These techniques will work on any kind of fiction: literary, romance, mystery, sci-fi, etc. What’s more, you can implement them no matter where you are in your writing process, from first draft to final polish.
1. Go beyond the five senses.
Agents and editors love the five senses, but they want and expect more. They want physical business that deepens not just your setting, but your characterizations.
Here’s the key: The best authors use body language in their narratives. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat.
Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.
2. Embrace idiosyncrasies.
People behave rationally only part of the time; the rest of the time we take stupid risks and do other things we can’t explain. Agents and editors know this as well as anyone, but because they don’t want readers to have to work too hard to suspend disbelief, they really harp on believability. And when they do, frequently their objections have to do with a character’s motivation. The trouble is, if you bow to this and have your characters behave totally rationally at all times, you’ll write dead-boring fiction.
Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand). If you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.
3. Forget about being pretty.
Not-pretty has two meanings here: a) topics that are not attractive, like racism or incest, and b) the way you write.
Agents and editors can’t stand authors who put restraints on their work for the sake of delicacy. Most people shy away from darkness, but as an author you must be willing to dwell there, see it truly, explore it before you represent it. Banish all restraints when you write, regardless of the topic. Free your writing.
4. Be true to your IQ.
Aspiring authors sometimes dumb down their work because they’re afraid of alienating the vast masses of potential customers they imagine they should be writing for. This is disastrous. You cannot do it. And you don’t need to—the average Joes and Janes are smarter than you may think.
Don’t underestimate your readers. If they like to read the sorts of books you like to write, they’re right up there with your core demographic. And dumbing down your work can be doubly disastrous, because if you do, agents and editors will not be able to relate to it.
5. Use your best material only when it has a purpose.
Agents and editors have a sixth sense when it comes to kitchen-sink novels: novels that contain a fictionalized version of every cool, unusual or amazing thing that ever happened to the author.
Do not put scenes in your story that do not further the plot in any way. While incidents that occurred in your life might be colorful, they often carry no weight in a novel. An isolated cool-yet-irrelevant scene suggests an author’s immaturity as an artist, and will be noted by agents and editors.
Here’s the key: Put your best material in, but leave the kitchen sink in the kitchen. When tempted to throw in something awesome that the story doesn’t really demand, go ahead and write it, but during revisions take it out and save it. Alternatively, adapt your story to the cool thing.