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.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.
Download a free PDF copy here.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins engaging the reader with the character
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- The character desires something.
- The character does something.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- What happens raises a story question.
Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn't deal with five of the things in the checklist.
Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.
Tamara sends a revision of her first chapter of This Bitter Cup. The rest of the chapter follows the break.
“Cora, get away from the window!” mother shrieks. “Someone will see you.”
I leave the small window with murky glass, allowing the curtain to drift back into place. “Mother, just who is ‘someone’?”
“Them! They will never stop until they have us. They seek us relentlessly and we must not let them win. We must not.”
“Let them win what? Since father died, we’ve lost everything.” My words come out too curt and I hadn’t intended that. So, I pull in a deep breath before trying again. “Exactly who is out there?”
“It doesn’t matter if you know who they are. You could know precisely who they are and still never find them. They are quiet clever, ingenious with disguise. Practically imperceptible. I keep telling you―do not trust anyone. You must listen to me; our lives depend on it and much, much more,” she declares, her agitation growing until she chokes with intensity. She swallows hard to compose herself. And when she speaks again, her voice is soothing, comforting, almost like a real mother. “Cora, I trust you.”
I want to believe her, but I see the manic eyes and crazed expression. They make me want to shout, yank out my hair, or run through the door, but instead I utter, “Then why won’t you tell me something—anything.”
Were you compelled to turn the page?
Good story questions and tension in this opening, enough to make me want to know more. The writing is pretty clean, but you should capitalize Mother and Father when they are used as names as you do here. And I think you meant “quite clever,” not “quiet clever.” Stay with it, there’s promise here.
For what it’s worth.
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
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.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Tamara
“I don’t want them to have any information they can torture out of you.”
Chills cascade over my body and I shiver.
Mother nods sagely, acknowledging that I’m right to be fearful.
But I push the dark, forbidding feelings away. They’re a temporary weakness. A feral response to her threatening predictions and I refuse to be frightened of something without a name. It could be a person, a thing, or some existential idea—I don’t know. Because living with my mother is like living in a bizarre, tangled-up spy conspiracy. Except, the only true twist to our scenario —we play the game alone.
I glance over at mother; she’s pale and ragged, too thin and unkempt. A mere shadow of her former self. My scrutiny moves to the lank brown hair she’s carelessly chopped short. It’s a chaotic wreck; a hapless, derelict helmet dumped on top her head. Without meaning to my forehead furrows.
Mother senses my gaze and the clickity-clicking of her rapid knitting needles stops. She glances up from the cloister of the shabby, green chair and blinks back at me, resembling a confused, old owl. So, forcing a reassuring smile, I meet her eyes and hold them until she’s content to resume her work.
Meager sunlight seeps by the taut curtains, leaving a single gas lamp to provide illumination. The stale room holds no decorations and only a minimal amount of furniture: mother’s chair, the gas lamp on a short table, a blocky ottoman. Since all mother’s moving has whittled down her existence, she lives like a transient; hence the house resembles its owner, an empty shell.
I wander toward the only other piece of furniture and perch myself on the edge. In unsatisfied silence, I wait for the clock to drag its hands to noon. Until a knock at the door shatters the calm.
Mother’s head whips up, her body rigid, her breathing rapid.
“I’ll get it.”
“No! Go to the kitchen. Do something quiet,” mother flings out her words like silent, whizzing shrapnel.
I purse my lips and roll my eyes, but I obey.
Mother waits until I step around the corner to open the door.
“Mrs. Kent, a grocery delivery for you,” a man states.
“I only receive deliveries on Wednesday.” A pause. “Why are you really here?”
“Ma’am, your delivery date changed. It is now Tuesday. Check the bags, they should hold everything you ordered.”
I hear rustling, then mother says, “It’s all there. But, that doesn’t mean this isn’t odd.”
In my imagination I picture mother staring at him with a hawk-like stare while the man squirms with discomfort.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” the man replies after a brief pause.
“I know who you are and why you’re here, but don’t believe for a moment I will tell you anything. My husband and I made a pact and I don’t intend on breaking it now.”
Feeling sorry for the man, I step out of the kitchen. “It’s fine, mother. Let me carry the bags.” I give the man an apologetic smile, but he stares back at me with a well-arched frown, his long, stretchy neck reaching forward so his eyes can examine me.
Mother looks back at me with horror before she shoves the man backward, steps out after him, and shuts the door behind her, barricading me inside. A muffled exchange of heated words follows and then improbably fast, mother bursts through the door and slams it shut.
“Mother, it was a grocery delivery. You must recognize the grocer. He’s not one of them.”
“You can’t know that,” she snaps.
“It doesn’t matter anyway, Father wasn’t killed by them. You realize where he worked—in the wilds, one of the most hostile, most impossible environments anywhere.”
She huffs back at me before moving to place her ear at the door, listening for some unseen evil that lurks around doorways in broad daylight.
“And that was just the benign landscape. What about the Duroians. Those monsters roam the countryside like a plague and they would have annihilated father and his team in an instant.” I wave my hands in intensity. “But, the Duroians are not them, and they had nothing to do with Father’s death. Ill-fated circumstances caused his end. Father warned us many times of the risks and we both accepted it, always thinking nothing unfortunate would ever happen...,” I let my voice trail off.
“Foolish, naive girl,” is the reply she deigns. For like always, mother remains silent on the subject, refusing to discuss or even acknowledge father’s death and our reality.
But as long as she’s stuck in this black, sucking void of delusion, I’m alone in the world. Mother’s all I have left, so I can’t give up. “Surely you haven’t forgotten everything. Somewhere in your mind you’ve got to remember what father told us. His caution, his concern, his surety that tragedy would disrupt his work. You can’t have lost it all.”
But she gazes back at me with this sad, pathetic face. Almost like she pities me.
Her reaction makes me angry. Angry she can be so weak. That she can wallow, broken and helpless when she should be strong. Strong for me. I was the child. But somewhere our roles got mixed up, and she became the child, insistent and irrational and incapable of caring for me or herself. And this weakness, this inaction makes me want to lash out, shake her, strike her, throw things, and shout. Anything. I would do absolutely anything to make her see reason.
But all the fury in the world, all the force, all the sound arguments could hold no sway over the fantasy. I need proof. Hard facts. I must discover the truth and bring back my mother. I understood long ago real evidence was the only way to right her mind. So, I resign to say no more. Instead of angry, self-righteous, indignant arguments, I will smile, reassure, and play the good daughter. It is the right thing to do, the kind thing. And it is more important to be good.
I’m deciding my course of action while mother sneaks around, listening at every opening for even a whisper of a threat. When she feels satisfied no imminent peril threatens, she moves back to her knitting, resuming a frenetic pace. I slouch on my seat opposite her and stare into the empty air wondering why I haven’t taken her to a therapist.
When the carriage finally arrives for me at noon, we give each other a stiff hug in an unemotional farewell. She gives me her usual somber warnings with a face pale and pinched from anxiety while I dutifully accept her advice. Then she holds out a pair of knobby, woeful socks and nods at me to accept them. Our eyes meet for the briefest moment before I take the socks with a tight smile and scamper out the door towards the waiting carriage. As soon as the door clicks shut, it begins to rumble away and like always, I try to hide the hollow, empty spot in my chest that emerges when I must go.
Sticking my arm out the window, I give mother a quick goodbye wave she doesn’t see, but only because she’s already slammed the door shut. Probably securing all seven heavy-duty, industrial locks too. So, I don’t bother checking to see if she will peek through the curtains to watch me fade into the distance. I know she would never risk such unnecessary exposure. I don’t even turn to watch the elementary shape of mother’s house disappear into the surrounding identical homes. Instead, I lean back and speculate how long it will be before mother moves on because of another threatening notion.
After traveling for five days along lonely, poorly maintained roads through a sea of muted greens and browns, I arrive at the gate to the forward operating base I call home. Bags in hand, I check in with the gate attendant while my carriage rambles away. The man with the too-small eyes and little-to-no neck processes me at a glacial pace, asking an exorbitant number of questions, checking then rechecking my bags, conducting an overly thorough physical inspection and then cross-examining me again. When he finally grants me clearance, I lug my baggage towards the main compound that is dark, institutional, and foreboding.
In the Social Republic, my base is considered quite modern. Although in reality, we operate in antiquity like everyone else. We may have electricity, but it’s for contemporary technologies, not human comfort. The government wants our commander in possession of every tool to war against the Duroians. For a residual amount of energy resources are left and a small amount of power is still in production, but there’s nothing available for average citizens. The Socialist and Duroian governments hold a monopoly on the dwindling energy supply and they wage war for what little remains.
I tell myself that even though I work on a military base, I am not part of the war effort. I’m only a physician here. I heal people. Though sometimes I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think I am part of the problem, mending soldiers that will fight for the government’s self-indulgent greed. I have talked about this with my only real friend on the base, Pasha. She tells me I think too much and to quit over-analyzing every detail— it’s a job; just do my job. I guess she’s probably right.
Pasha is one of the few women who work here. She’s a research scientist, and she’s extravagantly intelligent, but she doesn’t flaunt it to the extent she comes off eccentric and obscure like the other scientists. She has smooth, caramel skin and a slightly hooked nose that’s not so definitive as to make her unattractive. But her best feature by far is her long, glossy black hair. Except she knows this and having a flair for the dramatic, she often tosses it around. Honestly, I believe the only reason she works here is the abundance of single men.
Pasha finds me not long after I arrive and sits on the bed in my small, simply furnished quarters, eager to fill me in on the latest news and gossip. Well, mostly just gossip. She leads in with the most mundane news she deems worthy of repetition, “Matthew McGuffin broke his arm last week. He slipped on a pile of mashed potatoes in the dining hall. And, surprise, surprise, Shannequa Jamison dyed her hair again, blonde. She looks absolutely ridiculous and now she will never catch a man.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she concedes. “But that’s not the best news.” And before she will disclose a single, delicious word, Pasha waits for me to glance up while tapping her foot with impatience.
Catching the hint, I pause my unpacking to look back at her with the most pathetic attempt of showing interest imaginable.
She laughs. “You won’t look so afflicted when I tell you the news.”
My face remains unchanged.
Undeterred, her eyes grow large, her face animated. “A large company of soldiers will arrive, accompanied by a new base commander. His name is Commander Alessio Ferrair and I understand he is a vision to behold.”
I turn back to my unpacking.
“You could try to act interested, Cora. This will matter to you tomorrow.”
I sigh and sit, turning my face towards her with unblinking eyes to show I’m giving her my full attention.
She puckers her face up, disgruntled. “Well, it obviously doesn’t matter to certain people, but I’m tired of weak, ugly men who think having a backbone means shouting, issuing threats, and degrading people. I’m ready for a handsome, young man who understands how to lead and also happens to be single.”
“What does that have to do with the new base commander?”
“You really don’t pay attention to anything that isn’t right in front of your face do you?”
“Then please explain,” I reply, wishing she would get on with it. I have so much to accomplish before my shift in the infirmary tonight.
“I told you that a new commander is arriving. But what I haven’t told you yet,” she pauses for dramatic effect, “is that he’s supposed to be devastatingly handsome, not just a nice-looking guy, but inhumanly gorgeous. He’s tall, powerfully built, and a real muscle man. Absolutely Grecian god-like.” Pasha raises her eyebrows in tantalizing expression.
“My source says he’s young for a commander as well. Maybe only a few years older than us. Kinda makes you wonder how he rose to the top so fast. I bet there’s a good story there and I will find that out, but for now, the incomparable Commander Ferrair leads the only battalion entirely comprised of men and it’s one of the only groups with enough skill and passion to equal their Duroian counterparts. It’s reported that they are so fierce and so brilliant they have never seen defeat. Well that’s what I’ve heard anyway, though I’m sure it’s true, because it came from a very reliable source.
“But I am warning you, there will be many injured, because these men are arriving straight from a bloody engagement with the Duroians in the volcanic mountain range and it’s said they drove the Duroians deep into their own territory. Of course, this success must be credited where it belongs.” Pasha beams. “To Commander Ferrair, obviously.” Her eyes hold a far-away glaze, “He must be so dashing.”
“I wonder how this commander can do anything but fail, with such unrealistic expectations,” I counter.
Although Pasha continues as if I hadn’t spoken, citing an ever-increasing list of mythical qualities the new commander and his soldiers, must certainly possess. Until finally, she concludes with a confident raise of her chin, “Well, now that I know everything about him, it’s obvious we’re fated for each other. I mean he’s so perfect. How could we not fall madly and desperately in love? So, I’m preparing for our wedding. Military style, of course. I mean you never can start these things too early. Military men expect everything to be meticulous.” She pauses to sigh dreamily. Before recovering to add, “Well, I can hardly wait to meet him. I’ve picked out my outfit and make-up combination, but how do you think I should wear my hair?”
Now, I smile at her openly and she grins confidently at me in return, though I can’t help wondering how she found out so much concerning the commander and his battalion. I mean the new battalion is big news and such interesting information spreads fast, but the extent of Pasha’s knowledge is ridiculous. However, within hours of her predictions regarding the state of the arriving men, I find out that Pasha was right. About everything.