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)
Bethany sends a revised first chapter of a YA novel, Beauty, the Beast, and the Brother. The chapter continues after the fold.
If you had the misfortune of being the second born son of a king, life held very little promise of being interesting.
Everyone knew it was your brother, destined by fate to be king, who would play the leading role in all future tales. If there was a dragon threatening the realm, he would be the one to slay it. If a damsel needed rescuing, he would fly to her aid. Should evil forces loom, he would selflessly sacrifice himself for the good of people—and come out looking all the better for it.
Despite all this, Sebastian had always felt he had a pretty fair chance at an interesting life, being the youngest son and an orphan on top of that, until Lumpin pointed out that younger brothers only led interesting lives so long as their older brothers led dull ones and Anton had already gotten himself cursed and that pretty much ruined whatever chance Sebastian’s being an orphan had given him.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the world had not gotten considerably less interesting in the years since Anton’s curse. No one was speaking of wizards with any frequency—and the ones that did get dragged into conversation were almost always in conjecture with Medicinal Remedies for Warts. The Gilded Fairy who had been so keen on cursing the prince and ruining the lives of everyone else in the vicinity had apparently traded her wand for knitting needles, as she regularly failed to turn up in any of the most popular posts. And magic—real, useful (snip)
The writing is good and the voice strong and interesting, and this is clearly a world of magic that will be explored with a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone . . . on the other hand, this is also clearly an info-dump, the writer giving us a fairly complete telling of the world of the story. It continues, too, as the chapter goes on. There is an encounter with ruffians that contains conflict, but none of it seems related to the story, though I’m not sure of that because I ended the chapter approximately 4000 words later not knowing what the story was about. It follows the fold, and you’ll find humor, voice, and fun writing. I suggest that Bethany start her story much closer to the inciting incident and weave in all this world-building stuff while something meaningful and troublesome happens to the protagonist. No page turn from me, but I would like to see an opening that drops me into the story.
For what it’s worth.
The rest of the chapter follows--comments help the writer.
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 Bethany
magic—was a thing of the past.
Sebastian had just about resigned himself to believe the only interesting thing that would ever occur in his lifetime had taken place when his brother had been cursed and he had been too young to appreciate it.
Of course, to hear Lumpin, the faithful brownie who had served as butler at Arlington palace for generations, tell it, even the cursing had not been that interesting. Sebastian had no real first-hand knowledge, as he had been in his room at the time. At seven, he was considered too young to play dress-up and gorge himself on sweets with the party-goers. But according to Lumpin it was a quiet affair wherein Anton had spurned the love of some great and terrible fairy and she had cursed him and that was that. None of the dinner guest even missed dessert on account of it. Of course, as a brownie, Lumpin was inclined to be rather depressing, which might have subdued the narrative slightly.
There had been, recently, some floating rumors of a new wizard in the vicinity—one powerful enough, even, to bring the Lord and Lady of Draming home early from their trip across the sea. It was widely known just how much the Lady Draming feared wizardry of any kind (and from Sebastian’s limited experience, he couldn’t really blame her), so they had returned to their palace in the city, because everyone also knew there was a powerful enchantment on it that protected its occupants. The story had piqued Sebastian’s interest for a short time, until he mentioned it to Rudy, the shady pawnbroker who knew every rumor before it started.
Rudy snorted in derision. “If it’s magic my friend is interested in, I can find you much more interesting wizardry than that. Why, take for example this letter opener—a spell of the most delightful kind! Whoever uses it is guaranteed to never open a poisoned letter with their own hand! Or consider this powerful love potion, in the form of an ordinary key. Plain it seems, but as long as a young lady holds it, she will possess the deepest desires of at least one man’s heart. Or…or this ball!” Rudy held high a saggy, off-color blue lump about the size of child’s fist. He hesitated, then thrust it higher. “A cursed ball!” His arm sagged again, and he fumbled, “Said to…uh…”
Even Rudy couldn’t come up with a story for that one. Sebastian tactfully cleared his throat. “So…the wizard?”
Rudy sulked, but eventually admitted with a sniff, “The Lady fears this supposed wizard because he has been breaking into her gardens.”
After that, Sebastian stopped listening.
Not because he didn’t care for gardens. As it went, the Lady Draming had beautiful gardens, exactly the kind wizards would be interested in if they were interested in things like they. They weren’t quite as impressive as the ones Anton kept, with his glass houses that bloomed roses even when the snow kissed the frozen ground, but then the Lady didn’t have the luxury of being cursed, and her time was divided between various politics, which only left so many spare moments for planning her gardens.
There were about seven or eight of them throughout the city, each filled to the top of their stony walls mostly with roses, but also other exotic specimens that only the Lady of Draming was permitted to grow. Sebastian was well acquainted with them because he was the one breaking into them.
As far as he could tell, there was nothing worth any wizard breaking into the gardens for, but he supposed that some of the exotic flowers might provide rare ingredients in sinisterly powerful spells. To tell the truth, he didn’t much care. His interest in the gardens was purely coincidental. He went there because that was where all the young ladies wanted to go.
Which was what he tried to explain to the rather large, rather rough looking gentlemen who currently had him by the ankles against the pawnshop wall. They, however, did not seem overly inclined to listen.
This wasn’t the first group of wizard-finders Sebastian had encountered. Usually they were packs of thieves hoping to get a pardon from the Lord of Draming for finding the culprit behind his wife’s fear; the past week especially had been swarming with small clots of them, self-tasked with ensuring all the festivities for the Lord and Lady’s return went smoothly. This was, however, the first group of wizard-finders who had decided their duty extended to hanging him by his ankles like a pair of shabby winter underwear in the spring.
These consisted of a motley group of around seven, ranging from half a head to three heads taller than him, and, unlike most vigilante groups, boasted one of the smaller, civilized giants usually employed at gristmills to turn the wheels. If Sebastian rolled his eyes all the way back in his head, he could just make out the fellow’s enormous toes behind his head.
Sebastian took a deep breath and held it. Most giants, as a rule, weren’t known for their pleasing odor, but this one smelled as though he wanted to be known specifically for the way little plants around him died. He thought about plugging his nose, but something told him that would not be polite, and, as the second son of a duke, he figured at the very least his duty was to be polite.
Of course, if he didn’t plug his nose, that left the annoying question of what in the world he was going to do with his arms…
“So where does a little scrap like you come by an enchanted rose?”
The question caught him off-guard, and Sebastian stared at the vigilante, arms dangling below his head, cocked at right angles. “Huh?”
He grinned wryly and leaned against his staff. “Well, it obviously wasn’t through cunning. But really, this isn’t the time to mess around with answers. Is there a real reason you’ve found yourself in a place you so obviously shouldn’t be?”
Sebastian’s mind scrambled for an explanation that didn’t directly translate into “not really”, which he could already see would not be a satisfactory reply for this group.
His train of thought hit a tree as the giant gave him a rather vigorous shake, rattling his teeth around in his head.
“Now, now, Brius,” the leader cautioned, “we mustn’t be rough.”
“Heard him tell ‘er the rose was enchanted, Cooper,” the thick fists wrapped around his ankles droned.
Sebastian was starting to get the hang of his arms, in an upside-down sort of way. He dragged them up towards his legs and shoved each deep into its respective pocket, giving his shoulders what he hoped was an innocent looking curl that said, “Who, me? No, officer, I was just standing here when it happened…”
It didn’t seem to fool the vigilantes. The dumpy one to his left prodded him in the face with his staff. The closest one—Cooper—leaned forward a little more and asked casually, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve stumbled into?”
Sebastian considered this and decided it might be a good idea to tell the truth. “I’m not a wizard.”
The leader’s hands spread wide in mock surprise. “Who said anything about wizards? I remember asking about a rose. Enchanted, is it?”
Sebastian shrugged, which is painful wrong-side-up, and practiced his expressionless expression. Not that it really mattered. His mouth was gaping like a fish just to get air into his lungs, all the blood in his body was sloshing between his ears, and his tongue was having a hard time finding footing on the roof of his mouth.
This earned him another shake, and the amusement turned down into a pointed frown on Cooper’s face. “Only roses around here belong to the Lady Draming—and she keeps them all in private gardens.” He paused. “Much like the one we just dragged you out of. But with roses in them.”
“Look, I bought it from…” He paused to force another lungful of air up into his chest to fuel his lie. “…some peddlers on my way into town. Maybe you should be interrogating them. I can even give you directions if you’d like. You take a left at the ugly deer statue just before the—”
The giant holding his ankles swung him around towards the end of the group, giving him a good jerk like snapping a piece of laundry out to dry. “Well?” Cooper snapped.
As his vision slowly sorted itself back out, he brought into focus what had to be the saddest looking vigilante he had ever imagined. Behind two of the other members, a tiny, black haired man with a stringy mustache that fell all the way up to his chin fidgeted, like some unstable potion about to explode. “Definitely a wizard. Look at his eyes! Look at his eyes!”
Cooper turned a black eye on the man, making him cower back. “You’d better be certain this time, Beedle. You said that old lady selling the charms was a wizard too.”
“Of course she was! Who else would possess charms that could actually keep the wearer from harm? I sampled her wares myself—they were authentic!”
“That didn’t stop that kid from hitting you with a rock,” he pointed out blandly.
The greasy man sniffed. “I didn’t say she was a good wizard…”
Sebastian cleared his throat, nearly popping his eyeballs out of their sockets. “Alright, well, I think that pretty much clears up any lingering doubt about my wizarding abilities. So if you could just set me down over there by my jacket, I’d be much oblig—”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
And that was when Sebastian officially gave up. He head bumped back against the stone wall and he closed his eyes, completely defeated.
“If it isn’t Karis…”
Now aside from Anton, Sebastian was an only child. He had limited experience with older siblings. He had heard they could be bossy, demanding, commanding, irritating, interfering, and a tad overly protective. He had never realized exactly how infuriating those qualities could be until he met Karis.
Sebastian opened his eyes, letting gravity roll them down towards his eyebrows. “Don’t you have some bread to burn?”
Karis blinked twice. “Aren’t you letting some burn right now?”
The giant dropped him.
“This kid ain’t a wizard!” Cooper’s voice couldn’t have held more disgust if Sebastian had been a chamber pot full of rotting peaches. “He’s just some baker’s apprentice!”
“That doesn’t mean he’s not a wizard!”
“Oh, get over yourself,” Cooper snarled. “He clearly found this broken hole in the wall and sneaks his sweethearts in on his break. That doesn’t make him magical—it makes him stupid.”
Sebastian’s eyesight was having a hard time sorting itself out after his forehead’s unceremonious collision with the ground, and little explosions of blackness kept popping up right when he’d thought he’d got it, but he could hear Beedle’s frantic sandals skittering over the cobblestones. “You, girl—I know you! Your father owns that bakery by the docks!”
Someone stepped over Sebastian and another someone stepped on his arm. Beedle’s voice squawked, “Your cakes are said to be the finest in Draming—the entire city of Draming! That’s clearly a bewitching spell, at the very least!”
“Forget it! No, forget the rose too.” Sebastian watch the leader stomp over to the flower the girl had dropped in the alley in her haste to end their date and grind it under his boot. “I never want to see your face again, you little weasel.” He jerked his head at the giant. “Come on, Brius. I’ve seen enough.”
Sebastian squirmed right side up and managed to get his knees under him just in time for Beedle to shove him into the wall as he rushed after the group. “Wait! How will you find wizards without the great Beedle?”
The rush of celebrating crowds swallowed the last of his protests with him. Dropping his head back against the cold stone behind him, Sebastian squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. “That could’ve gone worse,” he said to no one in particular. But despite using his most authoritative tone, it seemed to beg a question nonetheless, so he added, slightly less authoritatively, “It…could be raining?”
There was a motherly kind of sigh, and then Sebastian heard the crunch of gravel under Karis’s shoe as she squatted down beside him. He cracked one eye open. Stretching her arms behind her head, she managed to give her shoulders a slight shrug and tried to be sympathetic.
“She was probably out of your league.”
Probably? She had definitely been out of his league, just like all the other girls Sebastian had slipped into the garden—immaculate hair, perfectly large eyes, and noble enough to at least make all the commoners feel sick. But it wasn’t his fault Anton’s type was high-and-mighty—sometimes too high-and-mighty to follow some hapless ragamuffin with patches on his jacket and an uncontrollable cowlick through a rough hole in a stone wall into a mysterious and mostly dead at this time of year garden.
Daphne, daughter of Count Xavier, had been his latest attempt to find a balance between pretty and refined enough to interest Anton but stupid and romantic enough to run off to a mystical castle with him. As usual, the date had ended with a laugh—at least until he’d sudden been yanked out of the garden by a giant. She hadn’t even looked over her shoulder as she dropped the rose and fled.
“A countess?” Karis sat back a moment, eyebrows shot, then shrugged. “What would you want with a countess anyway? You’d have nothing to talk about.”
“You’re right, of course. How could a countess possibly have as much to lecture me about as a… as someone like you?” He was going to say baker, but then changed his mind as the last minute. Karis was the daughter of a man who owned a shop where baked goods were produced, and on a daily basis she mixed things in bowls, formed them into shapes, and inserted and removed them from ovens. Some people called her a baker. If only the remains that emerged from the ovens weren’t usually black on the outside with runny lumps on the inside, he might have been more amiable to the phrase. But despite her miraculous ability to somehow scavenge the most amazing cakes Sebastian had ever tasted from among the charred casualties of bread and scones, he was sure there had to be some law against calling people like Karis bakers—and if there wasn’t, there should have been.
Karis rocked on her heels, flicking one eye up to the crowd pushing through the streets. “This is, what, the third one? Or fourth? I’m losing count.” She noticed his eyes glaring out through the gap in his arms and rolled her shoulders back. “I’m running out of things to say, Seb. Would you like me to pat you on the shoulder? Maybe it would make you feel better to tell me the story you drag those girls in the garden for, and I could pretend to be interested and wooed by it.”
Sebastian stuck out his tongue at her.
“Oh come on.” Karis leaned back on the heels of her palms. “How does it go? You’ve never been lacking in some hopelessly brilliant answer up until now. Go on: I’m sure it’ll make you feel better. If not, I can tell you where to change it to make it more interesting. Tell me. I’m sure you’ve got the whole speech worked out.”
Of course he did, and it was killing him not to tell Karis. It involved a handsome young man—the Duke—who lived an—unfortunately, of course—cursed life in his beautiful golden palace, waiting for the escape from his despicable fate that could only be brought about by true love.
And, naturally, the whole thing was complete hogwash.
Anton might have been handsome as far as eternally young dukes went, but Sebastian had seen roses whose thorns were more charming than him. The castle—whose welfare was apparently not one of the things accounted for in the curse—was anything but dazzling after years of general neglect. And Sebastian had no idea whatsoever how to break the curse. None of Lumpin’s stories concerning that fateful night included a detailed description of the fairy’s choice of curse and when Sebastian—many years before—had dared broach the subject with Anton, all he had got was a snorted, “It wouldn’t be a problem if I could just fall hopelessly in love like an idiot.” In the end, Sebastian had settled on true love for this tale because, as trite as it sounded, it fit well in the fairy tale ambiance and put the antidote to the duke’s problem within the girl’s grasp.
Unfortunately, he was not overly inclined to share any of this with Karis. For one, he felt certain she would laugh at him, and he had had quite enough embarrassment for one day.
The other reason he didn’t tell Karis was because as satisfying as it would have been to rattle off a wonderfully prepared and hopelessly enchanting answer, it was even more satisfying to stick out his tongue and snap, “I don’t waste it on kitchen maids.”
Karis leapt to her feet, jerking the dirt off her skirt and onto his face. “After I used my most comforting phrases! Why you little—”
“Horace!” Sebastian sprang to his feet in exultation.
Karis’s outrage tripped and fell down a flight of stairs into a cesspit in front of all the kings and queens on earth. Her smug, haughty expression suddenly quirked sideways, and her mouth went crooked in an awkward pause.
“Ur, uh, hello, Horace.”
Now, Sebastian didn’t consider himself much of a people person. He would much rather spend his time wandering the acres of Arlington than make small talk with the kinds of people that populated Draming. Unfortunately for Horace, he was the epitome of those people. He talked about interesting things in the most boring ways, was so polite you felt irritated that he wasn’t mocking you, pretended to be daring by doing things conventional people did not do—not because they were scared, but because it had simply never occurred to them—and was altogether too proud to be exactly the way he was. Karis, when she was being defensive, called it “Draming pride”. Sebastian interpreted this the same way he did when Anton spoke of “Arlington pride”—a washed up excuse to act exactly the way they always had.
Horace smiled brightly, but his eyes stayed wide, leaving an off feeling that lingered in your mind the way licorice lingers in your mouth. “I, uh, stopped by the bakery, but they said you hadn’t been in. Did—Did your father give you the day off for the celebration?”
Karis’s mouth quirked again. “Huh? Oh, uh, yes…Yes, of course he did. It was very—” She stomped on Sebastian’s toes as an enormous grin of understanding jumped onto his face. “—generous of him, don’t you think?”
“It might be more generous if they couldn’t manage even better without you.” Sebastian shouldn’t have been able to swagger just pulling himself to his feet, but somehow he pulled it off. Always—always—it was her catching him. Now, for the first time in his entire life, here was Karis skipping work, without even telling her father. And here was her punishment, right on schedule.
“That’s great!” Horace beamed. “The investments all came in with Lord Duncan’s fleet, so I decided to take the day off myself.”
Sebastian grinned. “Are you sure you should risk it? That mill isn’t going to turn itself.”
Horace frowned, ever so slightly. “Actually, it’s a waterwheel, so it will turn itself. But without anyone there to feed grain through it, it’s not going to—”
“Anyone want to get some chestnuts?” Karis scowled at Sebastian, who squeezed his eyes shut and smiled as broadly as he knew how.
“That sounds perfect.” Horace beamed, completely distracted.
“Seb? Join us?”
This was more a threat than an invitation. Sebastian raised his eyebrows all the way up, pressed his lips together, and smiled, squinching his eyes shut. “You know I’d love to. But!” He scooped his jacket off the ground and spun into it. “You know me. Things to do. Always busy. The public needs me, and so forth.” He fished around through the hole in the garden wall until he found his pack. Slinging it over one shoulder, he leaned into Karis’s face, enormous grin just inches away from her, and snapped cheerfully, “Have fun spending the rest of the day with Horace.”
If Horace hadn’t been standing so close, Karis’s fist would have been in his stomach. He could sense it from her. As it was, he could write off the chance of free cakes any time in the near future. But it was worth it. The look on her face alone spoke of so much hogtied rage just below the surface.
Absolutely worth it.
“I think they’re roasting chestnuts in the square,” Horace offered.
“I think so, too.” Sebastian felt a little bad. Horace was nice. Too nice, maybe, but nice. He had never said a single cross, much less sarcastic, thing to Sebastian in their entire acquaintance. But it was so hard to keep his mouth shut when the man was so obviously enamored with Karis, who was so obviously not enamored with him. “I hope you get a good return on your investment, Horace.”
Horace raised his eyebrows with a little smirk. “Oh, I think I will.”
Behind him, Karis had her mouth open, wanting to yell at Sebastian but unable to pick any hidden barb out of his last sentence. Sebastian gave her one last smirk, saluted Horace, and slipped his way into the crowd. He caught a glimpse of the crushed rose behind Karis as he was turning, and suddenly wondered if he should go retrieve it. Who knew what kind of trouble it could cause, if the wrong people found it lying, discarded, in the alley?
No, never mind. It couldn’t possibly get him in any more trouble than it already had.