Be able to say, in a sentence, what your book is about. By that I don’t mean the elevator pitch (giant man-eating shark attacks beach town) but rather the soul of the story. Then make sure this beating heart is on every page of your manuscript, whether it’s a twist-revealing moment or simple dialogue between two characters passing a shaker of salt back and forth. I sometimes find that writers are afraid of hitting readers over the head with a concept or being too obvious, but I actually think readers like guideposts along the way, markers that tell them they’re understanding and feeling what the author intended from the start. And a good editor will pull you back if you go too far.
Oh, and let me be the first of many to recommend Stephen King’s On Writing. Also, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Both convincingly show that you can have a clean style (“omit needless words”) but still have a voice that’s all your own.
—Sally Kim, vice president, editor in chief, Putnam