A couple of days ago, I was on the train and near to where I was sitting, a mother and daughter were having a conversation. I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversation and at one point they started talking about the fact they were both writers aspiring to get published. The mother was talking about sending the work to agents. She said a few things that made me want to jump across the carriage to correct. I couldn’t do so at the time because it was a crowded train and there were people sitting between us, as well as it being awkward to just barge into someone else’s conversation.
But I’ve been thinking about that conversation and the things I might have said if I’d been sitting right next to them.
The woman said at one point that you don’t need to have a completed book to go out and hunt for an agent or a publisher. She said that you send out a synopsis and sample chapter but don’t need to have the rest of the book finished.
There is a grain of truth to what she said. When you submit a book for consideration, you do send out samples rather than the whole thing. Most publishers ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis (a summary of the whole book) but this can vary. Some publishers ask for a number of words or a number of pages instead, and the length of the synopsis can vary (500 word, 1000 words, 1000-2000 words, 2-3 pages, 1 page, etc.). If you are sending your book out, it’s vital that you check the submission guidelines of the publisher or agency you are approaching and tailor your submission according.
The main point I would question though is her assertion that you don’t need to have the book finished. If you are working on a fiction book, you should have the book completed before you send the samples out. There are a few different reasons for this. The first is simply: what will you do if they say yes? If you send out your three sample chapters and an agency or publisher comes back and says they like it, you have to be ready to send the rest of the book. You don’t want to get a positive response but have to go back and say that you’re only halfway through writing the book. The publisher is not going to wait.
The other big reason is that books change over the course of writing them. When I started writing Child of the Hive, Rachel wasn’t a character. I didn’t plan on her at all. I just needed someone to interact with Alex and Will at one point and I gave her a name. But then she kept coming back… and developed a crush on Drew… and insisted on being part of the plot. By the second half of the book, the story doesn’t work without her and I had to go and write her back into the opening chapters so that she wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere. If I had submitted the story when I’d only written the first three chapters, the synopsis and opening I sent would have only vaguely resembled the finished book. I had some major changes with Shadows of Tomorrow too. When I started that book, Cassie was the main character, but I realised a few chapters in that Gareth was the one making all the decisions and participating in all the action. I completely rewrote the opening chapters to focus on him as the main character to avoid confusing people as to who was the protagonist. Maybe writers who stick more closely to their initial plans than me won’t have this issue, but I wouldn’t be able to submit opening chapters at the start of the writing process because I would need to completely change them at a later point when the story changed.
A related point to this is that you shouldn’t submit the first draft of your book. When writing, you should go through different drafts. For me, the first draft is about getting the bones of the story down, working out the rough flow, and getting the plot sorted out. The second draft is about fixing the plot holes, making sure the whole thing hangs together, and, where necessary, inserting new characters into the beginning because they refused to get out of the story. The third draft is then all about tidying up. This is where I improve confusing sections, cut the boring bits, and fix the wording in places where it’s a bit awkward. I also attempt to hunt typos but I struggle with this. I only submit the story after all of this.
What you send to a publisher or agent should be the best book you can possibly make it and that means revising the book before you send it off. Not everyone needs three drafts. Some people who spend more time on the planning stages can probably do it in two because they have less plot hole hunting to do, but the fact remains that you still have to work on the story before it goes out. Just because the publishers and agents only ask for the opening of the book in a submission, it doesn’t mean you should submit when you’ve only written that far.
You might have noticed though that I specified ‘fiction book’ near the start of this post. The rules are slightly different when submitting a non-fiction book. Usually, you will submit sample chapters along with some information about the book (the target audience, what it’s similar to, what its unique selling point is, etc.) and a breakdown of what you will cover (similar to the synopsis). When submitting a non-fiction book, what you are submitting is a proposal for a book you intend to write. You don’t necessarily have to have finished writing it in this case, but as before, check the guidelines on the website of whatever publisher or agency you are thinking of sending your submission to.