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)
Kevin sends the first chapter of Control of Divergence. You will be able to continue reading the rest of the chapter if you want to turn the page.
Lydia looked around in horror. Would she have to kill them all?
Seven men and two women were pointing guns at her. Hard as it was to tear her attention away from the guns themselves, she knew she had to concentrate on the people holding them.
To all appearances, they were ordinary locals. Their dark brown jackets and hats would have blended in almost anywhere on the whole planet. A bit of coarseness in the fabric suggested membership in the working class.
They all kept their guns steady, aimed right at her chest. They were eyeing her warily, their lips pressed into slight frowns of concentration. Two or three of them were nervous enough to be breathing heavily, but otherwise none of them showed much emotion. At least they all looked well-disciplined. Lydia didn't think they would start firing in panic or blind rage.
They had backed her into a corner. The room was a basement, empty of furniture, and the only way out was a narrow staircase. There was no way she could get past them and escape. Shouting for help would be pointless; this was an abandoned building in a whole neighborhood of abandoned buildings. If anyone else was in earshot, they would just be friends of the people confronting her.
The leader of the group stood a few paces away. He was the shortest of the lot, and the angriest. He was also the only one willing to look her in the face. For a few moments, he tried to (snip)
Even though there is some editing needed here, the voice is good and the narrative raises story questions: why are they pointing guns at her, and what is she going to do about it. So I turned the page. But this could be stronger, crisper, and another story question could have made it onto the page with some tightening of the narrative. Notes:
Lydia looked around in horror. Would she have to kill them all? For me, this didn’t serve the narrative well. The unattributed pronoun tell us nothing. Far stronger was guns pointed at her.
Seven men and two women were pointing guns at her Lydia. Hard as it was to tear her attention away from the guns themselves, she knew she had to concentrate on the people holding them. “she knew” is called a filter, a little bit of narrative that distances us in a micro way from the character’s experience.
To all appearances, they were ordinary locals. Their dark brown jackets and hats would have blended in almost anywhere on the whole planet. A bit of coarseness in the fabric suggested membership in the working class. "To all appearances" seems distant to me. Suggest: They looked like ordinary locals. Crisper.
They all kept their guns steady, aimed right at her chest. They were eyeing eyed her warily, their lips pressed into slight frowns (?) of concentration. Two or three of them were nervous enough to be breathing heavily, but otherwise none of them showed much emotion. At least they all looked well-disciplined. Lydia didn't think they would start firing in panic or blind rage. Use of a to be verb and a participle is, for me, often a “squishy” way of describing action, which should be crisp. The crisp way to do it is with the verb alone. I associate frowns with foreheads and eyebrows, not lips. This took me out of the narrative.
They had backed her into a corner. The room was a basement, empty of furniture, and the only way out was a narrow staircase. There was no way she could get past them and escape. Shouting for help would be pointless; this was an abandoned building in a whole neighborhood of abandoned buildings. If anyone else was in earshot, they would just be friends of the people confronting her. This felt as if it went on too long.
The leader of the group stood a few paces away. He was the angriest shortest of the lot, and the angriest. He was also the only one willing to look her in the face. For a few moments, he tried to (snip) The fact that he was the shortest has no bearing on the story, just takes up words. If this narrative is trimmed enough, you’d be able to include the following line on the first page, which would have guaranteed a page turn with a good story question.
When he spoke, it was different from what she had expected. “We want your help,” he said.
Scroll down past submission directions for the link to turn the page 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.
(he tried to) stare her down. She refused to meet his gaze. Her eyes might give it away that she could strike back if pushed, and she didn't want him to know that yet.
When he spoke, it was different from what she had expected. “We want your help,” he said.
She said nothing.
“Please,” he said. “We don't mean to threaten you.” He put his gun away into a holster under his jacket. The other eight guns pointed at her didn't waver.
“I hope we will be able to trust each other,” he said in a flat voice. Lydia risked a quick glance into his eyes, and found they were still just as angry.
She knew what he was doing. This was a standard interrogation tactic: Act nice first. Then, if that didn't work, you could get nasty. He wasn't doing a very good job of “nice,” so the nastiness was likely to start very soon.
How could she have been this careless? They had lured her in all too easily. She had let her guard down because Mundivere was such a low-key planet, and because her assignment here had been going so smoothly until now.
She should have known how deceiving low-key planets could be.
“We just want to talk with you,” he said.
Lydia risked a reply. “About what?”
“I think you know.”
He was giving her more credit than she deserved. She had no idea what they might want.
He edged half a step closer. The only light in the room came from a lantern on the floor, and the oddly angled illumination gave a ghoulish cast to his face. “We know you belong to what you call the ‘Association,’” he said. “We'd like to know a little more about what it's doing here.”
Lydia tensed. Who were these people? Not that she was in any position to ask questions.
He had noticed her reaction. “Yes,” he said. “We know quite a bit, in fact. How many planets have you been to, by the way? Five, ten?”
She knew he was goading her. Maybe it was best not to respond. But years of training forced her to deny. “That's crazy.”
“Then both of us are crazy,” he said. “I am like you, you see. I can transport like you.”
This had to be some sort of bluff. Lydia looked around at the others in the room. They showed little reaction. But their eyes might have widened in surprise, just a tiny bit.
She decided to risk a bluff of her own. “If I could do that,” she said, “I'd jump away right now.”
“Don't insult me,” he said. “I know perfectly well how hard it is to prepare.”
He took another half-step towards her. “Your masters keep you in the dark. You owe them nothing.”
Now. There might never be another time. She had to twist her mind a certain way, to go through an indefinable but well-rehearsed mental process, and she would activate her self-defense device. It would kill everyone within thirty meters, overwhelming their brains with a massive electrochemical storm. She had seen recordings, and she knew what it would look like. They would convulse for a few seconds, and then they would die. The only risk was that they might involuntarily pull their triggers while convulsing. It was a risk she would have to take.
She should have been able to do it without a qualm. But it was hard to take the final step. Killing people, actually killing them, carried more weight than she had realized. She wondered for an instant how many of the people facing her had families.
“Tell us,” he said. “Tell us now. We can't afford to be patient.”
This was it. She steeled herself.
Suddenly his face turned red and contorted in rage. “You!”
He pulled a shiny implement out of his pocket. She could activate her self-defense device in two seconds--but he could move even faster. He had the little implement on the back of her head, and with a thunderclap of pain the room went dark.
She opened her eyes. Where was she?
Oh, yes. It was still the same room, the basement of an old abandoned mansion in the slums of Lundek, on the planet Mundivere. She tried to stand up, but her legs were so weak that they barely even moved. The most she could do was roll over and push herself up with her hands. The movement brought on a stab of pain in the back of her head.
Where had everyone gone? Only the lantern was still where it had been, and its illumination offered no answers. The wood panelling on the walls, once rich and ornate but now half decayed, seemed to conceal sinister secrets. Even the musty odors that filled the air hinted at buried threats all around.
Thuds and indistinct shouts were coming now from somewhere above. She had to find out what was going on. An Association agent should be able to ignore pain. She crawled. Her arms worked better than her legs, so she used them to drag herself across the rough concrete floor. The stabs of pain became a permanent knifeblade in her brain. She paused to feel the back of her head, but her fingers found no injury. Whatever had happened was on the inside.
She was halfway to the foot of the stairs when a man fell down them. Or, rather, a man's body fell down them. His puncture-like wounds seemed to have come from needleguns rather than from any of this planet's standard firearms. Blood didn't spurt out of the wound on his neck, so his heart must have stopped beating.
He was one of those who had held her at gunpoint, but not the leader.
The shouts were coming nearer. “There's no way out!” someone yelled from the top of the stairs. “Give yourselves up!”
Lydia tried to speak but managed only a tiny croak.
“Get back.” This was far quieter, one person at the top of the stairs talking to another.
Lydia fully expected a grenade to come down the stairwell, but instead she heard the high-pitched buzz of a little heli-camera. It flew down into the room, hovered a while, peered into the corners, and spent a few seconds examining her. Then it flew right back. Soon she heard footsteps, and a man came down the stairs into the room.
He was a few years older than her, maybe thirty-five, with midlength hair and a short beard. He said, “I know who you are.”
After what she had been through, that was hardly reassuring.
He gave a guarded smile. “Here,” he said. He held his hands up to show they were empty, then leaned down and touched her shoulder.
A blue light was how she thought of it, but of course that wasn't really what it was like. It was an unmistakable sensation that could be produced in only one way, carrying subtle overtones of belonging and safety. It was a unique and unforgeable signal that told her when she had met another agent of the Association. If not for the pain that still sliced through her head, she would have relaxed in relief.
“How many were there?” he said urgently.
“Nine,” she rasped.
“We got all of them, then,” he said. “They fought hard enough. But we got you back, and that's the most important....”
Alarm was dawning on his face. “What did they do to you?”
“I don't know,” she whispered. “Something, some little tool...put on my head, blacked out, lots of pain....”
“Oh, no.” He obviously knew what that meant better than she did. “How could you have let this happen? Was your self-defense device not working?”
“Didn't...not in time,” she whispered.
His alarm was turning to horror. He stood up, stepped away from her, and turned his back.
“What is it?” she whispered.
He said nothing for a few seconds. Then he turned and looked at her again. His face was harsh.
“You should have known better than to let this happen,” he said. “You've been trained. You knew what to do.”
Lydia tried to stand up, hoping to face him on more equal terms. But the best she could do was to push herself into a sitting position. Even that triggered a new wave of pain and dizziness.
“You've always known you might have to kill some day,” he said. “Do you know why? No, I guess you don't. You're just a first-level. You've been taught about how important societal diversity is for the human race. But you don't know how much it would be threatened if we fail. It's a good thing I got here in time.”
Sparing a glance for the dead body on the floor, he sat down on the stairs, looking at the opposite wall and not at her. Then he said, “You're finished, you know.”
“I don't understand,” she whispered. The pain was still keeping her from thinking clearly.
“Then let me spell it out for you. You're a security risk. There's no telling what they may have done to your brain implants. These people, you see, they have very good technology. That's all I can tell you. It could be something that made you unreliable at a critical moment, something that made you disloyal. Or it could be nothing. They were interrupted in the middle of what they were doing--if they'd finished the job, they'd have made sure you didn't remember it. The point is, we can't diagnose it, not with any certainty. This is the worst thing, the absolute worst thing, that could happen to an agent of the Association.”
Lydia felt anger flowing through her. “Why wasn't I ever told that was possible?”
“You were told enough.”
“Be quiet.” He got up and paced around the room, hands behind his back.
It was almost five minutes before he spoke again. The pain in Lydia's head made it seem far longer.
“You want to know what will become of you, don't you?” he said.
She only nodded, still sitting on the floor.
“Standard procedure would be to fry your brain implants,” he said. “Of course, there's a little problem with that. Some of your natural brain would get fried in the process. You'd be impaired, and not mildly. At best you'd get away with what they call ‘moderate impairment.’ Then you'd be put away somewhere. On some out-of-the-way planet. And you'd be left there--no, don't try to get up. Don't bother.”
She couldn't stand up yet anyway.
“How old are you?” he said.
“How long have you been a first-level?”
He continued to pace. His fists were clenched and his face was contorted, maybe as much in concentration as in anger.
“I'm senior enough to have some leeway,” he said. “Some leeway. But I can't....”
He kicked the wall in frustration, hard enough that the hollow thud echoed. Then he went back to pacing.
He wheeled around to face her. Lydia desperately searched for any remaining sympathy in his eyes.
“I don't want your thanks for what I'm about to do,” he said. “I have my reasons. But I am putting myself on the line. You have to know that. I'll let you go. I'll say that you were killed, and that I took it on myself to destroy the body. Go away. Forget about the Association. Find some nice planet to stay on, and stay there permanently. You are never to go between planets again. Do you understand?”
Lydia, boggled, could not respond.
He leaned over and said “Do you understand?”
This was overwhelming. Travelling among the uncounted planets, sampling the unimaginable diversity of human cultures, seeing sights most could only dream of--this was Lydia's life. The Association was the only family she had. It had recruited her when she was twenty and she had never looked back. She had grown to take it for granted that she belonged to a secret elite. The only other human beings who even came close were those on the crews of starships, but their voyages took decades. As for the planetbound masses, all confined to their own small corner of the Galaxy, they were almost infinitely far beneath her. How could she join them? This man, her fellow agent, whoever he was, might as well be asking her to commit suicide.
He stood up again and said it a third time, this time in a matter-of-fact tone. “Do you understand?”
She struggled to find a way out. Was there a chance he was telling her less than the full truth? Maybe. But everything he said fit with what she already knew. The Association could be ruthless, and if it thought she had been compromised as an agent it wouldn't hesitate to act harshly.
No way out. She had to force herself to say the words, and they were the hardest words she had ever had to say. “I understand.”
“Good,” he said. “Now listen: You'll have to keep a low profile. There's no telling where Association agents might show up. And if they do find you, they'll know what I did. I'll wind up getting it myself. Remember that. Don't even tell me where you're going. And try to make it a brand-new place if you can. You don't want to run across anyone who knows you.”
She nodded, though she felt like she could barely make sense of his words.
“There's a place near here where you can get charged,” he said. “It's pretty high quality. As you may have noticed, I've got a pretty good crew of locals and I'll keep them around in case anything funny happens. It'll take an hour or two to get cleaned up here, and then we'll march you straight over there.”
He turned to go back up the stairs. “The headache will get better before long,” he said as he started climbing. “Or so I understand.”
The headache did get better. So, strangely enough, did Lydia's fear and disorientation. Was she calm, or numb? She tried to make sense of how this mess had started, but the pieces didn't all seem to fit. She had gotten lured here in the first place by a vague promise of information about local politics. It had all been a pretext, she supposed. But how had they found out she was an Association agent? Had she given herself away somehow? Maybe it didn't make a difference any more, but the questions nagged at her.
Two locals came to retrieve the body still lying near the foot of the stairs. They were squeamish, as if he could still hurt them or they could hurt him. They didn't bother to clean up the blood. They said nothing to her; maybe they had learned not to ask questions.
Lydia wondered if the local authorities had gotten any word about what had happened here. Maybe not. Cities on Mundivere had many abandoned neighborhoods--a low planetary birthrate had been causing the population to decline for more than a century. In such a neighborhood, it was easy for things to happen without being heard or seen.
Her fellow agent, or her captor, whichever he was, came back right on time. He carried what she recognized after a moment as a large thick hood. “You'll wear this,” he said. “Put it on as soon as you get to the top of the stairs. We'll drive.”
What was there to do but cooperate? She was already used to senior agents keeping secrets, and to assuming they must know their business. She was put in what seemed to be the back of a large van. She got the feeling that he was driving; if anyone else was present, they kept very quiet.
The van made a lot of turns but came to a stop only a few times. From the lack of traffic noise, Lydia could tell they were either going out into the countryside or into another abandoned section of the city. They reached their destination after forty-five minutes. She felt cool outdoor air for a few steps as he led her forward, and then they went inside.
“Hold still,” he said. Lydia felt a flat metal object pressed against her back. It delivered something like a quick electrical shock that reached past her skin deep into her body. She gritted her teeth and kept herself from wincing.
“I just de-activated your self-defense device,” he said. “You can take your hood off now.”
The two of them were alone in a room that was windowless but surprisingly comfortable-looking. A small bed stood on one side. There were chairs, a table, a refrigerator, and a toilet half-hidden by a screen. It might almost have been a decent hotel room. But no means of communication were in sight.
“You'll charge your transport device here,” he said. “Enough for one transport. You are never to set foot outside that door again on this planet. When you go, you'll do it straight from this room. I'll have some of my people around the whole time.”
“What are you so afraid I'm going to do?” she said levelly.
“Panic,” he said. “When the time comes, you might have trouble facing what you have to do.”
“I guess you'll make sure that I do face it.”
“I will.” He hesitated, almost unnoticeably, as if there might be something else he wanted to say. All he did say was, “Start charging. Good night.” The door clicked behind him as he left.
If only she could transport somewhere else on this planet when she was ready. Then she could escape. But the fundamental mystery of transport stood in her way: you could only do it between planets, not between different points on one planet. If you wanted to use it to travel on a single planet, you would have to take a detour. That option was precisely what was being denied to her.
And on second thought, was there really anywhere on Mundivere she could escape to?
No way out. It hit her then, in a different way than it had before.
One way or another, the life she had known was finished. Fleeing, hiding, stranding herself on some out-of-the-way planet...sickening as it was, the alternative was even worse. Lydia almost screamed. She almost tore the bedsheets in rage and threw the chairs. She almost hammered the walls with her fists until they bled.
But she was still an agent of the Association. She did none of those things. She only lay down on the bed, facing up with her eyes open and her whole body rigid, feeling a pain too deep and an anger too hot for tears.
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Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Kevin