In response to the question, “What are you looking for?” every editor has at some point told an aspirant, “Surprise me!” We’re not trying to be dismissive—it’s just a harder question than people realize. Aesthetic choices are notoriously hard to quantify, and often editors are under competing demands (to appease their bosses, to give readers a new experience), such that articulating something as abstract as what you would wish to see can be paralyzing.
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.
After I became an acquiring editor, I was startled the first few times a writer asked me what I was looking for. It hadn’t occurred to me this was something I should know. I wondered if this was a professional failing, evidence of my unsuitability for the job. It wasn’t until I heard other editors in public forums respond to this same question with vague comments like, “I want to see only good work,” or “I recommend you send only your best work,” that I understood there were no formulas or shortcuts into the mind of a given editor.
The busier life gets, the more I crave a printed page. When I’m tired or frantic from deadlines and travel, I need to put down my phone and pick up a book. And not only because well-crafted sentences sweep me away. I crave books because they’re ad-free, beautiful, and pleasantly weighty in hand. Reading a hardcover on the couch or in bed, I forget about the outside world. The same isn’t true for a screen, whose sidebars and flashing ads urge me to be malcontent with the moment.
When I think about how “good” writing works, I find myself constantly returning to two main purposes: translation and movement. I grew up in a household where language and expression were so important as to feel like a means for survival. My father, a mathematician, was a dominant personality who thought in numbers, algorithms, models, and charts, and much of our family culture flowed analytically from there. I, on the other hand, thought in poems, images, and phrases I hoarded—a natural collagist.
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.
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.
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.