Any avid reader, which most writers are, has had this experience: You finish a book and think, “I can’t wait to tell my friend/wife/husband/mother/boss about it.” In fact, the literary agent Donald Maass pointed out that this was how breakout bestsellers are made, by one friend dragging another friend across a bookstore and saying, “You’ve got to read this.”
This is how we should sell books: as if we have just discovered it and can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world. There is no purer motivation than love, no better stance from which to offer anything. “I love it; I thought you might too.” It never feels like enough to love something by yourself. It is only the fear of rejection that restrains love’s natural, gravitational movement toward others.
The ego preens in false modesty. Who am I to draw undue attention to myself? All stinginess and withholding is fear. As if our love of something could be contested by another’s opinion. You will never know anything as clearly as you know what you love. It is your first and last knowledge, your guide, and your happiness. To withhold what you love from others is to judge them as unworthy of it. It is never for any of us to judge who is worthy of love and who is not. Give them the same chance you would ask.
And anyhow, what you love was never yours to begin with. What you love came to you, and you recognized it, and you asked it to wait a moment, and now you’ve helped it find a way to other people. That’s all our writing is. We are just the conduits of love from that which gives to those who wish to receive.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.
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Literary agent Donald Maass and I spent a fair amount of time on the subject of voice in his interview. Don pointed out that a lot of things get lumped into that which we call a writer’s voice. Whatever it is, he concluded, when it comes to gaining an agent’s attention, it’s important. It’s more important than grabber, action-packed openings or unique settings. It can’t make up for a story with no conflict or unbelievable characters, but it can draw a reader in when little is actually happening.
The problem with voice, and the appeal of grabber openings and unique settings, is that the latter can, theoretically, be taught—or at least defined. The voice not so much so. There is no such thing as a good voice or a bad voice. If it works, it works. This is the point at which agents and editors begin to sound like models giving dating advice to men: If you want my attention, just be yourself.
But what if you they don’t like myself? Good question. But consider this: everyone in the world appreciates authenticity, and no one appreciates it more than the one being authentic. When you are speaking authentically, however briefly, you have shed the constraints of anyone’s requirements but your own. When you are speaking authentically, you are not trying to please an agent or editor, or your husband, or your parents, or your minister, or your professor; you aren’t trying to sound smart or clever or alluring or happy or sad or serious; when you are speaking authentically you are only trying to say as accurately as possible what it is you know to be true.
From this position you see that you are not speaking to gain a model’s attention or an agent or editor’s attention, you are speaking to gain your own attention. The first and greatest payoff of speaking authentically will always be relief—I said what I wanted to say and the world didn’t end. Next, and much later, might come dates with models or publishing contracts, but these will pale compared to the freedom of saying what you wanted to say.
The worst suffering in the world is the belief that we are not enough, that we must be someone else to succeed at anything. This thought is a kind of suicide. So Don Maass is right—voice is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Without it, you aren’t even there.
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It is that time of year when I am asked to help read entries to the PNWA’s annual writing contest. Writing contests seem to attract submissions that are still very much woks in progress, or at least ought to be works in progress. I tend to personally avoid too much hard advice on fiction writing, but the one piece of advice that comes up over and over again with agents and editors in particular is to make sure your first five pages are strong. I would have to agree. In fact, I would agree standing on a chair and shouting until my teeth rattle.
But let me back up. This kind of advice can be obnoxious. It assumes the worst of us. Yet it is born of readers of unpublished, unpolished work slogging through pages of back-story or dense, character-less exposition to finally get the actual story. Thus we have a phrase I have come to loathe: The Grabber Opening.
The literary agent Donald Maass and I discussed this very idea in this month’s interview. Don, who represents a lot of high concept fantasy and science fiction, pointed out that you needn’t have gunfire and sex on the first page to “grab” your reader’s attention. Tension, of some variety, and voice will usually do the trick.
To me, the first pages of a novel is where the writer gains the reader’s trust. Stories are driven by characters in conflict. Conflict creates tension. Readers, for the most part, need to trust that the writer understands this. Thus, from the very beginning, it is in fact important to show characters in conflict, even if that conflict is trying to decide which lipstick to wear. If the character doing the deciding thinks the wrong lipstick will ruin her first date, we have ourselves an opening.
Still, I don’t know how useful this advice really is. It can lead to writing outside yourself, to staring at your first five pages like a math equation to see if it adds up to Grabber. And grab is the wrong verb anyhow. You want to invite your readers to your book. It acknowledges that in the end the reader always has the choice to read or not to read. You can’t actually grab them. The best invitations are always honest, trusting that what the host actually has to offer is enough.
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