From Writer Unboxed:
[PG note: The OP is written by a long-time literary agent.)
As you can imagine, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts. How many? Many thousands, certainly. Generally, they are good, just not ready. Why not? There are eight common lacks but the last one is the hardest to pin down. It’s not so much a craft technique as it is a quality.
The missing quality is one that falls somewhere between insouciance and recklessness. It has aspects of courage and authority. It’s easier to say what it’s not. It’s not safe. It’s not careful. Few writers believe themselves to be writing timidly but like I say, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts. Most are quite readable or, looked at another way, unobjectionable. Not that a novel should offend readers, but neither should it make few ripples in readers’ minds.
In writing fiction, the learning curve is long and the bar to leap over to print publication is high. It’s understandable that over time many writers bend toward getting their fiction “right”. Maybe not a slavish fit for a given market sector but at least one that will smoothly please finicky gatekeepers. Not without art, no-no, and definitely with an original premise and solid craft but, in the reading, a product that dutifully shows high respect for everything from characters’ sensitivities to marketability.
It’s paradoxical, but the very values that would seem to make a manuscript acceptable can be the same values that produce a novel that isn’t particularly memorable. The quality of being memorable or—let’s be ambitious—timeless, doesn’t come about by writing safe. I don’t mean breaking rules, although there’s a lot to be said for that. What I mean is writing without regard to “don’t”.
Timeless stories are written with high authority. It’s authors who don’t apologize or wonder if they are worthy. They assume that they are and not only that, they have been appointed to tell us who’s who, what’s what, and to do that in their own quirky way and if you don’t like it then go jump in a lake. It’s as if those authors don’t care a damn who approves their novels but care like hell about the ache and joy of the human condition.
Proust, Woolf, Faulkner and Vonnegut did not write timidly. Tolkein did not think small. Bridget Jones, let’s be honest, is a drunk. Neil Gaiman doesn’t give a damn if you think he’s borrowing heavily from myth or fairy tale. Neither J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins care if you find their novels of derivative of others’ stuff. Angie Thomas tells it like it is, so take that. Mary Gaitskill, by no means alone, has no problem making you blush. And then there’s that fattest of middle fingers to middle brow literature, Lolita, a jaw dropper first published in 1955.
I’m talking about fearlessness, being recklessly independent of all expectations and at the same time utterly bonded to all of us. A lot of things get in the way of that, not just the intimidating standards of publishing—whatever those are—but authors’ inhibitions and influences.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed