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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. The Master of Micro-Tension

I came across the following micro-tension exercises by literary agent Donald Maass. He writes about how to create micro-tension in his craft books “The Fire in Fiction” and “Writing 21st Century Fiction.” I’m quoting the following from an article that I found here. I’ll admit to never (yet) consciously applying his ideas, but, since I’m now involved in both a stem-to-stern rewrite of one novel and beginning a new one, I think I’m gonna do it. One exercise that really interests me is the last one below. See what you think.

Micro-Tension exercises by Donald Maass

  • Pick a passage of dialogue. Strip it down. Increase hostility between the speakers. It can be friendly ribbing, worried questioning, polite disagreement, snide derision, veiled threats, open hostility, or any other degree of friction.
  • Repeat the prompt above 100 times.
  • Pick a passage of action—anything from high violence to a stroll in the park. Freeze the action in a sequence of three to five still snapshots. Select a detail from each frame. For each snapshot record your POV character’s precise feelings. Discard obvious emotions. Choose emotions that contrast or conflict. Rewrite the passage.
  • Repeat the prompt above 50 times.
  • Pick a passage of exposition. List all of your POV character’s emotions. List all ideas. Discard what’s obvious. Find emotions that conflict. Find ideas at war. Grab what creates unease, uncertainty, fresh worry, new questions, a deeper puzzle, or agonizing dilemma. Rewrite the passage.
  • Repeat the prompt above 100 times. (If you are a romance writer, repeat 200 times.)
  • Pick a moment when your protagonist is still, simply waiting or doing nothing. Look around. List three setting details that only this character would notice. Detail her emotions. Find those that conflict or surprise her. What’s this moment’s personal meaning? Write a passage combining snapshot clarity and roiling inner intensity.
  • Print out your manuscript. Randomize the pages. (In a workshop I attended he suggested throwing them in the air and then pick the randomized pages back up.) Examine each one in isolation. Does it crackle? Are the characters on tiptoe? What question arises that the reader can’t answer? What’s going badly or wrong for your POV character? How does this page tell the whole story? Revise until the tension level is unbearable.
  • Repeat the prompt above for every page. Yes, seriously.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Juliette sends a revised first chapter of The Destiny of the Drop of Heaven. An earlier version was submitted here. The first critique is here. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

Strasbourg, 1585

Guillaume crossed the street and shuffled forward. Just a little bit farther, around the next bend.

The chanteur touched his scar, the edge damp with seepage. He wiped his eye, rather the indentation where his eyes used to be, and he shuddered. The sensation still filled him with revulsion. He considered donning his patch. No— papa might be more sympathetic if he sees my disfigurement.

The image of his childhood home filled his thoughts. His step became livelier as he turned the corner, but the sight of the flower boxes overflowing with weeds and the roses beside the front door overgrown and unkempt made him scowl. He tried the door, but found it locked. He heard talking around back and circled the house. “Mama? Papa?”

In the courtyard behind the house, where his mother kept a small vegetable patch, children he did not recognize played in an untended garden. The biggest boy ran toward him and abruptly stopped, screaming, “Mama, come quickly!”

A woman appeared at the back door, her dress shabby, her hair, stringy and matted. The boy shouted something inaudible and rushed to his mother, hid behind her skirts, and pointed toward Guillaume. The woman wiped the child’s face on her apron and pushed him toward the house. “Gather the children and go inside, hurry!”

Were you compelled to turn Juliette's first page?

This is little changed from the first submission—there has been some clarification. The last time I turned the page because there was good writing here, and the time and place were interesting. But I must be in a less patient mood today because I gave it an almost. There seems to be a glitch about whether or not he has both eyes, but that’s an easy fix. No, I think the “almost” comes because I’d like a stronger clue as to what the character wants and the stakes behind it. As it is, he seems to only seek approval, but is that all he needs here? There are still good story questions—what happened to his parents among them, but that’s not compelling. Notes:

Guillaume crossed the street and shuffled forward. Just a little bit farther, around the next bend.

The chanteur touched his scar, the edge damp with seepage. He wiped his eye, rather the indentation where his eye eyes used to be, and he shuddered. The sensation still filled him with revulsion. He considered donning his patch. No— papa might be more sympathetic if he sees my disfigurement.

The image of his childhood home filled his thoughts. His step became livelier as he turned the corner to his childhood home, but the sight of the flower boxes overflowing with weeds and the roses beside the front door overgrown and unkempt made him scowl. He tried the door, but found it locked. He heard talking around back and circled the house. “Mama? Papa?” There is passive writing that I think could be more active—for example, seeing something made him scowl. Instead, for example: He picked up his pace as he turned the corner to his childhood home, but then he scowled at flower boxes overflowing with weeds and the overgrown, unkempt roses by the front door.

In the courtyard behind the house, where his mother kept a small vegetable patch, children he did not recognize played in an untended garden. The biggest boy ran toward him and abruptly stopped, screaming, “Mama, come quickly!”

A woman appeared at the back door, her dress shabby, her hair, stringy and matted. The boy shouted something inaudible and rushed to his mother, hid behind her skirts, and pointed toward Guillaume. The woman wiped the child’s face on her apron and pushed him toward the house. “Gather the children and go inside, hurry!”

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

She picked up a broom and advanced toward Guillaume. “Get out of here!” she shouted.

Shocked, Guillaume shouted back, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“What do you mean what am I doing here?” the woman replied, raising the broom as a weapon. “This is my house, and you are scaring my children. Now go away!”

“Your house?” Guillaume laughed. “This is my parents’ house.”

“We bought this house four years ago.” The woman slowed her step but continued to hold the broom in front of her. When she neared Guillaume, she flinched and then stared indignantly at his face.

Guillaume’s laugh transformed into a grimace. “What do you mean, you bought this house? My parents would never have sold their house!”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “If this wasyour parents’ house, they sold it to me a long time ago. Now, should I have my son fetch my husband, or are you going to leave on your own?”

“But…” Guillaume scanned the courtyard. It looked very different than it did when he left. His mother would never allow such disarray. He muttered, “I have been gone a while…” His heart began pounding in his chest and he glared at the woman. Suddenly conscious of her stare, he asked, “Why would they sell?”

“I have no idea,” she replied. Her back stiffened, and she raised her chin defiantly. “But I would appreciate it if you would leave.”

Guillaume exhaled. He glanced around his childhood home reminiscing about the big tree in the corner and playing hide-and-seek with his sister in this courtyard. He peered in the window and saw the children gawking at him. They turned to each other, all talking at the same time, and pointing at him with terrified looks on their faces. “I am… sorry.” He lowered his head and slowly backed away.

He breathed deeply to calm himself, the way he had before each performance. When he reached the street corner, he stopped and absently dabbed the discharge from his eye again. What should I do now? He scanned the street, which appeared out of focus. Where could my parents have gone? They would not have sold their home unless…

He leaned against the fence until his dizziness passed. He thought of Monsieur Cuny, who lived just up the street on the main thoroughfare. Surely, he would know where they had gone.

He turned to take one last look at the house and shook his head. That woman had some nerve, staring at him so rudely. He had once stood in the presence of nobility!

He touched his eye socket; the indentation seemed to get deeper every day. Not donning the patch had not been such a good idea after all, but strap itched and gave him a headache.

He pulled the leather patch from his bag, slipped it over his head, and made his way up the street. After his last meeting, he was almost afraid to knock on his mentor’s door. “Monsieur Cuny?” he called.

A frail old man answered. His face bore the wisdom of his age. A black coif covered the man’s thin gray hair and his full beard, peppered with white. His doublet, though new and of good quality, appeared ill fitting on his stooped shoulders.

Immediately upon recognizing Guillaume, the man’s face brightened with a smile and widening eyes. “Guillaume? Is that you? Come in, come in!” Monsieur Cuny grabbed Guillaume’s sleeve and pulled him into his embrace. “Are you all right? Your eye!”

 “Monsieur Cuny, I went by my parents’ house and —”

“What happened to you, son?” the older man interrupted. “I hired a deputy to find you, but he found you no longer traveled with your troupe. He searched everywhere, but no one knew where to find you.”

“Monsieur Cuny. Did my parents sell our house? Where are they?”

A look of sadness crossed his friend’s face. Guillaume inhaled sharply and held his breath, waiting.

 The old man hesitated and replied, “Terrible things happened while you were away. Terrible things…” he added quietly, shaking his head.

Guillaume could not breathe. His head began to pound. “What sort of terrible things?”

“Come in and sit down, Guillaume.” He gestured to the young man and reached behind him to close the door.

 Instead of obeying, Guillaume grabbed the old man’s arms and shook him. “What has happened to my parents and my sister?”

 “Guillaume, you had a betrothal contract. You should not have left that way. There were consequences. There are always consequences…”

 “Monsieur Cuny, please! Where are my parents?”

Monsieur Cuny’s face became stern. He exhaled and said, “Quirienne’s papa demanded the dowry back, but you know your parents used the money for your sister’s dowry. I offered to cover the expense, and Monsieur Feldtrauer offered to give your sister’s dowry back, but your papa refused our offer. He was a proud man.”

Guillaume paled. His chest hurt as if someone punched him. “Was?” He grabbed the wall to keep from falling. Monsieur Cuny helped him to a chair and sat beside him, put a hand on his shoulder, and spoke softly.

“Son, your papa is dead. He died about two weeks after you left.”

A sob broke from Guillaume. “No! He cannot be dead. It is not true!” He buried his face in his hands, his fingers catching in the strap of his patch. He ripped it off and threw it against the wall.

Monsieur Cuny patted Guillaume’s back until he began to calm. “Let me get you a drink of ale.”

 After a long while, Guillaume raised his head and searched his mentor’s face with a pleading expression. “My mama?”

“I saw her several weeks ago, and she was fine, as beautiful as ever.”

Guillaume sighed in relief. “Where is she? I have to see her!”

“She lives with your sister —”

Before he could finish, Guillaume started to stand. “Thank you, Monsieur Cuny. I will speak with you later.”

“Guillaume, wait! You cannot go now. By the time you get there —”

“But —”

The older man grabbed his arm. “Son, you cannot go running through the streets. It will be getting dark soon.”

“Mama will not care!”

Monsieur Cuny shook his head. “But Monsieur Feldtrauer might care. He is a very important man. You cannot just pound on his door in the middle of the night.” He hesitated a moment and continued, “And you need a bath, son. You are a mess.”

“But…” Guillaume absent-mindedly touched his eye socket.

The older man softened his voice. “Stay here tonight, mon gars. Get a bath and have dinner with me. You can visit your mama and sister in the brightness of the morning.”

Guillaume breathed loudly, hesitating, “But I —”

“Come, son. I think Edmond left some clothes in his trunk that should fit you. You have been gone for four years. One more night will not matter.”

Guillaume studied his threadbare doublet. All of a sudden, he ached for a bath and agreed to stay the night.

As he lay in the sheet lined wooden tub, his thoughts drifted back to the day he left Strasbourg. He had been betrothed to a sweet girl, Quirienne and had a good job in Monsieur Cuny’s music shop repairing instruments and giving lessons on the lute. He loved to sing and often sang to himself while he worked around the house. One day, a musician hired to play at a wedding celebration happened by and heard him singing. He convinced Guillaume to come to the celebration and sing, and perhaps join the troupe. Sweet Quirienne helped him select the perfect clothes to wear, kissed his cheek, and offered him good luck.

All those people staring at him made him nervous, but to his surprise, everyone loved him, especially the women. They could not take their eyes off him. His tenor voice had flowed so smoothly. After a while, he became emboldened and began walking around the room, singing to the women individually. He noticed the lust in their eyes. After the performance, several women introduced themselves. Several others offered more than just an introduction. All the attention went to his head, so when the musicians asked him to join their troupe, he eagerly accepted. He never even went back to tell his parents or Quirienne goodbye. He sighed and dunked his head under the water.

After his bath, he raked through Edmond’s trunk. He pulled out a simple white linen shirt with a starched collar, a red doublet with long sleeves, matching slops, and hose, and a black leather jerkin with a v-shaped front. The clothes were plain with no added adornments — typical, plain, boring Edmond.

Monsieur Cuny’s son, Edmond, had grown up with Guillaume and had been his best friend. After Edmond’s mother died, Guillaume’s mama took the job as his governess, and Monsieur Cuny came to love her as his daughter. The boys spent many days happily, playing with wooden swords, pretending to be knights, or playing with clay marbles in this old house. About the same time that Guillaume had asked Quirienne to marry him, Edmond began courting a lovely girl named Barbe. They must be married by now.

Lying on the table in Edmond’s room, Guillaume found a small looking glass and gazed at his reflection. He gasped. He touched his eye socket with the towel, his fingers lingering on the indentation.

From the time he was a child, people had commented on his beautiful olive green eyes and the way they stood out against his “golden skin,” as his papa used to say. He resembled his mama – used to resemble her. Now, people look at him with disgust. For a moment, he felt a twinge of guilt. This was his fault, hanging around with those drunken, no-good friends of his. However, when he glanced a second time, he saw Catherine’s face and relived the day she stabbed him with the thorn. Hate filled his heart.

This happened because that fat old greedy barkeep, Bastien, kicked him out of the auberge. He could have been happy there, singing and playing the lute. He did not make enough money to pay the rent simply by passing around a hat to those cheap peasants of Vacquenoux, but he entertained the customers from the coach. They enjoyed his songs and drank more ale, and that pig should have been paying him for his services.

The familiarity of the house where he had spent so much time as a child lifted his spirits a little. Other than the older man losing even more of his hair, everything appeared the same. Everyone in town knew the jolly music man, Monsieur Cuny but more than that, he knew everyone by name. When someone bought an instrument from his shop, Monsieur Cuny offered free lessons. His calm, supportive character encouraged even the least musical to enjoy the pleasure of melody. All of his children learned to play, and so did Guillaume and his sister, Eve. The lute was Guillaume’s favorite. He remembered many happy hours playing and singing together.

When he arrived in the dining room, the table where he had eaten with the extended family was set for just the two of them. Monsieur Cuny met him with a compassionate smile and handed him his patch. “What happened to your eye, son?”

Guillaume pouted. “Someone stabbed me with a thorn. I had never felt such pain.”

“I believe it. I cannot imagine,” the old man said, shaking his head.

The servant brought steaming bowls of soup, and Monsieur Cuny motioned for Guillaume to sit while she served them.

Guillaume continued. “My eye constantly watered. Once I finally got the thorn out, I thought it would heal so I started home. After a couple of days, it started to hurt worse. I could not stand the pain and stopped at a farm for help. The old woman allowed me to spend the night. She put a drop of something in my eye that she said would help. I believed her! The next day, it had swollen to twice its size, and she made me a drink for the pain. The next thing I knew, I woke up tied to the table, and that witch had removed my eye! She said it would have popped, or it would have killed me!” Guillaume’s lips quivered. He lowered his head and dabbed his eye with his napkin.

The old man’s face grew troubled. “Oh, Guillaume!” He took the young man’s hand and they sat in silence for several moments. “Who stabbed you?”

“I would prefer not talk about it, Monsieur Cuny.”

After a moment of silence, the old man continued. “When the deputy I had hired said he found you had joined the troop, we were relieved. Although we were shocked when you ran off, I have to admit, I secretly felt proud of your success as a chanteur. I heard you sang for the Duke of Lorraine!”

“Yes, Monsieur. We lived in the castle for a couple of months.” He glanced toward his soup, but his expression was far away. A smile crept over his face, and slowly his focus returned. “It was wonderful, almost like a dream. Everyone wanted to be near me, merely to be seen near me. They bought me dinner, drinks. They treated me so well.”

Monsieur Cuny dipped his bread into the bowl, sopped up the broth, and took a bite. “What happened? Why did you leave them? We thought you were murdered!”

Guillaume sighed and stared absently at the old man. “I seduced the Duke’s daughter. When he found out, he would have killed me, but she begged him to spare my life. He warned me never to return to Nancy, and forced her to join a Benedictine Abbey in Remiremont. I was so ashamed I could not come home. I have just been traveling and performing in fairs or celebrations for money. Occasionally, I sang in an auberge or bistro and passed my hat around the crowd, but when I… injured… my eye, I had to come home. Nobody will want to watch me sing now.”

After a moment of hesitation, Monsieur Cuny said, “You are talented, Guillaume. Give yourself a chance. If you are still the same person as you were when you left, everyone will welcome you back, and listen to you sing.”

“Do you think my mama and sister will forgive me?”

“Your mama loves you, son. Everyone thought you were dead. She will be happy to see you.”

“What about Quirienne?”                                

The old man shook his head, and his face grew critical. “You broke her heart, as I am sure you can imagine. She did not deserve to be treated so badly.”

 “I did not mean to hurt her.”

Monsieur Cuny raised his voice and smacked his hand on the table. “You never considered her feelings.”

Guillaume flinched and lowered his head, dabbing his eye again. “No. I just —”

“You just what?”

Guillaume exhaled and stared at the table. Neither spoke for several moments. The old man calmed and took another bite of soup. “Well, she married and I believe she has a child. I am sorry that I shouted. Eat your dinner.”

Guillaume took a bite of soup. The knots in his stomach loosened and he realized how hungry he was, famished in fact, and he ate hungrily. He expected this type of reception, but he thought his father would be the one chastising him. He could not believe that he would never see his father again. His heart ached. “What happened to papa?”

“He slipped and fell off the roof. It happened so suddenly.” The older man’s voice cracked as he recalled the incident. 

Guillaume shook his head and fought to hold back the tears. He put down his spoon.

“Your mama heard him fall. He did not suffer.” After another long pause, he continued. “Guillaume, I have to tell you something before you visit your mother. Your sister will be there and …” He hesitated as if deciding whether to continue. “Rita, uh, your mother confided in me that Eve thinks your father jumped because of the shame you caused him, but I cannot believe —”

Guillaume jerked his head up and stiffened. He inhaled and stammered, “My fault? Oh God, it was my fault!” He stood and rushed out the back door, unable to breathe. The image of his father’s smiling face transformed into the image of his mangled body on the ground, his mama running to him, embracing him as he breathed his last.

 “No, son! Your sister was wrong. It was an accident,” the old man said, following him. “Your papa never would have.” He exhaled sharply. “He loved her too much.”

Guillaume gazed vacantly into the darkness as a million stars twinkled above them. He took a deep breath. “Yes, it had to be an accident.”

“Your mama knows it was an accident, Guillaume. Maybe I should not have told you, but I wanted you to be prepared.”

Still staring into the distance, Guillaume replied, “How is mama getting along?”

“When I saw her last week, she said she felt happier than she had in a long, long time, though she refused to tell me the reason for her happiness. She is all right, Guillaume.” Monsieur Cuny laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and stood with him in silence. After a while, he continued, “Have you considered what you will do?”

“No, I had not thought that far ahead.”

“Would you like your old job at the shop? I have never found anyone as talented to take your place. The shop is getting to be too much for this old man. I could use your help.” 

“Thank you, Monsieur,” he replied. “I would like that very much.”

 “Go to bed now, son. Get some sleep. Tomorrow you will see your mother.”

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Isaiah sends a first chapter of A Shadow Among Light . An earlier prologue/chapter version were submitted here. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

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

The thrill of battle surged through Kavin’s veins as he sprinted forward, his feet flying past the scorched ground from the grenade. He drew his bow once again and took aim. Seconds later, his arrow smashed into a commanding officer – a human male. The man went down, his wound streaming white light and spraying blood. He didn’t rise.

Duck. The voice rang in Kavin’s mind, from beyond his own thoughts and knowledge, deep in his primal, instinctual existence. Kavin dropped, letting his legs fold beneath him. There was a roar as a rocket flew over his head and slammed into the massive doors ahead. As the heavy metal of the doors gave way, Kavin got back to his feet and faced the looming fortress ahead, surrounded in barren, bleak stone.

“Kavin!” A strong, masculine voice called from behind. Turning, Kavin faced the voice, (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Isaiah's first page?

For me, a definite improvement over the first version—good work. Good action here, and a different world is being revealed by what happens instead of us being told about it. What’s happening was enough to get me to turn the page to find out what the fight was about. But the writing could still be crisper. Notes:

Kavin spun and drew a lightbow, feeling the familiar vibration the wiry fibers of the bowstring vibrating as the bow sent a charge into the arrow. The wiry fibers of the bowstring slid smoothly off of his gloved fingers as he He released and, streaming. Streaming wisps of white light, the arrow flew, screaming screamed through the air. It smashed into a A robotic sentry, and the bot vanished in a flash of burning plasma. Dropping to the ground and sliding, Kavin barreled into another sentry, stabbing it with a knife that pulsed with white light and destroyed the sentry as it fell. Springing up, he spun and cast a grenade into an approaching cyborg, and the creature vanished, vaporized. The edits are intended to tighten the narrative and add pace. In a tense action scene, shorter, stronger sentences help create the feeling of movement and action. The use of “feeling” is a filter that separates the reader from the character’s experience; just go there directly.

The thrill of battle surged through Kavin’s veins as he sprinted forward, his feet flying past the scorched ground from the grenade. He drew his bow once again and took aim. Seconds later, his arrow smashed into a commanding officer – a human male. The man went down, his wound streaming white light and spraying blood. He didn’t rise. More edits to tighten the narrative. I’m not all that happy with the part about the thrill of battle surging through veins. A bit of a cliché. Maybe show us: Kavin roared as he sprinted past the scorched ground from the grenade.

Duck. The voice rang in Kavin’s mind, from beyond his own thoughts and knowledge, deep in his primal, instinctual existence. Kavin dropped, letting his legs fold beneath him. There was a roar as a A rocket flew roared over his head and slammed into the massive doors ahead. As the heavy metal of the doors gave way, Kavin got back to his feet and faced the looming fortress ahead, surrounded in barren, bleak stone. Unless this deep instinctual voice happens again, I’m not all that convinced by it. I also wonder about a military operation that would fire a rocket through its own troops. Seems like a dumb thing to do. We get the idea of “dropped” without the overwriting of his legs folding beneath him. I understand that you’re working to visualize what’s happening for the reader, but readers are capable of “seeing” what’s going on without a lot of fine detail, especially in a battle.

“Kavin!” A strong, masculine voice called from behind. Turning, Kavin faced the voice, (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . as well as its owner.

“Sir,” replied the soldier. His voice was slightly muffled by the veil he wore, covering all of his face save for his eyes.

“Lead a squad into the base,” Hait said.

With a nod, Kavin flicked a hand. Five soldiers, all in black, slipped like shadows from the ranks of soldiers at Hait’s command.

“Take it?” Kavin asked.

“Secure it, yes.” Hait’s black eyes flitted to the base for a moment, and then back to Kavin. “Better hurry.”

Pulling a glowing arrow from his quiver, Kavin motioned for the soldiers to follow him. He kept his head low as he and his team hurried towards the base. They had been pressing a constant attack on the enemy for months, driving ever inward past border upon border. They were in a civilized land, fighting an advanced enemy. And now they had reached the heart of that civilization. Now they were ready to cut of the head and restore peace and control.

Reaching the door to the base, Kavin and his men hurried through the doors into the sprawling room beyond. A thundering yell hit their ears, commanding an attack. Grenades flew, and Kavin’s squad split, rolling away from the attack. Smoke erupted into the air, burning eyes and nostrils.

Stay down, Kavin willed his soldiers. From somewhere to the right, there came the sound of shoes scraping on stone. Gunfire blazed, and a body fell.

“Damn it,” muttered Kavin. Pulling a grenade from a pouch on his belt, he hurled it towards the sound of gunfire. It landed with a ping near the source of the gunfire. A brief shout rose, and then the grenade exploded, spraying plasma.

As the smoke began to clear, Kavin rose. He gazed around the room at the carnage. He’d lost two men – one to enemy gunfire, one to spraying plasma. The enemy had fared worse; they had lost ten soldiers, one of them a commander.

His remaining soldiers stood and hurried towards a door, sealed by a force field. Some of them looked expectantly at their leader for a moment, but Kavin’s face only deepened into a frown as he went to the sides of his fallen comrades. Only one remained – the one struck by plasma had vaporized. The one torn apart by bullets lay on the ground, blood pooling beneath his body, eyes like glass. As Kavin touched the man’s hand, he found the skin already cold and lifeless.

Stooping, Kavin picked the man up and set his body over his shoulders. As he joined his remaining squad members, he saw them begin to mutter to one another and roll their eyes. Among the other soldiers, Kavin was an oddity – he grew attached too easily, and refused to accept that when a comrade died, he or she was gone. There would be no more missions together. No more fighting side by side. It was over.

“Shut up,” Kavin spat at his companions. “He started this mission with us – he’ll finish it with us.”

“He’s dead,” one of the soldiers retorted. “Leave him.”

“I don’t care if he’s dead – he’s one of us.”

“And he’s dead. So let it be.”

“He’s coming.”

“All you’ve got on your shoulders is a body,” the soldier said, tone softening. “There’s no life in it. No commands to give or follow. No words to say, no gestures to give. He’s dead.”

“I don’t give a shit! He’s coming with us, and you’d better shut the hell up!”

“Kavin.” Hait’s voice rang in Kavin’s ears, placating but firm. It wasn’t loud – even if Hait had shouted, the little earpiece that every soldier wore would have canceled out most of the volume.  “We’ve worked too hard and come too far to let this slip away now. You keep that body with you and you’ll slow yourself and everyone else down. You’ll endanger this entire mission. There’s more going on here than you realize, I think. Leave him. Care for his body after you secure the base.”

“I…”

“That’s an order,” Hait growled, his voice losing its placating tone.

Kavin tightened his grip on the body, holding the fallen man across his shoulders.

“Now, soldier!”

The force field surrounding the doors that Kavin and his men faced blazed with light, and then it exploded in a flash, knocking several of the men down. Ears ringing and vision spinning, Kavin lost his grip on the body as he slammed into the ground. Ignoring the ringing, he rolled and surged to his feet, drawing his knife in one hand. He armed his other hand with his light plasma sword before launching into an attack. With so many opponents, he preferred his LPS to a single knife. Blades spinning, Kavin slaughtered three men before they could even react. Another fell as he pulled a plasma gun from a holster.

Having been given sufficient time to rise, Kavin’s remaining soldiers sprang into action, guns blazing. Kavin was a slight anomaly – while the rest of the soldiers had advanced their weaponry and wielded guns and tactical long-range weapons, Kavin preferred traditional blades and bows. He was good with them too.

The doorway was cleared in the space of a minute, leaving bodies strewn across the floor and blood staining the hands of every soldier.

“Get the door open,” Kavin commanded. He cast a quick glance at the ceiling – several surveillance cameras glared back at him. “And take out the cameras.”

Nocking an arrow, Kavin drew back the bowstring, letting the charge build. His men took aim on the cameras and looked to Kavin, waiting for his signal. He gave them a nod, and they shot. The cameras went down. Seconds later, alarms began to blare. The force field around the inner door reappeared, and turrets rotated out from behind the walls.

“I told you to secure the base!” Hait roared over the earpiece. “Take out that alarm and secure it!”

Nodding instinctively, Kavin spun and released his arrow. It flew into a control panel near the shielded door, detonating in a blast of power, and the turrets sparked once before going limp on their mountings. The alarm, however, continued to scream.

“We have to get inside to take the alarm out!” shouted Nath, one of Kavin’s men and the squad’s technological guru. “I can take down the shield, but you need to give me time.”

“As much as we can,” responded Kavin. Motioning, he sent two men to the battered doors. “Nath’s working on getting us in,” he told Hait. “I’ve got two men by the door, but only four of us aren’t going to be able to do this without some help.”

“I don’t have any reinforcements–”

“I just want you to keep the enemy busy,” Kavin said. “We can get in, but we can’t fight through an army as well.”

“You have flares?”

“Two blue, two red.”

“Shoot the blues if you take the base,” Hait instructed. “If you’re losing it, shoot the reds and hold till reinforcements come.”

“You just said you don’t have any.”

“I can get some,” Hait replied. But the message remained clear: if the base was looking to be lost, Kavin was to do anything and everything to keep it. Or he was to die trying.

“Nath needs time,” Kavin said after a moment of silence. “Keep as many of the enemy away as you can. We’ll take care of any you let through.”

“You’d better. We can’t afford to lose this.” Then the com went silent.

“How’s that shield coming?” Kavin asked, turning back towards the inner door, but there was no answer. The shield around the door still shimmered with energy, and the door remained sealed. The soldier wasn’t there. “Nath?”

The faint whisper of cloth brushing stone brought Kavin’s head around as he looked back over his shoulders. Near the concaved outer doors of the base, Kavin’s remaining three men laid in a heap on the floor, unmoving.

Reacting purely on instinct, Kavin sprinted towards the soldiers. After perhaps three strides, a faint beeping noise reached his ears, followed by an explosion. Moving too fast to reverse his motion, Kavin dove to the side as stone and metal fell from the ceiling, burying the soldiers and sealing the doorway. There was a brief shout over the earpiece in Kavin’s ear, but once the rocks fell there was nothing but static.

 

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4. A view or two from a MFA teacher

MFA artI came across a post by a former MFA writing teacher that had, for me, interesting thoughts on the nature and abilities of writers as well as the value of MFA programs. The article is titled “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.”

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist—Protagonist

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

Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn't deal with five of the things in the checklist. Obviously, some items may not apply if you’re opening with an antagonist such as, let’s say, a serial killer.


Gary sends a first chapter of a sequel to This Book Sucks, This Book Sucks Way Worse. The first book critique is here. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

A rock fell out of the sky and landed on Thirteen-fifty Dixie Road, Cayman Islands. Headquarters for the biggest company on earth had been a mailbox, and the room’s secretary had been the only person who knew how the pieces fit together; may she rest in peace.

Mostly my twin sister and I just cashed our CEO checks and lived in an obscure Ohio mansion that took twenty minutes on a scooter to get from the Corinthian columns on the front porch to the back pool oasis. There, marble statues of naked women held fruit baskets and spouted water out of their finger tips.

A setup like ours took constant attention. Natalia thinks a pool plumber is still in the west wing somewhere, lost, maybe living off the mints that one of the maids keeps putting in bowls strategically placed in every room.

Anyway, the whole world had to sit around wearing respirators for three months, following the cosmic event. Sometimes I’d just stop in whatever room I’d gotten lost in, take a seat on a French chair and start yelling, “Oh my god, oh my god,” with the respirator off, breathing in tiny pieces of Caribbean sand. I’m pretty claustrophobic. Thank god the air cleared up and I could finally fix my makeup. My hair had always been black, so that didn’t change a whole lot.

Our next check came soon as the mailman visited on month four. It was from Tokyo and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Gary's first page?

The voice is fun and the writing fine (except “finger tips” should be one word). I think you have to be in the mood to go for this kind of tongue-through-cheek whimsy on voice alone if there isn’t a strong story hook in the beginning, and there wasn’t one for me. The world-shaking calamity mentioned seems to have passed and the negative consequences of not being able to do make-up are over, so the narrator doesn’t have a problem for the reader to watch her wrestle with.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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


 Continued

. . . in yen. It didn’t have any zeros behind the seventeen. Usually there’d been at least seven or eight and it had been in normal money.

“We should have opened a savings account at the’a Ohio and State Savings,” my Italian sister, Natalia, suggested with an accent, three months late.

“We have seventeen yen. Let’s take the plastic cover off one of the limousines in the garage and make a run for an ice cream at the McDonalds drive through. We can beg for strawberries on top,” I suggested. “Everything’s probably open. Look at the junk mail! I bet we have a coupon.” The mailman had left a sixteen wheeler full of useless junk mail in the circular driveway, right next to the statue of the jockey holding the lantern. Three gardeners were out there trimming hedges, acting like four of the truck’s rear wheels weren’t in the boxwoods.

“We can’t. We are the, what you say… broke.”

“How’s that possible?”

“The party.”

“I don’t even remember it.”

“We messed up and did put it on the schedule for’a two o’clock.”

“Really?” We both passed out for a half hour every day, starting at exactly two o’clock. Usually that worked at parties because they were long and people passed out at those anyway, though later. “It seems like it was pretty short.”

“The comet interrupted. Everyone went home, but we did, what you say, pay the bands and catering in advance.”

“How much is seventeen yen?”

“Fifteen cents.”

My twin sister was prettier than me—even though we were the same—and I just hated it. We had an old, wrinkled picture of our mother, and she was the spitting image, curly hair, pouting lips, dimples, huge eyes, only a couple pimples, great teeth. Very Italian.

Incidentally, Natalia had lived there her whole life. I’d lived in Ohio with my fake mom and dad, not even knowing I’d been adopted, which sucked.

At the same identical moment that I was confusing my jealousy issues with the idea that I’d just had to live in a respirator for three months—and still didn’t have enough money for a cheap ice cream cone—the head maid walked in.

She curtsied. “Madam…” She made a grimace. “…Morticia.” She curtsied again to my sister. “Madam Natalia, I quit.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Why?” Natalia asked.

“Everyone else quit. You have no money.”

“How did you know?” I asked. “We just found out, three minutes ago.” I started hyperventilating. Who was going to set out the mints? We’d run completely out of all the pink ones within walking distance.

It was two o’clock, so I didn’t hear her answer. We faded in the foyer.

The last thing I saw after my back hit the floor was the crystal chandelier sparkling in my eyes. God dammit, we were going to have to start waking up before noon, or we’d never get anything accomplished.

###

When I woke, the chandelier was missing. I sat up. The chairs and drapes were gone, too. Somehow, they’d rolled up and absconded with the twenty-thousand-dollar rug that had been under me. Foot marks covered my pink Miu Miu blouse and skirt.

People tended to like Natalia better than me. They’d stood her up in the corner, keeping her safely out of the way while they stole everything. She was still half asleep and fell like a board onto her face, landing on the scattered pins that had once held the front door to the frame.

Sometimes we forgot when it was approaching two o’clock, but we never missed out on two thirty.

“Alright,” I said. “Now’d be a good time to have a boyfriend.”

Atom ran in. He was an Ohio State offensive tackle and had been trying for a half year to work up past a jog. “We can take the respirators off, now.” He removed his. “What did you do with those marvelous fuchsia drapes?”

Natalia got up and went to visit one of the bathrooms tucked away behind a false wall papered in hand-painted Tuscan lace.

“Where’s Alice?” I asked.

“They did’a even steal the toilet paper.” Natalia’s voice came muffled.

“She dumped me. Me! Can you believe it?” Atom pointed to his chest with a pinky finger.

“Why?”

“I have no idea.” He threw up his hands and spun around in the foyer, almost hitting the wall with his My Little Pony suitcase. “One minute I was shaving my leg in the sink, the next she’s all, ‘Get out of here!’”

Natalia exited the bathroom and pushed the door back into place so it once-again blended with the wall. I’d never figured out where the handles were for those doors, so her closing the door all the way troubled me a little. “Alice be the, what you call, impulsive,” my sister said.

“No, the impulsive one is me,” I said.

“That’s why I’m so glad to have my very own sister back,” Natalia said.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Atom interrupted. “Since they closed down the university because they thought the world was coming to an end, I get to move in with you, girlfriend!”

No way. Then again, he was big. Big could be handy. His head would have likely tinkled the bottom crystals on the chandelier, had it not been stolen by the help on their rush out. “Good. You can help me pack.”

My rooms were up the stairs and about a half mile to the left. Every so often I yelled, “Hey!” just to hear the echo. All the little vases and the scroll-legged stands were gone. Puddles of water and spilt flowers needed going around. There came a place where a couple hundred feet of wallpaper had been stripped and carted off. We didn’t have any paintings of dead relatives, so the faded rectangles in the hall remained the same.

I went through the door to my bedroom suite. About ten minutes later I stopped screaming, “Somebody stole my entire Dolce & Gabrana collection.”

Atom took his fingers out of his ears and said, “It looks like they took everything.”

I spun in place. “Oh! Yeah. They stole everything!”

He casually kicked over an empty water bottle, no doubt pretending like he wasn’t relieved that he no longer had to carry my luggage.

The walk-in closet was also empty. “Even the outfit that looked mostly like a bra and panties with a slip.” That theft was actually both a good thing and a bad thing, depending upon whether I ever figured out where I’d wear it. The outfit had just hung there on that hanger, tempting me without mercy.

“You have a safe,” Atom said, now that he was standing right in front of it and now that my stack of bathrobes no longer hid the little tumbler wheel.

I skipped over to the wall safe and shooed him away. “Don’t watch my secret combination.” I dialed left to one, right to one, left to one. It opened. “Thank God!”

“Did you find your money?” he asked from the bedroom.

“Way better than that.”

Atom returned. He glaring over my shoulder while I plucked my poor deceased mother’s rubber fishing boots out of the safe. They were yellow and came up past my knees when I stepped in. They didn’t match my pink Miu Miu blouse and skirt masterpiece, but I was preserving family history. In fact, the fact that the skirt was short and the blouse partially see-through even helped the boots stick out. My sister would notice that I’d saved our momma’s boots. That’s the most important thing on the planet.

I handed my slippers to Atom and said, “All packed. Let’s go.” On the way out, I grabbed some mints that were sprinkled across the carpet padding: baby blue and white; they were barely edible colors in an emergency.

While we walked back toward the stairwell, I tried to avoid the puddles. Atom picked up all the lavender flowers. He probably meant to find a jar. I noticed that he’d put his left foot right into the water, two puddles in a row, making left footprints over and over again.

I started stomping my right foot extra hard, hoping to compensate, which was impossible because my boot wasn’t wet and it wasn’t half his size and it wasn’t even on his body. “Dammit! Put those flowers down, you’re killing me.”

He moped behind me the rest of the way to the door, where my sister waited. Somehow, she’d found two suitcases full of clothing and a scarlet folding chair. “Mama Mia, you saved our momma’s boots. Can I wear them?”

“It’s all I’ve got. They stole my socks, and it’s winter.”

“Alright, but tomorrow’s my turn.” She kept reordering a stack of three Franciscan hats on her head while looking in the mirror, settling on leaving the red one on top of the trifecta. She noticed the desire on my face and made a diversion by pointing at me and saying, “I always liked that outfit.”

Speaking of outfits, in addition to having packed two suitcases, she was wearing Emilio Cavallini sportswear, covered by a kimono to keep warm in the brittle weather. Michael Kos ankle boots made her a couple inches taller than me. Everything was black, white, grey or sheer, but the kimono liners were radioactive red, which reflected off the Emilio Cavallini blouse like a magical aura.

“Did the thieves leave you any protection?” I asked.”

“Si.”

“We should use it right way, before going outside.”

Atom’s attention perked up.

“Let me check my purse.”

We all hovered close while she stuck her hand in there and scrounged around for five or ten minutes.

“Oh, shoot.” She dumped it on the floor. “Here you go.” She handed me the only foundation she’d stuffed in there. Peach. I started dabbing it on. About the perfect time, she found the little mirror and held it up for me so I could finish around my eyes and a spot I’d missed on the side of my nose.

We reversed holding the mirror so she could put on her protection.

“Oh my God, you have Nxy Bloody Mary!” I was actually partial to Day-Glo Fire Truck, but in a pinch…. I snatched the lipstick off the floor and put on a couple coats.

“Bloody Mary’s my favorite. Just the name, it be what you call… special,” Natalia said when I gave it back to her with fingers trembling with excitement. I held the mirror up and admired my lips a lot, thinking the color was maybe my favorite, now, too.

“Hat!” I stuck my hand out, begging with twitching fingers, mostly because I didn’t have one. Obvious—duh.

She took her stack of Franciscan hats off, and handed me the green one.

“It’s not even close to red.”

She had the brown one and the red one on top, naturally. My sister was generous, but not an idiot. She said, “You got the boots.”

“Alright. I stomped out the door and into the cold February chill. I had my yellow boots, green hat and pink skirt; thanking God they’d stolen the bigger hallway mirror because I didn’t have time to dye everything. “I appreciate the hat,” I finally said a half hour later, after we’d checked the ten car garage and found it empty. Even the net on the basketball hoop had gone missing.

“Did you bring a car?” I asked Atom.

He didn’t say anything. It might have been some kind of passive-aggressive thing, suggesting that our relationship had matured almost to marriage since the last breakup. And, here I was, not having gotten past the first quarter of college before they’d had to close the university down because of an inconvenient near-species-ending catastrophe. Everything in my life seemed barely started. No way was I ready for marriage to a four-hundred-pound homosexual. I decided to find him a bar full of men and introduce him to the seemingly foreign notion of sexual orientation… but later. Right now a girl has needs.

On the other hand, he might have been quiet because we were walking kind of fast, and he had to carry Natalia’s chair and bags. And my slippers. Atom wasn’t very good at moving. If it got fast he was even worse.

About an hour later we arrived at the front lawn gate. The thing automatically closed between cars and nobody was in the little guard shack. They’d even taken the microscopic television and fan. The electric company had shut off the electric, which we could tell by how all the cupid fountains had stopped tinkling before we’d gotten halfway down the drive.

“We can just jump’a the fence,” Natalia said. She was right; it was only seven or eight feet tall, piece of cake.

Then Atom had to make it all about him: “What about me?”

So, we had to start looking around for a sneaking hole in the stone fence that stretched past the horizon to either side.

“I know. Let’s call for pizza. When pizza shows up, the fence opens,” I said.

“That’s because the guard, he does open it up,” Natalia explained, which was no help at all. We kept kicking around in the bushes beside the wall for a gopher hole or actually something closer to a tunnel made by human traffic smugglers. “Besides, my phone does be the disconnected.” She shook her phone then tossed it back into her bag. They’d stolen mine, which was just as good because nobody ever called me. Well, my sister did, but we tended to frequent the same rooms in the house. The novelty of calling each other from the same room wore off weeks ago.

Okay, my fake mother called me, every so often, but that was a problem the maid who’d stolen my phone now had to deal with.

I stood chest deep in the bushes, planted my fists on my hips and screamed at Atom, “We’d already have jumped over, if it wasn’t for you!”

He started crying. “Are you breaking up with me?”

Natalia scrounged around in her purse, and after ten minutes or so of looking, handed him a hanky.

He blew his nose in it and handed it back.

She waited until he turned back toward me before tossing it over the fence.

“I was just saying that we need a miracle to get past the fence.”

Roughly at exactly that same moment, I heard a truck engine coming down the main road beyond the rock fence. Tires squealed, indicating it was turning in toward our gate, which was now a hundred yards away. A grey dump truck plowed right through the heavy-metal and up our drive toward the distant mansion.

A black Cadillac followed behind. Both stopped at a canter in front of the south wing of our house. That was pretty far away, so the men who rushed out of the truck and car appeared like fuzzy ants. Gunfire erupted, that also distant but unmistakable.

They tossed a sink out of a window.

“I didn’t know anyone was still home,” I said. This, of course, was explainable, given I’d not even seen half the rooms in the place—and I even tended to roam like a cat some nights because sleeping in the dark was almost impossible.

“That would be the business offices,” Natalia explained from where she’d unfolded her chair and was sitting with her legs crossed, drinking a pink Pina Colada—God only knows where she got it.

“We had a business office?” I asked.

“Daisy May Clampett, she does run the finances in our business office, remember?”

“Oh, that’s right. So that’s where she disappears to every day.”

Sure enough, the thugs came out. Two men carried a set of legs and another man had hold upon her bound arms. The young woman squirmed in the middle of all that, wiggling like a worm.

“That’s her,” Natalia said. “They’re absconding with poor Daisy May.”

“She’s in her bathrobe. They didn’t even give her time to change,” I noticed right away.

They tossed her into the Cadillac trunk. Soon, the truck and car were both barreling toward the front gate.

“Everyone down,” Natalia advised.

We all crouched in the bushes. A few minutes later, the truck and car turned down the highway. All that remained of the intruders was a cloud of dust over the fence cap.

“Hey, I have an idea how we might be able to get out of the yard.” Atom minced off toward the main gate.

“He has your luggage,” I told my sister.

We weren’t that far from downtown Columbus, Ohio, and it was a good thing, actually, because my outfit was freezing. It’s amazing how they can sometimes tuck those mansions into eight-hundred acres that nobody seems able to find. I think it’s all in how they make the roads. In fact, I felt pretty sure we’d not be able to figure out how to get back home without our driver, so we didn’t have much choice other than to keep going once we turned left past the Speedway.

First stop, Greenlawn Cemetery. The place was huge, teeming in old oaks, but ironically next to the smelly part of nearby downtown. Broad, rust and ochre leaves smothered the dulling winter grass. Acorns seemed to have gathers only in the muddy patches. Squirrels scrambled about, busily stealing them from one another. They scratched away the leaves and burying them seemingly at random.

We’d had our father’s tomb built close to WWI ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, because it was fun walking by Eddie’s grave and seeing the swagger pouring off his bronze stare. Daddy had swagger, too, but it was different, and if he flew it was probably because he sometimes thought he was a bat.

Natalia beat me to a marble edifice with its brass door and stone-backed windows laced by fake purple curtains. There were Doric columns holding up an arching rock canopy in front of the doorway. The main roof consisted of a dome of red and blue porcelain that tended to reflect all over the oaks. At certain times of the day I couldn’t bear to look at it. We’d gone for a mixture of Italian, Greek and the Moors, but the architect had been Jewish, from Bexley, Ohio, so we weren’t too sure about its authenticity.

Daddy’s crypt had been built over a couple dozen graves. We’d paid millions to have them exhumed because we needed him close. Then we’d paid a couple million extra to have it built in less than a month. Leaving daddy lying around any old place was hazardous in ways that made landing comets seem like child’s play.

Atom fell over next to a ten-foot needle headstone. Natalia settled in front of daddy’s tomb in her chair. “So, what is the plan, my beloved sister?” Natalia asked me.

“Well, we should go in and see if he has any money in his pocket, so we can rent a hotel.”

“Oh, my God!” Atom said. “Do you mean, rob the dead?”

“I prefer tomb raiders.”

In the meantime, Natalia had a stick in her hand and was whittling a fine point on the end with her pen knife. She stood. “I’m ready, now.”

We lined up in front of the giant brass door. It had a security keypad lock. I punched in the code. One, enter, one, enter, one, enter. It snicked. I yanked it open and stale air came billowing out in wavering fumes.

“Alright!” I led us inside to the wide and mostly pointless foyer. On one end Natalia had suggested an eight-foot statue of Our Lady of Fatima, only without the gaudy crown, which didn’t fit the original at all and didn’t made sense anyway. And, someone was sure to break in and steal a twenty-million-dollar jewel-strewn crown, so we left it off. That way she was prettier and not so pretentious, and reminded us of our mother. Guarding daddy’s tomb with a statue of our mother was the most important thing, actually, given the circumstances. I need add that she’d been an honest fisherwoman, not a queen. Natalia and I both stood looking up at her for about an hour, until Atom got impatient and said, “Ahum.”

“What!”

“It’s getting late,” he badgered. “Well, I’ve not had anything to eat since lunch.”

Because we had to hurry before the grinding in Atom’s stomach got too loud, we quit smiling at our mother and went to the other extreme of the foyer. That’s where we’d placed the Etruscan She-Wolf replica.

The original She-Wolf included two baby boys with their faces bent upward, trying to get at the teats under a wolf. It had been a couple feet tall and cast in ugly bronze. We’d had ours carved six feet high out of dazzling Carrara marble. The tidbits had been left off so the babies were girls, naturally. The wolf symbolized Uncle Julius, to us, but we’d never told him that because he was a man and might get upset about being depicted with eight drooping nipples. Nobody could talk to Uncle Julius when he got upset… particularly if we said, “Hey, we made a ten-million-dollar statue of you with eight boobs.”

“You could sell those and make a lot of money,” Atom said, proving he was way more of a freshman than us. More than likely it had just been a tactful way to make us hurry before the sky turned dark and we had to find a torch. After we glared at him a little, he added, “Or not.”

“He is right,” My sister said. “We should not be so long in this place.” She made ready with her stick and stood in front of the next security panel beside a slightly mismatched limestone rectangle in the wall.

I hovered my fingers over the panel. “Turn around, and don’t look,” I said to Atom. Once he did that, I started punching in numbers. They were bogus because the panel really was voice activated, in case some genius figured out my code for the other one. I screamed, “You dirty rotten bastard!”

The massive limestone slab swung inward with the sound of stone scraping stone across the floor. Two emergency lights glowed amber, illuminating the actual crypt.

We stepped inside. This room was also shallow, but without the cool statues or fake windows. There in front of us sat the ends of three coffins that had been securely pressed into the wall. Only the bronze ends were visible, complete with nameplates.

Natalia stood in front of King-god of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar II. She was wrenching both fists on that stick.

Atom casually leaned on the end of Helena’s coffin, likely forgetting how nasty of a shrew she’d been last time they’d met. Then again, it’d been mostly me she’d been stabling with the fork and smashing with the platter.

I took the middle, frozen in contemplation as I squinted me some loathing upon Daddy’s plate, which read: Vlad III, Crowned Prince of Wallachia. We should have added, the man who killed our momma.

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Daniel sends a first chapter of a middle-grade novel, Hidden Treasure. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

“Venezuela?”

Mum was trying to have a serious chat with my grandparents.

“Don’t worry, Noah,” she’d assured me. “We’re not ignoring you.”

Then they turned around to ignore me. Whilst pretending to watch TV, I listened to every single word of the amazing conversation that followed. Mum whispered at my grandparents through gritted teeth. “Are you insane? Why would you want to go to Venezuela?”

Grandpa Joe’s white beard was thick and bushy but he was completely bald. It looked like he’d put his head on upside-down. His yellow Hawaiian-style shirt was covered with parrots and palm trees while his shorts revealed a pair of wrinkled, veiny legs and the anchor tattoo on his right calf.

“Angel Falls,” he grinned, showing off his piano mouth, a few teeth missing. “The world’s tallest waterfall.”

Mum pouted in confusion. “You want to see Angel Falls?”

“No,” Granny Annie interrupted. Her white hair contrasted with her rosy cheeks and black sunglasses. Granny Annie always wore sunglasses (even at night). “We want to go down Angel Falls!” she smiled.

Mum turned around to send me psychic messages with her eyes. They’ve finally lost the (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Daniel's first page?

I definitely like the voice and the writing in this opening chapter, and there are interesting characters--but the opening narrative isn’t about the protagonist, which I assume is the unnamed kid. The story, at this point, is not about him/her, it’s about setting something up. I think you’ve started the story too soon. Get closer to the inciting event, the place where a problem for the protagonist first appears. Notes:

“Venezuela?”

Mum was trying to have a serious chat with my grandparents.

“Don’t worry, Noah,” she’d assured me. “We’re not ignoring you.”

Then they turned around to ignore me. Whilst pretending to watch TV, I listened to every single word of the amazing conversation that followed. Mum whispered at my grandparents through gritted teeth. “Are you insane? Why would you want to go to Venezuela?” Try whispering anything intelligible through gritted teeth. You won’t get something anyone would actually do. It’s obvious he/she keeps listening, so no need to tell us. If you did some basic, quick scene-setting, we would know where we are and that the television is on. So where are they? All in the TV room?

Grandpa Joe’s white beard was thick and bushy but he was completely bald. It looked like he’d put his head on upside-down. His yellow Hawaiian-style shirt was covered with parrots and palm trees while his shorts revealed a pair of wrinkled, veiny legs and the anchor tattoo on his right calf. A nice description of Grandpa, but is he going to be a continuing character (I hope so, I like him)? If not, I wouldn’t take up this much of first-page narrative with description.

“Angel Falls,” he grinned, showing off his piano mouth, a few teeth missing. “The world’s tallest waterfall.”

Mum pouted in confusion. “You want to see Angel Falls?”

“No,” Granny Annie interrupted. Her white hair contrasted with her rosy cheeks and black sunglasses. Granny Annie always wore sunglasses (even at night). “We want to go down Angel Falls!” she smiled.

Mum turned around to send me psychic messages with her eyes. They’ve finally lost the (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . plot, Noah! Time to send them to the nuthouse! I nodded. Message received loud and clear.

“If you jump down Angel Falls,” Mum barked. “You will die! Game over! Full stop. The End.”

Grandpa Joe grinned one of his cheeky, toothless grins. The wrinkles around his eyes gave him a permanently happy face. “We’ll be perfectly safe,” he smiled. “Because... we’ll be… in a barrell!”

Mum’s mouth opened wide, confusion slapped across her face. “This is ridiculous! It’s worse than when you wanted to bungee off Big Ben! Why would you want to go down Angel Falls in a barrel?”

Granny Annie, wearing a long, red dress, smiled before speaking.

“Life is an adventure. We should create special stories and magical memories. If we were meant to do the same things over and over again, we’d have been born as sheep. Sleep, eat grass, repeat. We’re sixty seven years old and we still haven’t been on a blinkin’ aeroplane. We don’t have long left and we want to fill our time with amazing experiences.”

Life is an adventure? I liked the sound of that!

Mum frowned, spreading her hands wide. “Okay, you want to go on an aeroplane because you’ve never done it before. I accept that. But why Venezuela? Why do you need to go down the world’s biggest waterfall in a barrel? Why can’t you just go to… Benidorm?”

My grandparents then exchanged a quick glance. A hidden message.

“We can go wherever we want,” said Granny Annie. “And we want to go to Angel Falls.”

“You’re not going to Venezuela!” Mum yelled.

“It’s going to happen,” said Granny Annie softly. She tapped the side of her sunglasses. “I’ve seen it in the meat!”

Mum sighed heavily. “Not this again!”

Granny Annie was an eccentric lady who believed in the mystical world of fortune telling, trickery and voodoo. Her particular talent - so she claimed - was that she could see the future by looking into joints of red meat. Many times, I’d arrived at their bungalow and found her in the kitchen, staring into a slice of frying steak.

“How can you afford it?” Mum asked anxiously. “You can barely pay your bills with those measly pensions. You can’t afford return flights to Venezuela.”

Grandpa Joe’s stubborn grin never budged an inch. “We have a plan.”

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7. Myths about romance readers

HeartIf you write romance novels, do you know who your reader is? What are the demographics of romance readers? All women? All love-starved? Author Maya Rodale addresses a list of common “understandings” about who and what romance readers are and corrects them in “Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?” It’s a fun and enlightening read.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

Oops, I got caught up in working on an edit and forgot to post yesterday. Enjoy.

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Elizabeth sends a revised first chapter of Masquerade, (formerly Ace, a YA novel. The original is here. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

Two years ago I made a promise to myself. I would get out of this academy. I would die without its roof over my head.

I hop around my dorm, pulling on the leotard Ella sewed for me. There’s only two ways this morning will end. If I come first, I’ll be allowed to escape into the city outside. If I don’t, I’m stuck inside this prison for another year. I’m dancing for my freedom.

I throw on the cloak and the material falls silken over my shoulders. Ella did a good job with it.  She’s only ten and rubbish at performances, but a wonder with sewing. I can’t pick up a needle without pricking myself, so having her make costumes in return for dance lessons has been a good deal.

But I’ve always known Ella would’ve helped me, whether I gave her lessons or not. She used to have the dorm beside mine. I can’t count the nights she came in to hold my hand, while I screamed my head off about some nightmare or another. But these days the nightmares have faded, and Ella knows me better than anyone in the Institution. It isn’t something I’m proud of. Some of the students would kill their opponents for a chance of winning, so I don’t make a habit of trusting them.

I pull the hood low enough that my opponents won’t catch a look at me. To win (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Elizabeth's first page?

I do like Elizabeth’s voice for this character, and the writing flows nicely for the most part. But, for me, two things held back a page turn.  The first was a lack of tension caused by a lack of stakes. It’s clear that she wants desperately to get out of the academy/prison, but there are no troublesome consequences to failing. On the craft side, a pronoun without  its true antecedent caused total confusion in one paragraph, a real clarity issue. In reading on, there is a unique and interesting world here, and the promise of a good story. Keep working, you’ll get there.

Two years ago I made a promise to myself. I would get out of this academy. I would die without its roof over my head.

I hop around my dorm, pulling on the leotard Ella sewed for me. There’s only two ways this morning will end. If I come first, I’ll be allowed to escape into the city outside. If I don’t, I’m stuck inside this prison for another year. I’m dancing for my freedom. Not sure how to interpret “prison” here. First it’s an academy, then a prison. Is this just teenage angst, or is it a real prison, or is it an academy that is like a prison? What is she in the prison/academy for? Most importantly, what are the stakes for being stuck there for another year? If her problem is being kept in a school for a year, it doesn’t sound like a big problem. Need to include some stakes here.

I throw on the cloak and the material falls silken over my shoulders. Ella did a good job with it.  She’s only ten and rubbish at performances, but a wonder with sewing. I can’t pick up a needle without pricking myself, so having her make costumes in return for dance lessons has been a good deal.

But I’ve always known Ella would’ve helped me, whether I gave her lessons or not. She used to have the dorm beside mine. I can’t count the nights she came in to hold my hand, while I screamed my head off about some nightmare or another. But these days the nightmares have faded, and Ella knows me better than anyone in the Institution. It isn’t something I’m proud of. Some of the students would kill their opponents for a chance of winning, so I don’t make a habit of trusting them. The last two sentences didn’t make sense for me. Why is she not proud of Ella knowing her better than anyone? And the last sentence was a real non sequitur for me—what does her not being proud of knowing Ella have to do with students killing opponents? Is what she’s not  proud of trusting Ella? Not clear at all. The problem lies with the use of “It” at the beginning of the sentence—its antecedent lies in the sentence before it, but that, apparently, isn’t what was meant.

I pull the hood low enough that my opponents won’t catch a look at me. To win (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . my freedom, I’ll have to dance so well I’m ranked above hundreds in the annual Student Ability Review this morning.

I check my reflection in the mirror. Where my face should be is just the shadow of the hood. I don’t bother trying to work my black hair into something. If I’m bad at sewing, my hair styling skills would be classed as apocalyptic.

I cross to my bed and pick up the mask. It fastens over my skull with a dull thwack, and takes a little adjusting to get it to mould to my face. It fits, but it should after all the hours Ella spent poking at my head. In the mirror you can see the faint glimmer of the blue and gold but nothing more.

I slip out of my dorm and hover at the entrance. The hallways and staircases of the Institution are dim but there’s enough light to see by. To my left is the path that leads to the Library. It’s forbidden, of course, but that doesn’t stop me sneaking down there every night to practice and read. But the danger’s worth it to read the books. I’m the only student that knows of the world outside the Institution.

I turn away from the library and set off. The coarse carpet nearly muffles my footsteps, but what it doesn’t, I do from habit. Not having the impending fear of capture is a nice change from my nightly routine of creeping around after curfew. I even pass a couple of the patrolling Electroines, but they don’t even look up. I’ve been chased by those machines through pitch-dark hallways before, and I’ve been lucky to escape. No one really knows what happens if you get caught after curfew, except that you disappear.

A pair of huge oak doors spit me into the Dining Hall. The first things I see are the patterns in the stained glass windows- patterns of moons and stars and trees- patterns of things that only exist in the Library’s books.

Maybe I’ll see them for real soon.

The Electroines line us up in front of the breakfast tables. The other students are in all forms of showy attire but Ella falls into place beside me wearing a simple white dress. She only stands to my shoulder, looking like a finch among birds of prey.

She elbows me, “Did you like the costume?” Before I can respond an Electroine calls her name.

“Here!” she says.

“Fife?”

“Here,” I say. The Electroine glances up from its clipboard and Ella withers a little beneath its blank face. It continues with the list, looking bloody in the light from the windows.

I turn to Ella, “Yeah, it’s great. Thanks.” I would have said more but my stomach’s performing its own dance routine. I think she understands though, because she falls quiet for a little while. The Electroine begins calling people to their performances.

I look down and see her hands trembling. I take them in mine and don’t say a word. I feel her gaze on me, but if I meet it I’m scared my hands will shake too, “Ella, I taught you everything I know. You’ll be fine.”

She nods and her little plaits bob, “Okay.”

She doesn’t sound okay. She looks even worse when an Electroine says, “Ella is summoned to the Grand Theatre.”

I let her hands go, but they flit beside mine for a fraction longer than they should. I gather myself and smile.

“Bye-bye,”she whispers. She doesn’t take her eyes off me until she’s swallowed by a door.

The next few minutes are agony. I don’t have Ella’s warm little hands to be brave for. I fiddle with the hood of my cloak, pulling it lower and lower as if I could retreat from everything. Now I don’t have my Library to hide in. Now I don’t have the towering bookcases to shelter me.

All I have is me and my mask.

The Electroine calls and I stumble after it, cloak fluttering on either side of me like flightless wings. I promised myself I would win this. But I’m a liar. I lied to Ella when I told her she would be fine, when I knew she was a terrible performer. I never told her, that while the winner of the Student Ability Review is freed, the loser disappears completely.

“It’s showtime,” the Electroine says behind me. I turn around and the door slams shut.

Add a Comment
9. Flogometer for Bill—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Bill sends first chapter of All About the Money. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

Ah, freedom.

Reid Middleton lifted his face. Sleet collided with his hair, a stinging frozen shower. His skin tingled, the pelting rain anything but torture. The guards in the Monroe exercise yard would never have let him stand by himself during a hard rain without being suspicious. Five minutes outside and back to work.

He squinted. Ice pellets rode the gale through bubbles of light haloing the tri-lamp poles across the street. His smile widened. Edges of ice scoured the skin on his face, the burn cleansing, invigorating.

“You stupid, young man?”

Reid shielded his eyes with a hand and glanced back at the sidewalk fronting the South Puget Sound’s largest homeless shelter. The hoarse voice belonged to one of their regulars. “Lot of people think I am, Ma'am.”

“Worse night we had.” The old woman tested the water with the rubber tip of her cane before putting her foot forward. “We still got room?”

“Yes, we do.” Reid pivoted. He strode toward the entrance door and cupped her elbow.

Glancing at his fingers on her stained coat, she paused.

“Been a little slippery out here,” he said, waiting until she settled her weight against him. (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Bill's first page?

A likeable voice and good writing here, but it’s devoted to set-up, pretty much. What happens here? A man muses about the past, likes the rain, and greets a woman. Not much in the way of story questions raised here for me, thus little in the way of tension. The voice and world just didn’t add up to compelling for me. Notes:

Ah, freedom.

Reid Middleton lifted his face. Sleet collided with his hair, a stinging frozen shower. His skin tingled, the pelting rain anything but torture. The guards in the Monroe exercise yard would never have let him stand by himself during a hard rain without being suspicious. Five minutes outside and back to work. The reference to the guards ended up confusing me. In an opening, set the current scene quickly and try to get to story as soon as possible.

He squinted. Ice pellets rode the gale through bubbles of light haloing the tri-lamp poles across the street. His smile widened. Edges of ice scoured the skin on his face, the burn cleansing, invigorating. I think a little too much time is spent on this. It has already been shown that he, for some reason, likes this.

“You stupid, young man?”

Reid shielded his eyes with a hand and glanced back at the sidewalk fronting the South Puget Sound’s largest homeless shelter. The hoarse voice belonged to one of their regulars. “Lot of people think I am, Ma'am.”

“Worse night we had.” The old woman tested the water with the rubber tip of her cane before putting her foot forward. “We still got room?”

“Yes, we do.” Reid pivoted. He strode toward the entrance door and cupped her elbow.

Glancing at his fingers on her stained coat, she paused.

“Been a little slippery out here,” he said, waiting until she settled her weight against him. (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

Continued

The last four steps came quicker. When she negotiated the ramp, he opened the door. “Don't want anyone to fall.”

“Duh.” She rolled her eyes. Stepping through the doorway, she turned to him, shook her head, and smiled. “You ain't stupid, but... Get outta the rain before you catch real trouble.”

She passed the intake cage and walked toward the staircase down to the day room.

Reid waved at Oliver, the shelter’s entrance monitor, brushed the water off his staff parka, and eased into the chapel by the door on the left. Near the back of the room, he settled on a staff chair. Closing his eyes, he let the preacher’s familiar cadence surround him.

He had not preached, in twelve years of wasted ministry, one sermon with the power that his new boss displayed every night: Matthew Paul Leitner spoke with the voice of God.

Healing words flowed in Leitner's sweet baritone, like the oak-aged single malt Scottish whiskeys he once favored. Each syllable vibrated through the crowded sanctuary with authority and warmth. The voice had become famous. Then infamous.

During Reid’s seminary years, Leitner’s halo cracked in a drunken and promiscuous stupor. Leitner lost his pulpit. But, he never lost the Word.

The ticking wall heaters punctuated Leitner’s pauses like a Greek chorus. Reid caught the dank smell of rain-soaked coats and filthy blankets in the refurbished nineteenth century warehouse. The chapel, packed with old man Leitner’s flock, blended accents of Victorian-aged mildew with the scent of unwashed bodies.

Leitner was unlike most evangelists who rained harsh and accusatory shouts onto the souls of would-be penitents. Reid heard his boss wash the congregation of the broken with the sustaining promise of a Christ who had walked the dark streets where they now lived.

Hellfire evangelists withheld the salve of hope until tears of submission flowed. Leitner fed his wretched, abandoned souls the grace of God from the first sentence. The wounds of the homeless, the hiding, and the hopeless were visible to anyone who would see. Leitner’s Jesus needed no additional blood-letting; his Jesus came with open hands.

He had preached sixteen times since Reid assumed the night supervisor's duty. Burning to believe the old man’s winning witness, he could not. Thirty nine months, four days in the prison at Monroe bleached the remaining marks of faith from his body.

Not that Reid was immune from the executive’s electricity. Despite the overheated shelter’s chapel, he fought a prickling cold rising from bone to skin. He might as well be standing back outside, unshielded from the November storm.

Reid scanned one packed row to the next. The regulars squeezed into the eleven ranks of castoff pews from early twentieth century churches. Most were there good weather or bad. He knew others bypassed the chapel and found spots in the dayroom, awaiting their late call for dinner.

Tonight, irregulars filled all the rows of plastic chairs toward the back of the room, escaping the worst storm of the year. Reid recognized several of the fifty or so from earlier nights in November.

Four weeks into his parole-required work, he had nothing positive to add to these lives numbed to the diffidence of the world. Leitner brought food to their table. And, from what he had seen, the old man's words worked.

When the preacher launched his sermon, the room quieted.

Reid was amazed at Leitner’s originality, the gift of reading scripture in unexplored ways, and the shaping of words into verbal armor to protect individual lives. The Reverend lifted each gospel theme until it shone like new. He rode the passion but loathed the theatricality of his evangelical peers.

 “I’ve endured storms that flail the soul. I’ve survived hurricanes that bruised the mind. Yet, the worst I’ve suffered was silence.” Leitner stopped. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Thou art with me.” Another pause. “You are not alone. Listen for His voice—however faint. He is with you.” His cadence, trimmed with a mid-Southern accent, he spoke as a wounded man. So easy to believe, so easy to trust. 

Reid allowed his head to lower. If you don't hear it, don't feel it, or can't subscribe to it, salvation fades. Just like love. 

Stretching against the back of the staff chair, he watched Leitner flick his concentration from one guest to another, a great preacher building intimacy with his congregation, eye to eye.

Leitner’s sermon came in rushes of images lit with truth then slowed with words squeezed through experience and regret. His empathetic struggle in life pointed at hope, the being of a gracious God.

Reid considered the unusually quiet crowd. During his tenure on the shelter’s staff, he had learned the names of a number of regular guests. While some lived in the Shelter of Hope’s in-house programs, most remained permanent residents of the streets.

In the front row, Leo Halloran, wrapped in his new Salvation Army winter blanket, sat next to his constant friend, Cadillac Charlie. Indifferent to the increasing stuffiness of the room, both wore or had under their chairs the few possessions they owned. Other regulars from the streets filled the first pews far from the chilly outer walls of the brick-faced building. They claimed this reward for having lined up in the rain an hour before the doors of the chapel opened.

Leitner’s voice never trembled but flowed rich with expectation. Unlike the screamers, he, white hair slick with sweat, floated words throughout the room in tones as sweet as a Puccini melody.

No one from Reid’s past would look for him in such a congregation as this. For certain, he would not be in the first rows, sitting with Leo and Cadillac. Those who remembered him fondly—how few would there be—would be surprised to see him in church at all.

Reid smiled. After these weeks listening to Leitner, he would choose to perch in the last two rows. Almost comfortable in a plastic chair, he’d sit with one eye on the preacher, hoping to spy the bridge back into the land of faith, the other eye on the door to rain-swept freedom.

For the second time in tonight’s sermon, Leitner turned his face and stared at Reid, the preacher’s promises of new life eliciting an unexpected emotional echo in him. Reid shivered. Glancing around to make sure no one had seen his reaction, he leaned forward. From the day he first heard the lies his exe told on the stand, Reid knew emptiness. Now, he protected what mattered. Do your job, nothing more. Commitment will kill you.

The beefy smell of simmering food added to the thick atmosphere. Something else? An added twinge tweaked his nose. The smell hit him like a charcoal broiler burning away lighter fluid. What were they serving?

 “I'm sorry, ma'am. We full up in the chapel tonight. You...”

The voice came from the back, over his left shoulder.

Rubbing a hand down his face, Middleton turned toward the entry doors. His smile faded.

A young woman, a rain-saturated baseball cap dripping onto shoulder-length hair matted against her face, clutched a preteen girl to her chest with one arm and waved off the chapel door manager with the other. The woman glared as though she was staring down a yelping security dog.

“Ma'am, you got to wait out here. We got room downstairs.”

“We don't got to go anywhere.” The woman drew the girl closer. Reaching out, she swatted the manager’s arm pointing at the exit door. “Keep your fucking hands off me and don't point.” Turning her head, she said to the older woman just behind her, “Come on, Gerrie.”

Reid rose and walked to the threesome. Leitner had stopped preaching and worshippers began to speak.

The woman pushed the girl toward the hot water radiator fronting the curtained window on the street-side wall. Sarge, a man wrapped in a faded fatigue jacket, eyes closed, legs bowed over the heat source, covered half the window sill.

“Move.” The woman, keeping the girl in front of her, planted her hand onto Sarge’s fatigue covered elbow and shoved him. The man jumped off the sill. His eyes flared open. Placing herself on the spot he had occupied, she left enough room for Gerrie, to sit atop the warm metal and lean against the buffered window.

Sarge, a non-commissioned officer from a Ranger unit deployed in the early days of Iraq, growled and pulled into a crouch, his hands drawn up, his nose sniffing for the enemy.

Reid closed the last few feet to the back of the room. “Hold on, Sarge,” he whispered.

The veteran, his holey camouflage jacket hanging open, a weathered black watch cap pulled low on ragged brows, turned back to the woman holding the child. His eyes grew wide. Fear and anger played across his face.

Reid rushed between Sarge and the three females. Gerrie Lancaster, the older of the two women, was a resident and one of the cooks in the Women's House. She knew better than to rattle Sarge who had a reputation for unpredictability.

Sarge, his face contorted, rose out of a crouch, squared his body to the younger woman and moaned. The sound quieted the room.

Presenting his back to Sarge, Reid moved in front of Gerrie, careful not to crowd the soldier. He whispered loud enough for Sarge to hear, “I’m going to find a place for you to sit down, Ma’am.”

“She’s fine. Back off,” said the woman beside Gerrie. “If your friend has a problem, maybe he shouldn't hog so much room on such a shitty night.”

“You may be right, Ma’am,” he said, “However, Ms. Lancaster looks pretty tired tonight. She’ll feel better if we can get her off her feet.”

“Just a minute, Sarge,” Reid said. “I need to help Ms. Lancaster to a seat.”

Slipping a hand around Gerrie’s waist, Reid waited until she was stabilized before they started in the direction of his seat on the side wall. He glanced back at Sarge, whose eyes remained wide, feral, ready to ward off the insurgents should they halt their retreat.

The younger woman, steering the girl, followed.

Before they had made it to Reid’s seat, Leo and Cadillac grabbed their belongings and sidled past others in the front row. The jawing back and forth in the row started again.

Gerrie Lancaster shuffled forward, Reid lifted his arm around her shoulders.

Something was very wrong. Cadillac looked frightened. The room smelled worse. Sharp, acrid?

Cadillac stopped in front of Gerrie Lancaster.

“What’s the matter?” Reid whispered.

The little old man’s glance darted around the room. Turning, he pointed toward the ceiling. “Smoke?” To Gerrie, his bearded face nodding, Cadillac continued. “You gotta leave, Ms. Lancaster.”

Leo reached a hand to his shoulder and pulled at him. “Now, Caddy. Go, now.”

Reid looked at the corner above Leitner’s head. No smoke. He sniffed. No tang of wood. Still that sharp odor.

Electrical.

Others rose from their seats, cradled their belongings, and pushed past those still seated.

Leitner leaned into the microphone and spoke slowly, “Calm down, calm down. If there’s a problem, we’ll get all of you out safely.” Pointing at Reid, he continued, “Our new Reverend will check on the situation and come right back with his report. There’s been no alarm sounded. He’ll check it out. Everyone calm down.”

Gerrie Lancaster shook off Reid’s hands and turned around to escape. The younger woman pulled her lagging girl toward the filling exit.

Reid darted for the doorway to the lobby. The hall manager pushed into the room, crashing into him. “We got smoke in the computer lab.”

A muffled alarm wailed.

Reid pushed into the frightened at the chapel door. “Call nine-one-one.”

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10. Book clubbing

Book clubs are terrific in many ways, most especially in that they buy and read books. I've sat in on a book club meeting that discussed one of my novels, and they were all intelligent and insightful--I had a good time, perhaps mostly because they liked the novel.

And that none of them were the women portrayed in a post I came across titled "The 7 People in Every Book Club." It's tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect there's a lot of truth in this.

I also think that some of these same people appear in writers' critique groups. What do you think?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Juliette sends first chapter of what looks like historical fiction, no title available. The remainder is after the break.

CHAPTER 1

1585

Strasbourg, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation

 

Guillaume crossed the street and shuffled forward. Just a little bit farther, around the next bend.

The chanteur touched his scar, the edge damp with seepage. He wiped his eye with his handkerchief and shuddered. The sensation still filled him with revulsion. He considered donning his patch. No— papa might be more sympathetic if he sees my disfigurement.

The image of his childhood home filled his thoughts. His step became livelier as he turned the corner and passed the neighboring gable and timbered houses. He scowled when he noticed the flower boxes overflowing with weeds and the roses beside the front door overgrown and unkempt. He tried the door, but found it locked. He heard talking around back and circled the house. “Mama? Papa?”

In the courtyard behind the house, where his mother kept a small vegetable patch, several children whom he did not recognize played in an untended garden. The biggest boy ran toward him and abruptly stopped, screaming, “Mama, come quickly!”

A woman appeared at the back door, her dress shabby, her hair, stringy and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Juliette's first page?

There’s good writing here, and the time and place have inherent interest. There was just enough in the way of story questions for me to turn the page, but there had be something immediately after that raises the tension and creates stronger story questions. And I think the narrative could use some polishing. Notes:

Guillaume crossed the street and shuffled forward. Just a little bit farther, around the next bend.

The chanteur touched his scar, the edge damp with seepage. He wiped his eye with his handkerchief and shuddered. The sensation still filled him with revulsion. He considered donning his patch. No— papa might be more sympathetic if he sees my disfigurement. This description needs work—it should be clear to the reader that it refers to his eye. As it is, the reader has to figure that out, and she should not have to.

The image of his childhood home filled his thoughts. His step became livelier as he turned the corner and passed the neighboring gable and timbered houses. He scowled at when he noticed the flower boxes overflowing with weeds and the roses beside the front door overgrown and unkempt. He tried the door, but found it locked. He heard talking around back and circled the house. “Mama? Papa?” Not sure what is meant by “gable and timbered houses.” Is it “gabeled?” “When he noticed” is a filter that can distance the reader from the character’s experience.

In the courtyard behind the house, where his mother kept a small vegetable patch, several children whom he did not recognize played in an untended garden. The biggest boy ran toward him and abruptly stopped, screaming, “Mama, come quickly!”

A woman appeared at the back door, her dress shabby, her hair, stringy and (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . .  matted. The boy shouted something inaudible and rushed to his mother, hid behind her skirts, and pointed toward Guillaume. The woman wiped the child’s face on her apron and pushed him toward the house. “Gather the children and go inside, hurry!”

She picked up a broom and advanced toward Guillaume. “Get out of here!” she shouted.

Shocked, Guillaume shouted back, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“What do you mean what am I doing here?” the woman replied, raising the broom as a weapon. “This is my house, and you are scaring my children. Now go away!”

“Your house?” Guillaume laughed. “This is my parents’ house.”

“We bought this house four years ago.” The woman slowed her step but continued to hold the broom in front of her. When she neared Guillaume, she flinched and then stared indignantly at his face.

Guillaume’s laugh transformed into a grimace. “What do you mean, you bought this house? My parents would never have sold their house!”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “If this wasyour parents’ house, they sold it to me a long time ago. Now, should I have my son fetch my husband, or are you going to leave on your own?”

“But…” Guillaume scanned the courtyard, which looked very different than it did when he left. His mother would never allow such disarray. He muttered, “I have been gone a while…” His heart began pounding in his chest, and he glared at the woman. Suddenly conscious of her stare, he asked, “Why would they sell?”

“I have no idea,” she replied. Her back stiffened, and she raised her chin defiantly. “But I would appreciate it if you would leave.”

Guillaume exhaled. He glanced around his childhood home reminiscing about the big tree in the corner, and playing hide-and-seek with his sister in this courtyard. He peered in the window and saw the children gawking at him. They turned to each other, all talking at the same time, and pointing at him with terrified looks on their faces. “I am… sorry.” He lowered his head and slowly backed away.

He breathed deeply to calm himself, the way he had before each performance. When he reached the street corner, he stopped and absently dabbed his eye again. What should I do now? He scanned the street, which appeared out of focus. Where could my parents have gone? They would not have sold their home unless…

He leaned against the fence until his dizziness passed. He thought of Monsieur Cuny, who lived just up the street on the main thoroughfare. Surely, he would know where they had gone.

He turned to take one last look at the house and shook his head. That woman had some nerve, staring at him so rudely. He had once stood in the presence of nobility!

He touched his eye socket and felt the indentation. Not donning the patch had not been such a good idea after all, but it itched and gave him a headache.

He pulled the leather patch from his bag, slipped it over his head, and made his way up the street. After his last meeting, he was almost afraid to knock on his mentor’s door. “Monsieur Cuny?” he called.

A frail old man answered. His face bore the wisdom of his age. A black coif covered the man’s thin gray hair and his full beard, peppered with white. His doublet, though new and of good quality, appeared ill fitting on his stooped shoulders.

Immediately upon recognizing Guillaume, the man’s face brightened with a smile and widening eyes. “Guillaume? Is that you? Come in, come in!” Monsieur Cuny grabbed Guillaume’s sleeve and pulled him into his embrace. “Are you all right? Your eye!”

 “Monsieur Cuny, I went by my parents’ house and —”

“What happened to you, son?” the older man interrupted. “I hired a deputy to find you, but he found you no longer traveled with your troupe. He searched everywhere, but no one knew where to find you.”

“Monsieur Cuny. Did my parents sell our house? Where are they?”

A look of sadness crossed his friend’s face, and Guillaume inhaled sharply and held his breath, waiting.

 The old man hesitated and replied, “Terrible things happened while you were away. Terrible things…” he added quietly, shaking his head.

Guillaume could not breathe. His head began to pound. “What sort of terrible things?”

“Come in and sit down, Guillaume.” He gestured to the young man and reached behind him to close the door.

 Instead of obeying, Guillaume grabbed the old man’s arms and shook him. “What has happened to my parents and my sister?”

 “Guillaume, you had a betrothal contract. You should not have left that way. There were consequences. There are always consequences…”

 “Monsieur Cuny, please! Where are my parents?”

Monsieur Cuny’s face became stern. He exhaled and said, “Quirienne’s papa demanded the dowry back, but you know your parents used the money for your sister’s dowry. I offered to cover the expense, and Monsieur Feldtrauer offered to give your sister’s dowry back, but your papa refused our offer. He was a proud man.”

Guillaume paled. His chest hurt as if someone punched him. “Was?” He grabbed the wall to keep from falling. Monsieur Cuny helped him to a chair and sat beside him, put a hand on his shoulder, and spoke softly.

“Son, your papa is dead. He died about two weeks after you left.”

A sob broke from Guillaume. “No! He cannot be dead. It is not true!” He buried his face in his hands, his fingers catching in the strap of his patch. He ripped it off and threw it against the wall.

Monsieur Cuny patted Guillaume’s back until he began to calm. “Let me get you a drink of ale.”

 After a long while, Guillaume raised his head and searched his mentor’s face with a pleading expression. “My mama?”

“I saw her several weeks ago, and she was fine, as beautiful as ever.”

Guillaume sighed in relief. “Where is she? I have to see her!”

“She lives with your sister —”

Before he could finish, Guillaume started to stand. “Thank you, Monsieur Cuny. I will speak with you later.”

“Guillaume, wait! You cannot go now. By the time you get there —”

“But —”

The older man grabbed his arm. “Son, you cannot go running through the streets. It will be getting dark soon.”

“Mama will not care!”

Monsieur Cuny shook his head. “But Monsieur Feldtrauer might care. He is a very important man. You cannot just pound on his door in the middle of the night.” He hesitated a moment and continued, “And you need a bath, son. You are a mess.”

“But…” Guillaume absent-mindedly touched his eye.

The older man softened his voice. “Stay here tonight, mon gars. Get a bath and have dinner with me. You can visit your mama and sister in the brightness of the morning.”

Guillaume breathed loudly, hesitating, “But I —”

“Come, son. I think Edmond left some clothes in his trunk that should fit you. You have been gone for four years. One more night will not matter.”

Guillaume studied his threadbare doublet. All of a sudden, he ached for a bath and agreed to stay the night.

As he lay in the sheet lined wooden tub, his thoughts drifted back to the day he left Strasbourg. He had been betrothed to a sweet girl, Quirienne and had a good job in Monsieur Cuny’s music shop repairing instruments and giving lessons on the lute. He loved to sing and often sang to himself while he worked around the house. One day, a musician hired to play at a wedding celebration happened by and heard him singing. He convinced Guillaume to come to the celebration and sing, and perhaps join the troupe. Sweet Quirienne helped him select the perfect clothes to wear, kissed his cheek, and offered him good luck.

All those people staring at him made him nervous, but to his surprise, everyone loved him, especially the women. They could not take their eyes off him. His tenor voice had flowed so smoothly. After a while, he became emboldened and began walking around the room, singing to the women individually. He noticed the lust in their eyes. After the performance, several women introduced themselves. Several others offered more than just an introduction. All the attention went to his head, so when the musicians asked him to join their troupe, he eagerly accepted. He never even went back to tell his parents or Quirienne goodbye. He sighed and dunked his head under the water.

After his bath, he raked through Edmond’s trunk. He pulled out a simple white linen shirt with a starched collar, a red doublet with long sleeves, matching slops, and hose, and a black leather jerkin with a v-shaped front. The clothes were plain with no added adornments. Typical, plain, boring Edmond.

Monsieur Cuny’s son, Edmond, had grown up with Guillaume and had been his best friend. After Edmond’s mother died, Guillaume’s mama took the job as his governess, and Monsieur Cuny came to love her as his daughter. The boys spent many days happily, playing with wooden swords, pretending to be knights, or playing with clay marbles in this old house. About the same time that Guillaume had asked Quirienne to marry him, Edmond began courting a lovely girl named Barbe. They must be married by now.

Lying on the table in Edmond’s room, Guillaume found a small looking glass and gazed at his reflection. He gasped. He touched his eye socket with the towel, his fingers lingering on the indentation.

From the time he was a child, people commented on his beautiful olive green eyes and the way they stood out against his “golden skin,” as his papa used to say. He resembled his mama – used to resemble her. Now, people look at him with disgust. For a moment, he felt a twinge of guilt. This was his fault, hanging around with those drunken, no-good friends of his. However, when he glanced a second time, he saw Catherine’s face and relived the day she stabbed him with the thorn. Hate filled his heart.

This happened because that fat old greedy barkeep, Bastien, kicked him out of the auberge. He could have been happy there, singing and playing the lute. He did not make enough money to pay the rent simply by passing around a hat to those cheap peasants of Vacquenoux, but he entertained the customers from the coach. They enjoyed his songs and drank more ale, and that pig should have been paying him for his services.

The familiarity of the house where he had spent so much time as a child lifted his spirits a little. Other than the older man losing even more of his hair, everything appeared the same. Everyone in town knew the jolly music man, Monsieur Cuny but more than that, he knew everyone by name. When someone bought an instrument from his shop, Monsieur Cuny offered free lessons. His calm, supportive character encouraged even the least musical to enjoy the pleasure of melody. All of his children learned to play, and so did Guillaume and his sister, Eve. The lute was Guillaume’s favorite. He remembered many happy hours playing and singing together.

When he arrived in the dining room, the table where he had eaten with the extended family was set for just the two of them. Monsieur Cuny met him with a compassionate smile and handed him his patch. “What happened to your eye, son?”

Guillaume pouted. “Someone stabbed me with a thorn. I had never felt such pain.”

“I believe it. I cannot imagine,” the old man said, shaking his head.

The servant brought steaming bowls of soup, and Monsieur Cuny motioned for Guillaume to sit while she served them.

Guillaume continued. “My eye constantly watered. Once I finally got the thorn out, I thought it would heal so I started home. After a couple of days, it started to hurt worse. I could not stand the pain and stopped at a farm for help. The old woman allowed me to spend the night. She put a drop of something in my eye that she said would help. I believed her! The next day, it had swollen to twice its size, and she made me a drink for the pain. The next thing I knew, I woke up tied to the table, and that witch had removed my eye! She said it would have popped, or it would have killed me!” Guillaume’s lips quivered. He lowered his head and dabbed his eye with his napkin.

The old man’s face grew troubled. “Oh, Guillaume!” He took the young man’s hand and they sat in silence for several moments. “Who stabbed you?”

“I would prefer not talk about it, Monsieur Cuny.”

After a moment of silence, the old man continued. “When the deputy I had hired said he found you had joined the troop, we were relieved. Although we were shocked when you ran off, I have to admit, I secretly felt proud of your success as a chanteur. I heard you sang for the Duke of Lorraine!”

“Yes, Monsieur. We lived in the castle for a couple of months.” He glanced toward his soup, but his expression was far away. A smile crept over his face, and slowly his focus returned. “It was wonderful, almost like a dream. Everyone wanted to be near me, merely to be seen near me. They bought me dinner, drinks. They treated me so well.”

Monsieur Cuny dipped his bread into the bowl, sopped up the broth, and took a bite. “What happened? Why did you leave them? We thought you were murdered!”

Guillaume sighed and stared absently at the old man. “I seduced the Duke’s daughter. When he found out, he would have killed me, but she begged him to spare my life. He warned me never to return to Nancy, and forced her to join a Benedictine Abbey in Remiremont. I was so ashamed I could not come home. I have just been traveling and performing in fairs or celebrations for money. Occasionally, I sang in an auberge or bistro and passed my hat around the crowd, but when I… injured… my eye, I had to come home. Nobody will want to watch me sing now.”

After a moment of hesitation, Monsieur Cuny said, “You are talented, Guillaume. Give yourself a chance. If you are still the same person as you were when you left, everyone will welcome you back, and listen to you sing.”

“Do you think my mama and sister will forgive me?”

“Your mama loves you, son. Everyone thought you were dead. She will be happy to see you.”

“What about Quirienne?”                          

The old man shook his head, and his face grew critical. “You broke her heart, as I am sure you can imagine. She did not deserve to be treated so badly.”

 “I did not mean to hurt her.”

Monsieur Cuny raised his voice and smacked his hand on the table. “You never considered her feelings.”

Guillaume flinched and lowered his head, dabbing his eye again. “No. I just —”

“You just what?”

Guillaume exhaled and stared at the table. Neither spoke for several moments. The old man calmed and took another bite of soup. “Well, she married and I believe she has a child. I am sorry that I shouted. Eat your dinner.”

Guillaume took a bite of soup. The knots in his stomach loosened and he realized how hungry he was, famished in fact, and he ate hungrily. He expected this type of reception, but he thought his father would be the one chastising him. He could not believe that he would never see his father again. His heart ached. “What happened to papa?”

“He slipped and fell off the roof. It happened so suddenly.” The older man’s voice cracked as he recalled the incident. 

Guillaume shook his head and fought to hold back the tears. He put down his spoon.

“Your mama heard him fall. He did not suffer.” After another long pause, he continued. “Guillaume, I have to tell you something before you visit your mother. Your sister will be there and …” He hesitated as if deciding whether to continue. “Rita, uh, your mother confided in me that Eve thinks your father jumped because of the shame you caused him, but I cannot believe —”

Guillaume jerked his head up and stiffened. He inhaled and stammered, “My fault? Oh God, it was my fault!” He stood and rushed out the back door, unable to breathe. The image of his father’s smiling face transformed into the image of his mangled body on the ground, his mama running to him, embracing him as he breathed his last.

 “No, son! Your sister was wrong. It was an accident,” the old man said, following him. “Your papa never would have.” He exhaled sharply. “He loved her too much.”

Guillaume gazed vacantly into the darkness as a million stars twinkled above them. He took a deep breath. “Yes, it had to be an accident.”

“Your mama knows it was an accident, Guillaume. Maybe I should not have told you, but I wanted you to be prepared.”

Still staring into the distance, Guillaume replied, “How is mama getting along?”

“When I saw her last week, she said she felt happier than she had in a long, long time, though she refused to tell me the reason for her happiness. She is all right, Guillaume.” Monsieur Cuny laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and stood with him in silence. After a while, he continued, “Have you considered what you will do?”

“No, I had not thought that far ahead.”

“Would you like your old job at the shop? I have never found anyone as talented to take your place. The shop is getting to be too much for this old man. I could use your help.” 

“Thank you, Monsieur,” he replied. “I would like that very much.”

 “Go to bed now, son. Get some sleep. Tomorrow you will see your mother.”

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Catherine is new to long-form fiction. She sends first chapter of Hardgrown. The remainder is after the break. The story takes place in 1936.

Heavy brown boots in his left hand, the fifteen-year-old sockfooted down the dark stairs, his six two skin-n-bones pressed flat to the wall. The hem of his jeans flapped high above his ankles. His old leather belt bound up the too-wide waist. He’d learned to pick pants easy in the crotch. The way they fit elsewise, he paid no mind. He kept his feet pointed forward, snug against the wall. The steps creaked in the center. He had no trouble navigating the unlighted living room, there being only two wooden chairs and the tufted settee squareset in front of the fireplace. He snagged splinters in his socks from the pine floor. A complaint from the boards froze him. He waited until he was sure Gramps still slept

The house looked like someone quit in the middle of its building. A thin half-wall barely separated kitchen from living room. The narrow stairs, rail-less, went to the second floor along the west wall, becoming the hall to two bedrooms tucked under the eastside rafters. String loops, hung on nails, kept the knobless doors shut. The cuckoo clock called one a.m. He held his breath as he opened the front door, willing the aged brass hinges to be silent. He slipped out, plucking away splinters as he hopped to the porch steps. He shoved his feet into his boots and took off, like a mustang fleeing coyotes, down sleeping Maple.

The moon, days past first quarter, sported a fuzzy shroud. The sparse streetlights of Waco yellowed and dimmed at the street corners. He avoided them. The competing thwickthwick and (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Catherine's first page?

I enjoyed both the voice and the writing in this opening. There is a little tension in the boy’s act of sneaking out, but not a compelling dose for this reader. What are the stakes if he gets caught? What is his goal or desire? How is it frustrated? Notes:

Heavy brown boots in his left hand, the fifteen-year-old sockfooted down the dark stairs, his six two skin-n-bones pressed flat to the wall. The hem of his jeans flapped high above his ankles. His old leather belt bound up the too-wide waist. He’d learned to pick pants easy in the crotch. The way they fit elsewise, he paid no mind. He kept his feet pointed forward, snug against the wall. The steps creaked in the center. He had no trouble navigating the unlighted living room, there being only two wooden chairs and the tufted settee squareset in front of the fireplace. He snagged splinters in his socks from the pine floor. A complaint from the boards froze him. He waited until he was sure Gramps still slept. I think you should use his name. We connect much more quickly with a person, which is what a name creates, than with a description of someone. A miner POV thing—it’s a bit of a break to have him thinking of his age and height.

The house looked like someone quit in the middle of its building. A thin half-wall barely separated kitchen from living room. The narrow stairs, rail-less, went to the second floor along the west wall, becoming the hall to two bedrooms tucked under the eastside rafters. String loops, hung on nails, kept the knobless doors shut. The cuckoo clock called one a.m. He held his breath as he opened the front door, willing the aged brass hinges to be silent. He slipped out, plucking away splinters as he hopped to the porch steps. He shoved his feet into his boots and took off, like a mustang fleeing coyotes, down sleeping Maple. For my money, I wouldn’t spend all this time on description of a place he’s leaving. Use those valuable first-page lines for STORY.

The moon, days past first quarter, sported a fuzzy shroud. The sparse streetlights of Waco yellowed and dimmed at the street corners. He avoided them. The competing thwickthwick and (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

Continued

. . . shrum of crickets and katydids blew through the whiss of a warm wind heavy with the vanilla of white clover clumped around phone poles and fences. He frequently shortcut the streets, dodging chained watchdogs in crackly yards. A solitary light on the back, east, corner of Miller’s Gas marked his destination. Vern Miller beckoned to him. The plump-pigeon man clapped the boy’s shoulder as another man, squat and square, moved out of the dark that crawled from the back wall of the gravel-block building.

“Gus,” Vern said to the older man, “This here’s Johnny Slade. Johnny, Mister Owens.”

John pushed a flop of brown hair away from madcat green eyes. Gus puffed twice. “He’s a young’un.”

In a cold-cider-on-the-verandah baritone too old for his throat, John said, “I can drive.”

Gus stepped closer. “Sir. I can drive sir.”

“Piss on that. Ain’t never used the word. Ain’t never gonna.”

Gus shook a finger at Vern. “Mouthy, ain’t he?”

Vern grinned around the cigar he was lighting. “The boy drives like the devil’s own.”

John hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. “Am I going or not?”

“Okay,” Gus said.

John held out his hand. “Gimme my money.”

Gus pulled two fives off his wad. “Rangers get you, keep your mouth shut.’

“Ain’t nobody catches me.” John started to shove the money in the breast pocket of his frayed linen shirt, felt the sweat soaking through and shot his fingers into his butt pocket. He followed the men around to the front of the filling station. He saw, parked at the island of flatbacked, bulletshape pumps, a small Chevy pickup, its curving nose with protruding headlights standing above the bumper, pointed roadward. Six roped-together barrels stood in its boxy ass.

“Fellow,” Gus said, “Will meet you just north of Wheelock city limits, under the water tower. He’ll take the truck with the ‘shine, you drive back the empty one he gives you. You do all right, you get another run. Further you go, the more you get paid.”

John studied the barrels. “It ain’t gonna blow up, it bounces some?”

Gus shook his head. “Moonshine don’t blow. It’ll burn quick, it catches a spark.”

“It won’t.”

 

Waco, nestled in the bosom of the Blacklands that bottomed the Balcones Escarpment, split by the Brazos River, hadn’t suffered as bad in the Depression as some places, cotton being king crop. Cotton grown was cotton sold. McLennan County, wherein Waco sat, was, like one hundred thirty four counties of the two hundred fifty-four that built Texas, dry. No distilled alcohol legally made or sold. So, brave men cooked moonshine in stills scattered through the creekside gullies. And watched out for the incorruptible Texas Rangers.

 

John kept to the dirt roads running southeast. Down Highbank way, he came to the old wooden bridge, a forgotten relic that hung rotting across a shallow stretch of the Brazos. He’d decided before he set out to use it, Rangers not likely to be nearby. He stopped at the edge. Slow and easy? Or, fast, fingers crossed?

Gramps got up seven sharp. Always. If he did this right, the old man would never know he’d gone out. Never know he had money. John smiled. Money for a movie show and a sarsaparilla drink. And candy. He opened his door, in case he went into the river, put his feet down on the gas pedal and clutch and lurched onto the bridge. Gramps never bought him candy. Frivolous, the old man said. Tight-fisted old bastard, the Reverend Edgar Slade. John heard the creech of the old wood taking the weight of the truck. He expelled all the air from his lungs and never inhaled. He didn’t imagine the leftward sway at the truck’s rear.

Gramps counted pennies on everything he did for John, even to buying clothes and food. All he ever got new was socks and underwear for Christmas. And boots, every other year, bought big. The rest of his clothes came out of the charity barrels. The church now, Gramps always had money to spend on it. Candles and coal. Money to print his pamphlets every Sunday.

The whunk came through his seat. He watched the river take the shattered piling into its slow dark swirl and send it bobbing and ducking in the low water flow downstream. He stomped the gas and clutch, slung the tranny into second gear and shot forward. The engine roared. The bumpers chuckled. The tires flung chips of wood behind him. The bridge shivered humble shrieks. He had no spit. His heart walloped blood into his ears. He concentrated on getting to the end, holding the bridge together with stark hope. Another piling left him and the bridge slopped down. His front tires caught the rim of the high bank. He gave the steering wheel a hard right, dragging the truck’s ass slantwise onto the road. Son of a bitch. He inhaled. He did it. He goddam did it. He zinged all over. He felt...

Alive!

He looked back at the wreckage as he shut his door. Son of a bitch. He was gonna buy himself a steak dinner. He only ever ate steak once in his life. At a wedding six years ago. A little bitty piece of hot juicy wonderful. His mouth watered. Mostly at home, Gramps gave him beans, greens and fatback. The greens grew free for the picking in the fields and the pound of fatback stretched a week. He crossed the railroad tracks, the water tower high in the sky just ahead. Two hours down, he reckoned, so two back. A good run for good money. How much would that steak cost? Would other stuff be extra? No matter. He was gonna fill his belly with good food for once in his life.

 

On the return trip he ran over the new bridge north of the railroad side tracks. Headlights flashed as he got to ground. The black Ford cruiser rolled from its hidey hole and paralleled the pickup. John stopped. The Ranger, right hand on the butt of his holstered Colt forty-five, walked around the truck then stood a few feet away from  John’s door.

“Come on out, buddy.”

John did. His chin cleared the top of the Ranger’s head a good inch.

“You’re out pretty late, aren’t you, young man?”

John hooked his thumbs in his front pockets and dug loose a pebble with his boot toe. “Been down the cathouse. Had me a redhead. A fat one with big tits.” Good lie that. He knew about working girls from listening to the older boys bragging.

“What’s your name?”

“John Slade.”

“Pastor’s boy?”

“Yeah.”

“The pastor wouldn’t like the fact you’ve been whore-hunting.”

“Ya ain’t gonna tell on me.”

“How old are you?”

“Old enough it itches sometimes.”

“Where’d you get the money?”

“Selling coal I pick up ‘long the tracks.” Not exactly a lie. Coal spilled off the cars when trains came through was fair salvage most figured, though Gramps forbid it, declaring it stealing.. “Ya ain’t telling on me.”

“Reckon not. You look size enough, trouble comes your way.”

John closed his long slender fingers into a big tight fist. “I give as good as I get.”

“You best get on home.”

“I’m gone.”

 

John slunk into his room, stripped, and slipped into bed - a wood frame cot with a rag-stuffed mattress. The living room coo-coo hooted for six thirty. Gramps never woke him up days when school was out. If John was sleeping, the old man didn’t have to find breakfast for him before going down to the church.

 

The brilliance coming through the curtainless window roused him. Almost noon. He had to get out of the house before Gramps came back and put him to doing chores. He washed up. One of his clean socks had a hole in the toe. He hunted down a piece of string, threaded it through the weave and tied the hole shut. A man just couldn’t eat steak in socks that had a hole in the toe. He dressed in his last clean jeans and blue plaid shirt. Sure enough tomorrow he’d have to get out the washtub and scrubboard and boil his dirty laundry. But today he was gonna see a movie show and eat a real steak and finish the day with a big ole stick of peppermint candy.

 

Those who didn’t like him said Edgar Slade was full of himself with his swept-back salt and pepper mane, shiny suits and potbelly. Prancing around town, bible in hand, opining on things that were none of his business. He came home for his noon meal. The boy was nowhere around. He went to John’s room, fiddling here and there, closet, dresser drawers, under the mattress. The boy had come creeping in at six thirty. Out doing what where? A female? Fifteen was too young. but he’d seen the females casting eyes at the boy. The elf prince among mortals, not taking after either parent, Joshua and Eunice both short, and truth to tell, homely. Long gone both, leaving him, in his advancing years, to raise their devilboy. He rubbed his face, fingers spreading flat the puckers and creases. He had done his bounden duty surely, not sending the boy to the orphan home.

 

The place rang with clinks of porcelain and clangs of pots, competing with voices rising and falling in sulky conversation. The cigars and cigarettes sent their oily blue to blend into fried meat-and-boiled vegetable streams. John hesitated in the doorway of the diner. Three hours at the movie show and walking here had him a little rip,. but the other men sported sweat stains and dirty faces. He strode to the counter. Legs wide around the backless stool, he took a yellowed cardboard menu from the metal rack just for the pleasure of reading about all the food on offer.

The counterman polished the space in front of him. “Yes, sir, what can I get for you?”

"Steak."

“What side do you want with that?”

“Side?”

“For the price, you get a vegetable serving, a drink of your choice, and dessert, which is pie, cake or rice pudding.”

“I don’t want no vegetable I always eat at home. I’m sick of’em.”

“How about cole slaw?”

John didn’t know exactly what that was, so, he decided to try it. “Okay. And chocolate cake and lemonade.” Sometimes he got lemonade at summer church socials. “Can I have ice in my drink?”

He got his drink first, a tall clear glass, with three big cubes of clouded ice. He washed away the walking dust in his throat as he watched the goings-on in the kitchen part.

Steak fried in butter melted hot and juicy in his mouth after only a few chews. That little piece of steak he ate six years ago, he only got a bitty bite ’cause he went last. You will wait until the others have passed down the line Gramps told him. I will not have these people thinking I have raised a greedy child. Greedy. Greedy child. No, he didn’t want people to think that, surely. And all that was left on the table was a scrap of meat, some biscuits and an ear of corn. He’d watched the others enjoying potato salad and peach cobbler. Today, his meat covered a whole platter. He forked up the cole slaw, cool and creamy, sweet and salty, with a whisper of vinegar. He ate slowly, holding onto every mouthful, forgoing another sip of lemonade. He didn’t want to wash away the joy. He might come back tomorrow. Even see the movie show again. The General Died At Dawn had been okay. Things To Come, that was sensational. H. G. Wells. He read all the stuff the guy wrote he found in the library.

His main course finished, he dug into his cake. Fluffy white whipped cream icing dotted with candied cherries thick on top of the big brown square. If he died in the next few minutes, he wouldn’t mind. He had tasted the food of the gods. Heaven couldn’t offer better. A dollar fifty for everything. He laid down his money.

The farmer next to him said, “Put another nickel down.”

“Why?”

“It’s a tip for the waiter. It’s how they get paid. A dollar a day and tips.”

John dug out his change. No nickel. He laid down a dime. That was okay. They’d treated him nice, like he was really somebody. He went to the five-and-dime for his peppermint candy and saw a shelf in the back corner with things sorta books, kinda magazines. War of the Worlds. the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He snatched them and uncovered The Lost World by Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes guy. He took that too. A dime each. He had reading now that he owned and didn’t have to give back like at school or the library. He added three peppermint sticks, each six inches long and an inch wide. three for a nickel. He had reading and candy and he’d only spent two dollars the whole day.

 

“You went out of the house last night.” Gramps dumped a handful of flour into the fatback drippings.

John squinted at the greasy slime. He’d thought on getting caught. “Too muggy to sleep. Went out on the porch for some air.”

“Is that the only place you went?”

“Yeah. Sorry I woke ya up coming in.”

Gramps clapped the pot of gravy on the table next to a bowl of boiled turnips and a heel of sourdough bread. “I did have my rest disturbed. I do not care to have my sleep shortened. I have busy days.”

“Ya didn’t make much supper.”

“That is for you. I have a meeting at the Red Cross. They will serve refreshments. Chicken salad sandwiches and a light onion soup. You get this house cleaned. I will be home about eight.”

 

John whirled through the house with broom and mop. He scraped his pitiful supper into the outside trash barrel and settled on the porch with Sherlock Holmes. A sticky slow wind stirred in now-n-then spurts. He took off his shirt and scrubbed it through the thin fur on his chest, leaned back, stretched his legs and read ’til the Baptist church bells rang for seven thirty. He buried his reading under his mattress with his others and trotted away from the pending homecoming of his Gramps.

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13. Do you BookBub?

I’m finding BookBub to be a terrific resource for both reading matter and research.  BookBub offers deals on ebooks with the cost ranging from free to $1.99, sometimes more. They offer ebooks in the Kindle (.mobi) and Nook/Kobo (.epub) formats.

When I get going, I’m a fast and voracious reader, faster and more voracious than my budget can afford if I’m buying print books. But with BookBub I’ve downloaded a bunch of books in the free and $.99 range. Sometimes I get an entire trilogy for free or $.99.

Research

The first reason I started with Book Bub was to see what was going on in various genres. I’m interested in Young Adult dystopian fiction, and they have a YA category as well as fantasy and science fiction. Those are the categories I’ve signed up for, and I get a daily email with offers. The choices range from bestselling authors to classics to lots of Indie authors, so I fell that I do get a good look at what’s happening in the categories I’m interested in. It's a great way to immerse yourself in the styles and requirements of a genre. And, at the low cost, if I don’t care for a book I don’t feel it’s a waste to delete it before finishing it.

Reading

You probably know that you don’t have to have a Kindle or a Nook or a Kobo ereader to read these books. You can download free applications for reading them on your computer and, I assume, tablet. Click the type you need:

The categories available at BookBub

  • Action & Adventure
  • Advice & How-To
  • African-American
  • Bestsellers
  • Biographies & Memoirs
  • Business
  • Chick Lit
  • Children’s
  • Christian Fiction
  • Contemporary Romance
  • Cooking
  • Erotic Romance
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Historical Romance
  • History
  • Horror
  • LGBT
  • Literary Fiction
  • Middle Grade
  • Mysteries
  • New Adult & College Romance
  • Nonfiction
  • Paranormal Romance
  • Parenting
  • Religious & Inspirational
  • Romantic Suspense
  • Science Fiction
  • Supernatural Suspense
  • Teen & Young Adult
  • Thrillers
  • True Crime
  • Women’s Fiction

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Juliette sends the prologue and first chapter of a novel, title unknown. The full narrative is after the break.

Prologue:

A bump in the road jarred Francisca awake. Apart from the soldier driving, she counted four mounted soldiers in front and two following them. Four women accompanied her in the rickety cart. Yesterday there had been five.

A week ago, when the French had chased them from the Battle of Renty, there were close to a thousand Spanish soldiers and dozens of carts of women who fled along with the Emperor’s forces. After a few days retreating with the troop, her group had fallen behind and turned toward the east. Soon it was apparent they would not be rejoining the others.

A rail from the cart stabbed into her side. She turned slightly and rubbed the ropes that bound her hands on the rusted iron rail. Afraid a light of hope might shine in her eyes and betray her, she lowered her head.

A small town came into view. Francisca overheard the soldiers discussing food. “I’m starved, we could—”

“We cannot attack the whole town. There will be a house or farm on the outskirts. You can wait.”

As the group plodded along, townspeople stepped into the street to watch them pass.

Were you compelled to turn Juliette's first page?

The writing is good and will get better with work, and the story questions raised here—why is Francisca bound and what will happen to her, will she escape—were good enough to get me to turn the page to see more. I do think it could be stronger if the reason for the light of hope were more clear--show us that the rope is fraying and that she's close to having her hands free.

Chapter 1:

Thirty years later

Le Petit-Courty

Vacquenoux, Salm

Catherine pushed the oil-soaked skin aside and peered out the window of the loft. The sun had not yet risen above the pines on the mountain, but promised a hot day.

“Hurry along now daughter, the birds are eating them all.”

“Coming, Mama.”

She hung her old chemise on the hook, carefully covering it with a heavy shawl, and climbed down the ladder.

“The pails are there,” her mother nodded toward the table.

“All right,” Catherine grumbled and grabbed the pails. When she turned, she stumbled over her half-naked baby sister who dashed past her with her older sister, Anne, in hot pursuit. Anne had just changed the baby’s wet clout when the child squirmed away and took off, giggling toothlessly.

“Watch where you are going!” Anne grumbled. “She is just a baby.”

“You should be minding her,” Catherine snapped.

Were you compelled to turn the chapter's first page?

Well, we left Francisca in a tense situation, and I was reluctant to leave her. Now she seems to be gone and we’re with another character altogether. As for what happens in the chapter opening, well, the character gets out of bed and is told to do chores. Not a lot of tension here, this is pretty much set-up (and four valuable lines of page 1 were taken up with time and location that could have been done more efficiently). No turn on this part for me, I’d rather know what happened to Francisca.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

The full narrative:

How It All Began

 August, 1554

France

A bump in the road jarred Francisca awake. Apart from the soldier driving, she counted four mounted soldiers in front and two following them. Four women accompanied her in the rickety cart. Yesterday there had been five.

A week ago, when the French had chased them from the Battle of Renty, there were close to a thousand Spanish soldiers and dozens of carts of women who fled along with the Emperor’s forces. After a few days retreating with the troop, her group had fallen behind and turned toward the east. Soon it was apparent they would not be rejoining the others.

A rail from the cart stabbed into her side. She turned slightly and rubbed the ropes that bound her hands on the rusted iron rail. Afraid a light of hope might shine in her eyes and betray her, she lowered her head.

A small town came into view. Francisca overheard the soldiers discussing food. “I’m starved, we could—”

“We cannot attack the whole town. There will be a house or farm on the outskirts. You can wait.”

As the group plodded along, townspeople stepped into the street to watch them pass. (snip)Francisca felt the gaze of the onlookers, but no one stepped forward to help. No one ever did. She ignored the unintelligible shouts and continued fraying the rope on the rusted iron.

“I wonder what they are shouting,” Francisca asked.

“Be quiet! They will beat you,” the woman beside her whispered.

Francisca was much younger than the other women on the cart were, only fifteen. Maybe they would look out for her now that her mother... Tears filled her eyes when she recalled the prior day when her mother sat beside her on the cart. Today, that seat was empty.

Not long after leaving town, the soldiers gathered. She heard the commander say, “Up there.”

As the mounted soldiers galloped toward a farm, the cart driver cracked the whip trying to keep up. A rock wrenched the cart violently to the side, snapping Francisca’s frayed binding. She could scarcely breathe as she stared at her freed hands. Amidst the clamor of hooves and rattle of the cart, the driver did not hear the other women gasp. One whispered, “Untie me.”

 Francisca tried to loosen the binding, but the ride was too rough. “I can’t get it! I’m sorry!”

“Forget it. Send someone for us. Save yourself now, run!”

“I will. I will tell them.”

Another said, “They will kill you.”

 “After what happened yesterday, I have nothing to live for,” Francisca replied as she slid off the back of the wagon. She crouched down. The dust billowing from the dirt path gave her cover. Her heart pounded as she ran to the heavy underbrush behind the house and peeked around a tree. Screams swept over the mountain as two peasant boys ran for their lives with a soldier rapidly gaining on them. Two swings of his blade, a torrent of blood, and the soldier stood alone. Francisca held her hand over her mouth to keep from screaming.

An old woman stepped out of the house, saw the carnage, and rushed back inside. A moment later, Francisca watched the woman drop a toddler out of the window an instant before two soldiers entered the cabin. The little girl stood, took a few wobbly steps, and fell. Her wails pierced the air. Francisca stared at the child.

When the old woman screamed, Francisca took a deep breath, sprung from her hiding place, grabbed the toddler, and flew back to the cover of the thicket. Keeping her hand over the crying child’s mouth, she folded the child inside her tunic and hid under leaves and branches.

There, she waited until nightfall.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Thirty years later

Le Petit-Courty

Vacquenoux, Salm

 

Catherine pushed the oil-soaked skin aside and peered out the window of the loft. The sun had not yet risen above the pines on the mountain, but promised a hot day.

“Hurry along now daughter, the birds are eating them all.”

“Coming, Mama.”

She hung her old chemise on the hook, carefully covering it with a heavy shawl, and climbed down the ladder.

“The pails are there,” her mother nodded toward the table.

“All right,” Catherine grumbled and grabbed the pails. When she turned, she stumbled over her half-naked baby sister who dashed past her with her older sister, Anne, in hot pursuit. Anne had just changed the baby’s wet clout when the child squirmed away and took off, giggling toothlessly.

“Watch where you are going!” Anne grumbled. “She is just a baby.”

“You should be minding her,” Catherine snapped.

“Mama, Catherine is wearing her good chemise,” Anne tattled. “You will ruin it with berry stains. Change into your old one.”

“Stop minding me! That chemise is too tight and too hot to wear today. Besides, why are you staying home? You should be helping,” Catherine added with an impish smile.

“I need Anne to watch Beatrix and do some spinning,” her mother replied.

“She always has an excuse,” Catherine interrupted. “What about Joseph?”

“You are questioning your mama?” Francisca interrupted with a scornful glance.

“No, mémé,” Catherine mumbled to her grandmother. She climbed into the loft she shared with her brothers and sisters, the girls on one side and boys on the other. Each side contained one large straw mattress and a trunk the siblings shared. After removing her apron, kirtle, and bodice, Catherine ripped the shawl from the hook and threw it on the trunk. She changed into her old chemise, and hung the new one on the hook, muttering under her breath. “I am fifteen years old now. Why do I have to listen to Anne?”

She climbed down, grabbed her pails, and hurried out the door.

Catherine loved the outdoors and enjoyed picking raspberries. Rather, she loved the solitude she enjoyed while picking them. She could spend the rest of the morning and the whole afternoon by herself, without her older sister tattling on her or telling her what to do. Catherine was just the opposite of Anne, who worried about bugs and getting dirty. On second thought, she was glad to be alone.

She climbed the mountainside, following the path through the vast tracts of ancient pines and hardwood forests until she reached the clearing. Tall grass and honeysuckle covered the slope and perfumed the air. She left the path and made her way through waist-high weeds toward the berry patch. Dew still clung to the plump, ripe orbs as she picked and dropped them into her wooden pail. Many were ripe already, but this would be her task for the next several weeks as the red ones changed from purple to black. She tasted a couple, relishing the sweetness.

After picking for a couple of hours, perspiration began to creep down her armpits to her ribs. Her linen chemise prickled her flesh as the sun rose above the trees, and beat down on her. She was still angry with Anne for tattling and regretted wearing this old chemise. It was too tight and grew increasingly uncomfortable, squeezing her growing bosom. Millions of thorns tugged at her skirts and pricked her fingers. She began to detest picking berries.

Someday, she would not have to do such menial tasks. Someday, she would have children of her own who would pick the berries, do the garden work, and carry the water. She thought of a pair of emerald eyes that had been filling her dreams of late. She had noticed the young man the last time she accompanied her papa delivering goods to the inn owned by her mother’s sister, Tante Jeanne and her husband, Oncle Bastien.

Under a large wooden replica of a rearing white horse, the Auberge du Cheval Blanc stood right across the street from the stables owned by the La Goutte de Paradis family. The coach connecting Strasbourg to Lorraine’s capital city, Nancy, stopped at the stable twice a day to relay fresh horses. The inn was always lively with travelers from the coach and Catherine could occasionally hear their conversations in different dialects or sometimes even different languages. She enjoyed seeing unusual types of clothing or hairstyles, or pretending she was a traveler just passing through town.

Her Tante always brought her through the back into the kitchen, spoiling her with a cake or sweet drink. That last time they had arrived a little late, and despite her pleas, her papa ordered her to wait on the cart. There would be too many drunks in the auberge, he told her.

After her papa had taken his goods around the corner, a young man fell through the front door of the inn and crashed into the side of their horse. She grabbed the reins to keep the startled animal from bolting or sidestepping right onto his chest.

The man did not look like a peasant or even a local bourgeoisie. His thin, wiry frame appeared out of place among the strong, hearty peasants of Vacquenoux. He wore an ornate velvet doublet and leather jerkin, with matching knickers extending just below his knees, tight fitting hose, and shoes with heels. His curly, jet-black hair was longer than the local fashion. His skin, a strange golden color contrasted the brightest green eyes she had ever seen. Oh, those eyes … angelic, soft, dancing, playing with the light.

He picked himself off the ground, winked at her, and whispered, “Merci, Mademoiselle,” then he simply turned and disappeared into the auberge. She felt those eyes upon her during the day and had fallen asleep most nights dreaming of his beautiful green eyes gazing into hers.

Ouille!” She pricked her finger on a thorn, startling her attention back to the berries. She sucked it until the bleeding stopped. The sun continued to beat down on her unmercifully. Her undersized chemise was now soaking wet with perspiration. Finally, she filled the second pail.

Instead of heading home, she carried the pails down the embankment and sat on a large piece of sandstone next to her favorite spot, a natural swimming hole. She took off her shoes and dipped her feet in the current. Le Petit-Courty, the stream that flowed through their farm, created a deep pool here, where it flowed into the larger stream, Le Grand-Courty. Sometimes, she would sit, watching the burbling brook dancing over the rocks on its way to the Framont River. In some places, the dense canopy above opened and dappled sunlight flashed on the water, cooling, inviting. So calm and clear, she could see tadpoles and minnows swimming along the edge. She closed her eyes. Enveloped in peacefulness, the only sound was the water splashing off the rocks.

Who would know if she took off her partlet and apron, rolled up her kirtle and gown, and waded out a few feet? Before she could talk herself out of it, Catherine’s clothes lay on a pile on the rock, and she wore only her cramped chemise. She tiptoed into the waist-deep stream and dunked herself under the water. Her long, dark tresses came undone, and she flung them over her shoulder, letting the cool water trickle down her back. Oh, what a relief, she sighed to herself.

After crouching in the water for a few minutes of blissful relaxation, she thought she heard something. Oh no! She had carelessly waded to the opposite side of the stream. Her clothes were out of reach. She was sure now: the sound was the pounding of hooves. Someone approached her, fast. She ran through the waist-deep pond as imaginary hands held her back and jagged rocks stabbed her feet. In her haste, she stepped on a slippery, moss-covered rock and fell awkwardly into the water.

Catherine coughed out a mouthful of water and pushed her hair from her face. Nicolas de La Goutte de Paradis, that irritating boy who lived on the mountain above the stable and forge, was laughing at her. Actually, every time Catherine saw him, he was laughing, but she could never see anything funny. He was shirtless and covered from head to toe in black dust. His shoulders and ribs appeared a size too large, as if his bones grew faster than his skin, and his dark hair was tousled and unruly.

“What in the world are you doing, sneaking up on me?”

“My papa and I went to the charcoal fields this morning. Papa continued home and said that I could take a dip to rinse all this coal dust off me. Those white clothes caught my eye, and I could not tell what they were, so I came to get a better look.”

Catherine furiously stood, pointed at him, and shouted, “You scared me half to death!” Her soaking wet, too-small chemise clung to her body. Nicolas inhaled and his expression changed immediately. He stared at her. When she realized how see-through her tight, wet linen appeared, Catherine tried to cover herself with her hands and then squatted down in the water. Fury boiled in her eyes, and she shouted, “Stop staring at me, you fool! Get out of here!”

“I was not staring! It was, uh, simply the way my eyes were pointing. You have nothing to see anyway,” Nicolas said, as he swung his horse around and trotted up the stream.

Blushing to her roots, Catherine waded across the stream and crawled out of the water, mumbling to herself. Anne is so high and mighty… she is only a few years older than I am, but she thinks she is my mother… this stupid chemise, Nicolas… so childish, ridiculous! She laughed aloud at the thought.

Her reflections shifted to the golden-skinned man she had seen in town. He was mature and sophisticated. What if he found her here, dressed like this? What would she say to him? Surely, her nearly naked figure would not embarrass him the way it had that oaf, Nicolas. She remembered the stranger’s emerald eyes, and shivers flushed down her spine. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud, a cool wind picked up, and suddenly, she was cold. She dressed and arranged her hair quickly, grabbed her pails, and hurried home.

#

Nicolas continued chuckling to himself as he trotted down the stream toward Vacquenoux. After a few minutes, the charcoal dust in his hair became itchy. He could not stand it any longer, and as soon as he found a place in the stream deep enough, he leaped into the water. Catherine had chased him out of the best swimming hole in the stream.

He put his hands behind his head and relaxed in the water, remembering Catherine’s fiery silver eyes. He could almost hear her voice again, calling him a fool, the ire adding a touch of color to her cheeks. Her dark brows furrowed together above thick black lashes. Her long dark hair shone all about her on the sunlit water, the curve of her body completely visible under her wet chemise.

She had some nerve, shouting at him. He had done nothing wrong! How could he possibly have known she was swimming almost naked? He smiled again. He liked her spirit. He had noticed those sparkling eyes before, not on Catherine but her sister.

Of all the girls in Vacquenoux, Anne was the most beautiful. The sisters looked a lot alike, but Anne’s features were more refined, her cheekbones slightly higher, her lips a little fuller, her hair the color of ripened rye. She carried herself with dignity and self-assuredness, like a fine lady. When the two girls walked together, one could not help but have his gaze drawn to Anne. He could empathize with Catherine, though, because he lived in the shadow of his brother, who was so tall nobody could see past him.

Nicolas took a deep breath, filling his lungs. It felt good. He rarely had an afternoon off, and he would not allow Catherine spoil it for him. At the forge, he shoveled the charcoal. Filthy, dirty work, but necessary for the fire to stay hot enough to shape the metal. As his papa’s apprentice, he had been shoveling for about four years, ever since he had turned twelve years old.

In a few months, he would be living with his brother in Framont and working as a journeyman blacksmith. He was not sure if he liked that prospect. He remembered when his brother had left for the forge and how he complained of the hard work and long hours. Most boys never attained the rank of master, remaining journeymen their entire lives. No matter what the future held for him, he was determined to make his papa as proud of him as he was of his brother.

Now, as he floated on the water, his thoughts drifted back to Catherine, those sparkling silver eyes and long dark hair. Her wet chemise left nothing to the imagination. He had never seen a practically naked woman before today.

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Janet sends a revision of the first chapter for a creative non-fiction narrative, no title. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Dr. Patrick Talmadge looked at the dead body again and clenched his jaws tight in angry disgust. The three year old lay on the stainless steel table where she took her last breath, thanks to him. It should never have ended this way but he had not had a choice given the extensive internal injuries, flesh ripped beyond suturing and one mangled leg.

The owner of the once beautiful little Pit Bull was openly weeping. The man hugged her to his chest, not caring that more of her blood was getting smeared on his face, hands and shirt. “Oh, Jesus. Maggie, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I was so stupid, please forgive me. Oh, Jesus, my beautiful little girl.”

The words were becoming unintelligible assnot and tears ran down Eddie’s round face. The big man buried his face deeper into the brown neck where the evidence of a weighted chain had rubbed off hair and begun to work through the exposed skin. Ribs were showing where she had once been sleek, almost fat, and barely healed injuries of recent fights gleamed in pink contrast to the dark brindle stripes.

“What the hell were you thinking, Eddie? I know you loved this dog. You never missed so much as a vaccination date since you got her. Why on earth did you think she was a fighting dog? She was small for a Pit to begin with. I’ve driven by your house a dozen times and saw her out front playing with your kids, nice as could be. Good Christ, what a waste.”

Were you compelled to turn Janet's first page?

Creative non-fiction calls for the same level of story tension and writing as fiction. While the writing is okay (could be crisper), for me no story question came from this page. I don’t know what the story is about, and don’t see a problem for the protagonist. It’s a sad scene with a dramatic opening (I didn’t mind the slight bit of misleading), but, other than regret for the dog’s death, there isn’t a trouble ahead for the doc. Notes:

Dr. Patrick Talmadge looked at the dead body again and clenched his jaws tight in angry disgust. The three-year-old lay on the stainless steel table where she took had taken her last breath, thanks to him. It should never have ended this way, but he had not had a choice given the extensive internal injuries, flesh ripped beyond suturing, and one mangled leg.

The owner of the once beautiful little pit bull Pit Bull was openly weeping. Eddie The man hugged her to his chest, not caring that more of her blood was getting smeared on his face, hands and shirt. “Oh, Jesus. Maggie, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I was so stupid, please forgive me. Oh, Jesus, my beautiful little girl.”

The words were becoming unintelligible assnot and tears ran down Eddie’s round face. The big man buried his face deeper into the brown neck where the evidence of a weighted chain had rubbed off hair and begun to work through the exposed skin. Ribs were showing showed where she had once been sleek, almost fat, and barely healed injuries of recent fights gleamed in pink contrast to the dark brindle stripes.

“What the hell were you thinking, Eddie? I know you loved this dog. You never missed so much as a vaccination date since you got her. Why on earth did you think she was a fighting dog? She was small for a pit Pit to begin with. I’ve driven by your house a dozen times and seen saw her out front playing with your kids, nice as could be. Good Christ, what a waste.”

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

The last part of this statement was almost to himself as Patrick saw the effect of his words create their own wounds, the grieving man hunching his shoulders and hugging the dog even harder. Patrick turned and stripped off the latex gloves, throwing them into the bio-hazard waste can with more force than was necessary. Without turning around, he yanked open the door leading to the back rooms of his small clinic in Pass Christian, Mississippi. “I’ll give you a few minutes.”

The door clicked and he heard the man’s wailing begin again, louder than before but still muffled as the sound deafening door and walls kept most of the ongoing daily noises from this area to a minimum in the reception area. Barking, howling, meows, hissing and occasional yelps were the elevator music in his busy practice during regular business hours. Behind yet another door on the opposite side of the room were the recovery cages, all empty on this weekend.

Patrick’s own two dogs, a Blue Tick and a Bloodhound, had settled down to wait patiently in a recess under the counter. The lab equipment and sundry instruments on top brightly reflected the fluorescent overhead lights. In furious frustration, he picked up a metal container and hurled it against the far wall. This resulted in a banging ricochet that echoed loudly in the brick room and made his dogs lift their heads, shrinking back into their hidey hole. This small area kept them out of human foot traffic and provided a napping place that kept them from getting stepped on or tripped over during the day but now became a sanctuary.

Patrick’s satisfaction at the tension release was fleeting and he quickly bent his tall frame over to reassure the animals. The tone of his voice instantly softened as guilt flushed his face.

“I’m not mad at you guys. I’m sorry to scare you. Here, here’s a treat, okay?” After ruffling their ears, the man straightened and reached into the always filled biscuit basket to give them each a reward for tolerating his momentary lapse in judgment. The female Blue was more sensitive to Patrick’s moods and eyed the green bone suspiciously, then left it lay where her companion could snatch it up. Patrick sighed at the silent rebuke, glanced at the clock and ran both hands through his blond hair and he realized that he needed to add a trim to his to-do list but it would be far down on the current list of priorities . Taking another deep breath, he put his professional mask in place and re-entered the exam room.

Eddie had picked Maggie up in his arms and was sitting on the floor, still crying but now crooning and rocking. He raised his head to look Patrick in the eye, not caring that this emotional breakdown was not in keeping with their history. They had known each other since high school, playing football together to a near state championship in their senior year. As the quarterback, Patrick had depended on the keg shaped defensive lineman to protect him and now Patrick had him on the defense again.

“Sorry for losing my cool. Now, what the hell happened to your dog? You didn’t do this, did you?” Patrick’s voice was gentle as he squatted to be on a level beside his former friend, placing a hand on the broad shoulder. Eddie had gotten a little broader in the past fifteen years but it was mature muscle from wrestling lumber, concrete and shingles in the construction business he owned with his two brothers and father.   

“No, I didn’t. I wouldn’t. But..” Eddie’s voice caught and he had to relinquish his hold on Maggie momentarily to wipe a hairy arm across his face. The smeared fluids were cleaned up a little better with the application of a shirttail which then doubled as a handkerchief as he blew his nose. Patrick didn’t back off but waited patiently to hear the rest of the statement.

“I, I been gambling. Not much, but more than I should. Helen’s been getting on me lately and I started going down to the boats.” Eddie took a breath as he noticed Patrick shaking his head. “Yeah, I know but I did, no excuses. I didn’t want her or my brothers, or especially Pa, to find out I’d been losing. So anyway, I borrowed money from Little Morris. You know, that big fat guy who brags about being part of the Dixie Mafia? When I asked for an extension to pay it back, he says he likes my dog, Maggie here. I just looked at him but he says no, he doesn’t want to buy her but he would take a litter of pups off her. Said he wanted to use his own male and that I should let her stay with him at his place out on that swampland north of Texas Flat Road.” Eddie began shaking his head and turned his red eyes back on the limp dog in his lap.

“I never shoulda let her go. But it seemed like an easy way out. She is,….was, old enough. I’d seen the male in the back of Morris’ pickup when they’d drive through town. I never saw the dog close up but he didn’t look skinny or nothin’, so I thought, if he just wants the pups and not her, why not? I shoulda known better when he wouldn’t let me bring her out, insisted on picking her up himself. That was over a month ago. I can’t forget the way she looked at me when I tied her in the back of that truck and they drove off.”

This memory brought on new tears. Eddie cried silently this time and was more composed but he lifted the dog and lowered his face to her bloody head, eyes closed, like hers.

Patrick stood and walked across the room to lean against the wall, waiting patiently. Those Goddamn boats. That was the only way he ever referred to the floating casinos that had been a political football for years. Lauded by the governor as the solution to unemployment and lagging tourism issues that plagued the state, they had fulfilled the campaign promise to bring in needed cash revenues. They had also brought in a criminal element that spread like an Ebola virus, bleeding the locals dry of both hard earned wages and self-respect. The once aesthetic atmosphere of the Deep South eroded into a commercialized façade, a movie set replica of pre-Civil War prosperity.  

All of the small towns that allegedly benefited from the casinos’ presence had to turn around and beg for state funds to support the increase in law enforcement demands, social services and treatment centers to handle the increase in drug and alcohol abuse, plus full-time gambling rehabilitation counselors. He had seen good families torn apart as the addiction stole not only money but time, something that couldn’t be won back with the next roll. Entire neighborhoods became trashed as houses were no longer maintained, the deeds pledged as collateral against mounting debts. Stately historic homes were converted to boarding houses, the manicured landscaping paved over to accommodate the influx of vehicles carrying transient prostitutes, their pimps and dealers of drugs and illegal weapon sales. Communities dotting the Gulf Coast and inland waters didn’t have the experience in the justice system, from the streets to the courtrooms, to handle the big city crime wave that the boats floated on.

“Not to put you through any more pain, but how did you find out? How’d you get her back?” Patrick couldn’t help himself. “When?”

Now Eddie looked at the vet and his light eyes turned to cold steel. “That fuckin’ coward. He calls me about midnight, says he had to ‘test’ her before he wasted time and money for pups. She failed the test. That’s all he said, ‘She failed, pick her up.’ Then he says he put her in your parking lot by the back door. I thought maybe she was tied to that little tree but when I pulled in all I saw has a black garbage bag. Garbage. When I found her she was still breathing so I called you and I waited.”

Patrick had seen the expression now etched on Eddie’s face before. It had stayed with him for over a decade. In the conference championship game of their senior year, a rival defensive cornerback clipped him after nearly taking Eddie’s head off with an illegal hit. Patrick’s knee was blown and so were their chances at state. When the coaches were loading him on the stretcher, Eddie had bent over him with that look.

“He got by me. He won’t do it again.” The next day when Patrick was recovering from surgery, his father said that the kid who clipped him had also been taken off the field on a stretcher. That kid wouldn’t be playing football again, either.

 “Eddie, as much as I would like to get more details about how Maggie ended up having to be put down, us humans have to get the hell out of Dodge. Is your family ready to go? This hurricane will be here tomorrow night unless we get real lucky. I can take care of Maggie for you and in a few days, you can either pick her up or I will send her over to the Rainbow Bridge Crematorium.”

Eddie raised his stubbled chin in determination. “I let her go once and look what happened. I’ll take care of her myself. She can be buried on the farm with the rest of the family pets. Cemetery is gettin’ fair sized, going back through Grandpappy Timmerman. Thanks anyway.” Eddie managed to struggle to his feet without relinquishing his grip on the forty pound dog. He gently laid her on the table to dig in his back pocket for his wallet. “So how much I owe you?”

“Let’s not do this now. Not to be too pragmatic, but do you have freezer space? You can’t take her along to leave town, or let your family see her like this. The storm isn’t going to give you time for a proper burial. Why don’t you come back in on Wednesday or Thursday to pick her up? I’ll keep her safe, I promise. And I definitely want to talk to you about what Little Morris and his scumbags are doing out on that swamp with these dogs.”

“Trust me, Doc. It’s going to become my mission in life to make him pay for what he did to my dog.”

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16. As if rejection wasn't bad enough

I haven't posted this for a while but, considering that it's 420 Day, you might be in the mood for a peaceful if poignant and brief video on what all writers deal with.

 Of course, these days self-publication is a response to rejection. To that end, here's an aid for self-publishers:

5 starsOne of the best 'how-to' books (from Amazon)

Mastering front 100Wshadow"I just read this book a week ago. I found the “experiential description of action” section to be very helpful. It refocused me on how to write action scenes with flavor and depth. I have some 20 books on the craft of writing on my shelf, and as I am revising my third novel this month, I’m already grabbing it down several times as my ‘go to’ book. If you are a writer at any level, this book is a worthy addition to your craft library."

Kindle edition and signed paperbacks available here.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Sydney sends a revision of the first chapter for The Starshade’s Legacy . The earlier submission is here--it is very different from this opening, and it will be interesting to see how the voting differs. The rest of the chapter after the break.

The bodies are cold when I find them.

Crouched in the snow, my cloak pulled tightly about my shoulders, I touch the frozen face of a child twisted in fear. Her stomach was been ripped open revealing stiff, blackened innards. I do not recoil. I barely even wince anymore at such finds. And as I look over the other corpses, I read the story of their deaths, their ties. Their lives.

The father was killed first. His twisted form lies farthest away, a black arrow in his back and his throat torn out. My mouth forms a grim line. The Shifters are merciless with their kills. No doubt the arrow would have been fatal on its own. The pack that had done this must have been a border patrol—and a bored one at that for such harsh measures. Probably caught the small family as they fled a now-desecrated village.

The mother was raped and killed last. This, I can tell from her splayed legs and the deep lacerations on certain points of her arms, shoulders, and hips. The way her head is turned just enough that she can look where her daughter had fallen.

I examine the tracks with narrowed eyes. Large, deep paw prints are mixed in with smaller, lighter human prints. The site where the father was slain holds the deepest grooves, so deep that even I pause. A powerful, heavy-set Shifter had charged him from the side to rip into his throat. Possibly a Guard in rank. That was unusual. Guards usually stay near the den, rather (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Sydney's first page?

A clear, confident voice is the first attraction for this opening. The description is clear and done in a matter-of-fact way that characterizes this character as calm and professional. I get a good sense of the world of the story, too. The grisly scene foreshadows trouble ahead for the character and, for me, raised good “what happens next” story questions. There are a couple of small things to note:

The bodies are cold when I find them.

Crouched in the snow, my cloak pulled tightly about my shoulders, I touch the frozen face of a child twisted in fear. Her stomach was been ripped open, revealing stiff, blackened innards. I do not recoil. I barely even wince anymore at such finds. And as I look over the other corpses, I read the story of their deaths, their ties. Their lives.

The father was killed first. His twisted form lies farthest away, a black arrow in his back and his throat torn out. My mouth forms a grim line. The Shifters are merciless with their kills. No doubt the arrow would have been fatal on its own. The pack that had done did this must have been a border patrol—and a bored one at that, for such harsh measures. Probably caught the small family as they fled a now-desecrated village. The “My mouth” sentence is a couple of things: a “body part filter”and a shift in point of view. It gives an action to a body part which might more appropriately come from the character. By calling attention to what it is doing, it draws attention away from what the character is doing/feeling even though it is meant to show feeling. As for pov, she can’t see what her mouth looks like, grim feelings inside or not.

The mother was raped and killed last. This, I can tell from her splayed legs and the deep lacerations on certain points of her arms, shoulders, and hips. The way her head is turned just enough that she can look where her daughter had fallen.

I examine the tracks with narrowed eyes. Large, deep paw prints are mixed in with smaller, lighter human prints. The site where the father was slain holds the deepest grooves, so deep that even I pause. A powerful, heavy-set Shifter had charged him from the side to rip into his throat. Possibly a Guard in rank. That was unusual. Guards usually stay near the den, rather (snip) A clarity issue here: what are the grooves? They haven’t been mentioned, but paw prints and footprints have. Where did “grooves” come from? What caused them? What does their deepness mean?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . than patrol with the low-ranked Raiders. As for the source of the arrow I can’t tell, but it’s make looked to be a Raiders with its mismatched feathers and greased shaft.

Upon examining the scene again I decide there must have been five or six of the monsters in a group. It’s hard to tell how long something has been in one place. In this never-ending winter rife with ice-laden winds but little snow, tracks can last for weeks on end if the right conditions are met.

My best guess would be that the Shifters passed through here roughly three days ago. Sighing, I tuck an errant lock of hair behind one ear and stand. My spear knocks reassuringly against my shoulder when I move. My padded boots make my steps near silent as I walk over to the father's corpse. Kneeling, I shovel snow onto the body with gloved hands. The process of burying the mother and child only takes a few minutes, but before I leave I kneel beside the smallest cairn and fist a hand over my breast.

"I swear, by my promise as Starshade, last of my kindred, last of yours, that I will avenge your deaths."

Another promise.The words echo in me. Make me feel hollow. Yet it is an act I must do, for I cannot afford to fail.

Poor thing… their souls will be lost in the void now,  a voice murmurs beside me. I glance out of the corner of one eye to see the ghostly frame of a four-tailed fox.

Celestia’s image shimmers in the breeze and threatens to tear apart, but when the wind dies the slim canine regains her form.

“Yes,” I mutter, “Unless one of them was strong enough to will for justice, but I feel that vengeance has more of a hand in their last moments. To curse a man with your dying breath holds more power than many believe…” I sigh and rise to my full height. The sun warms my back, my fur-cloaked body criss-crossed by the shadows of tree branches high above. The days here are short, making what little light and warmth that they offer welcome to my arduous task. I have been traveling the mountains for over two months now. Training. Fighting. Killing. Surviving.

I close my eyes as memories of what had brought me to this point in time rush through my mind, and one hand clenches into a fist.

“They will pay for every evil act they have committed.”

They cannot all be evil. Some of them may have no choice in the matter.’ The fox stares at me with large blue eyes.

Unnerved for a moment, I look back down the path I came from. “Even you cannot tell me whether he did what he did for good, or for his own selfish reasons,” I mutter, “Why save only me? Why didn’t he stand up and fight to defend the others when he still had the chance?”

Maybe he was afraid.

A strong wind tears through the trees and Celestia is blown apart before I can turn to face her again. Cursing the chill, I pull my cloak tighter about my shoulders and brace my back against a large oak to try and dodge the worst of it. Maybe she was right. Maybe he had been afraid.

But he was a Shifter. I couldn’t let one kind act from one individual steer me from my course. My fate has been set in stone. Locked in place and carved by my own promises.

When the wind dies, I pull my scarf further over my face and grasp the rod of my favorite weapon. A double headed spear.

The instrument stabs into the side of another oak an instant later, and I use the newly created perch to spring up onto a higher branch. Reaching down, I grasp the old, wooden rod and pull upwards. The embedded spearhead comes free with only a mild struggle, its curved edges made for my personal ease of use. Any barbed points could very well get me killed the way I fight.

Hefting the spear for a moment with one hand, I flip it back into its sheath and push myself into a crouched position on the branch. I eye the tracks below for several moments, judging the path my enemies had taken, then pull a talisman from beneath the collar of my shirt and hold it in one gloved fist.

The large violet gemstone pulses in my grasp, and I feel a heightened awareness invade my senses.

“Where do I go now?”

The simple question goes unanswered for several moments, and the wind dies with an almost defeated sigh. I pay little attention to the chill that sets into my bones as I watch the forest floor below.

Finally I spy movement. The mist-like streaks of two running animals. Spirits just like Celestia.

The twin-tailed cougar is the first to reach me, leaping high onto a branch just above and to my right. The doe, swiveling her four ears nervously, remains prancing below.

Aura cannot See very far in this place, The large cat growls and extends her claws -though they cannot dig into the bark. We think it may have to do with being in this valley. The mountains block her abilities.

I nod, a frown on my face, but I’m not too surprised. Aura has had trouble with her Sight ever since we entered the Doomed Peaks. Even from my perch high off the ground I can’t see the top of the mountains. “What path must I take, then?”

The deer below us jumps and begins to dart around at a more rapid pace than ever, ebony eyes ringed by white. I glance down in concern. “Aura. What is the matter?”

No path you take will be safe. No path. The doe halts in her tracks and shivers uncontrollably.

My eyes narrow. “Then which one will give me the greatest chance of living?”

Her head turns quickly in the direction of the tracks, and to where they lead. ‘I cannot tell you for fear of what the future might change to, but that way gives you the best chance.’

“Then I shall heed your words.” Gathering my legs beneath me, I prepare to leap to the next tree. Aura nods and her form dissipates.

I turn my gaze to the cougar, wary. “Is there something you wish to tell me, Daedra?”

My mentor glares at me with blazing emerald eyes until I am forced to look away. She may be able to block me from hearing what you both say, but I know that vixen Celestia is up to no good. You would do well to ignore whatever that traitor tells you, Keit. I have already told you this so many times before. Why do you humor her?

A rueful smile curves my lips. “Maybe just because my talking to her irritates you.”

The cougar hisses and takes a swipe at me, but her raking claws pass harmlessly through my body.

‘I will be watching you, Khet‘ahk-nin,’  Her glare alone should have been enough to burn holes into me. ‘We cannot afford to fail again.’ 

I scowl at the nickname. “I know. And I will not fail.”

Her nod, as well as her expression, are grim. Good. See to it that you do not break the promise so many others have are before you.

Before I can say anything more, her form billows apart like smoke and I am alone again.

Gritting my teeth in annoyance, I push myself into a standing position, then leap toward the next branch. The frozen, cracked limb threatens to give under my weight, but I move swiftly and quietly through the treetops. Aura’s words of warning echo in my mind, and I keep a firm grasp on my spear. A keen eye all around me. The Shifters never expect an attack from above, but a Guard’s involvement in the destruction of that family might change things for the worse if I’m not careful.

I will not fail. I simply can’t. Not when his death weighs so heavily on my shoulders.

My brother’s voice echoes in the back of my mind, and I wince as I remember our last words to each other. “I promised father that I would protect you, Keit. You may think it silly now, but I do not break promises. Even silly ones.”

I shouldn’t have yelled at him. Shouldn’t have told him that such a promise was stupid. At least he kept his.

Gritting my teeth, I throw myself at the next tree, impatient for the fight soon to come. He did everything in his power to keep me alive. Died in the attempt.

I will not disappoint him by breaking my own promises.

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18. Flogometer for Jacob—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Jabob sends a revision of the first chapter for The Freerunners. The earlier submission is here. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Noah poked his head out of the garbage bin. A pair of muted footsteps approached his position, their shadows[r1]  dancing under the faded streetlights. He withdrew in a flurry, his heart fluttering for a few seconds. For some strange reason, he’d lost all feeling in his legs, replaced by an unrelenting numbness all the way to his toes. Forcing a deep breath into his lungs, Noah pressed his ear up against the lifeless metal lid he sat beneath, his cheek greeted by an icy winter chill. His brother Cody sat hunched beside him, waiting for some kind of communication. The patter of snow falling along the alley made it difficult to hear much, but Noah could just make out a few wet treads only metres away from their hiding place. His heart’s pace continued to rise. Sweat began to drizzle down his forehead despite the freezing midnight temperatures that swallowed the city of Groveville.

Noah looked around at his brother; he only received a blank look in response. Why had they been followed for the past 4 blocks? The man must be insane! A crackle of snow interrupted their silent conversation. Noah’s head darted back to the noise. A delicate wind slithered through a small hole in the bin. They stayed that way for several minutes, with no more unusual sounds piercing the night’s rhythmic tune. It had been only seconds after they had left the party when the brothers had picked up on the man tailing them. Now, stuck in a garbage bin 3 miles out from home, Noah found himself regretting the choice to stay out late. “We have to get home now!” (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Jacob's first page?

For me, there were a number of narrative issues in this page—you’ll see some of them in the notes below: snow making sounds such as pattering and crackling; being able to see inside a pitch dark garbage bin, seeing shadows made by sounds . . . For this reader the story question of why they are being followed didn’t have a lot of energy because I knew nothing about the characters and why someone following them—or perhaps just walking in the same direction they were going, that’s an equal possibility—would be a source of danger to them, enough so to make them sit in garbage. There were no stakes to being discovered in the narrative. Notes:

Noah poked his head out of the garbage bin. A pair of muted footsteps approached his position, their shadows dancing under the faded streetlights. He withdrew in a flurry, his heart fluttering for a few seconds. For some strange reason, he’d lost all feeling in his legs, replaced by an unrelenting numbness all the way to his toes. Forcing a deep breath into his lungs, Noah pressed his ear up against the lifeless metal lid he sat beneath, his cheek greeted by an icy winter chill. His brother Cody sat hunched beside him, waiting for some kind of communication. The patter of snow falling along the alley made it difficult to hear much, but Noah could just make out a few wet treads only metres away from their hiding place. His heart’s pace continued to rise. Sweat began to drizzle down his forehead despite the freezing midnight temperatures that swallowed the city of Groveville. There is description and imagery that didn’t work well for me in this opening. What is a “pair” of footsteps? The sound of two people walking? Not sure. Secondly, footsteps are sounds, and they can’t possibly have shadows. Next, I’ve been in a lot of snow and never have I heard it make a sound, much less a patter—and especially if that snow is falling on the steel lid of a garbage bin, which I take to be the equivalent of a Dumpster in America. What are “wet treads?” More footsteps?

Noah looked around at his brother; he only received a blank look in response. Why had they been followed for the past 4 blocks? The man must be insane! A crackle of snow interrupted their silent conversation. Noah’s head darted back to the noise. A delicate wind slithered through a small hole in the bin. They stayed that way for several minutes, with no more unusual sounds piercing the night’s rhythmic tune. It had been only seconds after they had left the party when the brothers had picked up on the man tailing them. Now, stuck in a garbage bin 3 miles out from home, Noah found himself regretting the choice to stay out late. “We have to get home now!” (snip) If they’re in a garbage bin with the lid closed, it has to be pitch dark, so how can he see his brother? Why would he look at him in total darkness, and how could he see a blank look in response? Then snow crackles—I’ve never heard snow either patter or crackle. Do they have a much different kind of snow in Australia (the location)? And what is the night’s “rhythmic tune?” We’ve been shown no sounds other than footsteps and snow, so I don’t grasp the night’s tune. More things that confused me: why would Noah assume that the man following them for 4 whole blocks must be insane? What does it mean that Noah’s head darted back to the noise? How did it do that?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

Continued:

Noah whispered to Cody, holding a dim phone light up to his face, his voice on the verge of cracking. He felt terrible for leaving his mum Sabrina at home alone, sick as she was with dad away fighting in the war. 

“I think he’s leaving,” Cody whispered back, an encouraging smile sprouting on his face. Sure enough, the slushy footsteps appeared to be walking deeper into the alleyway, their echoes almost engulfed by the howling winds that plagued Groveville all year round. Noah sighed, releasing the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. They continued to wait for what seemed like an eternity, the lines of tension on Noah’s face diminishing quicker and quicker.

Finally, Cody couldn’t stand it any longer. “I think he’s gone,” he said, turning to his brother, a chuckle brewing on his lips. Noah smiled back before he flung his head high and erupted into laughter. How absurd was this? Playing hide and seek with a mysterious man at midnight? Cody also began to laugh, growing in fullness as he observed his surroundings and wondered how on earth this had happened. “Lucky he left when he did,” Noah said, looking around at the garbage he’d eased himself into, “because I’m not sure I could stand this stench any longer.”

“Not too mention all this trash sticking into my backside,” Cody said as he reached down below his waist, groping for the item he sat on top of. He suddenly stopped, his features motionless, and removed his hand from the waste. Grasped within his fingers was a rotten perryfruit core.

“Ewwww,” came the cry from Noah as he scrambled to get away from the evil smile his brother was giving him. Cody then proceeded to lob the core towards his brother, and with the precision of a professional sportsman it landed dead on top of Noah’s head. They both stopped for a second, before the waste bin was once again reverberating with the boy’s laughter. Noah felt lucky to have a brother as awesome as Cody. Confident and daring, he was one of the funniest guys to be around, having an easy-going nature with a daredevil’s spirit.

Unfortunately for his brother, that daredevil spirit Cody possessed also led to copious amounts of trouble being heaped upon them both. Being a natural athlete was a handy trait for a city like Groveville, and Cody took full advantage of it, spending more time running from the cops then on any school racetrack, and often taking Noah along for the ride. Noah would have probably been against the whole crime thing in another life, but with their family struggling like they were, he knew that to pull the plug on the operation would be catastrophic. Whilst Sabrina might not know the specifics about the dealings that went on in the streets (and would undoubtedly be against them) she certainly relied on the income that her children brought in.

“Come on, let’s get home before mum wakes up,” said Cody. They knew she’d been having nightmares about dad serving in another country, though she’d never admit it out loud. Noah readily agreed to his brother’s suggestion, preparing to open the bin’s lid. He was keen to put the eerie night behind him, his laughter covering how truly relieved he really felt.

However, the night’s adventures were not entirely complete. Just as Noah began pushing open the lid, a thundering knock rang painfully inside the bin, causing Noah’s nerves to jolt. What on earth was that? He looked across at his brother. Cody’s face was screwed up in concentration, crouched on the balls of his feet and ready to pounce on any attacker. Suddenly, a ray of torchlight flashed into the waste bin, growing stronger as the lid opened more. Noah looked up half blinded, his heart about to puncture a whole in his chest.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, Noah noticed the strangest thing. Staring down at them was the girl who’d hosted the party.

 


 [r1]footsteps can’t have shadows, they are sounds

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19. The appeal of apocalyptic fiction

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

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

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Were you compelled to turn Ted's first page?

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

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

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

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

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

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chow’s ready!”

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

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

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

Tom didn’t reply.

* * * * *

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

“Where was it?”

“Queenstown, other side of the bay.”

“Queenstown? I wonder why there.”

“I don’t know.”

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

“Already in progress.”

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

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21. Notes on Characterization

I came across an article titled “Writing Remedy: How to Breathe Life into One-dimensional Characters”  by Writer’s Relief staff. While I’m sure your characters have plenty of depth and complexity, perhaps there are tips here worth noting. For example, there’s advice that relates to “showing” character dimensions versus “telling” that I think is worth thinking about.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Mastering front 100W 5 stars"One of the best 'how-to' books"

5 stars"Add it to your writer's toolbox!"

Free sample chapters here.

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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22. Flogometer for Christine—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Christine sends a rewrite of the first chapter for Echoes In the Rain. The first submission is here. The rest of the chapter is after the break.

"Do you hate him? Do you sometimes wish he was dead?” My daughter’s eyes locked onto mine waiting for a reply.

At the sound of those words, my body started to shake causing the breakfast dishes in my hand to fall to the ground. Jagged fragments scattered onto the kitchen floor. My mind raced. How did she know? Never before had I revealed my feelings about her father. Why did she ask? How do I respond to that torpedo of a question? I had no courage for this especially today of all days. I stepped over the shattered dishes and walked towards Céleste. I tucked a few strands of her long black curls behind her ear and tried to remain casual, avoiding her question.

“Ma chérie, we have to hurry. We do not want to be late for the Winter Carnaval.”

My stubborn teenager would not relent. This question had obviously been percolating for a while.

 “Maman, I know you are planning something. Yesterday some guy called and said the security system you asked to have installed could not be done for a few weeks. The address he gave was some apartment just outside the old quarter of Québec.”

Fear gripped me and I forgot how to breathe. What if her father had answered that call?

“The man assured me the system would be ready in time for when we moved in,” Céleste continued.

Were you compelled to turn Christine's first page?

There’s a good, strong story question here—what is the secret that the daughter has discovered that causes such panic in the mother? There is implied serious jeopardy if her fright is any measure, and we can see that she wants to protect her daughter, so there is a strong relationship. The writing needs to be tighter, but in this case I was willing to forgive that and turn the page because of the other strong elements. Notes:

"Do you hate him? Do you sometimes wish he was dead?” My daughter’s eyes locked onto mine waiting for a reply.

At the sound of those words, my body I started to shake, and causing the breakfast dishes in my hand to fall fell to the ground floor. Jagged fragments scattered across onto the kitchen floor. My mind raced. How did she know? Never before had I revealed my feelings about her father. Why did she ask? How do I respond to that torpedo of a question? I had no courage for this, especially today of all days. I stepped over the shattered dishes and walked towards Céleste. I tucked a few strands of her long black curls behind her ear and tried to remain casual, avoiding her question. A few things here. “my body” is using a filter, which separates the reader from the character’s experience. the part about her mind racing is telling. show us, as you do with the rapid-fire questions—of which I thought there were too many, though I loved the “torpedo of a question.”

Ma chérie, we have to hurry. We do not want to be late for the Winter Carnaval.”

My stubborn teenager would not relent. This question had obviously been percolating for a while.

 “Maman, I know you are planning something. Yesterday some guy called and said the security system you asked to have installed could not be done for a few weeks. The address he gave was some apartment just outside the old quarter of Québec.”

Fear gripped me and I forgot how to breathe. What if her father had answered that call?

“The man assured me the system would be ready in time for when we moved in,” Céleste continued.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued       

Grabbing her shoulders I pleaded, “What did you say to your father?”

“Chill Maman. Dad doesn’t know. I wanted to talk to you first. Maman, what was that man talking about? I also found some partially packed suitcases in my closet. Are we moving?”

This day had finally come. I had been curating my words for a while. My response needed to be well manicured so it could withstand the tightrope; the delicate balance between the truth and respecting that he was her father. I wiped my glasses in an effort to stall my response.

Weary of my control over my voice I began, “When two people fall out of love….”

Céleste stopped me. “The truth…. whatever you’re doing affects me too.”

Her injured eyes convinced me to abandon my practiced spiel. I decided to tell the reality with a few omissions and some compressions.

 “For the past year, I have been secretly putting money aside for an apartment. I finally put a deposit down for one the other day.” My voice tightened as I nervously twisted my wedding ring around my finger. “Your father and I are not right for each other. He has some demons in his life, issues that are bigger than him. Bigger than you and me. He needs help before…”

It took everything inside me to stifle the true words that screamed in my head. “Instead of facing his challenges, he has chosen different ways to cope. Alcohol and drugs are his love. By now you can see that your father's drunken rage is a regular part of our life. He has been abusive for years. I allowed this to happen because I thought I deserved it. Desperately I hid as much as possible from you. It seems I failed. You saw too much. His abuse has worsened and could possibly extend to you. We need to get out of this house, away from him!”

Céleste leaned forward and pensively looked into my eyes. She understood the seriousness of my words.

“The apartment is near the Université. It should be ready in a few weeks.”

My hands shook; I was like a nervous seamstress stitching my words together without a pattern.

Anxious to justify myself I continued. “I wanted to love your father and make it work. But how can I love someone I fear?”

I felt exposed as my thoughts shifted into words. “Sometimes we have to give up on people, not because we don’t care, but because they don’t. Céleste, you have always been my reason to stay. Now you are my impetus to leave.”

She sat quietly processing my words. Her despondency revealed she already knew our life was filled with dysfunction. My perpetual silence helped deny its existence. Articulation out loud now made it real. I realized that while I may have accepted the abuse, she adjusted to it. I was prepared for a long discussion. Whatever Céleste felt was distilled to a single question.

 “I know what you mean,” her lips quivered. “Is it possible to love and hate someone at the same time?"

I was stunned and silent. Incapable of a reply.

Determined to keep our tradition, I gathered my snow gear and boots and motioned for Céleste to do the same. I would be dammed if I allowed her father to spoil this day for us. This was our annual mother/daughter day at the Québec Winter Carnaval. It would probably be the last for a while as Céleste would be at Université next year. A small fire of excitement for the day filled me as we donned our winter gear and headed out in the balmy winter weather.

“Céleste be careful,” I cautioned as we walked along the ice slicked streets in the Old Champlain quarter. Despite the artic flavor of the city, in all my thirty-nine years living here I never tired of it. The ambiance of the city emulated old France. Or at least what I dreamt France to be like. Someday I would travel to Europe but for now Québec City fed my imagination.

 “Ma chérie, slow down! It is slippery,” I warned again. Visions of her 5’2” frame falling flat on the ice haunted me. Céleste calls me a helicopter mom, a characterization I will probably never outgrow. I would always find a way to protect her.

I had to laugh at Céleste. She did not let the -6°C (20°F) stop her from the enjoyment of this day. Her pace did not slacken as we climbed the mounds of snow that had accumulated from the snowstorm the night before. Undaunted by the ice that greased the alleyways, Céleste saw them as dance floors. She twirled around as her wild mane of hair danced in the air. Her lack of inhibition was my envy. Self-conscious of my own lackluster locks, I tucked my nickel coloured strands into my bun. My hair was untamed and curly like hers years ago. Youth endowed me with beauty and innocence. Time and stress disarmed me and my looks have eroded. I am still the same person, just downgraded. We continued our trek towards Rue Grande Allée to the hub of all the winter festivities.

 Frozen walls kissed the sides of our legs as we blasted down the 120 metre (almost 400 feet) giant sprawling ice slide. It was the common man’s equivalent to the luge, but the descent on this ice crested runway at top speed was the perfect initiation to the day’s activities. Adrenalin ignited to full force, we leapt over to the snow tubing hill. Our snow tubes seemed airborne as we launched from the summit and ricocheted over the snow mounds in pinball style. We subjected ourselves to this hilarity until our hair was frozen and our buttocks ached. Relentless, Céleste dragged me to the next and newest adventure - the Human Foosball Game.

 Nine players on each team strapped their arms to one of three metal poles that crossed the field horizontally. This ensured that we could only move jointly and sideways. We were then expected to collectively kick the ball into the opposing net. Laughter consumed us as we comically struggled towards that goal despite our physical restraints. Céleste was determined to score a goal while I on the other hand, was happy just to make contact with the ball. Much to our chagrin our team lost.

We may not have had a sweet victory, but the consolation prize was, Maple Taffy. Hot maple syrup crystallized before our very eyes as it made contact when poured over clean packed snow. Seconds was all it took for this liquid gold to transform into solid Popsicle of deliciousness. Enthusiastically Céleste grabbed one for each of us to suck on as we walked towards the outdoor hockey rink.

As was custom, Céleste and I donned our skates, helmets and gloves. Armed with hockey sticks and ebullience we skated out onto the rink to join our team, ‘Chicks with Sticks’. Despite a valiant effort in the hockey game, we lost. None of us were a Mario Lemieux, but hey, we had a blast. This was our one day of the year where fun trumped skill. For me, the opportunity to play with my daughter meant I had already won.

Sweaty, exhausted and hungry we wobbled towards our favourite pastry shop near the arched entrance of the walled in city.

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

“You know that is my favourite,” she crooned.

“Want one, Maman?” Céleste inquired. “You know you do.”

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

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

 Céleste licked the maple syrup like an eager child, as it ran down her face. Life had not burdened Céleste with the same baggage I carried. Her youth gave her an inner strength and innocence, one that I used to know. She ignored what others thought, or at least that was the persona Céleste projected.

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

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

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

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

 “When I first met your father I was convinced we were perfect for each other. We would have a life of privilege and affluence complete with the white picket fence and a beautiful rose garden. Sometimes I feel a little cheated - no roses just rain. The song reminds me that no one promised me roses and I better get used to the rain.” The words hung thick in the air. I regretted saying them; they sounded immature. My daughter didn’t have to hear her mother complain about a life unfulfilled. I wish I could unsay those words.

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

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

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

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

My heart swelled with love for her. I held her hand and looked into her eyes. “Céleste, I hope you know you are ma chérie, my reason for living.”

“There you said it Maman - ‘living’. That is what I have planned for us today!”

Suddenly she held up a bag that I had not noticed before. “What is that?” I asked.

“Every year we each get to pick something special we want to do on mother/daughter day. This year we are shaken things up! Inside this sac is the potential to be artic goddesses. I packed a bathing suit, towel, and a tuque for both of us. You and I are off to the Winter Spa Village to relax in the outdoor hot tub,” she proudly announced.

“Oh no we are not!” I exclaimed. “There is no way my pathetic body will be squeezed into a bathing suit. Let alone do it in front of strangers.”

“Maman, you know the rules, you pick one event and I pick one. This is what I choose. You will love it! No argument – let’s go.” Céleste pulled my arm and lead me in the direction of the outdoor spa.

To resist was futile. Reluctantly I followed. As Céleste handed me my bathing suit, I wondered how she found it. It was hidden long ago. Self-consciously I walked out of the change room with my suit on. With an apprehensive smile and tuque on my head I must have been a sight for sore eyes. Gingerly I dipped my toe into the hot water. Even though I did not relish getting into the tub, to remain out in the open exposed was a less desirable option. Blushingly I stepped into the hot tub. Several people were already in the tub but there was a vacant spot in the corner. I submerged my body and moved to claim that spot. Once seated I started to relax. It actually felt soothing. The contrast of the hot water and the crisp cold air was intoxicating. With my head tilted back I indulged as the steam swirled around my torso and a waft of nearby roasting hazelnuts tickled my nose.

Eyes closed, I luxuriated in the sounds of laughter and happy talk from every angle. Céleste was right. This had been a good idea. I haven’t felt this peaceful for a long time. Relaxation and time with my favourite person - Céleste. What more could I ask for?

After a while Céleste hesitantly tapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry to interrupt your self-induced paradise but it is time to go.”

Inwardly, I felt a little guilty. After my initial protest, now I did not want to leave. Begrudgingly I exited the tub and quickly grabbed my towel. Thankfully the changing rooms were nearby.

“Where are you going?” Céleste asked. “That was only part one of the quest. The next part is the Sauvage Snow Bath. Here,” she ordered. “Put on these socks, boots, gloves and keep your tuque on. You’ll need it for the Snow Dive!”

“I’ll need to change out of my bathing suit first.” I implored.

“No. that is the fun of it. You dive in the snow with your bathing suit on. If you can stay in the snow for five minutes or longer – the Carnaval will donate money to your favourite charity. Come on Maman it is for a good cause.”

Céleste is incorrigible. I chuckled. She probably just wanted to see me embarrass myself. I put on the mandatory gear, plugged my nose and dove into the hill of snow. An expletive squeal escaped as my body adjusted to the shock of the extreme cold. Unbelievably, I managed to remain the whole five minutes but as soon as the countdown ticked to the last second, I raced out of my icy cocoon and snatched my towel. Céleste stayed a couple more minutes, probably to show me up but then she too raced for her towel. With a twin smirks we exploded in uncontrollable laughter. “You are a rascal,” I grinned. “You have a way about you that makes me say ‘yes’ to too many things.”

“Come on Maman admit it – you enjoyed it. I saw you grin.” She jeered. “Besides, why are so self-conscious about your body? You look great. I noticed some guy in the hot tub check you out,” she teased.

Affectionately I hugged her. “Truth be known, this has been one of the best days of my life.”

Céleste smiled – she knew she done good.

“Okay, are you done? Can we do my request now?” I probed. She nodded. She knew my request. It was the same every year. We held hands and headed to our next destination in silence.

Our stillness broke as we neared the cemetery. “Ready ma chérie?” The weather had warmed slightly and it started to rain. “Put your hood up, here comes the rain.” We quickened our pace as we walked up Taché Boulevard. The rusted gate was wide open. Every year on this day I visit Papa’s grave site. Céleste never met my Papa. He died in a motorcycle accident long before she was born. Papa’s memory lived on in my stories. She knew Papa had been my rock, my best friend.

Understanding my inward journey, Céleste gave me a few private moments with my Papa. The gravel bit at my knees as I knelt down by his headstone. “Je t’amie Papa. I love you,” I whispered as my hand caressed the top of his tombstone. Somehow, touching his memorial made me feel closer to him. Here today, love had a way of bringing us together even if death kept us apart. I surveyed the sky desperately wanting to believe that Papa had found a way to see me, to listen, love and still protect me.

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

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

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

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

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

“Céleste, I could try to give you a scientific explanation but it would probably not be correct. I will give you the answer that resides in my heart. Céleste turned in my direction, her face curious.

 “The hummingbird is considered a messenger, and symbol of devotion and protection. Papa is sending me a message. I believe he is here with us now and somehow everything will work out.” Uncertainty filled me wondering if Celeste understood the power of the moment. I did.

“Merci Papa,” my susurration evaporated as the hummingbird flew away.

Rain poured down hard. I did not care, the resonance of Papa’s love protected me. Together we headed home.

Turning a corner Céleste noticed a kitten near a garbage can wet and shivering. “Look Maman, a kitty. It looks lost. Can we bring it home?” She pleaded as she held the tiny creature close to her.

“No, Céleste. Your father would not approve.”

 Her eyes begged. “Its fur is tattered and it is skin and bones. It is bitter outside and you can tell the poor thing has not eaten for a while. Please… What if we just take it home for tonight and in the morning take it to the shelter?” She knew I’d cave, I was such a pushover.

Armed with a myriad of reasons to say ‘no’ and only one reason to say ‘yes’, I relented. “Okay, but you must hide it from your father! We will take it to the shelter first thing in the morning – agreed?”

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

 Céleste cuddled the little kitty in her arms. She was already in love. We continued our trek home.

♦♦♦

“Where the fuck were you?” her father demanded as we entered the house. Her father had the looks of Brad Pitt but the heart of O.J.Simpson.

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

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

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

 “It has been more than twenty years for fucks sake, you should be over him by now.” I cringed at his callousness.

“I work hard all day. The least you could do is have dinner ready for me,” he complained even though we both knew he had been at the bar for hours.

Immediately I recognized this as a precursor to a fight, I waved Céleste past me and signaled for her to hide the kitty in her room.

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

“This is shit,” he bellowed when I handed him the food. He flipped his hand up in the air and knocked the dish out of my grasp which caused the spaghetti to spill all over the floor. “You know I hate leftovers.”

I manufactured a smile. “I’ll make something else. What would you like?” He had obviously has his usual liquid appetizer.

He began a disgruntled response but then his words froze mid-sentence. He seemed distracted by something in the hallway. My insides twisted. I knew what held his attention, even before turning around. Céleste hadn’t closed the door to her room. The kitty wobbled into the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

“Who the hell are you to give her authorization to have a kitten?” he spit out and moved closer to me. Pinning me up against the cupboard he hissed, “It is me who makes the decisions around here. I bring home the money.

I did not have the courage to correct him. It was my salary that paid the bills now. He had not held a steady job since his own father fired him from the family business. I just glared at him loathing the sight of him. His mouth twitched and I could see the frustration seep through his pores. His grip tightened as he started to twist my arm. Céleste’s father hated that I was not being the obedient wife he had cultivated. His grip twisted my arm further. Was he trying to break me? Does he not see that I’m already broken? I felt detached from his threatened violence. A new sense of liberation filled me in knowing that I would soon be free of him. My escape plan had been set in place. Céleste and I would soon leave this house, and never return. He would not be able to hurt us anymore. His nails dug into me. When he did not get the desired reaction he became more agitated. Yanking the kitten out of Céleste’s arms, he gripped it tightly, his frenetic energy intense.

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

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

I felt raw and my eyes were spiked with shock. Blindsided, how could I have known he was capable of hurting - no killing an innocent kitten. I started to hyperventilate. For all these years I was his punching bag, but now his locus of control had ruptured. I knew what had to be done. We could not wait any longer, we had to leave tonight!

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

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

 “Let me get your supper, I offered meekly. “How about French toast? What if I make that?”

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

“See what you did?” he said as he got in my face. “Filling her with lies about me and turning her against me.” Her father rationalized and twisted the version of events. A greasy sheen on his face gleaned as he leaned into me. His breath wreaked of alcohol as he kissed me hard. He seemed turned on by this nightmare. Pulling away he looked at me with disdain then he pushed me aside. “Now get me my dinner.”

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

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

Céleste’s expression was a collage of fear, hurt and anger. Hastily she opened the closet door and pulled out the suitcases. We wildly grabbed at whatever we could and shoved it into the suitcase.

“I refreshed your father’s beer, so that should occupy him for a little time. This is our chance to leave.”

“Leaving tonight? I thought you said in a few weeks?” Céleste queried.

“Plans have changed. It is not safe to remain here anymore!” I vented.

Exasperated, I tried to calm myself enough to formulate an escape plan. I had not expected to do this tonight. What does one take when they are leaving forever? I grabbed the framed photo of Céleste and myself. I clutched a tattered stuffed bear that Céleste loved as a child. What was I doing? I needed to concentrate….

Suddenly I heard his voice behind me. I was immobilized with fear.

“Going somewhere?” his voice pierced through me like a thousand knives. The blood drained from my body.

 “Just straightening up,” I whimpered and backed away from him.

 “Doesn’t appear that way to me,” his voice snapped thick with contempt.

This was the point of no return. I could not subject Céleste to any more of this. Courage penetrated my spine and there was shift in the air. I straightened up and leered at him.

“You are an animal. What kind of a savage does what you just did? For too long abuse has been your tool of persuasion. You’ve worsened and now cannot be contained. It will be over my dead body that you hurt Céleste again. We are leaving you!”

 “I call the shots around here,” he scoffed with a voice filled with splinters. “You don’t leave unless I say so, and I don’t say so. You’re not going anywhere.”

Indifferent to his words, I scanned the room for Céleste. She had backed herself into a corner. Her mouth gaped open and her eyes were filled with terror. My eyes trailed the path to where she pointed. She was fixated on something in her father’s hand.

How pitiful he was, I thought. He could not bear to be without his precious beer. But upon closer examination I realized it was not a beer in his hand. Tendrils of terror curled in my stomach when I recognized what it was. It was a gun!

The reality of the moment swirled around me and a scream choked in my throat. My mind raced, I couldn’t concentrate. I had a visceral reaction and the Momma bear syndrome took over. All I could think about was my daughter’s safety. I had to get Céleste out of here.  Guardedly, I made my way to my daughter and spread my arms in an attempt to shield her. Cautiously I edged her towards the door.

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

“….But Maman…” Céleste protested.

“DO as I say…get out NOW!”

I turned back to look at her father. As if possessed, his face had a melded look of hate and conquest. I could see a fire in his eyes. Slowly, he wrapped his fingers around the trigger of that gun and took aim.

“If I can’t have you, no one will. You belong to me!”

As I looked at him resignation took over. He was right. From the moment we met I belonged to him. He would not allow it to be any other way. I could never escape this nightmare. One would think I would have bolted out of the room, but I didn’t. This whole marriage had been a slow death with painful interruptions. I watched with submission as he pointed the gun at his intended target – me.

He shot the gun.

As the bullet made impact instantly my heart started to gasp. I could feel a shallowness and knew I was fading with every lifeless breath.

Slowly…. images of my entire life appeared… in a cadence of quick chronological swiftness. A few last thoughts made their final escape. I knew my answer to Céleste‘s question. ‘Do I hate him and sometimes wish he were dead?’ Yes! I do hate him and the spiral of negativity that he caused to invade my life. I wish we never met! If only I had made better choices. If only I had the strength sooner. If only I could rewrite my past…

My body quivered and I felt a chill.

Suddenly there was another gun shot.

I …faded… breathlessly… slipping in and out of consciousness.

Oh .....my .....God..........(gasps for air) please .....God.........tell me........Céleste ......Céleste got out in time........

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23. A blog interview with yours truly

Just want to share an interview with me on Welcome to Literary Ashland, a blog by a writing professor at the university that lives here too, Southern Oregon University. Just go here.

Here's just one of the views where I live.

Rogue Valley

 

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24. The insidious and subtle damage of “echoes”

In a recent edit for a very talented writer, there was this bit of description.

She thinned her lips. She’d never liked the man.

I liked that as a bit of description. I’ve done that, I’ve seen other people do that, I can visualize that, and it’s a grimace that goes along with an emotion, in this case one of irritation. Worked for me.

Six paragraphs later, here it came again in regard to talking to the same irritating character..

She thinned her lips again.

Well, okay, since “again” was used, this is on purpose, so maybe it’s not an unconscious echo.

A page and a half later, still in the same scene, the character thinned her lips once more. Now the phrase has popped into my  awareness. And there’s the rub.

An insidious intrusion

When an echo rises to the level of conscious awareness, it makes you cognizant of the writing, which by definition takes you out of the story and thus distances you from being immersed in the character’s story experience.

The phrase surfaced again and again through the rest of the story. I did a search and counted. In this short novel (about 70,000 words), there was:

  • she thinned her lips – 8 uses
  • he thinned his lips – 3 uses
  • thinning his lips – 1 use

So this image of lips thinning, which was quite appropriate the first time it was used, came about 12 times. I have, of course, pointed this out to the author and she is perfectly capable of finding excellent alternatives.

Self-editing tip: read it aloud.

As noted, she is a talented writer, and she had self-edited the novel, and had beta readers comment. Yet no one noticed. I wonder, though, if she had read it aloud if the unseen repetition would have gone unheard. I suspect not.

In the first chapter it where it first made its appearance, “thinned her lips” was used three times. I’ll bet that the third instance would have stood out when read aloud. Then, even if it was left there, the fourth instance later would have jumped out at her, then the fifth more so, and on.

Echoes have a way of creeping in when a word is particularly handy or appropriate to the meaning. In this manuscript, there was a spot where the word “stowed” appeared three times in a paragraph and a half. That’s about two too many, and I’m sure she would have noticed if she’d read it aloud.

So, when it comes to self-editing, be sure to speak up and listen hard.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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


Ted sends a revision of the first chapter for Sallying Forth. The earlier submission is here. The rest of the chapter after the break.

Kate Ingram shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. Retrieving the bow dock line, she made sure it was properly stowed, and then moved aft to where her little sister, Kayla, had just coiled a spring line. She whispered, “Here we go, Sallying Forth; I think we’re okay so far.”

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

Kate didn’t dare let Kayla know how scared she was herself. She needed to make this an adventure that Kayla would enjoy, because people would notice if she was unhappy. They didn’t need attention. She gave Kayla a quick hug. “I don’t know why, but Dad wanted us to go ‘Sallying Forth’ right away.”

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

* * * * *

A man with a gruff voice reported by cellphone; “We checked the Annapolis marinas and then the chopper checked the local creeks and across the bay. Spotted a pink sail cover near Queenstown. It was the girls’ boat. No sign of the girls.”

 “Queenstown? Across the bay? I wonder why there.”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m trying to find Ingram, but he’s sly. We need to get his attention. Once he knows we (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Ted's first page?

This gets closer to a reason for turning the page—only one line away. If you can trim to get the rest of the last paragraph on the first page, you’ll have it.

Another thought: you might consider starting with the conversation between the two who are hunting them. While I don’t like unattributed dialogue (and why not go ahead and attribute it if these characters appear later in the story, and set the scene while you’re at it), this brief scene does imply some serious danger/stakes for the girls, and raises a good “what happens to them” story question. But making the suggested improvements in the first scene could do the job just as well, and it would be better to start with the protagonist.

 

Kate Ingram shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. She stowed Retrieving the bow dock line, she made sure it was properly stowed, and then moved aft to where her little sister, Kayla, had just coiled a spring line. She whispered, “Here we go, Sallying Forth; I think we’re okay so far.” I would trim this as shown—while expertise in sailing is good for establishing credibility, what is important here is not sailing acumen but getting out of the harbor. Since you use “Sallying Forth” later, I would eliminate the echo by cutting it here. A word of caution: using very similar names for characters—Kate and Kayla—can lead to confusion in a reader. It’s a good idea to have distinctive names for each character.

Kayla had pulled her hair back into a ponytail and tied it with a blue ribbon, making her look even younger than fourteen. She looked up at Kate. “Kate, I’m so scared.” I still don’t think the nature of Kayla’s hair is something to dwell upon if this is supposed to be a suspenseful opening. I realize you’re looking for a “natural” way to get her age in, but I wouldn't. On the Kate. "Kate" that happens, people engaged in dialogue with someone they know frequently do not use the other person's name. I don't think she would here.

Kate didn’t dare let Kayla know how scared she was herself. She needed to make this an adventure that Kayla would enjoy, because people would notice if she was unhappy. They didn’t need attention. She gave Kayla a quick hug. “I don’t know why, but Dad wanted us to go ‘Sallying Forth’ right away.” On name similarity, note how they “echo” in this paragraph with four mentions: Kate/Kayla/Kayla/Kayla. There must be some reason Kate is scared, so why not reveal it here? We’re in her close third person point of view, and she could think of what it was, perhaps something her dad said or did before sending them away. All this anxiety could use stronger motivation.

 “I know, Kate, but I’m worried about him. Her eyes wide, she looked even younger than fourteen. and Mom too.” The first part of this is of the “as you know, Bob” kind of expositive dialogue. Just trim this to the essence, suggestion shown along with a notion of how to bring her age in.

* * * * *

A man with a gruff voice reported by cellphone; “We checked the Annapolis marinas and then the chopper checked the local creeks and across the bay. Spotted a pink sail cover near Queenstown. It was the girls’ boat. No sign of the girls.”

 “Queenstown? Across the bay? I wonder why there.”

“I don’t know.” These two lines don’t contribute anything since they agree that they don’t know what the location of the boat means. Cut to the chase.

I’m trying to find Ingram, but he’s sly. We need to get his Ingram’s attention. Once he knows we (snip) by trimming the above you’ll be able to get in the rest of this paragraph which contains a story question strong enough to earn a page turn: Once he knows we have one of them, he’ll keep quiet.”

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

Continued:

. . . have one of them, he’ll keep quiet.”

“Neutralize him.”

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

“In progress.”

* * * * *

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

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

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

It was early on a sunny Wednesday morning in June; the sun had peeked over the horizon about fifteen minutes ago. There was a nip in the air. In a couple of hours, it would be nice. The forecast was for a high of seventy-five with light winds in the morning, squalls in the afternoon, and a nighttime low of forty. It would be chilly standing watches tonight. The only other people up this early were a boatyard worker preparing to paint a dinghy, an elderly man with snow-white hair on another sailboat, the Wanderer, assisted by a younger woman in preparing to get underway. As Serendipity came abeam, the woman said something to the man. He looked up, and then they both waved. The three of them returned the wave and then Kate scrutinized the waterfront carefully and relaxed a little. No one else was about.

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

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

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

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

“Chow’s ready!”

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

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

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

Tom didn’t reply.

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