The Write Stuff: How to Get Your Story Noticed (and Published)

Bruce Nichols certainly knows what makes for a good story.  As Senior Vice President and Publisher of HMH’s General Interest Group, he reads an average of 200-300 manuscript pages every night and he and his team at HMH publish more than 125 new books a year.

This week, Bruce sat down with us to talk about what it’s like to be a publisher, giving us the inside scoop about what makes a manuscript enticing, what the current trends are in the  industry, and offering words of advice for aspiring writers.

HMH: How did you start in publishing?

Up until I graduated, I thought that I wanted to be a classical trombone player. I practiced for three to five hours every single day for the last two years of high school and all through college. Then, a few months before graduation, I realized “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t know what to do.”

I was fortunate to get a job in Boston at Little, Brown as an editorial assistant. I liked some of the books they published so I thought I would try it. That was the last major career decision I made.

HMH: What do you look for when you read new manuscripts?

With fiction, in particular, the voice is the very first thing I notice. I want to hear an original and authentic voice. For longer fiction, I also want to read something that propels me to turn the pages. With short fiction, I enjoy original pieces that don’t waste a single word. For both short and long fiction, I want something that takes you somewhere you’ve never been before.

HMH: So tell us, what’s one trend you’re seeing in the industry today?

There’s a growing audience for speculative fiction, which is exciting to see. Speculative means fantasy, science fiction, or something that has elements of both.  Those genres used to be considered “niche” publishing: either you’re a science fiction person or you’re not. That distinction is really breaking down.  For example, some people are taking science fiction elements and putting them in novels and stories that are otherwise realistic, and readers are really responding well when they encounter some of these elements.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Spark a Story

HMH: The Spark a Story contest just opened for submissions. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors?

First: write a lot.

If I were a high school student writing short stories, I would probably write at least five stories, but potentially a lot more than that, before even thinking about if any one of them is any good.

Second: writing is a craft.

It takes perspiration, not just inspiration. It’s almost unheard of that anybody’s first draft would be the one that they feel is ready to release into the world. I think a lot of young writers are astonished when they learn that lots of novelists write many novels they never show to anybody. Writing takes craftsmanship; it’s not the case of an inspired genius who can just bang it out. It takes a lot of hard work.

Finally, I would say: “write what you know” is a good general rule, but don’t be afraid to violate it.

If you’re a new writer and you want to write a historical novel or short story set in a different time or place, that’s usually a bad idea, because you probably don’t have enough information. There are some people, however, whose imagination is so fantastic that they can manage it. So “write what you know” is a decent rule of thumb, but one you shouldn’t be afraid to ignore.

HMH: Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring publishers?

If you don’t love a manuscript, don’t publish it. You have to find novels or non-fiction that you love, so you can be enthusiastic and convincing when you tell others that they will love it, too.

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Are you in high school and interested in being published by HMH? HMH is currently searching for the next generation of great short story writers through the Spark a Story contest, now open for submissions!

Spark a Story