Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Opening Pages (cont.)

STATUS: It’s after 7 pm again and I’m getting ready to leave the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE’S LIKE THE WIND by Patrick Swayze

Today I want to share some opening pages that are all about voice. Some authors have really distinctive voices and often the deciding factor is not whether the writing is good or not but whether the voice fits an agent’s taste.

For me, Gail Carriger’s SOULLESS is a perfect example. This is a really distinctive voice aptly demonstrated by the opening pages. It’s either going to be your cup of tea (pun intended as anyone who reads and loves Gail’s work will get the joke immediately) or it won’t.

It’s obviously fits in my teacup just fine.

Chapter One: In Which Parasols Prove Useful

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she’d retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

She glared at the vampire.

For his part, the vampire seemed to feel their encounter had improved his ball experience immeasurably. For there she sat, without escort, in a low-necked ball gown.

In this particular case, what he didn’t know could hurt him. For Miss Alexia had been born without a soul, which any decent vampire of good blooding knew made her a lady to avoid most assiduously.

Yet he moved towards her.

This would have been unsurprising with any non-vampire, for Miss Tarabotti generally kept her soulless state quite hush-hush. Miss Tarabotti wasn’t undead, mind you. She was a living breathing human, just…lacking. But it was just too much of a bother to explain soullessness to the ill-informed masses. It was a moot point on most occasions anyhow. The members of the social circles she frequented never noticed she was missing anything. Miss Tarabotti seemed to them nothing more than a standard English prig, whose spinsterhood had been brought about by a combination of assertive personality, dark complexion, and overly strong facial features. Miss Tarabotti telling people she lacked a soul would cause general awkwardness at best. It was almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as having it known that her father was both Italian and dead.

Alexia was shocked to find, however, that this vampire appeared not to know the details of her character, and actually continued to approach her. The supernatural set always knew she had no soul. They kept detailed records of those born preternatural. People like Miss Tarabotti were dangerous: soullessness cancelled them out. As soon as they touched her: whoosh – they were no longer supernatural at all.

In this particular instance the vampire came darkly-shimmering out of the library shadows with feeding fangs ready, touched Miss Tarabotti, and was suddenly no longer darkly doing anything at all. Just standing there, the faint sounds of a stringed quartet in the background, foolishly fishing about with tongue for fangs unaccountably mislaid.

Miss Tarabotti, having escaped the jaws of that worst party-going evil – society matrons en masse – was most disgruntled to find herself under attack in her library sanctuary.

The vampire got over his foolish lack of fangs quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia and her unexpected effect on his supernatural state, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Contact broken, his fangs reappeared once more. Clearly not the sharpest of tacks, he then dove forward from the neck like a serpent, going for another chomp.

“I say!” said Alexia to the vampire. “We haven’t even been introduced!”

Miss Tarabotti had never actually had a vampire try to bite her before. She knew one or two by reputation of course, and was friendly with Lord Akeldama. Who wasn’t friendly with Lord Akeldama? But no vampire had ever actually attempted to feed on her.

So Alexia, who abhorred violence, was forced to grab the miscreant by his nostrils, a delicate and therefore painful area, and shove him away. He stumbled over the fallen tea trolley, lost his balance in a manner astonishingly graceless for a vampire, and fell to the floor. He landed right on top of a plate of treacle tart.

Miss Tarabotti was most distressed by this. She was particularly fond of treacle tart and had been looking forward to the consumption of that precise plateful. She picked up her parasol. (It was terribly de rigeur for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it.) The parasol was a style all of her own devising: a black, frilly confection, with purple satin pansies sewn about, and buckshot in its silver tip.

She whacked the vampire right on top of the head with it as he tried to extract himself from his newly intimate relations with the tea trolley. The buckshot gave the parasol just enough heft to make a deliciously satisfying ‘thunk.’

“Manners!” instructed Miss Tarabotti.

And since I don’t answer questions often but felt this one was particularly apropos to tonight’s blog entry, I’m making an exception.

A.L Sonnischsen asked:

So here’s my question: when is it okay to let a character tell about him/herself? Why did this particular example not make you, as an agent, stop reading? Is it because it’s so well-written? Or does an excellent writer know instinctively how much to tell (a little narrative to get an idea of the voice, but not too much)? Or, maybe I don’t understand what telling vs. showing really is?

A.L. You have answered your own question. Telling vs Showing is all a matter of balance in the narrative. We need enough tell to orient the reader so we aren’t confused but then we need enough show so that whatever has been told about the character is revealed completely in the unfolding scene.

Gail does this marvelously in these opening pages. Paragraph 1 has a light touch of telling to set the scene. Then she leaps right into showing her spinster in a action. Five “paragraphs” later (as some are just one sentence long), Gail dips into quite a bit of telling but note she keeps her distinctive voice and all the info given is necessary for the rest of the scene to unfold.

That might be the biggest answer to your question. Only tell when it’s imperative to do so in order to move the story forward. Here Gail knows it’s imperative to explain a bit of Alexia’s soulless state. If she doesn’t, the reader might not understand why this vampire attack is such a surprise—in the context of this world she’s building.

When agents pass on sample pages becuase of too much telling to start, it’s because the writer hasn’t understood the importance of telling and when it’s best to interject it.

And as an aside, isn’t Alexia captured absolutely perfectly on the cover?

40 Responses

  1. Steph Su said:

    And the best thing about Gail’s book is that that marvelous voice continues through the rest of the book. Huzzah, and can’t wait for Changeless!

  2. Liesl said:

    A great study not only on voice, but exposition as well. To place your reader so well in the first pages, yet keep it moving…that’s skill (particularly with fantasy when there is so much to reveal about the world!) And the voice is all its own, no question.

    I have to admit, I’ve bypassed this book because I’ve grown a little tired of the paranormal, particularly vampires and werewolves. This just goes to show you that a fresh voice can make any overdone trend new and exciting.

    Thanks for sharing! I’m sold. I’ll go buy the book now.

  3. Smooth Tommy said:

    I usually hate fantasy, but the writing and the voice are what make this a winner. I listened to the first chapter on some website and really enjoyed it. Sort of like Amelia Badelia meets Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

  4. A.L. Sonnichsen said:

    Thank you for the great answer, Kristin. This was something I have been wondering about for a long time and now I think I’m finally (hopefully) getting it. Thanks especially for making an exception and answering my question on your blog.

  5. Debbie (Nerd Goddess) said:

    Excellent point. I think sometimes we writers get a wee tired of hearing “Show don’t tell!” over and over, but if we’re told it so often, that means it’s a problem.

    And now I need to find a copy of “Soulless” to see what happens next! You are very sneaky, aren’t you?

  6. Ellen B said:

    “It was almost, though not quite, as embarrassing as having it known that her father was both Italian and dead.”

    Genius. I love it.

    This didn’t entirely work for me, though – although the voice is excellent and the character is a dream, I felt that Miss Tarabotti’s telling took all the drama out of the vampire attack. That said, I have the impression it’s not supposed to be a very dramatic vampire attack, just a rather rude, puzzling and inconvenient one. I’d need to read slightly further to see if that detached, analytical tone suited the setting. I suspect it will, though, and I will be reading further 😀

  7. Anonymous said:

    “…Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters…”

    I’m sorry, my mind went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to with this sentence. I’m eating a piece of confetti cake for breakfast and it is now all over my desk. Ha!

    (these pages sound great, nonetheless :))

  8. Kelly Bryson said:

    Jonathon- I am likewise embarrassed! I mentally replayed the song picturing his face, trying to understand how I missed that!

    And Wow! What a great first scene! I want this book now. I love this character!

  9. Anonymous said:

    I loved this until I got to the line “(It was terribly de rigeur for her to be carrying a parasol at an evening ball, but Miss Tarabotti rarely went anywhere without it.)”

    Why? Because THIS is what de rigeur means: “necessary according to etiquette, common sense, protocol or fashion. Something that is de rigueur is required by convention or fashion”.

    How did that get by the copy editor? I hope this clanker will gets fixed in any reprints.

    Yes, you CAN lose a reader over something like that.

  10. D. Antone said:

    I find it interesting to study the effects of a strong voice on writing. Sometimes a strong voice comes across to me as cheeky, sarcastic, like the author is constantly trying to make things cute and funny. Other times, a strong voice really adds to the piece. Ray Bradbury is one author I think of.

  11. Michelle M. said:

    At first I thought “Oh, another vampire book? Yippe. That’s just what the world needs right now.” Then upon finding out she’s lacking in the soul department and that’s dangerous to the undead I thought “Yep, bring on another vampire book!” Very interesting twist! I agree that her voice gives just enough to hook you in and make you consider coming down with a sudden illness that makes leaving work and going straight home (via a detour at the book store) necessary. Thanks!

  12. Vivi Anna said:

    It’s a FANTASTIC book and I highly recommend it. I usually don’t read humorous books, but I was hooked after the first few pages, and now can’t wait for Changeless.

  13. Jille said:

    Anon–this is not how it appears in the printed book. was changed to “terribly tasteless”…I think Kristin is posting here the original pages that caught her eye?

  14. Bane of Anubis said:

    I really enjoyed the opening pages when I checked ’em out via Amazon. And, as you intimated, voice conquers all (i.e., if you’ve got a bland one and show things perfectly, it probably ain’t gonna read as well).

    re: the cover — not thrilled. Seems like she’s got some weird form of scoliosis the way her back is arched like that.

  15. Kristin Laughtin said:

    This is an excellent example. I just finished reading this book, and within two pages knew I was going to be eagerly awaiting the sequel. The fantastic thing is that she doesn’t lose her voice at all through the novel. It made me look at my own WIP and wish I were writing a more comedic story instead of a serious one because Carriger’s book was so much fun to read.

    (And no offense, but I actually don’t think the cover captures Alexia correctly. The pose and dress do, but the model doesn’t seem to match the physical description of Alexia. I much prefer the image they’re going to use for CHANGELESS.)

  16. Cole K said:

    Regarding the “de rigeur” posted above: When I read that, I took it for what it meant (necessarily fashionable) and then interpreted the statement as meaning she normally took pains to avoid the appearance of shallow “trendiness,” but made an exception for her parasol.

    Believe it or not, I think my favorite part was the chapter subheading. They have such tone-setting power; I always enjoy seeing authors employ them well.

  17. JEM said:

    I am buying this book RIGHT NOW. Thanks for sharing the first few paragraphs and winning a new reader. Also, thanks for the impetus to go rework my own first pages!

  18. Anonymous said:

    Loved the voice but stopped reading after finding out it’s yet one more VAMPIRE novel..sigh..not again. Why not make it a historical romance next time?

  19. rachelcapps said:

    I love seeing the work that connected with you. More please!

    Soulless fits my teacup too – off to Borders tomorrow. I hope it’s on the shelf in Australia!

  20. E.H. Adams said:

    I read this book a few weeks ago after seeing it mentioned here and I loved it! I devoured it in one evening and barely stopped to eat or pee. Now I can’t wait for the next one! It was great to see her query letter and how the book came to be published. Thanks!

  21. Anonymous said:

    Freeakin’ awesome!

    We reviewed this one with gusto.

    Great cover art too.

    Sign Me,

    the girl who was bored with the heroine below

  22. The Wicked Lady said:

    Back to “de rigeur” again. Aside from the fact the spelling is actually “de rigueur” (without that extra ‘u’ it would be pronounced “ree-jer” or something odd like that)… it’s definitely a clunker. If I were standing in a bookstore reading the first page and came across that I would put the book back on the shelf, despite the delightful premise and wonderful protagonist. It’s a matter of trust: if neither the author nor the copy editor knows her way around this sort of idiom I don’t feel safe plunging into a text that may make me groan again.

    That said, I know this sort of thing won’t bother everyone, and the novel’s setting and premise are truly fascinating. I’m sure the series will do well.

  23. Elizabeth said:

    For what it’s worth, the opening quoted in this post is radically different from the opening that is in the book. (No more “de rigueur,” for one thing; it’s now “terribly tasteless.”) This must be an earlier draft.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Yeesh. I’ve read this blog for over a year, so I’m a little sorry this comment makes my first post; for folks having a hard time finding an agent, these opening pages are perfect examples of how subjective opinions of a work can be. The opening is structurally fine from a language perspective, but I personally find everything else about it astonishingly bad. The situation is trite, the “humor” contrived, and the tone sounds forced and amateurish to my inner ear. I definitely wouldn’t buy it after having read that first page. Just goes to show that “good writing” is a matter of opinion.

  25. Anonymous said:

    I’m not crazy about this either. The other two examples I really enjoyed (especially Kim’s memoir, wow!), but this just isn’t very well written. Oh well. Obviously this has found an audience.

  26. Anonymous said:

    Although I too am a little tired of vampires popping up everywhere in every genre, I did enjoy this opening — snickered out loud, in fact.
    BUT I have to agree on the ‘de rigueur’ comments (by Anonymous and Wicked Lady) — when I read that line it brought me to a screeching halt, I was so surprised that the misuse of the term got past the editors.
    It’s not a common phrase nowadays, but I’m guessing that many fans of historical and Regency romances are familiar with the term, and those readers know that it means precisely the *opposite* of how the author uses it in the opening passage.
    Presumably the author also enjoys historical settings, which is why she came up with the inspired notion of introducing vampires into proper ballroom society of the 19th century [I’m guessing? I haven’t read the novel, so not sure whether it’s Regency or Victorian or Edwardian or what].
    So it’s strange she would have used the term erroneously.
    I grew up devouring Georgette Heyer’s novels, and re-read them regularly to this day. So reading that sentence was like hearing nails scraping across a chalkboard.
    Not saying I wouldn’t read the book — I did get a kick out of the premise and the humor — but it definitely made me lose my trust in the author’s grasp of the era.
    — Duende

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