Lots of writers ask why agents bother asking for a partial manuscript. After all, what can agents really find in those fifty pages? Wouldn’t it save a lot of time if agents just asked for the full?
Short answer? No. Not at all. Aside from just saving a lot of time, agents are also looking to see if they want to read more of your work. It’s much easier to give an interesting idea a fair shot when agents know they are only going to be committed to a shorter read. You’ve piqued the interest of the agent in your original query and now they want to see what else you’ve got.
Unfortunately, this seems to lead to heated debates with writers questioning whether or not agents can glean enough of the story to decide whether it’s good or not with only fifty pages.
How can an agent fairly judge a book by its beginning? Shouldn’t they just go ahead and commit to reading the whole thing so they can see how things play out?
Another short answer: No, but there’s also a longer answer. Aside from making it easier to process the amount of submissions an agent gets in a day, each stage of the submission process also tells us a lot about your story and how it’s crafted. So what are agents really looking at throughout the query process? Everyone has their own preferences, but generally speaking, agents look for the following:
Requested Pages In Your Query
Now this is not about the query letter. If you want more information regarding the query letter you can look here. This is about the sample pages you copy and paste in the body of the email. With only fifteen pages, agents understand that they’re not going to get much story content here. So what these sample pages boil down to are two things; writing strength and style.
“You mean you’re not looking for clichés and an active beginning and an engaging voice?” I hear you ask. Well yes, but realize all of those things tie into whether or not you can write. And knowing an author can write well is absolutely the first thing an agent needs to establish. One could assume that the “why” is pretty self-explanatory, however I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there are many writers out there who believe that bad writing can be fixed with an editor. I am here to tell you this is not the case. Far from it, in fact. Agents can help edit a manuscript for problems in story-telling, a good round of line edits can help recast minor flaws in sentence structure that impede clarity, copy edits can fix grammatical issues, and proof-reading will make sure all your syntax is in its final place. But if you don’t have the writing basics under your belt, there’s no amount of editing that can fix that. At least, not without resorting to hiring a ghost writer.
Time to start getting a little more picky. Now, agents aren’t just looking at your writing. Now they’re looking for the hook and the heart of your story. I know that for me, personally, if I can’t tell what the story is about within the first 30 pages without re-reading the query, I will recommend a pass. The heart of your book should be apparent by this point in the book. Readers should be able to see a rough outline of the journey they are in store for whether it’s solving a murder, trying to escape a captor, seeking a new life in a new place, or a character’s road to self-discovery; whatever that hook is, readers should have it. You cannot expect anyone to keep reading in hopes that the book will get better. Every page matters, but especially in the beginning when the plot is first starting to come together.
In addition, here are some specific things agents may look at:
- Pacing (Are we getting bogged down in exposition or a huge info dump?)
- Characterization (Are they relatable? Can readers get emotionally attached to them? Do they sound real?)
- Dialogue (Is it reading cheesy? Does it accurately reflect how the character would speak?)
- Conflict (Are we getting the catalyst that sets this book into motion?)
Fulls are fantastic! At this point agents know you can write well, you’ve hooked them into the story, and now they get to sit back and actually READ it and see how everything comes together. The most important thing to look at when reading a full manuscript is how the story works overall. This ranges from how it’s organized and structured to how well both the story as well as character arcs are developed and how plot devices are used. Are there any loose threads left untied at the end of the book? Was each page just as compelling as the last? How much editing does this book need before it’s polished enough to pitch to an editor? And even if all these things are perfect, there is still one last item to check off the list: Chemistry.
It’s important to realize that there are still a million and one reasons why an agent may still decline representation at this point. You can have the most perfect, well-put together book, and still get a rejection because chemistry is really important. Agents have to LOVE your book, not just like it a whole lot. This is because selling is very hard and if an agent isn’t completely over the moon about it, it makes pitching it to a publisher that much harder. Your book could be completely perfect, but it just may not be perfect for that particular agent.
Rejection is never easy. Agents know and understand how much time and effort it takes into creating a book. No matter what happens, don’t give up. What may not work for one, may work for another. Keep revising and keep querying.