Peyton Place RevisitedOr, don’t sneak into your bookBy Don McNair
Not long ago, when I was asked how writing has changed in my forty years of writing and editing, I immediately recalled reading Peyton Place. It came out the year I graduated high school in 1956.
That was fine writing! It grasped the attention of the nation, which loved to debate its bringing sex out of the bedroom into full public view. Copycat books followed, as did a TV show and who knows what else.
Well, I tried re-reading it a few months ago, and stopped. I was hit by how slowly the writer had started it. Author Grace Metalious would not have made it in today’s fast-paced world, because a publisher’s editor would simply not have gotten far enough into it to see its values.
Today’s authors must jump right into the action, in that first paragraph. Editors demand it. They’ll pick up your manuscript, open it to its first page, and—if they’re not immediately engrossed—reject it and move on. Telling them that things will really start happening on page six won’t keep them from it.
Let’s see how the author of Peyton Place approached her story’s opening.
On the first page, she tells us what “Indian summer” is, and uses sculptured wording to do so. Then she informs us that Indian summer came to a town called Peyton Place one year in early October. She tells us about the sky, the leaves on the sidewalks, and so on. She finally focusses in on Elm Street, with its shop awnings, the churches on each end which act as bookends to the town. Then she…
Well, you get the idea. Instead of jumping into the story’s action, Grace Metalious and her fellow writers sneaked in. They could never do that today.
Yet, as a professional editor who’s seen hundreds of manuscripts over forty years, I see some new authors unknowingly try the slow approach. I’m talking about backstories and other information dumps they build into their beginning pages. Publication editors spot these faults a mile away, and send out polite letters saying the story was provocative, but wasn’t what they need at this time.
Look at the opening of your own Work in Progress. Does it start with action? Or do you keep readers on hold as you provide information you think they need to understand the story? If the latter, it may be one reason you’re not published.
I edited a story recently that had exactly that problem. It opened with the heroine seated at her computer, wondering if she should answer the email she’d just received from a “friend” who stole her boyfriend two years before. She thinks about it for twenty-six long pages. I’ll admit a lot of exciting things happened back then, but that doesn’t count as action today. The story’s real-time action? The girl got up from her computer, drove home, and entered her apartment. That’s it!
The lesson? Start with meaningful action. Use a hook in the first paragraph that asks readers (and editors) questions they want answered, and keep them engaged. If you don’t, they won’t be around long.
Don McNair is a professional editor and the author of ten published novels and non-fiction books. His latest, “Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave,” can be reviewed and ordered at his website, http://DonMcNair.com.