I’m a loyalist, but when it comes to fiction I might encourage a novelist to “cheat” on their manuscript with a new piece of writing. Often when I’m talking to a writer about their novel, or when we’re working through a difficult draft, I discover they’ve been writing something else on the side. When you’ve been working on something for a long time it can be freeing and energizing to have something new that has no pressure on it, to have the creative space to just explore and build.
Agents & Editors Recommend
A dependable source of professional and creative advice, this weekly series features anecdotes, insights, tips, recommended reading and viewing for writers, and more from leading agents and editors.
Somehow, nearly half of the novels I have acquired were written by poets. I’ve never been a poetry editor, and, while I read and enjoy poems, I’ve always been drawn back to the novel. So why has it turned out this way? I think it’s because the novelists I most admire possess a poet’s interest in style, in the music of a sentence. In publishing, we’re less likely to talk about this than we are about a book’s themes, character development, or plot. But style is the force behind what makes us feel those other elements most deeply and convincingly.
Remember that every conversation with an agent or editor should start with talking about the work itself. Listen carefully: Is the agent attuned to your vision of the book and your creative goals? Does the agent offer editorial insight that makes sense to you? Does your conversation inspire you, make you confident that this person really “gets” this book? Here is where the connection begins, with an easy rapport based on a shared sensibility. If this is there from the outset, it’s likely to be a wonderful, lasting relationship that will carry into the future.
I’m captivated by the ethos of innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking at the heart of the modernist literary movement of the twentieth century. The modernist imperative “make it new,” attributed to the poet, critic, and translator Ezra Pound, a champion of the movement, was a call for writers to revolt against the conventions of the time and break new ground by reinventing their art forms. Provocative as it was, Pound’s dictum was borrowed and thus hardly new in and of itself.
As an editor of creative nonfiction, I’d like to vouch for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Many of the authors I publish in Catapult are often first-time writers of personal essays. Their drafts come in heavy with summaries of events—outcomes already decided, lessons already learned. All this telling is boring. It’s devoid of drama and tension, like reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.
As a writer, the act of writing matters, of course, as does reading, but they are hardly the only things that matter. In the process of creating a world or trying to capture the world on the page, it is easy to forget the simple, material reality of the people and the communities around us. These days, we speak often of mutual aid, whatever that might look like for everyone and their individual abilities.
“He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” This is the fourth sentence of my favorite novel, Toni Morrison’s Jazz. By the opening lines, we know the book’s main event. The pleasure of reading comes not from discovering the what, but the how and why: how and why this middle-aged adulterer murdered his teenage lover.
Disabuse yourself of the notion that you have to write what you know. Write, instead, without an agenda. Write what you want to write, without consideration for “the marketplace.” There will always be a clamoring for one thing or another, but beneath that the best work will stand on its own merit. Tell a story. It doesn’t have to belong to your own experience. Let your imagination expand beyond what you know. The page doesn’t expect anything of you, except that you keep showing up to fill it.
I love recommending brilliant writers. It’s one of the best bits of my job as publishing director of Virago Press in London. When a book has been acquired and edited, its cover finalized and the publication plans in place, I am left to talk freely about the amazing novel I know everyone needs to read. With this in mind, I want to recommend three women writers who I think you should study. The work of these three writers speaks to me on a daily basis. Sadly I didn’t publish any of them, with the exception of reissuing stories by Muriel Spark, but I am evangelical about their writing.
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.