What do literary agents look for in our stories? When trying to publish traditionally, it’s sometimes difficult to know why our submissions are rejected by literary agencies. Feedback is often little to none from query letters. So if you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback from a literary agent who’s read your query, synopsis, a portion of your manuscript, or the full manuscript, cherish it like a solid gold nugget. Take it to heart, and use it to improve your manuscript.
Whenever I’ve attended writing conferences or workshops where literary agents are speaking, I’m front and center, listening with rapt attention because this is one way to learn what literary agents are looking for in our stories.
During the last couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to hear three literary agents talk about what they look for when they read a manuscript. There were some common elements regarding what’s important to them. Below I’ve extracted from my notes to provide the top 5 things literary agents look for in our stories:
1. Good Story Telling
Few things in writing can trump good story telling. Yet it is elusive to many writers. Good story telling has structure. The most common elements of the narrative structure are setting, plot, and theme. Good story telling starts with a great beginning, one that is engaging, enticing, has action or tension. It has a captivating middle that moves the plot forward and builds to a climax. And it has a slam-bang ending that is satisfying and resolves the plot of the story, neatly tying up all loose ends.
2. Characters We Care About
I’ve heard more than one literary agent say that characters are the most important element in a story. Even if the plot is not the greatest, if the characters are believable and we care about them and what happens to them, we will stick around for the ride and finish the story. We will also want to read more stories about those characters.
3. Smooth Prose
According to novelwritinghelp.com prose can be defined as the ability to write with a clear, concise, and uncluttered style… and with a confident voice. According to one literary agent, the main reason for unpublished writers is their writing has not matured. Mastery of the English language is not there. He said craft is something writers can improve. So how does one improve? His suggestions:
– Read books in your genre
– Read as a writer. In other words, read to examine how great writers write.
– Read good books on writing
4. Universal Themes
Having a universal theme connects us as human being on an emotional level. It draws us in. We can identify with the plight of the character. Some universal themes are: Love, hate, revenge, fall from grace, and redemption. There are many other universal themes that can provide the basis for a great story. farragut.bownet.org provides a comprehensive list of universal themes.
5. Strong Narrative Voice
I asked one literary agent to define “strong narrative voice.” He struggled to put it into words but said, and I’m paraphrasing, he’ll know it when he hears it. It is a concept that is hard to define, but it is something every literary agent is looking for, listening for, in our stories.
According to standoutbooks.com a strong narrative voice is having an original or distinctive voice. Developing a strong narrative voice has to do with cultivating a distinctive style in tone and rhythm, even using wit and humor that is uniquely you.
The right voice can turn a story from good to great. And some stories need to be told in a certain way to have the impact they deserve.
PS – If you’ve gotten feedback regarding what literary agents look for when they read a manuscript, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.