CURRENT GIVEAWAY CONTESTS

Here are my current Giveaway Contests

UNDER LOCK AND KEY through May 20th
THE BLACK WITCH through May 20th
THE EMPEROR'S RIDDLE through June 3rd

Upcoming Agent Spotlights and Query Critique Giveaways

Bibi Lewis on 6/12/2017
Kelly Van Sant on 6/21/2017

Tip Tuesday #157

Tip Tuesday features writers' tips on craft, research, querying, blogging, marketing, inspiration, and more. If you'd like to send in a tip, please e-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

Peyton Place Revisited
Or, don’t sneak into your book


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.

34 comments:

  1. I sometimes pick up older books and don't sink into them right away. I realize that my expectations have changed since modern books are different. When I was young I didn't mind slow beginnings and many of the books I chanced upon had them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess your reaction confirms my own. I've slowed down over the past seventy or so years, but I like my novels fast-paced from the get-go. It's something every writer should consider.

      Delete
    2. It's similar here. I used to be a book snob. If it wasn't Literature (with a capital L), I didn't read it. If the book didn't "get good" in the first 100 pages, I was okay with that. I even enjoyed it.

      Now that I'm a mere bibliophile, I want to get into my books' plots quick and dirty. The snob in me is saddened, but the bibliophile is satisfied.

      Delete
  2. When I was in classes at the college my English professor and I got into at length conversations about how books have changed.
    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great points, Don. You won't get anywhere these days not only with a reader, but also with an agent or publisher without a strong, fast paced opening.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What upsets me are books that grab you by the throat in the first few paragraphs only to cool off horribly! LOL! Like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Great first page but by golly the next 29 pages....

    Take care
    x

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think you've all confirmed that it's a new day today, and we have to catch the reader's attention from the get-go. "Old Kitty" makes a good point. We can't just make a splash and then float for several pages. Publication editors find a similar problem when writers edit their first chapter to the nth degree, then slack off the rest of the book.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I read Peyton Place not so long ago and it was slow. In fact, a lot of books I loved back then I find start off slow - except for those historical romances. I have to say those pretty much hooked me from he first few pages.

    I think it also has to do with how rushed we are. There's not enough time anymore to relax in a hammock on a Saturday afternoon and just read for hours.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've heard those kinds of beginnings called gangplank beginnings. They help the author get aboard the ship but should be left on shore when you set sail.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hmmm.. interesting. I think a lot of older books would never fly in today's market. But I think a lot of unpubbed writers also make the mistake of starting too early in the action before the reader can care about the character.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I see what Don is saying. I think many of today's readers want to get the niceties out of the way and just get straight to the story on the first page. But sometimes if there's not a whole lot of action in the first pages, I might still keep reading if the content is presented in an interesting way.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great work
    Good tips
    I am a book lover
    Keep inform
    I just joined in
    Ann Philip

    ReplyDelete
  11. It does make me very curious about how books will change in the next 20 years. Will it cycle back around to easy-going get to know you openings? Or maybe it will change so that the opening is no longer an exciting sentence, but an vivid flashing picture.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It's rather sad that we can't just enjoy slower books anymore. I love my fast paced and action packed books as much as anyone, but I like the slower ones if their done right. Great thoughts and a great tip!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Jocelyn, I really think you're on to something. The technology's certainly here for the flashing-picture opening, what with e-books and so on. Any moment a New York publishing mogol will "think up that idea," and we'll have another paradign shift.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Sooner or later we'll all be publishing outlines instead of stories, and readers won't really have time to read the whole thing:(

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great tip! I admit my first self-pubbed novel starts with a one paragraph nightmare that gives hints about the action of the book, then I jump back into the character's slightly slower paced normal life when she's anticipating change . . . I couldn't start it without that nightmare, although I felt like I was cheating, because it was too slow originally. Funnily, I got a comment from a friend that stated she thought it all started too fast.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I'm adding his book to my wishlist. I seem to read about it everywhere I go right now, and it sounds better and better. :-)

    I cut the first chapter out of my WIP, then the third and fourth chapters, too. Now I can't even remember what was in them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great story, Kessie. I'm thinking a lot of newer writers would be better off tossing that first chapter. At least the first few pages.

      Delete
  17. The beginning chapter is really hard! I definitely agree that it has to grab the reader immediately and I know with my massive TBR if I'm not interested right away I set it aside. But I know it can really be a challenge to get that first chapter just right. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  18. We are a different audience nowadays, aren't we? Great advice on beginnings.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's the same thing in film. We're a society of adrenaline junkies. lol

    ReplyDelete
  20. Some people can pull it off well, but only if it's short. Twenty-six pages is far from short. If I was deliberating whether to open an email for that long, I'd probably fall asleep.

    ReplyDelete
  21. This just shows how the Media has changed our brains and shortened our attention. I love description: love reading it-love writing it, but most readers skim that part and go for the action.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Awesome tips! Meaningful action. I definitely try to start off with that when writing.
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

    ReplyDelete
  23. 26 pages?! Wow. It's hard to nail your beginning, that's for sure. I've gotten better over the years, but admit I still struggle. Ans sometimes to takes someone else to point it out to you! THANKS!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Fantastic tips. Action should start from the very first chapter with a great opeing line to hook a reader in.

    Nas

    ReplyDelete
  25. So true.... Even books from ten years ago wouldn'take it through today's editors and agents....

    ReplyDelete
  26. I'll be sure to check out Don's book. And thanks for the trip down memory lane. I hate to admit this, but I remember Peyton Place.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Great tip :D Thank you both for sharing. <3
    Thank you for commenting on my WoW. <3
    Love, Carina @ Carina's Books

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thank you, Mr. McNair.

    I visited your website and found even more "tips" - I especially enjoyed reading about your writing journey.

    Best,
    Heather Villa

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thank you, Mr. McNair.

    I visited your website and found even more "tips" - I especially enjoyed reading about your writing journey.

    Best,
    Heather Villa

    ReplyDelete
  30. Start with meaningful action is going to be my mantra. Blind action doesn't necessary draw readers in any more than a person sitting at their computer thinking about sending an email.

    ReplyDelete
  31. You hit on such a fascinating and true point. Everything today is go, go, go. Who knows, maybe that is tied to technology. Now that entertainment and communicaiton are at our finger tips, we seem to need a lot of instant gratification.

    I can't say I am any different :) I want immediately engaging reading as much as the next person. This is something I have come a long way with in my own writing (and still have room to grow). Thank you for the tip :)

    ReplyDelete