by Ray Rhamey
Writers, send your prologue/first chapter to FtQ for a “flogging” critique. Email as an attachment.
Many of the folks who utilize BookBub are self-published, and because we hear over and over the need for self-published authors to have their work edited, it’s educational to take a hard look at their first pages. A poll follows concerning the need for an editor.
When you evaluate today’s opening page, consider how well it uses elements from the 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.
Next are the first 17 lines of the prologue of Shadows in the Water. Would you read on? The first 17 lines of Chapter 1 follow. How does it perform? Should this author have hired an editor?
No, no, no.” Her daughter’s hand shot out and seized Courtney’s slacks. “Don’t leave me.”
“Jesus Christ.” She tugged her pants from Louie’s dripping grip and shoved her back into the tub by her shoulders. “What is it with you and water? It isn’t going to kill you. You won’t drown! And I have to finish dinner before your father gets home.”
Louie’s chest collapsed with sobs. “Please. Please don’t go.”
“Stop crying. You’re too old to be crying like this.”
Louie recoiled like a kicked dog, her body hunching into a C-curve.
God almighty, Courtney thought as shame flooded her. What am I supposed to do with her?
The illogical nature of your daughter’s fear doesn’t negate the fact her fear is very real, the therapist had said. Dr. Loveless must have repeated this a hundred times, but it didn’t make these episodes any easier. The fat-knuckled know-it-all had never been present for bath time.
Most ten-year-old girls could bathe on their own. No handholding. No hysterics. No goddamn therapy sessions once a week. And somehow this was supposed to be her fault? Why exactly? Because she’d gotten pregnant at eighteen?
No. She did everything right. She married Jack, despite her reservations. He was too (snip)
Lou unfolded the tourist map and eyed a man over the rim of the creased paper. A boxy man with a crooked nose and a single bushy brow stood on the harbor dock, smoking a cigarette. He draped an arm around a woman’s shoulder while he joked with another guy twice his size, a hairy bear as wide as he was tall. The woman was a little more than a caricature to Lou. Big hair and a big mouth, made bigger by the annoying smack of bubblegum between her magenta lips. Her clothes were too tight in some places and nonexistent in others. A Jersey girl, Aunt Lucy would’ve called her.
Lou scowled at the tourist map, pretending to read about the seaport’s attractions, and wondered if the girl under Angelo Martinelli’s arm would feel half as cozy if she knew what a monster he was.
If Bubblegum Barbie was observant, she might have noticed Martinelli’s penchant for leather, Dunhill cigarettes, and pointy shoes. Maybe Barbie even suspected the Martinelli family was responsible for fueling the heroin problem in Baltimore. Hell, she probably tolerated this aftershave-soaked prick for the heroin.
Whatever Barbie thought she knew of the Italian draped over her, Lou knew a hell of a lot more.
She should. She’d been hunting Angelo since she was fourteen.
You can turn the page and read more here. Did this writer need an editor? My notes and a poll follow.
This thriller earned 4.8 stars on Amazon. I thought it would be interesting in contrasting the openings of the prologue and the first chapter, partly because prologues often don’t work. One thing that does work is the writing—it’s nicely professional, nothing to pick at there.
Some good things about the prologue: it’s a strong scene, and conflict is right there. Story questions are raised—why is the child so terrified? What will the mother do? A not-so-good thing about the prologue: the mother seems to be a terrible person, and we’re in her point of view. Personally, I didn’t want to spend any more time in her company, especially after the narrative leaves what’s happening to detour into backstory.
The first chapter also starts up with an immediate scene, a good thing. The character isn’t cuddly—in fact, she’s a bit on the harsh side. But she is up to something. And then the author lands a strong hook right in the last line of the page—she’s been hunting the monster since she was a child. Now that raises some story questions. For me, this book would be better served by starting with the first chapter.
On the other hand, if you do read the prologue, it becomes very dramatic and does give you some amazing background on the girl, Lou, that does impact your understanding of what’s going on in chapter 1. Perhaps the best course would be to start the prologue much later, when the girl disappears and the mother reacts the way you’d want her to. The end of the prologue was compelling, but will readers get there? What do you think?
So, should this writer have hired an editor?
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 GundownFree ebooks.