Out of order chapters

Dear Miss Snark,

When sending sample chapters with a query, is it acceptable to send non-consecutive chapters if an agent hasn't posted a rule stating otherwise?

My concern is that while chapters 1-3 of my comic novel are funny, they're not representative of the full-tilt depraved craziness that kicks in around page 50.

Instead of sending chapters 1-3, could I send chapters 1 & 2, then, say, sexy chapter 10 with a small bridge paragraph preceding it?


This kind of thing makes me NUTS. If I get stupid ass shit like this I STOP READING at chapter 2.

First, if you're any kind of writer, I won't know what the HELL is going on in chapter 10 if I haven't read 3-9. If I CAN understand chapter 10 you might consider writing for Days of Our Hives or other soapy formats.

Second, oh there is no second, just do not do this.



Kit Whitfield said...

Another reason why it's a good idea to send the first chapters is that, odds are, those are the chapters that people will read in the bookshop to decide whether or not they want to buy the book. Hence, the agent needs to know if they're engaging or not.

If you are't happy with the first chapters, they'll need rewriting anyway. But if they're funny, then that should be fine. I'm only guessing here, but I suspect that one reason why your book gets into 'full-tilt craziness' around page 50 is that it takes 50 pages to set up the situation enough that disrupting it becomes funny. In which case, without reading the first 50 pages, the agent won't fully get the joke.

Readers will read the first 50 pages first unless they're very eccentric, so go with those. Good luck...

Philippa said...

Why do you want to do this?

When your book is published, do you think you'll be able to put a sticker on the front cover saying 'Readers are advised to read chapters one and two then skip to chapter ten where the action really gets going.'

Your prospective agent is a reader. If s/he isn't engaged by chapters one to three, how do you know a book-buyer will be?

Heidi the Hick said...

I knew my book wasn't ready to send yet when I wanted to send the third and fourth chapter instead of the first and second.

I fixed up 1st and 2nd but then I realized that the second chapter was better.

It's chapter one now!

Anonymous said...

Maybe your novel just needs to start at Chapter 10. Just sayin'.

Ryan Field said...

I've always believed this was a standard practice (Miss Snark's reply), and then the other day I receive this from an editor: "We would be interested in seeing a short excerpt that reflects the conflict within the story."

And that's exactly what I sent. But having worked as an editor, I don't think I would have requested material this way.

G said...

This is a ridiculous practice. I'm not suggesting you go against what they ask for, but the idea that starting at page one every time gives the reader a better understanding of the overall book is not always true, especially when you then cut them off at page ten. Guess that's what a synopsis is for.

It's this notion that books have to pack big thrills into the first few pages to get noticed that disturbs me. This is why we write books, because we have 300 pages and several evenings of someone's time to weave a rich tale that develops at a slower pace, instead of a 90-minute film with explosions before the title cards. We don't have to "hook" people in that sense. Not that it's an excuse to be boring, but the first couple of chapters might be a lot more expository than plotty or flowery.

I disagree about bookstore browsers, doubting most flip to page one to see if they like you. No, they peep a blurb, maybe the inside flap, and then probably scan some random paragraphs in the middle to feel out the prose.

I'd be sure your intro is strong and representative, but if the reader already knows what the story is about, I wish they'd let me send them a brilliant Chapter Three than a fluffy Chapter One, especially with nonlinear structure where the third is more like the beginning. This is a writing sample. Even an iTunes Store sample starts :30 into the song so that you can hopefully catch part of the chorus before time runs out.

Anonymous said...

This is sound advice for fiction, but what about non-fiction?

Since it is sold on proposal, many guides recommend you write the first chapter and then another chapter that reflects a different part of the book. I have seen agent websites specifically detail to carefully choose what chapters you send. My book has two sections, so I wrote chapter 1 and then a chapter of section 2.

If an agent does not specify when requesting two non-fiction chapters, can I still send these two separate chapters, or is this utter nitwittery?

Scott said...

G: I suppose you may be right for certain types of fiction. But I suspect that mystery/thriller/genre readers like to start with a pop. Myself, I do read the first few pages to see if I like the style, can get into the story, etc.

angrylil'asiangirl said...

calling things "stupid ass shit" when they're stupid ass shit is one of the things i respect about miss snark.

i read this blog just for my daily dose of that.

Julia said...


If chapter 1 is fluffy and chapter 3 is brilliant. You should kill off chapters 1 and 2 and start with 3.

Just saying

G said...

Julia, I'm not so much hung up about the quality or evenness of the writing, I'm more talking about how what comes first in a book is not always indicative of the rest of the work. I'd rather submit a "representative sample." I don't think as many people would've bought Dark Side of the Moon or 1984 after judging the opening minute.

angrylil'asiangirl said...

g's statements are a reminder of why it is meaningless to pursue the purposes driving authorial intent.

sort of.

as a literary scholar, i learned that it is a pointless endeavor to try to understand or pinpoint what an author's intent is behind pursuing a particular theme or using a particular literary device.

g's comments illustrate an issue on the other side of the coin: an author who does not intend to introduce even the beginnings of a story's conflict in the first coupla pages and chapters but still thinks those introductory pages/chapters will be entertaining/interesting/whatever to the reader.

all's i know is, as your typical reader at large, that when i buy a book, the first few pages should at least be related to the back cover's summary. if the back cover says something like "insecure jane, as the middle child of her family, is unhappy with her overbearing parents and bullying siblings until the day she meets mr. x who introduces her to glorious murder and mayhem," then, even if mr. x doesn't get introduced until page 2031, i still expect the first chapter or so to show jane in all her insecure glory or to accurately reflect that description of her family or show why an intervention of mr. x will be a welcome or unwelcome invasion into that existence.

the best books do that. case in point: henry miller's tropic of cancer. the opening chapter says, "people are like lice. they get under your skin and bury themselves there. you scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you can't get permanently deloused." and the whole novel is totally fixated on this theme. awesome book!

re: g's reference to dark side of the moon

as in pink floyd's masterpiece album??

imho, that opening sequence for the first song on there is absolutely awesome and fitting for the entire concept of that album. i don't see how it can be considered extraneous or there-just-for-the-sake-of-being-there, filler music. most of pink floyd's albums in the post-barrett era are entirely mood albums; dark side is no different. and as a lover of all their albums, i can't think of a single one where a song detracted or didn't at least go along with the overall theme of the album. . . .

so i don't get it.

G said...

I'm not saying Dark Side's opening isn't fitting or brilliant – I think it's perfect – just that it's musique-concrete, sound effects and whatnot that doesn't precisely allude to the melodic brilliance that follows. Same with 1984 (Van Halen), it's a long, droning solo synth. Sorry, first examples I could think of.

Maybe your books starts off with some gimmicky medical report, or a written letter in a third-party voice. Stuff like that.

Kit Whitfield said...

One thing worth remembering is that a writer's style is an important factor. I don't necessarily mean that all novelists have to be amazing stylists - but they do have to be able to string a sentence together, in a way that can be understood, can be read without pain, and will make readers want to read the next one. That, you can tell from the first chapter.

Presumably the agent will request the rest of the book if she likes the first three chapters, so she can see how the plot pans out if you get to that stage. But one thing she'll be checking out is simply whether the author can, at the most fundamental level, actually write. That'll be evident in the first chapters.

Linda said...

There's a reason why the agents ask for the first three chapters. Many writers waste these chapters trying to warm up into the story--they introduce all the characters, explain the backstory, might do a flashback or two, but never start the story itself. This is so common it's why writing books start out with advice like "Throw out the first fifty pages."

You don't need to start with a big bang in the first chapter, but you do need to show that the story is moving forward and something interesting is happening.

Sally said...

My friend is planning to do this. She told me, "I'm going to buck tradition and send the most interesting chapters; to heck with the rules." She fears that the first three chapters are rather dull and the action doesn't kick in until chapter 8 (which is her "favorite" chapter), so why not send her "best chapters" out?

I've given up trying to reason with her.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Of course, Chapter 14 is always the exception to the rule. ;)

Andrew said...

About the Dark Side of the Moon comparison, I think there are two things that differ:

1. An album of music is not the same as a novel. Even a concept album, which has a focused flow, still has separate songs that can stand outside of the album. People's first exposure to DSOTM could have been hearing "Money" on the radio, and they'd decide to buy the album based on that. However, very few people get exposed to novels on the basis of overhearing a chapter in the middle of the book. Perhaps a short story, and if you were querying a collection of short stories you might send a story from the middle of the book... but then, if you're querying short stories, you need all the luck you can get.

2. Dark Side of the Moon was Pink Floyd's eighth album. They had a fan base who was willing to listen to their new stuff and get into it. As beginning writers, we don't have that. If a new Stephen King novel starts with a long confusing experimental chapter, King's readers will read through it eagerly, to get to the good stuff. As a new writer, you want to put the hit single first.

Shouga Tea said...

Heidi the Hick said: "I knew my book wasn't ready to send yet when I wanted to send the third and fourth chapter instead of the first and second."

Seriously; the fact that my first chapter of my superhero-antics masterwork isn't representative bothers me muchly. It's something I'm fighting. Don't go down like a lily-livered cop-out...inflict damage till you're out!
Okay. I just mean, this is not a good thing. And I know where you're coming from, but it's not good.

Dave said...

Listen to Miss Snark!

then you can marry young girls. Or,
since you are a proven comic genius, you can play a japanese detective movie out of order, backwards, sideways and any way you can arrange the scenes.
DUB idiotic dialog into it and call it WHAT's UP Tiger Lily!

But if you have no track record, no published novel. Then Listen To Miss Snark.

Alternatively, you can pick up a book and read three chapters out of order to see if it makes any sense!

It doesn't, it won't and it can't

And music is not prose. Poetry is not music. Prose is not poetry.
Is is not not is (as the poet says)

Listen to Miss Snark!

angrylil'asiangirl said...

in g's defense, dark side of the moon is a good analogy for what s/he was trying to explain. i totally understand what s/he was trying to say. i mean, it was a totally bull-shit argument --

but i still give it, eh, 2 out of four stars.

G said...

Good points, Andrew; they are very different case studies, and music definitely isn't sold the same way. Maybe my iTunes analogy was more appropriate (if it's an unfamiliar artist).

I agree that your style/tone/skillz should be apparent from the beginning. I've really learned how challenging it is to maintain that voice consistency over a several-year project (when in first-person character, I mean, not just the writer's own generic POV).

So if a reader senses competence and enjoys my narrator's style in the page-one sample, they'll just have to trust that the plot is coming. I direct videos for a living, and look to books (and my own non-screen writing) to slow things down and dig deeper at my own pace.

Fuchsia Groan said...

I think too many literary novelists these days think it's necessary to put something stunning and shocking in the first chapter or even sentence, to entice the reader. I'm kind of getting tired of reading books that start with statements like "When I found the body, it was still warm." Yeah, whatever.

But when I browse a book, I do look for evidence of the writer's strong voice in the first paragraph. Nothing much happens on the first page of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections-- a prairie wind blows, a clock strikes--but he manages to describe it in such a way that you will know instantly whether you like his style or you don't. I suppose an agent should be able to tell the same from your first chapters (even first page).

Now, as a person who sometimes reads books for professional reasons that I wouldn't have chosen if left to my own devices, I know a great novel CAN have a flabby, uninspired beginning. Indecision is one title that comes to mind-- I was ready to put it down after the first chapter, but I ended up loving it. I guess some agent was more perceptive than I.

But... I know a woman who self-published a really, really excellent novel. An excellent novel with an awkward first chapter that didn't represent what was great about the book. I can't help thinking that if she'd changed the beginning, her two-year agent search might have paid off.

Andrew said...

That's a good point, Fuchsia. Perhaps beginning novelists think the only way to attract an agent's attention is with shock and awe, and either put an attempt at shock in the first paragraph, or are tempted to show agents the sixth chapter when the REALLY shocking stuff happens.

Yet agents have seen all the shocking stuff. When they read the first chapter, they're looking for whether you're able to competently write a first chapter. If they like the first chapter, then they'll read the whole thing and get the Chapter 6 shocker.

To get this done, the first chapter doesn't have to be mind-blowing. It just has to be good.