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Your First Three Chapters

Giving Your Novel its Best Start—and its Best Shot

Few readers will go beyond ten or fifteen pages if a novel doesn’t engage them. Agents and editors—even if interested in the manuscript—almost never go beyond thirty or forty pages before finding a reason to reject a novel.

Most agents and editors, when asking for material, will request a “partial” before they ask to see a full manuscript. A partial is usually considered 3 chapters (although the agent may request a specific page count, like 50 or 100 pages). It’s crucial for these pages to be in top shape. Unfortunately, many times a novel starts in a promising way but falls apart after the first few pages, often for reasons of technique that can be identified and fixed. Here are some tips for making sure your first three chapters get, and keep, the reader’s attention.

  • Begin at the beginning. Sometimes you need to write the whole novel, or at least a good chunk of it, to know where the beginning is. Sometimes the beginning is clear from, well, the beginning. In any case, you have to start where your story begins, and often that is not on page 1. And one other thing: Ditch the prologue. Yes, I mean it.
  • Start as you mean to continue. Your first chapter starts off with a swashbuckling adventure. Your second chapter continues the story as a homey romance. Gnashing of teeth (by your readers) will ensue. If you’re promising your readers a humorous romp through Victorian England, turning the story into a horror about Jack the Ripper isn’t the way to instill a little tension into the narrative.
  • Deliver on genre conventions—or know why you’re not. Connected to the idea of starting as you mean to continue is the idea that you need to understand, respect, and deliver on genre conventions. A romance ends with a happily ever after. A novel may be about two characters falling in love, and one of them can die at the end, but you can’t call that novel a romance. That would be a love story, which is a different creature. If you’re really talented, you can of course turn genre conventions on their head, break genre rules and essentially thumb your nose at readers’ expectations, but you do so at your own peril (just ask any reader why she threw that book against the wall and almost invariably it will have to do with thwarted genre conventions.)
  • Keep abreast of changing tastes. You may, as most writers do, write for yourself, or write the novels that interest you, but if you want to have commercial success (or at least get published), then you need to care about what your readers want, and you have to understand that readers’ tastes change. Most readers (including editors and agents) happen, at this moment in time, to prefer third person limited (and to some degree, first person) point of view. Omniscient narrators are not as appreciated as they once were. Head-hopping, which no one cared about twenty years ago, is a disastrous no-no now. Lengthy discourses on the state of society were tolerated, even appreciated, forty years ago, but no more.
  • Give your reader something to do. Some of the most convoluted, uninteresting writing comes from writers who are trying to tell their readers exactly what they should be thinking and picturing at every moment. Story-telling isn’t cinematography, though, and much of the joy of reading comes from filling in the blanks—imagining, in your own head, what the writer is describing. You have to find the balance between dumping too much into your story and not enough. This is especially tricky to do at the beginning of your book, when you’re trying to establish your characters, their conflict, the world they live in and their backstory. But it can be accomplished!
  • Establish your voice. The first three chapters are where you assure your readers that they’re in good hands. Having a convincing voice from the beginning goes a long way toward assuring your readers that they haven’t made a mistake by investing some time with your book.
  • Explain, or at least imply, why your characters do what they do. Because character motivations so often exist in their backstory, writers often put off showing motivation until the backstory is revealed. But that can lead to unfortunate situations where your characters comes across as jackasses, instead of sympathetic people, or as illogical and untrustworthy. If that’s your intention, fine, but too often it isn’t, and there’s a divergence between how the reader experiences the character and how the writer intended the character to be experienced.
  • Make war, not peace. Conflict is the core of all fiction, but very often writers “save” the conflict for the denouement. Which means that readers yawn their way through the first 70,000 words. Tension and conflict can, and should, be built from the first page. Your characters have to want something. (A great way to have conflict is to have characters who want something in direct opposition to each other.) Characters grow and change or resist growth and change. They respond to motivation and conflict in ways that are in keeping with their characters. (The Pope and a Hell’s Angel will respond to a verbal taunt in different ways. One assumes, anyway.)

Problems with these elements commonly crop up in novels. Fixing them before your work reaches your readers is key to your success.

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Agents, Anyone?

Do you really need an agent to sell a book? What is an agent, anyway? A great agent can do a great deal for you and your career – and it isn’t just about the money.

  • Agents negotiate book deals with editors on behalf of writers. They know the editors, the publishers, and the markets far better than a writer could – because that’s their only job.
  • As the author, you are the agent’s client and he or she must serve your best interests.
  • Agents can help you avoid common contract pitfalls and help you steer clear of dangerous contract clauses.
  • Agents can earn higher advance payments with book auctions and can negotiate royalty rates and favorable contract terms – it’s much more difficult to do this yourself.
  • Agents make sure you value yourself and your time appropriately.

So you’re going to seek representation. Where do you start? And how do you know when you’ve found a good agent?

  • To find an agent, get a personal introduction or reference from fellow writers, through writers’ organizations, and by attending writers’ conferences.
  • You can also query agents directly with a letter or email, although this is less effective than a personal introduction. Try www.agentquery.com as a place to start.
  • To pick the agent who will work best for you, be sure to talk with each potential agent before signing any contract or letter of agreement. Make sure you both are clear about your expectations, responsibilities and obligations.
  • Know what to expect from your agent by educating yourself about how good, legitimate agents operate.
  • Remember that agents are in high demand, so put your best foot forward.
  • Start with a simple agreement for the agent to represent one of your projects. If that’s successful, you can easily do additional projects together.
  • Some writers’ organizations have agents databases and in some cases discussion boards where you can find out about other writers’ experiences with a particular agent. This can be worth the investment in membership fees.

Crafting Your Pitch Letter

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you’ll need to pitch your message so that it gets heard – and read – by agents who’ll want to sign you up and by editors who’ll want to publish your book. Then use this pitch to interest media in your subject, too, getting two uses for the price of one.

The pitch letter (also called a query letter) should convey your book idea and your credentials for writing the book in one page (about 200-300 words, no more).

  • Describe your big message in one or two sentences. For instance, Dojo Wisdom is about using the principles of martial arts to get what you want from life. You’ll need this brief description many times as you write, publish, and promote your book. Whenever anyone asks, “What’s your book about?” you need to have this brief message ready to go.
  • Why do people need your book? What problem does it help them solve? The answer to those questions goes in your pitch letter.
  • What’s your unique angle? What is different about your approach to the subject matter? If you don’t have a fresh approach, people aren’t going to be interested in your book.
  • Why are you the one? What is it about you that makes you uniquely qualified to write the book? If you’re partnering with an expert (or are an expert partnering with a writer), mention this.
  • Use a pitch letter to introduce your proposal. It grabs an agent’s or editor’s attention and shows them why they should read – and buy – the book!

"How Do I … ?" on Agents

From a writer:

I have an agent who is new interested in my manuscript.  Based on her existing clientele, I feel I have a good chance of sparking this woman’s attention. I also have a well-known agent sitting on a full of one and a partial of a second. In the event that either one of them should contact me. . . especially the former. . . I don’t know what to ask her to help me make a decision.  Obviously if they both are interested in the same manuscript, I would probably go with the larger name and proven track record of sales. But can you offer any guidance as to what I could ask, what I could look up, what I could possibly do, to decide if I would want to work with this new agent?  The way I see it, things could go one of two ways:  I take the chance and allow her to build a clientele (everyone has to start somewhere) and it works out.  Or, I take the chance, and next year I’m still waiting. I’ve read where she has contacts [at major publishers].  Another client has gushed about her.  But how do I learn if this woman (who has no track record in the industry), really can get it done?

With agents, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all.  By “bad” agent, I mean everything from a scam agent who takes your money and doesn’t do anything for you to a well-intentioned individual who just doesn’t have the contacts and industry-savvy to succeed.

To rule out the scam agents, I would check out the Absolute Write forums (the Bewares and Background thread) and the information at Preditors & Editors . Also check out Writer Beware.

Assuming that you only queried legit agents in the first place, you’ll want to make sure that your prospective agent can do the job. If the agent is new, this is harder to judge because of a lack of track record. (On the plus side, new agents are more open to taking on clients). What’s important
is that the agent has experience in the publishing industry and understands how it works. Good agents are often former acquisitions editors. Sometimes they’re former sales reps, and occasionally they’re book authors who’ve been in the business a long time and know something about it.

What you don’t want is someone who thinks that what works in another field(for example, used car sales) is going to work in publishing. Someone whose experience in publishing is tangential (worked in a bookstore) or only with smaller publishers isn’t your best bet, either. This is not an entry-level position.

A new agent at an established agency is a better risk to take than a new agent who sets up her own agency. An established agency has connections in the publishing industry and can help the new agent through every aspect of recruiting clients to selling their books to negotiating their contracts and beyond.

When deciding between a new agent and a more experienced agent, you’ll probably do better with the agent who has a record of sales in your genre.

However, I will add a few caveats. Assuming that both agents are competent, then you really have to go with who is going to be a better fit for you.  It’s true that going with the more established agent who has a longer track record makes sense, but it’s also possible that your book wouldn’t
get the attention it needs from someone who has lots of other clients who themselves have track records and are thus easier for the agent to sell.

The only way you can get a handle on this is by having a conversation with the agent.  Ask what her process is, ask what her dream client is/does.  Think about what you need.  Do you need a lot of guidance, reassurance and hand-holding?  There is nothing wrong with that, but an agent who doesn’t have time for it isn’t going to be a good fit (which is not to say a new agent will have time for it and a more established agent won’t; that’s just a matter of personality and priorities).

How would the agent pitch your book?  What is her pitching process?  Are you comfortable with it?  I have a friend whose agent said, “I want to pitch this as YA, is that okay?”  My friend had never considered her book as being YA, but when she thought about it, she realized that was an absolutely appropriate thing to do.  But if she’d hated the idea, she and the agent would have had a problem.

Beyond that, I think you have to go with the agent who is most excited about your project and about representing you.

It’s a tough slog, especially these days, and you need a lot of enthusiasm to carry you through to the sale.  You need an agent who isn’t going to give up after the first five tries.  One thing I always suggest is to ask for a few days to think about an offer of representation.  Then you can let anyone else who has a partial or full know you have an offer and let them make their move if they’re going to make it.  It also gives you some time to think of questions you didn’t think to ask and to check with colleagues to find out what they know.  You can also see about talking with other clients of the agent before signing on. That can be a good way to get a sense of what it’s like to work with a particular agent.