At every 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?
Well, 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 to “What do literary agents look for?” 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. 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.
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.