“Know your audience” has become a tired maxim. In my view, good writers know themselves. Being your own audience is much more likely to improve your craft. Making observations of the world from your unique perspective allows you to find your voice. If your work is genuine, it will resonate with people. How many times have you read something that conveys exactly what you’re feeling in a new and exciting way? That’s what makes books engaging. Taking the time to understand your personal character and setting can contribute greatly to creating imagined ones.
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.
Writers are often told to develop a writing community. It’s certainly crucial to find fellow writers with whom you share a sense of trust, camaraderie, and accountability, but I’d like to advocate for developing your non-writing communities as well. Call an old friend, commit time to a grassroots organization, or pick up groceries for your neighbors. Becoming part of something larger than yourself and intentionally creating time away from your writing makes your relationship to your work more sustainable and, I think, more joyful.
Years ago I took a Catapult writing workshop with Chelsea Hodson. (Bonus recommendation: If you have the opportunity to study with Chelsea, take it. Her workshop completely changed how I approach writing.) Early on in the course, she recommended that we take some time away from our work, especially when we’ve run into a wall. This advice was so counter to what I’d heard in other workshops, where I’d been encouraged to write every day, no matter what.
This industry tends to wave away its corporate, transactional truths in favor of platitudes about passion and how lucky we all are to be here. But this illusion curdles when the lived experience of publishing a book breeds the same ungenerous anxieties of our high school years: over who gets to be a cool kid, whose success makes you feel insecure, who is getting what you want. Suddenly, this industry that demanded you align your worth with your work is whispering behind your back about how fugly your jeans are. (OK, fine. This is a ham-fisted metaphor, but stay with me.)
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.
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.
Never underestimate the power of emotion. Eliciting it in readers without veering into treacly sentimentality or histrionics takes enormous skill. I love when an emotional moment is in the hands of a writer who knows what to do with it. It’s my favorite type of reading experience. Sometimes the swell of my reaction is rooted in learning new information. Sometimes it’s in a new take on something I thought I already understood. Sometimes it’s when I see the familiar—and let’s face it, the personal—presented in a fresh and distinctive way that reveals something about me to myself.
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.