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?