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)
Krystal sends a first chapter of a fantasy novel. The rest of the chapter is after the fold.
A twig snapped.
Time to leg it. Crouched, Ruso scanned the gloom. His grip tightened on the antler hilt as he thought over his list of enemies. People he, perhaps, should not have offended or stolen from. Or folk hunting his client. How nice. He was not in the mood for regrets right now. Best scram whilst his skin was attached.
And he backed against a tree. Bugger. His hearthsoul was wrenching. It had been a while since he last heard that voice.
There was a sigh. “Lax. I ain’t ‘ere to gut you.”
A smirk touched his lips.
“Things ‘ave changed,” said the man. “You know that. It’s taken the Capital, that fiend, and even now it expands. … So Arinhold has an offer. Trade. And you will accept.”
An expectant lull. He was glancing for more foes. To his left was only the slow, oily gorge he had just proven drinkable. Briars formed a tangle ahead. There were but three threats Ruso espied, and behind them, only one decent-sized bole, which he would evade lest it hid ambushers. He shifted his weight and splayed fingers into the dirt. Rust mottled his (snip)
Well, I like that this opens with a scene that has action and conflict in it. But for me there were clarity and craft issues that suggested the narrative that followed would have the same, and that’s the opposite of compelling. The narrative felt sort of disjointed or jerky to me. Sorry, but no. Looking through the rest of the chapter did suggest a rich and interesting world. Keep working on the craft so you can draw the reader into that world . Notes:
A twig snapped.
Time to leg it. Crouched, Ruso scanned the gloom. His grip tightened on the antler hilt as he thought over his list of enemies. People he, perhaps, should not have offended or stolen from. Or folk hunting his client. How nice. He was not in the mood for regrets right now. Best scram whilst his skin was attached. The antler hilt of what? Knife? Sword? Dagger? Later we learn that he has heard this voice before, therefore he knows something about who it is, which makes this rumination about a list not make a lot of sense to me.
And he He backed against a tree. Bugger. His hearthsoul was wrenching. It had been a while since he last heard that voice. Didn’t understand why this sentence started with “And.” So he knows the voice. Then he should know who it is. Why not attribute it? For me, this is an example of what I call an “information question” that hopes to be a story question—the withholding of information in hopes of creating suspense but only results in not giving the reader information that would help her understand the story.
There was a sigh. “Lax. I ain’t ‘ere to gut you.”
A smirk touched his lips.
“Things ‘ave changed,” said the man. “You know that. It’s taken the Capital, that fiend, and even now it expands. … So Arinhold has an offer. Trade. And you will accept.”
An expectant lull. He was glancing for more foes. To his left was only the slow, oily gorge he had just proven drinkable. Briars formed a tangle ahead. There were but three threats Ruso espied, and behind them, only one decent-sized bole, which he would evade lest it hid ambushers. He shifted his weight and splayed fingers into the dirt. Rust mottled his (snip) What is “glancing for more foes?” Seems like some words are missing. Clarity issue: he drank a gorge? A gorge, according to my dictionary, is “a narrow opening between hillsides or mountains that can be used for passage” How can that be oily, slow, and drunk? The narrative mentions three threats, but names none of them, so this means nothing to the reader.
To read the rest of the chapter scroll down below the submission directions.
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 Krystal
gauntlets; they did not glint. His shoe rasped on the bark.
Then he was through the briars, onto branches, beneath the next mesh. The huntsmen burst in pursuit. Twigs and leaves were cracking, the wind roaring about them. There was more movement ahead, and not from animals. He summoned a burst, vaulted over the next dip in the land and—a rope snapped up. It gouged into his gut, choking him as he careened over it, his shoulder ramming into a root, hard, buckled under him. The ground was jolting over Ruso whilst clouds reeled aloft. Scrabbling aside, he kicked at a warrior. Another bloke wrenched at him. An arm was around his throat, and he bucked, wresting to free himself. They both knotted over each other. Grappling, elbowing, his opponent crushed him into the knobbly branches and roots and earth that dug into his flank. He thrashed, struggling to wrap a leg about the fellow’s neck. Ruso constricted. His saxe was scraping for purchase.
The world flipped; his head pulsed with a conflagration, his hearthsoul lurched. This pitched into nausea when he was hauled by his two attackers. Hair tumbled over his face, obscuring half his sight. It veiled his wince as he tried to stand. A dribble of blood leaked down his temple from the reopened scab.
“Ei, weapons. Get his weapons,” a chap was saying.
His arms were wrung behind him. Any resistance might well dislocate his shoulders, with the left one throbbing from its scar. Ruso’s knife was broken from his grasp, the axe at his belt taken. Somehow, his only thought was relief for his bow. It had been left at the campsite.
He was not completely helpless. If he escaped he could dash for it. Or maybe leave it and abandon Zaithe to their enemies; this job had been dubious to begin with. His luck fairy was nothing close to reliable.
“Any more?” said the other warrior. Fingers scratched down his shawl of patched rabbit hides, probing his mismatched boots for a dagger. “I got none.”
“None,” the first bloke confirmed. “Blims, this was—”
More figures sauntered into view and his captors tensed, for in their midst loomed death itself. Worse, in truth. It was Echeris the Crimson. Large and bloodstained, he eclipsed the stars, a strung longbow in his hand. His pale, gory sleeves appeared more tattered than Ruso could recall. The hood of that expensive jerkin was thrown back, to reveal his glower.
“So,” was all he said. ‘So.’ One word in a voice that could humble mountains. “Your luck fairy finally abandoned you.”
“Well, sod her. It might rain.”
A humourless smile twitched on that face, and Ruso felt himself falter—as did a bloke restraining him. The fellow’s clutch eased. Yanking, he kicked aside his foe’s knee and jerked. His tunic ripped and, with a twist, he transferred the strain from his other arm to the chap who still held him. He jostled down and snatched his axe from inside a briar. Between him and the remaining four hunched his captive, a living shield. The huntsmen shared gestures and began to circle him. One’s knife twitched.
Ruso shoved his victim into the bloke. He was barrelling away, then, his pursuers like monstaurs in springtime. Dodging swiftly, he scrambled uphill to his camp. The trees thinned.
Zaithe was rolling to her feet. “Wh—”
“Leg it,” he said. “Complications.” She vanished as he jumped over his flaxen cord. Clumsily, Ruso clawed through the dead leaves for his bow, pulled it from its snakeskin. He bent the weapon on a boot to string it.
“Well, move,” hissed Zaithe from his left.
“I’ll distract. Go upwind, catch the next drift. Tallest hill—”
Something clattered; his enemies had disrupted the borderline. Branches snapped to herald their approach. Seizing an arrow from amidst all the twigs, he drew, with it clamped between two fingers. It was not even nocked. His axe’s haft wobbled in his bow hand.
The warriors erupted into his glade.
“Sod off,” he said. “Sod off, now.”
They were hesitating, then shoved aside by Echeris the Crimson. Several hunkered behind trees. Their shapes were still visible, those blotched, grimy gambesons distinct in the moonlight. Motion swished the flaxbushes as they made to enclose Ruso. He moved backward with his right foot. Once he reached the scarp’s brink, he stopped. Albeit sudden, it was not a treacherous drop. His camp was here for a reason. To either side the slope would grow steeper, making it hard for his foes to surround him.
‘A good huntsman plans,’ his father had always said. ‘And he never loses his escape routes.’
Ruso smiled as his heel teetered on that slant. There was a certain irony to life.
“Go on, Scion. Shoot,” Echeris said with a bolt aimed back at him.
Unable to help it, he retreated a step. Earth crumbled underfoot, but a fern halted his downward slide. Rolling his arrow between three fingers, he slowly nocked it. “Jaegor burn you for this.”
“Jaegor is dead. We’re on the sails, now, boy. Not the gods.” The huntsman took another pace forward. “Rather, I’m on the sails. And I will not be denied by a cub.”
“‘Cub’,” he said. From the corner of his eye he espied flickers. “I’ve been demoted from ‘demonspawn’, huh. That hurts.” Shuffling, he altered his grip on the bowstring. “So. So how much first water did Marthilius offer this time … for ‘a cub’.”
“We ain’t ‘ere to hunt you.”
“Three flasks. Four, perhaps? Or did he offer his impeccable friendship.”
Echeris’s fingers moved as if about to let fly. “Cede your goods and return to Arinhold. The king offers you a hunt.”
For the briefest of heartbeats his firesoul reacted, but he kept still. “Hunt, huh. Tell the ‘king’ you can do it.”
“I know not how the roads will warp, boy,” said Echeris.
“Yet you found me.”
An eyebrow lifted at that. “I tailed you.”
“You build your fires in a spiral pattern,” the huntsman sighed.
Something inside Ruso trembled. No retort came to him. His crude snipes deserted and he ground his teeth. Blast. Blast you, he thought and fumbled to steady himself. D’you just … help …?
“A good huntsman knows his prey,” said Echeris.
“Nah, mate. Nah. You see, a good huntsman”—he inhaled, his ironsoul wavering slightly—“should know what it’s like … to be hunted. Or he will never know his prey.”
And Ruso released, the arrow hurtling. It bounced off Echeris’s jerkin but he only caught a glimpse of that, then he was staggering down the scarp, skidding, oaths audible from his enemies. His axe was in his hand once more as, behind him, the smash of branches intensified. Veering, he doubled over with each step soft on a protruding root. The rustles chasing him ebbed. He crawled beneath a thicket, weapon poised.
There were mutters. Twigs broke in either direction; they were encircling him. Breath slowed, he readied himself to spring.
Then, “Stop.” It was Echeris.
A pause. Ruso considered using it to flee. Perhaps his luck fairy was in a good mood.
Another huntsman hissed, “Are you bonkled?”
“I’ve brought you this far,” said Echeris, still in his nonchalant manner. It made not respecting him a frustrating endeavour, sometimes. “Do not defy me. We want him as our ally.”
The crackle of leaves resumed.
“Stop,” he said. But after a falter they continued, and Ruso smiled grimly at their fate. At first nothing happened. Whispers of warm, sour breeze added to the noises and the words exchanged. Then gargles. A crash of branches. Cries of pain even as he scurried from cover. He was darting down another slope, his bow slung over a shoulder. Through a stream Ruso splashed, chasing the wind, until the air blew acrid and his hearthsoul spun. Thereupon he sat against a tree.
Ever so faintly the land groaned.
This was a stupid idea. Like all his others. His foes could have followed and moreover, he was lost. The Far Moon rose and found him dozing despite his dizziness. Once the world had calmed, he searched for the tallest hill. Zaithe paced visibly atop it. Night had receded and she no longer blended so well into the murk; her skin was a darker brown than his hair, her tunic deeper still. Belted at her waist were those assassin pouches. They could save a life, or take all.
It was with some care that Ruso approached. “Found the gem, mate,” he recited.
“No, you didn’t.”
He relaxed just a bit—it was safe. Climbing over a fallen pine, he landed with a scuff. There were few leaves here and a chill nipped the breeze. The warp must have gone south or west. Ruso tried to envision which of the three wheels this would involve. “You got my map?”
“No, curse them gods.”
“Curse your own gods,” he said. Adjusting his gauntlets, he undid and retied their straps to secure them. They were more leather than metal, in whole.
“What do you care, the gods forsook us anyway.” Her breath fogged. She halted to glare at him and he fixed her with one of Echeris’s flat, grey stares. The mercenary said, “Why weren’t you on vigil?”
“Needed a drink and a piss.”
Hawking, she spat. “If you didn’t drink so much we’d not have an issue.”
“I ain’t a desert rat, mate.”
“Southlanders,” groused Zaithe as she squatted. From beneath a nest of briars, she extracted that precious rucksack of hers. Their pursuers were probably more intent on it than they were Ruso. He had never asked what it contained. “Well? Which way.”
“Don’t know,” he said. A gale snagged at his words.
“Gods smite, you don’t know?”
With a shrug, he flumped down against the pine. “Best let me sleep and I’ll sort it.” He tugged his rabbit shawl over the rent in his right sleeve. Frost demons scuttled through Ruso’s clothes.Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and touched the cut on his left temple. A spongy scab had formed.
“What are you doing? Damned gods,” said Zaithe, kicking him, “get up. We’ve not the luxury to dally. They might be close.”
“They’re after you, not me.”
The mercenary spat. But she left him in peace, after grumbling a saga’s worth of foreign abuse
“Thanks, mate,” he said. “Flattered.”
“Rouse. You’ve had enough. Oi, Scion.”
Labouring to his feet, Ruso rubbed the crust from his eyes. Scarcely any time had passed. The clouds were still tinted orange through the canopy of pine needles. His stomach was chafing. “Got feed?”
“You lost yours at the campsite,” she said. Zaithe finished off a strip of honeyed quail. “You’re very ill prepared, for a huntsman.”
He grunted. Life had done worse. Come to think of it, he must be pretty damn poor for a mercenary to hire him. And he was the sole idiot to take her offer, too. The others had been cowards. Or smart. Clearly Zaithe supported the ‘Outside’. But he was here because it might further his image and for that, he would do anything.
Except fight Echeris the Crimson.
Not even Ruso was daft enough. He ought to flee whilst he was able, he knew, drift to some forgotten village. Keep his hide intact. For a moment he was tempted to damn his promises. However, he—the mighty Royal Huntsman, always so very sensible—simply stretched and said, “Mate, be a boulder and help me onto that branch, eh?”
Another grizzle. Whilst the horizon paled to blue, Ruso shinned up a fir. Gales shrieked all about. His tree pitched like the mast of a Queen Raider at sea. Revelling in his height, he surveyed the land. Hills were low and scattered. Scraps of diverse, yellowed forestry mottled it from the warps. Toward the sun he could discern a tatter of haze. Smoke from a village. A risk, no doubt, but he needed to go there. It would provide a name and a map.
“We trot northeast,” he said when he slid down. Without ado Zaithe coiled her braid and trekked after him. Like always she hung her rucksack in front, arms wrapped over it firmly. Distance melted, and only once did he stop to avoid a landshift. Its breaths of sourness were barely detectable. Soon enough it passed and so did they, pacing until the sky dimmed, whereupon Zaithe halted.
“Keep going, mate,” he said. With a grin, Ruso slouched sideways against a bole. Bad idea. His left shoulder still ached from its old scar. He straightened. “Ain’t tired already, huh. Northland warmworms.”
“What, you fancy going on? And building camp at night?”
“Don’t need to camp.” Any oven or smithy would do for heat; they just needed to take turns on bandit vigil. Albeit the notion did not bring his best memories, it had its merits. “Should be a town two hills from ‘ere, I reckon.”
Zaithe frowned, those oiled brows of hers meeting. “We’ll be seen.”
“I ‘ave to know where we are, mate. We could’ve shifted south or west and that’s a big difference for where we’re going.”
Her mouth pinched and, predictably, she spat. “And our hunters will know that too. There’s an ambush if aught.”
“Yup,” he said. “You coming?”
With a mutter, the mercenary stood. “Coming. Can’t let you slip away, now can I, Scion? You’ve quite the renown for scamping.”
“Mysteriously vanishing. But I’m flattered.”
The village was a jumble of homesteads at odd angles. Bespattered stakes jutted haphazardly around it—remnants of a palisade wall, abandoned by cowards or the smart, likely. He kept a hand near his saxe as they entered. It was too quiet. The only sounds audible were mumbles somewhere, a whistle of wind, and banners flapping.
“Demon’s been here,” Zaithe dipped her head to whisper; the mercenary was unfairly tall for an Aridtian. Most of her kin would barely top Ruso’s shoulder.
“Best you play sentinel, then. I’ll sort this and we can leg it real quick.”
In the gloom her expression was unreadable, but it drilled into him. “I will not play sentinel.”
He shrugged. “Alright. Well met,” he said loudly, clapping her on the arm. Letting her come was a regret he could deal with later. “I’m Draigar. Don’t know you and whatever craps on your head shouldn’t crap on mine. So … good trotting, huh?”
“I’ll find someplace warm. But you ‘ave to buy me feed.”
It proved simple to locate the town square, beside which was a decently large hall. A row of shrivelled bushes lined its porch. He pushed on the door, smoke billowing into him, accompanied by a lapse in the conversation. Folk straightened and one even stood, eyes narrowed. The remainder were lounged about the central hearth. A trench ringing the fire allowed them to sit with their legs down. Hung over the flames was a blackened cauldron, its bland aroma taunting Ruso.
“Trotters?” said a stout woman.
Spreading his hands, he looked at himself; clothes torn, dishevelled and begrimed. “You think so, huh.”
Her mouth tightened and she glanced at Zaithe. Well, more likely at that ridiculous broadsword slung on the mercenary’s back. “We do not welcome travellers,” she said.
“But this nice assassin promised me food if I found her warmth. Been a rough road, you see?”
Zaithe added, “I have coin.”
“What use is coin,” said the villager. “Leave us.”
Damn. His luck fairy seldom acted in his favour. It took a combination of offers, pestering and stubbornness to sway their host. Finally, a healing herb from the mercenary’s pouch convinced her, and she brusquely waved them in. They learnt the town’s name was ‘Marandy’. Almost half of its inhabitants were lodged in this very hall, many crippled beyond hope.
“Cursed gods. Did demons do this?” said Zaithe after they had collapsed by the trench.
Ruso swore into his bowl. Those anticipated regrets came walloping. He cursed his luck fairy.
One of the villagers raised a hand. “Look … stranger. These are godforsaken times. Best we not discuss our alignments.”
The mercenary’s brow lowered, but ere she could blurt herself a death warrant Ruso said, “Mate, if you support the Outside”—which even the blind would see—“you’d best shut it, that meant.”
She darted him a contemptuous frown. However, she spoke no more and therewith lay on the straw-packed dirt, her back to him. “Rob me if you don’t want your hands.”
It was unspoken they would doze in turns. The others also slept, eventually, whilst he slurped at his meagre meal. A fetid bitterness curled his tongue but in these godforsaken times, one could hardly expect better. Just to ease his stomach felt nice. He knew not if it was vegetables or gruel he ate; what crops did grow tasted far from they ought to.
Quelling a grimace, he returned his bowl. “Thanks, mate.”
Their host grunted.
It was almost silent but for the crackle of flame. For a bleakest span Ruso mulled into it, a knot in his hearthsoul. He thought of the longfires where he could never go. The solidity, the smog, the pitchers they passed around. Embers pulsed in the hearth. Peeling from them were flakes of white, the air shimmering. Here and there, a sliver would break off to float aloft. Sparks joined the smoke as they rushed through a hole in the thatch, through which spat an occasional raindrop. There was no metal grate, of course.
He snapped alert when the door creaked. How long had passed he could not guess, for Ruso saw but blackness outside. Chills stirred the haze as a figure entered, hitching slightly. Zaithe’s breathing changed. Himself, he just leant forward against his left knee, a hand near his hilt.
“Room,” rasped the newcomer. Glimpsing over a shoulder, the man hobbled in. In the void behind him flitted shadows. Then the door slammed them away.
A chap rose. “This is not an—”
He threw a bladder to the ground and limped closer. Light brushed his scowl, his dead eyes, angular visage, wild hair. Smears of crimson coated his right side as befitted his name. “Room,” he said. If he had noticed Ruso he did not show it. “Payment.” And Echeris kicked the sloshing bladder, its top secured about a cork. “Third water.”
“The gods are back,” Zaithe said, watching the group depart. A boy, who had the collar and short hair of slaves, followed outside with two platefuls of embers. After a conference the folk had agreed for Echeris to take some abandoned homestead. Excited murmurs racked those still by the fire.
Ruso said nothing.
“We’ll wait until this cracks,” continued the mercenary. She pointed at a whitening branch in the flames. “Then we’ll strike.”
“No,” he said. “Leave him. Reckon he’s being tailed already.” But why’d he come to a town if he’s hurt? With bandits and other scum like … well, Ruso himself, it would be safer in a more secluded place.
Zaithe spat into the embers, its steam hissing. “You stay, then.”
“You don’t want to kill another Blodriett, that’s fine. But I will.”
That was not it, but he was glad for her lack of suspicion. He looked down and managed a laugh. “… Bugger, yeah. I am grutted soft.” Subtly, he sensed her tension ebb. “Can’t be a good huntsman like that. Besides, the gods ‘ave scrapped us. What does it matter anymore, right.” Ruso switched his gaze to the mercenary. “Right?”
Shrugging, she said, “Yes.”
For an uncomfortable stretch he smiled at her. Then he glanced at the door. Her eyes flicked. He swung a fist and she crumpled, red gathering on the back of her neck.
“Sorry, mate.” Wedging Zaithe’s rucksack beneath her arm, he filched the smaller pouch and stood. It should be safe enough to leave her and that precious cargo. She would not take long to awaken. Once that happened he might have regrets, but it was for later. He nodded at the alarmed townsmen and left. Outside, his vision adjusted to the darkness. Mutters guided Ruso, although when they came near, he ducked behind a longhouse. A weak glow passed him. There was just one dish of embers in the lad’s hand, now. Prowling up, he placed his knife on the slave’s throat and breathed, “Keep going.”
Haltingly the boy obeyed.
“Thanks,” he said. “Now where’s this great homestead o’ yours?”
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