When Your Novel Doesn’t Hook the Literary Agent

Q: I have a (probably) common question. I am stumped when it comes to finding an agent.

I am marketing a completed espionage novel. The agents that read it almost uniformly come back with a response that it is taut, suspenseful, good characters, is authentic, etc, but it doesn’t “grab” them. And we regret that in this tight market–you know the rest. I also have had numerous folks read it (many not tied to me in any way) and I know the novel is good.

I have chatted with a few of the agents who have rejected me and with one or two exceptions they don’t provide anything concrete that would make the novel grab them. (One major exception, I got great feedback from one agent who, after I rewrote the climax at his suggestion, said he thought the novel was very good, but he didn’t really have the contacts to sell it.)

I have never published a novel before, which I think is part of the problem in trying to sell one. I have been using my background in espionage to get attention in the queries. I also have been putting together some short fiction in hopes of establishing a writing track record to make myself less of a risk for an agent. One of these stories now is a finalist in a writing contest.

Do you have any advice on what I can do (other than keep writing–I am starting my second novel now.) -Tom

Tom, when you say agents are telling you that your novel is good but just doesn’t “grab” them, it says to me that your story is quite competently written but lacks a fresh and engaging voice to make the entire piece come alive. That’s something, I believe, that just comes with time and experience. So, although you’re not going to like my answer, I suggest you just keep writing (other things). Read more, write more, join writers’ organizations and critique groups. Hone your craft of writing as much as possible. Write more novels, then, perhaps go back to this first novel and see, by then, what you think of it.

Elaine English, Attorney and Literary Agent