No stranger to the writing world, Don spent his working life editing magazines (eleven years), producing public relations materials for an international PR firm (six years), and heading his own marketing communications firm, McNair Marketing Communications (twenty-one years). His creativity won him three Golden Trumpets for best industrial relations programs from the Publicity Club of Chicago, a certificate of merit award for a quarterly magazine he wrote and produced, and the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil. The latter is comparable to the Emmy and Oscar in other industries. Wow!
McNair has written and placed hundreds of trade magazine articles and three published non-fiction how-to books. He’s written six novels; two young-adult novels (Attack of the Killer Prom Dresses and The Long Hunter), three romantic suspense novels (Mystery on Firefly Knob, Mystery at Magnolia Mansion, and Waiting for Backup!), and a romantic comedy (BJ, Milo, and the Hairdo from Heck). All are available in e-book format from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and other online venues.
McNair, a member of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and the Editorial Freelancers Association, now concentrates on editing novels for others.
Don’t Sneak into Your Story
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 found a copy of it at a garage sale a month or so ago, and tried re-reading it. I soon 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.
Generally, today’s authors must jump right into the action in their 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 things will really start happening on page six won’t keep them from it.
Is that fair? Well, yes, it is. Isn’t that how we buy books? We spot an interesting cover, read the back-page blurb, and if that’s interesting, glance at the first page. If that first paragraph doesn’t ask a story question we want answered—that is, have a hook—we put the book down and move on.
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. 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, I don’t know what she did next. I stopped reading.
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 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 former 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!
I suggested she start her story two years before when the action happened, and she did. Within two months she sold a book, and now she’s multi-published.
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.
Author of Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Editors Crave. Review his romance and young adult novels at http://DonMcNair.com
As always, we welcome your comments below. Let Don know if you agree or disagree with his comments and your experiences with editing and editors. Mahala