The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.
Download a free PDF copy here.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins to engage the reader with the character
- Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
- The character desires something.
- The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
- 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.
- The one thing it must do: raise a story question.
Caveat: a first page can succeed without including all of these possibilities. They are simply tools you can use. In particular, a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and a create page turn without doing all of the above. On the other hand, testing pages with the checklist no matter where they are in a story can help identify where a narrative lags and why it does.
Roberta sends the prologue and first chapter of The Factory Girl Murders.. The rest of the submission follows the break.
Prologue: Lent, 1905, Bialystok, Russia
Horses do not trample children, not even dead children. Avram didn’t know much about horses but he was sure of that. He had often petted the little white mare that pulled the Count’s drosky. Once he had fed her windfalls from the orchard. He liked the feeling of her coarse mane and the kindly way she nickered as she nuzzled his pockets for more apples, a dense, comforting smell rising off her like Ma’s bread baking in the oven.
There was nothing kind or comforting about the black stallion, the white flecks of sweat on his neck, or the fat Cossack astride him, wheeling the horse this way and that, sawing the iron bit back and forth until the horse’s mouth was ripped and bloody. The stallion reared up, hooves as big as dinner plates pawing the air. Even if he didn’t mean to, the horse might crush Avram.
People scattered all around Avram, zigzagging, leaving deep footprints in the snow, stumbling, screaming, shouting, black specks on a field of white snow patched with red blood. His uncle Tubal, and his cousin, Saul ran with peyash fluttering around their ears, prayers shawls fluttering, tzitzits hanging out from underneath. The women ran, shawls slipping from their shoulders, some holding screaming babies.
No one noticed him. Avram was safe, snug inside Laska. Her ribs poked into his stomach and legs. He didn’t mind. It will be over soon. His Ma always said this when bad things happened. Why didn’t Ma come and get him? Maybe he should wiggle out and find her.
Chapter 1: Lower Eastside, New York City, January, 1932
The two girls stood in front of the window of Bialy’s bakery, giggling so hard they were hanging onto each other, their too big matching grey coats making them look like a pair of fantail pigeons preening each other. The one Bialy liked was Giddy Brodsky. The other girl was her sister, Manka, the Communist. They lived at 34 Hester Street, apartment 3A, a tall, skinny, dark building pretty much like every tenement on the Lower Eastside. He found out about Giddy from Mrs. Lowenstein, the shadkin, the matchmaker. She dropped the information as casual he dropped bagel dough into boiling water. “Oh,” she had said, bunching up her rouged cheeks, “Giddy Brodsky? The one with the sister? On Hester Street she lives, next to the kosher butcher.”
In other words, not exactly the Frick mansion. Four apartments to a floor. One bedroom, a kitchen, a front parlour, ten people to a flat, plus a couple of boarders. If they were lucky, maybe a see-through between the kitchen and front parlour to let in light and an air shaft so you could hear everyone’s fights and smell everyone’s cooking. Toilet down the hall for all four families. Bialy could have easily found his way around Giddy’s apartment in the dark. The thought excited him. He grew a little hard.
Giddy living in such a dump! The thought pained him and yet, clamp your eyes on her. So clean, so well turned out in her boater hat and white blouse and long black skirt. She looked (snip)
In both pieces I liked the voice and the writing (this is a first draft and there are little glitches, but they’ll be cleared up, I’m sure). The prologue mostly worked for me. There’s a riveting scene happening, and we’re drawn into the story of a little boy. There was one clarity issue: the narrative tells us that he’s inside Laska. But we don’t know what that is. I suggest moving the description up from later so we can see the scene completely. Here’s the addition:
. . . inside Laska, the carcass of his mother’s cow. Laska died of old age in the fall when the ground was too frozen to bury her. Vultures and crows picked her clean.
The prologue earned a page turn from me, and it was worth the read. The opening of the first chapter, though, didn’t produce any riveting story questions as it introduced characters. There is a paragraph later that might have done the job:
“So what other girls you wanna know about?” said Mrs. Lowenstein. “You know me, I've lived here all my life. Everybody I know.” She lowered her voice. “I even knew that poor girl who was murdered last week, down by Grand.” She shook her head. “A tragedy, even if she was an Italian girl.”
The chapter opening needs some hint of jeopardy to come for someone, especially after the dramatic prologue action. But this is a promising start for me.
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2016 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2016 by Roberta