You’ve prepared your email/letter and synopsis – what next? Some agents and publishers ask for a chosen number of chapters, others for the first X thousand words. A few want a submission summary about you and your book with no chapters at all. As ever, comb through the websites carefully.
- They want three chapters? In the fiction world, that means your first three chapters in sequence. They want to see how you set the story up, your style and tone, and above all how you reveal your characters. They are particularly interested in your stakes: what your characters want and need, what stops them getting it and why we care.
- How long is a chapter? George RR Martin’s chapters can be over 20 pages each. Many other writers work in short, choppy chunks with no chapter breaks at all. Do not be tempted to blend some of your chapters together and send half the novel. You want three distinct scenes or sections that establish and build your story.
- Your scenes or chapters should flow into one another in a way that keeps the reader engaged. That means careful thought about your hooks and links.
- Try to close with a cliff hanger that encapsulates your book. If your chapter three is a dreamy non-event chapter, change it or move it to later in your story. Now is the time to be as compelling as you can.
- Your main throughline question should ring like a bell from the first line.
- It’s first line time. Some books begin with setting the scene or theme (‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times’), others with a character revealing or denying a problem, others with dialogue. Sam Goldwyn (the G of MGM) said his films should start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis. Your first line should be memorable, balanced and above all it should hook us right and tight into your second, fourth and two-hundredth lines too.
- The first page. Come with me into an ideal world. Not entirely ideal because it’s a world where people pick up a book, look at the first page and judge by a line or two whether it’s for them. In this ideal world, that first page flows from the wonderful first line with two or three paragraphs that settle us nicely alongside the main character (who is this person and why do we care?) using a clear point of view. We should have some sense of the essence of the situation and why we give a damn. (What are the stakes?) And a sense of place. All with a thumping hook or hint about what is about to unfold. It is a lot to convey – preferably not told but shown ‘slant’ – and it may take several revisions before you are happy. All this in a shorter page than usual – 150-200 words – because chapters are usually laid out with space to breathe at the top. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka (2005) – a perfect first page. Hone till your fingers and heart are weak with exhaustion. Have a look in a book shop or library at some published first pages for inspiration.
- Your third chapter may be the one where, having set up your earthquake, you are relaxing out a bit, indulging in some info dump about the back story, letting your lovers stare at a sunset, glad they’ve survived. It’s time to rewrite that, I’m afraid. This submission is a sprint to grab attention and by the end of it you should have two main things in play. First, your readers should have a firm grasp of what the story is about and why they like it. (This includes your style as well as your characters and where they are heading.) Second, they should be desperate to read more. Sometimes this means rearranging things, calling high stakes from later chapters forward to help. The third chapter of your submission should end on a cliff.
- The final hunt for spellings, typos, grammar errors and clichés is a must.
It’s time to congratulate yourself. You have prepared a professional book submission and I wish it the very best luck in the world.
There is though one other thing to do before you click and send.
Some agents read quickly and could ask you for the rest of your typescript in days or weeks. Try and have your whole novel up to the same professional standard, ready to go when it’s called for.
How long will you have before your precious acceptance arrives? That’s for next time.