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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 13

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. I’ve noticed that many of these folks use a prologue—this one does, but it’s so short I’m skipping ahead to the first chapter. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 the first page from a book by Dick Cluster.

“… too many changes at once,” Alex was saying. He recognized this for a rationalization, and an old, barnacle-encrusted one to boot. He wondered how many other times it had been enunciated, sotto voce, over this same slippery table, by men or women whose fingertips traced, as his did, circles of diluted bourbon on the black Formica top. He envied the piano player, whose dry fingers glided brilliantly over shiny keys.

The pianist, Meredith had said, was playing a song cycle by Franz Peter Schubert. Alex hadn’t been able to identify the composer, though he could have said it was a European who worked after Bach and before Stravinsky. He did happen to know one surprising fact about Schubert— at least it had been surprising to him— which was that he had died even younger than Mozart, at the age of thirty-one. “Hey, listen,” Alex had said more than once since coming upon this fact, “I’ve already outlived Schubert by nine years, and Che Guevara by one.”

Tonight Alex had expected jazz piano, not classical. And why not, when he had watched the pianist amble in from his break: a dapper man, rimless glasses and well-shaped mustache, a sort of older Herbie Hancock, though then Alex had realized that Herbie Hancock himself wasn’t so young anymore. The musician had sat down, flexed his long brown fingers, and conjured these august Germanic rhythms out of the machine.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow.

Repulse monkeyThe writing and voice are good, but, as a little old lady once said in a hamburger commercial, “Where’s the beef?” A man sits at a table in a bar, musing. Then there’s some backstory. Then a piano player plays music. Story questions? None here and, with an opening this languid, I suspected it wouldn’t appear for far too many pages. I passed. You can turn the first page here.

Edit poll

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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2. Flogometer for Tamara--are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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.


Tamara sends a revision of her first chapter of This Bitter Cup. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

“Cora, get away from the window!” mother shrieks. “Someone will see you.”

I leave the small window with murky glass, allowing the curtain to drift back into place. “Mother, just who is ‘someone’?”

Them! They will never stop until they have us. They seek us relentlessly and we must not let them win. We must not.”

“Let them win what? Since father died, we’ve lost everything.” My words come out too curt and I hadn’t intended that. So, I pull in a deep breath before trying again. “Exactly who is out there?”

“It doesn’t matter if you know who they are. You could know precisely who they are and still never find them. They are quiet clever, ingenious with disguise. Practically imperceptible. I keep telling you­­­­­­­­­­―do not trust anyone. You must listen to me; our lives depend on it and much, much more,” she declares, her agitation growing until she chokes with intensity. She swallows hard to compose herself. And when she speaks again, her voice is soothing, comforting, almost like a real mother. “Cora, I trust you.”

I want to believe her, but I see the manic eyes and crazed expression. They make me want to shout, yank out my hair, or run through the door, but instead I utter, “Then why won’t you tell me something—anything.”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good story questions and tension in this opening, enough to make me want to know more. The writing is pretty clean, but you should capitalize Mother and Father when they are used as names as you do here. And I think you meant “quite clever,” not “quiet clever.” Stay with it, there’s promise here.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Tamara

 

Continued:

“I don’t want them to have any information they can torture out of you.”

Chills cascade over my body and I shiver.

Mother nods sagely, acknowledging that I’m right to be fearful.

But I push the dark, forbidding feelings away. They’re a temporary weakness. A feral response to her threatening predictions and I refuse to be frightened of something without a name. It could be a person, a thing, or some existential idea—I don’t know. Because living with my mother is like living in a bizarre, tangled-up spy conspiracy. Except, the only true twist to our scenario —we play the game alone.

I glance over at mother; she’s pale and ragged, too thin and unkempt. A mere shadow of her former self. My scrutiny moves to the lank brown hair she’s carelessly chopped short. It’s a chaotic wreck; a hapless, derelict helmet dumped on top her head. Without meaning to my forehead furrows.

Mother senses my gaze and the clickity-clicking of her rapid knitting needles stops. She glances up from the cloister of the shabby, green chair and blinks back at me, resembling a confused, old owl. So, forcing a reassuring smile, I meet her eyes and hold them until she’s content to resume her work.

Meager sunlight seeps by the taut curtains, leaving a single gas lamp to provide illumination. The stale room holds no decorations and only a minimal amount of furniture: mother’s chair, the gas lamp on a short table, a blocky ottoman. Since all mother’s moving has whittled down her existence, she lives like a transient; hence the house resembles its owner, an empty shell.

I wander toward the only other piece of furniture and perch myself on the edge. In unsatisfied silence, I wait for the clock to drag its hands to noon. Until a knock at the door shatters the calm.

Mother’s head whips up, her body rigid, her breathing rapid.

“I’ll get it.”

“No! Go to the kitchen. Do something quiet,” mother flings out her words like silent, whizzing shrapnel.

I purse my lips and roll my eyes, but I obey.

Mother waits until I step around the corner to open the door.

“Mrs. Kent, a grocery delivery for you,” a man states.

“I only receive deliveries on Wednesday.” A pause. “Why are you really here?”

“Ma’am, your delivery date changed. It is now Tuesday. Check the bags, they should hold everything you ordered.”

I hear rustling, then mother says, “It’s all there. But, that doesn’t mean this isn’t odd.”

In my imagination I picture mother staring at him with a hawk-like stare while the man squirms with discomfort.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” the man replies after a brief pause.

“I know who you are and why you’re here, but don’t believe for a moment I will tell you anything. My husband and I made a pact and I don’t intend on breaking it now.”

Feeling sorry for the man, I step out of the kitchen. “It’s fine, mother. Let me carry the bags.” I give the man an apologetic smile, but he stares back at me with a well-arched frown, his long, stretchy neck reaching forward so his eyes can examine me.

Mother looks back at me with horror before she shoves the man backward, steps out after him, and shuts the door behind her, barricading me inside. A muffled exchange of heated words follows and then improbably fast, mother bursts through the door and slams it shut.

“Mother, it was a grocery delivery. You must recognize the grocer. He’s not one of them.”

“You can’t know that,” she snaps.

“It doesn’t matter anyway, Father wasn’t killed by them. You realize where he worked—in the wilds, one of the most hostile, most impossible environments anywhere.”

She huffs back at me before moving to place her ear at the door, listening for some unseen evil that lurks around doorways in broad daylight.

“And that was just the benign landscape. What about the Duroians. Those monsters roam the countryside like a plague and they would have annihilated father and his team in an instant.” I wave my hands in intensity. “But, the Duroians are not them, and they had nothing to do with Father’s death. Ill-fated circumstances caused his end. Father warned us many times of the risks and we both accepted it, always thinking nothing unfortunate would ever happen...,” I let my voice trail off.

“Foolish, naive girl,” is the reply she deigns. For like always, mother remains silent on the subject, refusing to discuss or even acknowledge father’s death and our reality.

But as long as she’s stuck in this black, sucking void of delusion, I’m alone in the world. Mother’s all I have left, so I can’t give up. “Surely you haven’t forgotten everything. Somewhere in your mind you’ve got to remember what father told us. His caution, his concern, his surety that tragedy would disrupt his work. You can’t have lost it all.”

But she gazes back at me with this sad, pathetic face. Almost like she pities me.

Her reaction makes me angry. Angry she can be so weak. That she can wallow, broken and helpless when she should be strong. Strong for me. I was the child. But somewhere our roles got mixed up, and she became the child, insistent and irrational and incapable of caring for me or herself. And this weakness, this inaction makes me want to lash out, shake her, strike her, throw things, and shout. Anything. I would do absolutely anything to make her see reason.

But all the fury in the world, all the force, all the sound arguments could hold no sway over the fantasy. I need proof. Hard facts. I must discover the truth and bring back my mother. I understood long ago real evidence was the only way to right her mind. So, I resign to say no more. Instead of angry, self-righteous, indignant arguments, I will smile, reassure, and play the good daughter. It is the right thing to do, the kind thing. And it is more important to be good.

I’m deciding my course of action while mother sneaks around, listening at every opening for even a whisper of a threat. When she feels satisfied no imminent peril threatens, she moves back to her knitting, resuming a frenetic pace. I slouch on my seat opposite her and stare into the empty air wondering why I haven’t taken her to a therapist.

When the carriage finally arrives for me at noon, we give each other a stiff hug in an unemotional farewell. She gives me her usual somber warnings with a face pale and pinched from anxiety while I dutifully accept her advice. Then she holds out a pair of knobby, woeful socks and nods at me to accept them. Our eyes meet for the briefest moment before I take the socks with a tight smile and scamper out the door towards the waiting carriage. As soon as the door clicks shut, it begins to rumble away and like always, I try to hide the hollow, empty spot in my chest that emerges when I must go.

Sticking my arm out the window, I give mother a quick goodbye wave she doesn’t see, but only because she’s already slammed the door shut. Probably securing all seven heavy-duty, industrial locks too. So, I don’t bother checking to see if she will peek through the curtains to watch me fade into the distance. I know she would never risk such unnecessary exposure. I don’t even turn to watch the elementary shape of mother’s house disappear into the surrounding identical homes. Instead, I lean back and speculate how long it will be before mother moves on because of another threatening notion.

After traveling for five days along lonely, poorly maintained roads through a sea of muted greens and browns, I arrive at the gate to the forward operating base I call home. Bags in hand, I check in with the gate attendant while my carriage rambles away. The man with the too-small eyes and little-to-no neck processes me at a glacial pace, asking an exorbitant number of questions, checking then rechecking my bags, conducting an overly thorough physical inspection and then cross-examining me again. When he finally grants me clearance, I lug my baggage towards the main compound that is dark, institutional, and foreboding.

In the Social Republic, my base is considered quite modern. Although in reality, we operate in antiquity like everyone else. We may have electricity, but it’s for contemporary technologies, not human comfort. The government wants our commander in possession of every tool to war against the Duroians. For a residual amount of energy resources are left and a small amount of power is still in production, but there’s nothing available for average citizens. The Socialist and Duroian governments hold a monopoly on the dwindling energy supply and they wage war for what little remains.

I tell myself that even though I work on a military base, I am not part of the war effort. I’m only a physician here. I heal people. Though sometimes I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think I am part of the problem, mending soldiers that will fight for the government’s self-indulgent greed. I have talked about this with my only real friend on the base, Pasha. She tells me I think too much and to quit over-analyzing every detail— it’s a job; just do my job. I guess she’s probably right.

Pasha is one of the few women who work here. She’s a research scientist, and she’s extravagantly intelligent, but she doesn’t flaunt it to the extent she comes off eccentric and obscure like the other scientists. She has smooth, caramel skin and a slightly hooked nose that’s not so definitive as to make her unattractive. But her best feature by far is her long, glossy black hair. Except she knows this and having a flair for the dramatic, she often tosses it around. Honestly, I believe the only reason she works here is the abundance of single men.

Pasha finds me not long after I arrive and sits on the bed in my small, simply furnished quarters, eager to fill me in on the latest news and gossip. Well, mostly just gossip. She leads in with the most mundane news she deems worthy of repetition, “Matthew McGuffin broke his arm last week. He slipped on a pile of mashed potatoes in the dining hall. And, surprise, surprise, Shannequa Jamison dyed her hair again, blonde. She looks absolutely ridiculous and now she will never catch a man.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she concedes. “But that’s not the best news.” And before she will disclose a single, delicious word, Pasha waits for me to glance up while tapping her foot with impatience.

Catching the hint, I pause my unpacking to look back at her with the most pathetic attempt of showing interest imaginable.

She laughs. “You won’t look so afflicted when I tell you the news.”

My face remains unchanged.

Undeterred, her eyes grow large, her face animated. “A large company of soldiers will arrive, accompanied by a new base commander. His name is Commander Alessio Ferrair and I understand he is a vision to behold.”

I turn back to my unpacking.

“You could try to act interested, Cora. This will matter to you tomorrow.”

I sigh and sit, turning my face towards her with unblinking eyes to show I’m giving her my full attention.

She puckers her face up, disgruntled. “Well, it obviously doesn’t matter to certain people, but I’m tired of weak, ugly men who think having a backbone means shouting, issuing threats, and degrading people. I’m ready for a handsome, young man who understands how to lead and also happens to be single.”

“What does that have to do with the new base commander?”

“You really don’t pay attention to anything that isn’t right in front of your face do you?”

“Then please explain,” I reply, wishing she would get on with it. I have so much to accomplish before my shift in the infirmary tonight.

“I told you that a new commander is arriving. But what I haven’t told you yet,” she pauses for dramatic effect, “is that he’s supposed to be devastatingly handsome, not just a nice-looking guy, but inhumanly gorgeous. He’s tall, powerfully built, and a real muscle man. Absolutely Grecian god-like.” Pasha raises her eyebrows in tantalizing expression.

“My source says he’s young for a commander as well. Maybe only a few years older than us. Kinda makes you wonder how he rose to the top so fast. I bet there’s a good story there and I will find that out, but for now, the incomparable Commander Ferrair leads the only battalion entirely comprised of men and it’s one of the only groups with enough skill and passion to equal their Duroian counterparts. It’s reported that they are so fierce and so brilliant they have never seen defeat. Well that’s what I’ve heard anyway, though I’m sure it’s true, because it came from a very reliable source.

“But I am warning you, there will be many injured, because these men are arriving straight from a bloody engagement with the Duroians in the volcanic mountain range and it’s said they drove the Duroians deep into their own territory. Of course, this success must be credited where it belongs.” Pasha beams. “To Commander Ferrair, obviously.” Her eyes hold a far-away glaze, “He must be so dashing.”

“I wonder how this commander can do anything but fail, with such unrealistic expectations,” I counter.

Although Pasha continues as if I hadn’t spoken, citing an ever-increasing list of mythical qualities the new commander and his soldiers, must certainly possess. Until finally, she concludes with a confident raise of her chin, “Well, now that I know everything about him, it’s obvious we’re fated for each other. I mean he’s so perfect. How could we not fall madly and desperately in love? So, I’m preparing for our wedding. Military style, of course. I mean you never can start these things too early. Military men expect everything to be meticulous.” She pauses to sigh dreamily. Before recovering to add, “Well, I can hardly wait to meet him. I’ve picked out my outfit and make-up combination, but how do you think I should wear my hair?”

Now, I smile at her openly and she grins confidently at me in return, though I can’t help wondering how she found out so much concerning the commander and his battalion. I mean the new battalion is big news and such interesting information spreads fast, but the extent of Pasha’s knowledge is ridiculous. However, within hours of her predictions regarding the state of the arriving men, I find out that Pasha was right. About everything.

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

Submissions Desired. 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.


EJ sends a revision of her first chapter of Called . The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“How many girls, mom?”

“I only invited a couple dozen girls and their parents, Mackenzie. You will be polite and have a good time.”

Two-dozen girls? Kill me now.

“What made you think I would enjoy this?" I asked.

“Because we’ve been in South Carolina since the middle of May and you need to find some girlfriends." She thought she was helping me, I know, but still. “Mackenzie, you need to branch out.”

I took a deep breath. “Mom, I like my life the way it is—it’s uncomplicated, plain, and simple. My friends live in my iPod, and my therapist within the pages of books."

“You had friends in Lubbock.” My mother let out a sigh. “Here it seems like you’ve retreated into yourself because you’re afraid of getting hurt. School is starting on Monday. Don’t you think it’d be nice to, at least, have a few acquaintances?”

My shoulders slumped. “I had a friend in Lubbock, and she sailed the good ship Brad to Relationship Island never to be heard from again." I looked up. “Plus, you know how I feel about large crowds."

She eyed me closely. “You know, most girls want their 16th birthday party to be huge." My mom turned to grab the tenth batch of cupcakes to frost.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the voice, and the writing is good. Mackenzie says funny things, and I liked the promise of more entertaining prose and thoughts. On the other hand, I suspect that this opening would only be compelling to a seriously introverted teen. The only story question raised is the level of how bummed she will be while attending a party in her honor. The stakes? Not much. What’s the story about? Don’t know. The remainder of the chapter continues in a similar vein, ending with Mackenzie getting ready to dress for the party. As far as I can see, there are no consequences to her attending, and really no desires that can be frustrated other than not going to a party. I suspect the real story starts later, and, considering the fun of the character, I’d like to read that part.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

 

Continued:

“We both know I’m not most girls, mom."

“I know and I know you don’t like crowds, but the invitations have already been sent out. Your father wouldn’t allow the party to be canceled at this point. You know that, right?"

“Yes, I know."

I slipped off my seat, and stood looking at my mom.

“Can I go to my room now? If I’m going to survive tomorrow night, I need some me time."

My mom nodded and I went up the stairs to my room just as the sun started to set. In less than twenty-four hours my house would be so full of estrogen, middle-aged women wouldn’t need their hormone pills for weeks.

East of Eden was in the DVD player, and I snagged the remote before plopping onto my bed. My eyes closed as I crossed my arms behind my head. Hopefully, this would be my one and only birthday party.

The next morning as I descended the stairs, I heard karaoke music filtering out of the living room. If the morning was any indication of how the night was to be, then I was in for a long night. An excruciatingly, long night.

I peeked around the corner of the kitchen into the living room, and sure enough, a small stage was set up. There were pink streamers taped from each corner to the center of the ceiling. The couches had been replaced with uncomfortable metal chairs and they were angled to face a mini-stage.

My dad was the one doing the sound check. He was butchering Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I would have asked God for relief, but at that moment, I’m positive He had his hands over his ears.

My dad was a preacher which makes me a preacher’s kid. He had expectations of me—so did every church member I’ve ever met. My problem was I excelled in never achieving the level of expectations he had of me. It made for a contentious relationship, to say the least.

He was on the chorus when he saw me and stopped. I guess I hadn’t been quick enough to hide the grimace on my face.

His eyes narrowed. “You need to check your attitude. Remember, you have just as much an obligation to the congregation as your mother and I do. Just think of this party as a way to make up for your lack of interest.”

My shoulders drooped, and I hung my head.

Obligation? I don’t remember filling out any job applications before joining this family.

My palms started stinging and I realized I’d dug my fingernails into them. I wanted so badly to say what I was thinking, but I knew it would be pointless.

“Yes, sir,” I said and turned to my mom. “I’m sorry, mom, thanks for the party. I’m sure it will be great." I mustered all the sincerity I could.

“Jack, I’m sure she’s just nervous. She doesn’t know anyone." Then she looked at me. “Mackenzie, get upstairs and get ready to go. I have an appointment for you to get your hair and makeup done. Be ready to leave in an hour.”

Aw, man…makeup? This day should be classified as torture.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be ready." Sadness hung on every word, but my parents were deaf.

I was dressed and waiting for my mom by the car an hour later. Moncks Corner was a small town less than an hour from the coast. It was absolutely beautiful, and I could smell the salt in the air even that far inland. It was just as hot as Lubbock, but the humidity was a completely different experience.

Lubbock was a dry heat…kinda like being roasted. Moncks Corner, on the other hand, was a wet heat; like being steamed. It really didn’t affect me though because I was always cold. The stares I got didn’t lessen in my new town. Those looks, like, who’s the freak in 120-degree weather wearing a long sleeve shirt?

My mom chattered about girl stuff the entire twenty-five minute drive to Northwood’s Mall and continued babbling the entire two hours we were in the salon. My favorite part was the hairdryer. I couldn’t hear a thing.

On the way out of the mall, I caught sight of a clothing store my mom would enjoy. I picked out a pair of jeans that, according to her, actually fit.

When we arrived back home, my guests were already starting to arrive, almost an hour early. I sighed and it must have caught my mom’s attention.

She was quiet and composed when she spoke which meant scary Mom was close to being unleashed. “Mackenzie, I love you, but you will be on your best behavior tonight. These girls are part of your father’s church. Do I make myself clear, young lady?” It wasn’t a request, but a demand.

“Yes,” I said curtly and jumped out of the car.

Inside, there were five girls and their parents. A couple of them were deacons, and the others were members of the choir. That’s when my brain kicked in—it wasn’t about me making friends, this was schmoozing and church politics.

Great.

“Hi,” A deep voice shook me out of my thoughts. “You’re Mackenzie, right?" It was the lead elder, Elijah Garret, and father of Blair and Daphne Garret. From what I’d gathered, they were the two most popular girls at Berkeley High School.

I cleared my throat. “Uh, yea…yes, sir. I’m Mac.”

“Well, Mackenzie,” he said, emphasizing my name, “it’s nice to meet you. My daughters should be here soon or, well, I hope so. Those two girls like to make entrances so they might be late." He eyed me up and down as he shook my hand.

“Um, ok.” I chewed on my lip. “Well, I’d better get upstairs and changed. I don’t really like making entrances. I’m pretty much happy being a wallflower." I turned and ran for the stairs.

I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, and pulled out my new clothes.

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, chapter © 2016 by EJ

Add a Comment
4. Flogometer for EJ—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Desired. 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.


EJ sends a revision of her first chapter of Called . The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“How many girls, mom?” “I only invited a couple dozen girls and their parents, Mackenzie. You will be polite and have a good time.” Two-dozen girls? Kill me now.

“What made you think I would enjoy this?" I asked.

“Because we’ve been in South Carolina since the middle of May and you need to find some girlfriends." She thought she was helping me, I know, but still. “Mackenzie, you need to branch out.” I took a deep breath. “Mom, I like my life the way it is—it’s uncomplicated, plain, and simple. My friends live in my iPod, and my therapist within the pages of books."

“You had friends in Lubbock.” My mother let out a sigh. “Here it seems like you’ve retreated into yourself because you’re afraid of getting hurt. School is starting on Monday. Don’t you think it’d be nice to, at least, have a few acquaintances?”

My shoulders slumped. “I had a friend in Lubbock, and she sailed the good ship Brad to Relationship Island never to be heard from again." I looked up. “Plus, you know how I feel about large crowds."

She eyed me closely. “You know, most girls want their 16th birthday party to be huge." My mom turned to grab the tenth batch of cupcakes to frost.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the voice, and the writing is good. Mackenzie says funny things, and I liked the promise of more entertaining prose and thoughts. On the other hand, I suspect that this opening would only be compelling to a seriously introverted teen. The only story question raised is the level of how bummed she will be while attending a party in her honor. The stakes? Not much. What’s the story about? Don’t know. The remainder of the chapter continues in a similar vein, ending with Mackenzie getting ready to dress for the party. As far as I can see, there are no consequences to her attending, and really no desires that can be frustrated other than not going to a party. I suspect the real story starts later, and, considering the fun of the character, I’d like to read that part.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Continued:

“We both know I’m not most girls, mom."

“I know and I know you don’t like crowds, but the invitations have already been sent out. Your father wouldn’t allow the party to be canceled at this point. You know that, right?"

“Yes, I know."

I slipped off my seat, and stood looking at my mom.

“Can I go to my room now? If I’m going to survive tomorrow night, I need some me time."

My mom nodded and I went up the stairs to my room just as the sun started to set. In less than twenty-four hours my house would be so full of estrogen, middle-aged women wouldn’t need their hormone pills for weeks.

East of Eden was in the DVD player, and I snagged the remote before plopping onto my bed. My eyes closed as I crossed my arms behind my head. Hopefully, this would be my one and only birthday party.

The next morning as I descended the stairs, I heard karaoke music filtering out of the living room. If the morning was any indication of how the night was to be, then I was in for a long night. An excruciatingly, long night.

I peeked around the corner of the kitchen into the living room, and sure enough, a small stage was set up. There were pink streamers taped from each corner to the center of the ceiling. The couches had been replaced with uncomfortable metal chairs and they were angled to face a mini-stage.

My dad was the one doing the sound check. He was butchering Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I would have asked God for relief, but at that moment, I’m positive He had his hands over his ears.

My dad was a preacher which makes me a preacher’s kid. He had expectations of me—so did every church member I’ve ever met. My problem was I excelled in never achieving the level of expectations he had of me. It made for a contentious relationship, to say the least.

He was on the chorus when he saw me and stopped. I guess I hadn’t been quick enough to hide the grimace on my face.

His eyes narrowed. “You need to check your attitude. Remember, you have just as much an obligation to the congregation as your mother and I do. Just think of this party as a way to make up for your lack of interest.”

My shoulders drooped, and I hung my head.

Obligation? I don’t remember filling out any job applications before joining this family.

My palms started stinging and I realized I’d dug my fingernails into them. I wanted so badly to say what I was thinking, but I knew it would be pointless.

“Yes, sir,” I said and turned to my mom. “I’m sorry, mom, thanks for the party. I’m sure it will be great." I mustered all the sincerity I could.

“Jack, I’m sure she’s just nervous. She doesn’t know anyone." Then she looked at me. “Mackenzie, get upstairs and get ready to go. I have an appointment for you to get your hair and makeup done. Be ready to leave in an hour.”

Aw, man…makeup? This day should be classified as torture.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be ready." Sadness hung on every word, but my parents were deaf.

I was dressed and waiting for my mom by the car an hour later. Moncks Corner was a small town less than an hour from the coast. It was absolutely beautiful, and I could smell the salt in the air even that far inland. It was just as hot as Lubbock, but the humidity was a completely different experience.

Lubbock was a dry heat…kinda like being roasted. Moncks Corner, on the other hand, was a wet heat; like being steamed. It really didn’t affect me though because I was always cold. The stares I got didn’t lessen in my new town. Those looks, like, who’s the freak in 120-degree weather wearing a long sleeve shirt?

My mom chattered about girl stuff the entire twenty-five minute drive to Northwood’s Mall and continued babbling the entire two hours we were in the salon. My favorite part was the hairdryer. I couldn’t hear a thing.

On the way out of the mall, I caught sight of a clothing store my mom would enjoy. I picked out a pair of jeans that, according to her, actually fit.

When we arrived back home, my guests were already starting to arrive, almost an hour early. I sighed and it must have caught my mom’s attention.

She was quiet and composed when she spoke which meant scary Mom was close to being unleashed. “Mackenzie, I love you, but you will be on your best behavior tonight. These girls are part of your father’s church. Do I make myself clear, young lady?” It wasn’t a request, but a demand.

“Yes,” I said curtly and jumped out of the car.

Inside, there were five girls and their parents. A couple of them were deacons, and the others were members of the choir. That’s when my brain kicked in—it wasn’t about me making friends, this was schmoozing and church politics.

Great.

“Hi,” A deep voice shook me out of my thoughts. “You’re Mackenzie, right?" It was the lead elder, Elijah Garret, and father of Blair and Daphne Garret. From what I’d gathered, they were the two most popular girls at Berkeley High School.

I cleared my throat. “Uh, yea…yes, sir. I’m Mac.”

“Well, Mackenzie,” he said, emphasizing my name, “it’s nice to meet you. My daughters should be here soon or, well, I hope so. Those two girls like to make entrances so they might be late." He eyed me up and down as he shook my hand.

“Um, ok.” I chewed on my lip. “Well, I’d better get upstairs and changed. I don’t really like making entrances. I’m pretty much happy being a wallflower." I turned and ran for the stairs.

I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, and pulled out my new clothes.

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, chapter © 2016 by EJ

Add a Comment
5. Hiding Magic review--great page-turner

I want to share an Amazon reader review for Hiding Magic with you. It's the first that's come in.

Hiding-Magic-100wShadowA great page-turner

"Hiding Magic is a great sci-fi read that really relies more on the strengths of the story than on over-the-top super powers. Yes, there are certainly people with special abilities in the book, but that’s not the hook that keeps things interesting. There’s a tense game of cat and mouse being played between the two main characters and a tough as nails homeland security agent who’s convinced they’re terrorists. Throw in a megalomaniac scientist who wants to wipe out humankind with a bio germ and you get a pretty fast-paced story. . . Also, I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but I will say it didn’t turn out quite the way I expected it to. That’s always a bonus for me. . . . I highly recommend this."

You can read a sample chapter and purchase a signed copy from me here, or go to Amazon for either the paperback or the Kindle edition.

Add a Comment
6. Flog a BookBubber 12

Call for submissions for the Flogometer, none in the queue. Get fresh eyes on your opening page and chapter or prologue. See submission instructions at the bottom of any Flogometer post.


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. I’ve noticed that many of these folks use a prologue—I generally skip those books, but today I thought I’d try one. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 prologue from a book by Andy Straka.

Either homeboy had wigged out on us or forgotten his blue-faced, oyster shell Rolex. Better yet, rather than finger one of his own for murder, he had decided he preferred to perpetuate his still young life.

The snow could have been confetti the way it swirled in the glow from the streetlights and skittered across the hood of the unmarked. I blew on my frozen hands to stave off the numbness. Toronto, on the passenger side, nursed a tepid foam cup. We both stared down the street at the upper-floor windows of a darkened two-family, its sagging porch clashing badly with the well-tended look-alikes on either side. The block was out of our jurisdiction, off North Avenue in New Rochelle. Son of Sam territory from a decade before, a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood, tony section of Pelham a few hundred yards over the hill.

“It’s getting colder. You wanna call it a night?”

Jake Toronto looked more like a club bouncer than a detective. Short but linebacker broad, his ample shoulders shaped his turtleneck beneath an unbuttoned Knicks jacket. Narrow cheekbones looked out of proportion to the rest of him: a Roman nose, close-cropped black hair, and deep-set eyes. An aura of menace mixed with Old Spice seemed to surround him. He left you with the impression something boiled just beneath the surface with which you would not wish to contend.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow.

Witness AboveThe writing and voice in A Witness Above are strong, a good sign. The scene is set, and we know we’re dealing with cops on a mission. However . . . I found the first paragraph a little hard to parse. I had to read it a couple of times to understand that someone they had a meeting with hadn’t shown up. And, if this writer’d had me as an editor, he wouldn’t have spent all that narrative time describing his partner on the first page instead of getting on with the story. For me, that diversion was a warning sign that the writer hasn’t quite grasped the notion of a compelling first page. I passed.

You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

Add a Comment
7. Flogometer for Alice—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed—None Left 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.


Alice sends a revision of her first chapter of When the Tree Is Dry. The previous prologue/chapter are here. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

"Convince me." The tall man behind the cluttered mahogany desk folded his arms and leant back in his chair. A plastic nameplate beside him identified him as Ryan Channing, Trust Fund Manager.

Keera lifted her chin and studied Ryan’s face. Damn, this wasn’t going to be easy. How best to play it?

"The facts and figures are all here--" she began, pulling a neat, slim folder from her briefcase.

"Figures can be manipulated. Facts are not always facts.” He waited until she looked up at him. “I need something more than that. I need to know why I should take on your project, and not those." He waved his hand at a cabinet stacked with similar folders.

She stared at the wall behind him, her eyes narrowed. "You want something more?" She drummed her fingers lightly on the desk. It was worth a try. "How about this, then?" She reached into the briefcase, pulled out a much larger file and laid it on the desk in front of him. The open edge showed it to be crammed with papers of different types and sizes.

"Bedtime reading for a month?" He smiled, and in that moment, she no longer saw him as formidable. Crinkly lines appeared around his eyes, softening his face. “I’d rather you just told me what’s in it.”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

 The writing is certainly clean and clear. There’s a little bit of overwriting—I felt the staring at the wall apart, while Alice is trying to help us see the character in action, didn’t contribute much. But that’s not the key issue—for me, there were no compelling story questions raised. There are unknowns that might have helped—convince him of what, for example? And what are the consequences if she fails? As it is, we just know that she thinks it will be tough to convince him of something we don’t know about.

This opening takes place in 2016. A few pages later is a new segment dated 2008. For me, that had the start of an interesting story, so the first lines are below, followed by a poll. See what you think.

In Britain, the jails aren't bad. I had a cell to myself, with en suite facilities—well, a basic loo and washbasin behind a token piece of wall, but hey, they worked. It had a blanket, what passed for a mattress, and even air conditioning. I could have taught Her Majesty’s cleaners a thing or two, but at least they’d tried—the smell of cheap disinfectant proved it. British jails were a whole lot better than the digs I shared in Brixton.

It had all started with a bad Monday. My alarm didn’t go off, I missed the Tube by about thirty seconds, had to wait ten minutes for another, and almost skidded on black ice as I tried to make up time by running the last stretch. I paid no attention to the two scruffy characters bumming around outside the front door of the office building.

I climbed the narrow, dim-lit stairs like I was training for the Olympics, and was halfway across the landing before I saw the cops. Too late—they’d already seen me. No point trying to do a runner – the two lurkers outside were probably plainclothes cops, waiting for someone to try it. I joined about half a dozen of my co-workers, who stood about in the foyer looking as gloomy as the weather outside.

The door to the main office opened, and I peeped through it as old Blaine, my boss, came out escorted by two policemen. Inside, more cops ransacked filing cabinets, while another tapped at the computer.

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

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Alice

 Continued:

Where to start? After a moment, she opened the file and removed a photograph. She glanced at it, remembering. It showed a slim, fair woman with long legs, and two African girls, one tall and fine featured, the other, tiny and elf-like. They’d signed their names underneath: Claire, in bold, assertive writing, Florence, written with a flourish, and Sekai, in a neat, schoolgirl’s hand.

“It all started with three women.” Keera handed him the photo.

He reached out his hand for it. She felt a moment of awareness as their fingers touched. Hell, she needed to keep focussed. So much depended on her pulling this off.

He studied it. “Claire ... she’s a relation of yours?”

This surprised her. Few people saw the resemblance; Keera had dark, curly hair and curves. “My mother. But I didn’t think we were alike.”

His eyes rested on her for a long moment. “It’s the expression, mainly. So who are Florence and, er, Sekkay?”

“Se-kye,” she corrected automatically. “To rhyme with ‘eye.’” She chewed the end of her finger. Then she pulled the file towards her, and selected two printed sheets of paper. She added half a dozen handwritten pages torn from an exercise book. “Read just these? They’ll introduce you to Florence and Sekai. I asked them to write an account of ... what happened to them.”

He watched her, his eyes crinkling up again. He inclined his head, took the papers and began to read.

 London, England, January 2008: Florence’s account

In Britain, the jails aren't bad. I had a cell to myself, with en suite facilities—well, a basic loo and washbasin behind a token piece of wall, but hey, they worked. It had a blanket, what passed for a mattress, and even air conditioning. I could have taught Her Majesty’s cleaners a thing or two, but at least they’d tried—the smell of cheap disinfectant proved it. British jails were a whole lot better than the digs I shared in Brixton.

It had all started with a bad Monday. My alarm didn’t go off, I missed the Tube by about thirty seconds, had to wait ten minutes for another, and almost skidded on black ice as I tried to make up time by running the last stretch. I paid no attention to the two scruffy characters bumming around outside the front door of the office building.

I climbed the narrow, dim-lit stairs like I was training for the Olympics, and was halfway across the landing before I saw the cops. Too late—they’d already seen me. No point trying to do a runner – the two lurkers outside were probably plainclothes cops, waiting for someone to try it. I joined about half a dozen of my co-workers, who stood about in the foyer looking as gloomy as the weather outside.

The door to the main office opened, and I peeped through it as old Blaine, my boss, came out escorted by two policemen. Inside, more cops ransacked filing cabinets, while another tapped at the computer.

My granny always said every dark cloud had a silver lining. Must be something the nuns taught her at the mission school. This cloud certainly had one, because Blaine’s fat cheeks quivered beneath his staring eyes. He’d gone green. I didn’t know people could do that. I grinned. If anyone deserved trouble, he did. He ran a cleaning service, and he had the best rates in town. Not difficult, since he only employed illegals like me, and didn't have to pay us much. Or be nice to us.

I wasn’t too bothered by the pay. Zimbos know how to live cheap, and the second-hand shops in London were fantastic. I'd never had so many clothes in my life.

For the time being, the cops ignored the staff, other than making sure nobody left. We huddled in the darkest corner, next to a sick-looking bunch of plastic flowers, talking occasionally in low voices. Two Nigerians, a Jamaican, a young boy from Morocco, a girl called Alija from a country I’d never heard of, and myself. We weren’t the only employees; others had gone directly to clients’ offices. The six of us were supposed to be taken in Blaine’s van to a job somewhere out of town, but that wasn’t going to happen.

The Jamaican spared a moment from gnawing a fingernail. “Are dey going to deport us?”

“Yeah,” said the Nigerian girl, her small, round face showing no expression. “Tey always do.”

Always? She made it sound as if being deported was something that happened to her every other day.

Alija raised a shaking hand to her pale face. “We can apply for asylum? Please, it must be possible. Yes?”

She had a point; she’d told me terrible stories about the place she came from. I was also scared, but I told myself I was being paranoid. Nothing bad would happen.

A thought occurred to me. I should warn the rest of the staff. Tell them not to come back here. Ever. I moved around so my back was to the cops, pulled out the mobile phone they’d forgotten to confiscate, and sent a text message.

After a bit, they called us one by one into Blaine’s office. When it was my turn, I pulled up a chair, slouched and tried to look bored.

“Can I have your full name, please?” My interviewer was built like a bamboo stick, a bit pimply, and he wore a uniform that barely reached his wrists. But he was polite, I’d give him that.

“Florence Izwirashe Chidziro. D’you know how to spell that or shall I write it for you?” I wished I had some chewing gum. It would’ve helped me look even less interested.

“Er. If you could spell it out for me, please.”

He got it eventually, but it would have been quicker if he’d let me write it. I said so.

“Age?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Right, I need details of your work permit.”

No point in pretending. He’d find out the truth soon enough. “I don’t have one.”

“Surprise, surprise.” He scribbled something on a form. “Alright, let’s have your full details.”

He fired questions at me, lots of them. Address, date and place of birth, sex.

Sex? Couldn’t he tell? I straightened my shoulders and leant forward in case he hadn’t noticed I wore a size double-D.

He ticked a box and continued. “Nationality?”

“Zimbabwean.”

“Self-defined ethnicity?”

“What the hell is self-defined ethnicity?” I asked.

“It’s how you define yourself. Your colour, your nationality, like.”

“Can I make it up? Can I be a Yellow-Spotted Yukkatan?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Oh, OK. Let’s be boring. Black Zimbabwean. How’s that?”

To cut a long story short, that’s how I ended up detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, as they call it. With a view to being booted out of Britain very soon.

The problem with having a cell to yourself is, it gets boring. I mean, pulling funny faces at the CCTV camera is fun for a while, but it’s not something you want to do all day. So I had plenty of time to think. Should I apply for asylum, like Alija? Or should I go home?

I missed home a lot. Harare, colourful and noisy. My grandmother's village, set against misty blue hills. My friends, my family.

Trouble was, every time I thought of home, a cold little lizard moved around in my belly and sneaked its way up my spine. Fear. And if I let it get as far as my brain, it would tell me, Stay here. Be safe. Apply for asylum.

I chased the lizard back down again. Two of my friends had applied for asylum, and they’d been kept hanging about for years. Not allowed to work, not allowed to go anywhere. Waste two years of my life? Nah. Interesting things were happening in Zimbabwe. Elections coming up, and everyone saying Morgan Tsvangirai had a good chance of winning. Political alliances formed and broken; talks starting and talks shutting down. Speculation as to whether Simba Makoni would stand for President. And Tsvangirai arrested—again.

The people at home were doing something. WOZA, for example, that amazing group of women who kept right on demonstrating, in spite of being regularly arrested and beaten up by the cops. And the Freedom March, blocked by riot police with water cannons. We had demonstrations here in London, too, gathering outside the Zimbabwe Embassy, but it was those at home who faced real danger. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to be there, to be a part of it.

I’d take the kind British government's offer of a free ticket home. And when I got there, I wouldn’t sit back tamely; I'd fight for democracy and try to be brave like the others. And damn the fear. Anyway, those things—the things I tried not to remember—happened almost three years ago. Surely they wouldn't be looking for me after three years?

Would they?

London, England: 2016

Keera flipped through the file as Ryan read. Her hand froze. Oh hell, she hadn’t intended to include that. She glanced up at Ryan to see if he was watching. He’d stopped reading, a slight frown on his face. He wasn’t looking at her. After a moment, he put aside the typed sheets and pulled forward the handwritten notes.

Keera slipped a paper from the file and slid it under the desk, and into her handbag.

Ryan’s eyes were still on Sekai’s account.

Dombo re Zhou Village, Zimbabwe, January 2008: Sekai’s account

I knew Mutero's visit would bring trouble.

Trouble was not a stranger in our village. The older people told stories of the Chimurenga—the liberation struggle. They talked of hiding freedom fighters in caves, of sell-outs being beaten, and of security forces who hunted for the fighters. They told of being afraid, always afraid. All this happened before I was born.

In our time, trouble came with elections. The Party sent people to tell us how we must vote, and to remind us of the Chimurenga. We must not be sell-outs, we must support Zanu PF, the party of liberation. At one time, this was good, because they brought beer and meat, and we sang, danced and heard stories of the heroes who fought for Independence.

Then there came a new party, the MDC, and Zanu PF became angry. They no longer brought beer and laughter, but shouting. Their visits were like gata, the ceremony for divining why somebody has died, but Zanu PF were not looking for bad spirits. They were looking for MDC supporters.

On the day Mutero came, I knew my husband Albert wanted to talk men's things with him, so I left them. I looked for Everjoy and Blessings, my two children, and found them playing hide and seek under the wooden platform that held the grain store.

I called, “Come, we are going to visit Chengetai.”

We took the path past the Kaseke’s new brick house, its iron roof shiny against the dried thatch of the older huts. Perhaps there would soon be a thunderstorm, because a black cloud hung over the hill with the big rock we call the Elephant. For now the sun still shone in the village, but dark shadows stretched towards it. I wrinkled my nose at the smell as we turned by the overhanging rock where the goats slept. Chengetai’s children waved to us from the door of the hut. Everjoy shouted a greeting and ran ahead through the maize field.

Chengetai was preparing food.

“You are busy,” I said.

“Ah, no.” She wiped her hands on her dress. “I can always find time to talk.”

A kettle boiled on the fire, and she made tea. All the children ran outside, making noise. They went up onto the rocks and chased each other.

Chengetai added sugar to the tea. I wondered where she had managed to get sugar. If I asked, she would probably refuse to tell me.

She handed me the cup. "Who is that with Albert?"

I didn’t answer, because Blessings was crying. He was the smallest, and could not climb to the top with the others.

"Help him, Eva," I called. Everjoy stretched down her hand and the boy became quiet. I turned back to Chengetai.

She repeated the question.

"That is Mutero. You know him, he is the owner of Quick-Quick Stores."

"He has a nice car." She smiled. “I wonder what it would be like to have a car like that?”

"He is a rich man."

“Ayee,” she said. “It would be good to have a rich husband. I’m sure Mrs Mutero doesn’t have to dig in the fields, and maybe she has a new dress every month.”

“Mrs Mutero has her own money,” I said. “She is a doctor. I think it would be even better for a woman to have a good job than a rich husband. Then, if you saw some nice thing, you could have it without needing to ask.”

Chengetai looked at me for a moment, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “If I want money, I wait until Tinashe has been drinking, and he no longer knows how much money he has. Then it is easy.”

I laughed. “But now, nobody has money. Not Tinashe, not Albert. It is difficult, very difficult. When Albert worked on the mine, things were good, but then the mine had no more money and no more jobs.”

“It’s true, there is no money,” she said, lifting her cup. “I don’t know how we will find enough to eat this year.” She drank some tea. "Why is Mutero here? Is he going to give Albert a job?"

"I don't think so. I think they are talking politics."

"Ah. Politics. It would be better if there were no politics, then we could live in peace." She stood up and fetched the frying pan and the cooking oil.

"You are right. It would be better. But Albert does not think so."

"You are unlucky with your husband. Tinashe does not think of politics."

"No! Tinashe thinks only of beer. Albert is a good husband. He does not drink too much, or beat me like Rudo's husband. And he does not chase the women, like Eunice's husband. He is a good man, and our vegetables are the best in the village." I leaned forward, breathing quickly, but Chengetai only laughed.

"But he thinks of politics. That is no good for you. I saw they would not allow you to buy maize, because Albert is MDC. So you are unlucky."

I looked down at my cup, remembering how the men had chased me away at the grain depot. Last year we were on the mines, and we did not grow much maize. A person cannot live without sadza, the thick porridge we eat with every meal. So Albert went to see a man at night, and came back with three bags on the Scotch cart, enough for us to eat until the harvest if we were careful. After that, all our money was gone. But we had planted a crop in November, and in a few months we would no longer need to buy.

I watched Chengetai put onions and peppers into the oil. Perhaps it would be better if we talked of other things.

"Did you hear they are saying Tonderai is the father of Susan's baby?" I asked.

***

After Mutero went home, we returned home and I made a fire in the kitchen. Albert sat outside on a rock near the door.

"You saw Mutero was with me, Sekai?"

"I saw."

"He is now the aspiring candidate for Mushongwe West."

"Oh? He is going to be a Member of Parliament?"

"He is going to try. He wants me to be his election agent."

I filled a pot with water, and did not reply. Last time we had elections, Zanu PF chased the agents for MDC from the district. I had even heard that in some other places they had been killed.

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

Submissions Needed—None Left 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.


Ted sends the first chapter of Murder at the Country Club, a cozy mystery. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Sophia burst through the ballroom doors, “Help! Will’s been stabbed!”

The band stopped playing, the crowd hushed, and everyone could hear her say almost in a whisper, “Someone help, please!”

Her hands, and the front of her gown, were covered with blood. She avoided eye contact with her sister, Nelia, who had become engaged to Will just moments ago, and spying her other sister, Elizabeth, pleaded, “Beth, hurry!”

Beth leaped to her feet, and dashed past the stunned guests. Nelia, seated at the center table, further from the door, was five steps behind.

Beth yelled “Where?”

“By the restrooms.” Beth sprinted down the corridor.

Sophia grabbed Nelia’s hand as she approached, and they ran together, with Will’s best friend, Keith Miller, close behind.

Will was face down in the corridor, near the men’s room, with his head against the marble baseboard. As Beth knelt beside him, they could see that someone had slashed the left sleeve of his tuxedo jacket; it was soaked with blood. He was unconscious and deathly pale.

Nelia had no medical training and felt helpless, but she knew Beth would know what to do; she was an Emergency Medical Technician-Enhanced (EMT-E). Beth applied pressure to the (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good, clean writing in an immediate scene that includes all the elements, and there are good story questions raised. So far, so good. I would not include the “-Enhanced (EME-E)” information unless it impacts the story later, and I suspect it won’t. It’s just clutter.

A word to Ted regarding the rest of the chapter: You do some “head-hopping” toward the last, getting into Nelia’s head when the scene started with Sophia. You also go on for a lot of time with the details of dealing with the wound. Unless those details matter to the rest of the story, I suggest you cut just about all of it. The key information is that he is treated and could live. The story is not about treating wounds, it’s about what happens to the victim and the other people involved. I’d spend no more than a paragraph or two on dealing with the wound and then get on with the story. Otherwise, I think you’ll lose readers, IMO.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Ted

Continued:

. . . artery above the wound using what was left of the dangling sleeve. There were also blotches on the back of Will’s jacket. Beth pulled his shirttail out and they could see bleeding from several stab wounds in his left lower back. That didn’t look serious; it was obvious that the blood was coming from Will’s left arm.

Doctor Adams appeared. Beth said, “It’s an artery, he’s already lost a lot of blood.”

“Hold that while I get something else.” He turned toward the gathering crowd, “I need the first aid kit from the front desk.”

Several people turned towards the desk, but just then, the valet ran up with it.

“Beth, hold it a second longer while I make a compress. Did someone call 911?”

William Stephen Black, Will’s grandfather, an elderly man using a cane, maneuvered his way through the gawking crowd.

“Yes, the desk clerk called when he heard Sophia scream.”

The doctor stooped next to Beth and said, “Beth, keep the pressure on his arm. I’ll cut away the rest of his jacket sleeve.” The two of them worked over Will as the crowd watched in silence. Doctor Adams found scissors in the first aid kit, cut the sleeve above Beth’s hand, near Will’s shoulder. He did the same to the shirtsleeve. Taking a large quantity of gauze pads from the first aid kit, he made a compress and held it next to Beth’s hand.

“Okay, release it a sec and remove the sleeve,” Beth complied and blood spurted out of the wound. Dr. Adams applied the compress, “Good, use this to apply pressure again. I’ll check for other injuries.” He made a quick inspection of Will’s body. “Two stab wounds in lower left side, can’t tell how serious, but the location isn’t the worse. I’m not sure why he’s unconscious. He’s lost a lot of blood, but I don’t think that alone is the cause. Can you check his head with your other hand?”

Beth used her free hand to inspect Will’s head.

“He has a large swelling on his temple. He must have struck his head on the baseboard when he fell.”

Nelia watched Beth and Doctor Adams actions intently. She glanced over at Sophia, tears were running down her cheeks, and her eyes were already reddening. Her bright red hair, which Beth had arranged in a French braid on the back of her head, was hanging in disarray over her right shoulder, darkened with matted blood. Her left hand and forearm were bloody and she must have held her hands to her cheeks in her grief, because there were smears of dried blood on her face. Nelia heard her father whisper, e took her arm,He“Sophia, let’s go get you cleaned up.”

Sophia pulled away from him; her eyes, although filled with tears, never left Will.

Her reply was barely audible, “No!”

“Calm down, Princess, he’s alive. Doctor Sam will do all he can to keep him alive.” Sophia reached out with her left hand and touched Nelia’s arm, then sobbed again. Nelia looked over at her and then back at Will just as Beth glanced up. When she made eye contact, she immediately looked away. Nelia thought, ‘she must think Will is dying’. She felt faint and to steady herself, reached over and grasped Keith’s arm and murmured, “Why would anyone hurt Will?”

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9. Flog a BookBubber 11

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. I’ve noticed that many of these folks use a prologue—I skip those books. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 book by M. Ruth Myers, offered for free on BookBub.

The guy with the bad toupee strolled into my office without bothering to knock. His mustard colored suit set off a barstool gut and a smirk that told his opinion of private eyes who wore skirts.  

“Maggie Sullivan?”  

I kept filing my nails. “Who’s asking?”  

“You’re bothering a friend of mine.”  

My legs were crossed on my desk. I have great gams. Sometimes I don’t mind displaying the merchandise, but Mr. Hair wasn’t my cup of tea so I sat up. I blew some filings off my pinkie onto the afternoon edition of the Dayton Daily News where a column predicted the French and the Brits would likely let Hitler have the Sudetenland. The wrong step to take with a bully, I thought, but no one had asked me. I made a couple more swipes with the emery board before I acknowledged my visitor.  

“Lose the stogie if you want me to listen.”  

I saw his jaw tighten. He didn’t like being told what to do. He looked around, saw the ashtray on the file cabinet by the door, and stubbed out his smoke. A top-of-the-line Havana by its smell, so the guy had money. Or knew people who did.  

“Who’s the friend?” I asked.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow.

No Game For a DameI love a strong, sassy female protagonist. There’s implied jeopardy here, what with a tough guy apparently not liking what she’s doing and there to stop her. Good story questions: what will he do next? Will he stop her? What’s she doing that bothers his presumably nasty friend? This is a case when a strong voice makes a big difference, and this writer has one in No Game for a Dame. I turned the page. In fact, I downloaded it to read (it was free when I discovered it, might not be today). What are your thoughts?

You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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

Submissions Needed—None Left 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.


Jared sends the first chapter of The Third Cryogenic War. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Death wasn’t what I expected. No heaven. No hell. I figured either would be warm—just one noticeably more so. And if neither existed, I assumed I wouldn’t either. Death would be oblivion. Instead, I remained conscious, stranded in a dark, lonely abyss with only my thoughts to keep me company. But most of all, I was bitterly cold.

I’d been this way a long time. A really long time. Not that I could keep track of days or years or millennia, but at this point, I would have welcomed oblivion. Anything but this.

Funny thing is, I don’t even remember dying.

“This one looks promising.” A distorted, muffled voice slipped through the darkness, the first sound I’d heard in ions.

“Hello?” I tried to shout, but managed no sound.

“He’d better be.” A second voice. Deeper than the first.

The men sounded as though they were old records being played on a slow track.

“Caleb Tillman.” A third voice. Female. Smooth like an angel. She knew my name.

“It’s me! Where are you?” I shouted. Still no sound.

“It says he was frozen on October 9th, 2016,” the woman said.

Frozen?

“Really?” the first man said. “That’s old. Maybe even one of the first.”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the voice, and the wry sense of humor in this character (one place being “noticeably more” warm) made him likeable. His situation is interesting, death being an eternal interest to we mortal beings. So there’s a strong “what happens next” story question for me, so I turned the page.

Just one note: it’s “eons,” not “ions.” There are similar errors in the rest of the chapter, but this is a first draft. Still, Jared, you’ll need an editor before you send this out. Nonetheless, I would love to read the rest of the story.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Jared

Continued:

“Enough chat,” the deep voiced man said. “The Reds are advancing. Wake him up.”

I’m not dead?

“One second,” the first voice said. “You can’t rush these things. Nurse, begin the pump.”

Warmth. I could feel it. Radiating fluid flowed into my arms, raced to my chest, and then my legs. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I still had a body. Pitch darkness morphed into a shade of gray.

“Good,” the first man said, his voice no longer distorted. “Start chest compressions.”

A weight pressed against me. Pushing rhythmically. Then my heart pumped on its own, erratic at first, but it stabilized.

“Vitals are good,” the man said.

I inhaled deeply, involuntarily. The gray shifted to bright white. I opened my eyes and blinked at the blinding overhead lights. I was laying down.

“He’s coming too.”

“You’re not dead, Caleb.” A smiling, flawless face stared down at me. Her rich tan eyes sparkled. The lights above shone through her brown hair like rays from heaven. She was an angel.

“You sure about that?” I asked. I produced a raspy sound, not words.

“Don’t try to speak,” she said. “The effects will wear off soon.” She leaned closer to him and stared with gentle eyes and a warm smile. “We want to make you an offer.”

“No offer.” The deep voiced man stepped into view. His Adam’s apple looked swollen, like it had been injected with several doses of testosterone. He couldn’t have been more than twenty five years old. A rigid jaw line dominated his handsome face. His buzz haircut was neatly trimmed and his beaming white tunic was so spotless that the thick, neon-green stripe on each sleeve seemed out of place.

The woman cocked her head. “General?” She had a colored stripe on her sleeves two. It was just as thick as the General’s, and two thirds of it was the same color of green, but the top third was a red stripe.

“We don’t have that luxury,” General said.

I couldn’t move my head to see where I was or what was happening around me. My heart didn’t have the strength to beat any faster, otherwise I would have been red-faced and angry. Tell me what’s going on. Not being able to talk didn’t help the situation.

“What are you worried about? No one’s refused before,” the woman said. She looked down at me. “You don’t want us to return you to the cryogenic chamber, do you?”

“No.” Raspy sound. Unintelligible. “No.” I couldn’t shake my head. I’ll do whatever you want. Don’t send me back.

She grimaced. “Don’t move. Blink once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’.”

I blinked four times rapidly, before really thinking about it.

“Of course you don’t.” She looked back at the General. “See?”

The General grinned. “Excellent.”

What did they want me to do? Would I really do anything? I didn’t know if this guy was in the military. He seemed awfully young to have such a rank. But even if that was just his name, it wasn’t one I could respect. I knew what the military was all about—the horrid things they compelled men to do.

I fixed my gaze on the woman. When she looked back at me. One blink. As exaggerated as I could make it, given my paralyzed state.

“What?” she asked.

One blink again.

“You changed your mind?”

“He agreed to help us,” the General said. “We all saw it. He’s just blinking now.”

Two blinks.

The General’s eyes narrowed. He looked someplace outside of my view. “Fix this. I want him to speak.”

A man wearing white rubbery gloves appeared. A light blue outfit covered his torso and arms. Draw strings hung from the back of his neck. “Give me a second.”

The doctor? He looked no older than the General.

A black metal object was lifted across my view. I only caught a glimpse. My throat pulsated.

The General leaned close to me. “Forget what the nurse said. We’re not making you a deal. You’re a young man. Do you remember what war is all about?”

All too well. I blinked once.

“We need you, son. Our ancestors.” His stare pierced. “Your generation, and those after you, created something beautiful. A future better than they could have imagined.”

“Utopia,” the woman said. Her eyes glistened at the word.

The General nodded. “But Utopia needs saving. It needs you.” He glanced at a clipboard. “Says here you have brain cancer. Terminal?”

One blink. It was supposed to be a long drawn out battle. One I’d lose, but not until my body withered away and my organs shut down. That never happened. Instead I found myself in the abyss.

“We can cure that, right Doc?”

The doctor nodded, though his gaze didn’t waver from my throat. The way his arms were positioned, it looked like he was choking me. However, my throat felt more massaged than anything.

My eyes widened. This almost seemed too good to be true, but there was a catch. There’s always a catch.

“He’ll cure you. Then I have no choice but to drop you in a war zone.”

There it was. Two blinks.

“This isn’t an offer. You can’t refuse. The odds are against us and with everything at stake. I’m dropping you in the Zone whether you like it or not.”

The doctor straightened. He put his tool aside. My throat felt… usable. I opened and closed my jaw.

“Drink,” the nurse said. She put a straw in my mouth. Her expression was soft, sincere. It melted my heart. “Please help us.”

I closed my lips around it and sipped. Gel-like fluid soothed my tongue then coated my throat as I swallowed. I found the strength to harden my heart. No one plays me. It would take more than bribes and the batting of eyes to make me betray myself. Two blinks.

She drew back, clearly offended. “Why not?”

The doctor took a firm grip of my jaw, opening and shutting it. “You should be able to speak.”

I looked at the nurse then the General. “I’m,” my vocal chords vibrated, almost tickling, “a pacifist.”

The nurses eyes widened. She covered her mouth. “A pacifist?” She turned to the General. “He doesn’t belong down there. We can’t send him.”

The General rolled his eyes. “That’s not an option.”

“What year is it?” I asked. I already knew the answer. The one that mattered anyway. Everyone I knew was dead. My friends. My mom. Michelle, my fiancé. All gone. That would have been harder to accept, but I’d had my time of separation and grief in the abyss. Nor was I unfamiliar with losing the people I loved.

The doctor’s face turned sympathetic. “This will come as a shock. But by your standard of measurement, it would be year 3436.”

“All that time and nothing’s changed,” I said, glaring at the General. “There’s still wars. And people like you forcing others to be violent. Dying for causes they don’t even understand.” I harrumphed. “Some utopia.”

The nurse latched onto the General’s arm. “You can’t send him down there. It’s not right.”

The General looked at the doctor. “Inject him with the cure.”

“No,” the nurse said. “Let me speak to the quorum.”

“You’d jeopardize the war for him?” The General shrugged. “Fine. Talk to them. They’ll agree with me.”

“We’ll see.” The nurse disappeared from view. A door slammed.

The military and those in charge were always in bed together. General was right. They’d agree with him. Still, she was my only hope. My only advocate.

General faced me. His eyebrows furled. “You’re a strapping young man. Surely you’ve dreamed of the glory and honor found only in battle.”

“Once,” I said. “Then I learned that there is no glory. No honor to be had. Only death… and I’ve lost my taste for that.”

General pursed his lips. “Jess may be right about you. Still, I don’t have a choice and neither do you.” He turned back to the doctor. “Inject him.”

Something poked the crook of my right arm. The doctor leaned into view. “There. You’re cured.”

I almost laughed. Was he kidding? “You cured me of cancer with one shot?”

The doctor nodded.

“He doesn’t believe you,” the General said. He leaned closer to me. “A thousand years of medical progress and you think we can’t cure cancer? If only you knew how much we’ve really advanced. If you’d just help us, there is so much we can do for you.”

Empty promises. A ploy. I glared back with a half smirk. “Why don’t you tell me?”

He smirked, then fiddled with something to my side. My head lifted slightly as pressure across my forehead disappeared. I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been strapped to the table.

I was in a small room with white washed walls and a glistening floor. On a table to my right was the metal device I’d seen earlier and four syringes. One was empty. The others were filled with a sparkling blue fluid.

General spread his arms. “Beyond these walls is a future worth dying for. I’m not authorized to tell you much about it other than we enjoy peace, prosperity, and safety. You can see it for yourself. Even make it your home. If you help us.”

“If it’s worth dying for, why aren’t you on the battle field fighting?” I sneered. “Nothing’s changed at all. Nothing that matters anyway.”

General’s face reddened.

The doctor snorted sarcastically. “We’ve revived you. Cured you. And your thanks is to judge us? Can’t you conceive of a future so great that no one would be willing to leave it? Is that so hard?”

“What I can conceive of, is lies and deceptions. I see no reason to trust you.”

General moved to my feet. “I’m not asking you to trust me. I just need you’re instinct to survive to overcome your misplaced morality.” He took hold of the table I lay on then pushed, rolling me towards the door.

We entered a narrow hallway. The lights, walls, and floors looked no different than those in the previous room.

The doctor followed alongside. “His body is still recovering from the de-freeze. He’s not ready for training.”

General snorted. “There’s no time for training.”

The doctor put his hand on the rolling table and stopped it. “You’re sending him to War World? Now? He’s not ready for that either.”

My eyes widened and pulse increased. “Don’t. I’m not going to fight. Don’t send me there.” I tried to squirm. Leather Straps on my arms and legs held me in place. Tissue paper would’ve been sufficient.

“He has strength enough to yell,” General said to the doctor. “He’ll be fully recovered in time.”

“But without training what good will he be? You’re sending him down there to die.”

“Maybe not.” General grinned at me. “You don’t need training, do you Mr. Tillman? First thing you stared at when you saw me. It was my throat, then the doctors draw strings. You knew how to kill us the moment you opened your eyes, if only your arms weren’t strapped in.” He pushed the table forward. “Have a plan to kill everyone you meet. That’s a warrior’s code.”

“I won’t fight you. I won’t fight for you.”

“We’ll see.”

We passed multiple closed doors. I craned my neck but couldn’t see the end of the corridor. They stopped.

“Wait here,” General said to the doctor.

The door next to my head slid open. The room was dark. Black walls. Dim lights.

“No,” I shouted as loudly as I could. “I don’t want to go.”

“Relax,” General said. “We’re just getting you your uniform.”

General pushed me to the middle of the room, then sat at a desk. He lit a small lamp, then scribbled something on a piece of paper. “The Reds are cheating. Don’t know how, but they are.”

He crossed the room and put his hand on the wall. A door, which had been hidden until that moment, slid open. Spotlights illuminated clothes on a hanger. I didn’t recognize the pattern, but I knew military fatigues when I saw them. Other than a green stripe on the sleeves, they were tan with broken patterns. The stripe was only a third as wide as those on the General’s arms.

“These are for you.” He released the straps holding my arms and legs down.

I wanted to run, but my muscles barely moved. I might have had the strength to roll off the table, but certainly not enough to stand.

General stripped me. He took a ruler-shaped piece of green plastic from the table and slapped it against my right bicep. It bent like a bracelet, tightly wrapping around my arm. My muscles tingled then stung. A puff of smoke emanated from the bracelet. The tightness and pain stopped. The stripe remained, but rather than looking like plastic, it appeared more like a vibrant tattoo. A green stripe like the fatigues in the closet.

“What was that?”

“You’re a Greenie now.” General pushed and shoved me on the table, forcing the camouflaged pants on to me, then pulled the shirt over my head. “You run into someone with a stripe like this, he’s on your side and won’t hurt you. Watch out for the Red’s, though, cause they won’t hesitate.”

He returned to the table and neatly folded the piece of paper. “I know you don’t like me and don’t trust me. But surely you know I want to win the war, and that means I want you to succeed. If nothing else, you can trust that.” He stuffed the folded paper into my front pocket. “Give this to Chris.”

He wheeled me back into the hallway and towards the far end.

“Jess!” I shouted. “Don’t let him take me. Help! Anyone. I don’t want to die.”

General stopped the table. He looked up and down the hallway then leaned close to my ear. “You don’t have to die. Not ever. As long as you win.” He winked, then pushed me to the end of the corridor.

The doctor opened the door to a round room as we approached. At the center, there was a cone shaped boat floating in a small pool of water. It looked like a fiberglass ice cream cone laying on its side. It had a clear tip and a sealed curved door.

General pressed his hand against the cone. The door slid open. “This will take you to War World. I’ll give you more instructions once you’re under way.”

“Please. No!”

“Sorry.” The doctor helped place me into the lone seat, behind a control panel and twenty inch screen. “You’re arms and legs are going to ache before you gain full functionality, but you should be able to fight in an hour or so.”

“I’ll never fight.”

“You’ll be able to run, then.” The doctor buckled me. “Either way. Don’t let the Reds touch you.”

General nodded. “You’re no use to us dead.”

I strained to keep my head from flopping down. The doctor and General leapt back just before the door hissed shut.

The boat shifted, then sank. I sucked in a lungful of air as water bubbled over the window. The cone tilted downwards towards a bottomless, dark abyss, then accelerated.

Add a Comment
11. Flogometer for Tom—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed—None Left in the Queue. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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


Tom sends the first chapter of Aftershock. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I was thinking about my Studebaker when the quake hit. Though it’s not exactly a showstopper, it’s a ’63 Lark, and pretty sweet. The Studey was on my mind because a moment before the building went bonkers I’d been looking at Diana’s legs. She was wearing one of those napkin-sized skirts she sometimes wears and her legs are all the way up to there anyway. I always try not to stare—I’ve perfected this method of looking off in a fake distracted way and then flicking my eyes back. I can get away with zeroing in on her without getting caught, I think. It was almost quitting time, and I wasn’t paying much actual attention to anything.

So there I was standing in my cubicle holding some papers and Diana was standing at the copy machine in that skirt and I was thinking that maybe if those Nazi mechanics of mine would fix that problem on the Studey, this time I could finally ask Diana out without worrying that my car would stall at a light and maybe leave us in the Tenderloin without wheels and me looking like Doofus Number One. And then the quake hit.

Now it’s not like I’m a quake virgin or anything. I’m a California boy all the way, and have been through more than a couple shakers in my thirty-plus, including one in the 70s when I was staying in Santa Barbara where I watched a nearby hillside seem to turn to liquid—but that was just my eyes jiggling. And since I’d moved to San Francisco, I’d felt the earth skip a beat more than a couple of times. I’ve always sort of liked it—the land stretching its legs a bit and all. And (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Strong writing and a clear, likable, and on-the-charming-side voice were good to see in this opening. He uses an interesting technique to add to tension—springing a dramatic even on us (a quake) and then postponing showing it while he spends some time on other things that are going on in his head. Then the quake resurfaces, and then he goes on to other things for a bit. It worked okay for me on the first page, but I found myself feeling “Okay, okay, but can’t we get on with it?” towards the end of the page. We’re in the middle of a dramatic, traumatic, life-threatening event in this man’s life and, rather than be submerged in the quake, we’re treated to well-written backstory and sidebars. Will the rest of the narrative take a similarly leisurely approach? See what you think of the rest of the chapter.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Tom

Continued:

. . . now it was almost the 90s, and there hadn’t been a real big bumper for a while. But this was different.

Different because Consolidated Leasing—yeah, that’s where I work—could a business name be any more lame?—is on the eighth floor of a new building on the edge of downtown, and it’s built to flex in a quake—and man was it flexing. But different yet, because even with the flex, even with me having rocked and rolled through my share of quakes, this shaker seemed special right from the get-go.

I felt it in my stomach first, a kind of squeezy uncomfortable feeling, like riding on one of those old centrifugal-force carnival rides where you lean against a wall on a spinning, circular platform, and then the floor drops away while you spin faster, pinning you to the wall in an awful, verge-of-nausea way. I always hated those rides, but I would always ride 'em when I could. You can’t be smart all the time, I guess.

So my stomach did a couple of pirouettes before I really even knew what was going on and then the floor started moving in a real greasy way, a kind of sliding, humping, fucked-up kind of way, and I was finally clued in that it was an earthquake—and that it was a big one. There seemed to be a second wave that had more kick than the first and then the building really stepped onto the dance floor. It swayed big-time, and I mean swayed like you’ve downed ten tequila shooters and slapped yourself in the temple with an unabridged dictionary. My heart was now hammering like a trapped animal was inside.

The jolt punched me into the edge of my cubicle, and I hit the corner about armpit height, hard, and then I stumbled to one knee. Though I pretty much forgot about scoping Diana, she was still right in front of me and I saw that she was clutching the sides of the copying machine with both arms, a love-death grip. From my angle it looked like the machine was actually lifting into the air a little, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar myself. Also from my angle I saw that her little skirt had hiked up even further so that I could see where the thighs of those fine legs moved right up into that round rump, which was covered by red panties. I filed that away in one of those micro-seconds because it’s really no time for my standard lech act, considering that the office was in a state of total pandemonium, and I’m not completely convinced that the entire building wasn't going to go kablooey right down onto Market Street. I tried to shout something out to Della, but it came out like a strangled little bark.

Cubicles playing bumper cars with each other doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. Since our building was getting so loosey-goosey, and we were on the top floor, office goods were really starting to scoot around with each pendulum swing of the building. Two of the tallest filing cabinets toppled with a huge crash, but I could barely hear that because of the shouts and screams that were ricocheting around the office. After I’d righted myself a little using my cubicle wall, the next round of building flexing took my monitor tumbling off my desk, and it exploded on impact. The novel! My novel, the only damn thing that’s seemed real to me in the last year, was on that computer. What if it was trashed too?

When I whirled around to check out the computer itself, another tremor hit that seemed to run sideways from the direction of the first. I was plunked right down in the aisle between the cubicle rows so that I sort of fell on my back and my butt, with my legs a little in the air. That gave me a splendid view of some of the plasterboard roof panels of the acoustic ceiling above, which were now deserting the roof in droves and diving to the floor. I had to get out—fast—but I felt like I was moving in slow motion. The novel, damn.

I sprang up, but was staggered by a rolling motion of the building. I was kind of half-crouching, half crab-walking my way across the office because there were so many toppled things on the floor, and so much noise and dust. In passing, I noticed that the most egregious example of wretched corporate art that the office possessed (on a lease, of all things) had jumped to its deserved death off the wall. It had been pierced by the weird sharp-edged desk lamp that one of the graphic artists had brought in to try and prove that she wasn’t a corporate drone. I had a fleeting thought that I hadn’t appreciated her creativity before. But no time for thoughts.

At this point, at least six people were crowded into the office’s open double-doorway, seeking wall-joint strength like good Californians should. Unfortunately for them, that was also the primary office exit, leading to the elevators and staircases and what seemed now to be an impossibly long flight away from a building that was rumbling like it was moving to a good belly laugh.

The bulk of the office populace was now pouring toward those open double doors, where that half-dozen of the first mad scramblers had fled. I was moving with them, in fact, kind of pulling on the shoulder of a guy in front of me for momentum, as the floors and walls did another little tango. The doorway people were half-crouching, some with arms entangled, all leaning on the person next to them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed. They looked so scared that I had a new clench of fear.

They didn’t intend to abandon their protected place in the doorway, but those intentions had to negotiate with those of the half-crazed stream of souls coming toward them who had no intention of remaining in the building. I glanced back at the cubicles, seeing two people from payroll standing wall-eyed in the aisle, while a rivulet of a toppled Sparkletts bottle trickled between them toward me. When I turned back to continue for the door, my boss Megan was standing in front of me.

In front of me doesn’t quite explain it though. When I turned back toward Megan, I was wearing her, like an apron, since I had turned holding both my arms out from my waist and she had moved with her arms up and forward toward me. Since she’s about a foot shorter than me, just in turning around I ended up involuntarily clasping her to my chest, which surprised us both.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed “Megan!” which was all I could manage. My ante was too high for her, however—she couldn’t even speak. We’ve all heard that phrase “white as a ghost.” Just another phrase that’s lost its elastic—but Megan brought a rich new meaning to a poor phrase.

She was drained of color, paste-white, a fully credible white that would never pretend to be the pallor of a living being. But I did detect a little pinkness in the center of her face: her tongue, usually as discreet as all of Megan’s doings, now blatant because she was unable to engage it to make conversation. It rested limp on the bottom of her widely open mouth. Behind the heavy black horn-rims of her Elvis Costello glasses, Megan’s bright blue eyes shrieked the words her tongue couldn’t manage.

I did a little pas de deux with her in the aisle, spinning her by the shoulders toward the exit. In thinking of it afterward, I longed for a video: my formidable boss, always cordial but always reserved, impenetrable and boss-like, spun like an addled child and pointed toward the door. “I think we should get out,” I said in as manly of a voice I could muster. But I was scared; my heart hadn’t let up, and for a second I thought I was having a heart attack.

We were near the tail end of the crowd moving through the doorways. The first human wall of resistance clinging to the entryway had been breached—and like bowling pins, most had scattered, choosing the staircase path preferred by the bulk of those in flight. Probably two minutes, three at most had passed since the initial shock hit, and the building still seemed to be reverberating, though I couldn’t judge time or the trembling with any accuracy.

I shepherded Megan past the lone doorway holdout, Squink from Accounting. He was gripping the doorsill with both hands, his eyes wet and dreamy as we went by. It was lucky I had Megan to tend, because that responsibility calmed my brimming panic.

“Squink, better head down. Maybe the worst of it’s over,” I said as we passed him. I thought I was getting the hang of this whole leadership-in-a-crisis thing, what with Megan acceding to every tiny pressure of my arm, and me feeling like most everything’s in control. It was only when my knees buckled at the first staircase step that I realized that my whole body was slightly quivering, and that I had lost that fine motor control needed for precise movement.

I grabbed the handrail to steady myself, though Megan, in full zombie mode, didn’t notice my stumble. At that moment, she might not have noticed if I had a long scaly tail and flippers. We merged into a mass of semi-orderly building deserters, moving haltingly down the staircases mostly three abreast. I saw Diana ahead of us, looking back with an alarmed look and then lurching forward. My crew, Silvie and Crenshaw, was ahead of her—I could see Silvie throw her arms up while she talked to Crenshaw as they descended. She had a characteristic way of flinging her arms about; she always wore about twenty bangles and wrist bracelets on each arm that clicked and clattered when she jostled them. I was glad to see they were both all right.

The only person I could see that had an injury was Mr. McManus, the portly Vice President, who had a pretty good gash on his forehead, against which he held a slightly bloody handkerchief. There was a lot of tangible tension going down the stairs, which was a process less than brisk. “What if there’s another quake? We’re going to get squashed here!” someone said. “God, I wonder what my house looks like? I just put all this decorative glass on shelves in my living room,” somebody else answered. “Goddamn. I thought the whole goddamn building was going down! The whole damn thing!” said one of the lawyers, who’d just come into the office before it hit. I wanted to push everyone out of my way. Calm down, I said to myself. But I was anything but calm.

We came to the seventh-floor landing, where we met a surge of employees from the big insurance firm that worked there. I could see a couple of women who were crying, and several people who looked disheveled and shaken up, but no major injuries. An older man in a suit was standing on the side of the stairwell saying over and over, “Just move slowly and watch out for your neighbor. It’s OK, just move slowly down and watch out for your neighbor.”

Just a few steps ahead someone I didn’t know had a portable radio pinned to his ear. “Seven-point five. They’re saying seven-point five, and major damage in the City. Big fires in the Marina. Not certain where it actually hit yet.” We were slowing way down on the stairs as we came in contact with people emptying out of the sixth-floor offices. People were getting more anxious, pushing a little, and I could see a big guy ahead of us trying to force his way through. I felt a strong pressure in my gut, and tried to push back against it. But when I looked down at Megan, she looked weirdly calm. Some color had started to come back into her face.

“Megan, are you feeling better? You OK?”

She turned to me and nodded and softly said, “Yes.” Her eyes still looked as if their owner was off vacationing, but at least she resembled the upright—if not uptight—boss that I reported to that morning. I turned into a bit of a robot myself after that, just moving kind of numbly with the crowd, listening to people speculate on what had happened, the fear squeezing their voices. But I kept jerking a bit as I went down the stairs—as we walked, it felt like there were more aftershocks, but I think my body might have been having little fear spasms. I couldn’t tell.

I wondered how my house was. Sure, it was a rental, so it’s not my house, but it had been hard enough finding the place after I left Santa Cruz in such a hurry a year before. It’s a big Victorian, with a huge bay window in the Lower Haight. I hoped Drew, my housemate, hadn’t been standing in front of that window debating his next decorating move. We hadn’t lost any windows in our office, but I was plenty worried that big old house wouldn’t have flexed quite like our spiffy new building.

It might have been thirty, forty minutes to get down to the lobby—it seemed like hours. Then, suddenly, we burst out onto Market Street. The noise was the first shock. The combined sounds—shouts, crashes, horns, machine noises, police sirens—hit with a physical impact, so that I ducked a little when I stepped out onto the street. It was pandemonium. I felt terrified all over again. The street and sidewalks were teeming with people, some milling about, some standing alone, many walking in waves up and down Market.

Traffic was completely stopped, with some cars left at odd angles in the middle of the street. I saw an empty Muni bus almost sideways, straddling both lanes with its door open. There was smashed glass all over the place, much of it from sidewalk-level storefront windows. Police cars were parked or in movement in all directions. I saw water gushing over a low rooftop wall and down the front of a nearby five- or six-story building onto the sidewalk below. Then I watched an ambulance pull up on the sidewalk of the building right next to ours and spill out its attendants, who rushed inside. I could hear sirens near and far. I checked out the big office building right across the street, and it had thick white smoke pushing out of broken windows on the third floor. It was madness. I noticed I was breathing very fast, in short gulps and gasps.

People from our office had gathered in a loose circle on the sidewalk edge and in the street, trying to decide what to do. One of the sales guys was trying to get people to go to the Gnome’s Hat, a dive bar around the corner, but nobody was listening. I thought I should try to call the house, but the only phone in sight had six or seven people crowded around it. I spun around in a small circle, looking up and down the street, and at my fellow workers, who didn’t seem to be able to put a plan of action together. Silvie and Crenshaw stood off to the side, Silvie waving her arms and Crenshaw sucking on a cigarette with fierce concentration.

Then I noticed Megan staring at me. Though her complexion was returning to normal, she still looked stricken. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then said, slowly, in a tight-throated way that made her words croak a bit, “Hayden, I would greatly appreciate if you would walk me to my apartment. I’m feeling quite ill.” She fluttered her arm toward my shoulder, and briefly rested it there and then she looked away. I thought I could see her trembling a little.

“Well, that’d probably be OK, Megan. I’ll just try and call my place from your house—I’m a little worried because it’s an old building.” I tried not to smile too broadly when I said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting some blood back—your face was the color of printer paper up there.”

She touched one of her earlobes, covering one of her tiny pearl earrings. “Well, that’s probably true. This is my first earthquake, and I’d like the number to stop there.” She looked out at the crazed street scene and shuddered a little. “At the moment, I think I’d take the peril of Boston drivers over San Francisco earthquakes hands down.”

Megan had come to Consolidated from Boston only two years before. She’d been an editor there, but also (because it was a small company) the Traffic Manager or some such ungodly title at a small boutique publisher in Boston, routing manuscripts, messages, contracts and communications through that office and across that quadrant of the East Coast’s literary world. She did have all kinds of exchanges with agents and name authors, but that didn't count much at Consolidated. But damn, that contract work did: Now she ensured that leases had signatures, executives had quarterly reports and that meetings had 100% attendance. Consolidated leaned on her small frame with a vengeance, but she never seemed to be caught with a contract—or a sandy-blond hair—out of place.

First things first—get off of Market Street. I knew Megan lived somewhere on Taylor in Russian Hill, so I figured we’d walk up to California and maybe move north on Stockton, skirting Chinatown. I knew that would first take us through some of the big-boy buildings in the financial district, but I didn’t want to flank the Embarcadero—I’d remembered that big waves can follow an earthquake, and though that seemed pretty unlikely in the Bay, I’d always had a strong fear of drowning. Megan still seemed only semi-coherent, so I just gestured the way with a pointing index finger up the street, and we moved through the chaos. I kept looking up at the tops of the buildings, expecting something to fall on us.

We started walking up to where California hits Market and I saw Leg Man, in his usual spot, not far from Consolidated. I saw him almost every morning, since he set up shop near the coffee stand where I regularly fueled up. Leg Man was a homeless guy, or at least he looked like a homeless guy, and like many of the homeless on Market, he had a regular spot where he plied his trade. The ways the homeless folks hit you up for dough on Market Street varied: some would try a story on every passerby, walking with you a bit to fast-talk a dollar. Some had crude or artistic signs with jokes on them—“Homeless man needs money for college and beer,” or sad descriptions of their plight. Others would just sit slumped on the sidewalk, not looking at the masses moving by, maybe with a plastic cup to take any donations.

Leg Man was different. Leg Man had an artificial leg that he set up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the leg, a little above the knee, there was a little platform and connecting bracket. He’d position a small metal can there for people to drop money in. He usually stood stock-still back off the sidewalk from his leg—he didn’t seem to need the leg to stand—looking at everyone passing by, a small scowl on his face. He was late forties, maybe fifty, black, a big, stocky guy with a small afro of wild, graying hair. Today, amidst the madness, his leg was next to him against the storefront wall he normally leaned against. He undoubtedly knew that pickings would be slim on a day when the entire City was upside-down.

I gave him a nod, and his eyes tightened a bit, but otherwise, he gave me no acknowledgment. But he gave Megan a long, sharp look and then gazed down the crowded street. He’d seen me many times, but I never knew if he recognized me or not, though I’d pushed a buck his way a few times. I wondered for a second if he knew Megan, but then we turned up toward California.

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12. Flog a BookBubber 10

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. I’ve noticed that many of these folks use a prologue—I skip those books. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 book titled Nightmares of Caitlin Lockyer.

They took her away from me.

I mumbled a protest through the haze of pain and exhaustion that had turned me into little more than a zombie. I'll never be able to watch a zombie movie again without remembering this night, I thought.

"It's all right – we have to move her somewhere else to take care of her. She's hurt worse than you," I was told. "We need to treat you, too. There's a gunshot wound in your shoulder."

I couldn't remember how long it had been since I'd last slept, so it took a few seconds to register what she'd said. Gunshot wound. My shoulder. Oh yeah, it hurt. I couldn't help her 'til that was sorted. Hospital staff would take care of her until I was okay.

The pain began to dull as a local anaesthetic took effect. I turned to look at the mess of blood my right shoulder had become. The smell of disinfectant jolted my brain out of sleep and most of the way to alertness. All that blood and it was barely more than a graze. A few stitches would sort that.

One of the hospital staff held a clipboard while she spoke to two police officers just out of earshot. She nodded, looked grim and came over. She started firing questions at me.

"Name?"

"Nathan Miller."

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow.

Night Mares Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good strong prose and there are definitely strong story questions raised. If I were this author I would have cut the line about watching zombie movies. It seems an inappropriate thought for the situation—hurt girly, gunshot wound, police. But I definitely wanted to turn the page, and, while hiring an editor never hurts, the prose doesn’t call for a line edit. What are your thoughts?

You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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

Submissions Wanted. 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.


Debbie sends the first chapter of Instrument of the Devil, a suspense novel. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Happy 50th Birthday, Mom. Love, Neal. Tawny Lindholm glared at the message label on the bubble-wrapped package, torn open on her chipped Formica breakfast bar. Inside lay a new smartphone, without any instructions, no clue how to operate it. Her son meant well, but he knew how much technology intimidated her. Besides, with him seven thousand miles away in Afghanistan, he couldn’t help her here at home in Montana.

The shiny black screen reflected her scowl while its bell dinged. The device barely fit in her hand. No matter how much she swiped the face or pressed the buttons on the side, the display remained black. Every time she touched it, the sound changed. Whistles, chirps, rodent squeaks, a woodpecker tapping, a chainsaw buzz. It was laughing at her.

Other people managed to zip around on their devices to get directions, play games, and now and then, make a plain old phone call. It looked so simple. “Damn you, I can’t even call 911.” The monster had her talking to herself.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

 

Good, clear writing and voice in this opening scene—but what happens here? A woman receives a phone from her son and she can’t operate it. Hmm. Sure, she has a goal and is frustrated in achieving it, but what are the stakes here? There’s no hint that not getting the phone to work will be anything other than an annoyance.

What’s really happening here is setup that doesn’t provoke any story questions other than “will she get the phone to work?” The setup does lead to an interesting twist, and there are clear hints of someone plotting to do something to her. Rather than open with all of this, I suggest you consider opening with the suspenseful part, Kalhil reporting what has happened. Then go on from there to the mysterious deposit in her bank (without all the setup about the son and family). You need to get this story going and cut out as much of the background exposition as you can.

As Steven James says in Story Trumps Structure, “If it’s in the story, it must matter. If it doesn’t matter, delete it.” Of course, sometimes the hardest part is deciding what matters. I put it another way: if it doesn't impact the story, then it doesn't belong in the story.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Debbie

 

Continued:

While her husband Dwight was sick, she’d used a basic cell, no problem. Flip it open, punch in numbers, and connect with doctors, the oxygen company, the pharmacy, and finally, on a July night nine months ago, one last call, to the funeral home.

With Dwight gone, she’d ditched that old phone, needing the fifty dollars a month more than cell service.

This screen remained blank, indifferent to Tawny’s frustrated prodding. She didn’t want a phone smarter than her. Since Neal ordered it from an online retailer, she couldn’t even take it back to a local store. If it wasn’t a gift from her son, she’d gladly smash it against the wall. Still might.

A different tone warbled five times. An incoming call? Or had she accidentally told the thing to launch a missile?

“You’re the instrument of the devil,” she said. “Your name is Lucifer.”

She twisted the tail of her auburn French braid and studied a postcard that had also arrived in the mail. Baffled by your smartphone? Free class. Easy, fun, impress your children and grandchildren.

If Tawny went, she’d be the dumbest person there. But how else could she learn without instructions?

The oldies station Dwight had liked played in the kitchen. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations faded out. “I’m begging someone to put me out of my misery,” she answered. Without her husband, she’d been reduced to talking to the radio...often. And now to a damn phone.

The announcer came on, promoting the same free class described on the postcard. Tawny frowned and turned up the volume. “Learn how to operate your smartphone. Tonight, seven o’clock, at the library in downtown Kalispell.”

First, the postcard, now the radio ad. Might as well pay attention to these signs. Besides, she didn’t have anything better to do than sit home in the silent old house, listening to mysterious beeps and whistles from Lucifer.

#

Just walking through the entrance of the Colonial Revival-style library building caused Tawny’s palms to sweat, yanking her back to seventh grade when the teacher of “Dumbbell English” sentenced her to extra tutoring. She always felt claustrophobic among books, as if the looming shelves full of knowledge might cave in and bury her. The tutoring table still sat in the corner, reminding her of endless hours while the tutor pounded at her to sound out words she didn’t comprehend. Years later, when her daughter Emma also couldn’t read, Tawny learned the term “dyslexia,” but knowing what was wrong didn’t cure her problem.

Tonight, kids sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, hunched almost double, their little noses buried in books. Adults in reading glasses tiptoed fingers along the shelves. How she envied people who read easily, even doing it for pleasure.

At the front desk, she found a kind-faced young librarian. Tawny held out the phone in her damp palm. “There’s, uh, a class, I think….”

The librarian nodded and pointed to stairs at the far end of the room. “Second floor. In the meeting room. Lot of seniors.”

Seniors? How old did she think Tawny was? Well, according to AARP, she was now technically a senior. Tawny thanked her and turned toward the stairs.

“Good luck,” the librarian called after her.

Was she being sarcastic?

I’ll show her who’s a senior…Tawny skipped up the steps two at a time.

On the second floor, more walls of books hemmed her in, centuries of knowledge other people read and understood, but never her. She followed a pathway to a glassed-in cubicle. About a dozen gray-haired people milled inside the room, wearing mystified expressions as they chatted and displayed their own Lucifers. Did she really look as old as these folks? In the eyes of the young librarian, probably. At least Tawny had company in her ignorance.

A dark attractive man at the entrance made Tawny draw in a breath. Strong wiry build, an inch or two under six feet. Crisp white shirt, ironed jeans, tweed sport coat. About forty, she guessed, with shaggy black hair and a thick mustache.

And startling, soulful green eyes.

He held a clipboard. Must be the teacher. Tawny approached him with a shy smile. “Smartphone class?”

He grinned, showing straight teeth below the dense mustache.

Would that tickle if he kissed her? What are you thinking? Stop that!

His eyes crinkled with warmth and humor, almost as if he’d read her mind. “Welcome. I am asking people to sign in with their name and cell number.” A hint of accent she couldn’t place touched his speech. He handed her the clipboard and a pen.

“I can give you my name, but I haven’t a clue what the number is. It goes ring-a-ding-ding, but the screen just stays black.”

“May I?” He held his hand out for her phone, which she gave him.

While she wrote her name on the sign-in sheet, he flicked the screen with a feathery touch. Suddenly the phone lit up, a bright glowing mountain scene. His index finger flew, changing the screen to strange icons she didn’t understand. Might as well have been scratches on the stone wall of an Egyptian pyramid.

A few more flicks and he handed it back to her, the heat of his palm lingering for a second. “This is your number.”

Tawny felt embarrassed she needed to put on her glasses to see the display. “How’d you do that?” Her voice sounded breathy. Must be amazement, or a surprise rush of hormones. Yet when she looked into his green eyes, she felt a connection.

How she’d missed her man’s closeness during the eight long years of Dwight’s illness. She hoped she’d never let on to him the hunger she felt when he could no longer make love.

She shook the memories from her mind.

The dark man peered at her, black brows drawn together, searching deeper into her thoughts. “Are you all right?” He glanced at the sign-in sheet. “Tawny? May I call you Tawny? I’m Kahlil Shahrivar.”

“Nice to meet you.” Beyond his good looks, she sensed concern, empathy, and depth of soul in those eyes. “Thanks for making it work.”

His smile warmed her. “No inconvenience. Your brightness control was turned all the way down, that’s all. No magic.”

“Might as well be magic,” she murmured. “To me, it is.”

He brushed her upper arm, directing her through the door. “Let me show you how to peek behind the curtain. When you’re finished with this class, that phone will do everything for you except fold the laundry.”

She moved into the room, wishing his hand had stayed longer on her arm. “In that case, I need a different model. I specifically asked for one that folds laundry.”

#

During the next two hours, Tawny learned how to take photos, find the weather forecast, record appointments, and keep track of her workout. Kahlil was a patient teacher. When he demonstrated a security feature using a thumbprint, he chose Tawny as the model. He enfolded her thumb in his warm hand, rolling it slowly and carefully around on Lucifer’s screen, sending shivers up her neck.

Students practiced calling and texting each other. Tawny discovered a text from her son already on her phone, Hv fun w/ ur new toy. Watch 4 email w/ updated Rear D contact #. Love, Neal. I ought to spank your butt, you little brat, she thought, even though the little brat now stood six-two, a no-nonsense Army sergeant.

As people tried various tasks, she felt relieved not to be the dumbest student, even though Kahlil seemed to spend more time with her than the others. Hopefully nobody picked up on how she had inhaled his masculine scent as she leaned close to him. Close enough that she spotted a small hearing aid inside his ear. Young to be going deaf. Probably too much loud music as a teenager.

When the class broke up, a white-haired lady winked at Tawny. “Teacher’s pet,” she said with a sly smile. Tawny’s cheeks burned. So she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed.

This is ridiculous, she thought. I can’t be interested in a younger guy, or any guy. She hurried from the room before the other students, clipping down the stairs, out to Dwight’s old Jeep Wrangler.

She now knew the basics of using Lucifer. Mission accomplished.

#

Sitting in his BMW Z-4 parked outside the library, Kahlil tapped an encrypted text, Contact initiated, response exceeded expectations, then sent it.

Operating in a small town made contact simple. Two nights before, he’d placed the package and postcard in Tawny’s mailbox. Combined with the advertising blitz he paid for on the radio station he knew she listened to, he felt confident she’d show up at his class. And she had.

She was taller than surveillance photos showed, matching his height of five-ten. Slender, long legs in black tights, a light orange sweater hugging lovely curves. Glossy auburn hair plaited in a braid that hung over her shoulder. High cheekbones and wide-set brown eyes befitting a model, which she’d been in her youth. A charming, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Her technological ignorance was obvious, as preliminary research had indicated. Leading her along would be simple. She’d made several comments that hinted at self-consciousness about her lack of education. Good. He’d play on that. Flatter her, praise her intelligence, but never let her grow too confident.

A successful evening’s work with a beautiful woman. Much superior to the other targets in his database. An unexpected pleasurable interlude amid the complex intensity of the mission.

#

The next morning, wrapped in her blue fleece robe, Tawny sipped coffee and nibbled rye toast while she labored to compose a thank-you text to her son, although she didn’t know when or if he might receive it. Neal’s deployment to Afghanistan three months earlier made her heart ache with worry, but he had chosen the Army for a career, rising through the ranks quickly. She was proud of her son, even though he never talked about his work. She guessed he had confided in Dwight, a Vietnam vet. Father and son used to spend hours huddled in the downstairs den, turning up the TV, she figured, to keep her from overhearing their conversation.

She appreciated their close relationship. Dwight had been a good dad and Neal was a good son. She’d been lucky, but how she missed them both. Silence hung heavy in their old house, so empty and hollow now. At least, one day, she’d be able to hug her boy again, admire the square jaw and steady gaze he’d inherited from his father.

She tapped the phone’s virtual keyboard, which kept correcting her spelling, changing Neal to neat. “Dammit!” she muttered. “Neal, what were you thinking, sending me this instrument of the devil?”

Fed up, Tawny padded barefoot on the hardwood floor through the living room, down the hall, to check email in Neal’s old bedroom, now her office. On her laptop, she found the promised message from him with a new phone number to the Rear Detachment. Dwight used to poke fun at the “rear echelon motherfuckers” in Vietnam who stayed at a base safely behind the action. He scoffed they were only useful for emptying trash cans.

But Tawny appreciated Rear D for the emergency lifeline between deployed soldiers and family back home. They had treated her kindly and helped her get a message to Neal during the last gasping week of Dwight’s life. She carefully copied the new Rear D number into Lucifer’s contact list and saved it.

She finished off the text to Neal and sent it. At least she hoped it had been sent. Every time she touched the smartphone, a new unexpected screen popped up, full of choices she didn’t understand, like Tethering, NFC, screen mirroring.

Kahlil had helped her through basic tasks at the library. She might’ve learned more if she hadn’t been so distracted by his sensual way of stroking the screen, his softly accented speech. He reminded her of Omar Sharif from the old movie Dr. Zhivago.

Kahlil. What kind of name was that? Sounded exotic, romantic, yet vaguely familiar. Then it hit her. In her daughter’s purple bedroom, Tawny pulled down a box of books from the top shelf of the closet and set them on the zebra-striped bedspread. When she’d wanted to donate them to Salvation Army, Emma protested. Somehow, unlike Tawny, Emma had overcome her reading difficulty and loved books. Whenever she came home, she promised to get her own place and give the books a place of honor. Hadn’t happened yet. She lived like a nomad in a van with her tattoo artist boyfriend.

Tawny opened the flaps on the cardboard box and dug among the books. Phew, mildew. The slim volume she was looking for turned up near the bottom.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. That’s where she knew the name Kahlil from. Emma had all but memorized the book during high school. At the dinner table, she was forever quoting passages of romantic, mystical poetry that didn’t rhyme. Tawny understood the appeal. Dwight would never have written such words to her, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have loved to receive them.

Tawny carried the books outside and spread them on the picnic table to air out in the warm April sun. Then she forced herself to pull on black leggings and a sleeveless chartreuse top for Zumba class. Working out had been her salvation while Dwight was sick, a temporary escape. Now, she had to push herself to leave the house, even though she knew exercise would temporarily lift her out of the pit of loneliness.

In the mud room, she donned a denim jacket and left by the back door. In the detached garage off the alley, she climbed up into Dwight’s Wrangler. The rig bounced like a balky mule, but her brawny husband had loved it. She’d sold her comfortable Explorer because driving the Jeep made her feel closer to him, and no point paying insurance on two cars anymore.

On the way to the gym, Tawny stopped at the bank ATM, withdrew $300, and plucked the receipt from the machine. The balance caught her eye. Can’t be right. She dug in her bag for her readers, put them on, and verified the amount.

$47,281.06.

Impossible.

The account normally hovered around $5,000. $42,000 too much. Must be a computer error.

She parked the car and went inside the lobby, irritated. Once she’d badgered herself into leaving the house, she hated to miss Zumba class, especially for a bank error.

Fortunately, her favorite teller Margaret was on duty. The grandmotherly plump woman listened to Tawny’s explanation of the mistake, and tapped the keyboard to access the account. She rotated the screen to show Tawny. “Here’s the deposit yesterday. $41,500 in cash.”

Tawny stared at the screen, first without her readers, then with. “But I didn’t make that deposit. It’s wrong. Can’t you tell where it came from?”

Margaret shrugged. “If it was a check, we could backtrack the account number. Harder with cash.”

Tawny’s checkbook always balanced to the penny, a source of pride. She might struggle with reading, but she knew her numbers. “I did not make that deposit,” she repeated, as if her disclaimer would alter the figure flickering on the screen.

Margaret tapped again. “It wasn’t made at this branch,” she agreed. “Let’s see, it was done at the Helena branch.”

“That’s a hundred and fifty miles away,” Tawny answered. “I haven’t been to Helena in more than a year.” An unwelcome memory of that last trip to the Fort Harrison VA returned, the black day when doctors finally admitted defeat and pronounced Dwight’s death sentence. She shoved the bitter memory aside. “I couldn’t have made the deposit.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Margaret glanced over Tawny’s shoulder at customers lining up, then back at a couple of young tellers chatting as they ignored the growing queue. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

Ridiculous. In the age of computer tracking, IRS monitoring, and surveillance cameras, a bank had to be able to figure out where the cash came from, and where it should rightfully go. “Is the manager in?” Tawny asked.

“Sorry, she’s out of the office at a seminar.” Margaret pursed her lips and gave her a you-know-how-things-are shrug.

Yeah, Tawny knew the damn bank had been going downhill ever since a multi-national conglomerate bought it a year before and renamed it United Bankcorp. The former manager had taken early retirement, replaced by a snooty woman from San Francisco Tawny hadn’t met and didn’t particularly want to. Every time Tawny caught a glimpse of her, usually glaring down at the lobby from the mezzanine, the woman averted her eyes.

Margaret had confided her new boss didn’t like being stuck in the backwater town of Kalispell, Montana. One by one, familiar employees left, replaced by twenty-somethings with inflated titles whose main function seemed to be kissing the manager’s butt. Only Margaret remained, trying to hold out till she could collect Social Security. Tawny wondered how much longer till she too was swept aside.

She leaned forward. “I better see the operations supervisor.”

Margaret spoke into the phone, then gestured at a desk on the opposite side of the lobby. “He’ll be with you in a moment.” She mouthed good luck, as if she expected Tawny would need it, and made a face, warning you won’t like him.

Tawny sat in front of the desk and scanned strangers in glass cubicles along the wall, missing the atmosphere of the old neighborhood bank where she knew everyone’s names. Back when she and Dwight had their diesel repair business, an error like this would never happen, or if it did, the problem would be solved immediately with apologies.

A twenty-ish young man emerged from behind a solid wood partition, newly built since the takeover. He approached, looking as bored as if he were flipping burgers and scooping fries. Black horn rims accentuated his vampire-pale complexion.

Tawny pushed the ATM receipt across the desk. “I have a problem. Someone deposited $41,500 into my account yesterday.”

“Wish somebody’d do that for me,” the kid scoffed.

Tawny forced herself to keep smiling. “It’s not my money. Obviously someone must have keyed in the wrong number and it got put into my account by mistake.”

He stared at her through his horn rims.

This nitwit was the operations supervisor? Trying to hide the irritation in her voice, Tawny explained, “I’m sure whoever this money belongs to is expecting it to be in their account. Maybe they’re writing checks that are going to bounce. Don’t you think they might be a little upset?”

“The manager’s out,” he answered blandly.

“So I hear. Meanwhile, how do we straighten this out?”

With a put-upon sigh, he asked, “Are you sure it’s a mistake?”

She wanted to reach across the desk and swat him. “Look, a forty-one dollar error, maybe I could’ve screwed up. But I guarantee you I didn’t screw up $41,000 worth.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Look, why don’t you call the Helena branch and talk to them?”

He peered over the top of his glasses, plucked a bank business card from a holder, circled a phone number, and handed it to her. “Here’s the 800 number. You can explain directly to them.”

She took it. “Is this the branch number?”

He heaved another sigh. “It’s the 800 central number for the whole bank. They’ll help you.”

Useless talking to this clown. Tawny grabbed a pen and scrawled her name and phone number on a slip of paper. “When the manager gets back, please have her call me right away.” She rose and stalked toward the door.

“Have a wonderful day,” he called. How politely and professionally he told her to go fuck herself.

#

Tawny couldn’t wait to get home. Wait till Dwight heard about this ridiculous mess. He’d blow a gasket and they’d be out looking for a new bank tomorrow….

Realization hit her like an ice cube down the back.

Dwight was gone. Forever.

Tears burning, she pulled over and parked. “Dammit, Dwight!” She pounded the steering wheel. “Why aren’t you here to help me?”

Most of the time, she held grief at bay…until the smallest trigger set off the horrible replay of his death. She felt as if she’d been hanging on a sheer cliff with one hand, desperately clinging to her husband with the other, as her strength ran out until she could no longer hold him. When he fell into the abyss, she tore apart, half of her falling with him.

She knew it wasn’t the bank and its corporate indifference—it was the silent emptiness she faced at home, no one to share her frustration with. Guilt filled the hollowness inside her, multiplying and swelling, like Dwight’s cancer, seeping into the ragged edges of her soul.

When he had lashed out against the cancer, she took it personally. When exhaustion dragged her down, she longed for relief, an end to the constant burden of juggling his medicines that acted more like poisons. She hated arguing with doctors who never hesitated to remind her how smart they were and how ignorant she was, even when she caught their mistakes.

How she begged Dwight to eat as he wasted from two hundred pounds to eighty. How she held his head while he retched and blamed her for making him eat. How she dreaded the sleepless nights, listening to him moan and thrash in bed beside her.

Now their bed was silent and empty. Only his childhood teddy bear to hold, a pitiful substitute.

It was her fault—she had wished for the end. Now, she regretted the wish with all her heart.

Drained and sniffling, she pulled herself together and blew her nose.

No matter how much she screamed and pounded, Dwight would still be dead and she still had $41,500 of someone else’s money. She needed to fix that.

At home, she steeled herself and called United Bankcorp’s 800 number. The voice mail runaround offered to make a loan, open a credit card, consolidate her debts, and rattled off locations of branches in fourteen states. She heard a prompt for every possibility except what to do when someone else’s money winds up in your account. After twenty minutes of circular trips back to the main menu, she repeatedly pressed zero hoping to connect with a human being. The recorded voice sincerely apologized, but did not recognize that command. When she heard for the eighteenth time how important her call was to them and how valued she was as a customer, she disconnected.

“Valued, my ass,” she muttered. “If I’m so important, why can’t I talk to anyone but a damn machine?”

Then she remembered the Slocums, neighbors who had retired from banking, Sheryl as a loan collector, Phil as a vice president. Maybe they could give her advice.

Tawny walked down the avenue under mature maple and linden trees, past small well-kept 1920s Craftsman homes like hers, interspersed with century-old mansions on corner lots, landmarks built by early Kalispell movers and shakers. The Slocums’ was a two-story Colonial with a former carriage house converted to a double garage.

She rang the bell and heard Sheryl lumbering across the hardwood floor entry with heavy dinosaur steps.

“Hi, Tawny, what’s up?” Sheryl always looked vaguely annoyed, as if her bunions hurt or her bra chafed.

“Hi, I wondered if I could talk to you and Phil about a banking problem I’m having.”

Sheryl looked her up and down, eyes gone flinty. Heaven help anyone who might fall behind on their payments to Sheryl. “You know we’re retired. We really don’t like to talk business anymore.”

Phil approached behind Sheryl with a leering smile, the kind Tawny dreaded from husbands because it made wives hate her. “Howdy, neighbor!”

Tawny tried to back away. “I don’t want to bother you.”

“So what’s the problem?” Phil all but pushed Sheryl aside. “I heard something about banking?” He motioned Tawny into the house. “Come on in, sit down. Want some coffee?”

“No, thank you. I won’t take up much of your time.” She grimaced an apology to Sheryl who narrowed her eyes and closed the door.

Seated on antique chairs in their living room, Phil asked, “Now, what’s this about?”

Tawny released a breath. “This is going to sound weird, but United Bankcorp put money in my account, a lot of money, and I don’t know where it came from. I think it must be a computer mistake and it should have gone into someone else’s account. But I can’t get the bank to look into it. They insist I made the deposit yesterday in Helena. I haven’t been to Helena lately, so it can’t have been me.”

Phil hunched forward, elbows on knees, belly hanging. “How much are you talking about?”

“Forty-one thousand five hundred dollars.”

He whistled softly. “You sure it couldn’t have been a direct deposit, like from a life insurance payoff, or a tax refund you forgot about, or a settlement in Dwight’s estate?”

Tawny shook her head. “None of those. I think I’ve got our finances pretty well squared away. No, this is completely out of the blue. And it’s cash. The trouble is I can’t get anyone at the bank to pay attention. I’ve told them it’s an error, but they blow me off.”

Phil rubbed his chin. “This could be more of a problem than you think. Even before 9/11, regulators tightened restrictions and increased reporting to try to track money laundering that finances terrorism. Any time someone makes a cash deposit of more than $10,000 to an account outside the normal ordinary course of business, banks have to file a CTR within fifteen days of the transaction.”

“What’s a CTR?” Tawny asked.

“Currency transaction report. That goes to the feds so they can monitor unexplained movements of large amounts of cash—you know, like from drugs or weapons smuggling. If something alerts the teller to unusual behavior, he or she fills out an S-A-R, suspicious activity report.”

Tawny’s stomach clenched. “What the hell? I’m no drug smuggler or terrorist. I just want the mistake fixed.”

“That’s all well and good, but the bank has probably already filed the CTR, so you may still come under scrutiny unless you can explain the source of funds.”

“What’s to explain? It isn’t my money. I don’t know where it came from.”

“You need to talk to the manager and ask about putting the money in a suspense account until they find out the source.”

“What’s a suspense account?”

Phil crossed his legs, ankle on knee. “To put it in basic terms that you could understand, it’s an internal account where banks stick money they’re not sure what to do with until they figure it out.”

Tawny tightened at his condescending tone, but said nothing. She needed the ex-banker’s information.  

Sheryl cleared her throat. Tawny recognized the wifely signal—wrap this up and get her out of our house.

Phil shifted, uncrossing his legs. His belly spread across his thighs. “You’re absolutely sure you don’t know about this cash? You’ve had a lot to keep track of with Dwight’s illness and death. Maybe something slipped your mind in the turmoil.”

Tawny pulled herself straight. “More than forty thousand dollars is not going to slip my mind.” She rose. “Thanks for taking the time. I’ll see the manager tomorrow.” As she went toward the front door, she felt Sheryl’s glare on her back, and heard Phil mutter something to his wife.

They think I’m crazy. If my own neighbors don’t believe me, how can I convince the feds I haven’t done anything wrong?

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

Submissions Wanted. 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.


Maya sends the first chapter of Different. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

"Bring me some grapes!" Caspian ordered as the butler entered his room. "Yes master. What is your preferred variety?" The butler asked slowly. Caspian narrowed his eyes and picked up a book. "I don't care! Just get me some grapes!" He yelled as he threw the book towards the butler. The butler swiftly exited the room before he got hit and the within seconds of his departure, the novel had hit the door and landed on the ground with a thud.

Caspian was the secondary master of his mansion. He was next in line to become the Lord of Salisbury Estate. Although only 15 years old, he had nearly full control of the entire house and made his butlers and servants do as he pleased with just a few commands. This made Caspian rather lazy and unknowing - having people do things for him twenty four seven made him virtually unable to do anything himself. But he wished to pay attention to only his requirements and continued to splash out orders to his unwilling helpers. Caspian had dark hair, like his father, which he kept neat and tidy nearly all the time. His eyes were crystal blue, and created a stunning portrait of a young wealthy boy. But behind this beauty was insolence and dominating proclivies and that consumed him almost entirely. In a word, it was the ugly truth.

Soon after his servant had left his room, Caspian rolled over on his bed and sighed. He was getting bored of this high-and-mighty lifestyle. And the thing that bugged him the (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

“Telling,” credibility, and no story question are roadblocks to a page-turn for this opening. I was immediately stopped by the book-throwing action. For the book to have hit the door “seconds” after the butler had exited and shut it, the book would have had to have been traveling in slow motion. It would take no more than a second or two for the book to travel through the air. More likely the butler would have to dodge the book than exit and shut the door. A credibility issue caused by not thinking through the staging and action as it would really happen.

The character is unappealing, but I can deal with that as long as there’s a strong story question. But the narrative lapses into telling us backstory and details about the character rather than showing us in a scene. Even with the quicker delivery of information through telling, though, the narrative brings up no story question. You need to think this through and then give us a scene that isn’t all setup. The very end of this brief chapter works toward that with his decision to escape, but even if it opened there we would need something to block his desire, to cause him trouble.

Continued:

. . . most was that he was not allowed outside his mansion. The reason for this unusual enclosure, was that his mother and father were very overprotective, and thus leading to their child's restrictions. But he found a way to deal with this by distracting himself, in which he would do so by bossing his butlers and servants around. Although his method of diversion was hurtful towards his stewards, it was the only way that Caspian saw to divert his longing for the outside world.

Before long, the young master heard the door to his bedroom creak open and as he turned around, Caspian spotted his butler sauntering into the room, holding a large silver tray with grapes placed neatly in the middle. "Your grapes sire" the butler said. Caspian said his thanks and bid his loyal servant goodbye, for he wanted the room to himself again.

Once the butler had left, Caspian placed the tray of grapes beside his bed and picked one off the vine. "I don't understand" he muttered to himself, squeezing the grape between his fingers. "Why won't mother and father let me go outside? All the other children do and nothing happens. It’s downright unfair!"

This delusion had gotten him quite upset, and as a result, Caspian had pressed the grape enough so that it burst and left trickles of juice running down his arm. "Oh bother! Butler!" He yelled.

Moments later, the butler had reached his room and asked what his master required. "Tissues" Caspian ordered, and with that, the butler left, hoping to return shortly.

As Caspian waited, his patience grew thinner and for the first time in his life, he felt like getting up and getting the tissues himself. He was about to do so when his servant strolled in again, this time carrying a box of tissues. "Master, I have news in which I'm entitled to deliver" the butler said as Caspian took a tissue from the box. "What is this news you speak of?" The young boy asked, suddenly intrigued by his servant's words.

"Your parents are out for a few days, perhaps a week if there are delays during their travels, and so you shall have the house to yourself for the time being. Under servant supervision, of course."

Caspian looked at the butler with a smile. "That is great to hear. You may be excused."

With that, the butler exited his room, leaving Caspian on his own once more. The young lord rose from his bed and walked over to the window. "What can I do whilst my parents are away?" He thought to himself. Then an idea popped into his head. A very daring and worrisome idea. "That's it!" He cried.

"I'll escape!"

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15. Flog a BookBubber 9

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. I’ve noticed that many of these folks use a prologue—I skip those books. Following is the first page and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 book titled Malevolent.

The phone rang and rang.

On the seventh or eighth ring, I answered. I already knew who it was. “This is Kane.”

“Kane, we have one.”

I let out a puff of air in disappointment. I hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in weeks. “You really need me there?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine. Where?”

The captain rattled off the address. “Right away,” he said and hung up.

The address was the Manchester office building a couple miles from my condo.

While my schedule said I had Sundays and Mondays off, I couldn’t recall the last time I didn’t work a Sunday. Mondays were the only days I could somewhat count on not being bothered— murderers weren’t as active on Sunday nights and Monday mornings. However, as a department lead, I was always on call. That led to a lot of overtime. The clock on my nightstand read 7: 33 a.m. I rolled out of bed.

I rummaged through my closet and selected my day’s attire. The pants, shirt, and tie tucked under my arm were somewhat clean. The walls of the hallway guided me toward my bathroom. I splashed water across my face and ran my hands across my couple-day-old stubble. (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll after the break.

 

MalevolentThis book is by E.H. Reinhard. Nothing to fault in the writing, and the first-person voice is fine. The promise of a murder investigation is, well, promising. But then the story gets into him getting out of bed and getting dressed. His only desire, unfrustrated, is to clothe himself. No jeopardy in that, no suspense, no tension. We just don’t need the backstory that follows (we meet his cat, for heaven’s sake). While this author doesn’t seem to need line editing, he could sure use a critique of the storytelling. What are your thoughts?

You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

 

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

Submissions Wanted. 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.


Elizabeth sends the first chapter of an untitled novel. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

The wheels of the Dispatcher are eating miles of road beneath me. Its metal grate rumbles beneath my combat boots, and I stand firm with my back to the wall like I’ve been taught. But it takes all my self-control to not move as Commander Jakob, or Grumps as I like to call him, lowers his mouth to hover beside my ear. “This is your final training mission before your coronation, Fife. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, would we?”

His hot breath hangs in wisps around his whiskers. I’m about to reply with the customary “No, sir” like the other soldiers, but I stop myself before I can. Grumps is my subordinate. I’m not going to let him forget that. So instead I just shake my head.

He straightens and grates it out, “I would like to take this opportunity to wish you good luck in your future endeavours, Fife. Let’s hope you’re a better ruler as the Astrixys, than you are a soldier.”

I nod, “Let’s hope so.”

Grumps turns on his heel and retreats to the front of the Dispatcher. What he really wanted to say is that I suck so much at combat training, it’s obvious I’m a human. Because when it’s a human vs a Saeptose, the Saeptose will always win. Whether it’s with smarts or speed or strength.

My eyes travel to the other side of the Dispatcher. I can barely make out the other (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the writing and the voice quite a lot and, as a science fiction fan, the new world that’s opening before me. All that said, what this opening page lacks is a story question. Fife doesn’t have a need or desire expressed at this point, nor is there a sign of jeopardy ahead. Later the Dispatcher opens and she is greeted with this:

The Dispatcher grinds to a halt. There’s a groan and sickening clunk as the wall on my left folds outwards. Dust swirls from where it touches the ground outside, forming a ramp I’ve walked down on similar missions many times before. A crowd of humans meets my eyes. Outside, meters away, is the Lower World.

We’re parked in a long kind of concrete hall. The ceiling hangs low and yellow markings are painted across the floor. A parking lot? Whatever it is, it stinks of piss. At least twenty humans are gaping at us, with ripped shirts and rotting teeth and filthy faces. Their eyes are hollow as their stomachs. But it’s not like I haven’t seen humans from the Lower World before. What makes me freeze all over is the weapons they carry.

I’m the closest soldier to the humans. I’m closest to their curved hunks of metal- clearly salvaged from junkyards and hacked till sharp enough to slice.

The page as it is gets an almost from me. Put the above on the first page and I’ll guarantee you a page turn. Notes:

The wheels of the Dispatcher are eating miles of road beneath me. Its metal grate rumbles beneath my combat boots, and I stand firm with my back to the wall like I’ve been taught. But it takes all my self-control to not move as Commander Jakob, or Grumps as I like to call him, lowers his mouth to hover beside my ear. “This is your final training mission before your coronation, Fife. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, would we?” I think the “Dispatcher” is a case of too much in the world-building. I had no idea what one was for a couple of sentences. It would have been so clear and simple to use something like “troop transport” or “troop transporter” instead.

His hot breath hangs in wisps around his whiskers. I’m about to reply with the customary “No, sir” like the other soldiers, but I stop myself before I can. Grumps is my subordinate. I’m not going to let him forget that. So instead I just shake my head.

He straightens and grates it out, “I would like to take this opportunity to wish you good luck in your future endeavours, Fife. Let’s hope you’re a better ruler as the Astrixys, than you are a soldier.” Clarity issue here. I didn’t have a clue to what “as the Astrixys” meant. I think context would have helped me if, instead, had been “when you become the Astrixys.” I still don’t know exactly what it is, but I get more out of it.

I nod, “Let’s hope so.”

Grumps turns on his heel and retreats to the front of the Dispatcher. What he really wanted to say is that I suck so much at combat training, it’s obvious I’m a human. Because when it’s a human vs a Saeptose, the Saeptose will always win. Whether it’s with smarts or speed or strength. How does one retreat to the front of something? I think stride or some other verb would be more clear for me.

My eyes travel to the other side of the Dispatcher. I can barely make out the other (snip)

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Elizabeth Bourke

Continued:

. . . soldiers standing against the opposite wall. I’ve sparred with them all before. And they’re all Saeptose. Every time, I got my ass handed to me.

But if Grumps said he smelled a rat, I could imprison him for the rest of his life if I so chose. And geez, sometimes I really want to.

He hunkers down at the front of the Dispatcher, just as the vehicle sails over a bump in the road. He bangs on the wall at his back, “Watch wear you’re driving, human.” Goosebumps prick up my arms as the driver whimpers an apology.

The Dispatcher goes silent beneath me. Its rumbles are replaced by the hum of machinery on all sides. My stomach gives a vague flip as the elevator sails down, with our vehicle loaded inside. We’re heading to the Lower World. Where the humans live.

A door slides open from the back of the Dispatcher. Two pairs of combat boots thud on the metal grate, and I breathe a sigh of relief. The footsteps pass me and into the dim light. I can see their owners better now. They’re both muscular and broad shouldered, both with faces that look as if they were carved from ice. Clearly brothers who’ve finished their combat training.

They come to a stop in front of Grumps and I nearly laugh as the colour runs out of his face. Scrambling to his knees, he lays a hand across his chest.

“Give the heir the same treatment you give us,” the white haired one says. It’s not often that I hear Lucan so cold. He’s slightly taller than Iryn, slightly more willowy too. You’d never guess he’s the younger brother.

Grumps lowers his eyes, “Yes, my lord.”

Lucan and Iryn glance back at me. Their grins are wicked. I give them a thumbs-up. Technically, they should be on their knees in front of me like the commander, but us aristocrats stick together.

The elevator jerks to a halt and the Dispatcher restarts its rumbling progression. Lucan hangs back as Iryn steps forward. He fiddles with a keypad in his hand for a moment, before a projected image flashes on the wall behind him. Light bathes the entire Dispatcher, and I see the other soldiers lined up against the other walls in detail since we started the mission. All of us in the vehicle are decked out in our black uniforms. Bullet proof vests, combat boots. Nothing too major. Just enough to scare anyone in the city who’s thinking of causing trouble. Handguns hang in their holsters, and knives in their sheaths. There’s the collective squeak of leather boots as the other soldiers kneel with their arms over their chests, facing Lucan and Iryn.

Iryn raises a hand, “Yo. Lucan and I are taking over as your commanders for this mission.” The soldiers exchange frowns. It’s not every day that they get a commander address them with “Yo”. Iryn rolls his eyes. “You can’t do much if you’re on the floor, so get up already.”

I can sense their disapproval as they clamber to their feet. Iryn’s clearly not combed his hair in a week. And he and Lucan are only a couple of years older than the rest of us, so they’re not exactly battle-hardened yet. It’s unusual that we get a different commander, let alone these two. But the other soldiers haven’t sparred with these guys like I have. They’d do well to keep on their good side. They’re more deadly than Grumps ever was.

The only person who doesn’t seem to mind is Arena. I catch her on the other side of the Dispatcher batting her eyelashes. I stifle a laugh.

Iryn bends down to a crate leaning against the wall. He tosses us each a small black box. “Today isn’t the standard peacekeeping mission you guys were hoping for. My newest design of navigational device is inside the boxes you hold now. They’re called Tattoos. I need them tested for later use in guerrilla combat.” So that’s where Iryn’s been for the last month. Weeks can go by when I see Iryn daily, but just as many go by when he’s practically disappeared. At the end of such a period there’s always a new device he’s pieced together. They’ve exploded spectacularly more times than I can count.

Iryn sees my raised eyebrows and he smirks, “Don’t worry, they’re safe. I’m not sure about yours though.” I give him the finger and he cackles.

He pulls a clear plastic sheet out of a box. “You put them on like this,” Iryn holds the sheet near his forearm and it snaps onto the armour there, as if attracted magnetically. I can barely see it. But when he taps it three times, the Tattoo lights up all over. It’s a map of the Lower and Upper Worlds. “As you know, today we’re headed to the Lower World. The slums down there are always changing , so it’s hard to get an idea of where anything is, or where rebels could be hiding. This mission will fix that problem. Each of you are assigned one sector of the Lower World. All you have to do is walk through every street you find, and the Tattoo will track your progress on the map. If you walk a street not already on the map, it will be added automatically.”

I pull a Tattoo out of my box, and do what I’m told. The Tattoo flares into life and the map of the Lower and Upper Worlds flashes onto my armour. The Upper World is bristling with skyscrapers. Built by humans, inhabited by Saeptose. It stands on huge stilts above the rambling Lower World. As a human, that’s where I should be. My sky shouldn’t be blue like the one belonging to the Saeptose. It should be grey with the concrete of the Upper World’s belly.

But even the Lower World stands on stilts. Beneath it is the oily black waters of the Silth.

When I zone in again on Iryn, he’s handing out cloaks, and the soldiers are surrendering their weapons to Lucan. Each one clanks as they hit the bottom of the crate. “… remember that your job is to map the Lower World, not terrorise it, and certainly not destroy it. Although, that would be fun.”

I raise my hand, “Why the cloaks? Couldn’t we just walk around?” The others mutter softly. You don’t ask questions of your superiors. But Iryn’s not my superior.

He glances over his shoulder from where he’s handing Arena her cloak. He doesn’t see her blush as their hands touch for a moment, “If you get recognised as an armed Saeptose, you’re dead meat. This is by no means a safe mission. Especially not in times like these.” He turns to us all. All the humour is gone from his expression, “You all know of the skirmishes that have recently been occurring in the Lower World. If you come across any, speak into your Tattoo. It’s programmed to connect to either me or Lucan. We’ll contact the Saeptose stationed on Patrol in the city, and they’ll handle it. Always best to leave it to the pros.”

“I thought you were a pro, Iryn?” I say. The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them, but I don’t regret it. The other soldiers gawk at me, and Grumps is staring daggers.

Iryn smiles wryly, “I am. It’s just that my approach at handling rebels isn’t always the best one.”

“So your approach is, like, blowing them up?”

“You wanna find out, Fife?”

“Anytime.”

A knife whistles through the air and skewers the wall just above Iryn’s head. “Oops,” Lucan says. I turn to him and he shrugs, “It just slipped out of my hand.”

“Sure it did,” Iryn scowls, and hands out the rest of the cloaks.

Lucan comes up to me. He shakes his head, “Why are you two still like this? It’s been two weeks since you sparred.”

“But I beat him.”

“He wasn’t using his power.”

I grin, “But I still beat him. And he’s three years older than me. And he’s finished his training. And I beat him, by the way.”

He grins too, “Stop rubbing it in his face. It’s cruel.”

“Don’t act as if you don’t like seeing him squirm.”

He raises an eyebrow, “Fair enough. Then as your commander, I order you to keep tormenting him,” I hand him my weapons but he shakes his head, “Keep them.”

There’s no more explanation needed. For me to be in the Lower World is more dangerous than for any of the other soldiers. Not only am I from the Controlare, the government of the Upper and Lower Worlds, but I’m a human that’s been raised side-by-side with Saeptose. And I’m the next Astrixys- the next leader of the Controlare. As far as the rebels in Southern Citrene see it, I’m a traitor to the human race.

But even worse, a Saeptose can defend without weapons. Their powers can enhance their abilities. But as a human, I don’t have any such power.

I push the weapons into Lucan’s hands and whisper so only he can hear, “They’ll ask questions if you don’t take them, Lu. Iryn’s the only other person who knows I’m not human here. The others will be just as dangerous if they find out I’m not like you guys.”

“I’ll cover for you. Iryn and I can make up some sort of excuse,” he sees the protest on my lips, “I know you’d be fine against an unarmed human. I mean, you’ve beaten me in the past if I’m not using my power. But against an armed human, or a Saeptose-”

“Fife, stop flirting with your commander,” Iryn calls from the front of the Dispatcher. There it is. His revenge for getting embarrassed in front of the squad.

Lucan closes his eyes momentarily, “I will kill him.”

I smile, “Please do.”

Lucan steps away from me and calls to Iryn, “It’s likely there’ll be assassination attempt against Fife, with her coronation being so close. I think it’s necessary that she be armed.” That’s what Lucan says. But what he’s thinking is so obvious that even Iryn can’t miss it. Agree with me now and it’ll save you a lot of pain later.

The smile is wiped off his brother’s face, “Yes, you’re right. Fife, you can remained armed.” Lucan hands back my weapons as Iryn adds, “You and Fife should take the same sector. We can’t have the future Astrixys getting murdered.” He tosses me a cloak, “At least not when I’m in charge.”

My gun slides back into its holster. It’s always hard for me to rest easy without its weight at my hip. I throw on my cloak. I’d prefer to be alone for this mission, but being paired with Lucan isn’t all bad. It’ll be just like old times when we’d steal food from the Kitchens, or sneak into the training rooms to spar at night. When we were little kids, with no idea of the Lower and Upper Worlds.

The Dispatcher grinds to a halt and Lucan heads up the front to take his position next to Iryn. Grumps stands on Iryn’s other side. There’s a groan and sickening clunk as the wall on my left folds outwards. Dust swirls from where it touches the ground outside, forming a ramp I’ve walked down on similar missions many times before. Daylight spears into the soldiers’ eyes and for a second I’m blind.

I hear Arena scream. The Saeptose have adjusted to the light faster than I have. When I can see again, a crowd of humans meet my eyes. Outside, meters away, is the Lower World.

I stagger backwards. We’re parked in a long kind of concrete hall. The ceiling hangs low and yellow markings are painted across the floor. A parking lot? Whatever it is, it stinks of piss. At least twenty humans are gaping at us, with ripped shirts and rotting teeth and filthy faces. Their eyes are hollow as their stomachs. But it’s not like I haven’t seen humans from the Lower World before. What makes me freeze all over is the weapons they carry.

I’m the closest soldier to the humans. I’m closest to their curved hunks of metal- clearly salvaged from junkyards and hacked till sharp enough to slice.

And as Lucan said- I can hold my own against a normal human. But an armed human?

“The driver!” Grumps shrieks at my back, “The human driver! He drove us to the rebels! The human-“ I look over my shoulder in time to see him smash into the cabin. The human there crouches in the corner, hands outstretched as if he could push away this world. Grumps swaggers forward and reaches for him.

Iryn grabs Grumps by the neck. His right eye glows yellow as he slams him against the Dispatcher wall. Metal splinters and groans.

That’s what Saeptose can do.

“With due respect, comrade,” Iryn hisses, “You need more self-control. We aren’t beasts like humans. Don’t lower yourself to that level.”

Maybe this isn’t a great moment to tell Iryn he’s being hypocritical.

Grumps’ lips curl. He opens his mouth to retort. Iryn’s boot connects with his chest. Doesn’t kick. Not yet. Just a silent, deadly warning. “You were saying, soldier?”

“Nothing, my lord.”

Iryn pushes the boot deeper, “Get off your high horse and know your place.” Everyone, inside and outside the cabin, is silent. We all know what that means. Grumps is a mere soldier who worked hard at his job, and thus rose through the ranks. Aristocrats like Lucan, Iryn and me- well- we’ve got gold in our veins. Valuable gold.

“Yes, my lord. I apologise, my lord.”

Iryn tilts his head to the side and smiles. The boot leaves Grumps’ chest. “Great! Glad we cleared that up. How’s Kitchen duty sound then, eh? The dirty dishes are waiting.”

“Yes, my lord.” Grumps hangs his head.

Lucan walks to the human driver. The man shrinks against the wall. Even Iryn backtracks to linger beside me. But I know how these guys think, enough to know that Iryn’s here to guard me. He’s never been very good at negotiating.

He whispers in my ear, “You think I scared the commander enough?”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks for avenging me for all the times that asshole badmouthed me.”

“Can’t have pricks like that in the Controlare,” he mutters.

In the cabin Lucan’s voice is quiet. “Hey.”

The man stares at Lucan. He’s cleaner than the humans outside the Dispatcher, but still has that hollowness to his face and eyes. Probably works his fingers to the bone during the day in the Upper World, but goes home to his starving family in the Lower World at nightfall.

“You can leave quietly, if you want. We won’t harm you,” Lucan says.

The man swallows now, “You’re mocking me.”

“What good would that do? No, I’m not mocking you,” he glances at the humans outside. “I apologise if it appears that way.”

“Then what are you doing?” The driver throws out his hands. “Kill me! Do what you Saeptose do best! I lead you here to the rebels. Take your revenge.”

“There’s no revenge to take.”

“Not yet, maybe. But if Hurly down there pulls the trigger, Lucan Starka, then you will want revenge.”

Trigger? The humans only have blades and bludgeons. Iryn and I scan the crowd.

“Oh shit,” Iryn mutters.

A man in a long brown cloak stands, almost indiscernible, amongst the crowd. I’m staring down the barrel of a handgun that peeps from above shoulders. So that’s why the rebels haven’t attacked yet. I consider drawing my own handgun, but Hurly’s got his already trained on me. My hand lingers by the holster and I watch the man’s eyes narrow. From beneath his hood, I can see a sun-creased face and long and dirty blond hair.

He nods at me, “Lucan, Iryn, Fife. I would like to talk to you kids.”

The strangest thing is that he doesn’t sound like a rebel. Not an animal, not a beast. Not degenerated in any way. He just sounds like a normal man.

“We want negotiation. Not bloodshed,” the softness in Lucan’s voice is gone. The authority- the power- that’s replaced it is chilling.

Hurly waves a hand as he sidles to the front of the crowd. “Likewise, likewise.” He comes to a stop at the foot of the ramp, “Feel free to bring Marly. As insurance. If we kill Fife, you can kill Marly. If you kill Marly, we kill Fife.”

Lucan nods, “Deal.”

Uh, no. No deal. Firstly, Marly is a commoner, I am an heir. And secondly, I could be shot at anytime. Fat lot of good it’ll do me if I’m dead, even if Lucan avenges me. I don’t think Marly agrees with this deal either. He starts yelling and struggling, but all Lucan needs to do is place a hand on the man’s shoulder.

Lucan’s right eye goes yellow. Marly freezes and all the fear leaves his eyes. All that’s left is blankness. He takes a step forward, then another. Then he and Lucan are standing at the top of the ramp.

At its core, that’s what power a Saeptose has. The power to control anyone as long as physical contact is sustained. They even use the power on themselves, hence the heightened abilities.

Iryn nudges me and we walk to join Lucan and Marly. We face a swarm of humans, they face a horde of Saeptose.

Lucan looks at me, “You want to do the talking?”

No. I’m terrible at talking. You know that, Lucan. But at least I have no one to blame if I screw up and get myself killed. “Hurly?”

I raise my chin, and expect him to kneel and place his hand over his chest like any other subordinate would do. Hurly just stands there, looking amused. But the humans behind him aren’t amused.

“I would like to tell you two things, future Astrixys. Don’t forget them, especially since your coronation is tomorrow. On your sixteenth birthday, right? Happy birthday by the way.”

I scowl at him, and Hurly drops the act. He also drops his voice.

“The first thing is- I know what you are,” I swallow. Iryn and Lucan tense up beside me. “And if you don’t meet me, Fife, at the Lower World elevator entrance at midnight tonight, I will ensure that this little piece of information is broadcasted on every form of media the Upper and Lower Worlds have to offer. I swear to not hurt you. If you don’t trust me, bring a bodyguard.”

Iryn snorts, “Since when do humans have access to media?”

“Ah. This leads me to my second piece of information. Be sure to let it be known.” Hurly grins and I can sense something lurking beneath the friendliness. Rage. “The Reliance is back.”

A gunshot cracks from inside the Dispatcher. Somewhere in the human crowd, a body hits the concrete floor. We all turn. Arena stands with a pistol in front of her. The crate of our discarded weapons is at her feet. Iryn winks at her and she swoons.

Hurly’s face darkens, but I’ve already kicked the handgun from his grip. I snatch it up off the floor before he can grab it. It’s cocked and ready, and my feet move into position like the thousands of times I’ve practiced. The crowd of humans seethe at my feet. One lurches up the ramp and I put a bullet in her chest. The gun jolts in my grip. The woman howls and staggers a few steps forward before falling to the side.

“We only strike only if struck at,” I murmur.

Iryn’s hand shoots out beside me, and latches onto Marly’s neck. The man is motionless, controlled by Lucan’s power. Iryn’s about to squeeze when Lucan interrupts.

“Let’s withdraw.”

Iryn’s incredulous. “They’re a few humans with crude weapons. The three of us could clear this up in minutes. Might even give the students here some experience while we’re at it.”

Lucan’s voice is low and deadly, “I said let’s withdraw.”

I prise Iryn’s hand off Marly’s neck and thrust the man down the ramp. I yell into the mob, “Take your comrade. We don’t need him. We don’t want bloodshed.”

“It’s too late for that!” Hurly’s voice. But I can’t see him. He must be in the mob, somewhere, watching- “The Reliance is alive again!”

The humans thrust their weapons into the air. They’re pointed to the concrete sky. ”We’re alive!” They chant. Over and over.

“Get the door shut!” Lucan shouts. Grumps scrambles to his feet from where he had sagged against the wall. He shoves a button on the Dispatcher’s dashboard. The ramp begins to rise. A couple of humans leap onto it and hurl themselves forward. I pick one off with a bullet. The other one swings a shard of metal at Lucan’s neck, but he dodges it easily. No power needed.

He reappears behind the man. Lays a hand on his shoulder, “We only strike if struck at.”

Lucan’s eye goes yellow. Blood spurts from the man’s mouth and nose and his eyes roll back in his head. He doesn’t have time to scream. All that comes from his mouth is a soft gurgle.

Saeptose can make people do things. One of those things is to die.

I take a deep breath and look away. Somewhere in the cabin, Grumps is cheering. Something about beating the humans. But when I meet Lucan’s eyes, I know he’s thinking the same.

This doesn’t feel like a victory.

Add a Comment
17. Flogometer for Jon—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Wanted, nobody 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.


Jon sends the first chapter of The Ghost of Victory. This is a revision of the work he submitted in December, which is here. The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

He had it – pop!

There, in the mirror, in his face. Was it fate? Belief? He felt that tingle in the bottom of his gut, that twinge of momentous choice now made, of decision wrought. He believed in destiny being forged upon battlefields, like those tropaion of old, of generals and military men – their glory forged into statue, their valor frozen, encapsulated, memorialized for all history to behold.

Young Emmanuel Juarez looked at himself, peered into the soft lines of his face, passed those long eyelashes hovering over his blue upon blue eyes: ‘Am I ready? Ready now to become a warrior?’

As tales of strife and fortitude continued playing across his mind’s eye, as he began humming a majestic, heroic soundtrack to himself, Miguel appeared, his seven-year-old brother, standing in the doorway to the bathroom, “You going away?”

“Not for a while yet,” Emmanuel assured.

“Manny,” Miguel thought a moment before asking, “you going to go fight the terrer-wists?”

Gladdened, Emmanuel shrugged open palms and turned back to the mirror. He popped that zit in the middle of his chin. “Don’t tell Mom about my idea to join the army though. Or Carl. It’s a secret, got it?” He held out his hand and Miguel high-fived it, “Alright, bro. Pinky (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Jon has dropped his old “telling” prologue to go to an immediate scene, which I think is a good thing. But is this scene compelling? What happens here? A young man, we assume, pops a pimple and then talks with his little brother about going away, but that’s not going to happen for a while. Emmanuel has no problem to solve, no desire that is being frustrated. It’s just another day in front of the bathroom mirror. The chapter is pretty much set-up and backstory. I want to be where the story starts on the first page, not engaged in foreplay. Find that point, Jon, and try starting there. For me, this page was not compelling. Notes:

He had it – pop!

There, in the mirror, in his face. Was it fate? Belief? He felt that tingle in the bottom of his gut, that twinge of momentous choice now made, of decision wrought. He believed in destiny being forged upon battlefields, like those tropaion of old, of generals and military men – their glory forged into statue, their valor frozen, encapsulated, memorialized for all history to behold. This is supposed to be a high-school student, a senior. I’ve seen the rest of the chapter and how he speaks. For me, the use of “tropaion” and words such as “encapsulated” do not reflect the voice of a teenage male. I know a lot of words, and I had to look tropaion up—using words in the very opening page that most folks would not understand is dropping a big speed bump into the pace of the narrative, guaranteed to take a reader out of the story right at the moment you want them going deeper. Or is it just me? Did you know that word?

Young Emmanuel Juarez looked at himself, peered into the soft lines of his face, passed those long eyelashes hovering over his blue upon blue eyes: ‘Am I ready? Ready now to become a warrior?’Including the color of his eyes isn’t consistent with what he’s thinking about and a bit of a breach of the close third person POV that is used here.

As tales of strife and fortitude continued playing across his mind’s eye, as he began humming a majestic, heroic soundtrack to himself, Miguel appeared, his seven-year-old brother, standing in the doorway to the bathroom, “You going away?” More uncharacteristic, for me, lingo in “strife and fortitude.”

“Not for a while yet,” Emmanuel assured.

“Manny,” Miguel thought a moment before asking, “you going to go fight the terrer-wists?”

Gladdened, Emmanuel shrugged open palms and turned back to the mirror. He popped that zit in the middle of his chin. “Don’t tell Mom about my idea to join the army though. Or Carl. It’s a secret, got it?” He held out his hand and Miguel high-fived it, “Alright, bro. Pinky (snip) Why is he gladdened by this question? It doesn’t mean anything to me without understanding the motivation for the feeling.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Jon

 

Continued

. . . swear, too?”

“Pinky swear,” Miguel smiled and they wrapped pinkies, a bond between brothers. “Manny?”

“Hmm?”

“Why don’t ch’you call Carl dad like me and Selina?”

Selina piped in from the kitchen, her eight-year-young voice high and clear: “Because our dad’s not Manny’s dad! You ask that all the time!

“Who’s your dad then?” Miguel asked up to Emmanuel, ever expectant, always wondering if Manny’s answer might somehow change.

Emmanuel paused, looking down, and shrugged, “You know I don’t know.” He patted Miguel’s brown hair, walking out of the bathroom and into their yellow kitchen; Selina coloring at the table; a massive, messy stack of coloring books there. Emmanuel had always been different, special. He was her first, Mom always said. Ten years separated him from Selina, and both step-siblings were black-haired and tan-skinned just like Mom and Carl. Emmanuel though had dirty-blond hair, white skin and pale eyes. True, he had never known nor heard much of anything about his own father.

“When’s Mom getting home?” Miguel shuffled in, following.

“I dunno, she’s at work,” Emmanuel sipped at his McDonald’s coffee.

“You should tell Mom you’re joining the marines,” Selina’s brown eyes flicked up, her blue crayon careful on the page.

“It’s the army, not the marines. And it’s my decision, not hers. I’m eighteen now –” slurp “– and I can do it without permission if I want to.”

“I’m gonna tell her when she gets home.”

“No you won’t,” he warned. “It’s between me and Mom. You’re not involved.”

Selina stuck her tongue out at him. He flicked it with his finger and Selina raspberried him instead. Miguel raspberried him next and Emmanuel smiled, sitting down.

“C’mon, let’s color.” Miguel tried nudging Manny’s chair to face the table.

Emmanuel moved as commanded, asking, “Why’re you still in your jammies?”

Miguel shrugged, sitting; Spiderman there on his pajamas, in the room with them.

Altogether they pulled at the stack of coloring books, examining each for uncrayoned pages and preferred designs. Like a couple of scholars, Miguel and Selina reviewed and critiqued their assortment of waxy artworks and instructed Emmanuel on which he should color based on his relative experience and ability. “Here, this one,” Selina pointed out. It was a Knight’s Tale. Its picture showed a chivalrous medieval warrior galloping on a horse, pointing forth his sword. With all their projects duly assigned, they set to work and chose carefully (and argued constantly about) which colors and shades ought to be applied.

Emmanuel chose steel gray for his knight. Selina chose blazin’ orange for her striped kitten and Miguel took rose for his piggy. Emmanuel went to color within the outline of his knight’s helm, but nothing rubbed out onto his paper. He peered, puzzled, at his crayon and then tried again. He saw impression upon the paper, his crayon’s force upon the book, and he could feel its application – he even noticed his crayon-tip wearing down. But no color, no hue, no hint of shading anywhere on the paper – no matter how feverishly he attempted to color.

“Well,” said Miguel, “you could just pretend it works.”

***

Later, Mom finally returned home and Selina spilled the coffee beans on her, so to speak. Emmanuel, though annoyed, was just grateful Mom didn’t seem too peeved about it – yet. In the living room, he unfolded his bed out of the couch, tucking in its sheets and fluffing a throw pillow, saying to Mom, “I wanna go as soon as I graduate. I don’t want to stick around here.”

“Manny, why’re you in such a hurry?” Mom called from in the kitchen, her voice humming along in glad rhythm: “Stay home a while yet. Finish your last year of highschool. Then go to college. Get ch’your feet on the ground and find ch’yourself a nice girlfriend – before going off and becoming army. The army’s not going anywhere.”

Crossing into the kitchen, Emmanuel watched Mom scramble counter to sink to stove to counter again. “I don’t wanna wait,” he replied.

“But why? Aye-ee, mi bebé. See?” She held open the oven door, curling her black hair behind her ear, “You will miss my e-special enchiladas when you’re off in the army! And look – apple dumplings – your favorite just for you!”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes.

Miguel and Selina sat at the table, throwing crayons at each other.

“Stop that!” Mom said over her shoulder, scrubbing plates in the sink, crayons landing around her sneakers. “Manny, don’t rush things –” she coughed and crossed her squat, busy body – dressed in blue nursing uniform – over to the counter. “Ch’you have your whole life ahead of you. Here, hold this.” For an instant, Emmanuel’s arms received her mixing bowl, before she snatched it back. “I don’t know where you get this idea.”

“College money, mom,” he said. “I can go to college after.”

“Huh? We pay for it, Manny! Between me and your stepfather, we send ch’you to the community college across the river. Then you can live here, and be with ch’your brother and sister, like a good brother.” She fought for breath, heaving cake batter in her mixing bowl.

Emmanuel sighed, “Well –” starting to counterargue, but then, gave it up.

“See? See?” She swung her spatula in his face, threatening to coat him with vanilla cake mush. “Ch’you don’t even know why you want this. Wait.”

Emmanuel secretly fingered an Army recruiting brochure inside his pocket. “Mom, I can be somebody. I can make something of myself. Not just work at the Shurfine.”

Robin’s egg blue and cornflower yellow went hurtling to the floor and he picked them up.

“Stop that!” Mom barked, drying dishes in the sink.

“Stop that,” Miguel piped.

You stop that!” Selina returned.

“Aye-ee,” Mom sighed, and set her eyes a moment upon her frame of the Holy Mother, pinned upon the wall: “Dios te salve, Maria, blessed virgin, make my children obedient.” Then she continued with the dishes, muttering to herself in Spanish.

Emmanuel bent over Selina and coaxed her into coloring a jack-o-lantern in her book. He rubbed at Miguel’s mop of hair and fended off his little brother’s attempts to bite his fingers like an ornery dinosaur. “Mom, we can’t understand what you’re saying.” Miguel snapped shut on Emmanuel’s finger: “Ow!”

Both kids giggled like midget devils.

Mom shook her head, turned and said, “Emmanuel, mi bebé, my beloved child,” her wet hands on his cheeks, “You are my first and you will achieve great things in life! You will be something. You are so smart. So gifted. But this…this army idea is not for you. Go to college, and then, if you must, join the army. But perhaps…ch’you might be an officer then – be a leader then. Boys who join with just highschool are the ones who die because officers with education put them in the front lines.”

“Mom, I…I don’t think that’s true.” He sat down tableside and flipped through the coloring books.

Mom asked, “Why d’you want to leave your family?”

“Don’t color that one!” Selina squealed.

“I won’t,” Emmanuel said aside to her, and at Mom, “I don’t.”

“No?” Mom speculated, suddenly airy. She came over to him and caressed his buzzcut, “Tk, look what ch’you did to your beautiful hair.”

He ducked his head, “No. And I don’t wanna be like everybody else and just go to college.”

Running her fingers down his temple, she whispered, “You never stop amazing me, my boy.” Her tone awash with doubt, perhaps awe. She struggled to fathom how her first child, her beloved boy with the golden hair, was now grown up, was now wanting of the world. He wanted to hurry. She wanted just a little longer. Her hand laid still on his shoulder a moment. Selina and Miguel were also enchanted by her tone. The whole kitchen silenced except for the bubbling of savory enchilada juices in the oven.

“But!” she flicked her fingertips across his shoulder and bent over the oven, “I guess ch’you would look so handsome in uniform!”

“So hand-some!” Miguel and Selina teased.

Emmanuel smiled.

“But I am not giving my approval,” she said with effort, reaching up above the oven-fan to grab a new pan. Her bust nearly lit afire from the rangetop. “Oooo! Oooo! It’s hot!” Her hands fluttered across her chest, two little brown burn marks on her blue uniform.

Everyone laughed.

Then Miguel tried to slyly nibble on the tip of pumpkin orange.

“Stop that!” Mom scolded, tossing a dish towel at him. “You’ll ruin your appetite.”

Manny pointed at him and Miguel threw the towel at Manny, who then threw it at Selina, who threw it at Miguel and so on.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” Mom continued. “With iraq and everything going on. Go to college. Wait till the war’s over. Then you can join.”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes again as the dish towel came flying into them.

“Maybe you can – what is it?” Mom placed her hand, grasping a drippy wooden spoon, to her hip, “Those tomb guards. Tomb of unknown sailors – or soldiers. They look good.”

“Mom, I…that’s …that’s not really what I want to do in the military.”

Worry molded her eyebrows and lips. She didn’t dare voice the thought flashing through her mind, for fear that to say it would be to sanction it, to form the thought into realness: ‘He wants to fight…’ she thought, and somehow, had always known that. She dropped her eyes, and mixed, coughing a bit, saying little else while serving dinner.

Carl, Emmanuel’s stepfather, arrived home on the meal’s tail end. “What’s wrong?” he asked Mom.

“O. My cough is up.”

Emmanuel kept his eyes to his plate, sipping up leftover sauces.

Carl unsaddled his laptop case onto the floor and kissed Miguel and Selina and nodded a “What’s up” towards Emmanuel. He sat and chowed down, efficiently scooping the last enchilada in under his black moustache. He talked about work, about making headway on a new contract, about how he had to interpret construction instructions to a group of workers, again, today because they didn’t speak any English. Emmanuel only half-listened, still fingering the brochure hidden in his pocket.

Promptly, dinner was over with everybody full and the coloring books put away with the dishes. Mom and Carl retired to their bedroom with their TV. Miguel and Selina went to bed in their room and Emmanuel showered and settled onto his couch-bed. He slipped out his favorite movie from its DVD case (favorite simply by frequency of viewing) and rubbed its disc to clear off Miguel and Selina’s greasy fingerprints. In went his movie, popping up on a small television screen, alighting this shadowy living space in blue glow. He laid stomach-down on his bed, propped on a pillow, eyes and imagination glued to the screen:

PT boats raced towards the beach. Men vomited and rubbed crosses, praying. Then, the ramps opened… “Over the side!” yelled the Captain, their commander. Into water and up onto blistering sand. Sound shocked and sight awed the viewer. Emmanuel felt like he was there. “Move your men off the beach! – What’s the rallying point, sir? – Anywhere but here! Grab yourself a weapon and follow me.” Emmanuel probably knew the words better than the actors had: “Dog one is not open! We do not hold the beach, say again, we do not hold the beach!” His puppy eyes were saturated. He saw that officer, that combat leader, studied his mannerisms and saw a character he wanted to be: “Jackson, you see that impact crater? – Yes, sir. – That should give you complete defilade on that machine gun position. Get in there and get me some fire on it. Wait for my command!”

“Ah!” Emmanuel yelped.

Carl had snuck up on him. Sitting bedside, “Sorry, man. You watchin’ this again?”

“Yeah,” he shrugged.

“Hey, turn my way for a sec. Your mom, y’know, she don’t like this joinin’ the army business. She’s worried and her health…” he motioned as though pulling his heart out of his chest, “…y’know.”

Emmanuel nodded, still half-listening to the combat behind him.

Carl slapped his knee. “Uhh, look, I know you’re eighteen, and you’re starting to make real decisions for yourself, and that’s good, but keep us in the loop, eh? We care about ya and Mom…she’d die if anything happened to you or if she just thought something might, y’know?”

Emmanuel nodded, solemn, blue flickering across the walls. He switched off the TV and Carl and him continued talking in that dark living room; Carl silhouetted by bathroom light.

“So,” he continued, “think about her. Think about, just, goin’ to college first. Y’know this whole war on terror and…everything.”

Emmanuel said, “But it’s just that I wanna do something, Carl. I want to do something real. Something that matters. And the benefits, y’know…you can put money away for Selina and Miguel’s education instead.”

“You don’t have to worry about that–”

“But–”

“Really. You don’t have to worry about that. We can help all of you with your educations…and you know that I love you just as much as them. I’ve been here since you were–” Carl held out his hand “–this tall. Now I know you’re becoming a man, and you gotta make your own decisions for your life, but your decisions are gonna affect the people here, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Alright,” Carl moved in and hugged Emmanuel. “I love ya buddy. You don’t have to say it back, but I know ya do.” He padded Manny’s shoulder and returned to the bedroom.

Emmanuel heard Mom coughing as Carl opened and then closed the door.

What is peace but the magical leisure of loving?

What is peace but the heaven-borne crown of contentment?

What is war but the clasping of hands with your brother?

What is war but great bravery?

Oh, wonderful land of the States linked together,

Where all have their kingdoms of freedom and might,

To worship the vision of honor and right!

Coletta Ryan, selected lines of My Country

Spanish-American War

There’s something characteristic about young males across cultures and times, those just blossoming into manhood, who send themselves off to fight. Not all young males are alike but many hear from far off the guns calling their names. They see themselves with a gun too, a weapon. They see themselves romantically charging over ramparts as though no other achievement in their lifetime may match this single, shining act of valor. I believe a little disillusionment with the normal, plaintive life, of pursuing the usual pursuits, helps these young men detach and go. And Emmanuel Juarez went. He’d already been dreaming of proving himself; of adventure and challenge; of battle and glory thereof. For what is peace compared to war?

In dreaming, he did not see himself as some poor sufferer in a trench, nor faceless among multitudes strewn across a beach, holding onto their guts and screeching for their mommies, nor as one who went crazy afterwards. No, he saw himself a Captain, a commander, an achiever, the victor. These concerns flowed through Emmanuel Juarez as though passed to him by the brave example of soldiers who had gone before; as though spoken by the ghosts of veterans. “I remember,” old veterans say, “back in the war…” and, for Juarez, they needn’t say anymore. By them, by their archetype, Juarez formulated what you call: the measure of a man. He figured a boy became a man in combat; that a man had battle-courage or wasn’t a man at all. And at this point in history, he was sure there’d be no other chance for it in his life – he had to go now.

Now, reader, allow this pause and I shall reveal myself. There are many unusual and remarkable but no less stimulating circumstances which you will find bound between the covers of this book, and, this pause, this intended poking through the page, is the least of them. I knew Juarez, I first met him some ten years ago, over there, in the sandbox. He was just a cherry, a new guy. I called him that, I called him a cherry. I was a regular ol’ Army sergeant, brash and full of myself, a tough-talkin’ trainer of troops, dubbed by buddies and subordinates and superiors alike as, Sergeant Mac. But that’s not my name anymore and I don’t tell my story, I tell Juarez’ story. I am insignificant. And, as any self-respecting soldier should, I keep my mouth shut and I don’t talk about my own experiences, because memoirs are for pussies and war memoirs especially, these days anyways, all seem penned by insecure glory-seekers.

My role in this prosaic is to guide you, reader, through Juarez’ story, since he was against telling it himself. But I, at least as someone who was nearby, a likewise infantryman, in the same unit, I at least can relate the military intricacies and communicate the subtleties to you. Throughout this story, information just spills out of me: footnotes, appendices, contexts, indices, firefight diagrams, and none the least some handy advice on the care and maintenance of combat helmets. Consider me a token spirit of these pages, bobbing in and out every so often, but only to dispel ignorance with illumination, or to poke you with a stick – I do so enjoy stick-poking, it’s like a favorite pastime. I take many liberties, I offer no justification.

A lot of people try to communicate what over there was. Through one set of eyes or another. People say there was a clear line between good guys and bad guys, some people are believers in right and wrong – and I believe in them too. But that line, that border demarcating moral domains as though betwixt heavenly and hellish – even as a soldier, you couldn’t always see it. That’s the way it was, there were things you see and things you don’t see. The enemy for instance: now you see him, now you don’t. You never knew what you were looking at, really. Some people see Iraq or Afghanistan and they call it over there. And some people see America and call it home. Who’s to say what anything is?

“It’s the ultimate reality,” so many veterans have said. They’ve said that about combat. “Where boys become men,” they say. “The last full measure,” or “the price of freedom” others have put in. I don’t know anymore. I sort of hate war stories, can’t stand ‘em anymore. But I’ll tell this one to you. I’ll tell this one to you and you won’t believe it, but it’s true, I tell you – it’s true.

Sensing, believing, despite his family’s doubts, Juarez stepped outside, sliding shut the door to their apartment. He wrapped a yellow Kmart flannel around himself, since it was late November and the evening wind bit. He folded his arms, scratched his eyebrow and gazed down from their hillcrest apartment complex, down and out at this small corner called Enola, Pennsylvania.

The sun had just slipped under Appalachian mountain, that one bend of the sky glowing purple and orange. Vehicles hissed softly, methodically, on a road below; headlights streaming. A deeper hiss layered under them, of interstate eighty-one less than a mile away, echoing against that mountainside.

A Honda slowed to go over a speed bump and Juarez heard its radio:

“−violently as the United States military continues to battle the insurgency. Five soldiers were killed today when a suicide bomber attacked their patrol. That brings the death toll in Iraq to two-thousand and fifteen. Also vehicles laden with explosives struck two major hotels in Baghdad frequented by Westerners. When questioned about the−"

The Honda drove on.

Further below, and already shrouded in shadow, the railroad yard which a hundred years ago had made Enola suspended familiar squeals of steel on steel into the air. The sound carried on throughout this little corner of Pennsylvania, here, where the great middle of America is in no place better emblemized. Here, this suburb, among many others, of Harrisburg. Here, where houses are built, and continue building, on and on, decade by decade; American dreams of windows and porches and pre-fab design popping up out of the ground; so fertile this wide Cumberland Valley. Here, where there are often two towns to every town: one, with its post office still on Main Street, and the other, with its cul-de-sac developments rolling out and over repossessed farmland. Here, where the Susquehanna flows and the traffic flows, truckloads and railroads and cars. Where cricks line the bottoms of hills, alongside the latest grocery store or refurbished community park. Here where families come to grow, live and be at peace.

Yet, despite that darkened skyline, Juarez saw simply cracks – this parking lot, here on the railyard-side of town, was filled with potholes and deficits. Things weren’t fresh here, not like on the other side of Enola, where the new houses and clean lawns grew. Here, he saw, the parking-space lines were all faded; a handicap man decapitated. Rust on signs and posts and things. Nearing a picnic table, he sat atop it. Underneath, a single dandelion – one flower, stem and two ratty leaves – eked an existence out a sidewalk crack.

He shivered and took a deep breath, watching road signals change – green, yellow, red. He saw people, driving by, heading to their houses or apartments, living their obscure, uneventful lives. He listened as the rails screeched louder: tone upon tone of squeal as those metal wheels slowed to a stop upon those steel rails. Juarez saw only the rust and cracks, only the old and the ordinary.

***

One fateful day a few weeks later, Juarez returned home to the apartment. Everyone else was out. School was out too for Christmas break, and Juarez was scheduled to work that day at the Shurfine. However, that morning, he had called in sick – and gone to meet with his Army recruiter instead.

He dropped a black backpack, logoed “Army of One,” onto the floor and headed for the kitchen cabinet to grab some cereal, but first, he remembered, there was this one pimple in the middle of his forehead he needed to pop. He entered the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror – yet, mid-pop, he stopped.

He glimpsed something there. Vague and unspoken, some moment of a lifetime beckoned – some experience out amidst the blur of bullets and bombs over there – some revelation within those adrenalin-elongated seconds. Yearning for it, Juarez had signed the papers and accordingly joined the infantry[1]. The flush of decision, of destining choice, blushed over him for the first time in his life and he liked the feeling of it.

Now he just had to break this new development to his family – to Mom particularly.

“It was inevitable,” he said to the mirror. “She should’ve seen it coming…Everybody’s always going somewhere else – somewhere other than enola. The trains, cars – the world is going by enola.” He finished popping his pimple. “It was inevitable,” he repeated – like a train following its track: all he could do was follow the line appointed to him; like a moving box. “It was inevitable,” he shrugged. “It was inevitable,” he pleaded. “It was inevitable!” he commanded. His long eyelashes blinked. His cheeks curved softly but he practiced tightening them, making a face of unimpeachable uprightness for Mom. It was pretty convincing, he reckoned.

Now, people join the Army for all types of reasons. Some wish to prove something. Others join out of family tradition or because they grew up an Army brat. Yet others desire a little hometown notoriety (they usually join the National Guard and become merely weekend warriors) and yet more others seek adventure or travel. Some pursue economic or job stability, or benefits. And some are just never going to be anything else but a soldier. Patriotic murmurs might stir within a young recruit’s mind but rarely, if ever, do these form the sole reason behind an initial enlistment.

Juarez continued into the kitchen, slurping his cereal, glancing at his brochure. He read, “Forty-two,” and then situated himself on the kitchen floor, placing both hands shoulder-width apart. He straightened his legs and back and proceeded to do some push-ups. He counted to fifteen until his arms began quaking. At eighteen, he collapsed. He returned to his brochure, “Forty-two?”

Finishing his cereal, he listened to an empty apartment – to the muted hissing of highway. A pinprick of loneliness stuck into him: they’d be coming home soon, or rather, home would start once they were back. Then he’d have to tell them. ‘Mom’s going to be a little angry,’ he reasoned, but what could he do? He had to go, he had to go…it was inevitable.

The front door swung open and shuddered against the wall. Noise and breath and stomping feet cluttered their already cluttered apartment space. Ah, home was home. Crunching paper bags piled onto the counter as hats and gloves were tossed onto the table and floor. Selina dropped her bag.

“Aye-ee! Selina,” Mom said, “the eggs!”

Carl dug through one bag, searching for their receipt and pulled it out like a band of ribbon as long as he was tall – requiring a minute or two before locating the section where it actually listed prices.

Miguel sat down to color.

“Hey, take your jacket off at least,” Mom tugged at him. To Juarez, she asked, “D’you go see the recruiter again? Did he give you that book bag?”

“Mm-hmm,” he replied, chewing his lip.

Selina victoriously showed Mom how none of the eggs were broken.

“Very nice, now put away.”

Selina danced in circles towards the fridge, purple mittens dangling from her jacket cuffs.

Mom asked, unpacking bags, “So what else did they say? D’you tell them you were waiting?”

Carl gave up on the receipt and grasped four boxes of Rice-a-Roni with one hand; between his thumb and pinky finger. He aimed to place them up with the dozen other multicolored Rice-a-Ronis they already had.

Juarez jumped up, put his hands to his hips and announced, “I joined. I signed the papers.” Rice-a-Roni boxes tumbled to the floor. “I joined up. As an active duty soldier with the army. I’ll –” he cleared his throat; an adolescent squeak betraying him. “I’ll go in right after I graduate.”

Carl sighed and shook his head, picking up the boxes.

Mom’s mouth hung open. Miguel and Selina stayed their reactions until Mom’s ran their course. “What do you mean?” she demanded, her full face contorting with each word, “What did you do?”

“I signed the papers. I’m committed. I’m in. I’ve gone to the mepps station and met the requirements. I’ve taken the asvab test. The recruiter’s got me all signed up. I’m in.”

“What do you mean?” Mom asked, the lower rim of her hazel eyes lifting, “You’ll go? Go away? For real? Into the army?”

“Yes, mom.”

“I told you to wait!”

Carl lifted his hand to assuage her.

Juarez gave a guff.

“Don’t give me that!” she pointed. “I told ch’you to wait.” She tossed their Christmas ham and a jar of mayonnaise into the fridge, slamming its door. “But I told ch’you! It’s too soon!”

Carl watched her, folding bags. He watched Juarez too, “What sort of job did you pick?”

He hesitated, but divulged: “Infantry.”

Mom threw more groceries into a cabinet. “Out! Out!” she shooed at Miguel and Selina – stacking their coloring books into disorder.

Juarez tried to make it easier: “Things’ll…things’ll probably be pretty cooled down by next summer. I might…I might not even go – over there…to iraq.”

“Hmm,” Mom suddenly smiled, a finger to her lips, one hand on her hip, “And, how many years did you sign up for, my boy?”

Juarez had done it. He knew the signs; Carl saw them too and began calculating evasive maneuvers.

“F-four,” replied Juarez.

“Hmm. Well, you’re eighteen. You can do what you want. You can go off and fight if you want. You can do whatever.” She cupped his face in her hands. “You can go and leave us and leave your brother and sister and go, just go. There’s nothing for you here, is there?”

“Mom…” he pleaded.

“IS THERE!” she yanked down on his ears.

Carl dove to the rescue and inched her back. “Don’t you understand?” she exclaimed, “You could get killed! For real, my baby, you could. For real…”

Carl coaxed her into the bedroom. Juarez sat down on a chair, listening to her loud sobs and coughs behind their closed door. Carl spoke assuring, muffled admonitions. He soon came out and remonstrated Juarez, packing the rest of the groceries away. “Emmanuel, you should have let us go with you.” Then his voice became very hushed, “Why did you do it like this? Why didn’t you let us in?”

Juarez picked at his fingernails, thinking, ‘They just don’t understand.’

As though confirming his thought, Carl stood over him shaking his head in confusion and frustration. “Well, you’re in now, I guess. There’s no goin’ back.”

‘No,’ motioned Juarez.

Carl approached and opened his hand towards Juarez’ head. Juarez drew back, unsure of this unusual intimacy from Carl. But Carl only laid his hand upon Juarez’ crown. “I just hope you know what you’re doing,” he whispered. “Please, let us in. Let us know what’s goin’ on.” Then he squeezed his stepson’s shoulder and lumbered into the bedroom.

Juarez blew out a sigh. ‘That was weird of him,’ he thought of Carl. But he inhaled and thought instead, ‘Well – that’s done,’ chin in his hands. Some regret bubbled up within him yet he cooled down its simmer and ate rather the hearty cake of excitement and enthusiasm: Where would he go? What would he end up doing? What sort of challenges awaited him out there in the world? Over there?

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18. Flog a BookBubber 8

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. Following are the first page(s) and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 book titled The Advocate’s Dilemma.

“Why is there a dead man in your office?” Bob asked.

Sabre spun around to face her friend.

“Oh Bob, I’m glad you’re here.” Sabre shuddered. “The police just arrived.”

Several police officers and detectives were checking for evidence. Sirens blared as more police cars arrived. An officer approached Bob and asked, “Who are you?”

Bob reached out to shake the officer’s hand but put it back down when he realized the policeman was looking elsewhere. “I’m Attorney Robert Clark, a friend of Ms. Brown’s.” He nodded his head toward Sabre. He looked around the room and then added, “And her attorney, if I need to be.”

“Please step back. Actually, I’d like both of you to wait in there.” He pointed to another office next to Sabre’s. “And please don’t disturb anything.”

Bob and Sabre entered David’s office. Sabre hadn’t been in there in a long time as David seldom came to work. He spent most of his time with his new ice cream business. Sabre walked her new Gucci heels and cobalt blue suit over to David’s window. Her brown hair hung just beyond her shoulder. Bob followed her to the window.

Sabre started practicing law when she was twenty-five, just over six years ago. Bob started a few years earlier. They both knew not to touch anything and were very careful. As they (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll after the break.

Advocates DelimmaThis book is the first in a series by Teresa Burrell. Good clean writing, a clear voice. And the opening line is a good grabber—sure aroused my interest. However, then we lose the energy of that as we set things up. While scene setting is necessary, for me there were signs of overwriting, and there’s a breach of deep third-person point of view. I was tempted to turn the page, but the bit about her Gucci heels and cobalt blue suit signaled, to me, more trudging ahead. So I passed, though I feel this author could do well with a good editor. What are your thoughts?

You can turn the first page here. But first, some notes on issues in this sample:

“Why is there a dead man in your office?” Bob asked. Good story question raiser for the opening.

Sabre spun around to face her friend.

“Oh Bob, I’m glad you’re here.” Sabre shuddered. “The police just arrived.”

Several police officers and detectives were checking for evidence. Sirens blared as more police cars arrived. An officer approached Bob and asked, “Who are you?” “Several” is a vague generality. Specifics create reality. Why not “five” or some other number?

Bob reached out to shake the officer’s hand but put it back down when he realized the policeman was looking elsewhere. “I’m Attorney Robert Clark, a friend of Ms. Brown’s.” He nodded his head toward Sabre. He looked around the room and then added, “And her attorney, if I need to be.” Some overwriting here. The officer looking elsewhere doesn’t affect anything—if you must have this, have him look at the body. Also, looking around the room is just filler that doesn’t contribute. Should be gone. What else can you nod besides your head? Overwriting.

“Please step back. Actually, I’d like both of you to wait in there.” He pointed to another office next to Sabre’s. “And please don’t disturb anything.”

Bob and Sabre entered David’s office. Sabre hadn’t been in there in a long time as David seldom came to work. He spent most of his time with his new ice cream business. Sabre walked her new Gucci heels and cobalt blue suit over to David’s window. Her brown hair hung just beyond her shoulder. Bob followed her to the window. What is “work?” We don’t know what she does and, by extension, David. Why mention David’s details if they don’t affect the story later? More importantly, the detail about her brown hair, her Gucci heels, and blue suit are a novice’s breaching of strong deep third person point of view—she would not normally think of those things.

Sabre started practicing law when she was twenty-five, just over six years ago. Bob started a few years earlier. They both knew not to touch anything and were very careful. As they (snip)

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2016 Ray Rhamey

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19. Flogometer for Jon—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed, nobody in the queue for next week.While I’ll probably take Friday off, I would do a flogging on Wednesday if I get one. I’ll do the Flog a BookBubber on Monday—got one that I bought. 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.


Jon sends the prologue and first chapter for The Ghost of Victory . The rest of the chapter follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Prologue;

I met Juarez in the Hindu Kush hills of southeastern Afghanistan. People say there was a border with Pakistan somewhere nearby but you couldn’t normally see it. Juarez was a new guy, a cherry, and I addressed him as such. He sheepishly assumed that role. I once admired another NCO, an Army sergeant like myself, who said, “New guys ought to just shut up and do what they’re told.” But I cannot admire what that man said anymore. Juarez shut up and put up though. He was a dutiful soldier…

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

Chapter 1

In the living room of their apartment, Emmanuel Juarez unfolded his bed out of the couch. He tucked in its sheets and fluffed a throw pillow.

“Manny, why you in such a hurry?” Mom called from within the kitchen. “Stay at home a while yet. Finish yer last year of highschool. Go to college. Get ch’your feet on the ground, before going off and becoming army. Iz not going anywhere.”

Crossing into their yellow kitchen, Juarez watched Mom scramble counter to sink to stove to counter again. “I don’t wanna wait,” he replied.

“But why? Aye-ee, mi bebé. See?” She held open the oven door, curling her black hair behind her ear, “You will miss my e-special enchiladas when you are army! I make eet for you!”

He rolled his eyes.

Miguel and Selina, his siblings of six and seven, sat at a table coloring, throwing crayons at each other. They were both black-haired and tan-skinned like their mother, but Juarez, different, had dirty-blond hair, white skin and pale eyes.

“Stop that!” Mom said, scrubbing plates in the sink. “Manny, don’ rush theengsz –” she coughed and crossed her squat, busy body over to the counter. “You have your whole life ‘head of you. Hold this.”

Juarez’ arms received her mixing bowl.

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

I have a sense that there’s an interesting character here and, perhaps, an interesting story—if I were to get to the story. The prologue, for me, served to introduce a character, sort of, but offered no dramatic reason I should care about him or be intrigued with his story--or let me know what the story is about.

The opening page of the chapter, while continuing with the character we learned about—a good thing—it didn’t raise any story questions. There’s little reason to want to read more about Mom cooking dinner. I did skim through the chapter, of course, and my advice to Jon is that it is just about all backstory. Unless, for some reason, that impacts his story later on, it’s not a good use of the reader’s time. A very interesting thing that suggested something paranormal going on came at the very end of the chapter. It should be at the very beginning—if, of course, it starts the actual story.

Another word of advice--limit how much dialogue you cast in a dialect. A very few words usually serve to give the flavor--I think you could do with less in Mom's speech. Good luck, Jon, but look for where the story really starts to start your novel. Thanks.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

“I don’ know where you get this idea.” She swung her bust, almost crushing him against the counter, “Give me that.”

He gave her the mixing bowl, or rather, it was snatched.

“College money, mom,” he said. “I can go to college after.”

“Huh? We pay for it, Manny! Between me and your stepfather, we send ch’you to the community college across the river. Then you live here, be width ch’your brother and your sister, like a good brother.” She fought for breath as she heaved cake batter in her mixing bowl.

Juarez sighed, “Well –” starting to counterargue, but then, he gave it up.

“See? See?” She swung her spatula in his face, threatening to coat him with vanilla cake mush. “You don’ even know why you want this. Wait.”

Juarez secretly fingered an Army recruiting brochure inside his pocket. “Mom, I can be somebody. I can make something of myself. Not just work at the Shurfine.”

Robin’s egg blue and cornflower yellow went hurtling to the floor and he picked them up.

“Stop that!” Mom barked, drying dishes in the sink.

“Stop that,” Miguel piped.

You stop that!” Selina returned.

“Aye-ee,” Mom moaned, muttering to herself: “Por favor, Jesús, haz que mis hijos obedientes – todos ellos.

Juarez bent over Selina and coaxed her into coloring a jack-o-lantern in her book. He rubbed at Miguel’s mop of hair and fended off his little brother’s attempts to bite his fingers like an ornery dinosaur. “Mom,” he beseeched, “How can you be against this?” Miguel snapped shut on Juarez’ finger: “Ow!”

Both kids giggled like midget devils.

Mom shook her head and spoke, “Emmanuel, mi bebé, my beloved child,” her wet hands caressed his cheeks before turning to the oven. “You are my first and you will achieve great things in life! You will be somet’ing. You are so smart. But dis…this army idea is not for you. Go t’college, and then, if you must, join the army. But perhaps ch’you will be an officer – be a leader then. Boys who join with juss highschool are ones who die because officers with education put them in dee front lines.”

“Mom, I…I don’t think that’s true.” He sat down tableside and flipped through the coloring books.

Mom asked, “Why d’you want to leave your family?”

“Don’t color it!” Selina squealed.

“I won’t,” Juarez said aside to her, and at Mom, “I don’t.”

“No?” Mom speculated, suddenly airy. She came over to him and played with his odd-colored hair.

He ducked his head, “No. And I don’t wanna be just like everybody else and just go to college.”

Yet running her fingers through his hair, she whispered, “You never stop amazing me, my boy.” Her tone awash with doubt slipping into awe; her first, her beloved child, was growing up and seeking a challenge she could barely contemplate.

Selina and Miguel were also enchanted by her tone. The whole kitchen silenced except for the bubbling of savory enchilada juices in the oven.

“But!” she flicked her fingertips across his shoulder and bent over the oven, “Ch’you’d look so handsome in uniform!”

“So hand-some!” Miguel and Selina teased.

Juarez smiled.

“But I am not giving my approval,” she said with effort, reaching up above the oven-fan to grab a new pan. Her bust nearly lit afire from the rangetop. “Oooo! Oooo! Iz hot!” She fluttered her hands across her chest.

Everyone laughed.

Then Miguel tried to slyly nibble on the tip of pumpkin orange.

“Stop that!” Mom scolded, tossing a dish towel at him. “You’ll ruin your appetite.”

Juarez pointed at him and Miguel threw the towel at Juarez, who then threw it at Selina, who threw it at Miguel and so on.

“I don’ think izza a good idea right now,” Mom continued. “With iraq and everyt’ing going on. Go t’college. Wait till the war’z over. Then you can join.”

Juarez rolled his eyes again as the dish towel came flying into them.

“Maybe you can – what is it?” Mom placed her hand, grasping a drippy wooden spoon, to her hip, “Those tomb guards. Tomb of unknown sailors – or soldiers. They look good.”

“Mom, I…that’s not…really…what I want to do in the military.”

She turned and looked at him – worry and apprehension molding her eyebrows and lips. She returned to the counter and mixed, coughing a bit, saying little else while serving dinner.

Carl, Juarez’ stepfather, arrived home on the meal’s tail end. “What’s wrong?” he asked Mom.

“O. My cough’iz up.”

Juarez kept his eyes to his plate, sipping up leftover sauces. Carl was Miguel and Selina’s father; Juarez never knew nor heard much of anything about his own.

Carl unsaddled his laptop case onto the floor and kissed Miguel and Selina and nodded a “What’s up” towards Juarez. He sat and chowed down, efficiently scooping the last enchilada in under his black moustache. He talked about work, about making headway on a new contract, about how he had to interpret construction instructions to a group of undocumented workers, again, because they didn’t speak any English. Juarez only half-listened, still fingering the brochure hidden in his pocket.

Promptly, dinner was over with everybody full and the coloring books put away with the dishes. Mom and Carl retired to their bedroom with their TV. Miguel and Selina went to bed in their room and Juarez showered and settled onto his couch-bed. He slipped out his favorite movie from its DVD case (favorite simply by frequency of viewing) and rubbed its disc to clear off Miguel and Selina’s greasy fingerprints. In went his movie, popping up on a small television screen, alighting this shadowy living space in blue glow. He laid stomach-down on his bed, propped on a pillow, eyes and imagination glued to the screen:

PT boats raced towards the beach. Men vomited and rubbed crosses, praying. Then, the ramps opened… “Over the side!” yelled the Captain, their commander. Into water and up onto blistering sand. Sound shocked and sight awed the viewer. Juarez felt like he was there. “Move your men off the beach! – What’s the rallying point, sir? – Anywhere but here! Grab yourself a weapon and follow me.” Juarez probably knew the words better than the actors had: “Dog one is not open! We do not hold the beach, say again, we do not hold the beach!” Juarez’ puppy eyes were saturated. He saw that officer, that combat leader, studied his mannerisms and saw a character he wanted to be. “Jackson, you see that impact crater? – Yes, sir. – That should give you complete defilade on that machine gun position. Get in there and get me some fire on it. Wait for my command!”

“Ah!” Juarez yelped.

Carl had snuck up on him. Sitting bedside, “Sorry, man. You watchin’ this again?”

“Yeah,” Juarez shrugged.

“Hey, turn my way for a sec. Your mom, y’know, she don’t like this joinin’ the army business. She’s worried and her health…” he motioned as though pulling his heart out of his chest, “…y’know.”

Juarez nodded, still half-listening to the combat behind him.

Carl slapped his knee. “Uhh, look, I know you’re eighteen, you’re starting to make real decisions for yourself, and that’s good, but keep us in the loop, eh? We care about ya and Mom…she’d die if anything happened to you or if she just thought something might, y’know?”

Juarez nodded, solemn, as blue flickered across the walls. Then he switched off the TV and Carl and him continued talking in that dark living room; Carl silhouetted by bathroom light.

“So,” he continued, “think about her. Think about, just, goin’ to college first. Y’know this whole war on terror and…everything.”

Juarez said, “But it’s just that I wanna do something, Carl. I want to do something real. Something that matters. And the benefits, y’know…you can put money away for Selina and Miguel’s education instead.”

“You don’t have to worry about that–”

“But–”

“Really. You don’t have to worry about that. We can help all of you with your educations…and you know that I love you just as much as them. I’ve been here since you were–” Carl held out his hand “–this tall. Now I know you’re becoming a man, and you gotta make your own decisions for your life, but your decisions are going to affect the people here, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Alright,” Carl moved in and hugged Juarez. “I love ya buddy. You don’t have to say it back, but I know ya do.” He padded Juarez’ shoulder and returned to the bedroom.

Juarez heard Mom coughing as Carl opened and then closed the door.

What is peace but the magical leisure of loving?

What is peace but the heaven-borne crown of contentment?

What is war but the clasping of hands with your brother?

What is war but great bravery?

Oh, wonderful land of the States linked together,

Where all have their kingdoms of freedom and might,

To worship the vision of honor and right!

Coletta Ryan, selected lines of My Country

Spanish-American War

There’s something characteristic about young males across cultures and times, those just blossoming into manhood, who send themselves off to fight. Not all young males are alike but many hear from far off the guns calling their names. They see themselves with a gun too, a weapon. They see themselves romantically charging over ramparts as though no other achievement in their lifetime may match this single, shining act of valor. I believe a little disillusionment with the normal, plaintive life, of pursuing the usual pursuits, helps these young men detach and go. And Juarez went. He’d already been dreaming of proving himself; of adventure and challenge; of battle and glory thereof. He figured a boy became a man in combat; that a man had battle-courage or wasn’t a man at all.

In dreaming, he did not see himself as some poor sufferer in a trench, nor among the many strewn across the beach, holding onto their guts and screeching for their mommies, nor as one who went crazy afterwards. No, he saw himself as the Captain, a commander, an achiever, the victor. These concerns flowed through Juarez as though passed to him by the brave example of soldiers who had gone before; as though spoken by the ghosts of veterans. By them, by their archetype, Juarez formulated what you call: the measure of a man.

And at this point in history, he was sure there’d be no other chance for it in his life – he had to go now. Keeping this passion hidden, under cover of the room’s dim darkness, he slid that Army recruiting brochure out of his pocket and gazed on at pictures of camouflaged, helicopter-rappelling soldiers. He fell asleep reading it, as though to knightly tales and lullabies.

***

Now, people join the Army for all types of reasons. Some wish to prove something, while others join out of family tradition or because they grew up an Army brat. Others desire a little hometown notoriety (they usually join the National Guard and become merely weekend warriors) and others seek adventure or travel. Some pursue economic or job stability, or benefits. And some are just never going to be anything else but a soldier. Patriotic murmurs might stir within a young recruit’s mind but rarely, if ever, is this the sole reason behind an initial enlistment.

Just outside Shurfine, the lesser of two grocery stores within the suburb of Enola, Pennsylvania, Juarez sat atop a picnic table. His bright, heightened blue eyes contrasted from his pale face and buzzed scalp, over which he wore a flat-rimmed Phl’Eagles hat. Transparent facial hair darted out his chin. His hoody’s wrist cuffs were stained and overtop it all he wore a black and yellow Kmart flannel. His baggy sweatpants were tucked into his work boots, laces dangling. He cupped the red ember of a dying cigarette in his hand; one last huff and then, it’d be gone.

He was waiting for Harrisburg’s regional bus to pick him up, after working his evening shift at the Shurfine. His partner was a cigarette butt-dispenser whose top-hole overflowed with burnt filters. And a dandelion, below his boots, squeezed its flower, stem and two ratty leaves out a crack in the sidewalk. Early November and the evening wind bit. Yet the dandelion braved this cold wearing no jacket. Juarez wrapped his own flannel a little tighter.

Sun glowed a pumpkin orange before slipping under Appalachian mountain. Vehicles hissed softly, methodically, on a road beyond the parking lot; headlights streaming. A deeper hiss layered under, of interstate eighty-one less than a mile away. A Honda slowed to go over a speed bump and Juarez heard its radio:

“−violently as the United States military continues to battle the insurgency. Five soldiers were killed today when a suicide bomber attacked their patrol. That brings the death toll in Iraq to two-thousand and fifteen. Also vehicles laden with explosives struck two major hotels in Baghdad frequented by Westerners. When questioned about the−"

The Honda drove on.

From across the road, from the railroad yard which a hundred years ago had put Enola on the map, familiar squeals of steel on steel suspended into the air. Below them, Juarez could just make out the squawky voice of a McDonald’s drive-thru across the parking lot. He fished his hand out his pocket and held up his thumb – gauze wrapped ridiculously, over and over; during his recent shift he had absentmindedly cut his thumb on his deli slicing machine. But, Juarez shook his head and repocketed his hand – something else was bothering him.

Despite a darkening skyline, he noticed that Shurfine’s parking lot was full of cracks and potholes; it’d been a long time since that pavement was last rolled. The parking-space lines were all faded; a handicap man decapitated. Rust on signs and posts. Wind blew, as it usually does, downriver, curling round the mountain, whipping right into Enola – right into Juarez.

He shivered. McDonald’s “M” began to glow. He took a deep breath, watching the road’s signals change – green, yellow, red. He saw people, driving by, living obscure, uneventful lives. He looked at his thumb and listened to the rails screech louder: tone upon tone of squeal. He forgot about the dandelion, or perhaps never noticed. He saw only rust, cracks, the old and ordinary – and thought, ‘Perhaps there’s only one train to catch out of here…’

***

One day, a few weeks later, Juarez returned home to the apartment. Everyone else was out. School was out too, for Christmas break, and Juarez was scheduled to work that day, however, in the morning, he had called in sick – and gone to meet with his Army recruiter instead.

He dropped a black backpack, logoed “Army of One,” onto the floor and headed for the kitchen cabinet to grab some cereal, but first, he remembered, there was this pimple in the middle of his forehead he needed to pop. He entered the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror – yet, mid-pop, he stopped.

He felt something from deep down inside him coming out. Hidden and unspoken, some moment of a lifetime beckoned – some experience out amidst the blur of bullets and bombs over there – some revelation within those adrenalin-elongated seconds. Yearning for it, Juarez had signed the papers and accordingly joined the infantry[1]. It struck him then, as he gazed upon himself in the mirror, that his idea was now working towards fruition – the wheels set in motion. The flush of decision, of fateful choice, blushed over him for the first time in his life and he liked the feeling of it.

Now he just had to break this news to his family – to Mom particularly.

“It was inevitable,” he said to the mirror. “Everybody’s always going somewhere else – somewhere other than enola. The trains, cars – the world is going by enola.” He finished popping his pimple. “It was inevitable,” he repeated – like a train following its track: all he could do was follow the line appointed to him; like a moving box. “It was inevitable,” he shrugged. “It was inevitable,” he pleaded. “It was inevitable!” he commanded.

He rubbed his shaved head and said, “Well, at least they won’t have much to take off.” His long eyelashes blinked. His cheeks curved softly but he practiced tightening them, making a face of unimpeachable uprightness for Mom. It was pretty convincing, he reckoned.

Then he continued into the kitchen, slurping his cereal, glancing at his brochure. He read, “Forty-two,” and then situated himself on the kitchen floor, placing both hands shoulder-width apart. He straightened his legs and back and proceeded to do some push-ups. He counted to fifteen until his arms began quaking. At eighteen, he collapsed. He returned to his brochure, “Forty-two?”

Finishing his cereal, he listened to the silence of an empty apartment – to the muted hissing of highway. A pinprick of loneliness stuck into him: they’d be coming home soon, or rather, home would start once they were back. Then he’d have to tell them. They’d be a little angry, he reasoned, but what could he do? He had to go, he had to go…it was inevitable.

Then the front door swung open and shuddered against the wall. Noise and breath and stomping feet cluttered their already cluttered apartment space. Ah, home was home. Crunching paper bags piled onto the counter as hats and gloves were tossed onto the table and floor. Selina dropped her bag.

“Aye-ee! Selina,” Mom said, “the eggs!”

Carl dug through one bag, searching for their receipt and pulled it out like a band of ribbon as long as he was tall – requiring a minute or two before locating the section where it actually listed prices.

Miguel sat down to color.

“Hey, take your jacket off at least,” Mom tugged at him. To Juarez, she asked, “D’you go see the recruiter again? D’he give you that book bag?”

“Mm-hmm,” he replied, chewing his lip.

Selina victoriously showed Mom how none of the eggs were broken.

“Very nice, now put away.”

Selina danced in circles towards the fridge, purple mittens dangling from her jacket cuffs.

Mom asked, unpacking bags, “So what else did they say? D’you tell them you were waiting?”

Carl gave up on the receipt and grasped four boxes of Rice-a-Roni with one hand; between his thumb and pinky finger. He aimed to place them up with the dozen other multicolored Rice-a-Ronis they already had.

Juarez jumped up, put his hands to his hips and announced, “I joined. I signed the papers.” Rice-a-Roni boxes tumbled to the floor. “I joined up. As an active duty soldier with the Army. I’ll –” he cleared his throat; an adolescent squeak betraying him. “I’ll go in right after I graduate.”

Carl sighed and shook his head, picking up the boxes.

Mom’s mouth hung open. Miguel and Selina stayed their reactions until Mom’s ran their course. “What do you mean?” she demanded, her full face contorting with each word, “What did you do?”

“I signed the papers. I’m committed. I’m in. I’ve gone to the mepps station and met the requirements. I’ve taken the asvab test. The recruiter’s got me all signed up. I’m in.”

Carl sighed again.

“What do you mean?” Mom asked, the lower rim of her hazel eyes swelling, “You’ll go? Go away? Into the army?”

“Yes, mom.”

“I told you to wait!” she screamed.

Carl lifted his hand to assuage her.

She exhaled furiously.

Juarez gave a guff.

“Don’t give me that!” she pointed. “I tol’ ch’you to wait.” She tossed their ham and a jar of mayonnaise into the fridge, slamming its door. “But I told you!”

Carl watched her, folding bags. He watched Juarez too, “What sort of job did you pick?”

He hesitated, but divulged: “Infantry.”

Mom threw more groceries into a cabinet. “Out! Out!” she shooed at Miguel and Selina – stacking their coloring books in a disordered pile.

Juarez said: “Things’ll…things’ll probably be pretty cooled down by next summer. I might…I might not even go – over there.”

“Hmm,” Mom suddenly smiled, a finger to her lips, one hand on her hip, “And, how many years d’you sign up for, my boy?”

Juarez had done it. He knew the signs; Carl saw them too and began calculating evasive maneuvers.

“F-four,” replied Juarez.

“Hmm. Well, you’re eighteen. You can do what you want. You can go off and fight if you want. You can do whatever.” She cupped his face in her hands. “You can go and leave us and leave your brother and sister and go, just go. There eez nothing here for you, is there?”

“Mom…” he pleaded.

“IS THERE!” she yanked down on his ears.

Carl dove to the rescue and inched her back. “Don’t you understand?” she exclaimed, “You could get killed! For real. My baby, you could. For real!

Carl coaxed her into the bedroom. Juarez flopped down on a chair, listening to her loud sobs and coughing. Carl spoke assuring, muffled admonitions. He soon came out and remonstrated Juarez, packing the rest of the groceries away. “Emmanuel, you should have let us go with you.” His voice was very hushed. “Why did you do it like this? Why didn’t you let us in?”

Juarez picked at his fingernails, the cut on his thumb mostly healed. ‘They just don’t understand.’

As though confirming his thought, Carl stood over him shaking his head in confusion and frustration. “Well, you’re in now, I guess. There’s no goin’ back.”

‘No,’ motioned Juarez.

Carl approached and opened his hand towards Juarez’ head. Juarez drew back, unsure of this unusual intimacy from Carl. But Carl just laid his hand upon Juarez’ crown. “I just hope you know what you’re doing,” he whispered. “Please, let us in. Let us know what’s goin on.” Then he squeezed his stepson’s shoulder and lumbered into the bedroom.

Juarez blew out a sigh. ‘That was weird of him,’ he thought of Carl. But he inhaled and thought, ‘Well – that’s done,’ chin in his hands. Some regret bubbled up within him yet he cooled down its simmer and ate instead the hearty cake of excitement and enthusiasm: Where would he go? What would he end up doing? What sort of challenges awaited him out there in the world? Over there, in the sandbox…

As he pondered tales of strife and fortitude, of effort and experience, Miguel appeared, standing in front of him, kicking playfully at a plastic bag. “You going away?”

“Not for a while yet,” Juarez assured.

“You going to go fight the terrer-wists?”

Gladdened, Juarez shrugged open palms.

“C’mon, let’s color.” Miguel tried to push Juarez’ chair to face the table; Juarez moved as commanded.

Miguel began to sit but Juarez said, “Hey, take your jacket off.”

“O.” He unclasped himself, revealing Spiderman pajamas.

“Why are you still in your jammies?”

Miguel shrugged.

Selina came out and hopped into her chair. They pulled at the stack of coloring books, examining each for uncrayoned pages and preferred designs. Like a couple of scholars, Miguel and Selina reviewed and critiqued their assortment of waxy artworks and instructed Juarez on which he should color based on his relative experience and ability.

“Here, this one,” Selina pointed out. It was a Knight’s Tale. Its picture showed a chivalrous medieval warrior galloping on a horse, pointing forth his sword. With all their projects duly assigned, they set to work and chose carefully (and argued constantly about) which colors and shades ought to be applied.

Juarez chose steel gray for his knight. Selina chose blazin’ orange for her striped kitten and Miguel took rose for his piggy. Juarez went to color within the outline of his knight’s helm, but nothing rubbed out onto his paper. He peered, puzzled, at his crayon and then tried again. He saw impression upon the paper, his crayon’s force upon the book, and he could feel its application – he even noticed his crayon-tip wearing down. But no color, no hue, no hint of shading anywhere on the paper – no matter how feverishly he attempted to color.

“Well,” said Miguel, “you could just pretend it works.”

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20. Flog a BookBubber 6


Submissions Needed--no chapters to flog this 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.


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.

Following are the first page and a poll. Then my comments and a second poll concerning the need for an editor are after the fold 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.

 Should this author have hired an editor? Here’s a book titled Bound by Prophesy.

They called it a thinning of the blood. Though most of our ancestors’ magic had slowly weakened, it still left us the ability to hold sway over humans. I glanced around the room where I hung chained by the ankles. Damn sight of good it’s doing me now, I thought.

“Aern,” my brother asked coolly, “where did you hide the girl?”

I glanced at the abandoned warehouse’s walls. The concrete floor. There really was no way out.

Morgan stepped closer, plainly irritated he had neither my answer nor attention. “Aern.” I recognized the fury in his tone, though he tried to mask it. He was a lean man, only an inch or so shorter than I, but he was strong. Not only his body, but his mind, the power to control any human he touched. He was stronger than the rest of us, and that was why he needed her.

I finally looked at my brother.

“The girl,” he demanded.

He looked odd from this perspective. His custom-tailored suit, his Italian loafers, all of it wrong now. I tilted my head to see him better. Maybe it was just the blood rushing to my brain.

“Have you lost weight, brother?” I asked. “You seem thin.”

Morgan’s jaw went tight, his nostrils flared the tiniest bit. I smiled, though my cheeks throbbed with the effort. I could feel the blood vessels expanding at my neck and temples. “Must (snip)

Have a vote, and please try to keep genre preferences out of it and just judge the storytelling. Then go to my editorial notes and vote again after the break.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Decendants seriesBound by Prophesy is book one of a series, Decendants, by Melissa Wright. BookBub price is 99 cents for the trilogy. I found the voice to be strong and the writing crisp and clean. I was immediately engaged by this character’s flippant attitude in the midst of a clearly perilous situation. Lots of good story questions here. I enjoy fantasy, so I not only turned the page but bought it for the entertainment it promises. You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

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21. Flogometer for Alice —are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed, nobody in the queue for next week.While I’ll probably take Friday off, I would do a flogging on Wednesday if I get one. I’ll do the Flog a BookBubber on Monday—got one that I bought. 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.


Alice sends the prologue and first chapter for When the Tree Is Dry. The rest of the prologue and chapter followa the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Prologue:

The photograph, a little out of focus and badly centred, had that elusive something that professionals strive for and seldom achieve. A moment of awareness, where a story without words is written on a face. or in this case, three faces.

"Mind if I look?" Ryan stretched out his hand, hesitated, and glanced at Keera.

She looked up from the folder lying open on the desk. Her taut face relaxed a fraction as she met Ryan's eyes. "Sure." Her eyebrows drew together. “Why did you follow me here?”

He shrugged. “Anything’s better than listening to the office bore competing with tinny Christmas carols.”

He could have added more. You’re gorgeous. And intriguing – why did you storm out of the party like that? Instead, he picked up the photograph and studied it. On the left, two African girls exchanged glances. Each pair of eyes held the same message: You know the things I know. The things I wish I didn't know.

Ryan studied them for a moment, then concentrated on the fair woman on the right. Her head was turned towards the other two, her hands were clenched into fists. As he tried to read her expression, a line from an almost-forgotten history book floated into his mind.

Yet must I go and must I do this thing.

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

Chapter 1

“You have to come home. In fact, I’m ordering you to come home.” I'd intended to be calm and controlled, but my voice came out as a screech, ugly even to my own ears.

"I'll stay where I like, and there's nothing you can do. I'm fifteen, and I can choose to live with my father. The law says so." Keera's voice would have done justice to a sergeant major on parade. I held the phone six inches away to avoid permanent injury to my eardrums.

I took three deep breaths and tried again. "Ok, calm down, let's discuss this reasonably—"

The line went dead. She'd hung up on me.

I stood for several minutes, staring at the phone. Started to dial her number, then changed my mind. Brain in neutral, I walked up the stairs, across the landing, and into her room. Her soft perfume filled the air, her jacket draped carelessly across a chair. Tubes of oil paint and acrylics littered the desk, and a ball of crumpled paper lay on the floor. But no Keera. No loud music, no chat room open on the laptop. No "Not now, Mum, please! Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?"

Gone.

I wandered about, opening doors, pacing around empty rooms. My son Josh's, unnaturally tidy now he was away at university. Our bedroom. Craig's books on the shelf (snip)

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

I like the writing in these pieces quite a lot, and a the voice is strong and confident. Yet they didn't create the tension in this reader needed to get past an "Almost, but no" vote. Basically, it's the lack of story questions. The prologue and the first chapter are introductory exposition for the various characters. Yet I ended up with no idea of what the story was about. I urge Alice to look at a later place in the story to start. I'm assuming it will be where all three women are together in Africa. Does all this backstory/setup really matter when you get into the action of the story? Do a "save as" for the current manuscript file and see if you can find a point where the actual story launches and take it from there, filling in necessary background when and if it is needed. Nice writing.

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 ‘ Alice

 

Continued

Prologue

Who'd said that? Was it Joan of Arc?

Ryan looked again at the picture, and then at Keera.

"A relation?" he asked.

"My mother. But I didn't think we were alike."

True enough: the woman in the photograph, ultra slim, with straight fair hair and long legs, bore little physical resemblance to Keera. Keera was all curves, with dark curling hair and expressive brown eyes. So why did he think they were related? Perhaps the determined thrust of the chin? Or maybe the air of vitality, of living life to the full?

"Your mother has something to do with Africa?" asked Ryan.

Keera nodded. She murmured under her breath, so low Ran wasn’t sure he’d heard the words correctly. “My fault.”

"That's why you let that bunch of boring gits upset you back at the party?"

Her eyes sparkled with anger. "They know zilch about anything. That idiot Paul, going on about it all being the fault of capitalism, and slagging off the aid organisations. And as for that other little jerk—can't remember his name, the new bloke with the spiky hair."

"Julian?"

"Yeah, Julian. Saying they're primitive people, and they enjoy bumping each other off."

Ryan suppressed a chuckle. "He didn't mean it. He was just trying to wind up Paul." He gave Keera a sidelong look. "Except the one who got wound up was you."

She shrugged, and turned back to the folder. Ryan perched on the desk, leaning against the glass partition. He picked up the photograph again. The three women had signed their names above their pictures. Sekai, in a neat, schoolgirl's hand above the pixie-faced young woman whose head barely reached the shoulder of the girl beside her. Florence, written with a flourish that matched the tall girl’s striking good looks. Claire, in bold, assertive writing above the leggy blonde.

"Claire’s your mother, right? So who are Florence and, er, Sekkay?" he asked.

"Se-kye," she corrected. "To rhyme with 'eye'." She shuffled the papers together, replaced the photograph and closed the folder. “Florence and Sekai? Long story. It’s all in here."

“Yeah? So what’s in there?”

“Just–-a collection I put together. My mother always kept a journal, and Florence and Sekai each wrote an account of ... what happened to them. And my mum interviewed people, and wrote down their stories. I added some bits to fill in the gaps.”

“So what did happen to them?”

“You should read it." She pushed the folder towards him. "Read what happened in 2008. Then perhaps you'll understand."

Chapter

. . . above the bed. I opened a cupboard and stared at a neat pile of shirts, ran my hand over the soft silk tie Keera gave him for Christmas. I'd pack all this up and send it. Or burn it, or throw it away. Tomorrow.

Back downstairs: I needed a drink. I was onto the third vodka when numbness gave way to rage. Rage against Craig for leaving me. Rage against Keera for choosing to follow him without even so much as telling me beforehand. But mostly rage against Leigh. The sweet-as-pie, I'm-so-nice little bitch who stole my husband. Little Miss Poor Me, look at me, a widow at thirty-two, and Little Miss I'm-so-brave, bringing up three children on my own. People fell for it. People like Craig.

The days passed somehow. Going to work, coming back to a dark, empty house every night. Trying to sleep, then starting the whole process over again the next morning. I felt like a sun that had passed the white dwarf stage, a silent object floating endlessly through space.

For twenty years, ever since I’d found out I was pregnant with Josh, my life had consisted of being a wife and mother—no time for anything else. I’d dropped out of journalism school, exchanging it for a hasty wedding, a pile of nappies and an even bigger pile of bills. All for nothing. Craig, Josh and Keera. Without them, I was a non-person. Family and a boring job - that was my life. Now there was only the job, and I hated it. At eighteen I'd dreamed of being a war correspondent, going to out-of-the way places and being heroic. Now it was too late.

I prowled about the empty house. Stopped, stared at the wall Was it too late?

London, England, January 2008: Florence’s account

In Britain, the jails aren't bad. I had a cell to myself, with en suite facilities—well, a basic loo and washbasin behind a token piece of wall, but hey, they worked. It had a blanket, what passed for a mattress, and even air conditioning. I could have taught Her Majesty’s cleaners a thing or two, but at least they tried—the smell of disinfectant proved it. British jails were a whole lot better than the digs I shared in Brixton.

It had all started with a bad Monday. My alarm didn’t go off, I missed the Tube by about thirty seconds, had to wait ten minutes for another, and almost skidded on black ice as I tried to make up time by running the last stretch. So I didn’t pay attention to the two scruffy characters bumming around outside the front door of the office building.

I climbed the narrow, dim-lit stairs like I was training for the Olympics, and was halfway across the landing before I saw the cops. Too late—they’d already seen me. No point trying to do a runner – the two lurkers outside were probably plainclothes cops, waiting for someone to try it. I joined my half-dozen co-workers who stood about in the foyer, looking as gloomy as the weather outside.

The door to the main office opened, and I peeped inside as old Blaine, my boss, came out escorted by two policemen. Inside, more cops ransacked filing cabinets, while another tapped at the computer.

My granny always said every dark cloud had a silver lining. Must be something the nuns taught her at the mission school. This cloud certainly had one, because Blaine’s fat cheeks quivered beneath his staring eyes. He’d gone green. I didn’t know people could do that. I grinned. If anyone deserved trouble, he did. He ran a cleaning service, and he had the best rates in town. Not difficult, since he only employed illegals like me, and didn't have to pay us much. Or be nice to us.

I wasn’t too bothered by the pay. Zimbos know how to live cheap, and the second-hand shops in London were fantastic. I'd never had so many clothes in my life.

For the time being, the cops ignored the staff, other than making sure nobody left. We huddled in the darkest corner, next to a sick-looking bunch of plastic flowers, talking occasionally in low voices. Two Nigerians, a Jamaican, a young boy from Morocco, a girl called Alija from a country I’ve never heard of, and myself. We weren’t the only employees; others had gone directly to clients’ offices. The six of us were supposed to be taken in Blaine’s van to a job somewhere out of town, but that wasn’t going to happen.

The Jamaican spared a moment from gnawing a fingernail. “Are dey going to deport us?”

“Yeah,” said the Nigerian girl, her small, round face showing no expression. “Tey always do.”

Always? She made it sound as if being deported was something that happened to her every other day.

Alija raised a shaking hand to her pale face. “We can apply for asylum? Please, it must be possible. Yes?”

She had a point; she’d told me terrible stories about the place she came from. I was also scared, but I told myself I was being paranoid. Nothing bad would happen. Everything would be OK.

Another thing occurred to me. I should warn the rest of the staff. Tell them not to come back here. Ever. I moved around so my back was to the cops, pulled out the mobile phone they’d forgotten to confiscate, and sent a text message.

After a bit, they called us one by one into Blaine’s office. When it was my turn, I pulled up a chair, slouched and tried to look bored.

“Can I have your full name, please?” My interviewer was built like a bamboo stick, a bit pimply, and his uniform barely reached his wrists. But he was polite, I’d give him that.

“Florence Izwirashe Chidziro. D’you know how to spell that or shall I write it for you?” I wished I had some chewing gum; it would have helped me look even less interested.

“Er. If you could spell it out for me, please.”

He got it eventually, but it would have been quicker if he’d let me write it. I said so.

“Age?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Right, I need details of your work permit.”

No point in pretending. He’d find out the truth soon enough.

“I don’t have one.”

“Surprise surprise.” He scribbled something on a form. “Alright, let’s have your full details.”

He fired questions at me, lots of them. Address, date and place of birth, sex. Sex? Couldn’t he tell? I straightened my shoulders and leant forward in case he hadn’t noticed I wore a size double-D.

He ticked a box and continued. “Nationality?”

“Zimbabwean.”

“Self-defined ethnicity?”

“What the hell is self-defined ethnicity?” I asked.

“It’s how you define yourself. Your colour, your nationality, like.”

“Can I make it up? Can I be a Yellow-Spotted Yukkatan?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Oh, OK. Let’s be boring. Black Zimbabwean. How’s that?”

To cut a long story short, that’s how I ended up detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, as they call it. With a view to being booted out of Britain very soon.

The problem with having a cell to yourself is, it gets boring. I mean, pulling funny faces at the CCTV camera is fun for a while, but it’s not something you want to do all day. So I had plenty of time to think. Should I apply for asylum, like Alija? Or should I go home?

I missed home a lot. Harare, colourful and noisy. My grandmother's village, set against misty blue hills. My friends, my family. Trouble is, every time I thought of home, a cold little lizard moved around in my belly and sneaked its way up my spine. Fear. And if I let it get as far as my brain, it would tell me, Stay here. Be safe. Apply for asylum.

I chased the lizard back down again. Two of my friends had applied for asylum, and they had to hang about for years. Not allowed to work, not allowed to go anywhere. Waste two years of my life? Nah. Interesting things were happening in Zimbabwe. Elections coming up, and everyone saying Morgan Tsvangirai had a good chance of winning. Political alliances formed and broken; talks starting and talks shutting down. Speculation as to whether Simba Makoni would stand for President. Tsvangirai arrested—again.

The people at home were doing something. WOZA, for example, that amazing group of women who kept right on demonstrating, in spite of being regularly arrested and beaten up by the cops. And the Freedom March, blocked by riot police with water cannons. We had demonstrations here in London, too, gathering outside the Zimbabwe Embassy, but it was those at home who faced real danger. Suddenly, I desperately wanted to be there, to be a part of it.

I’d take the kind British government's offer of a free ticket home. And when I got there, I wouldn’t sit back tamely; I'd fight for democracy with all the rest. And damn the fear. Anyway, those things - the things I tried not to remember - happened almost three years ago. Surely they wouldn't be looking for me after three years?

Would they?

Dombo re Zhou Village, Zimbabwe, January 2008: Sekai’s account

I knew Mutero's visit would bring trouble.

Trouble was not a stranger in our village. The older people told stories of the Chimurenga—the liberation struggle. They talked of hiding freedom fighters in caves, of beatings for sell-outs, and of security forces who hunted for the fighters. They told of being afraid, always afraid. All this happened before I was born.

In our time, trouble came with elections. The Party sent people to tell us how we must vote, and to remind us of the Chimurenga. We must not be sell-outs, we must support Zanu PF, the party of liberation. At one time, this was good, because they brought beer and meat, and we sang, danced and heard stories of the heroes who fought for Independence.

Then there came a new party, the MDC, and Zanu PF became angry. They no longer brought beer and laughter, but shouting. Their visits were like gata, the ceremony for divining why somebody has died, but Zanu PF were not looking for bad spirits. They were looking for MDC supporters.

On the day Mutero came, I knew my husband Albert wanted to talk men's things with him, so I left them. I looked for Everjoy and Blessings, my two children, and found them playing hide and seek under the wooden platform that holds the grain store.

I called, “Come, we are going to visit Chengetai.”

We took the path past the Kapfunde’s new brick house, its iron roof shiny against the dried thatch of the older huts. Perhaps there would soon be a thunderstorm, because a black cloud hung over the hill with the big rock we call the Elephant. For now the sun still shone in the village, but dark shadows stretched towards it. I wrinkled my nose at the smell as we turned the corner by the overhanging rock where the goats slept. Chengetai’s children were standing by the door of the hut. Everjoy shouted a greeting and ran ahead through the maize field.

Chengetai was preparing food.

“You are busy,” I said.

“Ah no.” She wiped her hands on her dress. “I can always find time to talk.”

A kettle boiled on the fire, and she made tea. All the children ran outside, making noise. They went up onto the rocks and chased each other.

"Who is that with Albert?" Chengetai added sugar to the tea.

I didn’t answer, because Blessings was crying. He was the smallest, and could not climb to the top with the others.

"Help him, Eva," I called. Everjoy stretched down her hand and the boy became quiet. I turned back to Chengetai.

She repeated the question.

"That is Mutero. You know him, he is the owner of Quick-Quick Stores."

"He has a nice car." She smiled. “I wonder what it would be like to have a car like that?”

"He is a rich man."

“Ayee,” she said. “It would be good to have a rich husband. I’m sure Mrs Mutero doesn’t have to dig in the fields, and maybe she has a new dress every month.”

“Mrs Mutero has her own money,” I said. “She is a doctor. I think it would be even better for a woman to have a good job than a rich husband. Then, if you saw some nice thing, you could have it without needing to ask.”

Chengetai looked at me for a moment, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “If I want money, I wait until Tinashe has been drinking, and he no longer knows how much money he has. Then it is easy.”

I laughed. “But now, nobody has money. Not Tinashe, not Albert. It is difficult, very difficult. When Albert worked on the mine, things were good, but then the mine had no more money and no more jobs.”

“It’s true,” she said, lifting her cup. “I don’t know how we will find enough to eat this year.” She drank some tea. "Why is Mutero here? Is he going to give Albert a job?"

"I don't think so. I think they are talking politics."

"Ah. Politics. It would be better if there were no politics, then we could live in peace." She stood up and fetched the frying pan and the cooking oil.

"You are right. It would be better. But Albert does not think so."

"You are unlucky with your husband. Tinashe does not think of politics."

"No! Tinashe thinks only of beer. Albert is a good husband. He does not drink too much, or beat me like Rudo's husband. And he does not chase the women, like Eunice's husband. He is a good man, and our vegetables are the best in the village." I leaned forward, breathing quickly, but Chengetai only laughed.

"But he thinks of politics. That is no good for you. I saw they would not allow you to buy maize, because Albert is MDC. So you are unlucky."

I looked down at my cup, remembering how the men had chased me away at the grain depot. Last year we were on the mines, and we did not grow much maize. A person cannot live without sadza, the thick porridge we eat with every meal. So Albert went to see a man at night, and came back with three bags on the Scotch cart, enough for us to eat until the harvest. After this, all our money was gone. But we had planted a crop in November, and in a few months we would no longer need to buy.

I watched Chengetai put onions and peppers into the oil. Perhaps it would be better if we talked of other things.

"Did you hear they are saying Tonderai is the father of Susan's baby?" I asked.

***

After Mutero went home, I returned to my house and made a fire in the kitchen. Albert sat outside on a rock near the door.

"You saw Mutero was with me, Sekai?"

"I saw."

"He is now the aspiring candidate for Mushongwe West."

"Oh? He is going to be a Member of Parliament?"

"He is going to try. He wants me to be his election agent."

I filled a pot with water, and did not reply. Last time we had elections, Zanu PF chased the agents for MDC from the district. I had even heard that in some other places the agents had been killed.

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22. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidys

I'm enjoying the day with family and hope you're able to do the same. And, if not, that you will find something to enjoy--and, perhaps, write about--today.

All my best wishes,

Ray

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23. Flog a BookBubber 7


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


 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. Following are the first page(s) and a poll. Then my comments are after the fold 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 prologue and first chapter from a book titled Someone Else’s Daughter.

Prologue:

Some women sit around in bars after they get dumped, complaining about the jerks who treated them like yesterday’s dog squeeze. Miranda Steele didn’t go to bars. She didn’t have friends to complain to. But she did have the dog squeeze beat out of her regularly by the jerk she was married to.

That was until one cold wintry day when the jerk decided to dump her and throw her out in the snow.

From the floor where Leon had left her, Miranda lifted a shaky hand to her mouth to stop the blood oozing from her cut lip. “What are you doing?”

“What I should have done the night your bastard was conceived. What I’ve wanted to do for months.” His voice shook with quiet rage.

He jammed the suitcase shut, grabbed her by the wrist again and dragged her back downstairs. “What are you doing?” Miranda screamed as he wrestled the front door open.

“Purging my house.” He hurled the suitcase into the snow on the front yard. It broke open and her clothes tumbled onto the snowy grass. Then he gave her a hard shove.

She stumbled outside onto the cold concrete porch. Her feet were bare. She was still in her bathrobe. “Leon,” she begged. “Let me back in. What will the neighbors think?”

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

 Chapter 1 Thirteen Years Later

“Go. Go. Go. Go.”

Nothing like a chorus of burly fellow construction workers cheering you on to boost your ego. Miranda looked around at the half-demolished building, with its backdrop of modern skyscrapers and older structures against the gray, Pittsburgh sky, then she picked the bright green jalapeno off the paper plate that sat alongside the ham sandwiches and soda cans on the wooden slab that served as the crew’s lunch table.

She waggled it under Dombroski’s nose. “Number five, Dumbo.”

“That’s right, bitch,” he sneered. “Number five. I say you can’t do it.”

Dumbo. That was her affectionate name for this baldheaded bruiser with the big ears who’d made her life on the wrecking crew hell for the three months she’d been in Steel Town.

Miranda pulled at her leather jacket, took a whiff of the cool March air, and curled a lip at Dombroski. “Oh, do you?”

“That’s right.”

She leaned over the table. “I should have taken you down at Luigi’s last night.”

Little Jake stepped between them. “Hey now, we made a deal.” It had been the skinny twenty-year-old who’d talked her out of belting that bastard in the bar when he’d called Jake a whore-loving fag—which didn’t even make sense. At the moment, Miranda couldn’t think what had made her agree to this pepper-eating contest instead. Some things were worth fighting over. Oh, (snip)

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

Someone Elses DaughterThis book is the first in a series by Linsey Lanier. Good clean writing, a strong voice. The prologue is a real scene, not just an info dump, and it features a sympathetic character who is clearly in jeopardy. For me, there was a strong “what will she do next?” story question.

The chapter opens with the same character—a good thing; too many don’t—later on, I assume, and she’s clearly not a helpless victim here. There is conflict here, the kind agent Donald Maass calls “bridging conflict.” It’s not the main conflict of the story, but it is aimed at engaging the reader until we get there. While it wasn’t as strong a story question as the prologue, it was good enough for me to turn the page. The prologue here was a factor in that page turn—for once, a prologue served to help get me into the story. About the only editorial note is the repetition of "What are you doing?" in the prologue, which creates an undesirable echo. I turned the page. What are your thoughts?

You can turn the first page here.

Should this writer have hired an editor?

Your thoughts?

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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24. Flogometer for LeighLa—are you compelled to turn the page?

Submissions Needed, nobody in the queue for next week.While I’ll probably take Friday off, I would do a flogging on Wednesday if I get one. I’ll do the Flog a BookBubber on Monday—got one that I bought. 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.
  • Most importantly, 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.


LeighLa sends a short short story titled Miracle Red. The rest of the story follows the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Five o’clock the hour, to the minute, in fact, Ava cracked an eyelid. Reddish hair fell across her cheek in church spires: straight, unwavering. She rolled over in bed and blinked fair lashes until her eyes remained open, reluctant, heavy-lidded but eager for a glimpse of sun: the red day to come.

In the darkness of her room, she fussed in a basket of unfolded clothes Mama had left from the previous day’s laundering. She found her favorite dungaree overalls, the ones with faded knees but certain shoulder straps; not an inch of movement even under duress. Restrained arms were useless arms: Ava knew. She turned to her closet and grabbed Daddy Bo’s red plaid shirt, shrunk long ago in the wash, and shoved her arms into the sleeves. Her father’s aftershave engraved like a hot iron into the collar brushed her cheeks, tickled her nose. Today is the day, Daddy; she muttered into the buttoned folds and pulled on her dungarees, securing metal clasps onto waiting buttons.

Ava glanced at an empty bed stripped bare. She pictured Stella, now nineteen, sitting in university classes with fellow students. English, Math, Science. Her sister would learn everything about the world and still know nothing. School was for ninnies. An assured half smirk, half smile pressed her red lips thin as she slipped on a clean pair of black, low-heeled, calf-length boots – well, as clean as you can manage on a working farm.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

There’s good, clean writing here but, for this reader, not much in the way of tension. It seems to me that a short short story needs to be as effective in hooking a reader as a novel, but there are no real story questions raised for me—basically, a young woman wakes up and gets dressed. Not much reason to wonder what will come next.

It turns out that she’s sneaking out of her room—that would have helped raise a story question if it had been on the first page. As I said, good writing, but some clarity issues here. Notes:

At five o’clock the hour, to the minute, in fact, Ava cracked an eyelid. Reddish hair fell across her cheek in church spires: straight, unwavering. She rolled over in bed and blinked fair lashes until her eyes remained open, reluctant, heavy-lidded but eager for a glimpse of sun: the red day to come. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to short short fiction, but we’re in her point of view and she would not think of the color of her hair or lashes. Also, “church spires” evokes an image of upright vertical structures, so I don’t see that as portraying hair that lies across her cheek.

In the darkness of her room, she fussed in a basket of unfolded clothes Mama had left from the previous day’s laundering. She found her favorite dungaree overalls, the ones with faded knees but certain shoulder straps; not an inch of movement even under duress. Restrained arms were useless arms: Ava knew. She turned to her closet and grabbed Daddy Bo’s red plaid shirt, shrunk long ago in the wash, and shoved her arms into the sleeves. Her father’s aftershave engraved like a hot iron into the collar brushed her cheeks, tickled her nose. Today is the day, Daddy; she muttered into the buttoned folds and pulled on her dungarees, securing metal clasps onto waiting buttons. For me there were clarity issues in the description of the dungarees. I had to reread it several times to figure out what was meant by “certain” shoulder straps and “not an inch of movement even under duress. Restrained arms were useless arms.” I guess it means that the shoulder straps won’t fall off her shoulders and then possibly restrict the movement of her arms. It just wasn’t easy to understand for me. I also wondered how her father’s aftershave could linger on a shirt shrunk long ago in the wash—wouldn’t the aftershave have been washed away?

Ava glanced at an empty bed stripped bare. She pictured Stella, now nineteen, sitting in university classes with fellow students. English, Math, Science. Her sister would learn everything about the world and still know nothing. School was for ninnies. An assured half smirk, half smile pressed her red lips thin as she slipped on a clean pair of black, low-heeled, calf-length boots – well, as clean as you can manage on a working farm. Doesn’t seem like an appropriate time for backstory about her sister—and it doesn’t affect the story later. On the pov side, she wouldn’t think of the color of her lips, nor can she see that her smirk is “assured.”

For what it’s worth.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 ‘ LeighLa

Continued

Ava crept to her window and sliced open the curtains. A faint yellowish hue, mixed with violet and black along the distant horizon, outlined the fine edge of a hulking mass. A tickle of excitement raced her heart, fast as a bird’s. She grabbed a silver flashlight from the sill, tucked it in her pocket and slid open the window. Cool morning air swallowed her nose in an autumn tickle suggestive of orange pumpkins, pungent manure and well-oiled tractors. Stalks of multi-hued corn waved with the breeze in a hula skirt dance.

With a practiced heave she swung her leg over the sill, balanced for a moment, a pendulum on a low swing, stretched her booted toe and searched for the lattice. A familiar thunk indicated she’d found the right spot. She shifted her weight and exited the window: a worm through a terrestrial hatch. Hand under hand, boot by lowered boot, Ava descended, one story, two, until she reached the ground.

She checked her watch. Five-fifteen: right on time.

Clouds of breath billowed against a black sky winking with faint stars. A hushed sun waited for the right earthly breath to birth it from a purple-blue horizon womb. Tilled earth and a well-worn path threading between stalks of elephant corn hinted at her mission. A click of the flashlight and compass footfalls, six inches from toe to heel, headed due north: magnetic, unerring.

Ava brushed aside the last stalks of corn and removed silken webs from her face and hair. She imagined confronting a Jupiter-sized spider, bulbous belly swinging, pincers clicking, depthless balloon eyes glowing with fading stars. A flash of the sword from her hip-mounted scabbard and she’d dispatch her adversary in well-aimed thrusts, thwick-a-thwack-thwack! and step over the spent body, legs still twitching: nothing could thwart her mission. Not today.

A square-shouldered, two-story barn loomed at the top of a hillside. The flip of a wooden latch, three booted steps, the smell of excrement and twitch of alert eyes, shifty wings, birthed Ava into a familiar tunnel. In the dim light she imagined hearts beating under proud chests, thumwa-thumwa-thumwa, diddi-diddi… She passed by rows of wooden bins stacked one atop another, all of them filled with yellow straw. “Hello ladies,” Ava cooed. Glistening russet, white, and gold heads tilted in unison; beady yellow eyes stared through: through the red hair and steady dungaree straps, the silver flashlight tamed in a sweaty palm and perspiration pooling under her arms.

She headed to the other side of the barn where a light burned in a hay-strewn stall, steady with anticipation: come see what I have in store today, the light beckoned. Ava’s breathing quickened. Seven long weeks of waiting; five daily visits, two hundred forty-five trips to the barn, sneaking away from under Mama’s watchful eye to roll them, assuring membranes wouldn’t cling; weekly light bulb changes; duties about the enclosure, filling water, adding feed to dispensers, picking just the right hand-sized ovals for the next round of yellow down and black-eyed promises.

Six months. One hundred eighty days of devotion and hopes dashed. But today was the day: it had to be.

If only Daddy Bo could see her now, tending the farm, diligent, hopeful, every day performing the tasks of his calloused hands. She recalled his scruffy beard against her cheek, his hearth-warm hugs and bill-paying arms; the regular maintenance of farm equipment: oiling tractors, replacing tires, servicing engines, unjamming the baler; the daily feeding of livestock; trips to town for feed and supplies; and his noonday mile walk to the mailbox, waiting for word from Jimmy. “War aint for sissies, Ava,” Daddy would say, fingering his breast pocket, the same pocket, Ava knew, where Jimmy’s army photo clung to soft cotton and cherry-flavored tobacco.

Miracle Red. They were waiting on Miracle Red now.

Sculbash Acre Farm had been passed down from Grandpa Whitten. Daddy Bo was the proudest man in the county of Sculbash, South Dakota the day Grandpa had signed over the farm. Tears streaked his round cheeks; the first time Ava had seen her father cry. “Wait for the red rooster,” Grandpa had instructed. “Red roosters are good luck.”

The day army men had come started like any other day on the farm. Mama’s baking apple pie clung in nooks and crannies to their white, two-and-a-half story, century-old farmhouse, its rooftop rooster weathervane predicting the weather with steady, creaking twirls beside a one-man cupola that afforded a bird’s eye view of the surrounding land.

The white city car puked two men onto the driveway in front of the house, their shiny black shoes attracting dust with each step. Up the porch stairs they’d marched while Ava and Mama peered out the dining room window.

Rat-tat-tat! Three solid raps on the old farmhouse door.

Mama wiped flour-coated hands on her apron and straightened to full height.

Ava followed her to the front door. She’d forever remember the creaking floorboard; the loose one Mama usually stepped around without thinking. On this day the wood sound echoed through the house like a shotgun blast. Or maybe that’s just how Ava remembered it now, three hundred and sixty-four days later as she’d stood a mere foot behind her mother on that mid-autumn day.

The men, dressed in blue uniforms, a yellow stripe down each leg, medals across their chests, hats in hands, stood like the giant redwood trees Ava had seen in Daddy’s picture book: tall, silhouetted against a clear California sky. One man clutched a cross to his stomach with white-knuckled hands. The younger, dark-haired man with eyes as black as a ravens cleared his throat. “Mrs. Whitten?” he asked.

In the silent century that followed, Ava heard Mama swallow hard. “Yes, I’m Natalie Whitten,” she responded.

“The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your son, Patrick Orville Whitten, was killed in action yesterday…”

   Mama sucked in a breath, clutched her chest and swayed in place as the man’s words droned and then drowned when a wail, long and low like a screech owl in the midnight hour, pierced the far corners of Sculbash Acre Farm.

Three months, two days and eleven hours after Jimmy died in the war, Daddy Bo killed himself, one shot between the eyes on Jimmy’s birthday. She recalled the red-stained wall, her mother’s shrieks, chickens squawking, pigs grunting, cows oddly silent on their muddy four-acre field. Jimmy had been twenty-two when he left for Iraq. Two years ago. The army laid him to rest, forever twenty-two, and Ava remembered Daddy Bo, heartbroken, his long days in bed, sullen, inconsolable. The decline of the farm followed.

Ava’s hopes hinged on Miracle Red.

This is for you, Daddy. Ava glanced up at the rafters and inhaled a long, steely breath. She pushed open the stall door; the creak echoed to the barn’s high ceiling. Ava punched her legs into the straw, feeling her knees protest on the wooden floor beside a homemade incubator. She opened the makeshift cover and peered inside. A clutch of twenty-two eggs twitched in the heated space, oval, white, perfect. Perfect except for cracks across each surface where yellow beaks poked through, opening and closing: the peep-sip, peep-sip, peep-sip of sneakers across wet floor.

Ava sucked in a breath, her heart racing. Please, please, she begged. Please let this be the one.

She waited and watched with sky-blue eyes wide, hopeful. Yellow, all yellow… and then the spark of red… red baby-chick down. Could it be?

At long last Miracle Red had arrived on Sculbash Acre Farm.

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25. Happy New Year!

No flogging today, it's the deadline for getting a writing course proposal in to Southern Oregon University for their OLLI adult education program.

Besides, there's just ONE submission in the queue for flogging next week, so, after you've recovered from tonight, submissions are welcome.

What are your writing plans for the new year? I hope to finally engage with writing the sequel to The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles. Being a pantser, it's taken a while to get a handle on the story, but new insights have been bubbling up and now I'm looking forward to it as opposed to putting it off.

All best,

Ray

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