First Page Critique – The Truth About Morality

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

For your reading enjoyment we have “The Truth About Morality” submitted anonymously for critique of the first 400 words or so. My feedback to follow. Join me with your constructive criticism in comments.

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

Tony Webster-Wikimedia Commons

My face, well rested and laminated in a childlike innocence, looked the same as before. When I opened my lips to a smile, smooth skin stretched itself around white teeth, eyes bright and honest.

Nothing there, I told myself.

And still, my face from this day on would hide a murder.

A righteous murder some might argue, others would disagree. Alvin would say that the act had been neither right nor wrong. Morality nothing more than a construction we implement on ourselves.

The innocence of the spontaneous wasn’ a possible justification. Neither had I been forced. On the contrary, there had been many instances when I could have told them I didn’ want us to follow through with the plan.

I knew I had acted voluntarily. Despite this the feeling that advanced on me was one of dread.

I went to Livia and Alvin’ part of the apartment. Even though there were plenty of rooms to choose from they had their bedrooms next to each other. I started with Livia’ room. I wanted to understand them. Because it suddenly seemed that I, even with my feverish studies of the two of them, had overlooked one aspect. I just didn’ know what it was that I had missed.

The room had Livia’ scent of expensive perfume and nonchalance. I started lifting things and when that wasn’ enough I opened a drawer and then another one. I was careful. Livia’ room wasn’ neat but there were aspects of it that looked orderly, magazines sorted by month, philosophy books opened on a special page. I pushed aside the doors of the cabinet and found Livia’ clothes. Jeans were separated from pants, she had a section for t-shirts and one for the oversized cashmeres sweaters she favoured. The shades shifted from white to black, with plenty of blue and grey nuances in between, the colours of a sky minutes before the storm.

The search that had started out almost by accident turned meticulous. I crawled under the iron framed bed, swept my fingers alongside the outdated bottom of steel springs, trailed the blackened legs.

I rose, elongated shadows sliced the room. Everything was still, the world locked in a devotional silence. But inside me an alarm kept ringing, high pitched and toneless. I knocked on the walls, trying to pick up a hollow sounding note. When I didn’ find anything I moved over to Alvin’ room.

FEEDBACK

Although I liked some of the turns of phrases in this piece and found the character’s internal thoughts were interesting, I wanted more. The author left me wondering what this person (not sure of gender) is searching for after they presumably killed someone. From this intro, we do not know where this murder took place or when. I expected the body to be there, but that was never expressed. I had to read this a few times to search for something I had missed. It would appear the murder was committed by an “us” as well. Although the mystery left me curious to learn more, the writing needs work to anchor the character more realistically and keep the reader turning the pages. Here are some suggestions:

WHERE TO START – The entire intro takes place in the character’s head with only minimal action of him or her searching a room. I wanted there to be more. I had more curiosity about the killing, rather than a search of a room for a person I don’t care much about. The writing doesn’t make me empathetic for this person, even if the murder had been “righteous.” This reads as if it’s from a later scene, as if I’m starting after something important happened that’s not part of the story.

I’m assuming the character is looking in a mirror or reflective glass to see their face as the story opens. I’m not a fan of the ploy of describing the character’s appearance as they look in a mirror–because it’s so cliche–but if the author wants to keep that part, they should establish there is a mirror, otherwise the point of view is off since a character can’t see himself otherwise.

GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO DO – As a suggestion for this intro, I would recommend you give the character something more to do and focus on. Add tension. They could watch a spiraling stream of crimson against a white porcelain sink as blood drains off their shaking hands as they desperately wash the skin until it is raw. When they look into the mirror, what do they see? The notion of a murder could be only a tease that is not explained until later.

SENSE OF URGENCY – For someone who has killed another human being (presuming the death occurred recently), there does not appear to be any urgency to the character’s actions. Their search of Livia’s room is methodical and not rushed. I’d like to see more emotion in this intro, given that a death has occurred. When the character knocks on the walls for a hollow sound, are they concerned they’ll be heard?

ADD DEPTH TO THE CHARACTER’S POV – Have the character react to the neatly stacked magazines or the perfume. What do they think? Do they resent the lingering essence of Livia? I wouldn’t waste a scene by merely describing the character’s calm search. Add emotion by stressing out the character. Is Livia a victim or a fellow killer? Are there precious seconds before this person is discovered searching the room?

FIRST PERSON – It’s been my experience that a writer should infuse gender as quickly as possible, before the reader gets too far along and forms a hard to overcome attachment to one sex or the other. Keep in mind that the character can only see through their own eyes and not upon themselves, so use things like – fingernails, articles of clothing, types of shoes, hair length, or perfume/cologne to hint at the gender as soon as possible.

TYPOS – I’m not sure why there are so many of the same type of typos (bolded in red) where a single letter in a contraction is omitted – ie. wasn’ & didn’ and possessives with ‘s. “Oversized” should probably be hyphenated. There is also this – “cashmeres sweaters,” which should be “cashmere sweaters.” This could be attributable to software issues, but an editor or agent would not want to see this, even if it is explainable.

FOR DISCUSSION

Please share your thoughts on this introduction to help this courageous author develop this story. What do you like about the intro? What would you change?

RedemptionForAvery_highres

Redemption for Avery – $1.99 ebook

When he sleeps, the hunt begins.

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star in Quantico’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, but his dark secret could cost him his career. When he sleeps, he has visions of his next case. He sees through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. His nightmares are riddled with clues he must decipher to hunt humanity’s Great White Shark—the serial killer.

 

2+

First Page Critique – Brueghel the Elder (Pros/Cons of Using First Person)

We have another first page anonymous submission from an intrepid author. My comments on the flip side.

 

 

Brueghel The Elder

My name is Lucas.  Lucas M Steiner.  My friends of course never pass up the opportunity to use it.  “LUKE, I’M YOOR FAHTHER.”  I cannot describe in words how much I have come to loathe that line.  Don’t misunderstand.  I thought the movie was great—just like everybody else.  But after you’ve heard the same joke a thousand times the charm wears thin.  And invariably they say it as if they were the first person to have thought of it.  The last impresario of impish wit went so far as to put his head inside of a metal trashcan to get that much-coveted “voice of god” effect.  He then walked smack into the edge of a swinging kitchen door and landed square on his ass.  He leaned back against the wall and remained there the rest of the evening.  I don’t go to parties so much anymore.  Suffice it to say, the Force has not been with me.

 

​At one time in my life I thought things would be different.  At one time I thought I would be tenured, published, renowned, and happily on my way to a well endowed retirement by now. Instead I am here telling you this story.  Things didn’t work out as I had planned.  Who knew?
 

​I wanted to teach.  Specifically, I wanted to teach art.  During my post-graduate years at the school—you’ve heard of it but it doesn’t matter as they are all somewhat similar—I had the opportunity to teach an art history class.  Several, in fact.   I loved art.  I loved the making of it.  

 

I loved the history of it.  And I loved teaching it and if I was good enough and  lucky enough I may have imparted a little of that love to some of those previously unimpressed minds full of mush.

 

​My schedule was pretty agreeable.  It consisted of an hour and a half lecture twice a week and office hours on class days.  I taught a survey course—sort of a “greatest hits” list of the marquee masters.  The remainder of my time was spent on research.

 

 

My thoughts:

I love the intimacy of first person point of view. I became more aware of the effectiveness of this kind of narrative after getting hooked on Young Adult books, but recently I’ve seen more suspense authors (for adult crime fiction) doing this with success, so much so that I’m trying it myself with my latest project. It is very tempting to follow the stream of consciousness of a strong character to hear their story in your head, but an author should still be aware of what will entice a reader to stay tuned and keep turning pages.

 

Advantages of First POV:

1.) First person is easier to write (if you get the whole stream of consciousness thing going where you don’t filter yourself much) and it can help you flesh out the character – a good exercise even if you write in third POV.

 

2.) There is an immediate connection and intimacy to a first person POV voice. It is a blast to write. Even if you are writing in third and come across a bad writing day where nothing works, try writing your character’s diary and see what I mean. It can jumpstart your creativity.

 

3.) Writing in first person creates a clear perspective and a more linear plot involving the same character in every scene, but you better love that character—and make the reader love him/her too.

 

 

Challenges of First POV:

1.) If you choose to stay in first POV only, you must stick in the head of the character and plot the book from only things they can see. By doing this, you may give up some ability to manipulate your plot for mystery elements through secondary characters or foreshadow the workings of a villainous mind. Your character can only know what they have seen through your plot. This can be a limitation. I mix first with third POV to keep all my flexibility and tag the start of every scene where the main character is in first person so the reader can easily follow, but this method may not suit every author.

 

2.) The gender of the character can be a challenge if you do not identify your character, as the author did here with a name. He/she pronouns aren’t used, so you should find a way to indicate early on which gender is speaking before the reader gets too far along with an idea.

 

3.) The biggest challenge is not slipping into the “tell” mode, rather than the “show” mode in a first person narrative. This submission falls in that category where the lure of the narrator appeals for a while, but when nothing really happens in the critical first paragraphs, the reader’s mind may stray. Give the character something to do that will showcase his nature and attitude so the reader sees why he is a star in your story.

 

4.) Setting the scene can be a challenge in the first person. You have to “see” the surroundings and convey them through your character’s eyes, using the same attitude and flavor of their voice, without being obvious that you are “setting the stage” with an inventory or checklist.

 

Comments on the Submission:

1.) I tend to like a more distinctive first line to start a story, something more memorable, or something that might foreshadow what’s to come, or say something more about Luke than his first name.

 

2.) I was lured into the story for the first paragraph, but the weight of that paragraph (with nothing going on except one incident at a party and a Star Wars schtick on the perils of being called Luke) had my mind starting to drift toward the end. The last few lines of that paragraph were the first indicator that he was at a particular party and justify why he doesn’t go to parties anymore. It might be more interesting to me if Luke shared the reason he wasn’t a party animal, and how that might relate to the rest of the story as to why his life didn’t work out, but that could just be me.

 

3.) This intro quickly turned into back story dump. The author should focus on creating a “Defining Scene” for Luke by showing us who he is, similar to Johnny Depp in his Pirates movies. In that first scene, Depp does something that will be memorable while also revealing something of his nature. In one nutshell, a moviegoer will know who Capt Jack Sparrow is.

 

4.) In writing first POV, an author can get so invested in their character, that they can’t edit  out what need to go to keep the pace moving. Therefore the actions of the character must dictate what’s important, with a peppering of the character’s thoughts added for seasoning/spice.

 

5.) The title needs work, but perhaps this is only a working title. Without knowing what the story is about, the significance of the title doesn’t stick with me.

 

What do you think, TKZers? Our daring author could use good feedback to help improve the intro.

 

 
0

Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share her tips on strengthening your main character’s voice, especially when writing in third person POV. Enjoy!
———————–
Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredby Jodie Renner, editor & author

Thanks, Joe. There’ve been some great articles here on The Kill Zone and elsewhere about “voice” in fiction and how to develop an authentic, compelling voice that readers will love. To me, the key is in recognizing that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of your main character.

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.

These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view.

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream.

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character?

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.

Before:

The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.

After:

The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Tips for keeping narration and description in the POV character’s voice:

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling.

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes.

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.

~ Stay in character.

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their present mood, level of tension, and sensory feelings.

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude!

Fiction writers and readers – what are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2013

Related articles by Jodie Renner:

Show Your Setting through Your POV Character: http://www.crimefictioncollective.blogspot.ca/2013/03/show-your-setting-through-your-pov.html

Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copyhttps://killzoneblog.com/writing-techniques/info-with-attitude/

Voice – That Elusive but Critical Ingredient of Compelling Fiction: http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/voice-that-elusive-but-critical-ingredient-of-compelling-fiction

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

0

First Page Critique: Shopping Can Be Deadly (& Fun)

by Jordan Dane

I am still chuckling over this delightful submission. It felt like a cross between Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum (a guy version) and a lite tongue-in-cheek rendition of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole. (Elvis has some pretty funny schtick.) See you on the flip side for my critique and I would love to hear what you think too, TKZers.
SHOPPING CAN BE DEADLY
Detective Rule #13: Treat every case like it’s your first case, especially if it is.

I checked my watch and then the wet windshield.  A twenty-eight-year-old vivacious woman crossed the street.  She was my client, Mrs. Ellen Donefield.   Eleven o’clock and she was right on time.  Her ash blonde hair was covered by a red scarf, her highly pilates-ized body was covered with St. Somebody’s fashions and her back was covered by me, Guy Graff, a twenty-seven year old private investigator on his first case.

Yesterday, in my office she told me that for the past two weeks she had been followed while shopping in Beverly Hills and hired me to find out who it was.  She didn’t feel threatened but she wanted him stopped.    

The expensive streets in Beverly Hills were filled with bustle and haste on this Valentine’s Day buying posh presents and keeping out of the rain.  I got out of my ’94 Tercel and glanced around the soaked street.  I wasn’t the only one watching my client.  A dark haired man, with a deep tan and dressed in a brown plaid suit fit Mrs. Donefield’s description.   And yes, he was definitely watching that body too.  I felt professional, finding my man right away.

Mr. Plaid looked directly at me, checked his watch, then turned his gaze back to Juicy Couture the boutique Mrs. Donefield had just entered.  I knew this guy had no idea of who I was but to look inconspicuous, I also looked at my watch and tapped my foot as if waiting for my girlfriend.  Little did he know Janice broke up with me two months ago.  She didn’t believe my new business venture would generate a large income.  So far, she was right. 

Mrs. Donefield emerged from the store after a few minutes of shopping.  I watched her out of the corner of my eye.  Too busy waiting for my pretend girlfriend, I didn’t notice that the Mr. Plaid was gone. 

Detective Rule #3:  You can lose a sock when doing laundry but don’t lose the guy stalking your client.

Critique

Okay, by the end of this book, I can see the author doing an anthology on all the “Guy” rules, the “World according to Graff.” All anyone would need is a Craig’s list ad and they’d be in the PI business. This has a classic PI feel to it, but it’s updated with the appealing wit of the author. I definitely want to read more of this story.

The first line pulled me out a little. “I checked my watch and then the wet windshield.” The wet windshield might be a way for the author to comment on the weather, but it struck me as odd that anyone watching a vivacious woman (and client) would notice the drops of rain on the windshield, especially on their first case.

In the first paragraph, the words “on his first case” are redundant after the very funny Rule #13. I’m sure this clever author can think of many ways to get this across another way, like “a twenty-seven year old private investigator with a newly minted license with the ink still wet and a week old ad on Craig’s list.”

“…her highly pilates-ized body was covered with St. Somebody’s fashions and her back was covered by me, Guy Graff…” This is a very funny way to introduce the first person POV character, without the reader waiting too long to know who the voice is. (I love the character name too.)

This sentence should be broken apart or revised since the subject—streets—cannot buy posh gifts. “The expensive streets in Beverly Hills were filled with bustle and haste on this Valentine’s Day buying posh presents and keeping out of the rain.” The streets can be filled with bustle and haste (I like that description), but a secondary subject needs to be added to make this grammatically correct. Also, the word “expensive” when describing the word “streets” is a miss for me too. The “shops” are expensive, unless streets in Beverly Hills are made of gold, which they might be.

“’94 Tercel” – Priceless! Nuff said.

“Little did he know Janice broke up with me two months ago.  She didn’t believe my new business venture would generate a large income.  So far, she was right.” This little aside by Guy is so funny. The author jabs in a touch of back story, but does it with humor that also reflects on Guy. He thinks he’s being clever with his toe tapping “technique.” I love this.

The way this submission ended is priceless too. “Too busy waiting for my pretend girlfriend, I didn’t notice that the Mr. Plaid was gone.  Detective Rule #3:  You can lose a sock when doing laundry but don’t lose the guy stalking your client.” I love how the author spells out Rule #3 by starting with losing a sock in the laundry. This not only makes the character very relatable, but it endears him to the reader as well.

Summary – First person POV works so well in this story. It’s classic PI, but the humor of this character shines through and the reader will want to stay in his head, especially if the funny rule making descriptions continue. It’s like Guy is making stuff up as he goes and these rules will come more from his mistakes than his successes. Each thought feels as if it comes straight out of Guy’s head and that not only reflects on what’s happening, but each line also shows his self-deprecating humor, his opinion of his surroundings, and his nature.

Whoever wrote this, thanks for the laugh and I wish you well! Great stuff. What did you think, TKZ?

0

Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page


“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Dreams
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

1+

First Person Boring

by James Scott Bell

I love a good First Person POV novel. I love writing FP myself. But there are perils, and if you’re thinking of trying your hand at it you’re going to need be aware of them.

One of these is the “I’m so interesting” opening that is anything but.

Recently I read a couple of novels in FP that had this problem. They began with the narrator telling us his name and giving us a chapter of backstory. By the time I finished the opening chapter I was thinking, Why am I even listening to you?

Let me illustrate. You go to a party and see a guy standing off to the side, you nod and introduce yourself, and he says, “Hi. My name is Chaddington Flesch. Most people call me Cutty, because my grandfather, Bill Flesch, refused to call me anything else. He liked Cutty Sark, you see, and thought this name would make a man out of me. All through school I had to explain why I was called Cutty. Growing up in Brooklyn, that wasn’t always easy. Even today, at my job, which happens to be as an accountant, I . . .”

Yadda yadda yadda. And you’re standing there at this party thinking, Dude, I’m sorry, but I don’t especially care about your history. I have a history, everybody at this party has a history. Nice meeting you, but . . .

But what if you introduce yourself to the guy and he says, “Did you avoid the cops outside?”

You look confused.

“Because I got stopped by a cop right out there on the street. He tells me to hit the sidewalk, face down, and then proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I say, ‘There’s been a mistake.’ He gets down in my face and says, ‘You’re the mistake. I’m the correction.'”

What are you thinking then? Either: Am I talking to a criminal? Or, What happened to this poor guy?

What your reaction isn’t is bored.

You are hooked on what happened to him. And that’s the key to opening with FP. Open with the narrator describing action and not dumping a pile of backstory.

Save that stuff for later.

Open with movement, with action.

I got off the plane at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.

I was a mess.

[361 by Donald Westlake]

The girl’s name was Jean Dahl. That was all the information Miss Dennison had been able to pry out of her. Miss Dennison had finally come back to my office and advised me to talk to her. “She’s very determined,” my secretary said. “I just can’t seem to get rid of her.”

Then Miss Dennison winked. It was a dry, spinsterish, somewhat evil wink.

[Blackmailer by George Axelrod]

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”

[Try Darkness by James Scott Bell]

Now I realize I’ve used hardboiled examples here, and some of you favor more literary writing. There’s a lot of debate on just how you define “literary,” but let me suggest that literary does not have to mean leisurely. You can still open with a character in motion in a literary novel, and I guarantee you your chances of hooking an agent or editor, not to mention a reader, will go way up without any other effort at all.

One of my biggest tips to new writers is the “Chapter 2 Switcheroo.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a manuscript and suggested that Chapter 1 be thrown out and Chapter 2 take over as the new opening. I would say, conservatively, that 90% of the time it makes all the difference, because the characters are moving. There’s action. Something is happening. And truly important backstory can be dribbled in later. Readers will always wait patiently for backstory if your frontstory is moving.

Try it and see.

0

Quick, Catch That Voice!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time – not because I’m anal (well…) but because I hadn’t nailed the voice yet.

For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it’s critical – as far as I’m concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the ‘body and soul’ of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.


Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I’ve had a ‘challenging’ few weeks…and the process I went through to try and establish the ‘voice’ of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here’s what I did…

  1. I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
  2. I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self – delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
  3. I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
  4. I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
  5. Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
  6. Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so…
  7. Tossed the prologue – don’t need one!!!
  8. Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
  9. Read second draft…realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
  10. Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
  11. Did more historical research….
  12. Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
  13. Rewrote chapter one again…and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm…is that ‘lucky’ number 13??)

So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you ‘have it’ or you don’t? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV – any advice on the do’s and don’ts? I’m already realizing it’s limitations but believe it or not, I think I’m starting to finally enjoy it…until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie’s voice (and my writing) sucks once more.

0