Literary agents share the magic ingredients they look for in a novel -

3 months ago 21

What keeps you hooked when you’re reading a novel?

Twists and turns? Great characters? Writing that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside?

Identifying the things that make a good book can be key when it comes to writing your own fiction. But what are experts in the industry looking for in new fiction writing?

We asked Lizzy Kremer, Jemima Forrester and Maddalena Cavaciuti, all literary agents at David Higham Associates, to share their magic ingredients for fiction.

So, if you’re embarking on you own writing journey, make sure you have a read to find out exactly what people in the publishing industry are looking for.

Central characters we can connect with

What this means varies based on the genre of your book, and indeed the story you are telling.

Not all main characters have to likeable, for example, but we do need to have a clear sense of who they are, and why they behave in the way they do. Often, we need to understand and relate to that behaviour, even if it isn’t something we would do or condone ourselves.

Character motivation is a note which comes up often, so having this figured out early on, and telling a story which is true to a credible set of core ideas and behaviours is always exciting to find in a submission.


There are lots of frequently used tropes in commercial fiction – enemies-to-lovers romances, secrets from the past coming to the surface, the unreliable narrator who is involved in a crime. All of these have been, and continue to be, a strong foundation for a story, but it’s important that your novel takes them in an original direction.

We probably know that the couple we’re rooting for in a love story will get together at the end, but how can you make the journey feel unpredictable? 

The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh, is a great example of a love story which pulls the reader in many the unexpected direction.

Equally, there have been many crime novels published in the last decade, and lots of very good twists in those novels. The more we read, the more we become canny to what a twist might be, so if this is something you have in your work, it really needs to pack an unexpected punch.

What do we suspect the twist is going to be? How can you pull the rug out from under us if we think we’ve got it sussed?

Something special in the writing

It feels obvious, doesn’t it? But so often, this is what tips the scales for agents.

We can work with an author on the structure, tone, plotting and characters in their books, but we need there to inherently be something in the writing which sets the book apart – be that an undeniable warmth, a unique voice, or a wicked sense of humour.

Ultimately, this comes down to the author – and this is why it’s such a subjective business, and why so much is said about ‘finding the right agent for you’. 

Agents work with authors, not individual books, so when offering representation we’re not just thinking about the story in front of us but the longer term – is this writing something we can get, no matter what the next idea might be?


This is such a crucial aspect of commercial fiction. We want to be drawn into a story in the first few pages and be desperate to keep reading, with the end of each chapter introducing a small (or big) cliff hanger that makes it impossible to put down.

The most engaging novels have an inciting incident early on that drives the pace and plot of the story, with high and low moments of tension building to a climatic point and a satisfying resolution.

Has the main character lost a job, found a dead body, been jilted at the alter, or inherited an old house full of secrets?

The best novels are so engrossing and well-paced they make the reader want to stay up all night or miss their stop on the tube.

The Space To Write Project

Submissions for The Space to Write Project are now closed!

The judges are working through the entries and searching for racially diverse writers who are working on fiction that has the potential to be the next smash-hit novel.

The aim of the project is to provide time, space and access to writers from underrepresented backgrounds to explore creative writing and to potentially write the next bestseller.

The project is a collaboration between Orion Fiction,, leading literary agency David Higham Associates (DHA), and Arvon, the home of creative writing retreats.

Writers must be Black, Asian or from an minority ethnic background.

A shortlist of fifteen entrants will be announced on Monday August 1 2022, followed by an announcement revealing the winners of the prize on Friday September 30, 2022.

The judging panel includes Lizzy Kremer, literary agent and MD at DHA, Sareeta Domingo, editorial director at Trapeze and editor/contributing writer of romantic fiction anthology Who’s Loving You, Mike Gayle, bestselling author of All the Lonely People, and Natalie Morris, deputy lifestyle editor at and author of Mixed/Other.

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