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)
Karen sends a first chapter of a women’s fiction novel, Precious in His Sight.
It was still dark when Sugar finished dressing. Out her bedroom window, the moon, blurry behind thin clouds, cast a sliver of gray across an inky sky. She stuffed another jacket in her suitcase and scolded herself, wondering what possessed her to do something so rash. It was all Clay’s fault. She should be going about her day, meeting with friends, volunteering at the church, working in her garden, doing what happily married women do. Instead, thanks to him, her life was in total disarray.
She hurried from their bedroom, reminding herself that she needed this trip, needed to distance herself—to try and make sense of it all—and to figure out what to do next. She clenched her teeth, seething at Clay, who seemed as relaxed as an old dog on a warm porch. How could he just sit there, smiling at her as if nothing were out of the ordinary? She rushed around, taking care of a thousand last-minute details while Clay, hunched over the morning paper at the kitchen counter, casually sipped his coffee. She stormed past him, rustling his newspaper, sending advertisements off the counter’s edge to the floor in her wake.
Clay bent down and picked up the papers, the corners of his mouth turned in a mischievous grin that accentuated his dimples. Sugar whished past him again, grabbed the coffee pot, overfilling her cup and gasping as brown drops expanded into quarter-sized circles on the cuff of her sleeve. She reached under the sink for a spray bottle and vigorously scrubbed the stain (snip)
I do like to read clean writing and a good voice. The character is clearly upset and tense . . . but why? There’s a reference to doing “something so rash,” but what is it? If the reader doesn’t know, then how to interpret the character’s state of mind? This is what I call an “information question” rather than a “story question”—information withheld in hopes of creating tension and achieving the opposite result. What happens here? A woman is packing. She knocks some papers off the table and spills come coffee. None of these things contribute to creating story questions or a problem with stakes for the protagonist. Later in the chapter there are more information questions—she says to her husband, “I know about her.” But what she knows, and who “her” is, and how “her” impacts her life isn’t included. So, for the reader, knowing about “her” can’t mean much. In reading the rest of the chapter, I still didn’t know where she was going, why she was upset, what her problem was, or what the story was about. I like the writing and think you should look later, to the inciting incident, for the place to start this story.
Read on and see what you think.
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 Karen
The rest of the chapter continues . . .
away, tisking at herself.
“Nervous?” he asked.
“‘Course not.” They both knew that was a lie. She was always a wreck before flights. She sensed he was watching her as she leaned over the sink, wolfing down a piece of toast with the last sip of coffee. “We should get going,” she said.
He got up and set his own cup in the sink, kissed her cheek. “Last night was amazing, ” he said softly in her ear.
The forty-five minute drive to the airport was excruciating. Sugar rearranged her purse, checked her itinerary, filed her bare nails again, slathered on hand cream.Clay didn’t take his eyes off the road.
Last night. Last night had been a colossal mistake. Sure, her nerves had been a factor—she never enjoyed flying, and the thought of landing more than five thousand miles from home, not knowing a soul, was grounds for the jitters. But, something else—something desperate—had risen from deep inside her when Clay folded his arm around her waist and whispered goodnight. What followed was ravenous and pure, like when they were young.
Afterward, she’d sat in the bathroom and cried for a good half-hour.
Clay fiddled with the radio, landing on a twangy pop star-turned-country, who was butchering a Loretta Lynne classic.
“Turn it off, please.” The muscles in her jaw twitched.
“Sure,” he said, clicking the button to OFF.
He followed the signs for the international terminal and pulled up to the curb, shifted the car into park and adjusted the air conditioner to a soft purr.
“Sugar, sweetheart…are you sure you’re all right? I mean, if you’re not totally comfortable about this…there’s no one forcing you to go.” He reached for her hand. “I’m a little worried about you.”
Maybe it was the exhaustion and lack of sleep, or maybe she was over all the pretending, but the boiling combination of shock, betrayal and pain she had managed to contain was about to erupt—there was no stopping it. She looked into her husband’s grey-green eyes—eyes that had wooed her and loved her and captivated her for nearly three decades.
“I know,” she said with steely calmness.
“You know what?” He raised his eyebrows and waited for her to continue. He looked like he was waiting for the punch line of a knock-knock joke. This was no joke.
She was breathing hard, feeling lightheaded. Neither spoke for an eternally long moment. Her eyes bored into his with a fierceness. His expression wilted. She fought to stay in control.
“I know about her.” She stared at him, unflinching, unblinking, heart pounding.
Outside the car, an airport security officer blew his whistle, directing cars through the departure lanes. Muffled speakers blared announcements as passengers dragged their baggage toward the ticket counters. Sugar forced her eyes away from Clay’s blank expression, swooped up her things from the floor of the seat, and got out. On the sidewalk, she hoisted her overstuffed purse to one shoulder, her Louis Vuitton tote over the other, resisting the urge to look back. She took one deep breath and moved toward the gate clerk who was waving her over to the curbside counter to check her bags and issue her a boarding pass. Behind her, she heard the back hatch of her SUV open. Clay pulled her two bulging suitcases to the counter and stood close enough behind her that she could hear him breathing—hard and raspy. Her first instinct—to reach in her purse for his inhaler—thwarted. If only she could rewind the days, go back to being happy and blissfully unaware. If only…
“Sugar, please,” he whispered, touching her arm. Without looking at him, she swiped his hand away with shocking force. She continued to focus on the uniformed man tapping his computer keyboard. Her face held a thin, tight smile, as she pulled her dark sunglasses from their perch on her head and covered her reddening eyes.
"Thank you, ma'am and have a great flight."
Unable to speak, Sugar nodded. Her lips trembled, but her chin remained level and upright as the attendant handed her the passport and boarding pass.
Hurrying towards the tinted revolving doors, she heard his desperate, pleading shout and was struck by his uninhibitedness—allowing his emotions to be heard by the small crowd who lingered at the sidewalk check-in.
“Sugar, please—I’m begging you—don’t leave like this. Please talk to me!”
It took all her strength to keep walking.
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