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Why Do Agents Only Want To Read My Opening Chapters?

How to Hook an Agent by James Rennoldson

In this extract from Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent — a quick-fire introduction to the process of gaining literary agent representation — James Rennoldson looks at the reasons why agents ask writers to include only the opening of their manuscript in their submission documents.

Because that’s where a reader is going to start and, first and foremost, that’s what an agent is (and a particularly avid reader of your type of book). The most logical way they can assess whether or not your writing works for them therefore has to be the book’s opening, with the basic question being asked in the background as they turn the pages: ‘Do I want to read on?’ (If your book isn’t set out in chapters, double-check your target agencies’ maximum word count, and work to that instead.)

As a writer, one potentially tricky aspect of conforming to the requirements of submitting the opening of a book is making sure this section of writing showcases what’s at its heart. You need to introduce your protagonist, the setting, your narrative voice alongside the central tension or concept that drives the book forward. These expectations apply to writers of memoir or biography as well. Can you establish an authorial voice and hook the reader into the story? Acknowledging the need to do this is key, and if you’re not satisfied that your opening chapters do this effectively, you’d be wise to revisit them. For example, have you started your book in the right place? And does your narrative move forward at the pace it should?

Finally, for context, it’s also worth appreciating how a request for the opening three chapters (or first 10,000 words) is actually a reasonable arrangement in a practical sense for both writers and agents. For writers, it helps create a level playing field; everyone is judged on the same number of words. And for agents, a word limit is a godsend. Not only is 10,0000 words/three chapters enough of a sample section to get an idea of whether they’d like to invest more time in working with an author, but some agents receive an average of between fifty and 100 submissions per week so a word limit is essential.

Written in Q&A format, the Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent is an introduction to the process of submitting a manuscript to literary agents, and is directly inspired by popular questions asked by writers that have attended our long-running series of events of the same name. If you're looking for a literary agent to represent your manuscript order your copy here, or to find out about our latest events click here.