Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Before Submitting to an Agent, Make Sure Your Book Has These Ten Things

This post is not about making sure your book has the obvious like a catchy title, professional formatting, editing and cover design.  In this post I’m going to discuss the things that are beneath the surface, and only visible once the reader begins diving into a story.

1.  Gripping first chapter

In today’s literary world, the first chapter is so critical.  Not only must you capture your reader’s attention (sometimes on the first page), but you also have to nearly synopsise your entire novel here; without giving away too much.  The first chapter needs to give a real feel for what’s going to happen throughout the entire story. 

(The best example of a remarkable first chapter is Sandra Brown’s Best Kept Secrets-her first chapter encompasses all the elements discussed in this post).

Tip:  Sometimes it's best to add your first chapter after all other chapters are completed.

2.  Geography

Whether or not the story is told in an important place, the reader needs to feel like they’re there geographically.  If you cannot actually visit the place where the plot occurs, then research it.  Read books that take place where your story will, even read maps or picture books that show and tell about the area.  The reader needs to use all five senses to get a feel for where the characters are.

3.  Setting

This is not the same thing as the geographic setting.  The setting can be chronological (past, present or future), it can also be demographic (on a farm in Connecticut with an Hamish family, or in the year 3000 on Mars with a bunch of aliens), make the reader see where they are and feel as though they are a fly on the wall, witnessing all the scenes.

4.  Chapter Conclusion

Each chapter needs to give the reader a reason to keep reading; and I don’t mean this to sound patronizing.  All chapters should have enthralling content, but at the end of the chapter, in order to keep the reader from putting down the book, you need to give them a strong reason not to. 

There are several techniques to do this:

a)  Cliff hanger (most common)
b)  An open-ended question
c)  A questionable look, scene or character being introduced
d)  Leave the reader hanging; end the scene in the middle of the next chapter (the best example of this is E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey).

5.  Pacing

I’ll use E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey in this example again.  If Ana had discovered Christian’s fondness for S & M long after she learned of his painful childhood, the sexual tension and the love story would have unravelled all at the wrong pace.  She gradually fell in love with him as she learned more and more about his childhood. 

All stories must have proper pacing.  You can’t have Peter falling in love with Paula before your climax occurs, unless of course, that is your climax.  Readers want to be challenged and surprised.  Keep them guessing; give them plenty of breadcrumbs along the way, but ultimately keep them turning the pages and nail your climax at the correct time.

6.  No Strings Attached

Once you’ve reached the point in your novel where the climax is about to happen, make sure all the subplots and mystery are going to tie up in the end.  Don’t leave your reader hanging on until your next book is released to find out what’s going to happen.  To most readers that is a turn-off (unless you’re J.K. Rowling or E.L. James and can get away with that).  Bring all the elements and characters together in the end. Let your reader walk away with a contented smile on their face.

7.  Teach Them Something

Any New York Times bestselling book I’ve ever read has taught me something.  Whether it was a moral or literal lesson, I’ve walked away having gained some knowledge.  This is especially true for historical novels.  For example, Philippa Gregory’s entire Tudor novel line is chocked full of in-depth historical facts interlaced within the fictitious portions of the books.  She explains everything in detail in the beginning and end and she includes diagrams of family trees when needed to illustrate what happened within the story.  All her books are fictitious, but you take away some true knowledge of history.

Another example is a recent book I read: Jodi Picoult’s House Rules.  In this novel, the main character suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.  The author deeply educates the reader in regards to what the condition is, what it’s like to have it and what it looks and feels like to the victim’s loved ones and others around him. 

There are hundreds of other examples of this that I can think of, but the point is that the reader should feel like you had first-hand knowledge of the main theme of the book.  If you don’t have first-hand knowledge; get it.  Whether it’s through researching books, interviewing people, visiting places, whatever it is, make your reader believe you know your stuff, and care that they know it too.

8.  Use Words That Fit

I’m not talking about grammar or repetition here; we all know well enough that you need to have your manuscript properly edited.  What I am talking about is the proper use of words.  There is nothing more boring than reading a book that either has too many fancy words, or nothing but plain language.  My personal rule of thumb is to make sure each page has at least two uncommon words, but make sure the sentence correctly reflects the word, so the reader doesn’t have to bring out the dictionary and decode.

If you’re a seasoned reader this process will come out naturally.  As Stephen King states in his book On Writing, your writer’s toolbox should continue to be packed daily with new words you’ve learned from reading good books.  If you’re not a seasoned reader, trying to stick in fancy words here and there will be obvious.

So what’s the solution?  Read.  Read.  Read.  Every day.

9.  Make Them Laugh

Part of being human is to have emotion.  If you can make your reader laugh out loud, you’re golden.  I don’t mean telling a joke, but that is acceptable if it fits, I mean give them a funny situation and help them feel it.  Bring sunshine to their day.  If nothing else, a reader will tell at least a few people the funny part of your story. It could be one of the most memorable parts of your book so don’t gloss over it.

10.  Make Them Feel

It’s not enough to describe a scene and all that encompasses it.  It isn’t enough to tell the story and what happens within it.  If you want a reader to remember your book, they have to feel it.  Tear their heart out with a tragic ending, make them want to run for the little girl who’s about to cross the busy road unattended.  It’s not enough for the reader to feel like they’re there, make them feel what the characters feel emotionally, physically, environmentally and psychologically. 

You can do this by making them committed to your story.  By committed I mean that they don’t want to put the book down; they have made a commitment to themselves to read it until it’s finished.  Don’t disappoint them by giving them a shallow, underdeveloped plot or character.  If you use all ten elements discussed above, you have at least a decent chance you’ll have a happy reader, perhaps even a loyal one.


I am by no means a New York Times bestselling author, but I aspire to be.  Every day I read bestselling novels, and all these points are what I’ve derived from the books I’ve read.  I do implement all elements into my writing, and I certainly hope to one day be a memorable writer.

Do you have any points to add?  Have I missed anything?  If you can think of any tips that I’ve missed, please feel free to add them into the comments.  I’m happy to hear any additions!

Sandy is the author of fiction and memoirs.  Her latest release is a funny, kid-style memoir called No Thanks, Mommy, I Peed Yesterday.  

Coming Soon!  Don't Mess with Daddy's Girl, Book Two in her police procedural series, is a gripping romantic suspense about a man's love of two things: his girlfriend and the stock market.  Learn more.

Subscribe and get Book One for FREE today!  Click here for details.

To learn more about Sandy, please visit her website by clicking here.  


  1. Pacing as far as too slow or too fast is also extremely important, and a reason for rejection from an agent. I recently wrote a sequel and the first quarter of the book was at break-neck speed. Way too fast with no relief in between. Once I put it aside for a while and came back to it I was able to see it. Which brings me to my next point. When we write we are too close to the book to see mistakes. Like Stephen King advises, we need to let our stories sit so we can come back to them with clear eyes. It's not easy to do. When we finish we want to start querying. But that will only get you rejection after rejection. It's best to wait a few weeks and make it perfect. Then maybe you (you in the broad sense, not you personally) will receive that coveted agent's call. Great post!

    1. I agree with you, Sue. I usually let my manuscripts 'cook' for at least a couple of months while starting a fresh one. It's amazing to read it again a couple months later and realize what you wrote, both good and bad! It's also a great idea to wait let your manuscript cook before preparing query letters because, at least in my experience, your hook will be too broad. If you read it through when it's fresh, you'll have better perspective to write that agent-enticing hook for your query :) Thanks for your comments. Best of luck!


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