Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dear Crabbit: My story gets going in Ch4, so 3 sample chapters don't work for me

On Twitter recently, a writer, Andy Barratt, said, "1st 3 chapters of my book are short & more like a prologue, the story kicks off in the 4th & so lost in a submission. Help? :("

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:
  1. Drastically shorten and then amalgamate the first three chapters into one.
  2. 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.)
  3. Consider whether C1-3 are in fact necessary at all. Begin at C4. This is surprisingly often the solution.
Those are the usual three strategies. No 1 is the simplest, and probably the only one that will work in this case.

I'd add that almost* every single MS I've ever seen would benefit from a drastic cutting of the initial chapters anyway. (I only said "almost" because it seemed ridiculous and unbelievable otherwise; but I actually can't think of an MS that wouldn't have benefited from cutting.)

So, Andy, I do think you need to take action to make your beginning more gripping. If it's already very gripping despite lack of action, then you don't have a problem. But how confident are you that this is the case? If you are confident, and if you can't/won't shorten your 7k words into even two chapters, you could just add a fourth, with an explanation. But I'm pretty sure your book will be more likely to attract an agent or publisher if the story "gets going" far earlier than 7k words.

In fact, I recommend you make your story get going in the first 1-3 pages, somehow! Not just for the sake of the publisher or agent, but for the sake of the reader. You can still get a slow-starting book published, but the writing has got to be even better.
Don't forget, everything you need to know about creating the perfect submission is in my ebooks Dear Agent and Write a Great Synopsis. Both are available most cheaply and flexibly (all formats, for all devices, including computers) from my own online shop. For your info, buying ebooks from my own shop means that 100% of your payment goes direct to me, which is lovely for me and makes me like you even more, because I'm easily bought... AND you are allowed to print them out for your own use, using the pdf version. The advice is also in Write to be Published, in less detail, and that's available as print version (from my shop and elsewhere) and ebook (not in my shop).


Imran Siddiq said...

Agreed on getting the story going in the first 1-3- pages. In fact I often make a decision of whether to read on or not after the first 3.

Maybe the author considers their 4th chapter to be the fist 'real' action moment that propels the plot forwards - but there's no reason why they can't tease us with inner/outer conflict early on.

Giving some insight into the characters misgivings/failures/huge task and what they must overcome can be achieved in the first chapter.

If the first 3 chapters are almost like an extended prologue... then maybe those details need to be provided during the body as flashbacks, memories, or things we find out later on.

Rules are there to be broken, but when an agent requests 3, and you send 4 (no matter how sincere your plea) - it will leave a bad taste in the agent's mouth.

As Nicola states, make it compelling for the reader to invest rather than 'Please keep reeading because it'll get juicy'. Promises... promises...

Andy said...

Thanks Nicola!

My first three chapters are actually quite exciting, even the first few pages as you suggest. The main character however does not appear until the fourth, the scene and tension already set in Autumn. You've made me think that perhaps I should stop worrying that my main character hasn't been introduced, that hopefully my first three chapters are in fact enough to show what I'm aiming for.

Thanks for your advice, it's been really useful :)


Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Yep, I'm with Nicola, too.

On my first novel, I had to cut the first two chapters because the story didn't start until the third.

It takes some serious writing chops to keep a reader interested for three whole chapters before the plot starts. The most reliable way to keep the reader interested is to get to the meat of the story from the first chapter.

Imran Siddiq said...

I'm curious to see how it would work with the main character appearing in Ch 4.

Some readers might feel offended if they've invested in another character and then the POV changes. Though saying that, if you have multi-POV and a new character steps up to carry the novel it could work.

Is there no way that we start in Ch4 and later on in the novel learn about what took place in Ch1-3 through backstory/revelations?

Nicola Morgan said...

Hello, all. Thanks for your comments.

Andy - Imran and Paul share my concerns, as you can see! Now, please forgive me if I seem to doubt, but my doubts are based on seeing so many manuscripts (mostly through my consultancy) where the writer obviously and understandably thinks that his/her writing/book is fantastically exciting when in fact the reader may disagree... You say, "My first three chapters are actually quite exciting, .... The main character however does not appear until the fourth, the scene and tension already set in Autumn." Now, you *may* well have the "serious writing chops" that Paul mentions, but you really are going to need them to set that tension without the existence or knowledge of the person whose problem/goal is crucial not just to the book but the desire to read the book.

As Imran points out, too, there's a POV issue, although, as he also points out, there are some POVs where this won't matter.

But the point really is: can you put yourself in the reader's head sufficiently to remove all your own personal excitement about what you know is going to happen and check that the reader is equally invested? As we all suggest, it may be fine, but it's a big risk. Double check and triple check. Maybe get an expert opinion?

Please believe me when I say that I'd absolutely love it if you are a writer who could pull this off!

Phil Parker said...

Been there, done that. First quarter of book MK1 was all set-up with the action really starting well after chapter 3.

Our proof-reader said, "It needs a hook".

So, we threw away the structure, started as per suggestion 2 on the Crabbit list and now the reader gets thrown into some action. Then we go back and do a bit of set-up but not nearly as much as we used to do.

Not sure if it will make a difference but the thing does now start with a bit of a bang (actually man in giant cabbage suit stood on the edge of a building).

Nicola Morgan said...


So, Phil, what you're saying is that Version 1 went like this:
Ch1 - suggestion that something will happen soon
Ch2 - suggestion that something will happen soon.
Ch3 - desperate suggestion that something will happen soon
Ch4 - reader has given up.

Version 2 goes like this:
Ch1 - man in giant cabbage suit stood on the edge of a building
Ch2 - no idea what happens here but I'm dying to know

Andy - that makes it sound facetious, and i don't mean to, and (again) it MAY be that you can do this. But it also MAY be that your book will be even better with the crabbit cutting. Is it worth a try? See what happens? And if you then still think your way is good, go with it, with my blessing, my child!

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

You'd be amazed how much stronger your writing can become when forced to remove things you never expected to remove.

I had to do a complete re-write of my second novel, merging parts of it with what was planned to be the third book in the series. In the end I've come out with a far stronger book and my readers are loving it as a result.

Anonymous said...

I agree. One workshop I attended at a conference stuck in my head and I have tried to live by it. Not only the first chapter, but the first sentence and paragraph must grab the reader and make them feel compelled to continue. There was a demonstration of "How To" and "How Not To" and it was a "headslap" moment for me.

Imran Siddiq said...

The first sentence has to make me think "I want to read on"... and then by the end of the first page I need to care a little about the character or who they are.

rodgriff said...

Probably the best thing is to start at chapter 4 and feed in any essential bits of the first three chapters as back story at a point when the reader will really want to know them. That usually works better than being told a load of stuff by the writer, just because they thought is was important.

Ali said...

I'm having the chapter 1-3 problems. I've re-organised as per suggestion 2 so the book starts with a dramatic event (finding the body). Then there's a time shift that goes back to introduce the characters and set the scene. But now I feel that the exciting start slows down too much before the murder investigation gets under way.

I've just completed the first draft (my first book so an amazing feeling!) and I've decided to start the re-write at chapter 4 and then go back and tackle the beginning. I hope that by then I'll know the characters so well that I'll have some better ideas of how to it. Any other suggestions welcome!

Nicola Morgan said...

Ali, yes, you've identified a common problem - the explosive opening, followed by less than thrilling backstory which makes the reader lose interest.

I think your plan is a good one and could well work. Another way, though, is to cut masses of that backstory and then drip the most necessary and exciting bits of it in later. In fact, that's what Rodgriff suggested before you'd made your comment.

But congratulations for reaching the end of your draft and even more for realising that there is work to do and why!

Anonymous said...

Ever read The Man Who Laughs?

Victor Hugo was lucky he published in the 1800s - his opening chapters barely qualify as prose (more like list/reference material).

Which is a pity as the actual story (once we get to it) is pretty good. Tragic (Hugo, after all) but good.

Nicola Morgan said...

ohhhhh yes! And there are loads of books written years ago which don't get going quickly. It's a different world and readers are different, I'm sure you agree.