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)
Russell sends the first chapter of Take a Lemon. The rest of the chapter follows the first page.
“So what’s the difference between a dream and a fantasy?”
My roommate Geoff and I had been taking a break from studying for our Organic Chemistry midterm - there’s only so long you can stare at diagrams for Grignard reactions, after all, and we were just kicking back and playing with ideas. Mike and Rajiv had already left on break, but we were stuck at school until the exam on Friday.
So we’d just spent the evening debating things that had nothing to do with science. We had eventually decided that a fantasy was something good you invented, hoping it would happen – a case in point being my current yearning for Lee Ann Thomas. She had definitely seemed interested, and while I’d heard that she’d been seeing the same guy for three years, her friend Chandra had assured me that he was about to be history. Then I’d have my chance.
A dream, on the other hand, was something your subconscious created, mixing all the things you’d been worrying about or thinking about while you were awake. It might be pleasant, it might be uncomfortable, it might be meaningless, or a way of solving complex problems – if you could just decipher it, since dreams don’t have to make any sense at all.
Which would explain why I was eating breakfast this morning with Mom and my sister Tina… and wearing a dress.
It was kind of a conservative dress, the same type Tina was wearing, halfway down my (snip)
Good writing and voice here, but I found I wasn’t all that interested in a discussion of fantasy versus dream, and then the implication is that the eating breakfast in a dress was a dream. I wasn’t interested in a dream, so I didn’t turn the page. I don’t really have any nitpicks on the writing, it’s just fine.
HOWEVER . . . the rest of the chapter (linked below the directions for submission) reads as though it is NOT a dream. The character keeps thinking it is, but the narrative ends up with this possibly being the result of a time travel experiment and “he” is now a “she” version of himself. I say possibly because it’s not clear—and, if as the premise states, he is now a she because of a change in DNA causing him to now be a her, it seems to me that there’s a logic flaw: if a time-travel change in DNA caused him to grow up as a her, then the thoughts would be hers, and being a woman would be totally normal. Scroll down to the continuation link and see for yourself, and give Russell your thoughts.
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 Russell
(continued) shins and a high neckline. It was a pale blue, and I have no doubt any real girl would have had specific terminology for its style, but most of all, it was a dress - and worse yet, it fit.
I was very aware of being unaccountably female, but they hadn’t seemed to notice at all. At least Mom hadn’t - she’d just kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thanks for driving your sister to rehearsal, Marsh.” Then she’d hesitated and commented, “Are you really going out like that?”
Aha! I thought. She did notice. But she didn’t seem all that surprised. Did she think that changing sex was normal for me? But no, she wasn’t looking at my body. Did she mean my hair? I hadn’t bothered combing it, so now I ran my fingers through my hair to brush it back. Usually when I do that, I run out of hair a bit past the top of my head, but now it just keep on going. I felt for the end, and found it past my shoulders, so I grabbed the bottom and shook it. Not sure if that did any good; when I looked back at Mom, she shook her head and rolled her eyes at me, but dropped the subject.
Tina, on the other hand, hadn’t even looked up when I walked in - just sort of waved, eyes glued to some choral music she’d been working on, following along as she listened through her ear buds. “We need to leave in fifteen minutes,” she informed me.
So I poured myself some cereal and milk and grabbed the comics. Mom had started cleaning the counter and Tina was engrossed in her music, so I could study the two of them without them reacting. If my subconscious was indeed trying to solve one of my problems, understanding this dream could be important. They looked pretty normal, Mom petite and fair-skinned, with Tina essentially a 15-year-old copy of her. I take after my Dad, who is about a head taller than Mom and olive-complexioned. I hadn’t seen either since the start of school, so I couldn’t be sure if it was just my imagination that Tina looked a bit more mature than I remembered. Aside from me, everything seemed so normal!
It sure hadn’t seemed normal when I’d opened my eyes and seen the dress on my closet door. I do tend to hang my clothes there the night before, so I can get dressed without bothering to wake up all the way. But a dress? And the whole room had seemed brighter, somehow, as if to emphasize the unreality of it all. I remember looking down, and seeing that I’d suddenly sprouted breasts and was wearing a nightgown, and thinking, oh, I’m dreaming. I should get dressed.
And maybe I’d already missed something. Both the bra and the dress that I’d put on had fastened in the back - and weirdly, my hands could actually reach the middle of my back. In real life, I could never do that.
And then there were the shoes - high heeled, of course. Every story about a guy turning into a girl seems to have to have a comic scene where the victim stumbles all over the place, trying to wear high heels. After puzzling over them for a while I’d decided that there had to be trick - that the heels were just for show and you couldn’t put your weight on them. So after putting on the shoes, I carefully had not put my weight on my heels. Instead, I’d risen up on my tiptoes enough to pull the heels off the floor. It was awkward as anything, but it worked. Well, after a fair bit of practice, it did. My balance was definitely different, with these extra masses high on my chest. I also now understood why girls keep taking off their shoes. Walking this way was tiring!
So I was feeling pretty smug, sitting at the breakfast table, for having solved that without the public awkwardness. Then I realized that since this was my dream, pretty much anything I’d thought would work probably would. Oh well.
I started looking over the comics. It occurred to me that if I were in complete control of this dream, I would be sure to include an important clue in this, the first written material that appeared. So maybe my subconscious would do the same thing. It wouldn’t be in one of the serials – it would have to be one of the joke-a-day types. Hmm. Loretta Lockhorn was refusing to talk to her husband. Hi offered to tell Chip a salacious story and Lois stopped him. The Lost Patrol was lost again. The common element was… no information at all. My subconscious was obviously sticking out its tongue at me.
About the time I gave up, Tina was ready to go. As her chauffeur for the day, I followed her to Mom’s car, tiptoeing my way. I was definitely getting better at walking in these things, although I could see that there must be more to it. Her own heels didn’t seem to be clearing the ground at all, and it even looked as though she was actually putting her weight on them, impossible as that might sound.
Once in the car, I discovered another problem. I couldn’t see any way to control the pedals with these spikes sticking out of my heels. I had to take off the right shoe, and apply the gas with a bare foot. I’d never tried driving with bare feet before, and the ridged pedals against my foot felt wrong. It occurred to me, way too late, that when girls wore dresses, they tended to wear something on their legs and feet - tights or stockings or something. I have no idea if that would have made a difference. What was really needed was a detachable heel – one that could come off for driving, and be restored for walking and standing. It was clear that I was missing something really obvious.
The trip to Melodee Music, where the girls’ choir rehearsed, was a familiar one for me; when I was in high school, I had performed there on occasion, so I was pretty much driving on autopilot the whole way. But when I tried to turn onto Market Street, the shoe I had doffed rolled under the brake pedal, and I wound up taking the corner a lot faster than I had intended. That brought a yelp from my sister, who actually pulled out her ear buds.
“Marsh, what are you–” she started, and then gaped at me, her jaw dropping. Interesting. She might be seeing whatever Mom had seen - and it probably wasn’t a problem with my hair. I raised my eyebrows to encourage her to continue, but she just winced and shook her head.
Hmm. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t actually looked in the mirror since getting out of bed. If I did now, would I see what Mom and Tina had seen? Or would I just see the face of the girl whose body I was now wearing? I’d have to wait until we arrived to check.
“Just in a bit of a hurry, I guess,” I told her, a bit embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me to clear the shoe away from the pedals. I did so now, with my left foot.
We arrived at the music school a bit on the early side, and I took the opportunity to look at myself in the rear view mirror. Since I had been fantasizing about Lee Ann the night before, I’d half expected to see her face, but the girl in the mirror was somebody else entirely. I’d sort of formed a theory that I had turned into Lee Ann in order to figure out why she was able to stay in the same relationship for a long time when I couldn’t, but apparently not. I had the feeling I’d seen the girl in the mirror before, although I couldn’t say why.
Tina came around to my side and knocked on the window. “Aren’t you coming in?” she asked.
I actually hadn’t thought about it. It was a fifteen-minute drive home, and her rehearsal was only going to last about an hour, so if I drove home, I’d have half of that to myself. But I was already up, and I didn’t really have to do anything at home, so I nodded, retrieved my shoe, and got out of the car. Besides, I actually do like listening to my sister sing.
Both of us get our musical ability from Mom’s side of the family, but Tina has it in spades. My own voice was passable; I’d done minor roles in school musicals, such as Sir Sagramore in Camelot, and Sandy in Brigadoon. I’d get a line or two in a song, and lots of chorus work. Tina’s voice was in a whole other category. As a freshman last year, she had played Maria in the school’s production of West Side Story, and was generally considered likely to be cast as either Julie or Carrie in the upcoming production of Carousel. Naturally, she was doing a lot of solo work in this girls’ choir as well.
We joined a crowd of girls and some of their drivers as they streamed into the front entrance. I could see our reflections in the large glass windows, and took another moment to inspect my appearance. Now I realized why the face had looked familiar. She could easily have been a relative: a cousin, or even a sister, if my parents had had a daughter older than Tina. My imagination must have extrapolated from Tina and Mom and my cousin Tara, each of whom looked something like the image I had conjured for myself.
Tina caught me looking, rolled her eyes and shook her head, just as Mom had done. She pulled me aside to whisper, “Don’t you want to freshen up in the bathroom?”
So there really was something wrong with my appearance – but without being able to see my own face, I didn’t know how to fix it, even if I’d particularly cared. The alternative was… no, that was unthinkable. If my dream had me looking odd to the two of them, there must be some significance, so maybe it would be best to see if anything was going to happen as a result. So I shrugged, and she shook her head again as she went into the choir practice room.
I grabbed the chair next to the door and sat down with my head resting against the wall. That way I could listen to her – or fall asleep if I was still overtired. I actually did close my eyes for a while, waiting for practice to start, but I wasn’t quite asleep; only enough to muse about what would happen if you dreamed that you were sleeping. Would you dream that you were dreaming? Would you actually wake up and then return to the same point in the dream the next time you fell asleep? I grinned to myself at the thought.
“Pleasant dreams, or are they telling jokes in there?”
Startled, I looked up to see a young man a bit older than I. Rather than the jeans and T-shirt that seemed to be a uniform for most people our age, he was wearing khaki slacks and a pullover, pretty similar to what I wore when I wasn’t dreaming that I was a girl. Maybe he was supposed to represent me in this dream, but his voice was noticeably higher and coarser than mine, and his complexion owed more to Northern Europe than my own, largely Mediterranean ancestry.
“Oh, hi,” I answered, sitting up. “I was just daydreaming a bit. You’re dropping your sister off?”
“No, we live about a half hour away. By the time I got home, it would just be time to turn around and come back, so I’m waiting for her.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” I nodded. I held out my hand as he dropped onto the seat next to mine. “I’m Marsh Steen.”
“Jeremy Barker,” he replied. “So, I take it you’re Tina’s big sister?”
I stared at him for a second. So somebody else was going to see me as a girl in this dream, apparently. Then I answered truthfully, “Actually, I’m her big brother.”
His mouth actually dropped open in surprise. Then he laughed. “I guess that was kind of a dumb question, wasn’t it?” His laugh was very pleasant, and I found myself liking him. “So does the voice run in the family?”
Since he’d laughed it off, I didn’t insist on explaining who I really was. He was seeing me as a girl, and that might be significant, since he was the only one so far who had. I just mentioned my lesser singing ability, and the fact that I’d had minor roles in musicals. Fortunately, he didn’t ask which ones.
“What about you?” I asked.
“No, I don’t sing. I’m more into music theory.” And he started to explain about the progressions and harmonies in the choral music the girls were singing. I was impressed. My musical tastes and experiences were a fair bit more pedestrian, leaning towards show tunes and classic rock.
“I guess that sounds kind of simplistic to you,” I said, feeling a bit intimidated, after admitting that.
“Not at all,” he smiled. He explained how the harmonies in The Beatles’ music demonstrated that Lennon and McCartney had had a very strong grasp of the principles of music composition. He told me how popular music had influenced Broadway composers. I was impressed. Had I just invented that? Could it really be true? Then I must have heard it somewhere… right? If this was a dream, all of these ideas had to be mine, didn’t they?
It wasn’t just his musical knowledge that impressed me. I’d made something of a study of the art of meeting girls, and could usually start a new relationship within weeks of the end of previous one. I’d always used a blend of humor and attentiveness that some girls had seemed to find, if not irresistible, at least intriguing enough to want to get to know me better. But Jeremy seemed to be something of a natural. He was certainly not using any techniques that I knew of, and was anything but self-conscious, and yet I was certain that girls would be attracted to him. Naturally, since I was a girl in this dream, I was fascinated.
And on top of that, he was actually an electrical engineer! With my own major in biology, I certainly knew that musical talent and inclination were not limited to liberal arts majors, but it hadn’t occurred to me that engineers, whom I’d always regarded as tending more towards the cold and mathematical, would be interested. I told him so, which prompted him to discourse on the mathematical nature of music and art, with allusions to works of Gödel, Escher, and Bach. By the time rehearsal was over, my head was spinning. Where was all of this information coming from?
We had been fortunate to have the waiting room to ourselves, and now the arrival of the singers’ drivers drove the noise level to the point where we almost had to shout to make ourselves heard. It was definitely not conducive to the kinds of semi-intellectual conversation we had been enjoying, so we gave up and waited for our sisters to join us. Jeremy’s sister was first, and she interrupted his attempt to introduce us with an imperious, “Jeremy, we need to leave. Now.”
We looked at one another in surprise. He tried again, but she stomped out the door. With a shrug and apologetic glance, he followed her.
Tina emerged a few minutes later in an equally foul temper. She didn’t even say anything, just nodded at me to follow her to the car.
“Tina, what happened?” I asked, trying to run after her on tip toe without tripping over my heels. She’d been fairly upbeat on the way in. But she didn’t answer, just waited impatiently at the passenger side door for me to let her in.
As I drove us home, I tried to pump her for information. After all, something that surprising pretty much had to be related to the meaning of the dream, but she was unresponsive, even turning on the radio to drown out my questions. I snapped it off and insisted, but she just jammed on her ear buds and turned it back on.
Now I was starting to get angry. This was my dream, and I needed data to understand it. If I had dreamed Tina in a snit, there had to be a reason for it, and she was withholding it. I was about to shut the radio off yet again, when I suddenly heard the name, “Piques College” – my college. That got my attention. This dream was started to get really complicated – there were more and more potential clues for me, and I wasn’t sure which were the most important. But Tina would still be here after the radio show, so that was clearly where I needed to focus first.
The format of the show was a couple of guys who seemed to be commenting on news articles, or at least “News of the Weird,” a column that ran in our local paper, the Mohawk Herald. And they’d found something there about my school, which they were going to discuss – after the commercial break, naturally. What could they possibly have to say that was interesting about Piques? It had to be about the most boring college out there. The most eccentric thing about it was the joke, if you can even dignify it with that term, of calling the nearby turnpike, “Piques’ Pike.” If my parents hadn’t met at Piques, and managed to get me a great deal on tuition, I doubt that I would have even gone there.
“And we’re back,” one guy said, after the commercials were done. “And we have something that definitely counts as weird. Students at nearby Piques College are claiming that a science experiment has changed their very genetic makeup!”
“That’s not really possible, is it, Harry?” his partner chimed in.
Well of course it wasn’t possible. It’s pretty much one of the ironclad rules of biology. All organisms have construction instructions, known as the genetic code, embedded in their DNA, and since essentially identical copies of that DNA are found in every cell, that code is fixed at the moment of conception. A virus might change the DNA in a cell or two, but in general, it’s simply not possible to speak of modifying a person’s genetic code. That was my anchor. That’s how I knew that this had to be dream. In real life, people don’t just wake up changed.
“I’d always thought so, Pete,” the first guy replied, telling me that he wasn’t a total moron, “but these students are claiming that it was a time travel experiment that did it – that somebody went back in time and altered their DNA. One guy claims that he used to be about six inches taller, and a girl is claiming that she used to have a larger bust.”
Wait. What…? Time travel? Changed DNA? But… I had signed up for a… wait, wait, no, No, NO!If they could do that, if they could make a guy shorter, change a girl’s proportions, change anything about somebody’s essential makeup...
The two of them laughed at that, commenting on how it was all wishful thinking and a really stupid hoax, but I was having trouble hearing them due to the roaring that suddenly filled my brain. With every new bit of information I hadn’t known, with every logical twist in what should really have been some kind of confused tangle of events inspired by my fears, the idea that this was all a dream was becoming less and less reasonable. The only thing that had kept me from deciding otherwise was the sheer impossibility of what I was experiencing. Then this. DNA was fixed at the moment of conception, sure, but what if you could redo the moment of conception itself?
The next thing I knew, Tina was yelling my name. I looked up and saw that we were headed straight for a tree, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t even think. Suddenly she grabbed the wheel and turned it so we just barely missed. That unfroze me, and I managed to steer us to the shoulder of the grass-lined road and stop the car, and sat there, shaking.
“Marsh!” Tina repeated. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Her concern was genuine, and must have reached me, because I was suddenly able to stammer, “Did you hear them, Teen? Did you hear what they said?”
“Something about your school, right? And a hoax?” I hadn’t turned off the radio, and the two guys were still laughing, laughing at the ‘silly girl’ who wished that she had a larger chest and had tried to tell everybody that she’d had one and had it taken away. They’d thought it funny because everybody remembered her as being fairly flat-chested. They’d thought the whole thing the big joke that the school claimed it was, but I knew better. It was real – or was it?
But if it was real - then this wasn’t a dream. If it was real, I had actually been turned female. They’d gone back in time, and… If it was real, this wasn’t just my subconscious trying to work out problems. The complex dream idea I’d built up was a fake. It was all plausible, it was…
Then I caught myself as I realized one more thing I had overlooked – something that gave the lie to the whole not-a-dream thing. I had seen myself as a girl, and so had that boy. But Mom and Tina hadn’t. Mom and Tina hadn’t called me, “Susie” or “Donna” or some other girl’s name. They’d called me by my own name, “Marsh.” I almost laughed in relief. “Marsh” is short for “Marshall,” and nobody would ever name a girl, “Marshall,” would they? I tried to remember if I’d even heard of a girl with that name. So all I had to do was to get Tina to confirm it, and I would know it was just a nightmare. I would know that the impossible hadn’t somehow come into reality.
That was all I had to do, and I would be able to relax. Just one simple question which received the obviously right answer. Something was telling me it wasn’t that simple, that I’d overlooked yet another vital clue, but it was all I had, and I could rationalize why it had to be correct. I just needed Tina to give me that right answer. Which meant that I had to ask the question.
“What’s my name, Teen?” I asked, trembling.
I ignored her confusion and insisted, “Say my name, Sis. My full name.”
“Marsh, what are you –?”
Trying not to panic I said it again. “My name, Teen. Just… just say my name. I want to hear it from your lips. Who am I? What’s my name? My full name?”
The look she gave me combined concern with impatience. Naturally, she thought her brother had lost his mind. At least, that’s what I hoped she thought.
Finally she sighed and almost chanted, “Jennifer Marsha Steen, elder daughter of Arthur and Miriam Steen, and big sister to Tina Elizabeth Steen – that’s me,” she added with a grin, not realizing that she had just confirmed my worst fears.
“Marsha…?” I repeated in a horrified whisper. “My name is…? Oh crap. Oh damn. Oh my fucking God!”
“Marsh!” she exclaimed, shocked. “I’ve never heard you use language like that.” She looked embarrassed. “It’s not very lady-like.”
I gaped at her. My life was falling apart, my very being was being brutalized – and she was worried about my language?
“Whatever your problem is,” she continued, “I’m here for you, remember? You’re my sister, and I love you.”
“But I’m not…” I protested. “I can’t be.”
“Not what?” she asked, puzzled.
“Not your sister. I’m not. I can’t be. It’s impossible.”
The horror on her face was wholly unexpected. “Don’t say that,” she gasped.
Now it was my turn to be confused. “But I’m not, you see.” I knew I wasn’t explaining it well, but didn’t understand the strength of her reaction. “Didn’t you hear what those guys said? You think I’m your sister, but I’m not. Not really.”
“Don’t say that,” she whispered, eyes wide. “You promised, Marsh.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You promised!” she screamed, and with tears running down her cheeks pushed open her door and ran down the street.
“Tina!” I gasped. I was the one who was supposed to be having a nervous breakdown. What in the world was she doing? I was out my door almost as quickly as I could think, but stumbled immediately, trying to run in one high-heeled shoe. I ran back to the car, tore off the one I was wearing and tossed it on my seat, and tried to follow her, but she had vanished.
That was the last straw. I collapsed against the passenger side door and cried my head off. I’d lost my identity, lost my sister… When Dad had walked out all those years ago, Tina and I had become extremely close, despite the four years that separated us. Most guys would have found it odd to confide so much in a younger sister, but it had become almost automatic for me, and she’d trusted me as well. I had finally realized why she was so upset. Once she’d been afraid that Mom and I might leave her, too, and I had told her, “No matter what happens, I’m your brother. I’ll always be your brother, and I’ll never leave you.” No doubt she now remembered “me” saying something similar, only with “I’m your sister” and now I had broken that promise. “No matter what happens,” I had said, and I’d apparently just betrayed the one person who had expected to find me reliable forever.
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