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Sample Pages Dos and Don’ts

by Helga Schier
November 13, 2019
Let’s assume that your query letter and/or submissions questionnaire were so flawless that an agent or assistant/preliminary reader at a publishing house decided to read further. What do the sample pages have to show?

Let’s look at a few sample pages dos and don’ts.

1. Show That You Have an Un-put-down-able Manuscript

Acquisition editors look for an un-put-downable manuscript that is marketable. We’ve discussed the elements of an un-put-down-able book in a previous blog post, but in a nutshell, an un-put-down-able book is polished on three distinct levels: the macro level of story and concept, the level voice and style, and the micro level of language flow where tightness, consistency, logistics, sentence structure, as well as spelling and punctuation come in. In a perfect world, a manuscript is equally perfect on all these levels, but of course, we’ll be willing to fix some language flow issues if we’re blown away by your story or concept. Will we fix your story if your grammar is beyond reproach? Probably not. So yeah, some levels are more equal than others. We’ll admit that. So make sure your story and concept work. Voice is a pretty big deal, too.

2. Show That You Have a Marketable Manuscript

In addition, acquisition editors look for marketability. The specific characteristics of marketability change with… well… the market over time, but marketability always goes hand in hand with a knowledge of audience and competition. So, acquisition editors want to get the sense that you know who you are writing for, where you fit on the current marketplace and within the tradition of your genre. Why? Because a book is written for its readers, so we need to get the sense that you know your audience, because only then can you strike the right tone and voice to communicate your vision. You see, we are not just looking for a book, but for a writer we can help build an audience steadily, for a true professional in search for a long term relationship with us. As a professional you must know your field.

You can show this in many different ways. By suggesting ways that you’d market your book to your potential readers. By offering information on your platform. Or by listing competitive or comparative titles in your query letter or submission questionnaire. Books, movies or even TV shows are fine with us. That helps if the titles are somewhat well-known and successful. An obscure manuscript we have never heard of doesn’t t help me figure out what to expect from yours, and a book that didn’t sell does not suggest that there’s an audience out there. But a successful comparative title that offers insight into your audience, style, subject matter or concept shows me that your title taps into an already established audience.

So, how does all this translate into sample pages?

Working at a desk with your computer and books.

3. Show What is Uniquely You

Above and beyond a polished manuscript and marketability, we are hoping for something else, something a little less tangible. Call it vision. Call it insight. Call it talent. Call it … whatever is unique about your writing, your story, your body of work. A character that we can latch onto. A plot twist that makes our skin crawl. An interesting question your story asks. A fascinating world you take us to.

We look for the something that makes you stick out of that marketable tradition (or genre) you summoned, for the something that makes you you.

And that is what needs to go into your sample pages.

Sound tough? It is. BUT convincing an acquisitions editor is no different from convincing your readers. Unless you have written a good book, you will not be successful in the long term. No matter how big a marketing machine supports you.

4. Sample Pages Dos and Don’ts

You must convince your readers from page 1. So, when prepping your sample pages, look at your first page, or your first page and a half, as one unit. And look at your first 30 pages (or three chapters), as another unit. Your first page has to have a hook. That’s the element of uniqueness we’ve touched upon above. And your first 30 pages have to get the story going and reel us in. That’s a marker of un-put-down-ability. If your first 30 pages do nothing but explain your premise, you are doomed.

This is important not only because agents and editors are too busy to read more, but because readers will not have the patience to allow your book dozens of pages to find its rhythm.  Attention spans are short, ladies and gentlemen (blame twitter, not us!). So, your sample pages must showcase your voice and feature your main character / main conflict / storyline… fast.

Of course that presupposes that you know your main character / main conflict / storyline. So, here’s a little exercise: Describe the character and conflict and storyline to yourself in a sentence or two. Yes, you are right, that’s the pitch or logline agents and publishers keep asking for! Not only should that go in your query letter, but it should also be a guideline for you to make sure that the character(s) and conflict you think are key to your story show up on the first 30 pages., and that the storyline stays alive and comes to an end in the rest of your novel.  In short, your story needs to take off right away and make us salivate for more.

If you submit pages instead of or in addition to the first 30, make sure they show a self-contained scene, so your readers can find their bearings although they are in the middle of a story they don’t know. Pick a sample scene that features or deepens the main conflict, suggests forward momentum, and if possible, shows the character at a crossroads. Bottom line, it needs to be a scene with tension and suspense (in all genres!). Ideally, every scene in your novel should be a contender, because every good scene should have an arch of its own while also adding a piece to the puzzle.

5. Synopsis Dos and Don’ts

Many agents and publishers also want to see a synopsis. Your synopsis must show that your novel is not just a premise and a great idea, but that the plot actually delivers. So, give us a blow-by-blow guide of your storyline. Keep it short. Include the premise, the main characters, the conflict, the inciting incident, the turning points, the crisis and then… leave us hanging.

No need to be conceptual. In fact, don’t wax philosophically and give us an analysis of your novel’s meaning and significance.  That’s a book report for an English teacher. We are not that. We’re readers. Your first. Dazzle us with story, not philosophical scrutiny.

6. Deliver an Organic Whole Working at your laptop.

Why do some publishers want to see more than the first 30 pages and/or pages in addition to the first 30 pages and/or a synopsis? Because all too often the novel falls apart after those first polished pages. Characters we fell in love with disappear or prove irrelevant, subplots are not carried through, the premise never delivers. That’s when we end up wondering if we are even in the same novel.

Well-crafted scenes with a great balance of dialogue and subtext are replaced with history lessons and information dumps or scenes that are barely more than a screenplay. Fast-paced beginnings turn into sagging middles where nothing happens. Endings seem forced or, and that’s the flipside of the coin, leave way too many loose ends. That’s when we ask ourselves if the writer simply ran out of steam.

Clearly, you don’t want agents, readers or acquisition editors to be asking those questions. So, your query letter, sample pages and synopsis need to give us a sense that we are getting an organic whole. You promise something in your pitch, show us you can deliver with your sample pages and synopsis.

That’s when we know we may have an un-put-down-able, unique and hence marketable gem in our hands. And then we’ll read the whole manuscript.

Stay tuned.

If you missed my last blog about common mistakes in the slushpile, make sure to give it a read!