Do remember your first novel will most likely be your breakthrough work. So, how do you wow an editor?
Writing is only one part of the game, albeit the most important one. After finishing your novel, you want to see it in print and, hopefully, make a few bucks from it. In the West that would mean a literary agent. In India, though, those are few and far between. Everything is vested in the fiction editor. This month let's look at the world from the point of view of an editor.
A former fiction editor at a noted international publishing firm recently told me she quit her job to start her own independent imprint because she was unable to publish the kinds of books she was passionate about. The reason — the brief from her bosses to acquire only certain sellers. When she joined the business in the 1990s, publishers still had a midlist which was made up of authors in which they were investing for the long run. In other words they were supporting talent in the hope that the author would deliver a big hit eventually. Hence authors like John Irving and Don DeLillo were able to survive a few flops before writing their breakthrough novels — The World According to Garp for Irving and Underworld for DeLillo. This penchant for certain sellers has now become the publishing norm, certainly for the big boys, as a result of which the midlist has shrunk considerably. So bear in mind that nowadays your first novel to be published will most likely be your breakthrough novel. And that actually might be the second or third novel you write. Very few writers get it right the first time round. Midnight's Children, for instance, was the fourth novel Salman Rushdie ever wrote. After that he was able to publish everything he had lying about in his drawers.
How do you wow an editor? Well, irrespective of the kind of novel you are writing, you have to write one hell of an opening. These are not the days of the Victorian novel a la Charles Dickens where the author could spend the first 70 pages establishing the world of the novel before making anything happen. We live in an age of short attention spans, and a fiction editor's attention span is very short indeed. So if you don't hook him or her in the first ten-to-15 pages then you are in trouble.
Part of the arresting opening is what in the business is known as the pitch. The pitch is what you include in your cover letter or repeat to the editor if the two of you were to meet face-to-face. The pitch is what the novel is about and should be no longer than a short, snappy sentence. For instance, the pitch for The Day of the Jackal is a professional assassin out to kill Charles de Gaulle. Think of a pitch like you would a headline for an article. Its whole point is to get the editor to read your tome by summing up what it is about in the most interesting and succinct way possible.
When it comes to the subject matter, fiction editors are inundated with coming-of-age stories, midlife crisis, divorce, domestic tales… It does not mean you cannot get published if you write those. But you have to present a fresh take to get through the clutter. For instance, at the centre of Tea Obreht's Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger's Wife is the relationship between a girl and her grandfather. But that is set against the backdrop of the Yugoslav civil war and meshed in with the fable of a woman who thinks she is married to a tiger. The onus is on you to make your work distinctive and exciting.
Jennifer Egan, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad says she writes fiction to bypass the thinking part of herself and get to the more unconscious part where all the good ideas tend to be. That is good advice for any fiction writer. Fiction is not the place to play safe and, generally, the more risks you are willing to take the more compelling your work.
Fiction editors read with a view to reject. The big ones already live well, thanks to their stable of established writers. As a new writer you have to break down this resistance. So take good care of your manuscript. Get as many informed and unbiased readers as possible before submitting and take whatever sound advice they give on board. That means people like writing and literature teachers and professional editors who are unconnected to you. Not your friends and family. Furthermore, make sure the submission is free of spelling/grammatical errors. The last thing you want is to be rejected for a typo.
That's enough for now. More on this issue next month.