Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How to Choose Sample Chapters for Literary Agents

An Essay on Marketing
by Ally E. Peltier

A member of our IWW Writing discussion list recently posted that she'd been advised by a friend never to send a Prologue as part of the first three chapters she sent to prospective literary agents. I worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for years and know and still work with many agents. I have never heard this rule about not including a Prologue. I would say that people giving this kind of advice may be influenced by the new author's tendency to rely on a Prologue when one isn't necessary--thus, you are in effect sending a weak opening to a prospective agent.

This is obviously something to avoid. But unless the agent specifies otherwise, you should send the first three chapters or approximately 50 pages, whether that is a Prologue and two chapters or three regular chapters doesn't matter.

I had a client who recently wanted to send the first chapter, one from the middle, and one from the end. I strongly encouraged him to abandon this plan, and the reason why is also the explanation for why sending the Prologue (if you have one) is important.

Most potential book buyers will browse for books in a certain way: cover or title catches the eye, back cover/jacket copy is intriguing, and then the first couple of pages delivers on the promise of the cover copy. Book reviewers and media personnel (like the folk who decide who will appear on their bosses' TV shows) sometimes take it a step further, giving anywhere from just the first paragraph to at least the first chapter a chance to grab them. Editors know this, and it is the reason why the openings of novels are so carefully scrutinized.

That's why agents also ask to see the first few chapters. Because, it is again assumed, if the first couple of chapters don't grab the agent, then it similarly won't grab editors, reviewers, and so forth.

So, if your reasons are similar to my client's (he felt that the story didn't really pick up until midway through the novel), you should spend more time working on your novel's opening rather than choose a haphazard selection of chapters to send. Since most agents expect to see a synopsis as well as sample chapters (even if they don't ask for it, you have a better chance of having them ask for your manuscript if you send one), your overall plot arc will be clear to them regardless of what happens in the first few chapters. It will give them some context. But those first chapters must be gripping, interesting, and compelling enough to make the agent want to keep reading. They should introduce your protagonists and show the agent that you have a good handle on natural-sounding dialogue, well developed settings, and the appropriate pace or tone for your genre. If they don't accomplish these goals, the agent won't bother asking for more material.

Ally E. Peltier is an editor, writer and consultant who began her editorial career at small publisher Brundage Publishing, then worked under the tutelage of a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster where she spent several subsequent years acquiring and editing books for both the Touchstone and Fireside imprints. She has also worked as a freelance writer for over eight years.

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