This morning I'm sifting through interviews with publishers and editors to see what gets them excited. Straight from the horses' mouth, as it were. And since that is a betting term, it's quite apt because everybody, whether publisher, author or reader, is taking a gamble on whether this book is going to prove a winner.
Publishers are looking to sell books. We're talking large numbers of sales that bring in a healthy profit. They're panning the slush pile for story-gold. So far, so obvious. When it comes to your novel submission, publishers are inundated with potential books in a given genre, all written to a certain standard. What makes yours stand out from the crowd? To take a bet on backing your book, publishers want to know that readers are going to be excited by it, will be recommending it to their friends, will be coming back for more. So what are those elusive qualities that drive a runaway success for a novel? In listening to industry professionals, I'm finding certain themes recur.
'Say what you want about some popular authors or creators: they know how to move someone. To get people to keep turning pages. Keep buying books. Keep telling friends about them.'
Dan Blank, founder of We Grow Media
So we all want that emotional hit when we've invested time in a novel – it has to get under our skin and, as Blank says, resonate. It stays with us afterwards, that emotional echo of a book we loved, even if it's disturbed or perplexed us. Personally I want a story that leaves me shell-shocked but not in an obvious, manipulative way. But there's that page-turning quality as well. A book that's made me hungry, that's kept me up at night because I can't sleep not knowing what's happened to that character I've grown to care about and worry about.
'All right, so I want an original voice. Now that’s different from an original story, because I really do believe that old saying that there’s only seven stories in the world — there might be more, hopefully there are. But, it’s not that you always have to completely come up with a new storyline, but you do have to have a new way of telling it. Your unique voice, as a writer, has to come through, and I have to engage with that voice. It has to draw on my emotions, one way or the other... it has to be something that is confident enough that it draws me in and it’s a really well-managed tool to tell the story. And stories are really important to me, so it has to have a story that I can think about while I’m doing the washing up. It has to linger in my head...'
Bernadette Foley, Editor & Publisher at Hachette, Australia.
Foley touches here on another elusive quality: narrative voice. The voice of a book is its personality. It's a voice whispering in your ear – as intimate as radio, even more so because it's right in your head. And the narrative voice embodies the story. It grows out of the story, it's the only way to tell that particular story. As Foley says, 'well-managed tool to tell the story.' This might be the voice of a character-narrator or it might be the voice of a landscape of events or all of those. But when you hear it, it casts a spell and you're hooked.
'Because I’m only sent a chapter, and you can tell in a chapter, it’s essentially, maybe it’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for either really good raw writing style, that I think will have a great story. Or if in my dreams, a manuscript arrives, or a chapter arrives, and the narrative voice is really distinctive, and the reader has, I just really want to keep on reading… So narrative voice is probably the most important for me...When you’re reading, observe the craft of how the person, how the author has set up a great narrative voice, how they’ve developed characters, whether the characters are likable... You know, just look at every aspect of the craft. How they’ve moved their plot along, the structure, and so on. So that’s my first thing. Read a lot, and read for the craft... Go back to your favourite novels and look at why they are so good.'
Louise Thurtell, Publisher at Allen & Unwin
Thurtell hones in on the impact of narrative voice but she also advises writers to study the structure and pace of the novels they admire. It's that page-turning quality again we're looking for. A while back, I picked up the American classic novel Moby Dick. I knew that the subject matter really appealed to me. He's got whales, icebergs, the wild landscape of Newfoundland and its surrounding oceans, the story of men locked in a boat for years on end and an obsessive captain driven by a desire for revenge. Perfect book for a long winter read. When I read the opening page, the first person narrative leapt out and seized me. 'I could follow this narrator to the ends of the earth,' I wrote on Facebook. But then ten chapters in, we were still marooned ashore while the hero negotiated his way onto a whaling ship. I have to confess, I floundered, I ground to a halt. I will get back to Moby Dick, honest, I'll stock up on rations and hunker down for the duration. But as a reader in the 21st century, like the rest of us, I'm looking for the storytelling to have that page-turning, can't-put-it-down quality. And as a novelist, that's a challenge I have to meet myself.
So here's a group of publishers in 2015, talking in The Guardian about books they did publish and why they were successful. You'll notice the same themes coming through:
'Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates takes the form of a letter from the author to his teenage son. Along with his powerful, personal and provocative history of race in America, Coates also shares his hopes and fears for his son’s future. Rarely are such “urgent” books written in such mesmerising prose.'
Hannah Griffiths, Publishing Director, Faber
'Drugs, dubstep, eco-terrorism, racial politics, failing marriages, birding, sex (in a canoe), the nuclear family: it’s all here. As the New York Times said: “You don’t read Nell Zink (The Wallcreeper) so much as step into the ring with her.” She is a total one-off, a wild voice out of nowhere which seems to have no precedent. We will be hearing much more from her over the coming years.'
Nicolas Pearson, Publishing Director, 4th Estate
'Claire Fuller’s rich and humane Our Endless Numbered Days introduces us to Peggy, one of the most vivid child narrators I’ve encountered. Abducted by her survivalist father to live in a remote forest cabin, she seeks escape through music, nature and books. It is a dark and massively suspenseful story which abounds with references to fairytales.'
Juliet Annan, Publishing Director, Fig Tree/ Penguin
An urgent book in mesmerising prose, a one-off wild voice, a vivid child-narrator and massively suspenseful story. We'd all love to have written those books - but how? The Writers' Shed notes that precisely these qualities are often talked about but rarely taught. That's why the first Masterclass in our new series will address Narrative Drive & Narrative Voice. We hope to drill down to the techniques that can make your book stand out from the heap on the slush pile table. And have your readers celebrating the book they couldn't put away. To find out more, pop over to The Writers' Shed and take a look. You'll find other free resources there on the shelves too.