Hey, this is the 800th “flogging” I’ve done since I started doing this on FtQ. If you have a moment, how about using Comments to tell me what, if anything, you get from reading them. Is there an aspect of your writing that FtQ has helped you with?
Submissions Needed—only one left in the queue. 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)
Marlene sends the first chapter for Elemental Fire , which is either a YA or middle grade novel.
I stood as the school bus rumbled toward the end of our rutted road. The substitute driver frowned in the mirror, and I struggled not to glare back at him. He ran his finger down the list taped to the dash. “Last stop. Have a good evening, Brooklyn.”
The glare won. Hearing my full name topped off an already miserable day. “My name is Brook,” I mumbled. Stomping down the steps, I flung my bag over my shoulder, then ran across the road.
The steering whined as the driver navigated the tight turn, hemmed in by tall pines and the fence of our horse pasture. Finding Dad was the only thing on my mind. How could he?
I’d rather have listened to our history teacher drone on about the Lost Nation than hear the intercom voice call me to the shrink’s office. Mr. Rowdy’s latest theory was that the tribe had lived in the valley Dad’s ancestors settled before they all disappeared. If so, they’d left behind nothing but ghosts. Still, easier to ignore that nutjob than the insinuation that I was the mental case in front of everybody. My friends already treated me like a china doll that would shatter if they looked sideways at me.
I clenched my fists as I stared up at the old white house. Not much chance Dad would be inside like a normal parent, but since I wasn’t allowed in the lab without an invitation, I didn’t need to get in trouble for interrupting some precious physics experiment. I wanted to be the one doing the yelling.
I love getting clean, clear writing like this. A good, clear voice, too. I liked the character and the way she is introduced, and there’s a sense of clear conflict with her father coming up. So I gave this a page turn. Interesting things happen in the chapter, but there are a couple of things I’d like to see. First is a clearer indication of the character’s age. This could be done by slipping in a mention of the level of school—for example, “the high school’s shrink” or “the middle school’s shrink,” etc. The second is that, for me, the chapter ended without a strong story question that relates directly to the protagonist. While the mysterious tornado clearly sets something up, I wanted more of its impact on her life, what jeopardy its appearance and disappearance means to her life. A little more in the first chapter, please. The chapter continues after the fold--what do 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 Marlene
I dropped my books on the kitchen table and peeked into the dark parlor. Dad had turned the once-elegant Victorian room into his office, where he could write his reports surrounded by stacks of books and some of his more delicate circuits. Mom’s decorative touches were buried under four months and sixteen days’ worth of paperwork and dust.
His office chair sat empty.
A whinny floated from the pasture as I exited the house. “I’m getting there, Vienna,” I called to the bay mare standing at the gate. “Business first.”
I pushed the sliding door sideways, just enough to slip into the old apple shed. We used this part as a garage while Dad’s shop was in the stone-walled section in the back. The Jeep was parked between piles of abandoned projects, things that would never get done without Mom’s prodding. I ran my palm across the cold hood. He’d probably been holed up all day.
He wouldn’t be happy with my intrusion, but then I wasn’t happy with his. Apparently he’d surfaced long enough to call the school and suggest I spend more time with the school shrink. Ms. Weatherby wasn’t really a psychologist. Her office door labelled her a guidance counselor, but for the poor girl who’d lost her mother, she tried to play the role of someone with a real degree.
At least she tried—between overusing the word “we” when asking about “me” and trying to hug me. Dad didn’t. He just foisted the responsibility on the school and hid in his workshop.
I’d accepted my role in Mom’s death. Had he?
I twisted the knob and shoved the lab door open an inch. Cold air and white light from the fluorescents flowed out. I knocked. No answer.
“Dad?” Still nothing.
I shoved the heavy steel door another few inches. “Sorry to bust in, but we…” I stepped into the shop. No Dad. Mom would have nagged him for leaving the lights on.
A whirring noise on the counter to my left caught my attention. Amid metal arms bolted to magnifying glasses, laser tubes, and LED displays, a clock nestled in a jumble of wires. The second hand whizzed around the dial, urging me to leave before Dad found me. On a second glance, it couldn’t have been a clock. The Roman numerals only went to ten. Weird, but then his gadgets hadn’t topped our discussions for ages.
I shivered. The thick rock walls hadn’t allowed western New York’s early spring heat to permeate the room. Anchored to the wall across from the door, a spotless, stainless steel bench topped dozens of drawers and cabinets. At the far right end of the room, old stacks of apple crates, unused for decades, lay beyond Dad’s narrow cleaning focus.
Although I hadn’t been invited into the lab for several months, something struck me as different. The normally bare wall on the left end displayed several items that didn’t fit with the usual lab equipment. They didn’t rest on real shelves, just rocks that randomly stuck out farther than the others. A bowl, a vase?
I flinched. That sounded like the porch door slamming. Dad must have been in the house all along. I switched off the lights, closed the door behind me, and peered out the side window.
Oh, just the screen door blowing in the wind. Where was he? Figures, he’s not even around when I need to yell at him. Maybe I’d calm down by riding Vienna.
As I turned toward the Jeep, a rectangle of light grew across the hood. My leaping heart threw extra force into my spin. Dad’s thin frame wearing a ridiculous Futurama tee now stood in the doorway. His head above robot Bender’s body. I would have laughed, but maybe a self-centered robot was the perfect uniform.
“Dad? Where’d you come from? I was just in there.” Oops.
Brown eyes gawked from behind thick lenses. His mouth opened and closed.
“Brook! You know you’re not allowed in the lab.” He stabbed a finger in my face with each word. “Just. Stay. Out.”
Seriously? He walks out of an empty room and I’m the one in trouble?
“Why did…?” The words died on my lips. Dad walked through the garage door without waiting for an explanation. An invisible fist squeezed my stomach like an orange in a juicer as the house door slammed. Damn him. But I probably would have chickened out without saying the things I really wanted to. Like why did he insist on living at the end of this twisty mountain road?
I fled to the barn. Where I could forget. Forget Dad, me, and constant war between blame and guilt. Only Vienna drove away the pain of losing Mom.
The mare nickered as I scrubbed the winter hair from her body, leaving it slightly more prepared for the coming hot and sticky summer. Bedtime memories of Mom’s stories of growing up on a Kentucky horse farm and my begging for a horse flitted through my mind. The horse-crazy gene was my only inheritance from her. Mom was petite, blonde, and blue-eyed, but Dad’s brown eyes, auburn hair, and tall, gangly build won the genetic battle. I tossed my head to flip the tight, red-brown braid over my shoulder. I didn’t need another reminder of Dad right now.
As Vienna’s shedding coat flew in the spring breeze, so did my heartache. My lips almost curled into a smile as she jostled my elbow, as eager to ride as I was.
“Some patience, maybe?” I lifted the English saddle onto her back, and for once, she didn’t sidestep. Vienna was my first horse and while no one would describe her as well-trained, she’d fulfilled the wishes whispered to my mother. A consolation prize one month after Mom’s car slid off the road on the way to pick me up from school.
Before she died, Mom had arranged the surprise for my fifteenth birthday. I’d hated the bay mare for about three minutes. But even from the grave, Mom’s life was wrapped around caring for me, and Vienna became everything missing in my life: Mom’s warm presence, an ear to whisper my desires, and even my complaints when Dad hid behind the locked door of his shop more often than not. Mom couldn’t finish the mare’s training with me, so Vienna and I were left to figure each other out on our own.
After tightening the girth, I pressed my forehead against Vienna’s. My fingers wound through her thick mane and found her favorite itchy spot. She leaned into my hand while her lower lip quivered. Dad’s mysterious appearance trickled away into the brilliant blue sky.
I scrambled onto the saddle. Vienna pranced down the driveway, ignoring all but the sharpest tugs on the reins. She sprang into a trot, and we wound our way through abandoned apple orchards. The vine-covered tree maze was more fun than any arena.
Vienna pulled to go faster. Her speed thrilled me. So what if I didn’t really know how to ride? I leaned forward and inhaled the rich smell of waxed leather and the clean scent of spring grass. I grinned as her ears twitched at shadowy stumps, a moss covered rock, or abandoned wood heaps.
Overgrown forest choked the final rows of twisted apple trees. I let the reins slide an inch through my fingers, telling Vienna it was okay to canter as we turned toward home. In the same instant she leapt forward, a shadow blanketed us. A roar like a locomotive rushed from the gnarled trees. Leaves, sticks, and an entire pine tree swirled past.
Vienna skittered to one side, then lunged forward. I slid sideways as my left foot bounced, losing its grip on the stirrup. I snatched a shorter hold on the reins. She yanked them back through my hands, winning our tug-of-war for the moment.
“Vienna, whoa! Whoa!” The fierce howling muffled my plea.
She slammed on the brakes, but it had nothing to do with my request. I thumped painfully against the pommel and Vienna’s upright neck. And stared.
A twisted tornado hung from nothing. It could have been a hundred feet away, but I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Blue sky above the black cloud looked painted on a canvas, not connected to the swirling mass. The angry finger writhed as it reached for the forest floor.
It didn’t connect with the ground, but branches flew through the air like feathers. The finger widened, now more a black, spinning bowl on a potter’s wheel. As if some god spun evil into stoneware.
The tornado didn’t seem to be moving in any direction, but it blocked our route through the relatively open orchard rows. As it grew wider, more limbs were sucked into the vortex.
I tore my horrified stare away and yanked Vienna’s head to the left and, with an unneeded jab to her sides, we bolted through the dense forest. Only my death grip on the reins and mane kept me in the saddle. Her speed threatened to leave me behind, branches plucked at my clothes and hair, the spinning storm tried to pull me into it.
Ahead, another blur grabbed my attention. A massive log blocked our path, nearly as wide as the space between the trees and it seemed to be growing larger. I closed my eyes and crouched into the saddle, grasping mane as a lifeline and squeezing my legs around her barrel, glad for once that I was tall. I prepared for a leap. She veered sideways instead, back toward the whirling storm. My eyes flew open. The ground seemed only inches away as I clung to her neck. Mane whipped my face. I swallowed a scream, afraid she’d leap so close to the tornado we’d be sucked in, pulled past the event horizon of a black hole.
As suddenly as it started, the crosswind died, the high-pitched whine diminished as if someone had flipped a switch. I wrenched myself back into the saddle and flailed my head from side to side, searching.
The tornado was gone.