My best advice to writers can be distilled into one word, in the imperative: Risk. Take bold, huge, scary risks in your work—at all levels: form, content, the sentence. Get addicted to that writerly adrenaline. Leap. Trust that your readers are as intelligent and soulful as you are (and quite possibly more so). Write up to them, never down. Then be ruthless with what you’ve generated; be willing to throw away a lot of failed experiments and submit only what continues to give you chills—or, to use Theodor Adorno’s term, that “shudder” of aesthetic recognition.
Writers often talk about stakes, and they mostly mean the stakes within the piece: what’s at stake for the protagonist, whether fictional or not. Yet for me, the stakes that matter most—the stakes that shape the work profoundly—are those the author faces while writing. If the risks you’re taking within your work are not intense, the stakes for you will not be high—aside, of course, from the ego-stakes of reception, which attend most projects destined for submission: Will it be published or not? Will it be hailed as brilliant or damned as execrable? Those aren’t the stakes I mean. If the internal stakes of the making itself aren’t high and perilous for you, the work will suffer from a lack of urgency, a sort of slackness or padded-ness, like overstuffed upholstery (which can be lovely to sit on, but your manuscript deserves a nobler fate).
One way to raise the experiential stakes for yourself during the writing process—and efficiently cut through a potentially overwhelming welter of material—is to write into your most urgent, haunting, unanswered questions.
Identify the troubling nodes in your material where you’re genuinely mysterious to yourself, where the reasons for writing matter. Don’t shy away from the hardest questions, the most painful, or even (especially?) shameful ones—the ones that keep you up at night, that speak to your most intimate core. Why does the scent of cedar make me want to cry? or Why did our mother leave us? or Why do I keep marrying essentially the same person? Writing your way into such questions—and, just as importantly, leaving aside everything that doesn’t answer them—automatically gives your work unity, shapeliness, a tight focus, and a sense of something crucial at stake. What can one person truly do about climate catastrophe, or child abuse, or political corruption, or mass extinction? If you’ve already come to some kind of moral or intellectual conclusion about your material, the writing will have a pat, settled feeling. Writing into the questions changes all that. Let questions be the hook that pulls you through the process of writing the draft.
Why does this work? Editors, like all readers, crave narratives in which something is truly at risk. In compelling projects, it’s the writer who risks, the writer who has something to lose—and much to gain. When you’re tracking the answer to a serious mystery in the world or within yourself—one that baffles and perhaps even hurts you—then your work becomes filled with genuine suspense.
In drafting your manuscript, include only those scenes, images, information, and insights that speak (directly or indirectly) to the core questions driving the work. If an episode doesn’t help answer them, don’t even write it. In this way you can work very efficiently. If you’ve already drafted a manuscript, questions can structure your revision process. As you reread what you’ve written, which surprising core questions surface in the text? Push harder into them, and winnow away all material that doesn’t address them.
You’ll create gripping, focused, shapely work that appeals to readers—and agents and editors—because we’re all mysterious to ourselves and challenged by a complicated world. We’re all, in Vivian Gornick’s words, on genuine voyages of discovery, and we long for writers who invite us into theirs.
—Joy Castro, founding series editor, Machete, Ohio State University Press