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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. Advice for Indie writers from Indie publishers

If you’re considering going the self-publishing route, go to this article full of insights from writers who have been there. And then go to my website for how I can help writers publish strong books. Here’s an excerpt from Self-Publishing Stars Speak Out by Betty Kelly Sargent:

“Before you do it, take time to understand why you’re doing it, to research your opinions, and to hire experts if needed to help you achieve your goals. Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth your reader’s time and money.” Jane Friedman

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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2. Flogometer for RM—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

RM sends the prologue and first chapter of The Descent of Brigid , YA suspense/historical fantasy. The rest of the narrative follows the break.

Prologue

Brigid’s instincts screamed run, but her feet refused to obey. Standing in the courtyard, she could do little more than watch as her older sister squeezed through the broken window four stories above. “No, no, Fiola, please don’t,” she chanted. Only nine-years-old, Brigid couldn’t conjure the words to calm her older sister. Fiola staggered onto the ledge, inching across the roof of the Victorian house. Oh god… Brigid opened her mouth to scream, but only managed a whisper.

 Fiola skidded past the chimney, landing with a smack onto the cupola balcony. Her singsong voice drifted across the backyard. “You deserve the truth, little one.” Unkempt hair billowing in blonde clumps and a manic grin stretched across her face, Fiola stepped over the balcony’s guardrail. “We live among a coven of deceitful vipers, kept here against our will.” She teetered on the ledge, nothing but stagnant ocean air between her and the stone terrace below.

Though drenched in sweat from the mid-day sun, Brigid shivered. I can’t get to her in time. She gulped for breath, stumbling into the overgrown bushes crowding the backyard. The pungent stench of blooming hawthorns filled her mouth. She fought the urge to vomit.

“Fiola, no!” Erin sprinted up the hill, staring at her twin perched high on the roof. Brigid crumpled to her knees. She’ll know what to do. Erin, twelve years older and the most levelheaded of the three sisters, knelt beside Brigid and squeezed her hand. Never taking her eyes off of Fiola, she directed the man hobbling onto the porch, “Mac, she’s on the roof! Find Gran or Inneen.”

Were you compelled to turn RM's first page?

There are good story questions raised here and plenty of jeopardy served up, so I turned the page. However, there are clarity issues in the last paragraph. At first it looked like we had shifted to Fiola’s point of view due to the unattributed dialogue, which rightfully should have been Brigid’s as she was last person mentioned in the previous paragraph. A transition is needed. And then there’s a pronoun with an unclear antecedent—it seems as if “her twin” should refer to Erin as she is the one sprinting up the hill and the only person in the sentence. But then we’re told that she’s twelve years older. Since one can’t be twelve years older than one’s twin, the twin reference is to Fiola—but that’s lost for me.

Chapter 1, nine years later

Morgana soared high above the shores of the Black Ocean. Without warning, she careened into the cliff side, hurtling through branches of the menacing rowan tree. Gnarled treetops tore at her flesh. She plummeted to the ground, landing with a thud amidst a flurry of her dusky feathers.

Brigid jolted from sleep, struggling for breath. The dream again…Stories Fiola always told about Morgana and ancient Delbaeth. Wait, not a dream… Her heart raced. Holy Hell…I’m actually falling. Unlike the dream, she didn’t plummet from the night sky, just the fifth floor of their Manhattan townhouse. The treetops ripping her skin were not those of a mighty rowan tree, but the branches of the neighbor’s overgrown shrubs. What is going on?

“Oomph.” She landed on the neighbor’s roof deck, one floor directly below her room and looked up. I know I closed it earlier. Her bedroom window was wide open. How did I not break any bones? Rubbing her backside, she gasped. Where in god’s name are my clothes? She glanced across the Newman’s deck. Empty. One hand over her chest, the other over her backside, she crept to the far corner and tested the terrace doors. Please, please… Unlocked. Yes. She slipped inside. The house was still. Without turning on a light, she inched across the room to a set of stairs and stepped carefully down one flight then another. Moonlight streamed through a partially open door. Tiptoeing down the hall, she peeked in. A bathroom. She searched the cabinets for something – anything – to cover herself. Hand towels…too small…bath matt…no…

Would you turn the page with this opening?

Hmm. More good story questions—but more lack of clarity again, and more of it. I can buy that the actual falling was reflected in a dream,  but I can’t buy that the dream came first and then Brigid came awake during the fall. After she lands, yes, but to have all this quite coherent thought while falling from a fifth-floor balcony strained my credibility beyond the breaking point. And what kind of “shrubs” are four stories tall? There’s good writing and the promise of a fun story here, but I think RM needs an editor. I gave it an almost, with regret. The narrative that follows the prologue portion above is below the fold. Worth a read and your input for RM.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued from the prologue's first page)

Without hesitation, Mac walked into the house.

“Take care of her while you still can, Erin. After today, she will hate you more than I do,” Fiola said, her mouth twisting into a scowl. “You and Gran plotted against me, but I know everything you’ve been hiding.” Her arms floated above her head in a perfect pirouette. “Now, Brigid will know too.”

“We’ll tell her everything, I promise,” Erin pleaded. “Please Fiola, just go back inside.”

Fiola leaned back and spoke to someone through the cupola window. Brigid exhaled. Gran has reached her. Fiola listened intently, but remained on the ledge, turning away from the open window. Why isn’t she going inside?

“Are you ready, Brigid?” Fiola asked, smiling defiantly.

Terrified of what might happen next, Brigid dragged her eyes from Fiola and gazed at the cupola. Spellbound, she stared at an unfamiliar face peering through the window. A young woman observed Fiola from behind the gauzy curtains, her dark hair fluttering in the breeze. The hypnotic pattering of a summer shower filled the air. The chaos dimmed. Smiling, the lovely brunette backed away from the window. Lightening flashed, then a crack of thunder. Brigid shuddered. It can’t be…Morgana? The sky darkened. Gentle rain strengthened to a pounding deluge and the woman was gone. Screeching tires in the driveway startled Brigid from her stupor. First, one car door slammed, then another. Gran and Inneen raced into the backyard. Rain pelting her face, Brigid’s stomach churned. No one is in the cupola to save Fiola.

“My darling girl, I’ll be right up,” Gran yelled.

 “Stay where you are!” Fiola screamed, her eyes darting wildly. Smoothing her disheveled dress, she stretched her arms wide and extended a pointed toe. “I’ll come down now. Brigid, watch.” She gracefully arched her back, and with complete certainty, she stepped from the ledge.

“No Fiola,” Erin sobbed, running to her twin, arms outstretched, as if to catch her. Brigid gagged, pitching forward. Soggy ground rushed toward her. Damp grass pressed against her face and dirt filled her mouth, muffling her soft cries. The snap of splintering branches was followed by a desolate thud. Gran’s screams filled the courtyard. Brigid’s world descended into darkness.

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

Submissions Needed. 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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Adan sends the first chapter of One Night in the Hill Country . The full chapter follows the break.

Parked in the shadows of a line of one and two story western style wood buildings, Tara spied the young girl, barely a teen, if that, start and stop to cross the small border town's roughly paved street.

Hesitant. Fearful. Hearing the protestors down the street like a funeral procession.

Yet, hiding it well, thought Tara. Remembering to flick her hair, gaze upward, as if unfazed, walking about. Definitely a girl with her bearings about her. Definitely someone the right age her brother would want. Rolf will be proud of me, Tara smiled.

Down the flat street, dusty as a barren riverbed, just a few blocks down, the immigration rally picked up momentum. In a spurt, bullhorns chanting, it began heading their way.

Tara stepped out and shoved the old pickup truck's door closed. Just loud enough to catch the young girl's attention, yet not alarm her.

Sharp dark eyes, wary, yet unafraid, peered back at Tara. The little girl looked like a Mexican version of a young Shirley Temple. Pixie, full head of curls softening the wide bright eyes. Stretching slightly, Tara mimicked the young girl's practiced motion, also glancing upward, feeling the hot blue sky, unwavering as ice, above them. Peripherally, she saw this set the young girl somewhat at ease. Like a bluster, settling into a breeze.

The child grinned, then hid it, hearing the marchers, a slow motion flood of bodies, now half (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Adan's first page?

For me, there just wasn’t enough tension to either earn a page turn—although it came close in that department—and to overlook the craft needs. There’s what is to me overwriting, breaks in point of view, and clarity issues. I do think there’s good stuff here and in the rest of the chapter, but the narrative needs to worked with to be more crisp and clear. The rest of the chapter follows--and it suggests a good story might come along. Here are notes on the first page:

Parked in the shadows of a line of one and two story western style weathered wood buildings, Tara spied the young girl, barely a teen, if that, start and stop to cross the small border town's roughly paved street. Not sure what a “western style” building is. Are you thinking of the old buildings we see in Western movies? This bit of over-description, including the texture of the street, slows the action. And part of that is unclear—how does the girl start and stop to cross a street? Do you mean started to cross and then stopped? That would be clear. Words such as “young”  and "small" are conclusion words and are relative—a 40-year-is young compared to an 80-something. The “barely a teen” did the job, the reference to young just isn’t needed.

Hesitant. Fearful. Hearing the protestors down the street like a funeral procession. Break in POV—Tara can’t know if the girl is actually fearful and is hearing the protesters. You can use expressions such as an unhappy frown to suggest fear, but don’t tell us. And what kind of a funeral procession is a protest like? I associate protests with shouts and chanting, and funeral processions are silent unless they’re in Louisiana or Mexico, where they can be noisy. The simile didn’t work for me as it is.

Yet, hiding it well, thought Tara. Remembering to flick her hair, gaze upward, as if unfazed, walking about. Definitely a girl with her bearings about her. Definitely someone the right age her brother would want. Rolf will be proud of me, Tara smiled. Hiding what well? If Tara thinks she’s an illegal immigrant and hiding that, then we need more of a clue than a pronoun with no antecedent. The reader needs to know what’s going on. The detail about her brother was tantalizing, but unclear. If there were a little more, something such as “would want her to bring to him,” would strengthen the suggestion of jeopardy or troubles ahead for the girl.

Down the flat street, dusty as a barren riverbed, just a few blocks down, the immigration rally picked up momentum. In a spurt, bullhorns chanting, it began heading their way. The description is trying too hard for this reader. Keep it simple. We know this is a border town, and if it’s hot and dry, it doesn’t make much to signal that. Once again, keep it simple and easy to see/grasp. I’m not wild about “in a spurt” and suggest deleting it and starting with the bullhorns chanting.

Tara stepped out and shoved the old pickup truck's door closed. Just loud enough to catch the young girl's attention, yet not alarm her.

Sharp dark eyes, wary, yet unafraid, peered back at Tara. The little girl looked like a Mexican version of a young Shirley Temple. Pixie, full head of curls softening the wide bright eyes. Stretching slightly, Tara mimicked the young girl's practiced motion, also glancing upward, feeling the hot blue sky, unwavering as ice, above them. Peripherally, she saw this set the young girl somewhat at ease. Like a bluster, settling into a breeze. For me, the description is getting in the way, similes and metaphors all over the place. And saying a hot sky is like ice took me out of the story to deal with the contradictions--I know you're going for stillness, but "hot" and "ice" are the strongest words and lead the reader's thoughts.

The child grinned, then hid it, hearing the marchers, a slow motion flood of bodies, now half (snip) “hearing the marchers” is another break in pov, she can’t know what the girl is hearing. the way to do this is something like: The child grinned, then hid it when a burst of cheers came from the marchers. That shows the girl hearing something, and doesn’t tell us that she has inappropriately.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Felpe Adan Lerma

 

(continued)

the distance from where they stood - the street, otherwise, nearly deserted.

Tara grabbed the kitten through the truck's open window, its eyes wide below the striking white on black starburst on its forehead. Walked directly to the child. Looked back to the crowd approaching the next block, the chorus of protest becoming strident voices, abrupt shouts – Tara giving the young girl the hint she was afraid also – and thrust the wiggling kitten into the small girl's hands, the protestors crossing the intersection into their block.

“Smile,” Tara smiled to the little girl.

She smiled.

“Wave if anyone looks at us.”

Both girls waved. Big sister, little sister, it must have seemed, to the passersby intent in shouting their meaning. Like thunderclaps rumbling away, the marchers passed. The dust settled back where it'd always been. The young girl choked a sob, and flicked a tear, as if clearing an errant strand of hair from her vision.

Silently, she offered the kitten back to Tara.

Tara began walking. “Keep smiling. Talk to me, pretend I am your sister.”

The child reached for and grasped Tara's hand, tugging it.

“Your kitty -”

“You like him?” asked Tara.

“Oh, si -”

“It's yours. If you take care of him.”

The girl nodded.

Tara felt relief. Yes, her brother will be proud of her. Another illegal for them.

Tara gazed down at the girl - staring at Tara's childhood whelp on her arm. Dry and gnarled as the land around them.

“No matter how hard. Or, how much..it hurts...” Tara said, eyeing the wiggly kitten.

But Tara already knew the girl's answer. It was in her gait.

Child-like, she'd pressed the kitten to her chest.

“Si. Con todo mi corazon.”

 

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4. Beautiful words from banned books

It’s Banned Books Week, focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, and the American Library Association makes it quite clear what we lose with this brief photo essay on 10 books that have been and are banned in American communities. The first is below.

Banned books

Ray

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5. Flogometer for Joanne—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Joanne sends the prologue and first chapter of Re-homing Pigeon. The full chapter follows the break.

If it weren’t for the Voo-Doo curse, she would have been a terrific mother. Cecile Lafayette Boudreaux stroked the Gris-Gris amulet around her neck. Born in the Louisiana bayou, she wasn’t supposed to scare easily. The weatherman drew spaghetti lines that snaked through the Gulf of Mexico, all heading right toward the mouth of the Mississippi. Mayor Nagin advised people to evacuate, while the die-hards of New Orleans planned their hurricane parties. Fire up the outdoor cooker; them mud bugs were waiting for cayenne pepper, hot sauce and 'taters. Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll.) At 9:30 a.m., Sunday, Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation. Governor Blanco told anyone refusing to leave to write their names and social security number on their arms in magic marker so they could identify the bodies. They named her Katrina.

Cecile told herself that she'd be safe in their sturdy home in Saint Bernard Parish on the east side of the Mississippi River and New Orleans proper. Her husband, Armand, had made preparations ahead of time, boarding the house so not a sliver of daylight peeked through the plywood sheets. This wasn’t the first hurricane she'd witnessed in her thirty years, and it wouldn't be the last. No matter the warnings, she couldn't leave without Armand. He had responsibilities as drilling manager for Murphy Oil Refinery and hadn't been home in three days.

She opened the door and stared at ominous dark clouds and things that had no business (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Joanne's first page?

Right away the subject matter of Katrina creates interest, and the first paragraph does a good job of setting that scene. But the tension falls off considerably in the second paragraph as we do a little info-dumping and set-up. I ended up not turning the page.

I recommend eliminating much of that second paragraph and starting with ominous things happening, and include the fact that she’s pregnant. I think the stakes need to be raised right away. Here’s a rough draft of material from later that I’d replace that paragraph with. With the edits to the first paragraph, this would take you through 17 lines on the first page:

She opened the door and stared at ominous dark clouds. Thousands of mosquito hawks (dragonflies) flew in a frenzy, forming a gossamer purple and green funnel. Grey sky that turned black pelted rain in straight arrows, and then suddenly whipped sideways, almost knocking her over, sending loose shingles and garden tools rolling across yards and down the center of streets. She staggered inside and locked the door.

The baby kicked hard against her rib cage. “Agh. Whoa there Junior.” Straightening, she rubbed her swollen belly, soothing her son that wouldn't arrive for another ten weeks. Through the boarded windows, she heard large objects slam against the house. She prayed they wouldn’t (snip)

What do you think? For me, I get much more involved with the character and the trouble that’s coming, and I would have turned the page with this as an opening. Here are notes on the pages as it is:

If it weren’t for the Voo-Doo voodoo curse, she would have been a terrific mother. Cecile Lafayette Boudreaux stroked the Gris-Gris amulet around her neck. Born in the Louisiana bayou, she wasn’t supposed to scare easily. The weatherman drew had drawn spaghetti lines that snaked through the Gulf of Mexico, all heading right toward the mouth of the Mississippi. They named her Katrina. Mayor Nagin advised people to evacuate, while the The die-hards of New Orleans planned their hurricane parties. Fire up the outdoor cooker; them mud bugs were waiting for cayenne pepper, hot sauce and 'taters. Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll.) At 9:30 a.m., Sunday, Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation. Governor Blanco told anyone refusing to leave to write their names and social security number on their arms in magic marker so they could identify the bodies. They named her Katrina. I realize that the spelling of voodoo might be charactercentric, so keep it if that’s the case. Otherwise, my dictionary says it’s “voodoo.” The rest of that sentence, though, didn’t work for me because there’s no clue as to her being a bad mother—no sign of children, anything. In other words, the reader has no idea what this refers to with no expansion and so it is, in essence, meaningless. Either give it meaning or delete it. I eliminated the first mayor reference because there’s another that’s stronger, and one seems like enough. The magic marker is a terrific detail. I moved the naming of the hurricane up to seat the information and end the paragraph with the deadly bit about magic markers and bodies.

Cecile told herself that she'd be safe in their sturdy home in Saint Bernard Parish on the east side of the Mississippi River and New Orleans proper. Her husband, Armand, had made preparations ahead of time, boarding boarded the house so not a sliver of daylight peeked through the plywood sheets. This wasn’t the first hurricane she'd witnessed in her thirty years, and it wouldn't be the last. No matter the warnings, she couldn't leave without her husband Armand. He Armi had responsibilities as drilling manager for Murphy Oil Refinery and hadn't been home in three days. I felt the overly detailed location wouldn’t mean much to a lot of people, and it clogs up the story. It’s a little awkward when you’re in close third person to use something like “her husband, Armand,” so I made little changes that will let the reader know who he is without having to state it directly.

She opened the door and stared at ominous dark clouds and things that had no business (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Tweet

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued)

being airborne. Thousands of mosquito hawks (dragonflies) flew in a frenzy, forming a gossamer purple and green funnel. It's coming . . . please let it pass over like all the others. Those news people always blew things out of proportion, right? Grey sky that turned black pelted rain in straight arrows, and then suddenly whipped sideways, almost knocking her over, sending loose shingles and small garden tools rolling across yards and down the center of streets. She staggered back inside and locked the door.

She phoned her father to ease his mind. Maybe it would ease hers as well. It was times like this she really missed her mother’s soothing voice.

“Come home, CeCe. There's still time,” her father said. Butte La Rose was one hundred and nineteen miles northwest, along the Atchafalaya River, safely out of the eye of the storm.

“I'm fine Daddy, really.” She forced her voice to sound steady. “Armi will be here soon.” She could hear grandmother, Mamère Le Bieu, chanting in the background. “What's Mamère doing?”

Her father snorted. “You know Mamère. She's beckoning spirits to keep you safe. You should'a seen her chasing dat gecko 'round the house to use in her potion. It was hysterical.”

Cecile's laugh came out jagged and raw. “Well, tell her I 'preciate her Voo-Doo and I'll sleep safer know'in the spirit of Evangeline is protecting me. Talk atcha later. Kiss Kiss.” She tugged on the small leather amulet tied around her neck.

They were prepared. The bathtub was filled with water, they had fresh batteries and flashlights, the cupboard had enough canned goods to last three days. The news warned those that had not evacuated to stay inside. Interstate 10, Highway 39 and Route 61 were deadlocked. Automobiles and gas stations were running out of gas. Babies were crying, cars engines were running hot. She glanced at the packed suitcases by the front door. They couldn't leave now if they wanted to.

By 11:00 a.m., winds reached 175 miles per hour. The sound of a train barreling down tracks rattled the rafters. The power went out. Oh God. She felt her way through the darkness for the edge of the kitchen table and slid into a chair. This is all normal, she placated herself. We're okay. She stooped to pick up a flashlight that rolled to the floor.

“Agh. Whoa there Junior.” The baby kicked hard against her rib cage. Straightening, she rubbed her swollen belly, soothing her son that wouldn't arrive for another ten weeks. Through the boarded windows, she heard large objects slam against the house. She prayed they wouldn’t break through.

She padded barefoot down the hall and stepped in water. She aimed the flashlight at the floor. “Shit.” A small stream weaved through grout lines in the tile foyer toward the thick padding under the front room carpet. Water pooled on concave window sills and seeped down the wall.

She dialed Armi's cell. Pick up, pick up, she pleaded to herself. Stay calm. The stilted voice of the machine kicked on, and she groaned as a second pain doubled her over. “Babe, are you coming home soon? Things are getting kinda scary here. Water's coming in under the doors and windows. There's no power. Oh . . . and your son's kicking up a fuss too. He mustn’t like the storm either.” Beep. The line went dead.

She rolled bath towels and shoved them under crevices. The flashlights standing upright on the table cast eerie round circles on the ceiling.

Okay Cecile, stay calm. He'll be here soon. There was nothing else she could do. She propped her legs up on the sofa, practicing her Lamaze breathing techniques. Deep cleansing breaths. In and out, in and out. She concentrated on her breathing as the howling of the wind faded into humming. A familiar cloud settled in around heras she started to nod off, No, no, please go away.

 

Armand listened to the voice mail from his wife. He made the decision to leave and send everyonehome. The CEO and operations managers had been in a dead-end debate on what to do with the oil tanks for three hours. One wanted to empty the tanks into huge storage containers and let them float in place tethered to docks. Another wanted to fill them with water so they were too heavy to float away. Armand made a decision to fill the empty tanks. What to do with tanks containing crude oil? Either decision would turn him against the opposing side. “Tie them down,” he ordered. “Then everyone get the hell out of here. I've got to get to my wife.”

Armand patted the dashboard of the high SUV, glad that it maneuvered through the rising water as he made his way home. Rain water had nowhere to go in below-sea-level New Orleans and most of the streets were already flooded. The levees would hold back the overflow of Lake Ponchatrain and the MRGO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, as long as water didn't breach their tops.

Wind and rain beat against the windshield and rocked the heavy vehicle, sometimes tipping it onto two wheels. By the time he reached their home on Ventura Drive in Chalmette, the garage had four inches of water. The front lawn was strewn with debris.

“CeCe, where are you?” He bellowed as he pushed hard on the door blocked with rolled towels.

“In here,” Cecile said.

Armand sloshed through the kitchen to the front room. Two inches of water covered the thick beige carpet. “CeCe, look!”

She pulled herself into a sitting position, swung her legs onto the floor, and then jerked her bare feet out of the cold water.

“Are you all right? And Junior?” Armand stroked her stomach.

She managed a smile. “Better . . . now that you're home. He's not liking this storm. I can tell you that. The curse, Armi . . . I saw the cloud.”

“Nonsense, there’s no curse. We had better stack as much as we can.” Armand started piling things; dining chairs atop the table, ottoman and magazine racks on the kitchen counter.

Cecile followed behind him, lifting smaller items out of harm’s way as a sense of dread folded around her. Why won’t he believe? He blasted the battery-operated radio and she cringed. It offered nothing but pending doom. “Please, turn that off.”

He flipped it off. “If you're sure you are okay.” He kissed her cheek. “I guess we already know what to expect. The storm will pass, it'll get quiet when we're in the eye, then we'll get hit again as it comes around the other side.” He rubbed her back. “Want to curl up on the bed until it's over? . . . Unless you want to do something else to take your mind off the storm,” he said with a twinkle in his chocolate eyes.

“Oh, no you don't.” She laughed nervously. “Snuggle only Mr. Boudreaux. Junior is so active you're liable to give him a black eye.”

Their nap was short lived. The water kept rising.

The water reached knee-high, almost even with the mattress. “CeCe,” Armand said with alarm. “We've got to go higher.”

“Where?” She asked, staring at the rising water. “It's not like we have a second story? Should we leave?”

Armand forced open the door and peeked through the crack as water gushed in. The entire street was a river and the storm had not let up. “Up,” he said. “Into the attic. You go, and I'll gather flashlights and batteries.”

“Omigod! Don't forget bottled water.” said Cecile. “And whatever food you can. And pillows and blankets from the bed.”

Armand steadied the ladder as she crawled through the trap door of the attic, her wide girth squeezing through the hole.

He pushed water bottles, the battery-operated radio and as many other supplies that he could think of through the hole before he pulled himself to safety.

Cecile tried to adjust her eyes to the filtered light in the small attic. The air was stifling. The temperature had to be one hundred degrees. She tried to get comfortable on the thin blankets and pillows, amidst boxes of Christmas decorations and old college memorabilia.

“Armi, my back is killing me.” she moaned.

“You've done too much. And it's hotter than hell in here. Try to be still. Practice your breathing.” He pushed boxes farther into the eaves, giving at least the illusion of more space. He patted an old electric fan with large black blades in a round metal cage. “Why didn’t I buy that generator I’ve looked at a dozen times in the hardware store?”

“It’s okay. The storm won’t last long.” Cecile wanted to sound optimistic as she laid her head on the pillow, twisting and turning, trying to get comfortable. The back pain circled around to the front. “I think I'm going into labor.”

A loud crash pummeled the roof. Armand threw his body over hers to protect her from whatever came through. When the roof held, he responded. “No, no. it's too early. It's the stress causing Braxton Hicks contractions. They'll stop.”

A wet spot spread across the blanket. Cecile saw it, even if Armand didn’t. An ethereal cloud settled around her in a grey shroud. Her water broke and she let out a primal scream. Omigod! I can't have the baby here, in this attic.”

Cecile noticed Armand's ruddy complexion pale.

“I'll get help,” He said as he punched numbers into his cell phone. No service. Frantically, he dug through boxes. He found a small ball-peen hammer. He pounded on a metal vent as she watched. Without too much effort, the aluminum vent gave way as the wind grabbed and tossed it away. The opening was about twelve inches wide. He reached his arm through but it was too small to fit his head and shoulders. Rain poured through the opening and he choked as he pressed his face as close as possible.

“Help! Somebody,” he sputtered. “Can you hear me? Help! We're in here.”

Only the screaming sound of Katrina answered back.

His arm waved frantically through the small opening.

Cecile knew there would be no one to witness his plea for help. “Armi, Armi.” Sweat poured down her face as the cloud circled around her. “It’s taking our baby again. Why is this happening to us again?”

He shook his head, spraying water over her. He gave up the futile call for help and looked around for something to plug the hole. Not finding anything, he tore off his shirt, exposing the dark furry chest she loved to run her fingers over. But not now. She moaned, watching him roll the shirt into a ball and stuff it into the opening. Too small, it dropped onto the plywood floor. Worry lines crossed his brow. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm. “I'm here for you Baby. What can I do?”

Cecile sobbed. “I don't know. He's coming. I can't stop him.”

Pains continued every three minutes through the night. Barely conscious from exhaustion and pain, Cecile sipped from the water bottle Armand held to her lips. The lack of air, screaming wind and constant bombardment of flying projectiles hitting the roof drove them into a near state of delirium. Transformers exploded not far away and a strange creaking sound strained against the storm.

Barely conscious, Cecile heard Armand’s prayer for God to spare their child. He knelt between her legs as she pushed their child through into the world. It was 10:56 a.m., Monday, August 29, 2005. They were in the eye of the storm.

So relieved to have the pain stop, at first she didn't notice the sudden eerie silence. She closed her eyes and let the pain ease from her body. The cloud around her dissipated. After her breathing returned to normal, she asked for her son.

“Don't CeCe. You don't want to see.”

“Please,” she whispered. “Let me hold him.” She saw the tears that streamed down his face. He was trying to stay strong for her, but she knew his heart was ripping in two. All those dreams he talked about —of tossing a ball with his son, teaching him to fish, sharing “guy” stuff, dissolved in his tears. “No, no, no.” Cecile clutched their third stillborn child to her chest. “Did you see it? It took our baby again. It’s my fault. I’m so sorry. It’s the curse.” The Gris-Gris made by her grandmother did nothing to protect her. Cecile knew they wouldn’t. The curse was too strong.

Defeated, he stroked her damp forehead. “No CeCe. There is no curse. It’s not your fault.”

When the back side of the storm hit, she expected the house to collapse. They lay on the thin blankets on plywood floors, their child swaddled between them in a beach towel. If the curse took her too, she was resigned to it. She prayed Armand would be spared.

 

By morning, the house was still standing and the storm had passed, but the danger had not. With bare hands and the small hammer, Armand ripped at roof shingles and studs until he had a large enough opening to fit his entire body.

For as far as he could see, there was nothing but rooftops and devastation. Along with trees and street signs, bodies of small animals floated by along with bits and pieces of people's lives; a wooden cane, a curly haired doll, a soccer ball.

Armand shouted until his voice gave out. Silence loomed as deafening as the roaring Katrina. He flipped on the radio. It told of total devastation. Levees had given way and over ninety percent of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were under ten to twenty feet of snake infested water. He made a flag out of his shirt, tied by its arms to the end of a broom handle and affixed it to the chimney with bungee cords found in college boxes. Cecile moved in and out of consciousness, calling for Armand and her Mama and mumbling about the curse.

Armand sat on the roof in a hundred degree heat, his back blistered by the sun, waiting for someone to find them. Where was everybody? Why were there no rescue boats? Once, he spotted a helicopter fly over. It flew off into the distance as he stood, waving his hands and shouting for help.

Cockroaches came next, in swarms, swooping in through every hole and crevice, landing on any surface, arms, faces, into their hair. He watched Cecile fight to keep them off the bundle she hugged close to her chest.

By Wednesday, Armand forced the last swallow of water down Cecile's throat. All of the food was gone as well. He gagged on the overpowering stench emitting from the rigid bundle Cecile rocked in her arms.

Finally, two men appeared in a small flat-bottomed fishing trawler. On the roof, Armand waved them toward him. “Help, please. My wife is inside.”

The men threw him a rope and tied up. Armand gently took the bundle from Cecile’s arms and helped her through the hole and into the boat, promising that he would hand the infant back the second she was settled.

Bloated animal carcasses floated by. The men didn't even ask what the atrocious smell was coming from the beach towel. The boat owner agreed to take them to St. Bernard Parish Hospital. It was also under water, but rescue helicopters were expected soon. That turned out to be an inaccurate time line.

They weaved through flotsam and around snakes knotted together hanging from low-hanging tree branches. Cecile spotted a little dog paddling furiously, his eyes bulging with fear. Twice he slipped under the water, unable to find a foot hold.

“Help him.” Cecile cried. “You can't let him drown.”

“There's no room for him in the boat, and no place at the hospital,” said the boatman. He looked numb.

Cecile screamed with all her strength. “No, NO, HELP HIM! Armi, please, you can't let him die too.”

At that, Armand jumped into the black, rancid water and swam toward the little dog. At least he could save someone. He grabbed the pup by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back to the boat. Tossing the canine over the side of the boat, Armand clung to the hull. “He can have my space.”

“Oh for Christ sake. Get in the boat before you get bit by a copperhead and we have to save your ass . . . again!” The man pulled on Armand's belt and heaved him over the side, nearly capsizing the small vessel.

The trembling little dog curled up beside Cecile. “It's okay Neptune, your safe now.” Cecile purred.

“Neptune?” Armand lifted an eyebrow.

“Because you pulled him from the sea.”

They arrived at the hospital and Armand was surprised to find Cecile's OBGYN tending to patients on the roof of Saint Bernard Hospital. The doctor briefly examined Cecile, shaking his head. He sedated her before prying the child from her arms. He spoke quietly to Armand, who strained to hear over the white noise rushing around in his head.

“Armand, that's three stillbirths,” the doctor said. “The drastic drop in barometric pressure caused women all over the area into premature labor. He was too young. If he would have had a few more weeks . . . and Cecile's body is weak. Next time you'll lose her too. There can't be any more babies.”

Armand reached inside the bundle and stroked the tiny cheek of his son one last time before handing him to the staff. The body would stay with the other corpses at the flooded hospital to be retrieved later. He knew the doctor was right. This had to be their last child.

Cecile mumbled incoherently, “The potion, drink the potion.”

“What’s she babbling about?” Armand asked the doctor.

“You need to talk to Cecile about that when she’s stronger.” said Dr. Teekell.

“If you know something . . .”

Dr. Teekeel shook his head. “HEPA laws. It’s past history and irrelevant to what’s happening today. It can wait until she can speak for herself.”

Add a Comment
6. Flogometer for Sarah—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed—none in the queue for tomorrow! 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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Sarah sends the prologue and first chapter of Guardian . The full prologue and chapter follow the break.

Prologue

I sat on the edge of the gravel road, my knees bent in front of me as I stared at my boots. It seemed the most terrible moments in my life were spent looking at my shoes. Other people might have a beautiful slide-show tribute documenting their memories of joy. My life felt like a collage of the shoes I wore as I stared down at them trying to make sense of the next horrible change in my life.

For as long as I could remember, when my adults gossiped or talked about things they didn’t want me to know, they used phrases like “not in front of the children.” Once, in the hospital waiting room, a great aunt who was speaking with my grandmother, looked over at me and said, “Bless her heart, do you think she knows?”

The thing is, children do know. Grownups don’t always whisper and secrets don’t keep in small houses and small towns. If I did cry, or show emotion, adults always tried to swoop in and fix it. Their soothing words weren’t to make me feel better; they were to make everyone else more comfortable. I learned that looking down and trying to disappear was my role in times of trouble. I had become an expert at melting into the background.

In third grade, I was wearing brown leather Mary Janes when I learned that my father's parents had been in a terrible accident. I remembered those shoes distinctly and the sound they made on the linoleum as an adult led me through the halls of the hospital.

Were you compelled to turn Sarah's first page?

The writing is smooth and seductive, the voice clear and attractive. But there was little in the way of story questions or tension for me here. As you’ll see if you read on, the shoes meme continues to bring up past events until we get to the present with, finally, a significant detail:

Now, chocolate suede snow boots as I sat atop the hill across from the fresh dirt on my father's frozen grave.

In the end, all we’ve learned from this prologue is that her father has died. Doesn’t seem to me that it was necessary despite the writing.

Chapter 1

The cold from the single pane windows interrupted my dreams. I rolled over in my bed and groaned, trying to wake up. Last night we completed the final stage of our move back to my parents' hometown. My mom said it was like coming full circle, whatever that's supposed to mean. We were officially living with my grandparents.

I stretched and became instantly alert from the cold sheet's frosty assault against my toes. Reflexively, I drew my legs to my chest, trying to regain my warm spot. My bedroom back home had always been my hideaway, my safe place. I opened my eye a crack, to see if all the sadness and change from the last few months had been a dream. Reality hit as I looked around the room.

Usually when I woke up at my grandparent's house, it was fun and exciting. It meant summer vacation or the holidays. Today, I didn't know what it meant. My surroundings were foreign and familiar at the same time. My down comforter from home sprawled across my bed, and intermingled with Grandma’s patchwork quilt. The scent from my mother's fabric softener collided with the smells of a wood-burning stove and the aroma of pancakes wafting up the stairs. It was everything great combined, but in a new and uncertain way.

Not yet able to take on the day, I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out heavily, letting my head drop to the pillow. I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself change would be good.

It had been painful to drive away from our home--my normal. Leaving my school and (snip)

Would you turn the page with this opening?

Once again, voice and writing are just fine. It’s the kind of writing and voice that might draw you in . . . but the lack of story could easily leave the page unturned, which it did for me. This chapter is pretty much introduction and set-up: it’s the character in her new home, living with grandparents after her father’s death. Once again, very nicely written, but you end the chapter still not knowing what the story is about as it affects this character. No story questions have been raised, and there’s no particular jeopardy in the future for this girl.

I think Sarah has started too soon. This reminds me of the time I took chapter 3 of one of my novels in to my critique group and one member said, “The story starts here.” I didn’t accept that for a few months, then I realized that he was right. I rewrote and started there with a much stronger opening. I encourage Sarah to take a tough look at her narrative and start it where the story starts. That I’d like to read.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

 Full Prologue and Chapter:

Prologue

I sat on the edge of the gravel road, my knees bent in front of me as I stared at my boots. It seemed the most terrible moments in my life were spent looking at my shoes. Other people might have a beautiful slide-show tribute documenting their memories of joy. My life felt like a collage of the shoes I wore as I stared down at them trying to make sense of the next horrible change in my life.

For as long as I could remember, when my adults gossiped or talked about things they didn’t want me to know, they used phrases like “not in front of the children.” Once, in the hospital waiting room, a great aunt who was speaking with my grandmother, looked over at me and said, “Bless her heart, do you think she knows?”

The thing is, children do know. Grownups don’t always whisper and secrets don’t keep in small houses and small towns. If I did cry, or show emotion, adults always tried to swoop in and fix it. Their soothing words weren’t to make me feel better; they were to make everyone else more comfortable. I learned that looking down and trying to disappear was my role in times of trouble. I had become an expert at melting into the background.

In third grade, I was wearing brown leather Mary Janes when I learned that my father's parents had been in a terrible accident. I remembered those shoes distinctly and the sound they made on the linoleum as an adult led me through the halls of the hospital.

Black ballet flats when I attended their funeral.

Blue Keds with white laces the day my mother and father gathered me and my sister to talk about cancer.

Wool-lined slippers the night my father collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

Sketchers the day he passed.

Now, chocolate suede snow boots as I sat atop the hill across from the fresh dirt on my father's frozen grave.

I barely heard the sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel road as they came behind me. He coughed a little as he got closer, hoping I guess, to give me some warning without having to break my reverie. He draped a folded quilt across my shoulders, and I reached to pull the corners into me.

"Your Grandpa sent me," he said simply, his voice a deep soothing baritone.

Instinctively, I reached to wipe the tears, and likely mascara, from my swollen eyes. Before I looked up to see who this mystery Samaritan was, habit drew my eyes to his shoes. He was wearing the biggest boots I have ever seen. When he offered his hand to help me from my crouched position, I saw his eyes. They were a startling shade of blue that held me -- his gaze so intense, it felt as though he could see right into my soul. Today it was too much. Without thought, I averted my gaze and we walked away from the headstone towards my Grandpa's ancient Dodge.

As he opened the door, he said, "Your Grandpa asked me to warm up the truck for him. I saw you up here in the cold. It should help to thaw you out."

"Um, thanks," I said, hoarsely. The last few days were full of little sleep and a lot of crying. My throat was sore. All this unexpected kindness from a stranger somehow made me feel even more vulnerable and self-conscious.

In silence, we drove down the hill from the cemetery to the church in town. As he got out of the truck, he looked back at me and in that same deep voice said, "I'm sorry."

 

 

Chapter One

The cold from the single pane windows interrupted my dreams. I rolled over in my bed and groaned, trying to wake up. Last night we completed the final stage of our move back to my parents' hometown. My mom said it was like coming full circle, whatever that's supposed to mean. We were officially living with my grandparents.

I stretched and became instantly alert from the cold sheet's frosty assault against my toes. Reflexively, I drew my legs to my chest, trying to regain my warm spot. My bedroom back home had always been my hideaway, my safe place. I opened my eye a crack, to see if all the sadness and change from the last few months had been a dream. Reality hit as I looked around the room.

Usually when I woke up at my grandparent's house, it was fun and exciting. It meant summer vacation or the holidays. Today, I didn't know what it meant. My surroundings were foreign and familiar at the same time. My down comforter from home sprawled across my bed, and intermingled with Grandma’s patchwork quilt. The scent from my mother's fabric softener collided with the smells of a wood-burning stove and the aroma of pancakes wafting up the stairs. It was everything great combined, but in a new and uncertain way.

Not yet able to take on the day, I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out heavily, letting my head drop to the pillow. I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself change would be good.

It had been painful to drive away from our home--my normal. Leaving my school and friends behind had been hard, but, closing and locking the garage door made it final. My life would never be the same.

I tried to look at the bright side. Starting over did have its advantages. At home, everyone gave me sympathetic stares and silence. No one knew what to say to the girl who lost her dad to cancer. It seems that just when it's the most important to say something, everyone stays quiet. There are no words to fix a broken heart and the emptiness it leaves. When people did speak, it was almost worse. Each time I saw someone I knew, we would have awkward conversation until they brought up my dad. I hated sharing my personal feelings, but social rules meant I had to be nice. So, for the sake of manners and to avoid my mother’s wrath, I found myself comforting and reassuring them I was fine after losing my dad. There was no safe place.

My mom didn’t talk about it, but maybe it was like that for her too. In her typical clinical nursing style, she had laid out the brochures from her hometown, and listed all the pros and cons of the move to me and my sister. The information she provided wasn't anything we didn't already know. It was just Mom's way. She operated in facts, because it made it easier to subtract the feeling. Long before she met with us, it was a foregone conclusion we would be moving to Phillipsburg. A hundred years ago, it had been one of the first booming mining towns in Montana. Now, Phillipsburg was all that remained of a time passed. It was literally encircled by ghost towns. In some ways, it seemed like the perfect place for us. We were the haunted left-overs of a complete family.

Tired of the depressing direction my mind wandered, I launched myself out of bed. The balls of my feet slapped against the frigid, wooden floor boards and instantly changed my mind. I flew back onto the mattress and landed directly on my little sister, Eugenie.

"Ouch! Stop it, Maggie!" she whined, trying to wriggle out of the blankets.

"Scoot over." I pushed her closer to the wall, and crawled back under the covers. "It's cold!" When did you get in my bed anyway?"

"You’re kind of a baby," she said. "You cry in your sleep."

"Whatever, Nene, you came in here because you were cold. It's time to get up!"

"Why?" She whined in her little girl voice. She couldn’t pronounce her name right when she was little, earning her the nickname, Nene.

"Can't you smell the pancakes? Those aren't mom's pancakes down there. Grandma's cooking. GET UP!" I ordered, laughing as I threw a pillow at her.

She jumped out of bed, dragging her blanket, and yelled, "You’re a jerk!"

I shouldn’t tease her. Secretly, I liked it when she snuggled with me at night. In this drafty old house, there were definite advantages to sharing a bed with someone who wears fuzzy pjs.  Plus, everything was better when she was with me. Even if she got up and left before I woke, I could always tell when she'd slept in my bed--and not just because of the stuffed animals trailing behind.

Grandpa interrupted the momentary silence, his voice thundering up from the base of the stairs. "Daylight's a wastin'. Nothin' better for the soul than a little bit of work."

Grandpa had warned he would be taking me with him to work today. I thought he was kidding. What I really needed was alone time. I ached for a long run. I wanted my muscles to hurt more than my heart and for the wind to burn my lungs and race through my hair. But that dream would have to wait. It was January in Montana; Snow and ice made running an impossibility.

Grandpa was a semi-retired veterinarian. I had fun going to work with him as a little girl. Now, I worried that helping Gramps at the clinic would mean I got to be in charge of "poop patrol". It was still a good compromise though. If I didn't go to work with Grandpa, I would be expected to go to church with Grandma, and I wasn't ready to take on the sympathy brigade just yet. All those religious women in dress suits and pearls would want to hug me and give me sad looks. Grandma's friends were emotional kryptonite, and I still wasn't strong enough to keep it together.

I looked momentarily at the girl staring back from the mirror before putting in my contacts. As I blinked, waiting for them to come into focus, I peered into my almond-shaped eyes. They are a blend of my mother's green and my father's blue--a true marriage of the bits and pieces that made me. I smiled knowing part of Dad was always with me.

With no need to glam-up for the animals, I pulled on some old jeans, a generous sweatshirt and thick socks. Then I threw my long brown hair in a ponytail, did a quick swipe of mascara, and stuffed the iPod on my dresser into my pocket. Hard work required mood music. Out of habit, I fastened the chain of my necklace and tucked it into my shirt before going downstairs.

In the kitchen, I was greeted by the smell of bacon, maple syrup and the sound of Grandma's voice. "Good morning, Baby."

"Morning, Grams," I smiled and loaded pancakes and eggs onto my plate.

"It's so nice to have you here." Everything about Grandma soothed, including her voice. "I was hoping to spend a little more time with you, but your grandpa called dibs. She smiled at me, a glimmer of mischief dancing in her eyes.

In a conspiratorial tone, I whispered back, "You know I'd rather be with you, but I don't want to hurt Grandpa's feelings." I grinned and gave her a half-hug.

I found Grandpa in the foyer waiting, dressed in his usual flannel shirt, work gloves and rubber-toed boots. Laughter colored his voice. "That was real nice, you lying to your Grandma to make her feel good, when everybody knows I'm the one you want to be with."

"Yeah, you're the one Gramps. The company is good and the fashion is amazing."

"Don't get much better than this, Girl." Grandpa handed me a fuzzy wool hat complete with ear flaps, and a pair of fingerless gloves with pull-over mitten tops. Before I put them on, I strung the laces on a pair of my own fleece-lined boots and tied a neat bow at the top. He grinned at the girly flourish and said. "Fashion don't mean nothin' round here. It's function that counts."

Grandpa opened the door against the morning wind. The sting of it bit my cheeks, and I pulled my hat down tighter. Steam from the exhaust curled in the arctic breeze as I rushed to get inside the warm truck. We made the short drive down the private lane and Grandpa turned right onto the high-way leading to town. I loved the Flint Creek Valley. From the south end where we were, it looked like a bowl carved out in the middle of the mountains. On the right, the Pintlar Mountain Range guarded the valley, while the Sapphire Peaks closed in from the other side. The view framed in the windshield looked like heaven. I stared out at the fog lowering down from the mountain where it almost merged with the mist rising from the creek. The sun broke over the rugged horizon and a tingle of hope grew in my chest.

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7. How about a little Seuss this morning?

I came across a post about a tribute to Dr. Seuss that includes pages done comic-book style that illustrate and tell his history and story. I found it fascinating to read about the man whose words I've said so often to my children. Tidbit: I learned that the original correct pronunciation is "soice" as in "voice," but that changed. The article is here. Below is a clip from the art.

Suess

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Aleena sends the opening chapter of Fraven Ends , which looks like a YA fantasy to me.

There were seven of us, at first. All young, late teens or early twenties. Long enough past schooling age to be called men when the elders were pleased with our contribution to the tribe, young enough to be called boys when they were not. And we knew what they would call us if they saw us meeting together in the clearing just over four miles out from the encampment-- passing flasks of ale among us and a spread of various maps between us as we sat near a fire that crackled into the crisp autumn air-- boys. But we thought we were men.

Our people were quiet. Peace was our golden rule, one we learned as soon as we could talk. Do not bother others and they will not bother you. Do not treat others with contempt. Do not retaliate any evil and your enemy will lose interest. Do not engage in violence of any kind. Do not live for selfish gain. Do not use your gifts for your own advantage. Do not feel jealousy. Do not hate. Do not disrespect. Do not. Do not...

This was not peace. This was enablement.

That is what I told my friends. First Oakley, whom I found had been silently harboring the same sentiment. Encouraged by his reaction, I confided in Cyrus, receiving a positive response. Soon, our little group grew with the addition of Elan, Rinnal, Jacob, and Morvan.

Each agreed—in Morvan’s case, only after a full-blown and, ironically, nearly violent argument—that our druid people were being taken advantage of and oppressed by the humans of (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Aleena's first page?

The writing is strong, and I like the voice. Aleena is approaching this fantasy story in a fairly traditional way—introducing the world. However, nothing much is happening, nor does it in the rest of the chapter. She spells out an interesting world with Druids who are not human, apparently, but have magic, and oppressive humans.

But it’s all set-up, and no actual jeopardy or story questions arise in the opening page or the chapter. I suggest you start much closer to the inciting event, the place the actual story starts happening to the character. The background material can be woven in as the protagonist deals with what happens. One caution: this first page introduces a lot of uncommon names. In my view, the reader will not be able to absorb them. And introducing a flood of characters can overwhelm. If you can trim it down to one or two, that would be better. It sounds like there’s a good story ahead, and I’d turn the page if we started with that—story.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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9. Love Poison could be good for you

Love-poison-coverI'm giving a shout-out for a client/friend, Pete Barber, who has a new book out--I didn't have anything to do with this one, but I guarantee he's a very good writer and storyteller. Here's a blurb, cover, and a link:

Lab assistant and avid climber Amber Wilson is no stranger to risk. But she feels invisible around her handsome boss, Mark, until she accidentally doses him with an irresistible aphrodisiac that leaves him with a suicidal hangover. Abruptly fired, Amber and Mark partner up to research the source of the drug—a rare New Zealand mushroom—in hopes of refining it for safe use.

On their way to New Zealand to collect fungi samples, Amber is blindsided by a deep and intense romantic connection with Mark. Their new business plan is endangered by ruthless Maori mobsters who control a mushroom scheme they’re killing to protect. As the body count rises, Amber struggles to salvage her and Mark’s dreams, but when she risks her heart and acts alone, both of them could end up paying the ultimate price.

Check it out.

Best,

Ray

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Rob sends the opening for an unfinished short story titled Nell.

Jeremy was at work the day Nell’s headaches began. His mother was the first to notice that something was wrong. She understood Nell in a way that only an old mother can, and spent most days with her while Jeremy worked. Little Nell adored her. Jeremy hesitated to take her to a doctor right away though; money was tight enough as it was and he would have to take a day off to bring her into the city.

“She’s been like that all day again today, never stops, the poor thing” Jeremy’s mother had said.

“She’s made it this far, she’ll make it through to the weekend don’t you think?”

Jeremy was tired and frustrated, this being the third day he’d come home to a screaming child and a nagging mother. He brushed her off as he searched the fridge for the beer he’d left himself the night before.

“You were never like this when you were a boy Jeremy, never this bad. Something’s wrong. You know, I can’t explain it. I just… it feels wrong when I pick her up. She is just… inconsolable. Call it mother’s intuition.”

Jeremy turned from the cupboard, placed the beer on the table, and smiled as he looked at his mother’s worried expression.

“I would never dream of doubting your intuition. You’re by far the smartest, most amazingly intuitive woman I have ever met. And you’re beautiful… and an amazing cook as well.”

Were you compelled to turn Rob's first page?

Except for a couple of comma faults, the writing is clean and clear. But there were two issues for me: clarity and lack of tension. The clarity issues had to do references to mother and “old mother.” Are they different? I think “grandmother” would have been much more clear.

The second issue is tension—this is pretty much all setup and not much in the way of story questions is raised. A child has headaches and cries, the grandmother is tired. Later in the manuscript was something I thought was a better opening paragraph:

It was two-thirteen in the morning when Jeremy awoke to Nell’s screams. His head was still foggy, and registering his surroundings was his first priority as he realized he wasn’t in bed. The screams seemed to come from another world. It was instead his mother’s abrupt cry that shocked him into consciousness.

What do you think?

Was that a stronger opening for you?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

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11. How’s your author website content?

Publishing expert and Digital Book World 2015 conference chairman Mike Shatzkin offers a list of what an author’s website should include. There aren’t any surprises, but it’s helpful to see what mine doesn’t have—I have a little more work to do, it seems. Check it out here.

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12. Flogometer for Mike—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Mike sends a first chapter for The Key to Okenwode , a YA fantasy. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Jack Straw never thought of himself as lucky. For one thing, he’d been born with a birthmark on his chest in the most unfortunate of shapes—that of a heart. His mother told him it was a sign that he’d been blessed, but Jack knew better. It was a curse, pure and simple—the curse of the unlucky, which was the worst curse of all. A line ran up through the birthmark at a forty-five degree angle, exiting the top of the heart and ending in a triangular point just below his collarbone.

It was no wonder, then, that they called him Cupid. The first time he heard that word was at the Dooley Lake municipal pool. He was four. He had removed his shirt, baring his skinny four-year-old chest for all the world to see, along with the birthmark like a vivid purple stain. Someone called him Cupid, which quickly turned into Stupid Cupid, a nickname that stuck. Whenever his mother was out of earshot, the other children would chant those two little words in that sing-songy, thoughtless manner particular to cruel children throughout history.

One day his mom bought him a cherry sno-cone at the concession stand. It was a typical summer afternoon, hot and sunny, the blue water dazzling in the sun. The clean scent of chlorine hung in the air, along with the high, bright sounds of children splashing and playing. He was wandering along near the kiddie pool, slurping away when an older boy grabbed the sno-cone from his hand.

Were you compelled to turn Mike's first page?

Once again we have solid writing technique, but I’m reminded of literary agent Kristin Nelson’s words: “I think writers assume that good writing is enough. Well, it’s not.” She was talking about telling a story in a fresh way, but it applies to the narrative you put on the first page as well. This page—and, in fact, the chapter—is backstory and set-up. As for the conflict presented on this first page, the only story question is what happens to the sno-cone.

Later in the chapter there is a fight, so technically there is conflict and jeopardy. But it’s not what the story is about—according to Mike, it’s about a boy who travels to another world to find a cure for his dying father. Well, this story starts way-y-y-y too early for me. His unfortunate birthmark, if it actually bears on the story of his quest, can be woven in later. Get to the inciting incident—which, I’ll offer, is not when he learns that his father has cancer. It’s after that, it’s when something happens that he has to struggle against. The rest of the chapter follows the break. While it portrays a likeable character dealing with a challenge, it’s not the challenge of the story. If there’s fantasy/science fiction, seems like that flavor should also be on the first page.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued)

“Hey! Give it back!” Jack said.

The boy laughed. “I just want a lick.” He gave Jack a mean smirk, then stood there and ate the entire thing.

Jack started bawling. “I told you to give it back!”

“Okay, okay. Quit crying, you little baby. Here.” The bully poured the remaining syrupy red liquid down Jack’s bare chest—right along his birthmark. The sticky syrup soaked into the top of his swim trunks.

“You’re mean!” Jack said. “I’m telling my mom!”

The boy stuck his finger in the center of Jack’s birthmark. “I thought it might wash off. Then I wouldn’t have to call you Cupid anymore, would I, stupid?”

Despite being only half the other boy’s size, Jack charged, swinging his tiny scrunched-up fists at the bigger kid’s chubby legs, which was all he could reach. He got one good punch into the kid’s groin before the mothers stopped chatting and broke up the fight.

They never went back to the Dooley Lake municipal pool again.

As he grew older, Jack refused to take off his shirt in public. Even in summer he wore shirts with collars and kept his chin tucked down, all in an effort to disguise the tip of his Cupid’s arrow. This gave the impression he was sullen, and appearing sullen so much of the time actually made him sullen. That sullenness turned to a zealousness to defend himself, especially when it concerned his birthmark. The humiliation he’d suffered as a toddler fueled a slow-burning anger that would erupt in his later years, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The first near-disaster occurred six years after the incident at the pool, when as luck would have it—bad luck in Jack’s case—he ran into the same boy who had stolen his sno-cone. Only this time things turned out different. This time, Jack learned how to fight back. It was a lesson he would never forget.

It was right after the first day of school. Jack and his friends were playing in a small meadow in the strip of woods next to his house. He was still in his school clothes, wearing a brand-new blue shirt. His best friend Joe Honess had torn apart an old wooden accordion-style baby gate and made collapsible swords from the pieces. It was comical how the swords would shoot out to three or four times their length with a thrust of the arm.

They were deep in sword play when three older boys came walking up out of the woods. Jack recognized one of them as the same kid who had stolen his sno-cone that day at the pool. His name was Frank Martino, and he had a bad reputation.

Frank looked at Jack. “Well if it isn’t Cupid and his little buddies. I can’t tell you how stupid you guys look, playing like a bunch of little kids.”

Jack said nothing. His friends fell silent, sensing a dangerous shift in the afternoon’s mood.

“You punched me in the nuts that one time, remember? Did you think I’d forget?”

“Leave ‘em be, Frank,” one of the other older boys said. “I gotta get home.”

“Shut up Jimmy.” Frank tilted his head back and eyed the boys holding the swords. “So these are your friends, Cupid?” He spat on the ground. “Wow.”

Jack remained silent. Frank pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it. “This is our spot. So how about you and your wimpy friends go play your little games someplace else?”

Jack’s stomach was doing flip-flops. He wished somebody would do something—say something, but all his friends were looking at him, their faces sheepish. “It isn’t anybody’s spot,” he muttered. “Besides, we were here first.”

“You really are stupid.” Frank took a drag of his cigarette. “I don’t want to have to beat your little ass, but I will. Now clear out.”

“C’mon Frank,” Jimmy said. “They’re not hurting anybody.”

Frank turned and poked Jimmy in the chest, nearly burning him with the cigarette. “Maybe I should beat your ass instead. Whose side are you on, anyway?”

“Take it easy Frank.”

“I don’t see why we can’t all hang out right here,” Jack said. “You don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you.”

Frank cracked his knuckles. “Nothing doing, Cupid. Like I said, this is our spot—all of it. And if you want our spot, you’re gonna have to fight for it.”

“What are you guys, like thirteen?” Joe Honess said. “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”

Frank moved to within inches of Joe’s face. “Like you, dipshit?” Joe didn’t say anything. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

“I got me an idea,” Frank’s other friend said with a slight southern drawl. “Let’s make it fair.” He grinned at Jack, revealing small, crooked teeth. “How’s about you and me, bub? We’re about the same size.”

“Dirty Al’s right about that Cupid,” Frank said. “In fact, he’s smaller than you.”

Dirty Al might have been the smallest member of Frank’s gang, but he sure looked the meanest. He had gray eyes, like a wolf’s. Jack gulped. “That’s okay.”

“Really?” Dirty Al said.  “That’s too bad. A real shame.”

For a moment nobody spoke. Overhead, a plane droned past in the clear blue sky. Jack’s friends shuffled and fidgeted, but none of them dared moved, lest they be drug into what was quickly turning into an ugly situation.

It was Joe Honess who finally broke the silence. “Leave Jack alone,” he said. Joe was tall for his age, nearly as tall as Frank, but he’d been born with a crippled left hand, the fingers entwined into a tangled clump. The hand was small, with nothing more than a nub of flesh for a thumb. It looked like a twisted little claw.

“What’re you gonna do about it, Honess?” Frank said. “Your hand looks like you stuck it in a deep fryer.”

“I think it looks like a chicken’s foot,” Dirty Al said. “A pickled chicken’s foot.”

“Maybe it’s some kinda birth defect,” Frank said. “His mama musta been taking drugs.” He looked at Joe. “Is that it, crack baby? Your mama’s a crackhead?”

 “Shut up!” Joe rushed at Frank, his good hand balled into a fist. He took a wild swing and missed, then Dirty Al tackled him to the ground, face-first. He put a knee in Joe’s back and twisted his arm up behind his neck. With his other hand he shoved Joe’s face into the dirt.

“Hold this one down,” Al said to Jimmy, then he stood up and walked straight towards Jack, his mouth closed and breathing through his nostrils hard, like a bull. His whole face seemed to be grinning. He gave Jack a hard shove, forcing him to take a step back. Jack just stood there, staring at the ground. He didn't want this.

“Fight, Cupid,” Frank said. “You can’t just stand there.”

Jack could feel Dirty Al’s eyes on him, but he wouldn't look up. “I don’t have to listen to you.”

“Can I hit him anyways?” Al said.

“I got a better idea,” Frank said. “Grab his arms.”

Al was deadly quick, slipping behind Jack and yanking his arms back painfully. Frank had a knife in his hand. He looked over at Jack’s friends huddled silently near the side of the tiny meadow. “You guys stay out of this.”

He grabbed Jack’s shirt and pulled, popping off all the buttons at once. “Let’s just see what Cupid’s got under there.” He slipped the blade under the shirt collar and sliced it clean through to the sleeve, then ripped the shirt free and held it up in triumph. Al let Jack go.

Frank pointed at Jack’s chest. “Somebody spilled ink on that boy!”

He and Dirty Al were pointing at Jack’s chest and laughing. Jack thought he heard a pitter of laughter even from his own friends, who were standing well back. It was the all too familiar sting of humiliation.

“Maybe it was the devil,” Dirty Al said. He grabbed two of the baby-gate swords from the meek, quiet boys and handed one to Frank. They started circling Jack, pointing the swords at him.

“Nah. Musta been an angel,” Frank said. “He looks too much like Cupid. Don’t you, stupid?” Frank poked Jack in the chest. Dirty Al swung his sword sideways, opening a deep scratch in Jack’s side. The two of them circled like tigers, jabbing and slicing at Jack’s chest and back while chanting Stupid Cupid, Stupid Cupid in unison. A trickle of blood ran down Jack’s ribs. His friends were looking at the ground like they wanted to crawl into it.

“He’s bleeding,” Dirty Al said. “Ain't that pretty?”

“Sure is,” Frank said. “That reminds me. Happy Valentine’s day!”

He leaned forward and spat in Jack’s face.

Something snapped inside. Jack batted away the swords and charged at Frank, who stepped out of the way, laughing. Al tripped him as he ran past, sending Jack sprawling onto a pile of rocks that marked an old Indian grave. Luckily, he managed to land without cracking his head open.

Frank advanced on Jack, his eyes already gloating with victory. Jack picked up a rock the size of an apple and threw it at Frank’s head, missing by mere inches.

“What the hell!” Frank yelled, but Jack already had another rock in his hands. He took aim and let it fly, and for the second time in six years hit Frank in the crotch with a sickening whump.

The sound froze everyone present. Frank stood still for a long second, then fell over like he’d been tased. His face was the color of a dirty bed sheet. Al coiled like a snake ready to strike, then Jack saw him hesitate. He turned to see his friends standing behind the Indian grave with rocks in their hands. Al and Jimmy began backing up towards the woods, then they turned around and ran as rocks volleyed through the air, some dangerously close to doing serious damage.

“You’d better run, jerkwads!” Joe yelled.

The day was ruined. Everyone except Jack and Joe Honess drifted away, muttering excuses about homework and chores and making it home for dinner. Frank was in a fetal position, moaning, his hands clutched around his groin.

“You okay?” Jack asked Joe.

Joe looked down at Frank. “I've never been better, dude. That’s heck of an arm you've got.”

“You’ll pay for this,” Frank mumbled.

Joe grinned at Jack. “Did you hear something?”

Jack cupped his hand to his ear and looked around the meadow with exaggerated puzzlement. “Nope.”

Jack picked up what was left of his shirt and they both went home.

***

That night Frank’s parents came over for a not-so-friendly chat. Mr. Martino banged on the front door, and the instant Jack’s mom opened it came clomping into the middle of their living room, tracking mud on the carpet. Jack smelled booze on his breath.

His dad moved forward as if to shake hands, but Martino never gave him the chance. Immediately he launched into a tirade; threatening to press charges, hire lawyers and investigators. He kept right on ranting until Jack’s dad told him to go ahead and do it, press all the charges you want. Maybe then people would know their son was a bully. He demanded Martino pay for Jack’s shirt. Only then could they talk about what came next.

Martino refused, so Jack’s dad told him to leave. Halfway to the door, Mr. Martino turned to Jack. “You tried to hit Frank in the head with a rock, is what he told me, and—”

“Don’t you speak to my son,” Jack’s dad said. “Ever. Now get out.” There was heat in his voice.

Martino stormed out towards his car. Mrs. Martino had stood just inside the doorway the entire time, not saying a word. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said after her husband was out of earshot. It seemed like she wanted say more, but she got in their car and they left.

Jack was proud of his dad for standing up to Mr. Martino, yet he got grounded for fighting, which didn’t seem fair. He’d told his parents everything—except about throwing that first rock. Although he hadn’t lied—technically—his parents suspected there was more to the story. The truth was something more than survival instinct had aimed that rock at Frank’s head: it was pure rage, and its destructive power was frightening. He might have split Frank’s skull wide open, maybe even killed him. It was a good thing he missed.

It wasn’t long before Jack gained a reputation as being quick to anger, a reputation that was well-deserved. Not that it bothered him. When it came to smart remarks about his birthmark or Joe’s crippled hand, he refused to take any crap from anybody. He got into fights both in and out of school—lots of fights. It didn’t matter if he was outclassed or outnumbered, and it didn’t matter if he won or not. What mattered was the act itself, the willingness to stand up to the bullies and taunters, to send them a message. Being slight, he lost more than half of the time, but the winners almost never tested him twice.

By the time he was twelve he was prone to dark moods, lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days. Joe called it his ‘dark cloud’. It worried his parents, leading to long talks that did little to change Jack’s mind about the way the world worked. And in every one of those talks his dad would tell him the same thing, that a fight had no real winners.

But that was a lie, one of those bits of wisdom adults said to children but didn’t believe themselves. The truth was the strong picked on the weak, the many on the few.

It was up to the victims to stand up for themselves.

Add a Comment
13. Flogometer for Jo—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Jo sends a first chapter for Wolfborn, an historical novel. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Jennifer squeezed the steering wheel as she drove through Springville. It was late enough that the streets were nearly deserted; making it easy for her to make sure no one was following her. Brandy whimpered in the passenger seat and Jennifer reached over to squeeze her arm gently in reassurance. There had been enough death, most of it violent and bloody, that she wasn’t surprised her sixteen year old sister was having nightmares.

They’d driven straight through from the place they both still called home, Jennifer cautiously allowing Brandy to drive on the long stretches of empty road. Neither of them wanted to stop for longer than it took to eat and get gas, the floorboards were littered with the debris of energy drinks a testament to Jennifer’s determination to get them as far away from the ghosts of their family. Now, they were here, in the city that Jennifer had made her home before the mark on her shoulder had begun to darken and twinge with pain. They were far from Stone Falls and far from the curse that had killed their family.

Jennifer pulled into the gated driveway that would lead to her apartment, watching the head lights flash over the familiar parked cars. Something in the back of her mind relaxed as the gate rattled closed behind her. Two months gone, and she was finally back in her home of ten years, finally the closest she’d ever felt to safe. She glanced in the rear view mirror at the boxes on the back seat and considered whether they were necessary for the night, and whether her (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Jo's first page?

Other than a few little punctuation slips, the writing is solid but, when you think about it, there’s not much tension here. Yes, we’re told about violence and death and curses, but by the end of the page they are at a place of safety. All that actually happens is that they arrive somewhere after a long drive, which is not story-question-inducing for me. I should add that this is a story about werewolves, and there’s no hint of that on this page. I think Jo needs to start much later—this chapter is pretty much all set-up, IMO, with no actual hint of jeopardy to come for either of the sisters. Get to the inciting incident that kicks the story off and start as close to that as you can.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued)

neighbors would be tempted at the sight of them, then decided that she was too tired and her neighbors were decent enough to leave them alone for a day.

“Brandy,” Jennifer said, reaching over to shake her sister. “We’re here.”

“Where?” Brandy asked.

“At my apartment,” Jennifer said. “We need to go inside.” She carefully brushed some of Brandy’s blond hair from her face, as Brandy’s eyes reflected the streetlights outside for a moment before she closed them with a moan. “There’s a really comfy bed too.”

Brandy yawned as she unfastened her seatbelt. “You better not be lying,” she muttered as she slid out of the car.

“I’m not; I wouldn’t lie to you about that.” Jennifer slid out of the car, “Let me grab the bags. I’ll be right behind you.”

“Ok,” Brandy said.

Jennifer grabbed the duffels with their clothes in them and hurried to steer Brandy up the stairs to the apartment. They were crossing the walkway to the door when a door down the way opened and a young man in a maid’s costume stumbled out the door, laughing. He stopped when he saw them. “Hey Jenny,” he said, leaning against the door.

“Nick,” Jennifer said with a sigh, “I wish you wouldn’t call me that. This is my little sister Brandy, by the way. She’s staying with me now. Brandy, this is Nick.” A tall black man with a bright smile appeared in the door, “This is Eric. Eric, this is Brandy.”

“That’s nice,” Brandy said around a yawn, “can I go back to sleep?”

“Go on,” Eric said as he looped his arm around Nick’s waist, “we’ll see you in the morning.”

“You too,” Jennifer said as she unlocked her door and pushed Brandy inside. “There’s only one bedroom, but I thought we could share tonight without a problem.”

“Sure,” Brandy yawned.

Jennifer locked the door back and dropped the duffels before pushing Brandy into the bedroom. “Here,” she said, grabbing a clean nightgown from her basket, “sleep in that.”

“Smells like you,” Brandy said as she held it up to her nose.

“I know,” Jennifer said. “I’ve got a few days before they expect me back at work. I’ll start looking for a new place.”

“I’d like a pack house,” Brandy said as she pulled her shirt off and kicked off her shoes.

“Yeah,” Jennifer replied as she picked up her own nightgown, “me too.”

 

Jennifer woke up the next morning curled around her sister, who was poking her in the arm. “What?” Jennifer asked, wrinkling her nose at the way her mouth felt.

“Nature’s calling,” Brandy said as she wiggled, “and you’re holding on too tight.”

“And?” Jennifer asked as she poked Brandy in the stomach. “You are sixteen; you should already know how to deal with that.”

“I need to pee.”

“Right,” Jennifer said and let Brandy go, “Sorry. Bathroom’s through the closet.”

“Okay,” Brandy said as she rolled out of bed.

Jennifer sighed as she shifted around on her back, trying to get comfortable enough to go back to sleep. Her to-do list started up, highlighting her need to check in with the others, the need for a larger place for her and Brandy, how she would help her sister cope with going from life in the middle of the forests and mountains of Stone Fall to life in Springville. With her brain refusing to fall back asleep, Jennifer knew that she wouldn’t be sleeping for a while, so she sighed and rolled out of bed.

She slid along the side of the queen-sized bed that dominated her bedroom to the door, reflecting that the battle to get the larger bed in the room had been worth the loss of space. Then she was in the living room, and she smiled reflexively at the strategically placed papasan chair that dominated the square foot of living room before taking three steps to her kitchen and set to work making coffee. She opened the fridge to find the creamer only to wrinkle her nose at the smell of food gone off.

“Gross,” Brandy called as Jennifer shut the door.

“Sorry,” Jennifer replied, “I left in a hurry. How do you feel about eating out?”

“Better than smelling that. Did you bring my bag in last night or did I dream that?”

“It’s by the door, you weren’t dreaming,” Jennifer said.

“Then you do have a neighbor in a sexy maid outfit?” Brandy asked as she wandered out of the bedroom.

“At least it was covering all the important parts,” Jennifer said as she put two mugs on the counter. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Do you have cocoa powder?” Brandy asked, “Do you mind if I take a shower?”

“Go ahead; just don’t use all the hot water. I’ll have your abomination ready when you get out.” Jennifer said as she dug the cocoa out of the cabinet. She liked that her kitchen was small; she could find everything, even if the storage was limited. Setting the cocoa on the cabinet, Jennifer stared at the designs she’d painted and repainted over the past ten years when staring at white walls had been threatening to drive her mad. “I’m going to have to hire painters,” Jennifer said.

“What?”

Jennifer turned and smiled at Brandy, “I was just thinking that I need to hire painters to change the walls. If we’re moving out, and we will be, then I have to make the walls white again.”

Brandy slung her duffle over her shoulder, “They’re beautiful though. You’ve always been a talented painter.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer said.

“Bathroom door’s a bit unsettling though,” Brandy said as she headed back to the bathroom.

“It was a bad break up,” Jennifer said, turning back to the fridge and its noxious contents. She lit a scented candle, took a deep breath of the apple cinnamon scent, and opened the fridge, quickly pulling out the things that smelled off and dumping them in her trashcan. Then she grabbed a scent neutralizer and sprayed it into the can. Finally, she tied the bag up and hauled it outside.

“Morning Jenny.”

Jennifer straightened up, “Hi Nick,” she said with a smile. “How are you this morning?”

“Suffering from embarrassment,” Nick said. “We didn’t traumatize your sister too badly did we?”

Jennifer shook her head, “No, she mostly thought it was a dream. I’m just grateful you weren’t naked this time. Working today?”

Nick glanced down at his suit and absently adjusted his tie before looking up, “Yeah, I’ve got to interview people about Soundwave’s new radio.”

Jennifer shrugged knowing that Nick wouldn’t repeat anything she said from other experiences with the reporter. “All I know is that people are excited about it. I hope you get some good quotes for your story.”

“Thanks Jenny,” Nick said, “I appreciate it. Hey, how’s your cousin doing? It was your cousin right?”

Jennifer swallowed. For a moment, the medicinal smell of the morgue filled her nose. “They found her- her body.” She said slowly, remembering the ripping pain that had cut through her at the sight of Tiffany lying on the slab. She’d known her cousin was dead, but seeing her had made it real in a way nothing else could. “That’s why Brandy’s here. We’re all we’ve got now.”

“Hey,” Nick said, reaching out, “You’ve got me and Eric too. You need anything, I do mean anything at all, and we’ll be there. You know that right?”

“Yeah,” Jennifer sighed. She let Nick give her a quick, one-armed hug. “Thanks Nick. I appreciate that.”

“No problem,” Nick said, “I do have to get going though. I’ll let Eric know what happened.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer said as she stepped back inside her apartment. “Bye Nick.”

“Bye Jenny,” Nick said before Jennifer could close the door. Jennifer sighed and leaned back against the door, thinking about her cousin and wondering what would happen to her family now.

“Why do you let him call you Jenny? Last time I tried, you broke my arm.” Brandy said, startling Jennifer out of her thoughts, again.

Jennifer chuckled, “It was the forfeit on a bet. Out of the shower then?”

“Getting dressed as we speak,” Brandy said.

Jennifer shook her head and headed into the kitchen, where her two-cup coffeemaker was busy brewing, “Coffee’s not quite ready, but I got out the cocoa powder and cleaned out the fridge. I need to get dressed and we can go as soon as we’ve had coffee and unloaded the car. Remember to leave me half the pot, okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” Brandy said as she came out of the bedroom.

Jennifer smiled and hugged her little sister, holding her close and burying her nose in her damp, blond curls. “I love you,” she said, breathing in the hints of pumpkin and spices. “You used my shampoo.”

“I liked the smell,” Brandy said as she hugged Jennifer back. Jennifer heard what Brandy wouldn’t say; I wanted to smell like you.

“Do I sound mad?” Jennifer asked. “I like the way you smell.” Why wouldn’t she, it made Brandy smell like her. It helped her feel calmer, as if her claim were more obvious if they smelled the same way. Then she remembered what they needed to do today and just hugged her sister even tighter.

“You smell like rotten milk and cinnamon apples,” Brandy said, “you go get cleaned up.”

Jennifer laughed and gave Brandy a final hug, “I’ll be out in a bit. My car keys are on the table by the door if you want to get started bringing things up.”

“Sure,” Brandy said.

Showered, dressed, and the car unloaded, Jennifer drove them to her favorite dinner, a small one that had opened her first year of college, open twenty-four hours with enough caffeine and good food to keep any college student happy, much less a young Beta away from home for the first time in her life. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised Jennifer to learn that one of the local pack’s Betas ran the diner, but she’d been young, with little experience at detecting werewolves that blended into the human world.

“Hey,” Jennifer said as she parked the car, “the diner’s a pack business, but not all the staff is aware of that. Be careful about what you say, I’d hate to have to visit you in the nuthouse.”

“Nobody calls it the nuthouse anymore,” Brandy said with a sigh, “I’ll be careful.” She undid her seatbelt and slid out of the car, “Now come on, I’m starving.”

“Coming,” Jennifer said. She locked up and followed her sister into the diner.

“Jen!” Mandy said as she came up to the host’s stand, “Welcome back.”

“Hey Mandy,” Jennifer replied, “thanks. This is my little sister Brandy; can we get a booth, please?”

“Sure no problem,” Mandy said, “Welcome to Springville, Brandy. Here for college?”

“No,” Brandy said, “I’m still in high school. I’m transferring down here this year.”

“That’s rough, sweetie. Don’t you worry though, just come by here whenever you need to, I make the best chocolate milk shakes. Come on, let me get you settled and I can take your orders.”

Brandy glanced at Jennifer who shrugged. Mandy was human as far as Jennifer had ever figured out, and didn’t seem to be aware of the supernatural, but Jennifer had always wondered. There was something about the white haired woman affectionately referred to as “granny-lady” that made Jennifer wonder if she didn’t know more than she let on.

“We’re going to need a minute,” Jennifer said as they took their seats, “but I’d like some coffee, please.”

“Chocolate milk,” Brandy said with a smile as she opened her menu.

“I’ll be right back with those,” Mandy said and vanished into the kitchen.

“Brandy,” Jennifer said, “you know what we need to do today, right?”

“Not really,” Brandy said after a moment as she glanced over her menu at Jennifer.

Jennifer leaned closer, “We need to go speak with Michael Red, the Alpha of the local Pack. I had permission to stay while an Alpha-elect, but now that I’m- I’m a full Alpha; I need to speak with him again, not to mention that we need permission for you to stay too. I know Tiff thought that the… issue was spiritual, and I’m inclined to agree. Once the rest of the inheritance is straightened out, I’m planning to hire someone to go up there and see what they can find.” She glanced up and smiled as Mandy brought the drinks over, “I know what I want,” she said, “Brandy?”

Brandy glanced at the menu and closed it, “The meat lover’s breakfast, please. Eggs sunny-side up, and hashbrowns.”

Mandy nodded as she wrote it down, “And for you, Jennifer?”

“Meat lover’s breakfast, scrambled eggs with cheese, and biscuits,” Jennifer said.

“I’ll just go put those in, they’ll be ready in just a moment,” Mandy said with a smile.

Jennifer watched her leave before turning back to Brandy, “Mike Red’s a good man, and a good Alpha. He’s been here for almost twenty years along with most of his pack. The thing to remember about him is this; Mike was a soldier in the Berain War before the bite. His squad was on a mission when an Alpha started stalking them. Three of the men died, the other five and Mike were turned. Mike killed the Alpha when it bit him, making him the new Alpha. Mike and the rest of his squad were stationed at McKlellan after they were shipped back and have held this territory ever since. Mike’s the one who set up the system at the university for other werewolves even.”

“Wow,” Brandy said, “I mean, I’ve heard about him from Mom and Tiff, but hearing it again, he must really be something.”

“He is,” Jennifer said, “I’ve learned a lot from him. If he lets us stay, we’ll both learn a lot. He’s not very traditional, but he knows how to lead people.” She sipped her coffee and tilted her head slightly, “Of course, if we stay, we’re going to have to find a new place.”

“Yes please,” Brandy said.

“I’ll let you know what I find,” Jennifer said, “I have some ideas of what we’ll both be happy with and what’s practical for the next ten years, but if there’s something you desperately want, let me know.”

“My own bathroom, and my own bedroom, but definitely a private bathroom please. That’s about the only thing I really would want in a new home.” Brandy said after a moment.

“I think I can accommodate that,” Jennifer said, “hopefully we can get all of this settled before high school starts in three weeks. I still have to get you transferred here, after all.”

Brandy sighed, “While I’m kind of looking forward to actually going to a school, it’ll be hard not knowing anyone.”

“Mike and I will introduce you to MJ, Mike’s son. He’s you’re age at least.” Jennifer said.

“He goes to real school?” Brandy said, “Weren’t they worried?”

Jennifer shrugged, “They might have homeschooled him for elementary, I don’t remember, but he’s been going for the past two or three years. Mike and his wife, Penny, had a fight about it. Penny wanted to look into an academy, but while Mike could have gotten MJ into the Army’s academy, they didn’t think it wise to ask a teenage werewolf to go away to boarding school even if he had good control.”

“I wish I could go to the Army Academy,” Brandy said, “I’ve always kind of wanted to go into the military.”

Jennifer nodded, “Tell you what, if things with Mike go well, I’ll see if Tony or one of the others will give you advice on being a soldier. If you want to be in the military, I’ll do what I can to help.”

“Thanks,” Brandy said with a big grin, “that would be so cool. I mean, I might decide to do something else, but I really feel like going in the Army or something is a good choice for me.”

“Like I said, I’ll do what I can to help. A military trained Legates is a valuable asset to any Pack, if it’s in my power and it’s really what you want, I’ll make it happen.” Jennifer said, and then she cleared her throat as she saw Mandy headed their way with a tray. Brandy just smiled; it was the first happy smile Jennifer had seen from her sister in months.

Add a Comment
14. Flogometer for Elaine—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Elaine sends a first chapter for In the Beginning Was the Word, an historical novel. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

The tramping of Roman boots, as their owners marched along cobbled streets, was eerily muffled by the overpowering sounds of wailing, crackling flames, and shouted orders. Jonathan, peering under a slab of broken wall, watched the boots go past, moving like disembodied spirit feet through the swirl of dust and smoke.

How did I get here? All he could remember were endless days of fighting amidst fires and bodies…hunger…sleep…wake up…fight.… His head hurt.

He sat up slowly, the pounding in his head increasing as he did so, but it settled down to a tolerable throb when he leaned back and felt the support of a smooth surface behind him. He started to take a deep breath, but the acrid smell of smoke clogged his throat, and he coughed it away. Slowly, he remembered. A section of Temple wall had broken and crashed onto the street.

My shield—my bow—where are they? A good bow…would it help me now? Must find out where I am…

He stretched his long legs, and his feet touched the piece of wall that had given way, its fall apparently stopped when it hit the street and tilted onto the wall behind him. Lifting his gaze, he saw chunks of stone filling in the gaps between the walls except for a small space at the upper right where a bit of light came in. There was also a small opening at the bottom of the front wall; that’s what he had looked through to see the marching soldiers.

Were you compelled to turn Elaine's first page?

The writing is solid and clean and, while Roman soldiers and what is clearly a war scene is good stuff, I’m afraid that overwriting stopped this reader—the promise of more micro description is something I didn’t want to see fulfilled. Notes and edits follow, and the rest of the chapter is after the break.

The tramping of Roman boots, as their owners marched marching along cobbled streets, was eerily muffled by the overpowering sounds of wailing, crackling flames, and shouted orders. Jonathan, peering under a slab of broken wall, watched the boots go past, moving like disembodied spirit feet through in the swirl of dust and smoke. This first paragraph, edited to be crisper, is a good opening. There's action, the scene is being set, and there's a promise of jeopardy for Jonathan.

How did I get here? All he could remember were endless days of fighting amidst fires and bodies…hunger…sleep…wake up…fight.… His head hurt.

He sat up slowly, the pounding in his head increased increasing as he did so, but it settled down to a tolerable throb when he leaned back against and felt the support of a smooth surface behind him. He started to take a deep breath, but the acrid smell of smoke clogged his throat, and he coughed it away. Slowly, he remembered. A section of Temple wall had broken and crashed onto the street. “felt the support” is a filter that backs the reader away from the character’s experience. Not necessary. Also, rather than a "smooth surface," why not something more specific such as "a wall"? I don’t see how a smell could clog a throat—smelling usually happens in the nose. I’m not sure “clog” is the right verb, either—neither a small nor smoke have the substance it would take to clog something. “Choked him” instead?

My shield—my bow—where are they? A good bow…would it help me now? Must find out where I am…

He stretched his long legs, and his feet touched the piece of wall that had given way, its fall apparently stopped when it hit the street and tilted onto the wall behind him. Lifting his gaze, he saw chunks of stone filling in the gaps between the walls except for a small space at the upper right where a bit of light came in. There was also a small opening at the bottom of the front wall; that’s what he had looked through to see the marching soldiers. All this micro detail description is overwriting with stuff that doesn’t impact the story. All that matters was that he could see under a broken slab of wall, and that was established in the first paragraph. Oh, describing his “long” legs is a small break in point of view—he wouldn’t be thinking about the length of his legs, and it doesn’t matter to the story.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued)

Above the general noise, he heard a loud squealing nearby. He stood, found that he could look through the upper hole, and he saw where the sound was coming from. Only a couple of paces away, a horse lay on its stomach, legs sprawled, and screaming in terrified agony as it struggled to right itself from under a chunk of stone fallen onto its back. Poor horse. It had no choice at all; it’s a worse victim of this than I am.

He lifted his gaze and saw an even more dreadful sight. Towering tongues of flame licked insatiably at wooden beams and golden spires and whatever else was in that mountain of burning debris. What had been the most beautiful structure in the most beautiful city in the entire land was being devoured. It was incomprehensible. The Temple cannot be destroyed; surely it cannot be. This must be a terrible dream.

He sank to his knees as the dreadful realization registered in his brain. The Temple is burning, and no one is trying to save it anymore. It’s beyond saving; there’s nothing more to fight for. Oh, Yahweh, how can this be? The anger, the hope, the defiance, and the dogged determination that kept him going through the grueling days of battle drained away. He knelt there until a perverse curiosity commanded him to look out again.

He rose and willed himself to survey the entire scene. As he did so, another odor, foul and sickening, mingled with the smell of smoke to assail his nostrils. He was used to the smell of rotting flesh, but this was different. Oh, Yahweh, can it be the open intestines? I mustn’t think about it. He covered his nose and watched survivors staggering through heaps of carcasses on the street. Looking onward to the stone steps approaching the Temple, he saw bodies strewn like mangled sacrifices waiting for the conflagration to consume them. All around were congealing pools of blood.

“Line up! Over there!” came a gruff voice to his right.

The victors were herding surviving Jews, soldiers and civilians alike, into groups. The frightened and dazed prisoners stood with hands in the air, heads moving side to side, as though searching for a rescuer late in coming. A young boy attempted to run away, and a Roman quickly and cleanly sliced off his head. As the legs of the boy’s body continued to run, the head dropped and rolled, coming to rest nearby when one of the horse’s forelegs stopped it. A fresh puddle of blood formed around the severed head. Jonathan pushed away from the opening and vomited.

When the spasms abated, his head was clearer, and he grasped more fully the peril he was in. Will I be able to get out of here? Am I trapped? I’m scared. I wasn’t scared before; why wasn’t I scared? I knew what happened in other cities, but certainly Yahweh would save Jerusalem. Why didn’t He? I want to die and get this over with….

No! Don’t think like that. Maybe I can get away. But what can I do? If I call out, they’ll take me along with the others. I’ll be a prisoner, a slave! That hole at the bottom; is it big enough to crawl through? Maybe. But they’ll see me; they’ll know I’m a Jew!

He lay down and looked through the opening at the bottom. The dust was settling, and he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. To his left, two Roman boots lay on their sides. Are they attached to feet? How can I tell? He stood again and looked out; no one was looking toward him; the soldiers were intent on their prisoners. He bent down, reached for the feet and pulled. There was resistance, but they moved. He pulled more and was able to get them inside, along with legs covered by leather protectors. The rest of the body wouldn’t come through. I guess it isn’t big enough for me to crawl out after all.

Is this going to help? I have to try. If I can get out of Jerusalem, I might be able to get to Uncle Rueben’s farm. Surely the Romans won’t march back into Galilee. Surely they can go home and leave the countryside in peace since they’ve clearly won the war.

 He untied the sheathed dagger strapped to his waist; that could still come in handy, so he must remember to keep it with him. He slipped his long woolen tunic over his head and took off his sandals. Removing the leggings and heavy boots from the dead man was awkward, but the purposeful activity calmed him; he took his time and clumsily donned the alien garb. Besides these coverings for his legs and feet, he now wore only a sleeveless linen tunic and loincloth, and he was unable to get any more of the soldier’s uniform. It would have to do.

Jonathan stood and looked out into the street. The horse was still writhing, but weaker, and it had ceased screaming. Flies were crawling about its eyes and tormenting it further while their companions feasted on the raw flesh of the boy’s head. Resisting the impulse to retch again, he quickly looked away at the throng of prisoners still alive. As he hoped, it wasn’t long before a Roman was within hearing distance. Jonathan’s command of Latin, drilled into him by the best tutors his father could find, might be his savior.

“Friend, friend,” he called as loudly as he could over the din, “can you help me out of here?”

“What? Where?” the surprised Roman exclaimed as he turned toward the voice.

“A wall fell on us. My companion is dead; can you rescue me?”

“By Hercules, you are fucked up. But I can’t help you. I have orders.”

“I implore you! Think of yourself in this position. It can’t take long.”

The soldier paused, assessed the situation, and said resignedly, “If I can get a guy to help me.”

The ill-fated horse, lying near the soldier’s feet, gave a weak whinny that drew his attention. He dispassionately lifted his club and gave it a mighty blow to the head. Jonathan winced at the sound before he saw the soldier motion to someone out of his sight.

“Can two of you move this wall?” Jonathan asked.

“Are you out of your mind? It took 200 men to topple it!”

The first man addressed the one approaching and said, “Let’s see if we can get rid of enough junk here so this poor fool can get out.”

Turning back toward Jonathan, he said, “You start pulling whatever you can onto your side, and we’ll work out here.”

Jonathan did as he was told, but he wasn’t able to do much; apparently most of it had to be removed from the outside. As the gap widened, he feared the soldiers would look in and see the exchange he had made with the dead man.

“I’m afraid I’m going to faint,” he called out and sank down to sit on the exposed legs of his unfortunate companion.

The first soldier poked his helmeted head and his shoulders through the opening and said, “If you’re going to die on us…Hey, what happened to your armor?”

Jonathan held his head and said, as though in a daze, “I think…I don’t know…got hit…don’t remember.”

“Well, stand up, and we’ll pull you out of there!” the rescuer said impatiently.

“I…I can’t.”

Dare I ask him to take the uniform off the dead man and give it to me? No—he might see his bare legs!

“Go on…I’ll climb out…I have to sit a little.”

“Well, Jupiter help you then. You’ve taken up enough of our time.”

Jonathan waited several minutes before rising again. The dust had settled, and he could see better, but it was evening, and it would soon be dark. A huge tower of smoke rose above flames that had diminished in size and intensity, but continued to steadily and determinedly reduce the Temple to charred remains. The prisoners were gone, and there were only a few Romans walking about among the bodies. They slashed at wounded Jews and bent toward fallen Romans, pulling a few to their feet but giving most of them the same treatment that was given to the horse. More flies gathered, indiscriminately gorging on all victims of the fight.

After a while, when it was dark, he didn’t hear any more movement. He stood on one of the rocks he had brought into his hiding place and carefully crawled out and over the mound of rubble. Still nothing. He rolled over the dead Roman and donned the rest of his uniform. He slipped easily into the knee-length tunic, and the helmet fit exactly, but the armor was more difficult. It was heavier than he expected, and he deduced the need of a second person to get it fastened correctly. He hung it from the shoulders of his tall lean frame as best he could. It felt awkward, but he was strong, and he would make do. I must act like I wear this getup all the time. He picked up a spear that had lain under the body.

The moon was rising, and he could see well enough to thread his way among the dead. As he strode through the city, he encountered clusters of Romans, most of them drinking and laughing. He assumed his haughtiest expression, saluted them, and tried to look as though he was hurrying to perform a vital task.

He found what remained of Herod’s Gate, and he felt confident enough to demand of the guard, “You there; I need my armor secured,” and the man complied without hesitation.

He doggedly continued northward, but all of the bravado quickly slipped away. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and he was extremely tired. He must eat and rest before he could go much farther. He neared a village and approached a tiny hut.

The woman who answered his knock staggered back and gave a clumsy curtsy.

“Sir, how can I…what can I do for you?”

“Water—then food and a bed,” was all Jonathan could muster, and he sank down onto the cool dirt floor.

When he had devoured the cheese and bread the frightened female brought him, Jonathan demanded to know who else lived there. She swore there was no one else and that she was expecting no visitors.

“Get me a sleeping mat and put it right here in front of the door so I’ll know if you try to leave. I’m a light sleeper,” he lied.

When he awoke, it was morning. The woman was sitting on a stool against the far wall watching him. She still looked terrified, and he felt sorry for her. He considered telling her that he was really a lowly insignificant civilian like her, and she needn’t be afraid of him, but he decided it was safest to continue playing the part.

“Put more food into something I can carry.”

She rushed to stuff a cloth bag with dried fruit and more bread.

“I’ll need water, too,” he demanded, and she found a sheep’s bladder to offer him.

“I’ll fill it for you at the well,” she said, moving swiftly toward the door, “and you can be on your way.”

As they walked down the path, villagers stepped aside, clearly in deference to him. So this is what it’s like to be a Roman, Jonathan thought. He was used to being identified as Galilean with his fair skin, sandy hair and beard, and distinctive aqua-blue eyes, characteristics his people inherited from their Amorite ancestors. Now, wearing the helmet and armor, it was only his clothing that mattered. He might have been flattered by the submissive attention if it hadn’t disgusted him.

When, a few days later, he walked into the outer courtyard of his uncle’s house, he was so relieved to be there, and to see that the war had not touched this place, that he momentarily forgot what he was wearing. He paid no attention to the servants who shrank back against the walls, and he swatted away two barking dogs. He went through to the main room where servants were laying the evening meal on a spotless white cloth on the floor. Family members, clad in everyday sleeveless tunics of undyed linen, were gathering. There was a cry of fright, and everyone froze when they saw him. A tall muscular man slowly rose from a cushion, thick flaxen-colored hair dropping over a sunbaked face as he bowed to this honored, though unexpected, guest.

 Instantly embarrassed, Jonathan quickly removed the helmet and exclaimed, “Uncle Rueben, look, it’s me, Jonathan! Don’t let the uniform scare you.”

A tiny woman, her own light brown hair braided into a long rope trailing nearly to her hips, exclaimed, “Oh, my love, my love!” and hurried toward him, taking his hands but stopping short of an embrace.

“But why…?” she questioned.

“It’s all right, Mama, it’s a disguise,” he explained. “I’m sure you all find it repulsive, and so do I. Please bring me a robe, and I’ll get out of it.”

Reuben ushered Jonathan into an adjoining room where he helped to strip him of the offensive uniform and into a tunic hastily obtained by a servant. They returned to the main room, a beaming uncle with an arm over his nephew’s shoulders.

 “Here you are, Joanna,” he said. “Your son is ready for a proper greeting.”

After his mother held him for a long moment, she relinquished him to his 12-year-old brother, Luke. His two sisters, their lovely aqua eyes sparkling beneath cream-colored foreheads, stood on tiptoes to hug and kiss him.

Aunt Sarah, Rueben’s wife, gathered her four children and stepped back slightly. She stood erect and impassive, a regal presence in mindful cognizance of her exceptional beauty. Aware that the expression on her perfectly sculpted features did not invite closer contact, Jonathan acknowledged her with a polite bow. Apart from this less than enthusiastic reception from his aunt, it seemed a glorious homecoming until Reuben reminded the family from whence their young relative had come.

“You were in the war,” he said flatly.

“Yes, Uncle. Have you heard the news?”

“We heard news of a great battle with the Romans. How goes it?”

“It went…badly for us, I’m afraid. I’m…extremely lucky to get away with my life and only a few scratches.”

How can I tell them? The Temple…

“Sarah,” Reuben directed, “you must take the little ones and the girls. I will tell you later what is needed for you to know.”

Sarah tightened her lips, but she complied without a word. When they were gone, Reuben said, “Nephew, please tell us about it. Rumors have been running through Galilee like fleet-footed gazelles.”

Jonathan, along with his mother, his brother Luke, and his two teen-age male cousins, settled onto cushions, and he braced himself to tell the story. Before he could begin, Joanna intervened to ask her returned son if he were not hungry. He said he would like wine now but would wait until later to eat; a servant immediately poured wine into a cup, diluted it with water, and handed it to Jonathan.

Two servants entered with lights burning in small olive oil lamps, set them on the cloth among the stone vessels of food, and withdrew into the shadows. Jonathan followed his uncle’s gaze as he squinted to observe the half dozen or so servants lining the plastered walls. They apparently were eager to hear the news first hand. Rueben started to wave them all away, but he stopped, shrugged his shoulders and nodded permission for them to stay.

Jonathan took a long draught of his wine and stared into it for a moment like one attempting to read from prepared notes and finding them lacking.

“It was…bad,” hebegan. “The Judeans, as you know, were trying to gain their independence from Rome. Any sensible person should have known better… and there were those who tried to persuade the people not to incite a war, but the rebels would not listen…and I sort of got caught up in it.”

His mother held his left hand, and he spoke mostly to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of relief and admonishment.

“I know,” he answered her expression, “I should have left when I had the chance. Quite a few did when we heard the Romans were coming, but most of us didn’t think it would get as bad as it did.”

“And your work was there!” Luke interjected, as though trying to sound like a knowing colleague.

“Of course,” Jonathan said, with an affectionate glance at his brother’s smooth freckled face, resisting the impulse to tousle his unruly sun-bleached hair.

Dear little Luke. You still look about 9 years old; one of these days your body will catch up. When I was 12, I was nearly as tall as I am now.

“My apprenticeship definitely was part of it,” he went on, “in the beginning. I didn’t want to leave. Euandros stopped getting orders for sculptures, but he said he would keep the studio open and continue teaching as long as he had a single student.”

“We heard,” Rueben commented, “that Titus barred people from leaving.”

“When Titus brought his army—that was nearly 6 months ago…”

“Six months ago!” his mother exclaimed. “That was before the Passover.”

“Yes, and a lot of country people came in for it, just like usual. They didn’t really understand what was going on, but once they got there, they felt trapped, so there were a lot more people in Jerusalem than there should have been.”

Eating our food…which we would have had enough of if Simon and John hadn’t burned it fighting each other….

Jonathan took another large gulp of wine.

“Anyway, yes; Titus closed the gates, but he did it at first mostly to keep supplies out. He tried to get men to desert and come over to the Romans, but naturally nobody wanted to do that, and whenever he said people could leave, we didn’t know whether we could trust him because….”

No point in telling them how Titus crucified hundreds of people who were just trying to get out and find food, and other times he let people go…what were we supposed to think?.... No point in telling them the shameful things our own people did…how the rebels tortured and killed people trying to leave…how mobs broke into homes stealing from one another…how we gave up burying the dead and left them to rot…

“Jonathan!”

He started, realizing Joanna had asked him a question.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“Did you fight?”

“Yes. I wanted to fight…for Yahweh, and our people…it seemed right…at the time.”

“It was right!” Rueben declared. “We’ve let the Romans cow us long enough. We have to start standing up for ourselves, even if we do have a defeat now and then.”

“Uncle…you don’t know…”

“What? Know what?”

“The Temple…”

He couldn’t go on, and finally Joanna echoed, “The Temple?”

“You’d think, wouldn’t you…”Jonathan choked, “if it was the right thing to do…Yahweh would save the Temple!”

There was total silence. Luke looked like he was about to say something, but a glance from his elders stopped him.

“The Temple is gone…burned by those rotten, heathen monsters!” He let that sink before he added, “Oh, I left before it was totally burned to the ground, but the way it was going….”

“I can’t believe it,” Rueben said, a mixture of incredulity, anger and sadness in his tone.

“But you’re alive—they let you out,” Joanna said, apparently forgetting momentarily about the disguise.

Jonathan didn’t remind her. He finished his wine, took up the flask for a refill, and drank again without even adding water. He noticed his mother’s shocked expression as he did so. When he lived with her, he had drunk diluted wine only to quench his thirst, usually preferring the taste of the more expensive goat’s milk. He hoped she understood his own expression when he looked back at her: I’m not the same as I was; war changes you.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’ve told you the worst.”

No one had touched the dishes of food.

“Of course,” Joanna said, her voice trembling. She rose to her feet. “We can talk more in the morning when you’ve rested.”

Jonathan’s cousins were starting to help themselves to cheese and fruit when a loud rap at the door startled them. Jonathan froze, an icy chill stabbing his chest.

What’s the matter with me? It’s probably just a friend.

It was not a friend. A beak-nosed balding Roman, clothed in a flowing blue toga draped over his shoulder, entered swiftly and haughtily, closely followed by two armored soldiers and a fearful looking servant who must have gone to answer the knock. Everyone who was still seated scrambled to his feet. There were no formalities other than the respectful bows of the family.

The official demanded, “Where is the soldier? It was reported that a soldier came into this house.”

The uniform! Jonathan dared not look at the expressions on the faces of the others. He could only hope his own was blank.

“Luke,” Rueben said firmly, “go to bed.”

“Yes, Uncle,” the boy said, but he hesitated.

Jonathan understood. Would Luke?

When Luke turned toward the room where Jonathan had changed, he could breathe.

“We have had no visitors today,” Rueben said to the official, “and there is certainly no soldier here. Is one missing?”

“I will ask the questions,” he said curtly to Rueben, then called to the soldiers who were striding through a door leading to Rueben’s office, “Take the servants. Question them all!”

Turning back to the family, he said almost politely, “Everyone be seated; this could take a while. I’ll have a cup of that wine while we wait.”

“I have always been loyal to the Empire,” Rueben said humbly, “and I supply a great deal of food to the cities.”

“Yes, yes, that will do,” the official said.

Jonathan couldn’t estimate how long they sat there while the Roman sipped wine. They heard a few cries of surprise, either from servants or female relatives. He hoped none of them protested the search; it was never wise to argue with the Romans. The sounds of goats bleating and dogs barking drifted in from the open-shuttered windows.

“Our dogs are upset,” Rueben apologized. “Company makes them nervous.”

A look from the official silenced him again.

Returning at last, one of the soldiers announced, “All seems in order.”

Their leader looked disappointed, but he signaled for them to go.

As the Romans left, Jonathan saw his uncle’s expression change to intense hatred. He was relieved the men didn’t turn around before they were out of sight.

“He wasn’t entirely satisfied,” Rueben announced. “I’m afraid they’ll be back.”

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15. Flogometer for Erika—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Erika sends a first chapter, not sure about the title. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

I hadn’t dressed for running and was losing ground fast. The shiny black dress shoes I wore burrowed into the dry sand with every step, my tuxedo jacket flapped open as I pumped my arms. The San Diego evening was cooler than you’d expect, brisk gusts of wind bouncing off the sea at sporadic intervals. A full moon blazed out of a cloudless, starry sky, washing the beach in cool shades of blue.

Waves sent salty spray into my face as I reached back to tear the jacket off my shoulders and fling it to the sand behind me. My quarry raced on ahead, lighter than me and almost dancing across the top of the sand. If I had to guess, I’d say I was chasing a woman, 5’ 1” max, with a body fat percentage that had to be in the low teens. She wore an all-black ensemble, complete with a matching ski mask and boots that kicked up little spits of sand with each stride.

Her speed was impressive; she widened the gap between us by almost two paces for each one I took. She ran like someone who knew where she was going, my guess was that she was headed toward the public parking lot a quarter mile ahead. I had to assume she’d prepared a contingency plan in that parking lot somewhere. Guns, explosives, sharp rocks, something painful of that nature. If I didn’t catch up with her before she reached her defense cache, I was guessing I wouldn’t like the welcome.

“Enough of this crap,” I said and stopped just long enough to kick off my dress shoes. A (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Erika's first page?

Ah, a good strong action scene with clear writing and a good (though over-written at times) voice. The scene is well set, what’s happening is clear, and good story questions are raised: what did the quarry do, who/what is the person chasing her, and why.

The narrative could be crisper, though, and my belief is that you can’t waste the space it takes for verbiage that should be subjected to the delete key. Still, I turned the page, but would have done so more convinced that I was in good hands with some editing, which I’m sure Erika can do. Notes to that effect:

I hadn’t dressed for running and was losing ground fast. The My shiny black dress shoes I wore burrowed into the dry sand with every step, my tuxedo jacket flapped open as I pumped my arms. The San Diego evening was cooler than you’d expect, brisk gusts of wind bouncing off the sea at sporadic intervals. A full moon blazed out of a cloudless, starry sky, washing the beach in cool shades of blue.

Waves sent salty spray into my face as I reached back to tear tore the jacket off my shoulders and fling flung it to the sand behind me. My quarry raced on ahead, lighter than me and almost dancing across the top of the sand. If I had to guess, I’d say I guessed I was chasing a woman, 5’ 1” max, with a body fat percentage that had to be in the low teens. She wore an all-black ensemble, complete with a matching ski mask and boots that kicked up little spits of sand with each stride. I like “little spits of sand”—nice description, very visual, promises more good writing ahead.

Her speed was impressive; she widened the gap between us by almost two paces for each one I took. She ran like someone who knew where she was going, my guess was that she was headed toward the public parking lot a quarter mile ahead. I had to assume she’d prepared a contingency plan there in that parking lot somewhere. Guns, explosives, sharp rocks, something painful of that nature. If I didn’t catch up with her before she reached her defense cache, I was guessing I wouldn’t like the welcome. a lot of use of “guessing” and “guess” here. Look for alternatives (figured, etc.) or delete some, too much repetition

“Enough of this crap,” I said and stopped just long enough to kick off my dress shoes. A (snip) we already know they are dress shoes, no need to repeat

The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

(continued)

daily barefoot run on the beach routine has some advantages, not the least of which is being able to keep up with pixies during nighttime sand chases.

I put on a burst of speed and kept my eyes on the troublemaker who’d ruined what had been, up until ten minutes ago, a tedious evening of guarding teenage girls at a school-sanctioned Welcome Formal. Of course, when the girls you’re getting paid to protect are the daughters of the wealthiest and most influential people in America, you can’t afford to stop paying attention for even a minute lest you miss something. Something like a woman dressed in black trying to break in through the back door. Maybe it sounds weird, but I was actually pretty grateful to get out of there and put my training to use. If not for the woman in black, my post at the school would have run the risk of being the most boring assignment of all time. I didn’t sign up to be a case officer for the CIA so I could listen to girls whine about corsages and hair spray.

Without dress shoes slowing me down, my long legs ate up the gap between me and the troublemaker in short order. By the time I could hear her labored breathing and the staccato, panicked sounds she made as she ran, I knew I had her. All I had to do was tackle, disarm, and subdue her and I’d be free to find out what the heck she was doing trying to sneak into a high school formal. She wasn’t at that dance to make friends, and there were a lot of people who would need to know who she’d been targeting and why.

The unlit public parking lot materialized in the darkness. It was empty but for five cars scattered throughout the lot. I didn’t have time to make a note of the makes and models present because my quarry stopped up short, clutching her side as though she had a stitch.

In retrospect, I should have realized it was a trap. If I’d known who I was dealing with at the time, I would have handled it differently. Maybe I would have kept my distance, maybe I would have run, screaming, away from her as fast as possible. What I definitely would not have done is try to tackle her.

Which, of course, is exactly what I did.

She played me, and as I went flying over her head only to land hard on my back at her feet I realized she’d let my assumptions about her get the best of me. The air was knocked out of my lungs but I tried to scramble back up anyway to dodge the heel of her boot, which came stomping down next to my temple.

I grasped her toes and heel, wrenching her foot to the side with a quick jerk designed to disrupt her balance and send her to her knees. Anticipating what I would do, the rest of her body was already in motion and her foot flew out of my hand as she leapt up into a neat backward roll that not only served to jerk her foot from my hand but also kicked a bunch of sand into my eyes.

I rolled away and scrambled to my feet, my eyes burning with sand and tears, and tried to assess exactly what kind of hornet’s nest I’d managed to kick. She stood about five feet away in a textbook Hapkido ready stance, fists guarding her face and torso, her weight balanced on her back leg. The eyes that stared out at me from her ski mask were Asian, canted in a smile that was both menacing and mischievous.

She should have run away while I was down, I thought as I assumed a ready stance of my own. By letting me face off against her, she ran the risk of me learning something about her. If she’d run while she had the chance, I would have been left with next to nothing. I filed her arrogance away as a potential weakness and tried a diplomatic tack with her.

“Nice night for a run, huh?” I asked. My heart rate was up, making it a little hard to talk. I was annoyed to see she wasn’t breathing hard at all.

She didn’t answer.

“Look, I don’t know what you were doing at the Coronado tonight but I’m sure it was a misunderstanding,” I said. Lying through my teeth is an integral part of being a counterintelligence officer. Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at it. You could say I’d had some practice before joining the Agency. “Can we talk about this?”

She sidestepped to her right and I matched her movement, studying the way she moved in the hopes of picking up on a vulnerability somewhere. A bad knee, an uneven stance, anything I could use to take her down fast. She had none, so far as I could tell. She just kept sidestepping and I just kept circling her, waiting for her to make the first move. When we’d rotated enough that I was facing the ocean with the parking lot at my back, I started getting antsy. I got that prickly, uncomfortable feeling I always get when I know someone’s sneaking up on me, but I couldn’t risk checking. She was up to something, I was certain of it, and it seemed like it’d be a bad idea to wait around for her to show me what she had in mind.

I moved in with a couple quick kicks and punches designed to focus her attention on defending herself. She parried the strikes, moving with an economy of motion I was forced to admire even as she retaliated with a sequence of blows to my throat and face. To my annoyance, our martial arts skills were evenly matched enough that, despite the substantial blows we were both able to land, neither of us ended up with the advantage.

When we separated after a bout of kicks that left me bruised and her winded, I saw her reach for the small of her back. I hadn’t spotted anything large enough to be a firearm there, but I couldn’t be certain thanks to the lighting and constant motion.

I reached for the .22 caliber Colt pistol I keep at my ankle, but before I could draw it she winked and ducked. I heard a quiet click and then a wall of furious sound and heat smashed into my back, laying me out flat on the sand.

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16. An interesting slant on backstory

I came across a cartoon that I think you’ll enjoy. It deals with flashbacks as a way to talk about what backstory can mean in terms of whether or not you can kill off a character in a story. Here’s a sample of a couple of frames:

Toon panels

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Terry sends the first chapter of The Ramsay Drug. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Istanbul, Turkey

Inspector Suleyman lied about the sniper.

"There is a pastry shop at the far end of the square." He put his finger on the map. "Above the shop are three small apartments. The shooter will be in the middle one."

Michael Chance took a sip of his thick, scalding coffee and made no comment. Instead, he leaned over the table and looked more closely at the map, although he had studied and memorized a more detailed one of the area, as well as architectural drawings and engineering plans for all the buildings on the square. He knew where the sniper would be.

Now, he felt Suleyman’s stare and forced his thoughts away from the sniper and the Inspector's deception. Chance looked up and asked, "Do you think Ataly will show up?"

"Why not?"

"Paranoia. He has a reputation."

"A reputation?" Suleyman waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Greed will overcome any fear. He can't trust anyone else with the information. He will be there."

"I hope."

"You should be more concerned about Khadr. For all we know, he is still hiding in Pakistan."

"He arrived in Istanbul last night."

Were you compelled to turn Terry's first page?

Good clean writing, scene-setting, and a hint of tension in the first line. But, for me, the tension soon faded and not much of a story question appeared. So no page turn for me. However, as you’ll see if you read on, there’s plenty of good action and tension to come. This is an example of set-up that isn’t needed that buries a good hook. While this opening goes to character, it doesn’t really do much to engage me in a story. So I lifted 17 lines from what follows that I think would make a better opening—a poll follows.

Chance took an indirect route from his hotel to the square, the believable ramble of a tourist.

Occasionally, he checked his reflection in a store window. He looked like any of the scores of American academics in Istanbul for the conference. His clothes fit in, no problem there, but it was the bag slung over his shoulder, not his appearance, that he studied. A beat-up leather satchel, like a dozen similar ones at the conference. It was supposed to look and move like a bag crammed with books and papers, not like a mini-armory crammed, as it was, with a SigSauer, two spare magazines, night goggles and a Fairbairn-Sykes knife.

The bag would not be a problem. No one was following him.

He stopped when he reached the square and watched the mid-afternoon shadows falling across the cafe's terrace. Then he looked to the far end of the square and saw the pastry shop and saw it raked with brilliant sunshine. What competent sniper would face into the sun while picking out a target?

Big mistake.

Chance turned his attention to the people on the terrace, mostly locals, but a few tourists enjoying the modest adventure of an out-of-the-way Turkish cafe. All unaware that they would be caught up in the executions of a drug lord and a terrorist. He worked out the deadly geometry (snip)

Would you turn the page with this opening?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

(continued)

"You know that for a fact?"

"We know that for a fact."

Suleyman nodded, as if impressed and pleased, but he must have been worried, aware that this American group had much better intelligence than he did. Then he seemed to discard those thoughts.

"They are both mad dogs, you know."

"They are certainly mad dogs."

Suleyman put the map away, and both men finished their coffee. When Chance rose to leave, Suleyman shook hands, almost formally, and said, "Good luck to you."

"And to you."

#

Later that day, Chance took an indirect route from his hotel to the square, the believable ramble of a tourist.

Occasionally, he checked his reflection in a store window. He looked like any of the scores of American academics in Istanbul for the conference. His clothes fit in, no problem there, but it was the bag slung over his shoulder, not his appearance, that he studied. A beat-up leather satchel, like a dozen similar ones at the conference. It was supposed to look and move like a bag crammed with books and papers, not like a mini-armory crammed, as it was, with a SigSauer, two spare magazines, night goggles and a Fairbairn-Sykes knife.

The bag would not be a problem. No one was following him.

He stopped when he reached the square and watched the mid-afternoon shadows falling across the cafe's terrace. Then he looked to the far end of the square and saw the pastry shop and saw it raked with brilliant sunshine. What competent sniper would face into the sun while picking out a target?

Big mistake.

Chance turned his attention to the people on the terrace, mostly locals, but a few tourists enjoying the modest adventure of an out-of-the-way Turkish cafe. All unaware that they would be caught up in the executions of a drug lord and a terrorist. He worked out the deadly geometry of the fields of fire, knowing all about innocents caught in a crossfire. At least he would be in a position to make a difference this time.

He began running through his tasks, visualizing what he would soon have to do.

Then Jan Nordstrum appeared on the other side of the square, walking out of shadow into the sun. For a split-second, and for no good reason, he saw his late wife, Elizabeth, as a student coming towards him. He blinked, and it was Jan waving at him.

He took a quick breath, smiled his practiced smile and waved back.

Jan swept across the square in an Indian skirt, a gypsy blouse with loose sleeves and, despite the warm weather, a colorful quilted vest, complementing Chance’s academic look. Maybe a graduate student, maybe a young assistant professor.

Every man on the terrace found some excuse for staring at the woman.

Chance chose a shady table on the terrace of the café, one directly in a line of fire from the pastry shop but one obscured from the supposedly unoccupied building being restored behind scaffolding.

Jan glanced around the café and the square, smiling, wide-eyed, and enjoying the exotic sights of Istanbul. While the waiter stood by, she inhaled the delicious smells of grilled lamb and spices and convinced Chance that they needed more than just coffee. The waiter approved with a waiter’s repertoire of nods and smiles when they added a Turkish-style pizza and baklava to the order.

The couple sat and gossiped about friends and colleagues, talked about tourist attractions they had seen or were about to, laughed at an embarrassing incident at the conference that had brought them to Istanbul. Overarching the entire conversation was some serious flirting. Everything had been well-scripted and well-rehearsed.

Chance played his part. He smiled a lot, contributed about a third of the talk, maybe less, and watched her the way men have watched women forever. He had a habit of punctuating what he said by waving his mirrored sunglasses.

Within five minutes they had spotted everyone in the vicinity, and dismissed all but one. The grabber was at the next table. He nursed a coffee and pretended he didn't have a nasty weapon under his jacket. Chance guessed Uzi, but it could be a clone.

Then the bodyguards arrived.

Atalay's thugs and Khadr's fanatics were more concerned with each other than with the locals and tourists in the area, although they scowled and squinted and moved their heads back and forth and up and down the way bodyguards did in movies. They noticed that the café had two new windows and a new awning and that the workmen hadn't got around to cleaning up all the mess. But the mess posed no threat, so they gave it only a cursory glance.

One of Atalay's men showed a flicker of surprise that Chance was sitting where he was. Chance caught a reflection of that surprise and knew that he would shoot the man -- probably before he shot the grabber.

Most of the guards left. Two -- one from each camp -- remained, taking up positions at opposite corners of the terrace. Atalay's man was the one who had spotted him.

Moments later, the two leaders appeared, walking together from the cafe's kitchen, but wary of each other. They took a table two away from Chance. Khadr looked with contempt at Chance and the woman, decadent American tourists, the woman flaunting herself, the man pretending to be cool but hugging his satchel as if terrified of pickpockets.

Atalay glanced in the same direction, with concern bordering on fear, but that soon softened to a mild wariness. Chance and the woman noticed none of this attention, of course, as they were caught up in each other.

Chance’s breathing became slow and controlled. His heartbeat rose, but not much above its resting rate. He began depending on his peripheral vision more than his mirrored sunglasses. He laughed spontaneously at a quip he had heard and practiced laughing at a dozen of times before. Soon, he thought.

Khadr reached into his tunic and pulled out a small packet. Wrapped in soft leather, it was the size of a business envelope. He dropped it on the table.

And then he collapsed on his chair, dead.

#

As soon as Chance registered the assassination, he slid his hand through a false seam in his satchel and turned so he was aiming at Atalay’s thug. That man had also expected the killing and, using it as a signal, had drawn his pistol and was moving his arm toward Chance.

Chance was quicker and shot him in the head.

The grabber must also have known the killing was coming, but his nerves overwhelmed his planning and froze him. Khadr’s man was more alert. He shouted something and aimed his automatic pistol in Atalay’s direction. Chance shot him at the exact moment the sniper took out Atalay.

Chance stepped forward and kicked the table in front of him so violently that it flew up and over the table with the two bodies. As he kicked, he moved his pistol hand in the grabber’s direction and shot as the man finally drew his weapon. The Uzi landed on top of the body.

The innocents on the terrace were now scattered on the ground, most under their tables, praying to various gods. The woman with Chance sat, waiting calmly, out of Chance’s probable lines of fire, and focused on Khadr’s packet. She sat still until Chance kicked the table and shouted, "Go."

As he shouted, Chance took a step to his left, stood upright and fired several rounds in the direction of the sniper. By the time he finished -- a second or two -- she had grabbed the packet, turned and rushed past him. When she reached the mess from the cafe's renovations, she yanked at something. As she did, she glanced over her shoulder at Chance, wasting the briefest of scowls on him. Then she rushed for the cafe's front door.

Chance jerked his head and caught the scowl. Then he turned back to the scaffolded building. He zeroed in on the sniper's window and fired three rounds.

#

Hasan Buruk found killing Atalay more difficult, and more satisfying, than killing Khadr. The Pakistani had been a sitting target, Atalay had been a challenge. The drug lord spun away from the table and jumped sideways, almost at the moment Khadr caught the bullet in his chest. Atalay was a moving, twisting target, an animal flushed from its lair.

Buruk shot him through the spine.

After that shot, he blinked to broaden his focus. He saw the table fly, and the woman rush and grab the packet. The man with her stood upright and moved to the side, almost as if offering himself as the next victim.

But the woman had the packet. Buruk sighted on her. Bullets struck the window frame at the side of his head. He was in a familiar killing zone and barely flinched. He saw the woman glance over her shoulder, then sprint to the door of the café. He adjusted for her quickness, which surprised him, targeted on her spine and squeezed the trigger.

Instead of a third body collapsing in death, a sheet of glass shattered and fragments of the woman's reflection fell to the ground. She had vanished. Buruk did not believe in witchcraft or magic. He blinked again, ready to see through the trick and kill her.

But a familiar voice startled him.

#

Chance adjusted his aim a fraction and put a cluster of shots just above the end of the rifle barrel. But he saw the barrel jerk as he let off the first round, and guessed that the sniper had, for some reason, turned away from the window right before he shot. He wasted no time on trying to figure this out. He sprinted across the open area in front of the building, headed for one section of scaffolding and swung himself through a space framed for a new window.

He landed on a floor covered in the dust and grit of construction and dropped to a kneeling position. He saw no gunmen, although he had expected some, but he did hear gunshots above him. Two quick shots, a pause, then a third.

Chance knew, by a combination of logic and instinct, that Buruk had just been killed -- and that Suleyman had done the shooting. The Inspector could have had others do the dirty work, but he wanted to tie up the loose ends himself. Another big mistake.

Chance rose, replaced the almost-empty magazine with a full one and moved to the staircase to his right. Without thinking, he adjusted the position of his feet until they were a comfortable span apart. He stayed upright but made sure his knees were not locked. He used his left hand to cradle his shooting hand, and aimed his pistol up the stairs, slightly to the right of center.

He did not have to wait long

Suleyman appeared at the top of the stairs. He held his pistol, but it was by his side, not pointing down the stairs. Chance’s presence didn’t seem to register for a fraction of a second. Then Suleyman jerked the pistol up and fired. Too rushed to be effective.

Chance fired three quick, lethal rounds. Suleyman’s collapsed and his body slid down the stairs. An excellent cop who had sold out to drug money. Now, just another dead gangster.

At least it had been a quick death. Chance spent a long time staring at the pistol Suleyman still gripped.

#

The group’s jet was a converted military transport plane. In addition to a dozen, hand-crafted, soft leather seats, it contained a kitchen and dining area, four private bedrooms, two showers, an exercise room, a comfortable conference area and more communications equipment than Air Force One.

Philip Somerville, the head of the group, sat in the conference area with his communications wizard, Rick Conners, being patched through on secure networks to State Department officials in Washington, Islamabad and Ankara.

Chance had showered and changed his clothes, although he still looked like an academic. He sat near the back of the plane, away from most of the activity on board. Jan Nordstrum, the woman from the café, had also showered and changed clothes, replacing her academic hippy garb with a Max Mara pantsuit. She moved down the aisle from the conference area and chose the seat right next to Chance.

She looked straight ahead for a moment, composing her thoughts.

Chance understood.

"We retrieved the packet and you’re angry?"

"Of course I’m angry. And it has nothing to do with the packet. Or with Atalay. Or with Khadr."

"I guess that leaves me."

Jan shifted in her seat so she was staring at him.

"We were supposed to retrieve the packet and leave together. Remember?"

"The shooter was still active. And Suleyman was still loose."

"You weren’t playing hero, Michael." She stared at him for a moment, then turned away. The conversation was over.

Chance closed his eyes, pretending to nap, and the usual image came to him. It was the only photo of his late wife he kept. It showed Elizabeth and him as students, their heads leaning together and smiling at a private joke or, perhaps, just at life. He wondered when their smiles lost the spontaneity. He wondered how many ways he had failed her. He could have done so much better. But he hadn’t.

Eventually, his pretend sleep became real, although fitful. He was wide awake, brooding, as the plane started its approach to Washington.

Add a Comment
18. Flogometer for Karyne—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Karyne sends the first chapter of Magic Despised. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

It always started with a spell. Something simple, like a cup of ale. But her power had its limits. Every time they asked for magic, Julana knew how it would end.

“Be a dear and fetch us some stew,” Luna said.

Julana paused, arms raised to remove her apron. The blue sky teased her from the tiny window. So much for a free afternoon. It wasn't worth refusing them. When she was fourteen they killed her pet goat because she rebelled. It would take longer than three years to get over that lesson. Luna shifted on the wooden settee covered with straw pillows and narrowed her eyes. Did the pillows really aid Luna’s comfort or was her large backside cushion enough?

“Yes, Aunt Luna,” Julana said. She tied her apron back in place and made her way across the main living area to the kitchen. Luna wasn't really her aunt, but in order to keep up the facade the Klups insisted Julana practice at home.

“And Julana…” Alazer’s deep voice stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t turn to face him; she knew what he would say. “Be sure you use magic. There’s no reason for you to make us wait all night.”

Julana’s stomach dropped. “Yes, sir.” It was a test. Why did they always test her limits? They had just as much magic as she did. That never changed. And unlike her, they enjoyed using it.

Were you compelled to turn Karyne's first page? Were you compelled to turn Karyne's first page?

I do like the writing and the voice, and there is tension in the scene. Yet there’s not much in the way of story questions raised, nor a sense of jeopardy to her or consequences. The next page has a greater sense of that and, considering that in fantasy an author is often granted time to set up the world, it might have done the trick. Here’s the stuff that would be nice to see on the first page:

The stew was easy enough. She drew energy from her blood to summon water from the well. The sight of water soaring through the air made her grimace. If anyone happened to see, they would all be hanged for witchcraft.

There is a clarity issue here, though—I thought the well was outside, and it may be, so I thought this was happening there. But a little later she goes outside, so the water is coming into the kitchen from outside. That isn’t clear, and needs to be. Having it soar through the kitchen window rather than the air is all it would take.

The voice and the world are good, but, since this opening could be stronger, I’m giving it an almost. But read on, there are interesting things to come and clear and serious danger to her ahead—and you’re going to despise the “aunt” and “uncle,” bad guys through and through. Notes:

It always started with a spell. Something simple, like a cup of ale. But her power had its limits. Every time they asked for magic, Julana knew how it would end. But the reader doesn’t, so this doesn’t mean much. This is an opportunity to introduce tension and jeopardy. For example, what it this sentence ended this way: Julana knew how it would end—with her blood. Wouldn’t that crank up the tension a little?

“Be a dear and fetch us some stew,” Luna said.

Julana paused, arms raised to remove her apron. The blue sky teased her from the tiny window. So much for a free afternoon. It wasn't worth refusing them. When she was fourteen they had killed her pet goat because she rebelled. It would take longer than three years to get over that lesson. Luna shifted on the wooden settee covered with straw pillows and narrowed her eyes. Did the pillows really aid Lunas comfort or was her large backside cushion enough? A few things here. I didn’t feel that her wearing an apron contributed sufficiently to story or character. “It wasn’t worth refusing them” sounds like she’s being inconvenienced, but the following line suggests far more. Instead, how about something to the effect that it was dangerous to refuse them? I cut the description of Luna because I’d rather have a little more setting of the scene. Are they in a one-room hut? Farmhouse?

“Yes, Aunt Luna,” Julana said. She tied her apron back in place and made her way across the main living area to the kitchen. Luna wasn't really her aunt, but in order to keep up the facade the Klups insisted Julana practice at home. Don’t need the apron.

“And Julana…” Alazer’s deep voice stopped her in her tracks. She didn’t turn to face him; she knew what he would say. “Be sure you use magic. There’s no reason for you to make us wait all night.” “stopped her in her tracks” is a cliché, look for a fresh way to show it.

Julana’s stomach dropped. “Yes, sir.” It was a test. Why did they always test her limits? They had just as much magic as she did. That never changed. And unlike her, they enjoyed using it.

 

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

 

 (continued)

Was it really worth it to the Klups? That same energy brought the water to a boil. The cupboards were well stocked with carrots and potatoes and Julana sighed in relief. Very little magic was needed.

“Where is the meat? We want venison stew,” Alazer said. He pushed away the bowl she served, his mouth twisted in a scowl. “Honestly, you can be so dense.”

“Sorry, Uncle Alazer,” Julana said. Tears pricked her eyes, but not over his reaction. She would have to make an unecessary kill. His beefy hand shot out to grab her wrist and the familiar sense of invasion swept over her. His tracking spell.

“Be back before the sun’s sleep.”

She pulled her cloak around her shoulders and grabbed her bow and quiver. A blast of cold air hit her face, but she found it refreshing. The sun defied the wind and enveloped her in its rays. In a few weeks it woud be warm enough to leave her cloak behind.

A twinge of pain flashed across her foot. Her time was limited by his spell. The Klups had been her guardians for as long as she could remember. More like her prison guards. They used their magic to control her, but they used her magic to get what they really wanted: money, power, revenge. It didn't matter they were only requesting venison stew this time. She'd seen them use her magic for unspeakable things, and she refused to be caught in their web of desire. She would never use magic by choice.

It only took moments to reach the forest's edge. The shade folded around her as she stepped between the trees. She strapped on her armguard and pulled an arrow from her quiver. With a sigh, she nocked the arrow and anchored her hand at her cheek.

She closed her eyes.

The loss of vision encouraged her other senses to take over. Crisp mountain air with fresh pine scent flooded every breath. Birds twittered and trees creaked. Warmth surged through Julana's veins as she called the creature in her mind. She hated that they trusted her. Soft footfalls crunched in the remaining snow. Tears snuck past Julana's lids and crept down her cheeks as she loosed her arrow.

The arrow met its mark. She didn't need to look to know for certain. She couldn't bear to look. Instead, she studied the fresh green foliage poking through the slush as she approached the fallen doe. She dropped to her knees and laid her cheek across its still chest.

"Forgive me," she whispered. "Today should not have been your day. There was no need. May the Stars bless you for your sacrifice."

Julana propped her bow against a tree. Her hands shook. She was reaching the limits of her magic, but she drew the power back to her heart anyway and flooded it out to her muscles. With a slight groan, she lifted the deer in her arms and carried it back to the house. With the last of her magic, she skinned, portioned, and cooked the venison. She wouldn't let the deer's sacrifice go to waste. Conflicted relief flooded through her. Her magic was drained and it would take time for her blood to draw more energy from the sun. They couldn't force her to use her magic at this point. But there were other things they could do.

"That's more like it," Alazer said. He inhaled the gamey steam but didn't bother taking a bite. He set the wooden bowl next to his cup. "I should like some entertainment with my meal."

Luna rose from her chair and made her way to the table. "I should like some new clothes," she muttered.

"Fine, whichever you'd like to do first." He waved his hand as though the generous choice should put Julana at ease.

"I've used all my magic. You know my limits," Julana said.

"Foolish girl," Luna said. "You know those aren't really your limits." Her lip curled.

Julana shuddered. This was where the test always ended.

"Hold out your hand, Julana," Alazer stood, his face passive. She tried to match it, but her eyes darted between her wrist and the knife in his hand. Her own hand was like lead as she lifted it, palm up. "Now your other hand."

She frowned and met his unrelenting gaze. He'd never asked for both before. How much blood would he need? In the past, when they took her starblood and used it to strenghten their own magic, it left her too weak to move. If they took more, would she survive? She clenched her jaw and raised her other arm. To her surprise, he placed the knife in her open hand. Uncertainty settled in her chest.

"What am I…I don't understand," she whispered.

"It's time you learned to do these things on your own," Alazer said. "It's not like we enjoy drawing your blood. It's not kind for you to make us bear the burden every time." The lie only solidified Julana's hesitation. They enjoyed it far too much.

Luna's eyes narrowed. "Our soup will be cold if you don't hurry." Greed leeched from her words.

The knife clacked against the stone floor before Julana realized she'd dropped it. She took a step back and shook her head. Alazer closed the distance between them.

"You do not say 'no' to us, girl." His voice was soft, but the hard glint of his eyes made Julana's stomach clench.

"It can't be right," she whispered. "The Stars would never ask—“

"What would you know about what the Stars would want? When is the last time you communed with one?" Luna's sneer set Julana on edge.

“Just because they don’t meet with us face to face doesn’t mean—“

“It means plenty!” Luna raised an arm and Julana flinched, but instead of being struck, the knife flew back into her hand, nicking her finger. Once they decided to use their magic, her time was short. Blood trickled into her palm and panic set in. Alazer’s grim face brightened at the sight. She wanted to drop the knife again, but instead her bloody hand tightened around the hilt of the knife against her will.

“No!” she said. She clawed at the grip with her free hand, but Alazer already channeled the magic from her blood. Within moments she would go from his puppet to a puddle of blood. “Stars release me. Stars protect me.” She muttered the words over and over. But her grip only tightened and her attempts to remove the knife put her free wrist in perfect striking distance.

The cool metal sliced her skin. Julana gasped as blood flowed down her arm and the pain hit a moment later. Alazer and Luna rushed forward, inhuman desire crossing their faces. Alazer released Julana’s hand from his control and once again the knife clattered to the ground. But it was too late. They caught her blood in their hands and squealed like children catching candy thrown from the sweet shop. Eventually they would come to their senses and collect the blood in a jar. After all, it needed to reenergize in the sun. But then it would be theirs to use, to magnify their own power. To steal, to control, to wound, to kill. Magic was a temptation that led them astray. Her knees buckled and for the hundredth time she hoped the cut was fatal. That she would never be used for their selfish gain again.

Spots danced in her vision and hope flooded her soul. They'd never taken this much blood before. With her eyes closed, the flashes were almost like Stars streaking across the night sky. The way she always envisioned them in her dreams. Something firm pressed against her wrist. “That’s enough, Alazer,” Luna’s muddled words saddened Julana, but she couldn’t remember why.

#

Julana woke with a kink in her neck and her mouth dry as cotton. She was slumped against the wall of the sitting room. Blood covered her blouse and skirt and she groaned at the sight of more on the floor. Of course they would leave her lying in the mess. Why would they put her in her loft just for her to climb back down to clean up? Especially after she’d lost so much blood. They probably thought they'd been kind. Bandages barely clung to her oozing wrist. It was a wonder the saturated scraps stopped the bleeding.

She sucked a breath in through her teeth as she rose and tested her limbs, her balance, her vision. She was weak, but capable enough to do her job by Alazer’s standards. The Klups were nowhere to be found, but if history was repeating itself, they were passed out on their bed, drunk from their success at whatever deed they deemed worthy of magic. Out of habit she tested the front door. A small shock spread through her already weak body and she held back a cry.

The disappointment that knifed through her was embarrassing. Of course he set a perimeter spell. In the six years since her magic surfaced, Alazer had only forgotten a perimeter spell once. Once. She was fourteen and just as scared of the world as she was of her guardians. Alazer woke with a moan, shouted the name Nessa, and ran out to find Julana sitting on the front step in indecision. It was the only time she’d seen true fear in his eyes. She regretted that hesitation every day of her life. And wondered about that name just as often.

  She was surprised it was past the sun’s morn. This was the longest she'd been unconscious after they took her blood. How much did they use? Five shaky steps took her to their room. Two monstrous lumps rose and fell beneath the disheveled covers. She sighed. The rest of the room bore evidence of their celebration. Food and drink for an army rested on the table near the door. Jewelry fit for Cherans and silks spun for nobles spilled from the trunks that lined their walls. There was hardly space to walk around the bed because their thievery had been so complete. Bile rose in her throat at her unwilling role.

It could be hours before they rose. She shut their door and leaned back against it. Their house was surprisingly modest, but that was a front to hide their means of survival. The rest of the living space lay before her in one open room. The kitchen held food and water she desperately needed, but her stomach still hadn’t settled. The ladder to her right led up to her loft. The space was hers, but she only slept in it. The thought of climbing to her bed was exhausting. Instead she turned to the sitting area on her left.

Her feet were heavy as she made her way to the bookshelves. To a visitor they appeared to be cupboards that might hold linens or dishes. Instead they were filled with Vendaran folklore and Thlieven textbooks that her guardians collected. They'd stolen enough goods from the wealthy; there was bound to be a new book. And those were always placed immediately on their shelves for safekeeping. She flung the doors open and gazed at the precious bindings. Books were reserved for the priests and noble. And even the noble mostly collected them to show off their wealth. She ran a hand along the familiar volumes. She would never condone the actions of the Klups, but she loved the books. Familiar guilt crept beneath her skin. They took these books using her magic.

There. A tiny new book rested between Histories of Lentans and Songs for the Stars. She pulled it out and studied the Thlieven words: Maps of the Great Land. She frowned at it for a moment. She’d only heard The Great Land referenced in the History of the Stars, a book that seemed more legend than truth. She opened the book to a center page and let out a gasp.

Color like she’d never seen before bled on the pages. Drawings with exquisite detail filled every corner. And sure enough, there was a single continent pictured. One great land that was shared between all the people. Could it be true? Her mind filled with the image of eager brown eyes and a lopsided grin. Cyrus would be thrilled at this new find. She bit her lip and glanced back at the bedroom door. There was only one way to get it to him. It would take a fair amount of luck and a lot of work, but she regularly depended on both.

By the second half of the sun’s rise she'd cleaned the blood, bandaged her wound, and prepared food. She quenched her own thirst and hunger, but made sure there was plenty left for the Klups. The weariness faded with the added nourishment, and a walk in the sun would finish her recovery. She swung her cloak around the fresh blouse and skirt she’d donned and tucked the book of maps in the inside pocket. She held her breath and pushed open the bedroom door.

"Uncle?” she whispered. She prayed to the Stars that he would only wake enough to grant her request.

No response.

“Uncle Alazer?” she tried again a little louder.

A grunt from the bed made her wince. “What?”

“I wish to receive the priest’s blessing at the Stargazer.”

Another grunt.

“I would seek atonement for the blood magic.”

He sat up and squinted at her. “If you speak of our magic to the priest you know what he’ll do. And you know what Ill do.” Of course she knew. They told her on a daily basis they would kill her if she revealed their magic, unless they thought the magistrates would make it more agonizing by deeming it witchcraft.

“Yes, Uncle. I would speak of it only to the Stars.”

“The Stars aren’t even out to gaze upon right now,” he muttered. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his fat fingers. “Very well.” He waved his hand at her and she felt a slight lift in her heels as he extended her leash enough for her to gain entrance at the house of worship. Relief flooded through her veins and she rushed out the door before he could change his mind. It was a small freedom he afforded her on a regular basis. She would never understand why such a wish was granted. And she would never dare question it.

The walk to the Stargazer was a few miles. Julana didn’t mind, even in her weakened state. The longer she was in the sun, the more her health improved. There was another one in town that was closer, but Alazer preferred her to stay out of sight as much as possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so afraid of the public if he didn’t leave signs of their mutilation. She gave a rueful glance at her bandage. It would have been better to heal it with magic, but as usual, she couldn’t bear to use magic if she wasn’t forced to.

She couldn’t keep the smile off her face when she crested the last hill before Galden Valley’s Stargazer. Much of the valley was covered in snow, but the perimeter of the Stargazer was kept meticulously clear by the priest-in-training. The building was made of simple stones. Several small rooms were enclosed and held the rooms of the current priests and their few servants. The largest room of all was the Stargazer itself, and its roof was left wide open to give worshippers a constant view of the heavens. A man in a priest’s robe worked outside, pushing snow off the path to the front door. A shock of red hair peeked out from beneath his hood. Cyrus.

Julana broke into a run and let the slope into the valley carry her the rest of the way. The events of the prior evening still haunted her, but every step closer to the Stargazer, and Cyrus, lightened her load. Her cloak flapped behind her and the hood fell, letting her long hair spill out. She gripped the book in her hand, and remembered to pull the sleeve of her blouse over her bandaged wrist just before colliding into Cyrus’ open arms.

“The earth comes to life and teases me with fresh dirt and green sprigs.” He brushed her brown locks before stepping back to look into her eyes. It was his standard greeting ever since he decided the growth of the valley’s foliage was a reflection of the depth of her eyes. As her green eyes fluctuated, so did the trees. At first it made them laugh, but over the last month it had carried a sentimentality that made Julana uneasy. Even though they'd spent the last two years growing up together, he was still a priest-in-training. He was like a brother.

"Fire drew me in so I must quench my thirst." She tugged his hair back before taking the customary drink of water at the gate. Everyone that came to worship the stars drank the water blessed by the Chosen priests. The rare ones that actually communed with the Stars. Or so they said.

"It's good to see you, Jules," Cyrus said.

Julana smiled. “I have something for you." His amber eyes lit up and an infectious grin split his freckled face.

“You come bearing gifts? For me? What about the Stars?” he said with mock rebuke.

She punched him in the shoulder with her good hand and relinquished the book. “You can only look at it for the day.” His face was already slack from shock as he thumbed through the colorful drawings. She eased passed him and headed to the atrium of the Stargazer. Entering the place of worship was not something she took lightly. Her wound burned and itched with her guilt as she stepped over the threshold.

It was said the Stargazers on the lands of the noble had glass roofs, to keep out the elements. But Julana couldn’t help wondering if that hindered the nobles' worship. How could they see through a pile of snow? Or sense the Stars' presence? Fresh air kissed her lips and soft sounds of the valley’s creatures met her ears. These were the things that would please the Stars. Their creations.

The sun neared its peak, which meant there were no Stars out to worship. But Julana still knelt to pray. She uttered words of confession and shame. A green stem grew from the dirt floor by her knees and Julana held her breath. Had it been there when she entered? It was too early for much growth, but within the Stargazer's atrium, anything could happen. She bit her lip and glanced around. With her in the Stargazer, anything could happen. She closed her eyes in frustration and resumed her prayers.

She was twelve when she first made a flower grow. She'd thought it was such a fun coincidence that she wished for a daisy and then found one growing by her foot. Luna's eyes took on a greedy glint when she asked for Julana to wish for another. And another. They told her she had magic, and the magic resided in her starblood.

Now, Julana peeked between her lashes and saw yellow petals unfolding. She squeezed her eyes shut. It was all supposed to be legend. She'd read of the Vendaran creatures that were half-human, half-stars in their books, but everyone else spoke of them as folklore. Everything had changed that day. It was the only day the Klups willingly answered her questions about magic.

"The sun energizes your blood and your blood's energy supplies whatever you will it to," Alazer had said. It was limited, but they watched her as if one day it wouldn't be. As if one day she would unlock the key to controlling it.

That was also the first day they took her blood.

"Just a smidge to enhance our own magic," Luna assured her. Suddenly the consistent high yield from their crops, and the unending supply of money made sense. All those years they'd been using magic to meet their needs. Julana had squirmed under the weight of the discovery. The deception. She cried as they bottled her blood, but she'd been too overwhelmed to resist. The next morning she discovered they used the power to seek revenge on a merchant they claimed cheated them. Most of his belongings filled their room and his oldest child was dead.         

The horror of it washed over her anew in the atrium and fears of the dark spirits left her cold. In the last year she'd read more of the histories and texts thanks to Cyrus' work at teaching her Thlieven. The blood magic invited the presence of dark spirits, and Julana feared it was too late for her to make amends with the Stars for the use of her blood.

Without warning, the image of Cyrus’ lifeless body floating just out of reach danced across her vision. She paused in her prayers, eyes open wide. The recurring nightmare plagued her. For over a week she'd had the same dream. But why would she think of it now? It meant nothing.

The daisy was in full bloom at her elbow. She continued to pray, her lips moving even faster.

The sun was well past its peak before she rose again. Her cheeks were stiff with tear stains and her heart felt lighter with the forgiveness she sought. Cyrus would never disturb her worship, but he would be desperate to discuss his findings. She rushed back out to the grounds.

“Where in Rystahn did you get this?” he asked, his voice filled with awe.

“Where else?” she muttered. Cyrus knew her guardians had questionable means of income, but he also knew better than to ask for details. And as long as he was in the dark about her magic, he was safe. “What have you learned?” She turned the question back to him to avoid discussing her guardians. He could go on for hours about Vendaran history and the legends all priests valued. Although she’d never met one quite as obsessed as Cyrus.

“These maps…” he shook his head. “They’re just…”

She laughed. “Find your tongue, Cyrus.”

“They show the Great Land before the Divide. Before the barriers were put in place.”

She sobered a bit. She had assumed as much, but it was hard to believe. “Could they just be someone’s guess?” she asked.

“I don’t think so.” He sat on a bench and opened the book. She hid her arm behind her cloak and peered over his shoulder. “These markings are consistent with the original Songs for the Stars.” He pointed at symbols bordering the same map she’d studied earlier.

“That’s impossible,” she said. That would place the text’s origins before the Divide, which wasn’t even a certain historical event. According to the folklore in the Klups’ books, the humans used to live in the Great Land, among the fabled Vendarans, Lentans, Giants, and Littles. The Stars grew concerned over the wars and treachery, so they separated the people. The Great Land itself was divided into portions for each group, and barriers were set in place for their protection. Hardly anyone believed in such stories, but the magic running in Julana’s blood was proof that Vendarans existed. So despite her resistance, she was forced to believe. Cyrus’ knee bounced with excitement beneath his robes. He needed no proof. He’d been a believer long before she knew him, and things like this only whet the appetite of his curiosity.

“Why do you have no faith? You come here to worship, but when there is evidence right before your eyes, you scoff.” His words were gentle, but it was an ongoing debate. She supposed the side of him that trained to be a priest couldn’t resist.

She sighed. “I don’t know. I wish I had your faith.”

He turned to face her, his boyish grin lightening the mood. “But then you wouldn’t bring me such fascinating books, because we would rely only on our hope. I like having the best of both worlds.” He studied her a moment longer and she grew uncomfortable with his scrutiny. “You look tired,” he said.

She gave a laugh. “That’s never the right thing to say to a girl. You might as well say I look ugly.” She didn’t meet his gaze as she sat next to him.

He didn’t laugh back. “Brother Keef said his offer still stands.”

Julana played with the cuff of her sleeve. “I haven’t forgotten it,” she said. “I’m just not sure it’s possible.”

Cyrus snorted. “What does that mean? You come of age in two weeks, you enter the service as a priestess. What’s not possible?” His words should have brought her hope, but a deep sadness coated her insides. She didn't know what the Klups had planned after she came of age, but it wouldn't include letting her out of their grasp.

“It’s hard to explain.” She cringed, knowing he’d be insulted.

“Fine! Don’t even bother trying.” He stood and ran a hand through his hair. His hood fell back but he didn’t seem to notice. “Forgive me, Julana. I shouldn't raise my voice."

She stifled a laugh. Even after he completed his training she was certain he would be a loud and opinionated priest.

He paced and his hands twisted in agitation. "You realize that we’re trying to help you? That maybe this is the Stars answer to your prayers? You don’t tell me what the Klups do to you, but you come here with such sorrow in your eyes, and I’ve heard you pray for escape.”

Julana stilled. What else had he heard in her prayers?

“You come here day in and day out. It’s a natural suggestion for a woman with such devotion and no marriage prospects.” His face turned red. He glanced over his shoulder and this time Julana couldn't hold back her smile. Brother Keef was forever warning Cyrus to tame his tongue.

“No need to worry. I’m the only one who heard your shocking statement. How do you know I don’t have any marriage prospects? It’s quite possible my guardians have already made some arrangement. They’re under no obligation to give me warning.”

Cyrus paused, brow furrowed and lips turned down. “That would never be good news for you. Not if they made the arrangement.” His voice was soft. It took her a moment to realize he was afraid for her. He’d met the Klups a handful of times and saw the way they treated her in public. It took nearly a week for him to calm down after each occurrence. She couldn’t imagine how he would react if he knew the depth of their abuse. 

“Well I’m not worried. They like having a personal slave too much to sell me off to a rich, lonely, old man.” She gave a light laugh and ran her fingers through her hair. Cyrus froze at the same instant Julana glimpsed bright red in the corner of her eye. Her bandage.

She moved to cover it, but he was there in an instant and she was too slow. “What is this?” Cyrus ground out each word, his grasp firm but gentle on her arm.

“It’s nothing. I just—“ the words caught in her throat as he removed the dressing. There was no way to explain away such a deliberate cut. She should have used magic to heal and hide it.

“Another accident?” His eyes burned with anger. “Don’t lie to me, Jules!” His whispered words made her flinch. She focused on the front of his robes. The drab brown was considered a sign of his choice to take a humble position, despite the fact that priests were among the elite. It always brought out the warmth in the eyes she was so carefully avoiding.

“I can’t speak of it,” she finally whispered back. She was tired of lying to him about her injuries, and this time she wasn’t able to hide the severity. His fists were clenched as she clumsily rewrapped the wound and hid it beneath her cuff.

“Brother Keef gave me another option for you,” Cyrus said. His normally playful voice was strained. “He said I could marry you.”

Julana’s eyes flew to his. “What? You’re a priest!”

Cyrus rushed on, as though afraid he wouldn’t have time to explain it all. “It doesn’t matter. He showed me records of priests that were married. It’s fallen out of practice, but there’s no sin in it. The Stars relish companionship, so they would not deny it of their servants, even if we have made it our own strange custom to avoid it. There were even records of priests that had married priestesses. You would only be two years behind me in your training. It would be a good match.”

“Even if all that were true, I would not ask it of you,” Julana said. He would die at the hands of the Klups, by the magic of her blood if she made any attempt to follow through on his suggestion.

“Well then it’s a good thing the man traditionally does the asking.” His eyes danced with mirth. How could he be so blissfully ignorant? She sighed. How could she keep him that way, forever?

“Cyrus, you don’t love me.”

“Of course I love you!” His brows furrowed.

“Not the way a man should love a woman.” Her face heated. She never expected to have this discussion with her only friend. And favorite priest.

“It's true we're better friends than lovers, Jules, but it could grow. At least it could for me.” He placed a hand under her chin, as though testing a more intimate proximity. She felt like a deer before her flying arrows.

“And what if it’s not enough?” she whispered. Marriage would not hold her guardians at bay. This discussion was pointless. But Cyrus took her words the wrong way.

“If it doesn’t grow the way I anticipate, then we maintain a marriage of companionship. A priest and priestess that serve the Stars for life under the same roof.”

She shook her head, choking back a sob. His kindness tore her in two, and the secrets she kept threatened to spill over. Why hadn’t Brother Keef minded his own business?

His hands moved to her upper arms, his grip more urgent than usual. “Can we at least seek out the Stars before you dismiss such a suggestion? We have several days before you're of age to marry without your guardians' consent.” He was hurt.

“It’s not the thought of being with you that deters me,” Julana said. That wasn’t entirely true. She loved him like a brother, and treating him any other way wouldn’t feel right. But the real concern was the Klups.

“Then what is it?”

“They would kill you,” she whispered. Her heart quickened. She’d never spoken of the lengths they would go or the depths of her fears.

“All the more reason we should seek out the Stars.” He pulled her into the atrium and they knelt in the center. After their discussion, Julana found herself uncomfortable. They’d prayed together before, but not often. Cyrus spoke with ease, beseeching the Stars for wisdom, guidance, and protection. Her heart broke over his sincerity, and the knowledge of the extent he was willing to go for her safety. Perhaps he really did love her.

He paused in his prayer, offering her the chance to speak. She opened her mouth, but couldn’t find the right words. Doubt plagued her like it never had before. Surely the Stars were there and cared for her. But she wanted answers. She was tired of praying to the Stars without any real hope of hearing back from them. “Show me,” she whispered. “Please just show me what to do.”

Light flashed in the room and she and Cyrus rose in shock. Julana's heart pounded and her eyes attempted to adjust. Cyrus placed himself in front of her as the golden figure of a woman materialized before them. The rest of the room dimmed in her presence, or perhaps she drew the light into her magnificent glow. It hurt Julana's eyes to look, but the pain couldn't draw her gaze away. They were communing with a Star.

 

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

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Millie sends the first chapter for Thomasyn, which sorta looks like a YA fantasy to me. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

I didn’t want to go back. The desire within me to run, to escape, was all-consuming and beat within me like some great war drum. It was a throbbing pulse, a screaming thought. One foot after the other - It would be so easy.

A clap of thunder lashed the sky overhead, and the world rumbled. I shuddered as the air grew suddenly close, as if curling itself around me.

Not so easy, the world taunted. Not so easy for you.

I sighed aloud, and the wind moaned with me; its mournful wail echoed out over the land, and bent the reeds under its force. The long-grass’s answer was a whispering rustle, which rippled away into the distance. The marshes of Felmist were, to me, the most precious place in all of Elechion. Others found its deceptive nature and eerie fog disturbing - Something to be feared, not loved. But I, a daughter of Felmist, was of an opposite mind. The marsh was true to its kin, and all that knew it well. No man or woman that called this solitary, lonesome Hold their home would get lost. Only those venturing into the impenetrable mist with no knowledge of the land were at risk. All too common were the disappearances, the drownings, the mysterious cries in the night. But my folk were a hardy, stubborn people. And my family were even more so.

I was truly proud of our land, as proud as any Sunliette ever was. Our family had (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Millie's first page?

I do like the writing (except for some comma faults) and the voice in this opening. The first few paragraphs had a sense of drama (I would cut “It was a throbbing pulse, a screaming thought.” For me the great war drum did the trick.), but then the narrative devolved into exposition and backstory.

Too bad—as you’ll discover if you read on, she’s about to encounter a boy who is a hated enemy. That really ought to be on the first page. I think this starts too early—see what happens if you open with her first encounter with the hated enemy—that’s where the story starts, and I’d like to read that. A promising beginning, just get to the story. We readers want to be involved in something happening that directly and immediately threatens the character with some consequence that she doesn’t want to come about.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Design-black wings

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

(continued)

ruled Felmist for as long as time told. And yet I longed for my freedom; for a life unfettered by duty, unbound by responsibility, obligation. But the daughter of a Lord was not gifted such a luxury, and was instead expected to do as she was told. Be compliant, obedient. Be a Lady. The wind tugged at my hair, urging me to go with it.

Run, it murmured. Run away, Thomasyn. Run away. A soft snort wrenched me back into the world, and a nose nudged my shoulder. I looked around, and lifted a palm to stroke the black muzzle.

“I know.” I whispered, as the horse looked expectantly into my face. It was time to go, and Thrift knew it. He was eager to be back within the warmth and comfort of his stable, unhindered by the howling gale and the white-grey mist that slowly, silently, was creeping down from the horizon. Riding high above the clouds, the slim sliver of silver that was the moon shone through the blackness of the night. It was, perhaps, unwise of me to venture out on my own so late. But Father didn’t know about it - And as long as it remained that way, he could not put a stop to my late-night excursions. They were all I had outside of my life as a Lady, and were what I often felt kept me sane. Out in the open air, beneath the watchful stars, I could be free for a short time. But a short time only. I turned, keeping hold of the horse’s reins, and stood by the saddle. It was a while before I could force my leg into the stirrup, to swing myself up. But when I did, Thrift knew where we were headed. Without real guidance, the stallion leapt into a canter for the keep. But I was reluctant to return home, and for once I had a legitimate reason. Tomorrow morning for the first time in centuries we, the Sunliettes of Felmist, would meet with our hated enemy - The family with whom we had feuded for an age: The Starmires of Riversmeet.

Though separated by only the vast marshes of my homeland and a forest, our families had been warring for a myriad of years; ferocious, bloody wars that had ended in many, many deaths. With each new generation arose new conflict. With each new conflict arose new grief. And now, after so many years of hatred, one of them was coming here. What my Father thought he could achieve by meeting with this Starmire, I could scarcely fathom. From what I’d gathered, he was but a boy. A boy whose Grandfather killed my Uncle.

My hands tightened instinctively on the leather of the reins, and Thrift flicked his ears back at me. The rhythm of the saddle beneath me lulled me back into thought as the great grey, looming walls of Felmist towered above. I had been just a small child at the time, but I remembered him well - Lord Alasdair, brother to my Father and eldest son of our long-dead Grandfather, was slaughtered in battle by none other than the Lord of Riversmeet himself. But the tide of war was treacherous, and even as my Uncle fell so too did Lord Trewin Starmire. Both slain by the other’s hand. It was then that my Father, Lord Torin Sunliette, took up his brother’s position as ruler and protector of the Hold. At exactly the same time Addric, the late Lord Trewin’s only son, was made ruler of Riversmeet. And so began the feud, anew. Many battles ensued, too many of which had come close to ending my Father’s life. Though men on both sides perished, no victor could be found. That was where my story as Lady Thomasyn Sunliette, began.

I was the fourth child of Lord Torin and Lady Helenais - Their first daughter. My eldest brother, Rhidian, was seven years older than me. Next came Parthalan and then Caird, the youngest of the three sons. And finally there was Sisselanne, my dear little sister. There was not a sweeter thing alive. Though she had yet to come of age and taste the bitter spite of womanhood, I had vowed to protect her. The love we shared for one another, and for our brothers, was unrivalled.

As for Mother and Father, I was hesitant to say much. I loved them, of course, and would do whatever they bid me do. But deep down, I knew. I knew my part in their scheme - My part in the feud. I, eldest Sunliette daughter, was a valuable piece on the board.

We passed under the shadow of the ancient stone walls. Instantly, Thrift and I melted into the darkness; his coat, black as night, vanished into nothingness as we neared the wall. If anyone had seen us, they would have thought it a trick of the light. They always did. I halted Thrift just outside the gate - The gate that I knew was there, even though I could not see it; the gate I knew would be unlocked because I had left it so; the gate that was my portal to the outside world. In a few seconds, I had jumped silently from Thrift’s back and was leading him through the concealed little archway. It was an abandoned passage, abandoned because the key was believed to have been lost long ago.

True, I thought as I slipped the rusted-iron thing from my pocket to lock it back up again. But it was also found. I lead Thrift over the grass behind the stable block. Upon the soft ground, he made no noise. I was just as silent-footed, eyes roaming the keep for any sign of life. Not a flicker disturbed the night. I untacked the stallion quickly and quietly, and once he was safely in his stall I leant over the door to scratch behind his ears. He gazed at me with wide, trusting, liquid-black eyes.

“See you tomorrow.” I whispered, and lay a kiss on his nose. Then I swerved and hurried back to the keep - Where, hopefully, the family would still be asleep. The Gods only knew what Father would do if he ever found out.

Instead of going up through the grand main entrance to my home, for that was a fine way to get caught, I slid around the corner of the grassy courtyard to the kitchens. The cooks, maids and servants would all be long-gone by now, and the rooms would be empty. I could slide through unnoticed.

When I reached the door closest and peered in, I was pleased to see that my prediction had been correct. Not a soul inhabited the kitchens at this hour. I crept in silently, flooded by the smell of rich bread and other cooked fineries. The clay-oven fire smouldered, slowly baking the batch of breads, cakes and other morsels shoved inside. An assortment of birds had been strung from the rafters in preparation of tomorrow’s feast; pheasants, partridges, pigeons and quail. Hares, too, and an array of smoked fish. As I passed, a tray of delicate-looking sweetmeats caught my eye. A rich aroma of honey arose from the browned-off buns, topped with nuts. Glancing somewhat guiltily around, I pinched a couple from their place. One for me, and one for Sissy. Then I snuck out of the pantry and into the bottom of a spiral staircase.

The air was dank and musty; good for preserving things, I supposed. The stale taste of it was bitter on my tongue. I looked up the long, winding tower that circled above me - An endless count of steps that would eventually lead me to mine and my sister’s chambers. I sighed. I didn’t care to think how many times I’d climbed this hated stairwell, though it was the price I’d had to pay for being born a girl, and not the fourth son I was meant to be. Contrary to how romantic it sounded, Sissy and I had acquired the highest room of the tallest tower. And that meant climbing all three hundred steps to get there; not that I hadn’t gotten used to it in all of eighteen years. I set foot to the first step, and began the endless ascent upwards.

After seven entire flights of stairs, I finally came to the right door. Treading carefully over the floorboards, I nudged the latch and the door cracked open. Then, tiptoeing inside, I closed it behind me with no sound whatsoever and stood still with my back against the solid wood. I breathed out quietly, and then set to work undressing.

The sweetmeats I stowed safely away until morning. I shrugged the woolen cloak I had worn from my shoulders and folded it into my wardrobe. My muddied riding boots, for I would not even dream of wearing my finer shoes, I propped up near the door. Katrina, our handmaid, would see to them in the morning. Then I shed my dress and underclothes and exchanged them for a nightgown. The free-flowing white material hugged my skin, and warded off the cold bite of the air. I looked over at one of the two beds in the room.

My sister lay curled beneath the bedclothes, one arm tucked beneath her pillow. I smiled. She looked so lovely, and so innocent. I dreaded the day she would have to face what I’d faced alone - What our Mother had insisted was every woman’s mandatory craft. I tiptoed to her bed, and tucked the stray strand of honey-gold hair that had come free back behind her ear. She stirred, blinking blearily.

“Thomasyn?” She mumbled, laden with sleep.

“It’s me,” I murmured. Then I bent down to kiss her forehead with all the weight of a feather.

“Go back to sleep.” I whispered, and she nodded - Already slipping back into the realm of dreams, where duty did not exist. Where no feuds and no wars occurred. Where no Starmire would ever dare to come.

A sudden wind whistled past the windows, blowing back the oak shutters with an eerie moan that ruptured the stillness of the room. Moonlight pooled on the floor through the gap, tinting it silver. I frowned, and went over to push them shut again. The cold floor bit my toes. The gust pouring in from the window chilled me and made my skin crawl. I reached for the shutter, when something caught my eye. I blinked. There, paler and more opalescent that the moon itself, glided a magnificent bird; larger than any I’d seen before. Contrary to my original intentions, I pulled the shutter open further so that I and all of the room basked in luminous light. I gazed out in wonder, watching as the swan flew with such grace and majesty through the black, starlit sea that was the sky. Its vast white wings cut the air as it soared toward the moon, melting into the night.

Snapping out of my ensorcellment, I hurriedly pushed the shutter back into place and darkness once again blanketed the room. Then I turned and fled into bed, suddenly cold, and drew the blankets up over my shoulders. I stared into the darkness.

A swan was the ultimate symbol of love; my folk would say that such a sighting held a hidden meaning, that it was not mere chance I had seen the bird of beauty and soul itself. It was superstition, of course. What did the symbol of love have to do with me? Steeped in tales of mystery and passion though the swan may be, I was not about to fall prey to silly stories. And yet some tiny part of me did wonder at its truth.

I lay awake for a long while, head alive with thoughts too energized to be put to rest. Questions beleaguered me. The thought of so many people coming to our home made me uneasy, to say the least. That a Starmire was among them only worsened the idea. What if he meant us all ill? After all, what could he hope to gain out of a peaceful meeting? It was surely just a ruse to cause untold chaos within Felmist. The results of a conflict right here in our very home were utterly unthinkable. I would not welcome him. In fact, I’d sooner ensure his stay was quite miserable. Whatever Father ordered me to do for this Starmire, my hatred would still boil deep down inside of me. For what he and his family had done to ours, I would never forgive.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Millie sends the first chapter for Thomasyn, which sorta looks like a YA fantasy to me. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

Add a Comment
20. Flogometer for Linda—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Linda sends the prologue and first chapter for Mona Tari. The rest of the prologue and chapter is after the break.

Prologue

“May I warm myself?”

It was a simple question spoken with a softness of youth, yet the words clung to the air like the fine droplets of mist on this cold autumn evening. The old shepherd looked up at his newly arrived guest with suspicion. “Please,” he said as he stretched out his hand inviting his guest to sit opposite him. His ancient voice masked the fear that lay beneath. The shepherd grabbed a few more sticks and added them to the flames of his small campfire, wanting to get a better look at his new companion.

The figure that stood at the edged of the firelight looked more like a shadow formed from the mist than a man. The coat of the mare that stood behind the shadow bore the molted coloring of storm clouds. The old man listened to the nearby baaing of his sheep intermixed with the occasional bark of one of his dogs. All was normal with his animals. None of them seemed to be aware of the presence of his guest. But why should they? He knew the Mona-Tari was here for him and him alone. He pulled his tattered cloak tighter around his body, feeling the icy breath of death upon his neck. After all these years of working his sheep in the shadow of the mountains, his judgment day had come.

The visitor squatted down and held out black-gloved hands towards the flames. The firelight played games by casting shadows upon the smooth, unlined face of the traveler. It was (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Linda's first page?

Chapter 1

Jacob Lander glanced at the door, half hoping, half waiting for it to open and his son to walk through with that silly grin on his face. He was all too aware this trivial action had become habitual. It had been two months since Malcolm’s disappearance, and Jacob wondered at what point he would stop the waiting. He knew he would never give up hope.

The third-generation proprietor of the Halfway There Inn manned his post at the tavern’s counter drawing drafts of ale for his customers, one he occupied for the past twenty years. He stood sentry on one side of the door that led to his family’s private quarters, and a large stone hearth stood on the other side. Jacob wore his winter garment, a uniform of a well-mended short tunic over a pale shirt. The tunic was dark brown and the shirt un-dyed, both woolen. Leather straps crisscrossed Jacob's baggy breeches from knee to foot. Where the cowhide breeches ended, crudely made shoes began. Accentuating his face was a neatly trimmed beard and thinning blond locks pulled tightly back and bound to resemble the pommel of a saddle. A course apron of hemp protected his shirt and tunic from spills so he might get a few more days’ wear from his garments between washings.

The occupied tables of the inn skewed to one end of the room closest to the large fireplace. The burning logs in the fieldstone hearth cast a yellow glow over the nearest patrons. Wood sizzled and crackled as the flames consumed its meal of dried hardwoods while the (snip)

Would you turn the page with this opening?

I definitely like the writing and the voice (though there is an occasional typo such as “edged” that Linda needs to be careful about before submitting her work). I enjoy reading fantasy (and editing it, too), and Millie captures the feel of a good epic fantasy with her descriptions and narrative. The prologue is a real scene, the way prologues ought to be, and opened with enough story question to get me to turn the page. Note to Millie: since the scene in Chapter 1 directly follows the Prologue’s scene in the same world and time, I suggest that you make it Chapter 1. Many people (and agents) skip prologues, and yours is really the opening scene of what follows.

Without the prologue/chapter 1, I’m not so certain that I would have turned the page. The opening paragraph raises a good story question, but then the narrative goes to long description given from the author’s point of view, not the character's. This isn’t uncommon in epic fantasy, but why not make it experiential description from within the character’s point of view? The chapter, for this reader, had charm, but it the rest of it wasn't about the disappearance of Malcolm, the story question that was raised. Eventually the person who was the “ghost” is there, and she is part of Malcom's disappearance story, so the narrative ties back into the prologue, but there’s not much in the way of tension to my way of reading. Yes, epic fantasy often eases its way into a story, but I urge Linda to get more of the actual story into the first chapter. Unless the story about the horses affects the actual story, it’s just a pleasant way of passing time but brings the story to a halt. So this page gets a no from me.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Design-MotherDaughter

 

(prologue continued)

the face of eternal youth. A short stalk of wavy, black hair slipped from beneath the hood.

Their skin is the color of their mountain home, and they wrap themselves in the clouds that hide the mountain’s summit. Their eyes may be as black as coal or as green as emeralds found within the deep cavernous belly of the underworld. Be especially wary between dusk and dawn when they leave their mountain chambers and roam the earth to judge the hearts of men. The words raced through the old man’s mind. He knew the legends well. Although the shepherd could not see the color of the traveler’s eyes, he could tell that the tones of the traveler’s face matched the hues of the earth.

The youth smiled and spoke as if listening to the old shepherd’s thoughts. “Relax, I’m not a ghost. I don’t even believe in ghosts. I was trying to make it to the Halfway There Inn before dark.” The traveler looked towards the horizon where the thick mass of clouds blotted out the setting sun. “But it looks like I will have to find it in the dark. All this rain these past few days has slowed me down considerably.”

The gaze from the youth was too direct; the shepherd looked away, and the deep furrows of his brow grew deeper. They may bear the face as soft as an angel’s or be has hard as the mountain’s core. This face was truly angelic. He could assign no age to it. Yet his visitor didn’t speak the way he had expected a Mona-Tari to speak. You are being a fool, Joseph, an old fool. It’s only a lad from one of the southern kingdoms. “You don’t believe in ghosts?” the shepherd asked with a slight quiver in his voice.

His guest grinned. “Don’t tell me a wise man such as you believes in them?”

The old man had seen many youths in his day, scattered out into the winds like seeds from the milkweed looking for a place to put down roots. They often shared his fire or a day on the road, but this one was different, out-of-place. “The young would be best served if they respected the wisdom of the old. There are reasons for beliefs, and those beliefs are not to be trifled with. If you plan to do much wandering in this land, then I suggest you respect the Mona-Tari.” The shepherd placed a small, black pot of soaked beans on the fire to heat. “You have heard of the tale of the Mona-Tari, haven’t you?”

The eyes of the traveler remained fixed on the old man as if reading him, not a word was spoken. The old man shivered. He looked down at his pot and gave the beans a stir.

Mona-Tari. Once that thought entered his mind, the shepherd couldn’t dislodge it. This is just a boy. The world is full of wandering boys. “You’re not from these parts, are you?” he said as he looked up at his companion. The traveler seemed amused at the question. It was rare to see anyone of the darker race roaming these hills. It is just a boy who doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. You should at least warn him of the dangers.

The old shepherd cleared his throat. “Long ago, before my time, before the time of my grandfather, and my grandfather’s grandfather, was a time known as the old kingdom. If you look hard, you will see the scattered remains from that ancient world. It is said that terrible wars took place, where one region of our fair land fought viciously with the other regions. The wars raged through the centuries. Finally, one king stood victorious and united all of the lands under his banner.

“When wars end, you would think peace begins, but this is not so. The first to die in battle are the brave and honorable leaving behind the cowards and the criminals. War sees families destroyed, bodies of fallen warriors scattered upon the fields, and plagues that steal our children. War sees violence between soldiers, but violence of the innocent continues long after peace has been proclaimed. The people of the land petitioned their king to save them from the acts of their neighbors. They said if the king could make honest men safe, they would recover the lands, and the king would regain his wealth. The king heard his people’s petition and sent special knights into the countryside, the Mona-Tari.

“The knights who rode out from the bowels of the mountain were not like any knights you see today. They did not wear suits of shiny armor nor chain mail for protection. They did not ride out in the open with their banners waving but kept to the shadows. The moon served as their light and the stars served as their eyes. They were everywhere yet nowhere. Some say they were born of the gods of the ancient kingdom. Others say the king made a deal with the Lord of the Underworld to send forth his legion of demons to collect the evil souls. Others say they were forged in the fiery depths of the eastern mountains just like their weapons.”

“Their weapons?” The eyes of the traveler were intense and unyielding in their gaze. The flames from the fire reflected in them, making them appear to be illuminated by their own internal fire. The shepherd stared at them for a moment then abruptly looked away.

“It is said that their weapons, like their masters, are not like any you have ever seen. The blades of the Mona-Tari’s knives glow with a brilliant blue flame, a blue that is the color of the hottest fire used to forge them and of the coldest ice used to quench them." He slowly gave his beans another stir.

 “So out from the mountain’s bowels the knights rode. There were no courts, there were no petitions, there was no escaping their judgment. When you met one of the Mona-Tari, he looked into your soul and passed judgment. If he found you to be corrupt, he would cut you down with a single stroke of his blue sword; the innocent would pass unharmed. No one was above the Mona-Tari’s scrutiny, not even the royal family. Our saying ‘there is no justice when mercy is granted to evil’ comes from this period.”

“I take it their methods were harsh but effective,” said the traveler.

“They were harsh as well as effective. The good at heart need no laws to keep them honest. The corrupt need laws to establish boundaries and punishment to keep them in those boundaries. It is fear that keeps the hardest of men within those boundaries, and the existence of the knights from the mountains kept the hardest heart in fear. Within a few years, the people were at peace, and the lands became prosperous. With peace restored, the people became fearful of the very knights sent to protect them. They petitioned the king once again to remove the knights from their midst.”

“I don’t understand,” said the youth. “After restoring peace, the people should have been happy to have the knights in their presence.”

“With the murderers and rapists purged from the lands, what other of man’s sins would the Mona-Tari feel the need cleans? All men have stains upon their souls, and no one was sure just how closely their souls would be searched. So they asked the Mona-Tari to leave. The people felt they were ready to govern their own lives.

“The king again granted their request and sent the Mona-Tari back into the mountains from which they came. The king warned his people that if they returned to their evil ways, he would summon the knights once again to ride the countryside.”

The old man finished his tale and gave his pot a final stir. He reached behind him and picked up a plate. Scooping half of the contents out of the pot, he passed the plate forward to his guest.

The young traveler looked down at the meal. The quantity of beans in its entirety was hardly enough to feed a grown man, and half of that wouldn’t feed a child. The traveler accepted the offering. “But all that happened in the ancient kingdom. I don’t understand how anyone could fear them now. Those knights are long dead.”

“No!” The sharpness of the single word made the youth jump. “Those knights still live. They still walk within the shadows of their mountain home protecting it from all who trespass and waiting for the king’s command to ride again.”

“Then you've seen them?”

“I have not seen them but I have seen their work.”

The traveler chewed slowly, listening to every word.

“For over sixty years I have grazed these lands and have walked hundreds of times between Ester and Rolm. You are young. You can’t understand. Your life offers just a mere glimpse of the world around you. I have lived too long and welcome the day when some memories fade away. I have not seen the ghost knights but I have seen the bodies of the condemned along the roadside.”

“Bodies? What bodies?” The traveler’s words sounded like a gasp.

The old shepherd chuckled. He finally caught a respectful note in his young companion’s attention. “The bodies of the condemned, the bodies of the highwaymen who have robbed one traveler too many. It’s not difficult to tell the work of the Mona-Tari, they strike with a single blow. Any seasoned merchant or traveler will tell you that a battered body and empty pockets is the work of a highwayman, but a body with a single wound and untouched pockets is the work of the Mona-Tari.”

“Have you seen any bodies lately?”

“It has been over a year since I last saw the handiwork of the ghost knights. This road has not needed their protection since. And that inn you seek, it is said that it falls under the protection of the knights.” The old man leaned forward, closer to the flames. The traveler did likewise to receive a special sort of confidence.

“When I was a boy tending my father’s flock, I had heard a story about Ellis Lander’s young wife being attacked by two men. Ellis was the first proprietor and builder of the Halfway There. A Mona-Tari, who was as dark as a mountain's core with eyes as green as moss, appeared out of nowhere, and killed both men. The woman was hysterical, as you would expect. She ran out of the inn and into the field to fetch her husband, but when they returned, the Moni-Tari was gone as well as the bodies of her attackers. The only proof the woman had to her story was the blood that remained on the floor. The woman said the Mona-Tari’s knives looked like bolts of blue lightning as he struck down each man.”

The old man’s voice lowered. His companion leaned all the closer to the flames to hear. “What happened next was even stranger. Ellis decided to pack up his belongings and abandoning his dream. Living two days journey from any town was not safe for his wife. As he was making his decision to leave, he heard a wagon pull up. It was his parents. The father claimed that a thought popped into his head about turning his own tavern over to Ellis’ brother and coming up to the Halfway There to help out; a decision that was made after he heard about the attack from a dark stranger with green eyes.” The old man jabbed his finger at his listener to bring home his point. “The ghost visited the father and put that idea into his head; you can be sure of that. From that day on, the Lander family has always given special hospitality to any of the people of the darker race as their gratitude to the man who saved Ellis’ wife. In return for their hospitality, the Mona-Tari protects the home and those within.”

The young traveler sat back and was silent for a moment. “I’ve not heard that story.”

“I’ve not heard it spoken since I was young. But if you look at the floor towards the center of the tavern, you can still see the stain where blood had spilled.”

The traveler was lost in momentary thought, which the shepherd could not interpret. “Thank you for your kindness,” the traveler said at last, passing back the plate with the offering consumed. “And thank you for your story. It gives me much to think about.” The visitor stood and paused for a moment with a hand resting on a hidden blade beneath the folds of cloth - a blade that shone with the iridescent blue of the hottest fire and of the coldest ice.

The old shepherd watched as the traveler and horse dissolved into the evening mist. The soft thud of the horse’s hooves continued without body for a moment or two longer. Soon only the soft sound of the sheep remained. The old man’s tense muscles relaxed and his smile displayed black stumps where teeth once stood. He had passed his judgment. The shepherd looked down at the empty plate and saw a small coin shining inside, a tribute for the storyteller. It was an odd token for a phantom to leave, and he wondered again if perhaps he wasn't being foolish.

(Chapter 1 in full)

Jacob Lander glanced at the door, half hoping, half waiting for it to open and his son to walk through with that silly grin on his face. He was all too aware this trivial action had become habitual. It had been two months since Malcolm’s disappearance, and Jacob wondered at what point he would stop the waiting. He knew he would never give up hope.

The third-generation proprietor of the Halfway There Inn manned his post at the tavern’s counter drawing drafts of ale for his customers, one he occupied for the past twenty years. He stood sentry on one side of the door that led to his family’s private quarters, and a large stone hearth stood on the other side. Jacob wore his winter garment, a uniform of a well-mended short tunic over a pale shirt. The tunic was dark brown and the shirt un-dyed, both woolen. Leather straps crisscrossed Jacob's baggy breeches from knee to foot. Where the cowhide breeches ended, crudely made shoes began. Accentuating his face was a neatly trimmed beard and thinning blond locks pulled tightly back and bound to resemble the pommel of a saddle. A course apron of hemp protected his shirt and tunic from spills so he might get a few more days’ wear from his garments between washings.

The occupied tables of the inn skewed to one end of the room closest to the large fireplace. The burning logs in the fieldstone hearth cast a yellow glow over the nearest patrons. Wood sizzled and crackled as the flames consumed its meal of dried hardwoods while the hickory and oak incense filtered through the room. Lanterns hung on the large beams that rose from the hand-hewed plank floor, and shrinking candles dotted the tables. Patrons played cards at some of the tables while stories told at others.

Jacob didn’t need to hear the conversations to know what they were saying. Farmers talked about the weather, prices they hoped to get at market, and next year’s crops. The merchants discussed ships and new commodities they discovered. The young soldiers talked of home, girls, and displays of courage, as green-sleeved boys understood the nature of courage. Laughter erupted at the table with the young soldiers.

Jacob took a closer look at their faces. They were the faces of his son, young and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Jacob wondered if perhaps Malcolm was right now sitting in some tavern, laughing with new friends, and wearing a fresh made uniform of the king's service. He shook off that thought. Deep down he knew that wasn't the case. The boy was of age, if Malcolm wanted to join the service, he just had to say so. He didn't have to put the family through a week of misery before his abrupt disappearance. It was Malcolm's fight with Amita that ignited a fury that Jacob didn’t know the boy was capable of. When Malcolm picked up that ax, Jacob was grateful the boy headed for the woodpile feeling certain he could have just as easily lodged that ax head into someone's body. Just whose, he couldn't say.

His son never said what his fight with Amita was about, but what he did say he said loudly and harshly. “You can never understand what I'm going through, nobody can.” How many times had sons said that to their fathers, usually concerning a woman. “You are not my father, this is not my home.”Those words stung. Falling on a hornet's nest would have been less painful. Those were the last words Malcolm said to him before packing his few belongings and vanishing.

It was two days travel to either Ester or Rolm without so much as a farmhouse in between. No one coming from either direction saw him. Jacob had asked the trappers who lived farther up the mountains, and none of them had seen him. Jacob sent word to his relatives in Ester and his wife's family in Rolm to watch for the boy. Jacob went so far as to ask them to check the jailhouses considering Malcolm's state of mind. So many eyes he cast out into the world and all of them blind.

 “I tell you, Jacob, Zeb Nostrum has got to be the luckiest man in the kingdom,” said Lanir Hollowtail, a man with yellowing eyes and wasting body, a drifter by trade. The sudden outburst from Lanir jolted Jacob’s attention back to his friends standing at the counter nursing their ales.

Jacob looked at his long time friend. Lanir knew everyone, and better yet, everyone’s business, which he was willing to share for a drink. When Lanir flutters into Jacob’s establishment, Jacob always gave him odd jobs to do for food and drink, making sure Lanir ate a hearty meal before he imbibed. “Just what did Zeb do this time that was so lucky?” Jacob was only partially engaged with the discussions from his friends. The other parts of his brain were busy keeping track of his customers and waiting for that outside door to open.

 “He bought an old horse from that mule trader Clemmins.”

“He bought a horse from Clemmins?” said an older man with whiskers as bristly as pigs' hair. “Sounds to me like old Zeb was crazy not lucky.”

“You’ll think old Zeb even crazier when you hear this tale.” Lanir looked up at Jacob and tapped his tankard with two fingers. Jacob shook his head slightly indicating Lanir had hit his limit for the work he had done. Lanir frowned but continued the story.

Jacob scanned the tables for indications of refills or growing hostilities but found the place peaceful. The candles on the tables had melted halfway down to the nub. It was a good night with a respectful crowd. Jacob hadn't realized how much he had come to depend on Malcolm to calm disputes before they became physical and end them when they did. He turned his attention back to Lanir.

“Zeb said the mule trader had set up a temporary business just outside of Ester.”

“I bet it was temporary,” injected the bristled-bearded man.

“Quiet Nate, I want to here this story,” said another man at the counter, younger than the others. “Go on, Lanir.”

“Like I was saying, Zeb was walking past Clemmin’s stock when he looks over and sees this mare in the corral standing off by itself. It was an old broken-down thing with a bad sway to its back and scars on its hide. He could tell it had a harsh life.”

“Haven’t we all.”

“Quiet, Nate,” said the younger man.

“Zeb looked at that mare and said the mare spoke to him.”

“Just what does a mare say when it talks?”

The younger man was about hush Nate again then wondered the same thing. “What does a horse say?”

“Probably it was Clemmins standing behind Zeb saying 'buy me, buy me,’” said Nate. All of the men laughed, but Lanir.

“It wasn’t like that. Zeb said that when that mare looked at him, he could feel its spirit talking to him, a spirit that was in pain. Zeb always was one with a kind heart towards animals, so he decides to buy the mare and turn it out to pasture. Zeb says he has plenty of pastureland to spare and he could at least let the horse live out its life in peace and comfort. He figured it didn’t have that much longer to live anyway.”

“So, let me guess,” said Nate. “He fattened it up, ran it in a race, and won a purse.”

“Nothing like that,” replied Lanir. “The horse died, as expected.”

“Lanir, I don’t see anything lucky about that,” said Nate.

“Well, the mare lived longer than Zeb had expected and died after it foaled. As it turned out, the old mare was carrying cargo when he bought her. Zeb said she must have given everything she had to produce that foal, and what a foal it is. I don’t know what brute of a horse sired that one, but Zeb has one hell of a budding stallion - big barrel chest, sturdy legs, hell of a foal. You can’t buy that kind of horse for what he paid for the mare.

“Zeb always was a lucky man,” said Nate. Holding up his tankard he said, “To Zeb.”

“To Zeb,” they all repeated.

“May his luck never run out.”

“Hear, hear.”

“Nor my tankard,” added Lanir.

“Don’t any of you sorry bastards drink to that,” said Jacob. He suddenly felt a swirl of icy air circle his body and crawl up his spine. It was a dark omen, and Jacob shuddered. He looked at the door and saw no one. He looked at the tables for any new faces. The faces were the same but the mood had altered. It was as if someone had snuffed out a cheerful little candle leaving behind a gray whiff of smoke curling upwards. The men were leaning over their tables talking quietly with occasional short glances thrown to a table in dark corner.

Jacob had to look hard to see the shadow within the shadows, a shadow that sat silent and foreboding. It was not hard to guess what thought played on everyone’s mind. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I seem to have a late night guest,” he said to his friends. Jacob wiped his hands on his apron. Nate muttered an oath as Jacob stepped out from behind the counter.

All tongues were still and all eyes followed Jacob as he walked to the table. The innkeeper wiped his hands again to remove the sweat that was forming on his palms. Jacob had waited nearly two months for good news about his son to enter his establishment, but the arrival of this solitary traveler did not herald good news. A hand squeezed his heart as he neared the figure. Word of his son had arrived.

The gray cloak and scarf-wrapped face made the traveler appear to be shrouded in mist. High black leather boots gave way to black woolen breeches. Black leather gloves fit like a second skin, and not an inch of true skin could be seen. However, Jacob knew the color of this particular knight, having seen this apparition many times before.

“Welcome, my friend,” Jacob said aloud for the benefit of his patrons. He placed his hands upon the table and leaned forward, obstructing the view of the traveler from the others. The hooded figured slowly rotated its face towards the innkeeper and looked at him through eyes as weary as the ages. Jacob could feel its pain. “It’s a miserable night to be out and about, my friend. You didn’t meet any ghosts on the road, I hope,” he said aloud for his customers’ sake, trying to remove the tension that was constricting the room.

The apparition pulled the scarf down exposing its face. The corners of its mouth inched upwards. “No, but you might ask the shepherd when he passes through here tomorrow.”

Jacob’s eyes narrowed on the apparition. "Amita," he said firmly, disapproving of her antics.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Amita said in a low voice that didn’t carry beyond the borders of the table. “I told the man I wasn’t a ghost. I told the man I didn’t believe in ghosts. Does he listen to me? No. He’d rather scare himself with some silly legend. I even ate a little of his food just to prove I wasn’t a ghost. Felt guilty about it too. That didn’t help. Ghosts don’t eat. Why would ghosts need to eat?”

Jacob dropped his head. Normally the comical expressions that accompanied this girl's rants always amused him no matter what his mood, but not tonight. He felt certain the next time she showed up, Malcolm would be trotting at her heels.
            "Besides," Amita continued, "it's not safe for a girl to travel alone on the road. You know that. But a Mona-Tari, a man wouldn't come within three leagues of one of those ghosts."

Jacob sighed. “That may be, but you’re making my guests nervous. . . They’ve stopped drinking. How about if you pack yourself up, march yourself out that door, and come in through the back. Martha has turned in for the night, but I believe you’ll find a biscuit or two on the shelf. If you scrape the bottom of the pot, you’ll find enough warm stew to fill a bowl. You can sleep with Chloe tonight. If she’s hogging the bed, just shove her over."

Amita's lips formed into a warm smile. A smile Jacob felt could warm his inn on the coldest day without the aid of a fire. The smile quickly faded. "Mr. Lander, I don't see Malcolm. Don't tell me he's still angry with me."

Jacob was about to speak then stopped. He was expecting answers not questions from this girl. He looked into Amita's eyes. There was so much confusion in them. Jacob decided that this was not the time or place to discuss what happened between his son and this wanderer. He waited two months for word of his son and decided he could wait a few more hours. “We’ll talk in the morning, Amita. Tonight, you need some rest.” With a silent nod, Amita hid her face and left.

Jacob’s thoughts followed Amita out the door. Ghost knight my arse. If Malcolm had any sense, he would have wedded and bedded that girl the last time she blew through here. He turned his attention back his customers. All eyes were on him. “What’s a matter with you garden lilies, you’d think you’ve seen a ghost or something.” The jovial delivery of his words was forced, and it showed. “The man only wanted permission to sleep in the barn. Imagine, asking permission to sleep in the barn.”

A few of the patrons turned guiltily away. Jacob always found it odd that a man would spend money on ale but not a bed.

Jacob returned to his station and noticed the tankards of his three friends fuller than when he left. Before he could say anything, the dogs in his private quarters erupted in a frenzy.

“Ah, Jacob,” Lanir said nervously over the commotion. “You wouldn’t happen to mind if I sleep inside tonight?”

Jacob smiled. With a ghost outside, a few more of his customers will be shelling out a coin or two to sleep inside. “Of course, Lanir, provided you pick up the tables.”

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21. Magnificently awful opening lines you’ve gotta see

The results of the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for creating the worst opening sentences possible for various categories of novels is here. You owe it to yourself to go for a fun read.

Here’s an example that I particularly liked, and it’s not even a winner (you see runners-up, too):

Hard-boiled private eye Smith Calloway had a sinking feeling as he walked into the chaotic crime scene, for there, as expected, was the body dressed in a monk’s habit; there was the stuffed cream-colored pony next to the crisp apple strudel; there was the doorbell, the set of sleigh bells, and even the schnitzel with noodles – all proclaiming that the Von Trappist Killer had struck again.

Seriously, you students of fiction writing, take a moment for some excellent writing, as awful as it is.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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22. Flogometer for Mike—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Mike sends the first chapter for Dog Island . The rest of the chapter is after the break.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the event on the first day of February, 1995, lasted two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. The epicenter was listed as Latitude 30-25’23” N, Longitude 088-33’07” W. That put it twelve miles out from the gulf coast of Mississippi. It was just west of Horn Island in the chain of barrier islands that separated the waters of the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico proper.

They called it an unclassified seismic anomaly. People on the gulf coast just called it the earthquake. Some believed it was a prelude to the terror that followed soon after.

As preludes go, it’s hard to beat an earthquake, but there were others who would tell you candidly that the real prelude was two years earlier. The day Manny showed up.

#

The park was scheduled to die in the morning. It would be a lingering death; there were four acres to kill.

By the end of the week, probably. Tristan Graaf stood eating frozen yogurt from a Styrofoam cup as he regarded the hulking, yellow executioners. Smelling of machine oil and diesel fuel, they were lined up like a squad of sentries, as if given an opportunity the prisoner could somehow flee.

With his almost-not-limping gate, he headed south on the well manicured St. Augustine (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Mike's first page?

Hmm. The writing is clear and clean (well, maybe a little tidying of punctuation). And, even though the opening segment is not the kind of scene that I prefer, it did give a sense of reality to the story to come, and that’s good. And it ended with a good hook—there is terror to come, and Manny has something to do with it. So I eagerly kept reading.

But then we don’t, it appears, continue with the story of terror and Manny. We go to Tristan eating yogurt as he contemplates what I guess are bulldozers (it wouldn’t hurt to be more specific in some way so we can visualize what he’s seeing, even if it’s a detail such as “their blades lowered and ready to scrape . . . etc.”). While the “death” of a park is unfortunate, it doesn’t seem like a terror, and where’s Manny? The tension sags and flickers out in the second half of the page—no drama in yogurt consumption and contemplation. This got an almost from me—the opening segment was a yes, the second part a no, so it didn’t really have the strength to compel a page turn.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Design-NobodyKnows

(continued)

. . . grass. Horizontal rays from the sinking sun that made him shade his eyes bathed the palm trees and last minute visitors with a warm orange light.

The park sat on a massive concrete structure that was the gulf side border of Southern Star Marina. With the thirty-four acre marina between it and the shore, the park had a world class, panoramic view of the sound.

The Marina was in the shape of a rectangle with the west side pulled away, leaving a space in the upper northwest corner for the entrance channel. The east wall supported a two lane driveway that led to the park. Parking spaces along the driveway served the boat slips that lined the inside of the wall. The driveway on the west wall led to the harbor master's office, a fueling and service station, and a million candle power lighthouse.

Since he was four years old, Tris visited the park every week with his granddad. When Tris was older, his granddad pointed out different parts of the structure and told him marvelous stories about how it was built, the men he worked with building it, and the raucous adventures they had over the months from 1965 until it was finished two years later.

He looked past the marina to the empty lot on the other side of Beach Boulevard. The Southern Star Hotel had stood there until it burned down in 1990, a year after his granddad died. A much younger granddad had also helped build it in 1949, the year he met and married Laut Mom--what the family called his grandmother. Granddad was thirty and she was twenty-one.

#

"I just don't see the difference. They have volleyball at Southern and UNO. You could get a job there."

"And they have football in England, but they don't wear helmets," Olivia Ross said to her dad.

Avery Ross gave his daughter a quizzical look.

“It's irrelevant, Dad.” She made an impatient gesture; they had gone down this road so many times. “UCLA offered me a job. Southern and UNO didn't."

While earning a degree in physical therapy at LSU, she gained national recognition as a member of the volleyball team. LSU made it to the national final four her senior year, and during the tournament she got to know some of the UCLA players and coaches.

They tied up after a short cruise around the sound. Now, they stood facing each other on the Wild Weasel, a thirty-five foot converted Duffy lobster boat. The cruise was Avery’s idea. He wanted to give it one more shot.

The lull in the argument gave them a chance to retreat to neutral corners, sitting opposite each other on the bench seats.

Olivia watched headlights coming and red taillights going on the driveway. She understood her father's struggle. If she left for the west coast, he worried that she might not come back. The illusion that she was still his little girl would finally be shattered.

Avery studied the flickering "E" on the red neon EL CAPITAN that adorned the casino barge. He knew he was being foolish, but he couldn’t help himself. He was scared.

"So, bottom line, are you forbidding me to go?" Olivia smiled slightly. It was a familiar scene played out numerous times since she had turned eighteen. It was their tradition. She reached out with both hands and took his.

"You know you don't need a job," he said softly. He looked down as a smile that mirrored his daughter's came unbidden.

It was over. That was part of the tradition too. If he forbade her to go, his twenty-three year old daughter would seriously consider accepting his wishes. But he never once played that card, and both knew he wouldn’t now.

"An assistant coaching position at UCLA will look great on my resume. How can I pass that up?"

"I know."

She squeezed his hands. "It’s a chance to get me out of your hair for a while, and come on, it's California for Pete's sake."

A voice said, "Yeah, she looks like a California girl to me." It came from a bearded stranger carrying a red gym bag. He stepped onto the Wild Weasel from the pier followed by another man with a long beard. The second man held a gun.

#

Tristan’s roots on the gulf coast ran deep. His eclectic family tree read like a who’s who of the nationalities and ethnicities that forged the new world, back to the pirate Laurens de Graafe, who helped found the original settlement called Biloxi in 1699.

He wore a large, black wooden cross around his neck. He was told that it had been passed down through the generations from the reformed pirate himself——along with a treasure map he had never been shown.

But the park was a tangible part of his own history. He grieved for its loss.

The headlights of more late visitors came up from the entrance on Beach Boulevard. After a hopeless public campaign to keep the park, they were here to pay their last respects. They crept past the line of boat slips as the security lights buzzed and flickered in the dusk.

Tris turned and headed back to his car. His view of the shore was obscured by the gigantic box that was the El Capitan Casino barge, anchored where the slips for large sailing vessels used to be.

In a few months it would be the third casino to open for business on the Mississippi gulf coast. The patrons would need someplace to park, so, acting out the protest song from the sixties, they were about to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Full night arrived by the time Tris got in his car and headed down the drive toward Beach Boulevard. He glanced out at the dark outlines of boats in their slips under the formed concrete awnings. One by one in rapid succession, they briefly flashed as the lighthouse beam swept by.

#

Olivia thought they looked like the bearded brothers on an old cough drop box. She and her father stood up.

"Who are you?" Avery said. He gently pushed Olivia behind him.

"Just two friendly guys in need of a boat ride," the one holding the gun said. They were both wearing dirty coveralls and mud streaked Hunting boots.

"You want us to take you somewhere?" Olivia asked.

"Brilliant deduction, honey. Yeah, Gaillard Island."

"Gaillard Island?" Avery said. "Why?"

"That’s not your business."

"That’s in the middle of Mobile Bay. Even if we wanted to, we don't have the fuel to--"

"We're not asking." The man with the gun pointed to the west side of the marina. "There's a service area next to the lighthouse. You can gas up over there."

"Start the boat and let's get going. Now," The bagman said.

"Hey! Hey you!" Another voice in the night joined the conversation. "Tol' you two b'fore, stay off my boat."

They all turned to watch as the newcomer came aboard the already crowded boat. He was pointing at Avery and Olivia and seemed oblivious to the gun. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a deep tan complexion. His shoulder length dreadlocks, and Jamaican accent pegged him for an islander. He swayed a bit as if the boat was in choppy seas and not tied up in a slip.

The gunman pointed his weapon at the unwelcome newcomer. "Hey, where the hell you think you're goin'?" The Jamaican moved next to the man holding the gym bag and put his arm around him. He shook his finger at Avery and Olivia.

"This is the sec--no third, third time I caught them on my boat." The Jamaican’s expression invited his new friends to be as indignant as he was. They looked on with confused fascination.

"Hey buddy, watch yourself," the gunman continued to aim at the Jamaican. "You wanna die tonight?"

"Ha!" The Jamaican slapped his thigh and stepped closer to the gunman. He still had his arm around the bagman, who staggered as he was pulled along. "I like you, mon--mons. I take you guys anywhere you wanna go."

The bagman stepped out from under the Jamaican's arm and pushed him away. Caught off balance, the Jamaican stumbled closer to Olivia and Avery.

Avery said, "What the hell? You're drunk--"

"You shaddup, mon." The Jamaican pointed at Avery and took a step. He stumbled and pushed Avery into Olivia. The momentum forced all three to move to the starboard side of the boat. "Stay here," The Jamaican whispered, then he turned to the gunman. "Sokay I get these assholes off my boat? Then I take you to Gal--where you said."

"No." The gunman pointed his weapon at Avery and Olivia. "They stay on the boat." He swung the gun around and aimed it at the Jamaican. "Get away from them and get over there." The gunman indicated the stern. "Move slow and careful."

"Sokay mon, sokay," said the Jamaican. He held his palms out and grinned as he swayed from his left foot to his right, then he backed unsteadily toward the stern.

The gunman turned and pointed the gun at Olivia and Avery. "Do you know this jackass?"

"Well," Avery said.

"I tol' you mon--"

"Shut up, you!" The gunman swung his weapon around and pointed straight at the Jamaican's chest. His finger was white around the trigger.

"Just shoot him and let's get goin'," the bagman said.

"Wait!" Avery looked at the Jamaican sheepishly. "I'm sorry," he said, then turned to the gunman. "He always hides his key in the same place." Olivia stared at him with raised eyebrows. "We just couldn't resist taking a little spin in your boat. Didn’t think you’d show up tonight."

The bagman's face was red. "What the hell is this bullshi--"

"I put the key back where I got it," Avery continued.

"Everybody shut up!" the gunman said.

"I don't see it here." The Jamaican had his back turned to them, looking over the transom. "Hey wait, what's this shit?"

"What?" The bagman stepped closer.

The gunman still kept his distance and tried to watch both the Jamaican and Avery, pointing the gun at one, then the other.

"Hey guys, guys, c'mere." The Jamaican, still looking down over the transom, made an exaggerated beckoning gesture with his arm. "Look at my engine. They got some crap all over my engine."

The two would-be boatjackers moved closer. "What's wrong?"

The Jamaican straightened up and looked at the gunman. He was on the verge of tears. He gestured vaguely toward the stern rail. "Look. Look what they done!" He took a couple of sobbing breaths.

The gunman stepped closer, trying to see over the transom, while the Jamaican rested his arms on the stern rail and laid his head on them, moaning something unintelligible.

The exasperated gunman was ready to shoot them all and try to drive the boat himself, but he was concerned that there might really be something wrong.

He moved next to the Jamaican and bent over the rail, trying to see into the darkness below. He lifted his head to ask if there was a flashlight, but instead, the Jamaican made three swift moves and the gunman said, "Oof!" as he jackknifed over the short rail and into the waters of the marina.

"Does he know how to swim?"

The remaining boatjacker stepped back and held the bag defensively in front of his body as the Jamaican pointed a semi-automatic at him.

At that moment two powerful flashlights lit up the scene.

A female voice said, "Police, don't move!"

A male voice said, "That's the worst Jamaican accent I ever heard, Tris."

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23. Win a vampire kitty-cat

Front Patch 200WEmily has a blog called Kitty Cat Chronicles, and when she came across The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles, she contacted me for an ebook to review. I sent her one, and her review is here.

More than that, she’s running a drawing to give away a free ebook copy. So I hope you’ll visit her blog and enter to win.

Here’s an excerpt from her review:

“The book jumps right into the action from the get-go, which I appreciated. The story starts with Patch, the cat narrator, being turned into a vampire, who then goes on to share all the adventures and troubles he runs into as he tries to adjust to his new lifestyle. He makes several friends (and enemies) throughout his journey, including his new "associate" Amy, a freshly turned "vee" who has an ambitious streak. The cast of characters includes a seven-foot tall vampire with a flair for the dramatic, a pair of opportunistic vampire lawyer twins, an extremely wealthy and corrupt human mob-boss, an extremist preacher turned vampire, and a weasely journalist who is out to catch the newest "it" story. These characters will have you laughing, groaning, and rolling your eyes for sure. They keep you on your toes too!”

Emily had some Photoshop fun turning her own cats into vampires, too. Her review catches the spirit of The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles--it's for fun!

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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24. Flogometer for Carol—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed. 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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.

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.

Storytelling Checklist

Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.

Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Carol sends a first chapter (title unknown). The rest of the chapter is after the break.

The waves drove her under. The roiling water tumbled her. Her hands tore at it, but the green liquid was endless. Salt strangled her throat. Her lungs burned, screaming for air. Her brain began to float inside her skull, as her body floundered in the watery tomb. Something yanked her limp arm.

“JO!”

Jo’s eyes popped open. Her body lurched forward and her hands flew up. The seat belt locked. Bright blue and green flooded her vision. It took a few seconds to remember where she was.

The girl beside her was giggling, jostling, trying to keep the car steady on the road. “I’m sorry, Jo,” she apologized through her laughter. “I couldn’t help myself.”

Jo could feel the skin on her cheeks and temples burning. She gathered her hair up in a finger ponytail behind her head, pretending that was the reason she had raised her hands. “I must’ve dozed off for a second.”

“A second? You were snoring! Were you having that dream again?”

“No,” she lied. She let her hair go. “Guess I stayed up too late last night.” She didn’t tell her friend why.

“So, let’s see…where were we? Oh yah, about Galen…” Mischief glinted in the corner of (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Carol's first page?

So we open with the dreaded dream sequence—for some, that is. I don’t have a problem with that (I’ve done it) as long as it’s short (this is) and it immediately relates in some way to what’s happening (this doesn’t). So, as it is, it’s four lines that ultimately fail in the task of helping to get the reader to turn the page. The writing and voice are good, the style is relaxed—maybe too relaxed. The “finger ponytail” line doesn’t actually contribute. More than that, there are no real story questions raised here. Two presumably young women are about to dish about a guy. How compelling is that? For this reader, not.

The rest of the chapter works to lay out back story and to build a sense of dread in Jo about the coming weekend, but her dread isn't founded on anything that has actually happened, just on looks and how she thinks about what she sees. I think this story starts too soon. Get her to the cabin and have something happen that promises trouble. In other words, get to where the story begins, not to where the set-up begins. Am I wrong? See what you think. Notes:

The waves drove her under. The roiling water tumbled her. Her hands tore at it, but the green liquid was endless. Salt strangled her throat. Her lungs burned, screaming for air. Her brain began to float inside her skull, as her body floundered in the watery tomb. Something yanked her limp arm.

“JO!”

Jo’s eyes popped open. Her body She lurched forward and her hands flew up. The seat belt locked. Bright blue and green flooded her vision. It took a few seconds to remember where she was. I’m not in favor of having bodies or body parts do things when it’s the person who does them.

The girl beside her was giggling Dove giggled, jostling, trying swerving to keep the car steady on the road. “I’m sorry, Jo,” she apologized through her laughter. “I couldn’t help myself.” POV slip—“the girl” is her friend and she wouldn’t think of her as “the girl.” This is the author’s POV, which takes us a step away from the character’s. Same reason I changed "trying" to "swerving"--one implies intent, the other is an action.

Jo could feel the skin on her cheeks and temples burning. She gathered her hair up in a finger ponytail behind her head, pretending that was the reason she had raised her hands. “I must’ve dozed off for a second.”  While a natural-enough reaction, this action beat really isn’t necessary, doesn’t advance story, and takes up two of the first-page lines you have to hook the reader.

“A second? You were snoring! Were you having that dream again?”

“No,” she lied. She let her hair go. “Guess I stayed up too late last night.” She didn’t tell her friend why. She didn’t let the reader know why either, which is a bit of a cheat. As it is, this line has little meaning, so why include it?

“So, let’s see…where were we? Oh yah, about Galen…” Mischief glinted in the corner of (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Design-Blue-Stone

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

(continued)

. . . Dove’s squinted right eye.

Jo looked up into the edges of her bangs. “What about him?” Her mouth drooped. She made no effort to hide her distaste of the topic.

“Does anybody know where he’s from?”

“He won’t say.” She drummed her fingers on the vinyl armrest and stared into the clear sky beyond the windshield.

Dove sighed. “I wonder what he does for a living.”

“Probably works for the mafia.”

“Jo!”

“Well, he looks the type, doesn’t he?”

“I’m not sure. What does that type look like?”

“You know…sulky, secretive, looks like he would kill you in a heartbeat.”

“And Colorado has a big mob presence?”

“He could be here on vacation.”

Dove shook her head. “Don’t be hateful. You know, I think he’s dreamy, but don’t tell Lary I said that.” A corner of her mouth rose up and she winked playfully.

Jo’s mouth puckered and twisted to one side. She shook her head. “There’s something not right about him, Dove.” Her eyes narrowed.

“You crazy.”

“Come on—he won’t tell us anything about himself—and every time we see him, he’s dressed in black.”

You wear a lot of black.”

“It’s slimming—he looks like he just came from a sacrifice.”

“Jo!” Dove shook her head. “Listen, Galen’s not evil. He’s just…troubled.” 

“Hmph.” Jo rolled her eyes.

 “He is hot though.”

“If you say so.”

 “He’s like, movie-star handsome.”

“Ugh. Please…”

“And that voice.” Dove sighed dramatically.

“Dove, you’re sick.”

“I could listen to it all day.”

Jo dipped her chin. Her eyes looked up at her friend and she said sarcastically, “That would be really hard to do, since he never says more than two words.”

“He’s the brooding, silent type.”

“He’s the silent killer type.”

Dove “tsk’d” and combed her fingers through her chocolate-colored hair. It shimmered with the light coming in through the sunroof. “Come on, wouldn’t you love to play in that thick hair?”

“I’d rather chew glass.”

 Dove laughed, and then said playfully, “I think he gives Mike a run for his money.”

Jo doubled over, pretending to vomit, stretching the seat belt as far as it would go. “That’ll be the day!” She huffed and snapped back in her seat. “Like a demon can give an angel a run—I can’t believe you said that!” Her face scrunched in fake anger and not-so-fake disgust.

Dove snickered, but Jo wasn’t amused. Her head was filled with images of Mike:  his sweet face and sun-colored hair. She smiled, then scowled when Galen popped into the picture: dark and villainous. “Tell me again why he got invited.”

“I’m not sure how that came about.” Dove took a deep breath. “Galen’s all right, Jo.”

Jo shook her head. “I’m telling you, no good will come from him being with us.” She twirled a few strands of gold hair around her finger and kicked off her neon-green flip flops. “Ok, he’s sorta great lookin’, but there’s something seriously wrong with him. He never smiles. And he glares.”

“What?”

“He glares—with those creepy grey eyes. I keep catching him lookin’ at me, like he wants to murder me.” She narrowed her eyes for effect.

“Jo—”

“Well, he’s weird, and I don’t like him—and who starts their name with a G and pronounces it with a J?”

“Oh, I don’t know…maybe George, or Geoff, or—”

“Ok, Ok—stupid remark.”

“Very.”

Jo wrinkled her nose and tapped her thumb against her front teeth. She wished she could take back that last comment. It was petty and she felt foolish. She leaned her head back on the headrest and gazed at the vivid green world outside the window. The earth was stuffed with grass, trees and brush. The mountain was coated with bristly dark green pines. Her favorite trees were the tall cottonwoods, billowing with shiny green leafs, releasing soft pieces of white cotton that sailed on currents of summer air, and the aspen, with their ivory colored bark and small leaves that shook in the breeze like tambourine discs.

She should have felt happy, at least content. It was summer—finally. She was with her best friend, about to experience a long weekend with Mike and some good friends—sans one. But she didn’t feel happy. Something wasn’t right.

The AC blew softly on her face. It fanned Dove’s perfume around the car, a scent that reminded her of strawberries. She wondered what the guys were talking about in the Chevy truck ahead of them. She could see Mike’s blonde head in the driver’s seat, Lary’s auburn head on the passenger side, and the two brownish heads of Doug and Ben in the back seat. Doug’s would be the one bobbing up and down, because he could never sit still. She wondered what tales of manly endeavors they were telling—or were they talking about girls? She sighed and dared to wonder if her name would come up in that kind of conversation—from Mike’s mouth, of course.

Mike’s truck slowed and turned off the highway. They followed him onto a two-lane county road. The asphalt was uneven, a faded black, cracked and full of potholes, as if it had been forgotten. The dividing lines of the road were almost non-existent. The flaky, greyish-yellow paint only showed up here and there, but it hardly mattered, since there wasn’t any traffic. There hadn’t been for a while now, not since entering an area called Bliss National Forest.

Jo did not feel blissful. She hunched down in her seat when the inside of the car suddenly darkened. The pine trees lining this roadway were so close together and tall they blocked the sun. She couldn’t help the feeling like they were being swallowed. Her chest was tight. To take her mind off this, she focused her gaze on the back window of Mike’s truck, on his blonde head and his masculine shoulders. Please be looking back at me, she thought.

Jo took a deep breath. “I’m wonderin’ how things are gonna go, now.”  She saw Dove glance at her. “I mean, you’re gonna be with Lary, April will be with that Galen, Mike will be scaling the mountain, and I’m gonna be left alone with Doug and Ben.”

“Jo, let me straighten you out,” Dove began. “First, April has no interest in Galen romantically. Second, I’m not going to desert you. But I think this is going to be the perfect weekend for you and Mike to spend some time together.”

Jo’s heart leapt at the thought of being with Mike for three days—and nights. But, then she frowned. “Yah, but Mike has never paid any attention to me. Why would he start now?”

“Because—”

“Because, he’s a captive audience?”

“Wow…you’re really on one today.” Dove’s voice was low and full of disapproval.

Jo felt warmth building in her cheeks again. “Sorry. I’m really being a whiner, huh?” She frowned.

Dove was quiet, but looked over at her friend with a gentle smile.

One side of Jo’s mouth tried to smile back. “He just doesn’t seem to be interested.”

“Well, this is your chance to let him see another side of you.”

“I don’t have another side. This is all there is.” Boring job, boring life, boring girl, she thought. “I just wish I could have an adventure—that something exciting would happen—something just a tiny bit dangerous, maybe. Then I’d have something to talk about.” She turned her head to gaze out the window. Sunlight glowed in bright yellow stripes between the tree trunks.

“Let me get this straight:  you want to endanger your life just to impress some guy?”

Jo pondered it for a second. “No, of course not.” Her shoulders slumped. She leaned and her head fell against the cool glass of her window. She closed her eyes to the dark, thin tree trucks passing by like the bars of a jail cell. “I just wish things would change. I wish I had a purpose and…Mike.”

Dove was quiet again.

Jolifted her head from the glass. Ugh. She grimaced at the sight of her reflection in the pane: dish-water blonde hair, eyebrows that needed waxing, swooped bangs that were too long. For the millionth time, she flicked them away from her eyes—eyes some people had told her were very pretty, eyes of indeterminate color. Big deal. Just like my indeterminate purpose.

 She looked up at the top of the window and saw Dove’s image beside her:  mellow, beautiful Dove:  crystal blue eyes and thick, dark hair. She had the slightest of overbites and a dimple in her chin. But underneath this obvious beauty was a beautiful soul that drew the displaced and broken to it, like a magnet.

Jo closed her eyes. Please, Lord, let something wonderful happen this weekend, like, maybe Mike will notice me. Then she threw in, and please help me stop whining.

 She twisted around to look back at April’s car. April’s hand came off the steering wheel and waved to her. Galen sat expressionless in the seat next to her, but Jo was convinced he had narrowed his eyes at her.

“He’s doing it again,” she said.

“Who’s doing what?”

“Galen. He’s glaring at me.” Jo smiled as she waved at April. Her smile vanished the instant she looked at Galen. His imperious gaze shot through the glass. She could almost feel his contempt. She sat back in her seat. Her chest tightened again. She closed her eyes and wished with all her heart that the “black plague” was not with them. Maybe he was the reason for the way she felt about this trip, why she had been awake for most of the night.

“You know, Galen can’t be all that bad. He’s very nice to April,” Dove commented.

Jo rolled her eyes. “Everyone’s nice to April.” She spoke with affection of her frail friend. April reminded Jo of ‘flower children’ she had seen in old movies:  strawberry-blonde curls flowing loosely; clothes, light and airy, draping her slender frame. Jo frowned as she thought of April’s sunny nature trapped in the same vehicle with Galen and his sour demeanor.

“We just need to get to know him,” Dove insisted. “I think there’s somethin’ goin’ on in his life, and he just can’t get past it.”

“Like crime?”

“Stop it,” Dove scolded, but lightheartedly. “He must have wanted to come with us for some reason.”

“Yah, to murder us.”

“Stop that,” Dove scolded again. “He needs our friendship. We need to accept him and show him God’s love.”

She was right, but Jo couldn’t help herself. “Well, I still wish he wasn’t coming and I wish April was with us and you didn’t have to go back early.”

“Then he’d be riding with us too.”

Jo groaned.

 Dove gasped. “Hey! You might get to ride with him on the way back!”

Jo’s mouth fell open and she shook her head wildly.

Dove giggled. But then she said more thoughtfully, “Well, here’s a silly thought:  maybe you two will find a way to be friends on this trip.”

“Dove, I’ve tried. He’s got a burr up his hinny about me.”

These words caused Dove to snort with laughter and the car to veer to side of the road. The brake lights on Mike’s truck came on. April honked.

Jo laughed at Dove’s reaction, and then the humorous moment passed. “Anyway, he doesn’t want to be friends, and that’s fine with me.”

“Well, we’ll all be in the same cabin for a few days. It could happen.”

“If anything’s going to happen, I’m prayin’ it happens with Mike.”

“I am too,” her friend said kindly and reached over to pat her leg. “You know, Jo, just be yourself. He’ll see it, and…he’ll love you. I know he will.”

“But, ‘myself’ is—” Jo shook her head. “Oh, let’s not rehash that again. I wish you didn’t have to go back early to study.” And then she added, “You’re so lucky to know what you want to be.”

“It wasn’t hard. I’ve wanted to be a nurse all my life. You’ll figure it out, Jo. God’ll put something on your heart.”

 Jo leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The car’s engine whined in the thin air, the stripes of sunlight flashed over her eyelids.

“Listen, Jo…” Dove began delivering a lecture/uplifting message, some kind of wordy balm for Jo’s despairing heart. There was something said about “Mr. Right”…“God has the right one”…“If it’s meant to be”…

Jo pretended to listen, but she was thinking to herself things she couldn’t even tell Dove. Like how she felt she could disappear and no one would care; her dismay that not one of the guys at church had asked her out, since she had joined. Not one. Though there was only one she really wanted to. She felt almost invisible, even in her circle of friends.

 “…so let’s toss the pity pills, huh? He’s going to see you in a new light, and he’s going to fall in love with you—I just know it.” Dove threw encouraging looks while she talked.

The radio had been playing in the background. Now it was just static. Jo reached over and turned it off. She looked up at her friend. “Dove, don’t you get tired of me feeling sorry for myself and whining all the time?”

Dove shook her head and grinned. “You’ve spent plenty of nights listening to my whining.”

They turned a corner and the close-put trees thinned out and opened up the view to the land. Jo’s eyes squinted at the glow of the sun and the sparkling, endless green. Beautiful. Still, in her gut, something wasn’t right. She chocked it up to the Black Plague, and maybe what she saw coming toward them.

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25. Words that mean something totally different when you're a writer

Found a link to and a sample of "29 Words that Mean Something Totally Different When You're a Writer" on agent Janet Reid's blog. Lots of fun--go here.

A sample:

23. “Editing.”

Editing.
 
Thinkstock

What it means: The process of correcting and modifying a manuscript with the intention of improving it.
What it means when you’re a writer: Crying into your keyboard because everything is shit.

Ray

© 2014 Ray Rhamey

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