Why don’t you?
Many manuscripts submitted to my agency are accompanied by covering e-mails that cite the influence of various great novels. The manuscripts themselves rarely-to-never live up to those models. But they could. Why do novelists hold themselves back? Why do they fail to enact in their own stories what excites, delights and moves them in the work of others?
I suspect that many do not feel entitled. Greatness is for someone else, right? That’s a shame, and wrong since every story has in it the potential to make readers laugh, weep and think. It is not a function of subject matter or style. Are you writing coming-of-age, a noir mystery, or dystopian science fiction? So were Harper Lee, Raymond Chandler and George Orwell. What is the difference? Those writers gave themselves permission to write universal stories with high authority, in a straightforward style and with an impassioned purpose.
Think of your favorite novel. What is your favorite thing about it? Who is your favorite character in it? What is your favorite thing that this character does? What moment in the story most stands out for you? What about that moment is particularly memorable? What in the story made you laugh the hardest, cry the most, change your views? What setting in the novel did you love the most? What location in the story, and what about it, made you the most afraid? Why?
Why not find ways and places in your current manuscript to make analogous things happen? Why not go bigger? Why not say more? Really, why not? What are you writing fiction for? To be good enough to get (or stay) published? Or to tell stories that are great?
A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.