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--new: I've added a request to post the rest of the chapter.
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)
Carolyn sends the first chapter of Deadly.
It's a law of nature that sooner or later my older sister will hook up with another handsome psycho who's totally out to do harm, and I'll have to break them up.
"His name is Geoffrey Whittington, the Third, and he's one of the richest men in town," Cort, short for Cortland, pulls her straw hat down over her golden curls.
School's out for the summer and we're dragging our butts through the 93-degree deserted woods by Donner Woods Road, picking berries for one of Mom's famous pies.
I yank my shirt off and tie it around the waist of my two-piece bathing suit. "Sheesh. How many times do I have to tell you this? I don't care if his name is Geoffrey Whittington, the Fourteenth. You have to stop choosing boyfriends based on their bank accounts. Check out their criminal records first."
Cort stops picking berries. Her sappy smile and dewy eyes tell me she's a goner already. Case closed.
She stands in the shade of a cottonwood tree like a movie star. In that white sundress, with the late afternoon sun shining down through the leaves, she looks almost angelic. Of course, she's not, and I get a weird premonition that we're both in for danger with this guy around.
On second thought, I'm not going to let this case get closed so easily. I just have to figure a way to get her attention.
I like the voice—it’s natural and confident. The scene is set pretty well, and two characters introduced. But where are the story questions, at least any with some consequences to the protagonist? The only story questions here relate to how the sisters deal with the older sister’s boyfriend. No turn of the page for me.
However . . .
I looked later into the chapter and found material much more likely to raise a story question strong enough to get me to turn the page. With a little trimming, here’s an alternate opening taken from later. A poll follows.
As I run to the edge of our tiny South Carolina river and kick off my flip flops, Cort calls to me: "Cameo! Don't jump."
So like my older sis to get everything totally wrong. After squirming out of my jean cutoffs, I push back my messy brown hair, suck in my gut, and pretend my sixteen-year-old figure's as good as my sister's. It's depressing that she's like a size one, while I'm the one who's always dieting.
"It's okay," I tell her. "I know where the rocks are." I can almost taste that cool water and feel it washing over my parched body. I dive deep into the river.
A luscious wetness covers and soothes me until something large swims in my direction. The pitch- black water makes it impossible to see what it is. Something in my gut warns me whatever it is isn't friendly, and I swing into a fast breast stroke in the other direction.
The water below my feet sends chills up my body. A rough current tumbles me along the river bottom into a sunken tree. Something large bumps into my leg. Oh God, alligators live here.
My inner compass is totally screwed up now, giving me no idea of which way to swim to find Cort. Adrenaline rushes through my body and I battle up from the muddy river bottom.
Something grabs my legs from behind.
To turn the page, scroll down past directions for submitting for a link to the rest of the chapter.
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.
Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Carolyn
This is not a fish.
For sure, this is not an alligator.
Water fills my nose and burns in my eyes. Lungs nearly exploding, I twist one leg free, kick against solid muscle, and am released. Up out of the water I leap and find myself next to shore, gasping for air.
Hanging onto a tree by the river bank, Cort stretches her free hand toward me.
Choking and kicking my legs, I grab her wrist and she pulls me up onto shore.
I flop on my back on the rocky ground; and snort in some breaths.
She yanks my hair out of my eyes, and stares at me, brows down, lips up in a why-do-you-keep-doing-crazy-things? look. "You were down there forever. I didn't think you'd ever come up. What happened?"
I gulp for air, not sure I know what happened. I could have dreamed being held down until I nearly drowned, but I doubt it.
"You shouldn't go swimming here. It's dangerous." Cort puckers her face into a disparaging squint. If Cort has one thing down, it's being disparaging, but even then, she's got that blonde pretty thing going for her.
When I finally get enough air to speak, I sit up and stare into her corn-flower-blue eyes. "Somebody was down there. A guy. He tried to—"
She places one hand on the waist of her sundress, and stamps her sandaled foot. "Don't start with your daydreams about being assaulted. You're always dreaming up some kind of adventure."
I grab my jean cut-offs and don't argue with her because I'm always on the losing end. Instead, I shake my head to get the water out of my ear, and wonder if my parents would notice she was missing if I pushed her into the water and walked home. I shove my legs into my shorts. Nah, I couldn't do that, no matter how mad she makes me. She is my sister after all, and we've been raised to protect each other from all outside-of-the-family forces. Inside family forces—well, that's an entirely different thing.
"Come on, let's go. Mom will have a cow if we're not home in time for supper." She picks up the bucket of berries we'd been picking for dessert and we start off.
On the walk home, I try to tell her what happened underwater, but she keeps interrupting me with questions. "Should I wear my pink or my yellow dress tonight? I mean, the yellow one fits me better, but the pink, well, Geoff says that favors my beautiful skin."
I could care less if she wears a clown suit as long as she doesn't tell our parents what happened. If she does, I'll get grounded or worse, just because I dove into the river. According to them, well-bred young ladies don't dive into rivers.
The image of Cort's boyfriend forces its way into my brain. Now I remember him. I've seen the guy downtown, driving around in a red convertible, laughing in that sadistic way he has. For some reason, I think he could have been the one under the water, trying to drown me.
Of course, that's totally silly. Maybe I'm just suffering from post traumatic stress or something from half-drowning. Still, Cort's boyfriend's always around when barns burn down mysteriously or pet animals disappear. I even get an image of him torturing a tiny terrier in his basement laboratory. That makes me totally sick to my stomach.
Thank God, Cort doesn't breathe a word to our parents when we get home. Of course, she wouldn't, she's all about Geoffrey, the Great.
Mom greets us at the door, perfect blonde hair framing her smiling face. Cort got her looks; I got Dad's. She grabs the berries I push in her direction. "You girls did good!" She ushers us into the kitchen to help set the table and serve oven-baked BBQ ribs and biscuits with gravy.
At dinner, Daddy with his white shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened raises a bushy eyebrow after Cort goes on and on about her new beau. I give him a secret smile, knowing he's not totally taken in.
After we've cleared the table and I do the dishes, I make a point of peering out from the kitchen when Geoffrey, the Great, appears at the front door. He is handsome in a dangerous kind of way with black hair brushed back, intense brown eyes, and a tall, muscular body.
Cort comes home so late, I fall asleep and don't get to talk to her. In the morning I'm out on Donner Woods Road again, trying out the new mountain bike my parents gave me for my Sweet Sixteen a week ago. When a car starts up behind me, I know this isn't going to be your normal tryout.
The reason is: nobody comes here anymore now that they built the new highway, except me and the driver of that sports car, whose engine I recognize. Crazy, but that's another thing that's started to develop inside me since my brush with death—I'm super-sensitive to danger. Having this super-sensitivity is scary, but it's also invigorating and fun, as long as I can keep safe.
Right now, I'm not so sure I can. Fingers tightening, eyes darting, looking for an escape, I white-knuckle the handlebars and pedal hard up the road. Sweat drips off my brow. The leafy overhang of magnolia and sourwood is so close to my mouth, I can almost taste their bitter flavor.
The car's coming up fast on my left. An image of Geoffrey Whittington's face flashes in my mind.
Pedaling even faster, my thighs burn and I gasp for breath. A quick glance behind me reveals a familiar red convertible.
Panic scurries through me as I realize it's too late now to get away. I motion him to come around me, hoping I can talk my way out of this.
That's when I realize the driver's not trying to pass and has no intention of talking. He's pointing his vehicle at me, revving his engine, and driving full throttle.
My heart's pounding halfway up my throat. With no opening in the woods to turn into, I take off, standing on my pedals to pump more speed into my bike. Fingers aching, I hit a bad patch of broken-up pavement. I shift to a lighter gear, but my bike jumps up off the road anyway. Sailing through the air, I gulp back the dryness in my throat and fight off an image of me crashing into the trees.
The bike smacks back down onto the road, squashing my kidneys with a painful blow.
The rumble of the car engine surges in my ears, echoes in my mind.
I don't dare glance behind now and lose speed. Heat sears through my clothes. Under my helmet, my hair feels on fire, and my throat begs for water. Sweat dribbles off my jaw and my soaked shirt sticks to my skin.
Out of the side of my eye I see a huge dog running like crazy past me and into the bushes by the road. The smell of dog-that's-been-rolling-in-something-disgusting fills my nose.
The red convertible roars alongside me. Six inches closer and he'll ram into my bike.
As much as I want to ID his evil face, I can't risk looking at him. He revs his car closer and closer. Teetering on the edge of the road, I brake until my body is pulled so far forward, I almost fly over the handlebars.
Every jog set off by my bouncing wheels knifes into my spine when my bike spins off the road and plummets me down a steep ditch into the thick woods. I slide off the seat and lean back, turning my body left and right to miss the trees and bushes that jump up in front of me.
I hit a berry bush and doves fly out. The birds squawk and their wings squeak as they take off, trying to get away from me. Scratchy branches gouge my arms and legs when I swerve to avoid the stumps of two giant trees.
E-r-r-r-r-r. Oh, no. That's the sound of my brakes locking. I'm thrown down the plunging terrain.
I lose my grip on the seat, bail off the back, and land with a painful crunch on my head and shoulders.
The helmet strap digs into my neck, but I can't release it because I'm bouncing along the rocky ground. I tumble through the brambles, not sure where up is anymore.
My body slows to a stop and I lie on my back in a pile of leaves and catch my breath, wondering if I dreamed the last ten minutes. When pain erupts in my legs and arms like I'm on fire, and anger bubbles through me like hot acid.
At least the idiot missed me. I check my legs and arms and find a few bruises, but no broken bones. Good thing I didn't fly over the handlebars or I might have been seriously hurt, maybe even killed. Not that he'd care.
The squeal of tires and the bang of two tons of car bashing into something or someone fill the air. I hope it wasn't that poor dog. Adrenaline overshadows my pain, and I jolt to a sitting position.
I swallow hard to keep my lunch from jerking up my throat. Now, I'm really scared, but even so, I've got to find out what happened.
On the move, I stagger up the hill. Pulling myself up through the brush, hand over hand, I step back up onto the road.
The same red convertible speeds past in the opposite direction, leaving a whirl of dust and dead leaves behind. I catch a flash of his handsome face and the evil in his eyes.
It's him. I know that face and that car with the Rebel flags on the license plate, as if he's still fighting the Civil War. They belong to my sister's boyfriend, Geoffrey Whittington, III.
To top it off, he's hunched over the wheel, staring straight ahead. Something red and shiny glistens across his fender.
Oh, oh. Blood.
My hands shake.
God only knows what he's done this time. The idea he's graduated to something even worse buzzes in my brain.
I stumble back down the rough terrain to get my backpack and put it on. My bike's on its side, trapped by a bush before it could run into a towering sycamore. At least it's not totaled. I can bang out any new dents and find out what happened to the brakes. I clutch the handlebars of my bike and push it back up the steep hill to the road where I push it up and down the road, looking for signs of where he hit something.
If he were halfway human, Geoff could have said, "Hi, Cammie," or stopped and apologized or honked or even waved. But no, he pretended he didn't know me. Of course not, I'm just road kill to a killer. He doesn't care about anyone but himself. He's got a blood-thirsty thing going, but I'm the only one who sees it.
That's when I start getting down on myself. I had a hunch what was going to happen, and I didn't try to stop it. Then I think, Cut yourself some slack. He's a grown-up maniac with two tons of steel to play with, and you're a sixteen-year-old girl with no weapon.
Not that I could use a weapon if I had one. I shake my head and know he's done something horrible again.
Now he's killed something or somebody, and he doesn't give a rip. The creep has always been up to something really evil, but nobody cares because he's handsome and rich and his family has been here forever.
Finding no evidence whatsoever, I bang my fist on my thigh. He's not getting away with it this time. I reach down to the cushioned pocket in my below-the-knee biker shorts and pull out my cell phone, hoping it didn't get smashed.
When I turn it over, it looks okay, so I speed dial the police and leave a detailed message on their answering machine. You'd think a police department would have someone answering at all times, but they don't—only if it's an emergency.
A memory of what the police chief told me last time I called rushes through my brain. "If you dial 911 once more and you're not standing over someone's dead or dying body, I'm going to jail you for interfering with police business."
He couldn't have meant it, at least I hope he didn't, and even if he did, Geoff's fender has to carry enough evidence for even the police to acknowledge. While I wait for him to arrive, I inspect my front and rear brakes, squeeze the brake handles and check to see each caliper comes in contact with the rim.
While I fiddle with my bike, the obvious occurs to me. I've got to tell my sister about Geoff and find a way to make her listen this time.
I adjust knobs on both the handlebars and brake arms and try not to think about my sister who's crazy over Geoff. Even more than that, I try not to think about Geoff and what twisted thing he might do next. For that reason alone, Cort's got to know all about him and as soon as possible.
A little ride up the road shows me the brakes work fine. I look left and right for that poor dog, but no sign of it
Just when I start to relax, another car roars down the road, and I start to wonder whether calling the police was a good idea. They've never believed me before. I'm still brushing the dirt off my face and my stomach's in knots by then.
The driver doesn't have the siren on, and the road is dusty, but I can still recognize the blue-and-white police car. I hold up a shaky hand and he grinds his beat-up police car to a halt.
He opens the window, and gives me y'all again? look. When I see him, I realize this is going to be harder than I thought.
The chief of police gives me a disgusted glance and shouts out the window at me like I don't deserve a real investigation."What is it this time, Cameo Carter? A kitten up a tree? A dog you've found and don't know its owner?"
He's got one of those ate-too-much-fried-chicken-and-banana-puddin' bodies, but when he drags it out of the driver's seat, he looks legit in his green uniform and black boots. I know better.
Instead of solving crimes, he likes to play cards in my dad's basement, while they eat chips and drink beer and share recipes. Sort of makes sense though, if you believe my Mom. She says the biggest crime listed in the newspaper is usually shoplifting at the Lazy Dollar.
I know better about that too.
Panic builds inside me like the bubbles in a teapot when it heats up on the stove, but I go right up to him. "It's Geoffrey Whittington, the Third, Chief. You've got to check out his bumper. He just hit something. It must have DNA on it. Maybe you can get a tech to take a sample and match it to something or someone."
The chief takes off his hat, scratches his head, and peers at me like I'm dumber than dirt. "Again with the DNA samples. You watchin' too much TV, Cameo. Makes me think your engine's runnin', but nobody's driving. Get yourself a boyfriend or take up knittin'. We got 'coons, squirrels, and cats gettin' hit all the time. Hell, we even find a dog or two when a driver can't slow down and the mutt's too dumb to get out of the way. Can't investigate 'em all."
Same old, same old. I can't take it. "Aren't you even going to look into it?"
"Maybe I would if you tell me what he hit and where."
I point down the road. "I don't know what he banged into, but it was a terrible noise of metal grinding into a living creature."
"So, was it a creature from this universe or maybe an E.T.?" He grins like he's made a joke.
"This is serious, Chief."
"Umm hmm. I need more than that to investigate. This here's a long road." He points down it. "Where exactly did this banging into take place?"
"I don't know, Chief. He ran me off the road and I was just getting up from the ground down that ravine when I heard the crash."
"Well, you see, that's not real evidence. It has to be something tangible that we could put in the evidence locker. Sounds don't qualify unless you got a suspect on tape, confessing. Let's see now, what would he be confessing to? Maybe banging his fender into a tree?" He looks like he's going to slap his thigh and laugh.
Rage rolls up inside me. "This whole freakin' town should be happy I care about stopping killers." I squint up at him. "Wait a minute...You're afraid of him and all his money connections. That's why you're not going to do anything."
He stares me down.
I walk away, shaking. This isn't over.
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