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.
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.
“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.
“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.