Advice: what agents want
Yesterday I taught my first Guardian Masterclass of the year on how to pitch your book. The next is on 23rd February (click Guardian Masterclass for details). A question students always ask is: what exactly do agents want? It is easier to answer than you might think.
Of course everyone in publishing would say ‘voice’, by which they mean the character and personality of the writing. Agents want a voice that is unique, fresh and engaging. If you remain unclear what that means, the best way to understand is to read, read and read contemporary books. The narration – whether first or third person – will have a unique and distinct feel. From the opening paragraph it will engage you in a way that makes you want to read on and respond to the story and characters.
In every course I have taught people complain: ‘They say they want a unique voice, but all the books on sale look the same.’ Really? The comment reveals that the person speaking needs to read more, especially contemporary work within their chosen genre, if a novelist, or subject area, if writing non-fiction.
If you think voice doesn’t apply to non-fiction you should read cookery books. Isn’t a recipe book just a recipe book? No it is not. Jamie Oliver sounds nothing like Nigel Slater or Joanna Weinberg and none of them sound like Nigella. In another section of non-fiction, historians of the Second World War Ben MacIntyre and Anthony Beevor are completely different. The same is true of two biographers of Queen Victoria, Kate Williams and Helen Rappaport.
The misunderstanding about voice is in part because packaging is often confused with voice. Take a handful of writers of women’s commercial fiction – say Adele Parks, Jojo Moyes, Santa Sebag Montefiore and Rachel Hore. Each sounds different to the other. They may have covers that position them firmly in the same section of the supermarket, but they differ in subject and theme and in the way they approach characters, plot and the tone of their writing. That is what readers engage with and that is what makes them unique – it is also why three of them are represented by the same agent: there is no overlap, they just happen to appeal to a similar market.
What else do agents want? High on the list, especially in genre fiction, is a writer who knows instinctively how to tell a story. When I was at university there was a student called Baz who was a master of the shaggy dog story. These tales would go on for a long time and invariably have a terrible ending that left everybody groaning, but that didn’t matter. Why? Because it was the way Baz told them. He would have us hanging onto every word, usually in stiches
Now think of the people you know and how you respond when they start to tell a story. Do you engage or do you tune out or find yourself trying to cut them short? Unlike Baz, they have no instinct for storytelling. Now think about the novels you read and how they engage you and carry you through from first page to last. Does your manuscript do the same? It is an important question to answer, because the answer will help an agent determine whether to represent you or not. And don’t ask this question of your family and friends. They will probably lie. Get people you trust and who read widely to read your book and let them be completely honest,
Of course a good novel is more than just plot. Equally important when assessing a manuscript’s worth is whether the writer knows how to create characters readers will like and whether the dialogue is convincing.
Readers make an emotional investment in authors’ characters. It may be that they identify with them or that they aspire to be like them or that they want a character to redeem themselves. But, if a character is simply unpleasant to be around, unless you have rare skill – think Tom Wolfe or Patricia Highsmith – you risk alienating your reader. Not only will they close the book early, they will tell others they hated the book too
This is why the psychopathic killers who inhabit crime fiction rarely narrate entire novels. Those that do are engaging in some way: Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter is killing nastier psychos than himself and doing it with great humour and a degree of humanity absent from most psycho killers. When a perpetrator’s point of view is given it is almost always as a plot device to ramp up the tension and place the protagonist in peril. Val McDermid’s Jacko Vance is rendered even more threatening when we see his point of view, as is the perpetrator in Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall.
As for convincing dialogue…well, can anything kill a good read faster than clunky dialogue? It kills any sense one has of the character or action. I think one way to test dialogue is to read it aloud or, better still, get a friend to read it. How does it sound? Does it sound natural? Are there pauses for breath? Is it appropriate to the action? I am not the only one for whom the final scene of Ian McEwan’s Saturday was rendered risible when the protagonist’s naked and pregnant daughter recites from memory Dover Beach while under threat of violent rape. I would love to hear your own examples.
And finally, the fifth element agents and publishers look for is whether the writer is clear about the genre in which he or she writes, whether crime, romance, thriller or women’s fiction and whether they are clear about what the book is about. ‘But’ – you may protest – ‘my book defies genre.’ Let’s get this straight: nothing defies genre. Even literary fiction is a genre – in fact much of it fits snugly into the classier end of crime or romance. Agents and publishers ask this question because they want to know if a book fits their list and how easy it will be to place in retail outlets.
And if you still don’t understand what an agent or publisher wants, here is my final bit of advice: get reading. It really is the only way to understand what constitutes successful writing. Read like an author: read critically; read to understand aspects of character, dialogue and voice; and read to understand the taste of the agent to whom you are pitching. Agents with websites usually feature client lists, go out and buy the latest books by those clients. Read around the genre – always contemporary work, not books published years ago. By doing this you will learn an enormous amount that should help when pitching your book.
© Danuta Kean 2013