April 4, 2006

Ready, Set , BOOM!

Let me just say -- THANK YOU SO MUCH for linking to B4B. I appreciate it more than I can say...

Last night I did an internet chat with Writing to Publish, a web group of like-minded writers who are working hard both to hone their craft AND to pursue traditional publication. It's hard to break in, sohats off, dudes, and may your queries find the right agent on the right day. This is the talk I gave, and I thought I would post it here for the writers who hang out in the Kudzu....

One of my favorite playwrights, Anton Chekhov, once said, ""If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." Well, okay, but I think that if you've got a pistol hanging right there on the wall, you should probably rip that sucker down and start blasting away in scene one.

Actually Chekhov is being much deeper and smarter than I am pretending he is being---he's talking follow-through and that's vital. But you see my point---Don’t hold back, because in a first novel especially, you need an opening that hooks readers on page one in at LEAST two ways.

1) Establish voice. If it's first person or even a closely directed third, that means your character's voice. Voice is TONE and LANGUAGE and RHYTHM and STRUCTURE. Make her SOUND like who she is.

If it's a sliding or omniscient third, the voice you have to establish is YOURS. And if you are writing in first or directed third, you STILL have to do this, but UNDER your character's voice.

One way to know if you are writing in your own voice is to read EVERYTHING aloud. Mulitple times. Every draft. You are writing the book only you can write, so make sure you tell the story in your own voice, even if you layer a character voice on top of it.

No one can tell you how to write in your voice. You write until you find it. Trying to explain how it feels is like trying to describe an orgasm to a person who has never had one before and has no point of reference, "Sort of like sneezing, but lower. And um, better. And um, not at all like sneezing." When you are writing in your own voice, you know it. You recognize it.

I had so much trouble getting my second novel, BETWEEN, GEORGIA to be MINE that way. Nonny’s voice was so strong in my head she overpowered mine. I wouldn’t show the book to my editor until I had MY voice underneath hers, in every line. I knew I'd gotten it when my editor said, "This book is nothing like gods, the narrator is nothing like your narrator for gods, she doesn't talk, think, or act like her...and yet it's so obvious you wrote both the books. It’s YOU. How did you do that?"

The question was rhetorical, I;m sure, but I answered it. "Well," I said, "It's a little like sneezing...."

2) IMMEDIATE Conflict. Nothing boils people down to their essential selves as quickly. I think the best way to let the reader meet your characters is to put them all in a room and then light one of them on fire. When I see how all the characters react to the blazing person, I begin to know who they are and how they feel about each other. Start a big heap of trouble and then watch and see what your people DO.

If that's not possible, you have begun your book too early. Cut everything away, EVERYTHING, no matter how well it is written or how much you love it, until you begin this story where the main conflict begins. Be brutal with yourself so that agents and editors don't have to be.

Me, I am so interested in conflict that I tend to start books too LATE, which is also no good. The first thing I wrote when I started GODS IN ALABAMA ended up being Chapter 2. It was Arlene Fleet at 15, creeping up to the top of Lip Smack Hill to beat football hero Jim Beverly to death with a tequila bottle.

I realized later that I could NOT start 12 years in the past – GODS IN ALABAMA had to begin in the present with the 27 year old Arlene because her present goals were going to drive the story. So, I wrote an opening chapter, but the first lines of the book telegraph the central conflict. Here’s the opener:

"There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniels, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the Kudzu and left it to the roaches."
Arlene’s wry dark humor and smarts shows in that first line, and nothing says immediate conflict like dumping a dead body…

NOW! Go look in a mirror. If you see Pat Conroy looking back at you, feel free to begin with a description of landscape and, really, if you ARE Pat, you can natter on about it for pages and pages if you so desire. If you see a slightly less established writer, you need to cut that beautiful tree paragraph.

I'm being a little facetious, but just a little. ANY established author can take more liberties with an opening because they have a fan base. You pick up an established author's novel based on what that author has delivered in the past---good characters, interesting plots, satisfying resolutions… With a first book, you have to give a reader a TASTE for what you have to offer, and you have to do it in the first few sentences. GOOD LUCK!

Posted by joshilyn at April 4, 2006 2:07 PM

Great lecture, Joshilyn. Thanks for sharing.

It is a little like sneezing...

Posted by: Edgy Mama at April 4, 2006 5:28 PM

Awesome post! VOICE and HOOKS; critical mass components for books. Joss, you are the best! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Posted by: David at April 4, 2006 6:53 PM

you have such a way with..well, words. perfect compare & constrast between your two books!

Posted by: desi at April 4, 2006 7:48 PM

That was hands down one of the best guest chats I have attended and I have been to more than I can tolerate sometimes :) It is your vivacious, yes even wacky personality that made it such a success. You made us all feel as if we have been friends for years. Thanks!

Micki Mallie1025@aol.com

Posted by: Micki at April 4, 2006 9:30 PM

I'm no author (no, really), but I absolutely agree. If I'm reading an author for the first time, it's more than likely that I will read the first chapter before ever heading to the cash register with it. If I like the voice, I buy it, if I don't, well, I don't.

Posted by: Contrary at April 4, 2006 10:31 PM

the W2P group salute you! It was a five star session, and we enjoyed it so much. And thanks to you, I'm killing a few trees to meet my 1000 query quota...never let it be said that a Yankee can't take heart from a Southerner's words of wisdom.
thanks Joss (not Josh, hehehe)

Posted by: dee at April 5, 2006 1:52 AM

I think established authors have more wiggle-room when it comes to things like good titles and cover art too.

If I already know and love someone's writing, they could call a book just about anything and I'd buy it. But if I'm shopping around to try a book by an author whose work I've never read, first the title and cover have to be catchy enough to even make me notice the book in the crowd of other books, THEN it has to pass the "first page read test" (does reading the first page make me want to read more or does it make me yawn or roll my eyes and go "pleeeeease"?), THEN if it passes that test, I'll *start* to consider plunking down some of my $$ to read it. Lotta competition out there for reader bucks!

Posted by: DebR at April 5, 2006 9:08 AM

As a reader, I agree with you completely.

However, perhaps I'm the odd reader who flips a book to the middle and reads a couple pages there, rather then the first few. I've read many fabulous books that didn't have the best catch at the beginning. So I just sort of hop into the middle. Of course, I also usually read the second or third book in a trilogy before I read the one before. I'm weird.

Posted by: Autumn at April 5, 2006 2:29 PM

As a reader (and only a reader) I agree totally with the idea of a good beginning hook and a clear voice. These things propel you into the book - they make you care, right off the bat. But for me, a good ending is an essential. I always read the last page first (except in Joshilyn's books! She made me pinky swear! And threatened to throw me out of the Beautiful Tulip Society!) because nothing irks me more than to spend time engrossed in a book and have it end badly. It makes me feel ROBBED.

Posted by: Amy-GO at April 5, 2006 2:54 PM