5 tips on writing women’s fiction that gets agents’ notice

When new writers don’t get taken on by literary agents, they often complain, “So-and-so never even read the whole thing.” Agent will make their mind up quickly, it’s their job. And it’s not hard to do. Here we can tell within a minute whether a manuscript is a possible contender for publication or not.

With women’s fiction (carefully as we use this term) – be it ‘chick lit’, sprawling family drama, or domestic noir – there are a few critical areas you simply must get right.

Firstly, you need to be intimate with your characters and centre even the most rollicking plot on emotional dynamism. Create compelling, nuanced protagonists. We need to know their thoughts, feel their feelings. We also need to know their vulnerabilities. Writing for women means that you must deal intimately and honestly with emotion.

Secondly, stemming from this, you need to have warmth. It’s all very well to expose genuinely difficult things or portray genuinely unlikeable characters, but there needs to be an inner heart of warmth. Without that, you’ll lose your reader.

Thirdly, you need to get any comedy right. There are two common mistakes here. One is to write a whole novel without wit or lightness. The second is to keep your foot so hard on the comedy pedal that the effort ends up feeling grating and dull.

The first error is easy to identify. Just ask yourself if there are jokes and humour in your book. The second error is harder to locate. Are you writing like the wonderful Helen Fielding, with Bridget Jones? Or are you aiming for that and missing? It’s hard to say. Overall, I’d say that from the work we see, writers are more often guilty of trying a bit too hard. It’s okay to have whole passages that are not particularly funny, that are touching, or sad, or scary, or whatever. Those things will keep a reader glued to the book.

Fourth, make sure you understand the market. The market for women’s fiction is very broad. It can move from literary novels through to mysteries and psychological suspense through to books like Confessions of a Shopaholic, for example. You need to read enough to understand the terrain and your niche within it. That also means reading a lot of contemporary novels. Reading the classics is fine, but it doesn’t tell you what editors are buying today – or what literary agents are looking for.

And finally, fifth, most women’s fiction, however broadly defined, will have a relationship at its centre.

Sometimes that’s a family one, most often a romantic one. Make that relationship genuinely touching and moving. Meanwhile, get help when you need it and if you want to build your skills with other writers, then take a course.

And above all, best of luck.

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