It's worth your time to check out this interview with agents from the latest Poets and Writers.
Here's a sample:
Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?
STEIN: I would say that being able to make me think, especially in dialogue, "Oh, shit. This person has got me. This person has just seen into what we all feel every day but don't say. This person has looked into our souls, especially the worst sides of us, and sort of ripped them open and put them on the page." Psychology, to me, is one of the most exciting things to see work well in fiction—when it comes alive on the page and is totally devastating.
STEINBERG: When you read something and think, "I can't believe they just said what I've thought in my deepest thoughts but never articulated," that is always an eye-opener for me. And it's also about reading something that doesn't seem familiar. Writers should realize that agents have a ton of material to read, and when things seem familiar, it's an easy reason to pass. If it's something that's new, it really makes a huge difference. And I'm not talking about something being so wildly creative that it's ridiculous—not a talking plant falling in love with a turtle or something like that. I'm talking about, in a real sense, something that is genuinely new and also deeply felt. That's what we're all looking for. But at the same time, I do get things and think, "How is this like something else that has sold well?" It's a difficult balance. You have to have one foot in literature and one foot in what's going on in the marketplace.
RUTMAN: Writers probably shouldn't trouble themselves too much over that consideration. If they're aiming to hit some spot that's been working—trying to write toward the books that have made an impression—that just seems like a pretty pointless chase. You know, "I hear that circus animals are wildly appealing and I've had some thoughts about circus animals...." That doesn't seem like a very good way to go about it.
STEINBERG: A writer was just asking me about that and I said it's the agent's job to spin a book for the marketplace—to talk about it being a little like this book and a little like that book or whatever. Writers should put those kinds of thoughts out of their heads and just write.
RUTMAN: I don't know who to blame for trends. If a run of books comes out that are all set in a particular country—which happens all the time—to whom do we attribute that? To writers who are looking at things and saying, "Hmmm, I notice that fourteen years ago India was interesting to people. I think that's where I'm going to set my book"? You can't blame writers for asking what subjects are interesting these days, even when we're talking about fiction, and I wish I had a useful answer for them, but I just don't think it works that way.
STEINBERG: I would basically go with your passion. The subject matter can be very wide ranging, but if you go with your passion, even if it doesn't work, at least it's heartfelt.
STEIN: On some level, what else are you going to do? Are you going to write a novel because it's "commercially viable"? I mean, I guess people do that. But we're not going to represent them.
You are all deep inside this world, but so many writers aren't. If you were a beginning writer who lived out in Wisconsin or somewhere and didn't know anybody and you were looking for an agent, how would you do it?
STEINBERG: I would not worry about looking for an agent. I would work on my writing for a long time. And then when I was finally ready, I would ask everyone I know what they thought I should do.
MASSIE: I agree with that. I would concentrate on getting published in well-regarded literary magazines and, chances are, agents will come to you.
RUTMAN: I wouldn't relish the prospect of looking for an agent if I had not come through a program, where a professor can often steer you in some helpful direction. I guess you'd start at the bookstore.
MASSIE: You pick up your favorite books and look at the acknowledgments and see who represented them and write those people a letter.
STEIN: I'm with Peter. I wouldn't worry so much about finding an agent. The thing is, there aren't that many great writers. Right? And there seem to be a lot of people trying to write novels and find agents. If you're looking for an agent, it means you want to sell your book. But if there are only a hundred people making money as writers—and I think that number sounds about right—and you're trying to sell your book to make money, then that doesn't really make sense. It's like playing the lottery. If I thought I'd written something brilliant, I would hope that, like Peter said, I would be continuing to work on my writing.
RUTMAN: But don't you think most people who are working on their writing feel kind of persuaded that they are brilliant and have something really unique and wonderful to say?
STEIN: I also think they feel this pressure to get published. With all the MFA programs, and with all the writing conferences and programs that they pay money for, there's this encouragement to get published.
RUTMAN: Sure. It's the stated goal.
STEIN: Right. That's the goal. But for 99 percent of people writing fiction, that shouldn't necessarily be the goal. Maybe writing should be the thing they work on for many years and then maybe they should think about getting published.