Too often writing a book can feel like you’re working alone in a dark room. It’s easy to forget that you are, in fact, surrounded by aid on all sides. Let the books around you remind you what you love most about storytelling. Toni Morrison wrote, “Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.” George Saunders wrote, “Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we’re someone else, disrupting the delusion that we’re permanent and at the center of the universe.
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“I’m not convinced we’d be the best home for this.” You hear this phrase a lot when editors are conveying their reasons for not wanting to pursue a particular project. And while on the surface it may sound like little more than a polite demurral, I’m here to say that there is real truth to this idea. Understanding that, and how your work fits into the publishing ecosystem, can only benefit a writer.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you are writing into a market that has been built on top of a canon created primarily by cisgender, heterosexual white men. It can be challenging to rid oneself of perceived obligation to the white gaze, yet I find that many writers, especially (but not only) those from marginalized communities, find themselves freed when they refuse to capitulate to that pressure. The publishing industry can be shortsighted in its vision of what kind of books will be best-sellers.
I’m not very interested in being a stickler for rules of grammar or style. Grammarians in publishing often wield dictionaries and style guides to rigorously uphold a fairly arbitrary set of rules that distinguish acceptable writing from writing that needs to be “corrected.” There’s more than a little hint of classism and racism in these editing practices.
There is a book that was recommended to me by Elyse Cheney, the founder of my literary agency, that I’ve now found myself frequently recommending to both writers and younger colleagues alike—Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction (Simon & Schuster, 1998) by James B. Stewart. Stewart’s reputation as a writer and journalist precedes him, but there is a very basic and core insight from the book that I return to again and again when I’m discussing prospective project ideas with writers.
“Show, don’t tell” is the writing mantra I think I’d most like to dismantle. It implies a reader is familiar with what is shown, that fiction should allow readers to call on personal experiences to self-identify with a character, rather than encourage them to learn about a truly different reality. I think of a realtor showing an apartment—sweeping you from beautifully staged room to room, but without giving you any understanding of or belief in the lives of the people who call that apartment home.
There are a lot of literary agents out there today; many have offered excellent advice within these pages! But a plethora of choices can be overwhelming: To which agents should you submit and, if you’re lucky enough to get multiple offers, which agent should you pick? My advice, when you’re submitting and once you receive a representation offer (or several), is to trust your gut. This is ideally a long-term professional relationship. There are many ways of being a successful literary agent. But what do you, specifically, as a writer, want out of that relationship?
I consider myself incredibly lucky to work at a publishing house like the Feminist Press, a nonprofit founded in 1970 to advance feminist voices from around the world. Everything we do is based on our mission, including our acquisitions, and so I don’t have to justify my editorial choices based on the bottom line. Instead, I think about how a book fits into our mission to create a world where everyone sees themselves in a book, and I discuss the project with the whole team. Over the years, I’ve taken on many authors who experienced their fair share of rejection and unsolicited advice.
Writing and revising by pen and keyboard are givens, but reading your work aloud while revising is equally valuable. Readers will likely find your writing inviting if it sounds good. Reading aloud enables you to hear if the dialogue between your characters has punch and personality, and to suss out awkward sentences that don’t flow. It will give you a sense of how fluid your storytelling is, and perhaps give you insight into whether you’re doing a good job modulating plot, scene-setting, dialogue, and character development.
I’m a fan of dictionaries and especially thesauruses (thesauri, if you like): bilingual and multilingual, scientific and technical, colloquial and slang. I also love glossaries, encyclopedias, maps, almanacs, guidebooks, cookbooks—reference texts of all kinds. Calling on different lexicons can contribute to a desired texture. A specific referent or precise detail can lend authority. Changing one word in a sentence can alter not only the meaning of the sentence but the feeling of the sentence, the tone and the rhythm of the sentence—and in turn, those around it.