why pass on an otherwise excellent novel

Someone responded to my Friday posting from the query wars with the following:

I know there’s no exact science, but what typically grabs you in the first five pages enough to make you request a partial (the writing, characters, plot)? I’ve heard agents say most of what they receive is an obvious pass, but what about well written pages with something interesting happening and potentially intriguing characters, yet you still pass? What are the factors then? How much can you really tell in those five pages?

My first reaction to this was to feel that it’s an impossible question. I thought about this and thought some more. It’s one of those questions that if you answer you know you’ll leave something out. So, I felt like if I did that I would not be helping either myself or anyone else. At the same time, I know that you really can tell a lot from the first five pages. Part of that may just be having read a lot of “first-fives” over the years and developing an eye for it. But I was still stumped as to how to sum this up, and then I was talking to a friend and this analogy (which appealed to my chowhound nature) came up:

You can go to a gourmet restaurant that’s scored Michelin stars and there will be things on the menu that you just aren’t going to eat, no matter how refined the ingredients or how skilled the chef. And you can often tell from the first bite.

What makes me read five pages and request more? When that first bite was a beckoning bit of all those ingredients (writing, characters, plot, etc.) that left my mouth watering.

14 responses to “why pass on an otherwise excellent novel

  1. Okay, I want to create the mouth-watering effect. That is so cool. :*) This is why I’m trying to make my WIP shine. Thanks for sharing this info., Jennifer.
    ~Tyhitia
    http://obfuscationofreality.blogspot.com/

  2. It’s tempting for those of us peering in with our big bug eyes pressed against the glass to want hard-and-fast answers. That we need 72.3% strong characterization. 14.7666-repeating% heart-pounding action. 5.1% romantic comedy.
    As if a book is a clockwork beast, and as long as you have the right number of cogs and gears and chains and flywheels in a pile, the whole thing will suddenly come to life with a breath of steam. But I’d guess what an agent is REALLY looking for — REALLY REALLY looking for — is the intangible soul of the clockwork that cannot be measured: the song of the gears, the skill of the artisan, the quality of the metal. The way the beast hops pegg-legged pogo-stick-style on the cobblestones, jerking from side to side. The slight tilt of its green-lensed eyes as it stares up at the sun, wondering what that light is and what it means.
    Because what the agent (probably) really wants to know is this: Is the story good? Will the writer be consisitently good? And does the agent feel passionate about the writer’s story?
    But all I can do is guess. I’m not an agent. This is what I’ve peiced together from reading this blog, Miss Snark’s archives, Nathan Bransford and others. So feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂
    EDIT: Completely missed salabiilty and “flavor”. But that was my point, really. It’s an art, not a science, and the agent knows what they like when he/she sees it. And, after all the hard work, we writers can only cross our finges and hope we get lucky.

  3. From my personal experience with my first book, I had a couple agents love my partial but tell me it was the least marketable book ever as a first novel and could I possibly send them something different? So I guess the question of can it be sold is at least a partial concern in addition to the writing.

    • It does figure in — after all, you have to sell the book to a publisher after you agree to represent it. But, I suspect if that appetizer partial hadn’t had the right “taste” to it, they wouldn’t have asked to see more stories from you.

  4. Thia is possibly a foolish question, but is there a set format for the five pages? I have looked on sites of publishers, agents, and agencies, and while all say Times New Roman, Courier, or other similar readable font, they don’t specifically say the number of lines on the page, etc. Would standard be considered 25 lines per page, as well as the one inch margins specified?

    • I think everyone just assumes standard manuscript format – so, yeah, one inch margins, one side of the page, double-spaced, readable font.

      • But, last question, is it necessary to keep the lines to a certain number per page, as, for example, the RMFW’s rule for their contest of 25 lines per page, or is the margins and readable font acceptable? And is Arial considered readable? I know I find it much easier to read than Courier or NY Times.
        Thanks for answ3ering these questions for me. I just want to get it right. : )

        • All I can say is that *I* don’t sit here and count how many lines are on the page. With 130+ queries a week, that’s a level of OCD I’d rather not aspire to. Heh.
          I’m not a big fan of Arial, it’s boxy, which tends to be okay for short bits but not for whole pages. But I don’t think I’d reject someone based on that anyway. That’d be an easy edit. I think by readable most people mean not to use cursive fonts or other difficult to puzzle out things.

  5. I can’t help thinking that writers sometimes come off as desperate when we ask things like this. We just want the magic formula, or the percentages, as the above commenter said. It’s not even that. The thing is, we can get the percentages right and still have agents pass because what it really comes down to – your analogy is *exactly* right, Jennifer – is taste. Either they’re going to want it or they’re not, even if they really like what you’re cooking. I adore brownies, but sometimes, no matter how good the brownie, I just don’t feel like I want one right now, too. There’s so much nebulosity to getting published, and we want something concrete. We deal with the nebulous all day when we’re actually writing, and publishing is a business so we want it to act like one, all hard lines and rules. But that’s not the case, now is it? I don’t see why it should be.

    • *nod* Publishing is a business. But the product being sold is art – not widgets – so there is this ongoing conflict between that and the commerce side.

  6. Be careful with that analogy. You don’t want people sending you their first five pages written on a series of cakes. 😉

  7. I am not, and have never been, an agent, but over the years on my job at a major publisher, I saw literally thousands of books cross my desk. All of those books had already been bought by the company, so every one of them not only was agented, it was sold.
    After so many years in the biz, I got jaded. Yet there were still some books that managed to catch my attention and make me want to read them–and not just in the genres I typically read. And it all boiled down to “writing style.”
    Just because a person uses grammatically correct sentences doesn’t mean they write fluidly. And what is fluid for one reader may not be fluid for another reader. So I suspect that’s part of what makes something suit a particular agent/editor/reader: how smoothly the prose flows.
    Fluidity is individual to the reader, so there’s no prescription for the writer. (In general I would say “heavy on the active verbs and light on the modifiers,” but even that is geared for a particular sort of reader.)

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