What I Learned Reading for a Literary Agent

For several months in 2015-2016, I read for a literary agent. I loved getting to read a wide variety of manuscripts, but I also gained valuable insight not only into what agents do, but into my own writing. Interning teaches you a lot about your own tastes. For example, I learned that I’m really not a fan of quiet, character-driven works. Give me PLOT. I also learned that I’m not a fan of historical fiction without romance.

Here are some other things I learned from my stint as an intern.

  1. Agents want to love your manuscript. Really, they do. It’s so disappointing when a great concept doesn’t pan out, or when the writing isn’t ready, or a manuscript requires a full developmental edit before it will be ready for representation. Agents don’t have the time to give that much attention to potential clients, so the work needs to be ready before they get it. No matter how much something is loved, if it’s going to require multiple revisions, “no” comes more frequently than a request to revise and resubmit. And it’s unfortunate to see that a lot of writers waste opportunity by sending a manuscript before it’s ready. There are so many people out there who are happy to help you get your manuscript ready (either paid editors or as part of a critique swap). Take advantage of them.
  2. Query writing and manuscript writing are very different skills. I’ve seen some amazing manuscripts attached to terrible queries. It’s important to master both of those skills, though, because many agents won’t read the pages if the query isn’t good. Some agents only ask for a query, with no pages.
  3. Your query has to match your manuscript. I’ve also read some amazing queries that confused the heck out of me once I got into reading the manuscript. The query should relay the events at the beginning of the book and take me up through the primary conflict. Don’t start by talking about the end of the story. If I spend half the first chapter wondering what’s going on, I’m less likely to love the book as a whole.
  4. Your main character needs to have agency. I do not want to read about someone drifting along, watching life pass them by, or watching other people do things. I want characters who take charge, evaluate situations, make decisions, and make things happen. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I read where I started skimming, just looking for something to happen. Don’t make your reader wonder when the story is going to happen. Give me a character who makes decisions that shape the story. 
  5. “Said” really is the best way to tag most conversations. I do tend to think it’s boring to ONLY ever use said. And I’ve listened to audio books where I found “said” to be extremely distracting. However, as a reader, I read multiple manuscripts that NEVER used plain, unadorned said. Where every single bit of punctuation had a beat instead of a dialogue tag. Where “said” never appears without an adverb attached, or worse, where “said” never appears without a beat attached. Adverbs in dialogue tags should be avoided, and there’s almost never a reason to combine a beat with a tag. One or the other, not both. What I realized is that it can be difficult to follow conversations – and distracting – if the author doesn’t just let it flow. Sometimes, it’s OK to not tag the speaker at all for a few lines. And “said” is a great way to tell the reader who’s speaking without adding a bunch of text that will make me forget what the conversation is about. 
The internship also reminded me how very subjective this whole business is. Sure, I know we all hate that word. But you really can be an excellent writer and write a story I don’t personally want to read. That’s okay. No story is universally loved (not even Harry Potter or Star Wars). I read a lot of manuscripts that didn’t have anything “wrong” with them, but just weren’t for me. The agent I interned for offered on at least one of those, because we are different people with different tastes. A manuscript isn’t bad just because I didn’t love it, or because one agent doesn’t love it, or even because 100 agents don’t love it. Everyone has their own taste. That’s why it’s important to work on the things you can control – the mechanics, grammar, having a great query letter – instead of obsessing over whether a particular agent might love the finished product.

Posted in Blog and tagged , , , .