As an agent, I make a point of reading all the unsolicited submissions. Dozens come in every week but it’s one of the ways I make a living because invariably, a couple times a year, I find something great that goes on to get published. It’s also an important part of my job because I like the idea that even without any connections, a writer can land an agent. Giving all unsolicited work a legitimate shot feels fair, regardless of who the writer knows. But here’s the secret of how I get through so many submissions: I usually only need to read a small sample to decide if it should go in my “read the full manuscript” pile. How can I be so confident in my choices based on so few pages? In my experience, the best novelists have a uniform quality throughout their manuscript, so the high caliber of the first page is equal to that of the last.
I’m sure you’ve heard having an excellent beginning to your novel is important in order to get an agent’s attention. And I’m here to tell you that’s absolutely true. But I’m also here to tell you that the rest has to be equally good. When you eat a great slice of pie, you know what the rest of it will taste like without having any more. That’s what it’s like reading a novel that’s ready for representation. I can read the very beginning—or any section for that matter—and will know how the rest will taste.
Of course, like any metaphor, this slice of pie idea can break down and you can have a bad bite. Even great novels have aspects that don’t work, like two-dimensional characters, unnecessary subplots, a lack of tension in certain scenes, and endings that don’t land. The primary difference is that in novels ready for representation, these issues are usually subtle and can be fixed with notes from me and a couple rounds of rewriting.
All of this is not meant to discourage you. Writing a novel that’s consistently great throughout is daunting, but the first step is knowing you have to. Time and time again I’ve received queries that say, “Stick with it—the first fifty pages are slow while the pieces come together.” If you’re saying that to me it’s an indication that your novel isn’t quite working yet, and that’s exactly what an editor will say to me when they pass on the submission.
How do you write a great novel? There are many wonderful books on that. But please don’t stop until you do it.
—Peter Steinberg of Foundry Literary + Media