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My mystery novel features an ensemble cast of seven characters. Since I can't talk about all of them in the short span of the query letter, I've decided to focus on the antagonist. He's the main driving force behind the plot and despite appearing the least, he's ever-present in the minds of the other characters. Of course, I'll still mention in the letter that there are multiple POVs united in theme.

This, however, leads me to two issues.

1) Right now I've written a synopsis of almost 600 words where all the characters appear. The other six all influence the main plot and I can't really pick one out and eliminate him/her without losing something crucial to understanding the story. However, I'm afraid the agent reading the synopsis will have a difficult time remembering who is who. Is there an efficient way to make the agent care about each character in such a short span? Or should I do the same for the synopsis - focus on the antagonist and mention the others as the group opposing him? Thing is, they only learn to act as a group at the very end by opposing the antagonist... before that, each does his/her own thing inside interwoven alliances.

2) My very first chapter is not from the antagonist's POV. The first chapter is more of a short, 450-words event that triggers the main plot (kind of like the victim of a murder mystery dying on the first page, but with a slight twist).

The second chapter is from the antagonist's POV and how he plots the entire action that will further occur in the book. It references the event happening in the first chapter.

There are some agents I've stumbled upon who only request the first chapter. Should I rewrite my second chapter (featuring the antagonist's POV) as the first one? I feel like something from the book's voice/atmosphere/theme/understanding of the first chapter's POV character will be lost that way, even if it can somehow be worked into the plot.

Edit:

I guess I should have cleared some things and reworded my questions better.

I can't combine the first two chapters. My book follows a pretty strict internal logic where each chapter is from a different character's POV. Chapter 1 focuses on character A and triggers the events in the book. Chapter 2 focuses on character B (the antagonist) who decided to hurry the entire plot of the book because of what happened in chapter 1.

I could take out chapter 1 since I already mention the event in chapter 2, but I'd rather have it shown for clarity than merely mentioned.

My reworked questions are these:

1) Would seven mentioned characters in a synopsis be too much/too difficult to track? Is there another way to avoid this confusion other than simply labeling some of them as "the group"?

2) Since in my (much shorter) query letter I focus on the antagonist (and lump the other six characters as "the group", for space constraints), and I do mention it's an ensemble cast, would an agent automatically expect the first chapter to be from the antagonist's POV? And since it isn't, would that be an instant rejection?

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    "There are some agents I've stumbled upon who only request the first chapter." ... I don't think they mean a 450 word chapter. They say "first chapter" to limit the quantity they need to read, but they'll be expecting to get at least a couple of thousand words in most cases. I'd consider combining the first two chapters into a single one, or relabelling the first as a prologue, as this would fit their expectations better. – Jules Nov 19 '18 at 3:26
  • I'm trying to avoid a prologue, as so many in the industry seem to hate the idea. However, you're probably right about the couple of thousand words, in which case, I might just send the first two chapters (since they're both short). – undecided Nov 23 '18 at 15:56
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    @undecided I'm confused by your edit. It is basically the same thing. You should try and focus more on the theme of the story rather then the characters. I think you are just trying too hard to look into the mind of an agent. They will not automatically reject a story because of a simple POV. They care about quality and if the story can sell. Don't torture yourself by overthinking it! – Totumus Maximus Nov 23 '18 at 16:16
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    Cheers! I guess I took all this more as an assignment that must respect every single rule instead of a creative way to present the book. Thanks for clarifying the focus. – undecided Nov 23 '18 at 16:21
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    @undecided - the problem with prologues is that too many people use them for the wrong reason, i.e. as an infodump full of backstory that's not actually necessary to enjoy the main story, and not usually interesting enough to be worth reading in advance. Done right, there's nothing wrong with a prologue. – Jules Nov 27 '18 at 16:15
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1) Would seven mentioned characters in a synopsis be too much/too difficult to track? Is there another way to avoid this confusion other than simply labeling some of them as "the group"?

The length of a synopsis can be one full single-spaced page to four full pages depending on the agent and genre. 600 words is on the short end. On the other hand, seven named characters may be bumping up against the upper end. (mine has five.)

The agent reads the synopsis to make sure the structure of your story is present--a good narrative arc with proper pacing. Each plot point, each twist, and so on. There should be a point of no return, a moment of doom, a twist, a climax. Don't focus on the characters, focus on the action/plot/pivots and twists. Bring in the characters as you need them to illuminate the story. You can structure your synopsis roughly like your story, too: a little setup, but much more of the thick of it--getting into the messy details, and the climax and resolution.

(incidentally, I'd say if your first chapter is tight, leave it at 450 words. If it hooks, agents will want more, and some will definitely appreciate a shorter chapter one. The numbers are something like ten queries per day for most agents. Assuming an average chapter length of 3,000 words, that's a lot of words. I'd hate to read 30,000 words each and every day. I'd be relieved to have a 450 word sample that hooks me.)

2) Since in my (much shorter) query letter I focus on the antagonist (and lump the other six characters as "the group", for space constraints), and I do mention it's an ensemble cast, would an agent automatically expect the first chapter to be from the antagonist's POV?

Yes, I believe this is true.

2B) And since it isn't, would that be an instant rejection?

I don't know, because it will depend on the writing. Agents repeatedly say they want voice above all else. But I suggest writing the query from the PoV of the opening character.

Caveat: I am not an agent. These thoughts are my best understanding.

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I think you are focussing too much on introducing the characters in the synopsis too much. You are telling a mystery tale. Let a reader discover who are the characters later, it is not important to an agent. Focus instead on the situation and the atmosphere of the story. Leave a veil of mystery on the characters and their motives.

You want to pitch your characters way too much and you should definately not rewrite to try and fit an agents taste because of this. What they want to see is if the grand theme of the story fits their ability to sell it to a publisher. And when they request a chapter to read it is to see if the quality standard of your writing is good enough in their eyes.

You felt confident enough with your story to pitch it to an agent. You probably edited the story multiple times and let other people read and judge it. You should not change any part of the story (yet)

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  • "should definately not rewrite to try and fit an agents taste because of this." - I hadn't considered this before, but this is exactly what I was thinking of doing. Thanks for the wake-up call. – undecided Nov 23 '18 at 16:06
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If your novel has structure (and is not a random collection of unrelated events), then there is something that unifies your ensemble cast: they work together toward a common goal, deal in different ways with the same problem, happen to live in the same place, etc. Talk about that in your pitch.

You must have had a reason to put this group of characters together, and this reason is what you need to pitch.


Readers usually open a book and begin to read the first page to evaluate whether they want to buy it. So the first chapter (and especially the first page) are what will sell your book. That is the reason why agents want to read the beginning of the book. If that part doesn't sell the book, it doesn't matter how great the rest of the book is, because the reader will never get there.

There are many questions and answers on this site about the importance of beginnings and how to write a good one. A common recommendation is that you might need to delete as much from the beginning until you get to a gripping start (and rework what you have deleted into later parts of the novel, if the information there is important, which it often isn't). Another common recommendation is not to have a prologue, as many readers despise them. (A third recommendation is that when you are a new author you should ignore that fact that popular authors have managed to sell all kinds of bad writing to their agents, from weak beginnings to prologues.)

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  • That's not what I was asking, however. I added a bit more for clarity in the initial post. – undecided Nov 23 '18 at 15:59
  • @undecided Your edits don't change my answer. A pitch is very brief. It must contain the essence of your story. If your story is about an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist, then that is essential and you should mention it. How you mention it will depend on the role of the ensemble in your story, which I don't know. The same goes for your synopsis, except that you will give more information about how the story develops. As for the first chapter, agents don't assume anything about that, as everything is possible and has been done. They only expect it to be gripping and well-written. – user34178 Nov 23 '18 at 16:08
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    @undecided I'd like to repeat myself here: The synopsis is for the agent to understand the story. The first chapter (or other sample) is for the agent to tell whether you can write well. It doesn't much matter if your first chapter explains your story well, as that is what the synopsis does. And again: There was a reason for you to choose an ensemble cast. That reason must be part of your pitch and synopsis. If you find that you don't know the reason or had none, then you will have a problem selling your work. – user34178 Nov 23 '18 at 16:12
  • Your second comment is more helpful, thank you for clarifying that. (Your initial answer was much too general for the specific thing I was asking). I know why my characters are there in the book, the pitch itself is not the problem. The problem was the synopsis and the confusion about the first chapter (in which the antagonist - the one that takes central stage in the query letter - does not appear). Based on what you and the others have explained to me, I will probably keep the whole thing as it already is (despite the confusion it might create), because it respects the logic of the book. – undecided Nov 23 '18 at 16:18

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