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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. Flog a BookBubber 30: Stacy Green

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Skeletons KeyShould this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter of crime fiction by Ms. Green, Skeleton’s Key.

Cage Foster wasn’t afraid of the dark. He didn’t believe in creepers going bump in the night, and he could deal with the occasional nasty critter. But something about Ironwood Plantation’s cellar made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention. And he’d already been down there once today.

The cellar stunk. It reeked of mold-covered earth, stale air juiced up with God knows what dead animal carcasses, rotting wood, and several decades’ worth of dust. Like so many antebellum homes, Ironwood’s cellar was made of earth and bricks with some decaying Mississippi cypress thrown on top. Late afternoon sun shined in the kitchen windows and cast a shadow down the basement steps. An old light bulb and an equally ancient string hung somewhere past the bottom step, but since the entire fuse box had crapped out, Cage had to fumble down the rickety steps and hope he didn’t end up landing ass over backwards on the dirty cellar floor.

“Wiring up to code my ass.” His nose curled at the odor. “If it were, that cheap sander wouldn’t have blown the fuse.”

“You gon’ go down with me?” Harvey Lett, a square– shaped man with tobacco-stained teeth and a graying beard that desperately needed a trim, stood behind Cage. The only electrician willing to hurry out to an abandoned plantation house with old wiring and a fuse box from the (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Green is clearly a skilled writer, the narrative is just fine. But a literary agent once said, “Good writing is not enough.” We have good writing, but story questions? The character has a bad feeling about a cellar. Then we wander off into description. Nothing actually happens. And there’s no hint of stakes if the vague creepy feeling pays off. There’s a fine hook at the end of the chapter, and all the setup wasn’t, in my view, needed. This is a mystery; get to the body.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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2. Flogometer for Betty—dueling openings in Flogometer

Submissions Needed. None in 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Betty sends the first chapter of a medical thriller, Washington Pyre. The rest of the submission follows the break.

Flashing lights of the approaching ambulance pulsed into a nocturnal fog dimming the Seattle skyline below Harbor Medical Center. The piercing siren echoed off buildings near the University of Washington training hospital. My heart rate increased as I waited with a nurse outside the emergency room door to meet the medics carrying a stabbing victim in cardiac arrest.

Exhaust fumes engulfed us as we pulled a stretcher from the Medic 1 unit. Nate continued chest compressions and his partner secured an oxygen mask to the lifeless body. The hyperventilating medics spewed reports as the four of us dragged the stretcher inside to the waiting trauma team. “Dr. McKay, she has a single left chest wound.” Nate’s face sweaty, expression grim. “Must have hit the heart or a large vessel. Little external bleeding.”

“She’s a young druggie with gnarly veins.” Julie, Nate’s partner, guided the stretcher into a trauma room. “Couldn’t get an I-V started. Found her on James just around the corner from the hospital.”

Beneath bright lights, team members protected by gowns, masks and gloved hands listened to my orders. “She’s in hemorrhagic shock from a single stab wound in the left chest.” They lifted her to the ER bed. “Airway and intravenous access, labs, high volume fluid, O-negative blood. We have to open her chest right away to stop the bleeding.”

Nurses scrambled, attaching monitors and setting up I-V fluids. A medical student took over (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good, solid writing in an immediate scene with plenty of action. There is a good story question—will the girl survive? Will the doctor succeed? There is a little clarity issue, but there’s another concern with this chapter. It’s pretty much all setup that establishes the doc. It does later get her into conflict with another doctor and there’s some good, nasty conflict there. If that conflict was what the story is about, I’d look for a way to start there. But I suspect it isn’t the actual story starting point, and I’m guessing the real story kicks in later, perhaps in the following chapter. Notes:

 Flashing lights of the approaching ambulance pulsed into a nocturnal fog dimming the Seattle skyline below Harbor Medical Center. The piercing siren echoed off buildings near the University of Washington training hospital. My heart rate increased as I waited with a nurse outside the emergency room door to meet the medics carrying a stabbing victim in cardiac arrest.

Exhaust fumes engulfed us as we pulled a stretcher from the Medic 1 unit. Nate continued chest compressions and his partner secured an oxygen mask to the lifeless body. The hyperventilating medics spewed reports as the four of us dragged the stretcher inside to the waiting trauma team. “Dr. McKay, she has a single left chest wound.” Nate’s face sweaty, expression grim. “Must have hit the heart or a large vessel. Little external bleeding.” Clarity issue: To me, “lifeless” means no life. Dead. So why are they working on a dead person? I found the detail of “hyperventilating” distracting. I suspect it’s normal for a doctor to describe heavy breathing this way, but it interfered with the flow. And it doesn’t impact the story.

“She’s a young druggie with gnarly veins.” Julie, Nate’s partner, guided the stretcher into a trauma room. “Couldn’t get an I-V started. Found her on James just around the corner from the hospital.”

Beneath bright lights, team members protected by gowns, masks and gloved hands listened to my orders. “She’s in hemorrhagic shock from a single stab wound in the left chest.” They lifted her to the ER bed. “Airway and intravenous access, labs, high volume fluid, O-negative blood. We have to open her chest right away to stop the bleeding.”

Nurses scrambled, attaching monitors and setting up I-V fluids. A medical student took over (snip)

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Betty

Continued:

. . . chest compressions from Nate, while Julie placed a lighted scope into a gaping mouth with lips painted black. She slid a tube into the girl’s trachea and delivered 100% oxygen to her lungs.

Annie’s scissors chomped through the T-shirt and ragged blue jeans of a thin female. The persona of Broadway area druggies, her short black hair spiked on top grew from blonde roots. Two nurses peeled back clothing exposing an adolescent body with tarnished rings hanging from pubescent nipples. Shaved pubic hair. A clitoral ring.

Experienced stone-faced team members scanned the deathly mosaic of mottled skin before proceeding. Nurses slapped on monitoring leads. A medical student drew blood from a femoral artery in the victim’s groin for key lab tests. Nate searched scarred arm veins of a hard-core I-V drug user for a site to place an intravenous life line for blood, fluids and medication.

As senior ER Resident in charge, the term used for trainee doctors, I quickly examined the patient and ran the show like our brilliant director, Dr. Jackson Hunter. Two and a half years of his drill-sergeant orders rang in my ears. Like him, I called out, “Be careful. Protect yourselves. Wear gowns, gloves, and eye protection. Anyone not assigned here, leave!”

Anesthesiology resident, Dr. Milt Flora, elbowed his way to the head of the bed. “Hand me a god damned tube.”

“You’re late.” I pointed at Julie connecting the ET tube to a ventilator. “Julie already placed a tube.”

Milt glared at me. He detested taking orders from women. His attitude and whiny voice made me want to tube him just to stop his insults. He blocked students and non-physicians from performing procedures. His surly behavior tonight reminded me of Annie’s comment after one of his fits during a prior code. “What do you expect, Kelly? His father’s a cop and his mother’s a psychiatrist. The poor guy was probably potty-trained at gunpoint.” That might explain his behavior.

When I lifted a wad of Vaseline gauze medics used to seal the stab wound, the half-inch opening sprayed red droplets with each ventilator breath. I replaced the sticky gauze and continued my examination.

Nate’s adrenalin-junkie hands wasted no movement searching for an I-V site. He excelled in a crisis and, like Nate, I talked too fast, internalizing stress, remaining calm no matter what the circumstances. I was happy to have his and Julie’s help for a few minutes before they returned to service until we began fluid resuscitation. “I’ll place a central line in an internal jugular, but keep looking for a peripheral site.”

“She’s a tough stick, Doc.” Nate found needle-tracked arm veins, worthless for an IV but his initial grim expression vanished when he found a pristine vein in her upper arm. He wiped his sweaty forehead on a sleeve. “She’d have trouble using this one herself.” An RN cleansed the site with alcohol. Nate threaded an intracath needle into the patient’s vein. Blood flashed into the clear tube. RNs connected blood and saline via rapid infusers to both Nate’s line and the line I’d placed in the victim’s neck vein.

“Pump in six units of blood and get six more units of O-negative while we’re waiting for type-specific blood. Back it up with warm saline.” Annie opened a thoracotomy surgical tray and placed it on a high stand next to me on the patient’s left side. My gut hurt. My hands shook has I pulled on sterile gloves.

Milt smirked. “Are you a one-man show, McKay? Where’s the surgeon?”

My redhead temper flared, but I clenched my teeth to hold back words I might regret. I would have preferred doing a vasectomy on him without anesthetic, but the asshole did have a point. “Where the hell is Dr. Warren? Page him again! Get me a surgeon, anyone.”

The girl’s only hope for survival was opening her chest and stopping the bleeding, but proceeding without surgical help was not standard procedure. I’d have to answer to Dr. Hunter. If I didn’t act in time, she’d lose her chance. If I proceeded alone, I wasn’t following protocol. There’d be hell to pay either way. “Stop chest compressions. Check vital signs.”

All heads turned to a monitor. Milt announced, “Heart rate 130. Weak carotid pulse. So far, she’s had five units of packed red cells and four liters of saline.”

Annie removed the Vaseline gauze from the stab wound and sloshed the victim’s skin with an iodine solution. Each breath from the ventilator spewed droplets from the stab wound onto the girl’s chest in an abstract painting. Red spray mixed with smelly brown Betadine forming glistening copper streaks against ghastly white skin. Annie handed me a pair of sterile gloves and some to a tall male med student who had been doing chest compressions. She donned some herself.

With the student’s help, I placed sterile sheets over the patient to drape the surgical area. “Get ready with suction.” I poised my scalpel over her chest. “Milt, we’ll have torrential bleeding when I open the chest.”

“I’m ready. I have two units up and two more ready to hang. I’ll do fine, but you should wait.”

“There’s no time.”

I sliced into her chest with one swift strike in the rib interspace below the stab wound, extending it from her sternum, beneath her left breast to her underarm. A geyser of blood erupted from the incision spilling warm sticky fluid over my unprotected arms. The red gush sloshed on my scrub top. I’d reminded everyone else, but failed to wear a protective gown myself.

Clear plastic suction hoses turned crimson and filled wall-mounted canisters. I couldn’t stop to cover myself.

I slid rib-spreaders into the incision and spun a small crank to spread the blades apart opening the chest like a clam shell.

Someone pushed in beside me. I hoped it was Brett Warren and cringed when I heard her voice. “Kelly, I’ll help you. What’s the history?” Mona Maddox, another senior ER resident, peered into the chest.

“Young addict with a left chest stab wound near her sternum.” I suctioned, trying to clear the blood from my view inside the chest.

Mona yelled, “Size 7.” Her shrill voice raised the anxiety level in the room, as her presence always did. She dived into a gown and gloves. Mona held out her hand and demanded, “Scalpel. I’m going to extend the incision to give us more visibility.”

Annie carefully passed a scalpel to Mona.

I continued cranking open the chest and suddenly felt sharp pain. A bloody slice across the back of my hand ran red. My blood mixed with the patient’s and pooled inside my glove. “Mona, you cut me. How could you be so careless? This is an addict!”

 “I told you I was extending the wound. It’s your fault for getting in the way.” Mona snarled, “Get a new glove and give me some damn help.”

I flexed my fingers to be sure I could still grip an instrument. Blood dripped off my gloved fingertips to the floor. My stomach clenched at the horror of a major blood contamination from an addict at risk for dread diseases.

An RN tapped my shoulder. I held my hand toward her. She removed my bloody glove and sloshed iodine over my hand. Annie held a new sterile glove open. I plunged my hand inside. She offered a second glove to double the barrier. The sterile gloves kept my blood from contaminating the surgical wound, but the splash of iodine did little to reduce my risk of disease. Prolonged contact between the addict’s blood and my cut increased my risk, but I couldn’t take time to scrub my wound.

HIV? Hepatitis-C? The thought of my cut awash with an addict’s blood sent a stab of fear to my core.

“Set up the re-infuser!” Milt screamed. “I need it, stat! We’re losing ground! Her pressure’s 60.” A nurse moved to the head of the table to help pump fluids into the patient faster. “Get more blood. I need help.”

Mona grabbed the suction apparatus from the med student’s hand and thrust it deep into a red pool. Profuse bleeding made it impossible to see the bleeding source. With cupped hands, I scooped out red liquid mixed with fist-sized clots that slithered off the gurney and onto the floor. Blood soaked my shirt and the legs of my scrubs. Warm globs struck my feet and squished inside my shoes. When I strained on my toes for a better view, my feet slipped on the bloody floor.

“We can’t see!” Mona ordered, “Somebody adjust the damn light.”

A bright beam swung around and aimed directly into the red cavern. I pushed soft gray lung out of the way and felt the staccato hammering of her heart. In the depths of the chest, a small area of rhythmic bursts burbled up like water from an artesian well. I blindly squeezed the submerged vessel with my left hand.

Mona moved closer, pushing me aside, and pushed on my lacerated hand. I gasped with pain. “Let me see.” She elbowed me.

“Mona, move your head. You’re in my way.” I held out my injured hand to Annie. “Vascular clamp!”

A clamp slapped my hand before I finished the request.

“Mona, suction by my left hand, so I can see what I’m clamping.”

She suctioned, but blocked my view again. I nudged her with my hip, “I can’t get a clamp around the vessel if I can’t see it. Please move over a little.”

Mona held up her hand, “I see a gusher. Clamp! Give me a clamp!” her shrill voice demanded.

A long vascular clamp slapped Mona’s palm. This time from an OR scrub-tech who had shown up to help. Mona struggled inside the chest forcing me aside, but I held firm to the bleeding vessel and dropped my clamp to suction and check her clamp placement.

She missed.

I would have done better without her.

Milt barked orders to two nurses, each one helping him pump in IV fluids.

Still controlling a bleeding site with my left hand, I suctioned with my right. Mona took the suction to clear the area while I snapped a clamp securely over the vessel.

I let go and for a joyous instant, the bleeding stopped.

The warm muscle quivered in my hand. No rhythmic contractions.

I squeezed the empty heart. There was no blood to pump.

“Stop resuscitation. She’s bled out.” I looked at the large wall clock. “Time of death, zero-zero-thirty.”

My foot slipped on the bloody floor sending me off balance. I grabbed the bed to keep from falling. My blood-soaked pant leg clung to my thigh like a hand, a phantom grip of the dead girl. A voice cried out in my mind. “Don’t stop, doc. Help me.”

I felt sweaty, but gooseflesh sprinkled my arms. Perspiration moistened my face and underarms. Rivulets of sweat ran down the sides of my chest and joined the blood staining my scrub shirt. The wordless trauma team in their long-sleeved gowns, sweltered under hot lights. They removed gloves and gowns in slow motion, as they backed away from the dead girl, ready to run from the grisly scene. Their eyes drifted to my chest.

My scrub top stuck to my skin like in a wet T-shirt contest. Milt met my eyes and then fixated on my breasts.

The cardiac monitor undulated a useless electrical cadence as the victim’s heart activity faded.

Someone turned off the monitor.

The sound of oxygen flow stopped.

My voice sounded loud in the silent room. “Thanks for your help. We didn’t get to her in time.”

Milt turned off the ventilator and fluid pumps. “What we needed was a real surgeon.”

The staff filed out, leaving me with Mona, Annie, and the body.

Mona disconnected bloody suction tubing from a red-filled canister. She stared at the dead girl and slowly coiled the tubing like a lasso. Her detrimental presence was worse than no help. I tried to sound grateful instead of the anger I felt. “Thanks, Mona. You sure came in at the right time.”

“Milt’s an ass, but I knew we couldn’t save her. I wouldn’t have tried if I’d been in charge!”  Mona threw the coil into a metal bucket with a loud clang, like an exclamation point at the end of her statement. “You really did it, getting that laceration, Kelly. I’ll stitch it for you.” She removed her gloves and gown. “Get your baseline labs drawn and start HIV prophylaxis tonight. That loser’s blood could kill you.”

“I haven’t forgotten, and won’t forget you did this to me.” I walked to the sink and removed my gloves to start cleaning the wound. “I’ll have someone else stitch it.”

Mona scowled and walked out.

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3. Flogometer for Margie—dueling openings in Flogometer

Sorry I missed yesterday, it was swallowed by house-painting.


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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Margie wrote that her critique group preferred one chapter as the opening in The Sybil’s Books, and she another. The openings follow. Which, if any, works best for you? The rest of the submission follows the break.

First there will be the usual page-turn vote for each, then an additional poll for which you prefer.

Opening 1: February 219 BC -  Helen

Dying worlds don’t slowly crumble into the earth or slide into the ocean. They writhe and scream, flames devouring buildings. My city, Issa, was dying. Fire gnawed at wood, until creaking and weak, the rafters groaned and crashed, belching up dust as they hit the ground. Like any living thing, my home cried out as the Roman legions killed it.

I stood safely onboard a Roman trireme. At my side was Kronos, the monster who had saved me.

Adding to the crashing buildings and the crackling inferno were screams of men being butchered, women raped, children led to slave enclosures. Smoke drifted across the sea, its black tendrils burning my eyes. Destruction enveloped my soul and I began to shake like the buildings opposite the ship.

 A hand grasped my elbow to steady me.

“Stand erect, woman,” Kronos growled. “Tamp down your feelings. Oracles do not possess human emotions.”

As if he would know any oracles personally so as to attest to their character - whether they would be so stoic as to witness the death of family and home without a word or gesture. But I couldn’t argue the point of what oracles should or shouldn’t be.

My eyes darted back to Kronos. Even in the chaos he looked the part of a renowned (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

 

Opening 2: March 218 BC – Plautus

Plautus never ignored the advice of a dead man. But tonight, the dead were silent.

A cold dawn was emerging over the streets of Rome. Night’s mist coated the surfaces of the Forum – buildings and street.  The terra-cotta statue of Jupiter Maximus driving his chariot looked down from the roof of his temple onto the slick road running past its entry. At the rear of the building, Plautus gripped the rough stone wall dripping with his own urine.

Bent over, legs shaking even in his thickest woolen tunic and leggings, he panted as though he’d run a great distance.  A red sticky substance dripped down between his fingers, fingers splayed against the wall to support his weight. He reached out with his other hand, smearing the scarlet trail pooling in his palm.  His finger traced the viscous blob. It was too thin to be blood – just paint, red paint defiling Jupiter’s holy ground.

No longer a soldier - yet those years had conditioned his body, toughened his muscles into Adonis’ body.  An unintentional mocking of the gods who had given him the face of their ugliest member - Vulcan.  His pock-marked face with its sad hound-like eyes turned toward the approaching sound of a soldier’s hobnailed boots.

He was not surprised at this turn of events. His bad luck began hours earlier. All night long he had been herded by an unseen shepherd from bad dice to bad wine and finally into this inescapable trap. Then the Master Manipulator positioned a soldier at the door. There would be (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The writing and voice in both are strong, and we’re introduced to interesting characters in the midst of trouble. I liked both openings from a storytelling point of view, and I think I preferred opening 1, though I’d be fine with whichever serves the story best. Nice work.

Your thoughts? Here’s the last poll:

Which opening die you prefer?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Margie

 

Continued:

. . . Greek physician. Wind-blown detritus of Issa only added to his distinction. The grey curls atop his tonsured head and the silvery beard framing his strong, square jaw trapped glittering obsidian-like flakes floating through the air. An aura thus formed around his head. He was Vulcan amid the fires of the earth. A demigod, unafraid of anything.

My rash agreement last night was a mistake. An agreement that saved my life but at such a price that made it unliveable.  Over the edge of the ship, brown brackish water shimmered. I knew of people who had drowned in a basin’s depth of water. If you were inclined to death there were always opportunities. If you were determined to die, you created your opportunities.

Kronos’s grasp tightened on my forearm and he pulled me close. “Philip may not be dead,” he continued in a low menacing voice. “If he lives, he will be shipped to Rome after us. Alive, you stand a chance of finding him.”

He dragged me with him over to a pile of his medical supplies, extracted a wineskin and placed it to my lips. “Drink this,” he hissed, tilting my head back with one hand and pouring a draught into me with the other hand.

I parted my lips willingly. I’d need wine-induced courage if I was to do what I’d decided. Because I’d never find Philip. He was dead or as good as. Even if he survived, he’d be sold as a slave.

I’d never find him.

The wine was strong, much stronger than usual and there was a mustiness to it. Or was it just the smoke permeating our clothes, the ship, the very air we breathed – the wine?

Thoughts churned through my head as I gulped down the strong drink. The only reason to keep my life going was to extend Kronos’s. He couldn’t bring off this pretense without me. He knew this. I knew this. This wasn’t reason enough for me to stay alive.

Reflexively, I realized that there was something too resolute in his single-minded action of sluicing wine into me. The flavor of the wine, that strange flavor was affecting my equilibrium. Though it was not the sole reason for the disruption of the ship’s rhythm in the water.

“Ho, Helmsman,” a shout ascended over the noise of chaos, “cast off for Rome.”

 Kronos dropped me to the ground, stoppering the wineskin and turning to our new owner. General Marcus and his entourage of perhaps twelve officers were crowding across the deck.

Yells from the helmsman activating the sailors hit my ears through a fog. Rolling my head to the side I struggled to focus my sight on my new partner, a man I’d not known until last night. A man who, used to cunning schemes, could read his prey so well that he’d foreseen my suicidal course and been prepared with drugged wine to forestall it.

I gasped, wanting to inhale enough briny air to revive my sodden limbs long enough to launch my body over the side of the vessel. But it was too late.

Instead I leaned forward and opened my mouth, catching an air-born cinder onto my tongue. I crunched down hard on the bitter morsel, grinding it to dust, swallowing it, absorbing this small piece of the city into my own body. This fragment of a structure, perhaps my own home, would nourish the tight ball of revenge forming in my belly. A seed of revenge embedded in that harsh crumb of Issa’s buildings began to grow.

 

Chapter One

March  218 BC - Plautus

Plautus never ignored the advice of a dead man. But tonight, the dead were silent.

A cold dawn was emerging over the streets of Rome. Night’s mist coated the surfaces of the Forum – buildings and street.  The terra-cotta statue of Jupiter Maximus driving his chariot looked down from the roof of his temple onto the slick road running past its entry. At the rear of the building, Plautus gripped the rough stone wall dripping with his own urine.

Bent over, legs shaking even in his thickest woolen tunic and leggings, he panted as though he’d run a great distance.  A red sticky substance dripped down between his fingers, fingers splayed against the wall to support his weight. He reached out with his other hand, smearing the scarlet trail pooling in his palm.  His finger traced the viscous blob. It was too thin to be blood – just paint, red paint defiling Jupiter’s holy ground.

No longer a soldier - yet those years had conditioned his body, toughened his muscles into Adonis’ body.  An unintentional mocking of the gods who had given him the face of their ugliest member - Vulcan.  His pock-marked face with its sad hound-like eyes turned toward the approaching sound of a soldier’s hobnailed boots.

He was not surprised at this turn of events. His bad luck began hours earlier. All night long he had been herded by an unseen shepherd from bad dice to bad wine and finally into this inescapable trap. Then the Master Manipulator positioned a soldier at the door. There would be no escape.

Try as he might to conjure advice from the eternal sages, none of the dead Greek playwrights or philosophers he’d studied offered any words of wisdom. He leaned onto the wall of the temple he’d been urinating against and wondered which god he could pray to.

Which gods have I not offended? Only Bacchus. Jupiter’s temple – defiled with my urine because I worshipped Bacchus too long tonight – last night, since the sun is even now rising.

He stared down at his tunic. It was stained red from the paint on the wall’s graffitied exterior just above his eye level. Letters were splashed raggedly onto that solid surface as though tossed there hurriedly and in anger. He read the words, cursing his fortune.

     

D

       

U

B

O

C

U

L

A

     

M

       
   

L

I

B

R

I

 
     

N

       
     

A

       

He’d thrown someone else’s dice all night then drank to soften his bad luck. Dimitri, the Greek owner of a Roman winebar, let him sleep off part of his stupor. But Plautus had a performance this day and before dawn the innkeeper shook him awake, sending him stumbling through the grey-lined  streets of the Forum toward the dingy neighborhood housing his dormitory. He made a quick decision to divert into an alleyway sure it would bring him out to the broad street leading to his dormitory.  Instead he found himself on the grounds of the Temple of Jupiter when his bladder dictated his next action.

 A bladder smaller than his brain, but fuller of content, insisted on using the public portico for a privy. However, he was just sober enough to seek privacy and scrambled down a pathway leading to the back of the grand Temple.  Relief came to his bladder. Stone cold sobriety following closely as he pulled his hand away from what seemed to be blood on the wall. The staccato pace of what was surely a soldier closed in on him.  Hobnails accommodated soldier’s marches. He looked back at the inscription on the wall. Not blood but simulated blood. The bravery he displayed in past battles fled him. A man he could fight. This was the writing of Zeus. Or someone publicly cursing Zeus. 

A burly soldier with a square brown face like a mastiff’s rounded the corner with a small torch, its light encompassing only the circumference of his own body. His short black hair stood up on end, like an angry dog’s fur. He barked a command. “Come forward and speak your name.”

“I’m Plautus, Titus Plautus.”

The man’s eyes narrowed as he approached. “I know you. You’re one of Andronicus’ boys. Shouldn’t you be prancing around the stage at his school,” his eyes moved to the puddle at Plautus’ feet, “instead of pissing on Jupiter’s Temple? The Roman gods aren’t culus like your Greek ones.”

Plautus was neither a Greek, nor a boy. He knew the soldier, too. Acteon. The man had beaten another of Andronicus’ students so severely he’d ended up in Apollos’ hospital on Tiber Island. And Acteon ? He was the subaltern for Andronicus’ patron, General Marcus – now Consul Marcus - and under his protection.

Acteon planted his feet as if setting up for a sparring match and leaned into Plautus’ face.

“We Romans don’t tolerate blasphemers. We need the gods on our side against Hannibal. The magistrates aren’t going to go easy on you.”

Plautus recognized manufactured drama. It was his job to manufacture drama.

 The Senate hasn’t even declared war, yet, Dog Man, Plautus thought, and if they do, you won’t need the gods to defeat Hannibal. His family lives under a curse.

However, regardless of war or peace with Carthage, he knew that his sin of blasphemy was serious enough.

The scene played out in his imagination. Magistrates pronouncing sentence upon him, hurling him from the top of the Tarpeian Rock. His body dropping like a heavy stone down a cliff the height of a four story tenement, landing in a heap at the bottom and left on public display in the middle of Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

This would be his fate unless he could persuade this soldier to see the wall as something other than the desecration of a temple.

Finally, the advice of a dead man flooded into Plautus. Aristotle, wise Aristotle, whispered  – “A common danger unites even the bitterest enemies.” With this direction, he created a scenario designed to unite himself - the playwright - and the soldier.

“Acteon, I thank the gods you’ve come. They led me here. I need to get a message to the magistrates.”

He flicked his eyes toward the writing.  The soldier’s eyes followed and widened in fear. The dog-faced soldier waved the torch from one side of the diagram to the other, as though puzzling out the words. Plautus doubted that he could read and soon would require them to be read to him and then explained.

“And what does that mean, oh prophet?” Acteon’s face contorted into a mask of suspicion.

Plautus’ pointed finger traced the path of the main stem of the acrostic .  “Domina.” Lady.  He gazed placidly at the other man, as though the plainness of its meaning should be clear even to a soldier. Acteon shrugged and pointed to the cross piece of the puzzle.

“Subocula,” Plautus solemnly intoned.  Beneath the eye.

“Beneath the eye of the Lady?”

“Libri,” Plautus waved his hand across the last word with a flourish. The word had faded into a pale outline, as though the artist had run out of paint when that word was inscribed.

“Beneath the eye of the Lady lies the books,” Dog Man concluded. “Do you think I’m stupid? That’s not a prophecy.  Just a statement of fact. Of course the Sibyl’s Books lie here beneath Jupiter’s Temple. Why would the gods have written that on the wall?”

“I don’t know. Who else would have done this?” The words left his mouth, unchecked. They hit his ears and he knew he’d given Acteon his cue.

The soldier pointed from the urine to the graffiti.

“If I did this, where is the paint? Where is the brush?”

“ I’ll let my betters figure that out. Come on.”

“Where?”

“I’m taking you to see Consul Marcus.”

Plautus’ skin chilled. This was not a good idea. “Perhaps we should see the chief augur. It’s his job to interpret omens.” The chief augur, Senator Fabius, nicknamed Lambkins for his meek demeanor, had no stake in protecting this soldier from the consequences of injuring Plautus.

Acteon snorted his opinion of this suggestion. “I don’t see an omen. What I see is that, in addition to pissing on Jupiter, you’ve graffitied his home. Consul Marcus is meeting with your teacher right now. Surely your mentor can see to your defense, if that’s what worries you. If you’re innocent, you’ve got no reason to fear. Come on.”

Acteon jerked Plautus’ arm, and fastened his fist on it like an iron manacle, pulling the erstwhile playwright along in his wake.

Plautus had no choice. His only hope lay in blurting out his story when he first laid eyes on Marcus and his teacher, Andronicus.

If that’s where they were really going.  It had finally occurred to him to wonder what Acteon was doing at the temple at this time of the morning.

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4. Flog a BookBubber 29: Pamela Beason

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

The Only WitnessShould this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from a free mystery by Ms. Beason, The Only Witness.

Brittany Morgan knew she was a good mother, no matter what other people said.

She parked her old blue Civic around the corner from the main entry, in the shade of the grocery store so the car would stay cool in the early evening sun, maneuvering it into the middle of three empty spaces. She couldn't get or give any more dings or she'd have to listen to her father's going on and on about the deductible again. When she pulled on the hand brake, it squawked like a Canada goose, interrupting her favorite song. She had to figure out a way to make her parents buy her a better car. She was, to quote her English teacher Mr. Tanz, 'biding her time.' At first she'd thought it was 'biting her time', which made a lot more sense, because you could see how people might want to bite off minutes and hours and spit out the boring parts to get to the good ones. But Tanz made her look it up. It meant, like, waiting.

She’d been biding, putting off asking for a new car for almost a year. All because of Ivy. She looked at the baby, sleeping in her carrier in the passenger seat, backwards like they said, so she wouldn’t get a broken neck if the air bag went off. But then, this junkmobile probably didn’t even have an air bag on the passenger side. She’d have to remember to ask her father, who you would think would show a little more concern for his granddaughter.

The last strains of Love Was faded away and Radio Rick started talking about the (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Number 1 in a mystery series, this novel received an average Amazon rating of 4.6 stars. You’d think a story billed as a mystery would get busy raising story questions right from the start. Apparently this author depends on the blurb to hook you, because the first page didn’t do that for me. What happens? Musing. Parking a car and musing. All setup. There may be a good story here—the baby is kidnapped and the only witness is a gorilla that can do sign language. But will a reader ever get there? Your thoughts?

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Shifu sends the first chapter for Cupid Proof. The rest of the submission follows the break.

 “Mom, I can’t do this.”

I looked up at Mom and pouted.

“No, Eve. You’ve never been out of the house since graduation. You need to get out.”

“I do get out.”

“Morning jog doesn’t count. You’re nineteen, and you need a ‘friend’.”

My eyebrow twitched.

“Because this is so relevant to the original problem.”

Mom took a second to shoot me a glare before tossing the pancake into a plate.

“It may or may not be relevant.”

I felt my stomach churning.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Mom cleared her throat while spreading a layer of strawberry jam on her bread.

"You see, Arthur Bryan has a son too. And he's your age."

No way.

"Nonononono..." I gripped the edge of the table, and then gripped my head, "Can't I travel straight to office from here?!"

"Nope, it's too far away. Besides, Granny is sick, so we've already made arrangements to (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The writing is clean, but for me the narrative is far too spare, and there are story question issues. It’s not until halfway down the page that we can deduce where this conversation is taking place—sort of. It could be a kitchen, it could be a dining room, it could be in a restaurant . . . Thus showing the helpfulness of setting the scene just a little bit. Seeing these characters in context helps us visualize and understand what’s happening.

There’s a couple of unhelpful “information” questions that I’ll point out, but there is no story question. Nor do we get a sense of what this conversation—or the story—is about. For example, after reading more I think the conversation is about the character living with a family and babysitting a child. But we don’t get that here. There is no trouble or complication ahead for the character that I can see, even after reading the chapter. I think the story starts later, and all this setup can be either skipped or woven in once something starts happening. In this page, all that happens is that a teenage person has breakfast and doesn’t like what’s going on (whatever that is). Notes:

“Mom, I can’t do this.” Where are they?

I looked up at Mom and pouted.

“No, Eve. You’ve never been out of the house since graduation. You need to get out.” Essentially meaningless since we don’t know how long it has been since graduation. It could be years, months, days, we have no clue.

“I do get out.”

“Morning jog doesn’t count. You’re nineteen, and you need a ‘friend’.”

My eyebrow twitched.

“Because this is so relevant to the original problem. Information question/problem: we have no clue what the original problem is. And I don’t think I learned it in the rest of the chapter. Since this doesn’t meaning anything, why have it here?

Mom took a second to shoot me a glare before tossing the pancake into a plate.

“It may or may not be relevant.”

I felt my stomach churning.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Mom cleared her throat while spreading a layer of strawberry jam on her bread.

"You see, Arthur Bryan has a son too. And he's your age."

No way.

"Nonononono..." I gripped the edge of the table, and then gripped my head, "Can't I travel straight to office from here?!" Another information question: what does “to office” mean? I have no idea. So why is this here?

"Nope, it's too far away. Besides, Granny is sick, so we've already made arrangements to (snip) Defining in context in terms of distance or time would help “too far away” have some meaning to the reader.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Shifu

 

Continued:

. . . leave to Japan next week."

NO WAY.

"Why Mom, why!" I cried, unable to hide the despair in my voice. Mom slid my plate towards me and raised an eyebrow.

"You're overreacting, Eve."

"She's always overreacting. Remember when she actually applied for the internship?" Dad plopped on the seat right next to me. I could smell his strong minty toothpaste when he spoke. "Even with A grades, she was complaining about what a bad idea it was."

"It was a bad idea! My instincts don't lie! Oh, I should have listened to them!"

"Hmm, is there something I don't know?" Dad plopped a pancake slice in his mouth and chewed as he looked at me intently.

I glanced at Mom and shook my head slightly. She shook her head in reply and glanced at Dad.

"She's overreacting about having to live with Mia and Ian."

Dad let out a hearty chuckle. "That's my shy girl for you." Then, he turned to me. "Eve, just go with the flow. Concentrate on the internship and nothing else. Besides you don't have to babysit Mia alone. Ian will help too. And Mia is four. She won't be as much trouble as Uncle Troy's... What was his name again?" Dad scratched his head.

"Timothy." I chuckled, remembering last summer when I had to babysit him. I’d rather not talk about how troublesome he was. ‘Troublesome’ isn’t enough to describe how much that kid irritated me. He was pure evil; the devil himself.

“You’re not recalling those days, are you?” Dad said, chuckling. This was why I liked Dad more than Mom. He always seemed to read my mind and know exactly what to say to make me feel better.

"Still, I can't believe you're telling me this today."

Mom smirked while Dad laughed, laying a hand on my shoulder. "It'll be okay, hon. Just go with the flow."

*****

After breakfast, I went up to my room to get my luggage. It was dreadful, but I had no choice. Even with all the studying I did, I only managed second place in the high school finals. I lost the scholarship. If I refuse to turn up to the internship, I don’t think I can land myself a job as a successful lawyer, ever. I most certainly could not risk this opportunity just because I had to live with complete strangers.

“Eve, are you coming or what?” I heard Mom’s faint voice. Darn, she may be cold, but I was going to miss her. They probably wouldn’t come back from Granny’s if I wasn’t going to be here.

“Eve!”

“I’m coming, dammit!” I said, dragging my suitcase out the door.  I slid the suitcase down the slide Dad built next to the stairs before I walked down.

“Let’s go.” I said, walking straight out the front door.

“Aww, Eve. It’s okay to be sentimental, you know?” Mom giggled, closing the door behind her.

“That’s childish. I’ve stopped that now.” I said, putting on my best straight face.

“Liar.” Dad said, putting my suitcase in the trunk and closing it.

I said nothing and got inside.

“You know love; you won’t get any guys if you’re acting indifferent all the time.” Dad chuckled clicking his seatbelt and turning on the ignition.

“Not the least bit interested. I’m going to sleep.” I said, laying down fully on the back seat into fetal position.

“She didn’t get any sleep last night; I’m a thousand percent sure.” Dad’s faraway voice ringed in my ears along with Mom’s laugh as I drifted off.

****

Eve…

Go away. I’m sleeping.

“Eve…”

Dammit, can’t this asshole see?

“Eve, we’ve reached the Bryans, wake up.”

Oh fudge!

I shot up so suddenly and so fast that my head hit the car’s ceiling. I felt birds and butterflies flying over my head for a while.

“Damn me and my grace…” I mumbled, as I clutched my head in my palms and moaned.

“We’ve got no time for that, Eve. Arthur is coming. Fix yourself and get out.” Mom said, looking at herself in the rearview mirror.

“Them? Coming?” I asked her which earned me a glare. It meant that I wasn’t supposed to ask questions.

“Okay, okay, fine, dammit.” I loosely combed my fingers through my hair and put on my backpack before getting out alongside Mom. Dad was unloading my suitcase. Just then, the gate opened and just as I expected, the three Bryans stepped out.

It wasn’t hard to identify Mia. She was clutching onto one of the men with one hand, the other wrapped around her baby blue teddy bear.

That was sad. I honestly thought there would be red carpets and a row of butlers and maids waiting for us.

The older dude walked ahead and shook Dad's hand. "Nice to meet you, I'm Arthur Bryan. Welcome to my household. Shall we go inside? The summer heat's too intense, isn't it? Come on." He gestured inside and turned around.

I, Mom and Dad exchanged weird looks and followed him.

I dug my hands into my jean pockets and let my finger caress my phone. I couldn’t dare to take it out within the radar of Mom; especially during a formal setting. The fear of being called to introduce myself to the Bryans was growing with each step I took.

“Hey.”

A masculine sound made me jerk; I almost dropped my phone in the process of pulling my hands out of my pockets. I pushed it inside properly before facing him.

“Hi.”

Mia snuggled closer to her brother as we fell into step with each other. I inwardly hoped that my smile wasn’t the reason. I heard a chuckle.

“My name’s Ian, nice to meet you.”

I gave up on Mia after she walked over to the other side of Ian. “Nice to meet you too,” I said, looking up to the sky.

“You’re gonna burn your face in this heat; or are you a huge fan of sunbathing?” I felt him inching closer to me.

“No, and I don’t care.” I increased my pace.

However, my attempt failed.

Our parents walked ahead and I tried to listen to whatever it was they were talking about, but I couldn’t hear anything. Mia seemed scared of me, and her brother wasn’t helping.

“I heard you’re 19 too.”

I nodded. Dad turned around and gave me a toothy smile. Oh, how I wanted this day to end.

I pretended to observe the scenery. From the corner of my eye I found Mia looking at me, as        if she wanted me to approach her and tickle her playful side out of her. But how could I do that, when her brother was staring at me so intently? An urge to punch him stirred up inside me.

Now that I had found out a bit about the Bryans, by the time we had reached the door, I had the schedule for the rest of the day planned out well.

*****

And to my dismay, all my plans had to be dumped in the trash can.

As soon as we got in, a butler came in with three glasses of fresh orange juice. We were escorted to my new room while we sipped on the drinks.

Mom and Dad simultaneously asked if I enjoyed Ian’s company to which I replied, “She was cool.” This earned laughs from them and I saw that the butler stifled a giggle. I wasn’t bothered anymore because the room was stationed pretty close to the entrance.

Apart from that, I honestly didn’t enjoy a single thing about my new room.

It was  huge, in the sense, huge.

“What is that, a chandelier? And why are curtains hanging around a… a KING-SIZED bed, oh my God,” I covered my face in my hands and sighed heavily. “I can’t stay here, Mom, take me home.” I clung into Mom’s elbow.

“For God’s sake, Eve, grow up!” Mom pried me off her and laughed. She was stiffer        that a pole; but she cared deeply and didn’t brush off her dramatic antics either.

“You’ll get used to it, Ms. Winters,” the butler said, and for some weird reason, I felt reassured. “Please, rest. You must be tired. We will call you when dinner’s           ready.”

I couldn’t believe myself; those words kind of made me feel at home.

“You are so kind, sir. How may we address you?”

Whoa, Dad sure knew how to speak to people.

“Please, don’t be so formal with me. My name is Anderson. Mostly I’m called Andy.”

“Andy, it is!” Dad gave him a warm handshake. “Please take care of her for us.” Mom too, shook his hand. I would admit; I felt out of place. But I’m not supposed        to shake his hand too, am I?

“The pleasure is mine.” With a warm smile, he was out of sight.

A full minute passed with the three of us frozen in spot, without so much of moving a limb.

“Uh… guys? Is it time for you to leave already or what?”

Dad flinched. “Goddammit, Eve. How cold are you?” He chuckled nervously.

“I was thinking of how to say goodbye.” Mom walked closer to me and enveloped me in a warm hug.

“Be strong; don’t ever waver in the face of obstacles. Look ahead at you dream and nothing can beat you. Don’t ever change yourself, no matter how many criticisms come your way. There are people who love you for who you are, and they are the only people that matter.” Normally, I would consider  those words cheesy, but today, I felt really good. I hugged Mom back. “Yes, and I will call you both every frigging day.”

At that, Mom and Dad let out a hearty laugh.

“Of course, you will.” Mom let go of me and cupped my face. Her eyes were trembling and tears were threatening to come out. I felt my eyes sting, so I said, “You know, if you feel like crying, just do it.”

Mom lightly slapped my cheek. “Idiot child, I will miss you so much.” She rubbed her eyes and sniffed, and Dad wrapped and arm around her and extended an arm to me.

“Eve, I will miss you, hon. Do miss me too,” Dad chuckled as         he planted a kiss on my forehead and let go of both of us. “And be cold.” He pinched my cheek.

I think a tear rolled down my cheek, because as soon as I vigorously nodded my head, Mom and Dad both wrapped their arms around me. “Our baby…” they cooed. It was       then that it dawned on me that although I was giggling, I was sniffling. There was       a huge grin on my face, but my cheeks were wet with tears.

They let go and leaned over, planting a kiss on either side of my cheeks. When they moved back, I giggled, gently turning them round and pushing them out the door. “Get going already, dammit.”

“Call us every day!” They called as they walked down the hall, laughing.

Shaking my head, I closed the door and dropped my backpack on the ground.

Placing my hands on my waist, I let my gaze wander around the room. Everything was so organised; it appeared that all I needed to do was transferring my clothes to the dresser.

And then, it occured to me.

I ran for the bathroom door and swung it open. A small smile spread across my face as I let my criticizing stare peer into every possible corner of the bathroom. "Mmm... Neat," I said, closing the door and walking towards my suitcase.

Back at home, my room was one-third the size of this room. Since my Mom was half Japanese, our house had a traditional Japanese ring to it. As a result, making the most of small spaces and simplicity had become a lifestyle for me, unlike most girls my age.

There was a knock on the door. I folded the last sock and closed the drawer, before neatly placing the suitcase in the corner of the dresser. There was another knock. "Goddammit," I mumbled, momentarily gritting my teeth. I hardly locked my door, so if I did, it was when I desperately needed privacy. "Coming!" I called.

All my hunches were proved right when I opened the door.

In front of me, stood none other than Ian Bryan.

"Hey, you already done settling everything? Man, you really are different."

I didn't give a response. I just stood there, my mouth slightly agape.

What in the world was happening? What was he doing here?

"Come. I wanna show you around." He said, leaning against the door frame, a warm smile on his face.

Though I didn't feel warm at all.

'No, thanks.' I wanted to say. But that would be rude. I already had enough thinking to do.

"Sorry, I'm really tired."

"Oh, um... Okay then. Rest well." Oh so casually, he ruffled my hair and disappeared.

What?

Closing the door behind me, I leaned back against it. I didn't understand it. Why was he being nice to me? Why was he talking to me? He was supposed to act like I didn't exist. So why?

But that wasn't any more important than the cloud of thoughts over my head. I needed to assess these feelings of discomfort right away.

Digging into my backpack and pulling out my journal, I plopped on the bed lazily. I didn't know when night fell, or if I was even called for dinner.

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


E.G. sends the prologue and first chapter for The Tchaikovsky. The rest of the submission follows the break.

Prologue:

Mary Ferguson was upset. She did not like driving at night alone. Perhaps that’s why she did something uncharacteristic, and picked up the stranded stranger. She was on Hwy 195 headed for Tallahassee and her family home. She should have spent the evening at her sister’s in Campbell but they got into an all too familiar brouhaha over the raising of children in a modern society and Mary stormed out into the night. Mary is a middle school teacher and considers herself a progressive thinker while she regards her sister as a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative when it came to the education of the young. The argument centered on something to do with ‘Common Core’, though Mary could not recall any of the specifics.

Now Mary was in her late model car, miles from home, and it was pitch black ahead. She was grateful for the nearly full moon low now on the horizon shining through the trees. Driving at night always made Mary nervous but the moon’s silver light somehow added a sense of warmth to the blackness. She turned on the player on her dash and forwarded the CD to Cohen’s song, ‘The Future’. Cohn whispered the song with a voice filled with gravel. But the quiet rhythm made the drive easier – ‘love’s the only engine of survival’.

The lyrics are weird and shocking; wonder what they really mean, Mary thought with a smile. She beat the steering wheel in time to the chorus and tried to relax.

‘Thank God the weather is mild,’ she said out loud as she stared down the dark road (snip)

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

Chapter 1:

Susan Wei was a very sound sleeper. Her husband John constantly teased her about it. ‘If a huge quake struck Dover, Mass. you would roll over and sleep right through it’, he would say to her with a laugh. That’s why it was so unusual that something very faint and far away, barely audible, had awakened her.

Suddenly Susan blinked several times in the dark and opened her eyes wide. She lay still in her super King bed and tried to identify what had disturbed her sleep. She lay in the dark and listened to the sounds of her large dark house. There was nothing. Except for some moonlight slipping through her heavy curtains leaving streaks of pale light on the floor, the master suite was black and silent.

Perhaps it was just a dream or a sound from outside. Not likely, she thought. She could not recall any dreams that disturbed her and the house was very well insulated. Even the gardeners with their blowers only sounded like a distant hum in the late morning when they did their work. Although she was still groggy, she was certain the weird sound had originated inside the house. Susan sat up in the bed and strained to hear any noises. There was nothing.

The house was an elegant fourteen room mansion with several adjacent buildings on a large estate. It was a matter of pride for the Wei family, a visible sight of John’s success in America. The estate was well protected with motion sensors along the perimeter brick wall, and (snip)

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

The writing is sound, though it does need a little editorial help on punctuation. And there are little hints of overwriting ahead in phrases such as “her late model car.” But it’s good enough to generate page turns if viable story questions are raised.

But are they? The prologue tries to draw us in with a woman alone picking up a stranger at night—but it doesn’t show us that, it just tells us that and then the narrative wanders off into backstory and setup. Ultimately, what happens in the prologue’s first page is that a woman is driving and listens to music.

In the first chapter, the only hint of something unusual is that a woman is wakened by a faint noise even though she’s a sound sleeper. That’s it. What happens is that a woman wakes up. Then we learn all about the mansion she lives in. Much later, at the end of the chapter, is something that would get me to turn the page—the woman finds her pre-teen daughter, naked in the solarium, playing a violin and dancing. But will a reader ever get there? I’m thinking that’s the place to start this story.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Kevan

 

Continued:

. . . ahead. The air was not typically heavy as was expected in Florida, even in early spring, and there was a chill in the night air tonight - but the sky was clear.

Mary had put on her high beams in case a deer or some other animal came onto the road. There was no sign of approaching traffic for miles. It was the long shaft of light from her headlights that allowed her to see the man walking on the lonely country road well ahead.

2

He was slowly walking just to the right of center on the asphalt as if he were out for an evening stroll without a care. As she slowed to a crawl and passed him, she glanced over to see if he was a hitchhiker but he gave no signal of acknowledgement.

He was tall, well dressed, clean and fit. He was not at all an unkempt homeless, or a drifter, not like some lost collegiate looking for a ride, or even a stranded motorist with a gas can looking for service. She considered just going on. After all, he had a nice warm trench coat and did not appear in any distress. But Mary knew this part of the road well; she had driven it many times, and there was nothing for miles in both directions.

“What is he doing out here so late at night?” she whispered to herself.

Mary never picked up hitchhikers and rarely stopped for stranded motorists. It simply was too dangerous for a woman alone, especially late at night. But for reasons not clear, Mary slowed her car and pulled over. She watched in her side mirror as the tall man approach in no particular hurry.

‘He certainly seems sure that I won’t just take off, the way he’s walking,’ she thought as she studied him in her rear view mirror.

Finally he approached the passenger window, “You seem to be stranded out here. Do you want a ride to the next town? Did your car break down?” Mary prattled on a bit nervous as he leaned forward at her open window.

“I would like to ride with you, thank you,” answered the tall man. Only a pleasant smile showed through the darkness.

He spoke softly and made no move to enter without invitation; it quieted Mary. The smile was disarming and he waited as she pushed the button to unlock the door. He saw the large overnight bag and purse on her front seat. Mary had originally planned to stay with her sister but hadn’t bothered to bring her things in from the car. It provided her a fast exit after the latest argument. The tall man pushed the front seat forward without disturbing the bag and climbed into the back behind the passenger seat.

Mary considered this for a moment and then somehow rationalized that she was safe since he was in full view in the rear view mirror.

“You’re fortunate. I don’t usually pick up strangers, especially at night. What are you doing out here so late?

“Quite right, I am fortunate you came by. We are both far from home. As for me, I received a message that I will meet with someone soon and that meeting will lead me to difficulties. Walking in the night air clears my mind on what I must do.”

“If it leads to difficulties, why not just avoid the meeting,” asked Mary with a frown?

“Some dangers are unavoidable. In any event, I must have lost track of time and found myself out too far. I had turned back when you came by. I would have had an all-night journey if you hadn’t stopped.”

The man was pleasant and made small talk easily. But Mary sensed he really did not need to chat, so there were moments of uncomfortable silence. He sat in the shadows in the back seat and studied the moonlit landscape during the silence. Then there would be a flurry of comments and questions and a few entertaining anecdotes laced with humor and pop culture. Mary found the man amiable and pleasant.

She remembered the music CD and asked, “What type of music do you like? I prefer country myself but I have a lot of different discs here. Do you like the modern singers?”

“I enjoy various modern age poets – Stewart, Charles, Andrews, Collins and Cohen, though too much of what we hear today is variations on rhythmic chants.”

Mary was about to mention that she had Cohen - but he spoke up.

“The moderns are lyrists reciting words to a beat, not like the classical singers. Mindful of when we sang around fires thousands of years ago. That’s why my favorites are full orchestral instrumentals written by dead composers. I believe that music should be mathematical, exact and visceral. The old masters were much more in tune with our higher spirit – more challenging than a simple beat.”

Mary was not sure what he meant so she fell to silence again.

Nearly an hour passed quickly and Mary had learned little more about the man. He was obviously well educated and comfortable talking about many subjects. Mary guessed he was a professional man but she never got an opportunity to press him about his background; he deflected all such talk back to the driver. Mary on the other hand found herself talking at length about herself, her irritating sister and her views of current events; the tall man was a good listener. As they were approaching a major intersection on the country road, Mary offered to turn. Then something strange happened. The tall man asked Mary a personal question.

3

 “Tell me Mary, do you believe in a second coming?”

The question was so unexpected, so casual and inappropriate with the conversation to this point that Mary was not sure she had heard it correctly.

When he repeated the question, she cleared her throat and answered while watching him in the shadows behind her, “Well, if we’re talking religion here, I must confess, I am not a very religious person. I really don’t think about such things.”

Mary came to a stop at the intersection and turned her head to the back seat to ask if he wanted her to turn. The tall man had vanished.

It took quite some time for Mary to recover. She screamed and cried out, sat with the doors locked, and continuously looked inside the car. Finally, she calmed herself and gathered her courage and exited. There was a chill in the air and Mary shivered as she walked around the car and looked up and down the roads in all directions. She even called out and checked under the car. Certain that she was all alone, she finally resumed her drive to Tallahassee. She glanced at the CD player on the dash but Cohen’s guttural whispers and apocalyptic rants would only heightened her anxiety; she decided to drive in silence, constantly checking the rear mirror.

The incident had so affected the woman, she repeated accounts of her road adventure to her friends and relatives - anyone really who would listen and possibly give her some answers. A few days later, a reporter from a local newspaper called to interview Mary for a human interest piece to appear in a local paper. It wasn’t clear how the reporter got wind of the story; the local pastor who had listened to her story may have called the reporter, or maybe a friend. But the reporter was very nice and did not question Mary’s veracity. She wrote a reasonably concise and accurate article about Mary. This prompted more people to contact Mary. Some people even claimed similar encounters and wanted to share their own experiences. Mary was surprised how many times strange occurrences happened to random people. Within a month, a young neighbor helped her connect to social media and Mary was suddenly a ‘friend’ of people all around the country. Mary regarded almost everything that had happened as a result of the incident on the road as very positive. But it wasn’t all good. Some people wrote nasty notes, accused her of being a drunk, or tried to contact her with complaints about why she had an experience for which she was clearly not worthy.

There were some unexpected changes that came to Mary as a result of the incident. First, she began to attend the local church regularly. She was uncomfortable to participate in the singing and ceremony. But sitting in the church and reading passages from the Bible gave her some undefined solace. She also enjoyed the pastor’s sermons.

Then there was that psychologist from Boston with the strange name. He called her after reading about her and introduced himself as a researcher of strange phenomena; trying to apply science to unexplained occurrences. He asked her if she would be willing to take some tests. After a long telephone conversation, Mary agreed to take the tests.

Chapter 1 – Susan Wei, March 3

Susan Wei was a very sound sleeper. Her husband John constantly teased her about it. ‘If a huge quake struck Dover, Mass. you would roll over and sleep right through it’, he would say to her with a laugh. That’s why it was so unusual that something very faint and far away, barely audible, had awakened her.

Suddenly Susan blinked several times in the dark and opened her eyes wide. She lay still in her super King bed and tried to identify what had disturbed her sleep. She lay in the dark and listened to the sounds of her large dark house. There was nothing. Except for some moonlight slipping through her heavy curtains leaving streaks of pale light on the floor, the master suite was black and silent.

Perhaps it was just a dream or a sound from outside. Not likely, she thought. She could not recall any dreams that disturbed her and the house was very well insulated. Even the gardeners with their blowers only sounded like a distant hum in the late morning when they did their work. Although she was still groggy, she was certain the weird sound had originated inside the house. Susan sat up in the bed and strained to hear any noises. There was nothing.

The house was an elegant fourteen room mansion with several adjacent buildings on a large estate. It was a matter of pride for the Wei family, a visible sight of John’s success in America. The estate was well protected with motion sensors along the perimeter brick wall, and  a state-of-the-art security system designed to prevent unexpected entry. One of the security panels had been installed in the master bedroom on the opposite wall near the door. Susan was fully awake now and could see a faint red dot that indicated the security system was on with no alarm.

She quickly reviewed who was in the house possibly wandering around in the dark downstairs. John, her husband was away on a trip to Asia. He was due to return late in the week. She was alone in the master bedroom suite.

Grandfather was at the other end of the hall. He never left his room during the night. There was no need. He had everything he might need in his own suite of rooms: a sitting area with a desk, his wall shelves filled with books; there was even a small refrigerator in the corner for late night snacks and drinks, and his own toilet and bath. He would not hobble about the house in the dark banging his cane on all the furniture. She was sure it was not grandfather that she heard.

Camille and Fernando, the elderly couple who had been the family housekeepers for years lived in their own small cottage behind the main house. They served as cook, housekeeper, chauffeur and major domo. Both knew the security codes to enter the house after dark in case of an emergency. But why would they come in and not rouse her immediately? Neither one would wander about in the dark.

This was early March in Massachusetts; no house guests were visiting at this time of the year. Her extended family and John’s friends only came in the summer.

The only other person in the big house was her daughter, Jin, down the hall. But Jin suffered from narcolepsy and would not waken without a lot of effort. In the past few months the sleep disorder had gotten so bad, the family hired a child psychiatrist to help the girl. Each morning Susan often would shake Jin violently to get her out of bed to go to school. Susan couldn’t remember the last time her eleven year old got up in the middle of the night on her own.

Susan slipped on her embroidered Chinese silken robe and checked the nightstand clock. It was 2:17 AM. She opened her bedroom door to the hallway with apprehension. Susan decided not to turn on the lights since this would dazzle her vision. With her night vision and the moonlight, she could easily see her way. She looked along the banister down the hall.

The house was a classic Georgian with all sleeping quarters on the second floor wrapped around the outer wall and all living and utilitarian areas were on the first floor. She tiptoed down the hall clinging to the oversized banister trying to control her breathing. She glanced over the railing to the large entry area below. There was nothing moving. At the end of the hall, even in the dark she could see that grandfather’s door was closed but her daughter’s door was open. Susan pushed the girl’s door open and put on the light. When her eyes adjusted, she could see that her daughter was not in bed.

A terrible fear gripped Susan Wei. Her daughter had been so erratic lately; it was almost as if she was undergoing a transformation. The narcolepsy was the latest medical problem in a series of bizarre episodes. Now Susan feared that the daughter was wandering the house in the dark, perhaps sleepwalking.

She forced herself to wait until her night vision returned and Susan now worked her way down the curved broad staircase to the spacious entrance hall of the house. From here one could go in all compass directions. She checked the huge front double doors to the entry. They were locked. The woman listened and now could hear something ephemeral but melodic coming from the back of the house. It was music – someone was softly playing music in the middle of the night.

Susan proceeded through the salon and then on to the large solarium which took up the opposite corner of the house. The music was obvious now, still not very loud, and still not clear. Someone was playing a violin at the far corner of the house. The stringed instrument made a faint, solemn and fearfully melancholy sound in the darkness. A bright moon was out and all the shadows seemed to move with the woman as she carefully made her way. This section of the house was completely isolated from the rest once the heavy French doors were close. The solarium was where the family entertained summer guests. It opened onto the gardens in the back for barbeque parties and cocktails at sunset. Paneled windows along two walls faced the gardens and the skylight took up half the sloped roof that intersected with one wall. When one stood in the solarium, ornate glass and large windows surrounded guests on all sides.

Susan was filled with trepidation but still did not turn on any lights. She continued in the dark, extending her hands to avoid furniture. When she came to the cut glass doors leading to the solarium, she could see a moving figure spackled in the glass and moving rhythmically around the center of the room. The violin music was soft and mellow now. The music was coming clearly from within, the melody now easy to identify. It was something Jin played often. She was a prodigy on most string instruments and had talent well beyond her years.

Susan carefully turned the knob and slowly opened the door. It was the Tchaikovsky, the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto. It was the movement always labeled the quiet movement; the soft and nostalgic melody that was the so-called melancholy theme of the famous concerto. Susan had heard her daughter practice it a thousand times.

There in the middle of the solarium she could make out in the moonlight that was streaming in from above, a slender pale lanky figure twirling with a violin at her chin, drawing across the strings with a bow and playing the melody, softly, precisely. It was Jin, her daughter, naked, twirling, bending, straightening and playing - her pale skin glowing in the light of the three-quarter moon that was sending daggers of light through the oversized skylight. The uncomfortable pale light that illuminated the huge room, the wall to floor glass windows and the music added to the eeriness of the scene.

The young girl would intermittently twirl, stop, bend, and straightened as she played the melody. There was no orchestral background, no recording as accompaniment, only the violin. But she played the violin with such skill and control; it seemed more than just a single instrument. She was playing the movement flawlessly, beautifully, as she spun in the soft light on small bare feet. She looked like some exotic, gossamer covered fairy brought out of hiding by a magic musical spell, dancing in the pale moon light. Her slender underdeveloped young body was marble white. It was a scene from some ancient bizarre fantasy tale with Susan’s daughter cast as the principal.

Susan stepped forward, wide eyed and terrified. Her daughter, eyes shut tight, had a bizarre twisted smile fixed on her face disturbed only when she would grimace as she stroked the violin. It was as if she was performing for an unseen critic and the possibility of any flaws would bring pain and suffering.

Susan glanced back and forth fully expecting another presence. Despite the fact that there was no one else in the solarium other than mother and daughter, Susan could not shake a sudden feeling of malevolence, a free-flowing hostility there, moving along the glass room. She dared not speak aloud her worst fear but the fear was real, ‘The ghost is stronger now and my Jin has become a willing partner.’

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7. Flog a BookBubber 28: Renée Pawlish

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from a free thriller by Renée Pawlish, Back Story.

“I think someone’s trying to kill me.”

That’s not something you hear every day, even if you’re a private investigator, which I, Reed Ferguson, happen to be. I leaned in toward the man who’d spoken those words. “Why do you think that?”

 It was a Thursday evening in August and I was at Mickey’s, a seedy bar on Broadway in Englewood, a suburb south of downtown Denver. Mickey’s was a hole-in-the-wall, with a few small, wood-topped tables along one wall, a long bar with stools opposite, and one lone TV hung in the corner behind the bar. Sparse on décor and atmosphere, it was the kind of place where people came to drink their troubles away, not to watch a ballgame or otherwise be entertained. It was not my type of place, and the only good thing I could say about it was they played ’80s music, which is my favorite.

 I was sitting at one of the tables, and across from me was Brad Webb, a potential client. As he took a moment to gather his thoughts, I surveyed him. He was tall, but stocky, about my age – late thirties – with neatly trimmed whitish-blond hair, blue eyes, and thin lips. He wore navy pants, an Izod shirt, and black leather shoes, and as he talked, I could feel the nervous tap-tap of his foot shaking the table leg. Everything else about him, however, said he was organized and in control. Which made me wonder why he’d asked me to meet him at a place like Mickey’s.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Back StoryNumber 10 in a suspense thriller series, this novel received an average Amazon rating of 4.7 stars. Reads like a standard detective story, and the opening raises a good story question. However, then we dive into detailed descriptions of the bar and the man—while all the stuff about the bar does help set mood and the setting, it’s also a bit of an info dump and robs the narrative of momentum. Same goes for the overly detailed description of the client. The meat of the hook comes on the next page, where we learn that the client’s father was killed while he was looking into the murder of his father. This author would have been better served with delivering story instead of description. If I’d allowed an “Almost” on this poll, that would have been my vote. But, since this is published, the choice is binary only.

Your thoughts?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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

Submissions Needed. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Kevan sends the first chapter for The Tick Tock Girl. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

An alternative opening and another poll follow this opening.

Springtime in Manhattan is a leap from darkness, the precautions of winter cautiously discarded. My time to grow, the year I'll blossom. A bang from my cab slammed my teeth together. And maybe the year New York will fix its potholes.

My phone uttered a sympathetic R2D2 beep and spat out the location of my first fare of the day. I turned towards Wall Street, glad traffic hadn't begun its inexorable climb to gridlock. The rising sun bounced off my rearview mirror, and I fumbled in my purse for my sunglasses before finding them perched on an explosion of kinky hair.

My strategy came from a computer simulation I'd written. Start early with no traffic but few fares, then surf the growing wave of commuters. The uncertainty appealed to me, a duel of probability and luck. I might score with a long ride to the airport, or end up in a dead zone fighting my way back.

Knowing a fare could track my location through the app created a bond, as though I was the icon in a game app, a tiny car careening through the streets in a battle of strategy and reflex. I imagined the gamer peering down from a glass sky, cheering me to the finish. Maybe a game I'd create and use to finance my tech startup dream. Right. Just like my cab would sprout wings and whisk me over midtown traffic.

My phone beeped and a text appeared. $141 if U hurry.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Once again, strong writing and a good voice get me off to a good start. But then my interest fizzles as we enter setupland combined with musing. We learn that the character is a cab driver, but that’s about it.

But, for me, there was gripping narrative later on. It’s below, trimmed and tightened a bit. Once again, the setup material could be woven in as things happen. Is this a stonger opening? A poll follows.

I reached the heart of Wall Street and scooted my cab into a spot created by knocked-over construction cones, thanking my luck in finding parking at the exact address. Fifteen minutes later, my mysterious fare hadn't shown. Then my phone rang.

I put it to my ear. Tick tock, tick tock.

No voice, no static, just a damn ticking. With some people it was a fork scraping across teeth or nails on a chalkboard. For me, it was the sound of ticking clocks, a childhood phobia I'd never faced down. I tried to end the call, but my body had frozen.

A crashing from above freed me from my spell. I dropped my phone and fought the urge to floor the pedal. A screaming intensified. White particles bounced off the windshield like hail. A whomp shook the car, and I threw myself across the seat and covered my face.

I felt rather than saw the roof of my car crumble to where my head had been. My window exploded with a wave of tinkling glass. The car rocked on its suspension before going motionless. For a moment, NYC was silent. I lay on my side, afraid to move.

The ringing of alarms broke the silence. Cries rang out, then a car door slammed. A voice through my shattered window startled me. "Are you okay?"

I straightened and hit my head on the roof.

The voiced tried again. "Miss?"

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

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Kevan

 

Continued:

Three specific digits representing 1.41—the square root of two to the dollar. Strange. Uber discouraged tipping as part of their business model. Not to mention the app picked the closest driver, and no one needed to tell me to hurry.

Now the ability of the customer to track my route seemed disturbing, as though the gamer was changing the rules. I turned down the Reggae beat and glanced at my mirror where Jujube hung. A figurine of a Japanese girl with a manic smile, huge glasses, and hair worse than mine after an afternoon rollerblading. She'd been keeping me safe from harm for as long as I could remember. Now her plastic face held a worried look.

My cell rang, and I cautiously answered. "Hightower."

A burst of electronic noise, then the line went dead.

Probably my friend calling to cancel our rollerblading for tonight. Something she did often with the pressure of her internet startup. No doubt she'd call back, and I'd be left alone for another evening. Not that it mattered. I'd found a way to track Uber requests across the city and could use the time to improve my simulation. Who knows, an evening's work on the computer might increase my earnings past minimum wage.

An alert came from my phone, one I'd never heard before. The exaggerated sound of a music box being wound, or perhaps an old-style clock.

$173 if U wait.

The square root of three was 1.73. I peered up at the monoliths of the Financial District, trying to spot the gamer controlling my fate, then laughed at my imagination. Punching the throttle, I entered velvet shadows and cold granite.

Next to pizza, there was nothing I liked better than a puzzle.

**

The Watchmaker moved slowly down the corridor, as though her practical shoes held the weight of the world. A formless dress, too tired to wrinkle, encased her from calf to elbow. Around her head, dandelions of gray struggled to escape, restrained by a headscarf that could have passed for a rag. Click click went her cleaning cart under rectangles of light.

Taped to its handle was a cell phone with a blinking green screen.

She unlocked the door to his office with the ring of keys at her waist and entered the foyer where his clients waited. A flip of a switch turned on the lights, a series of taps on a keypad silenced the alarm. She pulled her cart inside and locked the door. Around the receptionist's desk, through an inner door leading to a large room. Another desk faced her, an expanse of dark wood. Upon the polished surface, there was no paper, no pencils, and no photos, only a computer and pendulum clock whose inner workings were on display.

Tick tock, tick tock.

His leather chair squatted behind the desk. To the side hung a painting, behind the painting was a safe, and under the safe stood a file cabinet. His computer, cabinet, and safe. The Watchmaker had copied their contents on earlier visits, then altered certain bits of the information to her liking.

The wheels sank into the carpet as she rolled her cart to the window. A wall-to-wall expanse of glass, his sunrise view of Wall Street. She learned against the window and studied the tiny cars below, the cool glass soothing the scar across her face.

The screen of her cell turned red. Thirty stories below, her patient had arrived. She spun and ripped off the skirt concealing the bottom of her cart, exposing containers, coils of wire, rolls of tape—and a hammer painted the same color as the carpet. A hammer that tapered to a point the size of a quail egg.

**

I reached the heart of Wall Street and scooted into a spot created by knocked-over construction cones, thanking my luck in finding parking at the exact address. Fifteen minutes later, my mysterious fare hadn't shown. I tried calling the number given, receiving only a message voicemail hadn't been set up.

My employment contract allowed me to leave now, but there was that bonus waiting. No doubt 2G2BT but curiosity held me fast. I hesitated, then deleted the texts from my phone. Not that they were illegal or anything. I'd wait a few minutes, or until another fare contacted me.

To my left stood a mirrored building, the sidewalk in front blocked by yellow tape and red cones. No signs of actual construction but that was the big city—block off the sidewalk, then wait days before starting. I cracked my window and let the cool air blow in. Still dark on the street even as the sun's reflection crawled down glass monoliths. In the distance, a jackhammer started before its legal hour. The metallic clang of trucks unloading, a shoeshine stand opening, the rattle of a hot dog cart pulled through the street.

My job wasn't glamorous, but gave me time to play, and the object on the passenger seat offered entertainment, a Rubik's cube on steroids. I closed my eyes and imagined the colorful form floating in front of me. The sides spun faster. Twenty-seven moves later, each side was a solid color. Five seconds, a personal record for a mental solve.

**

The Watchmaker moved efficiently. Off came her uniform, on came a pair of rubber gloves, out came wire and tape from her cart. She taped one end of the wire to the glass, then stretched the length to the opposite side. Back and forth went the wire until a starburst pattern covered the window. She returned to her cart and mixed the liquid from two unmarked containers, then soaked a roll of fabric in the pail. The wet cloth clung like paper mache, tracing the path of the wire across the glass. She stuck the bare ends of the wire into a power outlet. The glass hummed and an acidic smell filled the room. The air conditioning swept the odor away as she polished the glass for the last time, then hid the hammer in the thick carpet.

Over her head went a new uniform, pretty in blue fabric and white trim, shorter and tighter than before. On went the mascara, the red lipstick, the eyeliner. Off went the wig, disposed of inside the cart. She brushed her black hair, then pulled out a glass figurine from her cart and placed it on the desk.

The Watchmaker sat in his leather chair and studied the entrance door. Tick tock. She tapped her finger in time, then stopped the pendulum with one finger— an action surprisingly difficult, for her job was to fix broken clocks, not stop working ones.

The screen of her phone flashed in shades of green and red. The Watchmaker giggled, undid the top button of her dress, and waited for him to enter.

**

I aimlessly played with my phone. I'd created a few sellable apps, but the user interfaces still needed polishing, and that was best accomplished by using them. The screen changed to show an incoming call, and I put the phone to my ear, expecting my missing customer to offer an excuse.

Tick tock, tick tock.

No voice, no static, just a damn ticking. With some people it was a fork scraping across teeth, nails on a chalkboard, or walking barefoot on dusty concrete. For me, it was the sound of ticking clocks, a childhood phobia I'd never faced down. My fear of ticking wasn't a problem in the digital age, but I wasn't going to be taking piano lessons anytime soon. I tried to end the call, but my body had frozen.

A crashing from above freed me from my spell, the noises of the street receding. I dropped my phone and fought the urge to floor the pedal. A screaming intensified. White particles bounced off the windshield like hail. A whomp shook the car, and I threw myself across the seat and covered my face.

I felt rather than saw the roof of my car crumble to where my head had been. My window exploded with a wave of tinkling glass. The car rocked on its suspension before going motionless. No horns, even the jackhammer had gone quiet. For a moment, NYC was silent. I lay on my side, afraid to move.

The ringing of alarms broke the silence. Cries rang out, then a car door slammed. A voice through my shattered window startled me. "Are you okay?"

I straightened and hit my head on the roof.

The voiced tried again. "Miss?"

I twisted around. A man in a dark suit and darker sunglasses studied me through the broken glass of my side window.

"Stay in the car." A command, urgent and brief.

I blinked, and he vanished, leaving me to wonder if he’d been real. Past the distorted shape of my windshield frame, the street was littered with glass. The world spun, and I rested my forehead on the steering wheel.

In the distance, sirens wailed, rising to a fever pitch before stopping. The resulting quietness only intensified my fear, and I opened my eyes. Red lights reflected off buildings and doors closed with a series of punches. A trio of men in yellow coats gathered around my car, pointing and gesturing as they peered through my window

I straightened, seeking reassurance or instructions. Under their hard hats, the firefighters argued among themselves. I reached for my door handle, but a man jumped forward and waved me back. I tried not to imagine planes, bombs, or terrorists. My body tightened in a way I didn't know flesh could, as though smallness gave me a better chance of survival.

The door opened with a shriek of sheet metal, and hands reached for me. "Go, go, go!"

"Wait!" I grabbed Jujube from the mirror and shoved her into my pocket, then hesitated before grabbing my wallet. I was hustled across the sidewalk to an open door and lead into an ornate lobby. Hands lowered me to a chair. A cuff tightened on my arm. "Look up." A light hit my eyes, then someone swabbed my forehead.

I forced myself to breathe deeply, ignoring the people bustling around me and the raucous screeching of radios. Footsteps came towards me, heavy and deliberate, then a voice from my side. "Can she answer questions?

The woman attending me answered. "Some bruising on the head but she's fine, just shaken up."

I turned my head. A police officer with gun and hat studied me. He had dark skin, a trimmed mustache, and a solid paunch that looked like it would hurt your fist. Under his badge was printed the name Williams.

I tried to smile. "About time." A few shards of glass bounced off the floor as I ran my fingers through my curly hair and brushed my jeans and t-shirt.

The officer didn't smile back. "Ms. Hightower?"

"How'd you know?" Out of habit, I reached for my phone, then remembered it was back in my car.

"From your car registration."

"What happened?"

Officer Williams hesitated for a moment. "A window broke. Big one I guess."

Those cones and tape blocking off the sidewalk—not too smart to park next to a construction area. That would explain the hesitation of my rescuers. But it didn't explain the scream and my roof caving in with a solid whomp.

I'd guessed but needed to ask. "What landed on my cab?"

"A man."

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Carolyn sends the first chapter for The Invisible Assassin. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

An alternative opening and another poll follow this opening.

I woke to rain the first morning in my new home, which some people might take as a bad omen. But to me the sodden gloom was a cozy blanket that would keep reality at bay a little longer. Everything I wanted and needed lay within these walls. Outside them, a Vermont mountain view would be revealed when the downpour ended. I had time now to wait, and was happy to savor the vista in my mind until the skies cleared.

Once dressed and caffeinated, I looked out to gauge the vista’s progress. The distant hills remained shrouded but I could see the near landscape of forests and fields. Only one homestead perched in sight, and only two roads marred the scenery. I now lived at their junction: a paved state route in front of the house, and a dirt dead-end forming one boundary of my twenty acres.

This was as far from civilization as I could get without losing Internet access—my conduit of income. It had let me work anywhere in the world for two decades; and for whatever decades remained to me, it would be my umbilical cord between world and womb. I had pared down my possessions to only those that mattered. Likewise my obligations, reduced now to my furry children, my employer, my readers, and myself.

Feeling free yet secure, I turned to unpacking the rest of my boxes. None of the three cats emerged from hiding to join me, but their empty food bowls showed they had explored while I slept. Good; that meant they were recovering from yesterday’s travel ordeal. Outside the rain (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Very nice writing and a good voice are promising in this opening page. On the other hand, the lack of tension isn’t. What happens here? A person—we don’t know who, or if male or female—wakes up, has coffee, looks out the window, and notices that his/her three cats have eaten. Story questions? None. This is all setup, and, as far as we know, all is well in this person’s world.

Take a look at the checklist. While not everything on it is required, by any means, one item that is helpful to engaging a reader is something happening. For me, waking up and having coffee isn’t something happening—we know of no desire from the character, he/she does nothing to achieve anything. Nothing intrudes on this comfy existence on a rainy day.

Instead, here’s an alternative opening extracted from a later page. Understanding that all the setup material can be woven in as the story continues from this point, what do you think of this as a way to open the story? A poll follows.

 I heard the mailman’s Jeep growl and whine as the vehicle plunged and slewed in the hub-deep mud of Rock Maple Road. But then, instead of continuing to the intersection and turning onto pavement, it cut the corner across my front lawn!

I clunked down my mug and scooted to the front windows. The Jeep had gouged the grass and stopped astride my walkway, and the driver was already banging on my storm door. I switched off the alarm system and unbolted the inner wood door to find him pale and bug-eyed. “Please—I’ve got to make an emergency phone call!” he yelled through the glass.

Startled into muteness, I let him in and pointed him toward the kitchen without questions, even though my mind sparked and sizzled with them.

He crossed the living room in three strides, grabbed the handset off the wall phone just inside the doorframe, and punched 9-1-1 with a shaking finger.

I pushed past him to finish pouring my coffee, unsure what else to do. I gave him space but not privacy, for whatever his problem was, it had abruptly become mine. Resentment surged, but I throttled it back to retrieve and nurse later. He was saying into the phone, “Yes, I want to report a death”—which trumped inconvenience by a mile.

Between the muted gobble on the other end of the line and the mailman’s responses, I caught the key words: gunshot, Jake Baldwin, end of Rock Maple Road. Then he closed with, (snip)

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

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Carolyn

 Continued:

. . . continued, over which I heard a vehicle rumble. I was already used to car sounds passing on the main road, but this one slowed then revved alongside the house.

I peered out the kitchen window to see the flashing yellow light atop the black squarish blur of the mailman’s Jeep. Lucky him, I thought sardonically, having to drive a mile of hub-deep muck down Rock Maple Road for one house’s worth of mail. Normally mud season was over by this time in mid-April, but a deep snowpack had melted late and the spring rains had come early. I used to think being an urban commuter was bad, but being a rural mailman probably made highway congestion look good.

I heard his Jeep coming back while I poured a second coffee. This time the engine growled and whined as the vehicle plunged and slewed. An image sprang to mind, of a Pony Express rider thrashing his mount across a flooded river, accompanied by a voice-over of the unofficial postal service motto: Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds . . . Indeed, when I glanced out, the Jeep was bucking past the kitchen window at twice the rate it had gone the first time. But then, instead of continuing to the intersection and turning onto pavement, it cut the corner across my front lawn!

I clunked down my mug and scooted to the front windows. The Jeep had gouged the grass and stopped astride my walkway, and the driver was already banging on my storm door. I switched off the alarm system and unbolted the inner wood door to find him pale and bug-eyed. “Please—I’ve got to make an emergency phone call!” he yelled through the glass.

Startled into muteness, I let him in. All my training screamed against opening doors to strangers, but I knew there was no cell phone reception for miles. That had been one of my reservations about moving to the boondocks. At least I knew this stranger by reference, and understood that something dire had happened. So I pointed him toward the kitchen without questions, even though my mind was sparking and sizzling with them.

He crossed the living room in three strides, grabbing the handset off the wall phone just inside the doorframe and punching 9-1-1 with a shaking finger.

I pushed past him to finish pouring my coffee, unsure what else to do. I gave him space but not privacy, for whatever his problem was, it had abruptly become mine. Resentment surged, but I throttled it back to retrieve and nurse later. He was saying into the phone, “Yes, I want to report a death”—which trumped inconvenience by a mile.

Between the muted gobble on the other end of the line and the mailman’s responses, I caught the key words: gunshot, Jake Baldwin, end of Rock Maple Road. Then he closed with, “Okay, I’ll wait.”

At that, I opened a cupboard and reached for some shock treatment. My editor had given me a bottle of top-shelf whiskey as a house-warming present, which I’d tippled last night in celebration. Now, I plopped a dollop into my coffee then poured a full shot for him.

“Thanks,” he gasped after throwing it down in one gulp. As he returned the glass, we finally faced each other full on. And blinked in surprise upon finding male/female reflections of ourselves. Both of us, average-size white people, age plus or minus forty, brown eyes and hair, no distinguishing marks. Since my name matched the description—Jane Brown (taunted through childhood as “Plain Jane”)—I wouldn’t be surprise if he was John Doe.

But from having been consigned to the visually uninteresting bin all my life, I’d learned to look more keenly at others. The John Doe before me was framed in a pleasingly manly way, with a strong jaw and brow, broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips, and a face warmed with laugh lines weathered by an outdoor life. Even though his eyes were bulging, I could see intelligence within them, sparking behind his distress.

He shuffled in place, waving his hands, looking around without seeing. Then he blurted, “I, uh, they want me to stay put until the cops arrive. I guess I’ll wait in the car. Oh christ, it’s on your lawn—sorry, I’ll move it.” He spun for the door.

“Not until you tell me what the hell happened!” I commanded. He halted, yanking off his wet ballcap with one hand and wiping the other palm up his brow and back over his hair. That revealed a tan line across his forehead. His hair was almost long enough to pull back into a tail.

“Sorry, sorry . . .”

“Here, sit.” I gestured toward the table still hosting my breakfast dishes and paper piles. “God only knows when they’ll get here.”

He obeyed like a robot, but having a target brought his eyes back into focus. When he pulled out the chair, Tommy the Tiger, my brown tabby, leaped off the cushion and shot out of the kitchen. The mailman startled then suddenly laughed and relaxed.

“Thanks. Sure, you’re right. Sorry, it’s not every day you find a dead body on your route.”

“Uh . . . yeah. Can’t say that’s ever happened to me.” We sat opposite each other. “He was shot, you said?”

The mailman looked away and nodded then shook his head in disbelief. “Square in the chest. Looks like he opened the door and got blasted. That’s what caught my eye—the door wide open. In the rain. That old bastard would never do that, let the heat out and anybody come in. But his truck was still in the drive yet nobody around. I looked and I shouted. Finally I went up to the door and found him on his back halfway down the hallway.”

He gulped. “And promptly lost my breakfast.”

I cringed and felt my own meal turn over inside. I shouldn’t have offered him that bracer, but I’d not been thinking about the fine points of booze on an empty stomach. However, it was bringing color back into his face.

Before I could try another tack, like maybe offering him some toast, he leaned back in the chair. “Sorry to bust in on you like that. But, you know, you’re the closest phone . . .”

“That’s okay. You did the right thing. I know there’s nobody else.”

I didn’t mention that the curmudgeon at the dead-end—who had just come to his own dead end, how karmic—had sicced his dog at my car while I was on a recon mission before buying the house. Between my place and his lay a deer camp, a ski house, and a second home, all closed up until their appropriate season, plus a resident retired couple who always went south to avoid the mud. These dwellings were spread evenly out of sight from each other along Rock Maple Road. About its halfway point, the road dipped into a valley with stunning views, where a young couple raised children, alpacas, and a market garden. They were the obvious place to stop for a telephone, except that their property access was a gated two-track for farm equipment and ATVs, and their main driveway lay farther beyond mine on the main road.

The mailman stood again. “I should probably block the road with my Jeep or something. At least get it out of your yard.” He started off then turned and held out his hand. “Oh, I’m Ned [lastname]. Was hoping to meet you some other way.”

His smile warmed the room. And along with color in his cheeks, light had returned to his eyes. They had first looked dark and blank but now glowed caramel. Sort of like mine, enlivening plainness. Brother from another mother, I thought, and shook his hand.

“Jane Brown.”

“I know. I’ve got your mail outside. Might as well give it to you now. Oh crap, I’ve got to call my supervisor—I’m off the route for the rest of the day, gotta get someone to cover. Can I use your phone again?”

“Of course.”

I tidied up while he called, my actions automatic while I recalculated time and chores and deadlines. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, said an olden-days poet. More recently, some wiseacre had condensed the thought to Shit happens. And: Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

In this case, death happened, and everyone around it had to make other plans. Including me, who had ab-so-lute-ly nothing to do with it, and had gone to great effort and expense to mind my own affairs. Then again, as a guilt-free writer of adventure stories for teenage girls, I should be happy that fresh fodder had delivered itself to my door.

Followed, now, by cops. First came the hiss of tires on pavement and the splash-thump of a new vehicle turning onto Rock Maple Road. Ned and I popped to the window to watch the County Sheriff’s SUV go by, sans lights and siren. I’d thought he would stop here first to interview the guy who found the body, but instead he churned down the road to verify that a body was really there.

He must have called his boss, because while we debated what Ned should to, a second County Sheriff SUV lunged around the corner. Also no lights or siren, and wipers slapping across the windshield at a speed he tried to match.

“Crap,” Ned muttered. “I was worried about what tracks I might destroy, but these guys will obliterate them.”

I hadn’t thought of that. Only one way in and out from the murder scene, with evidence already compromised by a deluge. Three days’ worth.

“How long do you think . . . the body’s been there?” I asked.

Ned kept his face to the glass. “I saw him Saturday morning.”

Given that it was now Monday, that meant a forty-eight hour window wherein the killer must have passed my house, the last twenty-four of which I’d been there and could have seen him. Except I didn’t. And that’s assuming he’d driven, not walked in through the forest. Either way, the rain had done a number on his tracks, making the killer either very lucky or a good planner.

Presently the first SUV returned and parked across the entrance to Rock Maple Road with all lights on. Ned put his cap back on and said, “I think that’s my cue.”

He hadn’t removed his jacket so marched straight outside. I followed, stuffing my arms into a slicker and feet into rubber garden shoes, catching up to find Ned already bent toward the officer’s open window, talking. He straightened at my arrival, jerking his head toward the house to signal, About-face. The officer said, “Please wait inside, ma’am. A detective will talk with you shortly.”

It was more longly than shortly, but investigators did eventually come. During the interval we watched the County deputy reposition his SUV to admit a State Police trooper in a green Crown Victoria, then a second one just like it, and soon after, an unmarked in darker green. The local rescue rig arrived and took over road-blocking duty so the deputy could return to the scene. Before the rig had finished juggling into position, another unmarked that Ned guessed was the coroner’s vehicle followed the tire-sucking, slurping ruts down the road.

Finally, a crime-scene unit with all the fancy gear needed to finish the job lumbered in and barely made it up the hill to where road snaked out of sight. Out on the pavement, a few passers-by hovered in their cars, with some getting out to talk to the EMTs in the rescue rig, whom they’d probably known since kindergarten. A media van came along and tried to gain access, but the road guards shooed them away. Then shooed them more forcefully after the van seemed to move on then parked on the shoulder just past my place, and reporters headed back for my door.

The first State Police car to return, the unmarked, slithered up to the intersection and paused to wait for the rig to move. Ned sucked air through his teeth and said, “Here we go.”

The car hooked a right onto the pavement and a second right into my little stub of a driveway. At that I hissed through my own teeth, suddenly realizing I was a newcomer flatlander to be interviewed by the police about a murder, within camera range of reporters. There went my hopes of living in quiet obscurity.

As the unmarked’s doors slammed, I conquered the urge to hide with the cats and instead unbolted the inner front door again. No need to deactivate the alarm since I hadn’t turned it back on after admitting Ned. He hung back as I opened to a pair of men as cool as he’d been frantic, standing shoulder to shoulder under my front rooflet, wearing trench coats over weary suits with mud splattered up to their knees.

“Good morning, ma’am, I’m Detective Lieutenant Johnson of the Vermont State Police, and this is Detective Sergeant Greene.” He pulled ID from an inner pocket and held it up for me to peer at through the glass. It looked real enough; how would I know? I believed him without it. No pretend-cop criminal could arrange the spectacle we’d been watching. I unlocked the storm door and stepped aside for them to enter.

Instinctively, I did not invite them to sit down or offer anything to eat or drink. They seemed prepared to just stand there right inside the door.

“As you know,” said Detective Johnson, “there’s been an incident on your road, and we’d like to ask a few questions. Ma’am, are you the homeowner here?”

“Yes. I’m Jane Brown.”

“May I see some ID, please.”

While I rummaged for my purse and then inside it, the sergeant watched me. To make sure I didn’t pull a weapon, I supposed.

Detective Johnson turned to Ned. “And you, sir, I understand, discovered the body?”

“Yes.” He knew not to reach for his wallet in back pocket until the detective nodded.

“We’d like to take your statements, please. Ms. Brown, do you have a second room here.”

Not a question. They could see for themselves without moving, but I recognized they were giving me the choice of which room with a closed door to use for private talking. I chose my office, which, though still an mess, was immediately to hand, as well as my stronghold. The Detective Sergeant entered with me while the Detective Lieutenant took Ned.

We remained standing. Detective Sergeant Greene took out a notebook and opened, “I gather you just moved in.”

“Yes, sir.” Did I have to say sir? Would I seem impudent if I didn’t?

“And when did you arrive?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“Just yourself.”

An assumption he wanted clarified. “Well, I came ahead with the cats, then the moving guys brought everything else. No partner, if that’s what you mean.”

He waited. I added, “I’ve been here a few times since the closing two weeks ago, but yesterday is when I actually took occupancy.” Jeesh, I sounded like the Realtor.

He jotted then looked up. “Where did you move from, Ms. Brown?”

[city]

“And do you have any connections with North Allenburg that led you to move here?”

I shrugged. “I used to ski around here, so I know the area and like it.”

The real reason was my friend and former boss,  Lucinda Johnson, who had a second home in the next town over—the one serving the ski area, with higher property values and taxes. When I’d told her I wanted to retire to the country, she had located this place for me. But the cops didn’t need to know that, so I stuck to the minimal response.

Detective Green finished jotting down my statement. “Did you see or hear any vehicles entering or leaving the road since you arrived?”

“Sorry, no. Between the rain and all I had to do, I would have missed a parade.”

“Are you acquainted with your neighbors on Rock Maple Road?”

“Only by gossip. I’ve not met any of them yet.”

“How about Jake Baldwin.”

“Well . . . I’ve heard he’s the town bully, to put it nicely.” I hesitated, knowing this was who I should tell about the dog incident but not wanting to disparage the dead or inject myself into the equation as anything more than innocent bystander. But duty called. “I sort of didn’t meet him when I was first checking out the neighborhood. He came out into his yard when I was turning around at the dead-end, and I waved, but he gave some command to his Rottweiler to rush my car and chase me off.”

Nod, followed by jotting. “Did you ever see him again?”

“No.”

“Do you know anyone who might want to hurt him?”

Yeah, the whole town—according to what Luce had told me. But I knew nothing for a fact, so shook my head. When he looked up at me, I verbalized, “No.”

He held my eye. “But you still moved here after being menaced by a neighbor. Why is that?”

I stifled a jerk of surprise. Good lord, did he see me as a potential suspect? No, no, he was just doing his job. I should take this as merely the first challenge to the promise I’d made myself as part of moving: to live an honest life. So, after mulling how to phrase things, I said, “The rumors about him, along with lack of cell service, did give me pause about buying here. But the house suits my needs, so I figured a mile was enough distance from a creep if we both minded our own business. Being chased off gave me the impression he wanted to mind his own, and minding mine was the whole point of coming here.”

Detective Green allowed himself a quiet sniff and a tweak at the corner of his lips. Then he returned to business. “Did you happen to hear any sounds like gunfire?”

“No, just the rain.” The hours-long, drilling rain. I would have masked it with music, but my sound system was still in boxes. So were my guns—which I hope-hope-hoped he wouldn’t ask about. It seemed a logical question, in the circumstance.

But either he didn’t think me having firearms was relevant or he considered me beyond suspicion. Detective Green wrote a final note then asked, “Are you in residence full time now?”

At my nod he said, “Please provide your full contact information.”

Since we were in my office, I was able to turn and put my hand on a box of business cards. His eyebrow arched when he read it.

“So you live and work at home.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re a professional writer?”

That’s what the card said, but he needed it confirmed. For all he knew, I could be running scams through my computer while self-publishing Nazi sympathizer tracts. I knew I’d get researched online later.

“I write series fiction for a New York publisher. Under a different name.”

He looked at the card again. “Kat [lastname].”

“Yes.”

He nodded and inserted my card into his notebook upon flipping it closed. “Thank you, that’s all for now.”

He gestured for me to precede him back into the living room, just as Detective Johnson finished with Ned. Johnson said, “Please call us if you remember, see, or hear anything that might help, no matter how trivial it may seem.”

“Of course,” Ned and I chorused. Ned followed with, “Are we clear to go?”

“Yes. We’ll contact you if we need you.”

The detectives nodded and headed for the door. Before departing into the rain, now just a spatter, Johnson paused. “Thank you for your time, and sorry for this welcome into our state, Ms. Brown. But both of you, think about keeping your doors locked.”

We mumured thanks and assurances, then I closed the storm door behind them. Through it I saw the media van still parked on the shoulder, while some of the lookers had gone home, and the rescue rig had been replaced by the County SUV.

I closed them out of sight with the inner door and locked it by reflex, even though Ned would be leaving soon.

Indeed, he turned to me and said. “I’m going to attempt getting home. Lead those reporters away from you, if nothing else.”

He smiled, showing where his laugh lines had come from. He also had a full set of white teeth, uncommon enough among rural natives to make me wonder if he was a transplant from downcountry, too. A flatlander, they called us.

But I didn’t inquire, just flashed my own smile back—hoping he wouldn’t notice my two front teeth were fakes, owing to a skiing accident—and said, “Thanks. I really don’t want to start my time here as a headline.”

“Even if you are, it won’t be a problem. As long as you’re Lucinda and Peter’s pal, everyone will assume you’re good, rather than a suspicious stranger.” He took his cap off, slicked his hair, and put the cap on again. “Besides, you’ve already made more friends than you might think from all the jobs you contracted.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Truly. I had hoped that hiring locals for repairs and renovations would start me off in good social graces. The physical results were a little iffy . . . but everything functioned, nothing leaked, and the place was spic and span. Except where we’d just tromped mud and water through it. I’d laid down vinyl runners for the moving men, meaning to keep them down until I’d finished unpacking, but the extra traffic had overshot the paths. And probably scared the cats into hiding for another week.

Ned unlocked the door himself. “I’ll come back in a day or so to resod those ruts.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Yes, I do. I’ll see you then. Take care.”

He sprang out the door and into his Jeep, entering it from the passenger side because it was one of those converted-to-right-hand-drive vehicles used by mailmen. As he drove off, I realized he’d never delivered my mail.

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10. Flog a BookBubber 27: Ian Ballard

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from a thriller by Mr. Ballard, Total Victim Theory.

Renato watched the desert birds from beneath the brim of a faded straw hat. They moved in patient circles overhead, drifting for seconds at a time, and finally giving a flap or two to stay aloft. In all his seventy-five years, he'd never seen so many crowd into a single patch of sky. Lowering his eyes, he scanned the desolate landscape up ahead, trying to discern what dead or dying thing had attracted so much attention.

As he walked along, Renato carried a plastic mesh bag containing a dozen glass bottles and a few rocks sparkling with flecks of quartz. At his side trotted a seasoned blue heeler mix with a grizzled snout and a pair of mismatched blue and gray eyes. Ahead, the sand stretched to the horizon where it met a dawn sky of rosy vacant blue. Behind him, thirty miles in the distance, lay the city of Juárez.

The shadows of the birds flitted across the terrain, wriggling over each ridge and crest like legless specters. They seemed to be converging upon a point somewhere just beyond the next rise, some swooping down out of sight and some ascending in feathery commotion. Renato's eyes tracked a lone flyer that rose rapidly from beyond the crest, clutching something in its tight talons. As the creature passed overhead, the object fell from its grip, tumbling through the air and landing not far from where Renato stood. The dog approached first and gave it a thorough and wary sniff.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Total Victim TheoryThis novel received an average Amazon rating of 4 stars. Pretty good writing, though a little more than is needed, for my taste. There is a story question, but not terribly compelling. It would have been much more so if the author trimmed excess description of vultures and scenery and made room for the inclusion of just two more sentences that really added to the tension:

Seconds later, Renato came to the blue narrow item and squatted to pick it up. It was a woman's sandal.

The notion that the vultures were circling over a woman strengthens the story question enough to turn this from a no to a yes.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Stephanie sends the first chapter for Soldiers, a science fantasy. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Mara had never considered having a different life. Not even after the violent vision of her abrupt death.

Her home within the base walls was safe, at least for the moment. The humid, tropical air as embracing as she imagined a hug, down to the moist exhale upon her cheek. The greyed skies and warm rain accepted her demeanor, and comforted, crying, sometimes, so she didn’t have to.

She did wish for some changes, minor things similar to desires overheard in others’ thoughts. It was normal to want a few alterations.

Losing her ability to see the future wasn’t one of them. That saved lives. Protected soldiers and cadets, like Randall. Helped keep civilians safe. But, if she could, it’d be nice to avoid the glances and thoughts of the other Visionary apprentices. To quiet her mind of the in-suppressible deluge of jealousy and distrust whenever the topic of Mara Miller gained attention: the Silent One.

“Miss Miller,” her teacher said at the front of the class. “Please share your thoughts as we cannot hear you.”

Even her teachers liked to remind those within hearing range. The class joined in. Thought-comments on the Favored One. The Powerful One. No longer droning reflections of the class’s lesson streaming through her head.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good writing and immersion into a scene here, though there were clarity issues for me a couple of times. As you’ll see after my notes, there was something from a later page that would have gone a long way to introducing this character in an intriguing way. And then, if at all possible, raise a story question about what might happen next. As it is, the only question is what her answer would be to sharing her thoughts, but there are no stakes or consequences suggested for what will happen if she does.

As it often happens with fantasy, there’s a urge to set up the “world” and its operating principles. That’s what most of this chapter is—setup. My suggestion would be to cut down on the elegant expressions of thoughts and ruminations and have something happen. At the end of the chapter, another student is introduced, along with a coming trail of Mara’s abilities. I suggest that that’s the place where this story starts. Weave in other elements as something happens to her in that trial that could lead to serious consequences. An almost from me, but all the setup discouraged me. Notes:

Mara had never considered having a different life. Not even after the violent vision of her abrupt death.

Her home within the base walls was safe, at least for the moment. The humid, tropical air as embracing as she imagined a hug, down to the moist exhale upon her cheek. The greyed skies and warm rain accepted her demeanor, and comforted, crying, sometimes, so she didn’t have to. Something missing here? “as embracing as she imagined a hug would be”?

She did wish for some changes, minor things similar to desires overheard in others’ thoughts. It was normal to want a few alterations.

Losing her ability to see the future wasn’t one of them. That saved lives. Protected soldiers and cadets, like Randall. Helped keep civilians safe. But, if she could, it’d be nice to avoid the glances and thoughts of the other Visionary apprentices. To quiet her mind of the in-suppressible deluge of jealousy and distrust whenever the topic of Mara Miller gained attention: the Silent One. This sentence fragment didn’t work for me. I think it’s too far from the “it’d be nice to avoid” setup. And who is the Silent One?

“Miss Miller,” her teacher said at the front of the class. “Please share your thoughts as we cannot hear you.”

Even her teachers liked to remind those within hearing range. The class joined in. Thought-comments on the Favored One. The Powerful One. No longer droning reflections of the class’s lesson streaming through her head. Remind them of what? Is it that they can’t read her thought? For me, this could be a lot more clear. I have no idea what the references to the favored and powerful one mean. Are they meant to describe her? I suspect so, but that’s not as clear as I’d like it to be.

Here is the intriguing bit I’d like to see on the first page, but only if it can immediately lead her into having a desire for something and trouble ahead as a result.

But, as it often did since she first saw her last day, that final moment of life before she vaporized into a red mist, her death shadowed her entirely.

Ms. Ronam strode forward and stopped before the desk, her gaze zeroed in upon Mara’s wrist. Mara looked, and found her fingers pacing the expanse of skin where she knew, someday, someone would put a bracelet there and it’d explode.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Stephanie

 

Continued:

She tried to ignore them. Visualized moments of stillness watching the fog gather above the rainforest canopy. The silence of her house, placed exactly there upon a rolling hill. And no one near to intrude purposefully or inadvertently upon her thoughts.

But, as it often did since she saw her last day, that final moment of life before she vaporized into a red mist, her death shadowed her entirely.

Ms. Ronam strode forward and stopped before the desk, her gaze zeroed in upon Mara’s wrist. Mara looked, and found her fingers pacing the expanse of skin where she knew, someday, someone would put a bracelet there and it’d explode.

Her fingers knew the pattern, the design, the textures as they swirled and twisted over the bangle’s surface. Knew the way it hung on her wrist, and how far it’d travel up her arm or down her hand when she moved. Curiosity inquired if it would slide off, but as her future self lacked the knowledge of its true purpose, future Mara merely existed one moment and then didn’t the next.

No beep.

No click.

No held breath or pregnant moment of expectation.

All stolen from her.

Though the castle windows hung wide open and the sun streamed through, glinting off the gold and silver of her phantom bracelet, Mara shivered with a gust of icy air. She shifted her legs and a slough of snow chilled and suffocated movement.

She pressed her palms to her thighs and squeezed her eyes closed, only to snap them open, nearly transported into that moment. She couldn’t bear a Flash right now.

“Do you need a meditation room?” Ms. Ronam asked. Her thoughts spoke of Mara’s distraction. It’s selfish to focus on your own death.

At the beginning of class, Mara plucked the lesson plan from Ms. Ronam’s mind. About twenty minutes in, her teacher should have been discussing the pursuit of vision outcomes. So the opinion Ms. Ronam desired was —

A thought interrupted: Why would anyone want to think of their own death?

Who said that?

She wants to quit her duty.

The thoughts only intensified. She needed them to stop.

Others don’t see their own deaths.

Everything about her is different.

She wants to die.

“I don’t!” Mara blurted, though she stood as was proper, a trained reaction if there ever was one.

The thoughts quieted, waiting for Ms. Ronam’s reaction but their teacher had received a message and shifted to the side to answer. Distant thoughts of fear at being reproached circled carefully chosen words. She. Can. Be. Sent.

The class returned their attention to Mara and she wondered what was wrong with her today. She didn’t share her thoughts willingly. They were the only thing hers.

What’s she going to say? The class inquired, some eyes watching her. Others staring at their desks or out the castle windows, feigning lack of interest, but keenly in tune to her present state.

A lesser Visionary apprentice held her arms around herself, uncomfortable with the topic. She felt no animosity toward the Speaker of all the Visionary apprentices, nor understood why they would elect Mara into the position and yet be so critical of her.

Mara concentrated on the girl, an almost oasis in a sea of judgement. “Soldiers are what we most often see die. Sometimes we tell them so that they are aware. They must cope with that knowledge. Why is it any different that we shouldn’t know, that we shouldn’t cope? That it can’t be thought of. ”

Why would anyone want to be like the soldiers?

Mara couldn’t determine who thought that. Ms. Ronam shuffled to the front of the classroom, the long skirt of her uniform flapping around her ankles. “Knowing when you’ll die serves only as a distraction, Miss Miller. You are supposed to focus on the deaths of the military, to save them. The rest is unnecessary.” Ms. Ronam turned to her notes. Where was I?

“I—”

Ms. Ronam fixed a hard gaze upon Mara and pointed to the red, block letters on the grey, stone wall.  “See the Future. Report the Vision. Save lives.”

The class repeated the mantra. 

“Save.” Ms. Ronam clasped her hands together. “With no death, no coping.”

“But there is —”

“Miss Miller.” Sit. Ms. Ronam turned and changed the information on the holo-board. Glancing back at her, and registering that Mara was still standing, she went on. “Vision Outcomes, Miss Miller. We aren’t to chase after outcomes. Or attempt to avoid them. Tell me why.”

“Past experience says that pursuit of outcomes sometimes strengthens a vision’s chances of becoming Inevitable.”

“Exactly. And, by keeping to this, we haven’t had an Inevitable in 182 years.” Ms. Ronam glanced at the door, as she turned back to Mara once more. “You are dwelling on the emotional side of things. Emotion gets us nowhere. Makes us afraid. Makes us attempt to make a difference by actively avoiding a vision outcome.” 

“But that’s not what I’m saying.”

“You will sit now.” Save such a discussion for your Controversial Combat Strategies or debate classes.

All thoughts were on her: Will she listen? Or will she continue to act like she can do whatever she wants?

As if that was true.

Another shiver prickled Mara’s flesh. Reliving a vision in a Flash would make everything worse. Make her seem weak. Needy of attention. She bowed her head slightly and went to sit.

A clear voice came from the door. “Mara Miller, there you are.”

Mara spun toward the doorway where Head Visionary Thora Yung stood with a gaggle of assistants in the hall. “Madame.”

The class followed suit in unison with their thoughts.

Ms. Ronam stiffened and bowed low. We were discussing the pursuit of vision outcomes before Miss Miller decided to side track us with her thoughts on death, specifically her own.

I see,” Thora said. The older woman approached Mara. “I remember you as being quieter in your opinions, Mara. I suppose your position as Speaker forced such a change.”

Mara bowed deeper and remained bent. “Apologies, Madame.” Her black hair fell over her shoulders and obstructed any glimpse she might have stolen at the highest ranked Visionary in a thousand miles.

A pair of delicate boots came into view, nothing like the cadets and apprentices that trained here at Paragon Warfare Academy for final placement. A bit military-utilitarian in style, and lacking serious function for one that never came close to a single bullet fired, or even prisoner detained. Madame Thora rarely left the protective confines of the Visionary Complex, except to visit other Visionary facilities, and of course, to see Mara.

A thin finger lifted her face and Mara met Thora’s intense green eyes with her own darker shade.

Hm. She’s upset. Perhaps she’s in need of a meditation room. Thora removed her hand and most likely the attempt to tap deeper into Mara’s essence. Behind her, one of the assistants began registering meditation permissions to Mara’s records.

Thora turned partially to the singular man within the assistants. “Our very best Visionary and she’s only an apprentice.”

A military liaison.

Mara swallowed. What did the military want? Did they come for her? The echo off his mental wall, something all soldiers were trained to do only churned the fear in her gut.

She wasn’t centered enough to do anything for the military.

Thora moved on quickly, and spoke to Ms. Ronam. “We should explore ideas here, should we not? Miss Miller, why don’t you go on? Finish what you were going to say about death and emotions.”

“Um…”

The man’s attention brought goosebumps to her arms. She needed quiet. A meditation room, just like they both said.

Go on, Mara. Thora’s expression was reassuring, her tone, however demanding.

“We cannot detach from emotion. It is necessary in order to see motivations behind actions. To help us understand. Allows us to use the information within our visions to train and prepare and expect what may have once been unexpected.” Like explosive bracelets.

“Yes,” Thora said, taking steps around the outside of the class, listening to the thoughts of other apprentices. “It is about being prepared for anything. And while we may want to avoid our emotions when we see our friends and our family as subjects in our visions because we spend the most time with them, we should not detach from that. Balancing the careful calculations we are forced to suffer, picking who we, as a whole, can survive losing and then making that sacrifice is quite hard on us all.” All of us.

A reprimanding gaze shifted over every student and Ms. Ronam, but rested on the young apprentice that had been Mara’s momentary oasis. Thora set her hand on the girl’s shoulder. You must learn to assert yourself. The military will try to push and take all they can from you. It is much worse than these girls.

The girl was ashamed but resilient. Yes, Madame. I will try harder.

Now,” Thora said, stepping away toward the doorway and her assistants. “Why does it seem that there are no Cadets in this class.” No boys at all, only twelve girls, circled with their desks. “Where is Cadet Randall Rex?”

“He, uh, skips this class,” Mara whispered.

Thora pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. “The Military-Visionary relations program we are attempting requires a cadet.” The design of the immaculate black braid styled on the back of Thora’s head could be seen as she turned toward her closest assistant. A slow breath hissed out through her teeth. How is it the Senior Cadet Commander of all five year levels of U’gen cadets skips his classes?

“Madame, class operates better without the U’gen present,” Ms. Ronam said. “In exchange, he attends office hours for review. The class is open for him, but both Visionary and U’gen parties prefer this. The arrangement was made with the backing of both Military commanders and PWA Visionary Liaisons, in addition to our Head Mistress, Olair.”

“Is that so?” Thora frowned. The point of the program was so they work together. Cadet Rex should be attending the set classes for Military-Visionary relations chosen at the beginning of their schooling, or else four years have been wasted. Thora’s voice was sharp in Mara’s head, as she directed it at Ms. Ronam.  It startled her as it was not often Madame Thora’s thoughts could be heard so clearly for Mara. She had no idea if it was different for others, but Ms. Ronam seemed to have no difficulties hearing Madame Thora’s voice in her head.

The pairs work together well on a practical basis, Ms. Ronam said. All eight individuals operate within our standards, supervised by both Headmasters. Mistress Olair worked with the Headmaster Commander to form acceptable changes, as the Cadets are called away for readiness exercises. I assure you, Mara Miller and Randall Rex work together perfectly.

I hope so. Thora took a step forward. They are required to demonstrate their ability during the upcoming Night Mission. It is the very first test of their union, to be monitored by the base commanders of all four bases under Visionary protection, our protection.

Mara bowed her head again and interjected. “Madame, if you will allow me, I will get him as you require.”

Thora waved her hand, excusing Mara, and stepped forward to continue speaking privately with her teacher. Should they fail, we… All Visionaries would suffer from this. Their compatibility must be expert…

Mara stepped past the Military liaison, out into the hall, closed her eyes to the wood paneling and stone of antiquity, the ancient castle that was their school, and forced her mind to focus.

Where was Randall?

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12. The types of editors authors need

I came across a good article by Katie McCoach, an editor, that explains the kinds of editors an author needs. That’s right, plural editors. Like Ms. McCoach, I’m what is called a developmental or substantive editor. You should visit the entire article for more, but here is her definition of a developmental editor.

A developmental editor’s focus is “on content edits. This usually involves things like critiques or manuscript evaluations, substantive edits, developmental editing, and line editing. The goal of these edits are to work with the author to strengthen their story telling and writing abilities. This is the first stage of editing.

These edits look at the writing style, voice, pacing and flow, characters, readability, intended audience, genre, narrative, plots and subplots, etc. These edits are designed to help an author tighten their manuscript. Does the protagonist grow or change from beginning to end? Are the characters’ actions believable? Does the plot feel forced or organic? Are the characters’ goals and motivations fully developed? Is there internal and external conflict? Is this actually a romance novel or is it women’s fiction?

This is also where things such as backstory, show vs. tell, POV, dialogue and more are addressed.

She suggests sources for finding editors, which is helpful—but you already know one, don’t  you?

One more point, though—she says she’ll hire an editor for her own book, and I just did the same—a copyeditor to make sure I got things right. Yep, editors need editors.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


JA sends the first chapter for The Keeper and the Stone, a fantasy novel. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

The deeper Alaric rode into the woods, the more something felt… off. This forest had always fit like a well-worn cloak. But tonight, the way forest wrapped around felt familiar, but not quite comfortable, as though it remembered wrapping around a slightly different shape.

“This path used to be easier to follow,” Alaric said to his horse, Beast, as they paused in a patch of summer moonlight. Alaric peered ahead, looking for the trail leading to the Stronghold. He found it, running like a scratch through the low brush to the right. “If the Keepers weren’t too meek to hold grudges, I’d think the old men were hiding it from me.”

All the usual smells of pine and moss and dirt wove through the air, the usual sounds of little animals going about their lives, but Alaric kept catching the hint of something different. Something more complicated than he wanted to deal with.

Around then next turn, the trail ran straight into a wider tree trunk. Alaric leaned as far to the side as he could, but he couldn’t see around it. “I could be wrong about the Keepers holding grudges.”

Well, if they didn’t want him at the Stronghold, that was too bad. He didn’t need a warm welcome. He just needed to find one book with one antidote. With a little luck, the book would be easy to find and he could leave again quickly. With a lot of luck, he’d get out without having to answer anyone’s questions about what he’d been doing for the past year.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the writing and voice, for sure. JA introduces us to a fantasy world smoothly, not throwing too much at us. But, despite that, I see a lack of a compelling story question. Oh, there are story questions, but there’s not much in terms of stakes, so far. If Alaric is unlucky, he’ll have to answer questions. Doesn’t sound like too dire a consequence. He seeks an antidote, but we don’t know what it’s for—could be just a poison ivy rash.

Later we seem to learn that it’s an antidote to save the life of someone named Evangeline—but even then we don’t know the relationship between Alaric and Evangeline.

For me, establishing his journey as a quest to save the life of Evangeline on the first page would go a long way toward getting a page-turn. If there could be a time urgency as well, that would help—what if he needs to return with the antidote before the full moon fades? In short, nicely done narrative needs, for me, stronger tension, clear needs or desires, and stronger consequences for failure. There's no sense of urgency, and I think there should be. The writing tells me that JA can do that. Even lacking that, having read on, it’s a story I’d be interested in reading. Just grab the reader with a stronger grip on this first page.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by JA

 

Continued:

Beast circled the tree and found the path again, snaking out the other side. As his hooves thudded down on it, a howl echoed through the woods.

The horse froze and Alaric grabbed the pouch hanging around his neck, protecting it against his chest. He closed his eyes, casting out past the nearest trees and through the woods, searching for the blazing energy of the wolf. He sensed nothing beyond the tranquil glow of the trees and the dashing flashes of frightened rabbits.

“That’s new.” Alaric opened his eyes and peered into the darkness.

A louder howl broke through the night. Beast shuddered.

“It’s alright.” Alaric patted Beast’s neck as he cast farther out. The life energy of an animal as large as a wolf would be like a bonfire among the trees, but there was nothing near them. “It’s not wolves. Just disembodied howls.” He kept his voice soothing, hoping to calm the animal.

“That didn’t sound as reassuring as I meant it to. But a real wolf pack wouldn’t keep howling as they got closer. If we were being tracked by wolves, we wouldn’t know it.”

Beast’s ears flicked back and forth, alert for another howl.

“Ok, that wasn’t reassuring either.” Alaric nudged him forward. “C’mon we’re almost to the Wall.”

A third howl tore out of the darkness right beside them.

Beast reared back, whinnying in terror. Alaric grabbed for the saddle and swore. He pressed his hand to Beast’s neck.

Paxa,” he said, focusing energy through his hand and into Beast. A shock of pain raced across his palm where it touched the horse.

Mid-snort, Beast settled and stood still.

Alaric shook out his hand and looked thoughtfully into the woods. This wasn’t about a grudge, or at least the howls weren’t directed at him. Any Keeper would know there were no wolves. Even a one as inadequate as himself would know there was no energy, no vitalle, behind the sounds. So what was the purpose of it? The path had never been like this before.

With Beast calm, Alaric set him back into a steady walk. Two more howls rang out from the woods but Beast ambled along, unruffled. Alaric rubbed his still tingling palm.

Beast paused again as the trail ran into another wide tree.

Alaric growled in frustration. The path to the Keepers’ Stronghold shouldn’t be this troublesome for a Keeper.

Unless it no longer recognized him as one. That was a sobering thought.

As they skirted around the tree a white face thrust itself out of the trunk. Alaric jerked away as the hazy form of a man leaned out toward him. When the figure didn’t move, Alaric reined in Beast and forced himself to study it. It held no life energy, it was just an illusion—like the wolves.

The figure was a young man. He had faded yellow hair and milky white skin. Once the initial shock wore off, the man was not particularly frightening. He looked healthy and friendly.

“What are you supposed to look like? A ghost?” Alaric asked.

It hung silent on the tree. Alaric leaned forward and backward, but the ghost remained still, staring off into the woods.

“The howls were more frightening than you.” Alaric set Beast to walking again.

“You are lost,” the ghost whispered as he passed.

Alaric gave a short laugh. “I’ve been lost many times in my life, but this isn’t one of them. And if it’s your job to scare people off, you should consider saying something more chilling and less…depressing.”

Beast kept walking and Alaric turned to watch the ghost fade into the darkness behind them.

A rasp pulled his attention forward. Another white form slid out of the tree they were approaching. This one was a young woman. She was rather pretty, for a ghost.

“Hello.” Alaric gave her a polite nod.

“You have failed,” she whispered. “You have failed everyone.”

Alaric scowled. The words rang uncomfortably true.

Alaric stopped Beast in front of to the ghost. Behind the woman’s face Alaric saw thin silver runes carved on the bark. He couldn’t read them through the ghost, but he didn’t need to. Narrowing his focus, he cast out ahead of them along the trail, brushing against the trunks with his senses. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he felt the subtle humming runes dotting the trees ahead.

Alaric sat back in the saddle. This wasn’t what he expected from the Keepers. The old men protected their privacy like paranoid hermits, but they’d never tried to scare people away before. Except he had to admit that these ghosts weren’t frightening. If the Keepers were going to make ghosts, this is the sort they would make.

Years ago, during his lesson on ‘Defeat by Demoralization,’ Keeper Gerone had raged, “Control the emotions, control the man!” Gerone was probably responsible for the depressing ghosts.

The ghost runes were on almost every tree now, faces appearing every few steps.

“Your powers are worthless,” the next whispered and Alaric flinched.

“It’s your fault,” another rasped. “All your fault.”

Alaric clenched his jaw and stared ahead as the whispers surrounded him.

When he passed close to one large tree, a ghost thrust out close to him. Alaric turned  toward it and saw his own face looking back at him. A pale, wasted version of himself. His black hair was faded to a lifeless grey and his skin, far from being tanned from traveling, was bleached a wrinkly bone white. Only his eyes had stayed dark, sinking from a healthy brown to deep black pits.  

Alaric stared, repulsed, at the withered apparition of himself—it was decades older than his forty years. The ghost looked tired, a deep crease furrowed between its brows. Alaric reached up and rubbed his own forehead.

The ghost leaned closer.

“She’s dead,” it whispered.

Guilt stabbed into him, deep and familiar. He shuddered, grabbing the pouch at his neck, his mind flooded with the image of Evangeline’s sunken face.

Alaric slammed his palm against the rune on the trunk.

Uro!” Pain raced through his hand again. He poured energy into the tree, willing it to burn. The bark smoked as he seared the rune off.

Out of the corner of his eye, pulses of white light appeared along the path ahead of them. He glanced at them, but the distraction had consequences and the pain flared, arcing up each finger. He gasped and narrowed his focus back to the energy flowing through his palm. The pain receded slightly. The ghost stared a moment longer, then faded away. Alaric dropped his arm, leaving a hand-shaped scorch mark on the trunk where the rune had been.

“She’s dead.”

Alaric’s head snapped forward.

The trees ahead of him were full of ghosts, each a washed out version of himself.

“Dead…She’s dead…Dead.” The words filled the air.

Alaric clutched the pouch at his neck until he felt the rough stone inside.

A ghost reached toward him. “She’s dead…” Its voice rattled in a long sigh.

Alaric spurred Beast into a gallop, trusting the horse to follow the trail. The whispers clung to them as they ran. Alaric shrank down, hunching his shoulders, wresting his mind away from the memory of Evangeline’s tired eyes, her pale skin.

The trees ended and they raced out into a silent swath of grass, running up to the base of an immense cliff. Alaric pulled Beast to a stop, both of them breathing hard. Gripping the saddle, Alaric looked back into the trees. The forest was dark and quiet.

“I take it back,” he said, catching his breath, “the ghosts were worse than the wolves.” He sat in the saddle, pushing back at the dread that was enveloping him. She wasn’t dead. The ghosts were just illusions. He’d get the antidote tonight. She’d be fine.

When his heart finally slowed, he gave Beast an exhausted pat on the neck.

“This path used to be a lot easier to follow.”

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14. Flog a BookBubber 26: Estelle Ryan

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from a thriller, The Gauguin Connection, a free thriller novel and first book in a 9-book series by Ms. Ryan.

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Lenard.” The stranger held out his hand expectantly. His rumpled overcoat and the dark circles under his eyes gave the impression that he hadn’t slept in days. Even his voice sounded exhausted, despite the crisp British accent. The tightened muscles of his unshaven jaw, his stiff neck and pursed lips sent a very obvious message.

“It’s Doctor Lenard.” I kept my hand to myself. “And you’re not.”

“Not what?” The dishevelled stranger pulled his hand back. His lips moved from a simple disagreeable pucker to a full-on sneer.

“Not pleased to meet me.” I had lost count of how many times I had witnessed the corners of someone’s lips drawn toward the ears to produce a sneering dimple in the cheeks. The vast majority of those expressions had been aimed at me.

“Genevieve, play nice.” Phillip Rousseau’s voice carried enough warning to pull my focus from the angry man. Despite his French background, Phillip pronounced my name in a manner more familiar to English speakers. I had insisted on that. It might be thought as callow, but it was my small rebellion against a pretentious sophistication forced on me from birth.

Phillip had been my boss for six years and none of his non-verbal cues or voice inflections was unknown to me. At present he was annoyed by my lack of sociability. He moved from behind the conference table. For a moment I thought he was going to position himself (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Gauguin ConnectionThis novel received an average Amazon rating of 4.4 stars. For me, this is one of those beginnings that doesn’t raise a serious story question but nonetheless drew me in—although, to be fair, there’s a goodly amount of scene tension in the narrative. I love the unique voice of this character, and her apparently unique and prickly personality. There’s a little more setup to come, but it’s rendered with more scene tension, and we’re quickly to the murder in the story. I’ll be giving this one a try.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Matthias sends the first chapter for Goodbye Mr. Cooper. He says it’s a short story—I didn’t know that short stories had chapters. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

It was a sweltering mid-summer afternoon and Mr. Thorning's corpse sweated blood. One frozen hand pointed at himself in the reflection of his conglomerate skyscraper while the other was pinned to his forehead by a .50 bullet. His suit lay discarded at his desk, his striped blouse was half-way unbuttoned. At the bottom of NetLink tower, the commuters kept on commuting, and the taxis kept on honking until Mr. Thorning's secretary walked into his office at 4pm exactly.

At 5pm precisely, the sub between New Denton City Center and Denton Science Park was among the busiest in the metropolis. Ethan impatiently swiped the countless notifications from his smartphone. Suddenly all the world cared about some piece-of-shit rich guy. He sighed at the prospect of having to hear the news anchors drone on about it for three days in a row at least.

"Next station, Canvall Main," the monotonous computer-voice announced.

Ethan slung his schoolbag over one shoulder, squeezed past a fat man in a raincoat and jumped through the subs' doors onto the platform. The small station was abandoned as usual, and the broken TL light near the stairs, after a decade of disservice, still hadn't been replaced.

Canvall Main was neighborhood local authorities had long since given up on. It was the kind of suburb that managed to look dreary throughout the year. Wannabe gangsters occupied its (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The opening line is a grabber, for sure. But, for this reader, confusion soon set in. We first learn that the afternoon is sweltering, but then see that the corpse’s hand is frozen. I’m sure you meant that in the sense of stiffened by rigor mortis, but in this case it didn’t work for me--my mind immediately went to frozen as in like ice. Next, there’s a reflection of his skyscraper, but he’s in his office—only if he were outside the building could he see its reflection. Third, one hand was pinned to his forehead by a bullet, which seems impossible to me. If he was shot in the forehead when his hand covered it, then I think the force of a very large caliber bullet would throw his head back and his hand would fall away. So, right from the start, clarity became a big issue.

Then the issue turned to a lack of tension when we go to another point of view and a guy is riding a sub (I assume you mean subway, not an ocean-going underwater vessel), and then he gets off, and then we go to description of the neighborhood. The opening paragraph, despite clarity issues, launched a fine story question, but then that peters out with description of activity that doesn’t seem to relate to the story begun by the first paragraph.

It turns out that there is a relationship to the Ethan character, but none to riding the sub. But will the reader get that far? I suggest cutting out all the travel stuff, get Ethan right to getting a message and finding a .50 caliber pistol in his backpack.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Matthias

 

Continued:

. . . vacant houses, its hedges were made out of uncollected garbage, and all of New Denton could survive an apocalypse on the Kebab in store.

Ethan had barely surfaced from the underground when his phone vibrated. Groaning, he fished the beat-up touchscreen from his pocket. Probably someone late to the who-killed-Thorning? party.

He arched an eyebrow. SMS? Had to be his grandma. Curious, he tapped the yellow envelope and read:

Left something in your bag. I believe it's yours.

He froze. The fuck? Private number. He read it again.
...something in your bag...

An icy lump rose to his throat as he undid the zipper and stared into his Eastpak. His jaw slackened. All his life he'd wanted one. But not once, not once in his past fourteen birthdays had he been so close to one. A real one. Heart racing, he reached into his bag and touched, almost lovingly, the polymer grip texture of a .50 cal Desert Eagle. 

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16. Flog a BookBubber 25: Jack Patterson

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from a thriller, Dead Man’s Curve, a free thriller novel and fifth in the Cal Murphy series by Jack Patterson.

EMILY PALMER LOOKED STRAIGHT AHEAD and pushed her way through a cluster of classmates. She didn’t stop as she glanced down at a red party cup that crashed to the ground, spraying beer everywhere.

Callie swilled alcohol around in her cup. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Emily answered as she rambled toward her car.

Once she reached her red Ford Tempo, Emily fumbled for her keys before the taunts from Josh Hood started.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked as he pinned the door shut with his hand.

“Get away from me,” she snapped, refusing to turn and look at him.

Josh didn’t move his hand. “Wanna go one on one this time?”

“Move now— I won’t ask again.”

He laughed while he stooped down and moved his face only inches from hers. “Make me.”

Emily turned at him and glared. Then she bit his arm. Josh yelped and began cursing at her— and he left himself vulnerable. Next, she delivered a solid kick right between his legs that sent him tumbling backward to the ground. Emily unlocked her car and scrambled inside. She locked the door and fired up the engine.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

While there is tension and conflict, and a story question is raised—what will happen to the girl—I found the writing so lacking that I had no urge to turn the page. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to flog it. See what you think and then vote on the need for an editor. And remember, this is the fifth in a series. The quality of writing doesn’t improve on the following page, either.

EMILY PALMER LOOKED STRAIGHT AHEAD and pushed her way through a cluster of classmates. She didn’t stop as she glanced down at a red party cup that crashed to the ground, spraying beer everywhere. Not stopping as she glanced seems like an odd action. Why would she want to stop? Why would she glance at it as she pushes her way? I can see something like this as meaningful: She didn’t stop when she knocked a red party cup from a guy’s hand, spraying beer on her jeans.

Callie swilled alcohol around in her cup. “Is everything okay?” she asked. She “swilled alcohol?” First, to swill in a party context is to drink in a big gulp—the author means “swirled.” And “alcohol?” The girl has pure alcohol in her cup? Not likely; it’s beer. The description is less than professional, in my view. And “she asked” is totally unnecessary here.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Emily answered as she rambled toward her car. Bad verb choice—she’s pushing through people and going to her car, yet “rambled” means to “walk from place to place without conscious aim or goal.” She is clearly not rambling, she’s going for her car. And you could add urgency by using something such as "hurried."

Once she reached her red Ford Tempo, Emily fumbled for her keys before the taunts from Josh Hood started. Unless it matters to story, giving brand names such as “Ford Tempo” clutters up the narrative and draws attention to where attention is not needed. The color and brand of her car doesn’t matter in the story: just “car” would have been plenty. I also didn’t care for the key fumble happening “before” the guy taunts her. Why before? I think that “when” would be much stronger because a taunt could cause (motivate) the fumble and make it part of the scene instead of just an instance of clumsiness. A lost opportunity for storytelling.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked as he pinned the door shut with his hand.

“Get away from me,” she snapped, refusing to turn and look at him.

Josh didn’t move his hand. “Wanna go one on one this time?”

“Move now— I won’t ask again.”

He laughed while he stooped down and moved his face only inches from hers. “Make me.” “Moved his face” is lifeless description. How about: He laughed and shoved his face inches from hers.

Emily turned at him and glared. Then she bit his arm. Josh straightened and yelped and began cursing at her— and he left himself vulnerable. Next, she delivered a solid kick kicked him right between his legs. that and sent him tumbling As he fell backward, to the ground. Emily she unlocked her car and scrambled inside. She locked the door into her car and fired up the engine. As you can see, this paragraph desperately needed tightening and a good action flow. “Delivered a solid kick?” Really?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Anne sends a revised opening for a story now titled Mountain Man. The original version is here. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Monday morning, Elizabeth Logan looked in the powder room mirror to check her hair and makeup. She applied more lip gloss. She could never have too much lip gloss. Her eyes looked fine. So did her hair.

She walked through the narrow hallway to her office in the Washington D.C. 1860’s row house, which was the Logan Foundation’s place of business. Her charitable foundation, founded and lovingly nurtured solely by her. She perched on the padded window seat under the bay window and anxiously watched the street traffic. She felt sick to her stomach.

There was nothing she could do now but wait. In a few minutes someone from the FBI would be ringing the bell. Yes, government person, she was guilty. Her reason for embezzling her charity’s donations? She needed the money. It appeared that her husband, Declan, was searching for wife number three. Eventually, he was going to leave her. High and dry. And when that happened, Elizabeth Logan would become an actual charity case.

It started four years ago when her salon colorist persuaded her to add highlights and low lights to her blonde hair. It had been a definite improvement. However, her husband’s tastes ran toward attractive, scantily dressed women with ‘trashy blonde’ hair. She’d looked like that once. After she’d changed her hair, she tried to convince him that wealthy women in their mid-thirties shouldn’t look like twenty-five year old sluts. Declan’s answer had been, “Then I guess it’s (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

This opening is interesting in that it introduces a sympathetic character who is an admitted criminal, and there’s jeopardy ahead in the arrival of an FBI agent. I think there’s enough of a story question to turn the page, but I hesitated when the story slipped into backstory mode. I think the flashback isn’t needed at this point—it’s important that her husband is going to leave her, but the history of when she began to believe that isn’t really needed. A lot of this chapter is devoted to setup—look for ways to shorten those parts and to increase the tension and jeopardy for her. Notes:

 Monday morning, Elizabeth Logan looked in the powder room mirror to check her hair and makeup. She applied more lip gloss. She could never have too much lip gloss. Her eyes looked fine. So did her hair.

She walked through the narrow hallway to her office in the Washington D.C. 1860’s row house, which was the Logan Foundation’s place of business. Her charitable foundation, founded and lovingly nurtured solely by her. She perched on the padded window seat under the bay window and anxiously watched the street traffic. She felt sick to her stomach.

There was nothing she could do now but wait. In a few minutes someone from the FBI would be ringing the bell. Yes, government person, she was guilty. Her reason for embezzling her charity’s donations? She needed the money. It appeared that her Her husband, Declan, was searching for wife number three. Eventually, he was going to leave her. High and dry. And when that happened, Elizabeth Logan would become an actual charity case. I’d avoid clichés such as “high and dry.”

It had started four years ago when her salon colorist persuaded her to add highlights and low lights to her blonde hair. It had been a definite improvement. However, her husband’s tastes ran toward attractive, scantily dressed women with ‘trashy blonde’ hair. She’d looked like that once. After she’d changed her hair, she tried to convince him that wealthy women in their mid-thirties shouldn’t look like twenty-five year old sluts. Declan’s answer had been, “Then I guess it’s (snip) The beginning of this paragraph signals a flashback, not a good idea on the first page where I believe we need to be in the “now” of the story. The flashback is brief and it does characterize her husband as a creep, but it wasn’t really needed.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Kathleen

 

Continued:

. . . about time I traded you in.” Afterwards he’d laughed and hugged her and told her she looked great. She’d never felt secure after that.

 It was cold in the office. It made her nipples hard. She thought about stepping out on the small front porch to warm up. Although it was the first week in June, it had to be close to eighty degrees outside. Instead she got up and went into the small conference room next to her office. She rubbed both arms to make the goosebumps go away and re-adjusted her short-sleeved mohair sweater across her chest.

She’d just turned on the lights in the conference room when the doorbell rang. She glanced at her vintage Lady Rolex. Ten o’clock precisely. She should have known. Government people, always on time, always following the rules. What kind of terrible news did they bring? Should she open the door and present her wrists for the inevitable handcuffs? No. That wasn’t her style. She always fought hard before admitting defeat.

She looked through the door peephole and her jaw dropped. Male. Mid-thirties, several inches over six feet tall, slim build, dressed in a perfectly fitted navy blue suit. He had longish dark brown hair and a few days beard growth that was the fashion these days.  She couldn’t see the color of his eyes because he was looking down as he pulled a black wallet from his inside coat pocket. His eyelashes were annoyingly thick and long. Such a waste on a man. She opened the door halfway. Large soulful brown eyes gazed down at her from a serious face.

“Elizabeth Logan?”

“Government person?”

He opened an identification wallet that showed his picture and a gold badge. “FBI Special Agent Thomas Clay Atkins, District of Columbia White Collar Division.”

Elizabeth spent another few moments verifying his credentials, hoping it would make him nervous. She always liked to have the upper hand in encounters with people. Not that she was a ball-buster, she just wanted to be taken seriously from the get-go. She’d spent her childhood as a non-entity who wore her siblings’ hand-me-down clothes, and played with their broken, cast-off toys. She vowed she wouldn’t go unnoticed as an adult. Finally she stepped back and opened the door all the way. “Come in. Let’s talk in the conference room.”

***

Elizabeth Logan’s pale pink fluffy sweater immediately distracted Thomas Clay—TC to his friends. He felt the urge to touch that fluffiness with his index finger. Her high-heeled sandals tapped rapidly on the hardwood floor as she led him to the second doorway on the left. Her backside filled her tight white slacks beautifully. No panty line. Not a good way to start, he warned himself.  He hadn’t done well the first time he saw her either.

Last Saturday night the Logan Foundation held a charity gala at the Capitol Hotel. He’d walked into the Roosevelt Ballroom at the end of the evening to get a look at Elizabeth Logan in her natural surroundings.

He’d joined the hundred or so guests gathered around a staircase that led up to a balcony-level lounge. A woman clothed in a glittery blue cocktail dress stood on a step high enough to position her above the crowd. The DJ introduced her and then handed her his microphone.

Elizabeth Logan had been stunning. Impeccably dressed—obviously—but beyond that, she radiated an unusual charm. He was instantly drawn to her. Even her voice captivated him. It was pitched low for such a petite woman. He heard a hint of a southern upbringing. She drew out certain words and softened her vowels. After her short speech, he’d noticed how she enjoyed the clearly evident affection of her guests.

Now he sat inches away from her. They studied each other for a long moment. He didn’t know what she was thinking during that time, but he spent it acting like a school boy. Her eyes—hazel with flecks of gold. Nose—long, thin, with a cute bump at the bridge. Lips—wetly pink from some kind of lipstick. And he detected a slight lavender scent. Probably her shampoo. His heart skipped a few beats. Elizabeth began fiddling with the pen and yellow pad laying in front of her. She cleared her throat with emphasis. Obviously, she was waiting for him to begin.

Say something, you fool. He opened a blue folder and removed some paperwork. “Gerald Flanagan contacted us last March regarding a discrepancy between the amount he and his wife donated last year versus the amount stated in the Logan Foundation’s annual contribution letter. He said he asked you to send him a corrected letter so he could finish his income taxes.”

Elizabeth thought a minute and nodded, “Yes, I remember talking to Mr. Flanagan and couldn’t find the amount he said he donated in our records. The amount stated in our letter was the amount recorded in our books. I told him I was sorry but I had to report what we received.”

“I have a copy of Mr. Flanagan’s cancelled check and a copy of the Foundation’s letter.” TC handed Elizabeth the copy of the front and back of Mr. Flanagan’s check. “Do you recognize the endorsement on his check? It isn’t the Foundation’s name or bank account number.”

She looked at the paper and handed it back to him.

“If you could explain that endorsement, maybe we can clear this whole thing up today without putting you through an audit,” TC said.

Elizabeth wrote Gerald Flanagan’s name on her pad and slowly underlined it three times. “I told Mr. Flanagan that sometimes when we receive a lot of checks at one time, they might go through a holding company account, and then be transferred to the Foundation’s bank account. That’s why the endorsement is different on his check. As for the amount discrepancy, I think I suggested that maybe there could have been an error on the bank’s part when deposits were posted and transferred. That’s something I’m not privy to.”

She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “At the time, Declan and I were getting ready to go out of town for a month. I told Mr. Flanagan I’d given him all the information I had and if he couldn’t get things resolved, I would look into it further when we got back.”

“Out of town for a month. Sounds nice. Where did you go?” TC asked.

“We went to our house in Telluride with a group of friends. It’s an annual thing.”

“I’ve never skied in Colorado. I hear it’s fantastic.” TC gushed.

Elizabeth gave him an irritated look like she had no desire to talk about her personal life. He had no idea why he’d even asked. It just popped out.

 He smiled crookedly, “Sorry, not on subject. Please continue.”

“Well, I forgot about it and never heard from Mr. Flanagan again. I thought he’d resolved it on his end with his bank.”

 TC shook his head, “No. Mr. Flanagan filed for a six month extension on his tax return to give you time to clear this up. When he didn’t hear from you, he called us.” He added, “More likely the problem is between you and your bank. You might want to contact them.”

There. He’d given Mrs. Logan all the facts. He relaxed in his chair and stretched his legs under the table. He gazed at her, waiting for her response. Her face was pinched with tension, or anger…or something. It felt wrong to accuse this seemingly nice lady of misappropriating funds. But he knew looks could be deceiving. Incidents like this happened all the time. It only took one person to blow the whistle to get the ball rolling. When the auditors started digging, they’d probably find more inaccurate contribution letters. He studied the range of emotions that crossed her face.

***

Elizabeth’s head spun. An audit? By the FBI? She hadn’t expected that. What had she gotten herself into? It appeared Agent Ring around the White Collar had it all figured out. Her method of skimming donor money hadn’t been clever enough. Although Agent Atkins was the bearer of bad news, the whole time he talked, she was strangely soothed by his voice. If he ever whispered sweet words into her ear, she could see herself falling helplessly into his arms.

She felt a frown beginning so she raised her eyebrows and forced a tiny smile. She could wring Gerald Flanagan’s neck. The little twerp. Rich people didn’t prepare their own taxes. Her scheme had worked fine for more than three years, after Declan mentioned it might be time for a new wife. If they divorced, the damned pre-nuptial agreement gave her nothing but her personal property. So, bit by bit, she’d accumulated a nest egg, preparing for the inevitable. The Foundation would never miss it and it was her salvation.

She took a deep breath and laid one hand on top of the other on her lap in an attempt to appear calm. She remembered one of her husband’s drunken lectures on getting out of a tight spot. “No matter how bad things get, it’s always possible to rearrange the facts so you look good. Never admit mistakes or reveal how you run your business. People may try to bring you down, but if you say as little as possible, the odds are in your favor they’ll never be able to prove anything. It’s all smoke and mirrors sweetheart.” She hadn’t really understood him until now.

She chewed on the inside of her lip. This audit would ruin everything. Agent Atkins was smart. He hadn’t fallen for her ‘It must be the bank’s fault’ explanation. That line had stalled Gerald Flanagan for a while. But company records didn’t lie. No smoke and mirrors there unless you’d been cooking the books from the beginning. She hadn’t started the Foundation with the intent to steal. Time passed, she fell into a routine and forgot what she was doing was wrong.

All she could do at this point was let the auditors do their job. Whatever they found, she’d deal with on a case by case basis. As far as Mr. Flanagan, she’d offer to resolve the misunderstanding by returning the difference. It was only fifteen thousand dollars. The foundation could well afford it.

Elizabeth glanced at Agent Atkins. He was staring at her. She felt like he was examining her soul. If she met his gaze, she feared he would see her guilt. His eyes were watchful, but kind, and a little bit sad. For a fleeting moment she considered telling him the truth.

 TC broke into Elizabeth’s thoughts, “Look, I’m not trying to destroy your Foundation. You should be proud of your philanthropy. I researched your organization. You’ve come a long way in less than ten years. And all that during the recession as well.”

Elizabeth’s face brightened. “Yes, we’ve done a lot of good work and don’t plan to stop. I can’t imagine what might have happened with Mr. Flanagan, however I assure you I will get to the bottom of this.”

TC grabbed his pen, “Great. What’s your business manager’s name? I’d like to set the audit schedule.”

Elizabeth straightened up in her chair, flicked her hair behind one shoulder, and stuck out her chest hoping that her nipples still showed. Game on government person. May the best man win. She peeked up at him coquettishly. “Well, I guess that would be me.”

TC looked confused. “No business manager? But this is such a large organization…”

“I believe in keeping administration costs low. It’s not rocket science to deposit checks. If I get a lot in at one time, my accountant takes care of them.”

“Is that where the holding company, LF Heritage, comes in?” TC asked.

Elizabeth pretended to appear bewildered. “You would have to ask the accountant. I’m not sure what all they do.” She clicked open her pen and held it over her pad of paper. “You just tell me what you need, and when, and I’ll arrange to provide it.”

***

TC was glad the meeting was over. Mrs. Logan had taken lots of notes. They agreed upon the daily schedule and the records needed. Two auditors would work in the Foundation’s conference room beginning next Monday at one o’clock. He told her the entire process should take about two weeks, if there were no problems.

He laid his business card on top of her pad. “My stomach is rolling. How about I take you to lunch?” As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t. The invitation came out so easily. He never asked anyone he investigated to a meal. Not even to go have drinks. It wasn’t an agency rule—or maybe it was—he couldn’t think straight right now. He thought it was his own rule because he never wanted anything to influence his investigations. Not that he’d ever worked with such an attractive Person of Interest before. He had no idea why he wanted to get to know Elizabeth Logan better. On top of that, she was married and he wasn’t on the market either.

***

“Lunch?” Elizabeth looked at her watch. “Oh, I didn’t realize it was so late. Sorry, I don’t eat lunch, only a good breakfast and dinner.” She ran her tongue slowly back and forth along the inside of her upper lip, still considering his request. “Anyway, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. It could jeopardize your audit and besides, my husband might object to me being seen in public with such an attractive man.”

Elizabeth slid TC’s business card under the top page of her pad. Her fund-raising events were finished until October. Declan wouldn’t be home much and she’d be lonely. A little flirting couldn’t hurt. The lunch invitation looked like Secret Agent Man might be open to some fun. Maybe for the next few months, she could trade a forty-nine year old cheater for a thirty-something hunk. She wouldn’t let anything happen, of course, but it might help her forget that her marriage was on the rocks and her security fund was about to go up in smoke. God forbid there be any talk about going to jail.

She extended her hand to shake TC’s hand and seal the deal. “Let the games begin, she challenged with a smile. “Till next Monday then.”

TC’s hand engulfed hers. It was warm and firm. Her whole body shivered at his touch. Yes, if she played her cards right, this could definitely be an interesting summer.

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18. Flogometer for Isaac—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Isaac sends a short story, The Boy Who Dared to Speak . The rest follows the break.

The boy ran for his life. He ran as if all the demons, monsters and inmates from all the circles of Hell were after him. Close on his heels were at least a dozen well-armed city guards. The guards brandished swords, spears, maces, axes, and other tools of ill will. Ahead of them ran at least two dozen commoners, laborers, craft’s men, farmers, all of them thirsted for the boy’s blood, with looks on their faces like wolves hot on the trail of a fat stag. The commoners were coming closer to catching up with the boy because they were not encumbered by heavy armor, yet they still could not gain on him enough to make the kill. As the boy ran, he franticly tried speaking words and phrases in an archaic language which would give him the advantage he needed to escape, but he kept losing his focus to obstacles he had to jump over or side step, as well as the random objects constantly flung at him by his assailants. As he continued his mad dash for the city gates, the boy bemoaned his situation. Eight years of age! The boy was only eight years of age and he was a fugitive from the law, wanted dead not alive. He had done nothing wrong; he was no thief, no bandit, and he had never broken a single law or statute until today. At the mob behind him, without looking back, he barked furiously “I was just trying to help!” If they heard him, they did not respond with words but with more violence. The boy was alone in his struggle.

The closest thing to help he received from the other town’s people was either their (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I think this is a good effort by a new writer. There’s plenty of conflict, story questions are raised, and there’s imagination at play. But the craft needs work, in particular learning the art of paragraphing. Long blocks of text like this are not only hard to read, they slow the pace. In my notes I’ll separate this into paragraphs. The rest of the story needs the same treatment. Notes:

The boy ran for his life. He ran as if all the demons, monsters and inmates from all the circles of Hell were after him. Close on his heels were at least a dozen well-armed city guards. The guards brandished swords, spears, maces, axes, and other tools of ill will. This is all about “the boy.” I think giving characters names makes them people rather than objects to observe.

Ahead of them ran at least two dozen commoners, laborers, craft’s men craftsmen, farmers, all of them thirsted thirsting for the boy’s blood with looks on their faces like wolves hot on the trail of a fat stag. The commoners were coming closer to catching up with the boy because they were not encumbered by heavy armor, yet they still could not gain on him enough to make the kill.

As the boy ran, he franticly tried speaking words and phrases in an archaic language, magical words which that would give him the advantage he needed to escape, but he kept losing his focus to obstacles he had to jump over or side step sidestep, as well as the random objects constantly flung at him by his assailants.

As he continued his mad dash for the city gates, the boy bemoaned his situation. Eight years of age! The boy was only eight years of age and he was a fugitive from the law, wanted dead not alive. He had done nothing wrong; he was no thief, no bandit, and he had never broken a single law or statute until today. He yelled at the mob behind him, without looking back, he barked furiously “I was just trying to help!” If they heard him, they They did not respond with words but with more violence. The boy was alone in his struggle. I don’t think someone running for their life would pause in their thinking to bemoan their situation.

The closest thing to help he received from the other town’s people townspeople was either their (snip)

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Isaac

 

Continued:

. . . refraining from joining the angry mob or they simply got out of his way. When he finally came within sight of the city gates, his worst fears were realized. The gates were locked shut. He knew there were words he could use to bust them open, but he had no clue as to what they were, or if he had the strength to use them without dire consequences. Not knowing what to do he reached the city wall; he pressed his back up against it, panting and wheezing from seemingly running over a dozen leagues. His rest however, was short lived as the now massive confederation of armed guards and seething town’s people closed in on him. They had cut off every conceivable route of escape. As he began making his peace with Adoni, an idea spontaneously combusted inside his mind. He didn’t know if it would work, or how safe it was, but he had no choice. If he hesitated, he would die anyway, he had to take a risk. The boy opened his mouth and bellowed three words in the dead language, then turned his back on his attackers and jumped.

This jump was no higher or faster than the jump of any other human being, but what he did next broke the laws of physics. Much to the disgust of the bloodthirsty crowd, the boy climbed the wall like a spider. He did not use gouges or grooves in the wall for support. He simply scaled the vertical surface of the wall as easily as an infant would crawl across the floor. Some of his would-be killers tried in vain to imitate him, but he was beyond their reach. When he made it to the top of the wall another guard ran to intercept him. Before the guard could bring the hilt of his sword down on top of the boy’s head, the boy uttered three more words in that mysterious language and jumped off the top of the wall. Instead of falling to his death he slowly floated through the air and landed on the ground below, then took off running with renewed vigor. The boy ran west. He ran and ran and ran until he reached Filoni Forest, and kept running among the trees until nightfall.

The setting of the sun and subsequent darkness served to reassure the boy he had covered enough ground so he wouldn’t have to worry about any search parties sent to capture or kill him for one night at least. He started a quick camp fire and began to sing. This was not a song any bard would recognize. It was an ancient song composed long ago as a method of foraging for fruit and other natural materials from the plants and trees in the wilderness. The lyrics were of that long forgotten language which had saved the boy’s life twice that day. As a response to the sound of his voice, the bushes around him bore berries which he plucked, gleefully. He then altered the lyrics of his song and repeated it until a large grizzly bear dropped a dead rabbit at his feet, and left without so much as a snarl. He then slaughtered the rabbit with his scalpel and roasted it on a makeshift spit.

As he silently ate his modest meal around the campfire, the boy finally had time to reflect on the whirlwind of events that had been the past twenty four hours. An old woman, she could not have been any younger than eighty. She wasn’t the only beggar he saw on the streets, she was one of countless thousands who lived on the streets of the city he lived in. The boy saw this elderly woman coughing up blood, and took pity on her. He was not yet as adept at the medical arts as his mentor but the boy could tell this poor woman was not long for this world even as he saw her unnaturally thin body convulse with every bloody coughing fit. The boy carefully and quietly ushered the dying old lady into a nearby space between two buildings. It didn’t take much effort on his part to get her to come with him, she was seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. The boy thought she would have followed him even if he were some sort of serpent offering her fruit. Once they had some privacy the boy began chanting words quietly in that special language. She was hard of hearing and so she scarcely heard these words much less understood them, but none the less as a response to his voice the color in her gray pasty skin returned like a cloudy sky giving way to the sun. Her coughing yielded less and less blood until she stopped coughing all together.

As the boy saw the change in his patient in both her symptoms and her demeanor, he became overwhelmed with joy. He knew he could not save this old woman from death outright, but he also knew he was helping an unfortunate soul pass into the next life in a peaceful manner, as opposed to the terrifying  process death would be for her otherwise. As these pleasant thoughts filled his head he continued his chanting and that chanting turned into a song. His voice steadily grew louder and louder and without him realizing his voice began to echo through the streets. This went on and on until he heard the voice of another boy who yelled, “The tongue! He uses the tongue! Guards come! Come quick he uses the tongue!” and both boys ran.                                   

As he finished his meal of rabbit and fruit in the woods, the boy was fairly confident he knew the way to the nearest city which was not full of people who wanted to kill him, Green Maiden. He was also confident that if he was fast enough he could get to the port city of Green Maiden and stow away on a ship and then maybe, just maybe he could find himself in a faraway land where someone like him could be accepted, or at least tolerated.

The boy slept until the crack of dawn, traveling north toward Green Maiden by day. He sang food and shelter out of the plants and animals and slept by night. On the third day, he reached the gates of Green Maiden. The boy could not remember a time when he felt more hopeful and optimistic for the future. As he walked up to the gates, out of nowhere sprang a multitude of armored guards’ with sharpened spears. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “How could they have possibly known I was coming”? He asked himself angrily. This crew of warriors dwarfed the conglomeration of guards and commoners he had escaped from three days ago. They surrounded him on all sides, and before he could think of a word to utter in the legendary language, he heard a man’s voice. It was deep, clear and, projected like that of a minstrel or bard. The boy did not recognize his words but they sounded strangely familiar to him. “It sounds like the…” Flash! Boom! The entire world flashed white. He could not see a single thing, colors, shapes, images of any kind were all gone. All he could see was white. He was as good as blind. At the same time his ears rang, it was as if his brain was a giant bell that had just been rang by the whipping tail of an Elder Dragon.

As his vision began to return and his ears continued to ring, he noticed a huge sweaty hand clasping the small of his back as well as something firmly pressed up against his stomach. It took about a minute but the boy realized he was being carried on somebody’s shoulder. Not knowing what to think the boy started pounding the man’s back as a feeble attempt to break free. Noticing this the man uttered a phrase in the language they both evidently knew. The boy recognized one of the words in his phrase but it was of little consequence because that word meant sleep.

The boy woke up at dusk. He found himself in a tent. He didn’t know how long he had been out for sure. For all he knew it might have been dusk of the same day he arrived at Green Maiden, or dusk of the day after. Nor did he have any idea who kidnapped him and put him to sleep. He rose from the hay mattress he had been placed on, of which there were two. He then cast off the blankets that he had been tucked in under with care, and began to rethink his assessment that he had been kidnapped. For one thing, neither his hands nor his feet were bound with chains or ropes. There was also the fact that he was not in any dungeon or torture chamber, and the possibility that he was dead didn’t seem likely either since his surroundings didn’t exactly scream Heaven or Hell. He was in a two man tent presumably in the wilderness again. As he stood there trying to get a grip on his situation. He herd the voice of the man again, except this time he spoke in Common Tongue. The boy had been through a lot during his run for his life

The prospect that a random stranger would rescue him thereby angering the highest authority in the land without an ulterior motive seemed far too good to be true. The man was arguing with a woman, about what sounded like the logistics of a dangerous journey. Getting frustrated the man said, “I know you’re not helpless! Far from it, but the children are! If something happens to him this entire venture will have been for nothing, but as I said before if something happens to our child I…. She cut him off saying, “nothing will happen! We both know the words to use to protect our child, and mark my words that boy is not to be underestimated. You forget he escaped a force of over a hundred men with only his wits and his knowledge of The Tongue!” Before the man could press his argument, the boy showed himself, steeping through the entry flaps of the tent. When she saw him the exotically beautiful woman in the red dress smiled and put a finger to her husband’s lips to silence him, then pointed at the boy. The man turned to the boy and arose from the tree stump he was sitting on and in a suddenly jovial tone of voice said, “Well hello my young friend. I’m sorry we couldn’t properly introduce our self’s sooner. My name is Caaseye (Cass-I) son of Mitty the Pious. This is my wife, Raya daughter of Emperor Shinskay, ruler of the western realms. And this,” he continued with a smile as he placed a large but gentle hand on his wife’s belly “This is our first born child, who has yet to join us.“

 Their names and the fact that they were parents did not work to quell the boy’s suspicions. With a frown he said, “Congratulations, Caaseye, Raya.” Caaseye wore a chain mail shirt under a leather jerkin and a cloak around his back. To the boy the two of them formed an odd if not seemingly honest couple. A thought then occurred to him which only deepened his frown. Pointing a finger at Caaseye he exclaimed, “How can you allow your pregnant wife to accompany you when you’re running about rescuing fugitives from the law? Dose she not obey your commands?” Raya’s smile abruptly morphed into a stern frown not of anger so much as a matter of fact correction of the boy’s outburst and pointed a finger of her own at him. Caaseye simply burst out into deep, long, wheezing laughter. Inadvertently cutting off Raya he said between fits of laughter, “Son if you remember nothing else throughout the years of your life, remember only this: A meek woman who holds her tongue will not challenge you and she will most likely do as you command, you will live an easy and quiet home life, but if you want an exciting life, if you want to feel truly alive as long as you live, than find you a woman who pumps fire from her heart and casts forth ice from her tongue!” He then motioned towards Raya with a thumb saying, “Of course, consequently, sometimes getting your way can be about as easy as slaying a lion with both hands tied behind your back.”

Caaseye’s proverb smoothed over his wife’s objections to the boy’s question. Caaseye than stopped laughing and adopted a more serious tone. “Now then, I know you must have numerous questions and I know how hard the past few days have been for you. First things first however, do you have a name young man?” The boy hesitated, he looked at Caaseye and stared up into his eyes, then similarly looked Raya dead in the eyes. Satisfied he could trust them he answered, “Umbara, it’s just Umbara.”

They spent the rest of the evening and well into the night talking around the fire, but most of the conversation consisted of answering Umbara’s questions. Most of his questions were about the language, where did it come from? What else could it do? How does it actually work? Most of these were easy for his new friends to answer though some of them were simplified because as they pointed out to him, “to fully understand the nature of this subject takes years of study.” Umbara revealed that he never knew that the language which he now knew was simply called The Tongue, was known to anyone other than him and his mentor, who was a professional healer who adopted him from an orphanage and made him his apprentice. The healer also secretly taught him the words of The Tongue which applied to healing the human body as well as some basic self-preservation such as the song he used to feed himself in the wilderness. Caaseye and Raya told him of how they were the heads of an order of warriors who used The Tongue both as a weapon as well as a tool for peace and called themselves The Hands God. “We founded this organization with two goals in mind. One, to keep the peace among the nations by recruiting our members from all ethnic groups across all borders,” said Caaseye. Then Raya added, “Sadly the High King of your land not only wants nothing to do with us and will not allow any of his subjects to join our ranks, but what’s worse is he has declared himself and by extension this entire country to be our sworn enemy.” “So that’s why what I did was unlawful,” Umbara realized.

“Yes” answered Caaseye, “The Tongue has long been outlawed in these lands but none have so aggressively enforced this as the mad King Zambore.” “But why?” Barked Umbara. “It’s simple,” said Caaseye. “He wants to reestablish the hegemony of his forefathers over the land and he believes we are a threat to his ambitions, in that he is not wrong, is he my love,” he added with a smile and a kiss to Raya.

Umbara sat on a blanket next to the fire. On the opposite side sat Raya on the tree stump, and next to her sat Caaseye on a log, which was just big enough to support his weight. Umbara for the time being was out of questions for his new friends. He stared into the crackling fire and thought. He thought about his mentor who had been kind enough to take him under his wing and into his home to teach him both his profession and The Tongue. He saw the cheap grave his mentor had been buried in after losing his life in a fire. He remembered the old woman whose pain and suffering he relieved, and finally he recalled the deep, dark, primal, fear he felt as he ran from the combined might of the city guards and the angry mob as they fell upon him like an avalanche of hate. The combination of all the events of the past few days became too much for him to process, and Umbara wept.

As if on que, Raya rose to her feet. She slowly sat back down next to Umbara and with deceptively strong arms she embraced the sobbing boy, stroking his hair and encouraging him to let it all out. Caaseye stayed where he was, fighting to keep his own emotions from spilling out. Umbara cried into Raya’s shoulder unmitigated for the better part of an hour, holding on to his new mother figure as if for dear life. When the worst of Umbara’s sobs were over, Caaseye joined his wife kneeling down next to the two of them he set a hand on Umbara’s shoulder gaining his attention and said in a serious yet quietly calming voice. “You are the bravest child I have ever met. I have gone into battle with many brave men and women and yet never have I seen an individual who would act as you acted in such a situation. You may not comprehend the full extent of your actions now, but know this, what you have done will inspire others in ways even I cannot foresee. What I do foresee however is an opportunity which you have provided us with. I intended to capitalize on it but we cannot hope to do so without your help. What say you?”

“Under one condition,” Said Umbara between sniffs. “Name it,” answered both Caaseye and Raya simultaneously. “Take me with you.” I never want to see Eastland again!” I don’t care if this is where I was born, you can burn this entire region to ground if you like,” said Umbara with a spiteful turn in his voice to emphasize Eastland and his new found hate for the land he was born in. Releasing him from her embrace, Raya stood him on his feet and shifted to her knees so she and the boy were at eye level. She than cupped either side of his face with her hands and chose her words carefully. “When all of this is over and you have settled into your new home in the city of Highsentinel where our order is based, you will not be required to return to this land if that is what you wish. But hear me and hear me well young man, never condemn an entire nation full of innocent people to death or even to abandonment just because you have a quarrel with the system that governs it.” When she saw that the boy did not understand, she sighed and held his hands in hers trying to think of a way to get through to him.

Caaseye came to her aid and translated her words into layman's terms. “What she is trying to say is just because Eastland has been cruel to you does not mean you should never return. Nor that we should burn it all to the ground. When High King Zambore is deposed so will be his laws as well as his cruelty. When that happens this land will not be the same place you are about to leave. Never again will a healer or those of any other profession have to worry about using The Tongue and being killed for it. A place is effected by the people in it but it is not defined by them. Do you understand?” Umbara inclined his head, saying “Yes sir, please forgive me” Caaseye simply ruffled his hair. “Not to worry, stick with us and in time you will be a man of great wisdom.” Then raising a finger he added, “But only in time.”

“The hour grows late, we all must bed if we are to stay on schedule tomorrow,” said Raya. “Is there anything you need before my wife and I retire? Asked Caaseye. “Yes actually one thing” said Umbara, “May I?” He asked, motioning towards Raya. “Of course,” said Caaseye. “Yes of course, “said Raya. Umbara approached Raya and gently placed his hand on her belly. With a smile Raya moved his hand to the spot on her belly where the baby most often kicked. As she did Umbara rejoiced as he felt the child kicking. “She likes you” said Raya. Confused Umbara asked, she? “Yes she, you see there are words in The Tongue one can use to see things the eye cannot ordinarily see.” Answering Umbara’s next question before it left his mouth Caaseye said, “Yes I will teach you these words someday.” Then the four of them retired to their tent for the night.

Just before the first light of the day Umbara and Caaseye rose and set about packing up the tent and loading it in the covered wagon which he and Raya had been using to travel. While the men were packing, Raya fed the horses. After the men ate a small breakfast of half a loaf of bread each and Raya had eaten the rest of the stew left over from the night before since she was eating for two, they took off heading west toward Highsentinel. Caaseye and Umbara sat at the front of the wagon. Caaseye held the reins and Raya sat inside the wagon singing to her child rubbing her belly all the while. “Just think, by sun down we will have crossed the border into Midgard and you can put your past behind you,” said Caaseye. “Will you tell me about Highsentinel?” Asked Umbara. “Yes, it is a wonderful place. It has been the seat of power for all of New Pangea as long as it has sat upon the ground. In fact no empire in recorded history has ever been able to rule without gaining control of Highsentinel.” “Where did it get its name?” Umbara asked. “Does the city itself watch over the land?” “No, but good question,” answered Caaseye. “It gets its name from the faces of the four Great Stone Sentinels. They are set high upon the face of the mountain which overlooks the plateau that the city was built on. They were carved into the rock by an ancient civilization long before any of our earliest historical records can recall, which means their origins must date back before the great scorch.”

They talked like this for hours and hours, about history and what the land of Midgard was like. This went on until well into the afternoon. Their conversation abruptly ground to a halt, when seemingly out of nowhere, Caaseye caught with his bare finger and thumb an arrow which came no closer than an inch from his forehead. Umbara stared at him with genuine disbelief. Without wasting a single moment Caaseye pointed a finger at the road ahead of the horses and roared a phrase in The Tongue. As an instant response to his command a nine by nine foot wall rose from the ground like a plant and shielded them from the subsequent volley of arrows. “They’ve been tracking us!” Raya said furiously as she stepped out of the wagon. “The decoy must have been caught!” “What are we going to do?” Umbara asked, fear evident in his voice. As a response Caaseye pulled a latch on the floor of the wagon which uncovered a weapons cache. It consisted of long bow, a quiver of arrows, and a chain with the head of a scythe on the end. What caught Umbara’s attention immediately, was the sword. The blade of this sword was five and three quarter feet long and wider than Umbara’s body.

Caaseye passed the bow and arrows and the chain to Raya which she took after strapping a heavy iron plate to her belly. Then to the boy’s further disbelief Caaseye lifted the monster of a sword with some effort but not the effort Umbara thought would be needed to lift it. Umbara then managed to find the words to ask Caaseye. “wa-where was your s-sword forged?” Caaseye just smiled and said, “In the bowels of Hell, if you ask my enemies.” Umbara was not willing to rule that possibility out. Then Caaseye and Raya ripped the cover off the wagon so she would be able to see where she was aiming her arrows. Umbara asked what he could do and Raya replied, “Get on the floor of the wagon and keep your head down” He was relieved to hear her orders because despite his bravery, Umbara had no desire to spill blood and doubted he would be of much help when all he knew how to cut with was a scalpel. Before he could share this information with Raya, Caaseye called out to them, “Here they come!” and Umbara watched as Caaseye swung his behemoth sword cutting through helmet, skin, and bone bisecting the other man from head to toe. “Now!” Yelled Raya when she caught Umbara staring dumbstruck at the spray of blood where the enemy combatant once was. Not needing anymore convincing he did as he was told and curled himself up on the floor of the wagon. Gaining a better vantage point to make her kills she stood above Umbara, drawing an arrow as the on slot of warriors began.

Nothing but the death and/or capture of the three of them would turn their enemies back. They came from either side of the earthen wall Caaseye had erected. On the left he slew dozens of warriors in quick succession, and on the right Raya with deadly accuracy picked off each and every enemy she saw, wasting not a single arrow. Like ocean waves striking a mighty cliff the solders fell to Caaseye’s sword and Raya’s bow, until her arrows ran out. She then unfurled her chain and swung it round and round, each swing taking a life with it. The battle raged on in this fashion until the best and worst thing that possibly could have happened, happened. Raya swore a foul curse that only sounded fouler when coming out of a mouth as beautiful as hers. Umbara soon realized what the problem was as well and repeated her vulgarity. Now covered in blood from head to toe Caaseye without turning his back on his opponents inched closer to the wagon and his wife and asked what was wrong. Dispatching another warrior she answered her husband with a mixture of frustration and excitement. “She’s coming!”

Seemingly without thinking, Caaseye spoke four words in The Tongue and without any initial spark, a ring of fire sprang up around the wagon and himself, three of the warriors were cooked alive in their armor. He then handed his sword to Raya and took the reins of the frightened horses and ran them through the fire which disappeared as soon as the horses made contact with the flames, doing them no harm. As he raced to find a more defensible position, he asked Umbara, “Have you ever delivered a child before?” “Yes twice actually but I had help both times” he replied tentatively. “Well this time you’re going to do it yourself!” Before Umbara could protest for a plethora of reasons, Caaseye interrupted him saying, “I trust you and I’m putting the life of my wife and daughter in your hands! Now can you do this?” Feeling like crying again Umbara said, “I will not fail you” “I know you won’t” replied Caaseye.

When Raya’s contractions started, Caaseye realized there was no place he could find without traveling too far and he could not travel too far on a bumpy road while his child was being delivered so he halted the horses. On the bright side he had a few minutes before the soldiers caught up with them on foot, so he took this time to comfort his wife who was in the middle of her birth pains. She still clutched the handle of his sword as pain wracked her body. Umbara spoke a word in The Tongue which temporarily eased her pain. Caaseye than took his sword from her grasp and replaced it with his hand. Neither one of them spoke. They simply shared a deep moment of intimacy in the form of eye contact. Finally he said “Umbara will take care of you and of her.” “I know,” she said quietly, then kissed him and added also in a quiet tone, “Now go fertilize the ground with the blood of your enemies.” Her talk of violence only made him want to stay with her more, but instead he kissed her and did as he was told.

Like a man possessed, Caaseye cut down man after man after man. He swung his sword so hard in fact that when it passed through an enemy it became embedded in a huge rock just beneath the surface of the ground, and he could no longer use it since it would take too long to dislodge. It was only then when he stopped killing for one second that he noticed his arms were in excruciating pain so much that he couldn’t believe they were still attached to his body, and the pain only doubled with ever move he made with them. Because his sword was so large wilding it required a slow and methodical style of fighting in order to endure a long battle, he had over exerted himself by ignoring that fact and despite the fact that he was fighting for as good a cause as any could fight for he still cursed himself for being so reckless. To make matters worse, there were still a dozen more warriors left alive. Thankfully, there were only a dozen of them left alive, so he spoke a word which numbed himself to all the pain in his body.

Before the next warrior could bring his axe down on Caaseye’s neck, he grabbed the man’s throat and crushed his windpipe like an egg shell, then dropped him. With a smile he addressed the remaining eleven men who were sent to kill him saying in The Tongue, “Don’t you gentlemen have anything to live for?” He was skilled in the art of The Tongue, and so was able to use it to force his question into his enemy’s subconscious minds. At this all eleven of them paused and thought for a moment then dropped their weapons and ran back toward the fortress they had been sent from. Relieved he fell to his knees and leaned his head on his sword which was still stuck in the ground, giving thanks to the one true God. He almost fell asleep in that position, when he heard the ear piercing screams of his wife and suddenly getting a third wind, he ran one hundred yards back to the wagon where his daughter was about to be born.

Just before Caaseye arrived at the wagon he heard the high pitched cry of his new born daughter. At the sound of her cry the new father tripped over his own feet, then started picking himself up, then stopped. Satisfied with the knowledge that his family was safe, he decided to rest his aching body for just a minute    Umbara cut the umbilical cord and cleaned the child as best he could, then wrapped her up in a blanket. Once she had calmed down and he had said a few more words in The Tongue to make sure she stayed calm, he handed the newborn daughter over to the new mother. Raya looked into her eyes and then wasting no more time, began breast feeding. Satisfied with a job well done Umbara turned around and saw Caaseye about five yards away from the wagon. Taken aback, he sprinted over to Caaseye and tried helping him up to no avail. “No I’m fine, it’s ok,” said Caaseye as he struggled to one knee. “Now tell me, is she healthy? Is she whole?” Umbara replied with a smile, “I’m happy to inform you that you are now the first time father of one healthy baby girl.” Caaseye replied in a slurred yet still audible voice. “A father yes, but a father of one, no. She is not my only child. You want to know why?” Umbara gave him an inquisitive frown. Caaseye laughed his trademark deep wheezing laugh. “Because as far as I am concerned you are my son now! You my son will forever be known as the boy who dared to speak.” And so the family of four; the battered and bloody father, the tired but blissful mother, the beautiful new born daughter, and the eldest son, all mounted their wagon and continued home.        

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19. Flog a BookBubber 22: M. Louisa Locke

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter page from a free novel by M. Louisa Locke. It was promoted as “A charming historical mystery brimming with suspense!”

“Time to head out, Dunk. Mr. Rashers will have our hides if we’re not back by seven-thirty, sharp.” Seth Timmons sorted through his coins and threw down two quarters, which included a generous tip for the amiable waitress.

Dunk mopped up the last of his gravy with the end of his roll and stuffed it into his mouth. “Don’t you want to take that with you?” the young apprentice mumbled, pointing to the two chunks of potato and a strip of beefsteak left on Seth’s plate.

Seth told him no and pushed himself away from the table as Dunk took out an ink-stained handkerchief and rolled up the left-overs, sticking the soggy bundle back into his jacket pocket. The boy was only fourteen, but he already neared six feet and looked to have a few more inches to go if his prodigious appetite was any indication. Seth remembered what it was like to be that young and feel on the brink of starvation all the time. He also remembered what it was like to really starve.

Slamming the door on the dark thoughts of the war and Andersonville prison, he said gruffly, “You think that’ll tide you over till quitting time?”

Dunk grinned. “Well, I guess I forgot to mention that Ma packed me supper. But since you were so nice as to treat me to a meal, I’ll split that with you later if you get a little peckish.”

Seth chuckled, put on his stetson, and turned to wend his way through the crowded (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Deadly ProofThis book received an average Amazon rating of 4.4 stars and had 143 5-star reviews. For me, I think the writer was lucky to have had anyone turn the first page. The writing is professional and we’re starting with a scene, but where’s the tension? The only story question raised is whether or not Seth will split dinner later with Dunk. Well, I guess there’s also what happened to him in the war and Andersonville, but that’s backstory, not what’s happening now. Nor did I have any idea that this was a mystery from the narrative on the first page. Oh, the title gives me that, but shouldn’t the narrative have at least the aroma of a mystery? A no from me.

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Trin sends the first chapter of Oh Brother. The rest follows the break.

“Grab my force ball plunger,” my Dad said. “No, that’s the suction cup one. Damn, damn, damn.” Water began gushing from the toilet. Dad started plunging until he came to the cause of the clog. My brother Maxwell’s infamous red ball. He must have dropped it in there by mistake. Although Dad was a salesman in the plumbing department, he seemed to know very little about plumbing itself. He was beet red and looked mystified. The water spread across the floor like a small flood. “Amelia, you’re going to clean this up.”

“Me?” I said, while making a new companion with the ground, my stare impenetrable as if this would get me out of the predicament.

“Yeah you," he said. He could have added the word dummy and I wouldn’t have been surprised, just heavily weighed down by the sopping mess and the amount of rags my mother would have to wash. I took on the project though, and rolled up my overalls and began the job. My mother, Roseann, wouldn’t be home till later in the evening, she was a homemaker and enjoyed filling her time by running errands for my brother’s boy scout troop.

My Dad’s six foot, fifty-year old frame maneuvered around the toilet. While, I began taking rags and wiping up the mess. It smelled like rotten eggs in the bathroom, and I pushed back strands of brown wavy hair, doing my best not to shake off any barrettes.

“Where’s Maxwell-Amelia?” My Dad asked as an afterthought, fumbling with the float (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

For me, this narrative starts at the wrong place unless, that it, it’s really a story about unclogging toilets. All of this action, as it turns out, has no bearing on the rest of the story. While it serves to characterize, why not characterize while giving us what the story is actually about. What does the protagonist need or want? What is preventing her from getting it? What goes wrong in her life that forces her to take action? That’s where to begin the story, and I didn’t see that in this chapter. Look for the real start later--there was a hint of something interesting, perhaps paranormal, at the very end, but far too late to engage this reader--and it wasn't about the protagonist. Some craft notes:

“Grab my force ball plunger,” my Dad dad said. “No, that’s the suction cup one. Damn, damn, damn.” Water began gushing from the toilet. Dad started plunging until he came to the cause of the clog. My brother Maxwell’s infamous red ball. He must have dropped it in there by mistake. Although Dad was a salesman in the plumbing department, he seemed to know very little about plumbing itself. He was beet red and looked mystified. The water spread across the floor like a small flood. “Amelia, you’re going to clean this up.” I’ve plunged my share of toilets, and it doesn’t match my experience that he would “come to” the ball. Plunging forces clogs down and out of the toilet, so I don’t see how he could come to the ball.

“Me?” I said, while making a new companion with the ground, my stare impenetrable as if this would get me out of the predicament. “making a new companion with the ground” didn’t make much sense to me at first and pulled me out of the story. Also, it’s a floor, not ground. This tries a little too hard for me.

“Yeah, you," he said. He could have added the word dummy and I wouldn’t have been surprised, just heavily weighed down by the sopping mess and the amount of rags my mother would have to wash. I took on the project though, and rolled up my overalls and began the job. My mother, Roseann, wouldn’t be home till later in the evening, she was a homemaker and enjoyed filling her time by running errands for my brother’s boy scout troop.

My Dad’s six foot, fifty-year old frame maneuvered around the toilet. While, while I began taking rags and wiping up the mess. It smelled like rotten eggs in the bathroom, and I pushed back strands of brown wavy hair, doing my best not to shake off any barrettes. Mentioning her hair color is a small break in point of view—she would not ordinarily think of that. Unless his size and age are important here, they are excess detail.

“Where’s Maxwell-Amelia?” My Dad asked as an afterthought, fumbling with the float (snip)

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Patricial

Continued:

. . . ball and trip lever.

Fortunately, Maxwell was with the other eight-year-olds in a game of cops and robbers on his bike.

“He’s outside, Dad.”

“And your brother Zion?” Dad asked, while wiping sweat off his half-bald head and tossing used tools in a large white bucket.

Before I could answer, there was insistent knocking at the door and my father shouted, “Someone get the damn door. We’re expecting a new foster kid.”

Another foster kid? I thought to myself. Three foster kids had already came and left this year alone-all of which were bad behaved. When no one in the house responded to my father, I took it as a sign to depart, leaving him to his own devices- glad to be relieved of the tension in the bathroom.

When I opened the door, a teenage boy stood there, while a woman in a station wagon was waving from the street, shouting, “This is the new foster kid. There’s an emergency at the office, your parents have already met him. I’ve got to go.” She waved one last time before driving off in mad-hurry.

The teenager had grayish black shaggy dog-like hair. He looked to be around fifteen and and wore jeans that said in bold letters: Marithe Francois Girbaud. They fit tightly on his husky, plump body.

I thought I would joke with him a bit. “Are you Husky?” I asked, because my parents didn't like the term fat and insisted that we call-kids over a hundred pounds Husky.

“No I’m not Husky, my name is Sam Burns.” He had with him a huge black chest fastened down with a big Masterson lock.

Looking back on it, his name alone suggested his ruthless risk taking abilities like an arsonist who plans to burn down a house but doesn't plan on burning those who live in it. I told myself from that day forward I’d call him “Burns” for short.

“Dad, there’s a kid here!” I shouted.

“Oh, that must be the new foster kid. Show him upstairs, would ya? And close the damn door before you let the cold air out.”

The air conditioner blasted frigid air in the living room. Blue sheets were used as separators on four doorways of the main floor, blocking air from going room-to-room, and upstairs into the attic bedrooms. I decided to give Burns a tour of the house and inform him of important rules.

“This is the living room,” I said pointing to a couch and Dad’s lazy-boy. A tall entertainment center was propped against the left wall with family photos scattered across it. I couldn't tell if Burns was listening because his head barely nodded or seem to acknowledge what I said.

“So where’s the kitchen?” He asked. I pointed to a hallway that led into a room from the main door.

 We walked into the kitchen while I explained, “Everything needs to be eaten at the table, unless you’ve been given permission to do otherwise. Mealtimes are at nine, twelve and six. “You don’t get snacks without asking for them.”

We walked out of the kitchen, through the living room, and I pointed to the door to the left “Mom’s room, and to the right is Dad’s. Don't ever step foot in our parents’ bedrooms without being invited. And if you’re invited, you’ll know because it's probably for something bad you’ve done. There are rules here, okay?”

 As we made our way upstairs to the attic, Burns paused to hang his jacket on a brass hook held on a wall on the stairway. “You don't use what's not yours in this household.” I removed his coat from one hook and placed it on another. When we reached upstairs, he began messing with the functions of a radio that sat on a cedar chest. “This radio is not yours,” I pushed a dial to shut it off.

“That's fine,” he said, taking out a walkman from inside a hoody, “I've got my own radio.” He turned the radio on high blast-Led Zeppelin, from the sounds of it. I couldn't make out the words. I was twelve, I enjoyed music from groups like Backstreet Boys and Destiny’s Child but I thought Led Zeppelin sounded like non-stop head banging music. I also couldn’t get the hang of the beat.

Walking into the room, Zion was standing at a tall drafting table putting together what looked like a space station with his Legos. Without introducing himself, Burns claimed an unoccupied bed by shoving his god-awful trunk at the end of it.

I bit my lip before explaining, “Zion-this is a new foster kid.” Zion looked up from his Legos with an eye roll.

Burns tossed his backpack on the bed revealing his bad habits by going over to where Zion stood and tousling his hair. Zion didn't like it one bit. Zion had heavy sandy hair and the looks of Steve Urkel: big heavy glasses he constantly pushed up his nose and pants he wore above the navel.

“Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Would ya?” Zion exclaimed.

Burns looked away from Zion, he seemed caught up in what he saw on the wall, a big poster of baseball star, Kirby Puckett.

“Did he really sign this?” He stared at the poster's signature.

Zion took this opportunity to gain some leverage over Burns. “Ah yeah, he signed it. And if you touch it, you die, because Mom said only adoptive kids can touch these posters. Our brother got it signed by Puckett himself after seeing him at the airport.”

The truth was, the signature was one of those copied ones they slap on every poster. But hell, Burns didn't know the difference and besides it gave us leverage over him and let him know his place in the foster home. He was the foster kid and we were the ones to stay. The chosen ones.

“Oh, they didn't tell you?” Burns exclaimed., “After a few months of staying here, I plan on getting adopted too.”

Good luck, I thought sarcastically.

“Oh, no you don’t!” exclaimed Zion.

“Yes, I do. All, I have to do is tie your parents around my finger and they’ll adopt me faster than a rabbit in a hat. And my first line of business is to call your mother and father, my Mom and Dad. And if you had any sense at all, you'd respect your newest and handsomest brother.” Burns placed his hand over Zion's face as Zion struggled to hit him.

“How dare you!” I said, my eyes squinting up at him. Zion and I were twelve years old. It took us ten years to accept the rules of the house and our parents as our own after coming to live with the Radtke’s when we were both only two years old And Burns planned on calling our parents-his own- on the first day? Who’s to say, my parents would even like him, and who knows what sort of mischief this kid would cause my parents.

“First of all,” I said. “You aren’t the oldest, Rich is. When he gets a wiff of you, you’ll be begging on your hands and knees to get the hell outta here. Second of all, you aren’t handsome. I’ve seen dogs that look better than you.”

Burns ignored me and continued teasing Zion, before deciding to get himself settled in.

                                                                        ***

If independence had a smell, it was campfire s'mores and cinder blocks, anything and everything barbecued and planted grass. I really enjoyed Independence Day unlike most holidays where you sat around all day waiting to eat. The little freedom the Radtke’s got we cherished- like lighting off firecrackers and standing in front of sprinklers with our play clothes on.

Independence Day was a tribute to the summer, like a big birthday candle lit once a year.So it came as no surprise that two days after Burns arrived, my parents took the liberty of driving all the way to Wisconsin to buy firecrackers. It was still illegal to buy fireworks in Minnesota in 1997- whether big or small. Therefore, Mom hid all the firecrackers in the back of her closet when we came home. Zion kept dipping his head in there all day making dibs on which ones thought he'd light.

By nightfall, we took turns lighting them off. It was humid as the night was black. We weren’t the only ones who had the idea of setting off firecrackers. Our next door neighbors were shooting them off, although we could barely see them because of the huge Lilac bushes that separated our yard from theirs. We heard countless booms and bangs-and screams of delights.

 Zion was up next to light a firecracker that resembled an Army tank. He said he wanted to keep the tank for himself after it went off. Zion seemed to be on cloud nine seeing how the tank was similar to a toy in his toy chest. He examined it thoroughly before planting it evenly on the sidewalk and took an electronic lighter to its wick. Its wick was on top of its periscope. The tank seemed to be a dud, standing still as a stump of a tree.

Burns went over to the tank and stomped on it, shouting out, "Stomp the dud, stomp the dud."

Zion's excitement seemed to turn to complete sadness as he rounded his shoulder blades and stared at the trampled tank. I ran to where Zion sat. I tried to shake him out of his stupor.

“Zion, Zion, it's okay, there will be more firecrackers.”

“Not any more this year.” He said, staring at the tank as if it was his most prized possession.

We looked at the almost empty paper bag that held the firecrackers. Mom said there were a few more but what was left was sparklers and glow worms, baby stuff in comparison to the ones we lit. The sparklers were still pretty to me though; I could light a pink sparkler and dance all night to the flashes of light.

Burns said he was going for a walk. Zion stared at the tank before moving.The tank was similar to the one our brother, Rich, drove in Iraq. I pictured my brother driving the tank through sandy and rocky terrain, covered with the help of the sahara. Zion said he was on a mission to find Burns. He began marching out of the backyard as if he was going into combat.

After he left, I spent the better part of an hour picking up the leftover firecrackers and putting them in a pile and then ripping them to shreds.

Butch, our next door neighbor came by. From far away, he could easily be mistaken for a ten year-old. At 5’1” he was as thin as a rail and wore a flannel shirt tucked into a brown, leather belt. Butch was in fact forty-years old and balding but that didn’t stop him from acting like a kid. Butch had a large rope swing that propelled from a thirty foot tree limb. Every kid in the neighborhood spent time jumping off his deck railing, swinging themselves to an adjacent garage roof calling out any amount of rants and cheers of good will; proclamations like “watch-out below!” His backyard could be compared to a Swiss Family Robinson movie.

Butch was also friends with my father and the two of them would spend hours in the basement drinking and talking politics in manic loud voices that we kids didn’t concern ourselves with. We had enough day-to-day lectures from our father to know better than go down there.

Butch fumbled for a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He took out a match from his matchbook and lit the cigarette, letting it sit loosely on his lips.

“What’s up Amelia” he says finally.

“Nothing much.” I respond.

“Where’s Zion,I want to talk to him about throwing trash in my yard.”

Zion turned the corner into the yard, just then-huffing and puffing real loud. He began pacing in circles. I wondered where he just came from. Did he find Burns? And if so, did Zion and Burns have a fight over the ruined tank?

“Hey turbo slow down,” said Butch watching Zion pace and not making any motion to stop him. “What happened?”

“Wait till that bastard shows up.” Zion kicked out his left leg to show what he would do to when Burns got home. “Do you know what he did to me? He put his hands around my esophagus.” Zion squeezed his own throat by demonstration.

Burns strangled Zion, I thought to myself. That’s the worst thing you could do to my brother. Sure- I’ve gotten into plenty of fights with Zion, but I would never try to strangle my own brother.

In his rage, Zion kicked Butch’s fence.

“Hey-slow down” Butch exclaimed, “We got enough holes in this-here wooden fence,” motioning to the fence while trying to hold it up straight.

Zion kicked a loose rock around instead. He had his chest puffed out as if he was going to fight someone- massaging his neck as well.

“Hey, why don’t you just sit down and take a break?” Butch offered him a lawn chair but Zion pushed it away.

“Hey, what hurts the worst?” Butch asked, pleading with him to express himself thoroughly.

“My esophagus hurts.” He showed Butch a place on his throat where red marks showed signs of Burns squeezing his throat.

“He’s doing illegal things to me.” Zion insisted, his eyes huge and bloodshot.

“Are you going to fight Burns when he gets home?” Butch asked.

Maxwell cut the banter short by saying “Hey-you shouldn't taunt Zion, “He's got powers.”

“Powers huh?” said Butch. “Are you going to turn into a Power Ranger little man? You got some moves?”

Butch didn’t get to see the powers Zion was said to have that night. But Zion and every kid that knew him believed in his powers. His powers, it seemed, extended to whenever he was mad or someone else provoked him. Dad's hand would slap a wall instead of someone’s face. A play toy hit the bed instead of breaking into a million pieces.

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21. Flogometer for Wayland—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Wayland sends the prologue and first chapter of Good at Dying. The rest follows the break.

Prologue:

Peaceful, yet so wise, so married. ¿The occasional, appealing, dangerous flash is from remembered poetry?

~ Moran, Jr. starting his third long drink ~

∞ ∞ ∞

If you'd seen Madison Monroe Moran, Jr. an hour ago crossing Main Street in Blue Ruby, Virginia, empty-handed, you would have guessed he was a weary traveler like yourself just arrived in Blue Ruby. From the look he had then, you'd have guessed he was a frustrated bon vivant making his way back to the Inn from the Piggly Wiggly where he, like you, had found the selection of French cheeses limited and the wine nonexistent. His face then was haggard and you would have thought he was muttering animatedly about the ordinance against selling off-premises wine in the historic center of town.

You'd have found him attractive, dangerous, but vulnerable. Subconsciously, you'd have wanted to give him one of your famous foot massages. But his attractive vulnerability was just one of the reasons we've waited until he's in the comfort of his suite at the Inn to invite you—the first handsome woman we've encountered in Blue Ruby today—into the story.

Now that he stands in the kitchen of his suite in the Sage County Inn, before his bottle a third time, an iron grip on the neck, is Madison Monroe Moran, Jr., the orphan son of an Irish (snip)

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

 Chapter 1:

She'll unbutton the top button on her dress and use one of the napkins from Momma's cedar chest to wipe down into the front of her dress a little and around her neck and she'll close her eyes and hold her face up at the sky and let you look at her neck without having to be ashamed.

John L plans a picnic alone with Cleo

~ ∞ ∞ ∞ ~

JOHN L WHITTLES: A SHOW of busyness to avoid being in the kitchen with Cleo. She stands bemused at the sink washing the breakfast dishes, barefoot with swabs of cotton between her toes to allow her nail polish to dry unmarred, enjoying the warmth of the water on her hands. She looks out the window at a doe and fawn, nervously eating what leaves they're able to reach. The deer are nibbling on a sassafras tree John L pruned to make bushy at a lower height so it would attract does with fawns. All the trees are holding on to their leaves this year, she thinks.

Cleo tries to conjure her mother, a mother she’s only ever seen in pictures. 17 years old and no mother. No mother to explain the fix she finds herself in. Occasionally, she glances back over her shoulder to smile at her Uncle John L whittling away in the front room.

He whittles at the life-size replica of a flintlock blunderbuss rifle he previously whittled from a big hickory limb. The blunderbuss is his proudest achievement in 13 years of learning the art of whittling. He started whittling at 15 to pass the time when he couldn’t go back to sleep at (snip)

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

Although well written, this prologue’s opening page (and the rest of it) illustrates the risk you take in writing in the second person. The writer asks me, the reader, to be someone else for a while. This is not the same as immersing me in a character’s story, it’s asking me to be the character.

But when “I” wanted to give another character one of my famous foot massages, I was thrown out of the story. For one thing, I don’t have any famous foot massages. For another, I wasn’t feeling any urge to give one. Perhaps this is just a failure of my imagination, but I was unable to get past the disorientation of being whoever and whatever this character is. And I didn’t know who and what “I” was supposed to be. Male? Female?

Then there’s the lack of story questions in this leisurely introduction of a character. The same applies to the opening page of the chapter. And then there’s the shifting point of view in chapter 1, hopping from the head of the man to that of the girl and back again. This is either head-hopping or an omniscient point of view, and neither works well for me. I find it confusing to have to switch from one mind/point of view from one paragraph to another without any kind of transition. And I ended up not understanding what the story was about after reading these first pages. I’m sure it’ll be engaging for someone, but the styles of both the prologue and the chapter just didn’t work for me.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Wayland

Continued from the prologue:

. . . orphan, still worth your closer look?

You think, ¿Married?

You're right that he looks married, but as he sips his whisky (very good, very expensive Irish you now see) he also is beginning to relax, look alive, lose that haggard look—sipping carefully, savoring the taste, breathing slowly out to have the vapors numb his nostrils, leaning back now, closing his eyes, fighting not to finish with this second drink so quickly...

¿The occasional, appealing, dangerous flash must be from remembered poetry? Peaceful now… Yet so wise.

He was muttering animatedly when he crossed Main Street about the letter he left on his desk back at The Blue Ruby Times. With the letter, his friend in London included a clipping of The Horse of the Year show in which Sefton, survivor of the July Hyde Park IRA bombing, was named 1982’s Horse of the Year. In the letter, his friend, an English reporter he knew in Africa wrote, “Most moving ceremony with Sefton yesterday. Long after we have forgotten the 4 men killed at Hyde Park, Sefton will be remembered. Parker Bowles was first on the scene and is credited with saving Sefton. It takes a horse to rally the people.”

For a month or so after the Hyde Park bombing, Moran read accounts of it in The New York Times delivered a day late to his office. Mainly he was interested in what answers the bombing provided for The Irish Question. And he was always interested in seeing if any Morans were involved in the answers.

Not having seen him cross Main Street from his Blue Ruby Times newspaper office—it’s there behind that big window, occupying all of the 2nd floor directly over Autie’s on the left and Piggly Wiggly on the right—you're now sure he's married, but still think he's a poet. And dangerous. ¿Dangerous because he’s married and stays in the Governor's Suite at The Sage County Inn at Blue Ruby? The governor of Virginia is Charles Robb, inaugurated in January. Moran's not the governor, so what gives?

So, want to get Moran dressed to go back across Main Street to Autie's to be irresistible in public, prowl for company? ¿You'd like to see him rouse himself for a dangerous liaison, shuck the mantle of ease he's starting to drape about his person? ¿Slip on tasseled loafers without socks—without socks even though it's a cold and dropping November Tuesday and the sun is down?

Going over to Autie's with no socks would be a manly enough clue for the sort of eager woman you've deduced in your one day in town inhabits Blue Ruby. ¿But, any night, a manly clue in Blue Ruby? ¿For whoever can be found taking advantage of the jukebox advertised in Autie's window: America's last nickel jukebox? Your thoughts are right on: No socks is manly, yet tasteful in Blue Ruby, a sufficient clue, particularly for a maiden looking for a motel memory, that this man has come from just the stone's throw across Main Street at the Inn; comforting clothing language at last call so that there'd be time to order your last drink if you were the one who wanted to keep him waiting without seeming too... too… too virginal; the kind of dynamite hint you'd want that there was a warm—and expensive—bed just that close. Bedroom slippers with no socks would be gauche.

You're not really interested in seeing him work Autie's, believe us. The kind of maiden who's already in Autie's comes too early and stays too late to hold Moran's interest for longer than a quick nod would take. Though… the one maiden—Racey Osgood—settled in tonight is full of hope for finding another manly man. Her interest would hardly be piqued by Moran’s big office overhead, or his influential position as the owner-publisher of the paper: She works there, actually runs the place, has since before Moran ever took over the paper from his father. He’s not her kind of manly man.

 Racey’s memories of past successes of attracting manly men at Autie’s come up as smoothly as her drink goes down, so smoothly that she occasionally must spice her sweet dreams with three drops of Tabasco sauce tapped into the vitamin-laden mix of V-8 juice, a squeeze of lemon, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. She's in her seat for the long haul tonight to take advantage of the cheap music—Queen of the Silver Dollar is playing now; she's there early to watch for the first handsome stranger through the door.

Racey dances from the waist up while on the napkin she spins her drink to appear thoughtful instead of penurious; nurses her Four Barrel Carb (Autie's clever name for the mix of V-8 and beer) to save a buck. She straightens to decline the ever-present Ernest's tiresome offer—his third this afternoon—to "mix in a little ethanol to keep her horsey running.”  He palms the shiny flask toward her under table height and glances back at the bar to make sure the barkeep doesn't see him offering free samples:  If you get it elsewhere, drink it elsewhere is Autie's hard and fast rule. 

She'd also refuse Ernest's request to dance even if he'd ever been known to request such a thing. She's polite, waits for him to glance back at the bar before her next furtive glance at the door; says, while glancing, she has to work tomorrow, can't afford a hangover, plans to leave as soon as The Fiddle Barn idiots start coming in.

Moran'd be puzzled but flattered if he knew you still saw possibilities after studying him this long, were now actually impatient to see him work a room, drop a quarter in for six plays and watch him go for a honkytonk honey, watch to see if he was really the kind of man a classy woman like you would find worth studying for a first, maybe a second evening... To honor his feelings for the little woman you’ve guessed is back home, you may hope he'd resist anyone else’s charms, but still you'd like to see what he was made of, what types he might be enchanted by, or if he was one of the rarae aves still looking for a good woman, a little randy, but with a sharp mind to separate her from your average honky-tonk honey.

Not much else to do in Blue Ruby on a Tuesday night unless you're into two-step dancing, which, being Tuesday, will start in about two hours at the aforementioned Fiddle Barn in the mall on the outskirts of town.

You'd be surprised, disappointed in Moran's backwardness, a reluctant retreat he started when his forwardness contributed to his marriage failure, and his wife running off with his best friend. This Tuesday night, he has already briefly entertained the thought to go to the Fiddle Barn where the maidens are younger and harder to enchant with no socks or other habiliment idées fixes; where they're looking for bumptious, rough-edged men who will dance if cornered until it's time to go home. But alas, he knows that Pearl Slemp, his current obsession, would be there for sure. And that he’d start drooling publicly after a couple of long drinks.

He has no intention of leaving his nest at the Inn. He will drink himself into a stupor. We've been out with Moran before, studied Moran for over a year now, and have good notes on his 3 years since his father killed himself and left him a goodly chunk of money and the great, modified Governor’s Suite, with the best shower in Blue Ruby, and a mere 43 long strides from that best shower to his desk as publisher of The Blue Ruby Times. Before the goodly chunk of money piques your interest, move on in for a closer look, e.g., at the seemly scar across his fetchingly agley nose. Turns out Moran's newish nose is a trophy he won early in his stay in Blue Ruby in a bar fight right there at Autie's.

Now that he's finished three long drinks standing in the kitchen, he is back from the bedroom… now shucked down to his shorts, wearing—open in front—the bathrobe his father left him, one he will drape the tail of over the back of his chair and hold down with bricks on the hem… Then, a safety pin to close the robe at his sternum; then, a space heater between his feet to blow hot air under his chair where the cheap bathrobe will trap and redirect the hot air to warm his back. Not easy to imagine the beauty of the nest he’s devised unless you'd seen him settled in on the several chilly evenings like we have; and had our more fully developed gift of being able to listen to his thoughts.

¿And that flyer he uses as a coaster to protect the elegant end table by his nest? The picture that dominates the flyer is the colorized official picture of Pearl, Miss Virginia, 1965. Moran commissioned the colorization for the advertising campaign for Blue Ruby Motors. It is the first time The Blue Ruby Times will include flyers in the paper.

The table is the only thing of his mother’s he’s kept. It has followed him to Africa and back.  Every evening before he rests his drink on the flyers, he makes sure there are enough of them to prevent moisture from the glass from soaking through to the table. You are spot on, it’s some significant torture Moran puts himself through every evening when he comes out to drink on his balcony: A mix of subliminal oedipal yearnings and a crippling obsession to bed Pearl Slemp.

Tonight, Two-Step Tuesday, be with us as Main Street in Blue Ruby comes alive below him. This Pearl will appear, twice as old as her picture, but twice as beautiful. 

Moran will savor the lingering taste of the whiskey from his kitchen drinks and wait for the full impact of the six ounces of Irish whiskey he’s finished before pouring a final long shot. This Tuesday, he will wait to pour until a few minutes before Pearl appears in the flesh on Main Street below him. He places his empty shot glass on a corner and runs his finger over Pearl’s lips.

Except for a border around the flyer of the names of car brands, drawings of  clown face balloons, and pictures of Ford cars and trucks, the flyer is dominated by the 17-year-old, newly colorized picture of Pearl Slemp at her coronation as Miss Virginia, wearing a crown of diamonds, hugging a trophy. Under her breasts is written the question: Would you buy a used car from this woman? Across the bottom it reads: Blue Ruby Motors, Pearl Slemp, VP-Pre-Owned Vehicles. Crown, trophy, earrings, tears, lips, and teeth: sparkle.

He looks again at the picture of Pearl he uses to keep from making water rings on his mother’s table. Moran is distracted from bad memories by a heated discussion on Main Street, two pickup truck drivers about to come to blows over who’d been waiting longer for the parking spot to open up in front of Autie’s.

Not that your eye is anything but uncommon, but even a common eye would've caught right off that the bathrobe is made from one of those cheap modern fabrics with aspirations to silk. Moran has already determined that real silk, cotton, or wool are all too breathable, let too much air flow through instead of redirecting it up his back. Under his microenvironment he will wear only underwear shorts. You are not ready for this yet, but if you succeeded in getting him into the big bed his father left him—a bed in which Pearl spent many a night with his father—you’d soon come to know he’d worn the shorts all day and he doesn't take them off even for bed.

We need your uncommon eye, your thoughts, your sympathy for Moran, Jr.

Thus, with your second look, you've confirmed dangerous but can dismiss cool. Not cool, even if you do like the sketchy, rock-star stubble. Your observations are all good, in fact, great— and we're glad you saw into and right through Moran. Moran is an aspiring poet which accounts for Moran not being cool in private. The question: Can we plumb his depths, his poetical anxieties, inspire a public face that's not so slaveringly expectant when he encounters the eager, beautiful women who are immediately attracted to him? Is he salvageable for the kind of classy, but sexy, woman like you who is looking for a trophy husband? Can we relaunch him?

Moran is always out here on the balcony a little early on Tuesdays. He waits for the appearance of Pearl, who is looking for a trophy husband to father her children.

He sporadically bobs and weaves to see clearly through the balustrade. He is watching the early arrivals wait for Piggly Wiggly patrons to leave the prime parking spaces in front of Autie’s. His fleeting blissful look is a yen for the corned beef and cabbage special Autie’s serves on Tuesdays.

The roar and the burrap, burrap, of the downshift of his dad’s classic Porsche, the only one like it in the county, causes him to blink alive and lean forward. From around the corner it comes into view.

Watch:

When his father’s old—now Pearl’s new—car comes directly below, he will lean back slightly to make sure Pearl doesn’t glance up and see him. Chilly as it is this Tuesday, she has the top down and as usual her ex-husband Harley sits in the passenger’s seat. Those two women standing at the open trunks of their cars will respond to Pearl’s burrap, burraps by slowing down instead of hurrying. The women have stopped to chat while they transfer their groceries from their carts to their trunks. They will continue to talk to each other while looking scornfully at Pearl and the Porsche. Cars will queue up behind Pearl. Harley will get out of the car to help the women with their groceries and start them smiling when he bestows his locally famous “snake” dance move on them.

Moran is smiling now at the memory of Harley at The Fiddle Barn doing “The Cobra” on the dance floor. Harley is a man Moran thinks is a little loose in the loafers, but that is probably sour grapes, given that Harley holds Pearl’s heart in his hands every Tuesday night. After parking, as Pearl exits the car she glances up at the balcony. Moran quickly leans backward, like a boxer dodging a haymaker, and wonders if she saw him smiling foolishly over the railing.

When he arrived in Blue Ruby in 1979, some 2 years, 10 months, 21 days, 5¼  hours ago—notice he glances at his watch—Moran ensconced himself in his dad’s suite, this Governor's Suite, and began, unwittingly, to shut down his systems.

Moran, Jr. is not going anywhere this Tuesday night, same as most every other night for the past 11 months.

Chapter 1

She'll unbutton the top button on her dress and use one of the napkins from Momma's cedar chest to wipe down into the front of her dress a little and around her neck and she'll close her eyes and hold her face up at the sky and let you look at her neck without having to be ashamed.

John L plans a picnic alone with Cleo

~ ∞ ∞ ∞ ~

JOHN L WHITTLES: A SHOW of busyness to avoid being in the kitchen with Cleo. She stands bemused at the sink washing the breakfast dishes, barefoot with swabs of cotton between her toes to allow her nail polish to dry unmarred, enjoying the warmth of the water on her hands. She looks out the window at a doe and fawn, nervously eating what leaves they're able to reach. The deer are nibbling on a sassafras tree John L pruned to make bushy at a lower height so it would attract does with fawns. All the trees are holding on to their leaves this year, she thinks.

Cleo tries to conjure her mother, a mother she’s only ever seen in pictures. 17 years old and no mother. No mother to explain the fix she finds herself in. Occasionally, she glances back over her shoulder to smile at her Uncle John L whittling away in the front room.

He whittles at the life-size replica of a flintlock blunderbuss rifle he previously whittled from a big hickory limb. The blunderbuss is his proudest achievement in 13 years of learning the art of whittling. He started whittling at 15 to pass the time when he couldn’t go back to sleep at night after being awakened to give Cleo her bottle.

Now he has started to whittle it into ¾s life-size replica of a 30-30 rifle with the stock reduced to be the grip of a walking stick. He started the reduction using a picture from a magazine, but now works from his memory of his grandfather’s 30-30.

John L hasn’t told Cleo he is whittling the gun into a walking stick for weekend hikes through the woods with her. When he's finished, he wants it to still look enough like a real rifle that you could fool a flatlander. But, for his purposes, whittling some of the stock away will make it lighter, better to use as a walking stick. Every so often, he touches the knife to his thumb to test the sharpness.  Breathing out during each long curl of wood he strokes from the stock relaxes him; besides whittling a realistic looking gun to use to threaten Brother so Brother will shoot him with a real gun, he has found the whittling distracts him from his evil thoughts about Cleo.

Occasionally he stands to make sure the grip will be at the proper height for pushing himself up a hill or bracing himself coming down. He measures the length of the new gripping area with the breadth of his hand. The old stock gives him plenty of wood to work with. He could speed his project by using a power jigsaw and leave the fine tuning for whittling, but he likes to see how thin he can make the curls of hickory dropping into the pan between his feet.

He was undecided until just this morning if he wanted the grip to be smooth or crosshatched. Crosshatched would give him a better grip but could cause his hands to become calloused and rough. He’ll just wear gloves when he walks in the woods with Cleo to keep his hands from getting rough. Young women don’t like rough hands.

Making a walking stick of it risks defeating his original purpose for the replica—he’d planned for a year and a half for it to be the weapon he’d use to provoke Brother to kill him. But lately he has thought he can avoid getting himself killed. He looks up at Cleo and thinks how foolish he is to get himself killed instead of letting Cleo’s and his appetites take their sinful course. His niece gets more womanly every day.

His plan to have Brother kill him once more gets pushed to the back of his mind.

IT’S SUNDAY, NOT THE SABBATH for the faithful of Nash Hollow Holyfull Church but still the true day of rest for John L and Cleo, a day of reflection for things human. It's after breakfast and before a picnic Brother hastily arranged at Tuesday vesper services, and confirmed last night. “The faithful can enjoy a day of fellowship during this glorious October God has offered,” he'd said.

Cleo thinks of the week ago Sunday she spent in Blue Ruby with Paige and Paige's date, Paul—poor, timid Paul, preoccupied with his pimples as always that day—a prop Paige brought along to permit her to explain her sexual thoughts with bold words. She used Paul to make her counsel seem to be that of a friend who already had her man. Cleo wasn’t fooled for a minute that Paige was practicing what she preached with Paul.

Cleo's stomach turns again when she thinks of Paige's familiar use of her Uncle John L's first name. Paige has become enamored of the whole idea of an older man for herself; she has her sights set on Uncle John L. Cleo knew Paige was gossiping with her other friends about how John L was so rugged, soooo sexy.

Later in the conversation, Paige said, “Did you know my parents waited until I was two months old to give me a name? For two months, I was Baby Girl Hatcher. Mother read a European novel where they named the heroine that way, waited until her personality was formed enough that they could give her a fitting name. You should think about getting your name changed. If it weren't for the movie, I think Lolita would fit your personality, make you more attractive to men.”

On parting, Paige said, “Take John L on a picnic, ask him about the birds and the bees. Hee hee.”

Cleo wishes now she'd not come back to report to John L that Paige thought Cleo should arrange a picnic with John L. She checked Lolita out of the library on the Monday after the date with Paige and read it in two nights. She wished she’d seen Lolita in the movie. After she read the book, and saw what a tart Lolita was, she asked John L what he thought of the name Lolita. He uttered the name aloud several times and said he liked the name a lot but not as much as he liked the name Cleo

Today she wonders, again, what it would be like to seduce her uncle. She has started to seduce him in her daydreams. It makes her feel like Lolita in the book.

For Christmas, she will give him an ecru button-down shirt Paige told her that she and the other cheerleaders thought would top off a sexy outfit. She imagines the Christmas morning scene. She will smooth the shirt on him, walk around him to tuck it neatly into his trousers when he tries it on. She’ll ask him to take it off under the pretense she wants to iron smooth the folds, let her eyes dwell on his chest when she hands it back to him, ask him to wear it to church.

When they come home from those Christmas morning services she’ll ask John L to take off his suit coat and necktie and put on the pumpkin sweater she has put on layaway. When they passed by it he called it Pumpkin-colored. He probably called it pumpkin because it was so close to Halloween when they saw it. It was the color of a shirt her father, the Spaniard Delgado, had given John L when he was 13, a year before she was born. Cleo is calling the sweater tangerine at Paige's urging. Tangerine is a sexier word than pumpkin, Paige had said. “Think of him wearing an ecru shirt under a tangerine sweater.”

Cleo remembers sex scenes from books she's read lately, wants to live what she's only read about up to now. Cleo's nipples are hard and her breaths shallow. She will teach Uncle John L to call it the tangerine sweater as soon as possible after Christmas.

John L is also eager. His throat is constricted. Full. He touches the pulse in his neck. He has forgotten his grandmother’s harangue about being careful about what he does around Cleo. She lectured him that one of the faithful from the church told her about rumors she'd heard in town. The congregant had repeated rumors being spread by Ralph Skeens. Ralph told all who would listen that Cleo’s friends were telling stories about her trysts with John L, trysts Paige proposed, but trysts that are only coalescing in John L and Cleo's daydreams of becoming incestuous lovers.

After breakfast, Cleo had called John L out of his bedroom to entice him to admire the new gingham cloth she'd bought to cover the food in the basket, and the dress she planned to wear to the picnic. She already knew it was his favorite. He smiled sweetly and his first words were that they couldn't afford the cost of church picnics. She blushed—the way he said it made it seem like they were married.

She seized the moment. “If you drank wine, I would’ve gotten you to buy a bottle. Paige says a good, full-bodied Bordeaux would be right for roast beef sandwiches. I thought about it, but I knew they'd not welcome us with spirits. I’m making fried chicken. Wine wouldn’t go with fried chicken Paige said. But, let's do our own picnic next time.”

He said, “You've got to stop listening to Paige. You're too young to be drinking.” Nevertheless, he started then to plan a picnic alone with her:

If she will agree to go on a picnic with you without the church, you can drive the back road toward Dillard to the wide spot where the path up to the old graveyard starts. The five steps up to the platform are getting too shaky and you'll go first so that you can pull her up to the platform after you. Then she goes ahead so you can catch her if she slips. You'll remind her you told her to wear her winter shoes to keep from slipping, but you're glad to have a reason to put your hands on her soft spots.

You'll offer to let her use your right glove so she won't wear blisters on her hand from pulling herself up by grabbing sassafras saplings and you'll like her softness on your bare hand. And her soft spots will get warm from your touch and her thighs and her soft behind will heat up from climbing. She'll be dewy before you make it halfway up the climb and you'll tell her “We could do it here and not go up to the tables.”

She'll understand, but she'll say, “Do what?” She'll act like she's innocent but it's her way to tell you she wants to too. But she won't tease you too much. You'll say out loud her idea to have a bottle of wine with her good roast beef sandwiches the way they do in picture shows was a good one.

She'll color up but you won't be able to see it because her cheeks will be red from climbing. She'll unbutton the top button on her dress and use one of the napkins from Momma's cedar chest to wipe down into the front of her dress a little and around her neck and she'll close her eyes and hold her face up at the sky and let you look at her neck without having to be ashamed. You'll put one of Momma’s napkins over your lap to hide yourself, but you won't be able to hide your smell and she’ll be thinking she smells bleach. And she’ll know you’re trying to stay manly but she needs to hurry.

You'll be sitting on the old tablecloth and put the basket off to one side and you'll play her waiting game by asking her to tell you about pineapples again. How they have such small seeds for such a big fruit. It'll make her think you're more interested in her mind and give you the chance to swell up again.

She'll make the first move to let you know it's what she came for. She'll open one other button but hold it closed for just a minute and you'll get the nerve to look at her chest and lick your lips with your mouth open and look up at her face and say, “Whew.”

And she'll color up again and know you see it, but still will let go of the button and reach in towards her shoulder with her thumb to pull up the strap of the new brassiere she forgot one day on the kitchen table and you saw was padded because she thinks her behind makes her look too much like a pear shape and Paige told her she had bought one like it for balance for when she had her clothes on. Then she'll ask if you mind if she unbuttons the rest of her buttons to cool down some and will unsnap the front of the brassiere, which she'll say when she unsnaps it was a brassiere made especially for good picnics.

You'll tell her her breasts are fine, plenty good enough. And you’ll move over next to her and put the right one in your mouth because that's the side you'll be on since you're right-handed. And you’ll use your right hand to put her hand down on your thing.

She'll brag on your thing and then put her tongue in your mouth and breathe through her nose and then she'll be thinking about what Paige told her the last time you spied on them after play practice. The thing about men forgetting about your breasts when they take off your panties and how men with good manners like small breasts.

She'll push off her shoes with her toes, and you'll open your eyes to look at the frosty wine toe polish and use your hand to go up under her dress looking for the place where her underwear has hair coming out from under, but you won't find any underwear and she'll push herself onto your first finger and start moving slow and she'll stop kissing in your ear and start moaning like she's having a bad dream.

Then she'll whisper in your ear, “Do you mind a woman with no smallclothes? I wanted it this way so I could show you my underpart while we ate sandwiches so you'd know I was sure. But you knew without me showing you it.”

And she'll start cooing like doves.

And after you'll tell her to stop acting like a tramp but you'll tell her you'll let it go this time but don't do it next time and will start when you get back home to write down things to say for the second times.

But any of those times you won't say you love her or let her know you think all the time about her. Young women don't like things like too much love.

And when you get home after the picnic you won’t go into her room and tell her her breasts are perfect instead of just plenty good enough.

CLEO FINISHES PACKING THE PICNIC basket, “Uncle John L, did you ever finish that book Cold Sassy Tree I gave you a while back? I saw it somewhere here the other day and I want to let Brother borrow it. It's about a man that marries a younger woman after his wife dies.”

“Cleo, what am I going to do about you? You told me it was about a town named after an overgrown sassafras tree at the city limits. I'd’ve been worried about what you were reading if I'd known it was about something dirty.”

“I was telling you how the book got its title the day you were cutting back the top of the little sassafras sapling outside the kitchen. No whole book is about a sassafras tree, even if the tree is as big as the one in the book.”

“I'll start it soon. I'll give it to Brother myself when I'm done with it.”

“I’ve been watching that same doe and fawn come past the sassafras for a while now, wondering if I'll ever see my mother before I die. Tell me why I’m named Cleo?”

“Your mother... Joy Ann named you. I think she expected you to grow up to be special like Cleopatra. Jimmy Ray is still talking to her about coming back for you. She’s got children by another man than your daddy, even if the second man is a Spaniard, too. It's nothing about you, she just got married without telling her husband about you and she's probably scared he'll divorce her if she tells him.”

Cleo thinks she’ll tell John L soon that Lolita is a Spanish name for a young girl whose real name is Dolores, which means suffering.

AT THE PICNIC, CLEO STANDS in the younger crowd dominated by Ralph Skeens. He is reprising his role as congregation clown for the 16- to18-year-old Holyfull congregants, a role he started to perfect seven years ago when he dropped out of high school to work in the big mining equipment warehouse outside Dillard. At 23, Ralph still wears his worldly wit with some great appeal for the younger crowd.

With little success, John L tries not to stare at Ralph’s adoring crowd. Occasionally, he makes a point to pause close enough to Ralph's group to find out what they're talking about. He hears enough of two of Ralph's jokes—neither joke fit for a church picnic—to remember he used to entertain with his jokes. And Ralph is too old to be talking like Donald Duck. 

John L walks from table to table sampling food he has no appetite for. He sees Brother, surrounded by the churchwomen listening to Ralph’s sister, Sister Skeens, hold forth. Brother is looking over the top of their heads at Ralph’s crowd. John L thinks of Brother staring at Cleo through her wet clothes when he baptized her when she was 13.

Not knowing of Brother’s weekly counseling session with Ralph for his flatulence at Holyfull during Saturday Sabbath services, the last thing John L would ever suspect Brother of is his thought: ¿Next week, find out from Brother Skeens if he knows Autie’s recipe for corned beef and cabbage?

Grandma Owens kin Phoebe, not believing in going to church affairs where men and women dress up, is not here: “The kind of thing alley cats would go to if they could dress up,” was her rebuff to Brother, who made the mistake of announcing the picnic after the vesper prayer and before consulting with her.

For John L's comfort, Cleo is far too animated about what Ralph is saying. He wishes he wasn't always nervous around Cleo these days. He wishes he was in Ralph's place. He'd like for Cleo to be putting her hand on his arm to let him know she liked what he just said. Like Cleo’s daddy Delgado did his arm.

John L feels like someone has pulled his insides out when he overhears Cleo excitedly accept Ralph's invitation for a date next Friday for “a night of dancing at The Barn and a midnight snack at Autie's.”

John L will say to her when they get home, “He's too old for you, Cleo. And you're too young for midnight snacks with a man Ralph’s age.” He begins to get another erection. He'll also remind her when they get home she wanted them to go on a picnic with wine. Not knowing how to dance bothers him, makes him think again he needs to invite her to the Blue Ruby Fiddle Barn, or promise to take her to a dance over at the Dillard Fiddle Barn if she'll teach him how to dance at home.

He wonders if being her uncle gives him enough Biblical authority to lock her in her room if she disobeys him when he tells her she can't go with Ralph on a date into Blue Ruby.

A few minutes later Cleo is glowing. It's her first date alone with a man. She leaves the group and walks over to Brother, who has broken away from the churchwomen to stand in front of the fried chicken Cleo made.

By the time she reaches Brother, he has a piece of chicken in each hand. “Hello, Brother. I made the chicken you're eating.”

“I guessed soon as I tasted it. Your frying hen did not die in vain.”

“Brother John L's not finished with the book we talked about—with the older man who married the younger woman. He promised this morning he would give it to you himself soon.”

Brother says, “Is Brother John L instructing you after the Bible? Proverbs 22:6 says, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’”

“What about women, shouldn't us shes be trained up?”

“Would we like to share something about our upbringing, Sister? Would we need to come in for instruction?”

“Maybe we would. Brother John L's embarrassed about grownup things. I remember you saying women must be subservient to men.”

“It's husbands or ministers—husbands in the Lord—women must subject themselves to, not just any John L, Dick, or Harry husband. Ephesians 5: 22 and 23 says, ‘Wives be subject to your husband, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as Christ is also the head of the church. He Himself being the savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in all things.'  Husbands being Jesus and authorities of the church as well as husbands of the flesh.”

“I've accepted a date with Brother Ralph to go into Blue Ruby to a movie and a late supper on Friday. You won't be too hard on me if I'm out and about a little after the Sabbath begins, will you?” She tucks her chin and bats her eyes coyly.

“Before you do, I'd like to meet with you. Have Brother John L drop you by the house on your way home from school tomorrow.”

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22. Flog a BookBubber 23: Sean Platt & Johnny B. Truant

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter page from a free novel by Sean Platt & Johnny B. Truant. It was promoted as a thriller.

The man in the light-blue robes circled the park’s fountain with no particular sense of hurry. His bare, bloodstained feet took slow, steady strides, imparting a sense of purpose in his apparent aimlessness. He looked like a man with nowhere to be and nowhere to go … whose lack of destination carried its own agenda. Like Shavasana, the so-called yogic corpse pose in which doing nothing at all is the challenge, the man seemed to be testing discipline through lack of activity.  

As the man walked, his blue robe (a peculiar color for such as him, with his shaved head and Zen bearing) swayed above his feet, a saffron sash occasionally peeking at his waist. He looked mostly down, not around, as if praying, or perhaps concentrating. A small, serene smile was on his dark-skinned face, and his eyes sparkled. He didn’t seem precisely happy, but he definitely didn’t seem unhappy. If anything, his bearing was one of acceptance. Of rightness. Of a deep knowledge that things in the world and the universe were as they should be, and that he knew how to work within that system, how to move, how to be, how to foster a sense of fulfillment. As people passed and nodded to him, the man would press his hands together in front of his chest and make a small bow with a smile — the gesture of namaste, which was intended not just as a greeting, but as his soul’s acknowledgement, centered in his heart chakra, of the other person’s soul.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

NamasteThis book received an average Amazon rating of 4.8 stars. I had mixed feelings about this opening. The writing is just fine, the voice distant but also fitting for a religious character. Without the bloodstained feet I’m not sure I would have turned the page, but with that as a tantalizer and the professional, if leisurely, approach to introducing me to this mysterious character, I did want to know what he would do next. So I turned the page, and I think I’ll be reading the book. What did you think?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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23. Flogometer for Jim—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

  • It begins engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Jim sends the prologue and first chapter of Zombies Don’t Skate. The rest follows the break.

Prologue:

This morning, I found myself lying in bed, awake, but with my eyes still closed. Dreading the day ahead. If I could keep my eyes closed, maybe I could put it off indefinitely. This was gonna be one of those days. Today was the day I had decided I would ventured out into the world for the first time in seven months. I’m not a shut-in, nor agoraphobic, I was however afraid of zombies, and they were waiting for me outside.

My situation was getting serious. My Supplies were running low and as much as I hated the thought of leaving my safe little hidden shelter, I knew my time down there was limited.

 The situation in Austin was also not good. But to be fair, the situation worldwide was pretty screwed up. About nine months ago America watched a report on Television of an outbreak in western Africa. It was a particularly nasty outbreak. A virus was sweeping across the continent, something the world had never seen before. A hellish rendition of all things evil — ripped right off the screen of a horror movie.

At first they resisted using the term “Zombie” to describe the infected.

The first reporter to witness the infected horde in Sierra Leon didn’t sugarcoat it. His was the first report we saw, it was Pulitzer Prize worthy and terrifying at the same time.

The reporter was running hunkered down talking over his shoulder into the big black ball of his mic. “Things are bad here!” he said through the camera.

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

 

Chapter 1:

The bomb shelter was built by my late father. It was the product of his paranoid genius. He had been a manic conspiracy theorist with what could only be described as a severe dis-associative disorder. He never sought help for it and no one ever forced him to. Maybe someone should have.

Dad had always felt like the end of society was right around the corner. So, he collected guns, canned food and all manner of gadgets he thought might come in handy someday. He never worked at any one place for long. That is until he found a job as a night watchman at a warehouse near the airport. Personal relationships were tough for him. The watchman gig was a solitary job. It was perfect.

When I was in school he would come home every morning and make me breakfast. We would sit at the table where he would share the most recent plot he had discovered. The one that would inevitably end the world as we knew it.

As a little kid, his theories terrified me. By high school, I realized he was not altogether right. The time we spent together was tough, but  I excepted him and just tried to enjoy what time he gave me.  Once I graduated, I was gone, happy to be free of him and his craziness. I loved him, but as a kid with a crazy dad. I just had to leave.

We never talked much after I moved away. I got a call on my birthday once in a while and I went home for holidays now and again. But, we lived separate lives.

He died of a heart attack three years ago. It had to be the two packs he smoked every day. He (snip)

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

 

Good first-person voice and a gripping situation right off the bat drew me in. By the way, I wouldn’t label this the prologue—since it starts in the present of the story and continues right on in the first chapter, I think this is chapter 1. Yes, there’s a considerable info dump, but it’s interesting stuff. In an edit, I’d have to think hard about what to cut. Or whether or not to start with an action scene and weave in the information here.

Without the running start that the prologue gave it, chapter one doesn’t open all that successfully—it’s all backstory. I’ll add that I don’t really think all the stuff about his father is needed at this time (if ever—I don’t see how his father’s paranoia will affect the story ahead). I think an editor’s hand could strengthen the pace and involvement of the story in this chapter.

But the chapter does continue the story and gets him out of the shelter to discover what has become of the world, and I was interested in going along with him to find out. Note to Jim: you will definitely need an editor at some time; there were grammatical errors that will hurt you with readers. If it were me, I’d also look at where to start the story and how to include the world setup stuff. But it’s richly imagined, and your zombies are different enough to make me want to read more. Luck.

Your thoughts?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Jim

 

Continued from the prologue:

“Whatever this sickness is, there seems to be no stopping it! Once infected, the patient loses all self-control and will rampage on a mindless killing spree… I’ve never seen anything like it! They look sick… deathly sick, but seem to have an abundance of energy!”

He stopped for a moment and address the camera before something startled him. At which point he and whoever was behind the camera took off again. I remember seeing him weaving in and out of the crowd, bumping into the rest of the throng running with him, away from something else.

“These infected are destroying everything in their path. They feed only on living flesh! It is the most gruesome and violent thing I have ever witness.”

He stopped, took two steps into the shot and spoke through the camera. “And you know the kind of shit I’ve seen.”

It was then that the camera jerked, spun to a wide shot of sky and clouds and then turned to static snow. His report played over and over almost non-stop for days.

Once his report came back, what do you think the American government did? They went straight over there to “fix” the problem. The first team to go was with the CDC; they didn’t fare so well. It seems their standard humanitarian approach to this health crisis was the wrong approach. They headed to Africa wearing their proverbial “We need to help these poor souls” arm bands. Only the poor souls they wanted to help, didn’t want help, they wanted flesh… fresh living flesh. The ghouls saw the CDC as a new flavor of the month. The team was wiped out as soon as they reached the “Hot Zone”. None of the video footage made it to TV, but apparently it was pretty gruesome. When someone leaked the footage on the Internet, people went ape shit. From then on, there was no hope of the “Z” word not being used to describe the infected. The government tried desperately to shut down every website that leaked the video footage. It still got out, but that’s when people really started to panic. If the government was willing to violate the first amendment because of something happening on another continent, everyone knew this situation must be serious.

Zombies were taking over in West Africa, and spreading fast. Everyone hoped the deep deserts of North Africa would contain them. But, they didn’t. So, here in the states the Army got involved as the next “aid givers”. They sent USAMRIID, (U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) with a platoon of support troops to try and get a handle on things. They actually figured out some of the virus’s unpleasant details, like how it was spread and what it did once it got inside a victim. We weren’t told anything about their findings until it was too late to do any good.

When their findings were released, we found out exactly how bad things were. The infected were not so much infected as they were transformed. Once the virus got into your system it took about four to seven hours to kill the host. The blood thinned down to a viscosity like rubbing alcohol which caused the organs to shut down. Complete organ failure was ultimately the cause of death. The virus migrates to the brain just before the heart stops beating. The heart stops beating entirely within a few minutes of brain infestation. Like a parasite the virus takes control of the victim. The brain, then converted into a non-sentient nerve center, is doing only one thing, controlling the host’s body to find and consume flesh and blood. The only requirement for this new creature is nutritional Iron. This is absorbed through all the soft tissues of the human feeding system- such as the stomach, intestines, mouth and esophagus. The iron is then carried to the brain by the now super thinned blood being weakly pumped throughout the zombie simply by its movements. Zombies are always on the move. No movement means no circulation. Apparently this is a less than efficient system of getting the much needed iron to the brain. So, zombies are super feeders. They devour every living thing in their path. They will eat animals, if they can catch them; however people are much easier to catch than a terrified critter, so we are at the top of their menu.

USAMRIID realized there was no cure from this transformation —  there’s no coming back from death. They euthanized as many as possible to get back home alive. But guess what they brought back with them? ZOMBIES! They wanted to study them and research a vaccine. That, as it turns out wasn’t a great idea. Apparently someone on the research team became infected and they infected a friend who infected a friend and so on. Some of them got out of their little lab and now we have zombies in America.

These are not the slow, arms out, sleepwalkers Hollywood often showed us. Real zombies are spry. They’re not very coordinated, and they are certainly not deep thinkers, but they carry a fear factor which seemed to turn folks into blithering idiots when being chased. Mind you, that’s all just what I’d seen and heard on TV, while there was still TV. I had never actually seen a zombie in person. And really had only seen a few televised glimpses of them. The government did a pretty good job controlling the media, and keeping the images we did get to see as PG as they could.

About seven months ago all the TV networks went to snow. National, local, all of them. Not to test pattern, not warnings, just snow. That’s when I knew the shit had truly hit the fan. I packed everything that would fit into my shelter’s storage area and tucked myself in for the long haul.

I have been in my Dad’s bomb shelter locked safely away from the zombie infected world outside for just over seven months now. For all I know the crisis is over. Today I will find out. I need to resupply, empty my trash and bury three of my hamsters.

Chapter One

 

The bomb shelter was built by my late father. It was the product of his paranoid genius. He had been a manic conspiracy theorist with what could only be described as a severe dis-associative disorder. He never sought help for it and no one ever forced him to. Maybe someone should have.

Dad had always felt like the end of society was right around the corner. So, he collected guns, canned food and all manner of gadgets he thought might come in handy someday. He never worked at any one place for long. That is until he found a job as a night watchman at a warehouse near the airport. Personal relationships were tough for him. The watchman gig was a solitary job. It was perfect.

When I was in school he would come home every morning and make me breakfast. We would sit at the table where he would share the most recent plot he had discovered. The one that would inevitably end the world as we knew it.

As a little kid, his theories terrified me. By high school, I realized he was not altogether right. The time we spent together was tough, but I excepted him and just tried to enjoy what time he gave me.  Once I graduated, I was gone, happy to be free of him and his craziness. I loved him, but as a kid with a crazy dad. I just had to leave.

We never talked much after I moved away. I got a call on my birthday once in a while and I went home for holidays now and again. But, we lived separate lives.

He died of a heart attack three years ago. It had to be the two packs he smoked every day. He lasted a while in the hospital. But he never woke up. I remember hoping he wouldn’t. I was sure if he did he would have some wild theory of a government conspiracy to kill him. I just wanted him to be at piece. And quiet.

My mom was stranger to me. She died before I turned three. I have a couple of pictures of her and my dad together and one of them with me. My dad never talked much about her. The few people who knew him before she died said it wasn’t until she was gone that he got, strange.

When he died, I inherited his house and his land. I was surprised to discover, a bomb shelter in the back yard. I would have never found it if the property surveyor the court assigned for probate didn’t find it weird there was a manhole cover in the back yard that said “Septic Tank” on it.

The house was hooked up to the city sewer system.

Hidden below the manhole cover was a small vestibule and a sealed hatch protected by a combination lock. I spent days searching through dad’s records for the combination before I gave up and called a safe specialist to open it.

The bomb shelter he built was simple and state of the art at the same time. Inside, I found everything a person would need to live comfortably for quite a while.

The place is big enough for one person. It had a desk, a work bench and a full sized bed.

I’d like to think that if he was still alive when the zombies came, he would have made a place for me in his shelter, and his life.

I never had to find out. It’s probably best.

If my dad had been the one to occupy the shelter, I’m sure the supplies would have lasted a long time. I’ve never had his willpower or his ability to sacrifice. As it turns out, I was only able to get about seven months out of the stores he had packed away.

My life had been pretty nice in the shelter, for the most part. I had my computer, my music and hundreds of DVDs. It all ran off of a bunch of batteries charged by the exercise wheels my hamsters ran in.

The hamsters had been my contribution to the shelter. Dad put an exercise bike in to charge the batteries, but I decided I needed some company. I did jump on the bike from time to time, but “The Gladiators” did most of the work. I’d named them after the old American Gladiators from the show in the early nineties. Three of the little guys, Cyclone, Havoc and Tank had died. But, with twenty four hamsters left they kept my laptop, mp3 player and wireless speakers charged with no help from the exorcise bike. And because I had planned to start a breeding program, the colony was safe.

That is of course, if I survived. I thought my chances were better than average. I have been planning an expedition outside for a while. When I took to the shelter, I cleaned out the old house of all usable items. The storage area was huge just not very livable with all the stuff piled in there.

My old man stocked the shelter with every weapon he thought might come in handy during the apocalypse. As a result, I had several hand guns, a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a compound bow. I also had four machetes, two hand grenades, yep, I had hand grenades, and enough ammo to occupy a small country.

I downloaded as much info as I could from the Internet before it went down with the TV signal. Between my digital library and some help from a guy at a local gun shop, I knew just about enough to be a danger to myself. That fact became obvious after accidentally shotting one of my water tanks while practicing quick draws with my forty five.  After that, my guns stayed  — unloaded — during training. I had spent a lot of time since then “playing” with each of the weapons. I cleaned them, took them apart, reassembled them and I posed in the mirror, trying to see if I look like I knew what I was doing. As a result, I was confident handling them and loading on the fly. And the duct tape and epoxy held the patch on the tank, and my hearing had pretty much recovered.

“Good morning Gladiators! Who’s hungry?” As always I started my day by feeding my pint sized power plants. They were my only companions. They had become very important to me. It was amazing to me how dependent people were on social interaction, even if it’s just from a hamster. I would never have guessed when I got these little fuzzy frenzies of power I would grow so attached to them. It’s weird. Sometimes I talked to them -- and answered for them. I often wondered if I might actually have been losing my mind. Oh well, like father like son.

Each cage got two Short Bread cookies and a rodent vitamin. Sure it wasn’t the unhealthiest diet for the little guys, but I found if they had a lot of calories they naturally tried to work them off, hence more electrons went into my batteries. So it worked out for us all. They got extra yummy grub and I got to use all my gadgets.

My battery charger was state of the art. It actually told me how many amps were being produced from each hamster wheel. So, keeping track of the little guys energy output was easy.  They were fairly happy with their lives, at least I hoped so.

Eating my bowl of instant oatmeal we enjoyed our morning in silence.

With the morning feedings out of the way, it was time to start preparing myself for the expedition outside. I really had no idea what to expect. Would I open my hatch to an endless throng of zombies.

That thought caused me to shudder.

Or, would I pop the hatch and find the zombie crisis had ended. Had I been hunkered down there for seven months for no reason at all?

And if that was the case there would be other problems. My father’s house could have been sold off by the city because they thought I was eaten and the house was available. That would suck.

Back when the living things walking around outnumbered the dead, I managed a used record store. Not a thrilling job. I made OK money, but the place was failing fast. Damn digital music. I shouldn’t bitch though, I converted from vinyl to digital years ago. I guess I got lucky the zombies came before I lost my job.

A few months ago, my biggest problem was choosing between Taco Bell and Burger King for lunch. Now I had to figure out how to deal with the devastation outside, or even how to handle the lack thereof. It was a lot for a simple guy like me to deal with.

Three bottles of water went into my army surplus rucksack along with three MREs.  I found a ton of MRE’s in the shelter. My dad must have loved them, cause I have hundreds. Their only redeeming factor is they wouldn’t ever go bad. They were already bad the day he bought them. Luckily I hadn’t had to depend on them as a primary food source yet. I had eaten a few of them, just to try. When I thought about having to eating the rest. Facing the zombies out side didn’t seem like a bad idea.

I packed my portable radio, my cell phone (just in case things are back to normal) and my handbook of edible Texas plants. Wild edibles wouldn’t have been my first choice, but packed it just in case.

I strapped on my holster and my colt .45 semi automatic, four extra mags of ammo fit in pouches on the belt. The holster was the kind the SWAT guys used, it rode on my thigh not hip. It looked cool and it was the one I had practiced with the most.

A camouflage shirt and pants with a black ball cap topped off my costume. Checking my appearance one last time in the mirror, I looked like a bad ass. According to my DVD collection, that’s all that mattered.

The little box, decorated to serve as a casket for my three tiny pals came out of the freezer and got tucked it into one of the pockets in my camouflage cargo pants. They would get buried together, so they’d have company. It was silly, but it was important to me they always be together.

Climbing the ladder, my hands were shaking. It was a scary thing leaving my safe place. I had gotten used to the safety of my shelter. If I could only put this trip off one more day. The only problem was I had been putting it off for weeks. Time was running out. No, food was running out. I couldn’t keep stalling. It was now or never.

At the top of the ladder I paused. Needing moment to steel myself to the inevitable reality. The world outside would be much different now.

The hatch opened with a slight squeal as hinges moved again for the first time in months. I climbed through the hatch and into the vestibule. I stood beneath the manhole cover.

Closing the inner hatch, I didn’t lock it. I might need to get back in quickly.

The manhole cover was heavier than I remembered, but I got it to move with a bit of extra force. By moving slow I got it free, careful not to make a sound. If there was a gaggle of zombies in the backyard waiting for me, I didn’t want to ring the dinner bell for them.

I opened it just enough to see out.

-----------------------------------------------------

Looking in a 360 degree ark around the backyard. I saw my house; it looked to be intact, for the most part. My yard shed was still standing, the door was open, that was weird. My yard had a wooden privacy fence around it. The fence was intact with one exception, a section of boards looked as though they had been kicked out by someone or something to gain access. That got my attention, had someone been trying to get in, or out, I couldn’t know.

My garden was doing great. I could believe it! It was fully over grown. My corn was standing well over seven feet high and there were ears visible on every stock. The tomatoes covering the ground were ripe and there were hundreds still hanging on the vines.

A farmer I am not. But, I had this huge back yard and back in the spring, before all hell broke lose, a garden seemed like a good idea. I had always heard that any fool with a plot of dirt and some seeds could grow tomatoes, corn, carrots or lettuce. I planted all four. I hadn’t held out much hope for it when I descended into the earth. I had actually not even really thought about it much. Don’t gardens have to be tended? I guess not. But holy crap… Food! There was fresh food back on the menu!

The most encouraging thing though, was a complete lack of zombies. I slid the cover the rest of the way off.

Carefully and quietly I ascend the rest of the ladder and stood silently in my back yard. The heat was powerful. Sweat immediately began to drip from everywhere. Being in the cool confines of the shelter I forgot how oppressive Texas was in the  summer.

The heat was rough, the dead calm was worse. Not just the regular ‘nothing going on calm’ but an absolutely eerie silence. You don’t always notice it, but it’s never completely silent in a city like Austin. Out here on the outskirts east of the city, it wasn’t necessarily noisy, but there was always a background hum of distant cars on the highway, the far away roar of a jetliner overhead, the rattle of a train miles away. These were the sounds made by a world full of life, and with them gone, it was a terrifying thing.

It reminded me of walking out of a night club where the music was too loud, or the parking lot of the race track I went to as a kid where  cars flew around the track with a deafening scream. It almost felt like my ears had gone numb. The silence made me wonder if my hearing was permanently damaged from my misfire down in the shelter. brining hand slowly up to my ear I snapped my fingers. My hearing was fine; the world around me was not.

There was also a smell hanging in the air that told me all was not well. It was so pungent, it seemed like it should have been visible, like a green mist staining the air. Something had clearly died nearby, or more likely many things had died. My distant hope that the crisis was over months ago was shattered by that funky stench.

“let’s find a nice spot for you guys before this heat has its way with ya’.” I whispered patting the wee tiny casket in my pocket.

Making my way toward my shed, about twenty five yards from my hatch. It occurred to me, this little walk constituted the furthest I’d walked in a long time.

Then I froze. Not only was the door standing open, my Little John Deere tractor was gone. Someone had been in there. What if they hadn’t left? Creeping closer, my eyes tried to pierce the shadowy interior. That’s my my ankle turned on the small rock I hadn’t noticed.

“SON OF A BITCH…” my hand clapped over my mouth. I instantly regretted my expletive and made a mental note to shut the hell up. Without looking away I tested my ankle by rotating it a few times. It was fine. The rest of me was shaking.

My hand dropped to my gun. The strap on my holster popped open with a little click under my thumb. Causing me to wince. Could I make any more noise?

Slowly, and quietly I drew my pistol. It then occurred to me, I had yet to chamber a round. If I didn’t stop making stupid mistakes it would be the end of me.

As quietly as I could, I eased the slide back and slowly let it forward. As the chamber closed, it bit the meaty part of my hand. It pinched me hard.

I let out a tiny, panicked yelp.

Jerking the chamber open to release myself from its grip, ejected a live round to the ground. I let the action slam closed, to hell with stealth. That ship had sailed.

The shed had to be empty. If anything had been in there, it would have come after me thanks to my failed attempt at sneaking.

Closing the gap and going in, I stood still for a moment and waited for my eyes to adjust. My gun up and at the ready.

The shed was indeed empty. I mean really empty. My tractor was gone, as well as just about everything I had left behind. It would seem, looters had taken anything and everything they saw. I couldn’t really blame them. Actually, I hoped my stuff came in handy. The thought of a guy on my lawn tractor, being chased by zombies, leaving a swath of freshly cut grass in his wake, made me chuckle. I only wished they had left me a shovel. With out a shovel I’d have to figure out another way to bury my hamsters.

Leaving the shed it was time to check out my garden. If I was going to have to dig with my hands my garden would probably have the softest ground. I was thinking out loud about where I want to put my little buddies; “Do I bury you guys with the lettuce or would you rather spend eternity under the tomatoes. I’d bury you with the carrots, but I hate to temp you with such yummy underground snacks.”

There was something sticking out from the rows of corn.  Bloody legs. No. Not legs. It couldn’t have been legs. Not here. But they were here. They were two broken looking legs sticking out of my garden.

Then all hell broke lose. A gun shot reported. Instinctively I jumped. Then I freaked out.  Before I knew what had happened, I found myself in the dirt.

Someone was shooting and it sounded really close. Sprawled out flat on the ground there was a tendril of smoke rising out of the barrel of my own gun. There was a tightness in my wrist. My finger was still held back hard against the trigger.

“IDIOT!” The shot came from my own gun.

Standing up, I switched the safety on, and re-holstered my gun. Apparently my practice was worthless. It’s one thing to be well practiced in the safety of a shelter and another entirely to apply it to the real world. Out here panic and nerves clearly had control of my actions. My self-taught training was taking a back seat. Just as well I suppose, when it came to fight or flight, my flight reflexes had been always been legendary, why waste ‘em?

Turning my attention back to the cause of my freak out. The legs of a body were clearly visible sticking out from my rows of corn. One of the legs was turned the wrong way. Blood crusted jeans covered what was left of them.

It would seem this was, at least in part, the source of the funky smell.

Frozen in place I was not sure what I should do next. I didn’t want to see  the whole body. But at the same time, I hoped there was still a body attached to those legs.

I didn’t want to go over to it and realize I recognized who it was.

 But mostly, I didn’t want it to be a zombie. It could have been a living dead thing, sleeping or something.

I didn’t think zombies slept, but I had a hard time convincing myself while I was staring at what I thought might be a sleeping zombie.

 The only thing I knew for sure, I couldn’t leave it lying in my garden contaminating what little food I had. I wasn’t even sure if any of those veggies could still be eaten. I wondered if a dead body lying in a garden would have any effect on the veggies themselves. I didn’t know.

It took a concerted effort for me to go over and check it out.  Standing over the body, it looked like it had been “gnawed” on. No, actually, he‘d been eaten. Not completely, but enough to notice he was not all there. The most unnerving thing was what he was clutching, a half eaten ear of corn. He had come into my garden because he was hungry, and ended up as a meal himself.

The guy was probably ambushed from inside the garden. As back yard gardens go, mine was huge. Unable to see more than a few feet into the thick rows of corn.  He must have been standing there picking corn, eating it raw, when zombies grabbed him. Pulled him down and killed him.

The thought of it all had me backing away from the wall of corn stalks. Calm down, I told myself.  The gun shot would have attracted any zombies lurking around. They would have been on me by now.

There was corn in his hand. attack that took his life wasn’t long ago. It happened right over my head. The thought sent a chill down my spine — and a shiver.

Grabbing its legs I pulled.  It resisted. The thought of it pulling apart in my hands was disturbing to say the least. Decomposition had glued it to the ground.

Pulling bit harder, it started to give way. It released from the ground with a sickening squishy sound. Parts of it gave way. It caused me to gag. The newly exposed bits gave off an even stronger stench. My senses burned. What little was in my stomach emptied itself into the crotch of the thing. Instant oatmeal and bile washed over the body’s torso. “Sorry” I croaked.

Dragging it to my back yard gate at the side of my house was not easy. The gate was closed and the padlock was still there, which explained the break in my fence.

looking through the cracks of my gate for any signs of danger, or life. None of either seemed to be present; there were signs of violence though. There were burned-out cars, broken windows,  my neighbor’s door across the street was gone, but there wasn’t anything to indicate any immediate danger.

Having a terrible memory for things like combinations and pin numbers I always wrote them down in hidden places near where I needed them. In this case the combo to the lock on my gate was written in black magic marker on a board right next to the house. The combination worked and the lock popped open.

Opening the gate and walking out Felt weird. The world was being revealed to me in strange little pieces.

Leaving the corpse behind. A survey of my neighborhood was next. Its emptiness looked strange. I had known the people who lived in each house on my block. We had been a close knit neighborhood. We  picnicked together and had street parties. We rooted for the local high school Football team.

A knot grew and tightened in my stomach, it may have been left over from my recent barfing, but I knew it came more from a feeling of loss than nausea. Standing in my front yard I struggled to take it all in.

The world would never be the same.

I went back and dragged the zombie victim the rest of the way out of my backyard. Unsure what exactly to I should do with it, I drug it clear of the gate and off to the side.

Walking the perimeter of my house, there were Several windows were broken. My door was no longer on its hinges. It was lying in the foyer. The hinges were twisted and the door jam had splinters where it had been wrenched from its frame.

Curiosity Forced me inside. Having taken everything useful when I evacuated, and remembering the emptiness of my shed. The void of usable supplies didn’t surprise me.

The looters had been thorough. The inside of the places was trashed. They even tore up the upholstery on the furniture. What could they have been looking for inside the couch? It was sad seeing my father’s home ransacked. It looked like the sight of one of those over-the-top parties from high school movies. The sight depressed me. It should have been me to do this to his house when I was in school.

Outside I was again struck by the silence of the neighborhood. My house was within ten miles of Bergstrom Airport, planes were often overhead. But now, the calm was deafening. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have expected the total dead calm to have such an impact on me. I have never really liked silence. Even in the shelter, I almost always had some kind of noise day and night. When I wasn’t listening to music or watching a movie, there was the constant squeaking of the Gladiators and their little exercise wheels. As a result, this level of quiet left me rattled. I did my best to ignore the eerie silence and pressed on with the task of finding  supplies.

Wanting to find someplace to bury Tank, Havoc and Cyclone, the search was back on. I decided my garden of death was not a fitting place for them. Mrs. Nathan’s house was two doors down and across the street. She always had the most spectacular flower boxes. I headed over to check it out, and figured I’d have a look inside her house at the same time.

The once well-manicured window boxes were now completely overgrown. They were once a marvel of symmetry and complementary colors, and now looked more like a wild experiment gone beautiful. The color was thick, it saturated the front of her house. Flowering vines that used to be trimmed back to neat little bunches of purple, yellow, orange and blue were now climbing like wild serpents suddenly released from a cage. I decided it would make the perfect place for my hamsters  to spend eternity. The search was over. I imagined them running all over the vines and flower stems eating all the colorful foliage like the frosting on a cake. I worked my way into the tangle of flowering stuff, dug a little hole in the dirt and gently placed the box in and covered it. I felt good about their place here and didn’t feel like there was anything else to say.

The state of my own home didn’t give me much hope of finding anything substantial in my neighbor’s houses, but it was worth a look. I kept wondering where everybody else ended up, the street was deserted.

Searching from house to house, if a door was closed I would knock and yell to see if anyone was inside. I figured if anyone was home they would probably be happy to respond to a non-zombie at the door. That was my thinking anyway. I was concerned they might be freaked out after having been through so much up here they might be a little jumpy. Proceeding with caution seemed to be a good idea.

As it turned out, it was a non issue. Most of the doors were busted down like mine. Having a look inside several homes I didn’t find much, other than a lot of blood.

It was obvious, lots of people had died here. There were several houses I couldn’t bring myself to enter. The stench was so bad I knew there would be bodies inside. I needed food, but I didn’t think I could eat anything found in a place that putrid.

The only food I found was a box of Mac and cheese. It had a corner eaten off by rodents, but the internal wrapper was intact. There were two beers in Tom O’Malley’s garage. “Thanks, Tom” I said as I stuffed them in my pack for later. The rest of the houses on my street had proved to be a waste of time.

My most interesting find was made in the street. It looked like graffiti, fresh graffiti. A mix of confusion and excitement rush through me. It looked like it wasn’t put there for decoration or just vandalism sake. It looked like it may have been a message. Someone had painted a roller-skate with a simple looking flower growing out of it, on either side of the stem there was the letter “D”, and beneath the wheels of the skate was the word “CLEAR” and was dated, three and a half weeks ago. I had no idea what it meant. It could have meant there were no people left in this neighborhood. It could have meant there were no zombies here. Or, it could have been left by my last neighbored to clear out. I had no idea. It certainly had me wondering. Why a roller-skate?

I did find something else of interest in O’Malley’s garage; his daughter’s bike. It was a small mountain bike with a pink and purple frame. It said “Daisy Rocket” on the frame. It also had a white wicker basket attached to the handlebars. She used to ride it  around the neighborhood with her little dog in the basket. I hoped she and her dog were somewhere safe. But, finders keepers, the bike belonged to me now. The basket would come in handy for carrying any supplies I found.

I was mobile.

Roding through other neighborhoods, they were in the same condition mine had been. All the homes were abandoned, broken windows and doors were the norm. The streets were littered with burned-out cars. The remains of violence were everywhere. I didn’t see any bodies, but there was plenty of blood and gore. There were a few places where it looked like a pile of bodies had been burned. I had no way of telling if the bodies were those of zombies or not, but I hoped they were. Every street had at least one home burned to the ground.

There were also more of the painted messages on the streets. They didn’t all have the same skate symbol as the one on my street, but they were similar. One I saw was a stick figure skeleton wearing skates and holding a big mug and a sword. It was dated within a few days of the one on my street. I saw several others with different images but the same basic message, “Clear” as of a certain date. Clear, seemed like a good message to leave. Clear of anything had to be a good thing. A few had a number with a line through it beneath the word clear. I just wasn’t sure what to make of them, but it did give me some hope. Maybe, I wasn’t the only person left in the world.

I rode my bike in the direction of the local grocery store and shopping center. I hoped there might be some food left on the shelves. I was getting worried. If I didn’t find a source of food, I would have to take my chances with my garden. And, even with that, my days would be numbered, there just wasn’t enough there to feed me for long. My dad’s MRE supply would last me for a few months. But, if I had to relocate to survive, I would need those on the road.

The lack of zombies had me feeling optimistic. Maybe they were all gone and the challenge now, would be to simply to survive the Zombie aftermath. The corpse in my garden made me doubt this, but hope is a great motivator, I wanted to believe it however unlikely.

“It's time to go shopping.” Talking to myself, I picked up the pace.

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24. 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 engaging the reader with the character
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • The character desires something.
  • The character does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question.

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

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


Daniel sends the first chapter of Homesick. The rest follows the break.

Alabaster McKenzie

Blue cigarette smoke lingered between me and my opponent—a miner with scattered patches of dark hair. A rowdy crowd took bets on who was going to win. I glimpsed at the odds table and saw my name in the lead. As it should be.

Frown all you want, soon you’ll be crying. 

I glanced at the cards: three Crosses—close to an unbeatable combination. I’d been toying with the guy all night, now was the time to finish the charade. I pushed my chips in. All or nothing. 

He licked his lips and showed me his cards—two Crowns and a Sceptre. A combo that happened once. In. A. Million. He grabbed the chips with a smirk. 

I dragged myself from the chair, pushed my way through the crowd, and stumbled out of the Gambling Room in a haze. I rubbed my tired eyes.

Someone from inside shouted, “Franklin has beaten the Bass. Congratulations!” 

I followed the lava tube’s amber lights to The Tharsis, one of a few canteens in the colony that served my favourite drink. I needed something strong to wash away the bad taste from my mouth. Patrons in grey jumpsuits sat next to a jukebox in the corner. Bionics. I slouched on the nearest barstool and raised a finger. 

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The voice and writing are clear and strong, and we’re opening with an immediate scene. There’s conflict, too—unfortunately, it’s soon over and the tension is gone. A character we don’t know loses at a gambling game. For this reader, not a compelling scenario. What are the consequences of losing all his chips? What’s his desire, other than to win? What changes in his life does this loss cause? No hints about those things.

It turns out that this takes place on Mars—it would have been good to establish that when setting the scene. Plenty of setup follows before we get to something happening for this character, and the same goes for the next one. I suggest that you try to get your characters into trouble sooner.

Your thoughts?

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 © 2016 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2016 by Daniel

Continued:

“Watcha havin’?” asked the barman.

 “A Skevie on the rocks.” I removed my jacket and folded it on my knees. The scent of old sweat and defeat wafted up and stung me. That dark spot on the sleeve looks like someone’s rubbed their nose on it.

The barman dropped a pair of ice cubes in a glass, poured the purple liquid, and handed it over. I swallowed the drink—the lemon and liquorice taste scorching my throat. 

A screen behind the counter displayed a slideshow of Martian landscapes—endless red dunes, a close-up of miners showing thumbs up to the camera, and the old Curiosity rover tomb.

Who in their right mind would visit that monument? I need to get off this rock.

One tall man kicked the jukebox and soft piano music started playing.

A voice from behind interrupted my thoughts. “Hey, why the stoneface, Alabaster?”

Only one person dares pulling that joke …

I sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to cheer me up?” 

My agent, Rence Parkell, a short man in a black suit, smiled and sat on the stool next to me. 

“You’re wanted by the Bionics in the next event. It’ll feature hot-shot politicians from Earth who want to play with our Poccarat celebrity. We need their support.”

“I’d have more fun poking a rat.” I emptied my glass and motioned the bartender for a refill.

“Regardless, you’d need to be in top form.” He stared at me intently. 

I arched my eyebrows. 

“You lost tonight, didn’t you?” he said.

“Temporary lapse of judgment.”

“Bass, nothing’s temporary here. You don’t lose games, that’s why you’re employed to represent them.”

The jukebox switched to a classic song by Frank Sinatra.

“I know you’d rather do things your way,” continued Rence, “but Kápros wants to see you tomorrow morning.”

I sighed. “What’s the rush?” 

He moved in a bit too close, his peppermint breath slapping me across the face. “This is your chance, Bass. These politicians are powerful. Influential. Rich.”

“That’s what you said last time.”

“This is different.” He shook his head. “Besides, some people say you’re losing your touch.”

“Who?”

“Some people.”

“You’re an arsehole, Rence.”

The barman served a second Skevie. 

 “Don’t you see? This is an opportunity, Bass.”

“Their events are a waste of time. The Bionics can handle their own damn PR.” 

The idea of another year of fake smiling and playing cards didn’t thrill my bones. My family waited for me on Earth, and I’d already been here far too long. “I’m going home.” I clapped Rence on the shoulder.

“Aren’t you finishing your drink at least?”

“You can have it. Pick up the tab too.” 

He tried to protest but I ignored him and walked out. 

***

 The air vents were closing for the night. It had something to do with the Bionics not wanting oxygen circulation in the corridors during the evening. My theory was that rebels from the Darsis colony would hesitate to attack in a vacuum. The lights had been dimmed too. Long volcanic stalactites glistened above me, reflecting the gloomy light ahead. I inhaled deeply before stumbling into the hallway.

The sliding doors of my quarters were ajar. I entered. Paper had been scattered on the floor and my sofa torn apart. 

What were they looking for?

I peered behind my wardrobe. Kylia’s locket was gone! My head started to spin and I felt queasy. The oxygen had escaped the room when the doors had been left open. 

The room danced in circles round me. Faster and faster. Until it stopped.

***

 Amaryllis Cayne

The implant inside my left wrist itched. I scratched until my skin turned red. I’d asked my parents for a pair of earrings before we arrived a few weeks ago, but they thought jewellery wasn’t suitable for a fourteen-year-old girl. I would probably not be allowed to wear nail polish or lipstick until I turned 50.

Mum gave me my bag outside the school and said, “Remember what we’ve talked about.”

I sighed. “Mars is our opportunity for a better life. I get it. Dad’s been saying that a lot lately.”

“That’s right. And we’re grateful, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” I muttered.

“Please don’t scratch your wrist, Ammie. Dad and I are going back to the mines, but we’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Why isn’t he here, mum?”

“I don’t know, honey, something came up. But we love you very much. Don’t forget to think happy thoughts, okay?” 

“Promise.”

 The portable display on my desk lit up. “Name three steps to glory.” 

I didn’t have to think, my chip already knew. I typed in the answers, making sure they were spelled correctly. A humming sound inside the classroom grew louder. A large display at the front of the classroom lit up, revealing a bald man with piercing white pupils. “Children of Bionics,” he said. “Next week you will join the ranks of our glorious community.”

His smooth voice sickened me. I made a gagging motion to my neighbour, a short boy with a lot of hair. He replied with a stern look. Spoilsport. 

The bald man droned on about human glory, fortunes, and blah blah blah. My parents were slaving in the mines beneath Mars’ surface. Where was the glory in that? 

I accessed my desk panel, skimming through photos of Earth. Children playing in the sand underneath a blue sky. I’d love to be on a beach. I rubbed my wrist again.

“Amaryllis, pay attention,” whispered Spoilsport.

Horrid images of hands, riddled with scars and warts, flashed on the front display. “These damaged limbs will need replacement to continue the required hard labour,” said a voice-over. “We always need large, strong limbs for the necessary duties in the mines.”

I closed my eyes. I’d seen them every night since we arrived—every time Dad hugged me. He never complained though. He seemed to believe it was a necessary sacrifice, but I couldn’t help feeling heartbroken. 

“The Bionic upgrade program starts tomorrow. Tell your parents to play it like Bass and they could become the chosen ones. Until then: pure thoughts and healthy minds.” The voice faded out. 

A siren blared and the displays went blank—the signal I’d been longing for. Everyone rose in unison and recited the last stanzas from Unity Through Wisdom in the Bionic Bible: 

We’re unified in peace.

Together against Darsis.

Kápros, our benevolent leader.

Leading to glory.

 I took my display and stuffed it inside my rucksack. The other students shuffled out of the classroom and into the hallway, where the machines scanned them for Earth objects. Spoilsport approached me, his breath stinking of tuna.

“You’ll get into trouble,” he said. “What’s with the Earth photos anyway?”

“They remind me of home.” I shrugged. “I don’t want to stay here.”

Spoilsport shook his head, revealing small ears behind his mane of hair. “The Bionics are heroes, y’know. The first humans on Mars. Take a leaf out of their book if you want to survive.”

I rubbed my wrist. “The implant’s driving me crazy. Do you think there’s a way of … removing …?”

His eyes widened. “Don’t say that!” He backed away with quick steps and joined the departing crowd.

I left the classroom and passed through a series of machines that perform a Bionics check. I’d been told anyone caught by them was “caned”—punished. I didn’t own any Earth items, and they hadn’t said anything about photos not being allowed, so I didn’t worry about getting caught.

The machinery scanned me: two lights, one red, one blue, shone into my eyes. I blinked. It stopped for a moment, and a mechanical voice said, “Insert chip into slot.” 

I slotted my hand into a small opening. The device made a series of high-pitched tones. “Impure thoughts recorded.” Something sharp caught my hand. 

“Let go,” I shouted. 

The cold metal gripped my wrist tighter. “Beginning assessment,” said the voice. “Assessment concluded. Impure thoughts detected. Severe correctional measures initiated.” 

My knees shook and my heart leapt up into my throat. I tried pulling my hand out. Excruciating pain blasted my shoulder. I shrieked and twisted my wrist in panic, but it wouldn’t budge. Several bursts of agonising electric shocks surged along my arm. I convulsed.

I fell to my knees, tears flowing. The metal grip round my hand released and I collapsed onto the floor in spasms. Shaking, I clung to the wall and got to my feet. I couldn’t feel my left arm. 

A bald man wearing a grey jumpsuit approached me. He had a tiny display round his chest showing his heartbeat. He put his hands on my shoulders, white pupils staring straight through me. “Dear child, we cannot tolerate impure longings.” He shook his head. “This is your home now.”

Tears flowed, clouding my vision. Keeping my head down, I tucked a few red strips of hair behind my ears. Through hiccups of sobs I stuttered, “Yes, sir.”

The Bionic placed a finger under my chin, tilting my head back. “Hush now, child. Let us not mention this again. Remember what the Bionic Bible says about impurities.”

I wiped away my tears with a sleeve, and picked up my rucksack. “Impurities … are like salt in our drinking water, sir.” My cheeks burned. 

The Bionic caressed my hand with his cold touch. “And too much salt is harmful. Now go.”  

With hunched shoulders I hurried home.

***

I retreated through the lava tubes to our yard, glancing behind me in case a Bionic followed. The colony was a metallic jungle inside the Tharsis Montes volcano, connected by narrow corridors. The Bionics patrolled most of them.

Our quarters were cramped and stuffy. We only had a coffee table, a chair, and three bunks. With aching limbs, I threw myself onto the worn chair. I sat with my head buried in my palms, still shaking from shock and humiliation. Why’s this happening to me? I hate this place. I just want to go home. 

I wept again. 

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25. Flog a BookBubber 24: Jinx Schwartz

Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, It seemed to me that it could be educational to take a hard look at their first pages. If you don’t know about BookBub, it’s a pretty nifty way to try to build interest in your work. The website is here.

I’m mostly sampling books that are offered for free—BookBub says  that readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments follow, along with the book cover, the author’s name, and a link so you can take a look for yourself if you wish. At Amazon you can click on the Read More feature to get more of the chapter if you’re interested. There’s a second poll concerning the need for an editor.

Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s the first chapter from Just Needs Killin’, a free mystery novel by Jinx Schwartz. It is the sixth in a series.

My VHF radio crackled to life and a familiar, if tremulous, voice carried throughout the cabin. "Raymond Johnson, Raymond Johnson, this is Jan. I'm at the marina office. Can you please, please, come get me?"

That quaver spoke volumes— volumes of ca-ca.

Not that I wasn't happy to hear from my best friend, but Jan turning up unannounced at Puerto Escondido, coupled with the telling timbre of the call, was a dead-on harbinger of an impending pity party. Or worse.

Her pitiful plea was, unfortunately, broadcast throughout the cruising community for miles around. I envisioned boaters lunging for their radios, poised to switch to whichever channel I chose in order to answer Jan's call. Dashing their hopes of "reading the mail" and listening in on what promised to be a titillating conversation, I answered with a simple, "I'll be right there," followed by a smug, "Ha!" after I let go of the transmit key and gleefully imagined a collective sigh of disappointment wafting my way on a light breeze. We boaters are so easily titillated.

Wondering, however, whether the last laugh might be on me, I let loose a sigh of my own, and said, "Po Thang, let us go fetch your po Auntie Jan and see what manner of well-known substance has hit the friggin' propeller."

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Just Needs KillinThis book received an average Amazon rating of 4.4 stars. I liked the voice and the writing—since this is the sixth book in the series, her regular readers must like them as well, along with the stories. But, for me, no compelling story questions arose in what is primarily all setup. This is, by the way, all of the first chapter. For a reader unfamiliar with the series, the use of “Raymond Johnson” leads one to think that’s the name of a male protagonist. Well, the protagonist is female, and Raymond Johnson is the name of her boat. Confusing. I’d appreciate editing that got this story started on the first page. It wasn’t until about the 16th Kindle page that there was a hint of story, but still little in the way of tension. A leisurely, well written narrative that didn’t, for me, turn out to be a page-turner.

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow. You can turn the page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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