"I'm looking for select clients who have written a book that grabs me by the--let's say, 'throat'--and won't let go."
What does that mean? From what I can gather, a big part of that is hard to define and has to do with some special connection between the agent and the manuscript, something that can't always be quantified but has something to do with the agent's tastes combined with the author's ability to tell a story that exactly matches that taste. Telling a great story that is impeccably written doesn't necessarily mean you'll grab that agent by the throat (or whatever) and not let go.
But there are some things that are quantifiable:
- A strong voice.
Agents say they are looking for a unique and powerful voice. This seems to be important for all genres and for all ages, but is especially critical in Middle Grade, where voice is often listed as one of the most important elements that the agent wants to see, if not the most important.
- An intriguing story
This seems self-evident, but a good story means something different to each reader. A lover of mystery might not necessarily be enthralled by your beautifully written high fantasy story. Story is more than plot. Some writers claim that story and plot are separate. Plot is the series of things your character does to achieve the goal, they say, while story is the internal, emotional reaction of the character to the things that happen in the plot. Whetheryou think of story and plot as separate, two sides of the same coin, or the same thing, story is essential. This is true even for literary fiction, where plot is often less important than the writing or the characters.
- Strong characters
I think this is tricky for writers. We fall in love with our characters early on and think everybody else will too, but the emotions and inner struggles we feel in our characters does not always make it onto the page. We think it does, because we feel what our characters feel as we write and revise, but one of the hardest things about is writing is making our readers feel the same things we do.
- A fascinating setting
Readers want to be taken out of their ordinary lives. That's what the setting does. Setting is much more than the fabulous world you build for your characters to quest around in. That's certainly a part of it, but it also includes mood, sensory input, and that all-important voice I mentioned above. Setting can become a trap for world builders, and that includes not only speculative fiction and fantasy, but also historical fiction and any other setting that must be created and defined, which means pretty much everybody. Whether you are writing an epic sci-fi fantasy or a cozy mystery, you have to build the world around your characters. The problem is, we often fall so in love with our world that we overdo our setting, putting in every bit of research or spending vast number of pages describing the world we created. You have to find the right balance, a setting that helps to create conflict for your characters and becomes an interesting place for the reader to spend time, but that does not overshadow your characters or their story.
- Perfect mechanics
Gone are the days when a Max Perkins was willing to take a messy, massive manuscript from Thomas Wolfe and shape it into a classic. We are expected to submit work that is virtually ready for publication. Our work has to be error free, gorgeously written, and with as few problems as possible. Certainly, most good agents and editors will still work with us to make our work even better, but it has to be great before they'll even touch it.
So that's it. Pretty simple, isn't it? All we have to be is perfect.