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--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)
Michael sends the first chapter for The Stem of the Golden Dandelion.
Prohibition laws, passed by the 18th Amendment in 1919, spawned a new breed of businessman. Rumrunners, moonshiners, and speak-easy’s proliferated all across the United States. By 1922, these new-minted entrepreneurs had honed their skills to a high degree. Fueled by the overwhelming demand for alcoholic spirits and other banned luxuries, the Roaring Twenties provided a lucrative market for smuggled goods. Especially successful, because of their proximity to the waters of the South Atlantic coast, local Florida East Coast commercial fishermen packed up their nets and began hauling contraband goods. Aged Puerto Rican rum and fine Cuban cigars headed the list of the most profitable contraband.
Not wanting to miss the easy money, Harry McCorkle and family quit fishing for a living and began smuggling. The McCorkle family lived on the western shore of the Indian River Lagoon, somewhere between present day Daytona Beach and Cape Kennedy.
Learning their newfound craft by doing, Harry and his brother-in-law, Bob, made the three plus mile run out to the waiting mother ship as many times as necessary to fill the demands of customers begging for their goods. No two runs went exactly as planned.
Tonight the seas frothed and churned. The strong offshore wind blew sheets of spray off white-topped waves. The moon shone on the other side of the world this week. McCorkle’s twenty-foot wooden skiff plowed toward the inlet guided by the beacon of the Ponce de Leon (snip)
It’s always good to see clean writing (although the plural of “speakeasy” is “speakeasies,” not “speakeasy’s,” which is possessive), but it’s not so good to start with an info dump. There is drama and action later, but in this opening not a hint of trouble ahead. That could have been helped if the possibility of something that happens later, an attack by “river rat” pirates with machine guns, had been included, perhaps in the line about no two runs going as planned. But, even with that, this is just about all backstory and all telling. That foreshadows an information-heavy style from an authorial point of view, and that wasn’t compelling for me. A story with action and thrills needs to be heavy on scenes in which something happens. The rest of the chapter is after the break. See what 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.
Flogging the Quill © 2014 Ray Rhamey, story © 2014 Michael
(continued) Lighthouse. The four cylinder inboard engine labored to keep the over-loaded boat moving forward against the wind. Two men sat in silence, one at the stern, steering, the other near the bow, searching the ocean for the ever present Coast Guard Cutter. Crouching behind her Uncle Bob, Marilyn McCorkle shielded her face from the relentless salt spray. No running lights glowed on the bow or the stern to alert the ever-vigilant Coasties. They were running dark.
At age sixteen, this would be the first trip out to the mother ship for Marilyn. For several years, she begged her father, the man hunched at the bow of the rickety wooden skiff, to let her go with him to buy the rum. This time he said yes. She was so excited she forgot how easily she became seasick.
Now she huddled behind the crates of Puerto Rican rum, hanging onto the gunwale. Even though the wooden boxes towered above her, she still got a good dose of salty spray as the boat slammed into every wave.
The mother ship they had just visited cruised miles offshore. Even though the trip out and back was short, it nevertheless made Marilyn miserable. The putrid puddle spread under her feet every time she vomited. The one time she retched over the side her stomach contents flew back into her face. She decided to vomit onto the bottom of the boat as the safer alternative.
A very faint glow from the moonless sky outlined the entrance to Ponce Inlet. Here began the most dangerous leg of the journey. Near the mouth of the inlet, the Coast Guard often lurked in the darkness. Inside the inlet, along the sandy shore, sheriff’s deputies stood with their huge binoculars, waiting to signal their comrades in speedboats hidden behind mangrove trees. Like voracious spiders waiting to pounce on hapless bugs, Coasties and deputies waited night after night to dine on the contraband smugglers. Sometimes they feasted; sometimes they starved. The war raged on, but night after night, someone always won the skirmish.
Enforcers of the law posed only the first of the hazards of running rum. Mother Nature also played her dangerous games. The shifting sandbars in the inlet tested the most skilled and knowledgeable runner. Sandbars shifted with the tide and moved from side to side in the cut. Only the breaking waves of an ebbing tide revealed their presence. To misread the tide or the waves, meant the runners went hard aground. A falling tide and shifting sandbars could doom the boat and its precious cargo. A rising tide might or might not rectify the navigation error.
The smugglers’ wooden skiff slowed at the entrance to the inlet. The motor ceased its relentless straining and dialed down to a softened growl. Bob kept just enough throttle on the engine to move the boat stealthily forward against the ebbing tide. At the bow, Marilyn’s father, the man with the best knowledge of the cut, signaled with his arms, right, or left, depending on the hazardous sandbars ahead.
Once passed the dangers of the inlet, with no interference by the local constabulary, Harry signaled a hard left turn. The heavily laden boat leaned into the turn. Bob applied more gas to the engine as the skiff struggled against the rushing tide.
Now that the rum boat made it through the inlet, the tactics of the smugglers changed. Having run the gauntlet of the law-enforcement vultures and the hazardous sandbars, the long run down the river’s no man’s land began. From now to the time they unloaded their contraband cargo; the rumrunners were vulnerable to attack by bands of waterborne thieves. River rats preyed on rumrunners seeking to acquire contraband without having to risk the long run out into the Atlantic. They let the runners gamble on the chance of finding the mother ship offshore. They let them load a rickety wooden skiff with boxes of fine Puerto Rican rum, or hand-rolled cigars from Cuba, letting them run the tricky Ponce de Leon Inlet. They harvested the bounty once the runners ran into their territory.
Using racing speedboats, self-made pirates preyed on the slower, fully laden rum skiffs. They pounced from hiding places anywhere along the long and twisting Indian River. Attacking with guns blazing, the speeding boats overtook the heavily laden rum boats. Armed thugs murdered anyone still alive, threw their bodies overboard, and fled with the booty back to their hideouts.
Taking no chances and needing to protect his precious cargo, Marilyn’s father reached under an oily tarp and retrieved a double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun. He popped it open, and by feel, loaded it. He placed the half-empty box of double-00 buck shells on the seat next to him. Moonless nights were best for sneaking through the inlet, not so good for spotting river pirates hiding around every bend.
If lady-luck smiled on the runners that night, they would make it unmolested through the Mosquito Lagoon deep into the heart of the Indian River. Countless tributaries, sloughs, creeks and islands, required that the navigator have long-time, firsthand experience for this part of the journey.
As the wooden skiff straightened its path and headed south, a new and different engine sound alerted Marilyn. She snapped her head hard to the right. Instantly she recognized the deep throaty roar of a high-powered speedboat even before she could pick it out in the darkness. The first visual hint of its presence was the telltale shine of the huge wake glowing in the faint light of the stars.
The low slung, v-shaped boat came directly at them, bursting out of its hiding place. Standing in the bow, two men wielding Browning automatic rifles, opened fire on the plodding skiff. Huge bullets crashed into the cases of rum above Marilyn’s head. Rum spilled out of every puncture. Wooden splinters filled the air. Marilyn flattened herself against the floorboards, covering her head with her hands; face down in the ejected fruits of her bouts with the seasickness.
In the bow, her father crouched low against the gunwale and pointed his lethal weapon at the approaching boat. He waited, with a patience born of years of experience, until the target was within range of his deadly shotgun. Exactly at the right time, he opened fire with both barrels, aiming at the two men shooting from the bow of the attacking boat. Sixteen murderous pellets, each the size of a .22 bullet erupted from the twin barrels at once. Six or seven found their mark and both gunmen fell to the deck. Marilyn’s father reloaded quickly stood up and fired another volley towards the center of the boat, hoping to wound or kill the driver.
Screams of agony confirmed a hit and the speeding boat swerved sharply to the right, heading away from the rumrunner’s skiff.
Marilyn, shaking like never before, sobbed in fear as Bob pushed the throttle stick full forward, forcing the straining engine to give all it had. The skiff responded and plowed ahead. To run at high speed through the mangroves lining the river was asking for trouble, but they had to run hard and fast to put distance between themselves and the pirates if they hoped to deliver what was left of their rum.
When it became apparent no boat followed them, Uncle Bob eased off the throttle.
“Marilyn, you okay? You been hit?” He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. He felt her body shaking. “Have you been hit?” he said slowly and clearly.
“No,” she squeaked back to him. “I’m okay.”
“We’re okay back here, Harry,” shouted Uncle Bob. “But we’ve got rum leaking all over the place. There’s glass and splinters everywhere. You okay?”
“Yeah, bum shots those guys. Even they got us, their boss’ed be mad them shooting up all that rum,” replied Harry. “Run slow and we’ll put ashore soons we spot a beach.”
Bob angled the skiff towards the western shore of the river, while Harry strained his eyes in the pitch-black darkness to spot a strip of dry land.
After a few agonizing miles Harry called out, “Land ahead Bob, on the right. Slow it down.”
Bob pulled the throttle to dead idle and eased along until he spotted the small spit of land protruding into the water. He wanted to beach the boat bow in. The stern had to stay in water deep enough for the motor to operate. Pulling the tiller handle hard right pointed the bow in a soft arc towards the shore. The boat ground to a halt on the sandy bottom.
Marilyn stood up, hanging onto the crates in front of her. Her legs were cramped and half-asleep from sitting so long. She watched as Uncle Bob jumped out into waist-deep water and waded ashore. Harry stood in the bow, hands on hips, trying to see the damages caused by the pirates. “Marilyn, are you okay?” he said.
“Yes Daddy. I’m a bit weak just now. From fright mostly, some by the seasickness. I stink a lot ‘cause of rum spilled on me. Can I get in the water?” She didn’t want to tell him she wet her underwear when the shooting began.
“Go ahead; mind the depth when you go over. Hang onto the side ‘til you find bottom,” he advised.
The warm summer water covered Marilyn up to her chest and flowed up under her light cotton dress. Before she moved to the beach, she bent her knees and spread her legs, so the cleansing water reached her underwear. She bobbed up and down, using the boat for balance, until she felt clean again.
Harry lit a kerosene lantern and placed it low in the boat so it wouldn’t give them away to any passing river traffic. By its meager light, Harry surveyed the damages to his costly cargo.
Marilyn waded ashore and pitched in handling the crates of rum as they passed to her from Uncle Bob. Each un-damaged crate of twenty bottles weighed close to forty pounds. Despite her age, Marilyn was used to handling heavy loads around the fish house and developed strong arms. She moved the crates with ease. Each crate came with either a “good” or a “shot” label applied verbally by Uncle Bob. Good boxes went on the left stack; shot ones on the right. The “shot” rum spilled its stinky liquid on Marilyn every time she lifted one of the bullet-riddled cases.
“Daddy, rum stinks. Mamma gonna be sore at me if I smell of it gettin’ home.”
“You can wash agin’ ‘for you git back in,” said her daddy. “Don’t worry none ‘bout it right now. Gotta get this here mess cleaned up ‘for somebody eyes us.”
Sorting and repackaging the crates took the trio close to an hour to finish. They carried smashed bottles and useless, bullet-riddled boxes back through the scrub and hid them out of sight. Re-packed crates numbered only twenty-five, some with minor damage.
“Damn, this pisses me off,” said Harry as he loaded the last box back onto his boat. “We lost a ton of money ‘cause of dem bums. Lucky none o’ us got shot. Marilyn git back in the water and get that rum off ya afore we go on. Hurry though, we’re running late. Those boys from Orlando ain’t gonna linger for us too long.”
Soaking wet from neck to toe, Marilyn clambered back aboard. Uncle Bob pushed a button to crank the engine. Harry pushed the bow off the rocky shore as the boat swung back into the river channel.
“We’ve got at least hour more to the drop off,” Harry said. “You’re gonna hafta hot-foot it to git there on time. We’ll have to cart Marilyn ‘long with us. We won’t have time to take her home first.”
“Okay, Harry, but those bums are a bit rough. Think they’ll wanta bother Marilyn? You know…?”
“Don’t even speak it. Keep Marilyn out of sight as best we can. Mebbe they won’t spot her if we keep the light away. I’ll throw the tarp over her when we get near.”
To pass time to the off-loading rendezvous Marilyn bailed the rum and salt water out of the boat.
“How far to go Uncle?” she asked every so often.
“Not far now. ‘Member to stay hidden under that tarp when we get there. No tellin’ what those boys might be thinkin’ ‘bout bothering ya.”
Marilyn knew exactly what her uncle meant. Boys “bothered” her constantly. When formed by the fusion of egg and sperm in her mama’s womb, Mother Nature, having to decide to create Marilyn as a Miss America or not, drew her hand to an inside straight. Mother Nature held a Ten, Jack, King, and Ace. All she needed to create the perfect woman out of the embryo that was destined to become Marilyn was a Queen. She drew a Seven. Now, Mother Nature had a choice to make; put her high cards in Marilyn’s face, or in her body. She chose the body.
So, Marilyn, at twelve, began the early blooming into a perfect body. The boys at school sure took notice right away. Asking her mother why, she received advice that kept her unblemished by the males in her life. By age sixteen, Marilyn had been propositioned so many times, she lost count. Tonight might not be different. She would be on guard and wait the perfect moment to deliver the well-placed kick or fist to the spot that incapacitated any male, old or young who dared to touch her. It was her mother’s instructions for a no-fail method to keep them off her.
Marilyn’s father chose a very remote off-loading place, far down the river, away from Port Orange or Daytona Beach. Normally, they would have unloaded the skiff around Buzzard’s Bay close to US 1, but lately the ATF and the revenue agents were targeting that area for extra vigilance. This decision posed a certain amount of risk for Harry and his load of rum. Due to the remoteness of the river this far away from Port Orange, the mob boys could hijack the entire load without paying and worse yet; kill Harry, Bob, and Marilyn. Nobody would be the wiser. No Volusia County deputies patrolled this far south.
Bob steered the skiff farther and farther away from civilization deep into the Mosquito Lagoon. They wound their way through narrow channels into the broader expanses of the Lagoon until somewhere, sequestered among the mangroves and oyster beds, hidden from the main channel by treacherous twists and turns, the runners found their off –loading point.
Two kerosene lanterns glowing behind red cellophane panels indicated the landing spot. Bob turned the skiff shoreward and aimed the bow between the lanterns. Marilyn pulled the oiled tarp over her and scooted down as low as she could between the seat bench and the stern.
The bow skidded across the oyster-covered bar onto dry land. Three men, two holding the lanterns and one cradling a Thompson sub-machine gun in his arms, greeted Harry.
“You’re late. What kept you so long? You think we got nothing to do but to wait on you?” said the man with the gun.
“Sorry, Mac,” said Harry. “We ran into a boat load of river rats with machine guns. Lucky we got away. Busted up fifteen crates, they did, afore I put them out o’ comish. Load’ll be a bit short this time. We can make another run tomorrow night. No moon ‘til Friday. Winds’ll lay down, too. It won’t be as tough a run as it was tonight. You bring the cash wit ya?”
“Yeah, we got your cash,” said Mac. “Quit your yammering and get it unloaded. I’m nervous hanging around this godforsaken river. We ain’t seen another human for hours. Besides that, the mosquitoes are blood thirsty as hell tonight.”
“That be the whole idea coming this far down. Too many G-men up near Port Orange and the inlet,” said Harry.
Harry, Bob, and the other men made short work of moving the rum from the skiff to the pick-up truck backed in just off the road.
“Okay, that’s it,” said Harry. “Pay me for the twenty five; we’ll bring another load ‘morrow, if you want it. How many cases do you want, fifteen?”
“Harry, it really pisses me off we got to come back tomorrow,” said Mac, twirling his machinegun like a cheerleader’s baton. “It’s just as risky for us to ride down the highway as for you to run it in. So don’t think you’re doing me any favors, you hear? I don’t think we’re getting’ enough for our money anyway. You sure you’re not holding out on us?”
“Huh? No, sirree. Just pay for the twenty-five, and we’ll bring the other fifteen tomorrow night, okay?” Harry detected a growing bit of animosity in Mac’s words. Bob noticed it too and jumped back on the skiff.
“Hey, you, where you think you’re going? We’re not done here yet. I wanna see if you’re hiding anything in that tub I might be interested in. I see a tarp covering something back there. Pignolli,” Mac, the Tommy-gun man, said to his henchman. “Get back there and see what’s under that tarp. You two, stay where you’re at.”
Pignolli hopped aboard the skiff and clambered to the stern. Standing in front of the last bench seat, he reached for the tarp, intending to yank it off whatever it covered. Magically the tarp leaped up on its own. The sudden movement caught Pignolli off guard. A hideous screeching came from within. Pignolli stumbled back a couple of feet, just in case whatever was under the tarp decided to attack him.
The sudden appearance of such a strange and terrifying apparition startled Mac. In the split second he took to decide whether or not to mow down whatever horror existed beneath the tarp, Harry pounced and wrestled the gun out of his hands.
The third man turned tail and ran back past the truck.
Bob grabbed Harry’s double-barrel shotgun and covered Pignolli.
The screeching from under the tarp got louder as the apparition climbed up on the rear bench seat. Marilyn towered above Pignolli, standing frozen in fear on the lowest part of the deck. Waving her arms in all directions added to the appearance of something ghostly. Marilyn tried to get the heavy tarp off her. She kept yelling, her words muffled by the thickness of the canvas.
“Marilyn, stop that screeching,” commanded her father. “What’s the matter with you?”
Marilyn finally peeked out from under the tarp. “I felt a scorpion or something crawling up my leg. I didn’t want to get stung. Maybe it was a big spider.”
She shucked the rest of the tarp off her shoulders and threw it at the stern.
“Marilyn,” said Harry, “you’re not afraid of scorpions or spiders. What was all that yelling about?”
“You got these bums covered?” asked Marilyn. “I heard one tell the other to pull the tarp off me. The way they ordered you and Uncle Bob around, I could tell they had the drop on you. So, I had to do something. Looks like it worked, huh?”
“Good thinking, Marilyn,” said Bob. “Looks like nobody’s gonna be hittin’ on you.”
“Okay, Mac,” said Harry, “now, you know what was under that tarp. Next time don’t get so nosy about our business. We’re bringing in the rum you want, wherever you want. Let’s leave it at that. Next trip I won’t have to hide Marilyn, and you’ll know not to mess with her. Deal?”
“Yeah, gimme my Thompson back,” said Mac. “Come on Pignolli, go find Jones. We got a long ride tonight.”
Harry pulled the clip out of the machine gun, ejected the round in the chamber, and handed it all back to Mac.
“We’ll be here tomorrow night with at least fifteen cases of rum. You intend to be here, or should I contact someone else for the goods?” said Harry.
“We’ll be here. Just be on time this time,” said Mac.
“You got it. Come on Bob let’s get this tub afloat and head on home.”
Marilyn sat down and waved good-bye to her newfound friends with her middle finger.
“Next time I go with you Daddy, I want my own gun.”