Over the Transom: The Parts That People Skip

It seems that every few weeks someone writes a piece about why agents will stop reading your manuscript, often within the first few sentences. It doesn’t seem fair, and perhaps it isn’t, but these are readers with a finely honed sense of what works — or more precisely, what they can sell — and they know that no one with buying power gets any more forgiving further downstream from them.

In my first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant at one of the big publishing houses in New York. One of my tasks was to reject unsolicited manuscripts. Notice, I didn’t say to read unsolicited manuscripts. That was perhaps the most depressing aspect of working at a big machine like a Random Penguin or Simon & Schuster. The editorial staff has barely enough hours in the day to shepherd the manuscripts they’ve already bought through the publishing process and review proposals from trusted agents who know each editor’s individual tastes. Simple arithmetic leads inexorably to an unfortunate ritual, performed roughly once a month, of returning the accumulated submissions with a form rejection, after barely a glance at the cover letter.

Speaking of those trusted agents, it isn’t easy to get their attention either. They have just as many constraints on their time as editors, and often their inboxes are piled even higher with submissions from hopeful authors. It seems that every few weeks someone writes a piece about why agents will stop reading your manuscript, often within the first few sentences. It doesn’t seem fair, and perhaps it isn’t, but these are readers with a finely honed sense of what works — or more precisely, what they can sell — and they know that no one with buying power gets any more forgiving further downstream from them.

For any number of reasons, I have little or no desire to return to my editorial assistant days. And far from being a nuisance or a chore, our submissions queue is the lifeblood of AE. When I go to read our submissions, I look forward to reading our submissions, prepared to let each story make its case for inclusion in our magazine, rather than looking for reasons to pass on them. With our upper limit of 3000 words, reading a story all the way from the beginning to the end isn’t too much to ask. There are times when we find that a story doesn’t really get going until a few paragraphs into it, but then it really takes off — something we might never have realized if we had bailed after the first couple hundred words. (These ones usually look quite a bit different by the time we publish them.) There are stories where I wasn’t even sure it was science fiction until about a third of the way through, but turned out to be more than worth it in the end.

Some of you are probably skeptical that we really are this thorough, especially given the links above, but it is still largely true. Though the number of submissions has increased greatly since we first opened our doors nearly three years ago, we haven’t let it change our approach to deciding what to publish, even if it means we don’t move through our submissions as quickly as we could. As a rule, I don’t decide whether to reject a story or set it aside for a second read until I’ve read the last sentence — often, the last sentence tells me more than the first.

On occasion, I admit, I skim a little on my way there. But I’ve also learned to trust the skim.

See, later in my publishing career, I had a somewhat unusual job where one of my main responsibilities was to review the final proofs before a book went to press. Often I hadn’t read these books at any earlier point in the process and barely knew anything about them. You don’t have time to read the book at this stage, either — typically you only have one day to sign off on what might be an 800-page tome, so you’re only looking for obvious errors like the author’s name being spelled wrong on the title page and missing pages or parts of pages. You focus on the first and last lines of each page, because if the last line of a page doesn’t flow into the first line of the next, it’s a sign that something is awry.

As a result, there are quite a few books of which I’ve read about ten percent, in the form of partial sentences sampled very quickly at regular intervals throughout. This is actually not a bad way to get a sense of a story. You get glimpses of the setting, the characters, and enough information to follow the overall shape of the plot. You certainly get a taste of the writing style, including some of the author’s personal quirks. You can see recurring motifs show up over and over. It turned out to be a more reliable way to tell whether it was a book I’d like to read in its entirety than looking at just the first few pages or even the first chapter.

For the beginning is only one part of a story, and not always the most representative part. A story is best judged in its entirety, and that’s what we try to do at AE.

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