Here’s a literary puzzle: Inboxes all over the world are filled to virtually bursting, yet editors and agents frequently lament (in private) that rather than facing an embarrassment of riches, they don’t see much that excites them.
What gives? Are all of those hundreds or thousands of submissions awful? Nope. Having been an editor for many years, I can tell you that at least half of what’s in the slush pile is pretty good. The writers aren’t guilty of purple prose, point-of-view lapses, or glaring clichés of language or thought. They’re serious-minded and often ambitious, and they have probably been to a workshop or two, where they’ve learned some writing “rules.” The work is entirelycompetent. And that’s the problem.
Competency is not enough. Instead of a yes, it earns you a politely evasive rejection email that leaves you confused and frustrated. I know because I’m a writer as well as an editor, and I spent quite a long time on the receiving end of those letters, thank you. Tempting as it may be, the solution is not to try to grab an editor’s attention with a shocking premise. The slush pile contains plenty of stories like that. For the most part, they seem desperate, and besides there’s very little that’s shocking anymore. So what, exactly, is the winning ticket? Ask a literary editor, and she might tell you that she looks for voice above all, or that character is paramount. Even more exasperatingly, she might say that she is looking for “that certain spark.” In the words of an old professor of mine who deplored any lack of clarity: What the hell does that mean?
Now that I’ve put in several decades of editing, writing, and book reviewing, I’ve come to believe that underlying all of those good things that editors and readers say they desire—voice, character, insight, beautiful sentences, presence on the page, and, yes, that blasted spark—lies a single attribute: precision. Think about it. An unforgettable narrative voice issues out of granular precision. The writer has paid attention to every syllable and inflection. An indelible character is one whose particularities are so finely drawn as to defy any known label. Even a thousand-page novel of big ideas and panoramic sweep owes its greatness to the precision of its insights, its language, its composition, its willingness to say no to the prevailing wisdom that most of us take as a given.
The X-factor that distinguishes a piece of writing that is competent from one that’s compelling isn’t raw talent. That’s the good news and the bad news: There’s nothing congenital or magical about it. I’m convinced that almost anyone can learn. The critical ingredient is the determination to interrogate every choice: every word, every quirk, and every assumption about the way the world works. It takes patience and practice and nerve. It’s also enormously satisfying. And if you persist in doing it—honestly, painstakingly, and courageously—someone is going to notice.