Voice and Word Economy
Hook Critique Series: Article 2, Part 1
By Angela Eschler
Want to develop a loud-and-clear voice? Welcome to our second article in our Hook Critique series, where we review authors’ opening pages to give them insight on whether they’re creating sufficient hooks for agents and/or readers. (To get the full scoop on what this series is all about, you can check out the series introduction here.)
This week we’re touching on several aspects of voice (and we know this is a tricky subject, so we’ll do a specialized article on it in the future.) This is a rather detailed review, but that doesn’t reflect on any deficits in the manuscript sample. It has more to do with the fact that I colonized extra space to give context for my comments on voice/audience and word economy. Given the length of my comments, we’ll just dive right in.
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Author: Debra Erfert
Context: This was the working first page for an earlier draft of her novel Changes.
“You can eat dirt!” I watched the soft red strawberries slowly slide down the wall; the juices dripping in thin trails like fine ribbons of blood heading toward the bowl laying broken near the baseboard. I’d missed hitting the door by only six inches when I threw my tantrum—and the ice cream at my boyfriend’s head.
Correction, my ex-boyfriend.
Lucky me, graduating from the Arizona State University on Thursday, and getting dumped by the guy I’d had a serious relationship with for the past two years the next night. Anger doesn’t begin to describe my feelings.
Three soft taps came from the door. I knew who it would be before I saw the multi-colored spikes peeked its way inside my dorm room. “Hey, Gracie. I take it David is gone?”
I don’t know why such a pretty blonde would dye her hair the way Chelsea does. She must use a whole bottle of gel to get the little spikes to stick up so neatly around her head. I impulsively ran my fingers through my shoulder length brown, very bland, bob cut hairdo. “He’s gone.” I followed her eyes to the newly redecorated wall. “I missed.”
“It doesn’t look like it.” Chelsea knelt down and picked up the largest chunk of ceramic bowl.
“I mean I missed hitting the jerk.”
“Jerk?” Chelsea grinned at me. “You’re just now realizing he’s a jerk?”
I fell onto my unmade bed, sighing loudly. “He told me he wanted to be friends.”
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- Starts with strong negative emotions, which engages the reader’s interest.
- Exposition (background information) is mixed in pretty well with dialogue and some action, so the story continues to move forward, which is the reader’s primary concern.
- Very clean copy; the punctuation/grammar, etc., is spot on, except for one line I noted that needs proofing: “colored spikes peeked its way” should be “peeking” and “their way.” Also, I’m not sure on this use of “peek”; technically something can peek from a place of concealment, but peeking—by the dictionary’s standard—is a form of peering, a furtive glance. So hair can’t technically peer at someone.
- The girls read as teenagers, for the most part, as conveyed by their dialogue. So you’re tapping into that younger-character vibe on that end. Bravo. However, if you mean for them to sound a bit older, given the college reference, you’ll want to adjust the word choice a little.
- The relationship between the two friends feels natural, as the dialogue between them works, and it’s clear (if you intended this) that they are very close—if not best—friends (I assumed this based on the simple line “I knew who it would be before …” which implies that Chelsea would be the obvious person to check on Gracie). I love subtle info bites like this in which the author is not spelling out for me (the infamous “telling”) what the relationship between two characters is. The dialogue works in reinforcing the subtle revelation about their relationship because it is well paced and implies background knowledge of each other’s lives, which is a great way to work in character development and minor bits of backstory (i.e., that the ex-boyfriend may have been a jerk all along), as opposed to using their dialogue to force more awkward, spelled-out exposition (i.e., “What just happened?” [Plot retelling:] “I just threw my ice cream at my now-ex-boyfriend.” “Gasp. Tell me all about your relationship history and what just happened …”).
The fact that the best friend is not even surprised by the breakup implies that she’s been getting up-to-the-minute updates on the relationship and has her own opinions about how healthy of a relationship it is. Well done. The reader gets to be on the inside immediately because of this, and thus feels connected (as if to real girls), rather than as if she’s reading a book in which characters are obviously being created in front of her. Connecting with the reader and having them engaged in your story and empathetic to your characters immediately is one of the keys to hooking your audience.
Things that I questioned or that could be improved:
The core elements to discuss in this critique are developing voice and word economy. Voice can be many things, so we’re going to discuss how character voice + word economy create narrative voice—one of the the most critical things agents/publishers are looking for.
Creating Voice from the Ground Up
- Market/audience as the framework for voice:
My first thought was, “Based on the opening scene (which should give the reader a hint as to what the overall story is going to be about), these characters feel like teenagers, but they are graduating from college. This is a fine line in terms of voice (teen and young adult), but there is a line. The author needs to solidify her market (and thus represent it in the opening scene) by studying the books that are successfully dominating each market.”
In short, you need to know what markets are out there when creating your characters and plot, and that can differ among traditional publishers/agents and niche/smaller publishers—and you’ll see even more divergence with the self-pub markets. A couple years ago I would have told you that publishers and agents were not picking up fiction with characters of this age range—there just wasn’t a big enough market for it. Marketable romances in this country were either about older characters or younger characters. The self-pub market and/or the overseas market have been changing that. There is now an emerging traditional market for characters of this age, called New Adult. “New Adult readers usually are women 18 and older who grew up on YA fiction. The category also draws older fans nostalgic for college.”
But knowing who is buying that type of story, and how your character’s voice should be crafted to fit that market, is important to selling your book. Your publishing goals play into the character voice you create.
- Hook as the introduction to voice:
Reader promises and expectations: Your story seems to promise a coming-of-age/romance or finding-self arc. If your story is about something else, you may want to find another place to start it. You don’t want an opening that will mislead the agent/editor and may lose you a buy because you started your story in the wrong place. Or (if self-pub is your goal), a false start could create a customer who is later annoyed because your beginning promised to be a certain type of story (which is why they bought the book), but they didn’t get it.
High stakes part of voice? In this sample, I felt you could have put a tad more into clarifying what’s at stake for your character (rather than emphasizing what was lost). What is her goal or immediate fear that is currently at stake? Having this element clarified will trigger our curiosity and make us turn pages. There needs to be a what-will-happen? hook. Otherwise we just think “that sucks for her” and put the book back on the shelf. Given the length of this critique, I won’t go into detail here. You can find more in-depth ideas on creating a great hook here as well as great resources for further study here. The voice of your story is created through every aspect of the narrative, and, in my opinion, even the pacing of your novel, as well as the response you draw from the reader, contributes to that effect. Thus, good stakes (and your related plot structure) can detract from or add to voice.
- Voice through character: We’ve covered potential audiences, so let’s discuss the next relevant part of that discussion, which is how language creates character voice.
1) Given that you might be trying to appeal to teenage or young adult girls, the opening line (“Eat dirt”) is a very old-fashioned thing for a teenager of today to say. I was wondering if this was some sort of historical story involving teens, but then the rainbow-spikey-haired best friend threw that theory off. If I were a YA agent, this might be a turn-off because it seems like your main character won’t be very up-to-date in terms of voice—that she won’t be “hip/current” enough to appeal to teens today. Options are to make her insult a bit more in-your-face crass or rude, which many teens/young adults are, but which can be unpleasant to read, as some agents don’t really enjoy reading sarcastic teenagers (though this is not all agents), or to be more creative in her voice so that she comes off as clever/funny/unique in her dialogue and insult-throwing generally. I would strongly suggest upping this character’s voice due to your use of first person. First person calls for very strong voice in which every single thing the character observes comes through the lens of their personality. So objective narrative observations don’t work as well as they might in a different point of view.
Right now Gracie is likable, but she feels just a little bit generic. (Granted, she hasn’t said much yet, but that’s the point of having a killer first page—to blow the reader out of the water by securing their interest in the character or plot conflict). If you want to make your characters younger, a good example of very strong, contemporary teen voice can be found in the book Dark Song. The book is on a very serious and—as the title implies, dark—topic (and I couldn’t recommend it as a nice, clean read for kids), but the author nails the overdramatic, boy-focused, sarcastic voice of teenagers today. The teens in the book are witty, funny, dramatic, and interesting—and each has a very unique voice (and no physical description is needed to distinguish them from each other given their voices are so unique). (I think chapter 2 or 3 of Dark Song has a great example of several teens talking; there is also some great voice toward the second half of the book when the main character is first introduced to the once-thought-to-be-dead grandparents.) This is only one type of teenage voice, and your character might be one step up in maturity, but a study of those chapters would still be helpful in terms of creating a unique voice for your main character. (And especially if you decide to lower the age of your main character to reach a teen audience.)
2) A second example of problematic voice is when your heroine observes her spikey-haired friend. Gracie seems to step out of character—both regarding her voice and her relationship with Chelsea—when she says, “I don’t know why such a pretty blonde would dye her hair the way Chelsea does. She must use a whole bottle of gel to get the little spikes to stick up so neatly around her head. I impulsively ran my fingers through my shoulder-length brown, very bland, bob cut hairdo.”
If Chelsea is the close friend she seems to be, Gracie would know why she does her hair like that. In addition, it seems very much like something a grandma would say about a grandchild she loves but thinks is too unladylike. So the effect is that your character again seems very outdated for a young person today, or she comes across as sort of a square—and I’m not sure you mean for the reader to see her that way. It’s a little hard to empathize with someone like that.
If your character is older, say late 20s or early 30s, the same issues apply with voice—because this character just says/thinks too many thing I can’t really imagine anyone under 60 saying/thinking. You’ll want to sneak her age into the scene as well as tweak her voice and perspective to resonate with that age reader.
Word Economy in Narrative Voice
Economical use of detail:
Speaking of the example above, it was also a bit too wordy and too forced of a passage. Clearly it was a strategy for describing everybody’s hair color and general looks. The instinct for fitting it all in at that particular spot is good, but the execution was a little too long-winded and obvious. Generally I discourage authors from spelling out setting details and physical descriptions until they can synergize the effort with revealing something about character psychology (either character on the scene, but preferably both), or till they can use the setting details as metaphors for an idea or theme in the book. So don’t just tell us what someone looks like, tell us how the observer analyzes those details—what the observed person’s clothing says about them on deeper levels. I don’t care so much if the friend in the room is wearing jeans and a T-shirt as I care what the main character thinks of that friend based on their outfit. So tell me that the jeans are too tight or that the T-shirt is way too baggy and screams insecure about my weight—something that lets me know how the observer feels about it. That will reveal things about the observed and the observer that are far more interesting than just what someone looks like physically and/or objectively.
Unless the outfit reveals something about the characters and their inner worlds, I don’t really care what they’re wearing or what their hair is like, etc. I am going to assume everyone is wearing the standard protocol for their age group and that no one is walking on screen naked. In this case here, your sidekick character is wearing something a little more interesting, but the way Gracie frames it, it almost made me wonder if there is any reason you’ve made Chelsea a little boundary-breaking, or if you just did it to make her look different. If her looks don’t actually give a hint as to her interesting character development later—preferably something relevant to the story and/or the girls’ relationship—there’s no real narrative reason to make her look like that. If you can give us a hint as to her characterization, not just her looks, on the first page, that’s a much better use of a first page. In other words, give us depth at all levels of the storytelling. Especially on the first page.
So, summing up the three points with an example (not making Gracie into a judgmental grandma, not being too wordy just so you can fit in everyone’s descriptions, and not wasting first-page narrative time on simple physical descriptions), you could do something along these lines: “Her new do was untamed and a conversation starter, but it did sort of distract from her best features. As a natural blonde, it was obvious how pretty she was. But I guess it was more interesting than the brown-blah bob I had going.” You could exchange the key adjectives for unique words your particular heroine would use. So instead of “pretty” you could use “hot” or “smokin’,” or something that reveals your character’s voice better and matches the lingo of her age group. The same with the adjective that defines Chelsea’s hair. I used untamed, but you might not want the reader to think that’s why Chelsea went with that look. So use an adjective that describes why—in Gracie’s mind—Chelsea used that look. “Hew new do was wild/spunky/rebellious/unboring/retro, etc.” This gives us an idea of how the main character sees her friend and herself, but without sounding like a disapproving old lady.
Sentence-level word economy:
Since I mentioned that the description of the girls’ looks was too wordy, I’ll touch on word economy now. This is even more important in the industry now, with agents and editors wanting stories that are tighter and tighter, allowing reader assumptions to take the place of authors spelling it out (which readers can do based on clever/precise author rhetoric). Below I’ll edit a couple examples of wordiness that slowed down the pace of the reading and could thus stall reader interest. Both occurred at the opening of the story, which is the last place you want something too wordy.
To deal with wordiness, basically, take every sentence you write (particularly exposition/narrative that isn’t dialogue) and ask if you can cut three to ten words from it. Some strategies for that might be:
- Employing the use of more powerful verbs/words that could eliminate the need for articles and smaller “getting-there” words.
- Looking at small groups of sentences and consolidating information by combining descriptions.
- Examining anything that is implied by context and can thus be cut, like saying, “I watched the strawberries …” If she next describes the strawberries dripping down the wall, clearly she’s watching them, so we don’t need to be told she’s “watching” them. And strawberries are likely to be red, so we don’t need that detail—the reader’s assumptions will fill in for that information.
So on the samples below, compare them to your original to see what descriptions I merged, what I cut based on reader assumption, and where “getting-there” words were trimmed to get at your more powerful descriptions.
“You can eat dirt!” The soft strawberries dripped down the wall; their juices like fine ribbons of blood pooling in the broken ice-cream bowl near the baseboard. I’d missed hitting the door—and my boyfriend’s head—by only six inches …” (the tantrum is implied by the action and the dialogue).
Lucky me, Arizona State graduate on Thursday—bright future ahead—and dumped from my serious two-year relationship the next night. Bright future significantly dimmed. You could say I was mad.
This second bit of exposition had a few too many details to seem like a first-person direct thought, which should be a bit more abbreviated and casual, and the two subjects (graduating and being dumped) seemed like they needed a bit more logical of a connection (transition) to be paired in the same paragraph. So in addition to addressing wordiness, I addressed some of that “author precision/rhetoric” stuff.
The final takeaway? Excellent first step in setting up dynamic characters and tension, but let’s give your book the edge with an immediate intro to your extra-unique character’s personality; also, make sure you know what audience you’re writing to so you can start the story at exactly the right point (hinting at what’s at stake). The best way to streamline and frame all of the above is to focus on the voice of the main character so it’s stronger and more distinctive, and to support that with tighter word economy.
Best of luck on revisions!
NOTE: This critique was originally posted on author Julie Bellon’s First-Page Friday blog. Every Friday, Julie posts an author’s first page, which is critiqued by “Ms. Shreditor” (a senior editor in the New York area) or Eschler Editing. If you’d like a critique, submit your first page, double-spaced in 12 pt. font, to firstname.lastname@example.org with “First-Page Friday” in the subject line. Then watch her blog and await your place in the queue.
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Stay Tuned …
We’ll be posting Debra’s current draft in a few days and hearing from her on what she learned in the process. In the meantime, you can check out what she writes here:
Debra’s Windows into Writing …
Let’s hear from you. Which part of this critique was most useful for you? We’d love to know, so comment here!
 New Adult Fiction Is the Hot New Category in Books, USA Today, 15 April 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2013/04/15/new-adult-genre-is-the-hottest-category-in-book-publishing/2022707/