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Submissions sought. 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. Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.
Donald Maass,, literary agent and author of many books on writing, says, “Independent editor Ray Rhamey’s first-page checklist is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.”
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.
Harlene sends the first chapter of a memoir, Outlasting Angie. Here are the first 17 lines. The rest of the story follows the break so you can turn the page.
“They gonna cut my head open! They gonna do brain surgery on me!”The cry—desperate, braying, disembodied—burst through the barrier of my fitful dozing. I looked around, disoriented. A nylon curtain, gray, pulled tight, suspended from a ceiling several feet away, acclimated me. I was in the ER at Massachusetts General Hospital on a chrome chair with a vinyl seat; my brother slumped beside me, and our sedated mother on a gurney before us.
The panicked voice, a stranger’s, a woman’s, erupted again from behind the curtain. “I gotta git out of here!”
She yelled for a nurse, a bed pan, pain killers. She’d take “whatever they got so long’s it’s strong.” She pitched into a yowl. “They gonna cut me open! I don’t wanna be here, I don’t wanna be here no more! You hear me?”
Yes. I do.
I didn’t want to be there, either. My brother, Sean, didn’t. My mother surely did not, on that gurney, sliding in and out of medicated sleep. The stranger behind the curtain, drunk and inconsolable, told a nurse—then sometime later a hospital security guard taking the domestic abuse report—that her boyfriend likes his Jack Daniels and his fists get away from him. “Bastard should go to jail! Can you help me do that?”
The theory is that a memoir should read like a story—and I agree with that. It needs to have tension, scenes, action, dialogue—and not be a simple biography, a report on someone’s history. This opening page has all that, plus strong writing and a voice that invites you right in.
We’re immediately in a place—the scene is well set. Something is happening, something has gone wrong, and there’s promise of trouble ahead, not only for the screaming woman but for the narrator and her family. Finally, it introduces us to sympathetic characters who are in trouble. It’s enough to make you want to read more. I did. 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.
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 Ann.
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.
When the guard emerged from behind the curtain he nodded as he walked past.
Sean and I looked at each other, then up at a digital clock on the wall with oversized numbers, red and bright: 4:32. Seconds later, 4:33. We arrived just after midnight, January 5, 2016—ironically, Mom’s eighty-first birthday. A terrible hour to be awake, to be in this emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital, to be wondering who the hysterical woman is behind the nylon curtain and what will come of this night with our own mother. We’d been cautioned Mom might get holes drilled through her skull if the swelling doesn’t subside.
Burr holes, they call them.
I looked at my mother beneath the thin cotton blanket. Mom’s always cold, and she’ll be especially so in this meat locker.
A monitor traced her vitals as they dipped and climbed across the screen. We’d been here, Sean and I, close to five hours in a makeshift room, Bay 5C, one of many cordoned off by rows of gray curtains.
In 2015 Mom, then eighty, threw her first blood clot; a pulmonary embolism. It nearly killed her. Two months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer after doctors began looking into why, with no previous history, she was developing clots. They explained to us that clots sometimes form when there is a cancer in the body. A mammogram showed that my mother had menopausal breast cancer: a slower-growing, less fatal form, prevalent in women sixty or older. Although she wasn’t keen on surgery at her age, Mom agreed to a mastectomy. Chemo, however, was non-negotiable.
“No,” she told me and my siblings, shaking her head firmly. “No. You need to know when to say enough is enough. I’m eighty. I’ve had a good life—a very good life. I’m not about to pull out the stops now and try to be a hero at this age.”
We knew better than to push.
She emerged from her mastectomy free of complications. Her surgeon told her during a follow-up three weeks later: “You heal like a woman in her forties.” My mother began taking daily hormone therapy pills to help prevent cancer taking hold somewhere else. She also started on a daily blood-thinner: Warfarin.
Warfarin saved her life but turned Mom’s blood to water. Turned stumbles from mere embarrassment into a medical crisis.
Like her fall, nine months later, when she hit her head. I was at the house with her and saw the egg form on her forehead in seconds as a bluish bruise puddled across her eyelid and dripped toward her cheekbone. My stomach somersaulted. Twenty minutes later an ambulance was unloading her into the ER at our local hospital in Dover, New Hampshire. Within the hour, head scans in hand, the ER doctor was explaining to me and Sean: “If the bleeding continues, burr holes are an option to release cranial pressure.”
He told us they didn’t have neurosurgeons on staff and that Mom would need to go to Boston should it become necessary. “Let’s take a conservative approach and repeat her head scans in another hour to see if the swelling goes down on its own.”
Yes, I thought. Let’s.
January 4, 2016; Hours earlier
Wentworth Douglass Hospital ER
Dover, New Hampshire
“Put 55 Fruit Street, Boston, into your GPS. It’ll take you right to the parking garage. Walk across the street to the main entrance and check in with the front desk. Someone there will give you a visitor badge and tell you where to find your mother.”
Sean nodded. “Will do. Thanks. What’s your name again?”
Tim, late twenties I judged, wore a blue parka with ‘Massachusetts General Hospital EMT’ stitched in white thread. He pulled a matching blue beanie over his head and looked down at Mom on the gurney.
“Ready, Mrs. Kelly? We’ll only be outside a few minutes so we can get you into the ambulance. You shout if you need more blankets, OK?”
“OK.” Mom quietly cleared her throat several times. It’s a habit I’ve heard often; usually when she’s trying to exude an air of calm but is roiling with panic.
A second EMT, a young woman, smiled at me and my brother, perhaps in an attempt to make us feel better. She released the brakes at the foot of the gurney and gave another shy smile as she guided it past us, out of the bay and into the hall. Tim pushed from the head of the bed.
“We’ll be right behind you, Mom,” Sean said.
“You two stay here in Dover! Do you hear me? You both need to work in the morning. I don’t want to see either of you showing up in Boston—I mean it!” Mom tried to lift her head to look at us as the gurney glided past double doors. They continued down a hall and into a waiting ambulance bound for the city that she, just a half hour earlier, insisted was off-limits.
“I’ll see you at my place in thirty minutes,” Sean said to me. “Bring a bag for Mom.”
My mother was always spry. While others walked through life, Mom strode. She was still climbing stepladders to paint walls and refinishing antique doors into her seventies. She could roam for hours in flea markets, garden centers and—her favorite, like mine—antique stores.
In our local hospital’s ER, Sean, who lives ten minutes away, joined me. The ER doctor was finishing describing a procedure where burr holes, roughly the size of dimes, could be drilled into our mother’s skull to drain blood and relieve swelling. Mom, shaken from her ordeal and dressed in a blue hospital gown, blanched.
“Positively not,” she interrupted. “I’m not interested.” She shifted in the bed to look at me and Sean and pierced us with the matriarchal glare we well-remembered from childhood antics that put us in time-out. “And don’t you two get into this. This is my decision.”
She turned her eyes back to the doctor. “I don’t want any part of what you just described.”
“We can’t perform this procedure anyway, Mrs. Kelly. We don’t have a neurosurgery staff here. You’d be better off at Mass General.”
“No, thank you,” Mom shot back.
The doctor looked at me and my brother for approval to keep arguing his case. “If you choose to stay, we can certainly keep you comfortable but I want to stress that it’s all we can do.”
Sean and I were in complete agreement with his recommendation to transfer Mom to Massachusetts General Hospital. Bigger, nationally renowned, and just an hour south, it was our best option.
The plan seemed air tight until Mom put a pin in it. “I’m not getting loaded into another ambulance and going into that traffic in Boston. I’ll take my chances here.”
The doctor, standing close to the bed rail and leaning in, searched my mother’s face as his eyes catalogued her winces, each shift she made in the bed, her hesitation at his recommendation. “If your bleed worsens and needs to be drained, we can’t do much more than keep you comfortable,” he repeated. “Mass General has the neuro staff to manage your condition.”
“I understand,” Mom said. “I do.”
Standing at the foot of her gurney I watched Mom set her jaw. “I’m fine with staying right here.” She looked at us, then back to the doctor.
“I know that’s not what my kids want to hear but this is my decision, right?” We nodded in agreement. “I may be old but I’ve still got my smarts. I’ve had a hell of a night. I’m tired. Staying here in this bed sounds just fine so let’s not discuss it anymore. OK?”
“Mom.” I waited for my mother to look at me. “You can do this.”
It was what she had said to me six years earlier, when I was the one I was the one in the hospital bed. Now looking from the other side, at my mother on the gurney, I needed her to make a similar leap.
January 5, 2016, 5:30 a.m.
Massachusetts General Hospital ER
“Who’s the President?” A nurse bent over Mom, swaying a flashlight beam from one pupil to the other. She’d been by every thirty minutes.
An MRI showed brain bleeding and we were in a watch-and-wait pattern to see if it would resolve on its own; reabsorb into my mother’s body without intervention. It was the preferred option over burr holes, though that was in their back pocket should it be needed.
After repeating Obama’s name for, it seemed, the hundredth time, Mom turned to me after the nurse left, groggy but with a glint in her eye. “Next time I’m going to say it’s Kennedy just to see what she says.”
“Hey! Don’t anyone hear me?” Our neighbor demanded an audience. Her wails dropped to a guttural snarl: “Where’d everyone go, goddammit? I know you can hear me! Dontcha ignore me!”
I tried picturing the face behind the curtain. I listened to her gravelly voice, the string of goddamms and piece-a-shits and hells and gits and gonnas. A whistling punctuated the end of her sentences. Is she missing teeth?
“I gotta git to the bafroom.” Silence. “Now!”
I was impressed with my mother’s ability to block out our neighbor but the sedative deserved the bulk of the credit. Sean and I, too, could have used a hit at that point.
The woman lowered her voice conspiratorially. Her pleas slipped under the curtain, mist-like. Part whisper, part croak. “I know you’re over there. You gotta help me find my phone so I can git out of here. I just had it.” Her monologue careened as decibels rose: “My boyfriend, that piece-a-shit, done his best to split my head open an’ now these doctors gonna finish what he started!” Silence. “Help me! They gonna cut my head open an’ I don’t want it no more!”
None of us wanted it. The woman, theatrics aside, was not a candidate. But, Mom? Maybe.
Yet, really? Brain surgery on our mother? On her eighty-first birthday? Contemplating this possibility from my perch on that chrome chair felt surreal.
That it already happened six years earlier, to me, over nearly twelve hours, was even stranger.