When you send a novel to an agent or publisher, they normally ask for the first five or ten pages, just so that they can gauge your writing skill. If those pages don’t grab the reader, it won’t sell.
As an editor, I read thousands of stories a year, and it would be difficult to tell you all of the ways that you can go wrong, or all of the things that you can do right. But let’s hit some main points:
1) From the very first sentence, I want to see that you’re not just a competent writer, but a skillful one. I want to see that you have a way with words, so that I feel as if I’m in the hands of a professional storyteller. That means that I won’t feel confused, and I won’t get tripped up by typos or beginner’s mistakes. Indeed, I want to see that you’re talented right from the first sentence. Half of the editors and agents say that they look for a great voice right out the gate, whether it be the voice of the narrating character or of the author.
2) I want to know (or at least have some great hints) where and when the story is taking place. It helps if the setting is intriguing and beautifully drawn. Of course, when you bring that setting to life, you should appeal to most of the senses quickly—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
3) I want to know who the protagonist is and I want to see you handling the viewpoint properly. This means that the protagonist moves, has an emotional state, and thinks, so that we aren’t seeing the tale from a camera’s point of view, but from a real person’s. More than that, it is often helpful if the character is likeable or interesting or even both.
4) In the opening five pages, I must see a hint of an intriguing conflict, one that is already building toward a climax. To get that in quickly, this means that you almost need to start the story in media res.
5) In my business as a science fiction and fantasy editor, I want to see some novelty—something that tells me that your work is original, that you’re capable of coming up with something new.
Now, that’s my short list. I could go on and suggest that I want to see that you know how to construct a scene, that you can dazzle the reader in subtle ways that most pros know, that you know how to construct a plot, that you tastefully insert the emotional draws your audience is hoping for, that you are a pro at constructing believable dialog—and a dozen other little things.
But as you can see, for the first five pages, I can only hope for so much. All that I really want is to be convinced that you’re one of the greatest discoveries that I’ve ever made. If you think that an agent or editor wants anything less, you’re mistaken. The truth is that every editor and every agent who reads your manuscript is hoping that your tale demands to be published.