When deadlines go whooshing by

The author was firm, she would get her chapters to me by thus and such time. No problemo. However, last week the beagle commented that the date had come and whooshed right on by. Before I could weep and blow my nose, she quickly offered up a fresh margarita.

No, this wasn’t a manuscript I was expecting from one of our authors. It was the first three chapters of a nonfiction query that had piqued my interest. The one chapter she sent was pretty good, but I needed more, hence my request for the first three chaps. She didn’t have them written, but she was working on the latter part of the book, so could she send those chapters? No, I replied. I really need to see how the story unfolds. We agreed on a date, and I went on my merry way.

When she wrote me after her due date had melted away and apologized for missing her deadline, I decided I was growing less enamored with the whole thing, and here’s why:


If you are going to query, you need to think ahead. Will an editor buy a book based on one chapter or the full book? If you have an amazing platform, or are a celebrity, then the usual answer would be yes – a chapter or two will suffice. However, if you have no platform, no previous publications, no discernible readership, then editors are far less likely to bite after one or two chapters.

Look at it from our perspective; the more we have, the better able we are to judge your writing abilities. Without a track record, we have no idea how the story is organized, or how effective the ending is.

It’s true deals are struck for debut authors based on an unfinished manuscript, but those are the exceptions to the rule; not the norm. Be prepared. If you really want to sell your book, then you’d be wise to have at least five chapters written – preferably the whole thing. The more an editor has, the easier it is to determine your talent.

Again, looking at it from our side of the desk, it’s frustrating to asked for pages only to be told, “Um, can you wait ’til I write ’em?” It exposes your lack of preparation.

The Question of Commitment

If you’re not prepared, then I might consider how committed you are to your book. And if you blow a deadline, then I really question your commitment. I know life gets in the way of writing and such, and I’m usually pretty cool about it. But if you don’t have more than one or two chapters written and you blow the deadline in getting the promised subsequent chapters to me, I’ll have a talk with the beagle about whether you’re as committed to your book as you let on.

If I doubt your commitment, my initial excitement for your book will wane. I can’t be the only one who’s excited.

Strike When the Fire’s Hot/Early Bird Catches the Worm

What you’re doing when you query and have your chapters all ready to go is striking when the fire is hot. I’m all jazzed about your book and looking forward to what you have to offer. When you tell me you don’t have any other chapters, or that you’ll get them to me and then fail to do so, that fire grows a bit colder. The longer you put me off, the colder my fire grows. If you’re eager to sell your story, then it’s not a good idea to make an editor wait while you get up to speed.

Case in point, I had an author whose book looked interesting based on the synopsis and chapter they’d sent. I asked for the full. She didn’t have it. Ok, sez me, how ’bout the first three chapters? Um, she replies, can I write them and get them to you? Sigh. Ok.

So while she was off writing her other two chapters, I received a submission from an author whose book was similar to the other one. Send me the first three chapters, I ask. No problemo, sez she. I loved it and requested the full, which she had. I offered her a contract for publication. Meanwhile, Author #1 sent me her chapters two months later. Sorry, I wrote back, I already signed an author whose book is akin to yours. Author #1 was caught snoozing, and Author #2 caught the proverbial worm.

Writing Order

I understand writing a book out of order, believe it or not, because I write this way. I’m convinced it’s because Mom dumped me on my head when I was a wee bairn. And as much as I love to write out of order, I would never consider querying my book unless I had the front end in the bag.

Another case in point was when I asked an author for his first three chapters. “How’s about chapter one, fifteen, and twenty?” he replied. Um. No, that doesn’t work for me because I can’t help but wonder what happened in between chapter one and fourteen. Is it all a boring blur? Does the book not pick up until chapter fifteen?

Go ahead and write out of order to your heart’s content, but don’t imagine the lot of us will be thrilled to read them. Most of us want/need to see how you organize the story and unfold the plot. So much of the story has blown by in chapter fifteen, that I have no frame of reference. I can’t tell if it’s a good chapter or filled with holes the size of the beagle’s margarita glass.

Most of us will request the first three chapters, so it’s a good idea to have them ready to go.

At the end of the day, my feeling will be that you’re suffering from premature submitulation because you’ve queried me and whetted my appetite, but you have practically nothing to show for it.

The idea is to present yourself in a manner that enhances your success. If you’re committed to your book, then what do you have to lose by actually writing it…especially if you’re a debut author with no platform or established readership? And if an editor or agent is nice enough to grant you time to write those chappies that you should have already written, don’t let that deadline whoosh by because you may find yourself staring at your own backside.


I failed to mention that if you’re writing fiction, it MUST be complete. I know of very few agents and editors who will entertain looking at an unfinished manuscript. Over the years, I’ve received a number of queries for fiction where the authors only had a few chaps written. This is an instant, sudden death rejection.

6 Responses to When deadlines go whooshing by

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Of course, the converse to this has to be the writer who polishes the first three chapters to death…

    …then there’s the rest.

  2. For fiction I was always under the impression not to even think of querying until the whole thing was as polished as I could make it. The thought of being asked for chapters I haven’t yet written brings me out in a cold sweat…

  3. You’re right, Sarah, fiction really needs to be complete. I know of very few agents or editors who would entertain signing an author based on an unfinished manuscript. But that isn’t to say it hasn’t happened.

    That said, I have received a number of queries where the author only had a few chapters completed of their fiction. I’ll go in and edit my post to reflect this. Thanks for the prod!

  4. Steven says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. As an aspiring non-fiction author, I have read elsewhere that some agents and editors prefer a query letter followed (hopefully!) by a well-developed proposal over the classic query letter with few sample chapters. Based upon the above blog post, would you suggest to authors interested in querying you that they focus on writing the actual book rather than putting that time and effort into a solid proposal?

    It seems as though each agent or editor has different idea of what’s next after the query, at least for non-fiction.

  5. Hi Steven. First and foremost, always look at the submission guidelines of those you intend to query. In the US, the norm is to send a query letter, where you would state that you have a proposal prepared. The usual reply, if the agent or editor is interested, is, “please send me your proposal and first three chapters.”

    It isn’t mandatory that your nonfiction be complete, but I am suggesting that a good way to enhance your success would be to complete it – especially if you’re a debut author with no established readership.

    Besides, in this day and age, it doesn’t make sense NOT to complete it. Time was books were sold based on partial completion in order to get a large enough advance to allow the author time and money to complete the book. Those parameters don’t exist so much these days. All things being equal, I’ll take the completed book because I have better control over filling my slots.

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