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Where Are You Leading?

Old thread, old line
of ink twisting out into the clearness
we call space
where are you leading me this time?
Past the stove, the table,
past the daily horizontal
of the floor, past the cellar,
past the believable,
down into the darkness
where you reverse and shine.

- Margaret Atwood, from Down

At a recent creative writing workshop I held, a gristled middle-aged man wearing a cabled fisherman's sweater, bagged at the elbows, and smudged half-glasses, lifted the nicotine-stained fingers of his right hand and asked with a bit of a hesitancy in his speech, "How do you know you have an idea worth writing about?"

The pat answer, the one you always hear repeated at conference panels, is the question flipped back on itself. "Does it inspire you? Do you feel passionate about your idea? If you do, then dive in and write what only you can." I have no real problem with this response because, in most ways, it is true. Our best ideas are almost always the ones we believe in with all our heart. Only passion will lift an idea from flat ink on the page to construct that three-dimensional vision in your mind, the one you write out fleshed in the senses, in time and drama for your readers. But writers are a hardy lot, self-disciplined; committed to work even when inspiration fails. Driven to drum up enthusiasm when inspiration lags. I knew my gentlemen with the pipe was asking more than what subjects to consider. He tapped his laptop then, asked, "What works?"

In truth, the business of writing occurs one level beyond what is a good passionate story on the page. An acquisitions editor reads for more than the well-executed novel or short story. The editor's interest in a manuscript is often a phenomenon of timeliness, of fresh and unexpected writing, innovative storytelling. Many editors are actively searching for something they can love - that undefinable word magic. That "something extra" that takes a work of private solitary imagination and lifts it into the world of published books. The answer to my gentleman's question, what follows "Are you passionate about your story?" is the simple not-so-easy qualifier, "Can you write this idea so that others will feel about your story as you do?"

At the end of reading a novel submission, the editor has his or her answer in hand. On this basis proposals are judged as well. If you are fortunate to have your "yes," what follows is the amazing, important, book to hand build of industry interest in your fledgling story. Old-fashioned word of mouth enthusiasm is the way your editor wins advance support within the publishing house, amongst book reviewers, bookstore owners, and those whose opinions influence what we read. That your agent loves your work, and your publishing editor loves your work, success still depends on other readers falling in love as well. It's quite the journey your unique story, the idea you were so passionate about, undertakes to arrive in Aunt Edna's hands.

Margaret Atwood's imagery of inked lines flying from the table, past the believable to that point words shine, is one I return to frequently when I think how grateful I am to the professionals in publishing. They hear our words. And pass the magic on to readers, everywhere.
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