For a submission (to a grant program, competition, agent, or publisher) that asks for sample chapters, which chapters do you choose?

For example, a grant program for unfinished works I'm interested in wants 3 sample chapters. They don't specify which ones. Do you go in order? Include the prolog? Add another chapter if one is quite short? Do three consecutive chapters that aren't from the beginning? Is it better to skip around, to choose the best chapters even if they lack context? Or better to show a story progression?

What chapter choices lead to the strongest submission?

2 Answers 2


Typically agents and publishers want to see your first three chapters (or somewhere between the first 10 and 50 pages). Don't include extra. If you have a prologue, it counts as the first (since the first cannot be understood without it.)

This is the opening of the story, and most consider this the most important writing in the story, beginning with the first line as the most important LINE of the story.

This is because, if readers are going to put the work down, this is likely when they put it down. The first ten pages is when they have the least possible commitment to the story. Agents want to be grabbed right then, preferably immersed from the opening line, and they want those first ten pages to be engaging enough that the reader will be dragged through them, and that should be enough "time investment" and words (2500 in ten pages) to get the reader interested in what happens next, or to get them interested in your character and want to see what she does next.

Another reason to judge first pages and chapters is that later chapters can (rightly) depend upon context and character relationships and incidents developed or described in earlier chapters. Read cold, they can fall flat, even if they would be fine or great knowing what had gone before. That won't be true (in non-sequels) for the first pages or chapters. There, the writer must treat the reader as not knowing anything about the setting or characters or what is possible in this world.

That is difficult writing to do! The writer has bucket loads of information to dump on the reader, and how they do it, how they start a story cold, is the best measure of their skill.

I should think contest reviewers or grant reviewers would be interested in the same thing, as a test of skill. That is how agents and publisher's professional readers see it too. If they want to keep reading after ten pages, or thirty, or fifty -- If they haven't been irritated enough to quit -- That is an author that can begin a story and engage an audience. They request the full manuscript to see if you are also an author that can finish a story without disappointing the reader.

  • 1
    You and @April are correct I'm sure. My hesitation is that I have a prologue set in the past, then a normal opening chapter with my main characters, then the next chapter is a super short scene where the MC time travels unexpectedly for a few seconds then snaps back to her time. But I guess if that doesn't grab people, nothing will.
    – Cyn
    Mar 13, 2019 at 14:14
  • @Cyn Well, presuming the time-travel is the inciting incident, at least you get that in...
    – Amadeus
    Mar 13, 2019 at 14:53
  • It's not an "inciting incident" so much as a preview. We learn later that the MC started off with what you might call intrusive thoughts, then voices, then visions which were actual partial time travel (not fully in the other environment but she could hear things the first time and feel with the second).
    – Cyn
    Mar 13, 2019 at 15:01
  • @Cyn for the reader, an "inciting incident" does not have to be perceived by the MC as a big problem, it can start small. It roughly occurs about 1/8 through the story (by word count), and then grows for 1/8 of the story, to the point that when Act I ends (25% through the story) it is a crisis the MC must deal with. This later point (25%) is when the MC "leaves their normal world" (either physically or mentally) and begins to deal with their problem, usually reactively and unsuccessfully at first. (As opposed to proactively, starting around 50% of the story). This sounds like an Inc.Incident.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 13, 2019 at 15:47
  • Okay. None of my writing or literature classes had formulas like this. And the percentages don't describe my book. But I don't really care what it's called. Ruth (the MC) is already on a path before chapter one begins (chapter one shows her first action based on her new path). The time travel flash is when "s*** gets real."
    – Cyn
    Mar 13, 2019 at 16:23

This is from an agent's page at https://www.mariavicente.com/blog/manuscript-formatting-submitting-sample-pages

Consider the strength of your first chapter. Too often writers will submit pages from the middle of a manuscript because it is a “more interesting” scene or “shows off the writing” better than the beginning of the book. Your manuscript should shine from the very first paragraph. Of course the story is going to improve as someone reads along, but your opening pages should be captivating. If you picked the book up at a bookstore and read the first page, would you want to continue reading?

I have also seen other advice saying that if your first chapter is a prologue, however: skip it. Go to the first real story-chapter (or non-fiction - content-chapter.)

For more on non-fiction chapters, I like the advice here: https://www.lisatener.com/2011/06/book-proposal-tip-how-to-choose-sample-chapters-for-a-book-proposal/

  • What chapters have particularly compelling anecdotes, examples, statistics or stories?
    • What chapters answer my audience’s most pressing and common questions?
    • ...use chapters that explore the range of the book
  • +1, for the quote. And also I did not consider non-fiction (tunnel vision on my part!)
    – Amadeus
    Mar 13, 2019 at 13:55
  • Thanks -- part of my goal of helping SE Grow is to make it more than a fiction workshop -- I try to bring in non-fiction, other forms of writing when possible, When answering questions about fiction (like "contract with reader"), I assume many readers have experience with academic writing (at least college papers), and try to connect to those terms. I hate "silos", so I try for cross-applicability when I can. Mar 13, 2019 at 14:06
  • 1
    I appreciate the points about nonfiction too, even though my work is fiction. Nonfiction can progress like a story but often doesn't.
    – Cyn
    Mar 13, 2019 at 14:09
  • 1
    @April I write plenty of non-fiction for work (academic journal articles, users manuals, tutorials, slides and presentations) but I escape from that by writing fiction. I'll answer questions from students about details. I haven't written a textbook or any other book-length non-fiction.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 13, 2019 at 14:50

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