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Saturday, July 13, 2013

THOSE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS - WHAT ARE AGENTS AND EDITORS LOOKING FOR?

A WRITER FRIEND WHO IS JUST STARTING OUT sent me this note recently: "Can I pick your brain, please? When asked to submit the first page of a manuscript, or the first three chapters for that matter, what is it that agents/editors really want (besides the obvious answer—exactly what they requested)? For example, I have a brief prologue: is this the first page or should it be the first page of chapter one? The prologue is relevant to the story as a whole. All my chapters are of differing lengths, so the first three chapters may well be longer or shorter than the others. I am concerned that submitting exactly what is asked for may not present the information in its best light." 

This is what I told him: It sounds like your first page would be the first page of your prologue. If an agent or editor asks you for the first three chapters, I suspect they would count your prologue, then chapters one and two, to mean the first three. 

That said, I know a lot of editors who don't like prologues. Because of this, you might want to submit the first page of your chapter one instead. What agents and editors are looking for in a first page is writing ability, so send them your best one, whether that's from your prologue or your chapter one. If they're asking for three chapters, they want to see the story's premise and if it grabs them. Send them the best first three—either prologue, chapters one and two, or chapters one, two, and three. You'll know which will serve you best. I suspect anything that hooks the reader right away and gets the action going is what you want. If your prologue does a lot of explaining and providing back story, don't send it. I know of one agent who doesn't want to see back story in the first eighty pages. Ask yourself—do you really need the prologue? Readers are willing to wait for explanations, as long as the story engages them right from the get-go."

After I sent him this note, I decided I should ask an expert, my own editor at Five Rivers Publishing, Robert Runté. When I put my friend’s question to him, this is what Robert had to say. I think his response is representative of what most acquisitions editors think: 

"I agree with Susan’s comment that most editors regard prologues with suspicion. Prologues serve a specific purpose, but most beginning authors use them instead to provide back story, which equals 'no sale'. Just seeing the title 'Prologue' is often enough to make me want to move the manuscript to the 'read later' pile. On the other hand, I want to see the words that the potential buyer picking up the book in a bookstore will see first...so sending something from later in the book may annoy some editors when they finally see the whole thing. (Or maybe not, since it's easy enough to say, ‘lose the prologue’.)

The bottom line, however, is I need to see enough of the writing to know whether the book has potential. As Susan said, if you think your prologue is the strongest first page, send that. If you think the first chapter has the strongest first page, send that (and then recognize that if the prologue isn't your strongest start, you shouldn't have one!). Send enough additional pages to provide a representative sample—three chapters or 30 pages, whichever is greater.

I might also make the suggestion that if you haven't had the entire manuscript professionally edited, or feel you can't afford professional editing for the entire thing, maybe shell out for editing the first three chapters/30 pages to ensure that at least that much is your best foot forward. If editors like what your (edited) opening looks like, they can assign their own editors to edit the rest of the manuscript to bring it up to that level. But you can't get access to the publisher's editors unless you make it through the door in the first place."

(Thanks, Robert. That's excellent advice. As well as being Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing and an English Professor at the University of Lethbridge, Robert is also an excellent free-lance manuscript editor in his own right, who can offer you help with your work at all levels. His website contains valuable information on a number of topics in the field. Check out Robert's blog at: http://www.sfeditor.ca/about.htm)

Next post:  Interview with Michael R. Fletcher, author of '88'.

Stay tuned.

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