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.
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??”