Becoming a writer: what do literary agents look for?
By UCL Careers, on 9 June 2018
Some Top Tips from Ella Kahn, UCL Alumni and Literary Agent at Diamond Kahn & Woods.
I am a literary agent, which means I scout for talented writers and help them get published; working with them to develop their novels, matchmaking them with the right publisher, and supporting their careers as authors in any way I can.
I have a very close working relationship with all my clients – editing a novel to get it ready to sell to publishers can be very intensive, and it’s important that my authors understand and are happy with every stage of the publication process, so constant communication (and reassurance!) as I guide them through that process is key. And by managing all of the business aspects of getting published (negotiating contracts, dealing with finances etc), I enable my authors to focus on what they do best – being creative and writing incredible books.
A strong, pacy plot is the most important quality for me, combined with a confident, distinctive writing voice. A pacy plot doesn’t have to mean constant action and cliffhangers at the end of each chapter – it might be driven by the emotional journey the character goes on, for example – but I want to have a sense of purpose and direction to the story.
A manuscript will stand out if there’s an intriguing concept or ‘hook’ at the heart of the story that’s going to immediately pique my curiosity. I want well-rounded, realistic and personable characters who I’m going to care about and want to root for; authentic dialogue, and vivid, immersive world-building, so I can sink into the world of the story; and a professional, committed author who I know I will enjoy working with!
When approaching agents, writers often fail to focus on the most important thing: telling us what their book is about! A cover letter should include a blurb pitching the story in the same style as the blurbs you’ll find on the back of a book in a bookshop. I want to know who the main character is, a little bit about the set-up of their world and their situation at the start of the story, what happens to set their story in motion, what their aims and motivations are, and what challenges they’re going to face in trying to achieve their goals. Something else that is very easy to avoid: not paying attention to detail! It doesn’t give a good impression if I’m sent a novel in a genre I don’t represent, or if there are typos in the text, or if my name is spelt wrong. A little bit of research into which agents might be the best fit for your work, and approaching them with a polished, professional pitch, will go a long way to help a submission stand out.