Sample pages – the big reveal

Hopefully you’ll receive that happy email that says, “Please send pages.” After you’ve finished jumping around on all the furniture, you need to settle down and decide what chapter(s) to send. I always recommend sending the first three chapters because most of us want to see how the story begins and how it unfolds.

But invariably, authors prefer to send a chapter that is representative of their story, hoping that the editor will be hooked. And that chapter may be chapter 7 or 15. If you do this, then the first thing I’ll wonder is why you sent me something so late in the book. What was in those first chapters that weren’t worthy of sending? My first suspicion is that it’s a lousy beginning. Ah, the Big Reveal.

Let’s carefully consider the unintended consequences of being invited to send chapters and how The Big Reveal could help you ponder the beginnings and the foundations of your book.

Is this where the book really begins?

Keep in mind that if you send me Ch.7, I”m going to wonder what happened in chapters 1-6. Is there the story really begins? If so, then you gotta lotta backstory. The problem with sending a Ch. 7 is that we have no reference point in which to fully appreciate the chapter. Each chapter builds on the previous one, and we’re missing that background. It’s like telling someone the punchline to a joke and then wondering why the other guy isn’t laughing hysterically. Well, what was the lead-in?

That’s why we like the first three chaps.

Wrong focus?

The Big Reveal will help you answer whether you’ve focused on the wrong things. Try to remember that our tinfoil hats are invariably in our other purses, so the only thing we have to go on is what you tell us. That’s why your query letter is so important.

I have no choice but to take your pitch at face value. When I’m interested in a story, I invariably ask for a proposal that includes the chapter outlines. Those are very important to me because it’s a snapshot of your book. While I’m reading the chapter outlines, I have your pitch still rumbling around in my head.

The word of the day is consistency. If I see that your chapter outline supports your pitch, then I feel confident that you haven’t derailed your literary train. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way…

What happened in those first chapters?

Let’s use an example. I had a case a few months ago where an agent was selling her author’s book proposal and the only chap the author had written was chapter 15. After reading the chapter, I went back to the pitch, and sure ‘nuf, this chap matched it beautifully. The problem was, I instantly wondered why she wrote chapter 15 and not the first three. What on earth did she write about in those first fourteen chapters that forced the arc so far downstream? Upon reading her chapter summary, I discovered that her previous fourteen chapters were all backstory.

Gah! There’s backstory – which can be very delicious in the hands of a professional – and then there are screeching, frightful nightmares.

I can’t sell backstory. I also can’t sell a book whose big arc happens in the last third of the book. Or even halfway. I can’t tell reviewers and readers, “If only you’d read to chapter 11, that’s where the book really picks up!” And yet I hear this very argument from authors more often than I should. Few readers are going to stick with a book that long.

My suggestion to the agent was to tell her author to decide what was most important: keep the chapter outlines as written – which didn’t match the pitch in the query letter (thus requiring a new pitch, which wasn’t marketable), or rewrite the chapter outline so it supports the pitch (which was very marketable).

What to do – The Big Reveal

Don’t let this happen to you. The Big Reveal is a good way to double check whether your story starts in the right place:

  • If you were asked to send pages, what chapters would you send? Obviously you want to send representative chapters, but if you’re tempted to send chapter 15, then you’re basically sending up red flags. You want green flags that represent a contract offer.
  • Are you comfortable sending your first three chapters? If you aren’t then you need to ask yourself why. What’s going on in those chapters? Is it supporting your main pitch? Or is it mostly backstory and the main ta da happens somewhere in Chapter 10?

Most of us want the first three chapters, so be prepared.

If the author I used in my example had asked herself these questions, she would have known she was in trouble and taken steps to fix it before it ever went out the door. As it turned out, she rewrote the chapter outlines and submitted them to me. It was much better and matched the pitch – which was the right move. However, I lost my faith in her ability to write a cohesive book and was unwilling to buy a book  based on a proposal, one chapter, and a vastly repaired chapter outline. I told the agent that if her author writes the book, that my door is always open.

So, you can see that a big misstep can result in defeat. It sucks. I realize this. But the other side of that coin is that I come by these decisions based on hard experience because I’ve had my lower forty burned more than once. Hopefully, you’ll perform your own Big Reveal and you’ll be able to look at your own manuscripts with fresh eyes so you don’t experience the same fate. Do the Big Reveal.

7 Responses to Sample pages – the big reveal

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I’ve always just assumed that sending the first three chapters is best. After all, that’s what the *reader* will see first.

  2. Ray says:

    It is amazing how many writers start with backstories that go on for chapters… We need to realize the plot starts now, and then we can weave the backstories into it. It’s like going to a party… you don’t want to have to learn everyone’s background and who their parents are and what kind of childhood they had before you have a drink and start having interesting conversations.

  3. GutsyWriter says:

    I’m assuming you’d also want the prologue to be sent with the first three chapters. After reading about sending Chapter 15, I was curious what my Chapter 15 is about. It’s called “Going Local” in Belize. I have a question. I checked your archives and could not find how you like a memoir synopsis to be written: first person present, first person past, third person present, third person past. I’ve read so many varying opinions on this topic which is so frustrating, especially as memoir always seems to be the “exception” to every other genre. Thanks for your help.

  4. Hi Gutsy,
    Personally, I’d like to see the prologue. Many editors and agents feel it shouldn’t be sent, so YMMV.

    As for how to write a memoir synopsis, whatever floats your boat. There is no right or wrong way – as long as you include the ABCs of Pitchdom:

    A) Intro the characters – most importantly what makes us empathize with him/her/them?
    B) Intro dilemma – What does s/he want? What does s/he discover? What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter? What terrible thing will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what terrible thing will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?
    C) Present teasers or resolutions

  5. Jo Murphey says:

    I can’t count the number of stories I’ve edited where I read until the beginning of the 4th chapter and go “Ah-ha! this is where the true story begins.” The author is usually heart broken, but they get over it when they realize that I am right.

    I’ve always submitted my first 3 to publishers and agents, back when I was searching for one. I actually focus harder on the first 3 than the rest of the story because that’s where everyone reaches the decision to keep on reading or chuck it. If they are generous.
    JL Murphey

  6. Ray says:

    The problem with focusing on the first 3 is that a lot of books fall flat after the first 3 chapters… everything is front-loaded to hook the agent/publisher. Of course, such a problem can be fixed in editing/rewrite, so I’m a bit baffled that the editors didn’t insist of reworking the chapters that follow the first 3… So what we get usually is BANG-BANG opening and then lukewarm middle until, say, Chapter 15.

  7. Thanks, Ray. You beat me to it. I have this happen to me all the time. The author puts all their blood, sweat, and tears into the first three chaps. I’ll ask for the full, and see that it falls apart in chapter 4 or 5.

    Authors must pay attention to EVERY chapter.

Tell me what you really think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: