There’s a secret to getting a first novel published, and it has nothing to do with platform, connections, or the ebb and flow of publishing’s tides. Not that those things don’t matter. They do matter as secondary factors, but only if a prior condition is met: the novel itself needs to be irresistible.
I’ll give you an example from my years as a literary agent. I once received a manuscript that by every reasonable standard should have been rejected at first glance. Not only was the ms. full of handwritten corrections, it was actually printed on the back of previously used paper. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to submit a clean copy was unlikely to have written anything I could sell. I glanced at the first sentence, just to confirm my expectations. Then I read the next line, and the next. The voice was strong and authoritative, the voice of a writer who knows he’s got a story to tell and the chops to tell it. I took the manuscript home with me and finished it that night. It was an extraordinarily entertaining Western about a Jewish peddler whose quest for the lost tribe of Israel takes him into Indian country: a sort of Jewish “Little Big Man.” It wasn’t perfect, but the story was like nothing I’d read before, the characters were fully realized and fascinating, and the scenes were wonderfully crafted. I called the writer the next day and offered representation.
In an industry that agrees on very little, there’s near unanimity on the best route to breaking into print. In a recent interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, I asked, “What’s the most important thing writers can do to help themselves get published?” This was her response:
“I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.
Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly.”
So all I have to do is write an irresistible book, you may be thinking. Brilliant. And just how do I do that? But please note that I said irresistible, not perfect. No book ever emerges perfectly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It’s a process, and good writers are grateful for the input of good editors. So you don’t have to write a perfect book, which I hope is reassuring, just an irresistible one. What makes a book irresistible is, for me, a combination of things: an original story; interesting characters who jump off the page; and the mastery of craft required to do that story justice.
Writers are expected to master that craft on their own dime, not the publisher’s. For that reason, I’m inaugurating an occasional series of craft tips for fiction writers, many drawn from the writing courses I teach online at Next Level Workshops. These are not intended as proclamations from on high or any sort of writing orthodoxy, but rather as distillations of lessons I’ve learned over 30 years as a writer, literary agent and editor. I hope you find them useful.
LESSON ONE: BEATS VS. DEADBEATS
A beat, for the purpose of this discussion, is everything in a passage of dialogue except the spoken words and speaker attribution (he said, she asked, etc.) That would include bits of description, interior monologue, action, and the nonverbal parts of conversations, aka body language.
Dialogue needs occasional beats for rhythm and to bring in other dimensions of the scene. How many beats a writer uses is a matter of personal style. Stretches of straight dialogue can be useful to allow readers to really hear the characters’ voices in their heads without constant interruption. But if you overdo it, you impoverish the scene, you take away its physicality. The effect for the reader is like listening to a TV with no picture.
A deadbeat is a beat that brings nothing to the party, or at most a measly can of beer. If a beat doesn’t contribute something meaningful to the scene, beyond what the dialogue itself conveys, find a beat that will.
It’s my contention that most—not all, but most—descriptions of body language fall into the category of deadbeats. They’re the fallback beat, the first ones most writers resort to. And to some extent they’re necessary; without them, we’d miss some nuances, especially when the characters’ expression or body language contradicts what they’re saying. The trouble arises when writers overuse or misuse them as a means of telling what the character feels in the guise of showing. Like weeds, deadbeats tend to crowd out beats that would actually enhance the garden.
It’s easiest to show with an example. Here’s a short passage in three variations.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” she said.
The lines of dialogue are evocative, but it’s not clear how the speakers mean them or what’s going on underneath the words. Suppose you, as the writer, want to keep the dialogue but add to it. If you’ve fallen into the habit of reaching first for body language, your next version might read like this.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, frowning.
She waved an airy hand. “Suit yourself.”
More information is conveyed, to be sure, but at a price. You’re now basically telling the reader how the characters feel, instead of letting them feel it themselves. And you’re not adding a lot. We already know the male speaker is unhappy, so “frowning” is a deadbeat. Her “airy wave” is a bit better, but her line itself is already dismissive. Another deadbeat, this one bearing a measly can of beer.
So you cross out those lines and reach further afield for an image that will illuminate, and you come up with a third variation.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.
She kept her eyes on her magazine, though she wasn’t turning any pages. The room was silent but for the faint, mournful whistle of a freight train.
“Suit yourself,” she said at last.
That mournful train whistle conveys a sense of melancholy, and the mention of a train suggests a crossroad. The woman’s pretense of reading shows the disconnect between two people who seem once to have been connected. Suddenly these spare lines of dialogue are imbued with a sense of parting and finality; and readers will feel it.
I’m taking a brief hiatus from teaching and editing for the next 4-5 months to work on the sequel to A Dangerous Fiction; but I’ve always got one eye out for serious students of writing. If you think you might be interested in taking one of my workshops when they resume, the best way to keep that option open is to get on my (nonspamming!) emailing list, which you can do by sending me a note at www.nextlevelworkshops dot com. The classes are small and intense (see testimonials) and I only offer a couple a year. Lately I’ve had more applicants than I can accommodate, but the first notice always goes out to folks on that list.