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.