You Get Three Wishes. Choose Wisely.

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. :)

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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.”

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13 Comments

  1. I have some catch-up reading to do! Thanks for a great post, Jamie!

  2. Becky Melby says:

    My TBR list is taking on a life of its own thanks to your great suggestions!

  3. GPhareal says:

    Great post. I updated my reading list now. I have read The Night Circus and I must say that it’s a book I had difficulty putting down. The story was immensely compelling and I also recommend it.

  4. Jacky says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’m still in the phase of getting comfortable with my writing, and understanding the process from someone else’s viewpoint is always helpful. I’ll definitely keep these in mind.

  5. Jody says:

    Well-done!

    I wrote a guest post over on Elizabeth Craig’s blog (“Mystery Writing Is Murder”) on tips for finding your voice, in case that’s any of your readers particularly troublesome area.

    (http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2012/07/tips-for-finding-your-writing.html)

    Jamie, are you on her Twitter list? She reviews zillions of posts every week on the subject of writing, and then tweets them — I think your blog is EXCELLENT, and she’d welcome reviewing your posts. But maybe you’re already on her list?

    • Jamie says:

      Jody, yes, I am on her list (that is, I went through her procedure to get on the list). No tweets yet, though! :) (I live in hope.) Thanks for the link and your VERY kind words. You just made my day!

    • Jamie says:

      And btw, excellent post! Funny thing: I do those things for the blog. I realized long ago I’m writing for myself; that y’all like it is just a bonus. And I read everything out loud to the Irishman. It’s astonishing what one finds! I recommend reading aloud frequently, but I’m not sure people take me seriously.

  6. Jody says:

    Writing you separately, if I can find contact info!

  7. Amy Sorrells says:

    OMG, Pat Conroy makes me want to poke my eyes out with my pens instead of write with them his prose is so ridiculously amazing. And Kaye Gibbons, too. Her voice, oh my. I’ve recently come to appreciate Kent Haruf’s prose & voice, too. Great article, Jamie!

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