What are agents looking for? I’ve come across a number of articles and discussions recently concerned with unravelling this mystery. It’s as if there’s some special elixir, some alchemy, which, if successfully harnessed by the aspiring author, will lead them straight into the arms of a literary agent and onto sure fire publication.
What, then, are these special ingredients? The general consensus seems to be that top of the list is a distinctive voice. After that, it’s a question of engaging characters, a good story, convincing dialogue, a thorough understanding of the chosen genre, etc. etc.
People struggle with the concept of voice. What is it? Narrative tone? Timbre? Character? To me, voice is what sets a book apart as belonging to one particular writer. There may be, indeed there should be, other writers’ influences in evidence. But voice is the literary hallmark of originality of thought and expression.
I would argue that agents aren’t the only ones who appreciate a fresh, distinctive voice. Readers do too. Maybe they don’t know it. By saying this, it’s not my intention to patronise the reader. After all, I had never thought of such things myself until I began to try and write. But the discerning reader, looking for something more than the most facile of literature, will know when the voice is not right, or when it’s a mere copy of another, or simply not there at all.
What else? Strong characters and decent plotting? Well, duh. Readers want those things too, don’t they? In fact, it seems to me that everything on an agent’s list would be on a reader’s list. Perhaps agents think about it more. It is their job to be critically aware of the elements that are crucial to a novel’s success. But, like readers, what they want is a good book, a good read (on which opinions naturally vary). Agents are, after all, primarily servicing readers, not authors, when they reach for the next manuscript on the slush pile.
What about subject matter and genre? What latest trend should a writer be trying to cash in on, or, even better, anticipate? Steam Punk? Erotica? Exotica? Young Adult Science Fiction? Speculative Fiction? Romance? Crime? (yes always, apparently) Chick Lit? Or a new phenomenon I heard mentioned recently, called Granny Lit?
If JK Rowling had conducted market research into literary predilections at the time she created her first Potter novel, she wouldn’t have found stories about schools of wizardry high up on the list. (Rightly so, in my opinion). During the first lecture on my MA course, an illustrious author implored me and my fellow students to concentrate on writing, not the books we thought we ought to write, not even the books we thought we ought to read, but simply the books each of us would most like to take down from the shelf.
Forget about being the next James Joyce. Forget about your standing in the canon. Remember only your reader and do your level best to please them and give them the very finest of whatever it is they (aka you) most desire. Chances are, unless you’re really super weird, somebody else will want to read that book too. (Or, in the case of JK Rowling, several million people).
Besides, for me personally this is a particularly unhelpful time to be considering what kinds of books people want to read. I have already invested large quantities of time and energy into producing my first draft. What should I do if I discover that my material is at the bottom of the literary agent’s wanted list? Should I cast aside my manuscript and begin again on a sadomasochist romance set in a steam punk futurist landscape featuring blood-thirsty grannies?
Or should I carry on with what I’ve done so far? Perfecting, honing, crafting. Making my novel the best of its kind I can possibly make it.
So I say, sod what agents want. It’s what I want that matters. For if I don’t like what I’m writing, how can I expect anyone else to?