Patricia Wood, author of Lottery, sent me a link to this article from Poets & Writers magazine (a favorite of mine; check it out if you haven't already) Thanks, Pat! If you're in the business, and plan to stay, I'd recommend reading it.
I've never met Chuck Adams, but I'd like to. I like what he says, how he says it, and the way he leaks common sense all over the page in this Q&A. For those who don't know, Chuck was the editor who acquired Sara Gruen's now infamous Water for Elephants. I've pasted three excerpts below:
Q. What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
A. The first thing is the voice. If it's got a strong voice, I'm going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I'm going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they're definitely not about editors—they're about readers. You've got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you're telling. You can't just write down words that sound pretty. It's all about the reader. You've got to bring the reader into it right away. If the writing is poetic and so forth, that's nice. I'm reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I'm only fifty-six pages into it, but I'm already getting a little tired because it's so nice, if you know what I mean. It's so pretty. It's like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere. It's become self-conscious, in a way.
Q. How long does it take you to know?
A. You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you're going to get hooked. Every now and then, something will surprise you. I remember one novel at Simon & Schuster that I was reading, more as a favor than anything else. The writing wasn't great, and the story was a little on the predictable side—it was okay, but a little boring—but then I got to the end and it surprised the hell out of me. I went back and thought, "F**k, this is really something. I would have given up after fifty pages if I hadn't promised somebody that I would read it." I ended up buying it and it did really well.
Q. This is the magazine's MFA issue. Do you have anything to say about them?
A. Obviously a lot of good writers have come out of MFA programs—you see it in their bios—so I know there's a lot of good work being done. I will confess that many of the MFA novels I see are better written than they are good books, if you know what I mean. There's a lot of good writing, but that doesn't necessarily add up to a good book. I feel like perhaps in those programs too much emphasis is being put on style and word choices rather than actually thinking about how to communicate with people. It's too much about—to make it sound terrible—but it's too much about showing off and not enough about trying to please a reader.
Again, I go back to the whole thing about storytelling. I'm old enough to have started reading back when it really was primarily about stories. I guess there were a lot of quality literary books being published then, but my mother didn't buy them. I read what was around the house: Edna Ferber and Daphne du Maurier and Mary Renault and Thomas B. Costain. These are writers you don't hear anything about anymore, but they were brilliant storytellers. They were also good writers, mind you, but they were brilliant storytellers. They would grab the reader right away and just not let go.
Today, I'm seeing better writing than the writing in those books, but I'm not seeing better storytelling. That was why Water for Elephants excited me. Sara is a really good writer. She's not a great stylist or anything—you're not going to sit down and read her sentences just for the beauty of them—but she tells such a great story.