By Tiffany Lawson Inman
There are SO many books out there telling writers what they need in the first few pages of a book. Well, of course they are.
The first few pages, scratch that, the first paragraph – the first line – the first 5 words of your novel are not only essential to getting someone to buy the book, they are essential in getting an agent, they are essential in your agent hooking an acquiring editor.
If these essential steps DON’T happen, then you don’t even have to worry about that lone reader standing in Barnes and Noble cracking your book open for a possible-buy-look-see, because it will only be your aunt Martha that has the pleasure of viewing your preciously broken prose.
Here’s what Noah Lukeman says in Part One of his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile:
Many writers spend the majority of their time devising their plot. What they don’t seem to understand is that if their execution—if their prose—isn’t up to par, their plot won’t even be considered.
Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines: instead we skip right to the actual manuscript.
Lukeman’s book is one of my all-time favorites. It is tabbed and highlighted almost as much as one of my old psych books. I read through The First Five Pages, yearly.
Directions for you:
- Take out a sticky note and tack it on to your laptop. “Prose up to par??”
- It should be right next to the sticky notes that say, “Who cares?” and, “Are your stakes high enough?”
So, how does a writer get those extra brownie points and gold stars from the agents and editors?
Voice seems to have been the theme of the last two weeks of my life. It first came up two weeks ago at RMFW’s Colorado Gold conference.
I had the pleasure of attending Nelson Literary agent, Sara Megibow’s presentation: Bang! Zoom! Pow! Those First 30 Pages: Why They Are So Important and How To Make Them POP!
Megibow had 4 or 5 things on her this-will-get-you-nixed list, and then she highlighted voice as the ONE and ONLY thing on her TO-DO list to keep her reading your manuscript. Voice. Effortless narrative balance. I believe she used the word organic in there somewhere.
I could see light bulbs flashing above half of the heads eagerly nodding in Ballroom B, hands furiously scribbling notes. But the other half were void of light bulbs. I didn’t understand. How could you not understand this concept? And then it clicked.
Voice is something that is defined differently in almost every “How-to” book.
So here’s what I did: I’ve gone back to my favorite books and looked at the first few pages to see what they did right. Here’s the first page from my most recent favorite: First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones.
“I’d been having the same dream for the past month—the one where a dark stranger materialized out of smoke and shadows to play doctor with me. I was starting to wonder if repetitive exposure to nightly hallucinations resulting in earth-shattering climaxes could have any long term side effects. Death via extreme pleasure was a serious concern. The prospect let to the following dilemma: Do I seek help or buy drinks all around?
This night was no exception. I was having a killer dream that featured a set of capable hands, a hot mouth, and a creative employment of lederhosen when two external forces tried to lure me out of it. I did my darnedest to resist, but they were fairly persistent external forces. First, a frosty chill crept up my ankle, the icy caress jolting me out of my red-hot dream. I shivered and kicked out, unwilling to acknowledge the summons, then tucked my leg into the thick folds of my Bugs Bunny comforter.
Second, a soft but persistent melody played in the periphery of my consciousness like a familiar song I couldn’t quite place. After a moment, I realized it was the cricketlike chime of my new phone.
With a heavy sigh, I pried open my eyes just enough to focus on the numbers glowing atop my nightstand. It was 4:34 A.M. What kind of sadist called another human being at 4:34 in the morning?
A throat cleared at the foot of my bed. I turned my attention to the dead guy standing there, then lowered my lids and asked in a gravelly voice, “Can you get that?”
I’m giggling right now. Aren’t you?
Darynda drew me in with her humor, charm, and surprises. Notice, there aren’t any speed bumps here. And if you were to continue on – there is seamless action, dialogue, and more fabulous surprises on each page.
How did she do it? She focused on the strengths and core of her character, and she didn’t let that out of her sight for a second.
I mentioned voice being a theme of the last two weeks. Here is a little voice nugget, I snagged a new Naked Editor client based on his voice, and voice alone – the day after the conference. I read the first paragraph of his manuscript and immediately opened a new email to ask for the rest. Yay!
My next (and biggest) interaction with voice was when I headed up the mountain to help my mom, Margie Lawson, with the writers in her 5 day Immersion Master Class. Always a treat to go up there and work with 6 highly committed writers. I know they are up there to learn and apply and get published. But the extra bonus for me is that I learn from them too. I learn from their struggle. It is almost like a giant magnifying glass materializes for me to easily find the fixes for their fiction.
This week in particular was interesting. Along with several other talented writers, I got to work with a historical romance, multi-pubbed author. Let’s call her Anna Marie. Anna Marie was on Day 4 of this Immersion class. She had added and subtracted and moved things around in her first chapter a few times, and a few more times and it was obvious she was at the brink of an overload. Her body language screamed STRESS!
Anna Marie took herself for a short hike on the mountain for fresh air. Didn’t help. Cup of tea. Didn’t help. She printed the chapter so she could look at clean pages; without all of the red lines and cross-outs. Didn’t help. My mom was in a one-on-one with another Immersion member, and suggested that I take Anna Marie into The Cozy Room and see if my Naked Editor brain could work some magic.
So I did. Her first 3 pages were jam packed with pretty back story and not much else. Then on page 4 I found the first hint of character and emotion. BINGO. That is where we need to start. Not a complete fix yet. I wanted to blow up that hint of character and emotion – blow it up and stretch it out.
So, I asked her questions:
- What does your character feel about this situation?
- What are her strengths?
- What kind of personality does she have?
- Is this the first time in her life she has felt like this?
Anna Marie’s hands were shaking. Anna Marie no longer had stress tears quivering in the corners of her eyes. Anna Marie was wide awake and ready to kick some butt!
She knew this was her way back in to loving her manuscript and selling it in the first chapter. The next morning after a late night of rewriting and reinventing, the 8 of us got to listen to the first few pages of her new manuscript. Goosebumps, high-fives, and WOOTs took over the breakfast table after she finished reading. It was awesome!!
After we had settled down, she explained that she went back and wrote about her character’s core strengths. She answered those questions I asked. And then she went back and painted her reader a picture full of character and emotion. A testament to why those character analyses really do help. 🙂
Anna Marie didn’t look like she wanted to toss her laptop off the mountain anymore. Why? Because she could finally feel her character’s voice.
What experiences do you have with Voice? Anyone want to share the first 3 lines of their favorite novel?
Anyone who comments on today’s Self-Editing post between now and midnight PST on 9/22 gets their name put into the pool to win a seat in the October class! Tiffany will draw out a lucky name, which will be announced in Friday’s post.
ANNOUNCEMENT: The results of the Dirty Fighting contest will be on next Tuesday’s blog. Especially with me being on vacation right now, the competition was just too fierce for Tiffany and I to make final decisions in the time we had available. Yes, that means you have to wait one more week to find out who the three finalists are.
JUDGE: Tiffany Lawson Inman – NakedEditor
Tiffany is none other than Margie Lawson’s daughter! I’m here to tell you she’s got just as much energy revving her jets as our beloved Margie. Maybe even a tiny bit more. For the naked truth about our esteemed contest judge, click here.
Tiffany will take the winning three entries and do an on-screen edit of how to give them even more punch. (We’re gonna have so much fun!) NakedEditor will be here on More Cowbell on September 27th to work her magic on the winning entries!
We’re gonna have a party More Cowbell style next week with this contest!
The GRAND PRIZE is:
Free 1st Five Page Edit or Free Registration for her class in October: http://bit.ly/TripleThreatBehindStagingA_Scene hosted by Lawson Writer’s Academy.
Want to take a class from Naked Editor? Tiffany is teaching an online class for all genres this October over at Lawson Writers Academy. It’s just 30 bucks for the whole month! And to one lucky person who leaves a comment – you get to take it for free! Looks tasty, here it is:
The Triple Threat Behind Staging A Scene – An Actor’s Take On Writing Physicality, Choreography, and Action. Action creates a rhythm allowing the reader to breathe in sync with your characters. Physicality has the ability to highlight personality, relationship, and motivation. Choreography, in a fight or love scene, can expose the intricacies of your ever moving story.
Follow Naked Editor to Writers In The Storm this Friday (September 23rd) where she’ll be performing a Dramatic Dissection of a NYT bestselling author. Follow her back here to More Cowbell NEXT week for the results of the Dirty Fighting contest on September 27th!!
Or check out Naked Editor’s blog. What writer doesn’t want to “get naked??”
Tiffany, thank you for talking about voice in a way I understand *light bulb goes off*. To me, it’s like playing the piano–there are players who have all the technical what-its, but their playing is dull, lifeless, and boring. Infuse some heart, soul, hmm, voice into it, and that performance will knock socks off.
Also, I really appreciate your talking about the prose. I err on the other side, of loving my prose too much (my blog is called “lapidary prose” for a good reason!), but some authors put too little attention on it.
Thank you, as I scurry back to my first page . . .
Interesting – I think I did just see you scurry off to your first page. The normal reaction for any writer, don’t worry.
I’m glad I got to twist that lightbulb into place for you Elizabeth!
It still probably didn’t happen for all who read the post, darn voice is just one of those things. So count yourself lucky!
Hey Tiffany! As someone who’s experienced your mom’s ME Class, and been fortunate enough to have you comment on my novel’s climax (at the restaurant where the moose looked down on us, remember? There’s nothing worse than being looked down on by a moose,) I’m very excited that you’ve gotten into the family business!
Can’t wait to see everyone’s favorite lines!
Laura – you are going to have to come back again. I am a two, sometimes three day addition to my mom’s class.
No, I don’t just make lasagne and do the dishes 😛
I am there as an extra set of editing eyes. While my mom is doing one-on-ones I am doing my own one-on-ones, scooting around to everyone a hand full of times, working with everything from one line to a whole chapter. I love it! I can absolutely tell why my mom is drawn to it.
Instant impact on a writer and their writing.
Jenny, I made it!
Fabulous post. Love the mountain. Tiffany, we did meet once, ever so briefly, at IMC last September. I remember Calypso’s ‘squirt’! And no, I don’t expect you to remember me.
It took a while to really find my voice, never mind my character’s. And then I had to build confidence in my voice. The journey, for me, was akin to how I learned to speak, voice my thoughts, express my emotions, verbally.
Those little nuances that convey who we are, how we feel, can be so subtle they are hard to pinpoint. And then one day, after chilly mountain mornings in Colorado and many more mornings, afternoons and late, late nights in my toasty home office outside Toronto, BAM, there it was.
Sometimes it is a slippery concept to grasp – especially if you are REALLY close to your writing. It’s a hard to make that first step backwards – but it has to happen.
It’s ok that it didn’t happen for you ON the MTN – concepts need absorbtion time and for the writer to go to it willingly. Forcing voice, not a good thing.
Ha! Do I remember Calypso’s squirt…. too funny. We’ve got to get some panties on that little lady. She’s just too happy!
I saw you make it here this morning and was so happy you got to get in on some Lawson Action. 🙂
I’m traveling through Missouri this week (more about that in a future post) and my internet connections have been dreadful.
Woot–wonderful blog on voice! I’ve been angsting (hey it’s a word!) over the first chapter for some time and finally cut it completely and started with the 3rd chapter. And…well, don’t know if it SINGS but it does howl. *s* Certainly voice can be subjective but unless it makes the author’s eyes sparkle and breath catch it’s do-over time.
Of course I’m not yet fully caffeinated so what the hell do I know? *s*
Angsting is TOTALLY a word. Wonderful! You now know what it is to cut free from a piece of your writing and still be in one piece – a better piece – the one that will probably sell! Kudos to you! I think everyone should look at their first and second chapter and figure out what is really happening and do we need it. More often than not (but not always) we are just warming up in those beginning chapters. So they are the ones that will need the most work, and possibly the most cutting.
I say keep the cuts in a file and go back to them on occasion – just to see if there is anything you need. Or to remind yourself that you have the strength to cut!!!
I’m sure that once you got some caffeine in you, you read this post again and scoped that chapter and it sang, danced and howled at the moon. 🙂
Tiffany, do you find that it’s harder for authors writing in 3rd person to develop their voice? I’ve written my first book in 3rd person (historical mystery), and it wasn’t until after I had finished the entire first draft and was revising my opening scene that I finally found that voice. But once I found it in the first scene, the rest of the revisions for voice fell into place, and became a real pleasure to revise.
Thanks, Jenny, for hosting the “Naked Editor”!
Yup. It’s harder. Sorry I can’t tell you any different. It is.
Become a master your tools and it becomes easier. Dialogue, world building, body language, action – and always be thinking about it from your characters view.
If you are describing the hustle and bustle Las Vegas from a successful gambler’s pov, it’s going to be much different from a lost tourist, or a girl who’s been forced to make-a-living off the strip since she was 13. All the way down to the description of the heat and sweat dripping into their eyes – those characters are going to view it 3 different ways – that is where your voice will come in.
Glad to hear you say “pleasure to revise” so many writers cringe at the process. I think it’s just another way to write.
It’s not a rewrite – it’s just writing. Like an oil painter going back over his work to add in details or change the direction of his dragons tail – it’s not repainting – it’s just painting 🙂
You are very welcome, Kathy!! Remember, I learn too. 🙂
Hi, Tiffany! BIG “I’m not good enough” dragon for me? (Yes, I’ve completed Margie’s DSDB.) Reading an AWESOME opener like Darynda’s. Yes, her voice is different from mine. Yes, intellectually I know I have a unique voice and write in a different genre, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking “Maybe I should…”
Can’t wait to get my first five across to you for the freebie five I won on another blog. But, ACK! You want a synopsis to get a sense for the story. I have a synopsis, but it requires major work since my protag didn’t like the ending. Fighting a bad case of Synopsophobia at the moment. What did your Psych books recommend for that?
I’ll also be interested in your response on 3rd person. I write in 3rd person with the exception of a YA (in queue for a rewrtie to middle-grade series). I found my protag’s voice became stilted in 3rd person, so I had to switch and let her speak for herself. It helped. The book didn’t sell, but I was marketing it as a YA Light Fantasy. SO not the write market for the protag’s voice.
Great POST! Thanks.
Get me that synopsis – I don’t care how dirty it is. I just need to know what is happening and what you want your reader to feel is happening. Thanks for reminding be about that btw – I should have gotten on your case a few weeks ago, eh? 🙂
Read the comment right above this one – she had the same issues with 3rd person – but then by the end of her manuscript was able to sense the voice and go back. In my reply to her I delve into how to how to wrangle 3rd person voice.
Hmmmm seeing the interest – I might have to add 3rd person voice and action to my class in October.
Okay. I’ll send first five in an email (yes, I know where to find you). I’m not going to tackle the synopsis, but my email will contain a plethora of Yebbitville caveats for changes I’ve made to the plotline since the dang thing was written. You have been warned!
The YA/MG is the one that tripped me up on character voice. I’ll let you decide if I “get it” when you see the first five of the Contempory Romance — oh! and in the LWA hallways in October.
Noticed my slip on “write” versus “right” in original post. Duh.
I wish you lived closer – I’d love to meet you in person!
God, I love your comments, Gloria! 🙂
Very interesting post, Tiffany. Voice is something I work hard on, and it’s a vital part of any book. I can ignore a so-so plot if I’m loving the character. That comes down to voice as well. Thanks for sharing.
I think The Glass Castle showed me that point exactly, I cared about the memoirs plot, a little bit, but it was her voice and how her character viewed all of those horrible things that were happening to her – not the horrible things themselves. If you haven’t read it – put it on your list. FANTASTIC example of voice.
Hello actor/editor/daughter Tiffany!
Your VOICE in your blog about VOICE is as unique and captivating as Darynda Jones’ voice in FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT. As the Aussie’s say, “Good ON you!”
Loved your blog!
Cheers to you and Jenny and Immersion Master Class grads Gloria, Sherry, and Laura!
As always, it’s lovely to see you here at More Cowbell. Cheers back!
Really great post, Tiffany! Thanks so much for the info. I’ve edited and re-edited my first couple of chapters and am finally getting the right voice down. The characters’ voices seem to come easily…it’s MY voice that’s a bit trickier ;p
Glad you stopped by! I try for a Tips N’ Tricks post on my blog every week, but it seems like I’ll be doing more guest blogging than my own blogging this month. I remember reading about voice in a book YEARS ago, and I didn’t get it. It was a whole bunch of flimsy lit speak and it didn’t hold my attention.
Focus on your POV character from the inside out – you are him/her. What kind of person are you? Use that info in every decision they make, word choice, who their best friend is and why, etc.
What a fantastic post! Thank you for using first grave. Your tips are priceless!
You know I have to go buy your books now, right? (Damn you lady…my TBR pile is SO HIGH!) That opener rocked and I must know more!! 🙂
Thanks for popping on here – and thank you for letting me use your writing – you make it look so easy! Arg. I keep meaning to get your email address from my busy busy busy mom so I can email you that short list of interview questions.
Hi Tiffany! So nice to “see you” again. We also met during one of Margie’s EMC dinners under the moose head – LOL (waving to fellow class mate, Laura). My story was the one that started with the mother at the cemetery.
Great blog on voice. I’ve been struggling a bit with that myself lately. I think what gives me troubles is the whole tell/show thing as it relates to voice. I’m writing in first person because I believe the story just comes across better that way, but because I am in first person I also worry that I’m telling more than I should, if that makes any sense. It’s easy for me to drop almost into a personal dialogue with the reader. At any rate, it’s great to have found you on this blog. I’m going over right now to check out some of your other posts!
OOOOOOOH I remember your story! Sadly – I remember more about your story than you. Hmmm maybe that’s a good thing for your story!!! You had great sense of voice in that piece!
Remember the “who cares” bit and hopefully you won’t be telling as much. Make sure your reader has to know that info – and think if there is another, more active way to share it.
There are great authors out there with a dialogue style working with their reader. Just make sure the story isn’t getting lost. There is such a thing as TOO much voice.
I can’t remember where you live – are you intown?
Yeay – glad you “found” me on here too! Lots of new stuff going on with me and Naked Editor right now – I am hoping to get a me blog and a guest blog out each week – so there is plenty of learnin for folks to do. And yes – ultimately I would love them ALL to take my classes and sign up for my editing services. We will see 🙂
Voice is something I struggle with. I think I get what it is but I’m not convinced I have one yet. Can voice change from character to character, book to book? I think that’s what puzzles me. Everyone talks about finding their voice but is it one voice or does it change depending on the character or book?
If it is the same character moving from book to book in a series,then it is the same voice. If it is different POV characters in the same book, or different books, then it is different voices.
Think about the attitude and tone you want to have running through your novel – is your POV character the best one to give you that? If, yes, then do an IN depth character study. How do you want your reader to see your world? Morph yourself into that character – pretend you are in a movie or on stage – think like that character – write like that character – see and experience the world through them.
I hope I answered your question – if not – I will be showing a lot of tips and tricks in my October class -a section on how to make your character organically move through a scene – and so so so much more!
I believe I’m understanding. Tone gives me a better idea of what we’re talking about. It could be humorous, smart alecky, monotone, serious, intense, or wacky. Etc. Have I got it right?
(I think Angela may be confused between the author’s voice and the character’s voice.)
For me, the character’s voice is his/her essence, who the character is. I think the way you described being on stage as a character is clear. A writer should become the character, as an actor becomes the character. Once we know WHO we want that character to be, we can then write to project that character’s voice. Very good post on a topic that can be difficult to master. Thanks, Tiffany! Jenny, good choice in guest posters while you’re away! 🙂
Thanks, Marcia! I think we all get blurry sometimes between author and character voice. That’s always the rub.
Voice isn’t that hard…I think. If you tell the story the way you wanted it to be told, without worrying about the structure and stuff, the voice would come out.
My favorite novel’s first three lines: Four score and seven years ago… oops! That’s not a novel.
“My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue.” Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.=> the actual one. 🙂
Ahhh you must be a natural – if all writers could be so lucky!
Tiffany, this is one of the best explanations of voice that I’ve read. My current WIP is told from the POV of two different characters, and with each revision, I’ve been excavating each character’s “essence” (to use Marcia’s word, which I love) a bit more.
Adding this post to my list of awesome writing tips!
Yes – the essence! Great word.
Wonderful to hear you liked the post! Keep coming back to NakedEditor- I will have more :))
I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m so happy you came over and commented! I love the “essence” comment too. 🙂
Great post Tiffany!
I feel a bit funny commenting on voice when I don’t have a book or even a WIP yet – but Jenny encouraged me to do so – tks Jenny :-). I have to say in reading all these author blogs week after week, and posts like this one, I haven’t been this excited to sit down and finally start a WIP in years. I feel like I have a support group and am building a foundation of knowledge that will really help me as I move forward.
I think I get the idea of “voice” when I think about how it applies to my own blog. It took me about a year to really feel like I finally found my “blog voice”! Who and what I wanted to be and sound like on my blog. It’s likely close to my own voice but it’s a bit more peppy, cheeky and sarcastic and I love it! She’s probably the cheerleader version of myself. LOL. Honestly, I can’t wait to meet and discover my characters and their own voices.
I loved Marcia’s comment “writer should become the character, as an actor becomes the character.” Combined with your post, the lights came on! BAM! I get it.
Thank you for taking the time to share your wealth of knowledge and experience…and thanks to Jenny for hosting!
Yup – I can’t help but to think like an actor or director when I am writing and editing – I would like to thank all of my acting professors in Chicago for those gems. Seriously I think that ALL writers should get involved in an acting class or two, maybe even a scene study class – you will learn to see your writing and your characters in a much more personal and active way.
I wrote this to Angela in a previous comment above – Think about the attitude and tone you want to have running through your novel – is your POV character the best one to give you that? If, yes, then do an IN depth character study. How do you want your reader to see your world? Morph yourself into that character – pretend you are in a movie or on stage – think like that character – write like that character – see and experience the world through them.
LOL – cheerleader version of yourself! Now I’m going to pop over to your blog to check this out. I love sassy ladies :))
That is a fantastic suggestion – about acting classes – and makes such great sense.
I may be green, but what do you mean by POV character and being the best to give it? Who or what else would give it? See…GREEN!! 🙂
I can’t wait to MORPH myself into my characters. Ahhhh…a little escape…LOL!!
SWEET…I hope you enjoy your visit!! 🙂
I can actually answer this one. Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave a wonderful talk at my writing chapter a while back and said something I’ll never forget. She said the point of view should be the person with the most to lose in that scene. It will go this way throughout your entire book. Tiffany might have a different nugget, but that’s the one that has served me the best.
Rah-rah…*shaking pom-poms for Natalie!!!* I’m so glad you came back and commented. I’m gonna laugh if you get picked. 🙂
I totally love pom-poms…and tiaras!! LOL!!
I know…I’m going to die if I get picked but what the hell – what better way to start out than with the best! 🙂
Best of luck to everyone in the draw!!
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This is wonderful! I’ve been thinking I had my heroine’s voice/character down — but when I read those 4 questions I realized where I need some (or a lot) of work. This makes things so clear. Thank you Tiffany (love your mom too).
Before you go rewriting EVERYTHING. See what level your voice is at. Try it out on someone. Hand them the first page or two of your manuscript and have them tell you what they have learned about your characters so far – or what they want to know that isn’t there. Also ask them how they feel after reading – I know I know a little too patient on the couch type junk, but it really does help to know what kind of mood they feel when your work is read. Right on! I love my mom too! 🙂
I’ll try that. Mood is very important, Thanks.
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