This was the topic of one of the panels at the Backspace Writers Conference. If you haven't gone, I highly recommend it. I met some amazing people including fellow writers and got rejuvenated to return to my WIP and keep editing along. All this week I'll be sharing with you (as promised) some of the important information I gleaned from the event.
So, what do literary agents want? Great writing. What is it?
1. Originality. The novel has to really bring the reader into the world and there has to be some unique X factor about it. As one agent said, "Write the book you want to read and that's not currently out there." Don't write to trends. By the time you do, the trend is likely over. Case in point? Lots of agents recycling the words, "No vampires or werewolves!"
2. Query letter strength. The query letter is your audition. It has to be as strong as the writing in the novel itself. It may be all an agent sees of your writing. If you were a singer you'd want to showcase your voice right out front and get their jaws to drop on those first few notes. You wouldn't hide that awesome range for the end of the song because you might never make it there. The same is true for queries. Be sure it truly reflects your novel and your main character. Ideally we'd have a true sense of who your character is by the time those few paragraphs of a query letter are through. Best advice: tailor your query letter to the back of a book/book jacket. You want to introduce us to characters, have your hook, and leave us wanting more.
3. Voice. More and more books today are truly voice/character driven. There has to be a differentiation between your main character and others. Think of it this way, if you could remove the "says Emily" or "says Toby" additions to your dialogue, would it be clear who is talking? If the answer is no then go back and work on your voice some more.
4. Pace. Pacing is sooooo important. The second an editor or agent gets bored and feels they can put your book down, it's the kiss of death. This means focusing on tightening your storyline, getting rid of anything unnecessary, being careful with too much exposition or back story, and varying sentence length to improve the readability of your prose. As one agent said, "If a word is not serving your purpose, why is it there?"
5. Tension. It needs to be clear to the readers all along what the stakes are. This invests them in the storyline and your characters. It also assists with the pacing of the book.
6. Intangible quality. An agent said, "Sometimes good writing has an intangible quality. Even after pointing out style, word choice, and turns of phrase, there's still something about it you can't quite place but which pulls you in." As writers to it might be difficult to determine if we have that quality in our own work, but this is where beta readers are so important. We all know this quality too. It's how so many people can badmouth the writing of Twilight but they've read it and devoured it themselves. Whatever they think of the word choice or the style, they were pulled into the story and never let go. That's what good writing does and not all good writing has to be literary writing; it can be commercial too.
7. Professionalism. Agents want to know that your novel isn't a "one-off." They want to know that you will take the process seriously because this is their job. They may like you and become friends with you but you are colleagues first and foremost. They have to want to work with you and know that when they recommend you to an editor and say you're fabulous to collaborate with, that it's the truth because it's their reputation that's on the line. So no crazy antics; no badmouthing on the Web etc. I once heard the phrase "What happens in Vegas lives on Facebook forever." I think the same is true for writers, "What happens in cyberspace is Google-able forever." (Yes, I made that word up but you get the point.)
I think the greatest take away from all of this is not to rush the process, to really focus on honing your craft and making your work the best it possibly can and then ensuring when you contact agents, all that hard work and professionalism and clean writing comes through. What's some good writing advise you've received?