I know you’re not reading this for my take on this, but I feel I should start by saying that what agents, in particular, want is not as big a mystery as some think it is. Most agents are very clear about what they are looking for and put the information out on their own websites and on posts and interviews you can find online. They want clients, they want submissions and they want writers to send in the work they want to see in the form they prefer to see it. It would be commercial insanity for them to be secretive about what they want. The problem for writers is delivering it.
Here are some of the points I noted down from the panel at Capital Crime 2019 on the craft of writing that, I hope, offer some insight into how to do this.
David Headley, an agent at DHH Literary Agency, says that he starts by looking at the writing – the first chapters submitted. He’s looking to see if the story starts in the right place and if there is a ‘voice’ – does the writer know what they’re doing.
You need characters that readers can engage with, that they care about, whether or not they like them. Vicki Mellor, publishing director at Pan Macmillan, is looking for characters that feel real. ‘The psychology of a character is key,’ she said. She suggested thinking about their back story, such as where they went to school. Adam Hamdy, author and screenwriter, advised making characters dynamic. ‘You need characters that aren’t fully formed. They’re trying to get somewhere and something happens in the book that stops them getting there.’
The writing carries the most weight and, David Headley said, ‘synopses are the hardest thing, so don’t get hung up about it’. In practical terms, a synopsis should be a page long, lay out the bare bones of the story and be engaging. Adam Hamdy said: ‘If you can write a good synopsis, the book is working – you should be able to articulate what your book is about.’
Authenticity was a word that came up multiple times as being a vital ingredient that agents and publishers are looking for. This is a depth of realness that comes from knowing your character and your story backwards.
The pitch is not the same as the synopsis and I am hearing it mentioned as a vital ingredient in submissions more and more – perhaps reflecting the increasingly competitive and commercial nature of publishing. The pitch sums up your book in a way that pinpoints what is unique and interesting about it. It should sell your book, rather than simply describe it. Vicki Mellor said that, although it is her job to sell the book, the writer having it easily pitchable in one or two lines is really good.
You need to get your manuscript to the very best level you can get it before sending it to an agent/publisher. At that point, they will offer you another pair of eyes to look at your book in a new way and identify ways to make it better. Be happy with your book when you share it – and then be open to improvements. Vicki Mellor advised that agents and editors can help you develop plot but, fundamentally, what they can’t change is the voice and the authenticity.
Good luck everybody!