Pub Rants

When Is The Point Of No Return?

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STATUS: HOTEL still on the NYT Hardcover Bestseller list! Woot. This week tied for #15. I didn’t know that could happen.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ROSANNA by Toto

One of blog readers left a comment about whether an agent has ever gotten to page 100 in a novel and then had the manuscript click into place.

I started chuckling; I couldn’t help it! I’m not trying to belittle the question.

I just wish that I could invite y’all to come to the office and read our slush pile for let’s say a month. Trust me, at the end of 30 days, you’ll get exactly what I’m about to say.

No agent is going to slog through a 100 pages in the hopes of a full manuscript coming together on page 100 or thereafter.

That’s the blunt truth.

We figure if something’s not working by page 20, it’s probably not going to happen. So much of the first 100 pages is so essential to a novel working to its completion. I can’t even fathom how the possibility might happen of a novel coming together so late in the writing. I guess theoretically it could happen…

Now, if I like an opening premise or some aspects of the writing and I’m leaning NO, I will sometimes skip ahead twenty pages and randomly read 5 pages together to see if something grabs me enough to continue reading.

But I can truthfully say that even though I’ve done that numerous times, it never resulted in my asking for a full.

48 Responses

  1. Elissa M said:

    I don’t read slush, but I get what you’re saying. I’ve belonged to enough writer’s groups to know what “not there yet” writing looks like, including my own. Any writer who can make it “come together” on page 100 should go back and revise the first 99 pages (or cut them entirely). Unless it was just an accident that things worked out. In which case, all the more reason to reject that project.

    Everything in a manuscript, from beginning to end, has to be spot on. Writer’s get told this all the time and some still don’t grasp it.

    Agents aren’t panning for gold. They want you to send them finished jewelry so they can sell it.

  2. Amy Sue Nathan said:

    Questions and comments like the one you’re addressing come from writers grasping. I try not to do it, but I understand it. Sometimes writers want to think “if she had just read to page 87, she’d have loved the book.” It’s a way to displace blame of course, because although it doesn’t serve a writer well, sometimes it’s easier to think it’s them and not you.

    I don’t read a book past any point where it loses me. Page 1, 2, 20 or 80. I have no compulsion to finish a book – and I imagine that’s how agents feel. I read somewhere that agents don’t look for a reason to say no, because no is assumed. They look for a stand-out reason to say yes. I would imagine that has to happen over and over again in the reading process for an agent to want a partial, a full and then to offer representation.

  3. Dominique said:

    This reminds me of something I heard an online review of a book. The reviewer said he hadn’t been able to find the main plot of the book, but that he had also stopped about 100 pages before the end. So, I grabbed my copy and, sure enough, the main plot of the story doesn’t kick in until 130 pages before it ends. I have to agree with several others, in respect to the book, that’s a bad sign.

    Personally, I almost never give any published book I’m reading more than about 10 pages. 100 is certainly more than I’d give as benefit of the doubt. Is 20 pages or less common for agents?

  4. MeganRebekah said:

    I definitely have to agree that a book either grabs you right away or it simply doesn’t. A writer may get lucky and have a great scene or chapter in the middle of the book, but that does not make the rest of it worthy.

    I bought my first Kindle last month and I absolutely love the sample book feature. I can get the first chapter of the book free of charge, test it out, and decide if I want to buy the whole thing. Already there have been a handful of books that had me excited by their description, and when I read the first few pages I was immediately turned off.

  5. Stephanie said:

    I get this I really really do….and I agree….but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a book and read and read and hoped it would get better and finally it did, but not for a long while. (It takes a lot for me to put down a book…I try to give everything the benefit of the doubt) But how do these books make it through to the publisher???

    Good example, without naming names, I just read this author’s first book in a new series…semi spin off of her first series that sold probably millions of copies and produced two highly successful movies….and I LOVED this series…and the movies (well, the second one wasn’t great, but you can’t shove 3 books into one 90 minute movie and expect it to be great!) So anyway, this new book……it took me a long while to even say I thought it made any sort of sense. I forced myself to go back to it every day. It felt like complete backstory. Half way I was starting to semi like it, and about 3/4 of the way through, it held my interest and I finished the book that day. Can an extremely successful writer get away with this???

  6. DebraLSchubert said:

    I’m with Amy. I feel no compulsion to finish a book I start if it doesn’t click for me. There have been quite a few that I’ve simply walked away from, and now that I understand the publishing process better, I don’t understand how they “got through.” I wonder if standards have changed recently (so that an agent has to be “wowed” from the get-go) due to the increased numbers of queries, or if it’s what it’s always been: a simple matter of subjectivity.

  7. therese said:

    Great blog. Question: I’m also a nice Midwesterner but would never call my upbringing genteel! I thought we were all blunt, common sense types. LOL!

    This post is great. Keep getting the word out. I’ve been a contest coordinator and judge for years.

    As a writer it’s enlightening to have a stack of entries and has made me very sympathetic to agents and editors with slush piles. 🙂 Yes, by page 5, I know if the story/writing works and by page 50 – can give very concise feedback.
    Especially when the synopsis doesn’t cover anything more than the pages just read….

  8. A said:

    It is quite common, when looking at the first draft of a novel, to discover that the story doesn’t actually begin until page 50 or 100 or even later than that. The author is figuring out backstory, writing their way into the book, figuring out what the heck the story really is, etc. Sometimes that’s still the case on the 2nd or 3rd or 4th draft, especially with a new writer. When I first started reading/listening to published/famous authors talk about their process, this common occurrence was something that stuck out for me, and now that I teach writing workshops I talk about it with my students.

    For those of you who are thinking, well the agent needs to keep reading until they get to that point… nope… but if you suspect this might be what’s happening with your book, you need to find a writing group or other good critical readers who can recognize if this is what’s going on and help you to figure out what to cut and how to reshape it. But know that even though an agent’s not going to have the time to find the real story within your current draft, it IS a natural and common part of the writing process to meander a bit when you’re starting.

  9. Don Gwinn said:

    I think I understand what you’re saying, but I have a sick, unhealthy compulsion to finish books once I start them. I recently read one of the Rama books by Clarke, and I just didn’t like it. . . . but I finished it.
    Of course, I didn’t have twenty piles of other bad books to slog through when I was done.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Bennett Cerf was once castigated by an author who complained that Cerf hadn’t read the whole manuscript. Cerf told him–“One does not have to eat the whole egg to know that it’s rotten.”

  11. Anonymous said:

    “One does not have to eat the whole egg to know that it’s rotten.” LOVE IT!

    Totally makes sense, thanks for the blog Kristin!

  12. Tara Maya said:

    I’ve read books I didn’t love until twenty years after I finished the last chapter. 😉

    Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to sell them.

  13. Nonny said:

    I did slush reading for a friend who was putting stories together for an anthology. It was… quite enlightening. Out of some 40 stories that I read, only one of them did not require major revisions. I had to choose at least 5 other stories, and if it’d been my decision, I would’ve re-opened submissions rather than accept any of them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option.

    Writers get shocked by statements from agents and editors that they can tell within the first page whether or not a submission is worth reading — but it’s true. Most writers submit well before their work is publication-worthy, which is not a bad thing. I did it myself and learned a lot. It also helped me develop a thick skin for rejection and commentary.

    I think I’m lucky in that I came up with 1 story out of 40 that was “WOW”-worthy. Well-known agents and editors get a LOT more submissions and by extension, a lot more crap.

    If the writer is not competent, an agent/editor is going to quit reading a lot sooner than page 100. Why waste time when you can tell the writer is not there yet? 20 pages is actually a pretty decent amount of reading. If you haven’t got it together by then… well, a reader isn’t likely to keep going either.

    Agents are not there to teach new writers. They’re there to sell books.

  14. jdcoughlin said:

    Well said, Amy. One of my favorite things to do is to thumb through books at the library. I pick up the ones on the bottom, interesting titles, great covers. I read the jackets and opening paragraph, or sometimes a random page. And I know, right away, whether it’s going into my bag or not. I know what I like. I know what appeals to me. Now sometimes I get home and find out the book isn’t for me, not one bit what I thought it was. Maybe I fell for that opening line that only meandered or waffled after that. Whatever it was that first got me turns pretty quickly into a “don’t like” and gets put aside. I just open up another. Good thing there’s lots out there to choose from.

  15. Carla said:

    A friend once asked me to read his manuscript, so I did. A week later he asked how I liked it and I said, “It’s slow going. It didn’t catch me yet.” (I was determined to force myself through it but it was painful.) His response was, “Keep reading, it gets better.”

    The problem being, if I’d paid for a book where I had to “keep reading, it gets better”, I’d have probably thrown it against the wall before I got to that point. I don’t want root canal to go on forever ’til it gets better, so why would I want to endure the literary equivalent?

    Our RWA chapter had an agent come in who plugged a book called “The First Five Pages”, but he told us, most agents can tell in the first five sentences if the book will hook him (and any other reader) or not.

    Thanks for the blog, Kristin! What a great learning opportunity!

  16. Anonymous said:


    I asked the original question, and I immediately answered it with ‘no, of course not’.

    People on that thread jumped on the question and answered ‘yes, yes, of course, they need to make sure the writer can finish a book’.

    Agents don’t, not as a first step. And that’s the point I was making. If you wrote fifty pages of crap, the ability to write three hundred pages of crap isn’t helpful.

    Kristin made a lot of good points in her post yesterday, but over the weekend, most responses were ‘of course, why would an agent ask for 300 pages if they’re only going to read 20?’ variety. Today … turns out you can judge a book in twenty pages and agents stop reading if there’s no promise. Like I said I suspected.

    Kristin explained yesterday that there are examples of books that fall apart after the first few chapters. That’s clearly going to be a problem – that’s presumably a (lesser) problem for some established authors on their later books, too. ‘Publishers might not want to wait six months’ … well, it’s a debut novel, if it’s really so topical that it can come out in September but not March, then it’s doing something wrong. The world is not exactly on tenterhooks for it, and, again, established authors – rumor has it – have occasionally missed a deadline.

    My point was that insisting on full manuscript as a first step selects for quantity, not quality. It selects for people who can throw down three hundred pages, not ones who really think about fifty. Who, on the whole, have the time or are irrational enough to work for free for six months.

    It’s a way of cutting down the quantity of submissions, but it doesn’t do anything to improve the quality.

    Yeah, the agent isn’t a charity or a creative writing class … but the relative investment in time at the moment ‘write three hundred pages, post them in, wait a couple of months for them to get back’ versus ‘skim twenty pages’ is disproportionate. And that, I think, is what people resent.

    The agent is already doing the right thing, don’t get me wrong. 95% of everything they see must be irredeemable rubbish, 4% must be unusable and only a fraction of the competent remaining 1% something they want to work with. They shouldn’t be spending more time on the manuscripts.

    But agents could ease that gap, and more importantly improve the quality of submissions, by asking for sample chapters on the understanding that if they like it, they’ll want the full manuscript before they can represent it.

  17. a published writer said:

    Poor anonymous, you’ve got it backwards.

    I don’t know any agent who asks for a full as a first step. Most ask for sample pages, then the full.

    But why invest the time at all if the author hasn’t put the time into it. What if they want the full and it doesn’t exist? most agents can tell you tons of stories about requesting fulls that never materialize.

    Look, being a writer of books means you, you know, write books. If you want to play the game, PLAY THE GAME. If you don’t, then leave it to the pros, the ones who actually WRITE.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Then please explain how JELLICOE ROAD just won the frickin Printz award when seventy-five percent of the reviews stated you had to slog it out until around page 100 before anything made sense?

    ‘Splain that, Kristin! 😉

  19. Anonymous said:

    ‘If you want to play the game, PLAY THE GAME.’

    Your slightly neurotic, entitled tone says it all – the full manuscript is ritual, rather than practical.

  20. Anonymous said:

    ‘Why waste time when you can tell the writer is not there yet?’

    Exactly my point – except why waste the writer’s time, too? Yeah, the agent doesn’t owe them anything (at this stage), but there must be a more humane way.

    95% of submissions are going to be worthless. That’s not going to change – the trick has to be to work more effectively with the other 5%.

    There are permutations where there’s a good writer with, basically, a bad book.

    Instead of letting an author waste months writing an unsaleable book, just put them out of their misery quickly. If they’re a good writer, they can come back with a better pitch. If they’re not, just tell them.

    I understand that not everyone can finish a novel … the point is, though, that you only have to select for those that can. What’s wrong with reading sample chapters, saying ‘come back in six months with a book and we’ll talk’ and if they don’t, you don’t talk? Only after you get that book do you start talking to publishers.

  21. Bill Greer said:

    I read a Booker-nominated novel that just dragged through the first 200 pages. I kept putting it aside, but also kept returning to it knowing that it got many rave reviews. The last 350 pages were great! I was glad I’d finally gotten to them.

    This is from a major writer, so I don’t know if an agent or an editor could have pushed the writer to do something about the first 200 pages. The novel has a large cast of characters and all their backstories needed to be told, but it was painful.

    I’ve read other books by major authors where I never got past the first chapter.

    I try to keep these experiences in mind when I look at my own manuscripts.

  22. Anonymous said:

    Another way of looking at this:

    Would an agent rather have ten sets of sample chapters that show promise or a hundred random slushpile full manuscripts?

    One involves the writing of three hundred pages, the other involves the writing of thirty thousand. Which is the best investment of everyone’s time?

  23. Anonymous said:

    Curious. Where are the 75% of Jellico Road reviews referenced? I just glanced a couple of sites out of curiosity and they all gave the book excellent reviews.

    That said, I haven’t read the book, so I won’t comment on its quality.

    I agree with the postings about agents only requesting samples. I continually research agent web sites and haven’t found any that ask for full submissions as a first step.

  24. a published writer said:

    You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. And expecting feedback on three chapters of a book that is never going to be finished IS a waste of the agent’s time. Why deal with people who don’t have a product to sell when you can deal with people who do?

    I’ve got half a dozen books out and I had to write every single one of them, and believe me, the first fifty pages are a breeze. Anyone can have an idea. You have to bring it HOME.

    It’s NOT ritual, it’s fact. You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. And anyone can write three chapters. Stick it out for an entire book, a complete book, and then you can talk to someone.

    I’m not sure what’s neurotic about saying that you have to write a book to publish a book. It’s just fact. Anything else is a waste of EVERYONE in the industry’s time.

    And entitled? you BET I am. Because you’re wasting people’s time and you — YES YOU — are clogging inboxes for queries and partials of manuscripts that don’t actually exist.

    You’re clearly one of those people who wants success without the work. “wow, i’d really like to write a book someday, but I’m not going to put the time in until someone gives me money for it.”

    Train for the marathon before expecting the medal, dude. RUN the marathon before expecting the medal.

  25. Kyle the Fox said:

    I agree that a story should capture a reader’s attention long before page 100 (unless you’ve got some REALLY small pages) and while I’ll finish a book I start, some times it takes me a very long time. This coming form a guy who can read a Xanth novel in an afternoon is saying something.

    On another topic, and one I’m fairly sure doesn’t go here but I’ve never used this thing before, I’m an aspiring writer myself and have written a number of “short stories” that are really just random segments from a larger story I’ve been trying to write. Most of these are on my page on deviantART ( and the responces I’ve gotten have been mostly positive (other then notes about my constant shifting of tense) but I would really love to have someone with a little more experiance take a look at a few of them.

    I know Kristen has her hands full, but anyone else is welcome to take a peek too.

    Thanks, and looking forward to more good advice on the mysterious world of publishing.

  26. Anonymous said:

    Anon 8:47–

    re: Jellicoe Road — sorry, I should’ve been more clear. I was looking at the reviews (reader reviews, not professional) from Most people did love it, but also mentioned its nebulous 100 first pages (there are two alternate story-lines and it isn’t clear how they connect right off the bat).

    Though I have read at least 3 reviews from librarians online that said the same thing.

    My point was not to slam Jellicoe Road (it’s in my TBR pile and I’m excited about it) but to offer a contrary point to Kristin’s blog post that, that sometimes the writing is good enough to stick with a book and that readers don’t have to be spoon-fed everything.

  27. shhhh...... said:

    A “blog troll” is often defined as an individual who resorts to name-caling and specious arguments to make a point diametrically opposed to the theme/purpose/topic of the blog or blog post in question. The purpose of the troll and their comments is not to promote rational discussion or debate, but instead to provoke the increasingly exasperated comments and responses from the reasonable readers of the blog.

    The blog troll is resistant to any arguments that explode his point. Indeed, he ignores them and thrives the more people who choose to involve themselves in his trollish behavior.

    Do not feed the troll.

  28. Wendy Roberts said:

    If a book is recommended by a friend I’ll force myself to read a hundred pages into a ‘bad’ book. However, the more I write the less patience I have for a book that doesn’t hook me early on.

  29. Anita said:

    My to-read list is soooo long that I don’t have time to read books which don’t grab me. I will, however, give an author through the first chapter, sometimes more, if (though the story is slow-going) the writing is excellent.

  30. Anonymous said:

    I can think of four acclaimed books from this year (by the NYT and PEN Faulkner) that I read recently where it’s “slow going” until well after the first 50 pages. For the first I struggled to get past page 60, the second took me until page 200, and the last two I just kept reading out of stubbornness — they never drew me in, not because the writing wasn’t amazing, but because the story simply plodded…and plodded. And these opinions have been verified by many in my book club and online reviews.

    So, I ask…how do they get through? And not only get through, but get through to such acclaim? I’m stumped.

    (Oh, and the four books: “Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Netherlands, The Delivery Room, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).

  31. Mike Harris-Stone said:

    It’s simple really. Agents are looking for BOOKS to sell, preferably by authors who can produce more than one. It’s not about quality or quantity, it’s about BOOKS.

    Everybody (it seems) wants to write a novel. You want to write a novel? Big deal! If you do, it’s YOUR job to determine if the work is good enough to publish. It’s YOUR job to read widely, compare your own work to what is in print, and know all you can about books and the business of books. And it’s YOUR job to write. That’s NEVER a waste of time. WRITERS want to be published for sure, but WRITERS keep WRITING no matter what. Why? Because we have to. Because there is a world out there we’re trying to understand. It’s not about the “hat,” you get to wear: “Hey look baby, I’m a writer, how about letting me buy you a drink…” It’s about the work.

    Why finish the book if it’s never going to get published? Because you want to WRITE. Finish it, try to sell it and move on. Live, Read, Learn, Grow, Be Humble, Love — that’s it.

    Oh, and part of being humble is believing that agents know what they’re doing when they want a finished manuscript available. Why, if only the first pages make or break it? Because if they DO LIKE your work, they’ll want to keep going. More than that, they’ll want to see if the BOOK keeps going or if it loses its energy. The sad truth is a few great chapters don’t mean anything in the publishing world. Many, many great chapters have been written that never turn into great books. As Michelangelo’s teacher is reputed to have said: “Talent is cheap, commitment is costly.”

    Also, remember too that what’s “good” is QUITE subjective. Lots of great books took ages to sell, up to 10 years in the case of one Newbury winner, (A Wrinkle in Time). What starts slow to one reader, may zip by to another.

    Takes deep breath…OK, rant over.

    Yeah, it can be frustrating and lonely, but that’s life and hey, isn’t it the hard stuff that makes a story anyway?

    When I first started this, I was given some good advice by a professional writer with several books to his credit: “If you want to write fiction, write FIVE or SIX novel length manuscripts and see where you can get. That’s the general entry level. All the published fiction writers I know, finished their books before being published and were working already on others. Keep writing, even if its crap. As Jodi Picoult said, “You can edit crap.” 🙂

  32. Anonymous said:

    Hi Kristin,

    I agree with your points, and have often heard the standard “if you don’t hook them in the first 5 pages, forget it” philosophy.

    Let me play devil’s advocate here, though. There are several NYT bestselling books which have no conflict happening for the first 100 pages. Or even 50 pages. One described a woman going to work, filing papers, going home, cooking dinner. Boring boring boring. On page 53, her husband leaves her–that’s when the book only BEGAN to get decent. That book hit in the top 10 of the NYT bestseller list.

    My question – WHY? When we’re told most agents/editors won’t read past page 5 (or even a few paragraphs) if we don’t start the book right in the action? It’s examples like this which throw confusion into the works. Any insight?


  33. Anonymous said:

    I like what Mike Harris-Stone has to say. You write, not because you want to say, “I’m a novelist,” but because you want to figure this world out, and this is your way of doing it.

    I’ve never quite heard it put that way, but I like it.

    No one would think that simply because they like to toss a baseball around that they’ll be scouted for the Yankees (or Rockies, considering Kristin is based in Colorado), but why does anyone who pounds out a chapter or two of a novel think they automatically are going to end up on a best-seller list, and the agent should sign them up on a partial. People, it’s publishing, not a fairy-tale.

  34. Shannan said:

    As a reader I’m not going to wait 100 pages for the story to be working so I sure as heck wouldn’t expect an agent to be willing to wait that long to want to work on it or invest in it!

    Really I wanted to comment though to say thank you – ROSANNA is going to be in my head all day now (that’s ok though because I love that song)

  35. Melissa said:

    My question – WHY? When we’re told most agents/editors won’t read past page 5 (or even a few paragraphs) if we don’t start the book right in the action?
    –end quote–

    We’re told to hook the reader. Action is just one way to do that. A unique voice, polished style, compelling description, intriguing story questions… all of these can grab and enthrall to the point that someone can’t stop reading, even if there is no overt action.

  36. Ellen said:

    “WHY? When we’re told most agents/editors won’t read past page 5 (or even a few paragraphs) if we don’t start the book right in the action? It’s examples like this which throw confusion into the works. Any insight?”

    I don’t think anyone said the book has to start “right in the action” necessarily, just that the first few pages have to be compelling enough to make the reader keep going. Personally I like books that start with the action and then go into back-story, so I don’t have a ton of examples off the top of my head, but one I can think of: Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. I love this book, and I was hooked by page 5. But it doesn’t start off en medias reis – it begins with backstory, description of the settings, the characters involved, etc. The reason I was hooked was because the writing was compelling and the backstory was told in such a way that it was interesting to read. And somewhere out there, before this was published, an agent or an editor agreed.
    There are a number of reasons that a book with 100 boring first pages could get published. The writer could be a big-name person (let’s face it – editors and agents also need to make money. Even if the book isn’t the best thing the person has ever written, if that author has a solid enough fanbase out there, who the editor knows will buy this book, they’re going to publish it. I can’t fault them for it – it’s a business, after all). Or maybe, although the first 100 pages aren’t compelling to you personally, they are compelling to other people (the agent/editor who signed on it must have felt so, after all). Different books appeal to different people.
    I think the point is, your first five pages have to be *as good as you can possibly make them.* And the rest of the book has to be written in case the agent or editor likes those first five pages.
    As for the “Instead of letting an author waste months writing an unsaleable book, just put them out of their misery quickly” comment:
    The book is not necessarily “unsaleable”. It may need more revision. Or it may just not resonate with the editor or agent you’re submitting it to. Plus, if you’ve never written a full manuscript before, you should, even if you don’t plan on selling it. Personally, I learned so much just from writing and rewriting/editing my first manuscript that even if I am never able to sell it to anyone, it will have been worth completing. I am a better writer now because of it, and in the future, maybe that will help me write another manuscript, one that will sell.

  37. Jen C said:

    In my capacity as a reader, you have the exact time of my tram ride from home to work in the morning to grab my attention. This is normally about 15 mins (give or take, depending on how many people bump into me and step on my feet, making me lose my place!).

    If it’s not doing it for me by then, it’s highly unlikely I’ll pick it up again. I’ve got way too many books in my to-read pile to bother.

    Switching to writer mode, I would say that if it takes you 100 pages to get to a point where the story is readable, you’re doing something wrong. Very wrong.

  38. Eileen said:

    One thing I would say on the comment on “why waste everyone’s time.” For a writer every book you write is part of learning your craft. It is part of the learning process to write a bad book. For most of us we write a few bad ones before we start to get it right. A writer can’t just skip writing the bad ones- she has to write those in order to learn how to write the ones that are good.

  39. Kimber An said:

    If the story doesn’t get good until page 100, then pages 1 through 99 ought to be deleted.

    I suspect this problem stems from a writer not understanding how to properly structure a story. I totally empathize. I’ve had to learn it the hard way and I’m still learning.

  40. Anonymous said:

    ‘A writer can’t just skip writing the bad ones’

    … yeah, but an agent wants to skip reading them.

    I’m not trolling, here. I don’t give a flying monkeys about people who yearn to be writers on their personal journey of self discovery and how they had to write six terrible novels before they wrote one good one.

    Newsflash: unless you’ve managed to turn that journey into a brilliant novel, neither does an agent.

    The real trolls here are the people who read ‘you have to write five crap books before you write a good one’ and think ‘I’ve written ten crap books, I must be doing something right!’.

    To continue the marathon analogy – finishing the race is not the same as doing well in it. It’s not about the taking part, it’s about finishing in the medals.

    The bane of agents’ lives is that people send those six crappy novels in before they’re ready. That they see ‘writer’ as a lifestyle choice, not a job.

    I’m trying to answer the question that Kristin asked, which was how to make the submissions process more fruitful.

    Here’s a useful way to look at it – American Idol. 20,000 people apply. 19,900 are complete losers, delusionals or otherwise complete no-hopers. The first few episodes shows the judges getting rid of those 19,900 as quickly as possible.

    What Kristin wants is a way to get to those 100 people. Skip to the ones with at least some chance.

    … that’s all I’m trying to come up with.

    You need someone who can come up with a strong start AND finish a novel. I think that it would be a more efficient use of everyone’s time to check for the former before insisting on the latter.

    If that sounds like trolling, rather than common sense, I’m sorry. I’ll say no more.

  41. Ebony McKenna. said:

    Your posts are really speaking to me. I’m with you on the first 100 pages.
    I’ve read bestsellers that just didn’t grab me. So I can only imagine what the unpublished slush is like.

    These books weren’t bad, but they just didn’t do anything for me. I usually slog on to about page 60 to 90 before chucking it, just to give the book a chance to make me care.

    The only book I can think of that made me care after about 90 pages was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But that’s because friends who recommended it to me said ‘it’s really slow to start, but then it gets going’.

  42. Anonymous said:

    I think a more constructive attitude for a prospective writer to have than an exasperated ‘how did this get published?’ is to work out how it got published.

    It’s doing something right. It is, by definition, doing better at its job than every single novel you’ve ever had rejected. Even if it is depressingly bad, it’s an objective, demonstrable fact that it’s still better than yours. So it’s a question of analyzing what that might be. A striking opening image or pleasing turn of phrase.

    Thing is: you’re looking for something that has to be there, and which a bored slush pile reader glancing at it managed to spot.

    I’ve read plenty of bad books, but I’ve never, ever read one where it’s not obvious why someone thought it was a good one.

  43. Mike Harris-Stone said:

    A few clarifications about “crap:”

    It’s not that you need to write “six bad novels” to get to the good one.

    Writing is all about re-writing. Often, what you put down at first when you’re working on a scene or a whole chapter may not be very good. But you can edit it, work with it and refine it.

    The advice I was given is write six GOOD novels and hope that maybe one will be published. That’s how hard it is.

    As to writing as a job: less than 1% of PUBLISHED writers earn their full living from their work. If you want a job, i.e. a way to make some money, this one is CRAP.

    However, if you love books and can’t live without making some of your own, if you will find a way to do it even if it means writing during your kid’s naps or grabbing ten minutes here and there to furiously scribble, then jump on in. Join the party!

    If you need feedback on your work as if progresses, you have many options. You can join writing groups, attend workshops, enlist the help of honest friends who like to read, etc.

    If you want more certainty before you “invest,” well maybe this isn’t the right business for you.

  44. Mike Harris-Stone said:

    Where Kristen asked for input was on the pitching that goes on at writer conferences. That’s not the same thing as the submission process. An agent can skip pitching sessions altogether and still receive hundreds of submissions a week.

    The submission process as it exists now for fiction in the U.S. isn’t homogenus. Different agents have different guidelines. Generally, the first thing sent in is a query. For lots of helpful info on that and much, much more, see Kristen’s sidebar, especially the Agenting 101 Blogs.

  45. Dal Jeanis said:

    Anon 4:57 –

    Agents already do that. They ask for sample chapters before they ask for the full. To see if the author can produce interesting prose.

    But knowing that an author can write interesting sample chapters does not demonstrate that the same author can complete an interesting novel. That’s why the agent then asks for the full.

    Also, they (agents) need the full manuscript before they can actually sell it to anyone. It does no one any good to say, “here’s a chunk of a novel that might be ready in six to sixty months.” Writing is a very personal thing, and it’s vaporprose until you type “THE END” to the final revised draft.

    You only get to sell vaporprose once you’re an established writer, and then only as long as you actually produce real prose in the agreed time frame.

    When you miss your deadline by a lot– kaf kaf George R.R. Martin kaf — your vaporprose card then gets pulled until you’ve shown that you can produce again.

    You don’t get to have that privelege unless you demonstrate that you have earned it.

    Now, if you just want to know whether the chunk you’ve written is interesting, there are lots of venues (crit groups) to find out that information while you are practicing your craft. But agents don’t want to see your stuff until you have an actual complete product.

  46. David Dittell said:


    In screenwriting it’s the first 10 pages. If you don’t grab the reader by then, you shouldn’t expect them to keep reading.

    It may seem unfair to some, but if you’re a writer and you know you have only 10-20 pages to impress, it’s now on you to make your first 10-20 pages great. You’re not going to change the system, you can only exploit.

    And, truthfully, if the pages after 10/20 don’t grab the reader, you shouldn’t expect them to keep reading. Yes, if they connected with the start, they’re more likely to make it through a lull, but if you haven’t made it as interesting as you possibly can, as a writer, you haven’t done your job yet.