Submissions Welcome. 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 engaging the reader with the character
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- The character desires something.
- The character 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.
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.
Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.
Mary sends the first chapter of women’s fiction, Ten Years Between. The remainder is after the break.
Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.
It was 1:45 that afternoon when the call came in - just fifteen minutes before the end of their shift. It was the call that started the whole awful thing in motion, and it took me months to piece it all together… to find out the exact details of that horrible day. And after I did, of course, I wish I didn’t know.
“Attention officers in the vicinity of the riverfront, please be advised, 10-16 at 743 Wicker Street.”
“Hi Lily,” Charlie Keppler responded through the cop radio. “I’m a few blocks away. I’ll take it.”
“Copy that, 512. Car 500, are you available for backup?”
“10-4, this is car 500,” said Scott Zan, the only other officer patrolling the city that day, “on my way.”
The dispatcher settled back in her chair. 10-16 was a standard call - domestic violence - and it was as usual of an occurrence as any if you were a cop in Blue Tide, Michigan.
Officer Keppler pulled in front of the house on Wicker Street first, closely followed by Officer Zan. Charlie Keppler knew the neighborhood well. He had been called to Wicker Street many years ago for an entirely different reason – an older woman named Margaret White had asked for help to banish the alien intruders in her TV. He smiled a bit when he thought of her and (snip)
There are virtues to this opening, primarily the voice and writing. But how does it do in raising story questions? And clarity? The first-person opening tries to foreshadow dire happenings ahead and hopes to get us to wonder what made it a horrible day.
But then it shifts into third-person omniscient point of view, and I spent several paragraphs wondering if officer Keppler was the pov person, and it turns out that he really isn’t, otherwise the narrative would continue in first person. So we’re left wondering who the narrator is and what he/she has to do with the story. For me, those are not story questions but “information” questions that withhold information from the reader. So the opening produced a clarity issue and information questions.
The narrative then goes to lots of cop talk on the radio, which, while it lends authenticity, it also isn’t story as it needs to be translated for the reader to understand what a “10-16” is. Those paragraphs don’t contribute to tension-building.
So I’ve cobbled together an alternative opening from this text and that which follows, editing out parts to try to make the first page more compelling.
Officer Keppler pulled in front of the house on Wicker Street first, closely followed by Officer Zan. As the officers exited their patrol cars, a teenage girl - gangly and dirty and no older than fourteen - flew down the stairs of the house.
“You gotta help me,” she begged, swiping her lanky yellow hair behind her ears. The girl was dressed in cut-off shorts and a filthy tank top. She was too skinny and her teeth were crowded in her mouth, discolored and crooked.
“What’s the problem, miss?” Officer Keppler asked.
“Those two Laird brothers on my case. I use ta like Bernie but he got too mean so now I wit Ted and Bernie pissed. They fightin’ all morning, grabbin’ at me, punchin’ each other.”
“Have they hurt you?”
“Bernie try to make me go to his house and he grab me and I hollered and he said to shut the fuck up. And then Ted come in and slap me and then he start beatin’ on Bernie.”
“Where are they now?”
She pointed across the street at a single-story, white clapboard house with peeling paint.
“Bernie in there. Dunno where Ted at. This,” she swept her hand behind her, “is Ted’ house.”
“Ok, why don’t you go back in and we’ll go pay Bernie a visit?” Charlie Keppler told (snip)
What do you think?
As it turns out, this chapter is pretty much all setup and doesn’t involved the protagonist/storyteller at all in terms of what happens in the narrative. I think the story needs to start later, at the point something happens to the protagonist to compel her to act and whatever is needed of the horrible day should be woven in then.
I know it seems that what happens here is an inciting incident, but an inciting incident needs to directly affect the protagonist’s life in a way that makes her act. In a sense, the aftermath of this horrible day becomes a part of the protagonist’s life-as-it-is and may not be the inciting incident.
Good writing and the scene flows nicely, but I’d like to start later and see what happens to the narrator, not other folks. The rest of the original chapter follows.
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 Mary