>First, You Breathe in His Nostrils


So we’ve been talking about characters – the good, the bad and the ugly – but there is one thing that ties right back to my long disquisition on voice.

Just like I said your plot is a means to test the character (and I’ll be happy to explain that later, or the others can, I’m sure), the voice is a means to make the character live. You must have the reader present THERE, or it’s all for nothing.

I’m going on about this, because it’s all too easy to slip into what I call “sheet of glass” writing if you’re tired or sick, and then you need to have some idea what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I’m going to be insufferable and give examples from my own writing – well, one of them a collaboration with my friend, Kate Paulk who will be joining us soon.

Kate and I were working on this story (in the Valdemar Antho above) while we were both on deadline for other projects and so tired we might as well have painted eyes on our eyelids and slept through it. So the first version of the opening we came up with was this:

*Heart, Home and Hearth

The air smelled of snow to come. Ree snuggled closer to Jem in the burrow they had claimed for the night and wished he knew what to do. Summer learning to live wild, putting more and more distance between them and the walls of Jacona — and the Emperor’s soldiers — had been hard on Jem.

The younger boy was all human, unlike Ree. He didn’t have fur to protect him, didn’t have the sharper senses of the rat and cat that had merged with Ree in the Changecircle last winter. Since they’d escaped Jacona and the hunt for hobgoblins like Ree, Jem had grown thinner until his bones showed under his skin even though between Ree’s animal instincts and Jem getting wicked good with a slingshot they had plenty to eat most days.

But that was summer. Fall meant less to eat, and Jem’s clothes weren’t much better than rags. When it started to get colder at night, they’d tried scraping a deer hide clean and Jem wrapping himself in that, but it stank too much and got stiff and cracked. Neither of them wanted to leave the forest to try to steal clothes from the farms and towns they’d seen from the forest edges. *

It’s not bad, but we felt like you could hear the telegraph cables twang along the way. So we worked on it. This is the same opening in its final version:

*Heart, Home and Hearth
Sarah A. Hoyt
Kate Paulk

The air had a sharp bite and you could smell snow even deep in the narrow earthen borrow, under the roots of a great oak tree, where Ree and Jem had taken refuge.

Winter is coming, Ree thought. There’s no escaping it. He felt Jem shake with cough in his sleep, and snuggled closer, trying to keep the younger boy warm. Summer had been all right for living wild and putting more and more ground between themselves and Jacona — and the Emperor’s soldiers.

Even though Jem was all human and didn’t have the sharper senses of the rat and cat that had merged with Ree during the Changecircle last winter, he had got wicked good with a slingshot. With Ree’s animal instincts to lead the hunt, they’d rarely missed a meal. But the last few weeks, it had gotten so cold, and it seemed like all animals were either hybernating or had gone South for the winter. And you could see Jem’s bones through his skin. Hells you could see them through the rags that passed for his clothes. And he was cold all the time, and for the last three days he’d been coughing all the time, and wheezing when they walked too fast.*

Do you see a difference? Is there a difference? Am I imagining things?

Again, the same, with my own writing, the novel DarkShip Thieves coming out in January. This is the original run at the opening:
* Daddy’s Girl

I never wanted to go to Space. I never had the slightest interest in spaceships. The colonization of other worlds left me cold. I never even hankered to visit Circum-Terra or to see the energy trees up close, by the faint glow of almost-ripe energy pods.

There were people who dreamed of all of this. They cornered me at parties and social occasions — adenoidal boys, skinny and overeager, with greasy hair and lumpy suits; and sad girls, awkward in dresses, their faces white and pasty and virgin of make up.

They talked of space-materials — ceramite and dimatough — strong enough to withstand travel through the void and light enough to consume very little fuel. They spoke of thrusters, acceleration, g-force, gravitation, sustainable space colonies.

Their eyes grew doleful, and their voices vibrated with tears when they spoke of how the human race had abandoned its birthright to outer space after the turmoils two hundred years ago.

In the late twenty second century, they’d tell me, their faces earnest, the mules had built an intergalactic spaceship and they’d made plans for colonizing the solar system in fifty years.*

This is the version that WILL be published:

I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in discovering the truth about the darkships. You always get what you don’t ask for.

Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.

Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Not rationally. There was no rationality to it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.

The engines, below me, hummed steadily. We had just detached from Circum Terra – a maneuver that involved some effort, to avoid accidentally ramming the station or the ship. Shortly we’d be Earth bound, though slowing down and reentry let alone landing, for a ship this size, would take close to a week.

My head felt a little light, my stomach a little queasy, from the artificial grav. Yes, I know. Scientists say that’s impossible. They say artificial gravity is just like true gravity to the senses. You don’t feel a thing. They are wrong. Artificial grav always made me feel a little out of balance, like a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach.

Even before waking fully, I’d tallied all this. There was nothing out of the ordinary. And yet there was a stranger in my cabin.*

So, again am I imagining things, or does the second one work better? And if it does, can we discuss why? Why the character comes more alive in the second version than in the first of both of these?


  1. >Okay — I’m holding my breath till I get a comment. Don’t make me come out there!If you’re thinking “I like the first one better” or “The damn woman is crazy” then post that.I WILL post my sonnets, which are romantic, sappy and worse than anything Dave could ever write.You HAVE been warned.

  2. >Ref the Darkships passages.I preferred the second scene,the first was just much too mean.What is it exactly you people have against poetry?

  3. >I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while. Why don’t the pictures of books take you to, for instance, an Amazon link?Oh and BTW if I’m being a nuisance in the comments, just tell me to can the natter. I like what you’re doing here and tend towards over-enthusiasm.

  4. >Anton, you’re most certainly NOT being a nuisance.Well, exactly, she does hate some stuff, but if you introduce a character with hate, it puts people off.As for poetry, I’m a recovering poet. It’s been ten years, six months, five days since the last sonnet, but even one couplet would be too much…I can’t speak for Dave, which is good, because he’d make a very bad ventriloquist dummy. 😛

  5. >I have seen some of your poetry, Sarah, and it’s good. Now, if you’d threatened to SING at us, especially if you were threatening a duet with O’Mike, that would be a completely different matter. [VBEG]And I can’t believe Dave could write bad poetry, and I bet he can write some really good limericks. 😉

  6. >Amanda, you dellusional woman! Coff. Good? Meh. And fie, you’ve never seen it!Duet with OMike… um…And Anton, btw, the problem with getting a link to the book — which I agree would be good — is that I’m technologically illiterate. I shall ask my husband. 😀

  7. >In both cases, the second examples are better. In the Valdemar case, while neither example is precisely correct in grammer, the first example has some places where the words do not flow and are confusing. For Dark Ship Thieves, our heroine is trying too hard to support her line of argument that she never wanted to travel into space. I tend to overexplain things in conversation, including supporting arguments that are unneeded, taking forever to get to the point, dancing around tangents while I try to figure out how to get to my point, and then going back to something I’d last mentioned fifteen minutes, an hour, or sometimes weeks ago. Here, the materials science, the expediation, and the physical descriptions are unneeded at this time.

  8. >The second version of DST is an excellent example of what I wish I could do. In the first couple of paragraphs you give the reader insight into your main character AND you establish, without hitting the reader over the head, the fact that something very wrong has happened. The voice you’ve established is compelling and interesting. You want to keep reading, to see what sort of trouble Athena has gotten herself into and how she’s going to get herself out of it.The difference between the first and second versions of both are the differences between a narrative and pulling the reader into the story. The “voice” is an active part of the story, if that makes any sense.Now, how do I get the same results in my writing? (whimper — grin)

  9. >Sarah, for me the difference is between Deep PV and ordinary Third Person PV.Deep PV makes the story more intimate and immediate.Plus more the story and problem is established in the second versions. Although, I’ve been cornered at parties by those same earnest socially awkward teenagers. I was one of them!

  10. >My technique is to TRY to be “really there.” To be in the character’s mind, as it were. We call it “Third, close in” — though DST is first. 🙂 But the two are very similar.

  11. >Sarah said : “I WILL post my sonnets, which are romantic, sappy and worse than anything Dave could ever write.”(doleful voice) Ack. I see the coming of the bad poetry duel. Where is the nearest deep cowering spot?

  12. >Oh, the details of the “be really there” technique involve things like — cut out dead weight words like “I thought” — just give the thoughts, underlined, if needed. If not needed, like, it’s in frist person, just give the thoughts in their stremy consciousny glory. Also, what is your character feeling, physically? Touch back to that every few lines. It makes the character far more real if you know he shivered, or whatever. Doesn’t give you the feel of “disembodied brain.” Don’t overdue it. We really don’t want to know your character’s underwear is too tight.Rowena — as far as the too much irrelevant information goes, that first manuscript of DST is the result of excessive workshopping. People WILL say things like “I need to know right up front what century I’m in.” Or “You should tell us what the technology is”. This is one of the dangers of a writers’ workshop (Perhaps a later topic?) because people don’t read for workshops as they do for entertainment and there’s always the “I must say something” syndrome. If you don’t have the confidence to withstand the advice — I tend to take EVERY piece of advice people give me, because I have NO self-confidence. Still, yah. — then have also a cople or five “beta readers” who either are not writers or are reading your stuff because “it’s fun” and give it to them at the same time as your group, to provide a balance.

  13. >Oh, if you can find someone who is a good editor BUT capable of reading as a reader (one of my friends is like this) then you’ve found a jewel beyond price and do whatever you need to keep things working. 😀

  14. >The second is clearly better. You want reasons? Take the DST example (interesting cover, btw).The opening paragaph of the second, with its (dare I say, almost poetic?) repetition of the sentence pattern (“Never wanted to…”) really emphasizes that negativity towards the whole idea. There’s the hint of mystery (“discovering the truth about the darkships”), pulling the reader into the rest of the story. And “You always get what you don’t ask for.” Great line, again hinting of trouble to come.That is a killer first paragraph.Then, in the first version, you follow that okay (but not killer) first para with four paragraphs of – at that point – irrelevance. They’re reasonably well written paragraphs, but talking about something/someone else, not what the protagonist is or is doing. So irrelevant on the first page.The second version gets into the action, expanding on how the protag feels (deeper PV as Rowena puts it), dumping us into the first conflict (“stranger in my cabin”).Wish I could write like that.

  15. >Alistair,I LOVE that cover. It’s the best cover ever. Next week on Wednesday I’m holding a contest on this very blog for a t-shirt with that cover on it. 😀

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