Submissions sought. There’s naught in the queue. Get fresh eyes on your opening page. Submission directions below.
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—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
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 checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. 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.
Download a free PDF copy here.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins to engage the reader with the character
- Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
- The character desires something.
- The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- The one thing it must do: raise a story question.
Caveat: a first page can succeed without including all of these possibilities. They are simply tools you can use. In particular, a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and a create page turn without doing all of the above. On the other hand, testing pages with the checklist no matter where they are in a story can help identify where a narrative lags and why it does.
Deborah sends the first chapter of a YA novel, Vision. The rest of the submission follows the break.
A bead of sweat slithers down the back of my neck. I swipe at it, expecting a mosquito, but pull back a wet hand. “Why is it so hard to breathe?” I wonder, but my eyelids are too heavy. Just as my lashes dust my cheeks, my waist buzzes, jolting me awake. I kick off the quilt that’s suddenly suffocating me and make myself roll over. Two AM. Ugh, I’m too tired for this. I unclip the pump from my pajamas and look at the screen. Thirty-two. I press the graphing button. My blood sugar’s been falling for over an hour — why hadn’t I woken up sooner? I reach for the juice box on my night table. Empty. I fall back onto the bed and fight against my eyes — they want to close so badly. Nope, gotta get up. I strain to lift my leaden head from the pillow. Blood is pulsing at my temples and I feel the thud of each struggling heartbeat vibrating in my chest. The tip of my tongue is already tingling with a numbness that would slur my speech if there was anyone here to talk to.
I listen for footsteps running down the hall, but no one is coming. Right, I remember, I’d made my mom turn off the pump alerts on her phone last week on my birthday. It was my present to her, although she didn’t see it that way. She said she liked knowing that I was okay, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep without it. It was just like getting rid of the baby monitor, I’d argued. I was twelve now, it was time for me to take care of this on my own. She finally gave in. If I yelled for her now, that would all be erased.
Good writing and a likeable voice get this opening off to a good start. And there is tension here—an alarm has gone off and there’s a medical problem that seems like it could be serious. All of that is established in the first paragraph. Good story question raised—will she be okay? So far so good. It was enough to get me to turn the page—however, if you read the rest of the chapter, you’ll find that it’s a little bit of bait and switch; the story isn’t really about her dealing with her illness.
But, after a strong opening, we shift to backstory. If you must have it to establish the age of the character, cut it way back. For my money, it’s not needed and you should just stay in the moment. Figure out another way to slip the age in (if this is YA, it’s unusual to have a heroine that is just twelve years old.) There are some narrative issues I think should be addressed in that opening paragraph.
One more thing: the rest of the chapter moves completely away from this medical emergency into what seems to be a paranormal story. While the bridging tension of the insulin problem may get us there, it doesn’t seem to actually have anything to do with what happens in the story afterwards. Were it me, I’d look for a way to start as close to the intruder as possible. If you need a way to get the parents in the room, trim the opening paragraph a bunch, but let us know the danger, and have the pump send the alarm that brings the parents running with juice to handle it. Then immediately hear the intruder (on the first page) and take it from there. I’d get rid of the lightning and the storm because it would make it very difficult to hear creaking stairs, and just aren’t needed. Keep it simple. Notes:
A bead of sweat slithers down the back of my neck. I swipe at it, expecting a mosquito, but pull back a wet hand. “Why is it so hard to breathe?” I wonder, but my eyelids are too heavy. Just as my lashes dust my cheeks, my waist buzzes, jolting me awake. I kick off the quilt that’s suddenly suffocating me and make myself roll over. Two AM. Ugh, I’m too tired for this. I unclip the insulin pump from my pajamas and look at the screen. Thirty-two. Oh, no. I press the graphing button. My blood sugar’s been falling for over an hour — why hadn’t I woken up sooner? I reach for the juice box on my night table. Empty. I fall back onto the bed and fight against my eyes — they want to close so badly. Nope, gotta get up. I strain to lift my leaden head from the pillow. Blood is pulsing pulses at my temples and I feel with the thud of each struggling heartbeat vibrating in my chest. The tip of my tongue is already tingling with a numbness that would slur my speech if there was anyone here to talk to. The first sentence lets us know that she knows it’s a bead of sweat, so why would she expect a mosquito? Didn’t make sense to me. I felt that having her eyelids “dust” her cheeks was a contradictory image after all the detail about sweat and wet; look for another verb. Let us know that the pump is an insulin pump so we have a better idea of what’s going on and the jeopardy associated with it. I added a reaction to the pump number to signal that it’s not a good thing and to increase the scene tension. The symptoms with her tongue and numbness are excellent details to heighten the tension and danger. Something is clearly wrong.
I listen for footsteps running down the hall, but no one is coming. Right, I remember, I’d made my mom turn off the pump alerts on her phone last week on my birthday. It was my present to her, although she didn’t see it that way. She said she liked knowing that I was okay, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep without it. It was just like getting rid of the baby monitor, I’d argued. I was twelve now, it was time for me to take care of this on my own. She finally gave in. If I yelled for her now, that would all be erased. Trim this way back so we can get on to her dealing with the problem, or change it to the parents running in.
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.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2017 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2017 by Deborah
My books. You can read sample chapters and learn more about the books here.
Writing Craft Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling
Fantasy (satire) The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles
Mystery (coming of age) The Summer Boy
Science Fiction Hiding Magic
Science Fiction Gundown Free ebooks.
Time to move. C’mon, get up. Now. My insulin pump zaps me again. I force myself upright and lift a leg to take a step. It feels like pulling weights. Using the wall as a brace, I make it to the stairs and grasp the railing. Don’t you dare fall, I tell myself. You can do this. My shirt is damp with sweat and I’m shaking. I’m hot and cold at once, and each breath is a chore.
I reach the kitchen and get the orange juice out of the fridge. I want to drink it all, right out of the carton, but I know the swing that’d give me in an hour would make me feel almost as bad, just in a different way. So, I get a four-ounce cup and sit on the bar stool. My pump complains again as the cold liquid flows down my throat, and I press the button to silence it. I really want more. There are spots in front of my eyes now, but I stay strong. I’ve had the juice — even if I pass out, I’ll wake back up. I listen to the Jackhammer rain pounding the concrete moat surrounding our Brooklyn brownstone, and put my head down on the counter. The granite feels so cool on my cheek and I let myself drift back to sleep. Suddenly, I’m being lifted up.
“Shh, it’s okay Shelby. I’m just taking you back to bed. You’re okay now, back up to sixty already. You’ll feel better in a few minutes.”
My mother is at the top of the stairs waiting. “Is she ok?”
“She’s fine, she took care of it all by herself,” Daddy says. My mother kisses me before he puts me on the bed. She picks up my quilt and tucks me in. A flash of lightning followed by a deafening clap of thunder makes me jump.
“Y’know, I think I’d like the nightlight on.” My mother smiles at my father as he presses the switch.
My dark room fills with glowing stars.
“Jack, did you hear that?” My mother asks.
“It’s probably just the storm,” Daddy says. He kisses me on the forehead and takes Mom’s hand. As they reach the doorway, a floorboard creaks downstairs. My parents freeze and lock eyes. An intruder is in the house.
“Stay here, I’m getting my gun,” Daddy whispers. His gun stays in the safe when he isn’t working.
A step on the staircase groans under the trespasser’s weight. My mother’s eyes go wide.
“Jack don’t, there’s no time!”
“Call 911,” he says.
“Daddy please stay here. Don’t you remember what happened when I was your mommy and you were my little boy?” I plead.
My mother pulls me into the closet and shuts the door.
“But he needs to know! He always dies saving us. Always.”
“What are you talking about?” she whispers as she dials 911.
“A man was hurting me. I told him to run but he didn’t listen. The man stabbed him when he was trying to save me. He killed him. I don’t know how he could forget, he even has the scar on his chest.”
“That’s a birth mark Shelby, he was born with it.”
“I know he was born with it, but it came from being stabbed in another life.”
“He fights bad guys every day and he’s never gotten hurt.”
She starts talking to the 911 operator and isn’t listening anymore. But he always dies saving us from danger. I reach for the doorknob so I can tell him, but she yanks my arm and I look back. She puts a finger to her lips. Her hand is shaking. I nod, but inch forward and peek through the slats on the closet door.
Daddy was still in the room, but he didn’t have his gun. I didn’t have anything in my room that would make a good weapon. I hated sports, so no baseball bats or lacrosse sticks. I do have a parade baton. He picks it up, streamers and all and hides behind the door. The intruder comes into the room with his gun drawn.
Daddy rushes out and smashes the guy on the side of his fleshy shaved head. He howls and drops the pistol onto my shaggy carpet. My father lunges for it. Baldy grunts as he dives for it too, as graceful as an elephant.
They collide and crash against my dresser. Toys and awards rain down. Daddy avoids the downpour, but Baldy punches him on the chin and he falls backwards, just missing a pillow and landing on top of a Rubix’s Cube. He arches his back in pain and rolls off the toy. Something catches his eye, I follow his gaze to a glint of metal under the bed. It was the gun. He reaches for it, but Baldy grabs his ankles with his meaty hands and pulls him back, just as his fingertips graze the steel.
He picks up a trophy from the debris on the floor as he slides away from the gun and smashes the intruder’s ear. Blood trickles down his flabby jawline. He punches my father in the gut and bounces across the bed and onto the floor where he snags the gun.
My father rushes him and they struggle for control and fall, rolling around until my father is straddled on top of his hulking form, the commandeered gun in his hands. My pump sounds a low sugar alarm again and the intruder’s head snaps to the sound. My mother yanks me back against the wall as I press the silence button. A gun goes off. My mother clasps her hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming and we hold our breath.
A second shot sounds just as I hear the wail of police sirens pull into the driveway. Thunder booms, making my mother loosen her grip, and I spring from the closet.
The intruder’s dead eyes stare at me in shock as I rush over him to my father. I lift his head onto my lap and he tries to speak.
“There’s…” He coughs. Blood spurts from his mouth. “There’s…” He tries to lift his arm, but his eyes roll back in his head and he goes limp.
“Daddy, noooo!” I yell. My mother puts her head on him and sobs.
Footsteps are running up the stairs. My mother wails in pain. My father’s partner comes into the room and puts his hand on Daddy’s neck. His face says what I already know. My mother screams, and Sam puts his arms around her and lifts her away from my father’s body.
As a paramedic pulls at my waist, I lean over to my father and whisper in his ear, “I know I’ll see you again someday.”