With the sudden success of my 30-year novel The Little Book
, many people have asked me what advice I have for fellow aspiring writers who might have a long-term (or short-term) project in the drawer. Well, first, of course, is "Never give up." But being more specific and practical, I have learned that there are really only two people you have to win over: 1) an experienced agent and 2) a senior editor at a major publishing house. In my case, the agent was Scott Miller. Scott presented it enthusiastically to my editor Ben Sevier at Dutton, and we had a deal. After the deal was made, still pretty much incredulous, I asked Scott how it happened, and he gave a number of reasons, but the main one was, he said, "You made me need to turn the page."
After the deal was struck and the hard job of editing was begun, we started looking to well-known authors for cover blurbs. I had the extraordinary good fortune of having Richard Ford and Pat Conroy read the manuscript and contribute quotes. Because they, both extraordinary writers, are so different, I felt extraordinarily blessed and covered from all sides. Richard Ford, whom I consider, as well as a writer of note, a gifted student of the craft and a teacher, called my novel "richly inventive, woven tightly with incident, and fully engaging. It is also superbly humane and readable." I am deeply honored that these descriptors would be used on my novel.
So, I would say this to aspiring writers with a project you have been working on for 30 years or 30 weeks, here are some thoughts, borrowed from Mr. Ford:
Make sure that your manuscript is as inventive as it can be, that it stands out from the pack: spend time making sure that what you write is original and has zip, going so far as to be unconventional even.
Write with lots of "incident" — I love that word. Description and interior monologue are great, but incidents or happenings are what make a story. And do all you can to make those happenings weave tightly together, even to the tour de force level.
Be engaging. Use lots of old plot devices like conflict, suspense, and humor that have engaged readers for centuries. And start with page one.
Go for "humane." It seems to me that much of literature today is emotionally despairing and cynical, violent even. Writing needs to be lively, realistic, and original, but don't be afraid to use genuine emotion and good old fashioned romantic connection.
Above all, be readable. Don't forget the reader. Think of what makes a story compelling. Make the reader, as Scott Miller says, "need to turn the page." Above all, you want to hear four words: "I couldn't put it down."
I don't fully understand how my story went from being rejected over and over to being in this position of success, and I am certainly humbled in the process. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have found a team who have supported and promoted my book in ways I had only dreamed of. And I do want to serve as an inspiration to all those aspiring writers out there who have a dream of someday having a book published. My message now and later will be, "Never give up." Keep working; it is not an impossible dream.