Submissions Needed—the queue is empty, nothing for next 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)
Rebecca sends the prologue and first chapter for A Secret in the Cellar, a YA/middle-grade novel.
Prologue (the whole thing, just 2 lines over 17)
Pimm rested in the dead, frozen grass on the hillside, her emerald eyes gazing at the full moon. Its eerie, bluish light reflected on the slight skiff of snow that had fallen earlier in the day. She held very still and breathed deeply, drawing cold, enchanted air into her lungs, allowing the magic of the moon to tingle across her skin and soak into her bones. Her thoughts turned to her family, far away in Ireland, and she wondered if they would also spend time this night absorbing the moon's power. A tear slipped from one eye and trickled back into her long silvery hair. On nights like this, she missed her family terribly. Pimm had not seen them for over a hundred years.
The burst of magic that accompanied each full moon was fleeting, and could not sustain her for long. Christmas was coming, but Pimm feared even that magical night would not fill her enough to last another year. For a while now - decades, actually – she’d felt herself becoming soft around the edges, unfocused, like she was disappearing bit, by bit, by bit. Lately the feeling had become much stronger, and she knew her time was growing short. She longed to return to her family, to breathe the Irish air again before her existence ended.
Why had she ever come here? More than a century ago, the West had seemed a grand adventure, cowboys and horses, blue skies and wide-open spaces, so exciting and different than the endless green of her homeland. Pimm laughed softly, bitterly. Some adventure. She laughed again, louder. Why not? The tinkling sound carried on the night air across open farmland, but no one would hear her. For these people, she did not exist. She should have stayed in Ireland. This place was poison to a pixie.
I like the writing a lot, and the story values as well. An intriguing opening. Since many people skip prologues, you might consider making this the first chapter even though it’s short. You had sent it in italics, and I recommend that you avoid that—hard to read. The only craft issues were small POV breaks when she thinks of her eye and hair colors. I turned this page.
“I’m totally serious! I heard bells coming from the cemetery.” I tried to convince my best friend I had heard ghost bells chiming through the air the night before.
“No way. There were no bells, you’re just nuts. Hey, it’s your stop.”
I grabbed my backpack and moved to the front of the bus. “Bye, Jazz. I’ll call my mom and ask if I can ride my bike over to your house after I do my homework.” As I waved goodbye, Jazz held up her cell phone up and mouthed, ‘Call me.’ Nodding, I stepped off the bus and ran through the crunchy leaves toward our place, a tired old farmhouse with peeling white paint where I had to share the upstairs bedroom with my older sister, Millie. Mom had cheered it up by painting the front door a bright red. We couldn’t afford enough paint for the whole house, but Mom always made sure the door looked good and welcoming. At this time of year she added Christmas lights around the windows and evergreen wreaths on the porch railing. Behind me, I heard the bus pull back onto the road, rumbling to the next house a full mile and a half away.
I jumped up the steps to the porch and threw open the door to find my mom and Millie sitting at the round kitchen table. They matched each other, with long black hair, medium brown skin, and dark brown eyes. My mom's eyes are large and round, while Millie's are a little slanted, which is typical of kids who have Down's Syndrome. I also have long black hair, but my skin is a light brown and my eyes are green, like my dad's.
Without the prologue and the connection to bells/pixie laughter, I don’t think I would turn this page--there's no tension and no story question. It’s all set-up, as is the rest of the chapter. We end it without a clear story question or a suggestion of trouble ahead for the protagonist, nor is there a sign of how/when she might encounter the pixie. I think there’s a promise of a good story here and the writing is strong, but you need to get to where the actual story starts much sooner. On this first page, if possible. You can fill in the background and set-up stuff as you go. So this is an almost for me. The rest of the chapter follows the break.
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 Rebecca
My mom wears her hair in a twist on the back of her head, with a headband to keep any of it from escaping. Today the band sat on the table in front of her, and her head rested on her hand. Little tendrils fell onto her forehead, and she looked tired. Mom and Millie were never home at this time of day. I usually had the house to myself for a couple of hours after school, but, hey, the warm air smelled of bread and Mexican hot chocolate. I wasn’t about to complain.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Millie. What’s going on?” I headed to the kitchen for a snack.
“Rocio, mi hija, how was your day?” Mom asked. A steaming cup and a doughnut sat in front of each of them.
After filling my own cup from the pan on the stove and snagging a doughnut from the box, I sat between them. “Good. I aced the math test and we had burritos for lunch. That equals an excellent day in my book.” I took a bite of my snack and sipped my chocolate. “How come you guys are home?” I mumbled around my food. Then I really looked at my mom for the first time. Her eyebrows quirked in a worried way, and she held her mug of chocolate with both hands, as if she needed something warm to comfort her. “Is everything okay?” I asked.
Mom smiled and her face smoothed. I wasn’t supposed to have seen the worry. “Yes, we’re fine. Millie, are you done with your drink?” Millie tipped the last of her chocolate into her mouth and nodded. “Could you take your cup to the sink and rinse it out, por favor? Then it’s reading time for you.”
Millie pushed her chair away from the table, awkwardly grabbed her plate and mug with her short fingers, and scooted around my chair.
“After reading, will you play a game with me, Rocky?” she asked, on her way to the sink.
Rocky is what my friends and Millie call me. My full name is Maria Rocio Bustamante Solaz. When I was in second grade, the girl sitting next to me looked at the nametag on my desk and said, “Rock-ee-oh. That’s a weird name, especially for a girl.”
“My name is Rocio,” I said, “Roh-see-oh. Not Rock-ee-oh.”
“Well, that looks like Rock-ee-oh to me, so I’ll call you Rocky.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Fine. I’ll call you Jazz.”
That’s how my best friend and I met, and we’ve been Rocky and Jazz ever since.
Millie looked at me with brown puppy-dog eyes. I couldn’t resist. “Sure, Millie. You want to play Clue? I can help you mark down your cards, if you need it.”
She frowned and rubbed her nose with the flat of her hand. “I want to play checkers, okay?”
I sighed loudly, but smiled so Millie would know I was teasing. “Fine, we’ll do checkers.”
Mom and I both listened to Millie clomp up the stairs to our room. I finished my doughnut, drank the last of my hot chocolate, then looked at Mom. “So, what’s up?”
She massaged the spot between her eyebrows with her index finger, and I wondered if she had a headache. She met my eyes and replied, “You’re not going to like this.”
My stomach did a gymnastic tumbling run. Holy cow, what was the problem? Were we moving? Did my dad lose his job? Was someone sick? Was Mom pregnant? No way. Now that Millie was in a different school than me, I was just starting to have my own life. I did not want to start over with a baby brother or sister. “What exactly am I not gonna like?” I asked, suspicion in my voice.
“Millie’s teacher called me today. There’s no more money for Millie to have therapy after school. They wouldn’t even take her today, so I had to take time off. You know your dad’s not working many hours at his job right now, and we can’t afford for me to miss any work. Mi amor, I need you to start watching Millie after school every day, until I can get home.”
Yeah, Millie's older than me, but she can’t really take care of herself, even though she is thirteen. I’m twelve, but I’ve always felt like the big sister. I love her, but sometimes I get really tired of always being responsible for her - like now.
Still, I turned my whiny “Moooooooom” into “Mooooooookay, I guess I can do that,” when I saw her face. My dad’s been working in another state for a couple of months now, leaving Mom to take care of everything. She doesn’t know, but sometimes I watch her sleep on the couch when she’s too tired to make it to bed after working all day, then taking care of Millie and me without any help. This afternoon, she looked extra tired.
“Really, really,” I said, quoting our favorite line from Shrek.
“Gracias, mi amor. I know this is a lot to ask, and we might be able to figure out something else after a while. Right now I’m so frustrated I can’t think of another solution. You know I have to work.”
“Yeah, I know, Mom. Look, it’s okay. I’ll get my homework done while Millie’s reading, then we’ll play checkers. Maybe I can scramble some eggs for dinner.”
Mom pushed her chair back, then hugged me and kissed my cheek. “You’re such a good girl, Rocio. Thank you.”
She grabbed her purse and keys and headed to the door. “I’ll be back about 5:30.”
“I know. See you then,” I said. I watched her drive down the lane and turn left toward
town. Then I grabbed the phone to call Jazz and tell her our after-school plans were off, for good.