Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Submitting Writing Samples Q & A

by Cat Woods

You've written your manuscript, polished your query and gathered a list of your ten favorite agents to submit to. Should be simple, right? Just type in their addresses and hit send.

But, wait! There's more. Some agents want a synopsis, while others want a sample. Some may want both. Now what?

Send what is asked for. No more, no less. Agents are busy. They can receive upwards of 300-1,000 submissions a week. They don't have time to fiddle around with writers who don't follow the rules and who don't respect their time. They want a quick query to catch their attention and a smattering of sample pages to see if you can deliver what you promised. A table of contents or a synopsis is often requested to show the arc of a body of work. In other words, they want to know if your story makes sense.

Still, even when guidelines are spelled out, writers are often left with questions on what, exactly, to send.


Q1–Agent Awesome wants the first ten pages. Which ten pages should I send?
A1–The first ten. The absolute very first ten pages of prose you want your readers to read. If you have a prologue, start on page one of your prologue.

Q2–"But," you argue, "my prologue isn't my story. I don't even talk about it in the query letter."
A2–Then why do you have a prologue? If it doesn't enhance the story and doesn't provide an enticing place to start, then you might want to reconsider keeping it. While the issue of prologues is widely debated, my answer remains the same as above. Send the absolute very first ten pages of prose you want your readers to read.

Q3–Chapter one is kind of slow. I like chapter two much better. Can I start my first ten pages with chapter two?
A3–Hell no. If chapter one is boring, ditch it. If the action starts in chapter two and your MC is rockin' pages 12-27, those might just be your first chapter after all. If you don't want to read it, why would an agent want to read it?

Q4–Agent Incredible wants the first ten pages. Do I stop at the bottom of page ten even though it's mid-sentence?
A4–Do chickens have lips? (For non-farm readers, that would be a no.) I recommend picking the strongest ending closest to ten pages as possible. If your chapter ends on page twelve, send the first twelve pages. If your chapter ends on page eight, why not stop there? If, however, you have long winded chapters, don't drag the first ten pages out to twenty-seven. Simply find the strongest ending within the ten page range—-give or take two or three on either side—and send those.

Q5–Uber Agent allows writers to send the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. My chapters are only twelve pages long. Where should I stop?
A5–Whichever gets the most quality writing in front of his eyes. Here's the deal, if an agent is still enthusiastically reading at the end of page thirty-six, he will keep reading to page fifty if it's in front of him.

Q6–Super Duper Agent X has like four different sample policies. Her agency website states queries only, while her personal blog says she'll take the first ten pages. Yesterday, I noticed a tweet from her stating she would take the first fifty pages, but her Facebook page says three chapters. What do I do?
A6–Refer to A5. Get as much of your story in front of her face as you can while still respecting the information out there and Super Duper Agent X's time.

Q7–Do I end my first fifty pages at fifty or can I send 52? What if I only send 48?
A7–Always send as much of your story as you respectfully can while stopping in the best, most cliff-hangy spot you can. Your sample is a sales pitch. If you end right in the middle of a cry-baby fest on page fifty, Agent Awesome may not feel as compelled to request more as he would have if you ended on page forty-eight with your MC clutching a butter knife while hiding from the antag's sneaking, AK-47-toting shadow. Sell your story. Because if you don't, no one else will.

Q8–How do I send my writing sample?
A8–Unless otherwise instructed, paste it into the body of an email. Business Spam Filters eat attachments for lunch. Viruses keep agents from opening many attachments from unknowns. Because of this, your safest bet in ensuring that your manuscript sample will arrive in Uber Agent's inbox is to paste it. But, paste it simply because many formatting options get bungled up when emailing.

Q9–What other ways might an agent request me to send a writing sample?
A9–Usually only snail mail or an attachment if they're expecting it. In the good old days, I've sent disks. But that was waaaay back when. R.C. sneaks in to add, "Several agencies now have an uploading option on their websites, so you submit your query and sample using their electronic form. Follow their instructions."

Q10–I'm writing nonfiction. Which chapters should I send?
A10–Typically, your three or four strongest ones. When submitting a nonfiction proposal, you will need to have a detailed table of contents instead of a synopsis. Chapters do not have to be consecutive. Rather, they should highlight the arc of the book if possible.

Q11–I'm writing fiction. Which chapters should I send?
A11–Start with chapter one and end with the third chapter or page ten or page fifty. Never, ever send pages out of order. Not even if you're sending snail mail. And don't turn one page backwards in the middle of your submission to "check" on whether an agent/editor read the entire thing. These tricks are sure signs of unprofessionalism and agents and editors typically steer clear of unprofessional writers.

Q12–I write children's books and like to make dummies. Should I send that with my story?
A12–Nope. Agents and editors with an interest in juvenile lit have an instinctive feel for page breaks—the purpose of a dummy—so your vision isn't necessary to help them make a decision. If anything, it looks amateurish and can detract from your story.

Q13–I write children's books and have illustrated some of it. Should I send my illustrations?
A13–NOPE. Publishing houses often work with a stable of illustrators. Publishing houses often have very different illustration ideas than authors. Publishing houses rarely consult authors on the visual end of a picture book project. So, unless you are a professional illustrator, do not send illustrations.

Q14–My manuscript is single spaced, but I just learned that agents expect them double spaced. Do I double space my ten pages and send the seventeen, or do I double space first and only send the first ten?
A14–Whenever we submit, we should always have our manuscripts formatted properly. In essence, this means one inch margins, Times New Roman, double spaced. Do this formatting first and send your pages accordingly.

As a side note: we can waffle all day long over ten pages versus twelve pages or three chapters versus five chapters, but at the end of the day, it's the quality of your writing that will determine how many of those pages Agents A-Z read. If your first paragraph sucks, Agent Awesome will not read all forty-eight pages just because you sent them. Likewise, if your writing is utterly and completely amazing, Agent Z will keep reading to page twelve even if he requested only the first ten.

So, provide ample opportunity for an agent/editor to read your sample while still respecting her time and guidelines. Act like a professional and you'll be treated like one. And, please, send only the best first pages you have—no matter how many there are.

For more on how to polish your manuscript into submission readiness, check out Noah Lukeman's writing bible: THE FIRST FIVE PAGES.

What submission guidelines questions do you have? What tips do you have for sending sample pages to potential agents/editors?

When Cat Woods isn't polishing her own writing samples or pondering the exact science of the publishing industry, she can be found blogging at Words from the Woods or moderating at AgentQuery Connect.


SC Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SC Author said...

Thanks! This gave me a headache before, especially when I had a prologue and a boring first two/two-and-a-half chapters and simply HAD to keep them in. But I didn't want to send them to agents ;) I even 'apologized' to an agent by saying, "I know it reads like sci-fi, but it's really fantasy."

The story must be told how it should, so the boring stuff was cut out of my MS :) Querying, I have to say, really did wonders for my MS in terms of revising.

Cat Woods said...


Thanks for sharing your experiences here. I know you're not alone in the learning curve of querying and hearing from others first hand can help us feel more comfortable as we make the choices we need to succeed.

Best luck with your querying and your writing journey!

Anonymous said...

After pasting my double-spaced pages into email and sending it, it becomes single spaced for Uber-Agent.I've tried stripping the formatting out, sending it to myself and fixing it(only to have it return to single space after sending).Short of retyping my pages into the email every time, what can I do to keep it double-spaced?

Jean Oram said...

Noah Lukeman's book is AMAZING. It taught me so much about writing. It isn't long and boring, nor expensive. There is no reason every newbie doesn't own a copy. Seriously.

Great help in the post, Cat. That really answers a lot, a lot, a lot of questions!

Kel Heinen said...

While exploring the page at an agency I'd like to query, I saw this as part of their submission guidelines:

"Paragraph One - Introduction: Include the title and category of your work (i.e. fiction or nonfiction and topic), an estimated word count and a brief, general introduction."

What do they mean by a brief, general introduction? Is that my hook? Or a "hey, here's my story and it's about..."? *confused*

Cat Woods said...

Jean, I haven't read Lukeman's book myself, but have heard raving reviews from my fellow scribes about it. Maybe I need to actually sit down and read past the first five pages of the First Five Pages.

Cat Woods said...


Actually, sending a double spaced anything in an email isn't the prettiest. Whenever I paste something into an email, I single space within a paragraph and double space for paragraph breaks.

Also, don't indent your paragraphs, as it can look messy in an email. Rather, stick to the more formal block text with lots of white space to help your agents and editors stay sane!

Hope this helps.

Cat Woods said...

Hey, Kel.

Thanks for asking your question. I'm not 100% sure without looking at the rest of the submission guidelines what this specific agency is looking for.

However, using their format request, I would have my first paragraph look something like this:

Dear Super Agent:

After following your blog for two years (or whatever personal connection or reason you may have for querying said agent), I feel as if my humorous MG novel (insert genre and potential age group here) may be right for your agency. At 27,000 words, HUMOROUS MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL (which is actually your title) takes young readers on a camp mystery where paranormal is actually normal.

Then I would go on to hook the agent with a dazzling sentence or two of my very best stuff followed by a mini synopsis and the very briefest paragraph about myself.

Conversely, you could add the tiny, yet relevant bits about yourself in the intro paragraph. It's totally up to you, and I don't think there is only one right way to do this.

I know that doesn't always help, but hopefully my comment can spark something creative to get you moving in the right direction.

Best luck with this and thanks for commenting.


Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent advice, Cat! Treading those query waters can be scary - these tips are great :)

Cat Woods said...

Thanks, Jemi.

I think the problem is that we want to write a blanket submission using the magic formula so we can send of submission package after submission package after submission package without spending more time on it.

We often fail to realize that the world of publishing is very nuanced. We have unique writers pitching unique manuscripts to unique agents who want to sell to unique editors. The combinations are endless when it comes to each individual project making it very difficult to create a one size fits all package.

In the end, the process can be time consuming and frustrating.

Jacqueline Allen said...


I've just started on the 'query road' & I'm wishing that I'd sent submissions to so so agents first rather than my preferred dream ones.

Looking back on my first few queries I didn't put enough meat & hook into my mini synopsis. I'm still waiting for responses but they could have been a lot better.

Also I'm half way through having my MS proof read. If I get a full request back I'm either going to have to put pressure on my reader to finish it in a rush or send in something that has typos.

These are common traps for new players I suppose.....

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