Our brains are wired to enjoy stories. At a very basic level, all human communication is narrative: we order our experiences and make sense of them through stories. (Here’s an interesting book about that idea.) So it’s no wonder a lot of people have a book they want to write.
And some of them do.
Then they ask me: “What will make my manuscript stand out?” or “What are agents/publishers looking for?” As natural-born storytellers, you’d think we’d understand the answers to these questions instinctively.
But making your manuscript stand out from the rest isn’t like printing your résumé on pink paper (not that I’ve ever done that!) or having an inside track because you know someone who works there. These aren’t the right things to worry about, really. Having an angle or working the percentages might work for some things in life (although I’m not sure what) but it does not work in publishing. You can’t game the system, kids. (And I’ve had enough of those rants about gatekeepers, so stop.)
What you should focus on is writing well and telling a good story in an interesting voice. I’m going to list these things again—
• tell a good story
• in an interesting voice
• using nice prose
—so you know this is all there is. Really. This is all you need to know.
Story is easy, right? Think of what is meant when reviewers call a book a page-turner. The story is so compelling the reader cannot help but keep reading because she wants to know what happens to the characters. The Harry Potter books are a great example of the power of story. Jodi Picoult’s books have strong stories that suck the reader right in. Kate Morton also whips up a pretty good story. Here are three more: Life of Pi by Yann Martel (a shipwreck, a lifeboat, a young boy, a tiger) and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (an adored father, a sickly son, a brother on the run from the law). I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife so much that at first I read as fast as I could, but then I began to ration myself because I didn’t want the story to end. That’s a powerful story.
Voice is less easy to grasp but is, essentially, the manner in which the story is told: a combination of narrative point of view, narrative tense (first person, third person, whatever), and narrative voice. (This is a very good article about voice.) It’s a little bit about style but you might have a style consistent across many novels, while I’d want your voice for each to be unique unless you were using the same characters. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stories (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and three others so far), set in 1950 and told in the unforgettable voice of an eleven-year-old English girl, are a great example. Here are other unique voices: Precious Ramotswe, another unforgettable protagonist (from Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series); Charles Portis’s wonderful novel True Grit; or the shy high school boy in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
Learning how to write nice prose is why you should be reading—you learn by example, because otherwise it’s a very subjective undertaking. As in music, you can be taught technique, but musicality is something you must feel. And so it is with writing. Here again it’s easiest to give an ostensive definition (that is, point to examples of great writing): Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls is wonderful; so is the Pulitzer-winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and anything at all by Kaye Gibbons. I once threw a Pat Conroy book across the room out of sheer jealousy of his wordcraft, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
So there is some homework for you. :) The only insider information I can offer is this: a manuscript strong in two of the three has a chance. A publisher will think, say, We can plug those plot holes in editorial. But any one on its own isn’t enough; it’s just too much work to fix.
Does it happen that a book fires on all three cylinders? Oh yes, dear ones. And when it does, it’s magic. Here are some examples:
Black Swan Green / David Mitchell
Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn
Cold Mountain / Charles Frasier
The Night Circus / Erin Morgenstern
Ellen Foster / Kaye Gibbons
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster / Kaye Gibbons
Read them. You won’t be sorry. :)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”