Say hello again to Karen Frisch, author of What’s in a Name.
Once again I’ve returned to the first 10 pages of my new manuscript. I need to make the best impression possible on the editor who will read it beforehand and review it with me at the upcoming conference I’m attending. I’ll be shaking inside, though I’ll appear confident. The opening needs to be so strong that she’ll want the rest of the story and I can emerge from the appointment without emotional trauma.
I’ve given up counting the number of individual versions I’ve done of the opening paragraph. Because those early sentences are so critical to its success, I fight for every word. Each has to do double duty, setting the emotional tone while introducing the story. It’s the precision of the word choice that defines both character and voice.
All writers are familiar with the process. We put words in, then take them out just as quickly. We revise a sentence to make it match more precisely what’s in our mind, then decide the next day we liked the original better—after we’ve already updated it on our backup flash drive and the original has been deleted. Sound familiar? This self-inflicted torture is part of our writing routine.
The writing process reminds me of the way figure skaters build confidence before a competition. They spend months preparing, practicing, and perfecting their routine. On the day of competition they warm up on the rink, do a few test jumps, and wait by the boards to collect their thoughts before they’re introduced as their turn arrives. They step off carefully on the ice, just as a writer puts words tentatively on a cold screen.
Finding the essence of a character early in the story is a process that goes soul-deep. It’s not for the faint of heart. If I step out of my main character’s perspective, I need to correct it at that point, not avoid it as I’m tempted to do. The process contains more trepidation than writing the later chapters. I probably spend as much time on the first three or so chapters as I do on the rest of the book. They have to be perfect or close to it. It’s the reason why page 1, paragraph 1, line 1 has to be exactly right. It sets the voice and tone and tells me who my heroine is so I can interpret her for the reader. Once I have that voice, it’s so loud and clear it helps me stay on the right path.
In Nathan Bransford’s wonderful article “How to Craft a Great Voice,” he writes, “Your voice is in you. It’s not you per se, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration…” or more. For some of us, that’s the most frightening part. It’s part of us exposed on the page. It’s up to me to coax my main character’s voice out of her and find out what she wants to say. I’m tempted to say that portraying that voice accurately is my problem, but let’s be positive and say it’s my decision how to choose to interpret her.
Those countless hours we spend on the opening pages are among the most significant in the writing process. When we’re desperate and even the Thesaurus won’t help, the painstaking struggle for the right word can seem endless. There’s no feeling of triumph that compares with finding the right word. Confidence in our decisions speaks louder than words. That’s why we fight so hard to get the opening just right—and it’s what often makes the difference between acceptance and a pass.
Karen Frisch’s historical romance What’s in a Name is currently available from Avalon Books. She has also written a Victorian mystery, Murder Most Civil, and a Regency romance, Lady Delphinia’s Deception. All are available on Amazon, as are her two genealogy books, Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs and Creating Junior Genealogists.