Don’t Let the Cat Out of Your Literery Bag Too Soon


An agent queried me with a terrific sounding book. Then I read the two chapters she sent me. They were rough. The subject matter was a tug-at-the-heart-and-take-no-prisoners, yet the voice was distant and disconnected, almost like a journalist’s accounting for Dry As Cardboard Weekly.

I wrote back to the agent with my comments about the lack of emotional appeal, and asked if there were more chapters because the subject matter was so compelling. Alas, the book had only those chapters, however the author was in the process of writing more chapters, and would I be interested in seeing them in a couple weeks? Sigh.

The agent let the literary cat out of the bag too soon, and didn’t have anything to back it up. I’ve already seen the chapters and complained about them, so what makes me believe some hastily written chapters will change my mind?

There is nothing worse than having an interested editor and not being able to provide, and here’s why:

First Chapters Danger Zone

I know you’re eager, and it’s not at all unusual to sell a nonfiction work based on a few chapters, but there is so much that can go wrong, and this is what I call the First Chapters Danger Zone.

You’re asking three chapters to do a lot of heavy lifting. Everything hinges on roughly 50 pages, so those pages need to rock.

  • The narrative needs to be lyrical and articulate.
  • The dialog needs to be snappy.
  • The pacing has to strike the perfect balance.
  • The tone and writing style needs to match the subject matter. For instance, if you have a story about beagle rescues, then your tone needs to be emotional and the writing style has to be open and approachable in order draw the reader into the story.
  • Your characters have to be so well developed that the reader instantly engages with them and their story.

Blow any one of these, and it’s a rejection. Simple reason being, you haven’t given me enough to sink my teeth into, so it’s easy to give it a pass. I’m not invested enough to care.

Offer to Quickly Write More Chapters

Let’s say I ask for more chapters – as I did with the example above – and there aren’t any written, but you’re more than willing to write some quickly and get them to me. Depending on the strength of those first chapters, I’ll either say fine, or no thanks – and here’s why:

Lack of Faith: If your first chapters are pretty weak and don’t hit the criteria I mentioned above, then I don’t have faith that subsequent chapters will be any better.

Hurry Hurry Rush Rush: In the eleven years I’ve been doing this, I have yet to see many authors who could quickly crank out subsequent chapters that rocked. Imagine having your agent call you and tell you that an editor wants to see more. You don’t have more. Yikes! Bite your nails down to the quick…then grab your laptop, five gallons of coffee, and some chocolate laced with uppers, and begin writing.

The whole time you’re writing and foregoing sleep, that wicked voice is screeching like a banshee loaded on dexedrine: HURRY THE HELL UP! THAT EDITOR NEEDS THESE CHAPTERS YESTERDAY! SHE’S INTERESTED!!!!! YAHOO!!!!!!!!! CAN’T WAIT TO TELL MOM I SOLD MY BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FINALLY, I’M GOING TO BUY GREECE AND LIVE IN LUXURY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is your writing at your literary peak under those circumstances? Experienced writers know what they’re capable of under most circumstances. Debut authors haven’t been in this position before, so they have a stronger tendency to send inferior chapters that end up killing the entire deal.

Long story short – nothing good comes from hurry hurry rush rush.

The Incomplete Manuscript Blues

The road of the incomplete manuscript is fraught with trolls and vampires…and snarly editors.

Not Planning Ahead: If you’re trying to sell a work based on a few chapters, you need to consider that an editor may want to see a bit more. Do have “more,” or will you have to barf it out in record time if someone asks?

Who Are You?: If you don’t have some sort of public presence, then I don’t have much to go on in terms of knowing how well readers may accept your book. Are you a debut author who doesn’t have any other books that I can read in order to see your complete writing? The less I know about you, the less willing I am to take a chance on you with a scant three chapters. How do I know the rest of your book will rock? How do I know you have what it takes to organize a book in an entertaining manner? We have no concrete way of knowing how your book will end. A detailed chapter outline only goes so far.

Publishers spend a ton of money, and they need as much of a sure thing as they can realistically get. If they’re on the fence about a three-chapter submission, it’s easier to say no than yes. Are you willing to gamble with your career like that?

Subsequent Problems With Selling a Partial

Tailor Made: An author sent me her first chapters and said she didn’t finish the manuscript on purpose so she could tailor it to my recommendations. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell an author how to write their book. An editor’s job is to read a manuscript and make suggestions to make it better – nor does an editor have that kind of time. This is not a compelling justification for not completing your manuscript.

Underperformance: Over the years I’ve bought books based on a few chapters and a detailed chapter outline, and twice I ended up cancelling the project because the finished product simply didn’t live up to the first chapters. The rest of it fell apart. Since that time, I’m gun shy…and I’m not the only editor out there who is. We’ve all been disappointed at one time or another.

Time:  Authors have oodles of time to spend on those first chapters that are slated to go out for query. They have tweaked and perfected to the point of fabulosity (we hope). If they’re a debut author of memoir, chances are they haven’t written a full-length book before, so no one really knows if they can or not. Now you have a deadline AND figuring out how/if you can write a book.

Writing against a deadline is daunting, and debut authors don’t realize this until they’re knee-deep in the process. It takes buckets of time, and they end up turning in what is basically their first draft because they were in a rush to meet their deadline. May I be honest here? First drafts suck stale Twinkie cream. First drafts are you telling yourself the story, and I would rather eat a rusty razorblade than edit a first draft. In fact, I won’t. A turn-in ready manuscript needs to have many revisions before it’s ready for human consumption…assuming editors are human, that is.

And face it, second and third drafts are pretty rough stuff, too.

Adding to the deadline pressure is that your editor has slated your book to release in a certain season, and all their marketing and promotion is based on that date. Changing that season is akin to melting granite, and I guarantee editors will drink engine grease if you turn in a rough piece of work that requires huge chunks of editing time and huge chunks of rewrites that threaten meeting that release date.

Been there, done that. It’s why my hair color comes out of a bottle and I mainline cheap gin.

In short, if you really want to sell your book, then why not finish it? Not letting the cat out of the bag too soon could be the difference between a yes and a no thanks.

Any of you have reasons for not finishing your book?

2 Responses to Don’t Let the Cat Out of Your Literery Bag Too Soon

  1. tbrosz says:

    Thanks for a very informative article! It’s a long tradition that you should be able to sell non-fiction on the basis of an incomplete manuscript and a proposal, but if I were a new author selling a non-fiction book, I’d be a lot more confident if I actually finished it first.

    I also suspect you’re not the only non-fiction publisher nowadays who thinks a completed work might be more attractive than just a proposal and a promise.

    If the author already has a couple of good sellers under his belt, that’s a different story.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    Every time I read one of these “don’t be an idiot” posts (I may be adding editorial input there) directed at writers, I am shocked that writers actually do these things. Who in the world thinks a first draft is publishable?

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