How to Tell if You’re a Good Writer

At every writer’s conference we attend, with every interview we do, and for every bio we fill out, there’s one question that always makes its way into the mix: “What do literary agents look for?” It came up on a panel this weekend at the excellent San Francisco Writers Conference, as usual. It’s what writers are very curious about, naturally, right up there with the perennial “How to tell if you’re a good writer.” Because, if they know what agents and editors want, they can supply…right?

what do literary agents look for, how to tell if you're a good writer
What do literary agents look for? If you know the magic answer, you can supply it…right?

How To Tell If You’re a Good Writer

I hate the “What do literary agents look for?” question. And I said so. And the smartass answer–“I know it when I see it”–isn’t helpful. My actual answers on the panel were “Good stuff done well” and “Literary spark and commercial appeal.”

I’m not trying to be coy here. But I think that fellow agent Taylor Martindale‘s answer to a different question illustrates my point perfectly. When talking about books we were excited about, she said she recently sold a YA novel about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she has become Amelia Earhart. Taylor had just sold the book and, to be honest, it sounds really interesting.

Specific Answers Are Hard to Come By

It’s a rare agent or editor who knows exactly, in very specific detail, what they’re looking for. Sure, some editors will say, for example, “I am looking for Dexter for teens.” They tell everyone they know. This actually happened in 2010 with one editor, and they got their wish. Their very specific request inspired author Barry Lyga to write the forthcoming I HUNT KILLERS, which comes out in April and, if you don’t mind me saying, is mind-blowingly great.

It’s much more common to get a vague answer. I bet Taylor Martindale never went on a panel at a conference and said “I’m looking for a YA about a girl whose mother has a nervous breakdown and thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I never went on a panel and said “I’m looking for a picture book about a bird who befriends a snowball” (WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, which was written up in last week’s New York Times), or “I really want to read about a boy who stumbles into a parallel universe to try and reclaim the love of his life” (THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth) or “I really want a story about a Polynesian volcano goddess with a bad tempter” (WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight).

Aim for a General Picture of Their Sensibilities

In fact, when we meet with editors, they very rarely get super specific about what they’re looking for. We’ve all been shocked and delighted about what has grabbed us in the past. So I, personally, never say never and leave the possibilities wide open. Most of my colleagues in agenting and publishing do the same. When I meet with editors, it’s less about what they say they want and more about learning the flavor of their imprint and hearing them talk about books that have excited them. Writers ask, “how to tell if you’re a good writer,” well here are some of the things agents look for: Are they focusing on the characters? The plot? The writing? Do they like to laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Basically, I’m trying to get a more general picture of their sensibilities, then match projects to them on that level. Of course, if they have specific requests, I keep those in mind, too, just in case I ever have a perfect match.

How To Tell If You’re a Good Writer: It’s the Writer’s Job to Come Up With Amazing Ideas

In all honesty, you shouldn’t be fishing for the answer to “What do literary agents look for?” You are the writer. It is your job to come up not only with a really well-written story, but with an idea that’s going to resonate in the marketplace and grab attention. That’s becoming more and more important, and I’m sure I’ll blog about this a lot later. (Not being vague…it just has a lot to do with the Big News I keep talking about.)

A lot of writers say in their queries: “I am happy to write whatever you need.” No. Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? You put the work into developing a bang-up idea and then building your writer’s toolbox so you can execute it with aplomb. That’s what will sell. And if you’ve put the work into writing a great novel, many different agents and editors will be a fit for it, because we’re all looking for, basically “Good stuff done well.”

So I hope you can understand why “I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t a copout answer.

Want to know how to tell if you’re a good writer? When you invest in my book editing services, I’ll evaluate your current skill level and then help you build your writing and revision toolbox so you can do you story idea justice.

12 Replies to “How to Tell if You’re a Good Writer”

  1. I think you put succinctly. Basically, just write a darn good book.

    ANd woo-hoo to your BIG NEWS! That’s great to hear… it’ll definitely be on my Writer Bookshelf. 🙂

  2. It’s true that you rarely know specifically what you’re looking for. But I respectfully disagree that “good stories told well” is as specific as you can get.

    Taylor Martindale could have said something like, “I really get into psychological dramas.” You could say, “I’ve always liked stories involving ancient gods and goddesses, and something like that that blends genres would be welcome in my inbox.” An agent can be more specific than just, “strong writing with engaging characters.” And in fact, your blog sidebar entitled “My Manuscript Wish List” shows that.

    The thing is, nobody starts querying until they THINK they HAVE strong writing with engaging characters. Nobody queries something until they think it’s a good story, told well. And every published book out there fits SOMEONE’s definition of a good story told well, and yet, they have also all been rejected by a number of agents and editors.

    In our queries, we’re asked to be specific about why we chose you (or whomever we’re querying). Isn’t it fair to ask the same courtesy?

  3. I wonder if it’s fair to ask what editors/agents DON’T want to see, at least in the current marketplace. When a writer is playing around with a few different story ideas, I think it would be helpful to hear what genres or character types (or whatever) just isn’t being sought by editors in this market. For example, I’ve had two agents tell me what a tough sell historical is. I can’t say it would’ve changed what I wrote since historicals are my passion, but who knows? An agented critique partner on submission has also had her ms turned down by editors because they don’t want any more dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories (I saw their notes to her agent). I doubt anyone is writing a vampire love triangle by now–or maybe I’m mistaken–but it seems like the “send me no vampires” line often given in agent profiles could be expanded.

  4. Amelia Kynaston says:

    I like how Toni Morrison put it: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

    Notice she says “that YOU want to read,” not: “that an agent/editor wants to read…”

    How can any lesser motivation produce the kind of story that, in the end, an agent/editor will actually want to read?

  5. christine tripp says:

    I think the problems with a, “what I want, what I don’t want” list is, an Agent may very well be sick and tired of, Zombie, Vampire YA. Fed up to the gills with PB’s featuring another, “Squirrel”, “Pig”, “Princess” but… when the next “Olivia” lands on ones desk, it may easily become “what I want right now, today”. I know the frustration, I also look for clues from Art Directors and Editors on what they like, dislike but knowing that, in the end, it can all change based on what is submitted.
    I once heard an AD say, at a conference, they do NOT use cartoon art! A few years later, that same Publisher, the AD was with, came out with a successful series of books, featuring CARTOON Illustration.
    I’m not sure what I will want to eat for dinner tonight, but if something tasty presents itself….

  6. Haha! I like the dinner analogy. Well said.

  7. Patti Mallett says:

    I really enjoyed this post. For one reason, you name a lot of books I can now check out. (I love that!) You also reminded me that I don’t write for agents or editors (right or wrong). I write for myself, and then for my reader (the one I imagine).

    That said, we are always advised to match our queries with those who like our type of work, which can seem like the impossible task.

  8. I think you’re more likely to succeed if your story is brilliant than if your genre is agent-specific.

    We’ve all heard stories of agents, editors, or art directors who rejected one specific genre, plot, or style of art, only to take it on later. When they did, it was because it was good, or great. It surprised them. The project didn’t meet their expectations — it exceeded them.

    I’m sure agents receive plenty of submissions that play well enough to their interests, but not all of those manuscripts will be published. And I would guess the reason has less to do with the content of the project, and more to do with the quality. True, good books are sometimes passed over because they’re not right: not the right list, not the right time, not the right agent, etc… But I think in the long run good writing wins out over right writing.

    I think as writers and artists we should keep our energy where it belongs, on the writing and the art. Research and understand the market so you know your audience, then spend the rest of your time focusing on the writing or the art. And let the chips fall where they may.

  9. There are elements of a story that are more primal than mere genre, and that’s the sort of thing I do try to discern when I research agents/editors. I want to match a book with a person who will love it. I don’t want to just fire random queries off; I think that’s a disservice to everyone. But I think that what makes a person love a book isn’t so much about whether it has vampires/rubies/love triangles/aliens as it is about how the book makes you feel. Do you like a slow, subtle plot with rich prose and characterization (ie literary)? Do you feel that the story is the most important thing in a book, and everything in the book must serve the story? Do you love underdogs and/or heroes who suffer nobly? Do you love something that is so contemporary that it feels like it just walked out of ninth grade–in 2012, not 2011? Do you love a times, storyteller feeling? *That’s* the sort of answer I always hope to hear to the question of “what are you looking for?” I just think that asking if someone is into vampires or dystopia still kind of misses the point of why someone likes a book in the first place.

  10. Mary Ann Duke says:

    I want to comment on Mary’s post about writers not spelling her name correctly. More than once, when talking on the phone, the person has asked my last name. When I say “Duke” the person says, “How do you spell that–Duck?”
    I want to start quacking in a loud, honking, nasal pitch. So far I restrained myself.

  11. With regard to what agents want & don’t want:
    I have always wondered… What happens if I submit a picture book to an agent who reps picture books, but really loves loves loves middle grade and YA? If the manuscript has a chance or catches the agent’s attention… would he/she give it to another agent in the same firm who is more devoted to picture books? Is there communication between agents in the same firm? I am guessing yes but still curious…

  12. Thanks… it should be intuitive, but as a book buyer (librarian), I can see where people get the idea that everyone must get together and decide on the Next Big Thing–suddenly, there’ll be a dozen books about fallen angels, or books in verse about drug abuse, or teen spies. It feels like there’s some code to crack. Of course, there isn’t. These things just drift in and out of public consciousness. So maybe the next big paranormal romance thing will be immortal Norse gods living in suburbia. Or maybe not. But if so, it’ll be because some writer had a brilliant idea on the subject, and the whole concept wriggled into the minds of a lot of writers and readers.

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