11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 11

At the Wrong Time

At the Darley Anderson Agency we ask that any writers who wish to submit their work to us should provide the first three chapters of their novel as a sample of their writing. This is, as I understand it, standard practice in the industry.

However, at least once a week I hear from someone who takes issue with this.

Here are a few examples of the submission queries that we who work in literary agencies hear all the time:

  • “The first three chapters don’t really give an impression of what the whole novel is about. Could I send more?”
  • “My plot doesn’t really get going until about Chapter 14. I’ll send you Chapter 14 instead.”
  • “Those first chapters aren’t my best. I’m including Chapters Eight, 26 and 31 in their place. Those are the chapters I’m really proud of.”

Putting aside the fact that I really wouldn’t recommend quibbling about the harmless submission guidelines of your chosen literary agency unless there’s absolutely zero ways around it, this is worrying in an even bigger way. Saying something like this is akin to holding up a large neon sign above your head which reads:


Because, really, as a reader if you get to the end of Chapter Three and the plot still hasn’t got going yet are you likely to want to keep reading? If the first chapters of a new book aren’t that strong isn’t it just a huge struggle to carry on with it? And, let’s be honest, no one ever picked up a book and started reading from Chapter 14 onwards.

Readers start reading from page one. Publishers are the same. Literary Agents are the same. That’s how stories work. You start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

My response to those three queries would be thus:

  • Well, they should
  • Well, it should
  • Well, you should be fiercely proud of your opening chapters too

If you don’t feel confident that your opening chapters are your best work then rewrite them. If your first chapters aren’t really capturing the essence of your overall novel then change them so that they do. If your plot doesn’t really get going until Chapter 14 cut out chapters 1 through 13. Open with whatever active, plot-developing scene it is that makes Chapter 14 so great.

You could always move that genius 31st chapter to the beginning of the manuscript as a flash-forward glimpse of what is to come, if you like. You can create a completely new character or obliterate an established one. You can move the events forwards in time or change the timeline to suit your whim.

You are the god of that page, time bows to your will. Take advantage of it. Own it. Be god.

The writers who make these queries have definitely done one excellent thing – they have recognised a problem in their manuscript. The real issue is that they’re complacent about it. Like it’s someone else’s problem. Specifically, it’s their reader’s problem.

When editing, I occasionally find myself suggesting some pretty drastic changes to some authors’ plots and their sequence of events. And, when I do this, I find that a lot of writers have a very understandable inclination to stick to the original plan. The phrase, “but that’s not how it happens,” is often uttered.

This is because good writers believe in what they’re writing. They can see each scene unfold like memories. Their characters are real people to them. And with real people you can’t just go back into their memories and say, “actually, you didn’t move house when you were 12, you moved when you were 15. And you only have one aunt, not two. And your hair’s blue now.” But with made-up characters you can, and sometimes you must.

This is why I think good writers often really struggle when making big plot changes. It’s all real to them. They’ve forgotten that they’re god.

In this respect, the space between being a good writer and a great writer is being able to step back and remember your godlike powers, remember that you are in charge. You can start your story whenever you want.

Choose the most opportune moment.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Nick McCaffery says:

    Great blog really fascinating! Didn’t someone say you must kill your darlings?

  2. I do believe the first three chapters should impress the reader and give a strong indication as to where the novel is heading, but I have read some novels that have a lot of chapters and the chapters are very short, and the first three chapters don’t give a huge amount away as you would normally experience with average length chapters. It’s never put me off as a reader, as long as it’s written extremely well – that’s the main thing that would keep my interest in a book at that stage. In fact I quite like short chapters in books. Maybe I’m just a little strange?

    So what if my chapters are well written, but short, and I was concerned it might not give enough away as to what it’s about. If I sent the first three chapters regardless might that give an impression to an agent in a hurry to read and move on to the next fifty manuscripts that my book hasn’t got much to say, when in fact in chapter four and five it does? Not trying to change any rules here (that would be dumb) just throwing in a question I’ve been wondering about for some time. Wouldn’t it be more sensible if agents asked for an approximate amount words instead of three chapters?

    If a novel was impressively written and the author sent in four or five chapters because they were all quite short, would you just not read it, bin it, send it back? Hope you don’t mind me asking, I’m just very curious! 🙂

  3. nestpitch says:

    I’m going to chime in on the short chapter discussion if that’s OK.

    I write short chapters. I’ve been known to write chapters as short as 500-600 words. When an agent or agency has a guide of 3 chapters, I send them that, even it its only 1500-2000 words, however, I do tend to mention in my cover letter that my chapters are short and I would be happy to send more if they are interested, and when they ask for a word count I send them that.

    Here’s my 2c worth.
    Many agents still only request a query letter. Some request a query letter & only the first 5-pages. In such cases you are selling your work based on a few 100 to a few 1000 words. Agents expect the work to “own” them even in the first 200-500 words because, (in a world where people expect instinct gratification) that’s all the time an editor and an end reader (most importantly) will give it.

    A few paragraphs, a page, maybe two, that’s it. In most cases, if someone looking to purchase your book is not sold by page two, they walk away.

    I run & host NESTPITCH. We allow people to send in ONLY a 35-word pitch and the first 300 words of the manuscript. So in total, that’s less than 350 words to impress a team of authors and writers enough to want to present manuscripts before agents (to bid on). Its not much but its all that the author gets to showcase. And if the works stands up and if the remaining chapters meet the expectations of the first few, literary marriages can and do occur 🙂

    Writing short chapters seems like a raw deal, (I sometimes curse myself too), but it can be a gift also. Short sharp sentence, short sharp chapters, pages that slip by, enticing the reader to start the next chapter because they think “it’s only 3-4 pages I have time” – if its written well it will have done its job, and that’s to have the reader wanting more 🙂


  4. nestpitch says:

    Reblogged this on nestpitch and commented:
    There’s a great post by Agents Darley & Adnerson on their newsletter blog well worth reading if you’re in the submission stages of your writing career (and by the way they are awesome agents )

  5. Allison Beaumont says:

    @ Suzy, am pretty sure most will tell you to start your story at Chapter 4/5 in that case, even if that means rewriting/condensing/getting rid of the first three chapters. “Kill your darlings”, as someone famous once said; rewritten and expanded upon by someone else famous

  6. I have a question—what is your stance on prologues? And when querying, if the prologue is important later, is it wise to start with chapter 1 instead?

    Great series of posts, very informative. 🙂 Thank you very much.

  7. Vic O'Sullivan says:

    Thanks Vicki.

    Fantastic advice. I’m making my way back through your list and I’m sweating bullets because my manuscript starts with a waking up scene (worse still…with a nasty hangover.:)

    The plot begins post boom time on the onset of a depression. It’s (the hangover) meant to depict the end of the economic party time for everyone …but do you think an agent will yawn along with my character and toss my manuscript aside on reading the first paragraph?

    Of course…I just posted my opening three chapters off yesterday:)

    Thanks for the blog posts and honest advice.

    They are very helpful.


  8. Rex says:

    Vicki, you’re pulling my leg about authors saying the book gets exciting from around Chapter 14, aren’t you? That’s a strange thing for an aspiring writer to say. Having said that, a lot of them are fustrated and feel that three chapters aren’t enough to get the feeling of a book. Some books do take time to get off the ground – even the published ones that i’ve read were quite slow and longwinding.

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