Author: Megan Zimmerman, 2nd Year English MA Student
Step one: accomplished. The query you sent a couple weeks ago has garnered the attention and curiosity of a literary agent, and now they want your manuscript. You send off the manuscript that you have worked on, day in and day out, waiting and wondering. What is it about your book that a literary agent is going to love? What will they dislike? What do they ultimately look for in a book they want to represent?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single answer that can be applied across all literary agents other than the general answer that they’re looking for a good story. A book is made up of numerous working parts that all come together to make a story – plot, setting, world-building systems, characters, writing in general, plus a slew of others. Different literary agents will place more value on the different parts of a story based on what they want to see in a book and probably based on what they like as readers. The best way to determine what a literary agent might be looking for in a book is to do some research on the agents you intend to query – see what kind of books they’ve worked to get published. These are pretty easy to find as most legitimate agencies will keep track of published works on their websites and social media accounts.
As for myself, I was surprised when I realized how I valued the different parts of a story. I had thought that I was a whole picture person, but when I had to assess manuscripts and really think about what made a story good enough that I’d want to represent it, I realized that I valued provided information. What I mean by this is that I do not want to end a story with more questions than I started with. Of course, some questions are important in a situation where the author expects to write a sequel, but those types of questions are the ones that keep a reader involved and wanting more. The questions that keep me from enjoying a manuscript to its fullest are the ones that an author couldn’t answer with another book or, at least, couldn’t answer naturally.
For example, I recently read Lexicon by Max Barry. Since the book is published, it’s safe to assume it’s a good story, but I had one question at the end that will probably be burning for a while. Who were the three people on the dirt road outside of the corral that Eliot wouldn’t run over? Eliot was able to kill everyone he needed to, including the woman he loved, but refused to run over the three people blocking the road that would lead to escape. Instead, he risked his life and Wil’s life by slamming into the reinforced metal barriers that made up the corral. This is a question that cannot be answered and the type of question that I make a note of when reading. If there were too many questions like this one in a manuscript, then I opted to pass on said manuscript. This was true even for stories that, on a big-picture level, I really enjoyed.