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)
RB sends the first chapter of a novel about golf, Gone to Smash. The rest of the chapter continues below the fold.
The scrawny boy climbed out of bed. He crept in his nightshirt to where a sliver of light showed under the door. He opened it a crack and knelt on the bare, wooden floor. He heard the ticking of the hall clock, the family’s prized possession. A cat yowled in the muddy, trash-strewn alley in back of their red-brick rowhouse. But that wasn’t what had awakened him.
Now the boy heard it -- Alice, his youngest sister, was coughing again. She had been ill with a fever and a cough for two days. He had felt her hot forehead, had pressed a damp washcloth to it. He had felt very old, much older than his ten years; manly and oh-so responsible, but also afraid.
He heard the coughing in the next room, and two voices: a soothing one, Ma, and a deeper one -- too deep to be Da. For a moment, the boy was relieved.
Then he heard a door open and click shut, and the sounds of someone pouring water and washing their hands at the porcelain basin. He watched Ma, sniffling into a handkerchief, walk into the parlor, followed by a man. The room offered a stained couch with sagging springs; two scuffed wooden chairs; a small table that rocked because one leg was shorter than the others. On the wall were two pictures: a portrait of Jesus, and a faded Currier and Ives lithograph of horse-drawn sleighs racing down a winter road.
Ma looked so frail and young, almost girlish, even with the dark smudges below her eyes, (snip)
Clean, clear writing and voice here, but on the story side there’s not much to raise story questions. This opening would be okay with folks who like a leisurely ride, but still, is it compelling enough to turn the page?
More than that, the style keeps us distant from the character and what’s happening. Referring to the anonymous “the boy” distances us and limits making a connection; his name is Johnny, and he’s a character who takes part later—why not give his name?
The use of filters such as “he heard, he watched” also serve to distance us from the character’s experience. Just give us what he experiences—the hall clock ticked, Alice coughed, etc. And watch out for repetitious use of these filters—“He had felt” occurs two sentences in a row. “He heard” is used three times in close succession.
There are things that keep us from a close third person point of view—he wouldn’t think of himself as “scrawny.”
Finally, while the description is well done, for a first page when we need to attract a reader with what is happening, there’s way too much of it. What I would like to see from RB is this same strong writing but done from within the character’s point of view, a narrative that includes his experiences and emotions of what is happening to him. And then something needs to happen to create story questions. As you’ll see if you read on, there is domestic violence in this home, and the sister has a deadly disease—things that, if we understood how they threatened “the boy,” might get me to turn the page. How about some of that on the first page rather than description?
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 RB
(continued) , and the purple bruise on her cheek. Her chestnut-brown hair was glossy in the gas lamp’s glow, but disheveled. The boy felt sorry for Ma and a little ashamed. The stranger was tall, much taller than Da, with broad shoulders. He wore a black frock coat with a gold pocket watch. He gripped the handle of an auburn-colored leather bag. He motioned, palm up, for Ma to sit on the couch. He pulled one of the chairs near her, unhooked his stethoscope and placed it in the bag. His face was turned away from the boy.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this Mrs. McDermond, but I’m afraid your daughter has diphtheria. All the symptoms are present. There is a thick, grayish membrane at the back of the throat. The epidemic … well, I am sure you are well aware of what has been happening.”
“Oh, Dr. Remington, wha --” Ma stopped, fought for control, suppressed a sob: “What can we do?”
“Now, now, my good woman. Have courage,” he said firmly, leaning forward and patting her hand. “I’ve done what I can. Alice is thin, but she seems strong enough for a six-year-old girl. Her breathing is labored, but not dangerously so. We’ll have to wait it out, probably for a few weeks, perhaps longer. I would suggest that the other two children, Gertrude and, what is the boy’s name?”
“Ah, yes, Johnny. I would strongly suggest that Gertrude and Johnny be moved as soon as possible. Do you know somewhere they can stay? A friend, perhaps, or relatives?”
“Yes,” Ma said, dabbing at her tears. “My parents have a farm.”
The boy, thinking of Granny and Grandad, felt better.
“I’m sure they would be happy to … to take them,” she said. “They live out near Chester Avenue, by that, uh, what do you call it? That park where rich folks play that game with the ball and the sticks. It starts with an A …”
“Akawentoc. Akawentoc Golf Club. Yes, yes, I know the area. That would be fine. Please make the arrangements, the sooner the better. Is Mr. McDermond ...?”
“He’s … mmm … he had to work late tonight,” Ma said, slowly twisting her wedding band. “Downtown, at the post office. I’ll talk to him … when he gets home. He should be … I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
“Yes, well,” the doctor said gently. “Yes, of course. By the way, I’ll leave a little salve for that bruise.”
She dropped her eyes. The boy looked at the floor, then up again. The ticking of the clock seemed very loud.
“Dear me, I’m so clumsy sometimes,” Ma said, still not looking up. “I fell, you see … it was quite silly ...”
The doctor stood, picked up his bag.
“I must be going,” he said in the same gentle tone. “I’ll check in again tomorrow. Try to get some rest. No need to get up, I’ll see myself out. Good night, Mrs. McDermond.”
The boy carefully shut the door. He murmured a Hail Mary, crossed himself and padded back to bed. He made sure to lie down on his right side, away from the bruises on his left hip and buttock. Alice coughed once, twice. The boy wondered when Da would get home.
Dr. Archibald Remington stroked his neatly-trimmed beard and breathed deeply, like a balloon inhaling gas in preparation for liftoff. Indeed, he felt light and giddy enough to float away into the azure sky. The first golf outing of the spring was always a special day for Remington; he had found it hard to sleep, contemplating the pleasures of grass and fairgreen and clubhead meeting ball.
It was bracing to be headed out to the country, he thought, away from the stench of chemical plants and the clattering of textile mills. A twenty-minute electric trolley ride from bustling Broad Street, there existed another realm. What would William Blake have called it: this green and pleasant land? Oh yes, that obscure poet -- unless, of course, you were a Princeton man -- could separate the marrow from the bone. That realm, surely, was a Jerusalem among satanic mills. There, a man could leave behind the clamor and coal dust; abandon his cares and refresh his spirit. There, he could commune with nature, drink deeply of its vitality, rejoice in its restorative power.
Remington settled his golf bag beside him on the trolley bench, tightening the twine that kept the clubs from rattling. He sat back and surrendered to the rocking motion of the carriage along the rails. He heard the explosive pop of the circuit breaker; the clash of steel-on-steel as the trolley rounded the curves; the clang of the motorman’s gong, warning horse-drawn wagons to give way.
The doctor reflected on a strange fact: None of his fellow passengers seemed curious about his clubs. There was a time when the clubs would have elicited stares, even hoots. Remington could remember when he took up the game, in the mid-1890s, the thrill he felt whenever he saw another golfer on a station platform. They were strangers, yes, but they recognized each other as members of the same exotic cult. Like magnets and metal shavings, one was inevitably drawn to the other.
There’d been that pink-faced man in Boston, stroking his mutton-chop whiskers, the conversation free and easy. “I couldn’t help but admire that cleek of yours. Mind if I heft it to test the balance? I’ve been trying this new overlapping grip, the one that Harry Vardon recommends. It helps the hands work in unison. Did you read how Vardon defeated Braid at Hoylake last month? Who do you like in the Amateur at Myopia Field? Oh, you’re off to Florida -- I hear putting on sand greens is much more vexing than grass, no matter how they oil and roll them. Say, there’s my train. You must come out to my club the next time you’re in town. Here’s my card … A pleasure meeting you …”
Remington clucked at the memory. Yes, we are a cult, he thought, but still, we’re growing like topsy. He’d read the figures only a week ago in the Observer. It was estimated that there were close to a thousand golf clubs in the United States -- up from one hundred a mere seven years earlier. And those clubs boasted roughly 120,000 members.
Fate had kindly led him to their ranks. Remington was a Philadelphian, born and bred, the scion of a wealthy family of dry-goods merchants. Financially, he was set. But he wanted to work, to be of service. At Princeton, his love of science drew him to medicine, and his love of nature drew him to golf. Actually, it was a drunken dare at Old Nassau that led him to the ancient Scottish sport. He was an accomplished tennis and cricket player -- Philadelphia was the nation’s cricket hotbed -- but golf intrigued him from the start. Other pastimes were played in beautiful settings, but only golf asked you to be the master of your muscles, nerves and temper for so long a stretch. And, having completed your journey through the countryside, none offered so rich a reward in sturdy self-reliance.
A naturally adept athlete, Remington learned by reading every book he could find. Less helpful were the lessons he arranged from a dour Scot who claimed to be one of the auld sod’s most accomplished professionals.
“I coom froom North Berwick, mon,” he insisted, as if no other credentials were required. In fact, the teacher could barely get the ball airborne.
Remington, a dollar poorer but infinitely wiser, moved on, developing his game through trial and error. Mostly he observed and copied better players. They were usually amateurs, as it was exceedingly rare to see the best professionals tee it up. The only way a pro could scratch out a living was as a salaried employee of a golf or country club, toiling from dawn to dusk. He was expected to make and repair clubs, offer lessons to the members and, more often than not, supervise the care of the course. Even if the club gave him time off to compete, there were only a handful of organized tournaments, and the only one that offered much prestige was the National Open, held once a year at a site selected by the United States Golf Association.
Amateurs, such as Archibald Remington, ruled the USGA and thus ruled the sport.
Remington liked to think he and his friends had helped persuade a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson to take up golf at the relatively advanced age of 42. The man was awful, but no matter. He turned out to be a fanatic, playing every weekday morning -- regardless of rain or cold -- and most Saturday afternoons. There were rumors that Wilson would be named Princeton’s next president, assuming, of course, that someone could haul him off the links.
The gong sounded again, jerking Remington out of his reverie. Yes, they had passed 44th Street. It wouldn’t be long now.
Maybe the trolley passengers were just being abnormally polite. Golf, he knew, seemed not just strange but bizarre to most outsiders, and he couldn’t blame them. Thank God his club didn’t require members to wear those foppish red coats, an unfortunate affectation that some early American clubs had adopted from the British. Golf wasn’t fox hunting; there was no need to look like a master of the hounds.
He had a distant cousin who was one of the first Americans to have clubs and balls shipped from overseas. This was in the late 1880s. The customs inspector in New York, having never heard of golf, refused to approve the shipment. The dubious official insisted that no one ever played a game with, as he put it, such “implements of murder.” Finally, after a few weeks, his bosses in the Treasury Department decided that national security wouldn’t be compromised by the strange sticks.
Remington loved to tell the story of the time he was driving golf balls in a public park. Some baseball players gathered around him, smirking at what they derisively called “sissy pasture pool.” Remington handed the most vocal of them the driver and invited him to give it a whack. The young man, a big, strapping lad, gritted his teeth, took a mighty swing, and missed the ball, almost falling over. He tried again. This time he managed to top the ball, dribbling it a few yards, while his teammates collapsed in laughter. Embarrassed, he slammed the club to the turf and stormed off, swearing with vigor.
When he told this tale to his friends, Remington would pause, then add with delight: “He was a dub of a golfer, but he had an expert’s vocabulary.”
The motorman’s call -- “Fifty-second and Chester” -- signaled Archie Remington’s departure. He slung his clubs over one shoulder, tipped his derby hat to the long-skirted, parasol-twirling women sitting across from him, and hopped off the trolley before it came to a complete stop.
Yes, it was a beautiful morning, the first fine day of April after a long winter. And yes, there lingered the memory of the charming young lady he had escorted to the Walnut Street Theater the night before. Auburn hair, thickly coiled. A dusting of freckles across a pert nose, and the scent of lavender bath water. She had laughed at the song-and-dance antics of George M. Cohan, and blushed with coy delight when Archie boldly held her gloved hand, a very promising sign.
But, no. He smiled ruefully.
Much as he enjoyed the fairer sex -- and his reputation as a debonair man about town -- he knew he would always be devoted to another. And there, across the road, spread his seductive mistress: Akawentoc, the jewel of west Philadelphia. She was a sporty nine-hole course, measuring 3,070 yards over hilly ground, with a creek meandering through part of the property. Remington felt sure he was the proudest booster among her 150 members. The entrance fee of $10 and annual dues of $20 had prompted complaints among some, but not the good doctor. To him it seemed the bargain of all bargains.
Remington crossed Chester and walked briskly up the dirt drive to the clubhouse. It wasn’t ostentatious, just a spacious, two-story frame farmhouse with deep windows. He liked it that way. Forget the folderol that marked so many of the new suburban clubs. There was no polo here, no tennis. Akawentoc was a place for the purist; for golfers, men and women, who worshipped at the altar of the most mystic and magical of games.
Some clubs excluded women, of course, and many of those who included women limited their access to the course. Akawentoc was more liberal than most in this regard; in fact, six women outnumbered the four men on the club’s first board of governors.
Remington stood for a moment gazing across the course. It was framed by a fence and wild, tangled shrubbery from the surrounding farms. The fairgreens -- some writers were beginning to call them fairways -- were still patchy, but appeared to be progressing nicely; the putting greens looked to be in good shape, with only a few patches of crab grass.
Remington waved a distant greeting to young Lem Turpin, the North Carolinian who had recently been hired as the club’s new professional and keeper of the green. Over on the ninth hole, Turpin’s assistant drove the club’s newest mowing machine. Two horses pulled the machine, their hooves covered by boots to protect the grass.
“So, Philadelphia’s most eligible bachelor finally emerges from hibernation,” drawled a familiar voice as Remington entered the clubhouse’s locker room. “Killed many patients lately Archie? I hear you’re overcharging them to death.”
When he wasn’t dispensing bonhomie, Jubal Daly was one of the city’s sharpest trial lawyers. Born and raised in Alabama, and named for a Confederate general, Daly charmed juries and infuriated prosecutors with his syrupy, aw-shucks persona. Daly wasn’t a bad golfer either -- he had edged Remington for the club championship the previous summer.
The doctor smiled broadly. He was in a mood to banter.
“Well now, Jubal, at least I don’t bore my clients to death. I’ll say say this: Whoever coined the phrase ‘talk is cheap’ never hired a lawyer.”
Daly joined his friend in a hearty laugh. In truth, Daly had considerable admiration for Remington’s pro bono work. He could’ve catered exclusively to wealthy clients, given his family contacts. But it was well known that Remington often made house calls to less exclusive neighborhoods.
“I hope you’re not too rusty Archie,” Daly said. “I just hate seeing a grown man cry.”
“Old man, ever heard of a crossroads called Appomattox? Be prepared to play Bobby Lee to my Sam Grant,” said Remington, changing into flannel trousers, a striped shirt and tie, and leather brogans. “Just wait ‘till you see my new driver.”
Remington’s newest implement of destruction, shipped by mail order over the winter, was pretty to look at and felt wonderfully whippy. Manufactured by BGI, the Bridgeport Gun Implement Company, it was the latest in one-piece hickory construction with a persimmon head. At a steep price of three dollars and fifty cents, it was advertised to add “twenty yards to your drives.” That would be quite a bonus for Remington, who could belt the ball roughly 200 yards when he caught it right. He had also invested in a dozen of the new rubber-wound Haskell golf balls. Just coming to prominence and dubbed “bounding billies,” they were more expensive, but carried farther, than gutta-percha models, the traditional, solid balls made of a Malay gum extracted from the gutta-percha tree.
That revolution, however, was just getting underway. Daly’s bag was filled with “gutties,” many of them the new Vardon Flyers. English pro Harry Vardon, the world’s best-known player, was paid $10,000 in 1900 -- an astounding sum -- by an American sporting goods company to promote the new balls during a 10-month exhibition tour. Along the way, Vardon claimed the National Open, broke numerous course records, was feted at lavish dinners and inspired thousands to try the game. The golfing boom, more robust than ever, had its first authentic hero.
Remington and Daly, joined by their caddies, relaxed for a moment on the first teeing ground. Remington surveyed his seven gleaming clubs: the new persimmon-headed driver; a smaller version of the driver known as a brassie, so-called because of the brass plate attached to its sole; a wooden putter; and four irons, ranged in ascending order from the straight-faced cleek through the more lofted jigger, mashie and niblick.
“The usual stakes?” Daly asked. “Or, given the vast advantage conferred by your modern technology, would you care to make it a dollar and help a poor, country lawyer feed his children?”
“Jubal, you’re a honey-tongued rogue. Go steal candy from another baby.”
The caddy grabbed the driver out of his bag and handed it to Remington. Then the caddy walked over to a wooden box which contained two compartments, one filled with sand, the other holding a bucket of water. The caddy took a pinch of sand, moistened it and formed it into a little pile on the teeing ground, with the ball perched on top of the sand. Remington set up with an open stance, took a couple of relaxed waggles, brought the driver well behind his body in a flattish arc, then uncoiled and whipped the clubhead through the ball with an aggressive lash. It flew, far and sure, down the middle of the fairgreen.
Remington suppressed the urge to giggle. Could there be a better way to start the new season?
“Bully for you, Archie, but I believe you caught that a tad thin,” said Daly with good humor, before belting an equally fine drive.
Remington won the first two holes from Daly with pars, then birdied the fourth with a long, snaking putt. However, just as Remington was favorably comparing his skill with that of the exalted Vardon, reality intruded on the fifth hole. He lost a ball after hooking wildly out of bounds, giving renewed hope to his opponent. The lost stroke wasn’t so bad, but he hated losing one of the precious balls.
“Say, Doc, just wondering -- do you inhale or exhale on your backswing?” Daly smirked as they left the tee. Then he commenced to whistle “Dixie.”
At the seventh, Remington laid a stymie. His pitch to the elevated putting green rolled to within four feet of the flagstick and stopped just in front of Daly’s ball, blocking its path to the hole. Daly couldn’t putt through Remington’s ball, so he took his niblick and deftly flicked his ball into the air. It hopped over Remington’s ball and rolled straight into the cup.
“That’s the best flanking maneuver by a Southerner since Chancellorsville,” Remington said, slapping Daly on the back.
They were all square coming to the ninth, a 600-yard monster along a dirt road that Remington and Daly had dubbed “Long Tom.” Remington said that the nickname honored “Old Tom” Morris, the longtime professional at St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf, while Daly insisted that it paid homage to Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the pride of Old Virginia.
Remington hit a fair drive, then pulled his second deep into the rough, near a blackberry-choked fence. The doctor wasn’t upset by the shot as much as by the apathy of his caddy, a lazy day-dreamer who wasn’t exactly a bloodhound when it came time to search for balls.
“Look up that way, farther along the fence,” Remington directed in exasperation.
Head down, probing the rough with a mashie where he had last seen the ball, Remington at first failed to notice the young boy on the other side of the fence. He appeared to be around ten years old, with a thin, pinched face, and chestnut hair. His pants and shirt were clean, but frayed and patched. He was using a thick tree branch as a baseball bat, picking up stones on the road and swatting them, fungo style, with smooth, powerful swings. He was short, with large hands for his age and excellent hand-eye coordination.
Remington said, more sharply than he intended: “Boy, hey there.”
The boy looked up, startled. But there was something more than that, an almost feral look of wariness in the brown eyes.
“I didn’t do nothing, mister,” he said defensively, almost desperately. “Honest.”
“Don’t be alarmed,” Remington responded with what he hoped was a disarming smile. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The reassuring tone worked.
The boy was still guarded, but he no longer bristled like a cornered cat. In fact, thought the boy, there was something familiar about the man’s voice.
“Say, I wonder if you would be so kind as to do me a favor. I believe there’s a ball there in the long grass. It has the word Colonel stamped on it, along with a red dot.”
The boy poked around for a couple of minutes, spied something, stooped and held up the ball. Curious, he rubbed it in his fingers, feeling the dimples that speckled its surface. It was white, smaller than a baseball, stamped with “Colonel.” He wondered what it was made of, and how high it would bounce. He wondered if the man was in the army.
“You mean this? This, uh, Colonel?”
Remington was certain they had never met, and yet … he felt he had seen that face somewhere.
“Yes, that’s it. It’s a golf ball, a special golf ball. All the way from Chicago.”
The boy was mesmerized. He liked the way the smoothness felt in his palm. But he was suspicious. Chicago? Chicago was where they butchered hogs. He wanted to take it somewhere and inspect it, open it up and see what was inside. Who was to say this particular ball belonged to this bearded man in the striped shirt?
The boy turned away, prepared to run.
“Hey, wait. Look, I’ll give you a nickel for it.” Remington dug into his pocket.
A nickel? A whole nickel? Granny would be so surprised. Maybe she’d bake a berry pie. The boy didn’t hesitate, tossing the ball up and over the fence. A moment later the coin came flying back the other way, and the boy caught it, using both hands.
“Thanks, mister. I’ll look for more of those balls if you want.”
Remington peered closer. It clicked. The boy was the spitting image of that poor woman, on Chestnut Hill, the one whose daughter had survived the epidemic in February. The one whose husband, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to surmise, was a violent drunk. He felt a stirring of sympathy for the boy; no wonder he was so skittish.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Johnny. Johnny McDermond.”
“Well, Johnny McDermond, you can make 25 cents for carrying a golf bag around this field,” Remington said. He pointed toward the clubhouse and added: “I’m Dr. Remington. If you’re interested in being a caddy, meet me tomorrow at 10 o’clock outside that big house over there.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. But he didn’t run away, either. He wanted to see what the bearded man would do next.
Remington and his caddy walked back to the spot where he had originally hit his errant shot. Remington took his penalty drop and, summoning the caddy, traded the more lofted mashie for the straight-faced cleek. There was no wasted motion, just a couple of waggles and a smooth, rhythmic swing. Remington finished with a low, sweeping follow through, balanced on his right toe and left foot. Johnny watched, bug-eyed, as the dimpled, white ball took off like a bullet. It streaked into the blue sky, tracing a gentle right-to-left arc. At its apex it seemed to hang, suspended, before reluctantly falling back to earth. It rolled to a stop, far away, on the green strip of grass between two big sand pits.
Johnny had never seen an object fly like that. It was as if the man had waved a magic wand. Not even a home run could match the majesty of what he had witnessed. It was, well, God-like. He was certain that the nuns at St. Anthony would call such a thought a sin, but Johnny didn’t care. Right there, at that moment, more than anything in the world, Johnny wanted to hit a golf ball and watch it take flight.
Remington, pleased, winked at Johnny. Then he walked down the fairway, striding so briskly that his caddy had trouble keeping pace. He looked back, a few minutes later, after reaching the putting green. The boy was planted in the same spot, still swinging the tree branch. Only now he was coiling his body, sweeping the branch down to the ground and up in a low, sweeping follow-through. He was pretending the branch was a golf club.
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