Submissions needed—only one in the queue after this week.
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)
Jared sends the first chapter of Death Texts. The rest of the chapter continues below the fold.
Bree choked the worn steering wheel of the rusted out ’76 Impala as it shimmied down the fast lane of I-70. Her father snored in the passenger seat. Behind him, lay three briefcases, each with a million dollars stashed inside. Next to them, a shiny insulated canister adorned with yellow and black striped letters that read, “LIQUID NITROGEN.” In her rearview mirror…a cop.
She checked her speedometer. Sixty-seven.
The cars in the right lane had slowed and bunched—a typical response with a cop nearby. Her turn signal ticked like a grandfather clock as she twisted her face towards the drivers next to her. They ignored her pleas, refusing eye contact.
C’mon, let me over.
Her hands maintained her vice grip, except her thumb. As though it had a will of its own, her left thumb wiggled, bent, then straightened. She shot a glance at her father, Dr. Grant Watkins, and didn’t know whether to be frustrated or relieved he wasn’t awake to see.
Her thumb danced again. No. Not now. Please. Bree stared at it. Be still! It froze momentarily, then lurched to the side and honked the horn.
Her dad jerked awake. “Wha— What is it?”
Nice clean writing, an immediate scene, a clear character all work in this opening. This came close to being an “almost” for me, but I decided that there was enough of a story question or two to turn the page for more—but a little more. I wasn’t convinced yet. I think that if there could be a greater sense of the stakes the page could be stronger.
For example, if the briefcases were “each with a million dollars of stolen mob cash stashed inside” there would be an increase in possible tension. The presence of the cop behind her could be more fraught, too. There’s little danger she will be pulled over for doing 67, and there’s no reason she can’t slow to 65 even if she can’t get into the right lane. And he doesn’t have his lights on. But the stakes could be increased in a couple of places. For example: Stay calm. In this car, there was no reason the cop would know they were on the run.
And then, perhaps, after she honks the horn have the cop car turn on his lights.
Whatever is done, I think it would be a good idea to find ways to increase the sense of jeopardy in this first page. There is a certain mystery about the thumb, and that’s what probably got me to turn the page, but it doesn’t seem very consequential. A hint of trouble with her body and why she has it would be nice. To make room, the explicit description of the insulated canister could be trimmed down considerably.
The rest of the chapter below the fold.
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 Jared
Bree squashed her thumb under her leg, keeping her other hand on the wheel. “There’s a cop behind us.” She looked in the mirror fearing the sirens would turn on at any moment.
He looked straight ahead, his body stiff. “You thought honking was a good idea?”
Her dad eyed her. “You fell asleep?”
“No!” She raised her voice. He wasn’t helping her nerves. “I told you, I didn’t mean to do it.”
After a deep breath, her dad spoke more calmly. “Well, let him pass you. We don’t want him getting suspicious.”
“I’m trying,” she replied louder than she intended. Her thumb flexed annoyingly underneath her denim jeans.
A large overhanging sign warned that the interstate became a toll road in a mile. Her dad opened his mouth.
Bree cut him off before he could begin. “I see it.” She floored the gas petal. Rusty, as she’d come to call the car, grumbled and trembled as it accelerated. The cop kept pace.
The last toll-free exit quickly approached. Bree found an opening barely big enough for Rusty. She slid over, then wrenched the car across solid white lines, over gravel, and onto the exit ramp.
Her dad reached behind and settled the canister. “Is he following us?”
She glanced up, then sighed. “No.”
“That was close.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“You did good.” He clasped her shoulder. “I’m proud of you.” After looking over his shoulder he added, “That cop had enough time to check our plates. Take us into the side streets in case he doubles back.”
Bree could feel sirens bearing down on them. She rolled through the stop sign and turned left, accelerated, ran through a yellow light, raced another half mile, and then struggled to turn one-handed into a residential street. Only then did her thumb calm down. She kept it hidden under her leg, just in case.
Once the main road was out of sight, Bree slowed to fifteen miles per hour as she zig-zagged through the neighborhood of rundown homes with ill-kept lawns.
Grant stretched and yawned. “Where are we?”
“I’m not impressed.”
“I didn’t think they had toll roads out in the west?” her dad asked.
“Me neither,” Bree said. “If I had my cell phone we’d have known it was coming, and we’d have no trouble finding a way around it.”
He shifted in his seat, then spoke the moment she paused. “I’ve told you, no cell phones.”
“Or TV or internet. I know. I’m just saying this would be easier if we could.” She trailed off. Bree didn’t understand why her dad had forbidden such things, but she wasn’t going to make too big of a deal. It was the least she could do for causing this whole mess.
“I need to take a leak.”
“Sorry. I need to use the lavatory,” he said in a distinguished tone.
She laughed. For the briefest moment, she felt like everything was back to normal. When the run down homes gave way to rundown businesses, the feeling that a cop could be around any corner returned.
“There weren’t any restaurants on this exit.” She nodded to their right. A dilapidated Chevron had a busted sign and four pumps—the kind with scrolling numbers and no place for a credit card. “You willing to risk using a gas station?”
“It looks old enough. Pass it and see if the bathroom is outdoors.”
Bree rolled past the gas station. A sign in the window read, “Bathrooms for paying customers only. Key available inside.”
“Yeah. This’ll work,” Grant said. He reached for a ball cap on the floorboard and lowered it over his eyes.
She couldn’t pull a U-turn one handed, so she balled up her left hand into a fist with her thumb between her fingers. After turning, she hid her hand again and stopped at one of the pumps.
“Here’s yours,” her dad offered her a ball cap from the floor. “Just keep your head down and it’ll be fine.”
Gladly. Even if she wasn’t avoiding the security cameras, she wouldn’t want to be seen around Rusty. Not that anyone in Kansas would recognize her, but some things are just too embarrassing…even among strangers.
Bree used her right hand to take the cap and lower it onto her head, then she reached across her body to unlock and open the door. It felt awkward, but her dad didn’t say anything. She stepped out with her head tilted to the ground and slid her left hand into her pocket. A blast of muggy air assaulted her.
Her dad leaned toward her door. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. You coming?”
He shook his head. “Not inside. Could you get the bathroom key for me?” He reached in his pocket, then handed her a wadded hundred dollar bill.
They’d shredded their credit cards—had to stay off the grid.
The cracked asphalt was littered with crushed beer cans and broken glass. It smelled of poverty. Bree entered the gas station, keeping her head lowered, and approached the counter. She unwrinkled the money and pushed it toward the clerk. “Need to prepay on pump…” she looked back, uncertain which one they’d stopped at. No other cars were at the station.
“Three,” the clerk finished for her. “Haven’t seen a car like that in a long time.”
Bree looked up far enough to see his name tag, “Marvin”, and the bottom of his prickly goatee. “It’s my dad’s. Wish he’d sell the puke-bucket.” Why’d she care what Marvin thought of her? She knew she shouldn’t. It wasn’t like she was attracted to him or anything like that. “Can I have the bathroom key?”
The clerk plonked a foot-long chunk of 4x4 wood with a chained key attached. The word “Women’s” had been carved into the side and burned black.
“Actually, I need the men’s…for my dad.”
Marvin grinned. His crooked teeth were stained a yellowish brown. Definitely not attracted to him.
He replaced the women’s block with the men’s.
“Thank you.” Bree turned, never having made eye contact with Marvin. The store, despite flickering overhead lights, had a decent selection. The chocolate covered donuts in particular called to her, but they could have been on the shelf for several months. She walked past the Tracfone display and headed back to the car. Her left hand remained in her pocket.
“You feeling alright?” Grant asked.
Bree tensed. Had he noticed her thumb? “I’m good. Why?”
“I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”
“Here.” She handed him the bathroom key. “I’ll take care of Rusty.”
Grant pretended to blow his nose into a tissue as he walked out from under the overhang, then disappeared around the far side of the building.
Bree put the pump on automatic and stepped away from Rusty. The repair shop across the way had a skewed garage door which couldn’t fully shut. It’s windows were shattered. Her thoughts drifted.
She should have been keeping an eye in case the cop was roaming the area. Or she should have been shaking from nearly being caught. Instead, it was her unruly thumb that occupied her thoughts as she stared at the closed repair shop.
She felt guilty for hiding it from her dad, but he’d done so much for her, given up so much. How could she worry him about something as insignificant as a twitchy thumb? After all her body had been through, there had to be some things malfunctioning, right? She should be thankful it was only a finger. As much as she wanted to believe it wasn’t anything major, the risks were too high. She needed to know.
The pump clunked to a stop. Bree returned the nozzle. She kept her eye on the corner of the station as she walked back to the store, making certain her dad wasn’t returning yet.
She pulled the door open and looked straight into Marvin’s brown, droopy eyes. “I think I’ll take that women’s key.” She reached for one of the Tracfones as well as a 200 minutes phone card. “And these too.”
“Sure. You want a receipt?”
“No.” Bree shredded the phone’s packaging, then handed it to Marvin. “Could you throw this away for me?”
Marvin nodded. “Looks like I owe you $38.71.”
“Keep it,” Bree said with a wink, “but let’s keep this whole thing our little secret.”
She pocketed the phone and charger, then smiled to herself as she walked outside. Clerks weren’t allowed to accept tips. No way Marvin would mention meeting them now. Not if it would cost him his job. She hoped he’d erase the security tape the moment they drove away. Her dad nearly ran into her when she turned the corner near the bathrooms. The wooden block dangled at his side.
“You want me to take that back for you?” she asked him.
“Thank you.” He handed it to her, but kept his hand extended, palm up. “Give me the car keys.”
“Rusty is unlocked,” she said, then realized how stupid it was to walk away from the car full of valuables.
“I’m driving,” Grant said dryly.
“What, because I honked the horn? I told you I didn’t fall asleep. Or is this because you don’t trust my driving?”
“I’m not blaming you for the accident…”
Whatever he said after that didn’t register in Bree’s mind. She’d been thinking about the abrupt exit off the interstate, not the accident. The fact he brought it up, made her think he did blame her for it. Why else would it be on the forefront of his mind?
She handed him the key ring with one key on it, then placed her right hand over her stomach. “I’m not feeling very good. This might take me a while.” She unlocked the bathroom door, still using the right hand. Her left hand remained firmly in her pocket. “I told the clerk he could keep the change if he forgot we were here.”
“Good thinking.” He said with a funny expression. She’d seen it before in old photographs—the ones where he first held her as a baby. He hadn’t changed much other than streaks of grey in his hair and deeper smile lines.
She watched him watching her. “What is it?” she asked. His stare pierced her, making her feel guilty for buying the phone, but also more resolved that it was the right thing to do.
“I was just thinking how glad I am that you’re doing so well.”
The guilt swelled inside her. She faked a smile, then replied, “Me too.” She stepped into the darkness. With a flip of the switch the light flickered to life. The fan sounded like a dying cat. Bree closed the bathroom door. The stench hit her strongest followed by the buzzing of flies. She’d used outhouses nicer than this.
The mirror had been etched with names, phone numbers, and random lines. Only a small section, about the size of her hand, reflected anything. She stared at her 19 year old face. Deep red hair. Crystal blue eyes. Normally she avoided mirrors. She was used to looking hideous. Where most red heads had freckles, she used to have zits so large and numerous her face looked like a close up of a red andromeda galaxy. But now…her skin looked amazing. Smooth with a vibrant glow. She smiled, then remembered the lack of zits was minor in comparison to what else her dad had managed to do for her.
Bree took the phone out of her pocket. This is a phone? The screen was barely over an inch tal,l and it didn’t respond to her touch. Each number on the backlit pad represented three or more letters. Texting would be awful. No internet access. She turned it over. No round lens…she checked twice. How old was this thing? It belonged in a museum. She half expected to find a place for a curled wire to connect it to clunky base. Good thing I didn’t try the donuts.
After scratching the back of the phone card, she activated the phone and added the minutes. All her stored contacts were on her old phone and she didn’t have anyone’s numbers memorized. She dialed 411.
After listening to an advertisement about bankruptcy solutions she tried to find a phone number for Doctor David Chargaff. The automated operator couldn’t understand that last name. She repeated herself several times then gave up and asked for the business phone numbers. The operator asked her to spell M.I.T., twice, then finally gave her a phone number she could use and offered to dial it for her, but first, a message from this phone call’s sponsor, Progressive insurance.
The call connected. “MIT biology,” a pleasant female voice said, “how may I help you.”
Yeah, get me a real phone. Bree manipulated her voice to sound like a man, at least, that’s what she was aiming for. She sounded more like a munchkin with a cold. “Professor Chargaff’s office please.”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
Bree froze. She didn’t dare say her name to the secretary. Her eyes dashed around the bathroom for a pseudonym. “This is, uh.” She spotted the blow dryer, an airmax. “Max.”
“Max?” the secretary asked drawing the name out, searching for more.
The phone clicked over to elevator music.
“He’s not in at the moment, may I take a message?”
Bree doubted that was true, but why would David take a moment away from his crazy schedule to talk to a Max Peabody he’d never heard of before? “I thought for sure he’d be in. Could you check again and if he’s there tell him it’s urgent about his niece.” David was an only child, but Bree had spent so much time around him that she came to call him Uncle Dave, even though he was old enough to be her grandfather.
“One moment.” The elevator music returned.
A minute later David spoke in a hushed tone, “Is this really my niece?”
“Are you insane? Does your dad know you’re calling me?”
Bree had to yank the phone from her hear, he was so loud. “He doesn’t even know I have a phone. I had to talk to someone, and you know how much he freaks out over the littlest things about me.”
At this moment, it suddenly seemed ludicrous to disobey her dad, buy a phone, and risk calling an operator just to talk about an unruly finger. “It’s my finger.”
“Your… what about your finger?”
“My thumb isn’t behaving right. It’s moving when I’m not telling it to. A few mornings ago my index finger was doing the same thing. I’m worried…” Tears swelled. “That my organs are failing.”
“Calm down. There could be a lot of explanations for shaky fingers. Diabetes, Parkinson’s—”
“Parkinson’s?” Bree shouted, alarmed.
“Let me finish.” He said sternly. “Or just some minor muscle damage. Are you having any other symptoms?”
“Just the fingers.”
“You’ve been on the road. Have you been squeezing the steering wheel too tightly?”
“Well there you go! It should go away on its own in a few days. Nothing to worry about.” He spoke cheerfully, but changed to a softer tone. “Tell you what…as a precaution, keep alert for anything else out of the ordinary. Call me if something else comes up or if the fingers are still jittery in a week.”
She relaxed. “Thanks, Uncle Dave.”
“You were right to not tell your dad. He’s under enough stress. Keep the phone hidden and only use it to call me. Otherwise, keep it off. You don’t want it accidentally ringing or vibrating.”
“I know you can’t tell your dad this, but he needs to keep his head low. The Feds have interviewed me twice this week asking where he might have run off to. They weren’t the only ones. I got a visit from some thugs threatening to break my bones if I didn’t tell them where your dad has gone with their money. These guys aren’t going to quit looking for you two anytime soon.”
Her heart leapt into her throat. She quivered. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Make sure neither of you gets caught.” He lowered his voice. “Someone’s coming. Thanks for calling Max.”
The call ended.
Bree turned off her phone and put it in her pocket. David hadn’t made her feel better. The FBI? Thugs? Would she ever be able to live a normal life?
Loud, rapid honks outside the bathroom made her jump. Then she heard sirens.
She opened the door. A cop car with lights flashing was making a U-turn. Grant had backed the car into view, but was too far away from the bathroom. She couldn’t make it.
Her dad’s head swiveled towards her. They made eye contact. With tears in his eyes he nodded, then yelled, “Hide!”
Rusty squealed away from the gas station pursued closely by the cop.
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