A member of the online writers’ group I participate in recently posted that she’d been advised by a friend never to include a Prologue as part of the chapters she sent to prospective literary agents. I worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for years and know and still work with many agents, but I have never heard this rule. I cautioned her that people giving this advice may be unduly influenced by the new author’s tendency to rely on a Prologue – learning where to begin your novel can be difficult, and it’s common for new, inexperienced writers to feel nervous that readers won’t “get” their set-up, so they create Prologues that explain far more than necessary. They end up over-telling the story before it’s even begun!
While you certainly don’t want to send a sample with a weak opening to a prospective agent, unless the submission guidelines specify otherwise you should send the first three sequential chapters or fifty pages. It doesn’t matter if this amounts to a Prologue and two chapters or three regular chapters – what is important is that you send the actual opening of your novel. I had a client recently who wanted to send the first chapter of his novel, one from the middle, and one from the end. He felt that the story didn’t gel until midway through, and feared that sending the first three chapters would not impress readers enough. I strongly encouraged him to abandon this plan, and the reason why is also the explanation for why sending the Prologue (if you have one) is not only important, but critical.
Most potential book buyers will browse for books in a certain way: the cover or title catches the eye, the back cover/jacket copy is intriguing, and then the first couple of skimmed pages seem to deliver on the promise of the marketing lures. Book reviewers and media personnel (like the folk who decide which writers will appear as guests on their bosses’ TV shows) similarly will give a book anywhere from just the first paragraph to the whole first chapter a chance to grab them. Editors know this, and literary agents know that editors know this. It is the primary reason why the openings of novels are so carefully scrutinized. So, as gatekeepers to the publishing world, agents ask to see the first few chapters in order to dip their toes into a manuscript. They know that if the first few chapters don’t grab them, then the novel won’t grab editors, reviewers, or readers, either.
If you are like my client and find yourself thinking, “The ending would have much more impact – it’s a real twist!” then consider this: if you feel at all hesitant to send the first three chapters of your novel, you should try to stave off the impatience that accompanies the submission process and spend more time working on your opening rather than choose a haphazard selection of chapters to send. And don’t worry if your incredibly original climax is not immediately clear from the way you begin: since most agents expect to see a synopsis as well as sample chapters (even if they don’t ask for it, you have a better chance of having them ask for your complete manuscript if you send one), your overall plot arc will be clear to them regardless of what happens in the first few chapters. It will give them some context and may help push an agent on the fence over to a willingness to read more.
Though the “rules” of publishing, particularly the submission process, may seem arbitrary, there are usually good reasons behind them. So remember, if you want to interest literary agents in representing your novel, you don’t need to show them the best outtakes. But you do need to hook them and reel ëem in quick. Your first few chapters must be gripping, interesting, and compelling enough to make the agent want to keep reading. They should introduce your protagonists and show the agent that you have a good handle on natural-sounding dialogue, well developed settings, and the appropriate pace or tone for your genre. If they don’t accomplish these goals, the agent won’t bother asking for more material, no matter how great the promise of that plot twist.
Ally E. Peltier is an editor, writer, and publishing consultant. She is also a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of places, including Circle magazine, Funds for Writers newsletter, and J3tlag.com. She divides her time between New York City and Maryland. Learn more at http://www.ambitiousenterprises.com.