Submissions Wanted. . 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—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.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
- What happens moves the story forward.
- What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
- The protagonist desires something.
- The protagonist does something.
- 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.
- What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?
Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn't deal with five of the things in the checklist.
Marty sends the first chapter of Second Life . The rest of the chapter is after the break.
Either her hometown was a cliché or her life was. Erica Mathews feared it was both. She was within months of becoming a partner in her law firm, a position she had nearly killed herself working to obtain. She embodied those stories about associates whose only life was billable hours. She networked at every opportunity. She was on course to be voted the newest partner. Then the phone call came that morning. Now she was headed for Plainton, the town she wanted to escape.
Erica was so focused on the motion she was drafting when her father's doctor called that she barely took in what he was trying to tell her. Her father, the anchor in her life, had suffered a heart attack at his office that morning and did not survive. Stunned by the news, Erica tried to hold her emotions in check as she spent the next hour rescheduling her appointments and assigning work to junior associates. Focusing on everything that needed to be done before she left town was the only way she made it through the morning. She parceled cases out to associates, along with explanations as to immediate matters that needed to be dealt with and client idiosyncrasies. She then went to her apartment, threw some clothes in a bag, and headed for Plainton, the small town where her father lived and she grew up.
The rush of activity in preparing to leave preempted any thoughts about her father and what she needed to do when she arrived in Plainton. Once she safely escaped the city traffic, (snip)
The writing is straightforward and clean for the most part, though there is a clarity issue: she’s heading for Plainton, so clearly she isn’t there, but it’s the town she wants to escape, and it turns out she lives in another city. Can’t be both. But what really happens here? She received some sad news, but, as far as the narrative shows, that doesn’t hint at trouble ahead for her. And believing her life could be a cliché isn’t a real problem. So, no tension, no page turn. I think you’re starting your story too early, Marty. The rest of the chapter is mostly backstory and setup, and we end it without knowing what the story is about or what kind of problem Erica has to deal with or be hurt in some way. Look for the inciting incident that causes a problem for her.
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 © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Marty
however, she could not avoid thinking about him. He had practiced law in Plainton for 40 years. The law was his first love particularly after his wife, Erica's mother, died from cancer. Erica was not surprised he died at his desk, but she had not expected it to happen so soon.
Plainton was a small town of almost 40,000 people set in rolling plains surrounded by farmland and cattle ranches. The town worked hard to maintain the status quo, avoiding change. Outsiders had difficulty fitting in. During her teen years Erica could not wait to leave. After she finished law school she accepted a position with a growing plaintiff's law firm in Kansas City, a couple of hours from Plainton, even though her father wanted her to practice with him. Erica was not interested in living in Plainton, and even if she were, she was not sure she could work with her father. Their relationship was always touch and go when she was a teenager even though she knew her father cared deeply for her. The tension between them had eased in recent years, time making them both more tolerant. Erica feared, however, that proximity might exacerbate their differences. For one thing, she was more aggressive in her practice of law, loving litigation, while her father believed conciliation was the best approach.
Erica was 32 years old and ready to move into partnership at her firm. She had worked to develop the skills necessary for litigating large product liability cases, her favorite area of practice. Products liability cases allowed her to hold companies responsible for the safety and quality of their products. Occasionally she was able to create new law in the field raising the standards for products.
Erica was always strong-willed and competitive. After Erica's mother died her father was at a loss as to how to raise a young girl. Erica's father did not fall easily into the role of nurturer. With no mother to help Erica develop social skills or pave the way with other parents, Erica rarely mingled with other children. As a teenager she had no interest in those activities that seemed to dominate teenage girls - clothes, boys, dating and marriage. Erica loved books and sports. Erica was tall, lean, and athletic and enjoyed playing games. She loved debating legal issues and the latest political affair with her father when he made it home in time to have dinner with her. He expected her to be tough and defend her views. He taught her to think through her position and prepare for counterattacks. The years of debate with him prepared her for law school where she often bested her fellow students in arguing case law.
Erica drove to her father's house after arriving in Plainton. The sight of the two-story white Victorian rekindled the shock she felt at the news of her father's death. She pulled into the driveway but did not get out of the car. She could not imagine never again seeing her father mowing the yard or coming out the front door. She could feel the emptiness of the house from where she sat. A few scraggly tulips edged the front porch, only making the yard look more ragged. Her father was never a gardener, unlike her mother who loved designing flowerbeds and planting new flowers each year. The few flowers scattered about the yard, remnants of those years, only reinforced Erica’s feelings of loss.
Erica chided herself for her sentimentality. She grabbed the few belongings she had managed to pack and headed up the front steps. When she opened the front door the sight of her father's old sweater on the sofa, the newspapers and law journals strewn about, along with the lingering smell of his pipe tobacco battered her. She sat down on the sofa unable to prevent the tears from flowing. It took her several minutes to get her emotions under control before she went in search of a phone book to find the phone number for the funeral home which conducted her mother's funeral.
After arranging for the funeral home to pick up the body once the autopsy was finished, she called her father's office. She was unsurprised that Mrs. Shelby, her father's secretary of many years, answered. Mrs. Shelby would be stoical in the face of a tornado bearing down on her. Her life was taking care of the office and Erica’s father or so it seemed to Erica. Erica always tread carefully around her, knowing that she could never gain her full approval.
"Erica, where are you? I am so sorry about your father. It was awful. I went to take him the mail and he was lying there motionless on his desk. I never heard anything. He never called for help. I don't know what happened. It was always so hard to hear anything going on in that office. I called the ambulance but he was gone before they got here."
"How are you doing, Mrs. Shelby?" Erica asked. Mrs. Shelby intimidated her, but then Mrs. Shelby intimidated most of her father's clients. When Erica was young, Erica felt she was besting the troll guarding the bridge to her father's office every time she came for a visit. Mrs. Shelby did not always agree with Erica’s parenting, a fact that both her father and Erica knew. Mrs. Shelby believed that young ladies should act like young ladies and not be allowed to wander the town, playing ball with the guys, or raising her voice if she disagreed with an adult.
"I did not know what to do after they took John away. I couldn't leave the office," Mrs. Shelby continued. "I have been trying all afternoon to cancel his appointments and let his clients know what happened and notify the court in the cases where hearings are scheduled. I am not sure what to tell the clients, particularly those he was working with on some project."
"I am sure you handled it just fine," Erica responded. "I plan to be at the office in the morning. If you could come in for a few hours, maybe, we could sort through some things, that is if you are feeling up to it. I know this must be a real shock for you. I don't know my way around dad's office and will need your help."
"I planned to come in anyway. There is so much to deal with, and I know it isn't easy for you either."
"Okay, I should be there by nine tomorrow morning. I need to go by the funeral home and make arrangements, but I will come to the office first," Erica said.
After hanging up Erica sat numbly staring out the window. Her father had few remaining relatives, leaving her to handle everything. She dreaded the funeral and all the trappings that came with it. Her father was well known, having represented at least half the people in town in some kind of matter over the years, at least it seemed that way to her. There would be a large crowd at the funeral, both old clients and fellow lawyers. Once people realized Erica was in town she would be bombarded with sympathy calls and casseroles. It would take all of her will power to be civil to some of the more patronizing citizenry.
The chiming of the front doorbell startled her. She dreaded answering it, but finally forced herself to respond when the caller continued ringing the bell. To her surprise Jason Sterling was standing on the front porch. She and Jason grew up together and had remained friends through the years even though they often had different views of life. Jason worked in his father's bank in Plainton, basking in the camaraderie of small town life. Jason, who knew almost everyone in town by now, was affable and low-key, the opposite of Erica. When they got together these days Erica pointed out that he had become a full-fledged member of the old boys' club. She also pointed out that it was unlikely that club would admit any professional woman.
"Hey Speed. I saw your car in the driveway so I figured you must be here. I heard about your father this afternoon. I am sorry." Jason started calling her "Speed" in high school because she did her best to pass him in whatever they were doing. She was always more competitive than he was. While he enjoyed athletics, he had no special abilities and always played backup to the star players. Although he was now approaching middle age, he worked out to stay fit and was as trim as in his younger days. His auburn curly hair was always in need of grooming, but he worked hard to look business-like.
"Jason, you did not need to stop. I just got here a few minutes ago and I am still overwhelmed by it all. I can't deal with anyone right now."
"Well, I am not just anyone. Besides I want to help. I know you don't have any family in town. I always admired your father. Sometimes I got along with him better than my own father."
Erica sighed and allowed Jason into the house. He followed her into the living room where she slumped on the sofa
"Have you eaten anything today? I can get some take out," Jason offered.
"Still haven't learned to cook? I'm not hungry right now, although a bottle of wine sounds good."
"How about if I run out for pizza and wine? You can't drink without eating."
"Okay, if you want to do that. I certainly don't want to go out to eat tonight and I don't know if there is any food in the house. Why don’t you call ahead and pick up some wine on the way? I need to pick up around here and see if there is anything that needs dealt with immediately."