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.
Douglas, a first-time author, sends the prologue and first chapter of an untitled WWII novel. The first 17 lines follow the prologue and first chapter follow. The rest of the narrative after the break.
That morning, it seemed that Mother Nature herself had had a premonition that the day would be special. Virginia could feel it in the air. She was on the last of a three-day trip aboard the S.S. Daphne from Norfolk to New York with her younger sister, Agnes, and cousins Bess and Anna McLaurin, ten months her junior. “A pair of spirited twins to go with the equally spirited Gibson girls,” her Mama always said, shaking her head and smiling, even though they were hardly girls anymore, but grown women in their mid-twenties whom Mama might wish to be more settled by now and much less spirited.
Most girls from the class of 1934 were tending their own homes and starting families but the four cousins had yet to meet their match, just fine as far as they were concerned. There would be time for all that. Breathing in the heady scent of saltwater, Virginia stood at the railing and relished the rare moment alone, allowing the ocean to work its restorative magic. She had an abiding love for the ocean. It ever had the capacity to match her mood – be it melancholy, pensive, or playful – and today was no exception as rays of sunshine flew to her atop the waves, reminding her how much life had changed since her last cruise at sea; before a mountain of responsibility dropped in her path.
But fourteen-hour workdays wouldn’t slow her desire for living life as it came, especially when its minutes involved a rare and promising day at sea. A seagull squawked above, its (snip)
The writing is good in many respects, and it’s fun to be taken into the past. There was a little head-hopping as I read on, but that can be remedied. But what really needs work is focus and tension. The first page introduces Virginia and a gaggle of young women. Virginia focuses on how attractive Anna is. Then she bumps into a handsome man and he ends up entertaining all four young women. But later it is Agnes to whom he is attracted—which had me wondering why the story started with Virginia. Whose story is this?
Speaking of story—as Steven James says in Story Trumps Structure, you don’t have a story until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, all of this chapter is pleasant setup and nothing goes wrong for anyone. There are no real story questions, which leads to a lack of tension. I think that this narrative has started entirely too soon in the story. The writer strives to give us background on and introductions to a number of characters, but there’s really no story here other than girls meet boys and then part amicably. The very last sentence in the chapter teases us with a “storm” coming, but this reader would never get that far. Start the story when something goes wrong with the primary protagonist, and start the story with her is what I recommend. Weave in the setup details while things happen. Luck.
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 © 2018 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2018 by Gibson.
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.
. . . persistent cries calling her attention to the clatter of Agnes, Bess and Anna charging up the metal steps behind her. So much for time alone.
“There you are, Giggie!” Virginia turned at the sound of her nickname. “I was just telling Bess and Agnes that I want to get some sun before we get to New York this afternoon,” Anna said laughing. “You never know who we might meet once we get there and a girl always looks better with a little color, I think.” As if her cousin needed help to attract a man’s notice, Giggie thought, admiring Anna’s trim figure and stylish dress. Men routinely crossed the room to talk to Anna, drawn to her like bears to honey, though this fact was lost on Anna herself, who had no idea how striking she was.
“Suit yourself,” Giggie replied with a smile, quieting the bird with crackers from her purse. "But I’d like to go on the upper deck to place a wager on one of those mechanical horses the captain likes to race.”
“Virginia! You know Mama doesn’t think it proper for anyone to gamble,” Agnes scolded, stepping up to the railing with crackers of her own. A bold seagull charged down to snatch saltines from her outstretched arm. No wonder the waiter had advised them to take them at breakfast. “Plus, you know those races are rigged, anyway.”
“True, but if I flash a smile at the captain, maybe that’ll help my chances,” Giggie said, displaying a mischievous glance. Sometimes she wished that her younger sister would stop worrying so much and would let down her guard. True to her nature, Agnes was prepared for the blustery winds on deck in a paisley-printed scarf to shield her just-set hair. Always fashionable, Agnes completed her look with a navy sailor dress and cherry-red nails.
“Well, I’m going with Giggie,” Bess announced with a cheerful smile. “I don’t want to miss any fun! We’ll see y’all at lunch. Come on, Giggie. Let’s go place our bets!”
As Giggie and Bess ambled towards the horse-racing deck, a tall man in gray military uniform charged towards them. Totally oblivious of his surroundings and absorbed in his own thoughts, his arm hit Giggie’s shoulder as he passed, forcing him to stop. Like a switch being flipped, he snapped to attention.
“I beg your pardon, Miss,” the gentleman uttered, tipping a United States Military Academy hat to reveal an aristocratic face that was sheepish and coloring red. “I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly?”
Still too startled to speak, Giggie grasped her tender shoulder and stared at the Daphne’s teakwood deck. For once she found herself completely at a loss for words. She had noticed the stranger at the Captain’s table the first night out of port and had hoped for an introduction, but this was not the kind she’d envisioned.
“Sir, you should watch where you are going!” Bess scolded sharply, defending her cousin with an admonishing finger pointed directly at his chest.
“I agree and have no excuse for myself. Please allow me make it up to you.” The flush faded from his face and he extended a tanned forearm towards Giggie.
“My name is John McGrady. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance Miss…?”
“Virginia Gibson. And this is my cousin, Bess McLaurin,” Giggie said coolly, reaching out to take his hand while noticing the warm eyes and square jaw revealed from beneath his brim.
“It is a pleasure to meet you both, although I’m sorry for the cause,” he said with a shaky laugh. “I’m on my way to the telegraph office – a poor excuse for my haste and for not paying attention – but I’m glad you’re not too hurt. I must go send this message, but hope to see you both at lunch. May I call upon your table?”
“You may, Mr. McGrady. We look forward to seeing you then,” Giggie replied as he nodded politely and left in haste to resume his mission. Giggie blinked as their new acquaintance walked away.
“What do you make of that gentleman?” Giggie asked. The cousins’ heads pressed together in hushed conference as they continued walking around the deck.
“He’s handsome, all right.”
“Yes, but uniforms have a way of making a man, even an ordinary one, seem
“He certainly doesn’t seem ordinary to me. Let’s go place our bets and hope that Agnes and Anna appreciate our surprise at lunch. Our day just got much more interesting!”
Despite their best efforts to prove Agnes wrong, Giggie and Bess lost every horse race that morning and were forced to eat crow. They admitted their folly, but kept quiet about the fact that each had lost five dollars of spending money, a loss both still deemed to have been worth the fun of trying. As they sat down for lunch, Agnes sighed, enjoying a brief moment of validation.
“Although I hate to say it, if Mama could see you now she’d say “I told you so.” She held her head high, showing off her long, creamy neck as she and placed a napkin across her lap and took a sip of iced tea. “Somehow I think you learned your lesson.”
“The entire morning wasn’t a bust,” Bess said with animated eyes, relating their morning introduction to John McGrady.
“How terrible!” Agnes exclaimed. Her hand pressed to her mouth. “Glad you
weren’t hurt, Giggie. We need you coming home in one piece to work!” As if on
cue John McGrady walked – slowly this time – across the mural-painted dining
“I wonder why in the world he wasn’t looking where he was going?” Agnes asked, shaking her head. ‘His carelessness could really have hurt you.”
“Hush. Here he comes now,” Giggie said under her breath, looking up just in time to find Mr. McGrady standing directly in front of their table. His dark eyes stared down with interest – not at Anna, as was usually the case, – but at Agnes. Mr. McGrady offered a polite smile.
“How’s your shoulder feeling?”
“Much better. Thank you for asking.”
Giggie flashed a gracious smile, secretly enjoying the look of surprise on Agnes and Anna’s faces and the extra attention his notice caused.
“This is my sister Agnes Gibson. You’ve already met Bess, and this is Bess’s sister, Anna McLaurin.”
“Pleasure to meet all of you.” Mr. McGrady reached around the table to take the hand of each girl, his manners as polished to perfection as the top of his shoes.
“Please sit down and join us, Mr. McGrady, since we have a few minutes before lunch,” Giggie suggested, gesturing to the open seat beside Agnes. The soldier obliged and slid in, close enough for Agnes to notice his mild scent of fresh soap and peppermint.
“So, what brings you on this trip, Mr. McGrady?” Agnes asked quickly, stumbling over the words.
“Please, call me John.” The soldier gazed at Agnes with quiet intensity. He looked deep in thought, despite her simple question, but before he could answer, Agnes’ hand jerked, tipping over her crystal goblet.
“Goodness gracious!” Agnes cried, springing from her seat to wipe up the spill. She swallowed hard and glanced at the exits. Heat crawled up her neck.
“I see I’m not the only one having a time today,” John teased with a dimpled smile, waving for more napkins while righting the goblet and helping wipe the spill. “I assume your sister told you about our introduction?” He inched closer down the banquette.
“She did!” Agnes cried, thankful for his change of focus. “At least I can’t hurt water,” she teased.
“You’ve got me there,” he agreed, arching his eyebrows in humor.
Then, remembering his manners, John turned his attention to the rest of the table. After a few more minutes of small talk, he left to join his party, leaving a table of distracted cousins to enjoy the agreeable salmon croquettes. Before leaving, he made sure to secure the promise of a walk on deck.
“See you after lunch,” he said sliding out and taking leave. They watched him stroll across the dining room and take his place at the Captain’s table. The circular table sat at the front of the room and was filled with soldiers in uniform, the animated Captain holding court in the middle.
“Is it my imagination or was that a wink he just gave you?” Giggie asked, elbowing Agnes.
“There was probably something in his eye,” Agnes responded, thankful for confirmation that the gesture hadn’t just been her hopeful imagination. It had been quite some time since she’d been the object of a handsome man’s attention. While it had been fleeting, it had also been nice.
On deck he never gave one lady more attention over another during the hour-long walk, talking to all four girls about everything from the weather to their plans in New York. At his final departure, he deliberately sought out Agnes, who had fallen a few steps behind the rest, convinced she’d read more into his earlier attention than the affable John McGrady had intended.
“Unfortunately, I can’t take leave over the next few days to properly show you New York City,” he said, stopping to stand beside her, “but if you’re interested, I’d enjoy giving your family a tour of West Point.”
“We’d like that very much, John. Thank you.” Agnes looked up to face him and stopped twisting the handkerchief in her pocket long enough to take the cream-colored calling card from his outstretched hand, admiring its elegant script.
“Promise to call when you get your plans straight?” He leaned in slightly and held
Though she’d always been suspicious of those who claimed the physics of immediate attraction, she’d certainly give them the benefit of the doubt after today. Whatever this was, it was undeniably electric. The pair caught up to the others who were at the railing eyeing a school of dolphins.
“It was such an unexpected pleasure to meet all of you today,” John said with a
“To unexpected pleasures!” Giggie toasted, raising an imaginary glass against a backdrop of perfect sky.
“To unexpected pleasures!” the group echoed. John made a slight bow and turned, leaving the cousins to watch his confident gait stride down the deck until the top of his hat vanished from sight.
“Someone has a suitor,” Giggie sing-songed under her breath.
“Oh, hush!” Agnes cried as the wind carried off Giggie’s tune and his own
New York City didn’t disappoint, either. The cousins enjoyed the new “it” musical Arsenic and Old Lace, twirled spaghetti in Little Italy, and window-shopped fall’s new fashions as they giggled arm in arm past the artful windows of Fifth Avenue. Two days later, true to his word, John was waiting as the foursome exited the Hudson River water taxi at the West Point dock. Confident, vivacious Giggie had called John to arrange the meeting the day before since Agnes had been too nervous to do so.
“What did he say?” Agnes implored as Giggie hung up, the sisters seated side by side on a chintz-covered ottoman in the hotel telephone lounge.
“He said to tell you that he’s madly in love with you and that he cannot bear the hours until he can see you again.”
“Oh stop!” She blushed as she nudged Giggie’s arm.
“In all honesty I didn’t even talk to him, but to his roommate – someone named Burt who sounded like a cut-up. John was out but Burt knew who I was, so we arranged everything. Let’s hope Burt is just as handsome!”
Even two hundred yards from the water taxi’s dock Agnes recognized John at once by the smart profile he cut. His square-shouldered frame leaned nonchalantly against the dock’s piling, arms crossed against a pressed olive shirt and starched khaki trousers. An officer’s hat pressed squarely across his forehead and his eyes looked up intently as he waited for the boat to dock. Her stomach felt like a football team was rushing downfield and nervous thoughts of saying something out of place or worse – of falling flat on her face as she stepped off the boat – crept into her consciousness. As the boat pulled up to the dock, the crew scrambled to tie her up before unloading passengers, one by one, down the short, wooden gangplank.
“Virginia, so good to see you again! I hope you’ve enjoyed your time in New York?” John offered his hand to Giggie and then to Anna and Bess as they stepped off.
“Yes, the best!” Giggie answered as she looked ahead to the breathtaking view of the stony West Point fortress and its commanding view of the Hudson. A blustery wind nipped at the group from all sides, undoing all the work they’d spent that morning on fixing their hair.
“And last but not least, we have Miss Agnes,” John said as he took Agnes’ expectant hand into his own. The football players had upped the ante; now it was fourth and goal, a championship on the line as they competed in a full-blown field day of sporting exercises.
Agnes stared at her peep-toe pumps, watching them step off the boat as if they were a fascinating sight. Finally, she pushed the players off the field and looked up.
“Thank you for inviting us today.”
“I’m so glad you came,” he replied with a broad, easy-going smile. “Come, meet my friend Burt and we’ll get started on your tour.”
Did he greet girls like this at the dock often? Agnes wondered.
A long-limbed man with wire-rimmed glasses and a cheerful grin approached the group.
“Burt Spencer, please meet Virginia and Agnes Gibson and Bess and
“Welcome to West Point,” Burt said, vigorously shaking hands with the girls, making them feel welcome. “I believe I had the pleasure of speaking with you yesterday, Virginia.”
“You did,” Giggie teased as the group walked through a gothic archway that led into a large quad of granite buildings and carved trim. Everywhere they looked the history and importance of the military academy was quite clear.
“So where are you from?” Burt asked Virginia, tilting his head.
“We’re from Gibson, North Carolina. It’s a dot on the map at the North and South Carolina line. A small, but lively town with cotton fields as far as the eye can see, a railroad line and, believe it or not, the largest mercantile between Richmond and Atlanta.
“That sounds like a very nice place to live. But isn’t Gibson your last name?” Giggie nodded.
“It is. As the saying goes, “You can’t spit in Gibson without hitting a Gibson. The town was founded by Gibsons and most of us are still there today, buried and alive, all of us a real cast of characters. You know, your alumnus William Sherman had the pleasure of spending time in Gibson on his march through the South. You should visit, too, if you ever find yourself in North Carolina. We would enjoy returning your hospitality.” Burt laughed at Virginia’s Southern assessment of General Sherman’s destructive march.
“I’d like that very much,” Burt said, reminding Giggie that Robert E. Lee and half the Southern generals were West Point men as well, a dark chapter for the academy as well as the nation. The group passed by an open spanse of emerald-green grass. While the reviewing stands now sat empty, Giggie could picture what they must look like when spectators filled every seat and soldiers marched across the lawn in full military parade.
“So tell me about you. Where are you from, Burt?”
“Well, my father was in the army, so we moved around a lot. Never had the pleasure of being stationed south of Washington or of being rooted in one place for very long. I hope to take you up on your offer of visiting sometime and I promise to behave better than General Sherman! John,” Burt called, “what a fortunate thing you’re so clumsy, knocking into these lovely ladies!”
John and Burt proved to be excellent guides over the next two hours, taking the group through grounds, Cadet Chapel, and finally, for a stroll through Flirtation Walk, the rocky foot trail reserved for cadets to escort dates around the best views of Battery Point and the Hudson.
“It’s obvious you’re both proud very proud alumni,” Agnes said as John pointed out the spot where an enormous iron chain strung across the Hudson to avert British ships during the Revolutionary War.
“We can hear it in your voices,” Giggie echoed, marveling at the weight of a replica link lying heavy in her hand. Patriotic fervor leant itself to a place like this.
“We are proud to be part of the long gray line,” John replied, his chest puffed. “Glad it shows. Now, is everyone ready for some lunch?”
Waving at the guard on duty, John led the group past the entrance gate and into the adjoining town of Highlands, to a homey-looking café up the street.
“Y’all said that you’re instructors. What do you teach?” Giggie asked Burt as a frazzled waitress passed menus around the cozy booth and filled water glasses. Nearly every table was full, the diner packed with a lunchtime crowd of cadets and civilians.
“John and I aren’t instructors of cadets in a classroom, but are part of a group helping plan war maneuvers,” Burt answered.
At this information the cousins’ eyes flashed in recognition. News of the upcoming maneuvers had been all over the paper for months and the town of Gibson was preparing to host a soldier camp.
“The army’s had small war games in Tennessee and is starting larger ones in Louisiana next month followed by even larger ones in the Carolinas. These mock battles will help prepare our troops should we find ourselves joining the conflict in Europe.
You mean when we join the conflict in Europe, Virginia thought. No one thought that the U.S. could stay neutral forever, but she’d cling to that hope.
“John here just finished making the most beautiful set of maps of the Carolinas,” Burt continued. “He could probably tell you anything you’d ever want to know about North Carolina topography – even locate Gibson,”
Before any of the girls could speak, John abruptly shifted his weight and cleared his throat.
“Enough about me and the maneuvers. Tell me all about your trip. What all have you done in New York?” John’s posture and deepened tone made it clear that he didn’t want his guests pressing for more information about him or his assignment, so the cousins indulged him as lunch continued in a flurry of conversation.
While Burt had flirted with all four girls that day, it was obvious that John was interested in only one. When time came to head to the dock John gently tapped Agnes on the shoulder.
“Will you write to me? Please?” His six foot three frame towered a foot over petite Agnes. “My address is on the card I gave you on the ship. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be at West Point except for a few weeks, and after that I really don’t know where I’ll be. Promise you’ll write? I know we just met but I would really like to keep in touch.”
The pleading in his voice surprised her. By now the others were waving and calling her name as a weathered-looking dockhand motioned from the gangplank.
“Thank you for a wonderful day. I promise to keep in touch and will write as soon as we get home.” And this time, as she turned and walked towards the boat, both Agnes and her gridiron felt a surprising sense of calm.
The next morning at departure Giggie stopped short at the edge of the Daphne’s
“Something the matter?” Agnes asked.
“No. It’s just that there’s something about this city that makes me want to bottle up its energy and excitement. I just need one more look at the skyline, a final souvenir to take
“I know how you feel. Our trip has been so much fun. Agnes grabbed her sister’s hand and gave it a loving squeeze. The lonesome call of the ship’s horn bellowed.
“Come on. We’d better board,” Agnes said, starting up the gangplank. “Now, no horse- betting on the trip home!” Giggie and Agnes hurried to catch up to Anna and Bess who were waving furiously from a coveted spot at the ship’s railing.
“Yoo-hoo! Over here! We saved you a spot,” Bess shouted. Shoulder to shoulder, under sunlight that painted the sky-scrapers gold, the foursome watched the commotion of passengers boarding and the Daphne’s crew struggling to keep up with the onslaught of luggage, passengers, and final preparations. Anna and Bess waved to bystanders below as if they were beauty queens on a pageant stage. Several waved back, obliging the giggling girls.
“Look! Over there – the S.S. Normanadie!” Anna exclaimed. Giggie followed her pointed finger to the famous French ocean liner with its gigantic bow and slim hull. Giggie knew that the Normandie’s trans-Atlantic crossings full of movie stars and society types had been suspended since September 1939 when Germany had invaded Poland. The ship that had once been so sparkling and full of life now sat as empty as a forgotten tomb, interned in New York Harbor until further notice.
“Can you imagine making a crossing on that luxury liner?” Anna asked. “I read that that the ship’s first class has a winter garden, custom-made Tiffany windows and a dining room just for children, with hand-painted murals of Babar the Elephant.” As Anna prattled on about the Normandies’s numerous luxuries, Agnes noticed Giggie being unusually quiet, not joining in the conversation.
“Are you sure everything’s O.K.? Why the long face?”
“You know me so well,” Her sister’s kind words turned her mouth’s pensive line into the beginnings of a smile. “I was just getting sad that this trip is coming to an end. It’s been such a nice respite.”
“Yes it has. And Pete is such a good brother to insist that we come, yet manage everything without us. I want to get home and give him some time off. Maybe he’ll even have time to call on Mary.”
“You are so thoughtful. Here I am feeling down because our wonderful
trip is ending and you’re already thinking of getting home to help Pete.”
“Well, don’t paint a halo over my head just yet...”
Agnes wistfully thought of John McGrady and the fact that it might be a while before she experienced the surprise of football players again. With much fanfare, the ship’s departing horn sounded and passengers waved a last goodbye as the Daphne pulled out of the harbor.
Looking back on that trip would bring Giggie such happy memories, memories of youth, innocence, and of calm before a storm none of them knew was coming; a storm that would make the sight of soldiers an everyday occurrence, test her mettle beyond imagination, and make the word “Normandie” mean a great deal more.