Pub Rants

Why Agents Need Full Manuscripts

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STATUS: I can’t believe it’s 6 pm and I’m now starting what was on my actual TO DO list for the day. It’s just been one of those.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GRAPE FRUIT- JUICY FRUIT by Jimmy Buffett

If you are a debut author, agents sell your first novel based on a complete manuscript. There are certainly some rare exceptions where a novel might sell on a partial but usually because the author has some kind of strong background in the arena (say as an established screenwriter or prestigious short story credits) that gives the publisher assurance that the writer can pull it off.

Once published and established, lots of authors simply submit a synopsis and the first three chapters to sell the next project.

But for debut authors, why do agents need fulls?

For one very basic reason, I’ve read several requested full manuscripts that were excellent for about 150 pages and then went totally south. And in such a way that I believed the revision to be so large, I wasn’t willing to commit to it with the author.

This happens. Often.

I have to know that a brand new author can carry the novel to a satisfying conclusion. That all the elements will fall into place in a masterful way. Usually a novel’s climax happens two-thirds of the way in the work (not in the first 150 pages), so a full becomes crucial so as to evaluate it.

Just lately, I’ve read two full manuscripts all the way till their conclusions—only to ultimately pass on offering representation. This is rather rare. I can usually tell 100 to 150 pages in whether something is going to work for me or not.

So what was up with these two? I loved certain aspects of the novels. For one, I loved the writing but the story just wasn’t being compelling for me. I read all the way to the end in the hopes that I could finally put my finger on what was bothering me so I could have something useful to say to the writer. I actually never was able to articulate it. Despite really strong writing, I just didn’t feel passionately about it.

For the other, I read to the end because I wanted to see how the work ended and whether the conclusion would give me insight into whether this author could revise enough to make it worth offering an editorial letter with an eye to revising.

As you can imagine, fully editing a manuscript and writing up an editorial letter is really time consuming so I have to be convinced that it might be worth my time. If the ending really wows me, that can be the clincher. Unfortunately for this title, the ending didn’t sway me and I passed altogether. I did write up some of my concerns in my one-page response but it certainly wasn’t a whole editorial letter. (Just FYI—a good editorial letter on my part can easily take 2 hours to write.) If I’m not won over, I won’t commit to the time needed to create it.

Had I not had the full for either, I would have definitely passed. Now I passed anyway with these two fulls but I was looking for a reason to be swayed the other direction. That wouldn’t have happened without the complete work. And I can name two current clients who I asked to revise a full novel significantly before I offered representation. Similar circumstance to the above but in these two instances, I swayed to the side of accepting rather than rejecting.

17 Responses

  1. E. J. Tonks said:

    I’m so glad you posted this–I hadn’t realized there were different levels of meaning to the full manuscript reading. You’re preparing me to keep it realistic no matter how far people read into my manuscript! 🙂

  2. MeganRebekah said:

    I love being able to read your blog and garner insights into the agent/editor’s mind. It helps immensely from my perspective as an aspiring author.
    Coming here each evening also helps me motivated, and I’m sure it’s the same for many others.

    Thanks for your contributions to the publishing cyber world!

  3. Anonymous said:


    I’m ‘anonymous graphic designer’ from this weekend. Thank you for a sensible and practical answer to my question.

  4. Madison said:

    Honestly, why you said you need a full manuscript did not surprise me. I mean, how many times have we read books that have wonderful beginnings, yet crappy endings? I totally understand what you mean.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I described a work in process sci-fi novel to a published author at a writing training. In a one-on-one session, he said that my story premise and opening scene had a lot of potential. Since I’m not published, I wonder if my writing skill is strong enough.

    I wonder how much an agent is willing to work with an author on editing.

  6. DebraLSchubert said:

    Again, fascinating. Someone you know passed on a partial of mine recently and after the initial let down, I took the “coaching” to heart and went straight back to work. That’s what you have to do if you want to succeed in this business. I’m already feeling a thousand times better about my ms, so if you run across you-know-who, tell her I said, “thanks!.”

  7. Stephanie said:

    Thank you for this and to me it seems like perfect common sense. Of course you would need to know the entire story and how it ends to know if you could sell it!

  8. Samantha said:

    I think it’s great that you take the time to offer advice/criticism, despite passing on a manuscript. But as for needing the full novel, that makes plenty of sense, anyone who doesn’t get that, should read more books.

  9. therese said:

    Thanks Kristin, for taking the time to post.

    As newbie writers take time to learn their craft, from contact with your advice, I believe the quality of writing and story will improve, making your life easier.

    This means you slush piles will be smaller, but the potential for greatness within, higher.

  10. HeatherM said:

    Thank you so much for explaining it so thoroughly. I talk with a lot of writers who are working on their first novel and often times they don’t realize how much work will go into it after they submit it. This helps give people a much clearer picture of just how much work this career really is and why it’s important for the agent to read the entire manuscript before offering representation.

    You’re wonderful for taking so much time to help us new writers!

  11. Melissa said:

    Wait a minute, so you’re saying if I write a fabulous historical fiction set in the Revolutionary War but twenty pages from the end of the book, aliens come down from the sky and abduct the main character, that you might have a problem with that? No way!

  12. Tracy said:

    It makes perfect sense for an agent to want to read the whole thing before signing an unknown. Who wouldn’t want to be sure they can “bring it”? I also know that I didn’t want to begin querying until I was certain I could deliver a decent ending to my first submittable manuscript – and honestly, it was the most difficult to write. Not that I didn’t have lots of ideas that would work well, but more so because I wanted something a little unexpected – but still satisfying. It was sort of the choice between good, better and best. ‘Cause yeah, I’m a nerdy perfectionist like that…

  13. Anonymous said:

    I have slumping middle syndrome. The work I’m currently pitching is no exception, I learned recently to my chagrin. Revising now based on contest comments before sending full to Sara.

    It’s pretty easy to write three good chapters, but that’s like watching an exciting movie trailer. The let down can be awful.

  14. Sara Creasy said:

    “And I can name two current clients who I asked to revise a full novel significantly before I offered representation.”

    That was my lucky day!