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.
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“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.
My number-one go-to rule for aspiring fiction writers is the following: A great writer is first and foremost a great reader. If you’re serious about your craft, you’re immersing yourself in the prose of fellow writers. At a conference a couple of years ago, I asked a would-be novelist to name a few of her favorite novels. Her response: “OH, I DON’T LIKE TO READ FICTION.” Don’t be that person.
—Kent Wolf of Neon Literary
When I was teaching freshman writing to undergrads, our curriculum was based on classical rhetoric. All the grad students joked about how we never wanted to hear about the stases or “ethos, pathos, logos” ever again—one of my colleagues dressed up as the rhetoric textbook for Halloween because she couldn’t think of anything scarier. But we also immediately found ourselves incorporating the concepts we were teaching into our own writing and finding, quite against our wills, that it became so much better.
If you can’t pitch your book in thirty seconds, you’re probably not ready to send it to agents or publishers. And before you say, “But that’s your job”—you’re right! Our job is to convince other people to read your work, and we’ll probably come up with our own pitch down the line. But if you can’t distill the what and why of your book into a few punchy sentences, it usually means that your book is still gestating. It means that the foundational narrative has not yet emerged.
Sometimes the only words I feel I can trust are nouns. I’m not sure this is a recommendation for writers, but it is a thought that has occurred to me when describing books.