Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reading Partials: You've Got 30 Pages, Pal

I have posted quite a bit about the experience of reading queries, but someone asked me the other day about what it's like reading partials, and it occurred to me that I'd never really blogged about that part of business. At some point I will compile a statistical breakdown of partials that will be precise in its exactness and exacting in its precision, but until then some vague ramblings will have to do.

As has probably been apparent from my query stats, I'm really picky. Very very picky. Particularly when it comes to fiction, and still further when it comes to debut fiction. It's not only a personality trait (which it is), but it's also just a rational reaction to the marketplace driven by a simple fact: selling fiction isn't easy. It's more subjective than nonfiction, the reactions tend to vary greatly (and maddeningly), and it's just plain tricky. So if I'm going to get behind a project I really need to both love it and feel that it has a place in the market.

When I like a query, 99% of the time I request the first 30 pages, which I've found to be an uncannily accurate chunk of a manuscript. For all of the clients I've taken on, I had a really, really good feeling after those 30 pages that I was going to like the whole thing, and most of the time I was right. On the other hand, when I was wavering on a project after 30 pages but requested the full anyway, I've never had an "ah ha" moment where I realized I was wrong about those 30 pages. I've found them to be an extremely accurate microcosm for the whole book.

I believe 30 pages is the perfect length because you can't really hide behind that length of a manuscript. Some people have a fantastic opener only to fade when the novel gets going because they can't sustain the plot, some people have a quiet opener that builds into something gripping by page 30. But if nothing is really keeping me going after page 30 I'm guessing that nothing is going to keep me going after page 60, 90, or 100.

Now, I'm hoping this doesn't send people into a panic thinking that they need to have bodies all over the ground by Page 30 or else I'm not going to be interested. Not the case! A slow build can work. But there has to be something that is making me connect with the narrative in that span. Some form of the plot needs to be introduced in that space, the protagonist should grow more complicated in that time... things need to get going, somehow.

I have been requesting partials with a far greater frequency lately because the queries I've been receiving in the past couple months have been far better on average (good work, everyone!). Of the partials I request, for fully half I'd say I know either immediately upon cracking open the partial or within a few pages that it's not for me. Sometimes people write a great query but don't yet have the abilities to write a full novel, sometimes something turns me off irrevocably, but I've read enough partials to know almost immediately when something isn't going to work.

Of the remaining 50% of the partials, the vast majority may indeed be good but I just am not confident enough in them to ask for the full. A lot of the time I feel especially badly for passing on these because the person is talented and should be very proud of their work and continue writing, but I just didn't feel it was quite there. Either I'm concerned about the polish or the idea feels a bit familiar or the characters aren't jumping out at me... there's some reason that I'm not confident enough to request a full.

I request a full manuscript for one out of every 25-50 partials. I know, I know, you can do the math. If I request partials on 5% of the queries I receive we're talking about a full manuscript request rate of about two or three out of a thousand queries.

But, silver lining: when I get to the point where I'm excited enough to ask for a full but end up sending a rejection, I almost always give the author an opportunity to revise the manuscript and I'll take another look (unless I have no idea what to suggest). I also occasionally ask people whose partials I've read for a revision if I really like the idea and see something fixable.

So take a close look at those first 30 pages. Don't try and cram all the good stuff in there unnecessarily, but put them under a microscope because they are crucial -- not just to me, but (eventually, hopefully) an editor, not to mention (eventually, hopefully) a prospective reader.






40 comments:

Margaret Yang said...

Interesting. 30 pages seems the standard for a partial, but I never knew why.

Although, I once had an agent ask for 5 pages. After that, she wanted 50. Then she declined to read more. No clue what that was about.

My current agent actually offered representation after just a 30 page partial. I thought that was premature and didn't say "yes" until he'd read the whole thing. But now I see that Nathan also feels very sure after 30 pages, so maybe my agent wasn't jumping the gun at all.

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for this post. This seems to be a seldom talked about part of the process.

Janna Qualman said...

A very timely post for me, I think, since I'm in the query stage. Thanks for the thorough perspective. :)

Anonymous said...

Most of the people I've dealt with have requested fulls (5/7). Two have asked for partials. I sent 50 pages. One full came back with revisions. I thought they were good ideas and I'm making the revision.

What's your turnaround time like, Nate-dawg? How many revised manuscripts do you take on?

Nathan Bransford said...

I usually respond to partials within two weeks, but occasionally things get backed up and it takes a little longer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! That seems faster than most; but you definitely come across as more polite/internet savvy than most

Lynne said...

30 pages. Thanks for the explanation!

JES said...

Thanks for that, Nathan!

NOT to get all hyper-neurotic (as is a writer's custom), but does "30 pages" imply "assuming we're talking about a double-spaced page, in 12-point Times-ish font"?

Nathan Bransford said...

Yes, double-spaced Times New Roman 12 point font, and I'm not going to blow a gasket if you include a few extra pages if there's a natural break.

Melanie Avila said...

I just checked my MS and chapter 4 ends on page 27 AND I like how it leaves off. Now if I can just get that query letter perfected...

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

This might be a stupid question, but when you request a partial, do you read the synopsis first?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

For novels, I don't request or read synopses, other than what's in the query. Before I read a partial I quickly re-read the query and refresh my memory by checking the genre and basic subject matter to put myself in the right mindset, but other than that I want to start fresh.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

30 pages! Double-spaced Times New Roman 12 point font,
Wow, used to be double-spaced courier, 12 point font, 60 pages. Shows you how long I've been missing from the game.

Great post, Nathan.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Statistics like that always scare me a bit (they make me wonder how so many people manage to get published just because of how low the request rates are, and those aren't even offers of representation, let alone publication!). But the fact that I read through this post and going, "Yep, that makes sense" to every point gives me hope!

Thanks for this post! It's interesting to read about the process beyond queries. Do you always read the full partial, even if the first couple of pages don't click with you (in the hopes that the last 25 will), or do you ever just read until you don't want to anymore, even if it's just 5 pages?

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

If 30 pages has been requested after a query, would it be a good idea to send a copy of the query again, along with the cover letter and the 30 pages? (Just as a refresher - so the agent doesn't have to go hunting for the query, perhaps.)

Thanks for the post!

Avrinell said...

Nathan,
is it bad that i'm going to ask you a query question in this blog about partials? LOL i was wondering what the appropriate length of time is for a agent to send a partial request or rejection on a query letter. And when, if you dont hear anything should you try and resend.
Lets say for example...hypethetically of course :) in your case...

cc said...

"... a full manuscript request rate of two or three out of about a thousand queries..."

Oy.

Dave Wood said...

It sounds like your process is a lot like a prospective buyer in the bookstore. We tend to look at the descriptive blurb on the book jacket; you look at the query. If that initial description doesn't work, down goes the book. If the book does survives that first filter, then readers (I do anyway) look inside, probably at the first couple paragraphs or so. You look at a full thirty pages. Of course, by the time a book makes it onto the shelf it's already been appreciated by at least one agent and editor, so we're already looking at (hopefully) the best of the best.

If anything, it sounds like you'll give writers a better chance to win you over than most readers will.

Adaora A. said...

This post was completely awesome. It's no wonder that so many people lurk and post.

I'm so used to writing in Times because all of my profs and TA's demand it. They refuse to take any papers written in Courier because they think the font is to big and you're closing extra space to fill in a page. I prefer how Times looks anyways. Maybe I've been brainwashed.

And there is hope because we get wealth of useful information here which increases our chances.

A Paperback Writer said...

Interesting. I guess it's different for every agent. I've never had anyone request 30 pages before. So far (for partials), I've had requests for 10 pages, 40 pages, the first chapter, the first 3 chapters, 100 pages, and the first 4 chapters. But never 30.
But, hey, if it works for you.....

superwench83 said...

Thanks for a great post!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

It's a really tough thing to write about: why you pick a certain story over another. I recognized a lot of what you said in my own editing process. Most stories are pretty well-written. "Not Invested" is the number one reason I turn stories down. And that can be a dang personal thing: different taste in writing, different taste in story and genre, in characterization...

Thanks. :D

JES said...

Dave Wood: I love that analogy. Makes the whole thing sound so much less adversarial.

Nathan said he's getting more queries of a higher caliber. Which is good because it means that he, and the other agents offering similar advice, must be helping raise them to that caliber.

That said, I just hope he realizes the dangers in teaching us how to build better partials. I.e., he's going to end up with more partials of a higher caliber. :)

(My word-verification string is "wpabst." I think the universe is telling me it's happy hour.)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

A synopsis-free query? Now there's a silver lining...I wonder if agentquery (or such sites) allow you to search by WHAT the agent wants - 30 pages; 50 pages; synopsis; no synopsis; marketing plan (oh yeah, nobody wants that), etc...Methinks there are agents that request a careful, fine-grained synopsis in order to reduce the number of queries that come in...kind of like "weeder courses" in college - you have "weeder synopses" - but then again, I may just be rationalizing my dislike of writing synopses (although they are helpful exercises, I must admit.)

JES said...

Wanda B: Good question.

Just checked AgentQuery, Publishers Marketplace, and Litmatch: no, no, and no -- no way to search on query requirements, e.g. 30- vs. 50-page partial, synopsis required, etc.

Just_Me said...

7,500 words... I don't think that's even a full three chapters in some cases.

But it's something to think about.

Thank you.

ORION said...

Yeah. It may be he's just not into your book, but someone else will love it.
I like the comment (by Dave Wood - hey are we related??!!) about what we look for as a reader. I give a book considerably less than 30 pages.
I will say that no matter how well crafted you think your book is and no matter how well it fit your personal vision, there will always be some who hate it no matter what (for evidence of this check out my Amazon.com reviews lol!). So don't lose heart. Keep querying and writing.

Aimless Writer said...

30 pages...sometimes so little, sometimes so much.
In those 30 do you look for voice? action? combination?

Now I'm going back to see how far I came in 30 pages.

Kristan said...

Thanks, Nathan!

Should this perchance be a sticky post? (i.e., under The Essentials)

Sher said...

This post is really helpful and informative. Thanks a lot for the advice, Nathan!

Julie Weathers said...

You may have answered this before, if so, please forgive the repetition.

Do you want to see the prologue in that thirty pages?

Joseph L. Selby said...

TNR certainly makes a difference. I'm always struck by the disparity between publishers' formatting guidelines and their comments of pages:chapters. I write 12pt courier new double spaced and if I sent you 30 pages you'd get a 5 page preface, chapter 1 and 5 pages of chapter 2.

Anonymous said...

Please ignore my previous question about whether to include the original query in the partial submission. Found the answer (a resounding 'yes') in your archives. Thanks!!

FormerCopywriter said...

Dave Wood said:
"We tend to look at the descriptive blurb on the book jacket..."

Bad way to buy a book! The flap copy is just what some minion cooked up to try to make the book sound exciting. You're way better off reading a few pages of the actual book, and skipping the jacket blurbs altogether.

It's like buying a box of cereal based on what the box says, rather than actually getting to taste the cereal inside.... :)

Anonymous said...

In my own work, one novel takes thirty pages to understand the story.
The leading pages may (hopefully) evoke the reader to continue, but I would wish them to read on to thirty pages to get a sense of that story.

~~
In another (very different) work, the first thirty (30-ish )pages are more accessible reading throughout.
It includes the prologue, introduces the main characters, and begins the story challenge. Again, it is just about what I think would be enough too.

Lisa said...

I've got an agent reading a 50 page partial right now and have been wondering anxiously what the odds are on partials. 5% doesn't sound so great, but I guess if they were keen enough on the idea to request a partial it's more the quality of your writing as opposed to personal taste at that point.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

With my first MS I had no experience with the Publishing World. I queried an editor at a house I admired. She asked for a partial (60 pgs) then the complete MS and got back with me, she liked it. When the house was choosing the books it would publish, mine was considered, but didn't make the cut. What a way to jump in, but I was completely ignorant.

dakota said...

you have completely freaked me out.
in way less than 30 pages.

Jeff said...

Yikes!

Ok. Duly noted. Now back to work.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

If you see this in triplicate, please be assured I'm not inane. (at least not on paper). I can't seem to post this question and I'm trying one last time because I really need an answer.
Say I sent out your query only to discover that you do, in fact, allow a partial to be posted into the body; am I too late? I mean, would you notice if I snuck it over to you or should I just sit on my hands a little longer and be more patient? I'm a lot more confident about my first 30 than I am in my query but it's too late for all of that. I didn't realize it would be so difficult to just get someone to read it and I'm anxious for some kind of response. (hard to get one when nobody reads it). help?

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