A few years ago, we had some very successful guest posts from Bent Agency interns on writing and querying. We’d like to revisit that tradition with a new guest post on why it’s useful for writers to intern at literary agencies and what they can learn from doing this. Since our earlier posts were from Intern X and Intern Y, without further ado, here are some very insightful thoughts from Intern Z.
As an intern, it’s basically my job to read full manuscripts that are submitted to The Bent Agency and give my honest opinion of them. I have read manuscripts that made me weep at the end because I so desperately wanted them to continue, manuscripts that I struggled to even finish, and every sort of manuscript in between. This internship is proving the most valuable decision I ever made as a writer for my own education—not in how to write, but how to understand why things are and are not published. I’ve written this article to share some of these insights that I am so thankful for learning myself. (These lessons are based entirely on my own experiences, and may not be true for everyone.)
- It doesn’t matter how many friends, beta readers, group critiques, or editors look at your novel—until you look at novels through the eyes of what today’s readers want to read and what sells, you are writing for yourself.
- An impressive educational background is, well—impressive. Knowing all the classics and having an MFA is wonderful for your own development as a writer and builds lovely networks and a luscious writing style. But you must be reading the books published today, to understand what people want to read.
- Meet people in the publishing industry, whether in person or online. There are many ways to do this: social media, conferences, workshops, meet-ups. Relationships matter, not because who you know gets you published, but because the relationships you make along the way help you break out of your own way of seeing and branch out into seeing the pulse of the public, and it’s the public that the publishers sell to.
- Read books in your chosen genre—daily, if time permits. Not only are you supporting your fellow working artists, but it helps you begin to glimpse your own book through the eyes of a reader rather than a writer, and this will make all the difference.
- Until you can read your own work as though someone else wrote it and you’ve just picked it up off the shelf of your favorite bookstore—until you can read it this way and you cannot put it down because it speaks to you so profoundly, with such high stakes and tension and emotional truth that you can’t stop turning the pages—don’t send it to a literary agent. Because this is your competition.
- Let yourself fall in love with your own words as you write them. Just like the beginning of any romance, you must fall in love with your own words to have the beautiful foundation for all the hard work that is to come in any partnership, and your love affair with your work will carry you through the sacrifices. But don’t think you have a book worthy of publication just because you love it. Publication is like marriage, not falling in love: you will change and sacrifice things about your precious book in order to build a better publication.This did not destroy your beloved, it developed it into something that will last.
- The most common mistakes writers make in their first novels:
- Lack of consistent tension to keep the reader’s attention.
- Conversely, believing that large events somehow make up for lack of character development and emotional stakes.
- A weak POV character that the reader doesn’t quickly care about. The voice must be engaging—if readers don’t care about your POV character within the first five pages, they won’t keep reading. This is even more important than starting in a moment of action.
- Conversely, nobody wants to read an angst-fest. If you spend 40% of your novel in your character’s head, telling the reader all about doubts, feelings, and internal struggles, you will lose your reader’s interest. Things must happen that matter to keep the reader turning pages.
- Believing that as long as the writer does one thing really well (writing style, language, plot development, characterization, humor) that this will make up for other weaknesses. It really, really doesn’t. All must be done well to sell.
- An ending that seems contrived or planned rather than the natural conclusion to all the elements that have occurred in the course of the story.
- A happy ending with no depth. If your novel doesn’t make the reader feel something, doesn’t deeply satisfy in some way what it is that we all share in the human condition, it won’t satisfy the reader.
- Regurgitating what has already been done, even if better than the original. Give it your own inimitable twist, and keep tweaking from there. On the other hand, no matter how original and great the concept, it must be executed well or it’s just a good idea. Idea must be melded with craft to succeed. Clever is not enough.
A novel intended for publication is not about the writer: it is about the reader. In order to understand what it is to be a reader, I suggest you not only read books yourself, but also look at the world of readers around you and write for all of us. It is these novels—these novels that break the mold of the individual writer and what’s already been said and done, working within the scaffold of the writer’s chosen genre to say or do—more. After vicariously reading your novel, readers wish to feel both more than themselves and more in touch with themselves: More alive.
And really, doesn’t everyone?