What Literary Agents Look For In A Writer’s Work

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Like many small business owners, I have to multi-task, so as a literary agent, I recently had this insight while at the Pacific Ocean. When I wear my agent cap, the stories that I love the most, are the ones which hold my attention. Simple as that. Nothing esoteric. The same way these stories hold my attention, they tend to hold an editor at a large publishing house’s attention. Ergo, these are the manuscripts which get the book deals.
A writer’s work has to catch my attention in the first sentence, then the second, then the first page, or the next 5-10 pages. I don’t care how many projects I have in the hop, I should be able to sit down, block out the other things pressing, and read your book with interest. That’s a compelling read. Even if I can’t finish it, I should be drawn to want to come back to find out what happened.
I’m an agent who happens to be a writer, too. This is another epiphany I had while at the ocean. As writers, we have to write as if we are writing for people with short attention spans. A book has to be very compelling to keep this type of person’s attention, and I think a lot of people suffer from a little of this syndrome now. Why?
Because today, many people are on information overload. People tend to have short attention spans. We can get information on Myspace, millions of websites, emails, teleseminars, ipods, webinars, ezines, internet radio interviews, Youtube. The list goes on.
People are busy, raising families, working jobs, or running businesses. They are caught up in the fast-pace of life that is the New Millennium. As a result, people tend to want instant gratification. So I take this into consideration when I read a client’s work.
What are some of the things agents look for?
Personally, I look for writers of fiction who have more than one book in them. Preferably, these writers have a number of stories to tell, and they can make a full-time career out of their writing. I’d like to see writers whose books can be translated to the silver screen one day. The rest is on a gut-level feeling. If I get this feeling while I’m reading your work, you’re connecting with me on a level that I’m learning to identify as “This book works.”
Where should you begin? A good query letter is a place to begin. You can find out how to write them in the Literary Market Place, or The Writer’s Market.
A serious writer will take time to visit the guidelines when submitting to an agency. I am an independent agent with Sheba Media Group (www.shebamedia.com.) Do not send attachments unless the agency asks for it. Often the writers do not follow the guidelines, and this is a turn off to an agent.
If someone asks you for a synopsis, a logline for a screen play, or your novel’s first 3 chapters, then make sure this is what you provide–not your self-published book with the cover torn off. If you have already self-published, send in the manuscript version to the agent.
These are some tips for writers:
Make sure there are no typos in your query letter, your synopsis or your manuscript. It not only discredits your work, it gives an impression that you don’t respect the craft of writing.
Have your work edited and proofread before submitting to an agent. Sometimes, as writers, we only get one shot at an opportunity. Be prepared if you want to be successful.
Follow the submission guidelines of a literary agency. For example, if the guidelines say they do not accept novellas, do not send novellas. Wait for your release letter, which says that you are the writer of said material.
Send a query letter and a screenplay in the proper format. Use Final Draft or other screenwriting software.
If you want to be a screenwriter, study the craft.
As a novelist, you should develop a good writing style and have an interesting flair for words. This is one reason why urban fiction is so popular. It is written in hip hop/urban vernacular, which has a very authentic feel and it reflects the world as seen by the characters who have lived the street life.
As a writer, you should develop a strong voice. Your particular world view should shine through your writing.
Create a page turner by studying the craft of fiction writing, (which includes the elements of fiction, such as pacing, revising, creating memorable characters, among other techniques.) You can read books, take classes, or join critique groups.
Write about exciting characters who take action. Do not use stereotypical characters. If you use a pimp, make him different, such as the character Terrance Howard portrayed in the movie, “Hustle and Flow.”
Use a compelling storyline. Stories are not about the character’s ordinary day or routine. The best stories are about disruption of the norm, and how the characters coped with the change. Good stories are about characters who go through a journey, which change their lives, for better or worse, by the end of the story. This is your character arc.
These are some things you can learn to do which will help improve your writing.
Learn how to set up a scene, then pay it off. Raise a story question and make sure you answer it by the end of the story.

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