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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Dan sends the first chapter of a novella, The Red Hand. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

John Wren heard his neighbor's door click shut, as her door did three times a week, right around six AM. He stirred sugar into his tea. He knew what he'd hear next, and heard it: Kate's bare feet bounding down the stairway, one tread at a time. Taking his cup, he stepped onto the balcony -- really an open air hallway -- of the threadbare seaside motel that had been his home for the past two months. He watched her cross the sandy parking lot at a trot, to the break in the falling-down split-rail fence, then diagonally toward the beach through the overgrown lot next door. He liked Kate. She was about the only thing in this crazy world that made any real sense to him.

He looked over at Windsong in her slip, and squinted at the top of her mast, gauging the wind. Less than five knots, he decided. West north west.

There are small dunes along this stretch of the Hamptons, some with meager beach grasses holding them together. As Kate turned along the beach, she started to open up her stride, but a figure stepped out from behind one of those grassy dunes. He appeared to be pointing a gun at her. She stopped dead, then went down, writhing. Dropping his tea, John raced down the stairs. He'd heard no shot; he had no idea what a Taser was. As he streaked across the parking area, he saw the sedan racing across the side lot, barreling over the uneven ground toward Kate and the stranger. It stopped a short way from her and a second fellow jumped out and helped the first drag her into the back seat. Her wrists seemed to be tied together.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Most definitely a strong story question raised on this first page, and the writing is pretty clean, grammatically speaking. However, the narrative needs work on the storytelling side. As it is, the promise is for what could be an interesting story but not a well-written one—for example, after the action ends John is standing by the car, which has crashed, and turns to see Kate opening her motel door even though a second before she had been standing next to him . . . which has to be some distance from there. Dan, take your time and think through how to move the story seamlessly forward. Notes:

John Wren heard his neighbor's door click shut, as it her door did three times a week, right around six AM. He stirred sugar into his tea. He knew what he'd hear next, and heard it: Kate's bare feet bounding down the stairway, one tread at a time. Taking his cup, he stepped onto the balcony -- really an open air hallway -- of the threadbare seaside motel that had been his home for the past two months. He watched her cross the sandy parking lot at a trot, to the break in the falling-down split-rail fence, and then diagonally toward the beach through the overgrown lot next door. He liked Kate. She was about the only thing in this crazy world that made any real sense to him.

He looked over at Windsong Windsong in her slip, and squinted at the top of her mast, gauging the wind. Less than five knots, he decided. West north west. Boat names are italicized.

There are Kate crossed the small dunes along of this stretch of the Hamptons, some with meager beach grasses holding them together. As Kate she turned along the beach, she started to open up her stride, but a figure stepped out from behind a dune one of those grassy dunes. He appeared to be pointing a gun at her. She stopped dead, then went down, writhing. Dropping his tea, John raced down the stairs. He'd heard no shot; he had no idea what a Taser was. As he streaked across the parking area, he saw the a sedan raced racing across the side lot, barreling over the uneven ground toward Kate and the stranger. It stopped a short way from her and a second fellow jumped out and helped the first drag her into the back seat. Her wrists seemed to be tied together. The “There are” at the opening of this is the author intruding to inject information. Keep it within the character’s pont of view and turn it into action as experienced by the protagonist. The bit about her stride isn’t needed and borders on overwriting. If he has no idea what a Taser is or does, then he can’t be thinking about it—a break in point of view. And who these days doesn’t know what a Taser is and does? I would change this to him concluding that she’d been tasered. The “he saw” I changed is using a filter instead of showing the action the character experiences.

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 Dan

 

Continued:

John dashed through the gap in the fence and headed for the car at a flat-out run. The first man shoved Kate headfirst and followed her in. He was definitely now holding a gun to her head. At the same time, the driver jumped in his open door, saw John coming, and hit the gas. The door slammed closed.

John lunged at him through the open window, getting a hold of his neck in a headlock. Unable to keep his feet under him, his body dragged behind. Kate extracted a curved knife from the sewn-in sheath in her cut-off jeans.

The gunman turned the pistol to John. In a single move, Kate scooted her butt down and shot her left foot up, pinning the gun and the man's extended hand to the headliner. The gun went off. Kate kicked the hand with her other foot, then stabbed the man on his far side with the custom-made knife with its half-inch radius hook near the tip of the blade. Pulling the knife toward her, she sliced her captor open horizontally, just below the diaphragm. Then she plunged in, both hands inside of him, slashing upward into the lungs and heart, her eyes hard and in his face. The gunman had struggled with her while being disemboweled, but when the blade reached its mark, he had nothing left but a pitiful cough and a plunge into unconsciousness. Foamy bright red blood sputtered onto his chin and he passed into oblivion, eyes and mouth open.

The car bounced over a hole, the driver choking and blinded, and the car hit a smallish pine tree which stopped it dead, throwing John's body forward. His headlock on the driver was secure; the driver's neck snapped on impact. John's back screamed with pain. His arm felt broken. Dust filled the air.

Kate took the man's gun off the seat, jumped out of the car, and ran around to where John was getting up off the ground. She set the gun on the hood and cut her hands free of the plastic shackles with a single annoyed swipe of her bloody knife. "Are you all right?"

"I've been better," he said.

She looked at the driver. His head was at an impossible angle to his body. "We've got to get outta here." She stuck the gun in her pocket and sheathed her knife, turned and trotted back to the hotel.

"Wh....?" John said. Checking the back seat, he saw the shooter, chin on chest, his bowels trailing into his lap. John looked back towards Kate. She was fumbling with her door lock. By the time he got back to her, she had already thrown her laptop and the gun into a large carry-all, a beach bag. He didn't know that she was still steeling herself against the nerve-scrambling effects of the Taser shot; he only saw her clenching and unclenching her fists as she went about tossing her cell phone and a few other items into the bag. She retrieved a holstered gun out of her night stand,  and shoved that in the front pocket of her shorts. John stared at her bloody legs, arms, and lap. "Are you injured? Are you bleeding?"

"No," she said immediately, and looked down at herself. "Shit! I need clothes." She went to the dresser, took a few things out, then a pair of sneakers from the closet, adding them to the now overstuffed bag. "Come on." Checking across the way before she fully opened her door, she crossed to John's open door, with John following, into the same one-bedroom efficiency as her own. Reversed floorplan. Kate knew John's place well; she'd been there quite a few times, helping him with things that baffled him and sometimes terrified him, at least in the beginning. "Pick up that broken teacup, please. Then hand me your laptop." She opened his center desk drawer, removing a large format checkbook, putting it in a backpack that had been leaning against the wall. She dumped in his (dead) cell phone and chargers. Kate held the bag open so John could put the laptop in. "Your wallet," she said.

"Kate. What are we doing? We're safe. Those guys are dead!" She was shaking her head. But he went on. "We have to call the authori..."

"Those ARE the authorities, Galen!" she cut him off, pointing in the direction of the car. "Now please. Where is your wallet? You may need it." He retrieved it from a side drawer of the desk. She spun around and headed for the kitchen, saying, "I'll explain it all once we're out of here." She grabbed his ring of keys from a bowl on the counter. Then she crossed over to the front window and parted the curtains a little. She slipped one arm of the backpack onto his shoulder. "And you need shoes. Go grab a pair of shoes."

She looked out the window again, then opened the door, peeked her head out, scanning the hall both ways. "Did nobody hear the shot?" she asked, quietly, to herself. John was back. "Come on." she said quietly. "We're taking your car," she said as they approached the bottom of the stairs, and moved to the Jeep Cherokee. Unlocking the doors with the clicker, she said under her breath as she slung the big bag across onto the passenger side floor, "This thing better start."

John followed her down the steps, saying, "Kate. Kate. Wait." As she went to get in the driver's side, he took her by the arm. "Stop." She could hear the would-be abductors' car engine, still running, seventy-five feet behind her. It had begun to knock, because the radiator was damaged in the crash, and the engine was beginning to overheat.

She turned to him, and broke his grasp with a flick of her wrist. Her expression was deadly serious. She controlled her volume, but her intensity knew no bounds. She screamed, quietly, through clenched teeth, "Galen, GET in the FUCKING CAR!" She turned again to the open door. John went around to the other side and got in. The car fired right up. Kate made an unhurried exit from the parking lot, turned right, and right again when she hit Montauk Highway, heading east.

 ###

 The old man was truly old -- over a hundred years old -- but he didn't look a day over seventy, and a healthy, youthful seventy at that. He eased down comfortably to the park bench, and looked out over Long Island Sound, hands on his knees. It was one of those days when the sky and sea were an azure monochrome backdrop of the big picture, and yet the star of it; the water speckled with shimmering late-morning diamonds. To the initiated, the sky spoke by cloud symbols of the science of water, air, wind, and light, radiant and spectral. And of things to come.

To his left and somewhat behind him, under a great oak, sat a shiny red pickup -- one of those muscular-looking, too-tall ones -- parked in shade. Behind it by about fifty feet, not under the tree, Sean's 1960 Ford half-ton. Built like a truck. No plastic. Maybe a little -- the radio knobs. The distributor cap. Original green paint, in pretty good shape. There was a spot worn through the paint where he'd rested his arm all these years, when the window was down. He'd owned it fifty-five years, since it was a baby. The bed's patina spoke of fifty-plus years of minor bumps and bruises from gravel, fishing gear, tools, and dog paws, plus one sizable dent reminding the owner of a panic stop and an outboard motor.

Sean didn't do flashy; he was quiet in all his ways. Didn't like to draw attention to himself. So he wasn't going to buy one of those current models. There wasn't one of any make or model that he cared for. Trouble was that his old truck, which ran perfectly, and which he liked just fine, was such a classic by now that it did draw attention to him. Just yesterday, he had a young fellow offer to buy it at a gas station. Maybe he could find a gently used '91 or something.

An acorn dropped from the tree onto the roof of the shiny red truck with a surprisingly loud thump. Sean Donnelly turned a little on the bench to see it, and watched it roll off to the street, over on the passenger side. Before long, another acorn dropped into the bed, and another  followed immediately onto the hood, with a sharp thud.

A Lincoln pulled up behind Sean's bench, and a rear door opened. The old man didn't turn, as he normally did. He heard muffled words exchanged between the boy and his mom (who was Sean's daughter) and there was probably a kiss in there somewhere. The boy got out and closed the door, and the driver pulled away.

Theodore (they called him Ted) picked up right away on his grandfather's unusual stillness, and came around the bench, and sat beside him. "Whatcha doin', grandpa?"

"Shhh," the old man said. Without moving his eyes from the tree canopy, he said, "I'm concentrating. I'm willing that acorn to fall on that red truck."

Ted didn't know what to make of that, so he just sat quietly. "Which acorn?" he finally said.

"That one right there. You see that triangular spot where the sky shines through?"

"Yes."

"Right there. Near the top of that, at two o'clock. Now let me concentrate."

Ted waited.

Thump! An acorn fell and hit the hood. Ted's eyes grew wide as Sean turned to look at him, with a grin. Ted's mouth opened.

After a moment, Ted's eyes narrowed again. "Let me try," he said, and leaned forward, scrunching his hands between his knees.

The old man said, "Now, you have to pick just one. Are you looking at just one?"

"Yes," the boy said. "Let me concentrate." A moment later, an acorn fell into the bed of the pickup, and Ted looked up at his grandfather triumphantly. Beaming.

Sean tousled the boy's red hair. "You're pretty smart for eleven years old."

The boy simply stood and faced his grandfather, and put his hand on his shoulder.

"Ready to go fishing?" Sean asked. Ted nodded, but kept his hand on the old man's shoulder.

"When confronted with a superior enemy," the boy said, "consider projecting a power you do not have."

Sean listened until the boy finished, then laughed -- a quiet laugh, but it came from deep within him. He tousled Ted's hair again.

"You quote me back to myself!" he said, with delight. "I think I wrote that more than fifty years ago!" He looked beyond the boy to the Sound. "Much more. Hmm." He wondered when the last time was that he was confronted by a superior enemy. "Okay," he said softly. "The snappers are waiting!"

Sean stood up and started walking with the boy to his truck. "Actually," Sean muttered, "I think Liam wrote that one."

"It's in the Wisdom," the boy said, sauntering alongside.

"We wrote that for your uncles, Teddy-boy. And for you."

Add a Comment
2. Flogometer for Joseph—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Joseph sends the first chapter of a novella, The Meter Reader . The remainder is after the break

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

The dashboard radio interceptor crackles in and out, and the voices are barely audible, so Orville adjusts the squelch button, which helps a little.

“Did you get it?” he asks, his knobby fingers twirling the button.

“Don’t sweat on it boss. It sounded like two tags. Got the coordinates, too.” I turn on the flashlight, point it on the mapbook, and flip to the right page.

The coordinates place this next job on the far end of the reservation, a few miles away. I ask, “Do you know where that is?”

“It’s been a while, but we’ll find it. Strap on the seatbelt. Pot’s right.” Orville jams the Chevy in drive and floors the accelerator. Bits of desert gravel shoot out and seconds later, we are rolling down the state highway under the cover of the desert sky. I hope we have enough time to save those two folks.

Two tags on two meters of two souls, soon to be removed by the termination unit, unless we get there in time. Whether or not these two folks on the ground were victims of foul play or mere accident (hand of man vs the hand of God) is a matter for Orville and me – one ornery ancient wildcat meter reader and his comely and humble apprentice, creeping in and out of space-time, changing folks’ fate, saving lives, making miracles. God, I love this job! Until the old fart opens his mouth.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

Good voice, mostly good writing, and a goodly number of story questions worked for me in this opening. The writing could be a little crisper and there’s potential for confusion in one spot, but those things are easily fixed. The opening introduces a different kind of world without belaboring it and blends it into the action. Good work. Notes:

The dashboard radio interceptor crackles in and out, and the voices are barely audible, so Orville adjusts the squelch button, which helps a little. For me, the micro detail of adjusting the squelch button is just not needed. Use the words for story. You could combine this paragraph with the next one for greater clarity.

“Did you get it?” he asks, his knobby fingers twirling the button. I thought he had already adjusted the button in the first paragraph, so why is he still twirling the button? Don’t think you need that.

“Don’t sweat on it, Boss boss. It sounded like two tags. Got the coordinates, too.” I turn on the flashlight, point it on the map book mapbook, and flip to the right page.

The coordinates place this next job on the far end of the reservation, a few miles away. I ask, “Do you know where that is?”

“It’s been a while, but we’ll find it. Strap on the seat belt seatbelt. Pot’s right.” Orville jams the Chevy in drive and floors the accelerator. Bits of desert gravel shoot out and seconds later, we are rolling down the state highway under the cover of the desert sky. I hope we have enough time to save those two folks. They shouldn't be in a moving car without the seat belt fastened. I would just delete this and get on with the story. As a long-time poker player, I recognize the phrase “Pot’s right,” but I wonder, since “pot” also stands for marijuana, of non-players will. I know he uses the phrase later but, unless it’s vital for the story, there’s potential for confusion here. Good story question raised about saving two folks.

Two tags on two meters of two souls, soon to be removed by the termination unit, unless we get there in time. Whether or not these two folks on the ground were victims of foul play or mere accident (hand of man vs the hand of God) is a matter for Orville and me – one ornery ancient wildcat meter reader and his comely and humble apprentice, creeping in and out of space-time, changing folks’ fate, saving lives, making miracles. God, I love this job! Until the old fart opens his mouth. Plenty of story questions raised here.

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 Joseph

 

Continued:

“Let’s go over this again,” Orville says. “What’s step one?” With one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the road, he casually reaches to his left side where the .38 special waits in its holster. He’s checking the ordinance again. Orville might be humorless and stiff, but he sure is thorough.

“I know step one and I know step two,” I say. “And three and four and all the rest. This is getting old. Like you. Except you’re already past ‘getting’.”

“Do it, rookie. Step one.”

“All right,” I answer. “Step One is a little number that goes like this; I stand guard and count while you check the tags on the life meters. The end. Sorry that I said you’re getting old. You can’t help it. Better check your firearm again because I think it may have escaped. From too much fondling.”

“Never mind. What’s step two?”

“You play detective, check for clues of foul play, then intervene as needed.”

“Elaborate. What do you mean by ‘intervene’?”

“Intervene, verb, to alter the course of events, to change one’s fate, to perform a minor miracle. For example, the grouchy old man intervened and saved a soul from being ripped out of the poor folk on the ground, hallelujah. All while the handsome apprentice stood guard and counted. In other words, I do all the heavy lifting while you play with dolls.”

Orville barely grins at the wisecrack, which means that I’ll have to try harder. Or maybe that’s my problem – I’m trying too hard. He turns left off the highway to take a dirt road, tires grumbling underneath. “After that?”

“After that, we get the hell out of there, as fast as a married man in a cathouse. You like that one?”

Orville grunts. He’s been doing that a lot lately. He looks like this job has been drilling a hole in his spirit. His yellow moustache seems droopier, his wit replaced with slow shakes of his head. Either that or my jokes are getting bad. Nah.

Silhouettes of cacti and mesquite roll by, suddenly illuminated by a pair of headlights coming our way. Orville slows down a bit and turns off the high beams. The vehicle does not reply in kind. It closes in, practically blinding us until the vehicle is close enough to run us off the road. Orville swerves just in time. “Numbnuts!” he barks and I watch menacing red light zip past us.

“Was it them?” I ask.

“I’m sure it was,” he answers.

Meter readers, I think to myself. The most heartless, mindless drones of all the employees who work for C&F Utilities. Good thing they’re all idiots because if it wasn’t for their incompetence, we would probably be slinging hash somewhere off the grid, working odd jobs here and there, then coming home to our trailers, hitting the bottles, waking up with hangovers, stumbling to new jobs because we just got fired for being late too many times. God save me from that nightmare. This wildcat job is the best thing going for me, and as soon as Orville cuts me loose, I’ll be performing miracles my way.

A few minutes later, we’re parked two hundred yards from the site, hidden from the road. Orville hands me his clipboard and reminds me to not accidentally press the buttons, especially the SLIP button. I sing that old song with him in mock fashion. All three buttons shine like gems, each with their own color – SLIP, COUNT, and RESUME, which sends us back to Earth time.

The engine is left running and we creep up to a spot outside of dirt clearing in front of a small shack of mud and two beat-up cars. We hide behind the desert shrub because it looks like someone is sitting inside one of the cars.

“There’s the instigator,” I say. “See? I can spot him, just like you trained me to. Bet your ass that he’s the one.”

“Maybe,” Orville says. “Get ready to press SLIP, on my mark.”

The dark figure emerges from one of the beat up cars, flicks away a cigarette butt, and heads towards the hut. It looks like he’s carrying a pole or big-ass stick with him. I point to the instigator and almost reveal our hiding spot when I whisper, too loudly, “The murder weapon! What the hell is it? Can you see?”

Orville covers my mouth and breathes hot fire from his old nostrils. His stare burns and I feel like a rookie all over again. He shakes his head and points to the clipboard, which means get ready to press SLIP. I don’t know why he trusts me, but he does. His hand goes again to check the revolver in his holster. He’s caressing the handle. He really needs a girlfriend.

Now at the front door, the figure raises the stick over his head and I see that it’s a hatchet with a long handle, for chopping wood. Not the best murder weapon in an enclosed space, and that’s when I realize that the figure at the door is either an enraged ex-boyfriend or the dumbassiest assassin in the universe. Someone inside is about to be hacked to death in a God-awful way, which is why Orville and I are here in the first place.

Orville points at me and I press the SLIP button.

Everything stops.

The crickets stop fiddling their tune, the stars stop rolling in the sky, not that I could tell, and the coyotes stop yipping. Even the breeze stops blowing. A bat hangs in the air as if suspended from fishing line. The dark figure still stands at the front door, his hands frozen on the handle of the hatchet and the blade waiting to come crashing down.

Orville and I don’t stop. There’s work to be done here and if we’re lucky, two lives to be saved. He hurries to the house and enters while I stand by the truck and look out for the termination unit and their van. Orville calls them the ‘numbuts in coveralls.’ They have their own power to SLIP in and out of time because they, too, have a clipboard just like the one belonging to Orville. Clipboards and huge tongs, which they use to remove the souls from the folks and send them to central cold storage at C&F Headquarters, then on the reprocessing center where they wait for their next assignment.

According to the COUNT, we have about 600 heartbeats to get in and out of here without being caught. It may not seem like a long time, but it’s damn dull watching the COUNT on the clipboard and watching the road while Orville has all the fun. I hate SLIP time. Nothing on Earth seems alive and there’s little to do.

200 heartbeats to do something important.

I grab a handful of rocks and hang them in the air to make a lifelike portrait of eyes and a nose and a mouth. Then I grab a handful of desert sand and a few mesquite branches to make a head of wiry hair and a bushy moustache. Voila. The exact likeness of Orville. Another hurried masterpiece.

Orville calls to me from the inside of the hut. He tells me, “You gotta see this.”

Finally, some action! I destroy the evidence to leave the rocks, sand, and mesquite a mid-air mess, then I hurry to the scene to find him in the bedroom, standing next to a double bed.

“It’s time for your first big test,” Orville says. “What do you see?”

I better ace this. I take a deep breathe, crack my knuckles a few times, shake off the cobwebs. Here goes. “There’s a pregnant woman sleeping on the bed, next to the father of her baby. Or maybe Paul Bunyan outside is the baby-daddy. Baby-mommy has two tags, one for her and one for the baby. Wow. Folks on the ground are a cruel lot.”

The meter of life is shaped like any old analog meter, an arc with a field of green on the left, a narrower field of yellow in the middle and the smallest field of red on the right. You don’t want that needle to ever go in the yellow, let alone red. Once it’s there, you get tagged by a meter reader. Then it’s lights out and your time on the ground is over because the termination unit shows up, reads the red tags, fills out the requisite paperwork, and takes your soul away where it waits in hyper-cold storage. For this reason, I prefer to call it a death meter.

Folks on the ground can’t see that meter, but it’s there -- below the hairline on the back of your neck. And that needle usually stays in the green, but once someone on the ground does something stupid or dangerous, like climb a mountain or fall asleep at the wheel, or even something harmless like take a shower, that needle moves to the right, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

“That’s obvious rook,” Orville says. “I trained you better than that. Try again.”

I look again, deeper now, observing the faces of the couple and the way their bodies flow across the bed. The pregnant woman faces out and so does the man, but in the other direction. They lie apart from each other about as far on the bed as they can be without falling off. More evidence beyond my grasp.

“What’s her name?” Orville asks.

I read both tags again. “Jackie Begay. Her daughter’s name is Aubrey.”

“Detective time. Tell me what’s gonna happen.”

“Four hundred heartbeats left. Do we have time?”

“Make it fast.”

I hurry through a fairly obvious prediction: Axe man at the front door bursts into the house and hacks Jackie Begay to death. The current boyfriend luckily escapes.

Orville grunts and shakes his head. “Follow me.” He heads out the bedroom and through the hallway. He walks with determination and I hurry to follow him to the door of the one-bedroom shack.

Orville stands on one side of the closed door and I stand on the other. He nods for me to open the door, and I do.

I stand right in front of the killer and if I were to accidentally press the SLIP button, that axe blade would cleave right into my skull. I feel my arms crawling with goosebumps.

“What do you see?” he asks.

The look in his eyes is heavy and red, not wild and frightened. Odd.

 “I see…a killer…a…something ain’t right. This guy doesn’t look pissed, he looks stoned. Too stoned to give a damn. Why is he even here?”

“You’re the one being tested. You tell me.”

I go into my best explanation and I don’t believe a word of it. “Stoner here is desperate for cash, so he breaks into the home to steal something, but all he sees is a used microwave oven and a nearly-empty refrigerator. He stumbles into the bedroom, wakes the couple. Fight breaks out and next thing you know, Jackie Begay and unborn daughter are killed while the guy in the bed survives, maybe there’s a scuffle and he scares the stoner off, which wouldn’t be too hard. None of this makes sense. Oh, and 350 heartbeats to go.”

Orville just shakes his head. He’s too tired to teach me the truth and frankly, I’ve been training too long not to know it. I wish I had his knowledge and experience but not his wrinkles. He can keep them.

At this time, I begins the intervention, which I expect to go something like this; he steps behind the stoned killer, straighten the stiff fingers to release the grip on the handle, and hand me the murder weapon, which I’ve been trained to quickly hide. I’ll probably throw it in the desert for future use.

But I should know that Orville never does the expected. Instead of removing the murder weapon from the killer’s grip, something we’ve done countless times before, he does nothing about it. Now I’m the one who’s shaking his head because I have no idea what the old fart is up to.

“Now,” Orville says, his eyes lighting up a bit and his mouth merging to a smirk. He always enjoyed this part of the job. He stands close to the axe-man and whispers into his ear. “I ain’t no cold-blooded murderer. I don’t kill helpless mothers and unborn babies. No way.” Orville eyes me to see if I get it. I wish I did.

He continues his whispery serenade. “I’m taking over this operation. I’m the one in charge, not him.” Now he’s looking right at me again as he closes in even closer on the axe-man’s ear. “I’m too smart for him. I’m too smart for all of this. The plan is about to be changed.”

Orville tells me to go check the meters of Jackie and the kid. On my way to the bedroom, I hear more whispering but I have no idea what Orville is saying

Back in the bedroom, I check her meter and the baby’s. I tell Orville that both are lower, but still in the red.

Orville returns to the bedroom. He says we need to make more drastic steps and hands me his gun as though I know exactly what to do with it, which I don’t. It rests in my hands like a hungry baby bird. I’m about to place the gun next to the boyfriend when Orville says, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I thought…I thought you said…no clue.”

“Don’t look. See. Who kills Begay? Who kills her unborn baby?”

“Paul Bunyan.”

Orville is about to say something, but I stop him. “The boyfriend slash husband? He hires the thug to kill her? Why?”

“Does it matter? Insurance money…furious that it’s not his baby… do the folks on the ground really need a reason to kill each other?”

I said I guess not. I think I’m getting it.

“What are you gonna do about it?” Orville asks, his bony finger jabbing a hole in my chest.

“I’m gonna change fate. Ow.”

“And how are you gonna do that?!”

“I’m gonna save two lives tonight! Ow.”

Orville nods and says, “Now hand me my clipboard. I’ll count and you

work. You got 250 heartbeats. Pot’s light and ante up. Go.”

After the gun is placed next to the nightstand of the mother, I check her

meter. The needle has dropped a little, but it’s still in the red.

“You need to do more,” Orville says.

I need to do more? What more are you doing?”

“Teaching. Two twenty and counting. Remember that trick about divine

inspiration? Do that and see what happens.”

I lean over and whisper to Jackie, “You have a gun. Someone close to you

gave it to you for a Christmas—”

Orville clears his throat.

“—Easter—”

Orville shakes his head. His meter officially reads Pain In My Ass.

“—birthday gift. You will use it to shoot the stranger who’s coming into your room.” I check her meter. The needle has dropped to the yellow zone, which means her fate is still in jeopardy. She could die tonight or the next day or the month after that. Who knows. What’s worse is that Baby Begay’s meter still reads red. Then I realize the point of the intruder in the first place and it becomes clear, like a slap across my face, that Orville “inspired” Paul Bunyan to hack apart the real murderer – the fellow in the bed.

I tell the sleeping mother the most important part, the one that saves her life and the life of her unborn child; “Wait until the intruder kills the man in bed. Then point the gun at the intruder and keep firing until he drops.” Orville is giving me the keep-it-going sign, so I say, “Keep firing until the revolver is empty.” Orville gives a thumbs up and I check her meter. The needle has finally dropped to the green zone. Good for her, but bad for me. I feel a bit wheezy.

“Hallelujah, rook,” Orville says as he slaps me on the back. “Your first miracle. Breakfast is on me. Check your work and meet me outside.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Just enough. Hurry it up.”

Jackie is safe. Baby Begay is safe. Momma and baby live happily ever after. I rip off both of their tags, tear them four times, and throw them in the air like confetti, all the time singing my new favorite song and busting out a dance move somewhere between the robot and the mashed potato.

I believe in miracles.

We’re you from?

You sexy thing!

I check the meters of the boyfriend and the invader and they’re both in the red. For a little extra hot sauce, I punch sleeping ugly in his nutsack. He won’t feel a thing now, but once Orville presses RESUME and Earth time starts again, his junk will be roaring in righteous agony right as he gets hacked up. I am a sexy thing!

“What the hell are you doing!?” Orville asks. Has he been watching me the whole time?

“Making a difference?” I say.

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Telling you?”

Orville tells me to quit wasting time, which makes me laugh because we have the power to SLIP time, even if it doesn’t last. He doesn’t laugh. He just shakes his head and tells me to fill out two tags. After doing that, I slap a big, bright, red tag on the boyfriend and another on the axe-man to ensure that the termination unit drives out of here with two souls. Rule number two of Orville’s Wildcat Handbook– Balance the Tags. Never give the suits Upstairs a chance to doubt anything. Two folks for two folks. Cosmic balance sheet looks good and scoreboard reads good guys over bad guys by two souls.

“You know somethin’ Orville?”

“What’s that?”

“I’m gonna like this job.”

Orville chuckled and said, “Let’s get the hell outta here before the termination unit gets here.” That was rule Number One – Don’t Get Caught, by the numbnut meter readers, by the TU, the auditors from the suits Upstairs, but most of all, do not get blindsided by the thugs of the Intervention Division. The tales of their splatter guns are horror stories.

Orville hands me the clipboard and we hurry to the truck. He sets the gear in drive and I press the RESUME button. The night desert returns to life as we speed away. The crickets continue their sweet song, the stars continue their sky-wide journey and that lonely bat flaps away into the darkness. Then we hear the finale – no screams, no shouts, just the repeated pop of a pistol followed by silence. Orville grins that old grin, the old, younger grin I used to see so much.

On the road back, we spot a pair of headlights coming our way. Orville turns off the high beams and the headlights get closer and finally pass. We got out of there with heartbeats to spare.

“Ciao,” Orville says to the TU, his moustache creeping up on both sides of his face. When both sides of his lip whiskers wriggle like that, I know it’s a sign that he’s pleased. “Good job, Gil.”

“Thanks,” I respond.

“Did you clean up?”

“Sure did.”

“What did you do with the tags?”

I shook my head and told him that both tags are in my pocket. Later that morning, at breakfast, I told him that I tossed the tags in the trash.

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3. Is there a library in your ebook’s future?

Alli-logoI came across an article at ALLi, a blog for independent authors, about three services that might enable you to place your book in libraries. Two of the services provide payment for authors, one does not.

Why would you want to be in a library where your book can be read by many for the price of just one sale? For unknown, independent authors, discovery is the reason that makes sense to me. I’ll be checking these out for my novels and, perhaps, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

 The article offers insights on the mechanics and capabilities of the three services, including lists of pros and cons. Check out Ebook Library Services For Authors. An Alliance of Independent Authors Report and see what you think.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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4. Flogometer for Ellis—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Ellis sends a prologue and first chapter of Goblins at the Gates, an erotic romance. The remainder is after the break.

About prologue openings: Literary agents such as Janet Reid have said that they and others tend to skip prologues. Why? Because the “real” story begins with chapter 1. It’s something to keep in mind.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Prologue: A Hill in Dacia

Serapion eased his horse away from the ridge top into a little grove of scrub oak, trying to calm her.

"Easy, my great heart," he said as he slipped to the ground. He stroked her neck and held his head close to hers, feeling her muscles quiver with nervousness. She was dangerously close to bolting.

He tried to calm himself, too. Even the brief glimpse of what was in the valley had chilled him. He reminded himself he was a scout for a Roman legion. His job was to see and report, not to panic like some palace serving girl.

He tied the mare to a sturdy branch, then crept back to the edge of the hill and peered over.

At the bottom of the valley snaked a wide, shallow river, its waters white with minerals and sediment washing down from distant mountains. Stunted trees ran along both sides, barely visible now, for the valley was covered by a flood of living creatures.

Everywhere in the surging, dark mass, individual shapes leaped suddenly into the air, up and forward, then fell back again. The bounding shapes reminded him of a herd of antelope on the run. Or, he thought with a shudder, like locusts.

The creatures were far too big for locusts, but their hopping motion evoked those terrible insects. A childhood memory swept over him, of his village covered by clouds of whirring wings. (snip)

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

Chapter 1: The New General

 A cold rain drove in from the southeast, making the dark afternoon even darker. Two guards stood at the western gate, cloaks pulled tight against the wind. Only their eyes showed between folds of brown cloth.

"Who do you figure that is?" said one.

"Don't know," said the other as he peered through the gloom. A man was riding on a donkey that plodded down the track that passed for a road in this part of Dacia. "He don't look barbarian. Nor local neither."

"No," agreed the first, "he don't."

"Nope."

The man drew closer and began to wave.

"What's he want?"

"Couldn't say. Might be trouble, though. Swords ready." The one pulled his sword from its scabbard, but the other merely rested his hand on the hilt.

The figure was closer now. He was urging his donkey with threats and imprecations, but the animal ignored him and kept its own pace.

They could hear him now, in fragments broken by the wind. "Is this the ... legion?"

One guard looked at the other and shrugged. Is this the legion? No, this is the imperial baths and (snip)

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

Good, strong writing and voice in this narrative clears a lot of hurdles right at the start. I feel like I’m in the hands of a skilled storyteller. So far, so good.

 For me, the prologue had a strong-enough story question to get me to turn the page, though I think it could be stronger. For example, how about foreshadowing the jeopardy ahead with an addition like this: . . .  for the valley was covered by an invading horde, a flood of living creatures.

As for the first chapter, well, I hope readers don’t skip the prologue because there was little to create tension in this reader, and not enough to turn the page. It turns out that there’s a lot of backstory and character setting-up in the first chapter. For me, there’s just too much of that. Why not weave in some of the protagonist’s negative qualities, an anti-hero of sorts, as the story has something happening that continues the tension built up in the prologue. For me, that momentum died a laborious death with the struggles to wake up a lazy, hungover man.

You hooked me with strong stuff in the prologue, now is the time to capture my interest entirely with what happens here, especially since you killed of a character that I had come to like in the prologue. Perhaps you wanted to contrast the heroism of the scout with the lethargy of the general, and I get that, but do it in context of something happening that creates trouble and danger equivalent to the invading horde of alien creatures.

Suggestion: why not just call the prologue the first chapter so the reader has to start there? And, since the story is continuous from the action in the “prologue” to the chapter, I’m not sure it really is a prologue.

Terrific writing, fascinating world, for sure—but dive into the real story, please!

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 Ellis

 

Continued:

. . . His fists clenched and he blinked hard to push the memory away. Not locusts.

Whatever they were, they were unlike anything he'd ever seen or heard of. What they were, though, was not important. The only question for a Roman scout was their number.

He scanned the scene below, trying to come up with an estimate. Thousands, that much was sure, but Captain Ennius would have him skinned if he returned with so vague a report. His keen eyes carved the valley into sections. Ten thousand, at least. Probably more. It was hard to tell because bands of them swirled away, scattering like black snowdrifts up the sides of the valley. Cold dread crawled into his belly as he realized those bands could be up the hills, behind him. A whinny from his mare sent him scuttling backward.

"Forty thousand," he muttered as he hurriedly untied the horse, "and the Captain will have to be content with that."

Forty thousand, he thought as he mounted, but forty thousand of what?

They had been too far away for him to see their features, but that hardly mattered. The barbarians in this land had no end of descriptions for them. A single glance at the valley was enough to know that the stories of the past winter were not mere rumors. There was no need to see if they truly had claws that could eviscerate a man at a blow. The legends were real. He could now confirm that; the rest was details.

He turned his horse around. The gray skies were still. The damp air was still. The brown earth was still. The stillness filled his ears. He leaned forward.

"Go," he whispered. The mare sprang into a full gallop, flying back down the ridge. Her hoof beats sounded loud in his ears, and he could smell fear on her.

He let her run for a while. She was scared and he was scared, and a good gallop might steady the nerves of both. After a few minutes of this, he slowed her to a steady trot, a pace he knew his horse could maintain for hours. She was still flighty, and shied unaccountably from time to time, as if scenting something on the wind, except there was no wind, only the cold, damp, motionless air. He rode south at first, along the western slope, keeping the hills between himself and the valley. When he judged he'd put in enough distance, he turned west.

The mare whinnied and danced sideways. Serapion cast a quick look back and his breath caught. Dark, loping creatures were after him, a dozen or so, moving quickly. He didn't have to urge his horse; she broke at once into a gallop.

The creatures closed fast. They pursued like wolves, with a pack of three gaining on the left and another pack on the right, while the others ran directly behind. Their speed surprised him.

His habits as scout stayed with him as he noted everything he could about them, even as his horse thundered beneath him and the air thundered in his ears.

The beasts were dark; not black, but the color of mud, mottled with dark greens and grays and deep crimson. They were smaller than a man, by a head or more, and were oddly shaped. Their legs were powerful, with thighs and hips almost like those of a bear. Their arms were long, and from time to time were used as if they were front legs. Their heads had a snout rather than a nose. Their eyes seemed to be small and wide-set; it was hard to tell, at a full gallop. When one of them leaped, it covered twenty, thirty feet at a time. With every backward glance, they were suddenly closer.

He leaned into his horse and let her run. He had no doubt the creatures intended to kill him; they were running him the way a wolf pack runs a stag. Only the brown mare and her great heart could save him now.

He slipped into the horse's rhythm, letting her muscles take the lead, fitting his own motion with hers. The ground blurred beneath him. He did not try to guide her, did not even look where they were going, trusting the mare's instincts.

The creatures uttered no cry, and that silent hunting was as unnerving as their speed. At least wolves howled. You could get a sense of where they were. These things were like ghosts. He cursed the barbarians and their grim tales. He cursed the gray, unmoving sky above and the hard brown earth beneath. He kept imagining the slash of claws just above his shoulders. Finally, he could bear it no longer. He looked left quickly.

No creatures.

He rode a little further, then dared a glance to the right.

No creatures.

He looked back, over his right shoulder, and saw them, but they were some distance back and fading.

He knew his horse's strengths. She had run hard, but she had some distance left in her yet. He let her run at full gallop, agreeing with her that they should put all the ground they could between themselves and those bounding monstrosities.

He looked back again.

The creatures were far behind now. His scout's eye noted it: they were fast, but only for short distances. Something to remember for his report.

He eased the mare's pace, backing off slowly but steadily. He wanted to ride far today, and she would need her reserves. Two carrots tonight. And half the remaining oats.

After several minutes, he had slowed her to a traveling trot. Sweat slicked her coat; he would need to cool her down carefully. He checked the position of the sun, as best he could through the low clouds. Three hours of daylight, at least.

He crested another rise. He couldn't see much through the pine trees covering the hilltop, but behind him the ground was clear and there was no sign of pursuit.

On the westward slope horse and rider were forced to slow even further, their progress impeded by underbrush and rowan trees. He chafed; even though they were going slower, the horse was having to work too hard to press through. He might have to rest her. The thought made his skin crawl.

Toward the bottom the underbrush became still heavier and it took much longer than he had hoped to work his way through. Willow trees lined the bank of a small stream at the bottom, and he let the mare have a brief drink.

She snorted and balked as they moved across the stream, then they plunged into heavy underbrush that grew higher than his head. Thorns reached out, catching at his clothing.

They zig-zagged back and forth through the scrub, not able to see any distance, hearing only the sound of their own passage. Every rustle or sigh became the sound of an approaching enemy. He knew this feeling of closing dread--he had made his way through enemy lines before, fearing every noise and movement not of his own making. This was worse, though, and the mare seemed to agree. Twice she refused to go along a clear path, balking then dancing aside when he tried to urge her forward. He chose to let her have her way. His eyes kept seeing dark shapes at the edge of his vision.

Then, abruptly, the heavy growth gave way and they were again climbing. He looked behind, but there was no sign of the creatures. He pulled up and sat for a moment, looking carefully in every direction, listening in every direction, even sniffing the air. Still no sign. He could feel tension ease slowly away.

"Hup, my heart," he said, and the mare resumed at a walk. Three nights in the open, if we push hard, he thought, and then we'll be back. He wondered if Captain Ennius would believe him, if he would even pass the report on to the Old Man.

He rode slowly, still alert, his nerves still jagged as a broken pot. He was about halfway up the big hill when his horse whinnied loudly and pulled up short. Coming over the crest to the north was a ragged line of creatures, many more than before. Hundreds more.

For one instant horse and rider froze in place, staring at the dark line. Then one of the creatures jumped, and he turned back down the hill.

It was unjust, he thought angrily. His brown mare could outrun them, she had proved that. But not at such close quarters. Not taken unaware. He leaned down, close to her neck, almost weeping for what was about to happen. "Run, great heart," he whispered softly, knowing she needed no encouragement, knowing it would do no good. He said the words as a kind of apology. A farewell.

The monsters were already on both sides, but Serapion looked only ahead. The horse ran and the ground flew below, and the only sound he could hear was a great thundering of hooves and breath. Her body strained, tearing at the hard earth. He leaned far forward, wanting to feel her run, to feel heart and flank, for that to be the last thing he felt.

No one saw him die on the mile-long hills of Dacia. No one saw the dark shapes leap, nor heard the screams of horse and man.

<<<<>>>> 

Chapter 1: The New General

 A cold rain drove in from the southeast, making the dark afternoon even darker. Two guards stood at the western gate, cloaks pulled tight against the wind. Only their eyes showed between folds of brown cloth.

"Who do you figure that is?" said one.

"Don't know," said the other as he peered through the gloom. A man was riding on a donkey that plodded down the track that passed for a road in this part of Dacia. "He don't look barbarian. Nor local neither."

"No," agreed the first, "he don't."

"Nope."

The man drew closer and began to wave.

"What's he want?"

"Couldn't say. Might be trouble, though. Swords ready." The one pulled his sword from its scabbard, but the other merely rested his hand on the hilt.

The figure was closer now. He was urging his donkey with threats and imprecations, but the animal ignored him and kept its own pace.

They could hear him now, in fragments broken by the wind. "Is this the ... legion?"

One guard looked at the other and shrugged. Is this the legion? No, this is the imperial baths and we're a couple of senators. They let the man get closer.

"Is ... this ... the ... Legio ... XII ...," the man was shouting into the wind, "... Heraclea?"

One of the guards said, "It is," and again they exchanged looks. They were a hundred miles north of the Great River. What the hell other legion would they be?

The donkey finally brought the man within conversation distance. He was  enveloped in layers of cloaks, not one of them oiled, and all soaked through. He was shivering. The soldiers figured he deserved it.

"P-please announce the arrival of L-L-Lucius J-Julianus Metellus, P-P-Prefect of D-Dacia."

A third time the guards exchanged glances.

"That be you, then, fellow?" said one. The other one snickered.

"No. I'll b-bring him."

"You do that."

The man turned his donkey around, which set off again at a dispirited walk, with the man urging and cursing the beast. After watching him for a few minutes as he disappeared into the gusting rain, the first guard waved a hand.

"Eh," he said. "Better tell the Old Man. Who knows, maybe it really is the new General."

***

Avitus was trying to wake up his master. The morning light coming through the tent had not done the job, nor had the noise from the soldiers outside. He had tried whispering in Julian's ear and had tried gently shaking the sleeping form, but he had not really expected either to work. Normally the next step would be shouting, followed by banging on metal, but these were not normal circumstances, and his master had to get up.

"Open your eyes," Avitus said in a low voice. "I know you're awake; I've seen this trick too many times, but now isn't the time for tricks." He shook the blanketed man again, harder.

Nothing.

Avitus knelt down and put his mouth close to Julian's ear.

"Listen to me, you miserable whelp. You made me leave Constantinople and your family's palace. You dragged me through foul weather and desolation to come here.  You made me ride a donkey. And now, right outside this tent, is a ferocious-looking centurion demanding to see you. I am not going back out there alone, so get up or I'm going to haul you up and shove you outside half clothed." He frowned.

"You are at least half-clothed, right?"

Julian stirred at last. He turned over and, without opening his eyes, said, "Go away, Avi. Let the centurion stand there all day. He's probably good at it."

"Oh no, absolutely not. I am not the General. You are the General. That means you have to get up and do ... General-y things."

"Generally, I don't do much, this time of day."

Exasperated, Avitus stood up and announced in a loud voice, "Let me help you with that, master. Then you'll be fully dressed."

Julian's eyes opened. They were a deep blue and more than a little bloodshot. He blinked and decided that there were disadvantages to keeping oneself warm in bad weather by means of heavy drinking.

Clearing his throat he said in an equally loud voice, "Thank you, slave, I can manage myself. Please advise the centurion I'll be out directly."

"Low trick," Avitus snarled, "now I'll have to go back out there."

"Not low, Avi," he said, "merely Roman." He threw back the blanket and looked down at himself.  His clothes were rumpled and stained from travel.

"Huh. Not half, but fully-dressed. Very handy."

He hunted up a cloak and wrapped it around himself against the cold. He looked around the tent. He had been too tired and too wet the night before to pay any attention to his surroundings; now that he had a look, he was not impressed: a cot, a chest (which was his own), a wooden table with nothing on it. From the evidence, the general of the XII Heraclea commanded men but did not command luxury. He ran one hand through his pale-colored hair, which merely re-arranged it into a new mess. This gesture having exhausted his repertoire of stalling, he turned to his slave and spoke in a loud, clear voice.

"Show the man in, Avi. Don't keep the good centurion waiting."

 

The general's tent was in two chambers--a small area, where Julian had slept, and the main tent. Avitus now went from the one into the other, with his master following. The main tent was equally austere: the table was larger, had two benches, and there was another chest, but that was all.

Avitus opened the tent and motioned to someone, then stepped aside.

A centurion entered, trying not to look irritated and not doing a very good job of it. He looked exactly how Julian had expected him to look. Grizzled, a weather-beaten face, strong arms, a barrel for a chest, aging but not yet gone soft. Certainly a veteran of several campaigns: he was standard-issue Army.

Father, he thought, would have loved him on sight.

"Marcus Salvius, First Tribune. Pleasure to serve under your command, General Metellus."

The man stood stiff as an oak, his uniform carefully neat. Julian was trying not to dislike him immediately.

"Thank you, Marcus Salvius, First Tribune. Do you know where a fellow might get breakfast around here?

"Breakfast?"

"Yes, food taken soon after rising in the morning? Surely you've heard of it."

The centurion did not exactly frown, but the not-frowning showed all over his face and his left eye twitched.

"Yes sir. At once, sir. One moment." He turned without bending, stepped out through the tent flaps and spoke to someone outside. Julian managed to hear "yes, damn you, now" clearly enough.

Marcus Salvius returned.

"Food is on its way."

Something in that sentence was a reproach, but Julian couldn't spot where.

"Fine," he said, "why don't you sit down and we can share it."

The centurion looked as delighted by this invitation as if he'd been asked to eat a rat. Julian didn't mind too much. The man was responsible for waking him up and therefore surely deserved some sort of punishment.

Arrangements for dining were as austere as the tent: plain plates and wooden spoons. He would not have been surprised if instead of goblets they used drinking horns. He sighed without sighing. "Get on with it," he told himself. "You knew this wasn't going to be pleasant."

Once seated, Julian smiled sweetly. Then he said, "You've been camped here for how long?"

"Several weeks," the centurion said.

Julian could hear the reproach in those words plainly enough. He wondered if news of his escapade in the City could have reached the Legion already.

"We've been keeping an eye on the Thervingi," Marcus said after a pause.

"And how are you doing with your eye-keeping?"

"Their town, Oppidum, is nearby, just to the east. King Fritigern is there. He has been expecting you."

An answer that was not an answer, and there was that tone again. Yes, he could have arrived sooner, but he had dragged his feet. He kept hoping there might be some reversal of fortune that would get him out of this ridiculous pretense of military command, and let him return to the City. Plotinus could not be so strong as to contend with the Lady Helena, surely. But days had slid into weeks and, if anything, the clamor in the City had grown stronger. At Duros his mother had written him: get across the Great River at once. Plotinus had men riding to arrest him. Once over the river, he was outside the limes, the borders of the Empire, and beyond Plotinus' reach.

Even after getting safely away, Julian had not hurried. He had spent his life avoiding the Army; he was not eager to command a legion. Yes, he was late in taking up his post, but it wasn't the place of the First Tribune to venture an opinion on that subject, however obliquely.

He looked hard at Marcus, but those dark eyes revealed nothing about the man's thoughts. Julian decided to let it pass. It was just possible he was being over-sensitive.

"Ah, here is the food," he said, welcoming the interruption.

He was sure the centurion had his own concerns and his own agenda; he knew enough from listening to his father to know senior officers in a legion tended to get a sense of ownership the longer they stayed in one place.

He decided to ignore the centurion for now and pay attention to the food instead, which he was hungry enough to enjoy despite its shortcomings. He made a fuss over the olives and declared the bread excellent, which it wasn't. He drank sparingly of the wine, which was surprisingly good.

A couple of times during the largely silent meal a soldier peeked into the tent. Marcus waved him away both times. After the second time, the meal being largely finished, Julian had to ask.

"I have the feeling I'm missing something. Is there something I'm missing, First Tribune?"

Marcus managed to get some bread in his mouth before Julian could finish his question. He now chewed slowly. Julian waited. Marcus' face showed that it had weathered many storms over the years, and could weather Julian's glare.

"No sir." More chewing. "You cannot miss it."

"And why is that?"

"Because it can't start without you, sir."

Julian took a new and firmer grip on his temper.

"What won't start without me,  First?"

"The review of the troops sir. That must wait on the General."

Pieces he hadn't even known were pieces now fell into place.

"Marcus Salvius," he said, "are the troops assembled for review?"

"Yes sir."

"For how long?"

"Since sunrise, sir. That's protocol."

"The men have been standing out in this miserable cold since sunrise?"

"Yes sir."

"Soldier," Julian said, deliberately not using his title, "don't do this again. If there's something I should know, tell me. Don't wait around taking bets on how long it will take me to notice. Very amusing for you, no doubt, but the men don't deserve it."

That got a reaction. The Tribune flushed and his eyes narrowed. If this had been a tavern back in the City, there might have been a table kicked over and a fight begun. Here, all that happened was a terse, "yes sir."

Julian stood up.

"I tell you what, First. You send a messenger to King Fritigern. Announce my arrival and tell him that the Prefect of Dacia wishes to meet with him at once. Today. Choose one of your speedier messengers, yes? You do that, and then you and I can take a stroll around the camp. Does this sound agreeable, Marcus Salvius?" Julian didn't exactly sneer, but he wasn't smiling either.

The Tribune had stood when his commander did. He now said, "yes sir, at once sir," and exited the tent with a surprising combination of dignity and speed.

"That went well," Avitus ventured. A sliver of a smile creased the dark face.

Julian scowled at him. "Fetch me my cloak. The army one. It appears it is time for me to go play General. And you come with me, little bird; I'm among the enemy here."

 

The two men emerged from the tent into a gray, dismal light. The storm of the last three days had passed, leaving in its wake a gray sky and frozen ground covered with a thin blanket of snow. The air clung to everything as if reluctant to move, heavy and cold as granite; it felt damp, it even smelled damp. There had not been one day of blue sky since he'd left Duros and the Great River; he felt as if the dregs of winter were following him up the Dacian marsh lands.  The only color besides gray or white was the red of Roman cloaks on the backs of the men, standing outside their tents in their ranks, waiting. A silence hung over the camp, the kind that comes only when two thousand men are all quiet at once.  As they breathed, puffs of steam made white clouds about their heads.

He had seen his father do this more than once, but in truth he had little idea what "review the legion" meant. Legions were not allowed inside Constantinople, and Julian rarely ventured outside the City, except to retreat to a country estate in summer. From the fragments of youthful memory, review seemed to consist of nothing more than walking and glaring, and occasionally speaking to one of the men about some shortcoming or other. But the last time he'd seen this he had been thirteen years old. His memory was hazy.

"Lead the way, Marcus Salvius. You know your way around better than I do, today." He added that last word without quite knowing why. He didn't plan on being here long enough to learn his way around, be it today or tomorrow.

The Tribune began walking along the via principalis, the main thoroughfare of every Roman military camp, which was lined with tents on either side. In front of the tents the soldiers stood at attention in their cohorts, First through Tenth. Tents, campfires, arms and armor, men in rows, all spread out along the four streets that made up a Roman castrum. Julian followed glumly, pulling his cloak tight around him.

"First Cohort," said Marcus Salvius, "full strength."

The men stood at attention, their red cloaks hanging heavy in the chill air. What was full strength? A hundred? No. He remembered: the First Cohort was always double strength, and limitanei legions were larger than field legions. Two hundred, then, perhaps more. The men were wearing battle dress, but he couldn't decide if it was formal or not; if it was formal it was awfully worn down.

He made a show of looking, without really knowing what he was looking at or for. He had not thought he would have to attend to any sort of Army business at all. He came here only to negotiate a treaty, and this military command was merely an unwelcome prerequisite. Now that he was here, though, his natural egotism came to the fore. Whether he was at an inn, on the docks, at the Hippodrome, or attending some First Hill dinner party, he always cared to make an impression. Somewhat to his surprise, it appeared that he also cared to make an impression now.  His friends would have laughed to see Lucius Julianus Metellus trying to show a good face to a Roman legion. He smiled at himself as the Tribune led him to the next cohort.

The Second Tribune was a hawk-faced older man with close-cropped hair and a graying beard. Barrel-chested, he could have been Marcus' older brother. He reported everything in order, same as the First. Julian complimented the officer and moved on. When you don't know what you're doing, his mother would say, do it with authority. His father would have said ... then again, his father would not have said. Things had simply happened when the great General bestrode the earth.

They moved on. The troops were in good order, but Julian could see their equipment was not of quality issue. He was not surprised. The best stuff went to the field armies anyway. The XII was making do with second-class supplies. He noticed there was no siege equipment. It was as if no one expected this legion to engage in any serious military operation. He tried hard to make it feel unimportant, but despite all he couldn't help being irritated by the poor shape of the soldiers' equipment.

"It looks to me, Marcus Salvius, that Rome never expected the XII to leave Noviodurum."

"Yet Rome keeps sending us out, sir."

"Yes, well, Rome sent me out as well, Marcus, so she clearly has not lost her sense of humor."

"Sir?"

"Never mind. Say, what's up here?"

Julian suddenly turned aside and went bounding up the escarpment that surrounded the camp. It was only about ten feet high, but it was enough to block the view of the surrounding countryside. At the top were neatly spaced rows of sharpened stakes, angled outward toward any possible enemy. At the foot was the trench that had provided the material for the wall. Julian, though, was interested in none of this. Instead, he was looking at an isolated hill in the distance. 

The Carpati Mountains were to the west; dark, and fir-clad, with the white of snow showing on all the peaks. The mountains dropped away rather suddenly to the Siret river valley, but one treeless hill stood alone, rising several hundred feet above the valley floor. While the Carpati were clothed in white, this hill was clothed in black, and was crowned with wooden wall, like a brown circlet.

"Is that Oppidum?"

"Yes, General," said Marcus Salvius, who was still scrambling up the slope, wondering what sort of commander had been inflicted on his Legion this time.

"Gods. It looks like it's in mourning."

Marcus gained the top. "That'd be the Thervingi, sir. They live in tents, mainly, and every one of them made of black goat hair."

"They pile together a bunch of tents and call it a city?"

"Not exactly, sir. They're herders, so they move about. That's why they live in tents. But see the wall at the crown? The town's inside. That's permanent, with buildings and the like, or so I've been told. Neander never brought any of us with him on negotiations." He said this with a sidelong glance at Julian.

"There must be hundreds of tents," Julian said.

"Likely. Last year there were more, maybe twice or three times as many. They spilled out across the flats. It's one reason why we're camped so far away, sir. We expected there to be more. Like last year and the year before."

"Well," Julian said, "there's no telling with barbarians, eh First?"

"As the General says."

Julian turned and went back down the embankment and they went on with the review. He hurried as much as he could without appearing to hurry. At each Cohort he was introduced to its Tribune, whose name he promptly forgot. When they arrived at the Tenth Cohort, he surveyed it with dismay.

"Gods, First, couldn't you find any greener?"

The Tribune shot him a look. "We have what Rome has given us," he said, then added, a little defensively, "they're good lads."

The Tenth Cohort was mostly raw recruits, tirones; the few veterans were probably discipline problems. The Tenth cohort was always the catch-all in any legion, but this one had caught mostly unripe fruit.

"I'm sure they are, First."

Marcus made no reply to this. Julian could see the man was unhappy with him. No doubt he wasn't following proper procedure. Well, centurion, Julian thought, you'd better get used to it. I don't have time for your procedures and rituals, and I have even less time for men who are preoccupied by them.

Inspired by such thinking, Julian suddenly cut straight back to the center of the camp, where the General's tent stood along with supply tents and the legion's standard. The standard for this legion had the usual imperial eagle at the top, under which was a banner with the image of Hercules strangling a snake. A variety of discs hung from the crossarm of the standard.

"The XII's banner has quite a list of victories," Julian said, trying to make small talk as they approached. He didn't really want to argue with his First.

"It is an old legion," the centurion said, "it goes back to Julius Caesar."

"I knew I'd heard of it. I think my father told me of it once. He was a general himself, my father, and never tired of telling Army stories."

"I served two years with your father, sir. He was a great man."

Julian glanced over at Marcus. That explained a few things. Out of habit whenever his father's reputation was mentioned, Julian responded with sarcasm.

"I have the advantage of you, then," he said, "I served sixteen years with him."

The centurion blinked but showed no emotion.

"You are therefore more fortunate than I," he said.

Julian stopped, so Marcus stopped with him. They were standing near the Fourth Cohort. A little breeze stirred the dry snow that had settled on the leather tents.

"It is easier to be a great man's soldier, Marcus Salvius, than to be a great man's son," Julian said, himself stone-faced.

Marcus scowled at that, then realized he had scowled and tried to un-crease his face.

"Let's change the subject," Julian said briskly. "Something more cheerful, like pestilence, or the virtues of Senators."

"Isn't the one the result of the other," Avitus asked brightly.

The centurion's head snapped around.

"My ... adjutant ... has an odd sense of humor," Julian said. "I invite you to ignore him. I often do."

Avitus mouthed "adjutant?" but Julian merely grinned back at him.

At the principium were waiting the command staff, which included various standard bearers, the Legion's quartermaster, and a young man who was introduced before the others.

"This is Gaius Herennius Actius Pulcher, Captain of the Cavalry."

Julian stood before a man with blond hair cut long, and a smile that was just safely short of a smirk. He had the easy stance of the cavalry officer. The voice of Julian's father came unbidden into his memory: cavalry men think they're better than everyone else, but don't you believe it. Still, there was something in the man's easy arrogance Julian found appealing.

"Hello Gaius Ennius. I assume all is well with the horsey set."

"Ave, General sir. All is not well, I must admit."

This caught Julian off guard.

"Not well? How?"

"There are reports, sir, from my scouts."

Julian did not miss the sudden, sharp look his First Tribune shot at the Captain of the Cavalry.

"Reports, you say. Tell me, what do the reports report?" He deliberately did not look at Marcus.

"Sir, we have for some time been hearing strange stories from the north, about invaders. I have sent scouts and they return with these stories."

"We are familiar with the tales, back in the City," Julian said. "But do you take them seriously? We're among barbarians, after all. They do love their stories."

"Yes sir, but there's more. Two of my scouts are missing. Two of my best."

Julian considered for a moment. One missing was not odd, not given the life of a scout, but two missing in the same place was another matter. Still, this was a side issue.

"Strange reports?"

"From the north, sir."

"Well, then, Captain," Julian said, "we must by all means avoid the north, eh?" He ignored the quick frown that flitted over the Captain's face.

"As the General says."

"Besides, I'll be meeting with the King soon and then we'll all be headed home again. At the very least, you won't lose any more scouts."

Ennius shot Marcus a surprised look.

"You haven't told him?"

Another missing piece was about to drop into place, Julian thought. He didn't much like the XII Heraclea so far. Its officers were too secretive.

Marcus spoke briskly, as if giving a military report, looking at a spot somewhere over Julian's right shoulder.

"The Festival of the New Grass, the Thervingi call it. All the tribes gather here, worship their gods, make new laws, render justice, settle debts. Then they scatter for the summer."

"Fascinating," Julian said, sounding not at all fascinated.

"Today is the final day of the Festival, sir."

Julian cursed--a dockside curse, not becoming of a Roman noble. The men blanched in surprise.

"Get me to the king, First. Today."

He sounded as severe as he could, but he knew it was his fault. That week spent gambling in the bathhouses at Duros was suddenly a bitter memory.

He turned and walked away, fighting a sense of dread that gnawed at his gut. He told himself he'd been in tight spots before, he'd figure this one out, too. He was wrapped in dark thoughts as he reached the principium. The men who saw him whispered their new General had a fierce look to him.

He met more officers--the Legion's standard-bearer, its imagifer, who carried the image of the Emperor, the quartermaster, the chief of engineers, and so on. Every one of them had to give a report. Because he was standing in place, he was getting steadily colder and wondered if it were actually possible for blood to freeze inside a living body. At some point it all ended, but by then he was barely even pretending to pay attention.

When a soldier arrived to say that a delegation from the barbarians had arrived, Julian was prepared to promote him on the spot.

Add a Comment
5. Flogometer for Susan—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Susan sends a first chapter of Sophie's Sophistication, an erotic romance. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

It’s never good news when the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning - it usually wakes you to your worst nightmare. But sleep often eludes Sophie and she is still awake, sick with worry, when it suddenly rings.

“Is this Sophie Theron?” The authoritative voice sends a frisson of fear through her.

“Y-es, who’s this?”

“I am State Trooper John Donnelly, Ma’am. I am at the scene of a single vehicle crash on Ballard Road near NY211. Is your husband driving a 2006 silver Volvo station wagon?”

“No, I’m not... No, it’s Daddy’s...it’s my father’s car. What’s happened? Is my Dad okay?”

I knew something was wrong! He’s never gone this long, even when his meetings run late. He must be angry with me. I should have listened to him. I should have tried to call him. Oh why didn’t I call him?

Sophie’s ongoing conflict with her Dad sporadically erupts into hurtful words as it did this morning when she excitedly announced that she had quit the telemarketing job and found a position as an ‘associate’ in a local arts and crafts store. This time she hoped he might be happy for her because art was all she ever cared about. But he never supported her passion for it. He deemed it a dilatory hobby at best.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

This opening does begin to raise a good story question—is her father hurt or dead? But then it veers off into backstory and the momentum dies. At this moment we just don’t need to know about her ongoing conflict or what happened in the past. We want the now. For me, if the father’s accident impacts the story, I suggest starting at the point where Sophie arrives at the hospital and sees her father going into the operating room. Notes:

It’s never good news when the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning - it usually wakes you to your worst nightmare. But sleep often eludes Sophie and she is still awake, sick with worry, when it suddenly rings. The second-person opening offers an opinion about early-morning calls, but does it contribute to the story? It’s not what’s happening to the protagonist. Get to the story. Another point: this tells us that Sophie is sick with worry, but worry about what? This is another one of those dratted “information questions” that leave the reader not knowing what the heck is going on in the character’s experience.

“Is this Sophie Theron?” The authoritative voice sends a frisson of fear through her.

“Y-es, who’s this?”

“I am State Trooper John Donnelly, Ma’am. I am at the scene of a single vehicle crash on Ballard Road near NY211. Is your husband driving a 2006 silver Volvo station wagon?”

“No, I’m not... No, it’s Daddy’s...it’s my father’s car. What’s happened? Is my Dad okay?”

I knew something was wrong! He’s never gone this long, even when his meetings run late. He must be angry with me. I should have listened to him. I should have tried to call him. Oh why didn’t I call him?

Sophie’s ongoing conflict with her Dad sporadically erupts into hurtful words as it did this morning when she excitedly announced that she had quit the telemarketing job and found a position as an ‘associate’ in a local arts and crafts store. This time she hoped he might be happy for her because art was all she ever cared about. But he never supported her passion for it. He deemed it a dilatory hobby at best. And here we stop everything for backstory. It doesn’t matter now. Only the story of the moment does, at least in this narrative.

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 Susan

 

Continued

Her father’s wish was to have her complete a bookkeeping course, which he believed would be a means for her to support herself. She tried to stick it out but finally quit after the first miserable year. The subject was anathema to her - those columns of meaningless numbers numbed her brain. She lacked the exactitude inherent in basic arithmetic and was always making mistakes thus further diminishing her fragile self confidence. Since then she has been going from one meaningless, soul- sapping job to another, adding more strain to their already tense relationship. His last words to her as he left for work were:

“This position has nothing to do with art, Sophie. It’s just another minimum wage, dead-end job for losers.”

Now her worst nightmare unfolds to a background refrain of loser, loser, loser.

The State Trooper informs her that her father’s car slid out of control on one of those sinuous county roads now slick with relentless April showers. They are taking him to Orange Regional Medical Center.

Sophie arrives at the hospital only to catch a glimpse of her Dad as they rush him through on a gurney. Gregory Theron is unconscious and covered in blood. He looks lifeless. She looks like him - pale and limp with dread. Seeing her father this way is emetic and without warning waves of nausea are rising in her gullet as she tries to focus on the important information she is receiving.

“Your father’s condition is critical.”

Nnnngah

“We are trying to reach a surgeon,”

Nnnngah

“which may take a while.”

Nnnngah

“There is some paperwork for you to fill out.”

Nnnngah

Unable to stave off the nausea, Sophie desperately dashes into a washroom and throws up!

Back at triage she is bombarded with a litany of questions she has no answers to.

“Does your father have any medical conditions or allergies that we should be aware of?”

“Um...”

Does he?

“Can you tell us what meds he’s taking?”

“No...”

Does Dad take medication?

“Has your father had any surgeries?”

“I don’t think so...”

He’s never been sick.

“Does your father have insurance?”

“I’m not sure...”

Insurance?

At the age of twenty-five, Sophie should be able to answer these routine questions. Meds, operations, insurance; these were never topics of conversation between Sophie and her Dad - he shared very little with her. Now her head is spinning and she simply isn’t able to provide any helpful information. Her old companion Guilt, never very far away, is already on the scene, making her feel as worthless as ever.

“Miss Theron,” one of the nurses approaches and Sophie’s heart leaps to her throat. “Is there a family member I could call for you? It may be a while before we know anything. Perhaps someone could come and wait with you.”

Alas, Sophie has no one to call.

~~~

The next several hours are a surreal succession of harsh facts and fuzzy memories running through Sophie’s mind. The sickly glow of fluorescent lighting and the wretched environment of the emergency ward abets Sophie’s grim state of mind. She has a physical reaction to her surroundings, alternating hot and cold, her body covered in nervous perspiration, her olfactory memory making her nauseous once more. She associates this place with sadness; with the event that changed her world forever, from happy and safe to the cold and dreary place that she still inhabits. This place was the last place she saw her mother alive, a lifetime ago. Now that hospital smell churns her gut as it did when she was just a child.

The hours drag on and dawn breaks without any progress or indication of what will be next. Poor Sophie is paralyzed by anxiety, sitting stunned and silent for what seems an eternity, watching people come and go, immersed in their own dramas. Alone with her morbid thoughts, she presents the perfect tableau of misery in the succession of ignoble vignettes that unfold in the ER.

The sordid promiscuity she witnesses makes Sophie’s heart ache. It aches for the old man shuffling along the corridor, his hospital gown revealing flaccid buttocks. It aches for the young woman lying on a gurney in the public corridor quietly weeping, mindless that she is lewdly exposed. It aches for the dozing woman hunched over her prostrate husband’s feet at the foot of his gurney - he is the patient but she is the one in pain. Even in their semi-slumber Sophie sees that they try to reassure each other with a touch, a weak smile, a tuck of the blanket, each wanting to make the other more comfortable. She notices how his masculine, muscular calf is cradled in her upturned hand in a tenderly sensual aspect.

How do people find love like that? What will she do if she loses him?

Sophie can’t bear the poignancy of the thought and she finally sheds the tears she’s bravely withheld for lo these many hours. The tears are for her Dad, for the reclined lovers opposite her, and for herself, for being unworthy of that kind of love. A small child wails persistently somewhere beyond her vision - it may as well be her.

~~~

Sophie reclines half asleep on a chair when her cell phone startles her.

“Sophie; it’s Sage. I can’t get a hold of your Dad. He’s late for a meeting. He is never late. What’s wrong?”

“Dad’s been in an accident...we’re at the hospital...Oh Sage, I - I don’t know what to do...” Sophie’s words are supplanted by sobs.

“Sophie! What hospital?”

“Orange...sob...Regional...sob...Medical Center...sob.”

“Okay, I’ll be right there.”

It takes her no time at all to get there - nothing’s very far in Middletown, New York. Sage Hume, her Dad’s assistant, arrives shortly after 9:00. She finds Sophie sitting hunched on a vinyl bench, her arms wrapped around her chest, her right toe on her left instep in a posture evocative of her struggle to hold it all together. Sage is jolted by how Sophie seems to have regressed into that sad, fair haired little girl who Gregory always had in tow for lack of any other place to leave her. What a pretty child she would have been if not for her neglected, un-brushed hair, her sallow complexion and rumpled clothing that always smelled faintly of laundry. Little Sophie was a waif; her body conveying with every gesture that she was shy, insecure, and unworthy of love. Nothing has changed - she is a creature of infinite melancholy.

The day seems to have no end. Sage stays with Sophie and accompanies her to the recovery room when Gregory finally comes out of surgery.

“Don’t worry Sophie, your Dad’s going to pull through, he is so stubborn that he won’t hand over the Vision 2020 project to anyone. Come on, let’s go to the cafeteria to get a bite. It’s okay to leave him for a bit.”

When they return around five o’clock, there has been a change of shift and the new nurse tells them that Gregory is stable for now.

“He may drift in and out of consciousness so there’s no point in your staying. Go home, get some rest. I promise I’ll call you as soon as he wakes up or if his condition changes.”

~~~

Sophie sits alone in the dingy living room of the bungalow where she lives with her Dad. She’s concentrating on her sketchbook and referencing a well-thumbed copy of ‘Audubon’s Birds of America’. Her mind is obviously preoccupied because as per habit, she is twirling a strand of her ash-blond hair, which finds its way into her mouth and becomes wet with her saliva.

When there is a knock on the door, Sophie is yanked from her refuge back to the dreadful present in which her father is lying in the ICU on the precipice of life and death. She is so distracted that she recklessly opens the door without even asking who it might be.

A tall gentleman stands at the threshold - for surely he is that, given his elegant appearance and the soft-spoken manner in which he introduces himself - a gentleman with a serious, seriously handsome face.

“Hello Sophie. I am Alexander Cavenaugh. Your father and my mother were cousins.”

What?

And then to qualify his kinship to her Dad he adds, with a little tilt of his head and a tiny one-sided smile, “Once or twice removed, I believe.”

His luminous grey eyes focus on Sophie, searching her face for some acknowledgement, or possibly recognition but it’s apparent in her big blue eyes that she is blindsided by his presence.

Sophie is dumbfounded, oblivious of any family relations In fact her very persona bespeaks the fact that she has no one, other than her Dad, to belong to Now, in her fragile emotional state, her heart flutters at those twinkling eyes; that tiny smile; that expression of familiarity that connects her to this man somehow.

Alexander gazes at her and tenderly takes her hands into both of his.

“May I come in?”

This caring gesture, the feel of his warm hands enveloping her cold ones, resonates physically through Sophie.

I feel like I may swoon. Can this gorgeous man really have anything to do with me?

But before Sophie can gather her wits to reply, her cell phone starts rattling rudely on the coffee table and then rings out loudly like an alarm. She freezes.

“Oh my God!” She whispers under her breath.

Seeing the apprehension in her large blue eyes, Alexander Cavenaugh immediately responds to her panic. He eyes the phone and then takes her by the shoulders turning her sideways so he can squeeze past her in the tiny vestibule. He strides into the living room holding one of her hands, pulling her in tow and grabs the phone. Looking at the display he says,

“It’s the hospital - would you like me to answer it?”

Sophie looks pleadingly at him until she manages to find a voice; not her own voice, but some wobbly, breathless, little girl voice.

“Please...”

“Alexander Cavenaugh speaking.”

She is only vaguely aware of the one sided conversation, fascinated as she is by his presence. His eyes are fixed on hers,

“Yes she is...No, not at the moment...Yes, I’m his cousin...Will you tell me please?”

After a moment, she sees him blanch and his expression suddenly flattens.

“I see...Yes...I understand...Yes I will...Goodbye.”

Who is this man? Mr. Cavenaugh? Alexander? Alex? A savior? A God? God’s gift to women? To me?

Alexander grabs her shoulders again and forces her gaze to meet his, which is warm with empathy and sorrow - more emotion than he’s used to showing.

At once she knows her Dad is gone!

Holding her firmly by the arms, he quietly informs her that her father has succumbed to his injuries and passed away a few minutes ago.

Sophie’s heart races, thumping visibly in her chest and she clasps her hands over it as though its pounding were intolerable. She feels dizzy, unsteady on her feet, and her whole body trembles.

What’s happening to me? I have to get out! No, this is not happening! It can’t be! I just left him in the recovery room! In the RECOVERY room! No, it can...not...be!

She develops a grayish pallor; her breathing becomes shallower and shallower; her pupils are dilated; her eyes look panicked, darting here and there as if she’s seeking a means of escape from this reality. A fine film of sweat glistens on her brow. Sophie is in the throes of a full blown anxiety attack. The symptoms are classic and Alexander reacts by coaching her to control her breathing, smoothing her brow, quieting her as best he can with his hands and his voice.

“Deep breath in through your nose...now breathe out slowly through your mouth. There, like that. Good. Again. You’ll be okay. You’re okay...” As her breathing becomes more regular and reality is settling in she croaks a single word;

“Daddy...”

“Sophie, I’m so sorry.”

At his words the floodgates open. Tears are flowing down her cheeks as every sad, lonely, frustrating, devastating emotion she’s ever felt gushes out of her in great gasping sobs onto his broad chest.

He hugs her tight and murmurs gently as he strokes her head and rubs her back;

“Calm Sophie, it’s okay, I’m here for you.”

For me?

Sophie has never been physically handled as much in all her life as she has been by this man in just the last few minutes. Certainly not by her father, who is...was (!) a taciturn, undemonstrative parent; not by any man, ever. Alexander is hugging her. He leads her to the sofa and actually pulls her onto his lap! She is at sea - at a total loss as to how she should respond to this intimacy. I should probably get up and offer him tea or something.

But she can’t seem to move away, she needs so badly to be held like this.

How pitiful am I?

Alexander tells her to go ahead and cry, for if ever there was a time for unabashed tears, it is now. But when the sobs threaten to choke her, he starts to coo;

“Shh, shh, hush now. Calm Baby, shh,” he murmurs as he caresses her face.

Baby?

Sophie is a puddle in his arms. She cries and cries as he patiently holds her. Her head resting on his shoulder, she is enveloped by his arms and by his masculine, woodsy, intoxicating scent. It’s as though he had nothing more pressing to do than this. His fine linen shirt is now crumpled and damp with her tears but he sits back comfortably, incongruous with the ugly sofa in the tiny bungalow that he now dominates with his presence. He cradles Sophie in his arms as if she were indeed a baby.

Then he starts humming quietly, a melody that tugs a cord within her evoking a sense of contentedness. As he begins to sing she has a dream-like memory - her mother’s soothing voice singing these timeless lyrics:

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-lookin’

So hush little baby, don’t cry

Sophie releases a tremulous sigh, calming down enough to appreciate the mellifluous voice serenading her.

Wow! He sings beautifully! Who is this man? Where has he been all my life? How did he know to show up just now?

Then, seeing this scene through her mind’s eye - her sitting on his lap, her head nestled into his neck, Sophie is suddenly mortified! She wants to leap from his embrace and hide from embarrassment. As she moves to extricate herself, his hold on her loosens, but he doesn’t let go. Sophie doesn’t want him to let her go. She just wants to be held like this forever and even though she should be leery of this whole bizarre situation, it feels rather safe and strangely familiar. Overwhelmed by the emotions tearing at her heart, all she feels toward him is gratitude.

“Sophie,” he says her name as if he’s known her all her life. “Don’t be embarrassed, I am here to be with you, to help you through this. I promise I will take care of you, as your father asked me to. I’m happy to do it. Please don’t be afraid.”

Dad asked him here?

~~~

Alexander took charge from the moment her phone rang and they learned of her father’s death.

“Sophie, I don’t want to leave you alone tonight. You’ll stay at the hotel with me and we’ll go to the hospital together in the morning. Go and gather a few things that you’ll need.”

Even though under normal circumstances this would be a very strange thing to do, she doesn’t protest - she really doesn’t want to be alone.

The hotel is in Chester, a twenty minute drive from Middletown. Along the way, Alexander searches in vain for an open pharmacy.

“Ideally I’d have you take a tranquilizer to help you sleep tonight but since there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to get some, we’ll make do without. It’ll be fine, I’ll stay with you. You’ll be okay.” He sounds doubtful.

Even so, when they finally get into the suite, her exhaustion from the events of the last twenty four hours and his calming presence ease her into a fitful sleep.

~~~

The next morning they navigate the depressing corridors of the hospital, with Alexander holding her hand and taking charge of the arrangements for Gregory. No one has ever held her hand like this, not since she was a little girl being guided across dangerous intersections.

All the while that Alexander is tending to her affairs, and to her, he keeps fielding and making business calls. Sophie is tuned out to most of it, but as they pull into the parking lot of a pharmacy, her ears perk up at the call he makes. His tone is smooth and assertive, his voice perhaps a little deeper, more seductive.

“Juliette, I need you to do something for me.” He pauses to listen and then smiles, “No not that...I know...I know you would, but right now I just need you to call in a script to...” he glances at the sign on the building, “...Neighbor Pharmacy. In Middletown. Can you jot the number down?” He dictates the phone number off the sign and says; “Make it out for two milligrams of sublingual Ativan for a Miss Sophie Theron...No; it’s T-h-e-r-o-n...Yes...You’re the best, thank you Cherie...Yes I promise.”

The words he speaks are unremarkable and yet somehow the way he speaks them is suggestive of something else, something elusive to Sophie; something that makes her feel even more insecure, more self-conscious of her inexperience in the face of this flirtatious dialogue with the mysterious Juliette.

Once inside, Alexander introduces himself to the pharmacist. Having glanced at her name tag he addresses her by name,

“Hello Ms. Brooks, my name is Alexander Cavenaugh. You may be familiar with my company, World Wide Pharmaceuticals.”

“Oh, Mr. Cavenaugh I recognize you from your picture in last month’s ‘Pharmacy Today’. Congratulations on the opening of your free dispensing clinic! I hope other manufacturers will follow suit.”

“We’ll work on them.” He smiles at her genially but then becomes serious again. “You will be receiving a prescription momentarily from a Dr. Badour in New York City. I hope you can fill it as soon as it’s called in.”

The pharmacist is extremely accommodating, treating Alexander as if he were a celebrity. “Yes of course, Mr. Cavenaugh, I can get started right away if you tell me what you need.”

Who is this man? Why does he make me feel so woozy? And who is Juliette?

Somehow this exchange with the pharmacist and the earlier phone-call to Juliette make Sophie want to cry. Her emotions are in shambles, a mess of contradictions: anxiety for her dire situation and calm because he’s holding her hand; panic about the future and relief because he is taking charge; anguish over the loss of her Dad and elation over Alexander’s proximity - with the inevitable guilt that attaches to this last emotion. What a cruel twist of fate to have Alexander materialize in her world just as her father vanishes from it.

~~~

Sophie remembers her first painful pang of guilt clearly. When she was just a toddler, she had accidentally broken a treasured Meissen figurine that her mother sometimes let her play with if she promised to be a good girl. She loved that little goatherd with his hand resting lovingly on the neck of his little white goat. She can still remember the crushing sorrow she felt, understanding that it was gone forever and then the sudden, horrible realization that she was not a good girl.

After that, her mother was always cranky; always needed to rest; always leaving little Sophie to fend for herself, as if she didn’t love her anymore. And then one day her mother just disappeared from her life altogether. The hospital had swallowed her up. Little Sophie interpreted this absence as her punishment for having been a bad girl. From that moment on she has been riddled with guilt. Guilt for so many things: for not being a better daughter to her Dad; for dropping out of college; for being too shy to assert herself; for being stuck in a string of ‘McJobs’; but most of all for her wicked and unbridled penchant for masturbation.

When she was about eight years old Sophie started having desires that she really didn‘t understand. But she quickly discovered that if she created friction down there, where she throbbed, by frantically humping her busy fingers, she would begin to stiffen, and then explode somehow, in a euphoric burst of sensation, like when you strike a match to create the spark that ignites it.

For reasons beyond her eight year old comprehension, she was ashamed of this behavior. She didn’t want anyone to catch her in the act, to see her flushed cheeks, her eyes roll back and her whole body yield to the convulsions that this abrasion elicited. So she got into the habit of keeping to herself.

After a year or so of this frenetic behavior, she was mindlessly perfecting her technique one night, craving some relief from the unusual sharp cramps she’d been experiencing all day. After she ‘exploded’ Sophie discovered, to her horror, that her hand was covered with a red/brown sticky substance. In her naiveté she assumed that she had made herself bleed by rubbing and grinding so vigorously. She was shocked! And scared. Sadly, there was no one to prepare her at such a young age for the onset of menstruation. She had no one to turn to for an explanation.

Poor Sophie didn’t understand what she was doing, couldn’t articulate it. But in spite of the fear and guilt it engendered, it was compelling, addictive even. She became reclusive so that she could do it as often as she wanted to. Thus started her shame for soiling her panties all the time and her guilt for not being in control enough to stop.

She was a bad girl.

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6. An ebook primer

Ebooks have become ubiquitous to readers, and many of us utilize one or both of the dominant formats, .mobi (Kindle) and .epub (Nook, iBook, Kobo, etc.). As a part of my book design business, I create ebooks in both formats. To do so I happily stand on the shoulders of developers who designed abilities in the InDesign software I use to export those formats. Oh, there are things I need to do to the narrative to make it play nicely on ebook readers, but I think I’ve got that down.

But what, really, is an ebook? There are answers in What IS an ebook? David Kudler, an ebook designer who understands what’s under the hood. I thought it might be useful to you.

For what it's worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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7. Story questions versus information questions

In the last flogging I indicated a few "information questions" that, for me, were not good storytelling technique. My goal with readers is to raise "story questions."

So the writer of the piece rightfully asked for an explanation. Here is the material from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, on that subject:

Story questions are created and raised by what is happening in the NOW of the story and need to be strong enough to force a reader to read on. They are “what happens next” questions.

  • Will he get out of the trap?
  • Will she be shot by the killer?
  • Will the giant spider eat them?

An example:

When he grabbed Sheila’s throat, she bared her teeth, grabbed his shirt with one hand, and drew back her fist.

The story questions are: Will she hit him? Will he free himself? Will he hit her? What happens next? This is the kind of story question that keeps a reader reading. There's another valid story question that isn't what happens next but "why did that happen?"

Information questions are about something the reader can’t know. I have seen opening pages that had statements like this one:

Only Simone could have done what she did.

That would be okay if the narrative had let the reader know who Simone was and what she had done. Unfortunately, it hadn’t.

Here’s another example, an opening paragraph:

When they learn what has happened, the truth of it will own them. They will be completely overtaken by the raw reality of it. In that moment, everything else in the universe will become invisible to them.

In this case, the reader did not know who “they” was, nor what happened, nor the truth of it. The entire paragraph is fundamentally meaningless. Other examples:

  • Reference to an unknown creature that hasn’t been mentioned: Raising his weapon, he blasted the articulated bandersnatch. 
  • Reference to an organization that hasn‘t been mentioned: The president vowed to stop the attack by S.N.A.R.P.
  • Reference to an action that hasn’t been mentioned by a person who hasn’t been mentioned: Norman basked in the glow of his victory.

Withholding information from the reader to create a question does not increase tension, it can actually decrease tension and take a reader out of the story.

For what it's worth

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Jacob sends a first chapter of The Freerunners, a YA story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“I think you can take him.”

Those were the words that stuck with Toby as the bell rang to signal the final round. Balls of sweat were flowing unhindered from his opponent’s forehead, a scathing remark coming from behind the greasy grin, “You’re a dead man, skinny.” Toby didn’t smile back. He had no time for friends in the ring.

He launched a quick set of jabs the moment the referee came clear. A few connected, but did nothing more then annoy the beast that stood before him. Suddenly Toby was on the defensive, ducking on instinct as a vicious right hand hook nearly swept him off his feet. He glanced across at his brother watching from behind the ropes, lines of tension chiselled across his forehead. Toby knew what his brother was thinking, but it couldn’t possibly happen again. Yeah, maybe he was being a bit selfish, putting a lot at risk for a few bouts in the ring. But the treatment surely had work this time; the doctor was getting paid enough for it! He couldn’t help but feel like his father as he turned back to the match, his opponent baring oily gums in a weak attempt at a full smile.

They exchanged a few more shots at each other, with Toby darting around in circles and dishing out no more then two or three hits at a time. His opponent soon noticed the ploy, recognizing that the run and gun tactics would soon wear down his defences. He started closing (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

We begin with definite conflict in a real scene, a good thing. We can assume that Toby is in a boxing ring, but the opening could use just a little more setup. Where is the ring? A gym? An arena? Is there a crowd? Are there crowd noises, cheers, boos? The smell of sweat and blood?

While there is a risk of losing the fight, we don’t know what the stakes are, so the level of jeopardy is uncertain. Speaking of not knowing things, the third paragraph is packed with “information questions”—references to things we don’t know that are needed to understand what the references mean. More notes on that below. And then there’s the use of “then” where it should be “than,” and spelling errors. Bottom line, while the conflict is good, the storytelling and writing need work. I have no doubt that Jacob can get there, just keep in mind what readers need to get what’s happening. Notes:

“I think you can take him.”

Those were the words that stuck with Toby as the The bell rang to signal the final round. Balls of sweat were flowing flowed unhindered from his Toby’s opponent’s forehead, a scathing remark coming from behind the greasy grin,. “You’re a dead man, skinny.” Toby didn’t smile back. He had no time for friends in the ring.  The last line about friends in the ring didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The opponent is clearly not a friend. Did this refer to whoever said the first line? I cut the first line because it doesn’t contribute a lot to the opening since we don’t know who says it or what it refers to. Just not needed. And “greasy” grin? What makes it greasy?

He launched a quick set of jabs the moment the referee came clear. A few connected, but did nothing more then than annoy the beast that stood before him. Suddenly Toby was on the defensive, ducking on instinct as a vicious right hand hook nearly swept him off his feet. He glanced across at his brother watching from behind the ropes, lines of tension chiselled chiseled across his forehead. Toby knew what his brother was thinking, but it couldn’t possibly happen again. Yeah, maybe he was being a bit selfish, putting a lot at risk for a few bouts in the ring. But the treatment surely had work worked this time; the doctor was getting paid enough for it! He couldn’t help but feel like his father as he turned back to the match, his opponent baring oily gums in a weak attempt at a full smile. PLEASE don’t use “then” instead of “than!” I hate that goof, and I see it all the time. This paragraph has a few troubles: What is the “it” that couldn’t possibly happen again? If the reader doesn’t know what “it” refers to, then this line is meaningless. Same goes for the mysterious “treatment” referred to—what is it? What is it supposed to do? Does it have anything to do with the fight? What is he putting at risk? We don’t have a clue, so that means nothing.

These raise what I call “information questions.” Writers sometimes think withholding information needed to understand what’s going on creates tension, but they are not story questions, and only cause confusion. Lastly, what does he mean by feeling like his father? What did his father feel like? If we don’t know that, then this line doesn’t mean anything to the reader as well. It raises a third information question. For me, that’s three strikes: I don’t know what “it” refers to, I don’t have a clue as to what “the treatment” is or does, and I don’t know how his father felt about anything, much less about boxing.

And “oily” gums? Doesn’t he have a mouthpiece? How can we see gums? Why are they oily? How can he see “oil” versus “spit?” I know you’re trying to cast the opponent in a negative light, but this didn’t work for me.

They exchanged a few more shots at each other, with Toby darting around in circles and dishing out no more then than two or three hits at a time. His opponent soon noticed the ploy, recognizing that the run-and-gun tactics would soon wear down his defences defenses. He started closing (snip) Argh! Another “then” for “than.” Check your dictionary. The line about his opponent noticing the tactics is a break in point of view—Toby has no way of knowing what he has realized. Toby can think that has happened by noting the change in tactics, but he can’t know.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . in on Toby, forcing him to back up. Toby frowned. The plan he’d discussed at the timeout wasn’t going to work. He looked over at his brother again, who now stood beside their coach Ted. Toby was only greeted with stony silence and a pair of ‘I don’t know’ shoulder shrugs.

Toby heart quickened its pace, as his options were cut off and panic settled in. So far he’d managed to avoid being boxed in, an approach that masked his own lack of size and power. His opponent had 6 inches on him, with short but muscled arms. They rocketed about swift as a pair of daggers, but with enough strength to break down doors. Toby knew the fight could come to a close if he didn’t act quickly. He considered launching an all out desperation attack, but even as he pondered it he knew it would only delay the inevitable. He’d been on the back foot most of the fight, and due to his opponent’s speed and bulk he also hadn’t managed to land many worthy blows. “There must be something to work with here!” he muttered with clenched teeth. As his back eased into the ropes, he paused, calm sweeping over his limbs as his mind began to whir on another level. His sky-high boxing IQ and natural fighter instincts started to take a hold, coming to the realisation that at this point in the match, fatigue was starting to play on both of them. One good hit could end the show.

And then he saw it. He leant on the ropes behind him, testing their spring before pushing back with all his might. His opponent rushed forward, like a drunken bear on a terrifying rampage. Toby released, shooting outwards with his fist leading the way. An almighty thud quietened the arena. People in the background turned away from their conversations. Someone dropped a glass of wine. Toby opened his eyes, not realising he’d closed them.

Sprawled out on the floor was his defeated foe. Toby smiled. Sweet connection! A well-deserved cheer erupted from the small but hearty crowd, with Ted snatching the bell from a disgruntled referee and ringing it liberally. Toby sought out his brother though, and found him half hiding in the shadows. He smirked knowingly at him, and was returned with Noah’s own sly grin. This made Toby laugh.

Then it went black as he passed out.

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9. Flogometer for Jill—are you compelled to turn the page?

Program note: Flog a Pro happens today on Writer Unboxed instead of its usual third-Thursday appearance.


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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Jill sends a first chapter of Get Up Eight, a YA story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Rhino, never play with a bomb in the middle of the night on a muddy slope where you could tumble into a two-hundred-foot waterfall.

That’s what my mom would say. She’s an ER nurse and she loves to bring home tips: Rhino, never use a blowtorch to kill mosquitos. Rhino, never eat poison ivy.

Thanks, mom. But I’m a sixteen-year-old pariah who needs all the social capital he can get. So tonight I’m taking a risk. I already know the four possible outcomes:

One, it will turn out to be a tree stump and I’ll thank God no one was watching.

Two, it will be active and will blow something up—probably me.

Three, I’ll lose my balance and plunge to my death in Upper Crystal Falls.

Four, I’ll present it to the class and get the reward that will give me my life back.

Hold on—gotta get my boots. I’ve been trying to lower myself off the top bunk and grab my uniform in the dark without waking Tracker, who just flopped over for the third time in a minute. Tracker is my bunkmate and best friend and he thrashes around all night due to godawful dreams that make me want to jiggle his shoulder now and wake him up and tell him he’s okay. But then he’d want to come with me. I hunch by his bed, torn, then grab a blanket he kicked off and stretch and fuss to drape it back over him. Sleep well, Track. No potential dismemberment for you tonight.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I like the voice and the writing, all good, clear, strong. In thinking about the checklist, there’s a nice part of this that contributes to character engagement—where Rhino puts the blanket back over his sleeping friend. Makes him a caring human being. A simple touch, but effective. On the other hand, for me the paragraph about Tracker went on a little too long and started to slow the pace. I’d look for ways to trim it and keep the effective parts, which include the last line about potential dismemberment. No editorial notes, the writing is clean. Enjoy the rest of the chapter. Nice work, Jill, I wanted to read on.

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 Jill

 

Continued

Time to tiptoe toward the door, type the passcode and step between the two giant Sitka spruce trunks into the Glass Tower.

We’re at the Crystal Creek School of Benevolent Leadership, by the way, and I am now standing on the walkway outside the Boys Dorm. The Girls Dorm is straight across the atrium, there on the other side of the tower, behind the cedar trunks that mirror our spruces. Somewhere inside it is Sesh, the most famous, beautiful, depressed girl in the country, who probably hates me with the utmost hatred and would love to shatter my ribs with her awesome roundhouse kick—after she finishes ignoring me.

The Glass Tower is five stories tall and brochures say it “hovers like a glass rocketship” over the three hundred feet of rapids connecting Upper and Lower Crystal Falls, but given the school’s experimental nature, I see it more as a giant test tube.

Upper Crystal is shimmering dimly to my left, through the test tube’s curving back wall. Down to my right, I know Lower Crystal is tossing up mist where it pours from beneath the front deck, although it’s too dark to see that right now. Ahead and behind me, I can barely make out the cliffs hulking to the Glass Tower’s sides, anchoring it in midair with help from the dorms and the other cabins that jut from glass to rock.

The dorms are on the fourth floor so the tiny watchman at the front desk grows bigger as I hurry down flight after flight of shadowy, switchbacking, torch-lit stairs, my boots clicking lonesomely. He’s human sized by the time I stride through the lobby.

Two giant Douglas fir trunks rise on either side of the front doors, seventy feet from floor to ceiling, brown veins in the tower’s glass skin—except here in the lobby, where the skin is all pine. It’s the only non-glass part of the wall, a ten-foot high ring of warm golden wood. Maybe it’s supposed to remind people we’re in a national forest or maybe it’s better for hanging the old maps and photos and taxidermied skunks and stuff.

“I have to dig up a Mind Changer,” I say, stopping at the desk. “On the Scramble Wall.”

The watchman has a Frisbee face, poor guy, same as mine used to be until two years ago, when my chin finally grasped the concept of angles and I got a wide but legitimate V for the bottom of my Frisbee.

“It’s 4:37 a.m.,” he says.

“I’ll be digging very gently. It could take a while.”

The doors slide open and I hurry out, glancing at the weather map above the entrance as I go. There’s a sun. Whoa. A sun?

Then I’m crashing into a bulky gray uniform and a jackhammer-sized gun.

“Can you accompany this student on the westside trail?” the watchman calls to the guard who’s not supposed to be there—at least not according to the Keepers, who told us the regular guards at the front gate near the Columbia River and all along the park perimeter were all we needed to supplement the tower’s protective shield.

The guard answers him in a polite voice with no snickering about our crash, as if I’d said “Excuse me” instead of jumping a foot and screeching like a spooked chicken. Too bad Tracker wasn’t here to see that. He’s always joking about how jumpy I am. I know exactly what he’d say: “No dude, no. You're supposed to scream when you see the other side’s soldiers, not ours. C’mon back and let’s try it again.”

There’s actually two soldiers and they confer while I flex my shoulders and pound my chest and otherwise try to recover my manliness and my normal heart rate. Why are they here anyway? Maybe they got called in for Secession Week.

The first guard finally nods to me and I lead him across the deck to a narrow path carved into the cliff. It’s just wide enough for one-and-a-half normal people. Or one Keeper Sam.

“Are you guys here every night?” I ask as we single-file onto the trail.

“No sir. Just starting today.”

The “sir” feels weird. It reminds me of the outside world, where believers of all faiths send up prayers for us students, and even nonbelievers send up hopeful thoughts, and where the Glass Tower adorns T-shirts, screen locks, hats, even Ruler Morales’ tea mug.

They all have such high hopes for the school and its thirty Benevolent Trainees—all of us striving to become wise and honest and brave and dedicated enough to move up the training ladder and, eventually, into the Benevolent Ruler spotlight.

All except me, that is, because I came here for refuge, not a spotlight.

We pass beneath the Hall of Learning—one of the other cabin attachments—and waterfall mist starts closing around us like dust on a gravel road after a car drives past. I bend down and grab a rock flake from the path.

Now that I’m close to the Mind Changer, my stomach’s starting to flutter, like I’m a Real America refugee fleeing to Cascadia and hoping nothing goes wrong at the last minute.

Mind Changers only count when you’re right about what everyone else is thinking. You have to catch people thinking one way—then get them to think another.

Anything could be a Mind Changer — a picture, a personal story, even (cross our fingers) a tree stump. Really, they’re more like heart changers or lung changers because that’s where you first feel it: that little blank moment of shock when you realize you’ve seen something the wrong way. Used salt instead of sugar for the cookies. Shot the victim instead of the attacker.

The best Mind Changers win rewards, especially if they change a strongly held belief…or at least complicate it. Because letting go of a cherished assumption is one of the toughest things in life. Also one of the most important. So we have to practice being wrong.

The first reward went to Chelan, who got a weekend pass to visit her family after she told about Hoopla saving her uncle’s life during the North Korean war.

In case you’re reading this a thousand years from now on another planet, Brady Hoopla was the last president of the United States of America and current president of what’s left, aka Real America. Everyone in Cascadia hates him because of all the lies he told about Ruler Morales, who was actually President Morales before he lost the final U.S. election to Hoopla.

So Chelan’s story forced us to think something good about Hoopla. It was hard. Nobody liked it. But in Cascadia, truth beats bias. Most of the time.

Anyway, Mind Changers don’t have to shatter some big life philosophy. Michael always shows those pictures that look like one thing at first glance but like another thing if you look long enough and squint. They’re Mind Changers but low-level, so no reward.

At the Scramble Wall, the soldier stations himself at the bottom while I grab tough little trees and rocks and pull myself up to a small stump near the top. It’s all very wet. Real Doug firs look down from the edge above. Millions more stretch behind them into the Mt. Hood National Forest, a trim green beard covering the cheeks and chins of a million-acre face. At least that’s how it looked through the cold little window on my flight out from Colorado.

I can see the top of the giant hollow tree where Sesh and I were standing in my dream an hour ago. Her hair was blond like before Macy Falk. And she handed me a golden bullet as long as her finger and I touched her hand when I took it and that was like HOLY ULTRA TOUCH OF HEAVEN and then the bullet turned into a mirror and I looked in it and saw the brain.

It was huge, grub-colored and glistening, except for the black crust covering the lower left lobe like ants swarming a honey spill. Macy Falk’s brain. I’d know it anywhere.

The mirror exploded into a million pieces and I burst into the darkness gasping, like a drowning person yanked to safety, wild fears streaming from me like water.

It took me a while to realize it was just a nightmare and that I was actually in the Boys Dorm and that Tracker was down below having his own nightmares and that we desperately needed to move to a bunk that hadn’t been cursed by the Evil Dream Fairy of Blood and Death.

It took longer to realize I had dreamed up a Mind Changer: a bullet that turns into something else.

So here I am at the stump, the perfect handhold for students scrambling up to the forest. So well-used people no longer see it when they grab it—or notice how symmetrical, how bullet-shaped, its tip has become as their clawing wears away the crust disguising it.

The long horsetail of Upper Crystal hisses aggressively to my left and its icy mist gives me goosebumps on top of my goosebumps, plus a runny nose and that slightly distracting question of how many sniffs before I give up and wipe it with my sleeve. Today’s answer: two.

Planting my feet against an unstable clump of ferns, I use the rock flake to pierce the dirt. It’s probably only thirty seconds before I stick my freezing fingers under my armpits, shivering and blowing smoky, pep-talk breaths. I fall into a dig-dig-dig-armpits rhythm, gradually carving a hole around the stump as the sky lightens until I finally spot it — a black square on the wood.

I crane my neck and carefully clear the dirt above the tag and there it is: EC3.

Now I’m in our warmly lit kitchen back in Brookfield and my dad has just returned from the One Month War. Where he was a war hero, by the way. Yeah, the kind who gets a public ceremony and a hug from the mayor. Can you believe it? A cheering crowd just weeks before becoming the second most hated person in Cascadia.

Anyway, he’s unloading his duffel bag in the kitchen and out comes this mini-bomb with a black tag that says “EC3.” “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s just a souvenir. Cascadia cracked the code and deprogrammed all the EC3s before the war even started.”

Deprogrammed. Meaning ‘turned off.’ Meaning safe to touch, right?

I start digging again, still cautious, wondering why this is even here. Did a spy smuggle it in to destroy Ruler Morales during his war council here? That would be one way to get around the protective shield.

A distant beep announces breakfast. No watery seaweed souflee for you today, I tell my grumbling stomach. Mixed feelings on that loss.

As minutes pass with no Kaboom, I move faster. By now, I must look like the Mud Monster from Dream Killer 6. It’ll all be worth it though, assuming I can get Ruler Morales to come here and explain how my dad is actually a maximal guy with enough integrity and guts to take a crucial but lose-lose job he knew might destroy him.

I watch the speech as I dig, picturing every word, gesture, loud and soft spot, facial expression. I see my classmates all apologetic to me after Morales convinces them.

He even convinces me. It’s an all-around masterpiece of Mind Changing.

As usual, I ignore the voice that says ‘Gila brain! Keeper Sam will never approve it,’ although I do have a Plan B reward just in case: a month of special-order meals so I can grant everyone’s wish for their favorite food.

By the way, for my interplanetary listeners who are wondering what a Gila brain is, Gila virus (as in Gila monster, where it started) is this direly fatal disease that liquifies your brain and has killed millions, which is of course why we all now use it for casual name-calling.

The stump shifts beneath my fingers and I start waggling it out of the dirt.

If you have a Mind Changer, you have to go to the front of the Hall of Learning and present it first thing, before Meditation or Announcements or even the Pledge.

Mind changing is that important. Everyone knows the U.S. fell apart because Real Americans couldn’t admit when they were wrong. If a belief went bad, they just fought harder to believe it. They didn’t understand that fighting belief is like fighting air.

I pull the metal cylinder free and I’m scraping off some crust—not too much because I want everybody to recognize it as the stump—when I hear sticks snapping above and a massive, upright bear steps out of the trees until I realize it’s actually our headmaster, Keeper Sam.

Whoa. Unexpected. The guard below is just as surprised. He was all tensed for action, but now he lowers his gun barrel and snaps to attention.

Keeper Sam casually returns the salute and says, “At ease. Dismissed.”

“Yes sir,” says the soldier and heads back to the front deck.

The Keeper is not wearing the giant black martial arts uniform I’m so used to seeing on him. Instead he’s got an old camo jacket and pants and even a camo cap covering his bald head. When he aims his brown, square face at me, there’s just enough room beneath the cap brim to see his eyebrows raise. Then he smiles, like he’s known this was here all along, and booms out, “Nice work. How’d you find it?”

“Umm. I—” had a dream where Sesh and I were alone in a hollow tree and I “—just woke up and thought of it. Figured it might make a good Mind Changer.”

Up close, the Keeper’s face is so flat it’s like his thick, index-finger nose sucked up all the normal padding, leaving just a wide, thin mouth and big dark eyes. “You got a good reward in mind?” he says, then turns and plunges down the slope.

Yes! A reward! I stumble and slither down after the Keeper’s bobbing cap, clutching the EC3. By the time I’m back on the path, he’s way ahead, bounding up the back stairway to the Hall of Learning and disappearing through a door to the honk of a security beep.

I’ll have to get there through the front door, of course, so I turn back to the empty path. No, not empty. A person is rounding the curve up ahead.

Sesh. It’s Sesh. Coming towards me. The two of us alone together. This never happens. Well, okay, in my head it happens. Hundreds of times, actually. But this is real.

What should I do? A clever remark? An apology? A deep, meaningful look?

Gila brain. She hates you, remember? Just be casual. A simple “Hey.”

But Sesh is moving quickly, looking down until she’s almost on top of me. So my “Hey” is a frantic, last-second warning as I scrunch against the cliff.

She glances up and I see the sleek face; the dark, sleepless smudges beneath haunted blue eyes; the dried-blood-colored hair.

Then she brushes past, bumping me lightly—just enough to knock the Mind Changer from my grasp. She’s gone before my wildly grabbing hand accidentally knocks it further and sends it flying over the edge. It bounces once against a rocky outcrop and arcs high, high into the air, then turns sadly downward and plunges into the roiling water beneath the tower.

The Mind Changer rushes over Lower Crystal Falls, taking my vital organs with it, leaving my dropped jaw and unbelieving eyes on the cliff edge, staring at the empty water.

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10. Amazon refusing book reviews

Mastering front 100WshadowDid you know that Amazon denies reviewers the ability to post a book review? Has it happened to you? I had no idea that this happens, but apparently one of their famous logarithms will do just that. I learned this because someone tried repeatedly to post a 5-star review of Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling and couldn’t because Amazon decided it was a bogus review.

Amazon ratings mastering-2It's not like I need fake reviews for my book. To the left is the graphic from Amazon on the status of the reviews for Mastering the Craft, and they're all quite legitimate, not a friend among them. They are averaging 4.8 stars.

The first time her review was blocked, she called Amazon and talked to a representative who couldn’t understand why but seemed to get it posted. Then it disappeared.

The reader tried again, and was again denied although she has since been able to post a review for different book on Amazon. So it's not her.

I know all this because this reader is a design client of mine, Cristina White. Independently of our working relationship, she bought my book and thought it was pretty good. Her review is below. Ours is by no means anything other than a professional relationship. Yet her wish to express her professional thoughts about my book were denied.

She told me about all this and has now shared with me the review she tried to post. It’s below, and then I’ll tell you what I think caused this kerfuffle.

5 starsWRITE. READ THIS BOOK. REWRITE.

Ray Rhamey delivers a wealth of writing know-how and editing experience in this smart, funny book about crafting a compelling story. Ray’s style is direct, entertaining, and pragmatic. His chapters on wordcraft, including “Adverbs: Good? Bad? Yes.” And “Don’t get me started” are in themselves worth the price of the book. Ray shines a flashlight on all the verbiage you don’t need, and he covers the essentials you do need to write a novel or memoir that hooks your readers on page one and keeps them turning pages to the end. Whether you’re writing your first or your tenth book, you need Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

Front cover 200WThank you, Cristina, for the kind words. And I believe that it was my words in appreciation of the writing talent that she shows in her memoir, Sex and Soul, that banned her from posting a review. Yes, I think it was me posting this shout-out for her book on FtQ when she published it.

Keep in mind that my only involvement with Cristina was for book design, not editing. There was no quid pro quo for a positive review at either end. My views on her writing were my personal take. Is that illegitimate? I don’t think so.

If you know anyone at Amazon, please pass this along. I understand that they are trying to keep bogus reviews off their site, but they should know that legitimate reviews are also being denied.

Try a review?

If you have read Mastering the Craft and would care to try posting a review, let me know what happens.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Christina sends a first chapter of Eldara and the Kingdom of Light. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Ellie held her breath as she hid amongst the shadows. A nearby neon sign flickered on and off, splashing blotches of red onto the pavement and nearby dumpster. She tiptoed backwards as if trying to avoid a puddle of blood that was oozing toward her tattered shoes, while cursing the light under her breath.

How could I be so stupid, she thought, as she fumbled around in her pack for a knife.

She was smarter than this, and knew the streets well, which angered her even more that she allowed herself to be cornered.

Maybe they weren’t even following me, she rationalized.

Ellie decided she would wait a few more minutes just to be safe, but when nothing happened, she figured she had wasted enough time listening to the eerie hum of the Neon light. The tip of her toe slowly inched toward the intrusive red glow before she quickly pulled back, as echoing sounds of scuffing feet warned Ellie to remain hidden.

Three shadowed figures had appeared around the corner looking in her direction; she was not entirely certain that they could not see her but there was nowhere else for her to go. Not wanting to appear weak, Ellie held her knife out and prepared for whatever happened.

“She couldn’t have gone far,” whispered one of the figures.

“Why we wastin’ our time anyway,” said another. “I don’t think the little brat even (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

There are plenty of good things about this opening, including a sympathetic character in jeopardy and prepared to make a fight of it. The scene is set sufficiently for the scene to get started, and something is clearly happening. The voice is nice, and there’s a promise of a good story ahead.

But, for this reader, the narrative is on the overwritten side, including the use of a “filter,” which I’ll point out in the notes, but first I’ll rant on it a bit here first.

A filter I hate to see is what I call a “body part” filter wherein some portion of a person is given the role of doing something rather than the person. In this case, it’s this:

The tip of her toe slowly inched toward the intrusive red glow . . .

This focuses the reader’s mind’s eye on the toe of a shoe, but is that what the character’s experience is? Is the tip of a shoe what we should be experiencing? In my book (literally) the answer is no. Instead, give the action to the person:

She inched her foot toward the red glow . . .

Here you have a person doing something, and that’s what the reader will visualize, not the tip of a shoe.

I encourage Christina to focus on tightening the writing and dive deeper into the experience of the character. For example, missing here is some expression of how she feels in this situation. Is she afraid? When she prepares to fight, you could include showing fear, perhaps  like this:

Ellie swallowed hard and clenched her knife as she braced to fight for her life.

Some notes and edits:

Ellie held her breath as she hid amongst the shadows in the alley. A nearby neon sign flickered on and off, splashing blotches of red onto the pavement and nearby dumpster. She tiptoed backwards as if trying to avoid a puddle of blood that was oozing toward her tattered shoes, while cursing the light under her breath. There was an echo of “nearby,” a word that wasn’t necessary. I edited out the “on and off” because flickering is, by definition, something going on and off. I added the part about an alley because it felt like that was where we were but it wasn’t clear. And a person would be more likely to hide in an alley than out on a street or sidewalk.

How could I be so stupid, she thought, as she fumbled around in her pack for a knife. If you use internal monologue, there’s no need for italics and tags such as “she thought.” For example, this paragraph could be:

She fumbled in her pack for her knife. How could she be so stupid?

She was smarter than this, and knew the streets well, which angered her even more that she had allowed herself to be cornered.

Maybe they weren’t even following me, she rationalized thought. First, never explain dialogue with a tag such as “rationalized.” Second, just use internal monologue:

Maybe they weren’t even following her.

That’s all you need here, and the reader understands that it’s a rationalization, no need to tell us.

Ellie waited, decided she would wait a few more minutes just to be safe, but when nothing happened, she figured she had wasted enough time listening to the eerie hum of the Neon neon light. The tip of her toe slowly She inched her foot toward the intrusive red glow, then jerked before she quickly pulled back at the sound, as echoing sounds of scuffing feet warned Ellie to remain hiddenBTW, no need for "slowly" since inching is by definition a slow, cautious movement.

Three shadowed figures had appeared around the corner. They looked looking in her direction;, and she was not entirely certain that they could not see her but there was nowhere else for her to go. Not wanting to appear weak, Ellie held her knife out and prepared for whatever happened. “prepared for whatever happened” is on the vague side. Why not something more specific? Thoughtstarter as shown above: . . .

Ellie swallowed hard and clenched her knife as she braced to fight for her life.

“She couldn’t have gone far,” whispered one of the figures. Why the use of “figures” here? Are they something other than men? If men, then say men, it’s a clearer communication of what she sees and understands. Also avoids the echo of “figures” from an earlier paragraph.

“Why we wastin’ our time anyway,” said another. “I don’t think the little brat even (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . .  knows who or what she is, and besides, she looks half dead. I’ll bet she doesn’t last another week.”

“Well the other half is still alive so shut it or you’ll be next,” said the third. “You know what happens when orders are disobeyed. If Gor’dar heard you say that, we’d all be dead, so quit yappin’ and search the dumpster before I stick this knife into you instead!”

 Ellie’s head was spinning; she hardly had time to think about what these guys wanted with her let alone what kind of name Gor’dar was. She started to feel a strange sensation sweep over her, almost like déjà vu, though she did not see how that was even possible.

Her heart thudded against her thin frame as the men closed in on her hiding place.

This can’t be happening, not like this, not again. Though she was unsure what it all meant.

They were now feet away when a fourth figure appeared from behind them. He was much taller than the other three and looked like a giant in comparison. If Ellie had to guess she would say he looked to be over eight feet tall. She now wondered how she ever stood a chance against any of them when the giant pulled a long blade from his side and moved toward the three men. A growling deep voice made them turn in exasperation.

 He uttered only three words, but it was enough.

“I warned you.”

 Ellie could see their trembling hands as their knives clinked to the ground. It was the same fear that held her tight, and now they too knew what it was to be cornered with nowhere else to go.

The giant raised his blade showing no mercy as the three men dropped to their knees pleading for their lives. Ellie couldn’t bear to watch, but she heard the swish of his blade followed by three deadening thuds, and then the low hum of the neon light once more.

Ellie’s hand instinctively gripped the knife harder as she stood frozen in place. She could not see the giants face when she finally looked in his direction, but his silhouette was enough to frighten anyone. His broad shoulders indicated that whoever this man was, he was not only very tall, but muscular as well. He stood staring in her direction for a moment, his eyes gleaming back at her like those of a wild animal reflecting light.  There was no question about it, he knew she was there.

Panic swept over her like a wave of icy water as she wondered if this was that Gor’dar guy they were talking about.

Was this some kind of inner city gang? The streets were filled with them nowadays and it was a miracle she had survived as long as she had on her own, but Ellie could not figure out what a gang would want with her.

Her father had always taught her to keep her head down and out of trouble and that’s what she did, for the most part anyway. There were exceptions when it came to food and she had to resort to thievery, but Ellie was sure this was unrelated. There had to have been a mix up.

That was it, this was just a misunderstanding; she would just come out and tell this “Gor’dar” they had the wrong girl. Ellie closed her eyes and took a deep breath in and out, but just as she opened them and was about to speak, the tall figure had vanished. The giant-like man and the three bodies were gone.

Bewildered and fatigued, Ellie slid down the side of the dumpster. She hadn’t eaten anything of real substance in a very long time and it was starting to show. Those guys were right about one thing, she was skin and bones and on the brink of starvation.  

Ellie knew she needed to get up and move before whoever those people were decided to come back. She didn’t know if there were more following her, or if that giant of a man was friend or foe, but honestly, she didn’t care.

She was much too tired and hungry at the moment to process all that had happened, but as Ellie was struggling to stand, something grabbed her leg.

She reached for her knife once more, determined at least not to go down without a fight, though she knew there was not much fight in her at the moment. Her knees buckled, and down she went, seeing the pavement before blacking out…

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


William sends a first chapter of No Moon Rising . The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

I do not understand how the nurturer became the punisher or how the stain of history burned the soul of human kind. The desolation is a vengeance, a barren, frozen place, a limitless windswept expanse of black, white, and gray. It is ruthless beauty, merciless, an unlivable wasteland extending to the plains where the wreckage of civilization is everywhere. Storms leave snow-whipped drifts looking like the soft flowing lines of draped silk, then rip them from the frozen base exposing the ragged earth below. A stabbing cold dances across my skin like a thousand prickling needles. Wind rattles the massive steel gate behind me before skating away to mountain peaks towering above. Clouds race eastward, a low jet stream of grey vapor traveling close to the ground. It is a magnificent view but within me there is heartache, an ancient yearning to once again live on the land and sit under shadows of moonlight that I have never seen and most likely never will. It is a world reeling in madness.

In the basin far below me, four black dots are slowly making their way up the slope following a path known only to a few. We could easily let them die on the frozen tundra, but within their company is the one thing we need the most. I wait as the heavy gate squeals shut leaving me alone on the steep hillside. They are still far below searching for the very entrance I am standing at. For more than a sleep cycle we have watched these trekkers traverse the valley. They are tenacious and persistent. They disappear in a vast windblown burst of snow that crashes (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I do not understand the opening sentences. We begin musing about mankind and a burned soul. Then comes “The desolation” which would seem to refer to the burned soul, but it doesn’t. If you read on through a number of sentences, you come to understand that he’s looking out on a winter scene. I had to work too hard to get that.

For this reader, the opening sags with overwriting. How important is it to the story that we have all that description—all that “telling”—about the scenery and the nature of the wind, the way the clouds race, and etc.

There is a hint of a story question—what is it that the anonymous “we” needs. The trouble is that “we” is anonymous, a collective pronoun that we don’t have a reference for. We don’t know what things mean to the narrator/watcher. What the stakes are to either the “we” or to him/her. For me, this narrative and the narrator are cold and distant. I don’t feel engaged with the narrator, and not much happens—he/she watches and muses. Notes:

I do not understand how the nurturer became the punisher or how the stain of history burned the soul of human kind. The desolation is a vengeance, a barren, frozen place, a limitless windswept expanse of black, white, and gray. It is ruthless beauty, merciless, an unlivable wasteland extending to the plains where the wreckage of civilization is everywhere. Storms leave snow-whipped drifts looking like the soft flowing lines of draped silk, then rip them from the frozen base exposing the ragged earth below. A stabbing cold dances across my skin like a thousand prickling needles. Wind rattles the massive steel gate behind me before skating away to mountain peaks towering above. The frozen tundra is ruthless beauty, merciless, an unlivable wasteland extending to the plains where the wreckage of civilization is everywhere. Clouds race eastward, a low jet stream of grey vapor traveling close to the ground. It is a magnificent view but within me there is heartache, an ancient yearning to once again live on the land and sit under shadows of moonlight that I have never seen and most likely never will. It is a world reeling in madness. I offer this edit as a briefer opening that tries to capture the mood and set the scene quickly. The mention of the wreckage of civilization helps raise story questions.

In the basin far below me, four black dots are slowly making make their way up the slope following a path known only to a few. We could easily let them die on the frozen tundra, but within their company is the one thing we need the most. I wait as the heavy gate squeals shut, leaving me alone on the steep hillside. They are still far below searching for the very entrance I am standing at. For more than a sleep cycle we have watched these trekkers traverse the valley. They are tenacious and persistent. They disappear in a vast windblown burst of snow that crashes (snip) These elements are good story elements. Part of what is missing is the narrator. Does he/she have any emotional response to the struggle and persistence of the people below? As you will see, we soon slip into backstory/exposition. The ending parts of the chapter finally bring out strong story questions, but the question is, will readers make it there? An interesting world, for sure, but I would like to see crisper, quicker writing to keep the story moving.

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 William

 

Continued:

. . . against the mountainside and soars into the air like a massive ocean swell upon a rocky shore. The changing wind is warning of a severe storm on the horizon. I am their last hope; no one survives such monstrosity.

In the belly of this mountain are the quarters we call the Community, where I have lived my entire life. The scientific work once done here has long been forgotten, along with the mission, its founders, and their good intentions. We live deep within the earth, safe from the environment and our enemies, who are numerous. The mountain towers over a lifeless valley formed by smooth hills, like a woman lying on her side, extending into the distance. After the Change these mountains became a destination to escape lunacy. Now it is rare to see anyone and even rarer that they come this close. But there are still those who are looking for some utopia or Shangri-La. These fools become the walking dead, lost in whiteouts and false directions gained by rumor, ransom, or murder. It is better for the Community that they die out there. They come only to save themselves from treachery. There are a few who have gifts, something to offer, and to those we open our doors. I will ask these trekkers three questions. Their answers will either save them or kill them. I am the gatekeeper.

 I step out into the open and immediately they head towards my position. To have made it this far up the valley is something they will have to account for.
They appear to be guided. Most likely, they are starved and exhausted. The fact that they are still alive speaks well of their efforts but they will arrive begging for their lives. I have seen it many times. If I shut them out, it is a death sentence, even though they have committed no crime. The real crime was committed generations ago.

They march towards me, dark eyes peering out from fur-frosted hoods zipped to poly-fiber coats. They are not dressed for this kind of extreme environment. One is male, straining under the weight of a heavy backpack, his arm bent inward, perhaps to protect frost bitten fingers. I’d give him another day, perhaps two, before he is just another piece of the frozen landscape. The other is female with a package strapped to her back; two children solemnly trudge between them. The fact that young ones traveling in such treachery are still alive is an anomaly that contradicts the laws of survival. They are the very ones our community desperately needs. This family has taken a gamble they should not have considered. Most likely they are good people. It’s not their fault that they are here; no one should be here. It is a version of history not thought possible even a generation ago. It is the legacy of those who held the future in contempt and made decisions based on self-indulgence and false beliefs. We are the last era of a history that will never be written. I could not hate my ancestors more.

I can feel their sad hopefulness as they stand before me. The wind dies momentarily, creating an unusual calm. Heavy breathing and the creak of boots on dry snow break the silence. The female has piercing blue eyes and she smiles to release the tension. Words are frozen to her lips. There is a small sound from the package on her back. I am stunned that she is carrying a baby and she sways to sooth its discomfort. They have risked too much.

 It is the child who speaks first. “Are you a robot?” She asks. Her question is tinged with innocence and curiosity. She is not afraid.

“Shush,” the female takes the little girl’s hand and looks at me. “You are a real person, aren’t you?” She steps forward as the leader, still trying to catch her breath.

 “I am human,” I answer, although I could be easily be mistaken for a droid. My helmet has a darkened visor that projects information onto a virtual screen. Although it is old technology, it has already captured the tone and cadence of the female’s voice which will help assess her truthfulness. It also tells me she is on the end cusp of child bearing age, a strike against her. I am wearing bulky clothing which gives no clue to my shape except that I am large. I am wearing two different gloves. One is a weapon, the other is as thin as silk, and gives heat to each finger perfectly. I removed it from a body frozen solid into the tundra ice except for one hand, which was still soft and flesh colored within the glove. With my visor raised they can see part of my face, I am quite human.

The female kneels, puts both hands on her head and says, “By your grace.” The others follow her lead. Her head is slightly bowed. It is a strange gesture that I do not understand.

“If you are carrying weapons it is best you lay them down now,” I tell them ignoring her overture. I offer no welcoming introduction, no greeting, and no pity.

The female shakes her head. “No weapons,” she says. They are being scanned as I speak. If it is a lie, the interview is over and they are as good as dead. She stands and takes a small object from her pocket. It is a laser guidance pen that gives instant distance calculation. I have never seen one like this but my visor tells me it is harmless. The interview can begin.

“How did you find us?” That is question one. She gives me a paper with a map drawn on it. She says she found it on a dead body. I take the paper and scan it. There is no way they found us with this map. I hand the lie back to her. They are already slipping. She notices my impatience.

Question two. “Your point of origin?” I address the question to the male, who is silent. She explains that his mouth is frozen and has been this way for a long time. I have seen it in others. She speaks for him spinning a story about a community two hundred miles from here where his job was teaching children how to read. She rattles on as the wind begins to roar in the background but I cut her off before she can explain other details. Time is short, the storm is now quickly gathering. There is no colony two hundred miles from here. I raise my visor and look him over. He is worthless, and most of their answers are lies. The female can see it in my eyes right away. She is most likely the reason they are not dead. She is different but that is not a quality that gains admission.

  Question three. “What is your offering?” Almost everyone spins a tale of great accomplishment or their importance in a history already dead. The female lowers her head and says she home schooled the kids and grew a garden. She notices my eyes perk but it’s not because of what she can do; it’s because she’s finally telling the truth. I doubt that the kids are hers biologically, and her skills are of minimal use, but I ask a follow up about hydro-preservation anyway. Of course, she says, as she shifts the baby, whether to give or take warmth is unknown. It is old technology, she explains. She thinks this might be important but it isn’t. It is useless to go on. There is nothing to gain by admitting the adults.

“We will take the children,” I say. There is no emotion in my voice. “The Community will raise them properly. They will live a productive life.” It is my only consolation and the only reason we have let them come this close.

A look of horror spreads across the female’s face. Words are stuck to her lips. The children clutch at her legs unwilling to let go. We could just kill the parents but the environment will do it for us. The parents will use their bodies to protect the children from the storm, and if the young ones are healthy they will survive. The parents will freeze to death. I have seen it before. They are a freak of nature to have come this far, but there is nothing else to talk about. We do not need extra mouths to feed. I turn to re-enter the gate, they have ten steps to make up their minds.

The female immediately understands what is happening and runs after me. A wind burst comes roaring down the mountain and blows her to her knees. “Wait,” she screams. Her voice is a guttural sound rising above the howl of the wind. “There is something else.” We call it the plea, or the supplication.

“What else?” I ask. I am only interested in something that will make a difference to our community, something beyond the lies and the smoke screen they are hiding behind. Her life depends on her next sentence. There is another burst of wind. The storm is visible on the horizon and gaining speed, pushed up the valley by the indifferent force of an unforgiving nature. The barren land before us is proof that nothing survives them. She does not break eye contact. I can see that she understands what is coming.

“Please…wait,” It is a voice that does not demand but asks. She reaches for a lift out of the snow. As I pull her up by the hand an exquisite lavender light envelopes my thin silk glove. There is a mild tingling sensation. My hand jerks upward reflexively, as if I was pricked, and she falls backwards. My visor is now useless. An alarm within my suit has gone off, broadcasting an alert to the Community. I can hear the lock on the cold steel gate bolt shut behind me. Although I am not hurt in any way, her action is hostile. I raise my weapon.

“Stop,” she begs from her knees, “let me show you.” She quickly sheds her coat, unbuttons her shirt and holds it open revealing the silver threaded cloth that exquisitely outlines her body. “I am wearing cellular thermals.” she says. Slowly she takes my hand and puts it on her chest. A low lavender glow radiates from the contact between my thin glove and her thermals. As we stare at each other she reads my reaction of surprise and anger. There is a strange thumping in my ears, a heartbeat that is not mine. I slowly pull my hand back. Once again she puts her hands on her head, the family watches in silence. The storm has already overcome the lower valley and is quickly moving towards us. It is a searing mass of snow pushed by winds that can rip flesh off bone.

“By your grace,” she repeats calmly. “Forgive my uncalled for actions. I am taking a risk that you will see something of benefit. We are pleading for entrance.”

Her head is turned down, her voice full of repentance. She has fully answered question three. I have been disrespected by her hostile action, but the value of what she wears cannot be ignored. It partially explains how they have survived. Cellular thermals were an experiment, developed for space exploration. No one has them, least of all a family like this. I signal for the steel gate to open and hurry them into the stone tunnel it protects. The storm has become a tidal wave of white and grey boiling snow spreading its ghostly body across an already barren land. The gate shuts as the first wave strikes. The impact of the wind against the steel makes a shuddering sound that echoes off the arched stone walls of the passageway. What is happening outside is unimaginable. The children are glued to her legs, the male stands slightly to the rear. Their trust in her is complete. They have lived another day.

Entrance is not acceptance; it is not even a maybe. It will be several sleep cycles before we determine whether they will be returned to the desolation. Even an exceptional family like this would eventually starve or freeze to death. I am not happy about the arrangement, but it is the job of gatekeeper. There are agreed upon protocols. Without these, there would be chaos in our community. I think the female is weeping as the family pass into the tunnel. Her hands are clasped as if in prayer; she is thanking me almost on bended knee. Their ignorance gives them hope. If it were any other point in history they would be cursing me. They should be cursing me. I am cursing me.

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13. A formatting primer

I received submissions formatted every whichaway, and that's okay. Writers should use whatever formatting--font, spacing, page size, whatever--they like best for working onscreen. But when it comes to submitting to agents and publishers, they have certain expectations, if not requirements.

One of the things they frequently require is 12-point type, and a serif font is generally preferred. A serif font is like the one on this page. Sans serif is like the Ariel font that is so common, like this.

I recommend using Times New Roman, although there are many others that are acceptable. The simple reason why is that it is a narrow font, designed for narrow newspaper columns, and that means you'll get more of your precious words on a page. If an agent only gives a page or two a scan before accepting or rejecting, it's a plus to have as much narrative on those pages as possible.

In Word 2010, the one I use, there's a "ribbon" at the top with tabs. In the Home tab you can set the font for your document. The dialogue box should look like this:

Word ribbon-font

Paragraphs and spacing:

Double spacing between lines is the standard for editors and agents. Other industry expectations include a 1/2-inch indentation for the first line of each paragraph. That can be done with the tab key, but it's better to build it in to your paragraph format, and that reduces the number of key strokes. When I design a book one of the first things I often have to do is remove all the tabs. I should include that the standard page size is "letter," in the US that's 8.5" x 11".

I see a lot of writers who use no paragraph indents and put extra spaces between paragraphs as well. While that's typical formatting for email text and web pages, it's not best practice for manuscript submission. Indented paragraphs with no extra space between is the standard.

To set your paragraph style, click on the little arrow in the paragraph section in the Home tab:

Word ribbon

You'll get a dialogue box. Here are the settings for manuscript formatting.

Paragraph dialogue box

Now all you have to do is write a hulluva story.

For what it's worth,

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Emily sends a first chapter of Serenity, a dystopian story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

T h e  F a M i l y

Las Vegas, 2037

Politicians voted to open the first Red Light District, later referred to as the Glass District. This was the Families’ dream come true. As more and more cities capitalized on the concept, the Family branch known as the Syndicate took advantage of the system and opened the first Museum to entice wealthier clients. Stocks soared overnight, but the beast had only begun to salivate. Recruiters soon swept into schools, into malls, into neighborhoods in order to monopolize the most successful corporate-driven commodity of all time: girls.

S e r e n I t y 

I felt colder than the first time my father took me to the Glass District.

“Serenity, you must open your eyes,” he’d told me as another plump drop of rain bit my cheek, feeling more like a speck of gravel. I wiped it away, but more took its place.

I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the girls in the glass cages, half-starved, clothed in rags, kneeling prostrate. But I’d started to bleed, and my mother spoke to me about what happens to girls when they ‘grow up’. So, my father decided it was time to show me the world outside all the hotels and empty, abandoned manors where we’d lived a throughout the years. He said I needed to see it for myself. Even if I understood why they kept me hidden from (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

For the most part, the writing is strong and the voice likeable, so far so good. Things started to get interesting for me when we learned about the girls in the glass cages. If it were me, I would ditch the “FaMily” opening setup chunk and start with the real scene. The opening page has two goals: engagement with a character and creating intrigue as you see recommended in my checklist (see Donald Maass’s recent post on Writer Unboxed). This paragraph may contribute to intrigue, but it’s divorced from a character.

The SerenIty scene needs to be set and its relationship to the flashback made clear. The flashback does imply jeopardy for the narrator, and that’s good. However, when we get out of the flashback the narrative isn’t totally clear as to what’s going on in the now of the story and its relationship to the flashback, and then we slip into another flashback to deliver more backstory. The elements are good, but they put off the moment the story takes off. Even then, considering what’s happening in the now of the story (immortality treatments), it’s not clear to me what the problem is for the narrator. I guess that follows, but I think it should be on the first page, not the second chapter.

As it is, the ending of the chapter, which would otherwise be suspenseful and a page-turner, it isn't because we know from what goes before that she seems okay, receiving immortality treatments. Notes:

T h e  F a M i l y

Las Vegas, 2037

Politicians voted to open the first Red Light District, later referred to as the Glass District. This was the Families’ dream come true. As more and more cities capitalized on the concept, the Family branch known as the Syndicate took advantage of the system and opened the first Museum to entice wealthier clients. Stocks soared overnight, but the beast had only begun to salivate. Recruiters soon swept into schools, into malls, into neighborhoods in order to monopolize the most successful corporate-driven commodity of all time: girls. while chilling, it’s still an info dump. Try to weave this into the story after you engage me with the character. Check out the opening pages of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” so see how involvement with the character comes first and then the unique nature of the world is woven in. A handy tool is the Kindle store on Amazon where you can read the opening online for free.

S e r e n I t y 

I felt colder than the first time my father took me to the Glass District. Need to set the scene here. While the tense does change in the next paragraph, it’s not an obvious change, and the scene shifts to wherever she is as she thinks this—and that lacks a transition to keep the flashback and the now of the story separate.

“Serenity, you must open your eyes,” he’d told me as another plump drop of rain bit my cheek, feeling more like a speck of gravel. I wiped it away, but more took its place. The contradictory imagery took me out of the story—I don’t understand why a “plump drop” of rain can bite, why it would feel like gravel. If there’s a skin-condition reason, include that so it makes sense.

I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the girls in the glass cages, half-starved, clothed in rags, kneeling prostrate. But I’d started to bleed, and my mother spoke to me about what happens to girls when they ‘grow up’. So, my father decided it was time to show me the world outside all the hotels and empty, abandoned manors where we’d lived a throughout the years. He said I needed to see it for myself. Even if I understood why they kept me hidden from (snip) In looking at the definition of “prostrate,” I’m not sure I buy the idea of “kneeling prostrate” as prostrate mostly has to do with being stretched out with face on the ground. I don’t usually like flashbacks, but this is gripping material and, if it supports what’s happening in the now, then use it. But, as with the aforementioned "Hunger Games" and "Divergent," I'd rather be engaged with the character in the now of the story.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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 Emily

 

Continued:

. . . the world, why I couldn’t attend school or meet others my age, why I couldn’t go anywhere without Skylar, it was different seeing it first-hand.

When I saw a girl up close, I retched right there on the sidewalk just before my skin turned raw. Just like it did now.

 Despite my skin that screamed from the needles boring into my arms, my paralyzed body left me no chance to fight. Instead, I crawled through webs of mental fluff threatening to send me back underneath this disinfectant Wonderland. Somewhere inside the chink of fluff, I was aware of several things at once...

Voices.

“She’s coming to.”

They sounded suppressed. Like cotton candy suffocated vocal chords. 

“Not for long.” 

I teetered just on the edge of the rabbit hole. Naked, all I could do was observe from the gap in the fabric armor across my mind while nurses in blanched, sterilized outfits hovered over me. The image of a glass cage flickered in and out of my mind like a whimpering candle flame, and a fog-like fear engulfed me.

Not the Glass District.

Another needle gave birth to a tear that rolled out of its eye bed and tumbled down the floor of my cheek as I considered another option. Then, I caught the telltale hum of the machine beneath me just before a glow of lights above me began to move. With purpose, they flowed across my entire body, their warmth rippling across my skin like golden waves. And then I understood. This was part of the Immortal Treatment.

These sort of treatments were reserved for only one type of candidate: I was Museum worthy. So it finally happened. I would become more than long skirts covering my ankles and sleeves loose as rivers. More than white skin that sunlight never so much as tickled. Maybe flower petals and vines crawling over my skin like a spider web. Maybe feathers strung together like chords of music on my body. How much had they done to me already? Detoxified my body? Smoothed all its lines? Intensified my natural hair color? Promoted collagen growth?

Fuzziness overwhelmed me again, and I sunk, became a shipwreck in depth and darkness before one last option impregnated my thoughts: The Temple.

Not the Temple.

Not the Temple.

Not the Temple.

No, I would never become like my mother.

Just before the hospital, just before the hotel hallway, Sky and I talked about our mother…

He’d towered over me even more than usual with his six foot five stance after I’d flopped down on the bed, hiking up one of the many long skirts I wore that covered my curves. Curves in all the right places according to my brother but in reality ‒ curves in all the wrong places. Curves that could never see the light of day.

I leaned back on my hands and glanced out the window, watching the sunlight turn my silvery hair to shimmery latticework, warming one side of my body all the way to my hips. “Shouldn’t Mom and Dad be back by now?” I asked my brother.

Sky grunted, and the muscles in his neck tensed as he responded, “Typical.”

Long ago, I’d memorized this familiar body language that he only played when we talked about our parents. He didn’t act much different when they were home either. I excused it as some late adolescence.

“Where do you think we’ll go tomorrow?” I wondered just as Sky braced his arm against the wall next to the window, muscles along that arm not bothering to hide. The sun welcomed him, sewing its rays into his tan skin. We were polar opposites that way. I took after Mom − more, petite magnolia tree limbs, birch-white skin, fairy white curls.

“Who knows with Kerrick and Serafina?”

I bit my lower lip, considering whether or not to ask him for the umpteenth time why he called them that. Instead, I groaned when he pulled the drapes, and my hair returned to the color of dull lace. I was cold again.

“I wasn’t done looking at the city,” I complained and threw out the suggestion, “Why don’t you go flirt with the front desk girl? Bet if you just show her one of your sugar-coated smiles, she’ll upgrade us to a higher room.”

“No higher rooms, Serenity,” warned Sky before cocking his head to me while a ringlet of his hair, a lighter shade of his eyes, coddled his cheekbone. “You know the rules. We don’t attract attention. You need to stay out of line of sight.”

Always out of line of sight.

Always moving. It was a constant process. Most of the time, I never complained. With the Temple never giving up its search for my mother and I, discretion wasn’t just advised; it was required. My parents always smuggled me in when it was busiest. By day, we worried about recruiters. By night, we worried about smugglers. For some reason, my parents never bothered to just leave Sky and I holed up in one of their country cabins or seaside condos even though they were so paranoid about my safety. It made more sense to me since those places were much more isolated than venturing into the cities. If my mother wanted to hide from the Temple Director so much, then why did she and my father always return to the Capital? Why bring me with them? They always wanted me close, but their secrets kept me at arm’s length while Sky wore me closer than the hairs on his arms. Except for the past couple of years, he seemed to wear me closer but looked past me like I was a stranger.

We were like paper flowers in the attic. With no sunlight to help us grow, we held on to each other for warmth as cold dust blanketed us. Maybe we were more intense than most siblings, but our lives were always tethered up in nothing but each other.

“Maybe...” I bit down on my lower lip, suddenly a little serious as I considered whether or not to add the last part, but my words catapulted before I could catch them, “maybe we’ll be near a Museum.” My thoughts were like water balloons. The slightest thing could make them pop. No way to hold them together or prevent them from spilling their words. 

Sky groaned and fell back on the bed like we’d gone over this a hundred times already, which was accurate. He folded his hands behind his head while I eased onto my belly to face him. “Again with the Museum! Museums are just as bad as the Temple, Ser.”

“But parents groom their daughters specifically for Museums. More girls would rather go to a Museum these days than become actresses.”

Sky rubbed his eyes and repeated the same words to me that he always had. “I won’t deny the Museums are nicer than the Glass Districts or Carousel Blocks or most of the levels of the Temple. Thousands of orphan girls tend to go to the District because they’re cheap, but Museum girls still aren’t what you think they are. They are designed to look and act that way, some from birth. All those exhibits are is an act. You should know that better than anyone.”

Because of Mom.

Sky understood I needed the reminder, so he didn’t pay me any mind when I turned onto my side and reached for the nightstand drawer to withdraw the photograph inside. It was the one picture my mother had from her time in the Temple. Except this wasn’t my mother. This was the Unicorn. With her face as serene as a snowflake on glass and body composed like a pool pausing just before a pebble disturbs its surface, my mother was all white beauty. Hair straightened and decorated to resemble a mane, true silver flecks on her painted white cheeks, diamond bridle around her neck, and the crowning horn stamped in the middle of her forehead – all of it echoed a lost time. A time when my mother became a ghost to the Unicorn.

Just like girls became something else in the Museums whether the Rose in the Garden Museum or the Peacock in the Menagerie or the Gazelle in the Safari Museum. The possibilities were endless.

Sensing Sky’s presence hovering over me, I peeked back to see him eye the photograph and press his full lips together so much they looked starved. Something he did when he was angry. So I slipped the photograph back inside the drawer again, watched as he settled some.

I wrung my hands together as another balloon inside my head popped. “What if I were ever−”

Every one of Sky’s muscles went rigid, veins almost leaping off his skin. “I won’t let that happen, Ser.”

“Play devil’s advocate with me, Sky. What if?”

Heaving a sigh, Sky lowered himself to the bed next to me and nudged my shoulder, encouraging me, “If you were to go to a Museum, Serenity, then God help them. Because if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s this: you are the polar opposite of your namesake.”

I tossed my head back with a chuckle. “Can’t argue with that,” I agreed just before chucking a pillow in his face and scrambling off the bed as he retaliated.

Sky used to let me win, but when I complained it wasn’t challenging enough, he stopped a couple years ago. Since then, I’d had plenty of practice. Sure, I took a cheap shot now and then, but girls get to use whatever advantage they have. So, when I beamed Sky for the third time in the head, he threw up his hands in surrender, pillow tumbling to the floor.

“You give, Skylar Lace?” I addressed him, my pillow primed and ready if he tried a sneak attack.

“I give, your pillow-ship.” 

I tossed my pillow onto the bed and gave him a mock bow before walking across the room to grab a glass. Suppressing a groan at the empty ice bucket, I set the glass back down and picked up the bucket, heading for the door.

“Serenity,” Sky’s commanding voice caught my attention. “Recruiters are out. You shouldn’t−”

“It’s just down the hall. I’ll be fine, Sky. You know they never scout these floors.” Clients weren’t wealthy enough on the lower floors. The wealthier the client, the healthier the girl, and the more likelihood of recruiting for a Museum instead of a Glass District.

 “You come right back,” Sky reminded me.

“I will.”

My world made sense when it was just Sky and me and no thinking about Museums, Glass Districts, Carousels, Graphicker Studios, or the Temple’s penthouse. They didn’t even call it prostitution anymore. Prostitution was slavery wrapped in a bow, but it existed in different forms. With the world gorging itself on bodies, it had to look neater. Just a paraded reality. And most girls chased the parade. Even my mother fell down the Rabbit Hole.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think I was above my mother, but I did have my advantages. I had more fight in me. My mother wasn’t much of a fighter. She just endured. Pity she didn’t fight that hard for me. Whenever she and my father came home, I pretended like I didn’t resent them for only seeing me once or twice a month. Or for moving us around from place to place watching the world from hotel glass. Ever since I turned sixteen, it was harder and harder to keep up appearances.

After filling up the ice bucket, I sampled a little more on my trifle of freedom outside our stagnant hotel room. I lingered. Too long. Just as I stepped out of the ice room, I heard voices coming from the end of the hall. Rushing back into the ice room, I closed the door, hoping they hadn’t seen me because I recognized them as smugglers. Some smugglers were independent, but others were commissioned by certain Museums or the Temple. These smugglers had one thing in common to set them apart: black gloves. Family smugglers.

In hindsight, I should’ve insisted Sky come with me. Or at least had some sort of weapon. All I had was a bucket of ice. I held my breath when they approached the door, heard their casual chuckles, voices goading me.

“Come out, come out wherever you are.”

“You want to play hide and seek?”

I rocked on the balls of my feet, and just as they opened the door, I launched the ice bucket directly into their faces. Cubes catapulted in the air as I pushed through the gap of their bodies, but another one took their place and became a wall that I crashed against before losing my balance and tumbling to the ground. Parting my curls, I stared up at the smuggler with his eyes like elevators scaling the floors of my body.

“Not bad,” he muttered just before I felt the electrical surge jolting through my system from the back of my neck. I passed out on the hotel floor.

Add a Comment
15. Flogometer for Georgia—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Georgia sends a first chapter of The Phantom Maker and the Maze. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Tate stared at the dead children and wondered why he didn’t feel more. Sweat, on the cusp of dripping, clung maddeningly to the end of his nose while the vieclift thrusters rattled his sticky leather seat. Storm air seeped through its grille and clung to him like hot breath.

His trainee gulped air and rapped his foot against the floor mat. Tate watched his swollen eyes hold the blue faces pressed against the tinted windows.

With a growl from under Tate’s push broom mustache, the trainee stopped. 

The vieclift dropped to the ground and its cabin door swung up. A dead boy rolled and grazed the shoe of the trainee. He whimpered and looked to Tate.

“They’re clean.” Tate said. “You won’t catch the Eidolon.”

“Sorry. It’s habit.”

Together they pulled the boy out and laid his body on the broken sidewalk.

The trainee scanned the cement block alley, a shaky hand on his shock-shooter.

“Relax,” Tate grunted. “After seven years, people are so used to seeing bodies—they don’t look. Come on, do your share.”

The trainee nodded and helped prop the boy against the alley wall. “If they’re clean,” the trainee said, “why’d you take their eyes?”

Tate felt blood rush to his ears. “I don’t take anything. Got it? Don’t ask questions. We (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I had mixed feelings about this opening. There’s much to attract a science-fiction reader such as myself—a unique world, the story questions raised by the presence of dead children, the lack of emotion on the protagonist, and the reference to taking the eyes.

But I ended up an almost because of narrative issues, primarily clarity and overwriting. That said, I encourage Georgia to keep at it, there’s an interesting story here. Lots of notes:

Tate stared at the dead children and wondered why he didn’t feel more. Sweat, on the cusp of dripping, clung maddeningly to the end of his nose while the The vieclift’s thrusters rattled his sticky leather seat as they hovered in the alley. Storm air seeped through its grille and clung to him like hot breath. While the dead children raises a strong story question right away, all the attention to the weather isn’t paid off in the chapter—it doesn’t affect the story. So why have it? To focus a bunch of words on how the sweat is about to drip from his nose foretells overwriting ahead, and I’m leery of that.

I think the feeling aspect could be stronger. What does not feeling "more" mean? It suggests that he feels something, but what? Why not simply: wondered why he didn't feel anything. Or, a little deeper: wondered why he didn't feel anything more than hollow and numb.

While it is not incorrect to use an odd word such as “vieclift” in this way—in fact, I encourage weaving in the features of a world rather that just stating them—couldn’t the word relate more to what we might think of as a vehicle? In this case, it seems like it’s a hovercraft of some sort. Help the reader see understand this with how you label things.

Later it’s revealed that it is raining, but that is not clear at all with this scene-setting. “Storm air” doesn’t communicate rain. Again, the heat and the rain do not affect the story, so why use up words to describe it? If you want it hot and rainy just for mood, just put it out there: Tate stared through the rain at the dead children and wondered why he didn’t feel more. But the rain still isn’t needed.

His trainee gulped air and rapped his foot against the floor mat. Tate watched his swollen eyes hold the blue faces pressed against the tinted windows. For me, trying a little too hard on “unique” description with the notion of eyes holding faces against windows. Clearly his eyes aren’t doing that, but that’s what the sentence says. A clarity issue.

With a growl from under Tate’s push broom mustache, the trainee stopped. I first wondered “stopped what?” until a second reading. It seems the stoppage refers to him rapping his foot, but the previous sentence refers to his swollen eyes and the faces against the windows, and it doesn’t make sense to try to stop that. A clarity issue. More than that, the trainee doesn’t stop with a growl from under a mustache—this is a clarity/meaning problem with the use of the “with” construction. And the growl comes from under a mustache?

BTW, for me “push-broom mustache” is a couple of things—a point of view slip as Tate wouldn’t be thinking about the appearance of his mustache, and the choice of description is so unusual that it takes this reader out of the story. Besides, the nature of the mustache doesn’t seem to affect the story in any way, so why this micro detail? As for the sentence, it needs to be cleaned up. Keep it simple: Tate growled, and the trainee stopped.

The vieclift dropped to the ground and its cabin door swung up. A dead boy rolled inside and grazed the trainee’s shoe of the trainee. He whimpered and looked to Tate. Did it really drop to the ground? Seems like the driver would want it to settle or lower, not drop, which could damage it. The dead boy rolled where? Into the vehicle? Not clear.

“They’re clean.” Tate said. “You won’t catch the Eidolon.”

“Sorry. It’s habit.”

Together they pulled the boy out and laid his body on the broken sidewalk. Pulled him out of where?

The trainee scanned the cement block alley, a shaky hand on his shock-shooter.

“Relax,” Tate grunted. “After seven years, people are so used to seeing bodies thatthey don’t look. Come on, do your share.” “grunted” isn’t, IMO, a legitimate dialogue tag. Try actually grunting a word and see if it works for you. You can put a period after the “Relax” and it becomes a legitimate bit of description. I don’t think the em dash punctuation works here, either.

The trainee nodded and helped prop the boy against the alley wall. “If they’re clean,” the trainee said, “why’d you take their eyes?” Raises a terrific story question.

Tate felt blood rush to his ears. “I don’t take anything. Got it? Don’t ask questions. We (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued:

. . . have a lot of stops to . . .”

A whisper of a melody made Tate pause.

“What’s wrong?” The trainee listened, “It’s just the orphans giving the ‘all clear.’”

Another vieclift turned down the alley, rain running off its slopes.

“Close the cabin door!” Tate bellowed.

His partner froze.

Growling, Tate slammed the door himself. He smacked the back of his junior’s head, “Stay calm. Get your shock-shooter ready.”

The vieclift revved and charged them.

“Fire!” Tate drew his shock-shooter and jumped back.

His partner fumbled his weapon and the vieclift hit him, knocking him flat against the pavement.

Wide-eyed, Tate aimed his weapon at the vieclift’s window.

“Your new man was slowing you down.” A slick voice called through the vieclift’s speakers. “He didn’t even shoot at me. He wasn’t suited.”

Tate startled and lowered his weapon. “We weren’t expecting you Sir.” Tate’s eyes fell to his motionless trainee.

“Regardless, you weren’t ready.” The man spat. “Daylight’s too soon. You’ll have to throw out the rest later. He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Tate bent and checked the trainee’s pulse, the heat and whirr of the thrusters brisling his cheek. “Dead,” Tate yelled. His fingers lingered on the warm neck.

“Add him to the pile.” The engine roared and Tate rolled out of the way as the man sped off into the thinning rain.

Adrenaline shook Tate as he lifted the body into the vehicle. How long could he hope to keep this up? His eyes locked on the recruit. This was not just a body. Tate had known him a week. “Come on!” He grit his teeth.

But he felt—disappointment.

Tate looked at the trainee’s face; he had been so anxious over the dead children. With a tug on the trainee’s arm, Tate slipped off his jacket and pulled it over his own shoulders. It was still warm.

Feet scuffed the pavement. Tate looked up. A girl—head low but eyes on him, was padding softly past in the cross street. How long had she been watching?

He cocked his weapon.

The low light outlined her ribs through her thin, wet shirt. Tate had been there once.

Then he felt it: it was as if a hand squeezed his heart. Regret choked his will. His head rocked back and a sigh of relief escaped his lips. Tate holstered his shock-shooter and ducked into the vieclift, the girl forgotten before he had even lifted off the ground.

Add a Comment
16. Flogometer for CJ—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


CJ sends a first chapter of The Timepiece of Citarra. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Leo dangled upside down in the gnarly old oak, waiting for the blood to rush to his head. He was that bored. What he really wanted to do was go home and play on his computer, but his Mom had put the kibosh on that. Swaying back and forth, he pressed a pair of binoculars to his face. The image switched from the green grass of the university campus, to the red bricks of the museum. Green grass, red brick, green grass, red brick, green grass, bright flash!

Whoa. Fizzing and popping like a sparkler on the fourth of July, a thin streak of light tore through the sky. Leo adjusted the binoculars. A meteor! And it was headed straight for the museum. He started a mental count down.

Ten…Should he tell Ellie? Nah, she was probably still mad.

Nine…Sure, his fake tarantula had her hollering and swatting like she was on fire.

Eight…But it wasn’t his fault she lacked a sense of humor.

Seven…He said he was sorry, even offered to go inside the museum, like Ellie wanted.

Six…And he hated museums! They were full of old junk and pictures of dead people.

Five…Ellie had jammed her headphones back on, but she’d freak when the meteor hit.

Four…It wasn’t very big, but it was coming in crazy fast. Too bad Mom would miss it.

Three…She was always dragging them outside to look at the night sky.

Two…Wait! Mom was inside the museum! One

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The last line and the fun voice were almost enough for me, but the picky writer side of me decided to not go on for a couple of reasons. The first is that my interested started to flag as Leo plowed through his “countdown,” which is clearly a sorta nice way to introduce some backstory and character, but it doesn’t really advance the story. The second reason was a clarity issue.

I did enjoy the writing and the character, and think there’s a good story ahead. One caution for CJ: I think you should have showed him falling from the tree, not just leaped ahead as you did. Notes:

Leo dangled upside down in the gnarly old oak, waiting for the blood to rush to his head. He was that bored. What he really wanted to do was go home and play on his computer, but his Mom had put the kibosh on that. Swaying back and forth, he pressed a pair of binoculars to his face. The image switched from the green grass of the university campus, to the red bricks of the museum. Green grass, red brick, green grass, red brick, green grass, bright flash! Clarity issue: pressing binoculars to his face. That doesn’t work for me. If he put them to/lifted them to/etc. his eyes, that would be fine. You need to be aware of exactly what your words are transmitting to the reader. One other thought: while I like the word “kibosh” and recognize it, I suspect it’s not a word in a contemporary grade-school vocabulary.

Whoa. Fizzing and popping like a sparkler on the fourth of July, a thin streak of light tore through the sky. Leo adjusted the binoculars. A meteor! And it was headed straight for the museum. He started a mental count down. up to the mental countdown, this was just fine. Suggest “focused” rather than “adjusted” as a quicker and more focused description of action, pun intended.

Ten…Should he tell Ellie? Nah, she was probably still mad. I didn’t care about this.

Nine…Sure, his fake tarantula had her hollering and swatting like she was on fire. I want the now of the story, not the then.

Eight…But it wasn’t his fault she lacked a sense of humor. And then this affects the story how?

Seven…He said he was sorry, even offered to go inside the museum, like Ellie wanted. Same note.

Six…And he hated museums! They were full of old junk and pictures of dead people. Ahem. Story?

Five…Ellie had jammed her headphones back on, but she’d freak when the meteor hit. Good, we’re back to the meteor.

Four…It wasn’t very big, but it was coming in crazy fast. Too bad Mom would miss it. Good, good . . .

Three…She was always dragging them outside to look at the night sky. Argh! Back to then, not now.

Two…Wait! Mom was inside the museum! Onewish we had gotten to this sooner

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 CJ

 

Continued:

Leo!” Ellie pressed back against the tree, clutching her sketchpad.

Leo had landed in a heap, mere inches from his big sister. Rolling onto his knees, he bobbled the binoculars into place. There had been no explosion. No kaboom. No pow. Not even a wimpy poof.

Starting with the roof, he scanned the museum for signs of the meteor. The binoculars were one of several gizmos attached to Leo’s multifunction micro companion pocket tool, or MMC for short. The sleek device had once belonged to his granddad. He used to let Leo flip through and tinker with each of the gadgets, and on one occasion, Leo had even made the MMC hum. But that was a long time ago, when his granddad was still alive.

Leo was about to give up his search for the meteor, when he noticed one of the museum’s upstairs windows didn’t look quite right. He fiddled with the focus and the blurry image sharpened. Whoa. Glittery waves rippled across the glassy surface. He tightened his grip on the binoculars. The meteor must have liquefied the window. Leo was on his feet and moving before he realized it.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ellie hollered at his retreating back.

“To check out the meteor!” Not taking his eyes off the window, Leo tore across the turf, kicking up bits of grass.

Ellie yanked off her headphones. “Did you say meteor?”

Leo had no time for explanations. His MMC was humming.

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

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Max sends a first chapter of The View from an Airship. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

Once again Commander Deltz, with all his expertise, called on me for help. And once again Ilsa and I stood outside the lamp-flanked door of the Vort Svatten constabulary, waiting for him to appear. This time, however, it was different. This time it was raining. Heavily.

And I don’t say heavily lightly. The downpour soaked our clothes, plastered our hair to our skulls, and made a wonderful racket as droplets fell in a thick barrage, slamming and splashing against the cobblestones and tiled roofs.

“You know,” I said, turning to Ilsa, “I like the rain. I find it refreshing.” It does have a way of cleansing the air of soot, smog and questionable smells, and a city like Vort Svatten knows those three all too well.

She gave me a thoroughly unimpressed look, before returning her eyes to the door. “Good for you.”

I returned my own gaze to the door, peering into the warm, amber-lit window. I wasn’t lying when I said I liked rain, but inside looked so inviting just then. Apparently the entirety of Vort Svatten thought so too, if the deserted street around us was anything to go by.

“You know it’s only me who’s not allowed on State premises,” I said. “If you want you can wait insi—”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

I’ve read writing pundits say to never open with weather. In this case, I agree, and especially if the narrative goes on to discuss the nature of weather that does not cause any jeopardy for the characters. As it is, the fact that it’s raining has no impact whatsoever on what happens next. So why is it here, on the first page?

It’s part of nicely written setup designed to introduce the world and the characters. Unfortunately, it is not designed to tell/show a story in progress. I do like  the writing and the steampunk setting, and there are hints of a good detective-like story in the chapter that follows.

Why not start with story? You can always introduce more on the characters and the world after you’ve hooked the reader with story. So, rather than critique the writing, which is just fine, I dug later in the chapter, did a little editing, and came up with an alternative opening. See if you think this is a stronger opening page, and then vote.

Commander Deltz escorted me and Ilsa into the morgue, a grey, low-ceilinged room, walls lined with iron drawers for bodies and lit only by weak gas lamps in each corner. Not all of the morgue’s dead were confined to those drawers. On a table in the middle lay a rather tall, rather dead, rather naked specimen.

Deltz nodded at the body and took a position in a corner. “Name’s Hans Geir.”

I went over to the well named Mr. Geir’s side. Even in the relaxed and rather gruesome state of death his face looked unkind. So many sharp edges. Tattooed serpents wrapped their way up his arms, and his nose sat crooked, as though broken and never put back in place. Overall, a fine gent.

“What else can you tell us about him?” asked Ilsa.

“A surgeon by trade,” said Deltz. “Worked in the hospital. Unmarried, with no direct family to speak of. Nothing particularly interesting about him.”

“So why did you call me—” I halted mid-sentence.

Strange how the body can notice something before the mind does. The hairs on my neck had stood on end, and only in reaction to that did I notice I felt colder than I had at the doorway, colder even than I had outside in the rain. The dead man radiated a sharp chill, most certainly Occult.

Would you turn the page with this opening?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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 Max

Continued:

“Nah.”

“Alright, you be like that. You get the pleasure of enjoying this … lovely weather, with me.”

Shrugging, she replied, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She smiled at me, her round face dripping. A memorable face is what she had, with her pale, freckled cheeks, scarred lip, and slightly crooked smile. But what made people look twice at her were her eyes, each one individually, for they seemed to have had something of a disagreement as to which colour would suit her best. One opted for an icy blue, while the other stood adamantly behind its decision to be an earthy brown.

Ilsa Essen was indeed quite the abnormality. I suppose that’s why I liked her. That and her appreciation for sarcasm.

“Suit yourself.” My attention was wrenched away from her by a rat scurrying nearby. That’s another thing Vort Svatten (and all Volto cities, for that matter, but especially so this one) have in spades: rats, which … well, which people like to hit with spades.

Something else to briefly hold my attention was the great steel-skeletoned tower reaching into the sky behind the constabulary. The mooring tower of the city’s sentry ships. As I watched, one airship detached itself from the tower and, with a rumbling of engines and propellers that was audible even over the rain, drifted away from its dock and over the city. Behind it trailed thick, black smoke, something else to be washed away.

So Ilsa and I stood there some more, exchanging shallow words amongst the rodent wildlife, until the door opened and a silhouette appeared, wearing the coat, cloak and ridiculous feathered cap of a constable.

Commander Deltz stepped out into the rain, his beige, iron-hard features cast in new light by a nearby streetlamp. “How long have you been waiting?”

I checked my watch, remembered it was broken, and slipped it back into my waistcoat pocket. “Unimportant.”

Chuckling, he looked to Ilsa, almost, but not quite smiling. “There’s a warm waiting room. You should’ve come inside.”

“No, I like the rain.” She shot me a smirking side-on look.

“So, Deltz,” I said. “What’s the story? Another ominous crime scene?” It was occasionally something like that. A dead body completely similar to any other, except for a dodgy feeling and a blood-painted symbol on the floor.

“No,” he said, to which I raised an eyebrow. Maybe it would be one of those exciting times I got to execute the culprit for them. “A body.” He went back to the doorway. “Come on.”

That oh-so-risen eyebrow sunk like a dead weight. I came from halfway across Voltun to look at yet another body. The only difference, I supposed, was that this time it wasn’t still marinating in its juices. Which was even more of a shame. When I had an entire crime scene to make my stage it was so much easier to act the expert.

“Umm…” I looked from Deltz to Ilsa to the deserted street around us, finally settling back on the constable. “You do remember how I’m restricted from State premises, right? Does the Stove Act ring a bell?”

“It does, but I’m not about to lug a dead body out of the morgue, am I?” he said. “I can stand to break a stupid law if it means getting answers.”

That’s why I liked Commander Deltz.

“Well then.” I tapped my cane twice against the ground. “Let’s not keep our deceased friend waiting.”

I’ll be honest, though they’d passed the Stove Act that prohibited it sixteen years ago, before I could shave, it wasn’t the first time I’d stepped foot in a Volto constabulary. Sadly, I had an attitude toward the law almost identical to Deltz’s. Almost. He’d only break the stupid laws to get answers.

However, the morgue was indeed unmapped territory, and as it turns out, it wasn’t worth mapping in the first place. A sterile, grey, low-ceilinged room, walls lined with iron drawers for bodies and lit only by a weak gas lamp in each corner. You could say the room was as lifeless as its occupants, but much less interesting.

Not all of the morgue’s dead were confined to those drawers. On a human-sized table in the middle lay a rather tall, rather dead, rather naked specimen.

“Would that be our friend?” I asked.

Deltz nodded and took position in a corner. “Name’s Hans Geir.”

“Good name,” Ilsa added casually, pacing around the room.

I went over to the well named Mr. Geir’s side. Even in the relaxed and rather gruesome state of death his face looked unkind. So many sharp edges. Tattooed serpents wrapped their way up his arms, and his nose sat crooked, as though broken and never put back in place. Overall, a fine gent.

“What else can you tell us about him?” asked Ilsa.

“A surgeon by trade,” said Deltz. “Worked in the hospital. Unmarried, with no direct family to speak of. Nothing particularly interesting about him.”

“So why did you call—” I halted mid-sentence.

Strange how the body can notice something before the mind does. The hairs on my neck had stood on end, and only in reaction to that did I notice I felt colder than I did at the doorway, colder even than I did outside in the pouring rain. The dead man radiated a sharp chill.

“Well, first thing’s first.” I rested my cane against the table and slicked my soaking hair back. “You were right to call me here, Commander. This is most certainly Occult.”

“You’ve noticed the cold?” His words seemed almost distant coming from that safe corner of his.

“Yeah.” Ilsa, who now stood on Mr. Geir’s other side, shot me a knowing look. “Bloody nippy.”

“An unnatural coldness is a common indicator of the Occult,” I explained to Deltz as I ran my hand along my old tool belt, searching for the right holster. “It will linger in an area where the eldritch arts have been practiced, for a few days or so, depending on the potency of the magic.”

“And?” he said as I produced a thermometer. “Something seems to be troubling you about this.”

“The cold lingers where magic’s been done,” stressed Ilsa. While she spoke, I stuck the end of the thermometer in the dead man’s mouth and we both watched the mercury shrink all the way into negative. “But we ain’t never seen it come from a body. How’d he die?”

“Good question.”

I froze midway through wiping off the thermometer. “You mean you don’t know?”

“How about I fill you in fully?”

“Please do,” I said, slipping the thermometer back into its holster, gaze fixed on Mr. Geir’s corpse.

“Nine days ago we were contacted by some of Mr. Geir’s concerned neighbours and brought to his home. We found him on his pantry floor, dead. No strange symbols or foul smells. Nothing out of the ordinary at all, except the cold.”

Nine days – my lips formed the words. Nine days and still colder than a cold thing.

Deltz continued, “So after due process we took him back here and the physicians examined him. They were able to estimate that he died only a few hours before we found him, but they could not discern how he died. No blood wounds, no fractured skull, not even a strangle mark.”

“What about poison?” said Ilsa.

“There’s nothing of the sort in his system.”

“Can you tell if he was suffocated?”

“He wasn’t.”

“Heart attack? That’s how my old man kicked the bucket.”

After a pause Deltz spoke. “That … is possible, not that there’s any way of telling. But a heart attack death doesn’t make things cold. This was Occult, I knew that much. So what choice did I have but to bring in the famous Alek Stove?”

I scratched my chin. “You made the right choice. And you’ll be glad to know I already have an idea of how this happened.” Unfortunately, not an idea I was overly fond of, to say the least.

“Go on,” said Deltz.

I took a step back from the body, and felt a little warmer for it. “The chill appears where ritualistic magic’s been done, like the site of a conjuring.”

“Not this time,” said Deltz. “I’ve returned to the scene since we moved Mr. Geir and it was quite tepid.”

“No, not this time.” The hairs on my neck lifted again, but not from the cold. “If there was no sign of ritual at the crime scene, that means either the body was moved, which is possible but based on my experience, unlikely, or the motive for the murder wasn’t ritualistic, which for the sake of making things interesting, I’m going to assume is indeed the case. This was just murder, plain and simple.”

“But what about the cold?” asked Ilsa. “It only appears for magic.”

“That’s what killed him,” I stared at Hans Geir. “Magic… The life was lifted from his body, just like that.”

Not much can scare me. In fact, nothing can. But the thought of an occultist powerful enough to kill with nothing but their own will. That unnerved me, to say the least.

“That doesn’t bare thinking about.” Ilsa stared into space. “Illusions and summonings and whatnot are one thing, but killing!”

“I didn’t think that was possible,” said Deltz.

“Neither did I.” My mouth formed a wry smile. “And I’m supposed to be the expert.”

Ilsa chuckled, but the whiteness of her face spoke all too well.

“Although, there is one last thing.” Deltz prised himself away from the corner and walked over to a tiny, sheet-covered table next to Mr. Geir. Removing the sheet, he revealed a small black locket on a thin chain, also black. He brought it over to me, holding it by the very tip of the chain, at arm's length.

“We found this on him.” He was all too eager to drop it into my palm and be rid of it.

Cold.

The moment it touched my skin I knew what it was, and it only left me with more questions.

“You found it on him?” I turned it over in my hand. On the back, delicately engraved, the initials H. G. “Oh dear.”

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18. Another take on character description

I came across a post titled "11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character Description" by Rachel Scheller, and I liked much of what she had to say. Might be worth your while to check it out. The 11 points she writes about are:

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

6. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

For what it's worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

Add a Comment
19. Flogometer for Chris—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Chris sends a first chapter of middle-grade fiction titled The Trouble with Queenie. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

“Good morning Mrs. Payne!” I flung my arms around the Headmistress’s waist and gave her a great big hug. “Are you here at the front door especially to welcome me on my very first day to Western Canada Prep School? Wow!” Even though she was a Very Important Person here she must be pretty nice, right? So what if she was dressed all in black and as tall and skinny as a giraffe. “And isn’t this a totally awesome morning with the sun shining down and the ocean sparkling and glimmering and aren’t you just so so so happy to be alive even though you look like you’re going to a funeral?” I beamed and twirled around on my tip toes.

“Yes Queenie…good morning.” She frowned, stiffly stepped back from me and sighed. “Look Queenie, do you not remember the rules we discussed last week? When you and your mother toured W.C.P.S.? Let me spell them out for you one… more… time…Number one: no student shall cross the road by him or herself.”

“But…”

 “Number two: no student shall walk up the driveway by him or herself.”

“But you see…”

“Number three: no student shall leave their car until the car reaches the yellow line in front of the main set of doors.”

“But Mrs. Payne I really didn’t think those rules applied to me‘cause I’m in Grade 5 (snip)

Were you compelled to turn Chris's first page?

I’ll confess to not being a middle-grade reader, so I’m not sure how in tune with that audience my reactions were. I do like the voice, and (other than a couple of comma faults) the writing is good. For me, whether or not this child was going to get into trouble and the way she broke the rules were entertaining enough to warrant a page-turn. So was her voice, though I do wonder about some of her dialogue—surely no one would really talk that way. But this character does, consistently over the top in a fun kind of way. After reading through the first chapter, I wondered what was to come for this irrepressible and unique character. A good sign.

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 Chris

 

Continued

. . . you know.” Plus I’d totally zoned out when my mom and Mrs. Payne talked.

Meanwhile my yucky uniform was superscratchy and I couldn’t stop squirming.

 “Queenie! These rules are for the benefit of everyone here at Western Canada Prep School,” she said with icicles hanging off her voice.

I wiggled and jiggled my brand-new yellow SpongeBob knapsack on my back to see if that would help the itchiness. And Mrs. Payne droned on and on and on about the rules and W.C.P.S.

 “Queenie! Is that understood? Are you listening to me?!”

Jeez, she didn’t have to yell.

I peered way way up at her pursed mouth – Mrs. Payne looked like she’d swallowed a sour lemon. “Okay, sure Mrs. Payne. I promise I will never break these very important rules again.”

A couple of little kids giggled, pointed at me and walked way far around us. This was not supposed to be happening to me today.

“Queenie! Remember this is a fresh beginning for you.”

Crap! Mrs. Payne must’ve talked to Mrs. Franklin, the evil principal of the public school I’d gone to in Ontario. I’m sure she made up lots of nasty stuff about me.

Really.

 Probably.

Okay, so maybe some of it was true.

“Alright, Mrs. P.!” I shouted and zipped down the hall. Zipping wasn’t running.

“Tuck in that shirt Queenie, and no yelling in the halls!”

Boy oh boy, this place was crammed full of rules, way more than my old school. How was I going to learn all the rules when I couldn’t remember to remove my shoes at home, let alone take my pill? I couldn’t even remember to flush the toilet half the time, but that’s better for the environment anyways, right?

I cruised past the first three doors on the left and skidded to a stop in front of my classroom. Since most of the kids were already sitting down, I decided to introduce myself. After all, they were going to love me for sure ‘cause this was going to be my year and I was going to be so popular.

I, Queenie, would rule Western Canada Prep School!

“Hi everybody, my name’s Queenie Merriam and I’m new here and I just moved to West Vancouver from Ontario but this place is so so so much nicer and totally awesome and can you believe how wonderful the sun feels this morning so I think we should all go outside for class and I really can’t believe it’s already September ‘cause the summer went by so so…”

“OMG, is she for real?” said a dark haired girl to the blonde beside her.

 “Queenie, please have a seat here beside Kenneth,” Miss Parfait said as she pointed to a chubby Asian boy with humongous glasses. He sat at the front of the class, right by the door, and was probably the teacher’s pet. I wanted to sit beside some nice girl, desperate to be my BFF, but no such luck.

As I skipped to the chair and carefully eased my precious yellow knapsack to the floor, the room became so quiet it was actually kinda scary. I looked around at my classmates. Darn it! Every single girl was beautiful, with long silky hair and totally perfect teeth. I tried to smooth down my short and curly red hair but it stuck out in chunks all over the place no matter how much I brushed it, and my front teeth were crazy-crooked. I glanced down at the huge strawberry jam stain on my white shirt, the milk spill on my tie and noticed that my grey knee socks were bunched around my ankles. Mom had wanted me to clean up before school, but I ignored her ‘cause I figured there was no way the cool kids would look so good in their ugly grey sweaters, uncomfortable shirts and ties.

After all, who wears a tie at ten?

And really, on what planet do girls wear ties?

But man, I looked so totally different from everyone else.

“Queenie, I was just welcoming the girls and boys to 5P and outlining the class rules.” What, even more rules?!

 “The first one is to always be on time, Queenie. You are four minutes late – I’ll let it go today...”

“But there were still kids coming in the front door when I got here!”

“At W.C.P.S. we demand more from our older children, especially those in Grades 5 and 6. And, as I told you and your mother last week, I have higher expectations for my class than the other Grade 5 teachers, remember?” She smiled at me and then turned to write on the chalkboard.

“Sorry, Miss Parfait. It won’t happen again.” My ears burning, I sank into my chair. This was so not how I pictured meeting the kids in my class. I was not supposed to be in trouble with my teacher so soon.

I’d already made a fool of myself and it wasn’t even 9’oclock yet.

I was such an idiot.

I was such a loser.

Miss Parfait started yakking about her “Expectations of her Grade 5 Pupils”, known as 5P. One of the first rules was no use of cell phones during school hours – only at lunch or after school. A bunch of kids moaned, and put away their iPhones. My brother Zach and I had begged and begged and begged our parents for an iPhone and they had finally agreed to get Zach a cell phone of some kind ‘cause he was thirteen, but not me.

Not yetanyways.

 After four or five of the 5P Expectations I lost track, ‘cause I couldn’t help gawking at everybody. You could tell who the popular kids were alright, by where they sat, (close to the window with the view of the city) how they sat (like they owned the world) and how they looked at me (like I was an ant or a cockroach). Oh man, I so wanted to be one of them this year!

Actually, I’d never ever been cool before, but I decided this was my year, because if I was friends with the popular kids, then absolutely everyone at school would love me and I could check out their houses and see if they were expensive and ginormous like their shiny, bright cars. I bet they had the best stuff too, like Skittles and barbecue chips and orange pop and trampolines and Dance Dance Revolution.

Because W.C.P.S. was on top of a mountain on the North Shore of Vancouver, when Miss Parfait stood at the far side of the classroom, the view out the wall of windows behind her was awesome. I could see the ocean, and Stanley Park, and the office buildings in downtown Vancouver way below us. My dad worked in one of those big grey towers that punched the sky.

“Queenie. Queenie! Are you paying attention? Eyes on me,” Miss Parfait said. “Ashley, why don’t you begin.”

Begin what?

One of the perfect girls with long blonde hair stood up and smiled her perfect smile at the class. “My name is Ashley. This summer my family bought another two boats, so now we have seven in total. And I went wakeboarding or waterskiing almost every day. I love to watch reality TV shows, like America’s Next Top Model and the Real Housewives. And by the way, I wrapped up a couple of TV commercials in August.”

Okay, so this was important, ‘cause this was how I’d choose my BFF, and Ashley sure looked good.

“Thank you, Ashley,” Miss Parfait said, “that sounds lovely. And now Bethany, tell us about you and your summer.”

            “Well, as you all know, I’m Bethany,” said another Princess Perfect as she tucked a lock of shiny black hair behind a tiny ear, “and my best friend, Lauren, is sitting right over there. I went to France and Italy and Greece and England in July for twelve days with my parents. We saw absolutely everything worth seeing and bought absolutely everything worth buying. Then we went to Beijing for a month to see my grandparents. And do more shopping.”

Boy, I had to work really hard on my parents to get them to buy me SpongeBob socks, but trips overseas where you shop for stuff? Amazing! Another potential best friend.

“Hey. My name’s Ryan and I love hockey, just like my dad and older brothers. I played all summer at Cedar Country Club and now I’m trying out for the gold team.”

 So that’s what the cool perfect boys did. Hockey in the summer – who knew? And what the heck was Cedar Country Club?

“Queenie,” whispered Kenny, my desk mate. “Please sit still and try to stop fidgeting with your pencils and erasers or you will get into trouble.”

“Oh, okay. Thanks, Kenny.”

“My name is Kenneth!” he hissed back.

“So, I’m Chelsea and after two very long and very stressful years, we finally moved into our brand-new 15,000 square foot house in Whitby Estates way up above W.C.P.S. where we have the best view in all of West Van. Of course, not quite everything is completely done yet, so we still have painters and other stinky workman around. We spent most of the summer in Korea visiting relatives in Seoul and did tons and tons and tons of shopping.”

I decided I’d waited long enough for my turn, so I jumped up and blurted out, “Like I said before, my name is Queenie and I know that’s a really weird old-fashioned name but all the girls in my dad’s family have that name so I got stuck with it too, but anyways, I spent the summer driving across the country with my family so we stayed at lots of motels and my parents, especially my dad, drank lots of coffee and I ate lots of pancakes even though I’m still super skinny and short, and we saw lakes and trees and the Prairies and the desert and dinosaur bones and they were all so so so cool! We went swimming in freezing cold lakes and rivers that came from glaciers and I have an older brother named Zach who’s in Grade 8 and is a total pain because he’s so perfect and he’s good at every sport in the world and gets straight A’s. I used to live in a small town near Waterloo, and that’s in southern Ontario, where nothing ever happens, and my best friend’s Jessie who is so totally awesome and likes to do everything I like. And we have a furry yellow lab named Sandy Andy Killer but usually my dad and brother just call her Killer for short, which is really funny because she is super friendly and would never hurt a fly or a squirrel and really, she doesn’t even bark, but she loves attention and she loves food, even stuff that is totally bad for her like chocolate, which is like poison for dogs, but she doesn’t care ‘cause she likes to eat everything and anything, so she’s actually kind of chubby and roly-poly. I don’t eat seafood because my favourite TV show is SpongeBob SquarePants like my brand-new knapsack and I might just marry SpongeBob when I grow up ‘cause…” I paused for a nanosecond to breathe.

“Thank you so much for that fascinating life history, Queenie,” said Miss Parfait. “Next time please wait your turn and answer the question succinctly as requested.”

But I just wanted my classmates to know who I was so they would really like me but now they would hate me ‘cause Miss Parfait kept picking on me.

And what the heck does succinctly mean?

 

Finally the lunch bell rang and I rushed over to the long table at the side of the classroom so I could grab a seat close to Bethany or Ashley.

“5P, everything away before lunch. Queenie, that means you too.”

“But…”

“Queenie, no buts! Tidy your desk first.”

Oh man, Miss Parfait was such a slave-driver. I dashed back to my desk, tossed my pencils and notebook inside it, grabbed my lunch and zipped back to the table.

“Where am I supposed to sit?”

A couple girls turned around and stared at me, giggled and then turned back to their lunch. No one else paid any attention.

“Hey, I said, I need a place to eat my lunch!”

This time Bethany and Lauren rolled their eyes and Chelsea snickered.

“Queenie, we all heard you. Even though it’s lunchtime, there’s no need to yell,” Miss Parfait instructed. “I’m sure if Kenneth squeezes over a bit you can sit there at the end of that bench.”

“But…”

Kenny looked at me with big puppy dog eyes. Rats, I was stuck with the geek again.

“Sure, I’d love to,” I choked out.

Could my first day at W.C.P.S. get any worse?

“Is everything all right in here 5P?” Mrs. Payne’s head suddenly popped into the doorway.

“Just fine Mrs. Payne,” Miss Parfait said.

“Queenie, I could hear you quite distinctly all the way down the hall. Perhaps you should drop by my office today after school and we can review the importance of the rules here at Western Canada Prep.”

“Oh, that’s okay Mrs. Payne. I wouldn’t want to take up any more of your valuable time.”

“That was not a suggestion Queenie. I will see you at 3pm.” Her high heels clicked down the hall as she went in search of more kids to terrorize.

“Hey SpongeBob girl, that’s got to be a record at WCPS!” scoffed Ashley. “I can’t believe you already have a “meeting” with Mrs. Payne.”

“And it’s barely noon!” Bethany added.

“But that’s not fair,” I said as laughter rang out all around the lunch table. I guess at W.C.P.S. the cool kids didn’t get in trouble with the teacher and the Headmistress. Especially not on their very first day.

I was so stupid.

What did a kid have to do around here to get a break?

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20. Do you type one space or two after sentences?

I came across an article titled “We Still Can’t Decide Whether to Put Once Space After a Period or Two.

And it’s true—I see both approaches all the time in submissions to FtQ. One of the first things I do when I open a submission is to reformat it to conform to a few standards that include:

  • text in 12-point Times New Roman font (a standard for many agents and editors, and it’s a narrow font that gets you more words per page)
  • ½-inch indent for paragraphs
  • no extra space between paragraphs
  • and, if I see two spaces between sentences, change it immediately to one

Text no longer looks “correct” to me when I see the extra space. I notice it immediately upon opening a document. I design the interiors of books, and the industry typographical standard is one space between sentences.

I was taught in typing class to put two spaces and did so for many years. But, even though it was ingrained, I retrained my thumbs to only put one space. If you think about it, with thousands of sentences in a novel, that’s a lot of space-bar labor I save my thumbs. Gotta be faster, too, eliminating all those spaces.

Note that the article I’ve linked to has only one space after the ends of sentences.

Which do you do? Poll below.

Do you type one space or two after sentences?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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21. Flogometer for Melissa—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Melissa sends a first chapter of Swept by Giants, a middle grade story. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“Shay, wait up!” Finn walked toward me, kicking up little clouds of infield dust with each step. He was walking real slow. Slower than was necessary. Sure it was hot. Sure we had just played two hours of baseball in the blazing sun with not a drip of water to drink, but this was ridiculous. He was moving slower than a worm on a dry sidewalk.

When he finally made it over to me, I was starting to feel downright woozy. Summertime in Southern Ohio can do that to you.

“Can you sneak out tonight?” he asked. The skin on Finn’s face had blended in with all his freckles to the point where I felt like I was talking to a tomato.

“I guess,” I said.

Finn placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. “It’s got to be late and it’s got to be on the down low, if you know what I mean.”

“Why?” Finn stared back at me with a look I recognized as trouble.  “Aw man, if you’re planning on peeping in on Gwendolyn while she’s getting ready for bed again, you can count me out.  Her German Shepherd almost chomped my leg off the last time we tried that.”

 “ ‘Course that’s not what I’m planning,” said Finn. “What kind of guy do you think I am?”

“The perverted kind.” I laughed and shoved him away from me.

Were you compelled to turn the page?

A delightful voice and lively writing were almost enough to get me to turn the page, but this is just about all setup and not the actual story. If you read on, you’ll find an interesting and possibly dangerous event waiting in the future—unfortunately, not in this chapter. I would look at starting the story much later, when trouble actually develops. You can weave in the setup stuff then. Very promising writing, just get to the story. There were a couple of issues, though, so here are some notes:

“Shay, wait up!” Finn walked toward me, kicking up little clouds of infield dust with each step. He was walking real slow. Slower than was necessary. Sure it was hot. Sure we had just played two hours of baseball in the blazing sun with not a drip of water to drink, but this was ridiculous. He he was moving slower than a worm on a dry sidewalk. If they’ve been playing baseball, there would be a bunch of boys there, not just the two. Where are the rest? If they haven’t been playing with a team, the narrative should be clear.

When he finally made it over to me, I was starting to feel downright woozy. Summertime in Southern Ohio can do that to you.

“Can you sneak out tonight?” he asked. The skin on Finn’s face had blended in with all his freckles to the point where I felt like I was talking to a tomato. This description didn’t work for me. Freckles are generally brown, so if his skin had blended with his freckles, it would be brown, not red. If his skin has turned red and he has lots of freckles, then it might be more like talking to a freckle pizza.

“I guess,” I said.

Finn placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. “It’s got to be late and it’s got to be on the down low, if you know what I mean.”

“Why?” Finn stared back at me with a look I recognized as trouble.  “Aw man, if you’re planning on peeping in on Gwendolyn while she’s getting ready for bed again, you can count me out.  Her German Shepherd almost chomped my leg off the last time we tried that.” While I think this peeping tom behavior is entirely possible for boys of this age, do you really want to include this sexual and possibly criminal stuff? And it’s off-story, anyway.

 “ ‘Course that’s not what I’m planning,” said Finn. “What kind of guy do you think I am?”

“The perverted kind.” I laughed and shoved him away from me.

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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 Melissa

 

Continued:

“Nah, I want to go check out what’s happening down at the river.”

Our dead-beat little town is famous for one thing and one thing only: it’s the site of the deadliest train crash in Ohio’s history.  A westbound train busted through the guardrails of the Ashtabula Bridge and plunged into the river, killing a whole bunch of people. It happened a long time ago, when I was just a baby, but it’s all anyone’s been talking about since the city council voted to build a memorial. With all the fuss you’d think we were building something special, instead of some dumb statue and a park bench for old ladies to sit on.

“One of my dad’s buddies works on the excavation crew and he said they’ve been finding stuff, valuable stuff, like gold watches and even a wallet with the money still in it. I say we go down there and get in on the action.”

“Isn’t that stealing?” I asked.

“What’s a dead guy going to do with a watch? Make sure he ain’t late for purgatory?” Finn laughed and I laughed too, but something about it still didn’t sound right.

 “Why hasn’t anybody gathered up all that valuable stuff before now?”

“Well, right after the wreck they were more concerned about finding body parts than Rolexes, …” Finn wiped off his sweat mustache and lowered his voice about three notches. “…but then unexplained things started to happen.”

 “What kinds of things?” I was still trying to wrap my head abound what he’d just said about finding body parts. Hadn’t thought about that before, but now I was pretty sure it’d be all I’d think about for the rest of my life.

“Well for starters, people reported hearing screams and cries coming from the river in the middle of the night.”

“Screams and cries?” I croaked. Boy, I wish I had some water.

“Yep. Then dogs went missing straight out of people’s backyards – their empty collars left behind in the grass.”

The sweat on my neck turned ice cold and I felt dizzy. I really needed some water.

Finn leaned in close, his voice not much more than a whisper. “A couple of guys in town didn’t believe all the rumors and decided to going fishing one night.”  Finn paused and leaned back on his heels. “Are you sure you want me to keep going? You look a little peaked.”

I was not sure.  Not sure by a long shot, but for some reason I nodded yes.

“Well, like I said, they decided to go fishing in the river.  Their wives begged them not go, pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen. Next morning the cops found their canoe capsized in the river. When they hauled it to shore and flipped it over, the hull was smeared with blood and there were deep scratches dug into the wooden bench, like one of the guys had been trying to hold on for dear life.” 

I ran my nails across my forearm and the hairs zapped and zinged. “Never found the bodies?”

Finn shook his head real slow and steady. “Nope.”

We sat there quietly for a few seconds, staring straight ahead. The sun was starting to set and the sky was taking on colors that didn’t seem right – hot pink and egg- yolk orange.

Finn elbowed me in the ribs. “You’re such a sucker.” 

 “Wait – you were kidding?” I jumped on top of him and pinned him to the ground. 

“I really had you going.”  Finn smiled up at me.

“Why you lousy, son of a…that’s it, loogie torture.”

“No!” Finn was laughing, but trying hard to break free.

It took a bit longer because my mouth was so dry, but I worked up a nice thick glob of snot and spit. Then I dangled it inches above his face, and swung it back and forth like a pendulum.

Finn shook his head from side to side. “No, please! I give, I give!”

I spit in the dirt and released his arms.

Finn flipped over. “Man, I hate that.”  He stood up and dusted off the back of his pants. “So you coming with me tonight or should I ask Stormy?”

He still wanted to go. I was hoping he’d been kidding about that part too. And now he might ask Stormy?

Everyone called Kevin Houlihan “Stormy” on account of his bad temper that seemed to come out of nowhere. Finn had been doing more and more stuff with Stormy, sometimes without even asking me to come along. If I didn’t go with him tonight Finn might start thinking Stormy was better best-friend material than I was.

“Yeah, I’ll go. What time?” I asked.

“Make it eleven, by the flagpole and bring a flashlight.

Add a Comment
22. Flogometer for Brian—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Brian sends a first chapter of Rise of the Mages. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote. It helps the writer.

The vial slipped from Xan’s grasp.

He jolted alert and reached. Missed. It tumbled toward the floor, hitting and bursting into shards.

 “Blasted, rads-infested moron!”

How could he have been stupid enough to nod off again? He seized a broom and clenched its handle with shaking hands.

Another ridiculous, blasted, idiotic, ridiculous rads-infested broken bottle! Master Rae was going to give him the tongue lashing of a lifetime. Two more weeks’ pay gone to replace it.

Tiny pieces of glass clinked as he swept them into a dustpan.

What if he’d dropped a bottle of lockweed concentrate instead of an empty vial? Losing the shop’s supply would have meant fevers left untreated during the winter. Bad enough to lose pay and to suffer his mentor’s disappointment. But to hurt people?

A journeyman apothecary needed to be precise in his movements. Each pinch of powder should contain the same amount of material, and each chop of a blade should cut the same length. When working with medicine, mistakes killed.

He ran his hands through his curly mop of hair.

If he could just get a respite from the dreams. There had to be a way. Had to, and he (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

While the writing is solid (though a little too much at times for me) this opening does forecast a problem ahead for Xan and something has gone wrong, the stakes seem minimal. Sure, losing pay is not nice, but it’s not life-threatening, is it? And the dreams—if there’s a problem that they cause that is serious, let us know what it is. Getting sleepy on the job is not high stakes. Yes, the narrative attempts to make those stakes high with a little information dumping, but it’s still all theoretical. If he were handing a vial he’d mixed while drowsy to a patient and then realizes he might have done it wrong and the contents could kill, then we have a serious situation.

But here we’re talking about: breaking an empty vial, being sleepy, and a dream that we don’t know anything about. The later chapter seems to insinuate Xan into an alternate universe—but it could still all be a dream.  The front half of the chapter is pretty much all setup. I suggest you look for a later starting point, something where things do go seriously wrong for the character and he has to deal with it. Maybe that inciting incident is in the second chapter, maybe later. Notes:

The vial slipped from Xan’s grasp.

He jolted alert and reached. Missed. It hit tumbled toward the floor and burst, hitting and bursting into shards. Just a suggestion for crisper narrative.

“Blasted, rads-infested moron!”

How could he have been stupid enough to nod off again? He seized a broom and clenched its handle with shaking hands. A bit of overwriting—this close detail doesn’t add enough to make it worth the space.

Another ridiculous, blasted, idiotic, ridiculous rads-infested broken bottle! Master Rae was going to give him the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. Two more weeks’ pay gone to replace it.

Tiny pieces of glass clinked as he swept them into a dustpan.

What if he’d dropped a bottle of lockweed concentrate instead of an empty vial? Losing the shop’s supply would have meant fevers left untreated during the winter. Bad enough to lose pay and to suffer his mentor’s disappointment. But to hurt people?

A journeyman apothecary needed to be precise in his movements. Each pinch of powder should contain the same amount of material, and each chop of a blade should cut the same length. When working with medicine, mistakes killed. Info dump, detail of the “world.” Save it for when he actually does something as an apothecary.

He ran his hands through his curly mop of hair. POV break—in close third person, he would not think of the nature of his hair, he would just run his fingers through it. As such, there’s no need for this line if you ditch the description, it’s just a gesture that doesn’t move story or character forward.

If he could just get a respite from the dreams. There had to be a way. Had to, and he (snip)

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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

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

 

Continued

. . . needed to find it. Soon. Or he was going to end up killing someone. Not that he hadn’t tried to find a solution. Not that he had any idea how to proceed. Not that he could even think straight.

Xan glanced at a bag stowed near his feet. There was one way to clear his thoughts.

No. He’d allotted himself two seeds per day and had already had three with the entire afternoon left.

But did he have a choice? He had to find a solution. Today.

Xan pulled a costrel from the bag and worked out the stopper. Such a bad idea. He tilted the leather container toward his open hand. And hesitated.

Neat rows of glass canisters and dried plants stared at him, each a little representation of Master Rae’s teachings and each full of reprimand for what he was about to do. Not to mention that anyone walking by outside could see him through the window. The door could swing open at any moment.

“Get ahold of yourself, man.”

Keeping a close watch on the door and window, he tossed a licuna seed into his mouth. The world brightened, giving him—hopefully—an hour or two of clear thinking.

So how to cure an ailment when you have no idea as to the cause?

Simple. You asked Master Rae—the best apothecary in duchy of Vierna, maybe even in the entire kingdom of Bermau—to help. Which was exactly what Xan should have done after the first night of dreaming. But it was too late. How would that conversation go?

“Hey, Master Rae,” Xan said, “how can I get rid of these dreams I’m having?”

“Dreams?” Xan mimicked, lowering his voice and injecting a phlegmy quality. The result came out sounding absolutely nothing like Master Rae. “How long have you been having them? What are they about? Why do you want to get rid of them? Who—”

Xan put his hands up to escape the torrent. “Just me talking to a girl in a meadow. They’re nothing unusual except that I have them every night. For twenty nights. And I recall them more vividly than any dream I’ve ever had, like they’re more real than anything else in my life. And that they leave me feeling like I’m not sleeping at all.”

“You haven’t gotten any sleep for twenty days!”

“Staying in bed pretty much all the time on the weekends helps,” Xan said in his normal voice, “and I’ve been chewing shaved variegation bark.”

“That would work for a while, but, if you’re really as tired as you say…”

Xan stared at the floor. He couldn’t even face the imaginary specter of his mentor. “I’ve been taking licuna seeds for the last week.”

“Seeds! Are you insane? You’re fired.” Xan paused from speaking in the deep voice. “Tarnation boy! Didn’t I teach you better than to mix medicines while impaired, even simply by the lack of sleep? And you did it while taking a dangerous drug? Forget just being fired, I’m having you arrested.”

Xan wouldn’t be able to bear hearing that condemnation, that disappointment, from the real Master Rae. And what would he do next? After being discharged from an apprenticeship, no other apothecary would take him on, never mind that he’d risen to journeyman so quickly. He’d have wasted five years on a useless pursuit and be facing incarceration. His life would be ruined.

“Why didn’t you ask me for help sooner?” he said as Master Rae, stroking an imaginary beard.

“Because I thought it wasn’t a big deal? Because I thought I could handle it myself? Because I thought you would tease me about wet dreams?”

“No. I don’t think that’s it.”

Xan stared at the floor. “It’s because I’m a complete fool. You see, the girl is pretty—really pretty—and I like being with her. And I was afraid you might end the dreams permanently.”

How could he be such a complete, blasted moron? Was he so desperate for a girlfriend that he’d risk his health and, worse, patients’ lives for an imaginary one?

He rubbed his temples. Unfortunately, yes, he was. And she wasn’t even a real pretend girlfriend—he’d never even kissed her!

Ridiculous!

His hands shook, and he steadied them against his legs. If he could get just one night of pure rest, he’d be okay. There’d be no more mistakes. His mixtures would be perfect again. He just needed to the right potion.

Not that he hadn’t pored over every book in the shop already. How was it that Master Rae’s references held cures for everything from toenail fungus to balding hair but not a single mention of stopping dreams? No help for it but to figure something out himself.

Patients knocked out with Wizard’s Beard never reported dreaming. Lord Oxley’s Bane suppressed mental function. But, if either worked, wouldn’t there be a potion listed in the literature? Perhaps a mixture of the two?

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Was he really considering, without any testing, trying a combination of two powerful herbs on himself? What were the chances the mixture wouldn’t make him sick? Not much higher than the chances it would actually help.

But better that than no chance at all. Right?

Xan groaned. Reasoning like that was how a journeyman apothecary ended up spending the next three days expelling the contents of his stomach from both ends.

After an hour researching, mixing and muttering, and tossing out results that didn’t seem quite right, he capped a bottle containing a murky green liquid.

He stumbled through his long walk across Eagleton and halfway up the mountain to the Diwens’ house. In his room, he held the potion in front of him. Its ugly color and floating brown chunks did nothing to inspire confidence.

Xan swirled the liquid and removed the cork. Sniffing, he waved it under his nose. “No noxious fumes.” He brought it to his mouth and closed his eyes. “One. Two. Three.”

He couldn’t do it.

With a sigh, he set the still-full potion on his writing table. “There’s no way this is actually going to work. Best I can hope for is that it does nothing.”

Xan looked at his bed, at the bottle, and at the bed again. Seizing courage with both hands, he grabbed the mixture, threw back his head, and tossed it into his mouth. His face screwed into a grimace as he choked the potion down his throat. It tasted fouler than the tonic Master Rae gave children he suspected of feigning illness.

“It will either stop the dreams, or it won’t. I’ll either get sick, or I won’t.” He flopped onto his straw mattress and fell asleep an instant later

* * *

“The meadow again,” Xan muttered.

He glanced behind him to find impressions in the grass left by his footsteps spanning as far as his vision reached. And he had absolutely no recollection of having made them. Same as always.

All the other details were the same, too—the cloudless sky painted a deep blue that only existed at the instant daylight transformed into night, the unnatural light clarity despite there being no visible source, lush grass, perfect majestic oaks.

Not that he paid much attention to those elements. A hundred yards away, Ashley waited. An unbidden smile split his face.

Stop that. Play it cool.

His attempt to vanquish the grin failed as the corners of his lips tugged upward again on their own. He exhaled sharply. Good thing none of it was real.

If the landscape hadn’t convinced him that the world was imaginary, he’d only have had to look at her. It simply wasn’t possible for someone so beautiful to exist. More so, it wasn’t possible outside of a dream for someone so beautiful to want to spend time with him.

Ashley wore her hair, the golden yellow of freshly harvested wheat, straight down her back as he favored rather than teased and curled like most girls preferred. Ribbons and lace and all manner of beaded embellishments adorned her white dress. The outfit accented her figure and drew his vision to her tiny waist. His eyes drifted to the neckline, which dipped low enough to display a wide expanse of bare skin, including the most delightful—

Wait. What was he staring at?

He jerked his gaze to her eyes.

Why—if his imagination had made her his perfect vision of loveliness in every detail—did he give her emerald eyes instead of his favorite blue?

He raised his hand to wave.

Really? Waving to her? How lame was that?

Xan stopped mid-motion. His arm hung frozen, half-extended for an excruciating moment like that of some ridiculous marionette on display for children to laugh at. He clutched it against his body.

The world lurched as he stepped toward her, but he ignored it. After reorienting himself, he continued forward. A total of six footfalls brought him to stand at arms’ length from her.

“My fair maiden Ashley.” He fell to his knee and reached for her proffered hand.

In his mind, he’d thought kneeling would be debonair, courtly. But, in the reality of the moment, he just felt like a complete fool. Warmth spread to his cheeks. Embarrassed by a construct of his mind. He was such an idiot.

“My fair prince Xan.” She smiled, clearly amused.

The delicacy of her skin amazed him. He grazed her fingers with his lips. At least, he didn’t slobber all over her.

He dropped her hand in horror at the prospect and managed to rise without further humiliating himself. “Have you waited long?”

“I don’t think so.” Her forehead wrinkled, and she shook her head as if dispelling a painful thought.

Her memory loss again. Why did she struggle so to remember any detail save her name when he had perfect recall?

Oh. Yeah. Maybe it was because there was nothing for her to remember since she didn’t exist and all.

Ashley smiled. “It’s so beautiful here. Come, let’s sit.”

She slid to the ground and rested her back against a gnarled old oak without an apparent care for mussing her dress. When settled, she patted the grass beside her.

Xan swallowed hard. That had never happened. They always stood and chatted. Could he sit that close to her? What if he started sweating? What if his stomach growled?

He eyed a tree several yards away. Lot less chance of humiliating himself over there. But  how could he politely refuse her clear request?

She slapped the ground emphatically, her expression demanding obedience.

After a last longing glance at the other trunk, he moved toward her and stumbled. Of course. He had to brace himself against the tree to keep from falling on top of her. It was a blasted dream. Couldn’t he at least be graceful in a dream?

Xan sat, somehow managing not to imperil her further with his clumsiness, a good foot away from her. She promptly shifted so her right side rested against him from shoulder to leg.

The softness of her dress and the warmth of her body thrilled him almost as much as it terrified him. More heat engulfed his face, and his palms grew moist.

Ashley hooked her arm around his and drew herself tighter to him, resting her head on his shoulder. Did she not sense his discomfort? Or did she think more contact would set him at ease?

She sighed. “I could sit like this forever.”

So could he. When he sought to tell her that, though, the proper words fled his mind. He merely nodded.

Discerning the passage of time proved impossible. He couldn’t tell if minutes or hours passed. Gradually, the silence, and the feel of her against him, grew more comfortable.

He closed his eyes and imagined putting his arm around her. Goose bumps rose on his skin. What if she pushed him away? What if she laughed?

After all those nights of talking, his first time touching her was at her bidding. Twenty nights of yearning to kiss her, wishing for confidence, and still he hesitated. He hated himself.

Coward! Brant would go for it. Blast it, even Dylan would.

Xan couldn’t move his arm without disturbing her. Ashley stirred as he raised it, lifting her head. He reached his hand above him, feigning the need to stretch. She moved no further.

Did she actually want him to do it?

Her head leaned forward in invitation. Ready to pull back at the first sign of displeasure, he lowered his arm and laid it across her shoulders. As it settled onto her, he tensed.

Instead of rejecting him, she snuggled against him. They sat, not talking, Xan barely daring to move, for time immeasurable.

All too soon, he felt a jolt, and vivid colors swirled.

 

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23. Mastering the Craft awarded silver eLit medal

Add a Comment
24. Flogometer for Tim—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Tim sends a first chapter of Justice, a fantasy. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“We need to talk.” Jobe kept the frustration from his voice as he spoke to the wizard Lysander as they walked past rows of neat cottages.

Instead of speaking, Lysander turned his head, inspecting a pair of old women gossiping across a fence.

Jobe silently cursed to himself. I should have known better. We’ve been together for a month, and he’s barely spoken a dozen words to me. A cold raindrop splattered across Jobe’s face. Great.

The gossiping women noticed Lysander’s stare, and stared back. The wizard increased his pace and began muttering under his breath. No doubt he considered the pair possible informers. The wizard saw spies everywhere, which was why the pair traveled back roads instead of taking coaches or riverboats. Then again, the wizard had reason, being accused of blasphemy and black magic by the Church. Capture and conviction meant death by immolation.

The rain intensified as the sun approached the horizon. Jobe drew level with the wizard. “It grows late. We should find shelter.”

Lysander stopped muttering long enough to face Jobe. Like Jobe, Lysander had grey eyes and brown hair, though he was double Jobe’s age. Others often mistook them for father and son, or uncle and nephew; an impression Lysander did nothing to dispel. Tis’ a role I play. A role well (snip)

Were you compelled to turn the page?

The writing needs to sharpen up a bit and get rid of things such as the repetition of “the pair” in the fourth paragraph to refer to two different sets of people. I can forgive things like that for a strong hit of story tension, but that wasn’t here. Instead of notes, following is an opening I created from material later in the chapter (condensed it and corrected some grammar errors). See if you think this makes a stronger opening and vote.

Jobe pinned the wizard against the shack wall. Lysander’s breath escaped with a ‘woof’ as Jobe’s elbow dug into the mage’s ribs. Jobe pulled a gun from his pocket and pressed the barrel against the mage’s nose. “You recognize this?” Most people on this world wouldn’t, but Jobe figured the wizard for an exception. “You know what it can do?”

“I – I do.” Lysander trembled. His gaze darted from side to side. “What do you want?”

“Answers,” Jobe took a step back, keeping his eyes focused on the mage.

“You may have difficulty obtaining answers from my corpse,” said Lysander. His eyes focused on the weapon in Jobe’s hand.

Jobe adjusted his aim, pointing the gun at the wizard’s shoulder. “Pain will suffice.”

“I have enough pain in my life without adding more.” Lysander’s shoulders slumped. “Ask your question.”

“I flit from world to world like a leaf in a storm, retaining fragmentary memories of each sojourn. You knew this from the moment we met. More, I figure in some secret truth you carry. I want that secret.” Jobe’s lips curled in a humorless smile. “Besides, confession is good for the soul.”

Would you turn the page with this opening?

Comments, please?

For what it’s worth.

Ray

Submitting to the Flogometer:

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

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

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 Tim

 

Continued:

. . . suited to a man without a past. Jobe’s recollections were spotty at best: brief images of faces, taverns, strange cities, and alien landscapes. He remembered nothing of his youth or upbringing.

The wizard surveyed the street. Not far ahead, the close set cottages they’d been walking past became replaced by blank faced warehouses and manufactories. “I’d hoped to reach our destination tonight,” he said, “but I have no desire to navigate that labyrinth in the dark. But I see no inns”-

A desperate plan crystalized in Jobe’s mind. “Allow me.” Jobe approached a woman bent over a weedy garden plot and commenced a swift negotiation sealed by a copper coin.

“This way.” Their hostess guided the pair through an herb garden to a tiny shed behind her trim cottage. Here, she opened the creaking door, exposing a battered table flanked by worn benches. “I want you gone by morning,” she said before stumping to the cottage.

Lysander stood in the doorway and watched her leave, muttering to himself. At length, he turned to Jobe. “I don’t trust her. We”-

Now.Jobe acted, twisting the wizards arm and pinning him against the wall. Lysander’s breath escaped with a ‘woof’ as Jobe’s elbow dug into the mages ribs. The gun appeared in Jobe’s free hand. He pressed the barrel against the mages nose. “You recognize this?” Jobe demanded. Most people on this world wouldn’t, but Jobe figured the wizard for an exception. “You know what it can do?”

“I – I do.” Lysander’s body trembled. His eyes darted from side to side. “What do you want?”

“Answers,” Jobe took a step back, keeping his eyes focused on the mage.

“You may have difficulty obtaining answers from my corpse,” said Lysander. His eyes focused on the weapon in Jobe’s hand.

Jobe adjusted his aim, pointing the gun at the wizards shoulder. “Pain will suffice.”

“I have enough pain in my life without adding more.” Lysander sounded weary and resigned. His shoulders slumped. “Ask your question.”

“I flit from world to world like a leaf in a storm, retaining fragmentary memories of each sojourn. You knew this from the moment we meant. More, I figure in some secret truth you carry. I want that secret.” Jobe’s lips curled in a humorless smile. “Besides, confession is good for the soul.”

“I suspected as much.” A long breath escaped Lysander’s lips. “There is a tale I suppose both of you should hear.”

‘Both of you?’ More evidence of the wizard’s insanity. But still… “Please do. I enjoy new stories.” Jobe’s lips curled in a false smile. He withdrew the gun and motioned to the table.

Lysander sat at the table fumbled in his pockets, finding two candle stubs which he set on the table and ignited with a mystic word. Jobe took the bench opposite the wizard. The wizard sighed. “It was twenty-two years ago…”

 

Add a Comment
25. Flogometer for Troy—are you compelled to turn the page?

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


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

Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.

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

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

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

Download a free PDF copy here.

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

A First-page Checklist

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

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

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


Troy sends a first chapter of Ascendency. The remainder is after the break.

Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.

“Are you really going to shoot me?” Paul says.

A man wearing a plain black trench coat gazes at a row of Humvees silhouetted against the pre-dawn glow of the rising sun. His flashlight and .45 caliber pistol aim at Paul’s back.

“Only if I have to. Now drop the keys soldier and go back to your tent.”

Paul’s eyes flick toward the nearest Humvee. He can smell the harsh acidic fumes of diesel fuel wafting off it. Almost, he thinks. He digs his right boot into the hard desert sand, kicking up a swirl of dust that shimmers like diamonds as he shuffles his feet to turn around. He looks into the glare of the flashlight. “It’s not enough with you guys spying on the Afghani’s; now you have to do it with your own troops.”

“Wasn’t too hard to figure out you’d try something like this, with the way you reacted to our report.”

“She trusted me!” Paul says.

“She’s probably dead by now. Going after her won’t solve anything.”

“You.” Paul’s nose flares. “You made me do it. You said you’d protect her.”

“Nobody made you do anything Private Weber. Basheera was good informant, but she was also stubborn. We had to use you get her—”

“We’re in love.”

Were you compelled to turn the page?

A good “what happens next” story question was almost enough to get me to turn this page, but too many craft issues suggest that there’s some rough reading ahead. There are grammatical errors, though they are fixable. But the narrative veers into overwriting, and that’s a deterrent for this reader. That said, tighten up the writing and lift it to a correct, professional level to realize your story—it could be a good one. Notes:

“Are you really going to shoot me?” Paul says.

A man wearing a plain black trench coat gazes at a row of Humvees silhouetted against the pre-dawn glow of the rising sun. His flashlight and .45 caliber pistol aim at Paul’s back.

“Only if I have to. Now drop the keys, soldier, and go back to your tent.” Couple of missing commas.

Paul’s eyes flick toward the nearest Humvee. He can smell the harsh acidic fumes of diesel fuel wafting off it. Almost, he thinks. He digs his right boot into the hard desert sand, kicking up a swirl of dust that shimmers like diamonds as he shuffles his feet to turns around. He and looks into the glare of the flashlight. “It’s not enough with you guys spying on the Afghans Afghani’s; now you have to do it with your own troops.” Here’s the overwriting. The smell of the fuel has no affect on the story and doesn’t move it forward, and neither do the detailed description of which boot he digs into the sand or the nature of the dust. Keep the story moving.

“Wasn’t too hard to figure out you’d try something like this, with the way you reacted to our report.”

“She trusted me!” Paul says.

“She’s probably dead by now. Going after her won’t solve anything.”

“You.” Paul’s nose flares. “You made me do it. You said you’d protect her.” For me, the nose flaring was a detail that didn’t quite connect, though I get where it comes from. Give us internal monologue for a dialogue beat, maybe? Or a clenching of his fists, something more easily associated with anger and fighting than nostril activity.

“Nobody made you do anything, Private Weber. Basheera was good informant, but she was also stubborn. We had to use you get her—” Note missing comma.

“We’re in love.”

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 Troy

 

Continued:

The trench coated man’s face relaxes.

Paul looks at him with pleading eyes. “Please. Just let me go get her.”

 “You know I can’t do that. I’m sorry, but you broke the first rule of espionage. Never become attached to your assignment.”

Paul’s heart races and he starts to hyperventilate. He stares at the glimmering tip of the gun for a moment and then the corners of his lips twist into a scowl. “To hell with you Victor. You wanna shoot me, you go right ahead.”

Paul snaps back around and marches into the Humvee. He starts the engine and slams on the accelerator, speeding out of the Afghanistan base onto the darkness.

 ###

 A short time later, a man in battledress fatigues throws open the cloth door of a cavernous multi-room tent. At six foot two inches tall and with the physique of a large bear, Hank cast an imposing figure against dark desert behind him. His pale green eyes lock onto a single battery operated lamp that stands on a tan desk lighting up a small section of it. Victor is seated behind it typing on a laptop. Hank’s eyes narrow, the faint light reflects off a salt and pepper mustache that runs down the sides of his lips and dangles off his chin. He stomps over to him and slams his meaty hands on the metal desk.

“Where is he?”

Victor’s eyelids lift up, acknowledging his presence for the first time. “Who?”

“You know damn well who I’m talking about.”

Victor stands up from his desk and closes his laptop. He puts a hand to his chin, strokes some two-day-old stubble, and looks at his fingernails. “He took off after her about twenty minutes ago.”

Hank’s mouth drops open. “And you let him leave, all by himself?”

Victor glares at Hank. “And what was I supposed to do? Go AWOL and tag along.”

“Humph,” Hank snorts. “You intelligence types are all alike. Don’t give a damn about the grunts.” Hank turns to walk out.

“I hope you’re not thinking of going after him?”

“What if I am?”

“You’ve got twenty years in the Marine Corp Sargent. Don’t throw it all away for some kid.”

Hank looks over his shoulder with disgust. “Well I guess loyalty something you’ll never understand.”

“You know, saving him won’t bring your son back.”

Hank’s face turns bright red and he clinches his teeth. He whips around and marches up, nose to nose with Victor. “I told you,” he growls, stabbing a finger into Victor’s chest, “to keep your damn mitts outa my private life.”

“Come now Sargent, it wasn’t that hard to figure out. You haven’t had any contact with your son in years.” Hank presses his lip together and his nose flares. “Then he gets killed by an IED, and all of a sudden you become attached to this kid. Besides it’s too dangerous to go after him by yourself.”

“Oh I won’t be goin’ alone. There’re at least twenty men who’ll be willin’ to go with me. So I suggest you make this search official. Make it one of your black ops operations if you want to keep under the radar.” A sly smile forms on Hanks face. “After all, you wouldn’t want your other informants to get nervous with the way you screwed up the last op.”  

Victor’s shoulders relax. He slinks back down at his desk and opens his laptop. “All right. I’m putting this incident under my authority. Take two men and go after him.”

Hank turns and strides to the doorway. “Sargent,” Victor calls out as he opens the tent door. “If you don’t bring him back alive I won’t be able to protect you.”

“I never expected you would.”

Hank runs straight into one of the light tan tents on the other side of the base. He jogs up to Ben who is lying asleep in his cot and shakes his shoulder.

“Wha…” Ben cracks an eye open as Hank shines a flashlight at him.

“Hurry up and get dressed. Paul’s left for Basheera and we’re goin’ after him.”

“Uh, damn it.” Ben says. He throws off the blanket and puts on his pants. “I told him not to get involved with her.”

“Well love is a funny thing. You never know where it’s goin’ to spring up. Now go grab Dennis and get your gear. Meet me at the motor pool ASAP.”

“Right.”

 ###

 A mile from Basheera’s home, Paul slows his Humvee and stares the dirt road in front of him. Something’s not right. There are fresh tire tracks with thick finger sized groves and oil spots on the powder like dirt. They had to have been made by a truck but her family doesn’t own a truck. His pulse quickens. He turns off the headlights and drops his night vision goggles on his helmet. The scene around him changes into sea of light and dark shapes, all lit up in a brilliant emerald green hue.   

When he sees the dirt road dropping into a ravine, he kills the motor and gets out. He creeps forward on his hands and knees to the drop off and scans the area. A hundred and twenty yards down in the ravine he can see her home with a large pickup truck parked a dozen yards up from it. He moves several yards to the right along the ridgeline. A single light is on in the mud brick house that blasts a florescent green glare through the gaps in wooden doorway. Two men with assault rifles are standing on both sides of the door but Tázi her dog isn’t barking.

A scream grabs his attention and his blood chills. He focuses his hearing on it. He can hear some muffled sounds followed by Basheera’s high-pitched voice.

Paul creeps down the ravine keeping the truck between him and the two men guarding the house. As Paul gets closer, he can hear a man inside speaking in Dari. He’s accusing Basheera of being whore and helping the Americans. She’s sobbing and pleading with him not to shoot.

At fifty yards, Paul slides out from the silhouette of the truck, sitting on his feet.  He drops a knee and takes aim at the two men with his silenced M4 rifle. Two three round bursts cough out from it and the two men drop without a sound to the ground. Paul runs forward and hears a single gunshot a second later. The sound recoils though his body bringing him to a stop. Basheera’s voice wails from inside the house crying for her mother.

Paul shakes his head and runs to the doorway. The man inside tells Basheera that her mother’s death is on her hands. Paul gets to his knees and lifts up his night vision goggles. He takes out a candy bar sized flash bang grenade, pulls the pin, and rolls it under a gap in the door before turning his head and plugging his ears. A second and a half later, Paul hears the muffled blast of the grenade.

He bursts inside the home on his knees and takes in the situation. The smell of burned metal hangs in the air. In the thin haze, he spots the bloodied bodies of her father and three bothers on the ground to the left, her sisters body is lying on a wooden chair against the wall in front of him. Just five feet to his right, he spots a man who has a hand to his eyes and another griping an AK-47.

Paul shoots a three round barrage at the man hitting him twice in the upper chest and once in the throat. The man collapses wheezing for breath. Paul fires a second barrage into his skull and the man’s body goes limp. Paul then takes aim at another man ten yards inside. He’s holding Basheera in front of him with one arm and has a pistol in his other arm pointed at her head.

“I’ll kill her!” he shouts in Dari. His eyes are pressed shut and he’s flicking his head. Paul moves his rifle searching for an open shot but can’t find one. Basheera has her hands flailing in front of her. She lowers them blinking her eyelids and then her eyes widen.

“Paul!”

The man turns his head. He stares at Paul, blinking the tears from his eyes. “So, you are se American,” he says sounding out each syllable in a thick accented English.

“Drop your weapon,” Paul says.

The man laughs. “Drob yours first.” 

Paul’s eyes narrow. “Do it, or so help me I’ll—”

“You’ll what.” The man pulls Basheera in tighter. She starts to tremble and mouths “Love you,” while putting her fingertips to her heart.

“Ah yanni,” the man says. “You know American, we have a saying in sis land. Se winner is one who is most committed.” His rolls his eyes to the right. “I wonder…” His eyes stare back a Paul like poisoned daggers. “How committed are you.” 

He raises the elbow of his arm holding the gun, pressing it into her temple. His forearm flexes and she screams.

Paul’s eyes flash open. “Wait—”

“Allahu Akbar.” He closes his eyes and pulls the trigger.

In Paul’s mind, everything slows down. He sees her body recoil and twist away from the man. Crimson blood streams out from her head like a long silk ribbon. She seems to hang in midair for a second before her arms collapse to her side and her knees give out. He watches her fall to the dirt floor and sees her arms bounce up as she hits the ground with curls of white dust spraying out from her.

Paul’s jaw drops. His turns his head to the man whose eyes are now wide open, his hand with the gun nearly lined up with Paul. The man’s face is passive, almost gentle. Paul pulls the trigger. A three round blast strikes the man in the chest knocking him back, his arms fling forward. Paul stands and fires another burst into the man’s chest. The man stumbles backward and Paul fires another burst that ricochets into his limp body as he falls to the ground.

Paul throws off his helmet and runs to Basheera. He drops to his knees reaching his hands out. He hesitates seeing her lifeless eyes gazing back at him and puddle of dull red blood soaking into the dirt.

“Basheera… please…”

His eyes search her body for any signs of life, a mad hope for a miracle emanating from his face. Tears begin to stream down his cheeks as his fingers curl around the sleeves of her multicolored drape-like clothing and he pulls her close. He holds her tight against him while his entire body shakes. He then bears his teeth. He hears Victor’s voice whispering in his head.

You broke the first rule of espionage Paul. Never become attached to your assignment.

The muscles in his face bugle as he crushes his jaws together. Paul lifts his head to the ceiling.

“Victor!”   

 ###

An hour passes and light creeps over the barren hills. Ben drives the Humvee with Hank and Dennis down a dusty dirt road. They stop to check out an empty Humvee parked at the top of the ledge before continuing toward a mud brick house down in the ravine by a small gurgling creek. Hank and Dennis ready their rifles when they see the Toyota pickup parked near the home. Technical’s the insurgents called them and this one had a PK machine gun mounted on it.

As they get closer, they can see Paul sitting outside the open doorway in the dirt cradling a young woman in his arms. The front of her clothing is torn and she has a single gunshot wound in her right temple. Dry blood is still clinging on her face and her eyes are wide open. Two dead men are on either side of him.

Hank jumps out of the passenger side of the Humvee and rushes over to him. Paul has a mile long stare of shock in his eyes. He’s stroking her long black hair with his fingertips and whispering to her.

Hank touches his shoulder. “You ok son.”

Paul doesn’t react. “It’s my fault sir.” His lips quiver as a fresh tear falls down his cheek. “I told my parents last week I was going to bring her home with me.” Paul grasps white knuckle tight at a silver chain around his neck. He opens his hand and reveals a small blue-jeweled pendant. “W-we were going to get married sir.”

Hank closes his eyes and bows his head.

Ben backs up the Humvee in front of Paul and jumps out with Dennis. Each of them open their doors and take flanking positions with their rifles at the ready.

“We should move inside,” Ben says.

He shoots a quick look into the home and turns his head away. Blood is spattered all over the mud brick walls and the twisted bodies of several Afghans lie inside. A message written in Dari is scrawled in blood on the east wall facing the doorway. It reads ‘american spies’.

Dennis reaches out and nudges one of the limp bodies on the ground with the tip of his rifle. He looks at Hank with guarded eyes.

Hank nods at him and shoulders his rifle. He reaches down to Paul with both hands. “Let me take her son. I won’t let anythin’ happen to her.”

Paul stares at the horizon and wrinkles his forehead. “I hear her screaming.” He looks up at Hank with hollow eyes. “Ssshe won’t stop screaming.”

“I know.” Hank puts his arms under her body and gently lifts her up. “Let’s go home son.”

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