Q: There’s so much for a writer to think about: platform, query letters, agents, marketing. What’s the most important thing to focus on?
A: That’s easy. Focus on the content of your book. There’s nothing more important.
Content is king
Before all else, keep your attention on the core concept and execution of your book — the writing, the story, the characters, the point and the purpose.
That’s what we acquiring editors and publishers care most about.
For writers who are feeling ignored or rejected by agents or publishers, with no response whatsoever to a query or only a vague but worrisome note like, Not a good fit…We liked it but there wasn’t enough enthusiasm…I have this advice: Remember that these very same agents and editors are searching eagerly for writers every day, scouring print and online sources, hunting for new ideas, trying to discover the next hot debut author.
We can’t survive without you.
So to improve your chances of attracting us and landing a book deal, consider these aspects of producing the best possible work:
It’s the best revenge, right? Not every writer can be the next Saul Bellow or J.D. Sallinger, not to mention Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write as well as your hardest-working most demanding self. Your own best writing takes — and you knew this was coming – rewriting. It may take a dozen times or more. And if you sustain a consistent, authentic voice of your own, well, hey, that’s you writing, that’s who you are.
Remember that not all the great story tellers are actually the greatest writers, as Dan Brown and Stephanie Myers would probably agree, and so would my one-time author Robert Ludlum, were he still around. These very successful writers keep their characters in motion, and keep us on the edges of our chairs with cliffhangers galore, chapter ending after chapter ending, like this one from Dan Brown in the The Da Vinci Code:
“Do not react to this message, said the fearful whisper of the voice mail. Just listen calmly. You are in danger right now. Follow my directions very carefully.”
Who could put that down?
Creating characters we care about
Give us heroines and heroes who are admirable and with whom we can easily identify. Villains who are compelling and fascinating even if loathsome. Readers want to care about what happens to your characters. This is true in fiction or nonfiction narrative like memoir, history, and biography.
Successful authors have learned that it’s not just the story, but specifically the fate of the main characters that keeps readers glued to the page.
Read your dialogue out loud. Do your characters have distinct voices? Listen to people around you and find those unique linguistic acrobatics we use every day. Even identical twins sound different from each other. How your characters speak is crucial to telling a great story. For more ideas, jump to this earlier post, Writer’s Toolkit: Eavesdropping for dialogue.
Telling an emotionally satisfying story
Even if it’s not a happy-ending story, it needs catharsis and epiphany. You want your readers breathing sighs of relief or shaking their heads in dismay at a tragic denouement. Rainbows or thunderstorms can provide equal closure. The point is to bring down the curtain and send the audience home with some kind of insight, inspiration, new found learning or even wisdom.
Organizing the plot
Where to begin: The happy turning point? The devastating crisis? Birth? Death? And what about all that backstory, the context of everything that’s come before? Flashbacks? Flashbacks within flashbacks? There’s no formula, only careful choices to make. Simplicity is usually the best policy, but if you can avoid incoherence and confusion when juggling the chronology of events, go for it. For more help, take a look at this earlier post on Seven Techniques for a Dynamite Plot.
Keeping the narrative voice clear as a bell
It’s usually a good idea to have one point of view in fiction or non-fiction narrative. It’s not only young adult novels that benefit from that authentic, irresistible “I” narrator. Nevertheless, more than one point of view is common, workable and even essential for some stories. For example, despite the dangers of head hopping from one character to another, multiple shifts in POV can be employed with craft and artistry as in the recent House Rules by Jodi Picoult, and don’t forget it worked for Tolstoy. I ordinarily advise, however, one or two POV’s at the most, with a switch from first person to omniscient third person to fill in the details and provide perspective. It’s your call. For more detail on the subject, check out this earlier post, Do Publishers have Rules about POV?
Surprising the reader
Avoid predictability. Even essential elements can be postponed and manipulated. Keep the reader guessing. This is true not only for mysteries and literary novels, but all forms of non-fiction narrative.
Drilling down to the essential ingredients
Choosing what to not to say is the art of storytelling. Less is always better, and it’s actually fun to choose among all that’s happened to create a unique and insightful way of seeing things. Leave out everything you possibly can.
Getting smart feedback
You don’t get second chances when submitting to agents and publishers.
Publishing professionals are flooded with queries, proposals and manuscripts every day and consequently don’t take more than a few minutes to read anything that doesn’t get their strong interest on the first page, which is a rare event indeed. So much of what we get isn’t cooked yet, fully formed, focused, or thought out carefully. Too many authors are in such a hurry to knock our socks off that they skip over the core content and jump ahead with grandiose, unrealistic marketing campaigns, and other premature plans that should come only after they have nailed the best possible concept and execution of the book itself.
So get objective, professional critique and developmental editing first. For anyone seeking guidance, here’s my advice: Choosing a Freelance Editor: What You Need to Know
Make sense? Anything to add from your own experience? I welcome your comments.