What Do Literary Agents Really Want? Try Abnormal People

Articles listing literary agents who are actively seeking new authors are writerly catnip. It’s a gateway drug to hope for any author who dreams of seeing their name written sideways on a bookshelf someday.

Every time I see one it’s like I’m playing ‘Fastest Finger First’ on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, where the odds are somewhat better than getting published these days. These articles are a temptation of success and glory to anyone who cares to take proper notice of them.

This sort of article is getting more common these days, precisely because I imagine that they get all the other clicks as well as mine. And of course for me there’s another bonus: they’re perfect blog fodder. It’s the best indication of what literary agents think is trending, or at least trended 6 months ago at best.

But trendspotting isn’t as easy as you think. You may reflect, for instance, that when some people say they want world peace, what they really mean is that they don’t want foreigners to take away their nice things. If someone tells you they want to concentrate on their work, they really mean your voice goes through them and they’re inches away from Sellotaping your mouth to your keyboard.

Reading between the lines of what agents say they want is vital. And the more clickbait I read, the more I see that it’s the same line: it’s the characters, stupid.

You’ll hear variously that they want uplifting stories (Up-Lit) and surprising plot twists (Grip-Lit). They say that want unique love stories and book club fiction which thoughtfully examines the issues of the day. When talking about character in specific, you’ll hear they’re looking for unique voices, or strong women, or middle grade characters with a sense of humour. But what does that all even mean?

The truth is that most agents don’t have a clue what they’re looking for, until they’ve read it. You’ll hear a lot of talk about unique voices: but what’s a unique voice, other than a character who’s so original it’s like they invented a personality type? Even though we all know, or think we know, people just like that… isn’t it just that we haven’t read about them before?

These characters could read out a shopping list and make it interesting. What they are not is Mary Sues. They remind us of the people we meet, rather than ourselves. And by being unpredictable, they create settings where anything can happen.

When I look back at some of the biggest runaway hits in recent times, one thing both unites them, and makes them stand out, and it isn’t story. It’s their main characters in general, and their unusualness in specific. Consider:

Connell and Marianne (Normal People): Sally Rooney is credited with being the voice of a generation. I confess this puzzles me sometimes, but still, this book about two really quite normal people who basically grow up and go to college without anything major happening at all resonated with several generations. I think this is because because Sally Rooney managed to show us that ‘real’ normal people are actually far weirder than most fictional characters.

Eleanor Oliphant (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine): You can say this is Up-Lit, or a story about loneliness, or the power of community. But really it’s a story about a very unique individual who doesn’t think at all like you do.

Rachel Watson (The Girl on the Train): the unreliable narrator who launched a thousand more. An alcoholic with serious memory issues makes the story gripping because there is always something important at the corner of her mind she can’t quite get to.

Nick and Amy Dunne (Gone Girl): two truly awful personalities play cat and mouse. Fascinating and wonderfully unpredictable in their awfulness, making perfectly fertile ground where anything could and did happen.

Jack Reacher (5,409 novels by Lee Child): Sure, you can say that these are standalone stories with merit all their own. But they’re not really. Lee Child fans would read any instalment about the enigmatic former military cop Jack Reacher walking down a road for no reason at all… oh, hang on.

Ensemble Pieces which are really character studies, united by what can be a tenuous narrative thread:

Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall:

A whole host of weird and interesting people united by a plane crash with an element of whodunit. I know Noah Hawley is a genius but this is good, even for him – wry social observation filtered through many voices which snare the reader within sentences of each new storyteller opening their chapter.

Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart:

The narrative thread tying this story together is almost non-existent, and it still works. This book stood out in its uniqueness. Most agents would have run away screaming from an ensemble piece told from double-digit different perspectives by a debut author, but The Spinning Heart showed them why this can actually be a good thing.

***************************

The moral of the story is that what a good book needs nowadays is the exact opposite of a Mary Sue. It’s not about characters you identify with. It’s about characters you couldn’t possibly hope to identify with – and nor would you want to.

We’re human beings. We’re fascinated with the otherness of other people. So take pity on a poor literary agent, and go and create something they don’t know they want yet. Give them an Abnormal Person.

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  18 comments for “What Do Literary Agents Really Want? Try Abnormal People

  1. Will Hahn
    September 22, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Genius, of course.
    However- :: raises hand :: Point of order Ms. Sparling. How does this square with the classic meme that “all fiction is autobiography”? This abnormal person, is it us? And noun-verb agreement aside, if we already have books out, and the characters in them are “us”, how much legal trouble could this bring if we just continue writing.

    These are the questions that rob my sleep.

    Liked by 3 people

    • September 22, 2019 at 12:27 pm

      Can’t say I agree with that, Will. It might have been in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it shouldn’t be now, unless you’re talking about ghostwriters. But I do reckon the beauty of modern fiction is that it shows us how deep-down weird human beings are. I don’t know about you, but in real life, they shock the hell out of me on a regular basis. The only difference is that real humans don’t come with a disclaimer about resemblance to living people being coincidental.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. September 22, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    Maybe the difference is not that characters are weird, but that most people are very weird but don’t act on it.

    The veneer of civilization may be thin, but it’s there, applied by our mothers if we’re lucky. Humans are complicated, but some aim for self-control. And only occasionally do things like buy themselves a hoverboard for their 70th birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. September 22, 2019 at 8:16 pm

    Brilliant post, as always, Tara…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. September 22, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie.

    Like

  5. September 23, 2019 at 9:10 am

    I think I’d nuance some of what you said. There are different kinds of literary agents and only a small percentage of them would recognise an original ‘saleable’ character if it hit them in the face with a dead cod. As you say, most of them are looking for what they think already sells/has already in the near past sold. They just want a sure fire success without having to piss about looking for one among the duds.
    So, you have to find a genuinely perceptive agent for your abnormal character book, one who actually sells books from time to time and is professional enough and gets it right often enough for editors to listen to her.
    Then, when you’ve ticked all those boxes, you have to contend with the sodding publishers who don’t want to risk it this year because they already have something similar but with pink leopard skin and a Harley-Davidson. The path to success is strewn with literary corpses…

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 25, 2019 at 11:54 pm

      Ah yes, but some of us have resurrected ourselves in time! I do feel a some sympathy for agents too, Jane. Those of us who are addicted to writing advice websites don’t realise the number of bonkers submissions sent out there that break all the rules. It has to get tedious. Then let’s say a book gets an enthusiastic response from an editor, but guess what happens when that lovely and original book proposal gets butchered by the Sales Department… anyhoo, we’re all of us floundering in the dark. I see it as a lottery. Sometimes I feel like playing. And sometimes I don’t.

      Like

      • September 26, 2019 at 7:30 pm

        Today is one of the latter days for me…

        Liked by 1 person

        • September 28, 2019 at 11:49 pm

          It’s mostly the latter days for me too, Jane! Especially the days when I get criticised by people who haven’t read my stuff, which is way more often than it should be…

          Like

          • September 29, 2019 at 2:54 pm

            The trolls leave me alone, not worth their bother. Not worth anyone’s bother it seems often!

            Like

  6. September 23, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Blimey. Just realised the collaborative novel our writing group recently produced (8 authors writing 8 first-person present tense perspectives of the same school reunion) is actually a genre (of sorts): “Ensemble Pieces which are really character studies, united by what can be a tenuous narrative thread”.
    I thought it was a bit experimental and likely to crash & burn but apparently we were nailing a trend (funnily enough I was reading Before The Fall in the latter stages of our project). Maybe we should’ve gone straight to a literary agent instead of pootling about with KDP.
    Meh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 25, 2019 at 11:49 pm

      Well, that’s the only thing, Nick. It’s not hard to sell an ensemble piece to a reader. But just try and sell one to an agent, let alone one with 8 authors!! We’re a long way away yet…

      Liked by 1 person

      • September 26, 2019 at 8:11 am

        Yup. Just cos we pulled it off as a book, we shouldn’t get cocky about getting a publishing deal 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

  7. October 17, 2019 at 1:09 am

    I was planning on putting a normal character in an abnormal situation. Now, though, I guess I’ll have to flip the script and put an abnormal person in a normal situation.

    Maybe it’ll take place in a literary agency with an owner who is like Captain Ahab in personality and nails a hundred dollar gold piece to the bulletin board for whichever agent first sights the next Great American Novel in the ocean of slush piles.

    Tara, thanks for getting me off the wrong track and on the right one!

    Like

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