Submissions Needed. 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)
Elaine sends a first chapter for In the Beginning Was the Word, an historical novel. The rest of the chapter is after the break.
The tramping of Roman boots, as their owners marched along cobbled streets, was eerily muffled by the overpowering sounds of wailing, crackling flames, and shouted orders. Jonathan, peering under a slab of broken wall, watched the boots go past, moving like disembodied spirit feet through the swirl of dust and smoke.
How did I get here? All he could remember were endless days of fighting amidst fires and bodies…hunger…sleep…wake up…fight.… His head hurt.
He sat up slowly, the pounding in his head increasing as he did so, but it settled down to a tolerable throb when he leaned back and felt the support of a smooth surface behind him. He started to take a deep breath, but the acrid smell of smoke clogged his throat, and he coughed it away. Slowly, he remembered. A section of Temple wall had broken and crashed onto the street.
My shield—my bow—where are they? A good bow…would it help me now? Must find out where I am…
He stretched his long legs, and his feet touched the piece of wall that had given way, its fall apparently stopped when it hit the street and tilted onto the wall behind him. Lifting his gaze, he saw chunks of stone filling in the gaps between the walls except for a small space at the upper right where a bit of light came in. There was also a small opening at the bottom of the front wall; that’s what he had looked through to see the marching soldiers.
The writing is solid and clean and, while Roman soldiers and what is clearly a war scene is good stuff, I’m afraid that overwriting stopped this reader—the promise of more micro description is something I didn’t want to see fulfilled. Notes and edits follow, and the rest of the chapter is after the break.
The tramping of Roman boots, as their owners marched marching along cobbled streets, was eerily muffled by the overpowering sounds of wailing, crackling flames, and shouted orders. Jonathan, peering under a slab of broken wall, watched the boots go past, moving like disembodied spirit feet through in the swirl of dust and smoke. This first paragraph, edited to be crisper, is a good opening. There's action, the scene is being set, and there's a promise of jeopardy for Jonathan.
How did I get here? All he could remember were endless days of fighting amidst fires and bodies…hunger…sleep…wake up…fight.… His head hurt.
He sat up slowly, the pounding in his head increased increasing as he did so, but it settled down to a tolerable throb when he leaned back against and felt the support of a smooth surface behind him. He started to take a deep breath, but the acrid smell of smoke clogged his throat, and he coughed it away. Slowly, he remembered. A section of Temple wall had broken and crashed onto the street. “felt the support” is a filter that backs the reader away from the character’s experience. Not necessary. Also, rather than a "smooth surface," why not something more specific such as "a wall"? I don’t see how a smell could clog a throat—smelling usually happens in the nose. I’m not sure “clog” is the right verb, either—neither a small nor smoke have the substance it would take to clog something. “Choked him” instead?
My shield—my bow—where are they? A good bow…would it help me now? Must find out where I am…
He stretched his long legs, and his feet touched the piece of wall that had given way, its fall apparently stopped when it hit the street and tilted onto the wall behind him. Lifting his gaze, he saw chunks of stone filling in the gaps between the walls except for a small space at the upper right where a bit of light came in. There was also a small opening at the bottom of the front wall; that’s what he had looked through to see the marching soldiers. All this micro detail description is overwriting with stuff that doesn’t impact the story. All that matters was that he could see under a broken slab of wall, and that was established in the first paragraph. Oh, describing his “long” legs is a small break in point of view—he wouldn’t be thinking about the length of his legs, and it doesn’t matter to the story.
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 Elaine
Above the general noise, he heard a loud squealing nearby. He stood, found that he could look through the upper hole, and he saw where the sound was coming from. Only a couple of paces away, a horse lay on its stomach, legs sprawled, and screaming in terrified agony as it struggled to right itself from under a chunk of stone fallen onto its back. Poor horse. It had no choice at all; it’s a worse victim of this than I am.
He lifted his gaze and saw an even more dreadful sight. Towering tongues of flame licked insatiably at wooden beams and golden spires and whatever else was in that mountain of burning debris. What had been the most beautiful structure in the most beautiful city in the entire land was being devoured. It was incomprehensible. The Temple cannot be destroyed; surely it cannot be. This must be a terrible dream.
He sank to his knees as the dreadful realization registered in his brain. The Temple is burning, and no one is trying to save it anymore. It’s beyond saving; there’s nothing more to fight for. Oh, Yahweh, how can this be? The anger, the hope, the defiance, and the dogged determination that kept him going through the grueling days of battle drained away. He knelt there until a perverse curiosity commanded him to look out again.
He rose and willed himself to survey the entire scene. As he did so, another odor, foul and sickening, mingled with the smell of smoke to assail his nostrils. He was used to the smell of rotting flesh, but this was different. Oh, Yahweh, can it be the open intestines? I mustn’t think about it. He covered his nose and watched survivors staggering through heaps of carcasses on the street. Looking onward to the stone steps approaching the Temple, he saw bodies strewn like mangled sacrifices waiting for the conflagration to consume them. All around were congealing pools of blood.
“Line up! Over there!” came a gruff voice to his right.
The victors were herding surviving Jews, soldiers and civilians alike, into groups. The frightened and dazed prisoners stood with hands in the air, heads moving side to side, as though searching for a rescuer late in coming. A young boy attempted to run away, and a Roman quickly and cleanly sliced off his head. As the legs of the boy’s body continued to run, the head dropped and rolled, coming to rest nearby when one of the horse’s forelegs stopped it. A fresh puddle of blood formed around the severed head. Jonathan pushed away from the opening and vomited.
When the spasms abated, his head was clearer, and he grasped more fully the peril he was in. Will I be able to get out of here? Am I trapped? I’m scared. I wasn’t scared before; why wasn’t I scared? I knew what happened in other cities, but certainly Yahweh would save Jerusalem. Why didn’t He? I want to die and get this over with….
No! Don’t think like that. Maybe I can get away. But what can I do? If I call out, they’ll take me along with the others. I’ll be a prisoner, a slave! That hole at the bottom; is it big enough to crawl through? Maybe. But they’ll see me; they’ll know I’m a Jew!
He lay down and looked through the opening at the bottom. The dust was settling, and he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. To his left, two Roman boots lay on their sides. Are they attached to feet? How can I tell? He stood again and looked out; no one was looking toward him; the soldiers were intent on their prisoners. He bent down, reached for the feet and pulled. There was resistance, but they moved. He pulled more and was able to get them inside, along with legs covered by leather protectors. The rest of the body wouldn’t come through. I guess it isn’t big enough for me to crawl out after all.
Is this going to help? I have to try. If I can get out of Jerusalem, I might be able to get to Uncle Rueben’s farm. Surely the Romans won’t march back into Galilee. Surely they can go home and leave the countryside in peace since they’ve clearly won the war.
He untied the sheathed dagger strapped to his waist; that could still come in handy, so he must remember to keep it with him. He slipped his long woolen tunic over his head and took off his sandals. Removing the leggings and heavy boots from the dead man was awkward, but the purposeful activity calmed him; he took his time and clumsily donned the alien garb. Besides these coverings for his legs and feet, he now wore only a sleeveless linen tunic and loincloth, and he was unable to get any more of the soldier’s uniform. It would have to do.
Jonathan stood and looked out into the street. The horse was still writhing, but weaker, and it had ceased screaming. Flies were crawling about its eyes and tormenting it further while their companions feasted on the raw flesh of the boy’s head. Resisting the impulse to retch again, he quickly looked away at the throng of prisoners still alive. As he hoped, it wasn’t long before a Roman was within hearing distance. Jonathan’s command of Latin, drilled into him by the best tutors his father could find, might be his savior.
“Friend, friend,” he called as loudly as he could over the din, “can you help me out of here?”
“What? Where?” the surprised Roman exclaimed as he turned toward the voice.
“A wall fell on us. My companion is dead; can you rescue me?”
“By Hercules, you are fucked up. But I can’t help you. I have orders.”
“I implore you! Think of yourself in this position. It can’t take long.”
The soldier paused, assessed the situation, and said resignedly, “If I can get a guy to help me.”
The ill-fated horse, lying near the soldier’s feet, gave a weak whinny that drew his attention. He dispassionately lifted his club and gave it a mighty blow to the head. Jonathan winced at the sound before he saw the soldier motion to someone out of his sight.
“Can two of you move this wall?” Jonathan asked.
“Are you out of your mind? It took 200 men to topple it!”
The first man addressed the one approaching and said, “Let’s see if we can get rid of enough junk here so this poor fool can get out.”
Turning back toward Jonathan, he said, “You start pulling whatever you can onto your side, and we’ll work out here.”
Jonathan did as he was told, but he wasn’t able to do much; apparently most of it had to be removed from the outside. As the gap widened, he feared the soldiers would look in and see the exchange he had made with the dead man.
“I’m afraid I’m going to faint,” he called out and sank down to sit on the exposed legs of his unfortunate companion.
The first soldier poked his helmeted head and his shoulders through the opening and said, “If you’re going to die on us…Hey, what happened to your armor?”
Jonathan held his head and said, as though in a daze, “I think…I don’t know…got hit…don’t remember.”
“Well, stand up, and we’ll pull you out of there!” the rescuer said impatiently.
Dare I ask him to take the uniform off the dead man and give it to me? No—he might see his bare legs!
“Go on…I’ll climb out…I have to sit a little.”
“Well, Jupiter help you then. You’ve taken up enough of our time.”
Jonathan waited several minutes before rising again. The dust had settled, and he could see better, but it was evening, and it would soon be dark. A huge tower of smoke rose above flames that had diminished in size and intensity, but continued to steadily and determinedly reduce the Temple to charred remains. The prisoners were gone, and there were only a few Romans walking about among the bodies. They slashed at wounded Jews and bent toward fallen Romans, pulling a few to their feet but giving most of them the same treatment that was given to the horse. More flies gathered, indiscriminately gorging on all victims of the fight.
After a while, when it was dark, he didn’t hear any more movement. He stood on one of the rocks he had brought into his hiding place and carefully crawled out and over the mound of rubble. Still nothing. He rolled over the dead Roman and donned the rest of his uniform. He slipped easily into the knee-length tunic, and the helmet fit exactly, but the armor was more difficult. It was heavier than he expected, and he deduced the need of a second person to get it fastened correctly. He hung it from the shoulders of his tall lean frame as best he could. It felt awkward, but he was strong, and he would make do. I must act like I wear this getup all the time. He picked up a spear that had lain under the body.
The moon was rising, and he could see well enough to thread his way among the dead. As he strode through the city, he encountered clusters of Romans, most of them drinking and laughing. He assumed his haughtiest expression, saluted them, and tried to look as though he was hurrying to perform a vital task.
He found what remained of Herod’s Gate, and he felt confident enough to demand of the guard, “You there; I need my armor secured,” and the man complied without hesitation.
He doggedly continued northward, but all of the bravado quickly slipped away. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and he was extremely tired. He must eat and rest before he could go much farther. He neared a village and approached a tiny hut.
The woman who answered his knock staggered back and gave a clumsy curtsy.
“Sir, how can I…what can I do for you?”
“Water—then food and a bed,” was all Jonathan could muster, and he sank down onto the cool dirt floor.
When he had devoured the cheese and bread the frightened female brought him, Jonathan demanded to know who else lived there. She swore there was no one else and that she was expecting no visitors.
“Get me a sleeping mat and put it right here in front of the door so I’ll know if you try to leave. I’m a light sleeper,” he lied.
When he awoke, it was morning. The woman was sitting on a stool against the far wall watching him. She still looked terrified, and he felt sorry for her. He considered telling her that he was really a lowly insignificant civilian like her, and she needn’t be afraid of him, but he decided it was safest to continue playing the part.
“Put more food into something I can carry.”
She rushed to stuff a cloth bag with dried fruit and more bread.
“I’ll need water, too,” he demanded, and she found a sheep’s bladder to offer him.
“I’ll fill it for you at the well,” she said, moving swiftly toward the door, “and you can be on your way.”
As they walked down the path, villagers stepped aside, clearly in deference to him. So this is what it’s like to be a Roman, Jonathan thought. He was used to being identified as Galilean with his fair skin, sandy hair and beard, and distinctive aqua-blue eyes, characteristics his people inherited from their Amorite ancestors. Now, wearing the helmet and armor, it was only his clothing that mattered. He might have been flattered by the submissive attention if it hadn’t disgusted him.
When, a few days later, he walked into the outer courtyard of his uncle’s house, he was so relieved to be there, and to see that the war had not touched this place, that he momentarily forgot what he was wearing. He paid no attention to the servants who shrank back against the walls, and he swatted away two barking dogs. He went through to the main room where servants were laying the evening meal on a spotless white cloth on the floor. Family members, clad in everyday sleeveless tunics of undyed linen, were gathering. There was a cry of fright, and everyone froze when they saw him. A tall muscular man slowly rose from a cushion, thick flaxen-colored hair dropping over a sunbaked face as he bowed to this honored, though unexpected, guest.
Instantly embarrassed, Jonathan quickly removed the helmet and exclaimed, “Uncle Rueben, look, it’s me, Jonathan! Don’t let the uniform scare you.”
A tiny woman, her own light brown hair braided into a long rope trailing nearly to her hips, exclaimed, “Oh, my love, my love!” and hurried toward him, taking his hands but stopping short of an embrace.
“But why…?” she questioned.
“It’s all right, Mama, it’s a disguise,” he explained. “I’m sure you all find it repulsive, and so do I. Please bring me a robe, and I’ll get out of it.”
Reuben ushered Jonathan into an adjoining room where he helped to strip him of the offensive uniform and into a tunic hastily obtained by a servant. They returned to the main room, a beaming uncle with an arm over his nephew’s shoulders.
“Here you are, Joanna,” he said. “Your son is ready for a proper greeting.”
After his mother held him for a long moment, she relinquished him to his 12-year-old brother, Luke. His two sisters, their lovely aqua eyes sparkling beneath cream-colored foreheads, stood on tiptoes to hug and kiss him.
Aunt Sarah, Rueben’s wife, gathered her four children and stepped back slightly. She stood erect and impassive, a regal presence in mindful cognizance of her exceptional beauty. Aware that the expression on her perfectly sculpted features did not invite closer contact, Jonathan acknowledged her with a polite bow. Apart from this less than enthusiastic reception from his aunt, it seemed a glorious homecoming until Reuben reminded the family from whence their young relative had come.
“You were in the war,” he said flatly.
“Yes, Uncle. Have you heard the news?”
“We heard news of a great battle with the Romans. How goes it?”
“It went…badly for us, I’m afraid. I’m…extremely lucky to get away with my life and only a few scratches.”
How can I tell them? The Temple…
“Sarah,” Reuben directed, “you must take the little ones and the girls. I will tell you later what is needed for you to know.”
Sarah tightened her lips, but she complied without a word. When they were gone, Reuben said, “Nephew, please tell us about it. Rumors have been running through Galilee like fleet-footed gazelles.”
Jonathan, along with his mother, his brother Luke, and his two teen-age male cousins, settled onto cushions, and he braced himself to tell the story. Before he could begin, Joanna intervened to ask her returned son if he were not hungry. He said he would like wine now but would wait until later to eat; a servant immediately poured wine into a cup, diluted it with water, and handed it to Jonathan.
Two servants entered with lights burning in small olive oil lamps, set them on the cloth among the stone vessels of food, and withdrew into the shadows. Jonathan followed his uncle’s gaze as he squinted to observe the half dozen or so servants lining the plastered walls. They apparently were eager to hear the news first hand. Rueben started to wave them all away, but he stopped, shrugged his shoulders and nodded permission for them to stay.
Jonathan took a long draught of his wine and stared into it for a moment like one attempting to read from prepared notes and finding them lacking.
“It was…bad,” hebegan. “The Judeans, as you know, were trying to gain their independence from Rome. Any sensible person should have known better… and there were those who tried to persuade the people not to incite a war, but the rebels would not listen…and I sort of got caught up in it.”
His mother held his left hand, and he spoke mostly to her. She was looking at him with a mixture of relief and admonishment.
“I know,” he answered her expression, “I should have left when I had the chance. Quite a few did when we heard the Romans were coming, but most of us didn’t think it would get as bad as it did.”
“And your work was there!” Luke interjected, as though trying to sound like a knowing colleague.
“Of course,” Jonathan said, with an affectionate glance at his brother’s smooth freckled face, resisting the impulse to tousle his unruly sun-bleached hair.
Dear little Luke. You still look about 9 years old; one of these days your body will catch up. When I was 12, I was nearly as tall as I am now.
“My apprenticeship definitely was part of it,” he went on, “in the beginning. I didn’t want to leave. Euandros stopped getting orders for sculptures, but he said he would keep the studio open and continue teaching as long as he had a single student.”
“We heard,” Rueben commented, “that Titus barred people from leaving.”
“When Titus brought his army—that was nearly 6 months ago…”
“Six months ago!” his mother exclaimed. “That was before the Passover.”
“Yes, and a lot of country people came in for it, just like usual. They didn’t really understand what was going on, but once they got there, they felt trapped, so there were a lot more people in Jerusalem than there should have been.”
Eating our food…which we would have had enough of if Simon and John hadn’t burned it fighting each other….
Jonathan took another large gulp of wine.
“Anyway, yes; Titus closed the gates, but he did it at first mostly to keep supplies out. He tried to get men to desert and come over to the Romans, but naturally nobody wanted to do that, and whenever he said people could leave, we didn’t know whether we could trust him because….”
No point in telling them how Titus crucified hundreds of people who were just trying to get out and find food, and other times he let people go…what were we supposed to think?.... No point in telling them the shameful things our own people did…how the rebels tortured and killed people trying to leave…how mobs broke into homes stealing from one another…how we gave up burying the dead and left them to rot…
He started, realizing Joanna had asked him a question.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Did you fight?”
“Yes. I wanted to fight…for Yahweh, and our people…it seemed right…at the time.”
“It was right!” Rueben declared. “We’ve let the Romans cow us long enough. We have to start standing up for ourselves, even if we do have a defeat now and then.”
“Uncle…you don’t know…”
“What? Know what?”
He couldn’t go on, and finally Joanna echoed, “The Temple?”
“You’d think, wouldn’t you…”Jonathan choked, “if it was the right thing to do…Yahweh would save the Temple!”
There was total silence. Luke looked like he was about to say something, but a glance from his elders stopped him.
“The Temple is gone…burned by those rotten, heathen monsters!” He let that sink before he added, “Oh, I left before it was totally burned to the ground, but the way it was going….”
“I can’t believe it,” Rueben said, a mixture of incredulity, anger and sadness in his tone.
“But you’re alive—they let you out,” Joanna said, apparently forgetting momentarily about the disguise.
Jonathan didn’t remind her. He finished his wine, took up the flask for a refill, and drank again without even adding water. He noticed his mother’s shocked expression as he did so. When he lived with her, he had drunk diluted wine only to quench his thirst, usually preferring the taste of the more expensive goat’s milk. He hoped she understood his own expression when he looked back at her: I’m not the same as I was; war changes you.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’ve told you the worst.”
No one had touched the dishes of food.
“Of course,” Joanna said, her voice trembling. She rose to her feet. “We can talk more in the morning when you’ve rested.”
Jonathan’s cousins were starting to help themselves to cheese and fruit when a loud rap at the door startled them. Jonathan froze, an icy chill stabbing his chest.
What’s the matter with me? It’s probably just a friend.
It was not a friend. A beak-nosed balding Roman, clothed in a flowing blue toga draped over his shoulder, entered swiftly and haughtily, closely followed by two armored soldiers and a fearful looking servant who must have gone to answer the knock. Everyone who was still seated scrambled to his feet. There were no formalities other than the respectful bows of the family.
The official demanded, “Where is the soldier? It was reported that a soldier came into this house.”
The uniform! Jonathan dared not look at the expressions on the faces of the others. He could only hope his own was blank.
“Luke,” Rueben said firmly, “go to bed.”
“Yes, Uncle,” the boy said, but he hesitated.
Jonathan understood. Would Luke?
When Luke turned toward the room where Jonathan had changed, he could breathe.
“We have had no visitors today,” Rueben said to the official, “and there is certainly no soldier here. Is one missing?”
“I will ask the questions,” he said curtly to Rueben, then called to the soldiers who were striding through a door leading to Rueben’s office, “Take the servants. Question them all!”
Turning back to the family, he said almost politely, “Everyone be seated; this could take a while. I’ll have a cup of that wine while we wait.”
“I have always been loyal to the Empire,” Rueben said humbly, “and I supply a great deal of food to the cities.”
“Yes, yes, that will do,” the official said.
Jonathan couldn’t estimate how long they sat there while the Roman sipped wine. They heard a few cries of surprise, either from servants or female relatives. He hoped none of them protested the search; it was never wise to argue with the Romans. The sounds of goats bleating and dogs barking drifted in from the open-shuttered windows.
“Our dogs are upset,” Rueben apologized. “Company makes them nervous.”
A look from the official silenced him again.
Returning at last, one of the soldiers announced, “All seems in order.”
Their leader looked disappointed, but he signaled for them to go.
As the Romans left, Jonathan saw his uncle’s expression change to intense hatred. He was relieved the men didn’t turn around before they were out of sight.
“He wasn’t entirely satisfied,” Rueben announced. “I’m afraid they’ll be back.”