Please, Tell Me the Secrets: Revisiting Robert Newton Peck
Jeanne M. Gerlach and Sati Maharaj-Boggs
What makes writing fun?
Robert Newton Peck, a successful writer of adolescent fiction, answers the preceding questions in his book, Secrets of Successful Fiction. Designed to be read primarily for pleasure, this text is fun and easy to read, and there is nothing to memorize or take notes on (Peck, Secrets, p. 3). In the book, Peck reveals the professional secrets that he used to build his young adult books - books like A Day No Pigs Would Die, Millie's Boy, Fawn, Soup, Soup and Me, and Trig. The author seems to be in general agreement with experts in the field that the same factors that determine good literary quality in adult fiction also determine literary quality in books for adolescents, namely, plot, setting, characterization, theme, and style. Secrets of Successful Fiction exposes readers to the skills as well as to the working and writing habits the author uses to develop his literary works. Peck further illustrates to readers how his secrets can work for them, to make their writing a success and, thus, an enjoyable experience.
Although writers should enjoy their art, their main concern is to be sure their audience enjoys the final product. Therefore, it is necessary for writers of adolescent fiction to note that plot is of major importance to youth, who want primarily to know what a story is about and whether it is exciting and suspenseful (Sadker and Sadker, p. 5).
What, then, is plot? Peck simply answers, "A plot is two dogs and one bone" (p. 20). He adds, "A plot is merely a dramatic situation where a character (1) Wants something, (2) Tries to get it, and (3) Is opposed" (p. 20). Thus, in plot development there is usually a conflict or problem; the action builds to a climax, after which there is a resolution.
An example of dramatic plot development can be found in Peck's historical novel, Fawn. The two dogs become the French with their Huron allies and the British with the Mohawk support. The French occupy Fort Ticonderoga, and the British Army plans to attack and claim it for its own. Obviously, the Fort is at stake, and it becomes the pivotal issue. One army will win the battle, but which one? The action builds into suspense until the battle begins; the British lose, and, therefore the French win the bone. Thereby, Peck has a unified plot - a beginning (the background and reason for the battle), a middle (the battle), an end (French winners and British losers). Consequently, Peck points out, "How easy it is to plot a novel, once we corner the canines. And define the prize meat. . . . Make sure you have more dogs than bones" (p. 24).
In recent years episodic plots have also become commonplace in adolescent fiction. Episodic plot development consists of a series of events in a character's life. The episodes should not rely on contrivance or coincidence, but they should evolve naturally from a given situation and a given set of characters (Sadker and Sadker, p. 5). Each episode, therefore, must have two dogs and a bone. Accordingly, Peck created Soup, an episodic novel about his boyhood. The novel is filled with stories about two young boys, Rob and Soup, and their experiences breaking windows, smoking acorn pipes, rolling down hills in barrels, and attending ten-cent movies. Each episode has an exposition, a rising action, a climax, and a denouement. Simply, the plot of each episode tells what happens to the characters, Soup and Rob.
In addition to plot, fiction much have settings. It has to have description of places where events could happen. The question is, how much space or how many words should be given to describing settings? Peck says, "Write with a camera, not a pen" (p. 4). He elaborates,Readers want a picture - something to see, not just a paragraph to read. A picture is made out of words. That's what makes a pro out of an amateur. An amateur writer tells a story. A pro shows the story, creates a picture to look at instead of just words to read. (p. 4)
According to Peck the amateur might write: The road was lonesome. In contrast, Peck writes in the story Millie's Boy:
We forded Eagle Lake and turned north onto a road that Fern said was called "Stony Lonesome." It weren't much more than a log road, and the logs had suck deep into the ice of winter and the mud of spring. In spots, the road was bare and windswept, a road that was true to its name. It was stony, and it sure was lonesome. (p. 102)
Instead of simply saying the road was lonesome, Peck is specific; he creates a picture for the reader to use.
Apart from providing a description of place, the setting might be an integral aspect of the story, or it might create a mood that highlights the nature of the characters and their actions. Thus, setting becomes another way of defining the characters. Rural Vermont during the 1920s forms the setting for A Day No Pigs Would Die, a story of life on a Vermont farm. Had Robert Peck, the protagonist, lived on a farm in Texas, he would have become a different character as he interacted with his surroundings. Hence, characters in fiction, like human beings, do not exist alone in time and space.
Yet another way Robert Peck reveals setting is through historical events of the times. Peck says that, in a good historical novel, accuracy of time and place becomes the most important aspect of the setting (p. 85). He stresses, "Build your book on a firm foundation of historical data" (p. 85). The author's knowledge of historical data is evident in his narrative, Fawn. Peck provides the reader with factual information about Fort Ticonderoga in the preface of the book; he also includes an authentic map of the attack on the Fort. As a result, he presents the reader with a gripping, suspenseful story based on accurate historical information.
However, the story is really about people: the French, the British, the Mohawks, the Hurons, Fawn's father, Henri Charbon, and Fawn's young friend, Ben. The Fort and the surrounding woodlands become mere scenery. The reader sees the events through the eyes of Fawn, a young Mohawk warrior. The story, therefore, is not Peck's; it is Fawn's. Peck says, "To me a good historical novel is one that shows one event and the people who were there at that time, through the eyes of a fictional character" (p. 85).
Accordingly, whatever else a novel is about it must always be about people. Writers may want to describe actions and ideas, but they must also describe the characters who are affected by those actions and ideas. It is worth noting here that sometimes long after readers have forgotten fictional plots, they can still recall some of the characters (Huck and Kuhn, p. 13).
With this thought in mind Peck creates his characters through a variety of ways: (1) through dialogue and a character's manner of speech, (2) through entering a character's mind and learning private thoughts, (3) through ways the character acts in various situations, and (4) through observing how others feel about the character. The author says that characterization lies at the heart of storytelling; people are what other people are most interested in (p. 52). Therefore, the more realistic and lifelike writers make their characters, the more interesting their fiction will be. Using these four methods of character development helps writers get to know their characters. Only then can a writer answer questions like - What do they look like? What are they called? How do they act? What is important to them? Peck says that if writers get to know their characters intimately, then the characters will help them write their book (p. 42). After all, the novel is essentially about the characters; the setting is mainly a backdrop (p. 42).
Specifically, rural Vermont becomes the backdrop for the account of the lives of Rob Peck and his friend, Soup in the Soup series novels. The characters' mischievous thoughts are exposed through humorous dialogue. For example, readers learn how sneaky and daring the boys are from Rob and Soup's discussion about a haircut.
"Let me see it," said Soup.
"You just saw it."
"But I just want to see it again."
"Okay," I said. As we walked along the dusty dirt road toward town, I took the coin from my pocket and out into the Vermont air so Soup could take another squint at it. The afternoon sun turned it shiny.
"Gee," said Soup, "a whole quarter."
"And it's all mine," I said.
"Won't be for long."
"I know. I got to turn over the whole doggone thing to the barber, Mr. Petty."
"You can't ask him to cut your hair for free," said Soup.
"Reckon I can't."
"Ya know something, Rob?"
"If I was a barber, and you came to my barbershop, I'd cut your hair for free."
"You really would?"
"Sure would," said Soup, as he kicked a stone and sent it skittering into the milkweed along the roadside. The way he did it, I could tell he was in deep thought. (Soup and Me, p. 54)
It is evident that Soup is the brains, the mischief-maker, while Rob is the fall guy who usually gets blamed for the messes. Peck says that conversation between the two boys is a cinch to write. "Because of what's being said, the reader always knows who is talking, without names in every speech" (p. 52).
A second way to learn about characters' lives is by entering their minds and learning their private thoughts and feelings. Peck exposes readers to the thoughts of the young tomboy Elizabeth Trigman in his book, Trig:Readers know from reading Trig's thoughts that she is content and happy in her home in Vermont.
The sun was just fixing to climb the east hill. Papa always said that we were so lucky to live right here in Vermont instead of New Hampshire; on account that away over east of us, the sun hits there first and all the farm folks abed have to get up earlier. Well, I was thinking as I opened my eyes and yawned and stretched one leg and then the other like Romeo our tomcat, we're lucky not to have to farm it over in New Hampshire, because morning chores come plenty here to home, in Vermont. (p. 17)
Similarly, readers also know how Tit Smith, the protagonist in Millie's Boy, feels when he learns he must move to a new home with Gus, one of his old friends. However, instead of entering Tit's mind to learn about his feelings, readers gain a clear picture of the boy by observing his actions and his speech.
We stood close to each other, laughing at how Fern had kept us apart in the past weeks. Watched us like a bulldog, until tonight.
"I know how it feels," I said, looking down from Mount Hope at the light of Ti.
"How what feels?" Her arms were around my waist.
"How it feels to be rich."
"Me, too. Living with Aunt Fern is like living in a pantry that holds all the spice of the world."
"And all the rhubarb pie."
"I like your friend, Tim. I even like his voice, the way it runs so clear. Like spring water."
"You like Gus?"
"He's clean and straight. He's like you. When you get to know him he seems so much taller than he is.
"Because I found so much, Amy. I found you and Fern, and now Gus is here so maybe I'll find a future with horses. I didn't find a father to settle with. But what I was looking to hitch myself to is right inside me, so I found the only man that matters." (Millie's Boy, p. 173)
Peck uses effective similes to enable Tit and Amy to emerge as realistic individuals.
Finally, the author adds credibility to specific characters by revealing their various traits through what others say about them. In particular, in A Day No Pigs Would Die, Haven Peck is accurately and realistically described by his son, Rob:
I was glad they came. Some of them were dressed no better than I. And some not even as well, but they came. They came to help us plant Haven Peck into the earth, and that was all that counted. They'd come because they respected him and honored him. As I looked at all them, standing uneasy in our small parlor, I was happy for Papa. He wasn't rich. But by damn he wasn't poor. He always said he wasn't poor, but I figured he was just having fun with himself. But he was sober. He had a lot, Papa did. (p. 117)
Readers know from Rob's eulogistic sketch exactly what kind of man Haven Peck was. Furthermore, through Rob's description, readers see that Haven's son cared deeply for him, and in turn they begin to care about Rob - about what is going to happen to the now fatherless boy. Peck indicates that the characters in fiction must care for something or someone other than themselves in order to evoke emotions from the readers (p. 64). He adds, "Oddly enough, the first syllable in the word character is CARE" (p. 64).
Whatever method of character development writers choose, they must remember that a character should act in accordance with age, culture, and background. Also, there should be some consistency in the character's approach to life. Moreover, if a character matures or regresses, there should be adequate motivation to account for the changes. Credible character development should also be sequential rather than instantaneous. To sum up, characters make up the central interest of most fiction. Therefore, writers should know and develop their characters as thoroughly as Robert Peck does. It is important to remember that more vivid and lifelike characters create more engaging stories.
Another important element necessary for creating interesting fiction is theme development. Theme is merely the basic idea expressed in a work; it develops the interaction between character and plot. One student explains theme as, "What the book is about after you've forgotten what the book is about" (Dunning and Howes, p. 205). For example, in Peck's novel Fawn the plot is about the battle at Fort Ticonderoga, but the theme is initiation into manhood for Fawn, the central character. The themes in Peck's fiction are concerned with problems of young readers; they are not overly didactic or moralistic. Equally important, Peck's themes give the adolescent reader human experiences to reflect on. Thus, young readers are usually able to understand and enjoy the complete stories.
Similarly, in order to totally appreciate an author's books, readers should enjoy the writer's style. Style is the author's manner of expression, the way words are used to create literature. It involves the length and the pattern of sentences, the use of rhythm and imagery. Style must complement a story's plot, setting, theme, and characterization by reflecting and enhancing these elements. To accomplish this task, a writer must address the following questions: (1) "What kinds of words should I use," (2) "How long should my sentences and paragraphs be," and (3) "How can I use description and details effectively?"
Robert Peck answers the preceding questions in Secrets of Successful Fiction. First, he says, a writer must use words that paint pictures for their readers. "Do this," he says, "and you are a pro. Writing is physics. Moving parts. Things. Writing is show business. Get the picture" (p. 4)? For instance, Peck uses poetic prose to describe how young Elizabeth Trigman feels about her days on a Vermont farm.
Then I listened to the music of the milk, as the thin white ribbons began to ring the two empty pails, like church bells. With my face pressed to a cow's warm neck, I heard the chimes of chore time. (Trig, p. 18)
Images of farm life are created by the rhythmic words the author uses.
Along with choosing effective wording, it is necessary for authors to consider how long they want their sentences and paragraphs to be. Peck cautions writers that a page in a novel is not a block of text (p. 76). He continues, "Readers hate this, and have since childhood, because it reminds them of textbooks" (p. 76). "Thus, if you yen to be an author, learn to open up your pages to welcome a reader's eye" (p. 76). He further adds that writers cannot succeed by jamming a page with prodigious paragraphy that says scram to the reader (p. 76).
It is also important to rug your readers (capture their attention immediately); but once you have their attention, you must keep it. One way to keep the reader's interest is by using effective details and description. Peck says that all too often emerging writers try to describe everything. He says, "Don't do it. Don't write like that. Zero in" (p. 16).
"Get yourself a Toot-ta-Doo" (p. 16). A "Toot-ta-Doo" is Peck's word for a toilet tissue or paper towel cylinder. He says to look through the scope, zero in, and write in depth about what you see at the end of the tunnel (p. 17).
Accordingly, in the novel Fawn, Peck zeros in and describes the life of one young Indian warrior and the one battle that would change his lifestyle forever. So Peck exclaims, "Sound the charge! Use your Toot-ta-Doo. Don't blow it. Look through it. Toot-ta-Doo" (p. 19)!
In addition to addressing questions like: What words should I use, should I use long or short paragraphs, and how should I present details and description, Peck helps readers of his text solve the problem of establishing style. Furthermore, he explains how style in adolescent fiction can be as rich as that in adult literature. An audience of adolescents usually responds well to texts with controlled vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs. Many young people like description and detail in their stories, but they want description and detail that is limited and focused-perhaps through a Toot-ta-Doo.
Your friends may think you have lost your mind - gone bananas. "Who cares?" Peck questions, "Who publishes their stuff" (p. 18)? Would college professors advise using a Toot-ta-Doo? Probably not, but Peck contends, "Many college professors couldn't earn a penny publishing their fiction. They all have Chapter One of the great American novel tucked away in a bottom drawer, where it's been for twenty years. So it's time to switch from prof to pro" (p. 18).
The author believes writing is a craft, like pottery making. Therefore, a writer needs tools to turn out his craft. Secrets of Successful Fiction will fill a writer's kit with the tools of book building. Tools to help writers create and develop plot, setting, characterization, theme, and style. However, Peck is quick to note that his text is not a surefire road to literary acclaim (p. 2). We should all know learning to write takes years of hard work. That is the secret - HARD WORK. Then why should we try to make work fun? Peck suggests the answer is because fun is a motivator for hard work, as anyone who has played eighteen holes of golf on a hot day can tell you. Naturally, we can work hard and not have fun, but when our work produces a pleasurable and a meaningful product, then the effort becomes worthwhile.
In Secrets of Successful Fiction Peck gives readers methods of making writing both good and fun. He shares with his audience the tools that have made him a successful writer of adolescent fiction. The tools may enable aspiring writers to communicate their experiences through writing in a pleasing and successful manner. Thank you, Mr. Peck, for sharing your secrets.
Jeanne M. Gerlach is Associate Professor of English Education at West Virginia University, where she directs the English Education program. She frequently teaches a course on young adult fiction and is currently at work on a book focusing on multicultural literature. Sati Maharaj-Boggs is Assistant Professor of English at Appalachian State University and co-directs the English Education program there. She teaches the young adult literature course and is currently conducting research in multicultural literature written for young adults.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Gerlach, Jeanne M., and Sati Maharaj-Boggs. (1997) Please, tell me the secrets: Revisiting Robert Newton Peck. The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 12-15.