You don’t need to wait for an idea to be perfect to start playing around with it. Books come through in many guises: Some ideas arrive masked as other concepts; some come with a companion or a twin, the road not taken; others need outside input, research, or further development. But if you catch the scent of an idea, don’t hesitate to see where it leads you.
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.
I remember the high school summer workshop exercise like it was yesterday. The task was to discuss “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” by Matthew Rohrer and decide whether it was a strange poem about normal things or a normal poem about strange things.
In Jesse May’s cult classic Shut Up and Deal, the narrator offers an insight that’s been quoted by everyone from the late Christopher Lehmann-Haupt to James McManus. It goes like this: “Poker is a combination of luck and skill. People think mastering the skill part is hard, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck. That’s philosophy. Understanding luck is philosophy, and there are some people who aren’t ever gonna fade it. That’s what sets poker apart.
Publishing is an industry that loves categories. Authors write certain types of books and, for the most part, agents and editors represent and acquire within relatively fixed categories. This system is not without benefit; I acquire upmarket and literary fiction and select narrative nonfiction, so agents probably should not send me books about science or self-help or golf.
I find serious strength in my morning ministry. I’ll play a single song or album on repeat every morning for several days, or even months. For several years I listened to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” both the song and the album. I’ve also turned to Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem.” The soundtrack to Sparkle. Kamasi Washington. Many days, Sun Ra. This spring Kaytranada’s “2 The Music” served as the single song, the last fifty seconds a portal into new thoughts and visions and dreams.
I began translating books in 2016. It’s now impossible for me to separate that practice from my work as a writer and editor. If you write or edit, and if you’re a heritage speaker or thinking of learning another language, consider integrating translation as part of your “strength training.” Tackle a poem or a paragraph from a book you love.
The most important part of a book—be it a memoir, novel, or something else entirely—is the ending. It’s your last opportunity to show the reader what you’re truly capable of as a writer. There’s the well-worn instruction that declares endings should be surprising, yet inevitable, and I’ve always found that the best endings adhere to it. My favorite kind of endings are the ones that misdirect, or seem to; they pivot from the established narrative in some meaningful way. Mary Gaitskill does this in Veronica.
When editing a piece for publication, I imagine each comment or suggested change to punctuation, language, or sentence structure as a first entry in my dialogue with the writer. None of my edits are set in stone—even the tiniest addition or deletion of a comma can be reversed—but I am looking to see if the writer has understood their own intent behind their choices.
I’m writing today in defense of the happy ending. I tend to be most moved by good news—I’m the type of person who is more likely to cry at a wedding than a funeral—so I’m always hoping to find more delight in my reading. Even if you aren’t ready to embrace the high of the romance genre’s glorious HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happily for now), may I recommend a few new acronyms? What about the ending that leaves our protagonists enjoying a SBMW (small but meaningful win) or feeling LMTTWATB (less miserable than they were at the beginning)?
Some writers, especially when we’re just starting to find our voices, believe that the best art is unfiltered expression, “pure” creativity. There’s something stereotypically American to me about that idea, how bootstrappy it is, ruggedly individual. I’m fascinated by the assumption that a mystical, uncompromising Pure Art could exist at all, but more than that, that it would be meaningful to anyone other than its creator. This must sometimes happen! But I see writing more like a bridge that we build to reach other people across a chasm of our different beliefs and experiences.