Everything I Know About Querying: Sample Pages
Updated: May 8
Welcome to the final installment of my series on querying! This last post focuses on sample pages, AKA the other half of your querying materials. Sample pages are what you send an agent in addition to your query letter, anywhere from five pages to five chapters.
A quick recap:
Sample pages are a far less stressful part of querying simply because by the time you're sending out queries, you've already written and edited your pages (hopefully) a dozen times. You shouldn't be querying unless you've written the whole manuscript and edited it with the insight of beta readers, so your pages should already be pretty good.
Let's get this out of the way first: You must send agents the correct number of pages, formatted correctly. This is usually pretty easy to find; it'll be on the submissions page of the agency where the agent you're querying works, or it'll be listed on the Query Manager's page. Generally, agents want the first five, ten, or fifteen pages. I've also seen the first three chapters.
However many pages your prospective agent is asking for, your sample pages should reveal two things: the essence of your main character and the flaw they're struggling to overcome, and the threads of the central plot. Yeah, both of those in just five to ten pages.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in querying my debut historical mystery novel, A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons, was that the first three chapters of the initial version I queried needed to be cut. My manuscript had three chapters of backstory and fluff. I do think that they demonstrated who my main character was and her struggles, but the mystery didn't begin until Chapter Five! I took some of that backstory and fluff and incorporated it in other sections, but I broadly just slashed it, because I didn't need it.
This is really typical of first-time novelists. I've since learned a good deal about pacing and how to get a story off to a cracking start, largely thanks to Save the Cat Writes a Novel, which is easily my most referred-to craft book. I outline and draft using the beats (loosely) and find that I no longer piddle around in the beginning looking for my footing in my story and with my characters.
If you are rereading your sample pages and find you're wading through backstory and world-building rather than getting right the main character's problems and the central plot, then you likely need to rethink your opening chapters as I did. Check the word counts on each of the beats of your story, (which you can calculate using this excellent tool), particularly the beginning, and see if you need to cut some, too.
I've seen a lot of advice suggesting that writers should start their book right when some dramatic action happens. It's not bad advice, especially if you're writing something action-packed like a thriller, but if you are doing that, make sure your main character is getting enough time to shine and be relatable to your readers. Relatable isn't likable, necessarily, but I would also try to make sure that you're showing us both flaws and admirable qualities of your main character.
Voice is also something many agents are looking for, both in the query itself and the sample pages. Voice is something you develop over time, though some authors have it in spades right from the first lines of the first draft of their first-ever manuscript, and generally you can develop it simply by writing more. I wrote a post about character voice that I feel offers some good insight to strengthen writing.
I've already said this in this series, but it bears repeating: keep writing while querying. It will help you keep your mind off the hardships of querying and it will only make you a better writer. Write more of the same books if you're planning on writing a series. Write something in a totally different genre or time period or point of view. Heck, rewrite scenes from the project you're querying in different POVs and see how it changes your understanding of your story!
The final piece of advice is another that's already been said by me and every other querying advice post: edit your pages carefully. Editing skills are another thing that develop over time (and you can hurry along the process with another of my favorite craft books), so it pays to also have other people edit your sample pages. Ideally, more than one someone and preferably people who are good at it! This could be beta readers, critique partners, your friends who are good at writing, or even a hired editor. Agents get super turned off by simple errors in query packages because it speaks to how dedicated you are to being good. A perfectly edited ten pages simply makes a better impression.
A final word about sample pages: you can resubmit them. I've resubmitted sample pages to at least three agents over the course of my three-year three-project querying journey. It's not ideal, but if they have your sample or your partial and you know you've edited it to be significantly better, there's no harm in asking if you can resubmit your pages. If they haven't read them yet, it no skin off their nose. If they have, it's not a bad thing to show you're learning and growing.
Phew! I feel a little like an empty bucket after sharing all I've learned about querying. I wish you the best of luck in your querying journey and hope that what I've shared can improve your experience and your chances! Good luck!