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)
Deborah sends a first chapter of a fantasy novel, Riddle of the Ten Kingdoms. The rest of the chapter is after the fold.
Renn circled Leo on the packed dirt of the clearing among Father’s grapevines, her wooden sword poised to strike. Villagers arriving to pick grapes shouted encouragement, but Renn kept her eyes on Leo’s confident smile, which she intended to knock off his face. She aimed for his heart and lunged. Leo’s wooden sword parried, forcing her blade to the side.
She scuffled forward a quick step and sliced with her sword, but he leapt back and the wooden point just brushed his padded vest.
Leo laughed. “Too bad you don’t have a battle charm.”
“I don’t need magic.” Renn tried to imagine what one of the king’s soldiers would say. She boomed, “I only need my strength and my sword.”
“Your twig, you mean.” Leo attacked, but she parried the blow and jabbed his shoulder. He winced. She danced back with a smile and lowered her wooden sword.
Leo stared into the distance, shading his eyes from the rising sun. “Do you see that?” Renn looked beyond the village, toward the road that twisted away into yellow-brown hills. She shook her head. “Riders coming.”
Then she saw it: a cloud of dust between hills. She slid her wooden sword into her belt and ran to Father, who stood still in the vineyard, his hand on the hilt of his sword and his eyes on the road.
The writing and voice are very good, we start with an immediate scene that includes a little conflict, and a vague story question is raised (who are the riders). All that said, I’m giving this an “Almost.” I realize that in agent-query land that’s the same as a no, but this is stronger than a “No.” The rest of the chapter (included after the fold) is equally well written and introduces more of the world and the characters. But it’s all nicely done setup. No actual stakes or jeopardy for Renn or any of the other characters. I urge Deborah to look later for the start of the story, the inciting incident that throws Renn’s life out of kilter and forces her to take action. Well done.
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 Deborah
(the rest of the chapter follows—comments are helpful to the writer)
“Who is it?” she asked.
“We’ll know soon enough.” His mouth smiled, but his forehead wrinkled with worry.
Renn lingered at his side, trailing her fingers over the large, soft grapeleaves and spiraling vines. She lifted some leaves to find a cluster of grapes hiding beneath, then picked a few and popped them into her mouth.
“They’re not as sweet as last year’s,” she said, chewing.
“Every year, there’s less sugar in the fruit, though we waited till the end of summer to pick. This year’s harvest is the smallest I’ve seen.” Father looked up at the sky, then across his land. Their house with its gray stone walls stood tall and strong, and beyond it stretched the rest of the village. All around were rows of grapevines tied onto crooked wooden fences, the plants weighed down by heavy clusters of fruit.
Renn looked at the villagers picking, and at Father standing tall among them, and didn’t know what to say. Everyone whispered about the sickening of the land: summers too hot and winters too cold, crops failing and animals dying. But no one knew what to do about it.
Hagga shuffled toward them from the house clutching a bundle of cloth, her long skirts trailing in the dirt behind her. The old housekeeper had helped take care of Renn since her mother died giving birth to her, thirteen years ago.
“It may be a small harvest, Lord Rowntree, but we’ll make enough wine for pleasure and plenty.”
Father nodded. “What do you have there, Hagga?”
She smiled, a wreath of wrinkles surrounding her eyes and mouth. “Lovely and round, I shine with pale light, grown in the darkness, a lady’s delight.”
Father sighed. He didn’t have patience for Hagga’s riddles, but Renn had been raised on them and liked to get them right.
“Let me think,” Renn said. “It sounds a bit like a new baby, but that can’t be, as they’re not round and not always pale. Wait, I know.” She smiled. “A pearl.”
“Right, then.” Hagga shook out the bundle of cloth, which tumbled down into a long dress of soft brown wool, with a row of pearls sewn along the neckline. The dress was exactly Renn’s size.
She scowled. Trousers and linen shirts suited her fine, same as they did Leo and the other village boys who tended the vineyards, worked in the winecaves, and learned swordplay from Father. The girls might laugh at Renn for her boyish clothes, but Renn didn’t have patience for their sewing and cooking and endless gossiping, anyway.
“Go on then, hold it up for all to see,” Hagga said. Renn bunched the dress in her hands and held it high over her head. The villagers nearby smiled and nodded approval.
“Thank you, Hagga,” Renn said. “The dress is lovely.” Hagga raised one eyebrow to show she wasn’t fooled before taking the dress back.
“Look!” One of the village women was pointing at the sky. “Sylphs.”
Renn looked up at the winged people flying above, swirling around one another in an elaborate pattern. She had been taught about the four elementals, magical creatures who had power over the elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Sylphs could control wind and shape clouds, but they didn’t seem to interact much with the rest of the Ten Kingdoms. At least, they hardly ever flew where the people of Rowntree Village could see them.
“Beautiful,” Renn said. “They look like they’re each a different color.”
“Their clothing is made of silk and bird feathers,” Hagga said.
The sylphs flew higher, nearly disappearing into clouds. Then they spread out and beat their wings in unison, blowing a cloud into the center of their formation.
“What are they doing?” Renn asked.
“Giving a sign,” Hagga said.
“The sylphs haven’t given a sign here since the Great War,” Father said. “Twenty years or more, it’s been.”
The cloud split to form ten tall lines, each tipped with an arrow point. They looked like spears. The sylphs beat their wings again, and the spears merged.
Renn recognized the shape of an oak tree. She glanced toward the woods bordering the village, which was filled with the oaks they used for wine barrels, wagons, and furniture.
The cloud tree grew more dense, until it looked like it was carved from snow or unblemished marble. The sylphs circled the tree, flying faster and faster, then formed a line and flew out of sight. As they did, the cloud tree burst into countless points of white, which faded into the sky. Renn looked around and saw her own confusion on every face.
Leo came up, reaching out as if to take her hand, but he stopped short and looked at Father. “Lord Rowntree, is it a sign of war coming?”
The woman who’d pointed at the sylphs looked worried. “Could it mean famine?”
Father’s brow wrinkled, and Renn could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “The sylphs don’t give signs often. I’d say it was meant for the entire Ten Kingdoms, not just us. As for famine--no, we’ll not starve this winter. We have enough stored to see us through the cold months, and good hunting in the woods.”
Renn touched Father’s arm. “But then, what did the sylphs mean?”
“It’s a prophecy,” Hagga said. Father held up a finger as if to hush her, but Hagga didn’t see, or pretended not to see. “Ten into one, and one must give all. It’s the same with the gnomes, shown in the artwork they craft in their tunnels.”
Renn looked down at her boots, thinking hard. The gnomes were another of the elementals, with the power to move the earth. Ten into one, and one must give all. It sounded like a riddle, but she couldn’t begin to puzzle it out.
“Old Hagga, do you have some of that gnome art in your dugout? I suppose your husband makes it for you.” Leo’s smile was broad and grew only wider when Renn poked him in the side. Hagga chuckled and turned to go. It was an old joke in the village, that Hagga was secretly married to a gnome. Renn thought the rumor must have started because Hagga lived in a house carved out of a hillside in the woods.
“You’re the one we should ask,” Renn said. “Are you trying to grow a gnome-beard with these four-and-a-half whiskers?”
She reached up to yank his chin, but Leo grabbed her hand and twisted it behind her back. It was a familiar move from Father’s lessons in hand fighting. She stamped hard on his foot and used her other hand to hit his nose with the base of her palm.
“Ow! That almost hurt.” He sniffed and wiped his bleeding nose on his sleeve.
“Leo,” she said quietly. She gave him a look and started down a row of grapevines, knowing he would follow. They stopped at some vines that hadn’t been picked clean yet, and he handed her a knife with a short, curved blade.
“I wager I’ll pick twice what you do,” he said. Renn sat back on her heels and watched. His every movement was perfect, his hands working without pause as he grabbed, cut, and lowered each cluster of grapes into the oak pail at his feet.
In the past year, Leo had gone from being about the same height as Renn, to much taller. He was only fourteen, but he almost looked like a man. Renn smoothed down the front of her shirt and tugged on the hem that stuck out below her belt. At thirteen, she still didn’t look much like a woman.
He must have been wondering why she was staring, because he finally glanced over at her with raised eyebrows.
Renn rolled the handle of the field knife between her palms. “Father says it’s the smallest harvest ever, and people say it’s the same all over the kingdom. Do you think famine is coming? I’ve heard whispers that we’ll be hungry by spring.”
“My mother says things are worse in some places, but we have plenty of grain and wine stored here. Plus, we can hunt the woods all winter long for fresh meat.”
Renn nodded. “You’ll hunt with me?”
“Little white rabbits to make you a little fur hat?”
She stuck her tongue out. “I’ve hunted rabbits before with Father. This winter I want a nice, fat bear.”
“I believe you’d try. You, your twig, and a field knife against a bear.”
Renn reached for a cluster of grapes, but looked up when she heard horse hooves on the road and a voice calling a greeting. The riders wore matching scarlet tunics and chain mail armor, and their horses were draped in red cloth, too. One of them carried a banner, scarlet with a gold lion’s head. The king’s emblem.
Leo’s face lit up with excitement. “Soldiers from Whitestone Castle.”
He used his foot to nudge the bucket of grapes deeper into the shade before jogging toward the road. Last year, soldiers had visited at the end of summer to recruit boys for the king’s army. Leo had been desperate for it, but his parents said no, and Father backed them up. Renn watched Leo run toward the men, and her stomach tightened with worry.
The soldiers reined in their horses at the edge of the vineyard. One of them dismounted and headed toward Father, his palms up in the sign of peace.
“Good morning, Lord Rowntree. We’re here to recruit boys, strong and smart, for King Leonhart’s army. With your permission.”
Father frowned. “Does my permission matter? I remember you well, Captain. Last year you took the cooper’s son, and the year before that, two of my farmhands.”
“The boys volunteered.”
“The king needs his people to grow crops,” Father said, “not gallop around his castle playing at war.”
“The king needs many things,” said one of the other soldiers, dismounting his horse and pulling off a chain mail hood. He shook out his hair and grinned. “The king even has need of you, Rowntree.”
“Leonhart,” Father said, staring. “Your Majesty. I didn’t expect you.”
The villagers murmured to one another in low, surprised voices. They put their heads down, chin to chest, but many of them stole glances, this being the only time they’d ever seen a king, or likely ever would. Renn’s chin was down, but she turned to the side so she could watch the king from the corner of her eye. He was smiling around at everyone.
“Be at your ease, good people,” King Leonhart called.
Father chuckled. “You’re dressed as a common soldier.”
“The better to travel my lands and speak with my friends.” Leonhart grabbed Father’s arms, then caught him in an embrace. “How are you, Rowntree?”
“I am well, Majesty, though you have surprised me. Did you think you could take more of my villagers because you came yourself to ask? I can’t spare many if you want your favorite wine to keep arriving by the barrel to your castle.”
“I came to ask something else,” Leonhart said. “But first, let the boys come forward to demonstrate their skills and strength. It’s not every day villagers get to show off to their king. My captain here will take only the boys you agree to.”
Father nodded, and word spread quickly. In a matter of minutes, most of the older boys of the village, including Leo, had gathered in the dusty clearing near the road. They brought their blunted steel and wooden practice swords. A few of them put on chain mail armor, but others wore only padded vests or nothing but their ordinary working clothes. Under the captain’s direction, the boys began sparring in pairs.
Renn tried to catch Leo’s eye, but he was concentrating on his opponent, a heavy boy who was strong but slow with his sword. Renn clenched her fists. She could beat that boy in a heartbeat, along with every other village boy near her age. She could even hold her own against Leo, though he’d never admit it.
The village girls who had been picking grapes lined up at the edge of the clearing, cheering for their brothers and friends. Renn looked from their long skirts and aprons, to the boys dueling, and didn’t know where to go.
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