If there’s one thing that’s become more critical in traditional publishing, it’s a distinctive voice. A successful manuscript is one that you can spot from thousands after just the first line—you’d never confuse J. D. Salinger’s voice with Virginia Woolf’s (think Catcher in the Rye vs. A Room of One’s Own). Developing style in your writing captures the reader’s attention from the onset and builds a world that is fresh and unique. Plot is crucial, but only writers with both in their arsenals can achieve a manuscript that lives up to the reader’s expectations.
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In this online exclusive we ask publishing professionals to share advice, anecdotes, insights, and suggestions for books, movies, music, and more. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for new ways of thinking about their writing and the business of books.
I knew all about Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, when Harcourt joined Houghton in 2008 and her editor Deanne Urmy became my colleague. But I’d never actually read it. With the excuse of it now being homework, I dived in; when I emerged I started recommending it to every author and have never stopped.
No matter what job I’ve had in publishing—I’ve been a magazine editor, a critic, a bookseller, and now an acquiring editor—I am regularly asked the same questions: What’s going to be the next trend in books? What should I write to fit that trend? And my answer, from all of my perspectives, is always the same: If I could tell you what the next trend is going to be, I’d be a wealthy retired person living on a magical island.
I reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life every five years or so, but my Bird by Bird advice has to do with reading, not writing. I’m always surprised when aspiring writers blithely proclaim that they don’t read much contemporary fiction! I remember years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference when a show of hands with a group of short stories writers revealed that about two people had bought a short story collection in years and that the writers didn’t really read short stories! So my advice is read. Read voraciously.
I think we all get hung up on certain metrics, and for a lot of us it’s sales. For a writer, that’s a really hard one to use to determine success. After all, sales aren’t just elusive—as a writer they’re also mostly outside of your control. Publishing a book is typically a years-long process and most of the time it’s spent writing, revising, and interacting with agents, editors, and other publishing professionals.
Be able to say, in a sentence, what your book is about. By that I don’t mean the elevator pitch (giant man-eating shark attacks beach town) but rather the soul of the story. Then make sure this beating heart is on every page of your manuscript, whether it’s a twist-revealing moment or simple dialogue between two characters passing a shaker of salt back and forth.
On why she writes, Joan Didion has said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
We are always—by our friends, our teachers, parents, the media—encouraged to “think big.” Frankly, I worry that there’s so much big thinking going on that we forget to think small. I mean small in a number of ways:
When I was a young girl in school there was a teacher who used to say, “Keep your head down and focus on your own work.” I’m pretty sure she was trying to dissuade us from cheating off of one another’s papers, but I think this saying applies equally well to maintaining sanity while pursuing a career as a writer.
There are many voices across the publishing industry and the wider culture telling writers to prepare themselves to be rejected. It is more important and more useful to tell writers to prepare themselves to be accepted. Understandably, there is a great deal of focus on just getting through the eye of the needle, but it is true that on the other side there awaits the real work of publishing the book. Two essential components of that work that can sometimes take writers by surprise are, first, how a publisher talks about and presents the book, and second, how an editor goes about editing it.