Submissions invited: If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below.
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 list of 6 vital storytelling ingredients from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. 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.
Evaluate the submission—and your own first page—in terms of whether or not it includes each of these ingredients, and how well it executes them. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing because that is a must for every page, a given.
- Story questions
- Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
Jenny has sent the first chapter of The Gift of Light.
The winding road to Hook Pond appeared stark and bleak in the mid-January sun. Young Emily Bell never traveled the road in the winter before and the terrain matched her mood exactly. On her last trip to Hook Pond she had been most happy, excited at the prospect of spending the whole summer with her Aunt Gemma at Perry House. Her heart was heavy and sad as she made the trip now. Just like the trees, she felt stark and bleak.
This journey, it seemed, was the longest ten-year-old Emily had ever taken. She could not wait to be free of the state social worker who had been assigned to take her on this trip. Ms. Standish had not spoken more than a handful of words to her since they set out from Queens, earlier that morning. It was not that she seemed unfriendly to Emily, just she was distant. Distant as almost everyone tended to be since her father had passed away, nearly two weeks ago.
Heaving a sigh, Emily thought of her father now. His death left a gaping hole inside of her that made her feel as if she were being sucked into the black darkness of it. Her father always drove her to East Hampton himself every summer as far back as she could remember. The trip had always been an adventure. She would stick her head out the window and loved the feel of the dappled sunlight hitting her face as it shone through the dense foliage of the heavily wooded area. Breathing in the salty tang of the air so close to the ocean enhanced the wonder of being away from the city.
No turn of the page
While the writing is solid, for me this lacked the tension of story questions. Oh, there’s the overall question of what will happen to the orphan, but there’s no hint of jeopardy or stakes. Later in the chapter, though, we learn that a couple of angels are watching her arrive, and that one of them is assigned to protect her because the Lord has plans for Emily. Now that’s the kind of stuff that can make for a strong first page.
More than that, though, is the distant approach. While it isn’t “wrong” to begin a story with telling and backstory, it runs counter to my philosophy of storytelling. I wrote about this recently in a sample edit for a writer because she began her narrative with telling what was happening instead of immersing us in the experience of the character (and thus the story). How much better would it be if this story opened with the girl’s encounter with the angel, if that happens? Or a scene in which she is threatened by something and the angel steps in, only to not completely succeed? I think that this story starts too soon and too distant to engage this particular reader.
Try immersing yourself in the character’s experience in a scene in which things happen to her that mean trouble and starting with that. You can weave in the backstory as you involve us with what’s happening in the now of her story.
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 format with double spacing, 12-point font Times New Roman font, 1-inch margins.
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
- And, optionally, permission to use it as an example in a book 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.
© 2012 Ray Rhamey