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.
SAMPLE PAGES Q & A WITH CAT WOODS
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.