original chapter follows.

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 Mary

 

Continued

. . . glanced up at her window in the apartment complex next door. Margaret’s shades were closed against the sun but he knew that as the day shifted, she would part the curtains and let a little of life back in. She had come a long way since he first met her.

As the officers exited their patrol cars the day they were only fifteen minutes away from the end of shift, a teenage girl - gangly and dirty and no older than fourteen - flew down the stairs of the house next to Margaret White’s apartment complex.

“You gotta help me,” she begged, swiping her lanky yellow hair behind her ears. The girl was dressed in cut-off shorts and a filthy tank top. She was one of the many poor in the neighborhood: ignored, unheard, unwanted. She was too skinny and her teeth were crowded in her mouth, discolored and crooked.

“What’s the problem, miss?” Officer Keppler asked.

“Those two Laird brothers on my case. I use ta like Bernie but he got too mean so now I wit Ted and Bernie pissed. They fightin’ all morning, grabbin’ at me, punchin’ each other.”

“Have they hurt you?”

“Bernie try to make me go to his house and he grab me and I hollered and he said to shut the fuck up. And then Ted come in and slap me and tell me to shut up, too, and then he start beatin’ on Bernie.”

“Where are they now?”

She pointed across the street at a single-story, white clapboard house with peeling paint. 

“Bernie in there. Dunno where Ted at. This,” she swept her hand behind her, “is Ted’ house.”

“Ok, why don’t you go back in and we’ll go pay Bernie a visit?” Charlie Keppler told her. “We’ll come back after to make sure you’re alright, see if you need anything, ok?”

The girl nodded solemnly and scooted up the stairs of Ted Laird’s house and behind the door.

The two officers angled across the street, towards the other house – Bernie Laird’s. They were talking to each other but of course no one would ever know about what.

The breeze blew lightly, fluttering the gray curtains in Bernie Laird’s house. It was a miraculously sunny and spectacular April day, charming even Wicker Street into looking less dingy, less skid row. In front of the house with the peeling paint and the fluttering curtains, a few stalwart crocuses struggled mightily to nudge their noses above ground.

As the two cops approached the house, the curtains parted slightly and a gun appeared: a long-barreled Winchester slotted darkly out the front window.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

The sound shattered the silence and in an instant both police officers were down, felled by gunfire coming from each of the Laird brothers’ houses. Charlie Keppler’s hand had been on his gun, ready to draw, as though he had noticed the shotgun peering from Bernie Laird’s window just a split second too late. Officer Zan struggled to his feet after being shot and tried to run for cover but was felled again by more gunshots. He stumbled to his knees and went down between two cars. Officer Keppler remained in the middle of the black street, motionless.

When it was over, more than twenty rounds had been fired. Some of those bullets – the ones that hadn’t found the tender bodies of the two cops - had ricocheted off cars, denting their sides, skipping across the concrete, burrowing into the sod. Under the two fallen men, the dark and narrow street began to turn red as rivers of blood spilled down the road. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Blue Tide stopped – silent and horrified. It was the worst day in the town’s history.

It was the worst day of my life, too for you see, Charlie Keppler was my brother.

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14. Flogometer for Curtis—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Curtis sends the first chapter of a novella, CRUCIFIJA. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Okay, so the inverted pentagram painted on the wall behind me totally creeped me out. Part of me also wondered if that was really hamburger in the spaghetti, and not human flesh. Still, judge not, lest ye be judged, right?

“So, Ciri, would you like to say grace this evening?”

“Sure, Mom. Um, our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name—”

A gasp, followed by a high-pitched squawk, and the clatter of silverware greeted my intonation. So not the response I hoped for.

My mother inhaled a deep breath to regain her composure. “Ciri, Allen’s been very gracious to us. Please respect his rules.”

“Come now, Regina, I’m sure Ciri meant no disrespect.” My stepfather stroked the head of the raven perched on his shoulder. “She’s trying to make this new situation work, just like the rest of us. However, she brings up an important point. We need to discuss my…lifestyle.”

“Look, Allen, no matter how you spin it, this whole Satanic thing’s evil.”

“At least he’s around,” my brother said, picking up his fork. “Unlike Dad.”

As much as I hated to admit it, Angelo had a point. Even though my brother’s polo shirts had been replaced by Avenged Sevenfold T-shirts, he smiled more often since my mother married Allen a few months ago. His therapist even lowered the dosage of his Prozac. Truth be (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

This nicely done first page begins with a strong voice and writing, and then it goes on to paint, in a few swift, telling strokes, a world that, almost by itself, raises strong story questions. While there is no clear jeopardy for the narrator at this point, the fact that she is in a Satanic household made me want to know more about how she would handle it. There is definitely conflict ahead, we just don’t know the nature of it.

The chapter is extremely short and I urge you to read the rest and see if you would want to read more. A very few notes:

Okay, so the inverted pentagram painted on the wall behind me totally creeped me out. Part of me also wondered if that was really hamburger in the spaghetti, and not human flesh. Still, judge not, lest ye be judged, right? removed a comma

“So, Ciri, would you like to say grace this evening?”

I said, “Sure, Mom. Um, our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name—” Since we don’t know who the opening narration is from, and while it might be okay to assume that this speaker is that same person, I think a dialogue tag makes it perfectly clear and doesn’t slow things down.

A gasp, followed by a high-pitched squawk, and the clatter of silverware greeted my intonation. So not the response I hoped for. removed a comma

My mother inhaled a deep breath to regain her composure. “Ciri, Allen’s been very gracious to us. Please respect his rules.”

“Come now, Regina, I’m sure Ciri meant no disrespect.” My stepfather stroked the head of the raven perched on his shoulder. “She’s trying to make this new situation work, just like the rest of us. However, she brings up an important point. We need to discuss my…lifestyle.” Love the matter-of-fact way the raven is shown.

I said, “Look, Allen, no matter how you spin it, this whole Satanic thing’s evil.” Since three people have spoken and the last one to speak before Allen was the mother, the speaker is not clear here and likely to be thought to be the mother. Need a dialogue tag for clarity.

“At least he’s around,” my brother said, picking up his fork. “Unlike Dad.”

As much as I hated to admit it, Angelo had a point. Even though my brother’s polo shirts had been replaced by Avenged Sevenfold T-shirts, he smiled more often since my mother married Allen a few months ago. His therapist had even lowered the dosage of his Prozac. Truth be (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 Curtis

 

Continued

. . . told, my mother smiled a lot more, too, and she didn’t drink as much wine as she did during those final lonely years with my father.

“Fine. I’m sorry, Allen. You’ve been good to us. I just can’t accept that Satan’s path is the right path. Not yet, anyway. Nothing personal. Now, will you please pass the garlic bread?”

“I understand, Ciri. Old programming can’t be changed overnight. But we must give thanks to Lucifer before we eat. All together, shall we?”

“Our Creator who art in Hell, sacred is thy eternal name. Bringer of daily indulgences, thy infernal kingdom awaits. Our will on Earth, as it is in Hell. Deliver us from ignorance, and lead us to Armageddon. For thine is the true empire, the power, and the glorious. Hail Satan!”

Yeah, why would I ever think God’s path was wrong?

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15. Do you know the basics of copyright law?

We all know that we need for our work to be copyrighted to protect ourselves from others profiting from our work, but what are the facts? Check out this Writer’s Digest article, “6 Questions Writers Ask about Copyright and the Law” by Chuck Sambuchino.

A good primer. The points that are covered:

  • Do I need to register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office to hold a copyright on the work?
  • So since I do not need to “super copyright” my work to have basic protection, is there any real incentive to doing so?
  • I’ve heard that if I mail a copy of the printed work to myself, that proves copyright. Is that true?
  • Does a copyright protect ideas?
  • What are the legal ramifications of reproducing song lyrics in a manuscript? Also, can I use a song title as the title of my book? I have personal experience with this—I used song lyrics in my novel The Summer Boy and then either took them out, referred to titles, or otherwise referred to lyrics in ways that didn’t duplicate them exactly.
  • In a work of fiction, what restrictions exist on using the names of professional sports teams, TV networks or real people?

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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16. Flogometer for Dan—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Dan sends the first chapter of a novella, The Red Hand. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

John Wren heard his neighbor's door click shut, as her door did three times a week, right around six AM. He stirred sugar into his tea. He knew what he'd hear next, and heard it: Kate's bare feet bounding down the stairway, one tread at a time. Taking his cup, he stepped onto the balcony -- really an open air hallway -- of the threadbare seaside motel that had been his home for the past two months. He watched her cross the sandy parking lot at a trot, to the break in the falling-down split-rail fence, then diagonally toward the beach through the overgrown lot next door. He liked Kate. She was about the only thing in this crazy world that made any real sense to him.

He looked over at Windsong in her slip, and squinted at the top of her mast, gauging the wind. Less than five knots, he decided. West north west.

There are small dunes along this stretch of the Hamptons, some with meager beach grasses holding them together. As Kate turned along the beach, she started to open up her stride, but a figure stepped out from behind one of those grassy dunes. He appeared to be pointing a gun at her. She stopped dead, then went down, writhing. Dropping his tea, John raced down the stairs. He'd heard no shot; he had no idea what a Taser was. As he streaked across the parking area, he saw the sedan racing across the side lot, barreling over the uneven ground toward Kate and the stranger. It stopped a short way from her and a second fellow jumped out and helped the first drag her into the back seat. Her wrists seemed to be tied together.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Most definitely a strong story question raised on this first page, and the writing is pretty clean, grammatically speaking. However, the narrative needs work on the storytelling side. As it is, the promise is for what could be an interesting story but not a well-written one—for example, after the action ends John is standing by the car, which has crashed, and turns to see Kate opening her motel door even though a second before she had been standing next to him . . . which has to be some distance from there. Dan, take your time and think through how to move the story seamlessly forward. Notes:

John Wren heard his neighbor's door click shut, as it her door did three times a week, right around six AM. He stirred sugar into his tea. He knew what he'd hear next, and heard it: Kate's bare feet bounding down the stairway, one tread at a time. Taking his cup, he stepped onto the balcony -- really an open air hallway -- of the threadbare seaside motel that had been his home for the past two months. He watched her cross the sandy parking lot at a trot, to the break in the falling-down split-rail fence, and then diagonally toward the beach through the overgrown lot next door. He liked Kate. She was about the only thing in this crazy world that made any real sense to him.

He looked over at Windsong Windsong in her slip, and squinted at the top of her mast, gauging the wind. Less than five knots, he decided. West north west. Boat names are italicized.

There are Kate crossed the small dunes along of this stretch of the Hamptons, some with meager beach grasses holding them together. As Kate she turned along the beach, she started to open up her stride, but a figure stepped out from behind a dune one of those grassy dunes. He appeared to be pointing a gun at her. She stopped dead, then went down, writhing. Dropping his tea, John raced down the stairs. He'd heard no shot; he had no idea what a Taser was. As he streaked across the parking area, he saw the a sedan raced racing across the side lot, barreling over the uneven ground toward Kate and the stranger. It stopped a short way from her and a second fellow jumped out and helped the first drag her into the back seat. Her wrists seemed to be tied together. The “There are” at the opening of this is the author intruding to inject information. Keep it within the character’s pont of view and turn it into action as experienced by the protagonist. The bit about her stride isn’t needed and borders on overwriting. If he has no idea what a Taser is or does, then he can’t be thinking about it—a break in point of view. And who these days doesn’t know what a Taser is and does? I would change this to him concluding that she’d been tasered. The “he saw” I changed is using a filter instead of showing the action the character experiences.

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 Dan

 

Continued:

John dashed through the gap in the fence and headed for the car at a flat-out run. The first man shoved Kate headfirst and followed her in. He was definitely now holding a gun to her head. At the same time, the driver jumped in his open door, saw John coming, and hit the gas. The door slammed closed.

John lunged at him through the open window, getting a hold of his neck in a headlock. Unable to keep his feet under him, his body dragged behind. Kate extracted a curved knife from the sewn-in sheath in her cut-off jeans.

The gunman turned the pistol to John. In a single move, Kate scooted her butt down and shot her left foot up, pinning the gun and the man's extended hand to the headliner. The gun went off. Kate kicked the hand with her other foot, then stabbed the man on his far side with the custom-made knife with its half-inch radius hook near the tip of the blade. Pulling the knife toward her, she sliced her captor open horizontally, just below the diaphragm. Then she plunged in, both hands inside of him, slashing upward into the lungs and heart, her eyes hard and in his face. The gunman had struggled with her while being disemboweled, but when the blade reached its mark, he had nothing left but a pitiful cough and a plunge into unconsciousness. Foamy bright red blood sputtered onto his chin and he passed into oblivion, eyes and mouth open.

The car bounced over a hole, the driver choking and blinded, and the car hit a smallish pine tree which stopped it dead, throwing John's body forward. His headlock on the driver was secure; the driver's neck snapped on impact. John's back screamed with pain. His arm felt broken. Dust filled the air.

Kate took the man's gun off the seat, jumped out of the car, and ran around to where John was getting up off the ground. She set the gun on the hood and cut her hands free of the plastic shackles with a single annoyed swipe of her bloody knife. "Are you all right?"

"I've been better," he said.

She looked at the driver. His head was at an impossible angle to his body. "We've got to get outta here." She stuck the gun in her pocket and sheathed her knife, turned and trotted back to the hotel.

"Wh....?" John said. Checking the back seat, he saw the shooter, chin on chest, his bowels trailing into his lap. John looked back towards Kate. She was fumbling with her door lock. By the time he got back to her, she had already thrown her laptop and the gun into a large carry-all, a beach bag. He didn't know that she was still steeling herself against the nerve-scrambling effects of the Taser shot; he only saw her clenching and unclenching her fists as she went about tossing her cell phone and a few other items into the bag. She retrieved a holstered gun out of her night stand,  and shoved that in the front pocket of her shorts. John stared at her bloody legs, arms, and lap. "Are you injured? Are you bleeding?"

"No," she said immediately, and looked down at herself. "Shit! I need clothes." She went to the dresser, took a few things out, then a pair of sneakers from the closet, adding them to the now overstuffed bag. "Come on." Checking across the way before she fully opened her door, she crossed to John's open door, with John following, into the same one-bedroom efficiency as her own. Reversed floorplan. Kate knew John's place well; she'd been there quite a few times, helping him with things that baffled him and sometimes terrified him, at least in the beginning. "Pick up that broken teacup, please. Then hand me your laptop." She opened his center desk drawer, removing a large format checkbook, putting it in a backpack that had been leaning against the wall. She dumped in his (dead) cell phone and chargers. Kate held the bag open so John could put the laptop in. "Your wallet," she said.

"Kate. What are we doing? We're safe. Those guys are dead!" She was shaking her head. But he went on. "We have to call the authori..."

"Those ARE the authorities, Galen!" she cut him off, pointing in the direction of the car. "Now please. Where is your wallet? You may need it." He retrieved it from a side drawer of the desk. She spun around and headed for the kitchen, saying, "I'll explain it all once we're out of here." She grabbed his ring of keys from a bowl on the counter. Then she crossed over to the front window and parted the curtains a little. She slipped one arm of the backpack onto his shoulder. "And you need shoes. Go grab a pair of shoes."

She looked out the window again, then opened the door, peeked her head out, scanning the hall both ways. "Did nobody hear the shot?" she asked, quietly, to herself. John was back. "Come on." she said quietly. "We're taking your car," she said as they approached the bottom of the stairs, and moved to the Jeep Cherokee. Unlocking the doors with the clicker, she said under her breath as she slung the big bag across onto the passenger side floor, "This thing better start."

John followed her down the steps, saying, "Kate. Kate. Wait." As she went to get in the driver's side, he took her by the arm. "Stop." She could hear the would-be abductors' car engine, still running, seventy-five feet behind her. It had begun to knock, because the radiator was damaged in the crash, and the engine was beginning to overheat.

She turned to him, and broke his grasp with a flick of her wrist. Her expression was deadly serious. She controlled her volume, but her intensity knew no bounds. She screamed, quietly, through clenched teeth, "Galen, GET in the FUCKING CAR!" She turned again to the open door. John went around to the other side and got in. The car fired right up. Kate made an unhurried exit from the parking lot, turned right, and right again when she hit Montauk Highway, heading east.

 ###

 The old man was truly old -- over a hundred years old -- but he didn't look a day over seventy, and a healthy, youthful seventy at that. He eased down comfortably to the park bench, and looked out over Long Island Sound, hands on his knees. It was one of those days when the sky and sea were an azure monochrome backdrop of the big picture, and yet the star of it; the water speckled with shimmering late-morning diamonds. To the initiated, the sky spoke by cloud symbols of the science of water, air, wind, and light, radiant and spectral. And of things to come.

To his left and somewhat behind him, under a great oak, sat a shiny red pickup -- one of those muscular-looking, too-tall ones -- parked in shade. Behind it by about fifty feet, not under the tree, Sean's 1960 Ford half-ton. Built like a truck. No plastic. Maybe a little -- the radio knobs. The distributor cap. Original green paint, in pretty good shape. There was a spot worn through the paint where he'd rested his arm all these years, when the window was down. He'd owned it fifty-five years, since it was a baby. The bed's patina spoke of fifty-plus years of minor bumps and bruises from gravel, fishing gear, tools, and dog paws, plus one sizable dent reminding the owner of a panic stop and an outboard motor.

Sean didn't do flashy; he was quiet in all his ways. Didn't like to draw attention to himself. So he wasn't going to buy one of those current models. There wasn't one of any make or model that he cared for. Trouble was that his old truck, which ran perfectly, and which he liked just fine, was such a classic by now that it did draw attention to him. Just yesterday, he had a young fellow offer to buy it at a gas station. Maybe he could find a gently used '91 or something.

An acorn dropped from the tree onto the roof of the shiny red truck with a surprisingly loud thump. Sean Donnelly turned a little on the bench to see it, and watched it roll off to the street, over on the passenger side. Before long, another acorn dropped into the bed, and another  followed immediately onto the hood, with a sharp thud.

A Lincoln pulled up behind Sean's bench, and a rear door opened. The old man didn't turn, as he normally did. He heard muffled words exchanged between the boy and his mom (who was Sean's daughter) and there was probably a kiss in there somewhere. The boy got out and closed the door, and the driver pulled away.

Theodore (they called him Ted) picked up right away on his grandfather's unusual stillness, and came around the bench, and sat beside him. "Whatcha doin', grandpa?"

"Shhh," the old man said. Without moving his eyes from the tree canopy, he said, "I'm concentrating. I'm willing that acorn to fall on that red truck."

Ted didn't know what to make of that, so he just sat quietly. "Which acorn?" he finally said.

"That one right there. You see that triangular spot where the sky shines through?"

"Yes."

"Right there. Near the top of that, at two o'clock. Now let me concentrate."

Ted waited.

Thump! An acorn fell and hit the hood. Ted's eyes grew wide as Sean turned to look at him, with a grin. Ted's mouth opened.

After a moment, Ted's eyes narrowed again. "Let me try," he said, and leaned forward, scrunching his hands between his knees.

The old man said, "Now, you have to pick just one. Are you looking at just one?"

"Yes," the boy said. "Let me concentrate." A moment later, an acorn fell into the bed of the pickup, and Ted looked up at his grandfather triumphantly. Beaming.

Sean tousled the boy's red hair. "You're pretty smart for eleven years old."

The boy simply stood and faced his grandfather, and put his hand on his shoulder.

"Ready to go fishing?" Sean asked. Ted nodded, but kept his hand on the old man's shoulder.

"When confronted with a superior enemy," the boy said, "consider projecting a power you do not have."

Sean listened until the boy finished, then laughed -- a quiet laugh, but it came from deep within him. He tousled Ted's hair again.

"You quote me back to myself!" he said, with delight. "I think I wrote that more than fifty years ago!" He looked beyond the boy to the Sound. "Much more. Hmm." He wondered when the last time was that he was confronted by a superior enemy. "Okay," he said softly. "The snappers are waiting!"

Sean stood up and started walking with the boy to his truck. "Actually," Sean muttered, "I think Liam wrote that one."

"It's in the Wisdom," the boy said, sauntering alongside.

"We wrote that for your uncles, Teddy-boy. And for you."

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

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Joseph sends the first chapter of a novella, The Meter Reader . The remainder is after the break

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

The dashboard radio interceptor crackles in and out, and the voices are barely audible, so Orville adjusts the squelch button, which helps a little.

“Did you get it?” he asks, his knobby fingers twirling the button.

“Don’t sweat on it boss. It sounded like two tags. Got the coordinates, too.” I turn on the flashlight, point it on the mapbook, and flip to the right page.

The coordinates place this next job on the far end of the reservation, a few miles away. I ask, “Do you know where that is?”

“It’s been a while, but we’ll find it. Strap on the seatbelt. Pot’s right.” Orville jams the Chevy in drive and floors the accelerator. Bits of desert gravel shoot out and seconds later, we are rolling down the state highway under the cover of the desert sky. I hope we have enough time to save those two folks.

Two tags on two meters of two souls, soon to be removed by the termination unit, unless we get there in time. Whether or not these two folks on the ground were victims of foul play or mere accident (hand of man vs the hand of God) is a matter for Orville and me – one ornery ancient wildcat meter reader and his comely and humble apprentice, creeping in and out of space-time, changing folks’ fate, saving lives, making miracles. God, I love this job! Until the old fart opens his mouth.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good voice, mostly good writing, and a goodly number of story questions worked for me in this opening. The writing could be a little crisper and there’s potential for confusion in one spot, but those things are easily fixed. The opening introduces a different kind of world without belaboring it and blends it into the action. Good work. Notes:

The dashboard radio interceptor crackles in and out, and the voices are barely audible, so Orville adjusts the squelch button, which helps a little. For me, the micro detail of adjusting the squelch button is just not needed. Use the words for story. You could combine this paragraph with the next one for greater clarity.

“Did you get it?” he asks, his knobby fingers twirling the button. I thought he had already adjusted the button in the first paragraph, so why is he still twirling the button? Don’t think you need that.

“Don’t sweat on it, Boss boss. It sounded like two tags. Got the coordinates, too.” I turn on the flashlight, point it on the map book mapbook, and flip to the right page.

The coordinates place this next job on the far end of the reservation, a few miles away. I ask, “Do you know where that is?”

“It’s been a while, but we’ll find it. Strap on the seat belt seatbelt. Pot’s right.” Orville jams the Chevy in drive and floors the accelerator. Bits of desert gravel shoot out and seconds later, we are rolling down the state highway under the cover of the desert sky. I hope we have enough time to save those two folks. They shouldn't be in a moving car without the seat belt fastened. I would just delete this and get on with the story. As a long-time poker player, I recognize the phrase “Pot’s right,” but I wonder, since “pot” also stands for marijuana, of non-players will. I know he uses the phrase later but, unless it’s vital for the story, there’s potential for confusion here. Good story question raised about saving two folks.

Two tags on two meters of two souls, soon to be removed by the termination unit, unless we get there in time. Whether or not these two folks on the ground were victims of foul play or mere accident (hand of man vs the hand of God) is a matter for Orville and me – one ornery ancient wildcat meter reader and his comely and humble apprentice, creeping in and out of space-time, changing folks’ fate, saving lives, making miracles. God, I love this job! Until the old fart opens his mouth. Plenty of story questions raised 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 Joseph

 

Continued:

“Let’s go over this again,” Orville says. “What’s step one?” With one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the road, he casually reaches to his left side where the .38 special waits in its holster. He’s checking the ordinance again. Orville might be humorless and stiff, but he sure is thorough.

“I know step one and I know step two,” I say. “And three and four and all the rest. This is getting old. Like you. Except you’re already past ‘getting’.”

“Do it, rookie. Step one.”

“All right,” I answer. “Step One is a little number that goes like this; I stand guard and count while you check the tags on the life meters. The end. Sorry that I said you’re getting old. You can’t help it. Better check your firearm again because I think it may have escaped. From too much fondling.”

“Never mind. What’s step two?”

“You play detective, check for clues of foul play, then intervene as needed.”

“Elaborate. What do you mean by ‘intervene’?”

“Intervene, verb, to alter the course of events, to change one’s fate, to perform a minor miracle. For example, the grouchy old man intervened and saved a soul from being ripped out of the poor folk on the ground, hallelujah. All while the handsome apprentice stood guard and counted. In other words, I do all the heavy lifting while you play with dolls.”

Orville barely grins at the wisecrack, which means that I’ll have to try harder. Or maybe that’s my problem – I’m trying too hard. He turns left off the highway to take a dirt road, tires grumbling underneath. “After that?”

“After that, we get the hell out of there, as fast as a married man in a cathouse. You like that one?”

Orville grunts. He’s been doing that a lot lately. He looks like this job has been drilling a hole in his spirit. His yellow moustache seems droopier, his wit replaced with slow shakes of his head. Either that or my jokes are getting bad. Nah.

Silhouettes of cacti and mesquite roll by, suddenly illuminated by a pair of headlights coming our way. Orville slows down a bit and turns off the high beams. The vehicle does not reply in kind. It closes in, practically blinding us until the vehicle is close enough to run us off the road. Orville swerves just in time. “Numbnuts!” he barks and I watch menacing red light zip past us.

“Was it them?” I ask.

“I’m sure it was,” he answers.

Meter readers, I think to myself. The most heartless, mindless drones of all the employees who work for C&F Utilities. Good thing they’re all idiots because if it wasn’t for their incompetence, we would probably be slinging hash somewhere off the grid, working odd jobs here and there, then coming home to our trailers, hitting the bottles, waking up with hangovers, stumbling to new jobs because we just got fired for being late too many times. God save me from that nightmare. This wildcat job is the best thing going for me, and as soon as Orville cuts me loose, I’ll be performing miracles my way.

A few minutes later, we’re parked two hundred yards from the site, hidden from the road. Orville hands me his clipboard and reminds me to not accidentally press the buttons, especially the SLIP button. I sing that old song with him in mock fashion. All three buttons shine like gems, each with their own color – SLIP, COUNT, and RESUME, which sends us back to Earth time.

The engine is left running and we creep up to a spot outside of dirt clearing in front of a small shack of mud and two beat-up cars. We hide behind the desert shrub because it looks like someone is sitting inside one of the cars.

“There’s the instigator,” I say. “See? I can spot him, just like you trained me to. Bet your ass that he’s the one.”

“Maybe,” Orville says. “Get ready to press SLIP, on my mark.”

The dark figure emerges from one of the beat up cars, flicks away a cigarette butt, and heads towards the hut. It looks like he’s carrying a pole or big-ass stick with him. I point to the instigator and almost reveal our hiding spot when I whisper, too loudly, “The murder weapon! What the hell is it? Can you see?”

Orville covers my mouth and breathes hot fire from his old nostrils. His stare burns and I feel like a rookie all over again. He shakes his head and points to the clipboard, which means get ready to press SLIP. I don’t know why he trusts me, but he does. His hand goes again to check the revolver in his holster. He’s caressing the handle. He really needs a girlfriend.

Now at the front door, the figure raises the stick over his head and I see that it’s a hatchet with a long handle, for chopping wood. Not the best murder weapon in an enclosed space, and that’s when I realize that the figure at the door is either an enraged ex-boyfriend or the dumbassiest assassin in the universe. Someone inside is about to be hacked to death in a God-awful way, which is why Orville and I are here in the first place.

Orville points at me and I press the SLIP button.

Everything stops.

The crickets stop fiddling their tune, the stars stop rolling in the sky, not that I could tell, and the coyotes stop yipping. Even the breeze stops blowing. A bat hangs in the air as if suspended from fishing line. The dark figure still stands at the front door, his hands frozen on the handle of the hatchet and the blade waiting to come crashing down.

Orville and I don’t stop. There’s work to be done here and if we’re lucky, two lives to be saved. He hurries to the house and enters while I stand by the truck and look out for the termination unit and their van. Orville calls them the ‘numbuts in coveralls.’ They have their own power to SLIP in and out of time because they, too, have a clipboard just like the one belonging to Orville. Clipboards and huge tongs, which they use to remove the souls from the folks and send them to central cold storage at C&F Headquarters, then on the reprocessing center where they wait for their next assignment.

According to the COUNT, we have about 600 heartbeats to get in and out of here without being caught. It may not seem like a long time, but it’s damn dull watching the COUNT on the clipboard and watching the road while Orville has all the fun. I hate SLIP time. Nothing on Earth seems alive and there’s little to do.

200 heartbeats to do something important.

I grab a handful of rocks and hang them in the air to make a lifelike portrait of eyes and a nose and a mouth. Then I grab a handful of desert sand and a few mesquite branches to make a head of wiry hair and a bushy moustache. Voila. The exact likeness of Orville. Another hurried masterpiece.

Orville calls to me from the inside of the hut. He tells me, “You gotta see this.”

Finally, some action! I destroy the evidence to leave the rocks, sand, and mesquite a mid-air mess, then I hurry to the scene to find him in the bedroom, standing next to a double bed.

“It’s time for your first big test,” Orville says. “What do you see?”

I better ace this. I take a deep breathe, crack my knuckles a few times, shake off the cobwebs. Here goes. “There’s a pregnant woman sleeping on the bed, next to the father of her baby. Or maybe Paul Bunyan outside is the baby-daddy. Baby-mommy has two tags, one for her and one for the baby. Wow. Folks on the ground are a cruel lot.”

The meter of life is shaped like any old analog meter, an arc with a field of green on the left, a narrower field of yellow in the middle and the smallest field of red on the right. You don’t want that needle to ever go in the yellow, let alone red. Once it’s there, you get tagged by a meter reader. Then it’s lights out and your time on the ground is over because the termination unit shows up, reads the red tags, fills out the requisite paperwork, and takes your soul away where it waits in hyper-cold storage. For this reason, I prefer to call it a death meter.

Folks on the ground can’t see that meter, but it’s there -- below the hairline on the back of your neck. And that needle usually stays in the green, but once someone on the ground does something stupid or dangerous, like climb a mountain or fall asleep at the wheel, or even something harmless like take a shower, that needle moves to the right, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

“That’s obvious rook,” Orville says. “I trained you better than that. Try again.”

I look again, deeper now, observing the faces of the couple and the way their bodies flow across the bed. The pregnant woman faces out and so does the man, but in the other direction. They lie apart from each other about as far on the bed as they can be without falling off. More evidence beyond my grasp.

“What’s her name?” Orville asks.

I read both tags again. “Jackie Begay. Her daughter’s name is Aubrey.”

“Detective time. Tell me what’s gonna happen.”

“Four hundred heartbeats left. Do we have time?”

“Make it fast.”

I hurry through a fairly obvious prediction: Axe man at the front door bursts into the house and hacks Jackie Begay to death. The current boyfriend luckily escapes.

Orville grunts and shakes his head. “Follow me.” He heads out the bedroom and through the hallway. He walks with determination and I hurry to follow him to the door of the one-bedroom shack.

Orville stands on one side of the closed door and I stand on the other. He nods for me to open the door, and I do.

I stand right in front of the killer and if I were to accidentally press the SLIP button, that axe blade would cleave right into my skull. I feel my arms crawling with goosebumps.

“What do you see?” he asks.

The look in his eyes is heavy and red, not wild and frightened. Odd.

 “I see…a killer…a…something ain’t right. This guy doesn’t look pissed, he looks stoned. Too stoned to give a damn. Why is he even here?”

“You’re the one being tested. You tell me.”

I go into my best explanation and I don’t believe a word of it. “Stoner here is desperate for cash, so he breaks into the home to steal something, but all he sees is a used microwave oven and a nearly-empty refrigerator. He stumbles into the bedroom, wakes the couple. Fight breaks out and next thing you know, Jackie Begay and unborn daughter are killed while the guy in the bed survives, maybe there’s a scuffle and he scares the stoner off, which wouldn’t be too hard. None of this makes sense. Oh, and 350 heartbeats to go.”

Orville just shakes his head. He’s too tired to teach me the truth and frankly, I’ve been training too long not to know it. I wish I had his knowledge and experience but not his wrinkles. He can keep them.

At this time, I begins the intervention, which I expect to go something like this; he steps behind the stoned killer, straighten the stiff fingers to release the grip on the handle, and hand me the murder weapon, which I’ve been trained to quickly hide. I’ll probably throw it in the desert for future use.

But I should know that Orville never does the expected. Instead of removing the murder weapon from the killer’s grip, something we’ve done countless times before, he does nothing about it. Now I’m the one who’s shaking his head because I have no idea what the old fart is up to.

“Now,” Orville says, his eyes lighting up a bit and his mouth merging to a smirk. He always enjoyed this part of the job. He stands close to the axe-man and whispers into his ear. “I ain’t no cold-blooded murderer. I don’t kill helpless mothers and unborn babies. No way.” Orville eyes me to see if I get it. I wish I did.

He continues his whispery serenade. “I’m taking over this operation. I’m the one in charge, not him.” Now he’s looking right at me again as he closes in even closer on the axe-man’s ear. “I’m too smart for him. I’m too smart for all of this. The plan is about to be changed.”

Orville tells me to go check the meters of Jackie and the kid. On my way to the bedroom, I hear more whispering but I have no idea what Orville is saying

Back in the bedroom, I check her meter and the baby’s. I tell Orville that both are lower, but still in the red.

Orville returns to the bedroom. He says we need to make more drastic steps and hands me his gun as though I know exactly what to do with it, which I don’t. It rests in my hands like a hungry baby bird. I’m about to place the gun next to the boyfriend when Orville says, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I thought…I thought you said…no clue.”

“Don’t look. See. Who kills Begay? Who kills her unborn baby?”

“Paul Bunyan.”

Orville is about to say something, but I stop him. “The boyfriend slash husband? He hires the thug to kill her? Why?”

“Does it matter? Insurance money…furious that it’s not his baby… do the folks on the ground really need a reason to kill each other?”

I said I guess not. I think I’m getting it.

“What are you gonna do about it?” Orville asks, his bony finger jabbing a hole in my chest.

“I’m gonna change fate. Ow.”

“And how are you gonna do that?!”

“I’m gonna save two lives tonight! Ow.”

Orville nods and says, “Now hand me my clipboard. I’ll count and you

work. You got 250 heartbeats. Pot’s light and ante up. Go.”

After the gun is placed next to the nightstand of the mother, I check her

meter. The needle has dropped a little, but it’s still in the red.

“You need to do more,” Orville says.

I need to do more? What more are you doing?”

“Teaching. Two twenty and counting. Remember that trick about divine

inspiration? Do that and see what happens.”

I lean over and whisper to Jackie, “You have a gun. Someone close to you

gave it to you for a Christmas—”

Orville clears his throat.

“—Easter—”

Orville shakes his head. His meter officially reads Pain In My Ass.

“—birthday gift. You will use it to shoot the stranger who’s coming into your room.” I check her meter. The needle has dropped to the yellow zone, which means her fate is still in jeopardy. She could die tonight or the next day or the month after that. Who knows. What’s worse is that Baby Begay’s meter still reads red. Then I realize the point of the intruder in the first place and it becomes clear, like a slap across my face, that Orville “inspired” Paul Bunyan to hack apart the real murderer – the fellow in the bed.

I tell the sleeping mother the most important part, the one that saves her life and the life of her unborn child; “Wait until the intruder kills the man in bed. Then point the gun at the intruder and keep firing until he drops.” Orville is giving me the keep-it-going sign, so I say, “Keep firing until the revolver is empty.” Orville gives a thumbs up and I check her meter. The needle has finally dropped to the green zone. Good for her, but bad for me. I feel a bit wheezy.

“Hallelujah, rook,” Orville says as he slaps me on the back. “Your first miracle. Breakfast is on me. Check your work and meet me outside.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Just enough. Hurry it up.”

Jackie is safe. Baby Begay is safe. Momma and baby live happily ever after. I rip off both of their tags, tear them four times, and throw them in the air like confetti, all the time singing my new favorite song and busting out a dance move somewhere between the robot and the mashed potato.

I believe in miracles.

We’re you from?

You sexy thing!

I check the meters of the boyfriend and the invader and they’re both in the red. For a little extra hot sauce, I punch sleeping ugly in his nutsack. He won’t feel a thing now, but once Orville presses RESUME and Earth time starts again, his junk will be roaring in righteous agony right as he gets hacked up. I am a sexy thing!

“What the hell are you doing!?” Orville asks. Has he been watching me the whole time?

“Making a difference?” I say.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Telling you?”

Orville tells me to quit wasting time, which makes me laugh because we have the power to SLIP time, even if it doesn’t last. He doesn’t laugh. He just shakes his head and tells me to fill out two tags. After doing that, I slap a big, bright, red tag on the boyfriend and another on the axe-man to ensure that the termination unit drives out of here with two souls. Rule number two of Orville’s Wildcat Handbook– Balance the Tags. Never give the suits Upstairs a chance to doubt anything. Two folks for two folks. Cosmic balance sheet looks good and scoreboard reads good guys over bad guys by two souls.

“You know somethin’ Orville?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m gonna like this job.”

Orville chuckled and said, “Let’s get the hell outta here before the termination unit gets here.” That was rule Number One – Don’t Get Caught, by the numbnut meter readers, by the TU, the auditors from the suits Upstairs, but most of all, do not get blindsided by the thugs of the Intervention Division. The tales of their splatter guns are horror stories.

Orville hands me the clipboard and we hurry to the truck. He sets the gear in drive and I press the RESUME button. The night desert returns to life as we speed away. The crickets continue their sweet song, the stars continue their sky-wide journey and that lonely bat flaps away into the darkness. Then we hear the finale – no screams, no shouts, just the repeated pop of a pistol followed by silence. Orville grins that old grin, the old, younger grin I used to see so much.

On the road back, we spot a pair of headlights coming our way. Orville turns off the high beams and the headlights get closer and finally pass. We got out of there with heartbeats to spare.

“Ciao,” Orville says to the TU, his moustache creeping up on both sides of his face. When both sides of his lip whiskers wriggle like that, I know it’s a sign that he’s pleased. “Good job, Gil.”

“Thanks,” I respond.

“Did you clean up?”

“Sure did.”

“What did you do with the tags?”

I shook my head and told him that both tags are in my pocket. Later that morning, at breakfast, I told him that I tossed the tags in the trash.

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18. Is there a library in your ebook’s future?

Alli-logoI came across an article at ALLi, a blog for independent authors, about three services that might enable you to place your book in libraries. Two of the services provide payment for authors, one does not.

Why would you want to be in a library where your book can be read by many for the price of just one sale? For unknown, independent authors, discovery is the reason that makes sense to me. I’ll be checking these out for my novels and, perhaps, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

 The article offers insights on the mechanics and capabilities of the three services, including lists of pros and cons. Check out Ebook Library Services For Authors. An Alliance of Independent Authors Report and see what you think.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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19. Amazon refusing book reviews

Mastering front 100WshadowDid you know that Amazon denies reviewers the ability to post a book review? Has it happened to you? I had no idea that this happens, but apparently one of their famous logarithms will do just that. I learned this because someone tried repeatedly to post a 5-star review of Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling and couldn’t because Amazon decided it was a bogus review.

Amazon ratings mastering-2It's not like I need fake reviews for my book. To the left is the graphic from Amazon on the status of the reviews for Mastering the Craft, and they're all quite legitimate, not a friend among them. They are averaging 4.8 stars.

The first time her review was blocked, she called Amazon and talked to a representative who couldn’t understand why but seemed to get it posted. Then it disappeared.

The reader tried again, and was again denied although she has since been able to post a review for different book on Amazon. So it's not her.

I know all this because this reader is a design client of mine, Cristina White. Independently of our working relationship, she bought my book and thought it was pretty good. Her review is below. Ours is by no means anything other than a professional relationship. Yet her wish to express her professional thoughts about my book were denied.

She told me about all this and has now shared with me the review she tried to post. It’s below, and then I’ll tell you what I think caused this kerfuffle.

5 starsWRITE. READ THIS BOOK. REWRITE.

Ray Rhamey delivers a wealth of writing know-how and editing experience in this smart, funny book about crafting a compelling story. Ray’s style is direct, entertaining, and pragmatic. His chapters on wordcraft, including “Adverbs: Good? Bad? Yes.” And “Don’t get me started” are in themselves worth the price of the book. Ray shines a flashlight on all the verbiage you don’t need, and he covers the essentials you do need to write a novel or memoir that hooks your readers on page one and keeps them turning pages to the end. Whether you’re writing your first or your tenth book, you need Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

Front cover 200WThank you, Cristina, for the kind words. And I believe that it was my words in appreciation of the writing talent that she shows in her memoir, Sex and Soul, that banned her from posting a review. Yes, I think it was me posting this shout-out for her book on FtQ when she published it.

Keep in mind that my only involvement with Cristina was for book design, not editing. There was no quid pro quo for a positive review at either end. My views on her writing were my personal take. Is that illegitimate? I don’t think so.

If you know anyone at Amazon, please pass this along. I understand that they are trying to keep bogus reviews off their site, but they should know that legitimate reviews are also being denied.

Try a review?

If you have read Mastering the Craft and would care to try posting a review, let me know what happens.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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20. Flogometer for Jill—are you compelled to turn the page?

Program note: Flog a Pro happens today on Writer Unboxed instead of its usual third-Thursday appearance.


Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • 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 character desires something.
  • The character 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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Jill sends a first chapter of Get Up Eight, a YA story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Rhino, never play with a bomb in the middle of the night on a muddy slope where you could tumble into a two-hundred-foot waterfall.

That’s what my mom would say. She’s an ER nurse and she loves to bring home tips: Rhino, never use a blowtorch to kill mosquitos. Rhino, never eat poison ivy.

Thanks, mom. But I’m a sixteen-year-old pariah who needs all the social capital he can get. So tonight I’m taking a risk. I already know the four possible outcomes:

One, it will turn out to be a tree stump and I’ll thank God no one was watching.

Two, it will be active and will blow something up—probably me.

Three, I’ll lose my balance and plunge to my death in Upper Crystal Falls.

Four, I’ll present it to the class and get the reward that will give me my life back.

Hold on—gotta get my boots. I’ve been trying to lower myself off the top bunk and grab my uniform in the dark without waking Tracker, who just flopped over for the third time in a minute. Tracker is my bunkmate and best friend and he thrashes around all night due to godawful dreams that make me want to jiggle his shoulder now and wake him up and tell him he’s okay. But then he’d want to come with me. I hunch by his bed, torn, then grab a blanket he kicked off and stretch and fuss to drape it back over him. Sleep well, Track. No potential dismemberment for you tonight.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the voice and the writing, all good, clear, strong. In thinking about the checklist, there’s a nice part of this that contributes to character engagement—where Rhino puts the blanket back over his sleeping friend. Makes him a caring human being. A simple touch, but effective. On the other hand, for me the paragraph about Tracker went on a little too long and started to slow the pace. I’d look for ways to trim it and keep the effective parts, which include the last line about potential dismemberment. No editorial notes, the writing is clean. Enjoy the rest of the chapter. Nice work, Jill, I wanted to read on.

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 Jill

 

Continued

Time to tiptoe toward the door, type the passcode and step between the two giant Sitka spruce trunks into the Glass Tower.

We’re at the Crystal Creek School of Benevolent Leadership, by the way, and I am now standing on the walkway outside the Boys Dorm. The Girls Dorm is straight across the atrium, there on the other side of the tower, behind the cedar trunks that mirror our spruces. Somewhere inside it is Sesh, the most famous, beautiful, depressed girl in the country, who probably hates me with the utmost hatred and would love to shatter my ribs with her awesome roundhouse kick—after she finishes ignoring me.

The Glass Tower is five stories tall and brochures say it “hovers like a glass rocketship” over the three hundred feet of rapids connecting Upper and Lower Crystal Falls, but given the school’s experimental nature, I see it more as a giant test tube.

Upper Crystal is shimmering dimly to my left, through the test tube’s curving back wall. Down to my right, I know Lower Crystal is tossing up mist where it pours from beneath the front deck, although it’s too dark to see that right now. Ahead and behind me, I can barely make out the cliffs hulking to the Glass Tower’s sides, anchoring it in midair with help from the dorms and the other cabins that jut from glass to rock.

The dorms are on the fourth floor so the tiny watchman at the front desk grows bigger as I hurry down flight after flight of shadowy, switchbacking, torch-lit stairs, my boots clicking lonesomely. He’s human sized by the time I stride through the lobby.

Two giant Douglas fir trunks rise on either side of the front doors, seventy feet from floor to ceiling, brown veins in the tower’s glass skin—except here in the lobby, where the skin is all pine. It’s the only non-glass part of the wall, a ten-foot high ring of warm golden wood. Maybe it’s supposed to remind people we’re in a national forest or maybe it’s better for hanging the old maps and photos and taxidermied skunks and stuff.

“I have to dig up a Mind Changer,” I say, stopping at the desk. “On the Scramble Wall.”

The watchman has a Frisbee face, poor guy, same as mine used to be until two years ago, when my chin finally grasped the concept of angles and I got a wide but legitimate V for the bottom of my Frisbee.

“It’s 4:37 a.m.,” he says.

“I’ll be digging very gently. It could take a while.”

The doors slide open and I hurry out, glancing at the weather map above the entrance as I go. There’s a sun. Whoa. A sun?

Then I’m crashing into a bulky gray uniform and a jackhammer-sized gun.

“Can you accompany this student on the westside trail?” the watchman calls to the guard who’s not supposed to be there—at least not according to the Keepers, who told us the regular guards at the front gate near the Columbia River and all along the park perimeter were all we needed to supplement the tower’s protective shield.

The guard answers him in a polite voice with no snickering about our crash, as if I’d said “Excuse me” instead of jumping a foot and screeching like a spooked chicken. Too bad Tracker wasn’t here to see that. He’s always joking about how jumpy I am. I know exactly what he’d say: “No dude, no. You're supposed to scream when you see the other side’s soldiers, not ours. C’mon back and let’s try it again.”

There’s actually two soldiers and they confer while I flex my shoulders and pound my chest and otherwise try to recover my manliness and my normal heart rate. Why are they here anyway? Maybe they got called in for Secession Week.

The first guard finally nods to me and I lead him across the deck to a narrow path carved into the cliff. It’s just wide enough for one-and-a-half normal people. Or one Keeper Sam.

“Are you guys here every night?” I ask as we single-file onto the trail.

“No sir. Just starting today.”

The “sir” feels weird. It reminds me of the outside world, where believers of all faiths send up prayers for us students, and even nonbelievers send up hopeful thoughts, and where the Glass Tower adorns T-shirts, screen locks, hats, even Ruler Morales’ tea mug.

They all have such high hopes for the school and its thirty Benevolent Trainees—all of us striving to become wise and honest and brave and dedicated enough to move up the training ladder and, eventually, into the Benevolent Ruler spotlight.

All except me, that is, because I came here for refuge, not a spotlight.

We pass beneath the Hall of Learning—one of the other cabin attachments—and waterfall mist starts closing around us like dust on a gravel road after a car drives past. I bend down and grab a rock flake from the path.

Now that I’m close to the Mind Changer, my stomach’s starting to flutter, like I’m a Real America refugee fleeing to Cascadia and hoping nothing goes wrong at the last minute.

Mind Changers only count when you’re right about what everyone else is thinking. You have to catch people thinking one way—then get them to think another.

Anything could be a Mind Changer — a picture, a personal story, even (cross our fingers) a tree stump. Really, they’re more like heart changers or lung changers because that’s where you first feel it: that little blank moment of shock when you realize you’ve seen something the wrong way. Used salt instead of sugar for the cookies. Shot the victim instead of the attacker.

The best Mind Changers win rewards, especially if they change a strongly held belief…or at least complicate it. Because letting go of a cherished assumption is one of the toughest things in life. Also one of the most important. So we have to practice being wrong.

The first reward went to Chelan, who got a weekend pass to visit her family after she told about Hoopla saving her uncle’s life during the North Korean war.

In case you’re reading this a thousand years from now on another planet, Brady Hoopla was the last president of the United States of America and current president of what’s left, aka Real America. Everyone in Cascadia hates him because of all the lies he told about Ruler Morales, who was actually President Morales before he lost the final U.S. election to Hoopla.

So Chelan’s story forced us to think something good about Hoopla. It was hard. Nobody liked it. But in Cascadia, truth beats bias. Most of the time.

Anyway, Mind Changers don’t have to shatter some big life philosophy. Michael always shows those pictures that look like one thing at first glance but like another thing if you look long enough and squint. They’re Mind Changers but low-level, so no reward.

At the Scramble Wall, the soldier stations himself at the bottom while I grab tough little trees and rocks and pull myself up to a small stump near the top. It’s all very wet. Real Doug firs look down from the edge above. Millions more stretch behind them into the Mt. Hood National Forest, a trim green beard covering the cheeks and chins of a million-acre face. At least that’s how it looked through the cold little window on my flight out from Colorado.

I can see the top of the giant hollow tree where Sesh and I were standing in my dream an hour ago. Her hair was blond like before Macy Falk. And she handed me a golden bullet as long as her finger and I touched her hand when I took it and that was like HOLY ULTRA TOUCH OF HEAVEN and then the bullet turned into a mirror and I looked in it and saw the brain.

It was huge, grub-colored and glistening, except for the black crust covering the lower left lobe like ants swarming a honey spill. Macy Falk’s brain. I’d know it anywhere.

The mirror exploded into a million pieces and I burst into the darkness gasping, like a drowning person yanked to safety, wild fears streaming from me like water.

It took me a while to realize it was just a nightmare and that I was actually in the Boys Dorm and that Tracker was down below having his own nightmares and that we desperately needed to move to a bunk that hadn’t been cursed by the Evil Dream Fairy of Blood and Death.

It took longer to realize I had dreamed up a Mind Changer: a bullet that turns into something else.

So here I am at the stump, the perfect handhold for students scrambling up to the forest. So well-used people no longer see it when they grab it—or notice how symmetrical, how bullet-shaped, its tip has become as their clawing wears away the crust disguising it.

The long horsetail of Upper Crystal hisses aggressively to my left and its icy mist gives me goosebumps on top of my goosebumps, plus a runny nose and that slightly distracting question of how many sniffs before I give up and wipe it with my sleeve. Today’s answer: two.

Planting my feet against an unstable clump of ferns, I use the rock flake to pierce the dirt. It’s probably only thirty seconds before I stick my freezing fingers under my armpits, shivering and blowing smoky, pep-talk breaths. I fall into a dig-dig-dig-armpits rhythm, gradually carving a hole around the stump as the sky lightens until I finally spot it — a black square on the wood.

I crane my neck and carefully clear the dirt above the tag and there it is: EC3.

Now I’m in our warmly lit kitchen back in Brookfield and my dad has just returned from the One Month War. Where he was a war hero, by the way. Yeah, the kind who gets a public ceremony and a hug from the mayor. Can you believe it? A cheering crowd just weeks before becoming the second most hated person in Cascadia.

Anyway, he’s unloading his duffel bag in the kitchen and out comes this mini-bomb with a black tag that says “EC3.” “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s just a souvenir. Cascadia cracked the code and deprogrammed all the EC3s before the war even started.”

Deprogrammed. Meaning ‘turned off.’ Meaning safe to touch, right?

I start digging again, still cautious, wondering why this is even here. Did a spy smuggle it in to destroy Ruler Morales during his war council here? That would be one way to get around the protective shield.

A distant beep announces breakfast. No watery seaweed souflee for you today, I tell my grumbling stomach. Mixed feelings on that loss.

As minutes pass with no Kaboom, I move faster. By now, I must look like the Mud Monster from Dream Killer 6. It’ll all be worth it though, assuming I can get Ruler Morales to come here and explain how my dad is actually a maximal guy with enough integrity and guts to take a crucial but lose-lose job he knew might destroy him.

I watch the speech as I dig, picturing every word, gesture, loud and soft spot, facial expression. I see my classmates all apologetic to me after Morales convinces them.

He even convinces me. It’s an all-around masterpiece of Mind Changing.

As usual, I ignore the voice that says ‘Gila brain! Keeper Sam will never approve it,’ although I do have a Plan B reward just in case: a month of special-order meals so I can grant everyone’s wish for their favorite food.

By the way, for my interplanetary listeners who are wondering what a Gila brain is, Gila virus (as in Gila monster, where it started) is this direly fatal disease that liquifies your brain and has killed millions, which is of course why we all now use it for casual name-calling.

The stump shifts beneath my fingers and I start waggling it out of the dirt.

If you have a Mind Changer, you have to go to the front of the Hall of Learning and present it first thing, before Meditation or Announcements or even the Pledge.

Mind changing is that important. Everyone knows the U.S. fell apart because Real Americans couldn’t admit when they were wrong. If a belief went bad, they just fought harder to believe it. They didn’t understand that fighting belief is like fighting air.

I pull the metal cylinder free and I’m scraping off some crust—not too much because I want everybody to recognize it as the stump—when I hear sticks snapping above and a massive, upright bear steps out of the trees until I realize it’s actually our headmaster, Keeper Sam.

Whoa. Unexpected. The guard below is just as surprised. He was all tensed for action, but now he lowers his gun barrel and snaps to attention.

Keeper Sam casually returns the salute and says, “At ease. Dismissed.”

“Yes sir,” says the soldier and heads back to the front deck.

The Keeper is not wearing the giant black martial arts uniform I’m so used to seeing on him. Instead he’s got an old camo jacket and pants and even a camo cap covering his bald head. When he aims his brown, square face at me, there’s just enough room beneath the cap brim to see his eyebrows raise. Then he smiles, like he’s known this was here all along, and booms out, “Nice work. How’d you find it?”

“Umm. I—” had a dream where Sesh and I were alone in a hollow tree and I “—just woke up and thought of it. Figured it might make a good Mind Changer.”

Up close, the Keeper’s face is so flat it’s like his thick, index-finger nose sucked up all the normal padding, leaving just a wide, thin mouth and big dark eyes. “You got a good reward in mind?” he says, then turns and plunges down the slope.

Yes! A reward! I stumble and slither down after the Keeper’s bobbing cap, clutching the EC3. By the time I’m back on the path, he’s way ahead, bounding up the back stairway to the Hall of Learning and disappearing through a door to the honk of a security beep.

I’ll have to get there through the front door, of course, so I turn back to the empty path. No, not empty. A person is rounding the curve up ahead.

Sesh. It’s Sesh. Coming towards me. The two of us alone together. This never happens. Well, okay, in my head it happens. Hundreds of times, actually. But this is real.

What should I do? A clever remark? An apology? A deep, meaningful look?

Gila brain. She hates you, remember? Just be casual. A simple “Hey.”

But Sesh is moving quickly, looking down until she’s almost on top of me. So my “Hey” is a frantic, last-second warning as I scrunch against the cliff.

She glances up and I see the sleek face; the dark, sleepless smudges beneath haunted blue eyes; the dried-blood-colored hair.

Then she brushes past, bumping me lightly—just enough to knock the Mind Changer from my grasp. She’s gone before my wildly grabbing hand accidentally knocks it further and sends it flying over the edge. It bounces once against a rocky outcrop and arcs high, high into the air, then turns sadly downward and plunges into the roiling water beneath the tower.

The Mind Changer rushes over Lower Crystal Falls, taking my vital organs with it, leaving my dropped jaw and unbelieving eyes on the cliff edge, staring at the empty water.

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21. Flogometer for Jacob—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • 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 character desires something.
  • The character 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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Jacob sends a first chapter of The Freerunners, a YA story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“I think you can take him.”

Those were the words that stuck with Toby as the bell rang to signal the final round. Balls of sweat were flowing unhindered from his opponent’s forehead, a scathing remark coming from behind the greasy grin, “You’re a dead man, skinny.” Toby didn’t smile back. He had no time for friends in the ring.

He launched a quick set of jabs the moment the referee came clear. A few connected, but did nothing more then annoy the beast that stood before him. Suddenly Toby was on the defensive, ducking on instinct as a vicious right hand hook nearly swept him off his feet. He glanced across at his brother watching from behind the ropes, lines of tension chiselled across his forehead. Toby knew what his brother was thinking, but it couldn’t possibly happen again. Yeah, maybe he was being a bit selfish, putting a lot at risk for a few bouts in the ring. But the treatment surely had work this time; the doctor was getting paid enough for it! He couldn’t help but feel like his father as he turned back to the match, his opponent baring oily gums in a weak attempt at a full smile.

They exchanged a few more shots at each other, with Toby darting around in circles and dishing out no more then two or three hits at a time. His opponent soon noticed the ploy, recognizing that the run and gun tactics would soon wear down his defences. He started closing (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

We begin with definite conflict in a real scene, a good thing. We can assume that Toby is in a boxing ring, but the opening could use just a little more setup. Where is the ring? A gym? An arena? Is there a crowd? Are there crowd noises, cheers, boos? The smell of sweat and blood?

While there is a risk of losing the fight, we don’t know what the stakes are, so the level of jeopardy is uncertain. Speaking of not knowing things, the third paragraph is packed with “information questions”—references to things we don’t know that are needed to understand what the references mean. More notes on that below. And then there’s the use of “then” where it should be “than,” and spelling errors. Bottom line, while the conflict is good, the storytelling and writing need work. I have no doubt that Jacob can get there, just keep in mind what readers need to get what’s happening. Notes:

“I think you can take him.”

Those were the words that stuck with Toby as the The bell rang to signal the final round. Balls of sweat were flowing flowed unhindered from his Toby’s opponent’s forehead, a scathing remark coming from behind the greasy grin,. “You’re a dead man, skinny.” Toby didn’t smile back. He had no time for friends in the ring.  The last line about friends in the ring didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The opponent is clearly not a friend. Did this refer to whoever said the first line? I cut the first line because it doesn’t contribute a lot to the opening since we don’t know who says it or what it refers to. Just not needed. And “greasy” grin? What makes it greasy?

He launched a quick set of jabs the moment the referee came clear. A few connected, but did nothing more then than annoy the beast that stood before him. Suddenly Toby was on the defensive, ducking on instinct as a vicious right hand hook nearly swept him off his feet. He glanced across at his brother watching from behind the ropes, lines of tension chiselled chiseled across his forehead. Toby knew what his brother was thinking, but it couldn’t possibly happen again. Yeah, maybe he was being a bit selfish, putting a lot at risk for a few bouts in the ring. But the treatment surely had work worked this time; the doctor was getting paid enough for it! He couldn’t help but feel like his father as he turned back to the match, his opponent baring oily gums in a weak attempt at a full smile. PLEASE don’t use “then” instead of “than!” I hate that goof, and I see it all the time. This paragraph has a few troubles: What is the “it” that couldn’t possibly happen again? If the reader doesn’t know what “it” refers to, then this line is meaningless. Same goes for the mysterious “treatment” referred to—what is it? What is it supposed to do? Does it have anything to do with the fight? What is he putting at risk? We don’t have a clue, so that means nothing.

These raise what I call “information questions.” Writers sometimes think withholding information needed to understand what’s going on creates tension, but they are not story questions, and only cause confusion. Lastly, what does he mean by feeling like his father? What did his father feel like? If we don’t know that, then this line doesn’t mean anything to the reader as well. It raises a third information question. For me, that’s three strikes: I don’t know what “it” refers to, I don’t have a clue as to what “the treatment” is or does, and I don’t know how his father felt about anything, much less about boxing.

And “oily” gums? Doesn’t he have a mouthpiece? How can we see gums? Why are they oily? How can he see “oil” versus “spit?” I know you’re trying to cast the opponent in a negative light, but this didn’t work for me.

They exchanged a few more shots at each other, with Toby darting around in circles and dishing out no more then than two or three hits at a time. His opponent soon noticed the ploy, recognizing that the run-and-gun tactics would soon wear down his defences defenses. He started closing (snip) Argh! Another “then” for “than.” Check your dictionary. The line about his opponent noticing the tactics is a break in point of view—Toby has no way of knowing what he has realized. Toby can think that has happened by noting the change in tactics, but he can’t know.

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

. . . in on Toby, forcing him to back up. Toby frowned. The plan he’d discussed at the timeout wasn’t going to work. He looked over at his brother again, who now stood beside their coach Ted. Toby was only greeted with stony silence and a pair of ‘I don’t know’ shoulder shrugs.

Toby heart quickened its pace, as his options were cut off and panic settled in. So far he’d managed to avoid being boxed in, an approach that masked his own lack of size and power. His opponent had 6 inches on him, with short but muscled arms. They rocketed about swift as a pair of daggers, but with enough strength to break down doors. Toby knew the fight could come to a close if he didn’t act quickly. He considered launching an all out desperation attack, but even as he pondered it he knew it would only delay the inevitable. He’d been on the back foot most of the fight, and due to his opponent’s speed and bulk he also hadn’t managed to land many worthy blows. “There must be something to work with here!” he muttered with clenched teeth. As his back eased into the ropes, he paused, calm sweeping over his limbs as his mind began to whir on another level. His sky-high boxing IQ and natural fighter instincts started to take a hold, coming to the realisation that at this point in the match, fatigue was starting to play on both of them. One good hit could end the show.

And then he saw it. He leant on the ropes behind him, testing their spring before pushing back with all his might. His opponent rushed forward, like a drunken bear on a terrifying rampage. Toby released, shooting outwards with his fist leading the way. An almighty thud quietened the arena. People in the background turned away from their conversations. Someone dropped a glass of wine. Toby opened his eyes, not realising he’d closed them.

Sprawled out on the floor was his defeated foe. Toby smiled. Sweet connection! A well-deserved cheer erupted from the small but hearty crowd, with Ted snatching the bell from a disgruntled referee and ringing it liberally. Toby sought out his brother though, and found him half hiding in the shadows. He smirked knowingly at him, and was returned with Noah’s own sly grin. This made Toby laugh.

Then it went black as he passed out.

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22. Story questions versus information questions

In the last flogging I indicated a few "information questions" that, for me, were not good storytelling technique. My goal with readers is to raise "story questions."

So the writer of the piece rightfully asked for an explanation. Here is the material from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, on that subject:

Story questions are created and raised by what is happening in the NOW of the story and need to be strong enough to force a reader to read on. They are “what happens next” questions.

  • Will he get out of the trap?
  • Will she be shot by the killer?
  • Will the giant spider eat them?

An example:

When he grabbed Sheila’s throat, she bared her teeth, grabbed his shirt with one hand, and drew back her fist.

The story questions are: Will she hit him? Will he free himself? Will he hit her? What happens next? This is the kind of story question that keeps a reader reading. There's another valid story question that isn't what happens next but "why did that happen?"

Information questions are about something the reader can’t know. I have seen opening pages that had statements like this one:

Only Simone could have done what she did.

That would be okay if the narrative had let the reader know who Simone was and what she had done. Unfortunately, it hadn’t.

Here’s another example, an opening paragraph:

When they learn what has happened, the truth of it will own them. They will be completely overtaken by the raw reality of it. In that moment, everything else in the universe will become invisible to them.

In this case, the reader did not know who “they” was, nor what happened, nor the truth of it. The entire paragraph is fundamentally meaningless. Other examples:

  • Reference to an unknown creature that hasn’t been mentioned: Raising his weapon, he blasted the articulated bandersnatch. 
  • Reference to an organization that hasn‘t been mentioned: The president vowed to stop the attack by S.N.A.R.P.
  • Reference to an action that hasn’t been mentioned by a person who hasn’t been mentioned: Norman basked in the glow of his victory.

Withholding information from the reader to create a question does not increase tension, it can actually decrease tension and take a reader out of the story.

For what it's worth

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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23. An ebook primer

Ebooks have become ubiquitous to readers, and many of us utilize one or both of the dominant formats, .mobi (Kindle) and .epub (Nook, iBook, Kobo, etc.). As a part of my book design business, I create ebooks in both formats. To do so I happily stand on the shoulders of developers who designed abilities in the InDesign software I use to export those formats. Oh, there are things I need to do to the narrative to make it play nicely on ebook readers, but I think I’ve got that down.

But what, really, is an ebook? There are answers in What IS an ebook? David Kudler, an ebook designer who understands what’s under the hood. I thought it might be useful to you.

For what it's worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

Add a Comment
24. Flogometer for Susan—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • 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 character desires something.
  • The character 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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Susan sends a first chapter of Sophie's Sophistication, an erotic romance. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

It’s never good news when the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning - it usually wakes you to your worst nightmare. But sleep often eludes Sophie and she is still awake, sick with worry, when it suddenly rings.

“Is this Sophie Theron?” The authoritative voice sends a frisson of fear through her.

“Y-es, who’s this?”

“I am State Trooper John Donnelly, Ma’am. I am at the scene of a single vehicle crash on Ballard Road near NY211. Is your husband driving a 2006 silver Volvo station wagon?”

“No, I’m not... No, it’s Daddy’s...it’s my father’s car. What’s happened? Is my Dad okay?”

I knew something was wrong! He’s never gone this long, even when his meetings run late. He must be angry with me. I should have listened to him. I should have tried to call him. Oh why didn’t I call him?

Sophie’s ongoing conflict with her Dad sporadically erupts into hurtful words as it did this morning when she excitedly announced that she had quit the telemarketing job and found a position as an ‘associate’ in a local arts and crafts store. This time she hoped he might be happy for her because art was all she ever cared about. But he never supported her passion for it. He deemed it a dilatory hobby at best.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

This opening does begin to raise a good story question—is her father hurt or dead? But then it veers off into backstory and the momentum dies. At this moment we just don’t need to know about her ongoing conflict or what happened in the past. We want the now. For me, if the father’s accident impacts the story, I suggest starting at the point where Sophie arrives at the hospital and sees her father going into the operating room. Notes:

It’s never good news when the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning - it usually wakes you to your worst nightmare. But sleep often eludes Sophie and she is still awake, sick with worry, when it suddenly rings. The second-person opening offers an opinion about early-morning calls, but does it contribute to the story? It’s not what’s happening to the protagonist. Get to the story. Another point: this tells us that Sophie is sick with worry, but worry about what? This is another one of those dratted “information questions” that leave the reader not knowing what the heck is going on in the character’s experience.

“Is this Sophie Theron?” The authoritative voice sends a frisson of fear through her.

“Y-es, who’s this?”

“I am State Trooper John Donnelly, Ma’am. I am at the scene of a single vehicle crash on Ballard Road near NY211. Is your husband driving a 2006 silver Volvo station wagon?”

“No, I’m not... No, it’s Daddy’s...it’s my father’s car. What’s happened? Is my Dad okay?”

I knew something was wrong! He’s never gone this long, even when his meetings run late. He must be angry with me. I should have listened to him. I should have tried to call him. Oh why didn’t I call him?

Sophie’s ongoing conflict with her Dad sporadically erupts into hurtful words as it did this morning when she excitedly announced that she had quit the telemarketing job and found a position as an ‘associate’ in a local arts and crafts store. This time she hoped he might be happy for her because art was all she ever cared about. But he never supported her passion for it. He deemed it a dilatory hobby at best. And here we stop everything for backstory. It doesn’t matter now. Only the story of the moment does, at least in this narrative.

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 Susan

 

Continued

Her father’s wish was to have her complete a bookkeeping course, which he believed would be a means for her to support herself. She tried to stick it out but finally quit after the first miserable year. The subject was anathema to her - those columns of meaningless numbers numbed her brain. She lacked the exactitude inherent in basic arithmetic and was always making mistakes thus further diminishing her fragile self confidence. Since then she has been going from one meaningless, soul- sapping job to another, adding more strain to their already tense relationship. His last words to her as he left for work were:

“This position has nothing to do with art, Sophie. It’s just another minimum wage, dead-end job for losers.”

Now her worst nightmare unfolds to a background refrain of loser, loser, loser.

The State Trooper informs her that her father’s car slid out of control on one of those sinuous county roads now slick with relentless April showers. They are taking him to Orange Regional Medical Center.

Sophie arrives at the hospital only to catch a glimpse of her Dad as they rush him through on a gurney. Gregory Theron is unconscious and covered in blood. He looks lifeless. She looks like him - pale and limp with dread. Seeing her father this way is emetic and without warning waves of nausea are rising in her gullet as she tries to focus on the important information she is receiving.

“Your father’s condition is critical.”

Nnnngah

“We are trying to reach a surgeon,”

Nnnngah

“which may take a while.”

Nnnngah

“There is some paperwork for you to fill out.”

Nnnngah

Unable to stave off the nausea, Sophie desperately dashes into a washroom and throws up!

Back at triage she is bombarded with a litany of questions she has no answers to.

“Does your father have any medical conditions or allergies that we should be aware of?”

“Um...”

Does he?

“Can you tell us what meds he’s taking?”

“No...”

Does Dad take medication?

“Has your father had any surgeries?”

“I don’t think so...”

He’s never been sick.

“Does your father have insurance?”

“I’m not sure...”

Insurance?

At the age of twenty-five, Sophie should be able to answer these routine questions. Meds, operations, insurance; these were never topics of conversation between Sophie and her Dad - he shared very little with her. Now her head is spinning and she simply isn’t able to provide any helpful information. Her old companion Guilt, never very far away, is already on the scene, making her feel as worthless as ever.

“Miss Theron,” one of the nurses approaches and Sophie’s heart leaps to her throat. “Is there a family member I could call for you? It may be a while before we know anything. Perhaps someone could come and wait with you.”

Alas, Sophie has no one to call.

~~~

The next several hours are a surreal succession of harsh facts and fuzzy memories running through Sophie’s mind. The sickly glow of fluorescent lighting and the wretched environment of the emergency ward abets Sophie’s grim state of mind. She has a physical reaction to her surroundings, alternating hot and cold, her body covered in nervous perspiration, her olfactory memory making her nauseous once more. She associates this place with sadness; with the event that changed her world forever, from happy and safe to the cold and dreary place that she still inhabits. This place was the last place she saw her mother alive, a lifetime ago. Now that hospital smell churns her gut as it did when she was just a child.

The hours drag on and dawn breaks without any progress or indication of what will be next. Poor Sophie is paralyzed by anxiety, sitting stunned and silent for what seems an eternity, watching people come and go, immersed in their own dramas. Alone with her morbid thoughts, she presents the perfect tableau of misery in the succession of ignoble vignettes that unfold in the ER.

The sordid promiscuity she witnesses makes Sophie’s heart ache. It aches for the old man shuffling along the corridor, his hospital gown revealing flaccid buttocks. It aches for the young woman lying on a gurney in the public corridor quietly weeping, mindless that she is lewdly exposed. It aches for the dozing woman hunched over her prostrate husband’s feet at the foot of his gurney - he is the patient but she is the one in pain. Even in their semi-slumber Sophie sees that they try to reassure each other with a touch, a weak smile, a tuck of the blanket, each wanting to make the other more comfortable. She notices how his masculine, muscular calf is cradled in her upturned hand in a tenderly sensual aspect.

How do people find love like that? What will she do if she loses him?

Sophie can’t bear the poignancy of the thought and she finally sheds the tears she’s bravely withheld for lo these many hours. The tears are for her Dad, for the reclined lovers opposite her, and for herself, for being unworthy of that kind of love. A small child wails persistently somewhere beyond her vision - it may as well be her.

~~~

Sophie reclines half asleep on a chair when her cell phone startles her.

“Sophie; it’s Sage. I can’t get a hold of your Dad. He’s late for a meeting. He is never late. What’s wrong?”

“Dad’s been in an accident...we’re at the hospital...Oh Sage, I - I don’t know what to do...” Sophie’s words are supplanted by sobs.

“Sophie! What hospital?”

“Orange...sob...Regional...sob...Medical Center...sob.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.”

It takes her no time at all to get there - nothing’s very far in Middletown, New York. Sage Hume, her Dad’s assistant, arrives shortly after 9:00. She finds Sophie sitting hunched on a vinyl bench, her arms wrapped around her chest, her right toe on her left instep in a posture evocative of her struggle to hold it all together. Sage is jolted by how Sophie seems to have regressed into that sad, fair haired little girl who Gregory always had in tow for lack of any other place to leave her. What a pretty child she would have been if not for her neglected, un-brushed hair, her sallow complexion and rumpled clothing that always smelled faintly of laundry. Little Sophie was a waif; her body conveying with every gesture that she was shy, insecure, and unworthy of love. Nothing has changed - she is a creature of infinite melancholy.

The day seems to have no end. Sage stays with Sophie and accompanies her to the recovery room when Gregory finally comes out of surgery.

“Don’t worry Sophie, your Dad’s going to pull through, he is so stubborn that he won’t hand over the Vision 2020 project to anyone. Come on, let’s go to the cafeteria to get a bite. It’s okay to leave him for a bit.”

When they return around five o’clock, there has been a change of shift and the new nurse tells them that Gregory is stable for now.

“He may drift in and out of consciousness so there’s no point in your staying. Go home, get some rest. I promise I’ll call you as soon as he wakes up or if his condition changes.”

~~~

Sophie sits alone in the dingy living room of the bungalow where she lives with her Dad. She’s concentrating on her sketchbook and referencing a well-thumbed copy of ‘Audubon’s Birds of America’. Her mind is obviously preoccupied because as per habit, she is twirling a strand of her ash-blond hair, which finds its way into her mouth and becomes wet with her saliva.

When there is a knock on the door, Sophie is yanked from her refuge back to the dreadful present in which her father is lying in the ICU on the precipice of life and death. She is so distracted that she recklessly opens the door without even asking who it might be.

A tall gentleman stands at the threshold - for surely he is that, given his elegant appearance and the soft-spoken manner in which he introduces himself - a gentleman with a serious, seriously handsome face.

“Hello Sophie. I am Alexander Cavenaugh. Your father and my mother were cousins.”

What?

And then to qualify his kinship to her Dad he adds, with a little tilt of his head and a tiny one-sided smile, “Once or twice removed, I believe.”

His luminous grey eyes focus on Sophie, searching her face for some acknowledgement, or possibly recognition but it’s apparent in her big blue eyes that she is blindsided by his presence.

Sophie is dumbfounded, oblivious of any family relations In fact her very persona bespeaks the fact that she has no one, other than her Dad, to belong to Now, in her fragile emotional state, her heart flutters at those twinkling eyes; that tiny smile; that expression of familiarity that connects her to this man somehow.

Alexander gazes at her and tenderly takes her hands into both of his.

“May I come in?”

This caring gesture, the feel of his warm hands enveloping her cold ones, resonates physically through Sophie.

I feel like I may swoon. Can this gorgeous man really have anything to do with me?

But before Sophie can gather her wits to reply, her cell phone starts rattling rudely on the coffee table and then rings out loudly like an alarm. She freezes.

“Oh my God!” She whispers under her breath.

Seeing the apprehension in her large blue eyes, Alexander Cavenaugh immediately responds to her panic. He eyes the phone and then takes her by the shoulders turning her sideways so he can squeeze past her in the tiny vestibule. He strides into the living room holding one of her hands, pulling her in tow and grabs the phone. Looking at the display he says,

“It’s the hospital - would you like me to answer it?”

Sophie looks pleadingly at him until she manages to find a voice; not her own voice, but some wobbly, breathless, little girl voice.

“Please...”

“Alexander Cavenaugh speaking.”

She is only vaguely aware of the one sided conversation, fascinated as she is by his presence. His eyes are fixed on hers,

“Yes she is...No, not at the moment...Yes, I’m his cousin...Will you tell me please?”

After a moment, she sees him blanch and his expression suddenly flattens.

“I see...Yes...I understand...Yes I will...Goodbye.”

Who is this man? Mr. Cavenaugh? Alexander? Alex? A savior? A God? God’s gift to women? To me?

Alexander grabs her shoulders again and forces her gaze to meet his, which is warm with empathy and sorrow - more emotion than he’s used to showing.

At once she knows her Dad is gone!

Holding her firmly by the arms, he quietly informs her that her father has succumbed to his injuries and passed away a few minutes ago.

Sophie’s heart races, thumping visibly in her chest and she clasps her hands over it as though its pounding were intolerable. She feels dizzy, unsteady on her feet, and her whole body trembles.

What’s happening to me? I have to get out! No, this is not happening! It can’t be! I just left him in the recovery room! In the RECOVERY room! No, it can...not...be!

She develops a grayish pallor; her breathing becomes shallower and shallower; her pupils are dilated; her eyes look panicked, darting here and there as if she’s seeking a means of escape from this reality. A fine film of sweat glistens on her brow. Sophie is in the throes of a full blown anxiety attack. The symptoms are classic and Alexander reacts by coaching her to control her breathing, smoothing her brow, quieting her as best he can with his hands and his voice.

“Deep breath in through your nose...now breathe out slowly through your mouth. There, like that. Good. Again. You’ll be okay. You’re okay...” As her breathing becomes more regular and reality is settling in she croaks a single word;

“Daddy...”

“Sophie, I’m so sorry.”

At his words the floodgates open. Tears are flowing down her cheeks as every sad, lonely, frustrating, devastating emotion she’s ever felt gushes out of her in great gasping sobs onto his broad chest.

He hugs her tight and murmurs gently as he strokes her head and rubs her back;

“Calm Sophie, it’s okay, I’m here for you.”

For me?

Sophie has never been physically handled as much in all her life as she has been by this man in just the last few minutes. Certainly not by her father, who is...was (!) a taciturn, undemonstrative parent; not by any man, ever. Alexander is hugging her. He leads her to the sofa and actually pulls her onto his lap! She is at sea - at a total loss as to how she should respond to this intimacy. I should probably get up and offer him tea or something.

But she can’t seem to move away, she needs so badly to be held like this.

How pitiful am I?

Alexander tells her to go ahead and cry, for if ever there was a time for unabashed tears, it is now. But when the sobs threaten to choke her, he starts to coo;

“Shh, shh, hush now. Calm Baby, shh,” he murmurs as he caresses her face.

Baby?

Sophie is a puddle in his arms. She cries and cries as he patiently holds her. Her head resting on his shoulder, she is enveloped by his arms and by his masculine, woodsy, intoxicating scent. It’s as though he had nothing more pressing to do than this. His fine linen shirt is now crumpled and damp with her tears but he sits back comfortably, incongruous with the ugly sofa in the tiny bungalow that he now dominates with his presence. He cradles Sophie in his arms as if she were indeed a baby.

Then he starts humming quietly, a melody that tugs a cord within her evoking a sense of contentedness. As he begins to sing she has a dream-like memory - her mother’s soothing voice singing these timeless lyrics:

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-lookin’

So hush little baby, don’t cry

Sophie releases a tremulous sigh, calming down enough to appreciate the mellifluous voice serenading her.

Wow! He sings beautifully! Who is this man? Where has he been all my life? How did he know to show up just now?

Then, seeing this scene through her mind’s eye - her sitting on his lap, her head nestled into his neck, Sophie is suddenly mortified! She wants to leap from his embrace and hide from embarrassment. As she moves to extricate herself, his hold on her loosens, but he doesn’t let go. Sophie doesn’t want him to let her go. She just wants to be held like this forever and even though she should be leery of this whole bizarre situation, it feels rather safe and strangely familiar. Overwhelmed by the emotions tearing at her heart, all she feels toward him is gratitude.

“Sophie,” he says her name as if he’s known her all her life. “Don’t be embarrassed, I am here to be with you, to help you through this. I promise I will take care of you, as your father asked me to. I’m happy to do it. Please don’t be afraid.”

Dad asked him here?

~~~

Alexander took charge from the moment her phone rang and they learned of her father’s death.

“Sophie, I don’t want to leave you alone tonight. You’ll stay at the hotel with me and we’ll go to the hospital together in the morning. Go and gather a few things that you’ll need.”

Even though under normal circumstances this would be a very strange thing to do, she doesn’t protest - she really doesn’t want to be alone.

The hotel is in Chester, a twenty minute drive from Middletown. Along the way, Alexander searches in vain for an open pharmacy.

“Ideally I’d have you take a tranquilizer to help you sleep tonight but since there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to get some, we’ll make do without. It’ll be fine, I’ll stay with you. You’ll be okay.” He sounds doubtful.

Even so, when they finally get into the suite, her exhaustion from the events of the last twenty four hours and his calming presence ease her into a fitful sleep.

~~~

The next morning they navigate the depressing corridors of the hospital, with Alexander holding her hand and taking charge of the arrangements for Gregory. No one has ever held her hand like this, not since she was a little girl being guided across dangerous intersections.

All the while that Alexander is tending to her affairs, and to her, he keeps fielding and making business calls. Sophie is tuned out to most of it, but as they pull into the parking lot of a pharmacy, her ears perk up at the call he makes. His tone is smooth and assertive, his voice perhaps a little deeper, more seductive.

“Juliette, I need you to do something for me.” He pauses to listen and then smiles, “No not that...I know...I know you would, but right now I just need you to call in a script to...” he glances at the sign on the building, “...Neighbor Pharmacy. In Middletown. Can you jot the number down?” He dictates the phone number off the sign and says; “Make it out for two milligrams of sublingual Ativan for a Miss Sophie Theron...No; it’s T-h-e-r-o-n...Yes...You’re the best, thank you Cherie...Yes I promise.”

The words he speaks are unremarkable and yet somehow the way he speaks them is suggestive of something else, something elusive to Sophie; something that makes her feel even more insecure, more self-conscious of her inexperience in the face of this flirtatious dialogue with the mysterious Juliette.

Once inside, Alexander introduces himself to the pharmacist. Having glanced at her name tag he addresses her by name,

“Hello Ms. Brooks, my name is Alexander Cavenaugh. You may be familiar with my company, World Wide Pharmaceuticals.”

“Oh, Mr. Cavenaugh I recognize you from your picture in last month’s ‘Pharmacy Today’. Congratulations on the opening of your free dispensing clinic! I hope other manufacturers will follow suit.”

“We’ll work on them.” He smiles at her genially but then becomes serious again. “You will be receiving a prescription momentarily from a Dr. Badour in New York City. I hope you can fill it as soon as it’s called in.”

The pharmacist is extremely accommodating, treating Alexander as if he were a celebrity. “Yes of course, Mr. Cavenaugh, I can get started right away if you tell me what you need.”

Who is this man? Why does he make me feel so woozy? And who is Juliette?

Somehow this exchange with the pharmacist and the earlier phone-call to Juliette make Sophie want to cry. Her emotions are in shambles, a mess of contradictions: anxiety for her dire situation and calm because he’s holding her hand; panic about the future and relief because he is taking charge; anguish over the loss of her Dad and elation over Alexander’s proximity - with the inevitable guilt that attaches to this last emotion. What a cruel twist of fate to have Alexander materialize in her world just as her father vanishes from it.

~~~

Sophie remembers her first painful pang of guilt clearly. When she was just a toddler, she had accidentally broken a treasured Meissen figurine that her mother sometimes let her play with if she promised to be a good girl. She loved that little goatherd with his hand resting lovingly on the neck of his little white goat. She can still remember the crushing sorrow she felt, understanding that it was gone forever and then the sudden, horrible realization that she was not a good girl.

After that, her mother was always cranky; always needed to rest; always leaving little Sophie to fend for herself, as if she didn’t love her anymore. And then one day her mother just disappeared from her life altogether. The hospital had swallowed her up. Little Sophie interpreted this absence as her punishment for having been a bad girl. From that moment on she has been riddled with guilt. Guilt for so many things: for not being a better daughter to her Dad; for dropping out of college; for being too shy to assert herself; for being stuck in a string of ‘McJobs’; but most of all for her wicked and unbridled penchant for masturbation.

When she was about eight years old Sophie started having desires that she really didn‘t understand. But she quickly discovered that if she created friction down there, where she throbbed, by frantically humping her busy fingers, she would begin to stiffen, and then explode somehow, in a euphoric burst of sensation, like when you strike a match to create the spark that ignites it.

For reasons beyond her eight year old comprehension, she was ashamed of this behavior. She didn’t want anyone to catch her in the act, to see her flushed cheeks, her eyes roll back and her whole body yield to the convulsions that this abrasion elicited. So she got into the habit of keeping to herself.

After a year or so of this frenetic behavior, she was mindlessly perfecting her technique one night, craving some relief from the unusual sharp cramps she’d been experiencing all day. After she ‘exploded’ Sophie discovered, to her horror, that her hand was covered with a red/brown sticky substance. In her naiveté she assumed that she had made herself bleed by rubbing and grinding so vigorously. She was shocked! And scared. Sadly, there was no one to prepare her at such a young age for the onset of menstruation. She had no one to turn to for an explanation.

Poor Sophie didn’t understand what she was doing, couldn’t articulate it. But in spite of the fear and guilt it engendered, it was compelling, addictive even. She became reclusive so that she could do it as often as she wanted to. Thus started her shame for soiling her panties all the time and her guilt for not being in control enough to stop.

She was a bad girl.

Add a Comment
25. Flogometer for Ellis—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character 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.

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.

Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.


Ellis sends a prologue and first chapter of Goblins at the Gates, an erotic romance. The remainder is after the break.

About prologue openings: Literary agents such as Janet Reid have said that they and others tend to skip prologues. Why? Because the “real” story begins with chapter 1. It’s something to keep in mind.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Prologue: A Hill in Dacia

Serapion eased his horse away from the ridge top into a little grove of scrub oak, trying to calm her.

"Easy, my great heart," he said as he slipped to the ground. He stroked her neck and held his head close to hers, feeling her muscles quiver with nervousness. She was dangerously close to bolting.

He tried to calm himself, too. Even the brief glimpse of what was in the valley had chilled him. He reminded himself he was a scout for a Roman legion. His job was to see and report, not to panic like some palace serving girl.

He tied the mare to a sturdy branch, then crept back to the edge of the hill and peered over.

At the bottom of the valley snaked a wide, shallow river, its waters white with minerals and sediment washing down from distant mountains. Stunted trees ran along both sides, barely visible now, for the valley was covered by a flood of living creatures.

Everywhere in the surging, dark mass, individual shapes leaped suddenly into the air, up and forward, then fell back again. The bounding shapes reminded him of a herd of antelope on the run. Or, he thought with a shudder, like locusts.

The creatures were far too big for locusts, but their hopping motion evoked those terrible insects. A childhood memory swept over him, of his village covered by clouds of whirring wings. (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the prologue's first page?

Chapter 1: The New General

 A cold rain drove in from the southeast, making the dark afternoon even darker. Two guards stood at the western gate, cloaks pulled tight against the wind. Only their eyes showed between folds of brown cloth.

"Who do you figure that is?" said one.

"Don't know," said the other as he peered through the gloom. A man was riding on a donkey that plodded down the track that passed for a road in this part of Dacia. "He don't look barbarian. Nor local neither."

"No," agreed the first, "he don't."

"Nope."

The man drew closer and began to wave.

"What's he want?"

"Couldn't say. Might be trouble, though. Swords ready." The one pulled his sword from its scabbard, but the other merely rested his hand on the hilt.

The figure was closer now. He was urging his donkey with threats and imprecations, but the animal ignored him and kept its own pace.

They could hear him now, in fragments broken by the wind. "Is this the ... legion?"

One guard looked at the other and shrugged. Is this the legion? No, this is the imperial baths and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the chapter's first page?

Good, strong writing and voice in this narrative clears a lot of hurdles right at the start. I feel like I’m in the hands of a skilled storyteller. So far, so good.

 For me, the prologue had a strong-enough story question to get me to turn the page, though I think it could be stronger. For example, how about foreshadowing the jeopardy ahead with an addition like this: . . .  for the valley was covered by an invading horde, a flood of living creatures.

As for the first chapter, well, I hope readers don’t skip the prologue because there was little to create tension in this reader, and not enough to turn the page. It turns out that there’s a lot of backstory and character setting-up in the first chapter. For me, there’s just too much of that. Why not weave in some of the protagonist’s negative qualities, an anti-hero of sorts, as the story has something happening that continues the tension built up in the prologue. For me, that momentum died a laborious death with the struggles to wake up a lazy, hungover man.

You hooked me with strong stuff in the prologue, now is the time to capture my interest entirely with what happens here, especially since you killed of a character that I had come to like in the prologue. Perhaps you wanted to contrast the heroism of the scout with the lethargy of the general, and I get that, but do it in context of something happening that creates trouble and danger equivalent to the invading horde of alien creatures.

Suggestion: why not just call the prologue the first chapter so the reader has to start there? And, since the story is continuous from the action in the “prologue” to the chapter, I’m not sure it really is a prologue.

Terrific writing, fascinating world, for sure—but dive into the real story, please!

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

 

Continued:

. . . His fists clenched and he blinked hard to push the memory away. Not locusts.

Whatever they were, they were unlike anything he'd ever seen or heard of. What they were, though, was not important. The only question for a Roman scout was their number.

He scanned the scene below, trying to come up with an estimate. Thousands, that much was sure, but Captain Ennius would have him skinned if he returned with so vague a report. His keen eyes carved the valley into sections. Ten thousand, at least. Probably more. It was hard to tell because bands of them swirled away, scattering like black snowdrifts up the sides of the valley. Cold dread crawled into his belly as he realized those bands could be up the hills, behind him. A whinny from his mare sent him scuttling backward.

"Forty thousand," he muttered as he hurriedly untied the horse, "and the Captain will have to be content with that."

Forty thousand, he thought as he mounted, but forty thousand of what?

They had been too far away for him to see their features, but that hardly mattered. The barbarians in this land had no end of descriptions for them. A single glance at the valley was enough to know that the stories of the past winter were not mere rumors. There was no need to see if they truly had claws that could eviscerate a man at a blow. The legends were real. He could now confirm that; the rest was details.

He turned his horse around. The gray skies were still. The damp air was still. The brown earth was still. The stillness filled his ears. He leaned forward.

"Go," he whispered. The mare sprang into a full gallop, flying back down the ridge. Her hoof beats sounded loud in his ears, and he could smell fear on her.

He let her run for a while. She was scared and he was scared, and a good gallop might steady the nerves of both. After a few minutes of this, he slowed her to a steady trot, a pace he knew his horse could maintain for hours. She was still flighty, and shied unaccountably from time to time, as if scenting something on the wind, except there was no wind, only the cold, damp, motionless air. He rode south at first, along the western slope, keeping the hills between himself and the valley. When he judged he'd put in enough distance, he turned west.

The mare whinnied and danced sideways. Serapion cast a quick look back and his breath caught. Dark, loping creatures were after him, a dozen or so, moving quickly. He didn't have to urge his horse; she broke at once into a gallop.

The creatures closed fast. They pursued like wolves, with a pack of three gaining on the left and another pack on the right, while the others ran directly behind. Their speed surprised him.

His habits as scout stayed with him as he noted everything he could about them, even as his horse thundered beneath him and the air thundered in his ears.

The beasts were dark; not black, but the color of mud, mottled with dark greens and grays and deep crimson. They were smaller than a man, by a head or more, and were oddly shaped. Their legs were powerful, with thighs and hips almost like those of a bear. Their arms were long, and from time to time were used as if they were front legs. Their heads had a snout rather than a nose. Their eyes seemed to be small and wide-set; it was hard to tell, at a full gallop. When one of them leaped, it covered twenty, thirty feet at a time. With every backward glance, they were suddenly closer.

He leaned into his horse and let her run. He had no doubt the creatures intended to kill him; they were running him the way a wolf pack runs a stag. Only the brown mare and her great heart could save him now.

He slipped into the horse's rhythm, letting her muscles take the lead, fitting his own motion with hers. The ground blurred beneath him. He did not try to guide her, did not even look where they were going, trusting the mare's instincts.

The creatures uttered no cry, and that silent hunting was as unnerving as their speed. At least wolves howled. You could get a sense of where they were. These things were like ghosts. He cursed the barbarians and their grim tales. He cursed the gray, unmoving sky above and the hard brown earth beneath. He kept imagining the slash of claws just above his shoulders. Finally, he could bear it no longer. He looked left quickly.

No creatures.

He rode a little further, then dared a glance to the right.

No creatures.

He looked back, over his right shoulder, and saw them, but they were some distance back and fading.

He knew his horse's strengths. She had run hard, but she had some distance left in her yet. He let her run at full gallop, agreeing with her that they should put all the ground they could between themselves and those bounding monstrosities.

He looked back again.

The creatures were far behind now. His scout's eye noted it: they were fast, but only for short distances. Something to remember for his report.

He eased the mare's pace, backing off slowly but steadily. He wanted to ride far today, and she would need her reserves. Two carrots tonight. And half the remaining oats.

After several minutes, he had slowed her to a traveling trot. Sweat slicked her coat; he would need to cool her down carefully. He checked the position of the sun, as best he could through the low clouds. Three hours of daylight, at least.

He crested another rise. He couldn't see much through the pine trees covering the hilltop, but behind him the ground was clear and there was no sign of pursuit.

On the westward slope horse and rider were forced to slow even further, their progress impeded by underbrush and rowan trees. He chafed; even though they were going slower, the horse was having to work too hard to press through. He might have to rest her. The thought made his skin crawl.

Toward the bottom the underbrush became still heavier and it took much longer than he had hoped to work his way through. Willow trees lined the bank of a small stream at the bottom, and he let the mare have a brief drink.

She snorted and balked as they moved across the stream, then they plunged into heavy underbrush that grew higher than his head. Thorns reached out, catching at his clothing.

They zig-zagged back and forth through the scrub, not able to see any distance, hearing only the sound of their own passage. Every rustle or sigh became the sound of an approaching enemy. He knew this feeling of closing dread--he had made his way through enemy lines before, fearing every noise and movement not of his own making. This was worse, though, and the mare seemed to agree. Twice she refused to go along a clear path, balking then dancing aside when he tried to urge her forward. He chose to let her have her way. His eyes kept seeing dark shapes at the edge of his vision.

Then, abruptly, the heavy growth gave way and they were again climbing. He looked behind, but there was no sign of the creatures. He pulled up and sat for a moment, looking carefully in every direction, listening in every direction, even sniffing the air. Still no sign. He could feel tension ease slowly away.

"Hup, my heart," he said, and the mare resumed at a walk. Three nights in the open, if we push hard, he thought, and then we'll be back. He wondered if Captain Ennius would believe him, if he would even pass the report on to the Old Man.

He rode slowly, still alert, his nerves still jagged as a broken pot. He was about halfway up the big hill when his horse whinnied loudly and pulled up short. Coming over the crest to the north was a ragged line of creatures, many more than before. Hundreds more.

For one instant horse and rider froze in place, staring at the dark line. Then one of the creatures jumped, and he turned back down the hill.

It was unjust, he thought angrily. His brown mare could outrun them, she had proved that. But not at such close quarters. Not taken unaware. He leaned down, close to her neck, almost weeping for what was about to happen. "Run, great heart," he whispered softly, knowing she needed no encouragement, knowing it would do no good. He said the words as a kind of apology. A farewell.

The monsters were already on both sides, but Serapion looked only ahead. The horse ran and the ground flew below, and the only sound he could hear was a great thundering of hooves and breath. Her body strained, tearing at the hard earth. He leaned far forward, wanting to feel her run, to feel heart and flank, for that to be the last thing he felt.

No one saw him die on the mile-long hills of Dacia. No one saw the dark shapes leap, nor heard the screams of horse and man.

<<<<>>>> 

Chapter 1: The New General

 A cold rain drove in from the southeast, making the dark afternoon even darker. Two guards stood at the western gate, cloaks pulled tight against the wind. Only their eyes showed between folds of brown cloth.

"Who do you figure that is?" said one.

"Don't know," said the other as he peered through the gloom. A man was riding on a donkey that plodded down the track that passed for a road in this part of Dacia. "He don't look barbarian. Nor local neither."

"No," agreed the first, "he don't."

"Nope."

The man drew closer and began to wave.

"What's he want?"

"Couldn't say. Might be trouble, though. Swords ready." The one pulled his sword from its scabbard, but the other merely rested his hand on the hilt.

The figure was closer now. He was urging his donkey with threats and imprecations, but the animal ignored him and kept its own pace.

They could hear him now, in fragments broken by the wind. "Is this the ... legion?"

One guard looked at the other and shrugged. Is this the legion? No, this is the imperial baths and we're a couple of senators. They let the man get closer.

"Is ... this ... the ... Legio ... XII ...," the man was shouting into the wind, "... Heraclea?"

One of the guards said, "It is," and again they exchanged looks. They were a hundred miles north of the Great River. What the hell other legion would they be?

The donkey finally brought the man within conversation distance. He was  enveloped in layers of cloaks, not one of them oiled, and all soaked through. He was shivering. The soldiers figured he deserved it.

"P-please announce the arrival of L-L-Lucius J-Julianus Metellus, P-P-Prefect of D-Dacia."

A third time the guards exchanged glances.

"That be you, then, fellow?" said one. The other one snickered.

"No. I'll b-bring him."

"You do that."

The man turned his donkey around, which set off again at a dispirited walk, with the man urging and cursing the beast. After watching him for a few minutes as he disappeared into the gusting rain, the first guard waved a hand.

"Eh," he said. "Better tell the Old Man. Who knows, maybe it really is the new General."

***

Avitus was trying to wake up his master. The morning light coming through the tent had not done the job, nor had the noise from the soldiers outside. He had tried whispering in Julian's ear and had tried gently shaking the sleeping form, but he had not really expected either to work. Normally the next step would be shouting, followed by banging on metal, but these were not normal circumstances, and his master had to get up.

"Open your eyes," Avitus said in a low voice. "I know you're awake; I've seen this trick too many times, but now isn't the time for tricks." He shook the blanketed man again, harder.

Nothing.

Avitus knelt down and put his mouth close to Julian's ear.

"Listen to me, you miserable whelp. You made me leave Constantinople and your family's palace. You dragged me through foul weather and desolation to come here.  You made me ride a donkey. And now, right outside this tent, is a ferocious-looking centurion demanding to see you. I am not going back out there alone, so get up or I'm going to haul you up and shove you outside half clothed." He frowned.

"You are at least half-clothed, right?"

Julian stirred at last. He turned over and, without opening his eyes, said, "Go away, Avi. Let the centurion stand there all day. He's probably good at it."

"Oh no, absolutely not. I am not the General. You are the General. That means you have to get up and do ... General-y things."

"Generally, I don't do much, this time of day."

Exasperated, Avitus stood up and announced in a loud voice, "Let me help you with that, master. Then you'll be fully dressed."

Julian's eyes opened. They were a deep blue and more than a little bloodshot. He blinked and decided that there were disadvantages to keeping oneself warm in bad weather by means of heavy drinking.

Clearing his throat he said in an equally loud voice, "Thank you, slave, I can manage myself. Please advise the centurion I'll be out directly."

"Low trick," Avitus snarled, "now I'll have to go back out there."

"Not low, Avi," he said, "merely Roman." He threw back the blanket and looked down at himself.  His clothes were rumpled and stained from travel.

"Huh. Not half, but fully-dressed. Very handy."

He hunted up a cloak and wrapped it around himself against the cold. He looked around the tent. He had been too tired and too wet the night before to pay any attention to his surroundings; now that he had a look, he was not impressed: a cot, a chest (which was his own), a wooden table with nothing on it. From the evidence, the general of the XII Heraclea commanded men but did not command luxury. He ran one hand through his pale-colored hair, which merely re-arranged it into a new mess. This gesture having exhausted his repertoire of stalling, he turned to his slave and spoke in a loud, clear voice.

"Show the man in, Avi. Don't keep the good centurion waiting."

 

The general's tent was in two chambers--a small area, where Julian had slept, and the main tent. Avitus now went from the one into the other, with his master following. The main tent was equally austere: the table was larger, had two benches, and there was another chest, but that was all.

Avitus opened the tent and motioned to someone, then stepped aside.

A centurion entered, trying not to look irritated and not doing a very good job of it. He looked exactly how Julian had expected him to look. Grizzled, a weather-beaten face, strong arms, a barrel for a chest, aging but not yet gone soft. Certainly a veteran of several campaigns: he was standard-issue Army.

Father, he thought, would have loved him on sight.

"Marcus Salvius, First Tribune. Pleasure to serve under your command, General Metellus."

The man stood stiff as an oak, his uniform carefully neat. Julian was trying not to dislike him immediately.

"Thank you, Marcus Salvius, First Tribune. Do you know where a fellow might get breakfast around here?

"Breakfast?"

"Yes, food taken soon after rising in the morning? Surely you've heard of it."

The centurion did not exactly frown, but the not-frowning showed all over his face and his left eye twitched.

"Yes sir. At once, sir. One moment." He turned without bending, stepped out through the tent flaps and spoke to someone outside. Julian managed to hear "yes, damn you, now" clearly enough.

Marcus Salvius returned.

"Food is on its way."

Something in that sentence was a reproach, but Julian couldn't spot where.

"Fine," he said, "why don't you sit down and we can share it."

The centurion looked as delighted by this invitation as if he'd been asked to eat a rat. Julian didn't mind too much. The man was responsible for waking him up and therefore surely deserved some sort of punishment.

Arrangements for dining were as austere as the tent: plain plates and wooden spoons. He would not have been surprised if instead of goblets they used drinking horns. He sighed without sighing. "Get on with it," he told himself. "You knew this wasn't going to be pleasant."

Once seated, Julian smiled sweetly. Then he said, "You've been camped here for how long?"

"Several weeks," the centurion said.

Julian could hear the reproach in those words plainly enough. He wondered if news of his escapade in the City could have reached the Legion already.

"We've been keeping an eye on the Thervingi," Marcus said after a pause.

"And how are you doing with your eye-keeping?"

"Their town, Oppidum, is nearby, just to the east. King Fritigern is there. He has been expecting you."

An answer that was not an answer, and there was that tone again. Yes, he could have arrived sooner, but he had dragged his feet. He kept hoping there might be some reversal of fortune that would get him out of this ridiculous pretense of military command, and let him return to the City. Plotinus could not be so strong as to contend with the Lady Helena, surely. But days had slid into weeks and, if anything, the clamor in the City had grown stronger. At Duros his mother had written him: get across the Great River at once. Plotinus had men riding to arrest him. Once over the river, he was outside the limes, the borders of the Empire, and beyond Plotinus' reach.

Even after getting safely away, Julian had not hurried. He had spent his life avoiding the Army; he was not eager to command a legion. Yes, he was late in taking up his post, but it wasn't the place of the First Tribune to venture an opinion on that subject, however obliquely.

He looked hard at Marcus, but those dark eyes revealed nothing about the man's thoughts. Julian decided to let it pass. It was just possible he was being over-sensitive.

"Ah, here is the food," he said, welcoming the interruption.

He was sure the centurion had his own concerns and his own agenda; he knew enough from listening to his father to know senior officers in a legion tended to get a sense of ownership the longer they stayed in one place.

He decided to ignore the centurion for now and pay attention to the food instead, which he was hungry enough to enjoy despite its shortcomings. He made a fuss over the olives and declared the bread excellent, which it wasn't. He drank sparingly of the wine, which was surprisingly good.

A couple of times during the largely silent meal a soldier peeked into the tent. Marcus waved him away both times. After the second time, the meal being largely finished, Julian had to ask.

"I have the feeling I'm missing something. Is there something I'm missing, First Tribune?"

Marcus managed to get some bread in his mouth before Julian could finish his question. He now chewed slowly. Julian waited. Marcus' face showed that it had weathered many storms over the years, and could weather Julian's glare.

"No sir." More chewing. "You cannot miss it."

"And why is that?"

"Because it can't start without you, sir."

Julian took a new and firmer grip on his temper.

"What won't start without me,  First?"

"The review of the troops sir. That must wait on the General."

Pieces he hadn't even known were pieces now fell into place.

"Marcus Salvius," he said, "are the troops assembled for review?"

"Yes sir."

"For how long?"

"Since sunrise, sir. That's protocol."

"The men have been standing out in this miserable cold since sunrise?"

"Yes sir."

"Soldier," Julian said, deliberately not using his title, "don't do this again. If there's something I should know, tell me. Don't wait around taking bets on how long it will take me to notice. Very amusing for you, no doubt, but the men don't deserve it."

That got a reaction. The Tribune flushed and his eyes narrowed. If this had been a tavern back in the City, there might have been a table kicked over and a fight begun. Here, all that happened was a terse, "yes sir."

Julian stood up.

"I tell you what, First. You send a messenger to King Fritigern. Announce my arrival and tell him that the Prefect of Dacia wishes to meet with him at once. Today. Choose one of your speedier messengers, yes? You do that, and then you and I can take a stroll around the camp. Does this sound agreeable, Marcus Salvius?" Julian didn't exactly sneer, but he wasn't smiling either.

The Tribune had stood when his commander did. He now said, "yes sir, at once sir," and exited the tent with a surprising combination of dignity and speed.

"That went well," Avitus ventured. A sliver of a smile creased the dark face.

Julian scowled at him. "Fetch me my cloak. The army one. It appears it is time for me to go play General. And you come with me, little bird; I'm among the enemy here."

 

The two men emerged from the tent into a gray, dismal light. The storm of the last three days had passed, leaving in its wake a gray sky and frozen ground covered with a thin blanket of snow. The air clung to everything as if reluctant to move, heavy and cold as granite; it felt damp, it even smelled damp. There had not been one day of blue sky since he'd left Duros and the Great River; he felt as if the dregs of winter were following him up the Dacian marsh lands.  The only color besides gray or white was the red of Roman cloaks on the backs of the men, standing outside their tents in their ranks, waiting. A silence hung over the camp, the kind that comes only when two thousand men are all quiet at once.  As they breathed, puffs of steam made white clouds about their heads.

He had seen his father do this more than once, but in truth he had little idea what "review the legion" meant. Legions were not allowed inside Constantinople, and Julian rarely ventured outside the City, except to retreat to a country estate in summer. From the fragments of youthful memory, review seemed to consist of nothing more than walking and glaring, and occasionally speaking to one of the men about some shortcoming or other. But the last time he'd seen this he had been thirteen years old. His memory was hazy.

"Lead the way, Marcus Salvius. You know your way around better than I do, today." He added that last word without quite knowing why. He didn't plan on being here long enough to learn his way around, be it today or tomorrow.

The Tribune began walking along the via principalis, the main thoroughfare of every Roman military camp, which was lined with tents on either side. In front of the tents the soldiers stood at attention in their cohorts, First through Tenth. Tents, campfires, arms and armor, men in rows, all spread out along the four streets that made up a Roman castrum. Julian followed glumly, pulling his cloak tight around him.

"First Cohort," said Marcus Salvius, "full strength."

The men stood at attention, their red cloaks hanging heavy in the chill air. What was full strength? A hundred? No. He remembered: the First Cohort was always double strength, and limitanei legions were larger than field legions. Two hundred, then, perhaps more. The men were wearing battle dress, but he couldn't decide if it was formal or not; if it was formal it was awfully worn down.

He made a show of looking, without really knowing what he was looking at or for. He had not thought he would have to attend to any sort of Army business at all. He came here only to negotiate a treaty, and this military command was merely an unwelcome prerequisite. Now that he was here, though, his natural egotism came to the fore. Whether he was at an inn, on the docks, at the Hippodrome, or attending some First Hill dinner party, he always cared to make an impression. Somewhat to his surprise, it appeared that he also cared to make an impression now.  His friends would have laughed to see Lucius Julianus Metellus trying to show a good face to a Roman legion. He smiled at himself as the Tribune led him to the next cohort.

The Second Tribune was a hawk-faced older man with close-cropped hair and a graying beard. Barrel-chested, he could have been Marcus' older brother. He reported everything in order, same as the First. Julian complimented the officer and moved on. When you don't know what you're doing, his mother would say, do it with authority. His father would have said ... then again, his father would not have said. Things had simply happened when the great General bestrode the earth.

They moved on. The troops were in good order, but Julian could see their equipment was not of quality issue. He was not surprised. The best stuff went to the field armies anyway. The XII was making do with second-class supplies. He noticed there was no siege equipment. It was as if no one expected this legion to engage in any serious military operation. He tried hard to make it feel unimportant, but despite all he couldn't help being irritated by the poor shape of the soldiers' equipment.

"It looks to me, Marcus Salvius, that Rome never expected the XII to leave Noviodurum."

"Yet Rome keeps sending us out, sir."

"Yes, well, Rome sent me out as well, Marcus, so she clearly has not lost her sense of humor."

"Sir?"

"Never mind. Say, what's up here?"

Julian suddenly turned aside and went bounding up the escarpment that surrounded the camp. It was only about ten feet high, but it was enough to block the view of the surrounding countryside. At the top were neatly spaced rows of sharpened stakes, angled outward toward any possible enemy. At the foot was the trench that had provided the material for the wall. Julian, though, was interested in none of this. Instead, he was looking at an isolated hill in the distance. 

The Carpati Mountains were to the west; dark, and fir-clad, with the white of snow showing on all the peaks. The mountains dropped away rather suddenly to the Siret river valley, but one treeless hill stood alone, rising several hundred feet above the valley floor. While the Carpati were clothed in white, this hill was clothed in black, and was crowned with wooden wall, like a brown circlet.

"Is that Oppidum?"

"Yes, General," said Marcus Salvius, who was still scrambling up the slope, wondering what sort of commander had been inflicted on his Legion this time.

"Gods. It looks like it's in mourning."

Marcus gained the top. "That'd be the Thervingi, sir. They live in tents, mainly, and every one of them made of black goat hair."

"They pile together a bunch of tents and call it a city?"

"Not exactly, sir. They're herders, so they move about. That's why they live in tents. But see the wall at the crown? The town's inside. That's permanent, with buildings and the like, or so I've been told. Neander never brought any of us with him on negotiations." He said this with a sidelong glance at Julian.

"There must be hundreds of tents," Julian said.

"Likely. Last year there were more, maybe twice or three times as many. They spilled out across the flats. It's one reason why we're camped so far away, sir. We expected there to be more. Like last year and the year before."

"Well," Julian said, "there's no telling with barbarians, eh First?"

"As the General says."

Julian turned and went back down the embankment and they went on with the review. He hurried as much as he could without appearing to hurry. At each Cohort he was introduced to its Tribune, whose name he promptly forgot. When they arrived at the Tenth Cohort, he surveyed it with dismay.

"Gods, First, couldn't you find any greener?"

The Tribune shot him a look. "We have what Rome has given us," he said, then added, a little defensively, "they're good lads."

The Tenth Cohort was mostly raw recruits, tirones; the few veterans were probably discipline problems. The Tenth cohort was always the catch-all in any legion, but this one had caught mostly unripe fruit.

"I'm sure they are, First."

Marcus made no reply to this. Julian could see the man was unhappy with him. No doubt he wasn't following proper procedure. Well, centurion, Julian thought, you'd better get used to it. I don't have time for your procedures and rituals, and I have even less time for men who are preoccupied by them.

Inspired by such thinking, Julian suddenly cut straight back to the center of the camp, where the General's tent stood along with supply tents and the legion's standard. The standard for this legion had the usual imperial eagle at the top, under which was a banner with the image of Hercules strangling a snake. A variety of discs hung from the crossarm of the standard.

"The XII's banner has quite a list of victories," Julian said, trying to make small talk as they approached. He didn't really want to argue with his First.

"It is an old legion," the centurion said, "it goes back to Julius Caesar."

"I knew I'd heard of it. I think my father told me of it once. He was a general himself, my father, and never tired of telling Army stories."

"I served two years with your father, sir. He was a great man."

Julian glanced over at Marcus. That explained a few things. Out of habit whenever his father's reputation was mentioned, Julian responded with sarcasm.

"I have the advantage of you, then," he said, "I served sixteen years with him."

The centurion blinked but showed no emotion.

"You are therefore more fortunate than I," he said.

Julian stopped, so Marcus stopped with him. They were standing near the Fourth Cohort. A little breeze stirred the dry snow that had settled on the leather tents.

"It is easier to be a great man's soldier, Marcus Salvius, than to be a great man's son," Julian said, himself stone-faced.

Marcus scowled at that, then realized he had scowled and tried to un-crease his face.

"Let's change the subject," Julian said briskly. "Something more cheerful, like pestilence, or the virtues of Senators."

"Isn't the one the result of the other," Avitus asked brightly.

The centurion's head snapped around.

"My ... adjutant ... has an odd sense of humor," Julian said. "I invite you to ignore him. I often do."

Avitus mouthed "adjutant?" but Julian merely grinned back at him.

At the principium were waiting the command staff, which included various standard bearers, the Legion's quartermaster, and a young man who was introduced before the others.

"This is Gaius Herennius Actius Pulcher, Captain of the Cavalry."

Julian stood before a man with blond hair cut long, and a smile that was just safely short of a smirk. He had the easy stance of the cavalry officer. The voice of Julian's father came unbidden into his memory: cavalry men think they're better than everyone else, but don't you believe it. Still, there was something in the man's easy arrogance Julian found appealing.

"Hello Gaius Ennius. I assume all is well with the horsey set."

"Ave, General sir. All is not well, I must admit."

This caught Julian off guard.

"Not well? How?"

"There are reports, sir, from my scouts."

Julian did not miss the sudden, sharp look his First Tribune shot at the Captain of the Cavalry.

"Reports, you say. Tell me, what do the reports report?" He deliberately did not look at Marcus.

"Sir, we have for some time been hearing strange stories from the north, about invaders. I have sent scouts and they return with these stories."

"We are familiar with the tales, back in the City," Julian said. "But do you take them seriously? We're among barbarians, after all. They do love their stories."

"Yes sir, but there's more. Two of my scouts are missing. Two of my best."

Julian considered for a moment. One missing was not odd, not given the life of a scout, but two missing in the same place was another matter. Still, this was a side issue.

"Strange reports?"

"From the north, sir."

"Well, then, Captain," Julian said, "we must by all means avoid the north, eh?" He ignored the quick frown that flitted over the Captain's face.

"As the General says."

"Besides, I'll be meeting with the King soon and then we'll all be headed home again. At the very least, you won't lose any more scouts."

Ennius shot Marcus a surprised look.

"You haven't told him?"

Another missing piece was about to drop into place, Julian thought. He didn't much like the XII Heraclea so far. Its officers were too secretive.

Marcus spoke briskly, as if giving a military report, looking at a spot somewhere over Julian's right shoulder.

"The Festival of the New Grass, the Thervingi call it. All the tribes gather here, worship their gods, make new laws, render justice, settle debts. Then they scatter for the summer."

"Fascinating," Julian said, sounding not at all fascinated.

"Today is the final day of the Festival, sir."

Julian cursed--a dockside curse, not becoming of a Roman noble. The men blanched in surprise.

"Get me to the king, First. Today."

He sounded as severe as he could, but he knew it was his fault. That week spent gambling in the bathhouses at Duros was suddenly a bitter memory.

He turned and walked away, fighting a sense of dread that gnawed at his gut. He told himself he'd been in tight spots before, he'd figure this one out, too. He was wrapped in dark thoughts as he reached the principium. The men who saw him whispered their new General had a fierce look to him.

He met more officers--the Legion's standard-bearer, its imagifer, who carried the image of the Emperor, the quartermaster, the chief of engineers, and so on. Every one of them had to give a report. Because he was standing in place, he was getting steadily colder and wondered if it were actually possible for blood to freeze inside a living body. At some point it all ended, but by then he was barely even pretending to pay attention.

When a soldier arrived to say that a delegation from the barbarians had arrived, Julian was prepared to promote him on the spot.

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