Very reasonable question and definitely worth a blog post.
For those of you who don't know (and there can't be many): a normal submission contains the first three chapters, a pitch letter and the synopsis. Sometimes the publisher or agent's guidelines will ask for the first 10k words, or they'll say "Three chapters or 10k words". Obviously, chapters are all different lengths, so, if yours are really tiny, you might get away with sending four chapters. (Then you'd need to say, "I've included a fourth chapter because one is unusually short; the total length of these four chapters is under 10k words.") Publishers don't generally want more than 10k words, but if your chapters are very long, you are still supposed to send three chapters, unless they've said "no more than 10k" or "whichever is shorter". It sounds complicated but it really isn't. They are trying to show you how much they need to see in order to know if they want the rest. You just try to fit into those guidelines while wearing your sensible hat at all times.
I asked Andy how long his chapters were and he said, "Total 7,000 words for first three chapters which are labelled Autumn. Then Winter and the main story begins."
So, I can see why he's worried about the submission, because his three chapters are a pretty normal length and therefore there's no real leeway for sending a fourth. If the story doesn't kick off in the submission, that's by definition a weak submission.
Assuming that this is meant to be general/commercial fiction rather than a piece of high literary fiction, I'd say Andy has a problem, but it's a problem which is little to do with the rules of submissions and the restriction to three chapters. I'd say there's a problem with the story.
There's only one way that this won't be a problem: if the tension and writing in the first three chapters are so incredibly powerful that the reader is drawn relentlessly onwards even without much action having happened. But this is a huge risk and writers usually over-estimate the pulling power of their writing. Readers also don't react well to lots of increasingly irritating hints without some satisfaction occurring reasonably soon. (Think of the film Alien. Much of the film is taken up with suspense and us desperately wanting to see the creature. But this works because there has already been a very dramatic incident. Euuw. So, the story has already "got going". That's why you generally need big action/drama near the start.)
Forget the agent or publisher for a moment and forget the rules of submissions. Just think of the reader. Does the reader want to wait so long for the story to get going? Usually not. Yes, I know, there are well-known cases of books that don't get going for ages - Louis de Bernieres, I'm looking at you, you naughty man. But how many books are rejected because they don't? I have no idea about the answer to that but I'm guessing roughly eleventy million.
Do you really want to make it so difficult for a reader to get into your book? Do you really want to turn a load of readers off and make them put the book down? I will certainly put a book down (and not pick it up again or recommend it to someone else) if it doesn't grab me sooner than that.
So, I strongly suggest you look at how to make the beginning grip. Bearing in mind that I obviously haven't read the book and that not all these suggestions will be appropriate, here are the theoretical possibilities, which I offer for all writers facing this problem:
- Drastically shorten and then amalgamate the first three chapters into one.
- Alter the order of chapters so that the current C4 becomes C1, then re-fashion current C1-3 into a new timeframe, eg by the (careful) use of a flashback. I accept that your Autumn/Winter structure makes this impossible in this case, but it's commonly a way to do it. (Do be careful about flashbacks, though; they can detract from pace and tension and they can be irritating.)
- Consider whether C1-3 are in fact necessary at all. Begin at C4. This is surprisingly often the solution.