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.
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.