First Page Critique

Today’s first page critique is a great example of a piece where the ‘voice’ is critical. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, first page narration which we don’t usually see. My comments, follow. Enjoy!

Lilly’s Tree

There’s always been something gratifying in watching Mama suffer, even if it was only a little bug of a thing, like Lilly locking a fist around a swatch of hair hanging from the twisty knot Mama kept her hair tucked into. Lilly would pull on it like she was the force of gravity. Mama’s eyes would tear up, and she’d let out a screech that sounded like a cat with its tail flattened underfoot. That was when Lilly was in the hair-pulling stage of babyhood, right after the biting stage and right before the pinching stage commenced. It did no good trying to restrain those little Houdini arms when they came at you. Once her fingers latched on, no amount of force would make her let go. You had to distract her. Look, Lilly, there’s the firststar shining up there in the sky or Lilly, let’s you and me get some strawberry ice cream. Mama didn’t catch onto that trick like I did. Instead, she’d go off like a struck match. She was never quick to look for the funny in something. Mama I mean, not Lilly. Just about everything had a chance of making Lilly laugh, even Mama.

Before the accident, or even before Lilly for that matter, it felt like Mama was tall as a tower when it came to watching over me. It had some to do with her being protective, I’m sure, but mostly it was because she had a suspicious nature towards me, especially after Tommy Baxter and the hickey incident when I was in sixth grade and the pack of cigarettes she found in my sock drawer last year. I overheard her telling Pastor Mike I was a highly impressionable girl and religious instruction was essential for the development of my good moral character. She was sure he’d start me right in the world. Mama had Pastor Mike visit with us every Sunday after service. He’d talk about matters I didn’t much understand or even care about, but it was pleasant listening to him all the same. The pastor would throw a smile in my direction every so often, even when he was up there behind the podium at church, and his smile would stretch right up to those blue-as-the-sky eyes. I held the belief it was a smile he reserved exclusively for me, which made it impossible not to smile right back.

My comments

This seems at first glance (at least to me) to be non-genre specific – it could be a literary, coming-of-age novel, or it could be a first-person narrated mystery or thriller. At this stage, the scene is set really for either – with enough references to possible paths (Lilly’s accident, the pastor…) to keep this reader guessing as to the novel’s direction. I thought the characterization was strong – even in this first page we get a strong image of Lilly, Mama, and the narrator’s personality.

It is heavily reliant on the success of the first person narrator and this voice is what will carry a reader through the entire story so it has to be perfect. All in all I think this voice is successful so far and, as a reader, I was pulled along and wanted to read more. That being said, there were times when the word choice used seemed out of sync with the overall tone (use of the words ‘gratifying’ and ‘commenced’ and the ‘Houdini’ reference seemed a little more sophisticated than the voice appeared to be (at least to me). One of the key elements of any successful first person voice is the consistency and authenticity of the voice so this would be my only caution to the author – make sure you fully inhabit this narrator and make word choices accordingly. At this stage we don’t know enough about the narrator, beyond her being about middle school age, to be sure, but the sentence structure and voice on this first page seemed chatty, childlike, and unsophisticated (to me it also sounded very Southern – but as an Australian I’m not very good at picking American voices in literature). There was also an undercurrent of something a bit darker which I liked. In fact, if anything I’d like to see more darkness (particularly when it comes to the Pastor – not sure why, but I’m already suspicious of him!).

There wasn’t much in the way of action or dialogue on this first page but I think this worked in this stream-of-consciousness style beginning. For me there was enough narrative pull and tension to keep me reading but other readers may have wanted something more dramatic on the first page.

TKZers, what did you think?

Let us know what comments you have on this submission and how this first page can be improved.

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Evocative Suspense Author Sue Coletta on VOICE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

WingsOfMayhem

I’m proud to have longstanding TKZ member, Sue Coletta as my guest today. This is her first time here as a featured author. Not only is she usually one of the first to comment on each post, but I’ve seen her grow as a writer. I enjoyed her first book MARRED, with its strong voice and dark eerie tone, and I’m currently reading WINGS OF MAYHEM and thoroughly enjoying the voice of her protagonist, Shawnee Daniels. Take it away, Sue, and welcome!

Sue Coletta on VOICE

When we first begin our writing journey voice is one of things that’s nearly impossible to define, never mind discover. For years I kept hoping to find my writer’s voice, but I had no idea where to look. Deep within myself? Through hours and hours of practice would it suddenly appear? What was this mysterious “voice” everyone spoke about? And why didn’t I have one?

Perhaps what agents and editors were referring to was that perfect blend of style, rhythm, and cadence that make up the mysterious writer’s voice. Maybe it’s like trying to define the difference between graffiti and street art. I may not be able to put it into words, but I’ll know it when I see it.

When I look back on those days I wish someone would’ve told me, with a clear definition, how to develop my voice. And then one day something magical happened. I was reading the most amazing craft book I’d ever encountered, the book that transformed my writing life in an instant. I’m referring to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

When I learned about the three dimensions of character I found my writer’s voice. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

Today, I would describe voice as the combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, dialogue, sentence rhythm, and character development within one story or across many novels. It’s unique to you. Just as a flute doesn’t sound like a clarinet, neither does one writer from another.

How awesome is that?

We all use the same 26 letters, and yet, no two authors will write the same scene the same way. One writer might use run-on sentences that go on for miles. Whereas another loads the story with short, punchy fragments. Neither is wrong; it’s a matter of personal style.

But style isn’t the only thing that makes up the writer’s voice.

By knowing our characters intimately, by understanding their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, scars, flaws, nervous ticks, religious beliefs, world views, what they fear, what they strive for, what they want more than anything else…we can slip into their skin and write using their voice. Not only in dialogue, but in the narrative as well—also known as narrative voice.

Take, for instance, my protagonist in Wings of Mayhem. Shawnee Daniels is a wise-cracking, snarky chic who was raised on the city streets. The way she views the world is much different than her librarian best friend, Nadine. Shawnee is overly cautious. She swears, has huge trust issues, and in a lot of ways, she’s her own worst enemy. Where Shawnee might see danger, Nadine, who was raised in a loving and often sheltered environment, would see an opportunity. Nadine never swears. Instead, she uses words like “ship” and “fleakin’”. She’s a glass-half-full type of girl. Shawnee’s glass barely has a drop in it.

Nadine’s dialogue is filled with words like “Woot!” She waves jazz hands and bounces on her toes when she’s excited. Shawnee is her polar opposite. She would never be caught dead waving a jazz hand in the air and she certainly would never use the word “Woot.” Because she’d never do these things in the dialogue, I can’t let her do it in the narrative, either, or the story would lose its narrative voice.

In Wings of Mayhem I alternated chapters between Shawnee, Detective Levaughn Samuels, and Jack Delsin, my antagonist. Each have their own way of viewing the world around them and, more importantly, the situation they’re in. I couldn’t write the narrative in the same way or it wouldn’t be unique to each character.

Where Shawnee believes everyone is after her, Detective Levaughn Samuels is more level-headed. In his narrative I used contractions like I did with Shawnee, but the tone is different. He views the world with a calm, rational, detective’s perspective. When he looks at a crime scene his stomach doesn’t scream in protest. But Shawnee’s does.

While examining a murder victim, Levaughn would narrate the facts, the wounds/injuries, his theory of the case, etc. Shawnee would be too distracted by the blowflies. She might gape at the victim’s smeared mascara, or narrow in on the thick, bluish film veiling the victim’s eyes. But Levaughn wouldn’t mention that because all corpses develop corneal clouding. It’s a natural occurrence that develops 2-3 days after death, depending on the environment in which the body is found.

By remaining true to our characters in dialogue as well as narrative we breathe life into the story. Thus, filling it with voice.

For Discussion:
Over to you, TKZers. What tips have helped you develop your writer’s voice?

Sue Coletta

Suspense Author Sue Coletta

BIOMember of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is always searching for new ways to commit murder…on the page. She’s the author of Wings of Mayhem, Marred, Crime Writer’s Research, and 60 Ways to Murder Your Characters. She’s published in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive, Murder, USA anthology, InSinC Quarterly, and in the upcoming dark fiction anthology, RUN. The founder of #ACrimeChat, which takes place every Wed. on Twitter, Sue also runs a popular crime resource blog, where she shares her love of research…forensics, police procedures, serial killers, and true crime stories. You can learn more about Sue and her books at: www.suecoletta.com

Buy links:
Amazon Barnes & Noble  Apple iTunes  Smashwords  Google Play
Print and audio coming soon from Crossroad Press!

Social Media links:
Website/blog   Goodreads   Twitter   Facebook

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The Writer’s It Factor

Today I welcome my friend and fellow ITW member Brad Parks as our guest blogger. Brad takes on one of the most elusive yet essential elements in successful storytelling. Read on to find the answer.

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BY BRAD PARKS
@Brad_Parks

Once upon a writer’s conference, a friend of mine—who might or might not be Chantelle Aimee Osman, depending on how she feels about being described as my friend—was going around, asking folks a great question:

In Hollywood, people talk about certain actors or actresses having an “It Factor,” that special something that just draws in the eye and won’t let it go. Is there an It Factor with writing; and, if so, what is It?

I answered with one word: Voice.

Voice, I will posit, is the writing equivalent of a killer body, great hair and a mysteriously alluring smile.

And while I volunteered to take this guest blog spot from Joe because I have a new book to 2024657flog—it’s called THE FRAUD, and when I’m flattering myself I think it’s a fine example of a healthy narrative voice—I want to take a few minutes of your blog time to unpack this subject, because it strikes me as one that folks in the writeosphere don’t spend enough time discussing.

Which is strange. Ask any editor or agent what they’re looking for in a manuscript, and a strong, fresh, unique voice is inevitably at or near the top of that list. The same is true for readers, even if they might not be able to articulate it as such.

The proof can be found at the top of the bestseller list. I’m willing to bet I could kidnap you, drag you into the desert, beat you with sage brush and leave you to die in the brutal sun; but, if before I departed, I also left you with a stripped paperback that began…

I was arrest in Eno’s Diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

… you’d be like, “Oh, cool. Reacher.” (Or at least you would if you were a Lee Child fan, as I am).

Many of the writers whose book sales are counted in the millions have voices that are so distinct, you could wipe their names and all other identifying characteristics from their work, and yet most of us would still be able to identify their prose within a few paragraphs.

Think of Harlan Coben (where suburban suspense meets Borsht Belt shtick); or Sue Grafton (who couldn’t pick Kinsey’s chatter out of a crowd?); or James Lee Burke (you can hear Louisiana in everything that falls out of Robicheaux’s mouth); or Elmore Leonard, or Laura Lippman, or… or…

It starts with voice. And, yes, of course the writers I’ve listed do many other things well, whether it’s Coben’s great twists or Lippman’s great characters or what have you. But I would argue that voice also covers the things they don’t necessarily do well. Because when a writer has a strong voice? The reader is already buckled in, happy to be along for the ride.

This is great news for all of us who attempt to prod words into compliance. Because unlike Hollywood, where the It Factor is at least partially based on things you have to be born with—some marriage of facial symmetry, bone structure, and that certain crinkle around the eyes—voice is something that can be developed.

Let’s start from 30,000 feet up, with a simple definition of what it is we keyboard-ticklers do each day. Writing is nothing more than (and nothing less than) the task of transferring thoughts from your brain to paper.

It sounds simple enough, except when you start out, there’s this thick filter between your head and the page. And, depending on how tortured your formal education might have been—and how many misguided English teachers forced you to write keyhole-style essays or said you couldn’t end sentences in a preposition—the filter can stay thick for many years.

But if you keep working the writing muscle, the filter starts to thin out. The thoughts get to the page more readily than they did before. You start to notice little things that are dragging on your prose and you eliminate them. You read great writers and incorporate the things they do so well. You read your stuff out loud and develop an ear for what sounds clunky and what sounds cool.

Eventually, the filter disappears. Then it’s just you, in all your idiosyncratic genius. And if you accept that no two people’s thoughts are the same—yes, you really are that special snowflake—no two writers’ voices will be the same, either. Ergo, you will be that strong, fresh, unique voice that someone out there is looking for.

And, no, none of this happens particularly quickly. If you thought I was going to offer the equivalent of a miracle diet for writers—Lose 30 Pounds And Gain Your Voice In Two Easy Weeks, Guaranteed!—I’m sorry to report no such thing exists.

Personally? I started writing for my hometown newspaper when I was 14 years old and I didn’t start to develop a whimper of a voice until I was at least 19. Even then, it was probably just a subconscious imitation of the writers I admired. I didn’t start to have a voice of my own until I was probably 24. Well, okay, maybe 26.

Admittedly, I’m not the quickest study. I’m sure a brighter light could find their voice faster than I did. But, perhaps, only by a little. Writing is a journey without shortcuts, because the destination only becomes clear to you after you’ve arrived.

But at the end of this particular road, the voice—that It Factor—is waiting for you. Fact is, it’s been inside you all along, screaming to get out.

Brad Parks jacket picBrad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His sixth thriller featuring investigative reporter Carter Ross released yesterday. For more, visit www.BradParksBooks.com.

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