What Makes a Scintillating First Page? 6 October 2017

Sometimes whether or not a First Page of a Novel is scintillating is because of Voice (both types) and Simplicity.

 

The first type of “Voice” – author’s voice:

Christopher Hitchens in his article “Unspoken Truths” in Vanity Fair, June 2011, said that: “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it.”

 

Another way to say this is Elmore Leonard’s one rule that sums up his “10 Rules of Writing” … “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”  (in “WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”, The New York Times, July 2001.

 

Hitchens and Leonard are talking about “Voice”: a Marlow talking about Jim, the narrator talking about the Time Traveller or Mark Twain putting us in the room with Huck Finn.  An author’s voice is an individual, developed, unique way of writing. Publishers are looking for a unique “Voice” and an aspiring author might only have one page to demonstrate it.

 

The second type of voice – grammatical voice:

There is another voice however that is common to all good writers and it is the grammatical Active versus Passive Voice. The use of the word “voice” here is deceptive. Sidney Ledson prefers the word “role” as a better description but “voice” has come to be the norm. Active Voice uses verbs that express the action of the subject on the object and the action is simple: e.g. “He greeted me”. Passive Voice turns the sentence around: e.g. “I was greeted by him”. The verb “was greeted” is carrying action from the object to the subject.

 

Active Voice is briefer and more forceful than Passive Voice which is impersonal and lacking in strength. Consider the sentences, “The cat ate a mouse” compared to “The mouse was eaten by a cat”;  “Judy is donating ten dollars” compared to “Ten dollars is being donated by Judy”; “The cats will be judged by Val Hurry” compared to “Val Hurry will be judging the cats”.  Notice how the passive voice is formed (regardless of the tense). In Passive Voice each verb has an added “verb helper” and all of these helpers are the verb “be” or forms of it: was, being, are, is. Another point is that when the verb is passive, the object takes the form of a phrase – “by a cat”, “by Judy”, “by Val Hurry.” Repeated use of the Active Voice brings energy and force to writing.

 

Simplicity:

Simplicity in today’s world assists clarity of understanding by being direct. Fewer words that say the same thing are better. Below are examples of word choices from course notes distributed at a Faber Academy Course I attended in Sydney in July 2017. Use

 

·      About               Not                        in the vicinity of

·      Now                 Not                        at this point of time

·      At present        Not                        currently

·      Enough            Not                        sufficient

·      Go                    Not                        proceed

·      Before              Not                        prior to

·      After                Not                        subsequent to

 

You get the idea.

 

Once you’ve found your unique voice, and your writing has the energy of Active Voice, there are 8 things that Allen & Unwin Publisher, Annette Barlow, says dims the first page:

 

·      Clichéd language

·      Over-writing, that is, nouns weighted down with adjectives and adverbs

·      Predictability (they don’t want it!)

·      Poor spelling, grammar

·      Repetitions

·      Trying to introduce too much detail as opposed to immediacy when readers are not yet engaged with character

·      Metaphors and similes that don’t have a relationship to what they describe

·      Over-dramatic speech.

 

That First Page has to set us apart from other writers in a competitive market where publishers are inundated with good manuscripts.

 

For more on developing a unique writer’s voice see: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/excerpts/writing-voice-lessons

 

 



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