What’s the deal with Passive Voice?

We’ve all heard the writing advice, “Avoid passive voice,” but many writers seem to be confused about what passive voice really means. Rather than waste time demonizing “was” and “is” writers need to know what passive voice really is and when to use it correctly. (Yes, there is a place for it!)

What is Passive Voice anyway?

I’m a member of several Facebook writing groups. In one of these groups, members like to post two sentences and ask which one sounds better. I find this practice to be useless, since, without the surrounding context, it’s impossible to determine which sentence works best. At its worst, this has inspired lengthy commentary of compounding bad advice that, if heeded, would lead an unsuspecting writer down a horrible path.

One of these recent discussions was a writer asking for advice on rewriting her sentence in active voice.

The room was cold and drafty.

This isn’t passive voice.

The verb was/is does not automatically mean the sentence is in the passive voice.

Passive voice is a sentence whose subject does not perform the action.

“John was attacked by wild dogs.” -passive. John is the subject, but the dogs are performing the action.

“Wild dogs attacked John.”– active. Dogs is the subject and the dogs are performing the action.

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Use the zombie test to check for passive voice

One of my favorite ways to check for passive voice is to use the “by zombies” trick. (If anyone knows the original inventor of this device, please let me know in the comments so I can credit it.) If you can insert “by zombies” after the main verb and the sentence makes sense, then you have passive voice.

John was attacked (by zombies) Passive voice. John is the subject of the sentence, but he is not performing the action “attacked.”

John attacked (by zombies) Active voice. John is the subject and he is performing the action.

However, this test is not fool-proof

John was annoyed (by zombies) Not passive.

In this instance, annoyed is functioning as an adjective. Annoyed describes John’s emotional state making this a linking verb rather than passive voice. This is an exceptional case because annoyed can be either an adjective or a verb depending on context. If the sentence were “John was annoyed by zombies,” the word’s function in that sentence is unclear. Is John feeling annoyed about zombies in general, (in which case annoyed would be an adjective and the sentence: active voice- linking verb) or are the zombies actively antagonizing poor John? (Which would indicate passive voice.)

Was/is doesn’t always mean passive voice.

Every time I see someone post on Twitter that they are removing every instance of the verb “to be” from their manuscripts, I shudder. There is nothing wrong with these verbs. They are an important part of the English language.

Active vs. passive voice and action vs. linking verbs

Most of the confusion seems to come from the close association of action verbs with active voice. These are not synonymous. Active voice is a sentence whose subject performs the action. Action verbs describe what a subject does: run, jump, stand etc.

Active voice sentences can use either action verbs or linking verbs.

John smelled the flowers. (Active voice-Action verb)
John smelled like flowers. (Active voice-Linking verb)

Notice that some verbs can function as action or linking verbs. In the first sentence John is performing the action: smelled. In the second example smelled connects to subject (John) to the words that describe him (flowers).

Linking verbs are those that connect a subject to the word or words that describe the subject.

The most common linking verbs are forms of to be: am, is, are, was, were, being, been. Other linking verbs include, appear, become, feel, grow, look, remain, seem, smell, sound, stay, taste, and turn.

John is angry
John feels sad
John looks tired.

These are all active voice but use linking verbs.

Another important usage of forms of “to be” is the progressive tense.

Progressive tense combines a form of “to be” with an action verb.

John was sitting in a chair.

Eliminating the helping verb (was) in this case would change the meaning of the sentence.

John sat in the chair.

In the first example, John was already in the chair when the scene began. In the second example, John began the scene standing and then sat at some point during the scene. Blindly eliminating every “to be” verb from your manuscript is a recipe for disaster.

So why do so many writing advice blogs seem to hate the verb “to be?”

The problem comes in amateur usage.

Correctly using Passive voice

As a normal rule, passive voice should be avoided because it confuses the subject and action creating a weaker sentence. However, there are times when the use of passive voice is necessary to create a desired effect.

For example, this is the opening sentence from my query letter

18-year-old Koa only has a few months left to complete a year-long solo tour of her oceanic kingdom when she is attacked by pirates who want to steal her water dragon.

In this sentence, I chose to use passive voice to keep the focus on Koa, rather than switch to the pirates. I could have broken the sentence into two, but that would have changed the weight of the paragraph. Since the first two sentences of the query introduce the two POV characters, I wanted them to have equal weight. Giving one character more sentences would have thrown off the balance between them.

Using passive voice is acceptable if you want to keep the focus on the recipient or if the party performing the action is unimportant or unknown.

John was mugged. Passive voice. We don’t know who mugged John.
The papers were lost. Passive voice. We don’t know who lost the papers.

Correctly using Linking verbs

Overuse of linking verbs can lead to pages of static descriptions and characters who do nothing.

Writing bloggers will tell you to combat this with “active settings” or similar devices. For example,

The wall was tall. becomes The wall loomed over us.

However, active settings can also be overdone. Consider:

It was raining the day they brought John’s body home.

The amateur rewrite might try:
Rain poured from the sky the day they brought John’s body home. (Which sounds ridiculous, where else would rain come from?)
Rain soaked into our bones the day they brought John’s body home. (ick, overly dramatic and sounds like writing pa-twey!)

There’s nothing wrong with “It was raining.” It sounds natural because this is the way people actually speak. Avoiding all linking verbs will leave your prose sounding overworked and unnatural.

Correctly using Progressive tenses

Unless you are overusing this construction, there is no reason to eliminate progressive tenses from your writing.

Everyone has a demon. Mine is sitting in a beat up leather recliner smoking a menthol.

In this sentence, the demon is already sitting in the chair when the narration begins. Eliminating the “is” would change the meaning of the sentence. Again, there is nothing wrong with using forms of “to be.”

Stop demonizing was and is

Forms of the verb “to be” have a place in your writing. Progressive tenses, linking verbs, and even passive voice are tools in your writing arsenal. All three are useful, and should not be thoughtlessly eliminated. Examine each instance and see if you are using them correctly, and that you are achieving the desired effect. Rather than demonizing “to be,” master its use and take your writing to the next level.

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To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click here.

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Creating a Killer First Line

The Secret to Writing a Great First Line

The first line is the most examined line in your story. Many readers will use this small collection of words to judge your entire book. Make sure your opening line is selling your story.

According to Jeff Gerke, an opening line must be “simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book.” (The First 50 Pages, p. 193)

Creating a simple opening line

Opening lines need to have one idea. Too often writers want to pack too much information into an opening line. As a result, the opening line answers whatever question it poses and leaves the reader no compelling reason to read further. Or it becomes too convoluted and confusing for the reader to follow. Deliver information in manageable bites. No one wants to eat the entire steak at once. No matter how delicious it is.

Compare:

The scent of fresh baked cookies hits my nose as I entered my best friend Julie’s bakery, The Cookie Brigade, making my stomach growl, while my brain simultaneously reminded me that I only have three more weeks to fit into my size 6 wedding dress.

or

The scent of fresh baked cookies filled me with an overwhelming sense of doom.

Notice how the simple line is much easier to swallow. It also sets up a question, inviting the reader to learn more.

Creating an engaging first line

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An engaging first line is one that captures the reader’s interest. Sounds simple, but this is the part that trips most writers because what captures a reader’s interest if subjective. It’s also difficult because the writer already knows where the scene is going so it’s difficult to get enough distance from the subject to see if the first line is truly engaging.

Gerke further explains that effective opening lines fall into four categories: Striking, profound, funny, mysterious. (p. 197)

Striking: Everyone has a demon; mine is sitting in a beat-up leather recliner smoking menthols.

Profound: The worst evil was always the one hiding behind respectability.

Funny: There are two things that work best when they’re invisible: God and underwear.

Mysterious: I woke up on the other side, knowing there was no way home.

Matching the tone

The first line is the introduction to your book. It must match the overall tone of the story. No matter how snappy your opening line is, if it doesn’t match the rest of the book it doesn’t work. Imagine beginning your gothic horror with a joke, or your rom-com with a graphic depiction of violence. It doesn’t work.

Steps to creating your opening line

  1. Plan out your scene.
    This scene must start your story. There must be conflict. The conflict does not have to be the story’s main conflict, but it must be the first step in your character’s journey. No false starts. No matter how clever or funny the dialogue, or how much world-building, or character building you have in the scene, if the conflict isn’t part of the character’s journey, it does not get the responsibility of being your first chapter. There is too much at stake to waste those critical first pages not telling the story.
  2. Visualize your character at the beginning of this scene.
    Have a clear picture of where your character is, what she wants, and what is in her way. Once you have this, you can decide where you need to start your scene. Only show the reader enough for the conflict to make sense.
  3. Now write what is right in front of your character’s face.
    This can be literally right in front of their face, or it can be the last thought that runs through your character’s mind. Remember the character must be focused on his current conflict. The opening line must introduce or lead to this conflict.

Have something? Now make sure it passes Gerke’s test. Is it simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book?

Yes? Great job. If not, figure out which element isn’t working and try again.

A memorable opening line can sell your book

Writing your opening line is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The effective opening is a simple, engaging hook that introduces your story and gives the reader a reason to continue. By using Gerke’s checklist you will be sure you have created the introduction your novel deserves.

Further reading: (not affiliate, I genuinely recommend this book)

AWC podcast mention

Austrailian Writers’ Centre mentions The Manuscript Shredder in recent podcast

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Bonus post!

It’s always a plesant surprise when I see someone has linked to one of my articles, but I was completely floored when the Austrain Writers’ Centre referenced my scene goals article in their most recent podcast The Three Types of Editing You Need.

I know you’ll want to listen to the whole podcast, but my article is mentioned starting in minute 24.

Listen on iTunes

Happy Writing!

Writing a Killer First Page

 

Nothing brings a writer more agony than writing the first page of their novel. There are plenty of articles listing what not to do on the first page, but what writers really need is a list of “dos”

What a first page must do

1. Start the story

This might seem like a facepalm piece of advice, but I’ve seen enough manuscripts to know that too many writers do not start their stories on the first page. They use it to world-build, or describe their characters, or backstory dump, pretty much anything except get the plot rolling.

How do we start the story?

Identify your story’s inciting incident. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.) Now work backward. Map out the specific list of events that leads your character to that moment. In this case, we see Katniss in her daily struggles to feed her family. The entire purpose of the exposition is to show how Katniss feels responsible for Prim, and she is willing to risk her life for her sister.

How far back should I go?

Only go back as far as the reader needs to understand the inciting incident. For some stories that might only be a few minutes. In the case of the Hunger Games, Collins only went back to the morning of the Reaping. Why? Because this was the only day that was different. Going back further wouldn’t add anything to the story.

2. Introduce the world/setting

Wait, didn’t you just say not to?
Introducing the setting does not mean sitting at a table describing it. It means showing your characters interacting with the setting and showing how the setting affects your characters.

For example,

The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either. So they just sat there day after day turning into dust. Like everything else in this house. Grandma’s flower couch, my uncle’s recliner, that still reeked of cigarettes, the wobbly table mom picked up in a thrift shop.

It’s a good description, but it doesn’t move the story forward. Instead, show the setting’s effect on the character.

The pantry was empty. It looked full, but there was nothing in those boxes. A couple of noodles, a bit of cereal, not enough to make a meal so no one ate them, but no one would throw them out either.
My stomach growled. For some reason, it’s the only thing around here that never learned to give up. Maybe I can get a dollar out of Mom’s purse. She’s always got a few stashed back for cigarettes.

In the second example, we aren’t just told about her poverty, we see its effect on the character. Now the setting provides motivation for action, propelling the story forward.

3. Hook the reader

Hooking the reader is nothing more than raising a question. There must be something on the first page that propels the reader to learn more.

Hooks can come in several forms.

  1. An interesting world/premise- This is difficult to accomplish, make sure you have something truly unique. Pride, and Prejudice, and Zombies is a good example.
  2. A compelling mystery- Mysteries, thrillers, cop procedurals, and sometimes horror novels use this hook.
  3. Emotional hook- A powerful emotional connection formed between the character and the reader.
  4. Conflict*

Conflict gets a star because it will be present in all the other hooks.

There’s some debate about whether the conflict must begin on page 1 or even line 1. I’ve heard both, and there are plenty of examples where either is true.

Before I elaborate on this question, I need to distinguish between conflict (a problem a character faces in a story) and Conflict (the main obstacle in a novel)

Does the story’s main Conflict need to appear on page 1?

No.

There can be hints. It can be in the background or foreshadowed. All these are fine, but it is not necessary to have the story’s main Conflict appear on page 1. While some stories can begin this way, there are plenty of novels where tripping over the villain on the first page simply wouldn’t work.

Rules for conflict on page 1fist-page

Yes! There must be a conflict on page 1. Some people will say from the opening line, but I give writers till the end of the first paragraph, (assuming the first three sentences work together as a whole.)

This conflict must be:

Relatable

Your readers must be able to understand the problem without any explanation. If you’re not sure, consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what your setting is, people will understand conflicts from this list: hunger, shelter, safety, group identity, etc. If a reader can’t understand a conflict, she cannot empathize with the character.

Immediate

The conflict must be right in front of the character. Your character can’t be sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her problem. It needs to be right there in the same room with her. She needs to be actively struggling against it. If you find your character sitting and thinking about the problem that happened last week, switch to that scene and show that event.

Compelling

Writing a compelling conflict is nothing more than presenting the first two points in an interesting way. If you’ve succeeded in the first two points, the reader will naturally want to know if the character overcomes the obstacle. Even the most mundane conflicts can become interesting if the character is sympathetic. We make the character sympathetic by showing the character struggle.

Now improve the conflict by adding the consequences of failure.

All conflicts must have stakes (consequences for failure). Pay attention to the balance between the two. Stakes that are too extreme or not strong enough are not compelling. Again, make sure the stakes are clear and relatable to the audience.

Part of the character’s journey

Whatever the conflict is on the first page, it must be the first stepping stone on the character’s journey. The consequences of whatever choices the character makes on the first page need to lead into the next conflict.

This is called “Yes, but, or no, and” style plotting. If you use another plotting method, you can use this as a test to make sure all your elements tie together.

How it works:

At the end of a scene (or scene/sequel unit) ask: Was the conflict solved?

Answer the question:
Yes, but…The solution caused another problem

Or

No, and…this is how things got worse.

Using this simple device will help you make sure your conflict chain remains unbroken through the entire novel.

The first page is the most important page in your story

The first page is the introduction to your entire novel. It is the gateway that will either hook a reader or turn them away. Writing a compelling first page can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. By following these steps, you can create an opening that will draw your reader into the story, and guarantee they will turn the page.

Further reading: (Not affiliate, I genuinely recommend these books.)

Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox

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Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Why are we here?”

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Use scene goals to keep your chapters off the chopping block

As an editor, I’ve seen first chapters that try to create an entire world, spill a character’s life story, introduce an entire cast complete with grocery list description, or rant about a social/political issue. What they seem to almost never do is start the story. A character sitting in a coffee shop thinking thoughts is not a plot. (yes, it’s almost always a coffee shop) You need scene goals.

Scene goals give your characters a reason to exist

Question 1: What does he/she want/need?

A character must want something at the beginning of the scene.

But wait? It’s the beginning of the story, she doesn’t have a problem yet.

Unless she sprung up wholly formed from the ground right before page one, we can assume your character already has a life, and every life has problems. If you don’t know what these problems are, then you need to work on your character’s backstory. Let’s consider our friend at the coffee shop. Rather than describe the setting around her, we need to give her a goal: her desire to eat her danish in peace.

What stands in his/her way?

This is the conflict. Stories must start with a conflict, right on page one, preferably in the first paragraph. This does not have to be the main conflict. It can also be implied.

For example, in the novel Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, her opening line. “I’ve read many more books than you,” only hints at the main conflict, but it’s there. Yoon knows many people who will read her book will likely be avid readers, it sets up a conflict between the MC and the reader.

The statement makes a challenge, and just like on the playground, the reader’s initial instinct would be to say, “No way.” It also challenges the reader to investigate further to see if this statement is actually true.

Let’s move back to our coffee shop example. Something needs to prevent our heroine from enjoying that danish in peace.

The chatty best friend with some kind of man trouble? (yawn) Dig a little deeper.
Are the Avengers fighting outside? (better)

How do we reveal that conflict?

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Since the juxtaposition is pretty extreme, this sets a comedic tone. She could be pausing during her conversation to accommodate explosions, or struggling to spread the butter when the table shakes from the giant robot clomping down the street. Keep the focus on how the circumstances are affecting your main character, and how the main character is working to overcome that obstacle.

Now add emotion

How is the conflict affecting the character’s emotions? Is she annoyed by the Avengers? How do these emotions motivate her to react and respond? What do they drive your character to do? This is the beginning of your character arc. How a character responds to a motivation is the basis of their character. Emotion is the first reaction to any motivation. Make sure you do not ignore this essential element.

Where are we going?

Once you have a solid scene, complete with character motivation and conflict, we need to know how this scene relates to the overall plot. In other words, how does this scene get your character to their ultimate goal? For this, you need to have an outline, plot board, or even a summary of plot points. For discovery writers, this can be done after the first draft is finished.

Planning your scene- a template

What does this scene need to accomplish?

Beginning: What does my character want/need at the beginning of this scene?

Key elements

  1. Motivation: character’s need
  2. Conflict: what stands in the way?
  3. Stakes: what will happen if the character fails?

Body: Show character working toward this goal and struggling against the obstacle. Make sure the MC’s actions are consistent with her character arc.

Results: What changes? Possible outcomes:

Possible outcomes: Is the conflict resolved, or unresolved?

If the conflict is resolved, propel the reader forward by increasing tension.

Increase tension in a resolved conflict:

  1. Are new conflicts introduced? If so, how?
  2. Did solution create more problems? If so how?

If the conflict is unresolved, raise the stakes by adding complicating factors

  1. Has the situation gotten worse? If so how?
  2. Have the consequences gotten worse? If so how?

This will force your MC to regroup and formulate a new plan.

Dark moment/new question

The secret to getting readers to turn the page is ending your chapters with a compelling question or an “Oh crap!” reveal. This does not mean every chapter should end on a cliff hanger. (You will annoy your readers.)

If the scene’s purpose is formulating the plan, leave the reader with a sense of tension about the upcoming mission. If your scene’s purpose if increasing the stakes, drop the critical information close to the end of the scene.

In these scenarios, the reader will be asking, “What will happen next?” This will help propel your reader into the next chapter.

Make a plan for your scene, or your scene will fail

Planning your scenes with specific goals will help ensure each scene is an effective part of your story. Scene goals will give your characters a purpose and keep your story from wandering. They will increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click here.

Eliminating overused words

Overused words will ruin your prose

Every writer has words or phrases that habitually show up in their work. Like a verbal tick, writers insert them without even thinking. They become fillers when we need something in the space, or a crutch when we’re not sure what the character should really be doing. They badger the reader by constantly drawing attention to themselves forcing the reader to examine the box, rather than the story inside. Don’t let overused words ruin your prose.

Identifying an overused wordrepetitive-phrases-pin

I recently finished a book by a well-known author, published with one of the big five, everything we all want to be, and I noticed something strange: the people in this book smiled.

a lot.

They smiled for deception. They smiled sarcastically. They smiled to calm their nerves. They smiled when they wanted to gloat over a victory. They smiled for just about every emotion, except happiness. And just like that mole on the end grandpa’s nose, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.

I’m not sure if I noticed it because it was used in such a peculiar way, or because I listened to the book rather than read it. (If you haven’t listened to your WIP read aloud, I highly recommend it. Nothing will point out bad writing faster than having it blared out your laptop’s tinny speaker by that lady who answers the phone for your credit card.)

After noticing this peculiarity, ever time I heard the word smiles, it was like being smacked in the head. It yanked me right out of the story and doused in a mad dose of the giggles. So then I started thinking about it. This person is a well-known author, light years ahead of me, was I just imagining this thing? I had to know.

The Kindle app has the ability to count the specific instances of a word in an MS. I typed “smile” into the find bar. Result: 153. Spread out across a 400-page novel that meant someone smiles on average every two and a half pages, which for some words would not even be noticeable. But these instances weren’t spread evenly through the book. They clustered together appearing as many as four times on a page. Nearly every time two characters interacted, they smiled at each other at some point during the conversation. The smile had become a crutch: a habitual word choice inserted without thought.

Word crutches are something most writers have.

Word crutches appear in places where the inner ear senses something is off in the prose. Either a beat is needed between lines of dialogue, a paragraph is too short, or a non-POV character needs a moment to think about something. These crutches bog down an manuscript and make it feel repetitive, or in the case of this particular book, paint an absurd picture where despite pints of blood and gore everyone is perpetually grinning.

Finding Crutches:

More often than not a good CP will find your crutches. However, they will likely not become apparent until well into the MS. So if you’re only passing out your MS in chunks, you’re missing an important opportunity.

Scrivener also has a built in text analysis tool. Select a document. Project> text statistics. You can even organize the list by frequency.

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If you are working in Word, you can run your text through edit minion, or pro writing aid, which will also give you some other interesting nuggets, like passive sentences and cliché alerts.

Once you’ve analyzed your text and found a few candidates, do a “find” in your word processor (I used Word. If anyone knows how to make Scrivener display the number of matches without replacing the word, please let me know) Be sure to click the “find whole word” otherwise it will include all the instances where your word appears as part of another word e.g. “port” in “support” Although you may have to run the search twice to account for plurals or verb tense.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from my MS.

Ex. 1 Mouth.

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85 This is a maybe. This isn’t a romance, so this seems like an excessive use of a word that doesn’t come up much in daily conversation. I’m going to go back and make sure that it isn’t being used in the same way, or in some strange way that draws attention to itself.

Ex. 2 Eyes

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272 This one is definitely a problem. I noticed it originally in my first draft. My supposedly adult MC was constantly rolling her eyes, which made her come off as a snot-nosed tweenager. But it looks like my characters are still spending too much time staring at each other.

Another good one to search for is “look,” since this can indicate you have too much telling in your descriptions. Also, consider doing a was/is search to find passive sentences that could be rewritten in active voice.

But wait, I have 5000 “The’s.”

Little words that are used frequently in daily conversation get a free pass e.g. articles the, a, an, common pronouns, and even the dialogue tag said disappear on the page. And to some extent other frequently used words. The opposite is also true. The more unusual the word, the more your reader’s ear will pick it out. The same goes for words that evoke a strong reaction. How may times do you think your MC can use vomit before it begins to sound stale?

Can I just fix it with a thesaurus?

Probably not. Simply subbing one word for another will not fix an action that has become habitual in your manuscript. If I change half the “shifted his eyes” to “shifted his gaze,” it isn’t going to change the underlying problem that my characters are standing around staring at each other. The crutch word is just the symptom. If I fix the real problem: my characters need to be doing more, the crutch word will disappear on its own.

The next time you read through your MS look out for habitual phrases, actions, and overused words. Taking time to eliminate these from your prose will keep it feeling fresh through the entire story.

Opening Lines: Indie Tidbits Podcast

A rare bonus post to announce I was interviewed on the Indie Tidbits Podcast by Dawn Husted. You can listen to me talk about opening lines and cliche’ beginnings.

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1220229563

Most of the information came straight from the post Engaging Readers from the First Sentence, so you can scan that and literally listen to me read off the page. (Because I don’t trust myself to go off script.)

Enjoy